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1. The Anniversary (1968) Roy Ward Baker directed this pitch-black Hammer comedy, based on a stage play by Bill MacIlwraith, which lambastes dysfunctional family traditions. Although her husband has been deceased for several years, a domineering mother insists that her three sons participate in an annual celebration. In the opening scenes, the family members brace for the inevitable storm, as they and their significant others are subjected to a litany of verbal abuse by their dear mother, played by the great Bette Davis. Davis appeared to enjoy every minute of screen time as the caustic, one-eyed matriarch, Mrs. Taggart, who might be Hammer’s most awful monster. The Anniversary is a grossly underappreciated gem in the production company’s illustrious crown, long overdue for re-evaluation by film fans and Hammer-philes alike.
2. The Face of Another (1966) This meditation on identity and deception from director Hiroshi Teshigahara and writer Kôbô Abe (based on his novel) explores the ramifications of the literal and figurative masks people wear. After suffering an accident that disfigured his face, businessman Okuyama (Tatsuya Nakadai) becomes cold and embittered, distancing himself from his wife (Machiko Kyô) and co-workers. He becomes the willing guinea pig for a psychiatrist’s (Mikijirô Hira) social experiment, setting up a separate identity with his artificial face. The Face of Another illustrates how much we are judged by our appearance. It also proves, to paraphrase the old adage, you can fool some people some of the time, but others will always see through our elaborate disguises. We may wear different masks, but they ultimately fail to conceal the person within.
3. Strings (2004) This Scandinavian/British production by director/co-writer Anders Rønnow Klarlund is a puppet movie like no other. Compared to the Gerry Anderson Supermarionation shows, the filmmakers are not attempting to create semi-realistic settings that mimic the human world, but take an approach in the opposite direction. Instead of concealing the strings, they become integral to the story, and are a literal and metaphorical element of the characters. The strings not only establish physical boundaries in the puppet world, but reinforce how each individual is bound to one another. With its themes of deceit, intolerance, hate and genocide, it’s definitely not kid stuff, but the film would make an excellent departure point for families to discuss these touchy subjects. Strings is a beautiful, mesmerizing and uniquely touching experience you’re unlikely to forget.
4. Bound by Flesh (2012) Leslie Zemeckis’ fascinating documentary tells the sad, bizarre story of conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (some may recall them from the Tod Browning classic, Freaks), who were sold into a form of legalized slavery. Born at the turn of the 20th century in England, their circuitous path led them to the United States, where they were showcased like royalty, but failed to reap the benefits of their success. Although the twins eventually won their emancipation from their adoptive parents, their victory was short-lived, followed by a lifetime of exploitive managers and career missteps. It’s essential viewing for anyone interested in the history of sideshows or stories about the indomitable nature of the human spirit under adversity.
5. Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (aka: Never Take Candy from a Stranger) (1960) It’s unlikely that a film such as this would ever receive a green light today, due to its frank, uncompromising treatment of a subject that many filmmakers would consider taboo. The film reveals one town’s conspiracy of silence, motivated by fear of retaliation, as its favorite son, Clarence Olderberry (Felix Aylmer), is accused of pedophilia. Director Cyril Frankel (working from a screenplay by John Hunter, based on Roger Garis’ play) chronicles one father’s (Patrick Allen) quest for justice as he’s hampered by the town’s cycle of rationalization and denial. Never Take Sweets from a Stranger takes a sobering view of abusers and the culture that protects them. It’s an emotionally draining viewing experience you won’t likely forget. A far cry from the escapist fare normally associated with Hammer productions, this film remains as topical now as it was 55 years ago.
6. X The Unknown (1956) Following the success of the first Quatermass film, Hammer attempted to make lightning strike twice, and succeeded with this nifty little sci-fi thriller, set in Scotland. Jimmy Sangster’s first screenplay, about unstoppable primordial ooze that emerges from the depths of the earth, is a winner. The indestructible organism devours radioactive material and kills anything in its path. X-The Unknown features some great performances, including Dean Jagger as an American nuclear scientist. This atomic age tale is refreshing for its attitude toward science and the role of researchers. Science doesn’t create the monster, but provides a means of understanding what’s happening, as well as a possible solution to the rampaging force. Suspenseful and thought-provoking, X The Unknown helped raise the bar for Hammer films, where good storytelling and solid acting trumped any budgetary deficiencies.
7. Dodes'ka-den (1970) Akira Kurosawa’s first color film works on a smaller scale than his samurai epics, depicting characters that the bulk of society would rather ignore. The film deftly balances the stories of several residents in a slum near Tokyo. Kurosawa doesn’t depict the slum’s residents as exceptionally virtuous, full of quiet nobility, but a flawed community of desperate people, eking out a meager existence the best they can. It’s a vantage point refreshingly free of frothy sentiment or idealism. Dodes'ka-den reflects Kurosawa’s painter’s eye for composition and color, affirming that greatness can not only be found in the broad strokes, but the fine details.
8. White Dog (1982) Co-writer/director Samuel Fuller’s tale of pets and prejudice (co-written by Curtis Hanson and based on a novel by Romain Gary) was deemed too volatile by Paramount when it was completed, and was promptly buried before it saw a release. It eventually made it to theaters nine years later in limited release, but remains seldom seen. When a young actress (Kristy McNichol) accidentally runs into a dog with her car, she takes him home and nurses him back to health. She soon learns there’s more to the dog’s history when she discovers he’s been trained to attack black people. In a last-resort effort, she enlists the aid of animal trainer Keys (Paul Winfield), who makes it his personal mission to cut out the ingrained behavior like a cancer. The story is simply told, filled with some implausible situations, yet, the core ethical/moral dilemma shines through, like a modern-day fable. The story follows an inevitable trajectory, leading to a sobering ending.