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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Price-Told Tales

Vincent Price is well known for his collaborations with William Castle (The House on Haunted Hill and The Tingler, both in 1959) and Roger Corman (House of Usher, 1960, and Pit and the Pendulum). Two of his lesser-known efforts made with other directors are currently available on Netflix: The Conqueror Worm (aka The Witchfinder General, 1968) and Madhouse (1974).

Price was almost exclusively making horror films in the 1960s and 70s. Many of these were adaptations of works by Edgar Allan Poe. However, calling them "adaptations" is an exaggeration.For the most part, Corman and his cronies at American International would take a Poe title and come up with a mostly unrelated plot that featured Price.When American International agreed to co-finance the British production of The Witchfinder General, they demanded two things. First, the movie would star Price. Director Michael Reeves wanted Donald Pleasance for the role of 17th century "witchfinder" Matthew Hopkins but had to defer to AI, rewriting the script to fit Price's style. Second, AI changed the name of the movie for its U. S. release to The Conqueror Worm, a poem by Poe which bears no resemblance to the film.

The movie follows the exploits of Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne as they accuse, convict and condemn people as witches during the English Civil War. Price is magnificent as the witchfinder, cold and deceitful. The movie has no real supernatural elements to it; rather, it focuses on the torture inflicted by the witchfinders for its horror. The filmmakers had to back off their original script because of the amount of gore and sexual innuendo. The movie seems rather tame by modern standards but still is effective in its fictionalization of this disturbing figure from British history.

Madhouse is a more typical Price vehicle. He plays an aging horror star who is accused (but never convicted) of killing his fiancee. After spending some time in a mental institution, he is asked to reprise his most famous screen role, Dr. Death, for television, and more deaths follow him. Price is joined in the movie by his horror rival Peter Cushing, who plays Dr. Death's co-creator. It was the third of four collaborations between the two horror superstars. The plot is ridiculous (how many times must a suspect be present at the death of another murder victim before he's arrested?), but it's still fun to see Price playing a parody of himself and to see him wearing the Dr. Death makeup, no doubt an homage to The Abominable Dr. Phibes, in which Price had starred in 1971.

Also available on Netflix now, two of Price's most famous films: The House on Haunted Hill (which will also be featured this Halloween on UALR University Television) and The Fly. Why not make it a marathon of "Price-Told Tales" and watch all four this Halloween?

Friday, October 3, 2014

"Legend of Boggy Creek" is an Arkansas cult classic

I will host a screening of "The Legend of Boggy Creek" at the Old State House Museum in Little Rock on Friday, Oct. 10. 
In 1971, Texarkana advertising executive and and television personality Charles B. Pierce began reading about several strange incidents taking place in the nearby town of Fouke, Ark. Local residents reported seeing a Bigfoot-like creature terrorizing their homes and killing their livestock. Pierce decided to shoot his first movie, a semi-documentary about the so-called "Fouke Monster." The film interviewed local residents but also cast them in re-creations of scenes they described to authorities. Some locals even portrayed their relatives in the film.

The Legend of Boggy Creek reportedly cost $160,000 to make but earned more than $20 million at the box office. The film was a huge hit at drive-in theaters and was one of the top ten highest grossing films of 1972.

The faux-documentary style, combining dramatization with actual interviews, was unusual for the time period, especially for a horror film. Daniel Myrick, one of the creators of The Blair Witch Project (1999), another horror film shot as a faux-documentary, credited The Legend of Boggy Creek as one of their inspirations. The popularity of Blair Witch led to the "found footage" style becoming one of the most popular techniques for horror filmmakers during the past 15 years.

Despite its somewhat amateur production style, The Legend of Boggy Creek became a cult classic and spawned numerous sequels. Pierce went on to produce and direct several more movies, many shot in Arkansas.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"Hallelujah" - One of the Earliest Movies Shot in Arkansas

Reprinted from I'm hosting a screening of "Hallelujah" on Feb. 14 at the Old State House Museum.

King Vidor was one of the most successful directors of the silent era. His film The Big Parade (1925) is often cited as the highest-grossing film of the 1920s, and his 1928 picture The Crowd was nominated for "Unique and Artistic Production" and "Best Director" at the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. For his first sound picture he chose a subject that was bothersome for the studio heads at MGM - a movie set in the rural south with an all-black cast. He chose to shoot the movie on location in Arkansas and Tennessee.

Hallelujah would become only the second Hollywood movie shot partially in Arkansas. (A scene from the 1927 adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin was shot in Helena.) Because MGM was afraid that southern movie theaters would not exhibit the film, Vidor had to waive his usual $100,000 fee for making the picture. The studio only acquiesced because the film would be a musical, which studio heads hoped would appeal to big city audiences like those in New York City who were flocking to Harlem at that time to hear musical performances by African-American performers.

Vidor ran into problems almost immediately when shooting the movie on location. His sound equipment did not arrive on time, and he had to improvise by shooting scenes silently and adding sound later. Vidor used the problem to his advantage by adding sound effects to some scenes. This technique was especially effective in the climax, a chase scene shot in Ten Mile Bayou near West Memphis.

Hallelujah follows the life of Zeke, a sharecropper-turned-preacher who must fight the temptations of a city girl. The cast, composed entirely of African Americans, perform spirituals, field songs, blues numbers and even two songs written by Irving Berlin. The movie's artistry was praised by critics, and many in the African American community saw it as an opening for more black performances in film. Others criticized its images of southern blacks as stereotypical and racist.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Broncho Billy Anderson

Reprinted from I am hosting a screening of Broncho Billy movies on Jan. 10, 2014, at Arkansas's Old State House Museum. 

Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson was born Max Aronson in Little Rock, Ark., in 1880. His family moved to St. Louis when he was a boy, but Max returned to Arkansas as a young man to work with his brother-in-law as a cotton buyer in Pine Bluff. Max, however, had caught the acting bug and soon moved to New York City, where he changed his name to Gilbert M. Anderson.

Like most young actors in that day, Anderson sought to hone his craft on the stage. Instead, he found work with the Edison motion picture company working for director Edwin S. Porter. One of his first pictures was a one-minute film called "What Happened in the Tunnel" about a young man flirting with a pretty girl on a train who gets a surprise when the train goes through a tunnel.

The same year he made a movie that would change his life and change motion picture history. Porter's The Great Train Robbery (1903) is often credited as the movie that changed the way filmmakers would put together their movies. Anderson played three different parts in this movie - a bandit, a tenderfoot, and a man who tries to escape the robbers but is shot. After finishing the movie and seeing how audiences reacted to it, Anderson decided the movie business was for him.

Broncho Billy Anderson in the Great Train Robbery
Anderson as the tenderfoot in "The Great Train Robbery" (1903).

Anderson did not only want to act in movies, he wanted to write and direct them as well. Based on what he learned from Porter, Anderson had ideas about what would make a good movie and how the audience would respond. After a couple of false starts, he convinced businessman George Spoor to partner with him and formed the Essanay (S and A) motion picture studio. Essanay would make hundreds of one-reel westerns and comedies between 1907 and 1918, many of them written by, directed by and starring Anderson.

Early on, Anderson developed a persona for himself in his western films that he called Broncho Billy. The character of Broncho Billy was often an outlaw who turns good or sometimes just a cowboy defending the weak. Titles of the films often told the whole story: Broncho Billy and the Escaped Convict, Broncho Billy's Indian Romance, Broncho Billy and the Baby. The character of Broncho Billy became so closely associated with Anderson that for the rest of his life he would be called Broncho Billy Anderson. He  became Hollywood's first western star, ahead of Tom Mix, William S. Hart and Harry Carey. Anderson received an Honorary Academy Award in 1958 for his "contributions to the development of motion pictures as entertainment."

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Hell House, Hill House, What the...?

I recently discovered a movie called The Haunting of Hell House (1999). The title alone was enough to get my attention. Was it related to the 1973 film The Legend of Hell House, which was based on the Richard Matheson novel Hell House? Or was it a derivation of The Haunting of Hill House, a novel by Shirley Jackson, which was adapted as The Haunting in 1963 and 1999?

The answer is no. It turns out The Haunting of Hell House was based on a short story by Henry James called the "The Ghostly Rental." James, of course, wrote one of the most famous ghost stories of all time, The Turn of the Screw, which was adapted as a feature film in 1961 as The Innocents, and which has been produced for television numerous times and even adapted as an opera by Benjamin Britten. "The Ghostly Rental" is about an old man who kills his daughter and must rent her ghost the family home for the rest of his life. The Haunting of Hell House stars Michael York as the old man, but makes the main character a college student haunted by his girlfriend, who dies following a botched abortion the college student paid for.

So why is this ghostly rental property called "Hell House" in the movie's title? I don't remember anyone using that term in the movie itself, so my guess it that it's just another attempt to confuse us about Hill Houses, Hell Houses and Haunted Hills.

Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House was published in 1959. It's about a group of paranormal enthusiasts brought together to investigate the haunted house of the title. As I said, it spawned The Haunting, one of my favorite movies about ghosts, made in 1963. (I would have guessed that William Castle's similarly titled The House on Haunted Hill  was a rip-off of Jackson's novel, since it also includes a group of people spending the night in a haunted house, but Castle's film was apparently released just months before Jackson's book hit the stands, so I guess it's just a weird coincidence that further confuses the titling.)

Matheson's book Hell House was published in 1971 and has a similar story about a group of people brought together to investigate the world's most haunted place. The Legend of Hell House was brought to the screen in 1973.

Everything got real confusing in 1999 when remakes of The Haunting and The House on Haunted Hill were released. Even the filmmakers themselves got confused as this blogger points out that the director of the 1999 version of The Haunting must have pulled as much inspiration from Matheson's book as he did from Jackson's: . And within this swirling milieu of haunted hills and hill houses comes The Haunting of Hell House, released the same year. Sadly, none of the more recent movies are close to having the same eerie atmosphere or ghostly production values as their older counterparts.

To lay it out for you, with four fries representing the best a movie gets:

The Haunting (1963) - 4 fries (Possibly THE masterpiece of the haunted horror movie subgenre.)
The Innocents (1961) - 3.5 fries (No Hills or Hells, but worth mentioning anyway.)
The House on Haunted Hill (1959) - 3 fries (A little corny but still fun - featured on Home Fry-ed Movies)
The Legend of Hell House (1973) - 2.5 fries (The movie starts well, but gets laborious as it goes on.)
The House on Haunted Hill (1999) - 2 fries (The house is the real star of this movie. It's hard to trust any film that features both Geoffrey Rush AND Chris Kattan.)
The Haunting (1999) - 2 fries (Special effects are no replacement for good ol' fashioned creepiness.)
The Haunting of Hell House (1999) - 1.5 fries (Besides not being at all what I expected, it just wasn't that interesting.)

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Saving Mr. Disney

Tom Hanks as Walt Disney
Emma Thompson seems to be getting all the attention for her performance as P. L. Travers, the persnickety author of Mary Poppins, in Saving Mr. Banks, about Walt Disney's decades-long attempt to adapt her book to the screen. Thompson has already been nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance and will probably get an Oscar nod, and rightly so. Pretty much anything she does is Oscar-worthy. However, I was excited to see the movie mostly because of the idea of Tom Hanks portraying Walt Disney. The casting seemed so natural. Hanks is almost the same age Disney was in 1961 and looks a little like the filmmaker. But it's more than that. Both men have a level of intelligence and whimsy that transcends their immense popularity.

Hanks has received no nominations for his performance as Walt Disney and probably won't. He gave a bravura performance as the title character in Captain Phillips, and that movie will generate most of the accolades he will receive for 2013. However, I love watching Tom Hanks bring Walt Disney to life. If you're a fan of Disney movies and Disney theme parks, like me, Walt is bigger than life. Seeing him as a real man, troubled by a difficult woman who unlike everyone else around him won't give in to his overwhelming desire to have his way, provides a clearer image of the master storyteller.

I'm also glad to see the very brief scene where Travers (excuse me, Mrs. Travers) catches him putting out a cigarette. Hanks fought to keep the scene in the picture. The Disney company has a general ban on showing smoking in its pictures, so instead we see Walt stubbing out an apparently unlit cigarette. It made me wince when I saw it, knowing that Disney died from complications associated with lung cancer. Walt himself avoided letting the public, especially children, see him smoking so it seems appropriate that the scene would only briefly allude to it, but it adds another level of verisimilitude to the portrayal. 

Hanks' Disney feels authentic to me. Apparently, others agree. During a panel discussion about the movie at a Disney fan club meeting, former imagineers that worked with Walt said that the movie touched them with its portrayal of their boss. I think it will touch you, too. (3 fries)

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Twist Endings and/or Bad Writing

I recently watched a movie called The Ward (2010), directed by John Carpenter of Halloween fame. The story focuses on a young woman who is committed to a psych ward after she burns down a house. The ward is populated by a bunch of young women, most of whom seem unlikely candidates for commitment to a mental institution, even in 1966. The ward is haunted by the "ghost" of a former inmate who seems determined to murder the rest of the young women. Not a bad idea for a film, but as I watched I kept thinking that the plot was stretching my usually pliable suspension of disbelief out of proportion. Thankfully, I made it to the end of the movie where I found out that [[SPOILER ALERT]] the whole thing was a psychotic episode. The main character suffered from dissociative identity disorder (what they used to call multiple personality) and that the other young women (including the ghostly figure haunting the place) were just other personalities she had created to deal with a traumatic experience. While this gimmick saved the movie from being a complete waste of time, I can only give it 2 out of 4 Fries. Even with this revelation, the movie still felt overly contrived and underwhelming.

I've found myself on at least two other occasions thinking that a movie was badly written, only to have that opinion overturned with the revelation of a twist ending. One was The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan's masterpiece (perhaps his only one) from 1999. As I watched this movie, I remember thinking that I could not believe that the wife presented to us in the first few minutes of this film would have such a total rejection of her husband Malcolm (Bruce Willis) after he experienced such a tragic attack by one of his former patients. I was ready to write off the whole thing as bad writing [[SPOILER ALERTS continue]] until the ring rolled across the floor and we all realized that Malcolm is a ghost and his wife is ignoring him because she can't see him. I then went back through the whole film and realized that everything I saw as a plot hole made perfect sense within that context. I think that's good writing. (4 out of 4 Fries)

I had the same experience a few years later watching the movie Identity (2003). A bunch of strangers end up stranded at a motel in the desert while an insane killer takes them out one by one. The characters are poorly sketched and two-dimensional, and I found myself again thinking, "What bad writing!" Then we discover [[Final SPOILER ALERT]] that as in The Ward, the characters are constructs of a dissociative mind. The whole story is taking place in the mind of the criminal as a way of dealing with his mental instability. While I did not find The Ward to be satisfying, Identity was quite pleasing, after the revelation. (3 out of 4 Fries)

I guess the moral of the story is that if you're watching a movie, and you think, "Boy, this is a poorly written screenplay," give it some time. Maybe a twist ending will save it in the end. Of course, there's always a chance you may have wasted a whole two hours of your life, rather than just 45 minutes.