Tag Archives: 1959

IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (1959)

DIRECTED BY: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

FEATURING: Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift, Katharine Hepburn

PLOT: A brain surgeon examines the case of Catherine, a young woman who has been in a terrible state ever since the death of her poet cousin, inquiring into a mysterious incident in Europe.

Still from suddenly, Last Summer (1959)

COMMENTS: By the time Suddenly, Last Summer hit Broadway as part of a double-bill of one-act plays, was well-established as the pre-eminent voice – alongside Arthur Miller – of the American theater. With two Pulitzers, a pair of Oscar nominations, and at least three certifiable classics in his oeuvre, he was nearing the end of that imperial phase where almost anything he wrote could be staged and then adapted to the screen. The mere presence of his name on the bill was a commercial guarantee… even if his subject was a manipulative gay man whose indiscretions cause a group of feral youths to assault and eat him.

This is where “weird” comes into the discussion. You could easily place this alongside Williams’ most familiar works – the smothering maternal figure of The Glass Menagerie, the mental instability of A Streetcar Named Desire, the web of familial lies of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – without a moment’s hesitation. The acting is juicily overwrought, the battle between the tight lips of Southern propriety and the sweaty brows of unexpressed emotions is pitched high. It’s just another Southern Gothic drama, until you get to Elizabeth Taylor’s climactic monologue and she finally tells everyone just what happened to her cousin Sebastian. That irrevocably alters everything that has come before.

In some respects, Suddenly, Last Summer could only have happened at the precise moment it did. Homosexuality was still an unmentionable curse (the filmmakers only got it through the Production Code by emphasizing that Sebastian pays for his sins with his life), and neither it nor any other transgressions – the Venable women procuring young boys to feed Sebastian’s sexual appetites, the cannibalism – are called out explicitly. But Williams and screenwriter Gore Vidal clearly felt empowered to pull the curtain back on these immoralities. The whole saying-without-saying approach would be nigh unthinkable a decade later. This was the precise moment where such subjects could be talked about, but only if they were talked around.

Talking is all there is left, and Suddenly, Last Summer indulges in it. Vidal does little to open up Williams’ play for the screen, with most of its running time spent in either Catherine’s hospital room or Violet’s decadent New Orleans mansion and elaborate garden. Whenever the movie feels stagebound, the actors chomp on the scenery; Taylor knows she’s got a scrumptious part, with monologues that are by turns defiant and distraught. Hepburn, meanwhile, delights in deploying a mannered cruelty, from her wonderfully theatrical entrance descending in an elevator right up until the moment Taylor shatters her illusions of her beloved son. (Clift, in their presence, is unavoidably vacant. He is reduced to establishing exposition). Yet it’s in the moments when the story leaves the soundstages and pulls away from acting showcases that it starts to go to some truly strange places. Catherine’s forays into the depths of the mental asylum need no words as she comes face-to-face with souls far more damaged than hers. Her account of her trip to the island of Cabeza de Lobo (Wolf’s Head) is presented as a mute play, with phantasmagoric images of the swarthy locals, the blazing sun, and her own revealing swimsuit. Throughout, Sebastian is never given a face, reinforcing his complete unknowability. The twist of his horrific end only gains power from what we almost see.

Variety’s original review dubbed Suddenly, Last Summer “the most bizarre motion picture ever made by a major American company.” Time has dulled the impact of the film’s content, but there’s still something off-kilter about the way it delivers its surprises. It’s almost like a horror film pretending to be a Tennessee Williams play, rather than Williams dabbling in the grotesque. Like its title, it reflects a moment that ends everything we thought we knew, and leaves us reflecting upon it long after.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Mankiewicz] has turned out a polished film, and one that deals boldly with the ugly theme, but he has certainly not wasted any subtlety on the job…. this bizarre homosexual nightmare becomes the one artistically persuasive section in an otherwise coldly fabricated melodrama.” – Robert Hatch, The Nation (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by blibo. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

Suddenly, Last Summer
  • The disk has English audio.

311. SANTA CLAUS (1959)

AKA Santa Claus vs. the Devil

“Be off, my reindeer, and fly through the heavens as fast as you can go. May my palace of gold and crystal enjoy peace, and Jesus, the Son of God, join us on Earth so that we can all have joy and goodwill.” – Santa Claus

“This is weird theology.” Crow T. Robot,Mystery Science Theater 3000, Episode 521″

DIRECTED BY: René Cardona,  [as Ken Smith]

FEATURING: José Elias Moreno, José Luis Aguirre ‘Trotsky’, Lupita Quezadas

PLOT: From his outpost on a cloud high above the North Pole, Santa Claus attempts to fend off the demon Pitch’s schemes to poison the minds of the world’s children against him. Santa spends Christmas Eve sidestepping Pitch’s attempts to derail his rounds. With the help of the wizard Merlin, a collection of child laborers from around the world, and a team of nightmare-inducing wind-up papier-mâché reindeer, he fights to win back the soul of a poor little girl who badly wants a doll.

Still from Santa Claus (1959)

BACKGROUND:

  • Winner of the Golden Gate Award for Best International Family Film at the 1959 San Francisco International Film Festival.
  • Cardona’s remarkably prolific career (he helmed more than 100 films) ranged from literary adaptations to genre classics such as Night of the Bloody Apes and Wrestling Women vs. The Aztec Mummy.
  • Produced in Mexico, the film was purchased by American K. Gordon Murray, the so-called “King of the Kiddie Matinee,” who found financial success re-editing and dubbing foreign children’s films into English and releasing them to an American public starved for something to do with their kids.
  • Murray turned a profit through a careful schedule of limited releases, which artificially manipulated the supply and demand, turning screenings into scarce opportunities. The high density of holiday television broadcasts also added to the film’s coffers.
  • Featured in season 5 of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” Years later, Rifftrax–featuring Mike Nelson and Kevin Murphy from the MST3K installment––took its own shot at the film.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: So many to choose from (as you will see in a moment), but the vision I find most difficult to shake is Father Christmas monitoring his acolytes on Earth through the phantasmagoria of eavesdropping devices that make up his Magic Observatory, including an ear attached to an oscillating fan, an eye on an accordion tube, and a pair of very disturbing giant lips.

THREE WEIRD THINGS  Parade of child nations; Santa’s lip machine; cackling clockwork caribou

FIVE MORE WEIRD THINGS (to make 8 for Hanukkah): Interpretive dance from Hell; boxed parents; dream doll ballet; Santa’s rearguard assault; the Cocktail of Remembrance

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Santa Claus seems the results of a cross-border game of telephone: the basics of Santa’s mythology are all there, but the end product is something wholly different and unusual. The attempt to infuse an essentially commercial construct with deeply held moral codes produces a strange sort of alchemy, generating earnest feelings within a deeply unsettling presentation.


English-language trailer for Santa Claus (1959)

COMMENTS: Look, Santa Claus is weird. The guy, I mean. A preternaturally jolly man with a fortress hidden away in the farthest Continue reading 311. SANTA CLAUS (1959)

283. THE TINGLER (1959)

“Now please don’t fool with that stuff alone, Warren, it can produce some pretty weird effects.”—Lab assistant warning Vincent Price against taking LSD in The Tingler

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: William Castle

FEATURING: Vincent Price, Judith Evelyn, Darryl Hickman, Patricia Cutts

PLOT: Scruple-challenged scientist Dr. Warren Chapin discovers that a creature called “the Tingler” lives within the human spine. This creature grows when the host experiences fear, and shrinks when they scream. When an extracted Tingler escapes, Chapin and his assistant must race to re-capture the beast before it unleashes its terror—maybe right here inside this very movie theater!

Still from The Tingler (1959)

BACKGROUND:

  • Director/producer Castle, master of publicity-grabbing gimmicks, applied several such techniques to The Tingler, including hiring actresses to play nurses to stand outside the theater, and planting audience members to scream and faint at key moments in the picture. The most notorious gimmick in his oeuvre, however, was undoubtedly “Percepto.” For the theatrical release, Castle arranged for a handful of auditorium seats to be wired with war-surplus electric airplane de-icing engines. At a key moment during the film’s climax, the projectionist would activate the zappers, buzzing unsuspecting (or eagerly-hoping) viewers with a jolt of electricity, thereby breaking the fourth wall in a way 3-D never could.
  • Although best known for his B-movies, Castle’s resume is not exclusively low-budget shockers. He was an as assistant director on The Lady from Shanghai, and produced ‘s horror classic Rosemary’s Baby. (He has a cameo as a man wanting to use Mia Farrow’s phone booth.)
  • Price’s self-administered LSD experience was reportedly the first ever cinematic acid trip. Castle was so eager to clue in the audience to what was going on that he printed the name of the scientific monograph Price is reading on the back of the volume.
  • Directors and John Waters included The Tingler in their Top Ten lists for the Sight and Sound 2002 poll of the greatest films of all time.
  • Shane Wilson’s Staff Pick for the Certified Weird list.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: A blank projection screen, onto which ambles the shadow of a large rubber insect puppet, followed immediately by blackness, the sound of audience members shrieking their heads off, and the unmistakable command of Vincent Price: “Scream! Scream for your lives! The Tingler is loose in this theater!”

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Even without the electrified seats, The Tingler is an odd little enterprise. Between the confident pseudoscientific explanations, the wildly shifting tone, and the utter commitment to the absurd and goofily executed premise, it’s a strange and silly cinematic experience. But “Percepto” ups the ante considerably. Whereas previous auditorium gimmicks were content to merely startle theater patrons and to play upon their emotions, The Tingler was now actively threatening the audience with physical harm. By bringing the actual audience inside the film, Castle’s gimmick becomes a means to shatter the fourth wall completely, paving the way for the interactive experiences viewers treasure so much now.


Original trailer for The Tingler

COMMENTS: Let’s not kid ourselves. The Tingler is very silly. Consider that the entire premise of the film is based on literalizing the Continue reading 283. THE TINGLER (1959)

DAY OF THE OUTLAW (1959)

The films of Andre De Toth are slowly being paid their due recognition in the DVD market. As prolific and versatile as De Toth was there are, of course, hits and misses. While some of De Toth’s weaker films, such as The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953) and The Indian Fighter (1955), are readily available, other, far more notable works such as Ramrod (1947) and The Bounty Hunter (1954) still languish in obscurity. De Toth is best known for being the one-eyed director of the 3D House of Wax (1953), the noir classic Crime Wave (1954), and as one of the great Western revisionists of the 1950s (he wrote the story for 1950’s The Gunfighter).

Snow sets the extraordinarily bleak tone in Day of the Outlaw, even more than it did in De Toth’s previous Springfield Rifle (1952). Here, as is often the case in a De Toth film, an older hero is at the center of the story. Blaise (noir fan favorite Robert Ryan) and Dan (Nehemiah Persoff) are traveling to the aptly named town of Bitters. They are frostbitten and struggling to move through the thick snow drifts. Blaise whips his horse with determined intensity. The horse stumbles lethargically. Blaise, a rancher and gunfighter, is furious over the barbed wire fence that has been put up by farmer Hal Crane (Alan Marshal) and vows to kill Crane. A very tired Dan tells Blaise (in a hoarse voice), “A wire fence is a poor excuse to kill a man.” Blaise’s motive runs deeper. He has been having an affair with Crane’s wife Helen (Tina Louise).

The scene shifts from the seemingly endless snowy abyss to a claustrophobic saloon where, it seems, confrontation looms. First, Helen confronts Blaise. She tells him the affair is over and warns him not to harm her husband. Blaise promises nothing. Blaise then confronts Hal, provoking an inevitable showdown. Blaise represents the seasoned renegade spirit (a frequent De Toth theme) at odds with the arrival of civilization in the form of younger, weaker men (Hal and the farmers).

Still from Day of the Outlaw (1959)Despite Helen’s pleas, Blaise fully intends to kill Hal. She reprimands Blaise for his lack of mercy. “You won’t find mercy anywhere in Wyoming” he retorts. Bitter indeed. Blaise is about to leave Helen a widow and rid himself of an annoying farmer, but he is suddenly interrupted by a true threat in the form of outlaw Jack Bruhn (Burl Ives) and his gang. At this point, De Toth’s narrative takes a dramatic and refreshingly unexpected shift.

Bruhn, like Blaise, is a dying breed—literally dying, from a gunshot wound received in a recent bank robbery. Stark tension permeates Day of the Outlaw as Bruhn faces certain death while struggling to maintain control of his gang and the situation. The claustrophobia is a prison for both Bruhn and Blaise. They engage in a battle of wills while finding an uncomfortable identifying ground. Both men discover their own fallibility in the process and willingly take a contrarian, fatalistic course of action, which shifts the narrative to its bleak and cynical finale.

The final quarter of the film is replete with desolate symbolism. Insatiable greed is juxtaposed against Russel Harden’s sumptuous camera capturing the merciless, ominous landscape. Underneath the shifting terrain lies a steely goal of self-obliteration.

Day of the Outlaw stays with you long after the credits have faded, imprinting an indelible image of coarse whites. It may indeed be De Toth’s finest work, and that is saying quite a bit.

PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)

It was inevitable that we would have to find an individual space for Edward D. Wood, Jr.‘s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959). Everyone knows the story of how the 1959 sci-fi flop was rediscovered: two smarmy fundamentalist brothers, who managed to become full time film critics and fancied themselves patron saints of the bourgeoisie, crowned Eddie’s opus as “the worst film of all time.” Only it backfired on the Medveds, and their “Golden Turkey” award gifted the recently departed director with something he could not achieve in this mortal coil: infamy. The Medveds will be rightfully forgotten, cast into their suburban purgatory of banality—and if there is justice amongst the lesser gods, then little Mikey and Harry will be personally tended to by Mr. Heat Miser and Mr. Snow Miser in a tailor-made torture pit. In the moral cosmos, Yukon “even among misfits you’re a misfit” Cornelius has knighted the societal outcasts to dole out celestial justice. Rounding out the bacchanal of a Medved hell, little Eddie Wood, Jr., reunites with Bela, Vampira, Criswell, Tor, and Valda Hansen, administering an eternal enema to such constipated dolts.

The Medveds evolved into Mystery Science Theater 3000. Rather than giving Hollywood, with its plethora of big budget, generic excrement, what it deserved, the MST3K production team, erroneously imagining themselves hip, picked easy targets in low budget indie films. Naturally, Ed Wood was a frequent focus. The do-nothing couch potato geeks made the show a hit. It was their sole shot at superiority.

Wood stands out, even among his peers, because he imbued his films with his own personality. Even in his later films, when his energy had been zapped by one personal defeat after another, there is still no mistaking Wood’s hand in the recipe. Near the end of his life, Wood waxed nostalgic about his failed career and admitted that Glen or Glenda (1953) was his self-portrait, but that Plan 9 From Outer Space was his pride and joy. Both films stand out, even amongst likeminded 50s indie genre films. Intensely and inherently weird, they are defiantly individualistic and, in that sense, they stand apart as authentic art, of far more intrinsic value than most of the drek manufactured by big studios.

Attesting to its originality, Plan 9 From Outer Space has as many classic lines as films like Dracula (1931) and Casablanca (1942), but do not take our word for it. Just read them:

Still from Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)Narrator [Criswell]: “Greetings, my friend. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future. You are interested in the unknown… the mysterious. The unexplainable. That is why you are here. And now, for the first time, we are bringing to you, the full story of what happened on that fateful day. We are bringing you all the evidence, based only on the secret testimony, of the miserable souls, who survived this terrifying ordeal. The incidents, the places. My friend, we cannot keep this a secret any longer. Let us punish the guilty. Let us reward the innocent. My friend, can your heart stand the shocking facts of grave robbers from outer space?”

—-

Narrator: “All of us on this earth know that there is a time to live, and that there is a time to die.”

—- Continue reading PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE (1959)