Categories
Action/Adventure Horror/Suspense Science Fiction / Fantasy

Them!

Before Aliens, before Starship Troopers, before The Swarm, even before Tarantula (my recommendation here), Hollywood discovered that bigging up bugs into a threat to humanity could translate a prevalent human anxiety into a nerve-jangling cinematic experience. The year was 1954 and the movie has since became revered as a trendsetting sci-fi classic: Them!

As I have said many times on the site, I love films that put the audience immediately into the story without ponderous context-setting. Them! is a master class in the art. The film opens with a little girl (Sandy Descher), visibly in shock, walking mutely across the New Mexico desert. She is rescued by police, led by the brave and compassionate Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore). The cops investigate, finding homes torn open, people dead or missing, and a suspicious quantity of spilled sugar. When the horrifying nature of their atomically-charged adversary becomes apparent, the authorities call in a stout FBI agent (James Arness), an eccentric, elderly myrmecologist (Edmund Gwenn), and his equally scientifically gifted daughter, who is also a dish (Joan Weldon). A thrilling humanity vs. super-insect war ensues.

48. Them! (1954) | Wonders in the Dark

Hollywood has always had prestige directors who make big budget, A-list films. But in the era when many people went to the movies every week, the studios also needed competent, no name directors who could efficiently deliver movies of all forms on a tight schedule. Gordon Douglas was cut from that cloth: he directed 27 films for Warner Brothers in the 1950s alone, most of which were modestly budgeted films destined to be second features in theaters for a couple weeks and then be forgotten. But he could make a very good movie when he was given the tools, as was here courtesy of original story writer George Worthing Yates, adapter Russell Hughes, and screenwriter Ted Sherdeman. His artistically outstanding decision was to direct the first 30 minutes of this movie like a ghost story set in the eerie expanses of sand-swirled desert. After one of the most famous big reveals in sci-fi film history, the story then becomes a more conventional “bug hunt”, but Douglas handles that form well enough to bring the audience along with him.

Them! (1954)

Whitmore and Arness’s characters don’t make much sense, in that they start out as a highway patrolman and FBI agent and end up practically running the U.S. military’s anti-ant operations. But they are strong-jawed enough to be upstanding and believable action heroes. As a daffy but brilliant professor, Gwenn adds some welcome humor, and Weldon is credible as a confident and intelligent woman (not many of those in movies of this period) who catches Arness’ eye while also helping save our species.

The other attraction here are the Oscar-nominated special effects. By modern CGI standards, they are of course laughable. But at the time, they were pathbreaking. And in any event, part of appreciating old monster movies is finding the charm of the craft of SPFX creators in a pre-high-tech environment.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Science Fiction / Fantasy

The Incredible Shrinking Man

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) - Midnite Reviews

Of all the talented people I mention on this website, I don’t think any name appears more often than Richard Matheson. Working almost entirely within the science-fiction/horror genre, this prolific writer managed to tell stories that entertained a broad audience while also being consistently intelligent and in some cases also conveying considerable psychic weight. No adaptation of his work illustrates better than the classic 1957 movie The Incredible Shrinking Man.

The plot: The Careys, an attractive, happy, married couple are out boating when a mysterious fog on the water scatters a strange, shimmering material on Scott (Grant Williams). Six months later, after being exposed to some pesticide, his body begins to shrink, inch by inch. Doctors conclude that some sort of chemical, possibly radiation-related, malady has afflicted Scott; they can slow it down but not stop it. Helplessly and bitterly, Scott becomes smaller physically as well as in other respects: he can no longer hold a job, becomes resentful and controlling of his wife Louise (Randy Stuart), and is widely mocked. His resentment turns to terror when he is left alone the house with the family cat and subsequently trapped in a dank basement with one of the scariest spiders in screen history.

Incredible Shrinking Man, The (1957) -- Mousetrap - Turner Classic Movies

There’s much to admire in this film both technically and thematically. The production design and special effects are trend-setting, and six decades later still impress and unnerve modern audiences. Williams and Stuart, whose subsequent careers surprisingly did not flower, deliver strong performances as ordinary people coping with extraordinary stress on themselves and their marriage. And director Jack Arnold turns in the best effort of his career.

But what really makes the movie is Matheson’s story, which he published as a novel and then co-adapted with Richard Allen Simmons for the screenplay (although Matheson did not value Simmons’ changes and refused to share an on screen credit with him). The story’s strengths include a highly original premise, believable dialogue, crisp plotting, and engaging philosophic themes.

321) The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) - YouTube

Many people read this film as being about threatened post-war masculinity, seen for example in Scott’s anxiety over becoming smaller than Louise, his inability to provide financially for her, and him eventually being forced to live in a dollhouse she sets up for him. Although it’s never made explicit, the couple’s sexual relationship also ends, and there’s something pathetic yet touching in the protagonist going from being a virile, confident, 6 footer in the opening scene to showing sudden, desperate interest in a pretty, pint-sized circus performer (April Kent)….until he shrinks below her size too. Yet the film works just as well as a more general reflection on the human search for meaning in the face of our trivial place in the universe and the inevitability of death. There is no dialogue during the closing third of the movie, only Scott narrating his existential predicament, which ultimately is surprisingly profound, even moving.

I have also a recommended Jack Arnold’s comparatively lightweight but quite entertaining B-movie Tarantula, about a giant spider who terrorizes a town (There’s a movie legend that Arnold used the same tarantula in this film, which seems implausible). It’s thought-provoking to reflect on why a giant tarantula chasing normal sized people in that movie is less scary than a normal sized tarantula chasing a miniaturized man here. Partly it’s the camerawork, which makes the audience see the spider and everything else in the basement from Scott Carey’s vulnerable perspective. The other part is the extreme isolation of the character. In Tarantula, there are many people who are towered over by the spider, whereas here Carey is utterly alone not only in the battle but in the universe, a recurring theme in the work of the legendary Richard Matheson.

Film Review: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) | HNN
Categories
Action/Adventure Horror/Suspense

Assault on Precinct 13

Review: John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 - Slant Magazine

I went through an enjoyable spate of watching early John Carpenter movies. Dark Star is an endearing ultra-low budget movie which highlights the emerging talent of Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon and will likely always have a place in college sci-fi film festivals. But it’s too unpolished and uneven for me to recommend. In contrast, his next movie, made in 1976 with a larger (if still small in absolute terms) budget, is taut, thrilling, and well-acted from end to end: Assault on Precinct 13.

The spare plot is a reworking of Howard Hawks’ claustrophobic classic Rio Bravo (whom Carpenter also echoed in The Thing ). Highway Patrol Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is given the ostensibly ho-hum assignment of overseeing the closure of a near-abandoned police station. But of course it couldn’t be that easy: a vicious, well-armed street gang converges on the station to avenge the killing of some of their members by the police as well as by an enraged civilian whose family they victimized. After the gang’s initial assault kills the few remaining police officers, Stoker can only rely on a worldly secretary (Laurie Zimmer) and two prisoners (Darwin Joston and Tony Burton) to hold off the horde. Superb action and suspense follow.

Assault On Precinct 13 – Collector's Edition (Blu-ray Review) at Why So Blu?

Carpenter boils everything down to the essentials here: the desperate human will to survive, how danger can draw out courage in some and fear in others, and how shared risks can make enemies learn to trust each other. He matches that thematic simplicity with a no-nonsense visual style and fat-free storytelling. And he draws effective performances from his no name cast, further attesting to his talents as a director.

The excruciating tension of the siege on the station comes in part from the zombie-like nature of the gang members (Indeed, Carpenter has acknowledged the influence of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead on his script). The gang members barely speak in this movie, being a mindless, remorseless, deadly mob akin to those Carpenter summoned up so well in The Fog, Ghosts of Mars, and They Live. Their intended victims, like the audience, want to know why the villains are they way they are, but there is no sensible or reassuring answer: they want to kill, they will not stop, and that is all.

Carpenter really did it all here, writing a tight script with solid dialogue, crisp plot lines and some moments of black humor (including the legendary “ice cream” scene). His characters aren’t extremely well-developed, but enough so that you root for them. Also worthy of comment: Carpenter made an intriguing and I think productive decision to bend reality by making the street gang multi-racial, as are the defenders of precinct 13, thus avoiding what might have been ugly overtones if the dueling sides had been racially monotone. He also composed one of his best scores and even, under a stage name (John T. Chance) did the editing, which not incidentally is terrific, particularly in the actions scenes. Like Roger Corman, Carpenter was underappreciated for many years before being recognized as a masterful filmmaker. Assault on Precinct 13 shows that his talent was evident from the earliest days of his career.

p.s. I didn’t see the 2005 remake of this film and based on reviews I don’t want to.

Categories
Action/Adventure British Horror/Suspense

Seven Days to Noon

I make no secret of my disdain for flabby filmmaking. Many modern movies (e.g., almost every superhero movie of recent years) would be significantly better with a merciless edit of tiresome exposition, distracting subplots, saggy scenes, wordy dialogue, soulless CGI, and other forms of artistic bloat. I can hear the whines already “But I need that 30 minutes to show how the hero’s motivation goes back to his childhood trauma, to explain that his energy blaster works on the principle of microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radiation, and to have the authority figure character explain what the film is really about in his closing speech”. Stuff and nonsense. When films had smaller budgets and shorter shooting schedules, their makers were more economical in their storytelling by necessity, but the result was better rather than worse cinema. If you want a demonstration of that principle as well as an utterly gripping cinematic experience, check out the 94 thrilling minutes of fat-free brilliance in Seven Days to Noon.

Based on an Oscar-winning story by Paul Dehn and James Bernard, this 1950 film has a simple and terrifyingly realistic premise: a once-reliable military scientist could lose his head and decide to steal a powerful weapon. Said scientist, Professor Willingdon (Barry Jones, offering a compelling mix of threat and vulnerability), believes he can promote world peace by threatening to set off a powerful bomb in the heart of London in seven days if the government doesn’t renounce weapon building. A dedicated member of Special Branch (the ever sturdy Andre Morell) recruits Willingdon’s daughter Ann (Sheila Manahan) to aid him as he coordinates a national manhunt. But Willingdon is a crafty adversary, and hides in plain sight by taking rooms under an assumed name with a brassy London actress (a terrific Olive Sloane). Nail biting suspense and existential themes follow.

Seven Days to Noon (1950) - Cinema Cats

Roy Boulting and Frank Harvey’s tight script combined with the Brothers’ Hitchcock-level use of pure cinema, make this a truly breathless thriller, one of many that would channel post-war nuclear anxieties. The hero has no backstory because he doesn’t need one. The precise mechanics of the McGuffin are never laid out – it’s a bomb and we all know what a bomb is, so why bother? Willingdon doesn’t really explicit his motives until 75 minutes in, and even then there’s not an excess word in them. And many plot developments unfold entirely through a series of images or through effective quoting of superstar composer-to-be John Addison’s first score. At times it feels like watching the best of the silents, and I mean that as the highest of compliments.

The Boultings avoided casting big stars, used some real locations, included colorful snippets of Londoners, and did not tart up the sets to look like anything more than battered, post-war London (Similar to what Sir Carol Reed had done the year before in Vienna while making The Third Man). This at times gives the movie, particularly the daytime scenes, the feel of Italian neorealism or an American police docudrama. But with its air of impending doom and Gilbert Taylor’s night time cinematography, it at other times has a more stylized, film noir feel. Of Taylor’s many arresting visuals, I will not forget any time soon the shots of Willingdon praying alone on his knees in a bomb-shattered cathedral. The realistic and stylized elements work together beautifully, recalling another brilliant “dangerous man on the run” movie from this period, He Walked by Night (recommended here).

I have recommended the Boulting Brothers’ tough film noir Brighton Rock and their sidesplitting I’m All Right Jack, but for me, their most remarkable achievement remains Seven Days to Noon. This film riveted me and at other times made me say “Wow” out loud. That the Boultings could make such different movies so skillfully is why they, while less famous than the legendary Powell and Pressburger, rank among the best British filmmaking partnerships of the 20th century.

Seven Days to Noon Blu-ray Release Date November 5, 2019

p.s. Gilbert Taylor lived to be nearly 100 and nearly three decades after this, was the cinematographer for Star Wars.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Tightrope

Tightrope (1984) - Moria

Long before Louisiana started offering massive tax credits to attract Hollywood productions, the state was a popular setting for crime dramas. Some played off the haunting atmosphere of the bayous (e.g., the mediocre adaptations of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, Heaven’s Prisoners and In the Electric Mist) whereas others were built around New Orleans’ pervasive corruption (e.g., The pretty good Dennis Quaid-Ellen Barkin romance/thriller, The Big Easy). The underappreciated 1984 Clint Eastwood vehicle Tightrope effectively exploits (in every sense) a different local cultural feature, namely the sleazier side of the sex trade that has existed in New Orleans long before Storyville because a synonym for a red light district.

The plot: Police detective Wes Block (Clint) has been unmoored since his wife abandoned him and his daughters (Jenny Beck and Clint’s real life daughter, Alison). Loving and attentive with his daughters by day, at night Block has for reasons that he can’t fully understand begun visiting prostitutes that he can sexually dominate. Block’s psychological turmoil takes on new dimensions when he is assigned to catch a serial killer who takes his fetish to deadly extremes. Meanwhile, a strong, intelligent, women’s rights advocate (Geneviève Bujold) pressures Block to respond more effectively to the threat the killer poses, and unnerves him in other ways as well. A brutal crime story and descent into emotional darkness follow.

The “cop in crisis” has been done a million times before, and is usually short-handed in a fashion that will not alienate the audience, most commonly by showing him drinking too much. “We are not so very different, you and I” is another movie staple, for example showing that both the lead police investigator and the master criminal are both smart, obsessive people. If that’s all this film had done, it would have been a serviceable but unremarkable crime drama. What makes Tightrope special is Clint Eastwood’s willingness to challenge his millions of fans by having his character wallow in muck: He’s not just drinking too much, he’s handcuffing prostitutes so that he can control them during sex. And he’s not similar to the killer only because both are smart and obsessive, but because both of their heads are psychosexual snake pits. The only parallel level of risk taking by a major international star I know of along these lines is Sean Connery’s stellar work in another of my recommendations, The Offence.

The legendary William Goldman said that a basic rule of screenwriting was that “stars will not play weak and they will not play blemished.” But every rule has exceptions. Going as far back as the flawed but intriguing 1971 film The Beguiled continuing through the multi-Oscar winning Unforgiven and up to the present day (e.g., Gran Torino, The Mule) Eastwood has never been afraid to “play blemished.” That’s a key reason why his career has been so much more artistically varied and impressive than all those Hollywood actors who only portrayed strong-jawed paladins.

Tightrope (1984) – 80's Movie Guide

The other thing that raises this film about countless other police thrillers are the female characters and the high level at which they are written and performed. Alison Eastwood isn’t just the star’s kid, she’s a fine actress and her scenes with her father have authentic emotional power. They also fill out the character of Wes Block by showing that while he’s not different from the killer in having hostile feelings towards women, he is quite different in also experiencing more tender emotions towards them. Bujold, who appeared in too few films for an actress of her talent, is also excellent here. Because she is strong enough to vulnerable with Block, and sees his own fear of being hurt, she gets under his skin in a way nothing else does. I also love that rather than portraying her as a damsel in distress, the script makes her heroic in her direct confrontation with the killer.

Richard Tuggle’s script has a few missteps here and there but is generally first-rate, putting a fresh spin on the tropes of the genre. He also got the screen credit for director, but this sure looks and feels like an Eastwood film. According to Richard Shickel’s biography of Eastwood, Tuggle had never directed a movie before and was extremely tentative on set, leading Tuggle and Eastwood to amicably work out a co-directing arrangement. Whatever precisely happened in that regard, the result is compelling.

Reaction to Tightrope was mixed when it played in theaters, with some people finding it too seedy and dark (literally and figuratively) but others appreciating the strong acting and neo-noir tone. I am very much in the latter camp, and would put Tightrope up there with Bronco Billy as Eastwood’s best work of the 1980s.

Categories
British Horror/Suspense

The Devil Rides Out

If you have a chance to make a deal with Satan, you might consider asking for Dennis Wheatley’s book sales and film royalties. Among Wheatley’s many best sellers were a series of thrillers featuring the Duke de Richleau and his three loyal friends Simon Aaron, Rex Van Ryn, and Richard Eaton (Wheatley loosely modelled them on Dumas’ Musketeers). In a number of their adventures, the Duke employed his knowledge of the occult to battle diabolical supernatural forces. Fortunately, Hammer Films smelled an opportunity and in 1968 brought together some of its best talent to adapt Wheatley’s chilling and exciting tale The Devil Rides Out.

As I’ve mentioned in many of my recommendations, I like films that get right down to story telling without a lot of needless expository set up and context setting. The Devil Rides Out is a model of the form, opening with The Duke (Christopher Lee) and Rex (Leon Greene, though dubbed by Patrick Allen) dropping by unannounced at the home of their friend Simon (Patrick Mower) and discovering to their alarm that he’s fallen in with a group of Satanists! Investigation soon reveals that the sinister cultists are led by a hypnotic menace named Mocata (Charles Gray) and have designs not only on Simon, but also on a young woman named Tanith (Niké Arrighi) with whom Rex is enamored. The brave heroes seek help from The Eatons (Rosalyn Landor and Paul Eddington) and this redoubtable foursome commit to saving Simon and Tanith in the face of mounting threats summoned from Hell itself. Chills, suspense, and excitement follow.

Terence Fisher was Hammer’s best director, and he’s on his usual crisp and intelligent form here. Some horror directors accentuate supernatural goings on with melodrama and splatter. Fisher had an opposing, more British style: his characters are thoughtful, their relationships nuanced, and the demeanor remarkably restrained given the proceedings around them (down to all of them wearing suits and ties in virtually every scene even as they battle Satanists with fist and cross). Fisher had a fine script with which to work, by the great Richard Matheson, whose work I have touted in more than a half dozen other movie recommendations. He paces the story masterfully, doling out action sequences and character development at just the right rate. Matheson throws together Druidic, Pagan, Egyptian, Christian, and Masonic traditions fairly haphazardly along the way, but this is entertainment, not a theology course.

Image for post

This movie gave Christopher Lee a rare chance to anchor a picture in a thoroughly heroic role. Hammer Studios would normally have cast his friend Peter Cushing in role like the Duke. Cushing was always good, but Lee surely deserved this role after being wrapped in mummy bandages, sucking blood, shambling around with bolts in his neck, and all the rest of it in all those Hammer monster movies. He’s appropriately commanding as an aristocratic do-gooder, while also conveying enough humanity to make his character likable and the core relationships in the movie believable.

In a sturdy cast, Charles Gray makes a strong, frightening, impression as Mocata (which allegedly landed him the subsequent role of James Bond’s enemy, Ernst Bloefeld, in Diamonds are Forever). Patrick Mower, who had a recurring part in the Callan series (my recommendation here) is solid in his debut role, and Paul Eddington shows the developing talent that would later make him such a joy in Yes, Minister. Rosalyn Landor also registers as the brave Peggy Eaton, including through some unusual character developments that I won’t spoil.

Modern viewers may find the special effects cheap and unconvincing by today’s standards, which they are. I found the dated effects kind of charming (much as I do the sets in classic Universal monster pictures), and their limitations in no way reduced the tension during the heroes’ extended face off with the enemy in a Satanic circle. Overall, The Devil Rides Out is one of Hammer’s best movies in the horror/thriller vein, and that’s definitely saying something.

p.s. I suppose one could say this about many British films, but I couldn’t help noticing how many people associated with this film ended up in Sherlock Holmes adaptations. Christopher Lee played Sherlock Holmes multiple times, including under Fisher’s direction, and played Mycroft Holmes in Billy Wilder’s magnificent The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes. Charles Gray played Mycroft both in The Seven Percent Solution and Granada’s television series starring Jeremy Brett. The Granada series also featured Patrick Allen as Professor Moriarty’s right-hand man, Rosalyn Landor as the heroine of The Speckled Band, and, at the age I believe of 100, Gwen Ffrangcon Davies, who has a small part as a Satanist here.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

The Night Stalker and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde **Double Feature**

The Night Stalker: A tribute to the 1972 TV movie that influenced The  X-Files

I’m a fan of the horror and science fiction work of writer Richard Matheson and Producer/Director Dan Curtis, including films on which they collaborated, like the electrifying Amelia segment of Trilogy of Terror (My recommendation here) Their admirers could argue forever about which of their films were the most entertaining, but purely in terms of enduring impact, the obvious choice is their 1972 TV movie The Night Stalker.

Working from an unpublished novel by Jeffrey Grant Rice, Matheson brilliantly met the two challenges of modern vampire movies, namely doing something new, and, having characters behave in sensible ways given that the characters would themselves have all seen vampire movies. The fresh angle to the story is provided by centering the narrative on a crusty yet charming journalist on a downward career slope: Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin, who’s damn near perfect). When bodies of young women drained of blood start littering the streets of Las Vegas, Kolchak and the cops (e.g., a gruff sheriff played by Claude Akins) initially make the assumption that works for modern audiences, namely that a mentally unstable killer thinks he is a vampire. But as the cynical Kolchak investigates the ghoulish crimes and follows the police manhunt, he finds himself believing the seemingly impossible.

There’s much to cherish in the movie, which drew a massive audience and launched a cult TV series whose descendants include The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With seasoned television director John Llewellyn Moxley at the helm, the story unfolds with the right mix of suspense leavened with humor (black humor and horror are cousins, but it still takes artistry to mix them in a fashion that isn’t jarring). Although Kolchak is in a romantic relationship (with a prostitute played by Carol Lynley, because it’s a 1970s film set in Las Vegas) the most dynamic interaction comes between McGaven and Simon Oakland as editor Tony Vincenzo. Together they have the chemistry of an old married couple, with amusing bickering leavened with underlying respect. Film noir fans will also be glad to see Ralph Meeker and Elisha Cook Jr again in supporting parts as friends of Kolchak. And props to Barry Atwater, for being suitably unnerving in a part that gave him no lines.

Classic Movie Hub on Twitter: "Born Today, Aug 28, in 1915, Character Actor Simon  Oakland - 145+ roles; lots of TV; I Want to Live, Psycho, Bullitt, West  Side Story... https://t.co/tvpFsloqDl… https://t.co/OPrCcVBPWu"

You have probably heard of The Night Stalker, but you will probably not have heard of another Dan Curtis film which I suggested as a second feature on this double bill: his 1968 adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s oft-filmed tale, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde. Curtis produced this version for ABC television, which was directed by Charles Jarrott.

The plot is too familiar to be worth summarizing, so I will concentrate on the unique aspect, which is how the transformation of Jekyll to Hyde is handled. As with the 1973 Curtis/Matheson Dracula I have recommended, the star here is Jack Palance, and he carries the whole film (no disrespect to Denholm Elliott, who is sturdy as his friend, but that part just isn’t as intriguing). Only modest changes in the makeup of literature’s most famous split personality were employed, with the film relying instead on Palance’s acting talent to differentiate the shy, bookish, respectable Dr. Henry Jekyll from the lusty and violent Mr. Hyde. Palance is up to the challenge, including given the audience at least some sympathy with the generally awful Hyde; at least he’s a lot more fun than his stuffy alter ego. The other thing that Curtis fans will appreciate is that the style, settings, tone, and music come straight out of his long-running television series Dark Shadows.

March Hyde Madness: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968) |  Monster Movie Kid

The film has some weaknesses. The adapted screenplay was written by Ian McKellan Hunter, perhaps most famous for fronting Dalton Trumbo’s Oscar-winning script of Roman Holiday (If you want to know more about fronting, see my recommendation of, well, The Front). Hunter’s script is okay, but you have to imagine Matheson would have done a better job bringing Stevenson to the screen. Also, the television sized budget shows at times. It’s a bit too obvious that some scenes are shot with a single stationary camera and in the medical school scenes there’s also what looks like not entirely successful rear-screen projection, though it could be a not entirely successful matte work (either way, it’s distracting). All of that puts the film in the good category rather than the all time TV horror classic category in which The Night Stalker belongs.

If you want to learn more about how Dan Curtis made these films, including how his relationship with Matheson evolved, this interview is really worth watching.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir Science Fiction / Fantasy

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 Version)

BLACK HOLE REVIEWS: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1978) - creepy,  paranoid, body horror

When I recommend multiple adaptations of the same story, I typically package them as double or triple features. But in this case, the remake of a classic film I have recommended is so well-made and so distinctly its own work of art that I grant it an essay of its own: the 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Like the 1956 classic original, Philip Kaufman’s remake is based on Jack Finney’s popular novel The Body Snatchers, in which seed pods from another planet drift to earth and begin replacing humanity with soulless replicas. But Kaufman added his own twist, which was to move the story from a California backwater to modern day San Francisco, a city he knows very well. In doing so, he preserved the suspense and chills of the original story while also getting to show off the gorgeous City by the Bay while also gently parodying some of its self-consciously hip and alternative residents.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) Movie Review on MHM

Our likable and believable heroes this time around are Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams as dedicated public health department employees (Back when such people could afford lovely homes in San Francisco). W.D. Richter’s screenplay wisely never explains if they once were lovers, but the actors convey the romantic undertone of their relationship, even though she is, awkwardly, living with a guy who doesn’t quite seem to be himself lately.

There’s always a character in paranoia films who explains to the anxious protagonist why nothing is really amiss, it’s all in your head, and why not lie down and get some rest? Here that part is a San Francisco archetype, a psychological growth-touting guru, played perfectly by Leonard Nimoy. If you are going to be typecast, Spock is a fabulous role to have, but Nimoy didn’t get as much chance as he deserved to try other things.

As for the extraterrestrial nasties, kudos to the special effects and makeup teams for creating some unnerving aliens with gut churning reproductive habits. One wonders if the makers of the Alien films were inspired by this movie’s parasitic menaces. Combined with terrific pacing (something lacking in some of Kaufman’s other movies), the heroes’ battle to resist the invaders is edge of your seat stuff.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Another thing I cherish about this movie is that while it’s mainly in the sci-fi/horror genre, it has noir elements and cinematographer Michael Chapman shot it as such. As has been shown in many classic noirs, San Francisco was made for shadowy lighting, unusual camera angles, and lonely compositions, all of which Chapman artfully employs here.

Last but certainly not least, this film breaks away from its classic predecessor in many respects, but at the same time stays reverent to it. Most notably, both the star (Kevin McCarthy) and director (Don Siegel) of the 1956 version have cameo roles that are both fun and scary. Put it all together and you have in my opinion both the best movie in Kaufman’s impressive ouevre and one of Hollywood’s freshest remakes ever.

p.s. Look fast in the opening scenes for a creepy looking priest on a swing played by Robert Duvall! As Kaufman tells it, he thought every horror movie should have priest in it so he asked his friend Duvall to do the wordless cameo.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Mystery/Noir

Taste of Fear

London-based Hammer Films had a fertile and fiscally rewarding period in the 1950s and 1960s styling itself as the British second coming of the old Universal Studios Monster Movies. They gave Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy quite a workout, relying on generally solid and scary scripts, a stable of dependable stage-trained actors, not-bad special effects, atmospheric locations (e.g., Highgate Cemetery) and an abundance of aspiring starlets with daring décolletage. Many viewers remember Hammer monster movies in their nightmares, but few recall that the studio also turned out some high-quality psychological thrillers, most of them scripted by Jimmy Sangster. This week I recommend my favorite of these films: 1961’s Taste of Fear (aka Scream of Fear).

The story centers on a frequently-invoked but still effective thriller trope: The central character who has some physical limitation that makes them unusually vulnerable. In this case, it’s Penny Appleby, who has needed a wheelchair since suffering a tragic accident. She has traveled far to visit the wealthy father whom she has not seen since her parents’ divorce over a decade ago. Her father’s new wife and a family friend named Dr. Gerrard greet her warmly, but inform her that her father is away on business. Yet as the days go by, a series of peculiar and shocking events make her start to think her father has in fact been murdered! Has she come across the world’s wickedest stepmother, or is she losing her mind? Nerve-shredding suspense and some inventive plot twists follow.

Taste of Fear is often referred to as Hitchcockian, and while I can see why, it recalls for me much more the French classic Diabolique, which Sangster almost certainly must have seen. Both films create a sense of dread and continually lead the viewer to think “Ah, that’s what’s really going on” to be immediately followed by “I was wrong again – I have no idea what’s really going on”.

Hammer made the film in partnership with Columbia Pictures, which accounts for them landing American Susan Strasberg for the role of Penny. She brings across very well a young woman who is understandably fearful but at the same time determined and smart enough to keep pressing the question. The rest of the cast are British talents of the type that Hammer more typically favored, including Dracula himself, Christopher Lee, as an effectively creepy Dr. Gerrard.

The other undeniable strength of the film is Douglas Slocombe’s pristine, gorgeous black and white cinematography. Both he and director Seth Holt have refined visual instincts regarding the balance of light and shadow that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. They also create a stunningly horrifying shot underwater that I will not detail because it would spoil a plot point, but you’ll appreciate it when you see it. Credit former film editor Holt also for a tightly constructed movie – flabbiness is the enemy of suspense and everything in this movie is lean and tight.

Hammer devotees argue which of the studio’s films was the most creative and well-made, with Brian Clemens’ Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter at the top of many fans’ list. That’s a fun movie, but I find Taste of Fear more tightly constructed and better acted as well. This shamefully-forgotten thriller is available on Daily Motion, which I believe has the legal right to rebroadcast old movies on line, so you can enjoy it free of guilt right here.

Categories
British Horror/Suspense

Whistle and I’ll Come to You

In my transatlantic existence, I’ve had many opportunities to observe the differences between British and American culture. One of the smaller ones: only the former have a broadly-shared tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas. A Christmas Carol is of course the touchstone of this British pleasure, but it apparently started centuries before Dickens’ classic.

BBC responded to and nurtured this tradition for a number of years by adapting a ghost story for television each yuletide season during the 1970s, reviving the practice a little over a decade ago. Most of them have featured the stories of M.R. James, though Mr. Dickens has also had his turn (An effective adaptation of The Signalman). James was a respected British academic and medieval studies scholar who famously had a sideline in writing chilling tales of the supernatural, most of which featured a central character from James’ world (e.g., a writer, professor, bishop, museum curator) who gets in over his head when encountering malevolent forces he cannot understand.

The BFI has a boxed set available with every BBC ghost story. Here, I am going to recommend the story that kicked it all off: Whistle and I’ll Come to You

Many people incorrectly recall the first BBC ghost story as being a Christmas special like all those that followed, but it was actually a springtime entry in the long-running series Omnibus, which more typically carried art-focused documentaries. But in 1968, legendary director Jonathan Miller gave Omnibus audiences a giant scare instead. The story centers on Professor Parkins, vividly portrayed by Michael Hordern as a near-autistic Cambridge Don who talks to himself more than the people around him. In a remote English seaside town, he checks into a bed and breakfast with a plan to do some reading and some “trudging” along the desolate beaches. His social awkwardness is extreme, positioning him apart from the other guests both figuratively and literally. But in this pivotal scene in which the hyper-rational Parkins puts a fellow guest who believes in ghosts in his place (“There are more things in philosophy than are dreamt of in heaven and earth”) we learn that it’s fundamentally smugness and not a sense of inferiority that separates Parkins from the rest of humanity. This is the classic M.R. James set up for a haughty intellectual to get his comeuppance via the world beyond.

And so it comes to pass. Professor Parkins comes across a grave that has been eroded by the sea and wind. Unwisely, he sorts through the bones to find a whistle with a Latin inscription meaning “Who is this who is coming?”. Of course the poor sod can’t resist blowing the whistle. Something awakens, glimpsed first as a distant, shrouded, figure silhouetted by the fading sun, then taking more form in pursuit during the Professor’s nightmares, and far too closer for comfort soon after that.

Like all of M.R. James’ stories, Whistle and I’ll Come to You is not a blood-spattered terror ride, but an eerie tale of foreboding, in which evil is often only glimpsed out of the corner of our eye. This is the artiest of BBC’s many adaptations of James’ stories, probably because of Miller’s presence and because the Omnibus audience would have expected nothing less (This also may account for the opening documentary-like narration by Miller, which might better have been dropped). Dick Bush does a tremendous job with single black and white camera set ups and long takes, including some effective low-angle and deep focus shots. He uses very few mid-range shots, mainly relying on distant, lonely, camera placement interspersed with a few well-chosen extreme closeups. The whole effect is admirably unnerving.

Were this constructed as a pure suspenser, the 40 minute running time would have been too long, but that’s why Hordern is such a treasure here. About half the story is a character study of an odd and indeed not particularly likable man, and Sir Michael carries that off in a compelling way until we get to the truly scary bits.

Whistle and I’ll Come to You is a worthy start to what became a beloved Christmas tradition in the UK (of the ones that followed, A View from the Hill is my favorite). Although the same story was re-adapted in 2010 by BBC with a bigger budget, the original is still I think the stronger piece of television and very much worth your attention this wintry season.