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Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Horrifying Year

I've taken a rather extended break from my "Movies of My Life" series, and it's been almost three years since my last "Home Fry-ed Movie" on University Television, but I'm coming back with a post that's (kind of) related to both.

For Halloween 2015, I'm going to present a new edition of Home Fry-ed Movies, screening the 1960 Roger Corman cult classic The Little Shop of Horrors on UALR's University Television. In researching this movie, I discovered that 1960 was a very important year for horror movies. The Little Shop of Horrors itself is important enough, as a movie that was shot in record time but contributed mightily to the horror comedy genre. (Corman considered it part of a genre he created - the black-comedy horror film, with its direct antecedent his 1959 flick A Bucket of Blood. I think we could definitely find some earlier films that might fit that description, but for now, we'll give Corman his due.) The Little Shop of Horrors spawned an off-Broadway musical, which was also made into a movie in 1986, and a Saturday morning cartoon series from the 1990s. The carnivorous Audrey Jr.'s call to "Feed Me" has become an iconic phrase, and the original movie is still a lot of fun.

Interestingly, many other important horror movies were released in 1960:

Psycho - Did any movie change the horror movie genre more than Alfred Hitchcock's classic tale of a psychotic serial killer? Mild by today's standards, the movie shocked audiences in 1960, with its iconic shower scene, its killing off of a major Hollywood star in the first 30 minutes, and its twist ending. (One of my greatest joys was watching the movie with each of my kids when they were teenagers and seeing their reaction to the ending - I don't know how I managed to keep that secret from these young cinephiles.) While the slasher movie might take more direct inspiration from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Black Christmas and Halloween, Psycho is the grandfather (or rather grandmother) of them all.

Peeping Tom - We can't mention Psycho without mentioning the lesser known but equally gruesome Peeping Tom, released the same year in Great Britain. (It wouldn't go into general release in the United States until 1962.) The movie nearly ruined the career of director Michael Powell, one of Britain's most talented directors. Like Psycho, Peeping Tom is about a psychotic serial killer. This one kills his victims as he's shooting them with his film camera so he can capture the look on their faces as they die. The movie deals with the deep psychological scars brought on by a parent who was using his child as a social science experiment, something that made this movie extremely cutting edge for 1960.

House of Usher - It seems a little out of step including this seemingly traditional gothic horror tale with two movies about serial killers, but The Fall of the House of Usher was important in its own way. The movie was the first of Roger Corman's series of adaptations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, and like most of them, it starred Vincent Price. Corman made his Poe films in color, bringing the rich redness of blood to the screen while maintaining a sense of death and decay throughout. As the first in the series (and one of the best), House of Usher established the conventions we would see in the films, most notably the delightful overacting of Price.

Black Sunday - While Corman was getting started with his Poe series in the States, Mario Bava was starting his own directing career in Italy with this eerie and gruesome film. Black Sunday, aka The Mask of Satan, features many scenes that had to be cut from screenings in other countries: a mask of Satan being nailed to Barbara Steele's face at the beginning of the movie, eyes gouging out of a corpse, a body burning in a fire. Actress Steele, who plays a resurrected witch and her lookalike ancestor, would become familiar to horror movie fans in the '60s and '70s, and Bava became Italy's foremost director of horror movies and thrillers, followed soon by Dario Argento.

Village of the Damned - Combining horror and science fiction, this 1960 British film presents us with a group of blonde kids with spooky eyes, all conceived on the same day while their mothers are unconscious. It's a classic and should not be missed.

Eyes Without a Face - We've got movies from the U. S., Britain, and Italy. Let's add France to the list. Eyes Without a Face introduces a mad scientist who removes the faces of young women and tries to graft them onto the damaged face of his daughter. The surgery scenes are surprisingly graphic for 1960.

Blood and Roses - Roger Vadim adapted the 19th century vampire novella Carmilla (which predates Bram Stoker's Dracula) and brought the lesbian aspects of the story to the full front. Like most of Vadim's films, it was controversial.

13 Ghosts - Like all of William Castle's horror movies from this period, this one featured a gimmick. "Illusion-O" - special goggles that allowed the viewer to see the ghosts. I've seen the movie many times on TV but never with the special glasses. That would be a real treat!

And just to round out this list of horror movies first released in 1960 to 10, let me include The Brides of Dracula, Hammer studios' sequel to its 1958 hit The Horror of Dracula. Peter Cushing is back as Van Helsing, the vampire hunter, but conspicuous by his absence is Dracula himself, as played by Christopher Lee in the previous film. It would be 1966 before Lee would reprise his role, to much appreciation from fans.

1960 - a horrifying and unique year for the horror movie.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Movies of My Life: 1968

Some laughs, some scares, some futuristic visions, and... who's that guy swimming in my backyard pool? 

(1) The Producers

Mel Brooks’ directorial debut is still hilarious, indicated by the fact that he could add a few songs to it and make it a Broadway hit more than 30 years later. “Springtime for Hitler” is not only ridiculous, it’s a really catchy tune! (NOTE: When I first did this list, the movie’s release date was set as 1968. Apparently, someone on IMDB discovered a brief theatrical run in 1967. I started to move it to that year but realized it would be much further down on the list so I kept it at the top of 1968.)

(2) The Odd Couple
My favorite Neil Simon comedy and my favorite pairing of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. My wife and I quote lines from this movie to each other endlessly: “Here... here, I knew I was winning too much”... “It’s either very new cheese or very old meat”... “Now it’s garbage”... “Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Unger”... and ON AND ON.

(3) Night of the Living Dead
The movie is so raw and unapologetic, it tops my list of the scariest movies of all time. George Romero and his friends created the modern idea of the zombie and changed the horror movie forever with its use of gore. 

(4) Rosemary's Baby
Roman Polanski’s twist on gothic horror would also be near the top of my scariest movies list. Thankfully, the studio insisted Polanski direct, rather than B-movie director William Castle, who became the film’s producer. Favorite chilling line: “He has his father’s eyes.”

(5) Planet of the Apes

The movie is iconic, of course, with four sequels, a television series, and two remakes, the last one having spawned its own sequel and another one planned. It has memorable lines (“Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!”) and ironic images (the orangutan tribunal taking the “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil” pose in the courtroom), but I love the spookiness of the first several minutes of the movie before the apes show up as the astronauts explore the Forbidden Zone, punctuated by Jerry Goldsmith’s avant-garde score.

(6) Barbarella
Campy, sexy, ridiculous – the movie is so much fun and represents the late sixties so well.

(7) 2001: A Space Odyssey
I might be criticized for putting Planet of the Apes above this movie, but I grew up watching Apes and love it more. I had to watch this one three times before I made it all the way through, and then I found myself saying, “Wha???” However, it’s one of the most important science fiction films of all time, with dazzling special effects and a sense of humor.

(8) Targets

Peter Bogdanovich’s first directorial work symbolizes the transition from traditional gothic horror to modern tales of terror based on real monsters. Boris Karloff plays a retiring horror actor who confronts a character based on the University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman. The final scene is awesome!

(9) Finian's Rainbow
I really like this musical with Fred Astaire in one of his last musical roles, a leprechaun, a magical pot of gold, and a racist played by Keenan Wynn, who gets his comeuppance.

(10) The Swimmer
I enjoyed watching this crazy movie when I was a kid, even though I didn’t understand it until I read John Cheever’s original short story years later. Burt Lancaster swims across one backyard pool to another in his suburban neighborhood, encountering conflict after conflict.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Movies of My Life: 1967

Hollywood was changing by 1967. It was the year for some groundbreaking films. 
(1) The Graduate

Even seeing edited versions of this film on TV when I was growing up, I still knew it was very special. Director Mike Nichols uses cinematic techniques to their utmost to tell the ultimate generation gap story of the 60s. Simon and Garfunkel’s music gives it just the right punch, and Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft are perfect.

(2) Bonnie and Clyde
Who would have thought a movie about a bank robbing couple from the 1920s would be a commentary on Vietnam? Funny, fast, and bloody, the movie changed Hollywood and became a box office smash.

(3) Cool Hand Luke
“What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate,” became one of the most oft quoted movie lines of all time. (Number 11 on AFI’s list of memorable quotes.) Paul Newman was transcendent as a Christ-figure on a Southern chain gang.

(4) In the Heat of the Night

The interaction between Sidney Poitier as a super smart big city detective and Rod Steiger as a snarly Southern police chief trying to overcome his racial prejudice makes it impossible to take your eyes off the screen. My favorite scene is at the train station where Chief Gillespie is trying to convince Virgil Tibbs to help him solve the crime and Tibbs can’t resist the idea of showing these small town racists just how smart he is.

(5) Wait Until Dark
Alan Arkin, who usually plays such sympathetic characters, is terrifying as a psychopathic criminal trying to get the best of a blind woman played by Audrey Hepburn, but she changes the odds in the end.

(6) Week End
A bizarre film by Jean Luc Godard, it’s here for one reason. The tracking shot of a traffic jam, which I think is one of the best scenes in cinema history. Godard tells us tons about these anonymous people, and about life, just by sliding by them, as our main characters make their way to a murder.

(7) In Cold Blood
My favorite piece of film trivia: In a swirl of coincidence, the favorite movie of murderer Perry Smith, portrayed by Robert Blake in this movie, was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in which Blake had a small role as a Mexican newspaper boy when he was just 14. Of course, Blake himself would later be indicted for murder, but unlike Smith, he gets acquitted.

(8) Five Million Years to Earth

Titled Quatermass and the Pit in England, it was the last and best of a trilogy. Construction crews dig up the remnants of ancient astronauts in a London subway station – giant insect shells inside a sleek spaceship that has psychic power over humans. The set up is well constructed and gives you a bit of a shiver.

(9) The Jungle Book
When I was a kid, I had the soundtrack for this movie on a record album. It not only included the great songs from the film (“Bare Necessities,” “I Wanna Be Like You,” “Trust in Me”) but some of the dialogue as well, which I memorized with my friends.

(10) Barefoot in the Park
Jane Fonda and Robert Redford are adorable as a young couple learning how to get along in a sixth floor walk-up apartment. Neil Simon’s stage plays were the starting point for so many good movies in the 1960s and 70s. He adapted this one himself.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Movies of My Life: 1966

My kind of year: westerns, science fiction and some cool foreign films. 

(1) Blow-Up

Like all of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, the pacing is slow, but every image on the screen is packed full of meaning. A fashion photographer thinks he snapped a picture of a crime... or did he?

(2) Fahrenheit 451
French director Francois Truffaut makes an English language film based on a science fiction novel by an American writer (Ray Bradbury) starring an Austrian actor (Oskar Werner). The opening credit sequence, narrated over zooms of TV aerials (no written words, of course) and the final scene (which I won’t describe, in case you haven’t seen it) are unforgettable. There’s some good stuff in between, too.

(3) Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
This movie broke all kinds of taboos about language and presented two of Hollywood’s most glamorous stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, as frumpy hostile intellectuals. Mike Nichols’ first film starts funny and turns tragic.

(4) A Man and a Woman (Un homme et une femme)
One of my favorite romantic films, with a musical score that always makes me feel good.

(5) Seconds
Frightening science fiction film about a man who gets a second chance at life with a new identity and the face of Rock Hudson.

(6) Fantastic Voyage

The inspiration for numerous health education videos, the silly premise of shrinking down humans to explore inside a human body is still lots of fun.

(7) El Dorado
Howard Hawks loved his 1959 movie Rio Bravo so much that he basically remade it this year. Again, John Wayne plays the leader of a group of men protecting a Western town against a villainous rancher and his gang. Robert Mitchum takes Dean Martin’s role as the lawman turned town drunk, Arthur Hunnicutt replaces Walter Brennan as the old geezer, and James Caan stands in for Ricky Nelson as the young whippersnapper. I think Rio Bravo is better, but this one is still above average.

(8) What's Up, Tiger Lilly?
If you can’t afford to shoot your own movie, buy someone else’s and add new dialogue. In his directorial debut, Woody Allen redubs a Japanese gangster movie and adds original scenes to create a farce about the search for the world’s best egg salad recipe.

(9) The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

The final collaboration between director Sergio Leone and actor Clint Eastwood, this movie demonstrates Leone’s masterful editing between extreme long shots, extreme close ups, and everything in between, and features the iconic score by Ennio Morricone.

(10) The Russians are Coming, the Russians are Coming
Alan Arkin is delightful as a Soviet naval officer whose submarine has gone aground off the coast of a New England island. This Cold War comedy features a great cast including Carl Reiner, Brian Keith, Eva Marie Saint and Jonathan Winters.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Movies of My Life: 1965

Not one of my favorite years, but still some interesting flicks here.

(1) A Patch of Blue

The same year Martin Luther King Jr. led the march from Selma to Montgomery, Sidney Poitier was breaking stereotypes on the screen. I watched this movie so many times growing up, I know it had an impact on me. Poitier plays an educated black man who tries to help a blind girl escape from her abusive mother and her sheltered life. This movie is overshadowed by his work from 1967 (when he had three box office hits released just a few months apart), but its subtlety is exquisite.

(2) Repulsion
Wow! Catherine Deneuve plays a disturbed woman who’s left alone for the weekend. Seems like a simple enough story until she starts letting her delusions get the best of her. It’s Roman Polanski’s first English-language film. 

(3) Alphaville
Jean-Luc Godard deconstructs the science fiction movie with no special effects, costumes, or gadgets. A Ford Mustang stands in for a spaceship. The futuristic city is just Paris in the 1960s. The hero of the story is Lemmy Caution, a character that appeared in numerous crime dramas previously. He dresses, talks, and acts just like any film noir hero from the period. It’s an unusual take on a familiar genre.

(4) The Sound of Music
Christopher Plummer, who plays Captain von Trapp in this movie, called it “The Sound of Mucus.” Critic Pauline Kael called it, “the single most repressive influence on artistic freedom in movies.” Still, I love it. Great songs, great cinematography, Julie Andrews. Maybe there is a “luxuriant falseness” to it, as Kael says, but it’s the kind of “luxuriant falseness” that’s really entertaining.

(5) Flight of the Phoenix

I like stories about disparate groups of people stranded together, trying to make the best of it. This one has the advantage of the angsty postwar Jimmy Stewart as an airplane pilot arguing with an overly self-confident German engineer (Hardy Kruger) about what to do with their crashed plane.

(6) Crack in the World
One of the best in the “unintended consequences” category of science fiction movies from this era. A group of scientists trying to tap into the geothermal energy at the Earth’s core inadvertently cause the global catastrophe of the title.

(7) The Collector
Super creepy movie about a butterfly collector, played by Terence Stamp, who turns his attention toward “collecting” a young blonde art student. The movie and the book on which it was based have had some real life “unintended consequences.”

(8) The Greatest Story Ever Told
In 1964, we had an Italian Jesus. In 1965, he’s Swedish. Max Von Sydow plays Christ in this dark blockbuster that follows Jesus’s life from nativity to resurrection. The movie has an all-star cast, and perhaps it’s worth sitting through its four hours just to hear John Wayne as a Roman Centurion say, “Surely this man was the Son of God.”

 (9) Cat Ballou

Lee Marvin plays two roles – a drunken has-been gunfighter and his villainous brother with a silver nose, while Stubby Kaye and Nat King Cole perform as a kind of Greek chorus with banjos. Jane Fonda stars as the title character in this comedy western.

(10) Dr. Who and the Daleks
I’ve been a fan of the Doctor Who TV series since the 1980s, when PBS began broadcasting the Tom Baker episodes. This movie has The Doctor (played by Peter Cushing) and his most famous enemy, the Daleks, but it veers too far away from the canon of the series. It’s only in this list because it was the first movie my wife Karen and I watched together when we started dating. The fact that she still watches Doctor Who with me 30 years later says a lot about her endurance!