Category Archives: Alfred Eaker’s Fringe Cinema

GEORGES MELIES ENCORE

The films of Georges Méliès are testosterone for surrealists. In 2008 Flicker Alley and the esteemed Blackhawk films released The First Wizard of Cinema, a mammoth 5 disc, thirteen hour collection of Méliès’ surviving films. It was the DVD event release of several years. In 2010, the same forces have released a supplemental collection of 26 newly discovered shorts, aptly entitled “Encore”.

Understandably, this is not the event from two years ago, but it is an essential, released addition in the appreciation of Méliès’ unique art.  Contemporary viewers with preconceived notions of the term “film” may be thrown off by the aesthetic mindset from a turn of the century experimental filmmaker. Get over it and don’t look for narrative in the post-Edwin S. Porter sense of the word. There is much to savor here when transported into Méliès’ very different world.

First, there are two films here that were at one time mistakenly attributed to Méliès, but were in fact directed by the Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomon in the Méliès style (he was often compared to Méliès). Chomon, who worked for the smae company as Méliès (Pathe), specialized in color tinting and “The Rose Magician” (1906), with its washy blues, yellows, streams of flowers and painted backdrops, including a giant seashell, exudes a heady, exotic nouveau flavor. “Excursion to the Moon” (1908) is clearly a homage to Méliès’ famous “A Trip to the Moon” (1902). Sublime golds, oranges, pinks, greens and blues permeate “Excursion”. Chomon beautifully utilizes snowy imagery, sleep, mushrooms, space rockets, explosions and a snow covered face in the moon, which has to be seen to be believed. Taking nothing from Méliès, the two Chomon shorts may be the most significant discoveries in this collection.

Still from Melies Encore (2010 DVD)As for the actual Méliès pictures, “The Haunted Castle” (1896), which is not related to Poe, begins in a castle set with a bat (on strings, of course) that transforms into the Devil himself (complete with horns and costume which looks like it was bough from L.S. Ayres). Old Nick waves his hand and a giant cauldron appears. He follows this with some black magic business, summoning forth a servant and a maiden, who emerges form the cauldron, then quickly disappears. The servant, then the cauldron, then the Devil himself all disappear.  Two Continue reading GEORGES MELIES ENCORE

NO MAN’S LAW (1927)

No Man’s Law is about as odd and obscure as it gets. Produced by Hal Roach, it stars Rex, King of the Wild Horses, Oliver Hardy (as a vile villain), James Finlayson,and Barbara Kent. Directed by some guy named Fred Jackman.

Oliver Hardy is one-eyed, grizzled, no good fugitive cuss Sharkey Nye, prospecting for gold with good guy partner Spider O’ Day, played by Theodore Von Eltz.  James Finlayson, of many Laurel & Hardy shorts, has cute Barbara Kent for a daughter and he is prospecting too but he’s not very good at it.  Rex, the horse, surveying his territory, does not take a liking to Ollie.  When Ollie gets a wee bit too close to a skinny-dipping Barbara, Rex steps in, chasing off Ollie.

Rex knows trouble is afoot and Ollie proves Rex right by plotting to kill Finlayson.  It’s murderous slapstick business as Ollie tries first to kill Finlayson, then tries to rape Barbara repeatedly, then kill Theodore.  Every time, Rex steps in just in time to save the day, finally in time to kill off Ollie.

That’s about all there is to the plot, and No Man’s Law would not be remarkable at all if it weren’t for Roach’s trademark slapstick style being channeled into Oliver Hardy attempting to kill and rape his co-stars.  Top-billed Rex is barely in it, showing up only when necessary.  Kent is certainly doing her best Mabel Normand.  For once, Finlayson has a  somewhat sympathetic part, and Ollie gets no sympathy whatsoever.

The slapstick business comes when Ollie tries to kill Finlayson by causing a cave-in at a mine and then by pushing him off a cliff.  More slapstick follows when Ollie gets into a fight with Eltz, plays cards with him (while Finlayson crawls under the table in his PJs), fights him again over a gun, shoots him (just a wound), and chases Barbara around the house trying to rape her.  It all wraps up nicely when then Ollie is in in hot flight from the rampaging Rex, who finally kills him.  All is supposedly good. but after seeing sweet childhood hero Ollie slime it up for an hour, I just wanted to go take a shower.

Weird.  Take this one to your next party.

JUST TONY (1922) & SKY HIGH (1922)


It all began with the legendary Tom Mix, the yardstick by which all B-Western stars are measured.

Born in 1880, Mix had worked with the Texas Rangers, had been a bartender, a sheriff, and a champion rodeo rider in his Wild West Show. Hollywood had a bona fide true blue western legend.  After becoming THE cowboy movie star at the age of 30, the extremely prolific Mix worked and played equally hard, developing a love for fast cars, fast women (married five times) , and reckless spending. Most of his 20’s westerns were adapted from Zane Grey novels and were high quality entertainment for the masses.   Mix often wrote, produced and directed in addition to acting.  He was the polar opposite to William S. Hart’s dusty realism.  Mix combined humor, increased action which featured his own stunt work, a star horse named Tony, flashy showmanship and enthusiastic energy in his films.   When his stardom naturally began to dim in the 1930’s, mainly due to age, he toured with his beloved Tom Mix Circus before an untimely high speed auto accident and a flying metal suitcase to the back of the head on an Arizona highway put an end to all the Circus in 1940, but not to the legend.   For ten years after his death, the Tom Mix Radio Show continued on with immense popularity.   Tom Mix comic books were also extremely popular for several decades, as was the touring Tom Mix festival which finally ran down (but not entirely out) in the mid 90’s.  Since most of his films are silent, few today have even seen a Tom Mix film, and his reputation by far exceeds the actual films.  Here are two Mixs from Sinister Cinema’s Sinister Six-Gun collection.

Just Tony (1922)Just Tony begins, aptly enough, with a trailer.  “Hit the Trail!  The Gun Ranger is out to clean up the town!  Bob Steel, two-gun deputy whose twitching fingers itch for fights!  Outlaws Rustlers Cowboys Posses and Bob Steel as the Gun Ranger!  A Republic Release.”  This trailer promises white hat cow dude Steel kicking black hat bad guy butt, a mix of masked bandits, pencil-thin mustached villains and a pretty girl exclaiming “Oh, Dan!”

Tom has his eyes on the beautiful black wild stallion, Tony, that he wants to tame, but first things first as he has Continue reading JUST TONY (1922) & SKY HIGH (1922)

REV. DONALD WILDMON: MIGHTY MOUSE IS BACK TO SAVE THE DAY (FROM THE LIKES OF YOU)

Rev. Donald Wildmon is, thankfully a dinosaur, a dying breed of self-appointed “moral crusader” bullies who blasphemously oppresses in the name of a peasant Jew who hung out with hookers and derelicts, talked a theology of love, understanding, and peace, and was brutally butchered by Wildmon’s own type some two thousand years ago.  Wildmon bullies in the name of this Jew to masquerade his own ignorance.  Each year that passes it becomes increasingly apparent that the world will be better off when he and his type are extinct.

In 1988, Rev. Wildmon saw an episode of Ralph Bakshi’s “The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse.”  The show was imaginative, colorful, and witty.  Wildmon’s Methodist toupee did a double take and he screamed “The Devil” when he saw something he could not understand, let alone appreciate.  (Specifically, Wildmon saw Mighty Mouse happily sniffing a crushed flower, and presumed the scene promoted cocaine use).  So Wildmon cocked up his triple chin and let out a Tarzan styled yell to his fellow Neo-Nazi thugs.  Wildmon and the brown shirts started their march, taking it all the way to the faceless sponsors of “Mighty Mouse.”  It’s not surprising that Wildmon bedded with money to attack an imaginative kids show.  After all, that peasant Jew was killed because he messed with the money system.

The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse Flower SceneSo Wildmon and his silly cult bedded with the Pharisees and killed Bakshi’s child.  This was one of many offenses they perpetrated.  I am sure the good Reverend has several trophies on that triple chinned ego of his mantle.  With too few exceptions,”Mighty Mouse” was one of the last times in which television has shown any inclination for imagination, creativity and style.  In its place we have reality TV and trash TV that dumb down to the lowest common denominator.  Thank you, Rev.Wildmon, for your gift.  Yes, there might be a few clever television programs among the dreck, some worthwhile dramas, but aesthetically ground-breaking television, especially aesthetically ground-breaking children’s television, damn near died away when Bakshi’s “Mighty Mouse” went the way of Lenny Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts.”

But, that is not the end of the story, Now, finally, “Mighty Mouse” has re-emerged onto a DVD collection to save the day.  Hopefully, Wildmon and his worthless kin, who serve no purpose in life except as societal cancer, will go crawl into a hole and die away.  The rest of us can celebrate the resurrection of our fearless mouse.

Now, “The New Adventures of Mighty Mouse” is, admittedly, a somewhat mixed bag, Continue reading REV. DONALD WILDMON: MIGHTY MOUSE IS BACK TO SAVE THE DAY (FROM THE LIKES OF YOU)

BETWEEN MEN (1935)

Another B-Western from Sinister Cinema’s “Sinister Six Gun Collection”.

Between Men is a strongly composed “B” directed by Robert North Bradbury (Courageous Avenger and several of John Wayne’s Lone Star Westerns).  Bradbury was also the father of B-Western star Bob Steele, and his expertise in the genre is delightfully natural.  Between Men has a strong cast in Johnny Mack Brown as the stalwart hero, and this may well be his best role.  Beth Marion excels as the love interest, as does William Farnum in his scene-stealing role as Brown’s tormented father and Earl Dwire as the standard slimy villain.

Between Men has a richly melodramatic plot.  Farnum (great wide- eyed acting) believes he has killed his young son (Brown) and flees west.  Actually, the boy was only injured and is adopted by Lloyd Ingram.  Twenty years pass and the visuals shift from the upper-scale Virginia countryside to the stark New Mexico desert as Johnny embarks on a journey to find his adopted father’s long lost granddaughter (Marion).  Farnum has assumed a new name and is now Marion’s guardian after his hired hand (Dwire) rustles her cattle, kills her father, and attempts to raper her.  Marion is saved by a “drifter” whom Farnum hires for protection, not realizing that Brown is his son, whom he believes to be dead.

Soon however, Farnum believes Brown is putting the make on Beth.  Drifter Brown is not worthy of her.  The film does not state, but seems to imply, that Farnum himself lusts after her.  After Johnny fails to heed Farnum’s warning to stay away from Marion, a brawl between father and son breaks out, during which our dimpled hero obligingly loses most of his shirt.  Farnum sees an identifying scar on Brown’s chest and belatedly realizes this is his son.  Oddly, the film ends with Farnum sacrificing his life for the young lovers without ever revealing to Johnny that he is his father.  Needless to say, the dastardly bad guys are killed off, with Johnny and Beth walking arm in arm into the New Mexico sunset.  There is as much plot as action in this oater, which is a rarity in the genre of the thirties.  This, along with assured direction, photography by Bert Longenecker and aptly over-the-top acting make Between Men one of the better B Westerns from the period.

THE WOLF MAN (1941) & THE WOLFMAN (2010)

“Even a Man who is pure in heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright”.

The best thing about the 1941 film is the tone-setting poem above, which was repeated at least one too many times in the original, yet it is absent from the 2010 remake except in the title. The Wolf Man seemed ripe for a remake since, of the original “horror classics,” it really wasn’t that good to begin with (the same goes for Creature from the Black Lagoon).

The 1941 film has several strikes against it, the first and foremost of which is writer Curt Siodmak, who, frankly, was a hack. The second is director George Waggner, who wasn’t really a hack but merely a competent, unimaginative commission director with no personal vision. Finally, there is “star” Lon  Chaney, Jr. The younger Chaney gets picked on a lot these days and always has. He deserves it. He was an idiotic, drunken bully who had an obsessive hang-up about outdoing his father. Since Lon Sr. probably ranks with Chaplin in the silent acting department, Lon Jr., the pale, watered-down copy, did not have a chance. It’s amazing that Jr. even thought he would be able to compete. That said, Lon Jr. did have a few good character roles in his career. Damn few out of literally hundreds of films. He was quite good as the arthritic sheriff in Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, as Big Sam in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, as Spurge in Raoul Walsh’s Lion is in the Streets and Bruno in Jack Hill’s cult classic Spider Baby. Like Bela Lugosi, he was only good when he was actually being “directed.” Unlike Lugosi, however, Jr.’s signature horror role is not one of his best. That honor goes to his immortal Lenny in Lewis Milestone’s Of Mice and Men.
Still from The Wolf Man (1941)
Even considering his success with Lenny, Larry Talbot is out of Lon’s range. Never once does Talbot’s amorous nature register. Evelyn Anker’s repeated flirtations with the hulking, rubbery Chaney only evoke numbing disbelief. If Jr. the romantic lead is ludicrous (that side seen at its mustached worst in the execrable Inner Sanctum series), then seeing Lon’s Talbot crying on the bed inspires cringe-inducing embarrassment.  Chaney’s performance as Talbot was marginally Continue reading THE WOLF MAN (1941) & THE WOLFMAN (2010)

COURAGEOUS AVENGER (1935)

Time to dust off this collection of B-Westerns from Sinister Cinema’s Sinister Six-Gun Collection.  The packaging is ultra-cool, starting off with those priceless trailers:

Trailer # 1: “Ride at Full Gallop into a Thundering Texas Romance to the rescue of a girl haunted by killers!  Johnny Mack Brown as the fist-flashing GENTLEMAN FROM TEXAS” blazes across the screen as Johnny shoots and punches his way across bar tables.  Add in beer bottles over the head, a pretty dame named Claudia Drake and the TrailsMen singing “Texas Jubilee” on banjos.   It’s a “Violent Drama of Valorous Love and Texan Vengeance” from Monogram Pictures.

Trailer # 2 screams “It’s the Real McCoy” (as in Tim McCoy) “heading this way to tame the town that defied the law!”  More fisticuffs, six-guns blazing, horses, good guys in white hats, and fallen bad guys in black hats (who never bleed) are all promised.  “The Outlaw Deputy Tim McCoy made bad men check their guns while he checked up on romance!  Cow-Town became a mad-house of Thundering Action when the nerviest outlaw East of the Rockies turns OUTLAW DEPUTY!”  A Puritan Picture.

Trailer #3: ” Come Along Boys and Girls on a Thrilling Trip to MYSTERY MOUNTAIN where KEN MAYNARD the screen’s most popular Cowboy Actor and his famous horse TARZAN will ENTHRALL you!  will THRILL you!  will STARTLE you!  in their 1st SUPER SERIAL!  ACTION!  ROMANCE!  All the THRILLS of THE OLD WEST!  Don’t miss seeing Ken Maynard and his horse Tarzan in MASCOT’S MIGHTY EPIC  SERIAL MYSTERY MOUNTAIN! WATCH FOR IT!”  This one has all the elements of the previous two, but throws in locomotives and a star horse.

Time for the feature now, a SUPREME PICTURES CORPORATION starring JOHNNY MACK BROWN in COURAGEOUS AVENGER.  After heisting a bullion shipment some despicable thugs are hiding in the desert, kidnapping local drifters for slave labor for their mine!  Soon, hero agent Johnny enters, decked in ten-gallon white, white suit, white tie, beaming an All-American Football hero smile and dimpled square jaw (naturally, a few yeas later, that square jaw was a bit hard to see under an extra chin, which was still one less than the two extra ones that fellow cow-hero and middle-aged Ken Maynard acquired).  Johnny finds himself commissioned to round up bad guys who killed their latest gold heist victim with three silver bullets.  Shucks, Johnny was just getting ready to go on vacation too.  Duty calls especially when Johnny finds the victim was his girl’s brother and “we were chums too!”  Johnny embarks on the mystery and a quest for justice, western-style.

To complicate matters, the ring of bad guys is lead by none other than his girl’s evil step-dad.  It doesn’t take long for the obligatory desert fight between Johnny and the bad guy, rollicking between the rocks in ass-hugging tight jeans.  After some ass-kicking, Johnny infiltrates the ring, frees the slaves (a dose of grand guignol in that scene) , stops the next heist,  and after a couple of thrilling stunts, rounds up the baddies and literally rides off in the sunset with girl Helen Ericson (who is mere decor).

Courageous Avenger is a 16 mm print and so is as good as it can be (especially since it was probably shot for about $50.00).  There’s no soundtrack music to liven things (fairly common for 30’s B-Westerns), the sound itself seems to come and go, nor is it any great shakes, even for a period B-Western.  But, it is a helluva lot of fun in grand Sinister Cinema packaging and you can’t really go wrong with Brown (although he looked even better with Beth Marion at his side).

The B-Westerns never received much respect in their day, and certainly don’t now, but pass the big bucket of buttered  popcorn and give me this over Avatar any day. More to come.  Dedicated to Dad.

GUEST REVIEW: AVATAR (2009)

James Cameron’s Avatar is his first film since 1997’s Titanic, and Avatar looks like it’s actually going to top that monster ship as far as revenue goes.  Reportedly, with PR expenses, Avatar costs somewhere between 250 and 500 million dollars and one would think with that kind of investment, Cameron and corporation would have come up with a better script and a more substantial film.  Avatar is riddled with the same level of asinine dialogue that sunk Cameron’s cruise ship, a plot that blatantly echoes Dances with Wolves, hopelessly two-dimensional, stereotyped cardboard villains, and a mixed bag of CGI visuals which often look like Gil Kane comic characters turned into blue rubber toys amidst a computer game version of a Franz Marc rain forest.

Still from Avatar (2009)
Avatar
opens in the distant future on the planet Pandora.  A paraplegic named Jake (Sam Worthington, the latest wooden hunk) is a volunteer on Pandora’s Earthling military base.  The native Pandorans justifiably mistrust the “Sky People” who want to strip-mine their lush world to save a dying Earth.  So, the Sky People have an ingenious plot to infiltrate the Pandorans by linking human consciousness into a Pandoran avatar.  All-American swell guy Jake seems the perfect volunteer, as he is promised his lost legs back.  So, Jake gets turned into a twelve foot blue native.  The problem is that the Sky People need pesky “green” scientists to help them and, naturally those lovers of the land are going to throw a monkey wrench into Operation Pandora.

Predictably, once Jake interacts with the natives, he bonds with them and even falls in love with their princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, playing Pocahontas, in all but name.  She Continue reading GUEST REVIEW: AVATAR (2009)

GUEST REVIEW: THE SWIMMER (1968)

The Swimmer has been promoted to the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies ever made. Comments on this post have been closed. Please read the official Certified Weird entry for The Swimmer and post any future comments about the film there.

When Burt Lancaster began his career as an actor, it appeared this was going to be a career in the mold of Errol Flynn or Randolph Scott. In films like The Flame and the ArrowJim Thorpe-All American, The Crimson Pirate, Vera Cruz, Ten Tall Men, From Here to Eternity, The Kentuckian, Trapeze, Gunfight at the OK Corral, and Run Silent, Run Deep, Lancaster seemed to personify and embody the American ideal hero.

However, behind those swell guy teeth and that brandished chest was a shrewd actor, who, as he seasoned, made increasingly interesting choices.  In the second half of his career, Lancaster often played off that earlier, heroic persona with admirable risk taking.  If  Elmer Gantry and Seven Days in May might be aptly described as loudly presenting the dirty underbelly of Americana, then The Swimmer intimately one-ups them.

In 1968 director Frank Perry with writer/wife Eleanor Perry adapted John Cheever’s acclaimed allegorical New Yorker short story, The Swimmer, and brilliantly cast the iconic Burt Lancaster as the pathetic hero.  The Perrys had previously teamed for the equally disturbing David and Lisa (1962) and made quite a splash on the art film circuit.  Surprisingly, that film even garnered a couple of Academy Award nominations, which enabled the team to make The Swimmer.

Still from The Swimmer (1968)The Swimmer begins on an absurdly bright, sunny day.  Ned (Lancaster), the epitome of a tanned, virile, soulless suburbia, decides he is going to enthusiastically embark on a strange, epic, connect-the-dot journey by “swimming” home through the neighborhood swimming pools. He takes along a nubile girl (Janet Langard), but at each pool he encounters facets of his failed life and the crack in his facade slowly begins to expand until the inevitable, tragic conclusion.  The physical reality of The Swimmer (a day in Ned’s life) is mere allegory and the allegorical symbolism of Ned’s entire life which is, in fact, the physical realm into which we are drawn.

Lancaster, the sex symbol, is perfection as he superficially pats his neighbors on the back, encounters a discarded mistress, is confronted by his numerous lies, his betrayals, his failure as a husband, father, friend and neighbor.  By the time he reaches his own home, his paradigm has altered from cartoon sunshine and forced, surface smiles to despairing rain.  When he reaches his porch, he is vulnerable to all the elements which mercilessly come down upon him in all forms, including nature itself.  Ned has ultimately realized his hollow state.

Impressively, The Swimmer has a dreamlike, short story, episodic pacing, not at all what is expected in the medium of film, and this adds to its uniqueness.  The Swimmer, fragile indeed in its quite odd structure, is a case where casting really counted.  It would not have worked without its star.  Unfortunately, The Swimmer is out of print and even when it was briefly available, Columbia disrespectfully released it an a cheapo presentation.  (NOTE 2/12/10: Astute reader MCD tipped us off to the fact that The Swimmer is available for download from Amazon for $9.99). Still, it’s a rarity in being a film that actually lives up to and surpasses its reputation.

The Perrys went onto make Last Summer and Diary of a Mad Housewife before divorcing.  Separately, the two never equaled the artistic level they achieved together.  Lancaster continued to carefully cultivate his screen persona in films like 1900, Moses the Lawgiver, Atlantic City, Local Hero, Rocket Gibraltar and Field of Dreams.

CAPSULE: AUTOMATONS (2006)

DIRECTED BY: James Felix McKenny

FEATURING: Christine Spencer, Angus Scrimm

PLOT: The lone survivor of a devastated nation lives alone in an underground bunker.

Still from Automatons (2006)

Her only companions are the voice recordings of a long-dead scientist and the robots she sends out to do battle with the enemy on the planet’s poisoned surface.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Much of the underground hype regarding this 2006 indie from James Felix McKenny and Glass Eye Pix likens Automatons to a cross between Eraserhead and Ed Wood, with Guy Maddin‘s name bandied about for good measure. There is nothing remotely arthouse or surreal about Atomatons, however, and the only identifying aesthetic McKenney might share with Maddin is an obsessive love of a genre. Maddin’s love of baroque silent film expressiveness hardly compares to McKenney’s hard-on for 1950’s sci-fi kitsch. That’s the problem with hype; it usually tends to be a disservice and is here.

COMMENTS: Automatons is not weird or surreal. That is not to say it does not have merit or is a film without interest.  Is it a thought-provoking, intelligent film, worth comparing to some of the better, more compact Outer Limits episodes?  No. The post-apocalyptic scenario of a lone survivor is a really, really old one that has been around since Robot Monster and repeated in Omega Man, Mad Max and countless James Cameron movies.

The robots themselves look like they just stepped out of an old George Reeves Superman TV episode, but without the awkwardly quirky personality of those 50s tin types.  Angus Scrimm (Phantasm) is the professor who instructs heroine Christine Spencer through a series of pre-recorded videos. The biggest problem here lies in Spencer’s flat acting, which fails to project the necessary charisma needed in this type of project.

Where Automatons takes an admirable independent risk is in its lethargic pacing, which, despite the plot and acting, creates a hypnotic milieu.  Long, static takes, along with the much repeated Scrimm transmissions, are, at first, odd, then oddly compelling. This is the one surprising, indeed endearing quality about AUTOMATONS.  It refuses to cater to commercial pacing. Some have mistaken that for an arthouse quality or made predictable, banal comparisons, such as to Eraserhead. Automatons does not possess that organic, wistful Lynch quality. It is grounded in the love of its genre.  The later battle scenes and the gruesome deaths have a certain grainy style derived from its 8 mm source, but this is an often utilized stylistic ploy in genre indies and is not what gives Atuomatons its original flavor.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
Automatons is what happens when Eraserhead and Tetsuo the Iron Man bong themselves into oblivion and collaborate on a minimalist avant-garde sci-fi cheapie shot in a toolshed… Robot radness acheived!”–Nathan Lee, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)