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Mala Noche (1986)
He who fools with the bull gets the horn!
In the summary, the word "fools" should more accurately be another English word with four letters, but I doubt whether the regulations for this site will permit that. That is the subtitle for this movie and it does tell one side of the story. Another side involves the randomness of life in Portland, a city that's more like an overgrown small town with a big seamy underbelly and lots of folks eking out an existence on the margins. This movie shows with subtly limned images and snatches of wry, realistic dialogue just how vast and differentiated the landscape of "the margins" is in this town. And maybe, too, in that weird district of the Twilight Zone known as America.
Twilight is a state of mind that provides the true setting for this story that seems to be a fragment of a greater whole, but nevertheless has its own peculiar beauty. The black and white photography is stunning and seductive, and perfect for the film noir desperation (occasionally melodramatic but never posturing) with which these characters seem to run their lives. The director uses chiaroscuro, the play of light and shadow over the faces and bodies of his players, to hint at people's emotions or to suggest the cluelessness with which they get through the day. Despite the sense of general confusion, there are poignant and powerful emotions that surface here, thanks to the skillfully nuanced photography and the expressiveness of the actors.
The casting is perfect, but among the actors only Tim Streeter really seems to give a coherently thought-through performance. Streeter, to judge from his performance here, is an actor of brilliance and considerable sensitivity--it's sad that his only other credit is a 1987 appearance on 21 Jump Street. A lot of the shots in the movie are composed with great inventiveness, but the visual beauty that results never feels arty or contrived, mainly because of the gritty realities that encompass the characters' lives and passions.
Certain scenes in this movie made me think of images that surface in the songs of indie bard Elliott Smith, whose music was used in Gus van Sant's much glitzier mainstream movie, Good Will Hunting. Images of lonely people smoking late nights away over cheap beers in loud bars, waiting for their sense of woundedness to dull sufficiently so that they can go back out on the street and face some semblance of life again. The use of music is yet another element that gives Mala Noche a distinctive flavor--the music credits cover several screens at the end of the movie--as one would expect with a director who is also a composer and musician in his own right.
Poetic, frail, fragmentary and haunting, this is one of those movies where, even if you never quite get the story, certain images from it will nevertheless linger a long time in your memory after you have seen it.
The Witches (1966)
Witch me a skin for dancing in ... quick, where's that athame?
The Witches, which is much better known in America by its US release title The Devil's Own, is one of those legendary films made great because the supporting actress completely upstages the star. (Think Grayson Hall in Night of the Iguana, or Sylvia Miles in Midnight Cowboy.) In her autobiography, Miss Joan Fontaine, who had acquired the film rights to the novel years before, complains at length about the "primitive" working conditions at Hammer studios, the small size of her dressing room, the awful food and the unprofessional British actors she had to lower herself in working with. We all know that the real bee in her bonnet was that a movie she had basically designed as a vehicle for HER talents ended up being taken over by Miss Kay Walsh, a superb dancer and talented actress who had had an extensive career in films and theatre (check out her IMDB listing--you'll be impressed). Luckily Fontaine was (to her credit) too much of a pro herself to let her dissatisfaction show on screen. She turns in a credible performance as a woman teacher attempting to recover from a traumatic encounter with witch doctors in Africa by taking a slow, quiet gig in an apparently sleepy, quaint olde English village. Well, guess who rules the roost in this town? As the title clues you in, it's none other than ... the Witches!!!
As boss witch supreme Stephanie Bax, a character one of the reviewers of the time described as a "lesbian-like writer," Kay Walsh dominates the action from the moment she appears. Of all the various witch films of the Sixties, this one probably has the most realistic atmosphere and the most plausible plot. The traditional opposition between village wise women (capably embodied here by Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Granny Riggs--be sure to keep an eye out for her stogie-chomping aristo witch in 1967's The Devil Rides Out) and the kind of ceremonial magician played by Miss Walsh is portrayed quite matter-of-factly in the script. The kind of witchcraft practiced both by the Walsh and the Ffrangcon-Davies characters is a pretty accurate portrayal of practices actually current in Sixties England, for instance in the circles around Robert Cochrane and other figures who were gaining a lot of media attention in those days. The campy elan of Miss Walsh's dances as High Priestess (one wonders how they dealt with all the hot wax that must have flown off the lit candles in that antler-crown of hers) is very London West End on one level, yet also seems a poetic evocation of a learned ceremonial magician taking over a traditional village circle for her own corrupt ends on another level. Excellent work by Miss Walsh and the choreographer.
Also worthy of mention is the appearance of Martin Stephens, who made memorable such earlier Sixties fantasy films as The Innocents and Village of the Damned (in which he had the unenviable task of acting opposite George Sanders--who hated children!). Martin retired from films shortly after appearing in the Witches. Among the others, Alec McCowen turns in a brilliant little gem of a performance as Kay Walsh's traumatized brother.
For all its excellence, Hammer historians give second place for this film to Don Sharp's 1964 outing, Witchcraft. Let's hope somebody hurries up and releases that one on home video soon!
Unexpectedly Artistic and Imaginative Shocker
My memories of seeing "The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism" as it was called on US local television in the mid Seventies date back a quarter of a century. I well remember the first time I saw the movie. I wasn't expecting anything at all special, certainly nothing as gripping and fascinating as this. The movie has a real feeling of something you would read about in a crumbling old manuscript in a deserted, dusty library. Lee is terrific as always and has a tremendous presence, even though he is only on screen for brief periods. Lex Barker is surprisingly effective as the hero, and Karin Dor is beautiful and elegant as always, as the heroine. The sets really steal the movie, though--inspired by the weird paintings of Hieronymous Bosch, they give a sense of ancient evil, laced with a perverted sort of fanciful whimsy, to the scenes in the castle.
The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967)
A Palace of Pleasure for Bad Movie Buffs Everywhere
This (like Satan in High Heels, Myra Breckinridge, and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls) is one of those unknown delights produced by the Fab, Mod, Decadent Decade of the Sixties. The child of twisted, tacky sleazemeister Harry Allan Towers (sort of the UK's answer to Russ Meyers--somebody really ought to do a book on Towers--his collaboration with Spanish schlock artist Jesus Franco alone is worth some sort of award for the pinnacle of filmic tackiness), this movie has very little to do with the original novels by Fu Manchu's father, Sax Rohmer. The novels are well worth seeking out--try any online auction site. The best of them is probably The Return of Sumuru and it's pretty easy to get hold of. The original novels were rife with racist attitudes left over from the bygone era of British imperialism, with some new Cold War hysteria and anti-feminist paranoia thrown in for good measure. Sumuru, who was really the heroine, spent most of the novels lolling around nude on mink rugs smoking endless cigarettes or stalking around in high heels sipping liqueur and pondering how ugliness was the root of all that was wrong with the modern world. Rohmer came from an era when homosexuality simply wasn't mentioned so some of the lesbian implications of Sumuru's paradise were glossed over with almost unbelievable naivete. Trust Harry Allan Towers not to let THAT moxie slip past his capable paws. He even includes Klaus Kinski as a gay man marked for death by Sumuru--perhaps because he couldn't be seduced by any of her agents (though I'm sure he would have LOVED to have helped her with her wardrobe, had she given him a chance).
As Sumuru, Shirley Eaton chews up the scenery with tremendous eclat, and gets fantastic dramatic mileage out of that cigarette holder. Check out her new autobiography for some behind the scenes anecdotes about the filming of the two movies (and the true story of how Towers shamelessly grabbed footage from the Rio film and inserted it in the Blood of Fu Manchu without Shirley's knowledge). Frankie Avalon, George Nader and Wilfred Hyde-White are all ridiculous as Sumuru's opponents, which is exactly as it should be. Of Sumuru's agents, my favorite would have to be Helga, as incarnated by the zaftig Maria Rohm (a regular of various Towers productions--I think she was his girlfriend).
It is truly tragic that this movie is ONLY available as an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Something this sublimely awful deserves to be savored in pristine form. Picket YOUR video store today, and demand Sumuru movies now!
Put This in Your Posing Pouch and SPIN
Funny, brave, humane and concise, this movie starts with a sharply different landscape and source material than Thom Fitzgerald's earlier minor masterpiece, The Hanging Garden, but shares with that film a propensity for spotting touches of authentic humanness in the most unlikely places. The flashes of wit range from sheer serendipity (I was startled to hear myself asking my companion, "Who IS that old queen?" when Jack LaLanne appeared, rabbiting on about Muscle Beach) to carefully scripted exchanges in the courtroom scenes. The latter really are a tour de force--think Ed Wood meets Perry Mason--and newcomer Jack Griffin Mazeika turns in a boffo performance as the sly, but vulnerable young Red. Also worthy of praise are Daniel MacIvor as Bob Mizer and the amazing Carroll Godsman as his mother Delilah. Godsman turns what could have been a campy send-up (think Carol Burnett Show) into a remarkably poignant characterization. One weakness of the film is that the script doesn't give her and MacIvor an aftermath scene in the wake of the brilliant courtroom sequence--in fact the ending of the film is a bit on the spotty side, perhaps due to lack of material.
I thought the interview footage was fairly cleverly integrated into the framework of the narrative. I was fascinated to see Joe D'Allessandro looking like an older guy you'd see washing his Caddy in his driveway in your neighborhood. He actually looked fairly healthy which in itself is an amazing achievement.
The credits do end things on an upbeat note. I can't wait to see where Fitzgerald goes with his next project!
Adam at Six A.M. (1970)
The hard life of Mikey Douglas--an early chapter
This is a very early Michael (or as he was popularly known then, Mikey) Douglas vehicle. He plays a disillusioned college professor of the late Sixties (there seem to have been so many of them scurrying about in those days!) who drops out of his successful, stressful life in the big city to go in a search for his roots in a not-so-idyllic midwestern small town. The story plods along, showing his courtship of a rather status-proud Junior Miss type whose Mom (wonderfully etched by Louise Latham) is the town hairdresser, and his adventures in serious male bonding with Joe Don Baker and other flannel clad logger types. Grayson Hall has an excellent cameo role as his aunt, and gets to administer a deft put-down of Douglas' masculine vanity towards the end. In some ways the last 30 seconds is the best part of the movie. Overall not at all a bad effort. To quote Maggie Smith in a movie that is much more suitable to this writer's temperament, "For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing that they like." I did make liberal use of the fast forward button in viewing "Adam at Six A. M."
Robin of Sherwood (1984)
Herne is alive, and magic is afoot!
This series has a truly mythic feeling to it. Michael Praed and Judi Trott in particular are wonderful as Robin and Marion, but all the actors are superb. Ray Winstone has gone on to win laurels for his work in independent British cinema, and his brilliance is fully evident here. Nickolas Grace is splendidly unpleasant as the Sheriff, and Robert Addie is deliciously foul-tempered as Sir Guy, coolly sexy in his period Norman armor. An aspect that lures me back to keep watching is the dramatization of Herne and the imaginative attempt to guess at what life in a pagan enclave, in a land dominated by a colonial Christian power, would have been like.
The one element that I personally find jarring is the Clannad soundtrack. I do enjoy the music on its own but would have preferred something along the lines of David Munrow's Music of the Crusades album which was recorded in the early Seventies and could have been used for this series.
Visionary, Aleatory, Surreal in its Beauty
When I saw this film during its initial release as a teenager, I didn't understand a lot of it, but found it fascinating nevertheless. About ten years later I saw it as an adult and though the script was more dodgy than I recalled the films beauty and mysterious power seemed even more stunning than at first glance.
See this if you enjoy films that employ allegory, subtle twists of characterization, postmodern literary games (the Wizard of Oz bits are really quite clever), and thoughtful performances by an excellent British cast (I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Charlotte Rampling--she is marvelous in it, and looks superb bare-breasted astride that horse!). If you are into something that's about action, explosions and FX, you'd do better to go with something along the lines of Starship Bloopers.
Gargoyle of the week
The original airing of this film on ABC's Movie of the Week program in the early 70s is a happy childhood memory for me. Definitely a period piece. It was made as a pilot for a series that was never optioned by the network. The movie is distinguished by some witty performances by the actors in the supporting roles. My favorite is Grayson Hall as lush on the make Mrs. Parks. Grayson is always a lot of fun to watch and she clearly had a blast with this role. Her son Matt helped paint ping pong balls which were used in making the gargoyle costumes.
Dark Shadows (1966)
A legend never dies!
To its fans, Dark Shadows was and remains the best fantasy television series ever produced for an American network. Its status as the best resulted from the chance interaction of a team of brilliant actors, writers, directors and producers who together made magic every afternoon at 4 pm out of what were often very unpromising materials. As the comment from a new teenaged viewer on this page shows, the show's appeal continues to draw in a new audience 30 years after its original broadcast.
Barnabas Collins, the pivotal character of the "vulnerable vampire," has become a part of postmodern folklore. The influence of Barnabas as a character and a concept has been widely seen, from Anne Rice's vampire novels to such recent cult series as Forever Knight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The central drama of Dark Shadows--a doctor in unrequited love with her vampire patient, whom she was trying to cure--was intriguingly reprised in the Canadian series Forever Knight, with Geraint Wyn-Davies and Catherine Disher taking on the roles originally played by Jonathan Frid and Grayson Hall.
Dark Shadows boasted perhaps the most impressive cast (in terms of sheer ability) ever assembled for an American daytime series. Actress Joan Bennett who played the matriarch provided a link with the world of film noir and Forties Gothic cinema upon which the style and mood of the series so clearly played. Jonathan Frid, Thayer David, the extraordinary Grayson Hall (probably the first instance of an Oscar nominated thesp taking a role in a soap opera), Nancy Barrett, Louis Edmonds, and John Karlen, all of whom had distinguished themselves both on and off Broadway, routinely turned in sterling performances with a minimum of rehearsal time. The show's initial realism gave way after a year or so to the "Dark Shadows school of acting"--a highly theatrical, dramatically stylised manner of putting the mood of a scene across with stunning effect. Among the newcomers who shone most strongly were Lara Parker (who enacted another variant of vindictive unrequited love as the witch Angelique), Alexandra Moltke as perennially clueless governess Victoria Winters, Don Briscoe as doomed werewolf Chris Jennings, and David Selby as roguish cousin Quentin Collins. One striking feature of the production was the use of multiple time periods and, ultimately, parallel time streams which allowed the actors to portray a wide variety of roles (Nancy Barrett and Thayer David each ended up playing some half a dozen sharply differentiated characters).
The New York production setting favored the occasional introduction of such veteran character actors as Anita Bolster, Cavada Humphrey, Abe Vigoda, and others in cameo spots. Young actors just starting out such as Harvey Keitel, David Groh, Kate Jackson, Virginia Vestoff, and Marsha Mason found brief or steady work on the series. Vestoff did a tour de force as the ruthless Samantha Collins at the same time (1970) as she was performing nightly in the hit musical 1776.
Derided by some, misunderstood by many, beloved by its legions of fans, Dark Shadows will never die!