Rupert Pupkin Speaks: January 2015 ""

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Sarah Jane

Sarah Jane has seen over 4,100 films. She is partial to exploitation genre. She originally hails from Southern California but it currently stuck somewhere in the South West. She once studied to be a script supervisor. She generally uses a lot of curse words in her writing. Her ramblings can be found at

Sorcerer (1977; Directed by William Friedkin)
​I watched this amazing film back in April. I knew nothing about it going in. Briefly, four men, on the run for various crimes, end up hiding in a remote town in South American country. An oil company runs the town and when a fire happens at the refinery the only way to extinguish the fire is with explosive. The criminals are offered loads of cash to transport said explosives through the jungle back to the refinery. The journey of explosives is one of the most harrowing experiences I’ve had watching a film.
​By the time the movie ended I felt like I was punched in the gut. What an experience. It is rare for a film to make me feel something physically but this one managed to do it. Sorcerer is one of the films (along with Deep End and Fade to Black) that I feel is deserve a bigger audience.

Fade to Black (1980; Directed by Vernon Zimmerman)
A May discovery for the ages. Where the hell has this movie been all my life? Cinemonster @ Letterboxd turned me on to this one and thank goodness for it.
Dennis Christopher is one of a kind. I think you either appreciate him or you don't. There is no in between. In this film, he is an obsessed movie fan. In fact, I think obsessed is a little light. He is absorbed by cinema. Christopher is a bit of an odd duck. I've seen him in films like Breaking Away, California Dreaming, and Django Unchained. Again, I think you either get him or you don't. In this film, he is literally out of his mind. He dresses like Dracula. He thinks he is Cody Jarrett. He seems to have the best job on the planet, working in a film house. A young Mickey Rourke is one of his co-workers who gives Christopher shit. ​​​​I love the look and the locations of this film. I grew up in Southern California during this time period and everything looks fantastic. It made me want to flash back to this time period. I thought the interweaving of old films and the modern story was done well. I especially thought the use of Christopher Lee's Dracula was a nice touch. Whether that was because of the producers not being able to get the rights to the Universal film or whether it was a genius move, I am not sure, and don't really care. The print I saw was pretty pristine.

Killing American Style (1991; Directed by Amir Shervan)
I discovered this little gem back in July. This was my first (and not my last, thank you Samurai Cop!) Amir Shervan movie experience and what an experience it was. Shervan is an auteur in the sense that he was responsible for writing, producing, and directing this crazy piece of work but not in any PTA sense, just to clarify.
The film stars Harold Diamond (of kickboxing and AndySidaris films fame), Robert Z'Dar (of Amir Shervan movies and having the largest face ever fame), and Jim Brown (yes, THAT Jim Brown fame). I won’t bored you with the plot details. All you need to know is Z'Dar=bad guy, Diamond=good guy, Brown=cop. Well, that and this is bad filmmaking at its finest.
I love watching movies like this. Yes, they are really horrible but, like this one, they are mostly fun to watch. This one includes bad continuity, weird locations, and some nice kickboxing action from Diamond. I am all about a 'flurry'. If I see more than 5 fast hits/kicks in a row, I'm all in. Oh, Jim Kelly, how I miss you so...

Black Dynamite (2009; Directed by Scott Sanders)
Black Dynamite: Your knowledge of scientific biological transmogrification is only outmatched by your zest for kung-futreachery!
Here is another film I was introduced to in July. You should know I love Blaxploitation films. My (now) husband turned me on to the genre just after we met 10 years ago. So my love for them knows no bounds. I was afraid going into this one that I wasn’t going to like it. Thankfully, I was really surprised. I thought this film was terrific. I really enjoyed it. I felt it was an awesome and loving tribute to the genre.
Nothing gave me more joy when the pimp council scene started and I said to my husband "THAT is from Willie Dynamite!" There were so many amazing scenes and lines of dialogue in the film. Oh, and, Black Dynamite's black leather trench coat was brilliant. I hope Michael Jai White kept that piece of wardrobe. Or maybe, he already owned it. Even better!

Deep End (1970; Directed by Jerzy Skolimowski)
More July goodness was had when I watched Deep End. Where has this movie been all my life? Thanks to Letterboxd, I saw this on someone's list (I apologize for not knowing who posted it, but thank you!) and knew I had to see it.
The film is about "Mike" (John Molder-Brown), astunningly beautiful 15 year old who just left school. He gets a job at a public bathhouse (a bathhouse in the tradition sense of the word). There he meets "Susan" (Jane Asher); a slightly older but ever so hot red-head who he becomes obsessed with. Their relationship culminates in such a way that is both tragic and gorgeous. Clearly, there are some dubbing issues here (most of the crew and actors were German) but after a while I didn’t notice it. I was too busy being stunned by the beauty of what was happening on screen. If you haven’t already seen this, please seek it out.

Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (1960; Directed by Cyril Frankel)
This film from Hammer was a late November discovery. The story is about an English family who immigrates to Canada. The father has been offered a position as a school principal. The town is run by a rich and powerful family. This family has a secret; their patriarch is a known pedophile. The principal’s daughter and her friend are molested by the patriarch (along with countless others over the years). No one in the town has ever dared to have the old man prosecuted. That is, until the principal does.
​This black and white mystery/thriller is taught with suspense all the way through. I believe this might have been one of the first studio films that not only mentions, but openly discusses, the nastiness that is child molestation. This little film is well worth seeking out. The acting and direction are quite fine. Hammer made quite a few of this types of dramas. There was nary a monster to be found, well, at least not the kind that wears a black cape.


A HOLE IN THE HEAD (1959; Frank Capra)
This is a pretty charming film I must say and one I had heard of but never seen before this Blu-ray. Sinatra as an actor is something I enjoy in general. He is really quite good, especially when you look at films like SOME CAME RUNNING or SUDDENLY. He can play the more serious roles as well as the lighter stuff like comedies (4 FOR TEXAS comes to mind) and musicals (if you haven't seen him in ON THE TOWN, you really should). I don't think he worked a lot with Capra though and that's too bad as they seem well suited for each other. This movie in particular has more melancholy underpinnings than a lot of Capra's other work. There's still a lot of humor and charm to it, not surprisingly. I mean it's Frank Sinatra and a cute little red-headed kid, so it's gonna be cute. They even sing "High Hopes" together at one point in the movie which is kind of adorable. But more than just an affable piece of fluff, this film has some very emotional moments and some good very solid scenes which are just two people talking. One of my favorites is just a scene with Sinatra and Eleanor Parker talking in her very cozy kitchen. Sinatra is obviously a charismatic fella and that certainly comes through here, but in roles like this and SONE CAME RUNNING he pulls out this certain pathos and sadness that really speaks to a guy trying to examine his life and see that he's less than perfect. 
The gist of the story is that Sinatra's character runs a hotel in Miami and it's a bit of a fleatrap. Not only that, but he's about to be evicted for being months behind on his payments. Enter his brother (played in a somewhat DOUBLE INDEMNITY kinda way by Edward G. Robinson). The brother has made a more successful entrepreneur of himself and When he refuses to loan Sinatra the money he be needs, he's then guilted into coming out to help by his wife (played by the wonderful Thelma Ritter). From their, Sinatra's character ends up doing a good deal of soul searching about the fact that he might be a bum and a poor example for his kid. It's touching stuff and I liked it.
And personally, I'd stay at any hotel that had Dub Taylor working the front desk. 

MOS footage of director Capra and his assistant prepping for A HOLE IN THE HEAD in Miami, 1958:

A western written by Steve Fisher, directed by Allan Dwan and starting AUDREY Totter?! How had I not seen this already? I'm kicking myself now for not running down more Allan Dwan films after hearing Scorsese praise him years ago in his PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICAN CINEMA
Audrey Totter is as evil here as she ever was and in the best possible way. She has a scene in this movie where she sings a song to a crowded saloon of low life's and it's one of the cruelest things I've seen. Throughout the movie she's catty and sexy and hot tempered as all hell. I can't believe that I wasn't really aware of Totter until last year (when I saw her in the dynamite noir TENSION for the first time). The big lady "discovery" for me in this movie though is Joan Leslie. She's a gal I realize they I've come across in other movies prior to this one (HIGH SIERRA, YANKEE DOODLE DANDY), but she never stood out to me as much as she does here. Lovely and determined, she carries the movie pretty well. She reminds me slightly of Colleen Camp in her prime, but a better actress (no offense to miss Camp). Between she and Totter this movie has quite a pair of powerful women to draw to. There's almost a Joan Crawford/Mercedes McCambridge JOHNNY GUITAR vibe to the film in parts. Brian Donlevy brings his standard grumpy charm to his part as one of the heavies and it's a quite sharply written little flick overall. I was totally caught by surprise in terms of how much I enjoyed it. Chalk this up as a movie that will be among my favorite discoveries of 2015. Highly recommended.

THE WEAPON (1956; Val Guest)
Before I even watched this film after just reading the description, I began to think of another movie I love called LITTLE FUGITIVE. It came out in 1953, and was obviously made on a much lower budget than THE WEAPON, but there are some similarities. Both movies involve a young boy sort of running away and being off on his own. One difference that I noticed is that LITTLE FUGITIVE chooses to show most of the story from the little boy's perspective, whilst THE WEAPON is more of a procedural with lots of other characters on the lookout for the boy. It's of course understandable that THE WEAPON would approach its storytelling that based on the film's inciting incident (a young boy accidentally shoots another kid with an old military handgun they've found in a bombed out building). Since there's a murder involved, the police and the military end up becoming entangled. This has to do with the gun having been used in another shooting ten years prior. So there's more suspense at play here as well as more emotion due to the boy's mother (played by Lizabeth Scott) being frantically on the hunt for him too.
There's also a bit of a twist to this one so it functions as more of a straight ahead thriller. Much less observational than LITTLE FUGITIVE and with a lot more conventional suspense. That's not a bad thing mind you, as this movie ramps up pretty good by the last 10-15 minutes or so. Well handled by director Val Guest and quite underseen.

PORK CHOP HILL (1959; Lewis Milestone)
Though obviously not nearly as graphic,this film must have been on me that Steven Spielberg looked at when thinking about the Normandy sequence in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. The attack on Pork Chop Hill in this movie would seem a very possible point of inspiration. I was reminded a tiny bit of THE THIN RED LINE as well. It's a pretty gritty, unglamorous depiction of war, especially for a movie released in 1959. There's a sense of the chaos of battle that comes through in almost every scene. More than anything though, the thing that stands out about this film is the cast. It is truly ridiculous how it's littered with character actor after character actor, most of them very young. You'll find yourself watching a scene and saying, "Is that Harry Dean Stanton? Is that Robert Blake? Where'd Martin Landau come from?" It's a terrific parade of talent to behold. It's also another of those "futility of war" kind of war movies, but the presence of Gregory Peck gives it something slightly different. His stoic but sympathetic nature makes him a great soldier and a solid commanding officer-type. He's got this subtle way of playing emotion abd making it come through in a gesture or a facial expression or a movement. I used to think that he and Gary Cooper were just stiff actors, but I've seen the error of my ways. Both are legendary with good reason.
Other members of this all-star game of an ensemble include Rip Torn, Harry Guardino, George Peppard, Woody Strode, Bert Remsen and Gavin MacLeod. It's truly uncanny how many great folks are in this flick.

MEN IN WAR (1957; Anthony Mann)
A rare(r) war film directed by the great Anthony Mann, a director obviously more well known for his westerns (and some Noirs). This movie makes a nice double bill with PORK CHOP HILL, but I can't decide which one should be viewed first. I've heard it said that Tarantino is a big fan of Aldo Ray who is one of the headliners in this flick. Ray is and was an underrated talent and he plays a great antagonizing force for Robert Ryan here. Ryan is playing the lieutenant role here, much like Gregory Peck does in POEK CHOP HILL. Robert Ryan and Gregory Peck are two very different dudes so it's neat to see the juxtaposition of two movies that offer parallel perspectives of them in some ways. While this film also gives a take on that futilities of war business, it also has some other elements. Because it doesn't dive into a big battle scene right away, the movie allows us to get a sense of the loneliness and isolation of war as well as the pure fatigue and exhaustion of it all. These men have been up for days and are at the outer edge of their effectiveness as soldiers. Bob Ryan plays that kind of pure fatigue pretty well. The first time we see him in the movie he's got a cigarette dangling from his mouth and is lost in something of a haze. He looks momentarily like a zombified man. "Battle worn" would be a good way to describe him. What's neat is that Ryan could bring that feeling of being battle worn just inside of everyday life. He can be driven though too and his character does a noble job of leading his company on a deadly trek to hill 465. MEN IN WAR has this sense of dread that creeps in at the edges in the form of paranoia about where the enemy might be and how they might ambush this group. Elmer Bernstein's score evokes that dread and paranoia in just the perfect way. He's no where near "The STRIPES March" here. This is some gloomy, moody stuff and he brings a lot to the picture with his music. It's almost as though Anthony Mann wanted to coat the film with a healthy dose of noir fatalism. Having Bob Ryan always helps make your movie feel more noirish too. Like PORK CHOP HILL, this film also has a stellar cast. I mentioned Also Ray, but beyond him we also have Vic Morrow, L.Q. Jones, and even James Edwards (who is also featured in PORK CHOP HILL by the way). James Edwards is a particularly interesting actor in that I believe he was one of only a few African American actors to show up in roles like this in bigger movies pre-Sidney Poitier. I'll always remember him as the parking lot attendant that makes the mistake of getting too chatty with Timothy Carey in Kubrick's film THE KILLING. He's a neat actor with a strong voice and a specific manner. He rounds out this rag tag group of soldiers quite nicely.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Jared Rivet

Jared Rivet is a screenwriter who has spent 20 years in Hollywood developing projects with people like Tobe Hooper, Daniel Farrands, Marcus Nispel, Steven C. Miller, Victor Garcia, Darren Lynn Bousman, Scott Glosserman and Scott Kosar. While still unproduced, he’s always got something on the burner. Some of his current projects include BLOOD (a horror screenplay written with executive producers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan), KILLERS OF THE DEAD (an original horror screenplay to be directed by Marcus Nispel), and SACRILEGE (another original horror script for producer George Zakk). He spent two years working with master of horror Tobe Hooper on a remake of WHITE ZOMBIE that sadly never came to be and some folks might recognize him as “Clifford Blair,” the obnoxious true crime author in CRYSTAL LAKE MASSACRES REVISITED, the mockumentary feature on the DVD and Blu-ray special editions of FRIDAY THE 13TH PARTS 4 through 6. He recently played the role of a familiar director in the OVER HALLOWEEN episode of the online audio anthology series, “Earbud Theater” for which he has also written anupcoming episode, THE CREAKY STAIRS (coming soon).Jared’s horror trivia team (Zombie Redneck Torture Family) has won the monthly Dead Right Horror Trivia Night a whopping 15 times since its debut at the Jumpcut Café in January of 2013.

PRISON (1988, dir. Renny Harlin)
Here is a film discovery that succeeds at feeding two of my ongoing movie obsessions: 1.) Shout! Factory’s line ofcatalog horror movie releases on Blu-ray (their “Scream Factory” line), and 2.) the 80’s/90’s output of Charlie Band’s Empire Pictures and Full Moon Entertainment(GHOULIES, TRANCERS, RE-ANIMATOR, PUPPET MASTER, SUBSPECIES).

PRISON has long been considered something of a “lost” film. Shot in 1987, given a miniscule theatrical release in 1988, and then almost immediately tied up in a legal quagmire when Band was forced to sell Empire Pictures back to the bank in order to avoid imminent bankruptcy. The film was eventually released on VHS (once) by New World Pictures when they briefly acquired Empire’s film library before they themselves went out of business and the film was virtually lost to obscurity for 25 years. Needless to say, Shout! Factory’s 2014 Blu-ray release was quite the revelation.

The U.S. directing debut of Renny Harlin, PRISON was a project hatched by producer Irwin Yablans (the man responsible for initiating the original HALLOWEEN) and screenwriter C. Courtney Joyner (DOCTOR MORDRID, PUPPET MASTER III) and, lo and behold, it turned out to be the definitive “haunted prison” movie.

A then-unknown Viggo Mortensen stars as short-term convict Burke, the stoic car thief with a heart of gold and strong moral compass who takes on Lane Smith’s hard-ass warden Sharpe as they weave their way through a colorful collection of likeable inmates (including the likes of Tom Everett, Tiny Lister, Larry Flash Jenkins and Lincoln Kilpatrick) transplanted en masse to an outdated Wyoming penitentiary which is in the process of being reopened dueto budget cuts.

Little do these hardened men know that intimidating cellmates, sadistic guards, disciplinary lockdowns, solitary confinement, manly confrontations in the yard, and the occasional riot in D-block are the least of their worries as the pissed-off ghost of a wrongly executed man starts wreaking havoc, in a variety of imaginative, gore-drenched,POLTERGEIST/NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET-inspired ways. (In fact, it’s pretty easy to see why New Line quickly hired Harlin to direct NIGHTMARE 4 later that same year after seeing the steady stream of special effects-laden supernatural scare set pieces accomplished in PRISON on such a limited budget.)

It’s not without its flaws. There are a couple of odd choices at the script level (especially an ambiguous question markleft dangling regarding the third act reveal of the identity of the evil spirit haunting the prison) but the authenticity of the prison setting, the great characters and “anything can happen” vibe of the supernatural kill sequences really beat out the shortcomings in my opinion. And when a pre-Jason Voorhees Kane Hodder literally popped up as the physical embodiment of the vengeful, lightning bolt summoningphantasm in the film’s finale (sporting a first-rate John Buechler make-up design straight out of an EC Comic), I found myself wondering where this movie had been all my life.

SCARS OF DRACULA (1970, dir. Roy Ward Baker)
A couple of years ago, I decided I was going to get a hold of all of Hammer’s Dracula films on DVD and watch them in order. My efforts were thwarted when I discovered that the sixth film in the series, SCARS OF DRACULA, was out of print. I got as far in my viewing as film #5 (TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA) and wound up adrift for a good year and a half. I refused to skip SCARS and move onto the next film in the series (specifically DRACULA A.D. 1972), even though there’s admittedly not a whole lot of continuity being carried over from film to film. (In fact, DRACULA A.D. 1972 opens as many of the Hammer sequels do, recapping the climactic scene from the previous adventure, only in DRACULA A.D. 1972’s case, it’s not a climactic scene from any of the earlier films, it’s an entirely made up climax from an unseen Dracula story, thus rendering the fate of Dracula from SCARS moot as far as any ongoing continuity is concerned.)

At some point in 2014, I hadn’t realized that Lionsgate had put the title back into print and my wife was nice enough to get it for me as a birthday present. My Draculathon could finally continue.

And SCARS OF DRACULA wound up being worth the wait. Rubber bats on strings vomiting bright red blood, the pub full of superstitious villagers who know what’s really going on but refuse to tell outsiders, James Bernard’s usual top notch score, beautiful women in period costumes (and sometimes less, apparently this is also the first film in the series to include actual nudity), and of course, Christopher Lee, donning the cape and fangs for a fifth time.

Lee’s Dracula has more screen time and dialogue than usual, he even has a couple of scenes that harken back to some of the “traditional Dracula” moments one might expect from an adaptation of Stoker’s novel (there’s a scene where Dracula effortlessly scurries up the outer wall of his castle, which comes straight out of the original book, and Lee’s suave prince of darkness actually greets more than one unexpected houseguest at Castle Dracula with ominous politeness and hospitality). Dracula’s cordial, conversational scenes are in and of themselves fascinating when you take into account how vicious, even animal-like the character had become over the course of the Hammer films (in DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS for example, the character doesn’t even have a single line of dialogue, instead he snarls and growls at his victims with monstrous rage).

But don’t think for one minute that things are all teatime and English manors: SCARS is actually a surprisingly violent and gruesome entry in the series. For all of his cordial meet-and-greets, Dracula’s brutality towards his victims is truly unparalleled here. At one point he viciously and repeatedly stabs one of his vampire brides to death with a dagger. He sadistically tortures his not-so-loyalmanservant Klove with a white-hot sword (in another bit of unexplained continuity mysteriousness, Klove is not played by the same actor from DRACULA: PRINCE OF DARKNESS, this time he’s played by Patrick Troughton who you will remember as the priest who gets impaled by the weather vain in the original THE OMEN). And I haven’t even mentioned the extended prologue which features the horrible discovery of every woman in the village dead in the local church, the walls stained with blood, an off-screen massacre committed single handedly by Dracula as retribution against the village men who earlier organized themselves into a lynch mob intent on burning down Dracula’s castle.

I know that it might sound like I’m bashing the movie but I so love the tropes of these films, the bad day-for-night photography, the obvious matte paintings and backdrops, the fog shrouded sets, the bats bouncing around on strings, the heightened seriousness of the actor’s performances, the inevitably convoluted staging and execution of Dracula’s (temporary) destruction in the finale…these are a few of my favorite things. And SCARS OF DRACULA delivers them all in blood-soaked spades.

DEADLY EYES (aka NIGHT EYES, aka THE RATS,1982, dir. Robert Clouse)
Dogs in rat costumes. It’s one of those things you can’t unsee once you know that’s how they did it. But honestly, there’s something unnerving about the overgrown, steroid-enhanced killer rats in DEADLY EYES and I think a lot of it has to do with seeing them scamper around en masse.

Mind you, this Toronto-lensed “nature run amok” movie can’t really be lifted any higher than “guilty pleasure”status, but I also wouldn’t slam the movie by branding itwith the “so-bad-it’s-good” label. It’s just a fun monster movie that delivers the nasty goods. No apologies. No excuses. It’s got some surprising kills and more than its share of genuine shocks. ENTER THE DRAGON director Robert Clouse stages every attack scene to maximum effect. Babies aren’t safe. The elderly aren’t safe. Scatman Crothers* isn’t safe.

A no-nonsense Toronto health inspector (Sara Botsford) orders the destruction of a large shipment of corn after discovering that the grain is not only loaded with steroids but also infested with rats. The vicious, super rats manage to escape the incineration of the corn and flee into the sewers where they start attacking the unsuspecting citizens of Toronto, including students at the local high school, where gym teacher/basketball coach Paul Harris (Sam Groom) fights off the advances of beautiful, blonde cheerleader Trudy (Lisa Langlois), whose shameless, incorrigible flirtations begin to take on the qualities of a teen sex comedy. As the increasingly aggressive rat attacks bring these two plotlines together, the health inspector and the gym teacher eventually team up (and hook up) to try and stop the rats and save the city.

Remember the movie theater scene from THE BLOB? There is a movie theater scene in DEADLY EYES thatkicks the one in THE BLOB’s ass.

The show-stopping climax takes place at the gala opening of a new subway station, hosted by the Mayor and attendedby the Toronto elite. Oh yes, and the super rats. Theinevitable collision of unsuspecting, white-bread socialites and bloodthirsty, rat-suit wearing dachshunds lived up to (and surpassed) every expectation I could have had for this scrappy little monster movie, which stretches every penny of its $1.5 million budget.

I’m afraid I haven’t read James Herbert’s source novel (“The Rats,” a title which was used for the film in its U.K. release), so I don’t know whether or not to credit Herbert or screenwriters Lonon Smith and Charles Eglee for the relatively solid structure of DEADLY EYES. There are a lot of characters and situations being juggled here, with set pieces both large and small. The filmmakers do a good job with the pacing of these events while ratcheting up the not-so-gradual escalation of the rat situation.

DEADLY EYES wants to be “RAT JAWS,” and while it doesn’t come close to achieving that goal, it has fun while it’s trying.

(*During the opening credit sequence, Scatman Crothers gets the best “Special Appearance By” credit placement in movie history.)

FINAL EXAM (1981, dir. Jimmy Huston)
I’m not ashamed to say that slasher movies are my movie comfort food. They are my fallback genre for those times when I just want to chill out and throw on a movie. So the fact that I had never seen FINAL EXAM until Scream Factory put it out on Blu-ray last year is a little inexcusable.

FINAL EXAM was released in 1981, at the height of the initial slasher movie craze. The usual hyperbole about ‘81 is that there was a new horror movie released in theaters every week, and most of those movies were slasher films. I don’t know if this is true, but it certainly seemed that way at the time.

Many a fly-by-night producer scraped together a couple of bucks to jump on the bandwagon and independently throw together a HALLOWEEN or FRIDAY THE 13TH rip-off in the hopes of finding distribution and replicating their blockbuster success stories. Once folks realized that you could transplant the slasher formula to any locale that might be a gathering place for young people, you picked a place, dreamt up some stock Hollywood stereotype characters, threw a knife-wielding maniac into the mix, lather, rinse, repeat, and voila: instant slasher.

FINAL EXAM maybe “just another one” of those, but I fell in love with it for a number of reasons. For the most part, it follows the formula to a T: a maniac with a knife begins stalking the students of Lanier College during the week of final exams and a brainy wallflower is the only one who manages to take notice until it’s too late. As a synopsis, that really does kind of cover it, but what it doesn’t mention is that the entire first two-thirds of the film plays out like a standard fraternity-prank-college-campus-sex-comedy. Other than the obligatory double homicide in the prologue (a couple making out in a parked car by the lake, no less), there isn’t another legitimate murder until fifty-five minutes into the movie (the movie is only 90 minutes long).

I say “legitimate” because FINAL EXAM is the only slasher movie I’ve ever seen that contains a “fake terrorist attack on campus” scene. Yes, the prank and petty-crime obsessed fraternity brothers actually stage a fake terrorist assault (complete with ski mask-wearing gunmen blasting away at students with M16s) in order to cause a distraction that allows one of their members to cheat on a test.

It’s a pretty amazing sequence and undeniably unique in the pantheon of slasher films. In a post 9/11 world, it’s a shocking jaw-dropper to behold. In the carefree world of ‘80’s campus slashers, the incident is basically chalked up to the classic “boys-will-be-boys” defense and shrugged off. I’ll just leave that where it is.

So we spend the first 50+ minutes watching these care free college goofballs and getting to know them as they get into shenanigans, complain about exams, discuss relationships,steal test answers, get into each other’s pants, endure hazing rituals, and deal with their professors, coaches and the local authorities. The killer appears from time to time, stalking about, spying on our oblivious coeds, and generally hanging around campus without suspicion.

How is he able to do this? Well you see the killer in FINAL EXAM is just a random dude. He doesn’t wear a mask and it’s not a “whodunit” slasher, nor is there some traumatic backstory revealed at a key point in the story (the one bit of tragic backstory that is given doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the killer at all). He’s just a stocky white guy in ajacket, jeans, and a shaggy 80’s haircut (parted in the middle, of course) who has suddenly and inexplicablydecided to start bumping off college students. For reasons unknown, the director chooses to occasionally obscure the face of this undisguised killer while showing it in others, to the point where things like stylized lighting, deliberate framing and even foreground tree branches are strategicallyused to keep his face hidden. His utter lack of mystery is one of the great mysteries of FINAL EXAM.

The characters he stalks are a watchable bunch. Final girl Courtney (Cecile Bagdadi) is a very down to Earth, believable bookworm who gets along with everyone (she somehow manages to be both mousier than Laurie Strode while simultaneously more popular in a way that I buy), but the real standouts here are the characters of Wildman and Radish.

On the surface, Wildman is just a stock, monosyllabic, beer-swilling, mouth-breathing, jock, bully, moron, football player. But there’s a little bit more going on in Ralph Brown’s hilariously dimwitted performance, not the least of which are all of the creepy shades of homoerotic menace he exhibits at the drop of a hat, a blatant quality that surfaces several times throughout the film that none of the othercharacters seem to notice or care about. Maybe he’s the life of the party, an unmitigated “wild man,” outwardly obsessed with football on the surface, but the movie leavesme wondering whether or not all of his belching, bullyingmonstrousness is simply a cry for help and he’s kidding himself about his heterosexuality. (Sadly, the movie never delves deep enough into Wildman’s inner life to find this out.)

And Radish…I could write a whole paper on Joel Rice’s uber nerd character, the nice guy who is doomed to finish last. First and foremost, his name is Radish. Second, he is both flamboyantly gay (unlike Wildman’s bizarre, closeted behavior) but seemingly crushing on final girl Courtney.Third, he’s gleefully obsessed with horror movies, famous real-life mass murderers and the psychology of psychopaths. Radish is really the first to realize there’s a killer on campus, and his repeated, one-sided, morbid discussions about how “senseless murders are a modern phenomena” or how Charles Whitman is one of his favorite mass murderers actually serve to unintentionally prepare Courtney for the reality of having to fight for her life against an unstoppable killer who seems to have no motive.

Radish is undeniably a template for Randy Meeks, Jamie Kennedy’s film geek character from Wes Craven’s SCREAM and SCREAM 2, two movies which owe more than a little bit to FINAL EXAM. (Especially SCREAM 2.)

I said that the first 50+ minutes are devoid of kills and tha twas true, but what this means is that the final 35 minutes of the movie are a virtual non-stop parade of back-to-backstalk-and-kill scenes, some more inspired than others. But the ones that hit, really hit, the massacre is worth the wait.What this killer lacks in mystery and finesse, he makes up for in raw brutality.

To boil it down: if you love 80’s slasher films and can appreciate all of their low budget, amateur-hour shortcomings for what they are (and maybe like to psycho-analyze one-dimensional slasher fodder characters the way that I do), you really should check out FINAL EXAM, it might just turn out to be one of your favorites. It’s now one of mine.

THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS (1985, dir. Freddie Francis)
“I don’t need any friends, I prefer enemies. They’re better company and their feelings towards you are always genuine.” – Dr. Thomas Rock (Timothy Dalton)

Here is another forgotten gem resurrected on Blu-ray in 2014 by the good folks at Scream Factory. First and foremost, I’ll hype up the credits, they were more than enough to get me excited about giving the film a look. The screenplay was originally written decades earlier by Dylan Thomas (yes, the “Do not go gentle into that goodnight” poet) and then rewritten in the 80’s for production by Ronald Harwood (THE PIANIST, THE DIVING BELL AND THE BUTTERFLY). The film was produced by (Mel) Brooksfilms. The director was Freddie Francis (director of many thrillers and horror movies, including Hammer’s EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE and Amicus’ THE SKULL, DR. TERROR’S HOUSE OF HORRORS and TALES FROM THE CRYPT, and also the celebrated cinematographer of films like Jack Clayton’s THE INNOCENTS, David Lynch’s THE ELEPHANT MAN, DUNE, and THE STRAIGHT STORY, and Martin Scorsese’s CAPE FEAR).
And the cast? Timothy Dalton, Jonathan Pryce, Stephen Rea, Julian Sands, Twiggy, Patrick Stewart and DOWNTON ABBEY’s Phyllis Logan.

The film is a fictionalized adaptation of the notorious Burke and Hare case, the ten-month long series of murders-for-profit in Scotland in 1828. Burke and Hare were working-class criminals who graduated from grave robbing to murder in order to sell fresh corpses to Dr. Robert Knoxfor his anatomy classes.

The macabre crimes inspired countless stories (including both “The Body Snatcher” and “The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”), plays, feature films and television adaptations (including Robert Wise’s THE BODY SNATCHER starring Boris Karloff for Val Lewton in 1945, and John Landis’ recent BURKE AND HARE (2010), starring Simon Pegg and Andy Serkis).

In the film, Timothy Dalton plays Dr. Thomas Rock, an anatomist who regularly gives passionate lectures to medical students, though he suffers from a considerable lack of cadavers with which to dissect, a result of the religiously motivated lawmakers of the time. Rock can only get the corpses of condemned criminals once they’ve been executed. Anyone else is off limits.

Enter Fallon and Broom (Pryce and Rea), two unscrupulous criminals who love liquor, gambling and whores…and little else. The attached-at-the-hip drinking buddies soondiscover that they can make quick cash discreetly providing freshly (and illegally) dug up corpses to Dr. Rock, who always turns a blind eye and then happily presents the bodies to his classes for educational dissection and study.

Fallon and Broom graduate from grave robbers to murderers, as they realize that Dr. Rock’s payouts increase substantially depending on the freshness of the bodies they provide.

Dalton plays Dr. Rock as a progressive, boundary-pushing obsessive, willing to do anything to attain more knowledge,never shirking from the belief in his righteousness. He seems to care more for the struggling lower class than the gossip-mongering socialites in his upper crust world.

The crisp, clean, well-mannered society of Dr. Rock is juxtaposed by the squalid conditions of the starving and poor in Fallon and Broom’s daily lives. Where desperation,sickness, prostitution, and crime are the order of the day.

Fallon and Broom’s new chosen profession escalates with terrible inevitability. While the initial switch from grave robbing to murder is initially an unsteady one, the two men eventually become equally complicit in their horrific crimes, though Pryce’s Fallon finally becomes the more vicious of the two, clearly starting to savor and enjoy the murderous acts themselves. (Their drawn-out murder of a drunk, old lady late in the film is a particularly disturbing highlight.)

Everyone in the cast delivers first-rate work, the oddity being that THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS was made before any of them had really broken out. The biggest name at the time was probably Twiggy, which seems unfathomable when you rattle off some of the other names in the cast.

The film isn’t flashy or especially gruesome, it’s just a well-made, period-drama-thriller with an exceptional cast and first-rate personnel all working at the top of their game. (John Morris’ excellent score and Robert Laing’s vivid production design should be given special mention.)

Unceremoniously dumped into a cursory, limited theatrical release by 20th Century Fox in 1985, THE DOCTOR AND THE DEVILS has been available on VHS and DVD previously, but its unassuming nature and lack of exposurehas seemed to keep it off the radar for the last 30 years. I feel like we film fans, especially those with a taste for the macabre, are extremely lucky that Shout! has dusted it off and given it the Scream Factory treatment.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Justine Johnson

Justine Johnson is an obsessive former video-store employee and current midnight movie curator at The Black Box in Providence, Rhode Island. You can reach her via the internet on Twitter @moviessexa.
Check out her previous lists - Underrated Action/Adventure, Detective/Mysteries & Thrillers:
These are listed in no particular order. I honestly cannot believe I have lived my life thus far and never stumbled upon any of these before now.

Heartbeeps (1981) Directed by Allan Arkush
The fact that I lived my entire life without ever having seen this until recently is crazy. Everything about this makes me happy. A robot love story starring Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters.

Third Girl from the Left (1973) Directed by Peter Medak
I love Kim Novaks face. She is gloriously meloncholy and perfect in this one. Would be a wonderfully depressing double feature with Rachel, Rachel.
Terraces (1977) Directed by 
The melodrama set in an apartment complex in the 1970s that you never knew you needed in your life. 

Billie (1965) Directed by Don Weiss
An entire town is up in arms over a girl (GASP!) being allowed to run track. Oh and its a musical! Starring Patty Duke! I know it doesn't sound like anything special based on those facts alone but it is a gem.

A New Kind of Love (1963) Directed by Melville Shavelson
 For some reason this Paul Newman-Joanne Woodward collaboration had escaped me over the years. Joanne Woodward gets a makeover and Paul Newman mistakes her for a prostitute. Plus THELMA RITTER!

Varsity Blues (1999) Directed by Brian Robbins
Who knew that the director of Good Burger followed that up with the Showgirls of high school football films. Someone needs to release a special edition with some sort of whipped cream Ali Larter inspired drinking game with commemorative shot glasses.This film is seriously under-loved. Its Last Boy Scout insane. 

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Scott from Married with Clickers

Scott and his wife Kat run the Married With Clickers podcast. It's a great show and you should listen. They basically watch movies together and then talk about them on the show. They have themed months and whatnot and always seem to choose interesting films to watch. This is Scott's 5th (!) year doing a discoveries list - see his old ones: 
10. Drive a Crooked Road (1954)
A great little noir directed by Richard Quine, who became better known for light hearted comedies including Bell, Book and Candle and Paris When It Sizzles. Mickey Rooney plays a variation of his character from Quicksand(another top tier noir) who falls for a dame and is lured into a heist. Rooney is an underappreciated actor and he's a great fit for this kind of role. It is well written (Blake Edwards co-wrote with Quine), superbly paced and drips with early 50s SoCal atmosphere. Best of all, Kevin McCarthy is in top form as the smooth talking villain.

9. Nim's Island (2008)
Yes. Nim's Island. I watched this with my family and was floored by the mixture of suspense, humour and humanity in the script and was amazed by the talent they were able to assemble for the cast (Hello, Jodie Foster!). This is the kind of film that combines all of the elements you need to keep the entire family engaged. It's a shame that the earthbound family adventure film has become and endangered species. This was very, very charming and I'm very happy I pulled it off the video store shelf to check it out.

8. Mannequin 2: On the Move (1991)
My wife and I have taken the very controversial stance that this film stands heads and shoulders above the original in terms of romance, pacing and comedy. Who knew? I certainly did not, as I have no memory of this ever hitting theatres, video or TV. We only watched it by virtue of the fact that it came as a two-pack on DVD with Mannequin. Where the original pulled its punches and relied on weak slapstick, this movie goes for broke. While the result may be messy in parts, it is infinitely more entertaining. This was one of the most pleasant surprises of the year – just pure, goofy fun.

7. Ministry of Fear (1944)
Wait, did you say that there's a Fritz Lang film starring Ray Milland based on a Graham Greene book? Did you also say that Criterion put out a great looking, well-priced Blu Ray? I was thrilled to find this wrapped under the tree for Christmas 2013 and it was one of the first films I watched in 2014. I actually watched it twice this year and that does not happen very often any more. The film features some great visuals, a terrific turn by Milland, a nifty séance scene and a sinister appearance by Dan Duryea. I do not think it is generally considered to be among Lang's best works, but should be!

6. Opera (1987)
I am no Argento expert, but I have now seen four of his most revered films and this one stands above the rest. It looks beautiful, assisted greatly by using an operatic version of MacBeth as the backdrop. Argento is known for his kills, and they are elegantly choreographed and very original. The theme of voyeurism, whether voluntary or involuntary, flows through the film from and helps keep the viewer engaged.  Of course, it falls apart in the end with a clunky reveal but that's splitting hairs, if not heads.

5. Dance or Die (1987)
Las Vegas choreographer/recovering cokehead Jason may be the blandest action hero of all-time. Lucky for him, he's facing the blandest villains of all-time. This film (video?) is an absolute mess, combining inept camera work, lacklustre editing and wooden acting. What sets it apart and propels it to the top tier of 'So Bad It's Good' pyramid? One word: dancing. It's everywhere, it's amateurish and it's very, very 80s. This is a fun, fun ride and I recommend it to anyone looking for an undiscovered turd.

4. Nightmare Alley (1947)
A sweaty, drunken noir starring the great Tyrone Power.  I have always enjoyed noirs that step outside the city and/or dabble in the occult and the circus side show setting helps to emphasize the film's dark tones and cynicism. As a bonus, it is always a treat to see Mike Mazurski pop up in a film. A true noir classic.

3. Fair Game (1988)
For 80 minutes you get to watch a giant snake chase Sting's wife, Trudie Styler around an 80s apartment.  That's about it. At the same time, Gregg Henry is sitting in his car with his personal 'snake tracking' computer, sweating and cackling. It is a fun romp propelled by a Giorgio Moroder score and a lot of snake P.O.V. camerawork. Director Mario Orfini keeps the viewer engaged by working as much creativity into such a confined space as possible and obsessing over Styler's behind. It is by no means a great film, but it is a great viewing experience.

2. Mildred Pierce (1945)
2014 was the year of Mildred for me. I saw the Michael Curtiz film after watching the Todd Haynes miniseries and reading James M. Cain's book. You would think I would be sick of Mildred, Veda and pies by then, but I was not.  Curtiz and screenwriter Ranald MacDougall take a very different approach with this film, inserting a crime-driven framing sequence, but I think it works wonderfully and helps establish the atmosphere of the film. The supporting cast is all relatively strong, but Joan Crawford and Ann Blyth are in charge here and that is certainly to the viewer's benefit. To be perfectly honest, though, I could live without Butterfly McQueen being dropped into the story as she really gets on my nerves.

1. Naked Prey (1965)
This is a weird hybrid of National Geographic travelogue, Most Dangerous Game and 60s art film. I loved every second of it. Some people may find Cornel Wilde to be a bit stiff, but he's in so many of my favourite films (The Big ComboLeave Her to Heaven), that he must be doing something right. This is simply 95 minutes of adrenaline; shot in beautiful colour on location is Zimbabwe. The nasty, nasty violence in the first act adds kicks the film into gear and Wilde's direction and performance ensure that the foot never comes off the pedal.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Favorite Film Discoveries of 2014 - Marc Edward Heuck

Marc Edward Heuck runs the wonderful blog, The Projector Has Been Drinking which gets a high recommend from me. Marc's been with this series since it started in 2010, so please check out his other lists as he always brings the good stuff and his list are always greatly appreciated:

In a sense, 2014 was the year I expanded upon the template Brian established at this blog with the launch of my film series Cinema Tremens, which by its initial mandate was to screen films that are not as familiar to repertory play as most perennials, and in many occasions, had not been visible in decades. In my 9-month run, I pulled a lot of forgotten gems out of the vault to very appreciative audiences, and was even luckier to get some of the principals involved with those films to speak about them. Selfishly, I'd like to think that some of those titles ultimately popped up on the lists of Brian's other contributors because of my screenings, but I'm sure there are plenty of other determined film hunters who may have discovered them without my help. 

Please note that none of the choices I have made for my list come from my own series - as much as I had some great revelations from my gut programming choices, I feel like that's the equivalent of getting high on my own supply. There were plenty of better, braver programmers out in the L.A. repertory scene that I feel should be commended by having their picks acknowledged as my prime first-time viewings of the year. In ascending order:

I always put my trust in Phil Blankenship and his Heavy Midnites series; for years he has found the tender balance of familiar crowd-pleasers, zeitgeist-savvy revivals, and the why-the-hell-nots to fill out his midnight movies and lure his devoted fans off the living room sofa. So even though I found very little English-language scholarship on this Category III Hong Kong horror film, and a lot of IMDb reviews that seemed to contradict each other, I eagerly took the plunge. While novices would be put off by the mishmosh of a plot, which are pretty much there solely to allow for acrobatic fights, lots of blood, and heaping helpings of those creepy crawlies (and a zombie chicken!), I just sat there with a big grin on my face. Unlike most of his midnights, Phil printed up two sets of commemorative pins - one for people going into the movie, the other solely for the people who made it all the way to its very stomach-challenging conclusion. He also passed out barf bags. I did not need my free barf bag. But someone else did. Well planned! I have also determined that Tien-Lang Li (a/k/a Margaret Li) is my new retro-crush, and the ballsiest actress of the '80's nobody discusses. Frankly, much scarier and more entertaining that that other recent cringey-for-cringeys-sake series involving man/insect mayhem.

I freely admit there are lots of holes in my film knowledge, and the gap in my experience with Slavic films in general, let alone the Czech New Wave movement, would be large enough to swallow both a large multiplex popcorn and its refill. I think it was thus complete random impulse that motivated me to hit CineFamily to catch Jan Němec's absurdist satire during a retrospective on the director. And it was illuminating. A group of well-to-do picknickers are unexpectedly overwhelmed by well-dressed muscle, who herd them into submission while their slimy leader (looking disturbingly like a menacing Paul Lynde) proceeds to interrogate them; despite the lack of guns or logic, the people comply. When an older, more amiable gentleman breaks up this unpleasantry to invite them to his large outdoor dinner party, things seem to improve, until we see that it's one of those functions that strongly discourages leaving early. Part political rant, part absurdist farce, with elements of Kafka, Bunuel, and Beckett, it kept me rapt where other po-faced allegorical films previously lost me. I can't say this would be a relaxing night's entertainment, but if you're up for fare that will stimulate discussion, you will have much to chew on after this.

In this climate full of homeowners stuck with underwater mortgages and neighborhoods getting overpriced and gentrified by douchey hipsters, how can one *not* love a film where a few guys from the local dojo (because, y'know, every good neighborhood has one) kick, claw, and poison their way through every sleazy developer in their path? You would think it would be difficult to top the infamous trailer to this film, where the gravelly narrator introduces each villain, and makes sure that in addition to rattling off all their moneyed power and privilege, he ends by stressing they are each...a LANDLORD! But then, you actually watch this film and, despite its amateurish execution, it delivers all the vengeance and too-jacked-to-be-choreographed action it promised, or should I say, Death Promised! I can't believe some enterprising producer hasn't considered a remake set in Williamsburg NYC or Downtown L.A., with martial arts vigilantes taking down pricey coffee houses and vintage clothing boutiques. Score another for the Heavy Midnites playbook!

Nicolas Roeg's fractured narrative about the cold, creepy decline of a relationship had been on my list for many years, formented by my long love of Roeg's unconventional storytelling and tales of audiences (and its own studio) reacting with outrage at the events of its climax. Not quite as rage-driven as Zulawski's POSSESSION, but no less unsettling than that previous Film Discovery of 2012 occupant, this drama frankly does a much better job at presenting the darkest aspects of sexual attraction and deterioration, and the potential for unspeakable actions as a result, than the glib and unbearably misogynist GONE GIRL, right down to making you unable to see Art Garfunkel as merely that nice socially-conscious folksinger of the '60's ever again.

Oddly enough, this follow-up choice would be a rather bizarrely appropriate co-feature with BAD TIMING. The late filmmaker (and beloved Farmer's Market-lunching mensch) Paul Mazursky followed up his classic BOB AND CAROL AND TED AND ALICE with this complex rom-com in-name-only. George Segal has the difficult task of playing a philanderer who realizes the grave mistake of his adultery and wants desperately to get his wife back, having to be both sympathetic enough to get behind and yet callow and obtuse enough to show that he has and may not earn that option anytime soon. Susan Anspach has the even more difficult task of being the hard pragmatist who does not want to get wrapped back up in her ex's drama without making her seem like a cold unforgiving bitch. Mazursky understood the dips and rises in human behavior that make us capable of kind gestures and selfish outbursts, and applied them to this story of re-courtship that, while dated by some of the fads and fashions of the seventies, still has a salient point about how men see, or don't really see, women.

Decades ago, when I was still a fresh-faced teenager already full-bore into my cinematic obsession, a professor friend of my father told me a half-remembered film he saw in his own youth, of two strangers quickly befriending each other to go on a road trip, each learning some aspects about the other's life situation, but yet still never really getting to know each other. It sounded intriguing, but the gent could not remember a title or anyone of the cast. Cut to spring 2014, when Janus Films reissued this early Dino Risi comedy-drama with Vittorio Gassman and Jean-Louis Tritignant at the suggestion of Alexander Payne, who credited it as an influence on NEBRASKA, and I walked into a screening of it cold. As it unfolded, I kept thinking, this must be the movie my dad's friend was talking about, and I was also thinking, this is pretty damned great indeed! And let's have a few words about the stunning Catherine Spaak. Actually, let's have several of them at this awesome blog devoted to her movies! The next morning, I emailed the professor, and he was quite happy to relearn about this forgotten memory, and that it was back in circulation. The dramatic buddy film may not have quite begun with this outing, but it certainly set a solid template.

The most exciting, captivating, and memorable Film Discovery of 2014 for me may sound like some sort of punchline to the cynical cinephiles who continue to trade in tired ideas of "guilty pleasures" or "so-bad-it's-good" filmmaking. I am totally and completely serious when I say watching Craig Denny's long-forgotten and unseen vanity project gave me a rush of emotions on my first viewing that was unmatched, and remained consistent over repeat viewings. Yes, there are plenty of legitimately funny moments in this film where the nascent auteur shows the limits of his pacing, composing, and editing skills, questionable choices which can jar an audience that has come to accept certain conventions of coherency. As co-star and ersatz crisis manager Arthyr Chadbourne revealed at a CineFamily screening, Denny shot without a script, crafting each days' shoot to his horoscope readings, thus changing the story and the direction on several dimes. He had no idea this was not how to make a film. However, because he didn't know any of the rules, that meant he wasn't bound by any of them either, and there are in fact many moments of inspired editing and transition, ways of telling the story that I can't say I've seen in any other film, that were fresh and interesting. When I try to describe THE ASTROLOGER with people, I like to say that it straddles the line between making THE ROOM and making GOODFELLAS; had Denny decided to try again, and build upon the lessons previously learned with some more discipline and research, he may well have become a singular stylist in the manner of, say, Abel Ferrara or Duke Mitchell. At the very least, if more people get to see this film, I think you'll be seeing certain elements from it popping up in other directors' works in the future. A special salute should be sent out to Samuel B. Prime, Lars Nilsen, and others from American Genre Film Archive and Alamo Drafthouse for gambling on putting this in front of an audience again, and to the venues that have followed their lead in helping new audiences discover it. And whether Craig Denny is really no longer among the living, or living in unextraditable seclusion like some cinematic D.B. Cooper with his ill-gotten gains and wisdom, his folly demonstrates that every so often, we need a madman with a mad plan to remind us of the untapped possibilities of the movies.