bu1057dvd-2http://www.blue-undergrounddvd.com/index.php?pg=il&search=fast+company

 

The films of David Cronenberg reveal a director who is continually finding new ways to explore themes that have preoccupied him since his early work on  Stereo, Crimes of the Future, and Shivers. His films are populated with characters who alter or are involved in altering the human body through violent acts, who represent science or the media or some fringe element of society such as the mob in A History of Violence or Eastern Promises, and where the  logical and ordered reasoning of science or norms are no longer applicable.

While Fast Company is certainly not a horror movie it is certainly not the typical racing movie either. David Cronenberg has substituted grotesque human physiology for the inner workings of the “funny car” which cinematographer Mark Irwin(who also shot Cronenbergs The Brood and Scanners) photographs in various stages of repair and assembly throughout the movie as if it were the inner workings of the human body. How the cars work is detailed throughout the movie without hindering the plot, which is deceptively simple when viewed as a standard 70’s car movie but when looked closer at reveal those themes which Cronenberg has been working through for quite some time. The physiology of the car iself is one theme that plays out through the movie and is tied intricately with the characters. The two main racers, Lonnie Johnson and Gary Black are physically part of the vehicles they race. I am sure that as anyone who races cars would tell you, the vehicle becomes an extension of the driver with every turn and increase of speed. There seems to be a certain appeal in this for Cronenberg who shows the drivers in and out of the car but these characters are only really complete when man and machine are unified. This is important because these characters also exist on the fringe, inhabiting race tracks and trailers and cruising down the highway from town to town. They are not the heroes of NASCAR who have gotten rich driving cars, just ordinary people who do not know how to do anything else but drive.

Then there is the organization called Fast Co. which, in true Cronenberg form, is a crooked and menacing company that is more concerned about selling its product(which is no good of course) then with winning the races that Lonnie Johnson drives for them. The track rep for Fast Co. is played with very dirty gusto by John Saxon as he constantly tries to put Lonnie Johnson and his crew off the track and out of a job. This unseen force which John Saxon’s charcter personifies is not subject matter that Cronenberg completely takes seriously, as there is a sex scene which involves two girls being rubbed down with Fast Co. oil and another where a dumbfounded security guard stands helplessly by as Lonnie Johnson and his crew steal back the funny car that was taken from them after they were fired. There are plenty of moments of good humor in this picture and they are made all the more funny because they are balanced out with the desperation the characters feel as they are drive and as they attempt to hold onto what they have worked so hard for throughout their lives. Lonnie Johnson and Gary Black are set up as polar opposites in this respect with what and who they love stuck in between their rivalry.

You might not think so from watching such movies as Rabid or The Brood, both of which bookend Fast Company, but much like The Fly or some of his other works, Fast Company reveals David Cronenberg to be very humane and compassionate towards his characters. Human suffering and struggle turns out to be a very important  part of the physiology which Cronenberg studies so intently in his films and while he never quite takes a transcendent view of the human condition or is very optimistic about it, he does take his characters at face value and is never flippant about their surroundings or circumstances. It is a shame then that this film has been all but eclipsed by a lack of distribution when it was released and very little critical attention afterwards. Despite all of this Fast Company is a great genre film and one that is an important reference point in the work of David Cronenberg.

charlesjacob; vanheck123@hotmail.com

White Dog

December 17, 2008

White Dog(1982); Dir. Samuel Fuller. Criterion Collection DVD(2008)

http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi1016791833/   White Dog Movie Trailer

There are films that gather a certain mystique around them because they have attracted so much controversy, were banned for one reason or another, or were so wildly popular that they become representative of the movies as a whole. Then there is Samuel Fuller’s White Dog. This film was tucked away by Paramount Pictures after it was completed because the studio worried that the subject matter would ignite racial tension across the country. It was criticized for being a racist film and for all practical purposes, ignored for many years. This Criterion release is the first home video release of the film and it was not shown in theatres at all.  White Dog, I believe, touched such a raw nerve  because it is the history that many people have lived through and the sense of shame that we have never quite come to terms with. Fuller himself said that the studio were essentially cowards for not backing the picture and those that have spent any time watching Samuel Fuller films, reading his autobiography “A Third Face” or any of the numerous writings on his work, know the difficulty he has encountered throughout his career in finding support for his films. Fuller not only had difficulty getting some of his movies made but also faced obstacles after his films were completed and with the exception of critics such as Manny Farber, his films were not always that well  received in the United States. There are still many of his movies such as Underworld U.S.A., Verboten!, Park Row, The Chrimson Kimono, China Gate, and The Run of The Arrow that are still not available on video; not to mention the dozens of writing credits that he was never given proper due  for.  One of the great American genre directors along with Don Siegal,  Howard Hawks, and William Keighley, Fuller’s films always championed the underdog and never shyed away from topics such as racism, communism, and an unglorified look at war when those were not such popular issues to be discussing in the manner  which Samuel Fuller chose to present them.

White Dog is the story of a dog that was conditioned to hate black people and viciously attacks them until an african american animal trainer steps in to try and recondition the dog. The dominant image in the film is that of the steel cage, referred to in the movie as the “arena,”  in which Paul Winfield’s character Keys fights against the white dog’s engrained racism. The “arena” not only occurs throughout the film as the center of the action but also as an allegory for the combat our society must engage in on a daily basis in order to fight racism in this country. The dog is not simply a symbol of racism in this country but also embodies the sickness and hatred that has been such a part of America’s history and it is in the “arena” that Keys seeks to recondition this white dog to treat blacks the same way he treats whites. While Keys untangles the white dog’s racist instincts, which were born out of learned fear and hatred, Kristy McNichol’s  character Julie Sawyer must come to grips with the reality that this dog has been twisted and contorted by men who hate and that the racism embodied in this dog is very alive in the United States. But Juile’s answer to the problem is to kill it right there. While she might not understand the racism that is in this dog, she wants it stamped out. Keys wants to “cure” racism by retraining the dog. With these two views, Fuller takes us in a direction that is very cynical and unforgiving, yet sadly realistic.

One of the most shocking scenes in the film is when Julie meets the owner of the dog, who has come with his two grandchildren and a box of chocolates to claim the dog. She lashes out at him for making the dog such a horrible monster but the owner is very proud of the dog being a “white dog” and threatens to go to the police if she does not give him back. It is this scene that really captures the themes of the movie best because it is an extension of the “arena” motif that encompasses all of society and how this racism is passed down from generation to generation. This also is important because it illustrates what Burl Ives character Carruthers says earlier in the scene where he is having a meal with Keys and Julie and a police officer stops in to ask for directions. This comes after the dog had murdered a black man in a church. Their guilt is palpable and this is the type of emotional scene that Fuller is best at.  After the officer leaves, Carruthers says that they can never tell anyone what they are doing because no one would understand. Society is guilty of promoting institutional racism and these beliefs are so deeply entrenched that for them to try and undo this would have great consequences.

Samuel Fuller does not flinch away from the difficulty of this subject matter or attempt to force a resolution to the problem. It is a problem that does not have a solution and though Keys and Julie make an effort to defeat the dog’s sickness, in the end it is not enough. If there is any fault in this picture, it is not the subject matter or how Fuller approaches it but in the hurried feeling of the first ten or fifteen minutes. Dialogue is dissapointingly out of synch in a scene where Julie is almost raped by an intruder in her home and collapses on the floor where she manages to call 911 and have the police come out without ever picking up the phone.  This is supposed to be a key scene where Julie’s relationship with the dog that she nursed back to health is firmly set and that makes what she discovers about the dog all that more horrifying. When you watch this movie it is very evident that this was not intended to be viewed as a horror film, even though the attempt was made to market it as such, but instead as a social commentary. It just happens that this particular social commentary comes from a director whose body of work is as rough and tumble as he was, and not the polished, “do you get it yet?” type of commentary one finds in a movie such as “Crash.” It is that rough and tumble feel that makes this film so endearing and tangible because that is often how life comes at us. It is exactly that which makes Samuel Fuller’s body of work so important to American cinema and White Dog such a powerful movie experience.

Charles Jacob; vanheck123@hotmail.com

THE DARK KNIGHT

December 12, 2008

 

The Dark Knight(2008); Dir. Christopher Nolan. Warner Home Video(Dec. 2008)

After the much anticipated dvd and blu-ray release of The Dark Knight on Tuesday and yesterdays announcement of the Golden Globe nominees, of which The Dark Knight is not among them, with the exception of Heath Ledger’s posthumous best supporting actor nomination, it would be almost impossible to overstate the impact of this film since its release this past July. There isn’t a movie website, blog, or critic, who hasn’t weighed in with their thoughts on this filmSo after seeing the movie twice in the theatre and getting the dvd on Tuesday, I will happily join the rank and file of those having nothing but accolades and awe for this motion picture.

 The Dark Knight is one of those movies that puts stars in your eyes, if they weren’t there to begin with. It represents the possibilities of film for a new generation of movie-goers, many of whom, I imagine, will come away with an excitement for the movies  that will lead them to pursue their own creative interests. The Dark Knight has also rescued Batman from the cartoonish peril and absurdity(George Clooney and rubber nipples in case you forgot) of the late 90’s Batman Forever and Batman & Robin with the superb script writing of David Goyer and the direction of Christopher Nolan.

I am not sure if you can call it a more “adult” version of the Batman story or that you can deconstruct the film and say that it reflects the moral ambiguity and cynicism of our times. Gotham City and Batman exist in a world completely outside of our own and it would not be right to try and fit them into our reality. Nihilistic characters like the Joker make more interesting fictional villains because they are elevated to the level of “an unstoppable force” as Heath Ledger’s character says to Batman in one of their scenes together. This movie, along with Batman Begins, also shows that the dark corners of the hero’s psyche make for a much more interesting superhero. After all, it is a fine line that separates what we would deem “good” and “bad.” As The Dark Knight suggests, the nature of good and evil is such a precarious one that a character can be pushed one way or the other given the right circumstances. With a single action, Harvey Dent is driven away from being the upstanding beacon of justice to a murderous criminal seeking revenge as Two Face. He is caught between the nihilism of the Joker and the conviction of Batman and it is because of this that I find him to be one of the more fascinating characters in the movie even though he is played more straight by Aaron Eckhart than the extremes of Heath Ledger’s Joker or Christian Bale’s Batman/Bruce Wayne. This was very interesting to me because the last movie I had seen Aaron Eckhart in was Brian De Palma’s Black Dahlia(I admit that I haven’t seen Thank You For Smoking even though I have been meaning to). His sensibility as an actor seems much more suited for a role such as Harvey Dent more than a hard boiled detective.

The one part of the film that did not work for me was the ending monologue and commissioner Gordon’s son running out to his father as the police beging to chase Batman. After all the destruction and bleak territory the film waded through the filmmakers seemed to really try and end the movie in a way that was suspenseful and hopeful and that did not leave the audience feeling too much despair. Personally, I think the best way to end the film would have been with the Joker laughing and swinging at the top of the building. There is a hard boiled crime feel to the story with the characters that populate the story and the visuals of the film  and I think an ending such as that would have emphasized this element a bit more without taking away from the other  aspects of the story. 

The Dark Knight is truly an epic film which finds the time to include  more artful cinematic moments such as the Joker leaning out the window(one of my favorite scenes) of a cop car after he escapes from jail and has set his plan into motion,  with a maniacally blissful look on his face and the sparkling city lights behind him as the sound fades out. This scene is brief but it adds so much to the overall visual impact of the film that you become aware while you are watchingthis picture of these little moments created byChris Nolan and David Goyer  which give the characters and the story a dramatic intensity and demonstrate their craftmenship as film makers.

Charles Jacob; vanheck123@hotmail.com

 

 
 

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian; Dir. Andrew Adamson

 Perhaps it was a feeling when The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe came out that Disney was not the studio I wanted to see working on this film but I recognize that I have been very biased against this film series since its inception. I have very fond memories of reading the books when I was younger but I cannot say that they ever really captured my imagination the way other stories did and while I have always admired the writing of author C.S. Lewis(as much as that of J.R.R. Tolkien for the worlds and mythology they were able to create and the characters they populated them with) I suppose I have to admit that it never really interested me that much and while that might not be the best way to start of a review of this movie, it is the most honest way that I can because it was not an issue I could sidestep while watching Prince Caspian.
Faithful literary adaptations present filmmakers with a very fine line to walk. Especially in situations where the source material is a bit dry or even lacking in some details that would make for a good movie, the filmmaker has to dig beneath the surface of the work to excavate some of the more “cinematic” moments and thematic gems. Characters are flushed out, scenes are brought to life, and the action of a story congeals around what is central to the story, even when it is not directly stated by the author. Andrew Adamson seemed to completely miss the mark in this aspect and ended up creating a movie that seemed to exist only to make room for the next in the series.  Visually, the film glistens with impressive scenes and sets. It is a far cry from the BBC series based on the same material from the late 1980’s, but I am not convinced that this is the definitive interpretation of The Chronicles of Narnia in the way that Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings was. The problem is that there is too much on the surface of the film and not enough beneath that to really make a difference. The allegory of the story itself is very powerful and is historically very compelling when looked at in the context of World War II and the struggle between good and evil. I would not blame  Andrew Adamson for this. He is very capable of telling a meaningful fantasy story as he demonstrated with Shrek and Shrek 2. The fault, I believe, lies with Disney, whitewashing to deliver a movie that spends a great deal of time talking about things you do not understandand, establishing relationships that are sterile and add more confusion to the story and building the conflict to a level that results in a battle sequences which almost feels like an entirely different film than the one you had been watching for the last hour.

There are two scenes in the film which stand out and make you wish that the filmmakers had used this to set the tone for the rest of the movie. The first comes after a disastrous attack on the castle in which Prince Caspian breaks the plan they had developed to lay siege in order to seek revenge against his Uncle, the man who is laying claim to the throne. As Prince Caspian and his forces are driven into retreat, there is a moment where they look back at the men left behind and you realize that the whole attack was a waste of life. The other scene which contains the emotional core of the film is that in which Prince Caspian wavers in his faith and is about to give power to the White Witch in order to defeat his Uncle. Andrew Adamson creates a great deal of dramatic tension in this scene and it is surprisingly not overplayed, as you would expect from watching the rest of the movie. What is disappointing is that these scenes are never quite able to congeal along with the rest of the movie. Perhaps, though, it is more disappointing that they are never allowed to. The characters and plot feel restrained in a way that any creative work should never be and again, I would not not blame this on Adamson’s direction or the story. The acting of Ben Barnes, who plays Prince Caspian the way one would play a tortured prince whose kingdom is being taken away from him, far exceeds that of the actors and actresses who play the Pevensie children and unfortunately, the rest of the cast feels like caricatures of who they are supposed to be portraying, stock characters who try very hard to fit into the picture as if the audience might not be able to figure out who they are supposed to be.

This could  sum up the entire movie. It is like that person at the party who wants everyone to like them and moves from group to group making sure that there is no ambiguity about who they are or what they are about. There is something rather ingenuous about such an experience and one cannot help but feel that there is something  ingenuous about Prince Caspian. I would hope that someday, someone will get it right and make a Chronicles of Narnia that relies on the merit of being a cinematic epic. But I suppose that movie will come as a completely different series with a completely different production company.

Charles Jacob; vanheck123@hotmail.com

Hellboy II: The Golden Army

December 3, 2008

Hellboy II: The Golden Army(2008); Dir. Guillermo Del Toro

Hellboy II represents a watershed in the filmmaking career of director Guillermo Del Toro. For years he has moved between the more personal, mystical fairy tales of children attempting to navigate the adult world in times of great crisis or loss such as in Cronos or Devil’s Backbone and the pure action/adventure of Blade II or even the often forgotten Mimic. While Pan’s Labyrinth indicated a new direction for Guillermo Del Toro in both the scope of visual storytelling and exploring in fantastical detail worlds that coexist alongside the human world, it is with Hellboy II that his vision becomes fully realized and these two aspects of his films are brought together to create a story that is magical in a way that most films are not able to achieve.

 This world of elves, trolls, tree monsters, and other mythical creatures is one that has existed countless times in books and film and  Guillermo Del Toro uses some well tried conventions of fantasy stories such as the epic battle and retelling of the legend of King Balor, Prince Nuada, and the Golden Army that begins the film.  What is exciting about Guillermo Del Toro’s filmmaking though is that he takes these conventions of the genre and creates something that we are both in awe of and  strangely familiar with. There is a sincerity of purpose in the telling of the story as well as a wonderful understanding of how a fantasy film is supposed to look and feel for the audience. The characters are not lofty or exaggerated, even by comic book standards, but flawed in very human terms. We can appreciate them for this and it adds a dimension to the story that is rarely seen in action films.

Guillermo Del Toro is certainly not a melodramatic director but he is very sentimental both for his characters and in his style of filmmaking. He gives his characters moments where they are able to reveal themselves without seeming out of place and while Hellboy II is an action picture, it is one with a great deal of mythology and influences layered beneath the fight sequences, love stories, and comic relief that populates the film’s swiftly moving plot. One of the most difficult challenges in a sequel is to continue developing familiar characters while still making a film that stands on its own. Guillermo Del Toro does not rely on bringing back old characters to add excitement to the movie but there is that “picked up where we left off feeling” which serves the movie well. In fact, he also brings in new characters such as Johann Kraus voiced by Seth MacFarlane, who lives in a mechanical suit apparatus constructed by Hellboy’s adoptive father as well as Prince Nuada’s twin sister Princess Nuala who brings a very interesting aspect to the story.

Hellboy II represents a new direction for what action films can accomplish as much as The Dark Knight pushed the boundaries of how the comic book hero was potrayed on film. Masterpieces? Certainly not. Great Genre filmmaking? There is no doubt. What is most clear with Hellboy II is that Guillermo Del Toro is gradually building a body of work that embodies the fantasy genres’ best aspects and modern fairy tales which entertain as well as find their way to the heart of something more substantial and meaningful then just flashy action sequences, quick moving plots, and snappy dialogue.

Charles Jacob;  vanheck123@hotmail.com

Mongol

December 1, 2008

Mongol(2007); Dir. Sergei Bodrov. New Line Home Video(2008)

  • Format:Color, DVD-Video, Widescreen, NTSC
  • Language: Mongolian
  • Rating:
  • With sweeping, dramatic camera movements that cover the vastness of the Mongolian landscape, one gets the sense while watching the epic Mongol that director Sergei Bodrov is also attempting to give the viewer a sense of the vastness of time as he inter cuts scenes from the childhood and adult life of the main character Temujin in a prophetic tone that anticipates his rise to power as the formidable Genghis Khan, a conqueror and feared warrior across the known world. As we watch Temujin develop from a young boy who watches his father die, to a young man captured and recaptured into slavery, as well as being hunted and imprisoned by the Tangut, we see a character emerge who is pushed towards his destiny by divine and human forces. Temujin, the film surmises, must achieve this singular purpose and there is never any doubt that he will.

    For anyone knowledgeable about 13th century Asian and European history, they are well aware of the importance that Genghis Khan played in this time period and what is known of his life. Perhaps it is this sense of destiny that the film makers imply in every action Temujin undertakes that leaves the film feeling a little shallow. Some of the grandiose aspects of the story actually work at times but when we are constantly made to feel that we are watching the development of greatness and a leader whose destiny was anointed by the gods and the unfolding of history, it is easy to loose a sense of the man Temujin. There is almost something mythological in the portrayal of Temujin. No matter how many times he is captured or beaten or chased, he always manages to come back to the track of his destiny. Sergei Bodrov approaches the subject of his film with reverence and a sacred timidity that does not seem to fit such a bold historical figure as Genghis Khan.

    There is no doubt that Mongol is a powerful film, just as Oliver Stone’s Alexander or Zac Snyder’s 300 were powerful films. They were powerful because they invested a sense of otherworldly significance into the actions of the characters and the events which they participated in.  But like these other pictures, Mongol offers very little of what could be a true character study or even much speculation about what drove these men to such vast conquests. Why did Temujin wish to unite the Mongol people? What was the political and social climate like at that time period? These are questions that I could not avoid while watching the film and wished that the film makers had taken a bit more time with the story and attempted to really construct the character of Temujin and 13th century Mongolia. Historical fiction is indeed a very fine balancing act but that does not always make for good film making.

    Charles Jacob;   vanheck123@hotmail.com

    Scream, Blacula, Scream(1973). Dir. Bob Kelljan; MGM DVD (2004)

    Scream, Blacula, Scream is certainly a product of its time. I strongly doubt that you would see a movie like this made today, although, Vampire In Brooklyn and Bones come to mind as direct descendants of this movie and the original which this sequel is based, Blacula. For better or worse, Blacula and Scream, Blacula, Screamare some of the first black horror movies and whether or not you consider these films or the other titles in the so-called “blaxploitation” genre good film making, they are a significant portion of American film history that cannot be ignored or simply brushed off as dated.

    In some ways, the historical context of this film and the story behind the studio that made Scream, Blacula, Scream, American International Pictures and executive producer/founder Samuel Z. Arkoff, could eclipse the films that this studio released through the 1960’s and 1970’s. Besides giving directing jobs to Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorcese, and virtually starting the careers of Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro, AIP was also one of the leading genre studios in the United States during this time, specializing in horror, action, and in the 1970’s, “blaxploitation.” While Arkoff and AIP tapped into African American viewers and brought them into theatres in a way that no other studio had done or has done since, in hindsight, one can also see the damage this did to black movie actors and actresses in a system that still offered them limited and stereotyped roles.

    It is important to have that in the back of your mind while you are watching Scream, Blacula, Scream, not because this is a poignant commentary on race or a really strong story in itself, but because a “blaxploitation” movie is often taken as a fun, cultural novelty that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Even if this picture was intended to be nothing but entertainment, the performance of actor William Marshall alone saves it from that. A Broadway and Shakespeare trained actor, William Marshall conveys such a deep sense of anguish and longing as he pursues Pam Grier’s character Lisa in an effort to free himself from the curse of being a vampire. The story itself is very thin and does not quite come together the way it should but William Marshall’s presence really carries the film.

    Lisa is the member of a Voodoo cult whose leader has just died. The opening scene shows a power struggle within the cult(with a lot of jive talkin’) and then shows Richard Lawson’s character, Willis, collecting Bones from a voodoo man and bringing them to life in the form of Blacula. Willis thinks that he is going to control Blacula and have him get rid of Lisa so that he can take over the cult, but instead, Blacula turns him into a vampire and begins to collect his own army of the undead. Blacula wanders through Los Angeles causing death and mayhem until Don Mitchell’s character Justin and the police department begin investigating and become convinced that they are really dealing with vampires.

    The back story from the first film is that Mamulwalde was an African Prince bitten by a vampire and he became one. In this film, he believes that he can find a cure through Lisa and her voodoo practices after meeting her at a party and being enraptured by her. The last portion of the movie becomes intercutting scenes of Lisa trying to exorcise the vampire out of Mamulwalde and the police facing off with his vampire army. There is plenty of screaming from the female actresses, even from Pam Grier who usually had stronger roles. She is always the strong female character who fights against the bad guys, but here she seems a little more relegated to Mamuwalde’s love interest and hanging onto Justin. She is supposed to be a voodoo woman who has not quite discovered the full extent of her power but that is really not conveyed that well in the story.

    While this is an interesting modern take on the Dracula legend, and there are several suggestive scenes in the movie which play with the idea of vampirism as a sexual experience, some of the story also feels a little incongruous with the atmosphere of the story. What is wonderful to watch is that the film makers did not try to reign in the expressiveness of William Marshall’s performance. He really does steal the entire film. He even gets the best lines in the film, which he delivers in his rich and booming voice(a baritone that resonates and deeply with emotion the same way that James Earl Jones’ does). Even when the dialogue seems interjected with statements that come across as calculated to resonate with the audience, Marshall delivers them in a way that adds emotional impact and meaning.  For a “wham, bam, thank you mam” picture, Scream Blacula Scream has some wonderful moments that come from Marshall’s commanding performance.

    Up Next For the November Movie Series Director Sergei Bodrov explores the life of Ghengis Khan in the epic, Mongol.

    charles;

    vanheck123@hotmail.com

    Black Sunday(U.S. Title) or The Mask of Satan(1960); Dir. Mario Bava. Anchor Bay DVD(2007)

    There are movies that elicit such a strong emotional response that trying to relate to them on any other level proves to be very difficult. Sometimes it is good to gain some distance from a film before allowing an opinion to really take shape and crystallize. But often there are movies which cause an immediate response  and I think that this was the case when I was watching Black Sunday. I found myself haunted by the imagery and poetic dreaminess of Mario Bava’s cinematography and storytelling. The images of the forest and old ruins where Princess Asa and the Prince were put to death and buried after being found guilty of witchcraft and serving the devil come to life in the rich black and white tones which emphasize shadow and fog.

    In the later parts of the film the Prince, awakened from the dead to bring vengeance on the family that murdered him and as he looms out of the darkness and wanders through the eerie castle where the present day Vajda family lives oppressed by the curse that had been placed on them two centuries before, the haunting presence of the Princess Asa is almost subconsciously drifting through the film. We are given brief shots of her lying in her coffin which was disturbed by Dr. Andre Gorobec and Dr. Thomas Kruvajan who at first do not pay attention to the superstitions of this Eastern European town they are passing through on their way to Moscow. Even though it is not till the end of the film that she becomes a dominant aspect of the story, Mario Bava conveys her hold over the characters through beautifully constructed atmospheric details.

    The haunting imagery of the movie plays wonderfully with the performances of Barbara Steele as both the Princess Asa and the girl Katia Vajda who happens to look just like Asa, Prince Vajda who is tortured by his family’s past, and Prince Constantine who finds himself dragged down by the curse which plagues his family. They are as dark and mysterious as the scenery that surrounds them and Mario Bava’s camerwork really brings out the turmoil that stalks them and shows how Dr. Gorobec and Dr. Kruvajan are gradually drawn into horror that has a hold over these people. The entire story plays out as poetically as a Shakespearean tragedy as it shows the ruin of these characters and their inability to prevent this oncoming doom. Of course, Black Sunday ends more like a Shakespearean comedy with an element of sadness and loss, but this comes more as a relief after such an oppressively dark film rather than feeling forced or contrived.

    While every shot pays special attention to the broad spectrum of shadow that black and white film making offers, it also emphasizes the supernatural elements of the story which Mario Bava shows through violent storms, wind, and primal elements which denote impending evil. However, it is not a story about good vs. evil in the traditional sense. Two highly educated and scientific doctors who are not able to understand supernatural phenomenon and dismiss everything as superstition are inept at confronting evil when they come face to face with it. In fact Dr. Kruvajan is seduced by it and becomes a servant to it. Other characters in the story, such as the Vajda family, are not good or bad, they simply exist as people who face retribution. There are many aspects of this film that are played as a simple revenge story but it is interesting and very effective how Mario Bava turns the people who are seeking revenge into the villains of the story and brings to the forefront many of the themes that work on a much deeper level in the film.

    Up Next The October Horror Movie Series fights a different kind of vampire in the Hammer Studios and Shaw Brothers co-production of Peter Cushing in The Legend of The Seven Golden Vampires.

    Charles Jacob;

    vanheck123@hotmail.com

    The Stuff(1985); Dir. Larry Cohen; Starz/Anchor Bay DVD (2000)

    While The Stuff  is a gleeful skewering of American consumerism and unscrupulous corporations, it also attempts to be a horror film and this is where the movie does not seem quite as ambitious or effective as it should be.  Larry Cohen the director, writer, and producer of this movie is certainly very capable of both relevant social commentary and horror, as he demonstrated with Bone(1972) and It’s Alive!(1974) but in The Stuff  the two just do not come together.  This is not to say that the plot of the movie lacks cohesion but it does get a little convoluted and it just suggests too many things that the movie does not take the time to develop.

    The Stuff, which has the appearance of oozing Marshmallow Fluff, is quickly introduced in the beginning of the movie bubbling out of the ground as an unsuspecting miner discovers it, tastes it, and immediately decides that it tastes good enough to keep eating. That is the last we hear of him and the next thing we know there are full blown ad campaigns complete with catchy jingles and celebrities such as Abe Vigoda and Brooke Adams selling The Stuff as a nicely packaged snack to a public that just cannot get enough.

    Here the plot branches off in several different directions(so bear with me) and involve an ex-FBI agent specializing in industrial espionage played quite well by Michael Moriarty(who worked a few years earlier with Larry Cohen on Q:The Winged Serpent), an unhinged self appointed Colonel who spouts off anti-communist rhetoric and worries about fluoride in the water in the fashion of Dr. Strangelove’s Jack D. Ripper, played by Paul Sorvino, who is enlisted by the the ex-FBI agent ‘Mo’ Rutherford to help destroy The Stuff after he discovers what it really is and have seen what it does to people after they have been eating it. Then there is Jason who we meet first in the film and is suspicious of The Stuff from the very beginning. He is resistant to eating the Stuff while his family is literally consumed by it and at one point goes on a rampage through the grocery store which almost feels like a slapstick moment as the adults bumble around trying to catch him.

     Then there is ‘Chocolate Chip’ Charlie W. Hobbs who was a cookie mogul until The Stuff came along and ruined his business, and Nicole who directed and worked full time on the ad campaign for The Stuff. There are many more characters, some that are significent to the plot and some that are not, but trying to keep up with them is a little distracting as ‘Mo’ Rutherford crosses and gets double crossed by the corporation that hired him to investigate The Stuff, The FDA, and the corporation marketing and selling The Stuff. 

    Perhaps it is the cynical times in which we live and the series of corporate scandals we have been witness to in the last few years, but greedy, unscrupulous corporations and crooked government agencies do not seem as shocking as they should. In fact, it is what we expect. They seem like an easy target and without any real biting satire to back it up, the comedic aspects of the movie go flat after being played up through most of the movie. Then there is the horror elements of the film which feel underdeveloped compared to the other aspects of the film. There are several scenes where we see people, called ‘Stuffies’ after they have eaten so much of The Stuff that it takes them over, moving and acting like zombies as they come after ‘Mo’ and Jason. Towns are emptied out and people do nothing but consume The Stuff which is really consuming them.  The horror aspects of the movie are not so much underplayed as they are fleeting and I found myself wishing that the comedy was a little less stated and the fears the film was only flirting with were more deeply explored. This would have been more satisfying but it also would have been an entirely different film.

    Up Next for the October Horror Movie Series is Italian director Mario Bava’s first feature film, Black Sunday, starring the illustrious Barbara Steele.

    Charles Jacob;

    vanheck123@hotmail.com

    The Fearless Vampire Killers(1967); Dir. Roman Polanski; Warner Home Video(2004)

    A movie with the subtitle Pardon me, but Your Teeth are in My Neck would suggest to the viewer that they are about to watch something that is in the same vein(I just couldn’t resist) as Mel Brooks’ Dracula: Dead and Loving It or the more accomplished Young Frankenstein. The trailer for the release of The Fearless Vampire Killers sets up the film as a parody of vampire movies by adding slapstick sound effects and there is a short special feature included on the disc entitled Vampires 101 which plays as a farce of how to protect oneself from and kill vampires in the form of a lecture given by a very serious and scholarly professor in a creepy castle. Having watched both of these before the actual film, I was almost expecting a film that was absurd, as well as very blatant and intentional about its efforts to parody classic vampire films.

    Parody and satire, over the last several years, have gotten a very bad rap because of such movies as Disaster Movie, Scary Movie, Epic Movie, and the countless drone of films that attempt to lampoon everything in sight that could be classified as “pop culture sacred cows.” These movies show very little production value and operate on the lowest levels of humor by finding actors and actresses that can look or sound like the person they are parodying enough to get a few cheap laughs. I bring these movies up not to set them up as straw men in an easy argument for the merits of Polanski’s film but rather to point out that parody is a very delicate thing often taken for cheap entertainment.

    What stands out immediately in The Fearless Vampire Killers is the sets and landscape of the film. The castle where a good deal of the action in the film takes place feels Medieval and haunted. The cobwebs, creaky doors, and other aspects that are so often used as cliches and convenient set pieces really feel like they belong there and add an ominous quality to the atmosphere as Prof. Abronsius and Alfred travel through the castle in search of answers.  The inn where Abronsius and Alfred first arrive at, as well as its inhabitants, seem strange and foreboding in their daily routines. You know from the start that things are not quite right when you see the rooms lined with garlic and crucifixes hanging on every wall. But everyone goes about their business and the innkeeper, Shagal, played with great attention to eccentricity and a great sense of comedic timing by Alfie Bass, is unwilling to disclose what it is all about. The inn and the castle are the only interior sets in the film and the rest relies on the beautiful snowy exteriors filmed by the great Douglas Slocombe(cinematographer on the first three Indiana Jones movies among many others).

    This attention to detail and moody atmosphere perfectly compliments the performances given by the actors throughout the film. The characters are played with a seriousness that makes the satire work even more effectively, even when they are unrestrained and bumbling as in the case of Polanski’s Alfred or unabashadly sinister as in the case of Ferdy Mayne’s Count von Krolock. There is the homoerotic son of Count von Krolock, played by lain Quarrier and the wonderful hunchback servant to Count von Krolock, Terry Downes who chases after Prof. Abronsius and Alfred in a coffin used as a sled and refuses to let the undead Shagal sleep in the coffin room with his masters, pushing the coffin outside to Shagal’s neurotic complaints. The comic turns these actors give in the film range from the genuinely creepy to the inept attempts of Abronsius and Alfred to stop the vampires once they have discovered them. The darker undertones of the film seem to play out through these characters as they try to reckon with Count von Krolock and his undead forces while unwittingly doing more harm then good in the end.

    There are many times when it is refreshing not to know what to expect from a movie, and this is certainly one of those times. What is unexpected about this film does not come from any scary surprises or plot twists that are supposed to shock us but through the landscape that Polanski creates and the attention to detail that he consistently uses throughout the film. He directs The Fearless Vampire Killers the same way that he would have with any of his more serious films and this gives the movie a charm that draws you in and engages you all the way through. Polanski demonstrates a sense of freedom in directing with a deft touch that emphasizes the satirical aspects of the movie while exploring the possibilities of the story material and this makes it more than just an odd curiosity in Roman Polanski’s long film career.

    Up Next The October Horror Movie Series gets a tasty but deadly treat with Larry Cohen’s The Stuff.

    Charles Jacob

    vanheck123@hotmail.com, please feel free to contact me with any comments, questions or general thoughts that you would like to share.