Tag Archives: Barbara Steele

LIST CANDIDATE: LOST RIVER (2014)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Christina Hendricks, Iain De Caestecker, Saiorse Ronan, Matt Smith, Ben Mendlesohn, , Reda Kateb,

PLOT: An urban fantasy/fairy tale set in an unspecified city in decline (which looks a lot like Detroit) where single mom Billy and her sons Frankie and Bones attempt to keep their home despite all obstacles and enemies: for Billy, a bank manager/underground club impresario, and for Bones, the neighborhood gang kingpin, Bully.

Lost River (2014)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Gosling calls Lost River (originally titled How to Catch a Monster) a dark fairy tale, inspired by both the 80’s fantasy films he watched growing up and by a stay in Detroit while acting in The Ides of March. It’s a very unorthodox melding, like lo-fi magic realism set against a documentary background. Some might feel it exploitative, which could account for the polarized reaction the film received.

COMMENTS I guess it’s a gauge of where we’re at in film culture when something like Lost River can arise from sunken depths to befuddle everyone. People were expecting a disaster of epic proportion, judging from its reception at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival and the outright hostile reviews during its very brief theatrical run/VOD in the U.S. From that reaction, one would think that Lost River would be better paired with other recent cult “darlings” like The Room or Birdemic.

lost-river-film-ryan-gosling-700x425Happily, Lost River is nowhere near those icons of ineptitude, which makes the reaction to it even more of a curiosity.  Critics seemed to take it personally that a Hollywood Star would actually choose to make his directorial debut an artistic endeavor rather than some flashy franchise production. It is evident that Gosling isn’t at all shy about his influences—he was paying close attention while he was working with and —but I would think that would be something to be encouraged by, rather than excoriated.

Apparently surrealism and dream imagery are only to be attempted when the director is a less well-known name. Either that, or most reviewers felt very uncomfortable with the approach in conjunction with the Detroit setting. There are several scenes with non-actors which briefly push the tone into docudrama, which is completely jarring with the “urban fairy tale” atmosphere Gosling is attempting to create.

lost river artGosling’s direction is very assured, aided by the lensing of Benoit Debie (Enter the Void) and the music of Johnny Jewel, which provide the proper atmosphere. Performances are pretty good all around: Hendricks, DeCaestecker and Ronan are fine, though it’s mainly the supporting characters that make an impression, such as Mendes, Mendlesohn and especially Matt Smith’s villainous turn, which is as far away from his Doctor Who as possible. One caveat: it seems a waste to get Barbara Steele and give her nothing to do. She’s more of a presence than a full character.

Whatever you might think of Lost River, I highly encourage you to search it out and make up your own mind.

Available on Blu-Ray and DVD with no additional features.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Indulgent and movie-like, Lost River is Gosling’s weird, let’s-do-this-thing folly.”–Brad Wheeler, The Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)

BEAUTIFUL FILMS: BLACK SUNDAY (1960)

This is the first entry in 366 Weird Movies’ List of “Beautiful Films.” Consider this a sub-category; one that takes neither beautiful nor weird at face value, but openly views these two descriptions as genres which often go hand-in-hand—far more than one might imagine.

I will continue this list throughout the new year, and am open to suggestions from readers or peers in adding titles.

Black Sunday (1960), AKA Mask of Satan, marked Mario Bava’s directorial debut after twenty years as a cinematographer and uncredited assistant director. This Gothic fairy tale, (loosely) inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s short story The Vij (faithfully adapted as Viy), proved the ideal launch for a director who began life as a painter and son of a cinematographer. Additionally, Black Sunday was the first true starring vehicle for , making her the first (and, to date, the only) authentic female horror icon. Although both Bava and Steele had long careers following this, neither would ever make as good a film.

Bava’s painterly credentials serve his cinematography well: the forests, crypts, and castles are drenched in lush black and white. Mists, cobwebs, and rotting trees, filtered through Bava’s lens, compose a sensuous ruin. Setting a pattern that he would follow for the rest of his career, Bava’s visual storytelling is far more innovative than is the narrative, which is solid, but routine and simplistic enough to have spawned a plethora of imitators. Contemporary audiences will likely find the story less appealing than 1960 audiences did, in part due to its many offspring, and in part due to its its status as a homage to the  classics. Black Sunday is put over with such distinctive vigor that few will be concerned by its familiarity.

The casting of Steele is primarily a visual choice. Pauline Kael describes her as “looking like Jacqueline Kennedy in a trance, playing both roles in such a deadpan manner that makes evil and good all but indistinguishable.”

Still from Black Sunday (1960)Although never given a role which proved her actor’s mettle, Steele stood apart from cinematic “scream queens” in using her physicality to both seduce and frighten audiences, perhaps best summarized in Bava’s extreme closeup of her acupunctured face during an erotic resurrection, which is quite possibly the most pronounced scene of its kind.

Georgio Giovanni’s art direction cannot be underestimated in making the film a highly influential cult hit that gave birth to an entire school of European filmmaking.

Kino’s uncut Blu-ray edition boasts a sumptuous transfer that finally does justice to Bava’s chiaroscuro lighting. It also, thankfully, restores Roberto Nicolosi’s original, intensely innovative score, along with several minutes  of deleted scenes. The AIP version (buy) (which has different dubbing and Les Baxter’s vastly inferior score) features an interview with Steele,  commentary from Bava biographer Tim Lucas, and trailers.

CINEMA UNDER THE STARS: A CELEBRATION OF THE DRIVE-IN CINEMA

Check out driveintheater.com for the history of the drive-in and a list of theaters operating near you.

Those of us old enough to remember the drive-in theater experience have some sense of nostalgia for the experience. Those who were deprived of cinema under the stars may never “get it.”

"Elm Road Drive-In Theatre" by Jack Pearce from Boardman, OH, USA
Elm Road Drive-In Theatre” by Jack Pearce from Boardman, OH, USA – Elm Road Drive-In Theatre. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

As a personal example, take my ex. Although about my age, she had either never gone to the drive-in during her youth, or if she had gone, it never sank in. Upon agreeing to my suggestion of going to see a double feature at Tibbs Drive-in, she started loading up the back of the car with chips, drinks, and snacks—much to my abject horror, because as kids, as much as we loved the movies, we could not wait to hear the announcement: “It’s intermission time, folks!” Going to the concession stand and buying kicking nachos, fresh hot popcorn, pizza with your favorite toppings, tasty cheeseburgers, crispy hot french fries, buckets of fried chicken, delicious hotdogs, mouth watering barbecue sandwiches, your favorite candy and popsicles, ice cold soft drinks, and the greasy-smelling restrooms around the corner for your convenience was all part of the experience. I tended to stick with nachos (extra jalapeños) and cheese pizza (extra, extra jalapeños). Needless to say, I politely insisted everything be put back in the pantry, because we were obligated, in spirit, to whip out the debit card, stand in long lines, and pay far more than we should for bad tasting drive-in junk food. Anything else would have spoiled the atmosphere.

We now think of cheesy horror and sci-fi films as ruling the drive-in roost. However, I recall seeing the mediocre  western, Cahill: U.S. Marshall (1973) on a double bill with the much more fun Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) at Westlake Drive-In Theater. We stayed through both features and even got to see the closing fireworks. The oddest memories I have of that night begin with mother’s very vocal fretting over how much of Caroline Munro’s cleavage my siblings and I were taking in. If Mom hadn’t made such an ado about it, I might not have even noticed. Curiously, she wasn’t at all worried about the western bloodshed, but Ms. Munro’s breasts sent her into an evangelical panic. (To be fair, however, I just lied when I speculated that I probably would not have noticed the cult star’s ample chest. I would have).

The other, perhaps even stranger memory is the sight of a fox, a few yards away, rummaging through the trash cans by the swing-set under the screen. Of course, one could never witness such magical nature at work, or a parental outburst, in the polite comfort of an air conditioned indoor theater.

The 1950s were the heyday of the drive-in cinema. Even when our family started going, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, outdoor cinemas were Continue reading CINEMA UNDER THE STARS: A CELEBRATION OF THE DRIVE-IN CINEMA

121. 8 1/2 (1963)

AKA Otto e Mezzo; Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2

CLAUDIA: Let’s leave this place. It makes me uneasy. It doesn’t seem real.

GUIDO: I really like it. Isn’t that odd?

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Sandra Milo, Claudia Cardinale, , Edra Gale

PLOT: Full of doubts and very near to suffering a breakdown from stress, a director is planning to make his next movie, never making much progress. The story is continuously interrupted by flashbacks to his boyhood and dream sequences, including one where he imagines all the women in his life living together in a harem. The production is complicated further by the arrival of his wife on the set, who is humiliated to find that his mistress is also there.

Still from 8 1/2 (1963)

BACKGROUND:

  • By Fellini’s count, this was the 8 1/2th film he directed (counting shorts and co-directing gigs as 1/2 of a movie each).
  • This was Fellini’s first feature after the incredible international success of La Dolce Vita (1960). In the movie, Fellini’s alter ego Guido has just come off of a great success, and everyone around him is expecting him to produce another masterpiece.
  • After making La Dolce Vita and before 8 1/2, Fellini became involved in Jungian psychoanalysis and started keeping a dream diary.
  • 8 1/2 won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1964. It played out of competition at Cannes, because the Italians split up their two 1963 prestige pictures, 8 1/2 and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard, between Cannes and the Moscow Film Festival (a successful strategy, as Visconti took Cannes and Fellini Moscow). 8 1/2 has since far surpassed its companion and become a staple of “best movies of all time” lists. It ranked #9 on the 2002 version of Sight & Sound’s critic’s poll of the greatest movies ever made, and #3 on the director’s poll.
  • The “dance” ending was originally intended as a promotional trailer, but Fellini decided he liked the optimistic tone of this sequence better than the dark ending he had originally planned.
  • Unaccountably, this intellectual meditation on artistic doubt was adapted as a Broadway musical (!) called “Nine,” which was then made into a mediocre Hollywood musical.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: It is with great reluctance that I select the image of Marcello Mastroianni flown like a kite above the beach as 8 1/2‘s representative image; not because it isn’t a fascinating and beautiful invention, but because I have to pass on so many other worthy candidates. In particular, I would have loved to pick a shot of Guido with a whip trying in vain to tame the women in the harem of his mind; but that ten minute sequence flows so beautifully and seamlessly from polygamous bliss to infantilism to feminist rebellion that it unfortunately can’t be summed up in a single still.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Watching 8 1/2 is like being dropped inside Federico Fellini’s brain


American trailer for 8 1/2

and wandering around inside its convoluted folds. As self-centered stream-of-consciousness filmmaking, this wonderfully masturbatory masterpiece has never been equaled. The film flows smoothly from anxiety-ridden nightmares to wish-fulfillment daydreams to some state we could safely call “reality” (although some new magic is always creeping up on even the most mundane moments of Guido’s confused existence).

COMMENTS: Expressing my disappointment with the middelbrow conventionality of 2009’s Continue reading 121. 8 1/2 (1963)

CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968)

* This is the third installment in the series “Karloff’s Bizarre and Final Six Pack.”

Although Cauldron of Blood (1970), Isle of the Snake People (1971) and Alien Terror were all released later, Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968) was actually ‘s last completed film. At 82, he caught pneumonia (reportedly as a result of his work in the damp manor scenes) and succumbed to it a few weeks after filming.

Alas, Karloff’s swan song is not an ideal exit, even if he is the most redeemable element of Curse. That assessment is completely without nostalgic sentiment. Karloff heads a genre dream cast: and Michael Gough. Stills from the film suggest a potential weird movie lover’s delight, but that potential is squandered through direction and writing that is too pedestrian to even be unintentionally bizarre.

Still from Curse of the Crimson AltarThe overall failure of the film can be attributed primarily to the unimaginative direction of Vernon Sewell. Sewell made a spattering of genre films, none of which rose above or fell below the level of mediocre. The plot, inspired by Lovecraft, is well-worn. Robert Manning (Mark Eden) is searching for his missing brother, Peter. This search leads Manning to Craxton Lodge. There, Manning encounters resistance and denial from J.D. Morley (Lee). Lee is overly familiar here in the type of sinister, square mustachioed role he played repeatedly. Although his acting is by no means unprofessional, the way his role is written, coupled with lackluster direction, leaves no opportunity for surprise.

Feigning guilt for his lack of information regarding Peter, Morley hospitably invites Manning to stay at Craxton Lodge. Manning does, partly because of amorous ambitions for Manning’s Continue reading CURSE OF THE CRIMSON ALTAR (1968)

CAPSULE: THE SILENT SCREAM [AKA SILENT SCREAM] (1980)

DIRECTED BY: Denny Harris

FEATURING, Rebecca Balding, , Yvonne De Carlo, Brad Reardon, Avery Schreiber

PLOT: College students rent rooms in a mysterious mansion by the beach only to find that the landlords are a tad invasive.

Still from Silent Sc4ream (1980)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The Silent Scream is not a particularly weird movie.  Instead, it is a  dated relic of the “Unusual ’80’s” horror movie phenomenon.  The 1980’s produced a glut of highly conventional, large-draw slasher flicks such as Friday The 13th and the Halloween sequels.  The decade also produced a couple of dozen unusual and distinctive efforts such as Fade To Black, My Bloody Valentine, Grandma’s House, and Motel Hell.  Odd films like these dwell on a darker, more rarefied level, one that hasn’t been visited much in the intervening years.  Newly released on DVD after 29 years, The Silent Scream is a noteworthy entry in this later category of period horror.  Until last year it had been lost in the mysterious, silvery mists of screen-scream antiquity.

COMMENTS:  Barbara Steele stars as the villain in this dated ’80’s American-made shocker.  Good character development, strong performances, and relatively little gore distinguish this effort from the usual slasher fare.

Here’s the setup: Cute and saucy Scotty Parker (Balding) transferred to her university a couple of weeks late and missed out on the fun of bunking with a bunch of freaks she doesn’t know in the dorms.  Challenged to find accommodations, she gravitates toward the old Engels house, a foreboding, sea-side edifice.

The creepy Engels place is run—on behalf of his very reclusive MOTHER! (De Carlo)—by a wrapped-awfully-tight, real-life Milhouse Van Houten character named Brad (Reardon).  Brad harbors a wide variety of deeply seated personal issues.  (Hey, who’s that looking through my air vent?)  Three more hormonally bloated students sign rental agreements and the school year is off to a beer and bodily fluid saturated start.  For most of them, that is.  The fratboy/ Continue reading CAPSULE: THE SILENT SCREAM [AKA SILENT SCREAM] (1980)