Dec 28, 2011

Down The Road Again (2011)

Director / Writer: Donald Shebib
Producer: Robin Cass
Cinematographer: Francois Dagenais
Union Pictures; 85 min; color

Doug McGrath (Pete), Kathleen Robertson (Betty-Jo), Anthony Lemke (Matt), Jayne Eastwood (Betty), Cayle Chernin (Selina), Tedde Moore (Annie)

Like many viewers enamoured with the 1970 film Goin Down The Road, I had always hoped that director Don Shebib would create a sequel to his Canadian classic. What had happened to Pete and Joey after the film fades out? After having experienced their hopeful emigration to greener pastures from the Maritimes to Toronto, our heroes find despair and economic hardship, and then after a poorly planned plot to steal some groceries which ends in violence, flee to an uncertain future in the west coast (Joey leaving behind a pregnant newlywed wife). For years, Shebib had resisted requests to do a followup film, until finally Cayle Chernin (who played Pete's unrequited love interest in the original) persuaded him to revisit the path charted by this groundbreaking film.

Dec 26, 2011

Tormented (1960)

Director: Bert I. Gordon
Producers: Bert I. Gordon, Joe Steinberg
Screenplay: George Worthing Yates, based on a story by Bert I. Gordon
Cinematographer: Ernest Laszlo
Music: Albert Glasser
Visual Effects: Bert I. Gordon, Flora Gordon
Allied Artists; 76 min; B&W

Richard Carlson (Tom Stewart), Susan Gordon (Sandy Hubbard), Lugene Sanders (Meg Hubbard), Juli Reding (Vi Mason), Joe Turkel (Nick, The Blackmailer), Lillian Adams (Mrs. Ellis), Gene Roth (Mr. Nelson)

Tom Stewart, a jazz pianist who lives and works in an island lighthouse, is about to be married to the wholesome Meg, but receives a visit from his old flame and former singer Vi, who isn't about to leave their relationship buried in the past. During an argument, a piece of lighthouse railing breaks free, and Vi hangs for dear life onto the twisted piece of steel. Tom purposely hesitates to save her before the metal gives way, and she falls to her death in the rocky shore below, thus ensuring that Vi is out of his new life for good. However, Tom finds out that the old phrase "Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned" also applies even in death.

This engaging little ghost story is a change of pace from Bert I. Gordon, best known for his movies featuring giant monsters (such as Cyclops or The Amazing Colossal Man) or giant bugs (Beginning of the End; Earth Vs. The Spider). Those films are also notorious for the primitive special effects (which either featured normal sized animals running around glaringly obvious miniature sets, or showed obvious matte lines) usually designed by Gordon himself.  Likewise, Tormented has moments with crude super-impositions as Vi's ghost comes back to taunt Tom. But this movie perhaps works better than those that give Mr. B.I.G. his namesake, because there is still a good movie without the effects.

I first saw Tormented on The Cat's Pajamas (pause- sigh) on their Sunday "Science Fiction Horror Night" program just before Christmas of 1985, shown with Roger Corman's The Wasp Woman (and found it to be far more inventive and creepy than the latter).  In 2006, I programmed this film as part of the Creepy Kooky Double Bill screening in October of that year; surprisingly, it became the hit of the evening over the headliner- another Roger Corman film (Creature from the Haunted Sea).  Even more surprisingly, despite that this little horror gem has been circulating in the public domain for years, no-one in that night's audience had yet seen it! It was a delight to see that this movie still worked with an audience.

Because it doesn't rely so much upon dated technical effects to deliver the goods, this movie succeeds as a mood piece about guilt. Tom is essentially a good man who yearns for a wholesome lifestyle, yet is now paying the price for a single stupid act. Whether it is due to ghostly encounters that only Tom sees, or that her watch shows up on the beach, his new life is constantly dismantled due to his momentary lapse of judgment. Further, he is being blackmailed by a jive-talking ship captain who initially chartered Vi onto the island, and knows that she never returned, especially in light of Tom's upcoming marriage. Despite all of this, we care enough about Tom to wonder how he'll get out of his plight. However, the heart of the movie actually belongs to Sandy, Meg's younger sister, who has a great friendship with Tom- it is largely through her eyes that we see his character change from a passionate human being to a paranoiac who will stop at nothing to erase the memory of Vi on this island. And once she knows too much, will her life be endangered as well?

Admittedly, I re-watched this movie the other night in memory of Susan Gordon, daughter of the director, who passed away this month.  Yet, I was surprised to discover that I had remembered absolutely nothing of her substantial role as Sandy.  (In truth, it is Joe Turkel's beatnik blackmailer who steals the picture performance-wise.)  Instead, one more recalls this film for the visceral experience it produces- its atmosphere is conveyed through such subtleties as shadows, wind, cold, shredded garments. I must also confess that I have an affinity for suspense films which are set on shorelines (The Fog; Play Misty For Me)- something about the waves and the wind, plus the elements of forbidden desire that the milieu recalls, and perhaps I value this picture more than others do for these ingredients. As such, this movie benefits greatly from its atmosphere: its setting upon an island detached from the rest of the physical world adds to the feelings of despair and helplessness. However, there is a great visual touch that I've always remembered from my first viewing 26 years ago: in one sequence on the beach, we see a pair of footprints gradually appearing in the sand next to Tom.

Low-key touches such as this make Tormented much than what it is: a programmer designed for a quick sell to the drive-in circuit. The movie is so fun that you forget the odd casting troika of 48 year-old Richard Carlson, 26 year-old Lugene Sanders (as his fiancée) and 11 year-old Susan Gordon. (She's young enough to play his granddaughter.) Although I watch Gordon's Empire of the Ants every Christmas Eve while I wrap gifts, perhaps his superior films are those peculiar fables which do not rely upon giant monsters or colossal men. It may be time to revisit such works as Picture Mommy Dead and The Magic Sword to re-evaluate where Gordon's talent truly lies.

Dec 25, 2011

Hot Tomorrows (1977)

Director/Producer/Writer: Martin Brest
Cinematographer: Jacques Haitkin
Choreographer: Lloyd Gordon
American Film Institute; 71 min; B&W

Ken Lerner (Michael), Ray Sharkey (Louis), Hervé Villechaize (Albrecht), Victor Argo (Tony), George Memmoli (Man in mortuary), Donne Daniels (Night Embalmer), Rose Marshall (Tante Ethel),  Sondra Lowell (Polly), Orson Welles (voice on radio)

"We're watching the movie with two dead people. That's what's so great about old movies- you're entering the land of the dead."

This is a typically moribund statement uttered by the death-obsessed author Michael, much to the consternation of his fellow Bronx-native friend Louis, who has journeyed to Los Angeles to visit his old pal for some good times. The line above, by the way, is uttered while the two men watch Laurel and Hardy in a funny scene from The Bohemian Girl. This scene is indicative of the entire film: where moments of supposed joy are subtly coloured with dread. And when we consider that the good-time-seeking Louis and the bleak Michael are going out for some action on Christmas Eve, we realize that this isn't going to a typical holiday movie fare.

In his bilious book Movie Wars, author Jonathan Rosenbaum makes the snarky assertion that the only good thing the American Film Institute ever did was finance David Lynch's first feature, Eraserhead.  Well, no.  Hot Tomorrows, the first feature by Martin Brest (later of such hits as Beverly Hills Cop and Scent of a Woman), was also produced via the AFI, yet it's unfortunate that this $38,000 wonder has never received its deserved audience. Today, this black comedy is sought by collectors, especially for the appearance of Danny Elfman and the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, who are the musicians in the sparsely populated Paradise Ballroom, one of the stops of our protagonists' fateful journey on December 24.

Shot in glistening black and white by Jacques Haitkin, these flickering images recall the spirit of the old movies that the men refer to, especially in the bizarre 42nd street revue that closes the film. The deeply expressionist photography indeed captures the moribund atmosphere that surrounds Michael (in fact the hard key lighting on the band suggests a cabaret act from beyond the grave), but it also enhances the sorrow and loneliness that permeates the lives of our principal cast.

Even without the death-obsessed symbolism, Hot Tomorrows is a valuable film for offering an alternative look at Christmas-time. It beautifully captures the holiday season for those who find this time of year difficult, as they are shiftless, alone, and looking for something-anything to do. These displaced people somehow find their ways to the Paradise Ballroom (tellingly, the only clientele on Christmas Eve), and find momentarily companionship with one another. Michael and Louis befriend another Bronx native, Tony, who accompanies his rich, socially awkward friend and employer Albrecht, while the latter's wife carries out an "arrangement" with her boyfriend. In addition, Louis chats up a girl, Polly, whom one senses yearns for greater things, but doesn't know what or where.  This sequence is a moving portrait of people who are trapped in their own limited lives.

And if this scene isn't a desperate enough way to spend Christmas Eve, it gets better. Upon leaving the club, the two men hear a radio ad (voice by Orson Welles!) about a funeral home offering free coffee to sober people up and prevent car accidents ("it's better to drive here than to be carried here"). This is all the provocation that Michael needs. What follows is another scene of displaced people who have momentarily converged in their pursuits of something to do while alone on December 24.  However, Michael manages to cajole the funeral director into seeing the embalming equipment, and in a moment that climaxes his death fantasies, he views the dead body of an old woman. Michael has been working on a story about his aunt Ethel, who appears as the "face of death", seen in photos, posing at the supermarket, and even in the funeral home.

Although Hot Tomorrows sometimes plods in its short running time, it is a jewel of a movie- at once a black comedy about death and a moving portrait of urban loneliness, which results in tragedy, yet concludes with a bizarre sequence that is equally moribund and (somehow) life-affirming.  

The Magic Christmas Tree (1964)

Director: Richard C. Parish
Producer: Fred C. Gerrior
Screenplay: Harold Vaughn Taylor
Music: Victor Kirk
Cinematography: Richard Kendall
Holiday Pictures / Orrin Films; 59 min; color-B&W

Chris Kroesen (Mark), Valerie Hobbs (Witch), Robert "Big Buck" Maffei (Santa Claus), Darlene Lohnes (Mother)

During Halloween season, little boy Mark helps a witch get her cat Lucifer down from a tree, and for his kindness, he is rewarded with a (talking) Magic Christmas Tree that grants him three wishes. Mark's first wish is to give himself power over everything for an hour, thereby turning night into day, and creating merry mayhem by allowing vehicles to run away on their owners. His second wish is the selfish notion to have Santa Claus all to himself. Will his third wish be of any virtue?

This jaw-dropping holiday film (although clocking in at less than an hour, feels twice as long), begins in black-and-white, likely inspired by The Wizard of Oz, and yet feels like a failed 60s suburban "Our Gang" reboot, replete with "ah gee golly whiz" dialog indicative of Spanky and the bunch, as Mark and his friends gripe over what each other has brought to school for lunch. Once the tree appears the film bursts into powdery full colour, it resembles a Sid Davis film run amuck, with a sterile look befitting the middle class suburban milieu. Indeed, the stifling, locked-off camera work, the rubbery post-sync sound and the wooden performances make this the classroom film from Hell.

To adult eyes, this deceptively short film may be interminable with its stock footage, unimaginative mise en scene, sloppy production values (squint and you'll see the crouching stunt bodies at the wheel of the so-called driver-less cars), and its uninspired slapstick (the father attempts to chop down the title tree for what seems like minutes). On the other hand, older viewers would notice the movie's sarcastic tone that would escape its target kiddie matinee audience. This bitter poem about greed has a novel character in a talking tree, yet whose voice (resembling an effeminate version of a world-weary Jack Benny) hardly sounds inviting. In the sequence detailing the "second wish", Mark is held captive by a giant in the forest who will allow the young lad to be as greedy as he wants provided that he remains the big man's slave. In a perverse spin on A Christmas Carol, he is forced to gaze into a pool of water to see the aftermath of his selfish request. Via representative footage and a droning narrative, Mark is witness to how the world is in turmoil due to the missing Santa Claus who is held captive in Mark's living room next to a caustic Christmas tree! (Explain this one to the missus.) The giant however agrees to let Mark go back to the real world on the condition that he undoes his greedy actions. And to hammer the point home once again, the giant points to the camera, warning the kiddie audience that the next greedy kid to be his prisoner "could be you!" Like the primitive scare films of Sid Davis, this movie delivers its message by sending its characters on a one-way ticket to Hell, and additionally refuses to let its viewers off the hook.

Although on both sides of the camera, The Magic Christmas Tree is pedestrian, it is however fascinating for all the wrong reasons. Despite that it was likely marketed as wholesome family fare (and apparently was re-issued several times for the matinee circuit over the years), it is however a subversive little item that seems to bite the little hands that reached up to the ticket booth to buy admission. On the whole, the movie feels like the efforts of cynical adults wishing to make a quick buck on the kiddie market while having a last laugh on their viewers. The results however are mystifying- one wonders why the filmmakers would expend such effort into delivering such cynical undertones that would likely go unnoticed.

The Junky's Christmas (1993)

Directors: Nick Donkin, Melodie McDaniel
Writer: James Grauerholz, based on a story by William S. Burroughs
Producers: Francis Ford Coppola, Francine McDougall
Music: Hal Willner
Cinematography: Simon Higgins, Wyatt Troll
Production Design: Andrew Horne
Island Pictures; 21 min; B&W

William S. Burroughs (narrator)

The film opens with author William S. Burroughs rifling through his bookshelf, finding his own copy of Interzone (in which the original story for the movie is collected) and sitting down by the Christmas tree to read.  This image alone is jarring enough- Burroughs the legendary underground anti-hero at the age of 75 (didn’t he always look 75?) turning into Jimmy Stewart?!?  There is a low-angle shot of his condor-shaped profile looking whimsical standing beside the tree, and right away we are wondering what kind of perverse whole-someness is being provided us?  Has the collusion of mainstream and underground finally gone too far?  Who would imagine that a tale from the Bard of Benzydrine would be presented to the screen by Francis Ford Coppola?

Once the grandfatherly Burroughs settles down into his easy chair, and his crystalline talons turn the hard pages, we dissolve from this natural world into a twenty-minute claymation short, as he narrates for us the pathetic efforts of a dope fiend trying to score on Christmas Day. What surprises here is not the junkie’s change of heart in the end.  Rather, this celluloid trip is more valuable for documenting a part of the world on December 25th that has seldom been realized for cinema.  In other words, there is no Capra-esque fantasy of George Bailey running down the street, and wishing everyone a Merry Christmas as potato flakes of snow fall to the ground.  Instead this is about the lonely people sleeping on the street that your sedan passes by as you go visit your folks.

Usually the work of Burroughs is a Dadaist science fiction nightmare in which the author can run wild with his ideas and satiric metaphor.  It is rare to see a Burroughs piece (and admittedly a short one) in which the characters are real people, presented matter-of-factly, for us not to judge, nor for him to celebrate, but merely for us to understand.  Although we may not think that the people scoring crack outside my office are human beings underneath, but that matter is easily forgotten when we have to clean all the pipes and prophylactics off of the back step.  In other words, The Junky's Christmas is presenting an ugly world that, surprisingly, has its own moral code.

(adapted from a review originally presented in ESR #4)

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians (1964)

Director: Nicholas Webster
Producers: Paul L. Jacobson, Arnold Leeds, Joseph E. Levine
Screenplay: Glenville Mareth, from a story by Paul L. Jacobson
Art Director: Maurice Gordon
Cinematography: David L. Quaid
Music: Milton and Anne Delugg
Embassy Pictures / Jalor Productions; 81 min; color

John Call (Santa Claus), Leonard Hicks (Kimar), Vincent Beck (Voldar), Bill McCutcheon (Dropo), Victor Stiles (Billy), Donna Conforti (Betty), Chris Month (Bomar), Pia Zadora (Girmar), Ned Wertimer (Newscaster Andy Henderson), Carl Don (Werner Von Green/Choacem)

I find it rather amusing that this classic schlock piece was released by Joseph Levine, who produced Godard's Contempt a year earlier. Despite how much people have poked fun at Santa Claus Conquers The Martians over the years as one of the all-time worst, truthfully this film has far too many subversive ideas for such a dubious honour. It is more of scabrous commentary on the western world than Contempt- it is also certainly less pretentious.

We usually expect kiddie fare -- especially Christmas movies- to preach wholesome family values and instruct our little ones on the spirit of giving. But despite all the goofy Martians, candy-colors, and funny robots certain to amuse five-year olds of all ages, this is a subversive morality play, indeed!

At the heart of this skidrow juvenilia is a subtle, but sour primer for capitalist greed. Take the opening song (also repeated at the end), "Hooray for Santy Claus". The kids' choir on the soundtrack is NOT cheering Santa Claus for conquering the Martians, but actually, jolly old Saint Nick is being lauded for all the presents he has brought the kids! To laud Santa for this is one thing, but also the song continues to make offensive remarks about Santa's weight problem! Talk about a bunch of spoiled ungrateful brats!

Still, this dour reference to Kris Kringle is pervasive of Santa's portrayal throughout the entire film. Unlike, say, the Mexican version of Santa Claus, that presents Father Christmas as a superhuman being, this may be the only holiday movie in memory that portrays Santa as a mere mortal. Despite the odd magic that he casts to get himself out of tight scrapes here and there (such as when a mutinous Martian tries to sabotage the ship that carries Santa back to the red planet), I cannot think of another film that accentuates Santa's (very) human frailties.

Right from the start, we see Santa as a stressed-out entrepreneur who is bending his elves over backwards to make the December 24th deadline (this is so indicative of the retail manufacturers' classic "Get 'em out by Friday" attitude), To top it all off, Santa hardly wears the red pants of the household. He is constantly henpecked by his nagging wife. In fact, when the Martians come to abduct Santa, he seems rather relieved-a welcome break from the "supply and demand" of his corporate zeitgeist. When the little green men zap everyone else with a freeze ray, Mr. Claus muses that this is the first time he sees his wife with her mouth shut! Is it any wonder that Santa doesn't use his powers to thwart the Martians then and there? He's happy to get away from it all!

Oh no! What will my wife think?

Santa Claus Conquers The Martians is also interesting for its anti-Communist propaganda. Lest we forget, this seemingly innocuous kiddie matinee fodder was released during the Cold War. During the Red Scare, what more of a sly reference could one make than having someone on a Red Planet being introduced to the ways of the west? (Note how the Martians all have similar-sounding names, thus suggesting little differentiation in character?)

Someday someone should write a book covering the alternative history of kiddie movies (that is, anything but the Disney stuff). And in terms of subversive matinee fodder, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians ought to get a whole chapter for itself! Don't be fooled by all the juvenilia- despite the cute Martian kids, the doltish comic relief, and the terrific gasp of the most pathetic looking polar bear in movie history, this film is actually an insidious little tool for social conditioning! In this seemingly inconsequential fluff, kids are systematically being groomed for the western mantras of capitalism, automation and greed!

The real conflict in this film is not in Santa's being told to set up shop on Mars, but the fact that they want him here permanently. In fact, the Martians are already beginning to see the ways of the western world at the outset- their kids are being brainwashed by "those ridiculous Earth programs"! Even the wise old Martian sage tells them that getting Santa for the kids is a good thing. This Entire Martian setting is a primer of all those Communist movie clichés that one would find in old Russian "tractor" films of the 1930s. The old hermit, who nonetheless is versed in the old Martian ways, knows the system isn't working, and prods his comrades towards the avenue of change. The mutinous Martian on the ship delivering Mr. HoHo is the classically universal renegade who rises up against his brethren: "Don't you see? Don't you see? No good can come to our regime from this!"

Alas, Santa soon has all these fancy machines set up, making toys at a far greater rate than his grumpy elves. Just a punch of a button and presto! But Saint Nick isn't jolly for long- he still has to get back to earth and meet his deadline for December 24th! What to do? Well, throughout the film there has been a goofy Martian collapsing around (doing a spin on the old Donald O'Connor role), and before you know it, Santa gives him the proposition of becoming Mars' own version of Kris Kringle, so he can get back to head office on time for Christmas Eve. There you have it- the Martians learn the next word in capitalism... franchise!

(There! And not one mention of ten-year old Pia Zadora as one of the Martian kids. Oops!)

(adapted from a review originally published in ESR #4)

Santa Claus (1959)

Director:  Rene Cardona (original version) / Ken Smith (English Version)
Producers: Guillermo Calderon Stell (original version), K. Gordon Murray (English version)
Story & Screenplay: Adolfo Torres Portillo
Musical Director: Antonio Diaz Conde
Special Effects: Gordillo Y Martinez
Choreography: Ricardo Luna
Cinematography: Raul Martinez Solares
K. Gordon Murray Productions (English Version), 94 min, color

Jose Elias Moreno (Santa Claus), Cesarero Quezadas (Pulgarcito/Tom Thumb), Jose Luis Aguirre, aka "Trosky" (The Devil), Armando Arriola, aka "Arriolita" (Merlin), Antonio Diaz Conde Hijo, (Ricky), Angel D'Estefani (The Blacksmith), Lupita Quezadas (Lupita); Ken Smith (narrator- English version)

I met a minister once who collected Santa Claus memorabilia.  One of his prized pieces was a plate featuring Santa standing in a manger next to the three wise men witnessing the birth of Christ.  As an opposition to many devout Christians who feel that thinking about Santa is sacrilege, his contention was that all along Santa was preaching the spirit of giving, and spreading goodness and joy. What's wrong with that?  I couldn't agree more with that sentiment- and now I wonder what he may have thought of this film, especially when one of the first images of Santa Claus shows him admiring his model of the manger!

Santa Claus, Rene Cardona's hypnotic and surprisingly dark perennial holiday fable, is unique in one of many ways in that it compares Kris Kringle to God. And to further this point- Mr. Claus even fights The Devil! Also, Santa's work-shop is not in The North Pole, but in the clouds above, where he watches who is naughty and who is nice through a telescope! Is this heaven? Most of the film plays in a surreal setting- not least being Hades, where The Devil conspires to turn children into devious little monsters. (There is even a mad bit of Fellini-esque choreography during this setpiece too, adding to dumbfoundedness not encountered since Hellzapoppin’.)

Consider too, the over-long opening set in Santa's representative world. We see kids of all races each contributing their own heritage of music to a lumbering chorus that will delight mostly people under the age of five. Who these kids are in Santa’s workshop I cannot say (if this is heaven, are they dead?), but it is easy to see why they would like to work there. The kids sing and dance in their native tongues, and the whole place is decked out as a playground. Doorways are shaped as keyholes, the telescope has an actual eye in the lens, the sonar equipment is decked with an ear, the loudspeaker has a giant mouth, and the reindeer are wind-ups (a good way to disguise the cheapness of the latter)!

One writer has commented on how Santa Claus is almost Neo-Realistic. In terms of its Earthly settings, this is true in tone, if not exactly mise en scene. One of the main characters is adorable little Lupita, whose parents are loving, yet dirt poor. At one point the Devil is whispering in her ear to say that it's okay to steal the department store doll that she covets. The poverty in which Lupita and her family lives is a universal anyone can recognize, yet what sets it apart from, say, a similar environment in a DeSica film is that the settings are plain, representative, almost supra-real. Even this reality is upset by otherwordly forces. Of course The Devil and Santa Claus are performing their struggle over the kids, but even dreams figure into this natural world. For instance, the lonely little rich boy whose social-climbing parents are never home, dreams of getting his folks for Christmas (and they come giftwrapped!). Lupita has a subconscious dilemma too, as the doll she covets manifests into a bizarre dream where adult-sized playthings prance around her! (I wouldn’t want to have paid the bill for the dry ice.)

Don't do it, Lupita!

Another fable akin to Santa Claus is “Alice In Wonderland”.  There are more drugs taken in this kiddie film than any other I can remember. Those educational films about drugs and alcohol seem conservative by comparison. With the help of Merlin the Magician (!), Santa has the ability to disappear with the sniff of an orchid, and some white powder (!!) makes him re-appear. These little party favours are certainly beneficial for his December 24th excursion- he even blows some magic dust to make sure some kids are asleep before he comes calling. The poor little rich boy gets his wish fulfilled as Santa , disguised as a waiter, (although whatever disguise he is in remains off-camera) brings a bubbling drink on the house to his parents at the swanky cocktail lounge, and once they imbibe it, they have the sudden urge to go home to their child! Finally, in a comic battle reminiscent of the final battle in The Raven (1963), Santa and The Devil match wits against each others’ magic.  All in a night’s work and to all a good night.

Back in the days of the kiddie matinee, this film was a seasonal favourite, thanks to the shrewd marketing ploys of producer K. Gordon Murray, the Florida-based distributor who imported Mexican films and dubbed them for the English market.  His cheap kiddie imports at one point even rivalled Disney for attention in the Saturday afternoon matinee circuits.  Every three years for almost two decades, Murray would resurrect Santa Claus at Christmas-time to rake in ticket sales.

Although this film was obviously made for pre-adolescents, there are so many marvelous visual and thematic ideas running through, that adults would no doubt enjoy it too, regardless if those less young at heart would notice the occasional lethargy in plot, the dubbing which somehow turns Santa's "ho ho" into something like a smoker's hack and that he only has four reindeer instead of eight (windup reindeer at that!) could be either interpreted as cheapness or revisionism. Admittedly, Santa Claus shuffles in fits and starts sometimes, but still I walk away amazed by the proceedings.

Truthfully though, I can’t think of a more wonderful holiday film to put a toddler in front of. This film is full of inventive visual ideas, it is benevolent without being cloying, and it is terrific fun for young and the young at heart. And Santa is a supremely wonderful soul: full of music, energy and laughter. That he is slyly equated to Godhood is not a sacrilege, but sensible.  Like that other being up above, Santa is always watching, ensuring that those who are eternally good receive their great reward.  

Plus, isn’t the fact that Santa gives the world toys out of one bag reminiscent of the never-emptying bread basket in The Last Supper?

(Photos courtesy of Rob Craig.)

(adapted from a review originally published in ESR #4)

Dec 21, 2011

The Man In The Net (1959)

Director: Michael Curtiz
Writer: Reginald Rose, from a story by Hugh Wheeler
Producer: Walter Mirisch
Cinematographer: John F. Seitz
Music: Hans J. Salter
United Artists; 97 min, B&W

Alan Ladd (John Hamilton), Carolyn Jones (Linda Hamilton), Diane Brewster (Vicki Carey), John Lupton (Brad Carey), Charles McGraw (Sheriff Steve Ritter), Barbara Beaird (Emily Jones), Susan Gordon (Angel Jones), Charles Herbert (Timmie), Steven Perry (Leroy)

John Hamilton is a former New York commercial artist who has fled with his wife to rural Connecticut to begin a new career as a painter. However, his wife Linda (yes, Linda Hamilton) misses life in the fast lane in The Big Apple, despite John's implications that her former lifestyle contributed to her "illness".  A recovering alcoholic who frets over a grey hair at age 28, Linda is especially upset that John will be turning down a lucrative job offer back in the city, preferring instead to toil away his time in his new career that brings neither acclaim nor fortune.

The implied conjugal tensions outwardly manifest themselves into this John Cheever-ish world when Linda appears one night at a birthday party, inebriated, and with a black eye that she falsely accuses John of giving her. Soon after, when Hamilton returns from the New York trip where he turns down the job offer, he finds that all of his paintings have been slashed, and his wife has disappeared.  In short order, Linda's body is discovered buried in the shed underneath fresh concrete. Since John is already labelled a cad among his friends and neighbours, thanks to his wife's accusation the previous night, he is naturally accused of murdering Linda and flees persecution by the police and the mob of townspeople.

The Man in the Net is a surprisingly enthralling film noir, and also an interesting credit late in the careers of both actor Alan Ladd and its prolific director, Michael Curtiz (who had helmed many Warner classics in the 1940s). At first, this movie seems like a pleasant enough variation on the "falsely accused man on the run" plot. Despite how formulaic this story may first appear, it is made engaging for the panache that Curtiz gives the material- he certainly knows how to set a mood with deceptively simple mise en scene. (And as we will see, this film is deceptive in many ways.) By 1959, Alan Ladd's career had been fizzling- his acting instincts had become tired and dulled, and had to accept star billing in second-rate pictures.  Yet in its own negative way, Ladd's taciturn, world-weary demeanour suits the character of a man who has been put upon both personally and professionally. Carolyn Jones is superbly cast as his estranged wife- with her Bohemian bangs suggesting that she ended up in Connecticut by way of Greenwich Village, Linda is truly a fish out of water in this rural environment- yearning instead for life in the fast lane, despite the consequences.  If you stretch it, this film could be a continuation of her Oscar-nominated role in The Bachelor Party (1957)- "The Existentialist" has left the Beatnik scene for the suburbs. 
ABOVE: Carolyn Jones
Any good film noir reveals the corruption beneath the surface of a supposedly civil society.  Yet rather than depicting a rainy, urban jungle this film juxtaposes the benign suburbia of New England with a story of adultery, blackmail and murder permeating the picture-postcard landscape. And still, despite moving the setting to an uncommon green oasis, this "man on the run" formula is further differentiated as it slowly evolves into a delightfully bizarre allegory.

In the final third of the picture, John receives aid from the children he has befriended while painting out in the meadows. The movie thus becomes a unique Utopian treatise, as the incorruptible kids not only believe John, and enact his complex and clever plot to prove his innocence, but the children forge their own unique society with a moral code of virtue, loyalty, and a tolerance of class, race and gender. (The leader of the kids is a girl, after all. Young Susan Gordon, in one of her few screen roles, is a delight as the kids' captain and den-mother: the Raggedy Ann doll she always carries symbolizes her maternity and strength.) Further, it is a delight to see the African American boy Leroy work and play in harmony with his white friends. (This film is one of the very few from an age of segregation that slyly presents fraternity among mixed races.) The adult world by contrast is Barbaric and archaic, adhering to an outdated structure where race determines class: for instance, Leroy's father is a servant for one of the white kids' parents.  Despite that the current ruling class of this supposedly picket-fence environment is revealed to be full of deceit, one actually finishes the movie with the hope that these children (already exhibiting a maturity beyond their years) shall inherit the world, and seed their goodwill for future generations. Perhaps the children find a kinship with John in that he is an artist, and also lives a supposedly carefree (shall we say? childishly innocent) existence outside of the constrains of the ruling class.

ABOVE: Alan Ladd, Susan Gordon

Sadly, The Man In The Net is nearly forgotten today- hardly considered a career highpoint for any of the people involved.  Seeing a film like this recalls Wheeler Dixon's book Lost In the Fifties: Recovering Phantom Hollywood (which I read last month, and will review here soon): its central thesis insists that one would do best to look at the 1950's film and television that have not remained in memory, as they will be the works that more accurately depict the times in which they were made.  Indeed, many works of the decade suggest a society of forced conformity, sexism and segregation; this film on the other hand offers a more hopeful message of harmony and equality.  Released just a few years before such social themes entered the collective consciousness, Man In the Net is a fascinating precursor of the changing times. A programmer it may be- but a wholly diverting one at that.  Like the characters onscreen, this movie has much more underneath than meets the eye.

Nov 29, 2011

Loving and Laughing (1971)

Director: John Sole
Writer: Martin Bronstein
Producers: John Dunning, Andre Link
Music: Paul Baillargeon, Dean Morgan
Cinematographer: Roger Moride
Cinepix; 96 min; color

André Lawrence (Lucien Lapalme), Mignon Elkins (Mrs. Margaret Harrison), Michèle Mercure (Lovely), Gordon Fisher (Reggie Parker), Susan Petrie (Belinda Harrison), Céline Lomez (Diane), Julie Wildman (Joan Harrison)

An obscure hippie-dippie movie? And as co-stars, Canuck cuties Susan Petrie and Céline Lomez? You had me at hello.

That was all the provocation yours truly needed to head down last night to a free screening of this near-forgotten exponent of "maple syrup porn", presented by Paul Corupe, the webmaster of the excellent Canuxploitation site. In the early 1970's, Quebec filmmakers were making box office gold with these so-called "maple syrup porn", whose ample amounts of softcore sex represented the newly found liberation of the era.  While such films as Love In a 4 Letter World and Après Ski may seem comparatively tame today, seeing full frontal nudity (of either sex) and fornication was enough to upset the staunch Catholic leanings of the province's old guard.  Last night's picture was one of those offered by the enterprising producers André Link and John Dunning from their Cinepix production company.  

In this countercultural ancestor to Trading Places, boring rich priss Reggie's car breaks down while en route to offer French lessons to more boring rich people in Vermont.  He gets a lift from some hippies, who all spend time on a commune led by Lucien. Naturally Reggie doesn't fit in with the free-spirited longhairs, but he offers a proposition to Lucien (who is fleeing drug charges) to switch roles with him.  Thus, Lucien assumes Reggie's role as the French tutor for the Harrison family, and gets more than he bargained for in staid New England, as it appears that the mother, her daughters and the maid are all hankering for some French stick bread.

While the plot would be satisfactory enough just to provide the opportunity for some sexual situations (which is all that the audience is paying to see anyway), it is however surprising how the initially flabby humour evolves into a clever comedy of manners.  The film works in its non-carnal moments because the actors are engaging to watch even with their clothes on.  André Lawrence effortlessly makes the change from casual hippie to elegant aristocrat in this new alien environment.  While I've always loved the bright-eyed Susan Petrie in everything (Rip-Off; Lions For Breakfast; Shivers), I now have even more respect for her range, as this role shows her knack for screwball comedy!  She nearly steals the picture as one of the two sharp-tongued daughters.  And yes, no Quebec sex romp would be complete without an appearance by the dark-haired hottie Céline Lomez (best remembered to Anglophone viewers as the ill-fated love interest in The Silent Partner)-  she amply fills the requirements as the fun-loving maid.  Meanwhile, back at the commune, Reggie is also evolving, from a stick-in-the-mud to local hero, as he gets to use his pampered education to help the hippies out of brushes with the law (the fuzz depicted herein must have pinups of Rod Steiger from In The Heat of the Night).

Despite a climax (literally and figuratively) atop a mountain, alas the film has a weak conclusion, attempting to tie together the two story threads. Like the hippies onscreen, Loving and Laughing is definitely a product of its time: in this more enlightened age, the stereotypical depictions of homosexuals would offend more than the flagrant full frontal (but not exploitive) nudity. Still, one is surprised that this sex romp transcends the meager requirements of its box office appeal.  There is plenty of loving, but surprisingly, just as much laughing.

Oct 24, 2011

Canzine 2011

I had begun the usual Canzine weekend ritual the night before: watching Harry Thomason's regional horror film Encounter With the Unknown (I've watched this thing about three or four times in the past on the night before Canzine-- why break a tradition?), and again in the lineup at 10:30 AM worrying: a) whether or not my name was on the list this year; and b) where I was going to be sitting. The latter fear was especially prescient as this year's fair was at a new and different venue, 918 Bathurst Centre. However, once inside, my concerns were quickly forgotten, as the day was spent in this marvellous arts facility (formerly a Buddhist temple). Not only was I able to actually move around, but I managed to move and groove with fellow zinesters and independent publishers, and most importantly, re-connected with some old friends after having spent most of the year on my side. In short, my eleventh Canzine appearance was the first one in a long time that actually felt like fun instead of business as usual.

In addition to the three or four big rooms for people to table their wares - on the main floor and in the basement, there were also separate smaller ones downstairs in which people could also do installations. My (former?) colleagues at Trash Palace had rented the room which resembled a small class room where they spent the day showing (guess) educational films. Also, adjacent to the big room downstairs, they had an antechamber where vendors sold food and snacks- all organic, including the beer (whose brand name I've already forgotten, but do recommend). I was in the main room, with the beautiful hardwood floors and arched roof (formerly where they congregated for worship), and still had plenty of wiggle room to check things out.

The sales were okay, but I'm not hear to carp about dollars and cents. (If you ignore the number one koan in the independent world- "How much can you afford to lose?", then you're in the wrong business.) There's a greater, more volatile thing than that here-- simply, it's a livelihood. A time-worn adage in this field is "for the love and not for the money", yet this term is blind to the unconverted, who simply cannot understand why people would spend untold hours on often ephemeral, deeply personal pieces of creativity that offer little to no financial returns. Also, the unconverted often dismissively refers to all of this as "hobbyism" (a term that has always irked me). It is more than that- a state of mind, a way of life. And although I count myself among those who seeks something outside of the mainstream conventions, by the same token, I don't assume that what we do is superior to those accepted conventions. Those who seek something outside the parameters of the mainstream are simply looking for a different set of values: neither is right or wrong.

At shows like this, another adage comes forth: "Give back to the mountain what you take from it." In other words, it's up to all of us to continue to support this independent community, lest it fall apart. Whatever you can afford to give from your pocketbook to buy some books or zines to keep the machine running, all the better. Money may not be the primary reason why people contribute to the underground, but it keeps the machine running nonetheless.

Yes, I have preached similar aphorisms for most of the time in which I've had this blog, and these words may be nothing new, but since I've been away from this community for some time, they serve as a valuable reminder to myself. Despite the fun I have re-uniting with old friends and hopefully making some new allies at shows like this, actually my favourite time of all of Canzine is the "contemplative coffee" had the next morning. As I reflect upon the previous day, I am empowered by the buzz of independence and creativity, touched to be a small part of it, and realize that the values we uphold at events like this, we must continue to carry with us, and make them part of our lives the other 364 days of the year.

Love and light.

Oct 16, 2011

Tales of an Analog Enthusiast Book 5: Independent Video Store Day

ABOVE: That's Rentertainment; Champaign, IL
(Photo courtesy of Jason Pankoke)
It had long been my intention to reboot the dormant "Analog Video Enthusiast" series of posts (or hell, just reboot this blog in general), and saw no more appropriate time to do it than on October 15, the first annual Independent Video Store Day. Inspired by the annual tradition of Record Store Day (born in 2008), Video Store Day likewise honours a form of retail which is in fear of becoming extinct thanks to the Internet. Today, independent video rental stores enticed consumers to come out for some great deals on video rentals and purchases, and simultaneously reminded them how much fun it is to go the neighbourhood retailer instead of downloading movies from iTunes and Netflix.

What did I do to celebrate Independent Video Store Day? Nothing. I had an excuse-- I was out of town for my father's birthday. But since I spend most of the year's other 364 days browsing video stores and looking for tapes or DVDs in some of my favourite haunts, I bear no remorse for missing it. Instead, hopefully this day enticed those who weren't already converted how much of a valuable commodity is the video rental shop around the corner, and they will continue to support it. In other words, it's great that you cook a Christmas dinner for the homeless, but they still have to eat every remaining day of the year.

There are now consumers who don't know about a life without having a VCR in the home. Soon, if not already, there will be consumers who won't remember what one was. I am old enough to know a life before the days when the VCR became a household item, and can comment on how radical a change that became for anyone interested in cinema. Suddenly, the consumer no longer had to be a slave to the TV schedule- they had the power to choose instant programming for themselves. Further, because consumers were so excited about this newly acquired power, they would also virtually rent anything to play on these newfangled devices- many would sample previously unheard of titles that suddenly became available to them. Thus, in the 1980s, well into the 1990s, video stores of all sizes appeared to capitalize on the new craze. Colloquially, when we refer to the golden days of video stores, we often think of the "mom and pop" outlets. Many of these perished under the juggernauts of the franchise stores. How could one compete against a store that had 20 copies of everything? Yet, over the years, we've also seen the chain stores fade away: The Video Station, Jumbo Video, Major Video, and of course, Blockbuster, this year's huge fatality.

The decline of video stores over the years has been blamed upon downloads (legal or otherwise) and streaming. That's the argument, right? Why would some kid want to trot down to the video store to pick up Scott Pilgrim, when they can just go "click" on the mouse in their bedroom? Instant gratification, and no-one had to put on any galoshes. But this decline is also symptomatic of a greater issue: the continuing social displacement of our society, because of its false dependence upon gadgets. Everywhere you look, it's people fiddling with their new Crackberrys, iPads, iPods and iPhones-- each new model more enticing than the last with new features and more capabilities, offering the consumer a Swiss army knife of diversions from having to communicate with another human being. And I guarantee you that, when iBlowJob appears, no-one will ever have to go outside again.

Hey, I'm no old fart. My day job is spent in front of a computer screen, working online, and learning new technology. But let's be fair- I surely don't want to come home and spend the rest of my waking hours in front of another computer screen. Contrary to what that smartass reviewer at Broken Pencil will have you believe, I'm no luddite, BUT these gadgets should only be tools-- they are not your life. It's great that we have all of these devices, but our reliance upon them goes to ridiculous extremes. I really don't need to hear yet another person on the streetcar during the morning commute call someone to say they'll be there in two minutes. Who gives a fuck? Just show up in two minutes.

My home computer is an old operating system on which it gets increasingly harder to watch video, especially in streaming- I can't run Netflix because I have the wrong processor. But even if I did get a new computer, I'd still much prefer to rent a video or DVD. (Not only that, but the selections of titles for Canada's Netflix plain sucks.) Why would I want to watch a measly Quicktime (or worse, Flash) file when I can see something of greater resolution on a disk-- and on a bigger screen, no less?

Since the giants have fallen, how do the independent hangers-on still persist? Selection and expertise. The whole joy of going to a video store is "Hey, look what I found". How many times have we had the thrill of discovery in going to the neighbourhood retailer for one thing, only to come across another title that one didn't know about, or at least didn't know was available? But still, for the most part, the independent video store is a chapel for the already-converted. The majority of moviegoers is of adolescent males, who often will only care about what's new, and even then, if they can get their fixes without having to leave their bedrooms, all the better. As such, many wouldn't care about the back catalogue or the history of the medium. ("Huh? Fright Night is a remake?") If we don't support these stores, we lose this access to that heritage. Not only that, but.... well, I don't know about you, but I kind of like chatting in person with a fellow human being. Sure, it's great to have access to a lot of bells and whistles at one's fingertips, but nothing beats the over-the-counter expertise.

And in honour of Video Store Day, I'd like to give due props to one store that I've frequented over the years. For the past fifteen years I've been a customer of 2 For 1 Video. When I first encountered them in 1996, their three aisles were crammed with VHS tapes; even today in the age of DVD and BluRay, the shelves are equal parts tape and disk.

In the beginning of my visits, 2 For 1 was also in competition with two other shops in the same block: another independent shop across the street, and a Blockbuster next door- both of those are now long gone, but still 2 For 1 hangs on. I'd like to think that their reason for continuing to stay around is due not only to the fact that now they're the only store in that little neighbourhood nook, but also to their expertise. For example, Shane, the enthusiastic employee who has been working there for 20 years, claims to have seen every movie in the store. That's a broad admission, but the more you hear him talk, the more you believe him. Think about it- even if you see a couple of films in the store every day, over time, it adds up. And he's honest enough to tell you whether he thinks a movie is good or bad- not necessarily to discourage or entice you, but at least to give the customer an informed opinion on whether the film in question is what they're seeking.

Since the independent video store is becoming a niche market, there also seems to be a sense of elitism about it now-- an indie snobbism of the "holier than thou" variety that one associates with the record store clerks of High Fidelity. I'll grant that I've experienced that sometimes (yet, not always) in the stores I've frequented. Personally, I just fluff them off like any other poser I encounter. If you ignore the assholes long enough, they go away. (In fact, that deserves a post of its own some day.) Well, there's none of that posturing at 2 For 1. In fact, they offer the best of both worlds in video rentals. The staff is courteous, honest and helpful, free of the indie snob pretension, and yet refreshingly offer their own opinions on their inventory to help the consumers to make their own choices, which is something that chain store employees are forbidden to do.

To be sure, 2 For 1 has had its ups and downs over the years. This modest little outfit used to be open from noon to midnight, seven days a week- now they're open about eight hours a day. A few years ago, they were looking into moving to a smaller retail space, which also didn't have as prominent a store front, as their rent was being increased. As such, they began whittling down their inventory by selling off hundreds of VHS tapes, which of course delighted collectors like me, but not without a touch of melancholy. (This feeling too, is worthy of a post all its own.) Many of the sale titles were from boxes of inventory they had in the basement. Over the years, they had been removing slow renters from the shelves to make space for new inventory, and finally saw fit to let them go. Ironically, some of the titles they were selling off were of films I had been seeking for years, and would have rented had I seen them earlier. Once again, that is the necessity of a video store, to find and leave with something else than what you came for. But still, they're hanging on, still in the same space, God bless them, and I know it will be a sad day for the community if they ever do pack it in.

Wait, what? Community? Yes! To Netflix or iTunes, you're only just a customer. Will Netflix ever ask you how your wife and kids are doing? While it's a great thing to support our video stores today, remember that they need our attention the other 364 days of the year, too. Independent video stores exist not just to fill a niche market- they are a necessary life blood. They give a vivacity and social circle to the neighbourhoods in which they still struggle to survive. If we lose this, we're one step closer to becoming as faceless as the gadgets we reply upon.

And yes, I'm well aware of the irony that this piece is being read online.

Oct 10, 2011

Keep My Grave Open (1976)

Director: S.F. Brownrigg
Writer: F. Amos Powell
Wells Company; 79 min; color

Camilla Carr (Lesley Fontaine), Gene Ross (Dr. Emerson), Stephen Tobolowsky (Robert), Ann Stafford (Suzie), Sharon Bunn (Twinkle), Chelcie Ross (Kevin), Annabelle Weenick (Clara), Bill Thurman (Hitchhiker)

Of the four horror/exploitation pictures made by Texan S.F. Brownrigg, he considers Keep My Grave Open to be his favourite, and I share his opinion, perhaps because this was the first of his work I had seen (and therefore this was the film where his distinct style impressed upon me), but it is also his most satisfying. His quartet of films is remarkable for the “you are there” atmosphere, unusual camerawork and melodramatic acting, in addition to the helpings of gore and violence to sell tickets. Although these pictures had different screenwriters, similar themes of madness, dysfunctional familes and sexual tension play into all of these scenarios, best described as macabre mélanges of Tennessee Williams and Erskine Caldwell.

Oct 6, 2011

Screams of a Winter Night (1979)

Director: James L. Wilson
Writer: Richard H. Wadsack
Producers: James L. Wilson, Richard H. Wadsack
Music: Don Zimmers
Cinematography: Robert E. Rogers
Full Moon Pictures; 91 min; color

Matt Borel (John / Ron), Gil Glasgow (Steve / Parker), Patrick Byers (Cal), Mary Agen Cox (Elaine), Robin Bradley (Sally / Annie's Roommate), Ray Gaspard (Harper / Billy), Beverly Allen (Jookie / Crazy Annie), Brandy Barrett (Liz), Charles Rucker (Alan), Jan Norton (Lauri), Bill Ragsdale (Service Station Attendant)

"Listen to the wind...."

Five college-aged couples go to a cabin for a weekend getaway, and in the dead of the wintry night, they tell each other tales of horror: a couple whose car runs out of gas in the middle of nowhere are stalked by a furry creature; people meet their doom in a fraternity initiation to spend a night in an abandoned hotel; a young woman goes on a killing spree after a lovers lane rendezvous goes bad. These "urban legend" stories that the kids tell, however, become superficial once they physically experience a legendary horror that the local yokels at the gas station warned them about....

Oct 4, 2011

Scared To Death (1981)

Director: William Malone
Screenplay: William Malone, from a story by Robert Short and William Malone
Producer: Rand Marlis
Music: Tom Chase, Ardell Hake
Cinematography: Patrick Prince
Special Effects: Tom Russo
Lone Star Pictures International; 93 min; color

John Stinson (Ted Lonergan), Diana Davidson (Jennifer Stanton), Jonathan David Moses (Detective Lou Capell), Toni Jannotta (Sherry Carpenter), Walker Edmiston (Police Chief Dennis Warren), Pamela Bowman (Janie Richter), Michael Muscat (Howard Tindall), Freddie Dawson (Virgil Watson)

Someone or something is going around killing the local hardhats, roller skaters, and party girls who won't go to see a Maria "Oos-pens-kya" movie, and Detective Lou Capell is clueless over the identity of the culprit. He recruits the help of his ex-partner, former detective-turned-hack-novelist Ted Lonergan to solve the crimes, but he steadfastly refuses.... until his new girlfriend Jennifer is jeopardized by this menace.

Oct 3, 2011

Fiend (1980)

Director, Writer: Don Dohler
Producers: Don Dohler, Ted A. Bohus
Cinematographers: Don Dohler, Richard Geiwitz
Music: Paul Woznicki
Special Effects: David W. Renwick
Cinema Enterprises; 90 min; color

Don Leifert (Eric Longfellow), Richard Nelson (Gary Kender), Elaine White (Marsha Kender), George Stover (Dennis Frye), Greg Dohler (Scotty), Del Winans (Jimmy Barnes), Kim Dohler (Kristy Michaels), Debbie Vogel (Helen Weiss), Richard Geiwitz (Fred)

Don Dohler's Amazing Cinema magazine,
which often plugged his own films.
Before Don Dohler had ever picked up a movie camera, he was already a "do-it-yourself" legend for having published underground comics in the 1960's, and with his influential "Cinemagic" magazine, which was a primer for aspiring filmmakers to create their own special effects.  His first feature, The Alien Factor (1978), shot for a paltry $6000, proved he was a trailblazer for another medium- once a film of such small budget succeeded in being sold to cable, many "DIY" filmmakers were alerted to the possibility that "Hey, I can do this too."

Don Dohler would produce or direct another ten features in his native Maryland during the next three decades, until his untimely death in 2006.  His first four early features (before his late 1980's hiatus) are gems- full of the same wide-eyed "golly gee" innocence as the 50's sci-fi/horror films that no doubt influenced him, and whose small budgets are contrary to the impressive special effects.  For my money, his second feature, Fiend (1980), remains his greatest achievement.

All of Don Dohler’s films are ensemble pieces, in which a mosaic of characters is thrown into a fantastic situation.  However, by comparison, Fiend only has a handful of key characters.  Don Leifert was always given colourful characters to play in Dohler’s work, but with his lead role, this picture rests comfortably on his shoulders. 

The charming opening features a red cartoonish, ectoplasmic demonic looking entity that travels through the night sky and then disappears into a gravesite.  Then the corpse digs its way out of the earth and strangles a girl in the cemetery.  The corpse touches its face, delighted at the notion of being alive again.  That shot is perhaps the crux of this brilliant satire from writer-director Don Dohler.  The monster simply wants to live a normal –human- existence in suburban Maryland.  And so several months later we see the fiend, under the name of Eric Longfellow, moving into the quaint neighbourhood of Kingsville, opening a lucrative music publishing business and even offering lessons from his bungalow.  However, there’s one problem.  The fiend needs to survive by killing others and absorbing their lifeforce (as seen with the red glow emanating from its body upon doing so), otherwise the host body it controls begins to decompose (as seen a couple of times with convincing makeup). 

Longfellow’s neighbour Gary Kender (Richard Nelson) has been reading about the mysterious strangulations in the county.  He’s already been irritated by music coming from next door, and has commented on Longfellow’s strange behaviour. Kender delves further into the truth about the killings (including a hilarious sequence with a graveyard custodian who so happens to carry around a newspaper clipping of the graveyard exhumation that began this movie), and begins to suspect Longfellow, especially after a girl in the neighbourhood is killed.

The idea of a monster trying to be human is as old as Frankenstein itself- the subhuman creature usually wants to feel love.  However, one cannot think of another movie monster that simply wishes to embrace the most everyday mundane things, like sipping wine or washing the car, however all while still dressed in the same black suit he was buried in. Dohler creates a picture postcard of the film’s suburban setting with candid shots of kids playing street hockey, a man mowing the lawn, and cut-ins of birds, skies and branches.  We are also witness to the daily ritual of the Kender couple.  Richard is the typical suburban husband who comes home from work and expects to unwind while his wife Marsha prepares dinner.  Also, Marsha is an obsequious surrogate mother to her cub scouts, and obsessive about helping them make a movie in the spring.  She even recruits her husband to make the trek to buy a book on special effects, Film Magic, at 704 Market St. (a clever way for Dohler to plug his own product).  Because Richard Nelson and Elaine White (who plays Kender’s wife Marsha) are obviously unschooled actors, their tendency to overact, intentionally or not, actually makes this setting larger than life. Dohler presents this landscape that is familiar to us, and slyly turns it into a satirical cartoon.

Most importantly, Fiend works as a horror film as it sustains a creepy mood.  The old-fashioned special effects do not date the work, but rather compliment the low-key tone of the narrative.  Although it slowly builds to its climax, it is exciting to watch for its plethora of ideas, inventive visual touches, and another brooding electronic score, this time by Paul Woznicki.  Kudos to Don Leifert for his commanding performance as the fiend (his delivery reminds me a lot of Orson Welles’), and we would also be remiss to forget Dohler's regular actor George Stover’s appearance as Dennis Frye (likely named after the immortal horror movie lab assistant Dwight Frye), who plays Longfellow’s cloying employee (a modern variation on Renfield, perhaps?).   This film is also a family affair as Dohler’s son Greg has a supporting role as Scotty who confides in Kender about some strange encounter, and daughter Kim was hired to play the poor little girl whose death advances the plot!   It is too bad that Fiend only played for the small screen (in the golden days of VHS, it became a mini-favourite among genre fans).  Here was a film deserving to be seen in the drive-ins, thereby begetting revivals on the late late show. 

Oct 2, 2011

Bigfoot (1970)

Director: Robert F. Slatzer
Producer: Anthony Cardoza
Screenplay: Robert F. Slatzer, James Gordon White
Cinematographer: Wilson S. Hong
Music: Richard Polodor
Gemini-American Productions; 82 min; color

John Carradine (Jasper B.Hawks), Joi Lansing (Joi Landis), Judy Jordan (Chris), John Mitchum (Elmer Briggs), James Craig (Cyrus), Christopher Mitchum (Rick), Joy Wilkerson (Peggy), Lindsay Crosby (Wheels), Ken Maynard (Mr. Bennett), Dorothy Keller (Nellie Bennett), Doodles Weaver (Forest Ranger), Jennifer Bishop (Bobbi), William Bonner (Lucky), Anthony Cardoza (Fisherman), Haji

I am astonished at the hate given to this film, even from people who normally appreciate B-movie trash.  This is one of the most delightful pieces of rock-bottom drive-in junk I've ever seen- so much that it's become a perennial viewing favourite at Casa G-Man every fall: perhaps not up there with our custom of screening Empire of the Ants every Christmas Eve, but it's getting there.  It is difficult to imagine how anyone could take this lumbering, scattershot film so seriously, since it's inept on so many levels that it enters a new realm of cinematic language. It is also morbidly fascinating to see so many veteran actors in this little movie, but they appear to be enjoying themselves. Perhaps the greatest revelation is seeing former B-western star Ken Maynard as the store keeper, in his first screen appearance in more than a quarter century. Despite the oft-reported details of his poor health at the twilight of his life brought on by years of alcoholism and malnutrition, even he is given some dignity at least.

Oct 1, 2011

So Sad About Gloria (1973)

Director, Producer: Harry Thomason
Writer: Marshall Riggan
Cinematographer: James W. Roberson
Music: Jerald Reed, Terry Trent
Centronics International; 90 min; color

Lori Saunders (Gloria Wellman), Dean Jagger (Fredrick Wellman), Robert Ginnaven (Chris Kenner), Lou Hoffman (The Psychiatrist), Seymour Trietman (Mr. Bellinger), Linda Wyse (Janie)

One of most interesting "where are they now" stories of the days of regional horror films is of director-producer Harry Thomason, who went on to produce such successful TV series as "Designing Women" and "Evening Shade", after having paid his dues the previous decade with a quartet of drive-in genre pictures made in his native Arkansas. The horror anthology Encounter With The Unknown (1973); the rural comedy The Great Lester Boggs -AKA: Redneck Country (1975)- of which I may be its one admirer; and the delightful rock-bottom 1950s sci-fi homage The Day It Came To Earth (1979); proved that he was no Eisenstein, but at least managed to deliver medium-grade entertainment on low budgets. For years, I had sought his other film, So Sad About Gloria, after catching only a glimpse of it on Elvira's old TV show way back when (before switching channels to watch Any Which Way You Can instead), which was also released on video with the less-interesting title Visions of Evil. Of the four films, this one is perhaps the most competently acted, sentimental and character-driven.

Sep 27, 2011


Sunday September 25 marked perhaps a new beginning in our travels, upon debuting the new issue of The Eclectic Screening Room at Word on the Street. It has been a year since we've published, and almost as long since we've done any shows, but happily we're back in the saddle, and looking forward to getting on the road again this fall to spread the good word on ESR, re-unite with old friends, and hopefully to make some new allies along the way. But also, we've reached a milestone here at Camp ESR. It was exactly ten years ago when we first debuted our little magazine to the public. Most micro-publications don't last ten issues, let alone ten years.

Why have we still lasted? Perhaps because ESR hasn't turned into the money pit it may have if I ever did fulfil my dream of going wide with distribution. In the intervening years, publications bigger and better than mine have perished, but we're still here precisely because our operating costs and inventory remain small. But also, we strive to offer up content that hasn't already been written about to death online- there is still room to be unique in this new world.

There are always tribulations in getting a new issue together, and this one was compounded due to personal issues in the past several months, but happily, we didn't throw in the towel. Thus, the debut of the new issue two days ago was just the shot in the arm we needed. It was ingratiating to be re-acquainted with old friends, who were also generous with their words of encouragement, thus reminding us why we do what we do. The work of the past several weeks paid off with a fun day- kicking it off by serving anniversary cake (while it lasted!) to our customers. The day flew by, with only one lull to speak of- so much so, that in retrospect this year's appearance at Word on the Street seemed surreal due to the fact that the traffic was so constant we barely had a chance to check out the rest of the fair, thus it seemed like we weren't part of it at all! Even so, I had a chance to sneak out here and there to stock up on missed issues of CineAction (okay, not a stretch- they were our neighbours), as well as to raid the dollar bins at the Musicworks booth. Sunday was a fun and rewarding day, and already we've got some future plans in store, which I'll reveal at the appropriate time.

And for those who missed us on Sunday, here's what you can find in the new issue. Although this is the tenth anniversary of ESR, I resisted the urge to publish a "greatest hits" package, and instead just decided to release a traditional issue, which ran the gamut of the diverse range of cinema that we like to cover, thus still a fitting tribute for our namesake. Within these pages you'll find coverage of the latter period of Otto Preminger, Orson Welles' The Immortal Story, Arthur Lipsett's collage films, a look at video games in cinema, the Wisconsin chillers of Bill Rebane, and more. Finally, we've also reviewed independent films and videos that have been sent to us- if you would like us to review your film in an upcoming issue, please drop us a line.

After being cooped up for most of this year, and presently rejuvenated with a renewed energy and purpose, my head is now swimming with ideas on how to move further with this little project, and we hope that you, dear reader, will continue the journey with us, and enjoy it as much as we do.

These past ten years still were only made possible because of the contributions of many. I'd like to offer my deep thanks to Brian, Chris, David, Dion, Gordon, Jason, Jason (yes there are two), Jonathan, Leo, Rob, Simon, Skot, Vicky and Will, who have written articles for us over the years, thus adding fresh and different dialogues to these pages. Also my gratitude is for you, dear readers, for the support, interest and acclaim you have given us to encourage the continuation of our journey. Finally, my greatest thanks goes to Susan, my wife, best friend and right arm, who was always there to give me a little push when needed. Thank you for believing in what I do- I love you.

Jul 29, 2011

The Night I Met Elwy Yost

In the 1980's, CTV used to run a television program called  "Thrill of a Lifetime".  Viewers would mail in their once-in-a-lifetime dream, and whichever ones were picked by the producers would be made a reality.  Thus, every episode would feature a lucky contestant living out their ambition of rock-climbing or recording a song.   In the summer of 1987, when I was devouring Elwy Yost's programs "Saturday Night at the Movies"and "Magic Shadows",  as well as his book Magic Moments From The Movies, I had seriously considered writing in, in the hopes that they will fulfill my modest ambition of simply sitting down and spending a day with Mr. Yost and chatting about movies.

No, this lofty request was never mailed.  However, this would-be "thrill of a lifetime" did occur in the fall of 1989, during my first year in the big city, at school, away from home.  One Thursday night, after seeing a double bill of Night of the Living Dead and Murnau's Nosferatu at the Nostalgic Cinema, while standing on the platform at Kingsway Station waiting for the subway to take me back to my university residence, who should walk by but Elwy Yost and his wife Lila!

"Elwy Yost sightings" were hardly rare in Toronto, however this one was all the more precious because he had just entered semi-retirement, and had moved to Vancouver.  He and I exchanged glances as they walked by, and after my first reaction of wonder that my idol was within my proximity, my second reaction was of how tall he was.  Because of his round face and that we mostly saw him on television in a seated position, his onscreen presence deceived me into thinking he was perhaps a head shorter.  Although the Yosts and I had entered the same car on the subway train, at first, I wasn't going to say anything to him, because I have never been (then as now), a celebrity hound (or as they say in my biz, "a star f***er").  But this was Elwy Yost, man!  This was the single driving force more than any other who influenced my love for cinema, which I was studying in the big city no less- how could I not?

Thus, I humbly went up and asked him if he was Elwy Yost.  He said, "No I'm not-- I get asked that a lot", then said he was only kidding.  So, for the next thirteen subway stops, I had the above "thrill of a lifetime" of talking to the legend about cinema.  I should add at this point that while Elwy was-is obviously a beloved icon in this province, never once in the conversation was there the impression of "celebrity and spouse"-- his charming wife Lila was-is just as much of a cinema lover as her husband, and was equally involved in the conversation.  They were a team-- acting as each other's rock.

I mentioned that I had seen Nosferatu at the Nostalgic, (by the way, this was a film I had wanted to see for years-- a lot of long held ambitions were being fulfilled on this night!) and that I was disappointed, and he concurred that when he had seen it, "I didn't know what to think of it either-- when I saw the monster in it, I didn't know whether to be scared or laugh."  (Okay- we have on record at least one film the always ebullient Mr. Yost didn't like).  This in turn got us on the subject of Murnau, in which we discussed The Last Laugh (he hadn't seen it!) and Sunrise, which was upcoming in the Nostalgic's schedule, and was highly recommended by both of the Yosts.

Throughout this delightful twenty minutes, other movies were discussed, such as The Killing, which was on his show the coming weekend, but the pinnacle of the conversation was perhaps when Mr. Yost said how surprised he was at the number of films I had seen.  St. George Station was on the approach and before the dream ended, and I asked for his autograph. "You're a living legend to me," I said. "You're very kind," he replied.  He signed the back of a little card that the Nostalgic had made to plug an upcoming program of science fiction films.  As I shook hands of both the Yosts and made my way to the subway doors, I thanked him for showing the restored version of Gunga Din

While subway whizzed by me, both Yosts gave the "Elwy wave" out the window.  What a class act.  I switched onto the northbound train to campus, with tears in my eyes, joyous at having met one of my personal heroes, and also elated upon the discovery that he was as exciting, charming and down-to-earth on or offscreen.  Over the years, I've met with and interviewed other celebrities, but this was the brush with stardom I shall always cherish.  "Thrill of a Lifetime" indeed.

(edited from an article published way back in ESR #7)