The Last Few Movies I Saw: Episode IV – A Jew Pope

Yeah. That title has nothing to do with anything.

Once again I list off the last few movies I saw. Once again they are ordered by what what I thought of them. Kindly interact if you feel I have misordered them.

Utter Rubbish:

Whatever happened to the man who gave us “Austin Powers”?

Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat (2003). It’s an unwatchable godawful tragedy. Thank God Seuss died before he could see this. It makes the Jim Carrey Grinch look like Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Meh and/or Misguided:

What do you mean we’re ‘laying it on pretty thick’?

The year was 1977. Immortal classics such as Star Wars and Annie Hall were in theaters. Also Ralph Bakshi made Wizards (1977). I confess I am far from a Bakshi fan although I do think he was talented and did make a few pretty solid movies (American PopThe Lord of the Rings, and Coonskin are pretty good), but all in all Bakshi’s roughness and idiosyncrasy do not always mesh for me. I know Wizards has something of a cult following, but for me this rather ham-fisted parable of love and magic versus war and weaponry just felt like a big sloppy mess. Most Bakshi films I don’t like I usually find something I admire in them and this one is no exception. I do give it credit for being a renegade hair-brained muddle. Nobody would ever make a movie like Bakshi’s movies.

Not the bees!

Phase IV (1974) is an oddball movie for a lot of reasons. Ants taking over the world had been done before (Them!) but never like this. It’s almost an art-house science fiction b-movie and it was directed by Saul Bass, the illustrious and industrious title designer for such films as North by NorthwestAround the World in 80 DaysPsychoSpartacusIt’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and many more. Phase IV is the only feature he ever directed and for as hammy and silly as some of it might be you gotta give it some credit for going against the grain. The ants have a bizarre plan for humanity and the ending is actually weird enough to be chilling. Sports some interesting visuals and some very neat footage of ants. Michael Murphy (Manhattan) is in it too. Almost feels like it could be an unofficial sequel to Quatermass and the Pit.

Why are we even trying? With Burton’s name on this bad boy we’re guaranteed to make a bazillion dollars.

What ever happened to Tim Burton? He had some solid films in the beginning culminating with the perfect Ed Wood. While many of his more recent endeavors might be rather disappointing Frankenweenie (2012) almost isn’t. Like most Burton, it looks amazing. The sumptuous black-and-white photography, clever cinematography, beautiful animation, and wonderfully inspiring character designs are pitch perfect. The nods to such classic monster movies as The MummyNosferatuFrankenstein, The BirdsGremlins, and even Gamera are cute and whimsical (I especially liked the Gamera bit even if it was a little too obvious). I even liked the Boris Karloff lisp Martin Short (Three Amigos!) lent to Nassor. Catherine O’Hara (Waiting for Guffman) also is funny as the freaky girl. Surprisingly what I objected to was the very thing many critics lauded. I don’t think this film has much of an emotional center and what little it does is unwieldy and half-baked. I think it’s slightly better than the 1984 short it was based on, but it lacks reason. The movie moves like a freight train and despite the 3D technology the characters themselves fall totally flat (with the possible exception of Martin Landau’s all-too-obvious liberal professor). The movie pedals on in search of plot, but never lands on a fully developed one, but the puppets are pretty and watching them dance might almost be worth it. But I don’t know why I should care about these characters. Even the central idea of coping with loss is shattered in the finale, making the film even more hollow. Sad misfire. I thought this could have been the one. And I still don’t get the title. How does “weenie” fit in here?

Sir Galahad. The Chaste.

I like Michael Palin. Anything from Monty Python’s Flying Circus to A Fish Called Wanda to his travelogue documentary show. Naturally when I heard about The Missionary (1982), a film he wrote and starred in I had to see it. He plays an intelligent but naively puritanical turn-of-the-century British missionary who, upon returning from a stint in Africa, gets sent to evangelize to Britain’s harlot population. He wants to be married to his fiance and he wants to do his new job well, but when he winds up reluctantly losing his virginity (over and over and over again) to a slew of women just desperate for a nice, innocent, and compassionate man like himself things get sticky. It’s a recipe for comedy, but it’s not as funny as it should be. Palin plays the role fine and memorable Brits like Maggie Smith (Gosford Park), Trevor Howard (The Third Man), Michael Hordern (Watership Down), Denholm Elliott (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and even David Suchet (Agatha Christie’s Poirot) get in the mix, but the execution never lives up to its clever premise. Ultimately the film ends up looking like its protagonist, quaint and affable but too flaccid to be memorable.

Donald Sutherland and Gene Wilder. 1789.

Start the Revolution Without Me (1970) is stupid, but it doesn’t care. It has moments of near Mel Brooksian zaniness but falls a little short. Gene Wilder (Young Frankenstein) and Donald Sutherland (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) are fun, if undercooked in this comedy of mistaken identities and the French Revolution. There are just enough good jokes to make it worth watching once. You will be sick of hearing “1789” and you will hate yourself for still laughing at it in the end.

Well, I Was Entertained:

I am your father.

A vintage British post-apocalyptic b-movie with aliens, robots, and zombies? Count me in. The Earth Dies Screaming (1965) starts out with some wonderfully bleak imagery and continues to sputter forth some fun chills until its ambiguous conclusion. A small band of survivors form an uneasy alliance and wait to see what happens next. Classic set-up. It actually reminded me of Roger Corman’s Day the World Ended (1955)—which I think is a better movie, but oh well. Add in a bit of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) too. Now I know I said aliens, robots, and zombies, but keep in mind this is a low-budget affair and so largely minimalist. It lags at times but it’s all good fun. The atmosphere keeps the film together.

Puns trump plot in these waters.

Aardman Studios is responsible for such genius works as Wallace & GromitCreature Comforts, and Chicken Run and although 2012’s The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists! (I use the original title because it is funnier and more aptly reflects the movie’s anarchic sense of humor) might not be a classic, it is an enjoyably high-spirited farce. The Pirate Captain (Hugh Grant) and crew are swashbuckling buccaneers and love their mascot, Polly…who is a dodo bird. It’s about trying to get the Pirate of the Year Award and trying to stop Charles Darwin from kidnapping Polly and sacrificing him to a gluttonous Queen Victoria, but who really cares. The plot is so proactively weightless nothing matters much and the movie knows it. The film is really just fun animation with action and one hilariously clever joke or sight gag after another. And it actually works! Strong voice cast helps as well.

Who’s this new Hulk guy? He’s pretty good.

I’m picky when it comes to superhero movies. I liked The RocketeerThe Incredibles, the Hellboy movies, and the first half of the original Superman. That being said The Avengers (2012) took me by surprise because I hadn’t enjoyed any of the masturbatory movies leading into it. From the trailers I thought this film should have been called Tony Stark Riffs On the Avengers, but it was indeed more. It comes down to this: if you care about the heroes and give them some depth then the menace can be almost inconsequential. And Loki totally is. Director/writer Joss Whedon knows how to write interesting characters. Plain and simple. You write some solid characters and I too will thrill when Hulk smashes Loki (arguably the most satisfying moment of the movie).

I found this. And I’m keeping it.

I liked the first Men in Black (1997). The sequel was pretty joyless, but it had one or two decent elements. How Men in Black 3 (2012) managed to be as fun as it did I’ll never know. Once again there’s a certain freshness and the cast is clearly having some fun. Will Smith (The Pursuit of Happyness) is actually fun again and Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men) makes a great young Tommy Lee Jones (The Fugitive). Again, it’s okay if the villain is inconsequential because it’s about the heroes. Director Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family) finds new life in a series that didn’t need to be more than one movie. Also Michael Stuhlbarg’s (A Serious Man) character actually brings a weird serenity to the final product as well.

Even Warmer:

You’re letting me in? Thank god “Daredevil” never got an Iranian release.

Before people hate me for putting Argo (2012) so close to Men in Black 3 just consider the remainder of this list. Ben Affleck’s (Dogma) film has been receiving some high praise and there’s no doubt: it is a good movie. It is a thrilling political suspense yarn with a crazy but true premise and some not-so-subtle jabs at Hollywood, the CIA, and Iran. I must start by saying that I liked the movie a lot, but it is not the epic political thriller I was promised. It is not on par with The Battler for AlgiersZ, or All the President’s Men. It is probably closer to Munich. Actually the film almost feels like a cross between Munich and Wag the Dog. Maybe a littler better than Munich but not as interesting as Wag the Dog. Alan Arkin (The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!) and John Goodman (Barton Fink) are great, but the rest of the characters feel thin. The problem is I actually wanted to know more about this event and I feel like either the movie only touches on the surface or maybe there just wasn’t enough there for a great movie. Argo could use a little more meat on its bones and more character development, but it still does manage to be entertaining and exciting the whole way.

IT’S ALL REAL!

This might be the looniest one on the list. Daisies (1966) is a zany, surreal, Dadaist Czech comedy directed by Vera Chytilová. Two girls get into many kooky shenanigans and loopy hijinks in search of the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. I can’t explain too much, but suffice to say it is weird, wild, random, and only a select few will really appreciate it. I think Enid from Ghost World would totally dig it.

Show some emotion, Spacey! Enough of this smarmy monotone!

If you want to watch great actors cuss each other out and look stressed then watch Glengarry Glen Ross (1992). Penned by David Mamet this is a fun little film about a crazy deadline and quota set upon several real estate agents. There’s mystery, passion, anger, frustration, and lots of cursing. I barely care about the big picture and answering all the little questions in this somewhat stagey movie because it’s just nice watching good actors sink their teeth into these characters and this dialogue. Al Pacino (Dog Day Afternoon), Jack lemmon (The Apartment), Alan Arkin (Wait Until Dark), Kevin Spacey (American Beauty), Alec Baldwin (The Hunt for Red October), Ed Harris (The Truman Show), Jonathan Pryce (Brazil), and the tension is always building.

Higher Ground:

Get ready for the beautiful monotony.

For movie nerds who will be mad I didn’t rate Argo higher I know I will be crucified by serious cinephiles for not rating Béla Tarr’s The Turin Horse (2011) higher. Don’t get me wrong. I liked the film. It is very windy. As always Tarr’s (Werkmeister Harmonies) film is long, lurid, cryptic, and gorgeously filmed with minimal cuts. The Turin Horse is a dour Nietzschian riddle on the repetitive monotony of existence and the weighty despair of life versus the oblique horror of an inevitable impending death and the nothingness beyond. Is life worth it? seems to be the question. Does my enjoyment of the film match my respect for the craft? Not exactly. This is the sort of film where the real pleasure comes from the discussions that follow. Alas, I watched it alone and the film suffers.

Shaken not…yeah. I know you know.

James Bond is an interesting franchise. I actually only think their are three or four truly good 007 movies in a series that I will watch no matter how stupid they get. Skyfall (2012) is a delightful return to form and an interesting step in a somewhat new direction. Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) does something with James Bond that has never really been done before. He touches on who he really is as a psychological being. It still has its share of brainless action setpieces along with over-the-top villains with zany motives and invincible computer prowess, but the final act really makes it. Loaded with symbolism, pathos, thoughts on aging, and nods to the original iconography, the final act makes us remember why we love James Bond. Daniel Craig (Casino Royale), Judi Dench (A Fine Romance), Javier Bardem (Vicky Christina Barcelona), Ralph Fiennes (In Bruges), and Albert Finney (Murder on th Orient Express) are all in good form. Naomie Harris (21 Days Later) might have gotten more to do.

Birdie num nums…cue Dr. Bombay!

Is The Party (1968) the greatest thing Peter Sellers (Dr. Strangelove) or Blake Edwards (The Pink Panther) ever did? Not by a long shot. It’s also possibly somewhat racist (although perhaps less offensive than Sellers’ role in Murder by Death). It’s a simple story many of us can relate to: the awkward outsider tries to mingle with the big-shots. The film’s genius lies in its simplicity and wonderful sight gags. Peter Sellers is an unwanted, accident-prone East Indian background actor who gets mistakenly invited to a Hollywood brouhaha. Sellers’ comic timing and innocent likability as the incessantly socially misstepping Hrundi V. Bakshi are a joy to watch.

If you get in close, defocus, and gradually move back and the story will come into focus.

Last Year at Marienbad(1961) is a Rubix cube. Directed by Alain Resnais, this beautiful and enigmatic narrative throws out linear storytelling in favor of experimenting with the film medium. Perhaps it is comparable to Lynch’s Mulholland Dr in structure, but it is prettier to look at. It is dreamlike, elegant,  and ethereal. Don’t you dare tell me what it means. I will figure it out myself!

Almost Done:

“Ishtar” this!

Sam Peckinpah (The Wild Bunch) has made some violent movies. Straw Dogs (1971) is a brutal study of the nature of violence. It doesn’t make me feel good. The images and consequences are not pleasing. This is specifically designed NOT to be a satisfying revenge movie. Dustin Hoffman (Marathon Man) is David Sumner, a spineless American milquetoast mathematician trying to live his life with his wife (Susan George) in rural England, but the rowdy, manly, and aggressively horny locals make things challenging for the couple. Between the extremely uncomfortable rape scene to the wanton bloodshed in the finale there is plenty to chat about afterwards. The tension consistently mounts until the very end. What drives seemingly peaceful men to such horrific lengths? Peter Vaughan (Brazil) and David Warner (Time Bandits) co-star.

Surreal phallic imagery?

Somewhere along the lines of maybe Godfrey Reggio mixed with Tarsem yet different. Gregory Colbert’s Ashes and Snow (2005) is an artistic vision of nature and humanity. It consists of occasional poetic letters read by narrator, Laurence Fishburne (King of New York), and sumptuous sepia tableaux vivants whose indelible juxtapositions heighten the romanticism of the concept. You will see old African women lay down with cheetahs in the dunes and taut muscly bodies swim alongside elephants and whales. Stem to stern it is a gorgeous work of art that takes the poetic pulse of mother nature. This anti-Herzog film is more ballet than movie.

I am so so very alone.

Ever since I saw The Apu Trilogy I have loved Indian auteur Satyajit Ray. Devi (1960) is another emotional and difficult movie that almost seems hewn from ideas that could very well have been featured in The Apu TrilogyDevi is different, however. It seeks to deactivate bizarre cultural superstitions and challenge long-held beliefs with reason, logic, and the display of devastating consequences. Featuring many of the same cast members as Apu, this movie chronicles the life of a simple woman (Sharmila Tagore) after her father-in-law has a dream she is the goddess Kali. Her life changes and she is worshipped, kept in a shrine, and brought dying children to heal. The psychological toll is takes is spooky and subtly done. The family is torn apart and everything will be questioned by the end but we may not get any easy answers.

Who wants to make a Jack-o-lantern?

Director Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law) keeps surprising me. Night On Earth (1991) offers something unique. It merely seeks to put us in five different taxi cabs in five different parts of the world and just let us observe some truly interesting cabbies. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always fascinating, this enjoyable anthology features Winona Ryder (Little Women), Giancarlo Esposito (Do the Right Thing), Isaach De Bankolé (Manderlay), Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful), and Matti Pellonpää (Leningrad Cowboys Go America). Tom Waits does the music too.

Acme:

The West. America. China. Mexico. Now…Anatolia.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) is a Turkish film directed by Nuri Bilge Ceylan. It concerns the events of a murder investigation in the homogeneous Turkish steppes. What struck me about the film was that the whole time I had no idea where it was going or what it was ultimately going to say, but I never cared. The movie sucks you in with its rich characters and shifting points of view. The cinematography is spectacular as well. Although not much really happens it somehow strikes an almost mythic chord that resonates with you long after the movie ends. It is a movie about the truth and about deception but there is more to this cryptic and extremely subtle tale than meets the eye. It is also among some of the best collections of mustaches I’ve seen in a while.

Do you remember those stupid cherubim?

Alan Arkin (Little Miss Sunshine) makes this list for the third time in The In-Laws (1979) directed by Arthur Hiller (Silver Streak). This movie actually features two of the most interesting actors to watch: Arkin and Peter Falk (The Princess Bride). It starts off with such an obvious premise that I was totally amazed by how hilarious it actually was. Arkin is an uptight conservative dentist whose daughter is marrying the son of a wacked-out nutjob and pathological liar, Falk. It sounds like it could be a long lost brother of The Odd Couple, but amazingly it’s a lot faster and funnier. This movie started to surprise me about ten minutes in and it just continued to be inventive and ingenious. Arkin is so wonderfully understated and Falk is so delightfully matter-of-fact about his cray-cray that we let the film take us wherever it wants. And it does take you to some unexpected places. I was laughing out loud the whole time.

I do two things. Two things! Wheelchairs and drag! Do you understand me?

I love Tod Browning (Dracula). Freaks and much of his silent work with Lon Chaney, Sr. are masterpieces. The Devil-Doll (1936) has Lionel Barrymore (It’s a Wonderful Life) playing a wronged Devil’s Island escapee who inherits a mad scientists methods of miniaturizing people and turning them into murder slaves. To exact his revenge, however, he must disguise himself as an old woman who runs a creepy toy shop. If that sounds crazy, then you haven’t seen much of Browning’s work. The atmosphere, the pathos, the innovative special effects, and the ridiculousness of the plot all service this bizarre fever-dream of a movie.

My god. There watching “Dreams That Money Can Buy” in there.

I need to see more Jean Cocteau (Beauty and the Beast). Blood of a Poet (1932) is a deliciously surreal series of vaguely intertwining images and anecdotes. Cocteau was an artist of many fields, and film was just another avenue he could trod to churn out strange material. Blood of a Poet feels like a dream and is drenched in dream logic and spectacularly realized surreal illusions. This film is easier to watch than Un Chien Andalou because it contains more a sense of wonder and beauty, whereas Buñuel and Dalí were experimenting more with shock and Dadaist non-symbols. Something about the age of this film adds another element of legend to it. It’s a captivating riddle dance that feels both alien and personal. I kind of love it.

That’s it. What did you see? Anything good??

Hurry! Hurry! Hurry! See the Freaks!

Schlitze laughs.

Schlitze laughs.

It’s one of those films that movie nuts grow up hearing about. Banned for years. Directed by the guy who did the Bela Lugosi Dracula (1931). Oh, and starring mostly sideshow talents of the day. Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) was a sort of holy grail for many years. Based on Tod Robbins short story, “Spurs,” Browning’s film would prove to be a controversial classic of the grotesque and remains unique and controversial to this day. What sort of deranged mind could be behind such a disturbing landmark film?

kinopoisk.ru

Tod Browning with some of his extraordinary cast.

Tod Browning (one of my personal favorites) actually had a rather close relationship with the circus growing up and in the early 1900s the great American sideshow was a huge attraction. People would flock to the circus to see wild exotic beasts, incredible feats, and see the unusual and deformed bits of humanity that were sadly usually kept behind locked doors at the time. This was Browning’s turf and, after having directed several weird movies in the silent era with men like Lon Chaney, Sr. (including West of Zanzibar, The Unholy Three, and The Unknown) and proving he could be a master of supernatural horror culminating with Dracula, he was the perfect gentleman to adapt Robbins’ dark tale of carnival carnality and revenge.

Exiting her trailer, Cleopatra, the vain acrobat, gets a startle from Johnny Eck, the half-boy.

Exiting her trailer, Cleopatra, the vain acrobat, gets a startle from Johnny Eck, the half-boy.

Freaks employed such circus sideshow talents as Prince Randian the Living Torso (otherwise billed as the Human Caterpillar); Schlitze, the pinhead; conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton (who would also star in Chained for Life); Olga Roderick the Bearded Lady; Koo Koo the Bird-Girl; Peter Robinson, the Human Skeleton; Josephine Joseph the Half Woman-Half Man; Johnny Eck the Half Boy; and a host of dwarfs, Pinheads, and assorted legless or armless people.

Just a regular day at the circus.

Just a regular day at the circus.

The plot revolves around the sociopathic but beautiful trapeze acrobat, Cleopatra, who takes advantage of the rich lovestruck dwarf, Hans (Harry Earles, The Unholy Three). But Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova, The Man Who Laughs) is actually romantically entangled with Hercules the strong man (Henry Victor). Cleopatra seduces the gullible Hans and marries him only to plot to poison him to death and take his fortune. All the while she and Hercules mock the “freaks” and laugh at Hans. Oh, how they shame him. And then it happens. Cleopatra and Hercules become acquainted with the code of the freaks and revenge is served up cold and horrific.

One piece of the tragic love quadrangle.

Three pieces of the tragic love quadrangle.

Although a horror movie about so-called freaks, what will surprise most viewers is the humanity and compassion Browning displays. Where Count Dracula is wholly evil and inhuman, the Freaks are simply people with fascinating lives (albeit, a bit more complex in some situations) who only seek to live in harmony . . . but will violently defend the honor of one of their own disgraced brothers. Perhaps the code of the freaks strikes a slightly more mythical chord, but at the core of this gnarled beast of a film beats a heart with real feelings. Two “normal” circus folk, Venus and Phroso court each other and are friends with the sideshow folk. The conjoined Hilton sisters share comical moments with their future husbands. The Bearded Woman has a baby. Madame Tetrallini holds the Pinheads close to her bosom like a mother. Real affection exists in this cock-eyed world of circus shadows and abominations. They are a tightly knit family. They celebrate a wedding feast together and attempt to inaugurate the odious Cleopatra into their world—much to her chagrin and disdain.

Gooble! Gobble! We accept her! One of us!

Gooble! Gobble! We accept her! One of us!

Perhaps most endearing of all is the heartbreak of the dwarf, Frieda (Daisy Earles), as she watches the man she loves, Hans, forsake her for the bigger woman and get maligned for it by the whole circus. Even though Hans ignores Daisy and pursues only the diabolical Cleopatra, Frieda still loves him and weeps for him when he is ridiculed. Earles had worked with Browning before for The Unholy Three and he and his sister both give fine performances here.

Harry Earles as Hans.

Harry Earles as Hans.

Hans' sistser

Daisy Earles as Frieda.


Freaks is a challenging film. It challenges the audience to see these people as human beings, and skilled ones at that (most of the cast gets a chance to perform bits of their acts throughout the film, such as when the limbless Prince Randian rolls and lights his cigarette with only his mouth). It challenges people to not underestimate those folk whom may strike one as incapable or inconsequential. It challenges us to accept the acts of violent revenge as poetic justice. It challenges our preconceptions about the world and those in it. It is tragic, comedic, emotionally compelling, and in its final moments it is a full-fledged horror movie complete with lightning, creaky carnival convoys advancing in the night, and deformed aberrations clamoring through the mud for soft places to sink their knives into. It is the stuff horror legends are made of and it is what has made this cult classic a lasting part of our cinema history.

They're coming to get you, Cleopatra.

They’re coming to get you, Cleopatra.

Like its predecessors—Dracula and Browning’s earlier silent horror flicks—Freaks is a deeply atmospheric journey through shadowy realms of the grotesque and strange. For all its controversy and shock appeal, Freaks is a fine film with fascinating characters and a pleasing story that builds in emotion and suspense. Freaks is an oddity that gets better upon each viewing. It was almost an antidote to Dracula. What could be more of a reversal of Lugosi’s singular embodiment of undead evil cleverly disguised as a debonair and charismatic noble? Come to see Freaks for the promise of deformity and tales of the peculiar, stay for the heart, humanity, the satisfying horror climax, and genuinely surreal coda.

The Sisters.

The Hilton Sisters.

Top 10 Reasons to See “Freaks”

1. It’s a classic horror film from the great golden age of movies.

2. It’s better than Dracula.

3. It casts real sideshow performers as both human characters with ordinary (and unusual) problems and as misunderstood objects of horror at the same time.

4. It was banned in several countries for decades…making it kind of awesome.

5. A real life brother and sister play romantic interests (not necessarily cool, just sorta weird).

6. See if you can recognize one of the members of the Lollipop Guild.

7. It is a movie that is really hard to forget once you’ve seen it.

8. Halloween is fast approaching and you’ve already seen that Saw garbage.

9. It adeptly combines elements of classic horror with humor and some good old-fashioned creaky melodrama.

10. Because I demand it of you.

Prince Randian.

Prince Randian.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” October 20, 2010

The Inconsequentials

Somewhere there’s in immense list of all the movies you should see before you die. They are powerful, iconic, historic, influential, quotable. We call these movies “The Essentials.” Most of them you’ve seen or at least heard of; anything from Star Wars to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. How many people know The Pink Panther (1963) with Peter Sellers? Now, how many people know Topkapi (1964) with Peter Ustinov? In an effort to preserve all of the iconic, unmitigated masterpieces from film history (which is a very good thing), we can sometimes forget the smaller, old films that might not exactly be considered “essential” viewing.

Personal feelings: I think Topkapi is a far superior heist comedy to The Pink Panther.

I use the term “inconsequentials” as a sort of joke, but I think it’s a shame more people are not clamoring for copies of West of Zanzibar (1928), Shanghai Express (1932), and White Zombie (1932). These are three movies that I personally love and I will tell you what makes them special and why nobody cares today. Join me as we travel from the deepest African jungle to dangerous Chinese railways and then into Haitian voodoo country on our tour of some of the “inconsequentials.”


Lon Chaney, Sr. is a gateway drug into the world of silent cinema. Chaney, Chaplin, Fairbanks, Sr., the whole lot. They pull you in. West of Zanzibar is one of those strange silent jungle melodramas, and if you have ever heard of this one it was because you are a die-hard Lon Chaney fan. It also has the added cult appeal of being directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, Freaks, The Unholy Three). Chaney is most famous for his roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). His uncanny ability to utilize makeup and physically painful-looking bodily distortions are what made him a legend of the silver screen. This film is a little different. Chaney wears no disguises. No clown makeup, no monster deformity, no Fu Manchu getup, no drag. Nothing. Chaney plays a stage magician of great prominence named Phroso. He is betrayed when his wife, Anna, cheats on him with his arch rival, Mr. Crane (played by Lionel Barrymore of Key Largo and It’s a Wonderful Life). When Crane announces that he is taking Anna away with him to Africa, Phroso attempts to stop him, but is thrown off the balcony and becomes paralyzed from the waist down. Later Phroso, now a paraplegic, discovers that Anna has died and so he vows revenge. Phroso moves to Africa to get Crane. Eighteen years have passed and Phroso is now the grimy “Dead Legs,” a strange witch doctor type guy to a primitive jungle tribe. He uses his magic tricks to frighten the natives of a nearby tribe…who happen to be under the watch of who else but Crane. “Dead Legs” kidnaps Crane’s daughter and tortures her to make Crane feel the pain he felt. *SPOILER ALERT* Well into the plot, “Dead Legs” learns that the girl he captured is actually his own daughter and that Crane has been taking care of her all these years, but it is too late to fix the damage he has done. He has killed Crane and his real daughter sees him as an evil murderer. To reveal his true identity at this point would destroy the girl, so he sacrifices himself to the natives to buy her time to escape into the night with her main squeeze.

The movie is dark, demented, and perfect for fans of Lon Chaney. He’s great at playing these deranged patriarchs, vengeful creeps, sympathetic deformed characters, and the subject of impossible tragedy and in West of Zanzibar he gets to play them all at once. The story is very pulpy and silly, but it’s a lot of fun and it has a wonderful exotic feel. The reason West of Zanzibar gets overlooked is because of the more popular films like The Phantom of the Opera and Dracula. The average person gets a sense of who Chaney and Browning are and moves on, never discovering their smaller films. Like I said, you’d have to be a real Lon Chaney geek or silent film nerd to seek this one out, but for my money it is well worth it even if you’re not.


Shanghai Express is an exorbitantly pulpy flick about women of sin, how much faith it takes to love someone, and a train on an exotic track with a rendezvous with the Chinese civil war. Marlene Dietrich (Witness for the Prosecution, Destry Rides Again) stars as Shanghai Lily, the most famous and successful prostitute in the orient (don’t worry, she’s not in yellow-face). When she boards the Shanghai Express with her friend and fellow woman-of-ill-repute, Hui Fei (played by the always fascinating Anna May Wong), everyone is perturbed by their presence. Several colorful and leisured characters are on board the train including a very outspoken missionary, an officer, a fickle woman, an opium dealer, an exceedingly gregarious gambler (Eugene Pallette, who always seems to be playing priests, The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro), the shady half-Chinese Henry Chang (Charlie Chan himself, Warner Oland), and Lily’s old flame, the stoic British Captain Harvey (Clive Brook). Lily still has feelings for Captain Harvey, but Harvey is displeased with the life she now leads (although we sense he still fancies her greatly despite their 5 year separation). Can these two lost souls rekindle their dwindling romance? Moreover, will everyone get out alive after the train is stopped and they are taken hostage by Henry Chang who turns out to be a powerful warlord and rebel in the civil war? What makes this film work is the fun cast of characters, the steamy locations, the feelings of entrapment, the themes of faith and love…and revenge. I was only nominally with this film until the train got stopped. Then I was fully invested. The stakes are raised and the plot thickens. Murder, torture, sex, betrayal, the works. It’s amazing how much they got away with in those pre-code days.

Shanghai Express is pulpy fun. Most of the characters are fairly broad or rigid. I honestly don’t know how Captain Harvey and Shanghai Lily ever got together to begin with. The film also throws in random spiritual elements that don’t exactly seem to mesh, but it’s a good trip on a mysterious train that collides with danger and intrigue. Shanghai Express is filmed well and Eugene Pallette really livens things up and Anna May Wong delivers another dark and subtle performance that steals every scene she’s in. I love this movie for its simple but interesting story and rich atmosphere. The reason why this movie gets overlooked? Because Casablanca was a better movie. Plain and simple. Brooks can’t compete with Bogart, but Shanghai Express is still a great little movie on its own and should be celebrated more these days.


The last two films I talked about had a few things in common. They were pulpy, exotic, and atmospheric “inconsequentials” and my last pick is no exception. White Zombie might be a little more well-known for two very important reasons: a.) it stars Bela Lugosi (Dracula) and b.) it’s the first zombie movie. Many people regard George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) as the first zombie movie, but White Zombie has it beat by a good 36 years. Romero’s film changed the rules for zombie flicks and added social commentary, but White Zombie is all just for fun. Bela Lugosi plays Murder Legendre, an insidious voodoo master and owner of a Haitian sugar plantation. As you might have guessed, his Haitian slaves working the spooky sugar cane mill are actually zombies! Here’s the plot in a nutshell: Charles (a plantation owner) loves Madeleine, but Madeleine is in love with and getting married to Neil, so Charles goes to Murder for help. Simple. But!…the only way for Murder to make Madeleine love Charles is to make her into a zombie. So that’s exactly what they do, but Neil discovers his dead fiancee’s tomb to be empty and recruits the knowledgeable missionary, Bruner, and meanwhile Charles is regretting his decision for a zombie romance and Murder is actually slowly turning Charles into a zombie too! It all builds up to an exciting climax in Murder’s cliff-side castle. Zombies attack and spells are broken and there’s voodoo and people die and stuff and bad guy’s name is Murder! It’s fun.

Despite the relative cheapness of the production, White Zombie boasts some fantastic atmosphere and one of Bela Lugosi’s best performances. The scenes in the zombie sugar mill are spooky and deliciously atmospheric. The castle is great and the shots of the zombies assembling in the hillside cemetery are fun and a lurking Lugosi practicing voodoo in the shadows is  just great. It’s a slight movie (some might call it “inconsequential”), but I really love it. The reason you don’t see this one on a lot of lists is because of legendary movies like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolfman, and others that overshadow it. White Zombie has a fairly insignificant villain as far as supernatural antagonists go and it doesn’t seem to have been made with as much care…or money. All that being said, it’s a great bit of cheap horror and much better than The Creature From the Black Lagoon. It also makes for a delightfully inconsequential double-feature with The Vampire Bat (1933) starring Fay Wray (Doctor X, King Kong), Lionel Atwill (Doctor X, Captain Blood), Melvyn Douglas (The Tenant, Being There), and the always wide-eyed Dwight Frye (Frankenstein, Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein). (Incidentally the guy who directed the extremely “inconsequential” Doctor X just so happens to be Michael Curtiz, the guy who directed Casablanca. It all comes full circle).

 

One more film I must mention as I recently revisited it after several years and I am pleased to say it still holds up is Bluebeard (1944). Fans of John Carradine are probably quite familiar with it. Carradine plays Bluebeard, a puppeteer/painter/serial-strangler in 19th century Paris. It’s a delightfully low-budget yarn of the macabre.

As a lover of old movies it takes more than just the undeniable classics to appease me. Sometimes I like the smaller films just as much as the great ones. Don’t let the greats cast too long a shadow that they blot out the smaller film achievements. Use them as a reference point to find more movies from those eras. West of Zanzibar, Shanghai Express, and White Zombie may not be on anybody’s “essentials” list, but I’d say make room for these “inconsequentials.” You might be surprised by what you find.

picture references:

mubi.com

doctormacro.com

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Feb. 9, 2011.

A Man for All Faces

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

My biggest regret in tackling this article is that I have not seen more of Mr. Lon Chaney, Sr.’s (1883-1930) work. Of the handful of films I’ve seen of his, none have disappointed and all have been wonderfully twisted. Lon Chaney—father of the Wolf Man, Lon Chaney, Jr.—was one of the biggest icons of the silent era. Praised alongside silent legends such as Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., Mary Pickford, Theda Bara, and Rudolph Valentino, Chaney was every bit as talented and engaging. Chaney’s trademark, however, is what separated him from his contemporaries. They loved Chaplin for his comic humanity; Fairbanks for his swashbuckling acrobatics; Pickford for her beauty and the dramatic chances she took; Bara for her exotic, seductive persona; Valentino for his rich, foreign good looks; they loved Chaney for playing grotesques and psychotics. His real claim to fame was that not only did he portray gross villains and sympathetic monsters, but also he designed all of his own makeup and prosthetics to astounding effect.

lon slapped

He Who Gets Slapped (1924)

Lon Chaney, Sr. made his living by playing some of the most demented characters in movie history. He was known for the incredible emotional power he could evoke even beneath layers of makeup and for his amazing facial and bodily expressiveness. Both his parents were deaf-mutes, so he had to learn at a young age how to express himself without words.

From mad doctors, to amputees and deformed deviants, to bent Chinese patriarchs, to tragic clowns, to insane killers and criminals, Chaney played them all.

Mr. Wu (1927)

Mr. Wu (1927)

The first film of his I ever saw was the classic 1925 horror flick, The Phantom of the Opera (directed by Rupert Julian). This is easily his most famous and well-known role. Naturally, he plays the diabolical and disfigured eponymous phantom. He wears a most unnerving rubber face-mask with a crude veil over his mouth to hide his hideousness. The best scene of the film occurs when his lovely muse, Christine Daae (Mary Philbin), is taken to his secret lair beneath the streets of Paris and her curiosity spurs her to approach her musical master while he plays the organ and she removes his mask to reveal his true ugliness. Chaney’s reaction is one of the most memorable few seconds you are likely to see on film. This movie also boasts a colored Masque of the Red Death segment. Although the lavish film presents the Phantom as a deranged killer out for revenge, Chaney brings a darker, more tormented side to his performance. He is the character we see the rest of the film through. We recognize his sorrow and—on those wonderful occasions—cavort as he executes his judgment on the little people of the opera house. We catch ourselves sympathizing with this murderous monster and even rooting for him.

Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Besides the Phantom, Chaney played a very noble Quasimodo in Wallace Worsley’s  The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), again implementing his own inventive makeup effects. In 1922 he was a pretty solid Fagin in a silent version of Oliver Twist (co-starring The Kid star Jackie Coogan). He played a deranged and possessive Chinese patriarch in Mr. Wu (1927) (he actually plays a double-role and Anna May Wong has a small part). Chaney received much acclaim for his performance as a tough Marine Sergeant in 1926’s Tell It to the Marines. He played a brilliant scientist whose heartless betrayal at the hands of his mentor and his fiancée, drive him to become a tormented circus clown whose sole act consists of being slapped in the face in Victor Sjostrom’s bizarre carnival tragedy He Who Gets Slapped (1924). Chaney played another conflicted, tragic circus clown in Herbert Brenon’s Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928). He joined the circus again for Tod Browning’s (Dracula, Freaks) The Unknown.

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown (1927)

The Unknown is a particularly strange movie. As only a sample of the weirdness of some of these plots, I shall explain. Set in Spain, Chaney plays a wicked fugitive with double-thumbs, who stuffs his arms in a corset-like device so he can join the circus as Alonzo the Armless, the amazing knife-thrower (he uses his feet…or rather Chaney used the feet of real-life armless wonder, Paul Desmuke). He falls in love with a beautiful circus girl, Nanon Zanzi (Joan Crawford) and—in order to ensure that she will love him instead of the circus strongman—he psychologically bewitches her into developing a phobia human arms. Alonzo kills and creates general mayhem while he dreams of how he will make this poor girl his own…until his sidekick reminds him that if they were to marry, Nanon would find out he really has arms and be repulsed. Distraught, Alonzo devises a plan. He cashes in on a favor owed him by a shady doctor and has the doctor amputate his arms. While Alonzo recovers in the hospital, the strongman gets cozy with Nanon and cures her of her fear of arms. When Alonzo meets Nanon again she is engaged to the strongman and Alonzo becomes quite mad. He sabotages a circus stunt to have the strongman ripped apart by horses on treadmills. It goes awry and Alonzo gets fatally trampled.

London After Midnight (1927)

London After Midnight (1927)

Chaney worked with Tod Browning on several projects, including the most famous lost movie in film history, London After Midnight (1927). The original The Unholy Three (1925) was another great film Chaney collaborated with Browning on. He played a circus ventriloquist who turns to crime along with a strong man and a dwarf (played by Freaks star, Harry Earles). Chaney dresses as an old granny who runs a parrot shop and the dwarf poses as a baby. Together the trio act as jewelry thieves. The film is wonderfully peculiar and a must-see. Chaney’s final film was the 1930 remake of The Unholy Three.  It was Chaney’s first and only “talkie” and he performed five different voices in the film. Apparently “the man of a thousand faces” (as he was so dubbed for his talent with makeup) was also ready to become “the man of a thousand voices” when he died of lung cancer in 1930 at age 47.

The Unholy Three (1925)

The Unholy Three (1925)

I think Chaney was at his best when paired with Tod Browning because it seemed Browning was about as messed up and screwy as he was. A few other Chaney-Browning films I really enjoyed were The Penalty (1920), The Road to Mandalay (1926), and West of Zanzibar (1928). Both are awesome and West of Zanzibar might be among my favorite movies. Yeah. It’s that pulpy, strange and great. Imagine if he hadn’t died and Browning had cast him as Dracula instead of Bela Lugosi. I don’t know if it would have been better, but our understanding of vampire motifs would be quite different today.

After making well over 150 films in his lifetime and establishing himself as a true master of his craft, Lon Chaney, Sr. stands as a real treasure that film has been able to make immortal. Chaney’s films are quiet oddities, psychotic marvels, and horrific tragedies and deserve to be celebrated. His performances have been highly regarded for decades and are still just as enchanting today. If you like movies and have never seen anything with Lon Chaney, Sr., I strongly recommend you remedy this, and if you’re like me and you’ve seen several of his films already then I needn’t hesitate to tell you to see more. My hat’s off to you, Mr. Chaney. Thanks for giving us so much.

The Penalty (1920)

The Penalty (1920)

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 29, 2009

I’d Wear a Turtle-neck if I Were You.

*creeeeeaaaak*

*creeeeeaaaak*

In a previous article, I praised the awesome splendor that is Frankenstein and I mentioned how iconic Boris Karloff’s image as the infamous Monster had become. I also mentioned another, possibly even more iconic character: Dracula. Hungarian actor, Bela Lugosi, is practically synonymous with Bram Stoker’s legendary Count. Lugosi (White Zombie, The Black Cat, The Island of Lost Souls, Son of Frankenstein) made a career of playing evil and supernatural villains with an aristocratic air. He played twisted doctors, cursed men, and many other grotesques, but it is his role as the charismatic Count Dracula that keeps him alive in the public’s eye. Bela Lugosi gives a spooktacular performance making Tod Browning’s (Freaks, The Unholy Three) classic film Dracula (1931).

Edward van Sloan as Prof. Van Helsing raises a crucifix to a cringing Lugosi.

Edward van Sloan as Prof. Van Helsing raises a crucifix to a cringing Lugosi.

I love the original Dracula and Bela Lugosi is my favorite Dracula (second would be Christopher Lee), but I am saddened to see this version get crapped on so much. People say it is overrated, hammy, and a clunky transition out of the sound era. Well, it is technically all of these things, but it is so much fun. I admit my bias: I love Tod Browning. Frankenstein is the superior film in many ways simply because it has actual action and complicated character relationships, whereas Dracula is all mood and rich atmosphere with zero action. It’s about watching Lugosi gracefully interact with his unwitting victims and waiting for the moment to strike. The sets, costumes, and wonderful matte paintings are all exquisite as well. Even if you see it as being terribly dated, it is still a charming time capsule and swell pulp.

Matte paintings adorn the background as Renfield makes his way to Castle Dracula. He should have listened to those gypsies. Now it's too late.

Matte paintings adorn the background as Renfield makes his way to Castle Dracula. He should have listened to those gypsies. Now it’s too late.

Before Lugosi donned his famous cape, however, there was another great movie vampire. Haunting up the silent cinemas in 1922 was Max Schreck as Count Orlok in F. W. Murnau’s (Faust, Sunrise) Nosferatu. Orlok does not resemble your average vampire. Unlike Lugosi’s Dracula, which everyone copied from Christopher Lee to George Hamilton, Nosferatu looks bizarrely alien and unfamiliar and—as a result maybe—more unsettling. With his naked skull, pointed ears, high shoulders, tall stature, long spindly arms and fingers, gaunt features, demonic eye-brows, and jagged incisors, Max Schreck’s vampire is in a class all his own. When Werner Herzog (Fitzcarraldo, Grizzly Man) directed the remake of Nosferatu in 1979 they made up actor Klaus Kinski (Aquirre Wrath of God, For a Few Dollars More) to look exactly like the sinister bloodsucker from the original and it really worked. Both versions of Nosferatu are sure to delight with fright, but I strongly advocate seeing the 1922 version first. So iconic and genuinely chilling. The Nosferatus feel like you’re running in slow-motion in a spiraling uneasy nightmare.

My stars. Monsters are such interesting people.

My stars. Monsters are such interesting people.

Both Dracula (1931) and Nosferatu (1922) follow pretty much the same storyline.  A mysterious aristocrat (a.k.a. Vampire) is visited by a hapless solicitor. By the time the visitor learns the truth it is too late and the Count is soon on a voyage to more urban environs (Renfield is played by horror favorite Dwight Frye in Dracula). Once established in his new home the Count begins to feed. This is pretty much all you need to know for either film. Beyond this there are many differences. Dracula is more outgoing than Orlok for instance. While Dracula mingles with oblivious socialites, Orlok lurks in the shadows. Since Orlok looks more like a malnourished rodent than a human being it makes sense he wouldn’t be as charming and seductive as Dracula. Dracula has a strange sensuality about him that Orlock could never hope to pull off.

Lurk...lurk...

Lurk…lurk…

It has been said that the Spanish version of Dracula that was made using the same sets (they shot at night while the Americans filmed during the day) is a better film from a technical standpoint. I couldn’t disagree, but Carlos Villarías is no Bela Lugosi. I like both versions, but it’s all about the casting of the Count and Lugosi is it for me.

Ya caught me.

Ya caught me.

I hope in 50 years people will still picture these classic characters whenever they hear the word ‘vampire’ uttered around Halloween. What a travesty of tragic proportions if our children should imagine only Edward Cullen. The horror.

Apparently Dracula is Mormon.

Apparently Dracula is Mormon.

I am a big fan of both films. They have the old, spooky castles shrouded in spider webs and that aura of Old World mystery. They have immediately recognizable villains that we catch ourselves rooting for. Both films suck you into their own Gothic fantasy and don’t let go.  Dracula also features the fantastic horror treasure, Edward Van Sloan (Frankenstein, The Mummy) as Dr. Van Helsing, an added bonus to be sure. Where monsters like King Kong, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Phantom of the Opera, the Wolf Man, and Frankenstein’s Monster are all misunderstood outcasts who are never truly evil and may be presented more as victims, it is refreshing to see an unapologetically wicked character that has the world seemingly wrapped around his finger and delights in his sly mayhem. Unlike future vampire movies, which would try to portray vampires as tormented pariahs, Nosferatu and Dracula make no bones about their vampires’ evil nature (not including the Herzog remake). They relish the kill and this is what makes the Count so engaging and horrific. There is only one goal: suck blood. Simple? Yes, but it works.

Screw it.

Screw it.

Herzog’s Nosferatu is more of a tortured soul who sucks blood for survival and he might be falling in love with a human woman. It’s a slightly different approach, but he is in no way sissified. Kinski gives another spookily unhinged performance, but you can tell he’s channeling a lot of Max Schreck.

Come with me if you want to die.

Come with me if you want to die.

Nosferatu and Dracula are two masterful classics of the horror genre with fantastic atmosphere and enchanting performances. Need I bother telling you what a magnificent double-feature they would make? Celebrate Halloween this year with a few awesome Counts.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Oct. 20, 2009