Nov 15, 2012

No More Saturday Nights?

Elwy Yost.

This week it was announced that TVOntario is cancelling Saturday Night at the Movies at the end of this season, just one year shy of its fortieth anniversary. Saturday Night at the Movies is an institution among film fans in Southern Ontario, especially for the twenty-five years in which it was hosted by the affable Elwy Yost, whose infectious joy and enthusiasm was as delightful as the films themselves. Cinema lovers had the best TV date of the week every Saturday night, when they turned their lights down low and put their feet up to enjoy two movies, often sharing a similar theme, director or star. As if that wasn't enough, each film would be followed with celebrity interviews conducted by Mr. Yost himself, in his annual pilgrimages to Hollywood. This priceless archive of a quarter-century's culmination of footage is even more precious in that above and beyond the stars of Golden Age cinema, Elwy would equally devote interview time to directors, editors, cinematographers and musicians, in an effort to give viewers a complete mosaic of all the different hands that help to create the magic of the movies.

During the show's heyday (namely, when Mr. Yost hosted from 1974 to 1999), Saturday Night at the Movies gave another TV institution, Hockey Night in Canada a run for its money in terms of viewer ratings on Saturday nights. After Elwy Yost retired at the age of 74, there have been numerous attempts to keep the show running. The closest it came to retaining its legacy under Yost's reign, was fittingly enough, the first season after his retirement. Shelagh Rogers was a delightful host in her own right (handpicked by Mr. Yost himself) who still nonetheless kept his name alive via his incredible archive of interviews. However, due to conflicts with her other employer the CBC, she had to relinquish her post after just one season. For years, SNAM (as the show is known in short form) ran without any host. The films were coldly introduced with only an onscreen title card, and the interview segments were likewise clinically stitched together soundbytes. While the film programming may still have been impressive, the show had become disappointingly faceless- bereft of the warmth and joy distinguished in the years of Elwy Yost. Even with the re-introduction of a host (Thom Ernst) in 2010, the show still isn't the same.

TVO's decision to cancel its long-running show comes just one year after Elwy Yost passed away at the age of 85. If he had lived to hear this news, I think his heart would be broken. TVOntario's reason for axing the program is due to financial concerns, and a move for the station to solely concentrate on educational programs for children. However, once the news of SNAM's cancellation hit the internet, in short a petition began with signatures of those who are urging TVO to reconsider its decision to axe the program. 

Why? Even with the consensus that the show is a shadow of what it used to be? Perhaps it is an effort to keep the legacy of Mr. Yost alive (even though he is now absent from the show's content, his shadow still looms), and for that matter, what SNAM still stands for, despite the bumpy changes it has had since 1999. What with on-demand and specialty channels, one may argue that Saturday Night at the Movies is no longer needed, especially since Turner Classic Movies is now in the cable package of Ontario subscribers. Even in its current state, this show offers something unique. SNAM stands for more than just a couple hours of entertainment: it also studies the history and culture of that medium. TVO's decision to concentrate more on children's programming is ironic, since SNAM speaks to the child in all of us: this unique program makes wide-eyed youngsters of its viewers, as we witness the magic of the movies and summarily how that magic was created. After all these years, I still watch it, as it is one of the few intelligent and reverent programs devoted to the art and rich history of cinema.

Want to sign the petition? Here is the link.

Oct 12, 2012

Curse of the Living Corpse (1964)

Writer / Producer / Director: Del Tenney
Music: Bill Holcomb
Cinematography: Richard Hilliard
Iselin-Tenney Productions; 83 min; B&W

Helen Warren (Abigail Sinclair), Roy Scheider (Philip Sinclair), Margot Hartman (Vivian Sinclair), Robert Mill (Bruce Sinclair), Hugh Franklin (James Benson), Linda Donovan (Letty Crews), Dino Narizzano (Robert Harrington), Candace Hilligoss (Deborah Benson), J. Frank Lucas (Seth Lucas)

One of the greatest double-bills in drive-in history is the pairing of two horror films by Connecticut-based auteur Del Tenney: Horror of Party Beach and Curse of the Living Corpse. Although independently produced, these movies were picked up as a double bill for distribution by Twentieth Century Fox for a successful run in drive-ins. Horror of Party Beach is the most famous of the two; a goofy outing about radioactive monsters terrorizing a seaside community. Both films are well-produced despite their meagre budgets and nicely shot by Richard Hillard: each fine examples of regional filmmaking, that transcend the accepted truth of such movies' poor quality.

Oct 11, 2012

Ghosts That Still Walk (1977)

Writer-Director: James Flocker
Producer: Lynn S. Raynor
Music: Hod David Shcudson, Ron Stein
Cinematography: Holger Kasper
Gold Key Entertainment; 96 min; color

Ann Nelson (Alice Douglas), Matt Boston (Mark Douglas), Caroline Howe (Ruth Douglas), Jerry Jensen (Henry Douglas), Rita Crafts (Dr. Sills)

Sometimes the most obscure artifacts of pop culture get lodged in our collective subconscious. In the days before infomercials, this unassuming film made an impression upon UHF-surfing night owls, if for at least one image.  After six decades of fantasy cinema featuring humans besieged by numerous ghouls and goblins, Ghosts That Still Walk offers the intriguing premise of an elderly RV-ing couple being pursued by boulders! This sequence is surely reason enough to warrant a watch. However, as in the case of most films released by Gold Key Entertainment, this movie is better to have seen than to sit through.

In the late 1970s through to the early 1980s, this fledgling company must have had a singular mandate to sell the most lethargic micro-budgeted science fiction or horror films to TV stations as late-night filler. Films like The Lucifer Complex, Captive, or Target Earth?, produced in the waning days of the public's fascination with paranormal, provided sleep aid to unsuspecting insomniacs. However, despite that many of these movies are a chore to sit through, they do leave a strange impression afterwards: much the same as after having had a long gruelling road trip through unknown territory. One's taxed stamina is the price paid for discovering something unusual.

Oct 10, 2012

Turhan Bey (1922 - 2012)

ABOVE: Turhan Bey (right) in The Amazing Mr. X

Actor Turhan Bey, a matinee idol in cinema's golden age, has passed away on September 30, a few months after his ninetieth birthday. His exotic good looks caused him to be dubbed "The Turkish Delight" in fan magazines.

Happy Ed Wood Day!

Today would be the eighty-eighth birthday of visionary writer-director Edward D. Wood Jr., who eked out a living on the margins of Hollywood, cranking out a signature filmography of financially challenged works featuring faded matinee idols, dime store props, a "golly gee whiz" demeanour, and a subtly subversive text that upturned the conventions of 1950s white-picket-fence Americana.

The Medveds' book, The Golden Turkey Awards, gave Mr. Wood the dubious honour of "The Worst Director of All Time". However, no body of work that is this entertaining can be the worst of all time. What he lacked in talent, he made up for with enthusiasm, and carved out an instantly recognizable body of work. In this regard, he succeeded beyond most other Hollywood players, who willingly became nameless slaves on the assembly line. Ironically, although Edward D. Wood would dearly loved to have made big studio pictures, it was his confinement to Grade-Z movies that gave him his artistic freedom. No one would notice or care about his subversive ideas:  Glen or Glenda (in which he also played the lead role) is a plea for tolerance; Bride of the Monster a sly commentary on the atomic age; and his signature film Plan 9 from Outer Space remains a Brechtian masterpiece that forces one to deconstruct the artifice in the art of cinema.

Sadly, the last two decades of Wood's life would be spent with further marginalization, writing porn novels and sex films. He died at the age of 54, penniless, forgotten and victimized by alcoholism. Only a few years later, the memory of Edward D. Wood Jr. was resurrected, as new generations discovered his work.  His emergence into our public conscious via numerous revivals of his most beloved films, culminated into a Hollywood biopic, made with the Hollywood gloss and production values that evaded all of Wood's filmmaking career. Although a box office disappointment, Tim Burton's 1994 film Ed Wood however won glowing reviews. One of the least enthusiastic notices came from Globe and Mail critic Rick Groen, whose piece did however illuminate one interesting point. He opines that if Wood was still alive, he would probably be directing Halloween 9, while his idol Orson Welles (the actor-writer-director triple threat Wood admired and emulated) would still be trying to get financing. Everyone loves a comeback story, tangible or otherwise.

While perhaps 1994 was the apex of Ed Wood Mania, this serendipitous auteur has still not left our psyche. It is not for nothing that a legally recognized religion has been been named after him. Edward D. Wood indeed made a tremendous sacrifice and endured hardships to realize his unique visions for an uncaring public. However, his spirit has been resurrected so that the masses can continue to learn from him. The work of Edward D. Wood Jr. is a lesson to us all: pursue your dreams no matter how big the obstacles; let us be accepting of those different from ourselves; time reveals the true worth of everything.

Oct 5, 2012

Jack's Wife (1972)

Writer-Director: George A. Romero
Producer: Nancy Romero
Music: Steve Gorn
Cinematographer-Editor: George A. Romero
Latent Image; 104 min; color

Jan White (Joan Mitchell), Ray Laine (Gregg Williamson), Ann Muffly (Shirley Randolph), Joedda McClain (Nikki Mitchell), Bill Thunhurst (Jack Mitchell), Neil Fisher (Dr. Miller), Esther Lapidus (Sylvia)

George Romero followed up his breakthough picture, Night of the Living Dead, with a trio of interesting pictures that were largely overlooked due to poor distribution.  Of these, The Crazies had gradually found an audience over the years (thus prompting a remake). There's Always Vanilla, was Romero's first film after his classic zombie movie, and a rare non-horror effort-- a counterculture comedy which played a week and disappeared.  His subsequent picture, Jack's Wife, brought Romero (obliquely) back into the horror genre. Jack Harris picked the movie up, retitled it with the unfortunate title, Hungry Wives (misleading one to think it was a softcore porn), and did no business.  This film was again re-titled for re-release in 1982, with its most colloquial name, Season of the Witch. People had mistakenly thought that it was newer than Dawn of the Dead (1979), or confused it with Halloween III: The Season of the Witch, that was playing in theaters around the same time.

Oct 1, 2012

Sugar Hill (1974)

Director: Paul Maslansky
Writer: Tim Kelly
Producer: Elliott Schick
Music: Dino Fekaris, Nick Zesses
Cinematography: Robert Jessup
American-International Pictures; 83 min; color

Marki Bey (Diana "Sugar" Hill), Robert Quarry (Morgan), Don Pedro Colley (Baron Samedi), Richard Lawson (Valentine), Zara Cully (Mama Maitresse), Charles Robinson (Fabulous)

When Diana “Sugar” Hill’s boyfriend is murdered by racketeers who want to move in on his club, she seeks the help of her aunt, a voodoo priestess (played by Zara Cully- TV’s Mother Jefferson!) to raise the dead, and have the zombies carry out her bidding. Sugar Hill is among the horror-themed Blaxploitation pictures of the 1970s (a la Blacula; Blackenstein; Abby), and as far as occult-themed revenge films of the era go, it is more creepier than, say, Jennifer: The Snake Goddess (to name another movie that features a heroine reaching into her heritage to wreak vengeance), but perhaps has less conviction in the performance.

Sep 28, 2012

The Toronto Film Noir Syndicate

...and now that Word on the Street has past, it's time to continue to the next project I've been involved with for the past couple of months. Yours truly has joined Shirley Hughes and David Faris in The Toronto Film Noir Syndicate. This collective will be showing classic film noir several times throughout the year.

Tomorrow, Saturday Sept. 29 is our inaugural screening. This is the first of our fundraiser screening, in which we hope to raise funds and awareness for our plan to hold these events in the future at a theatrical venue.  Tomorrow's event will be held at the Dominion on Queen, 500 Queen St. #E.  The show begins at 8 PM-- admission is five dollars.

For further details, visit the syndicate's website by clicking here.

You can also like the Toronto Film Noir Syndicate on Facebook.

Sep 21, 2012

Issue #25 Debuts Sunday!

Wow. It's hard to believe that not only has ESR been in existence for eleven years, but our twenty-fifth issue debuts Sunday at Word on the Street. Perhaps that counts as a silver jubilee or something...

The blog has been largely dormant in the past few weeks, as we've devoted our time to preparing the new issue. Next week, after we've kicked off the launch of ESR #25, we will be back in the blogosphere and how!  Fall is now upon us. These next ten weeks of the year are what yours truly lives for. In addition just loving the season itself, I am enraptured by the many great cultural events during this time, and also delighted by the creative muse that revisits for this period of time. As the weeks progress, it is our intention to make our web presence come alive with more postings of reviews and events.

Oh yes. The new issue. Our silver issue continues to run the gamut of covering everything but current mainstream cinema, with articles on Laurel and Hardy's 1940s films, the gritty films noir of Andrew L. Stone, a detailed history and review of Grizzly 2, the independent works of Sara Driver, and lots of DVD reviews pertaining to recent releases of older, interesting pictures.  This is an action-packed 60-page issue, retailing for five dollars.

Our latest release also finds us in a transitional period. Because ESR publishes far less frequently than the old days, it is makes less sense to stay current in print. The blog has been used for, and will continue to be relevant with timely news pieces. As a result, the future of ESR's print edition exists with longer-format articles. This issue reflects our ongoing shift from a plethora of short works, to fewer articles of greater length. Within the next twelve months, the overall look and durability of our publication will be changing, and in addition I will be devoting some time to one or two print-on-demand book projects.

We're excited about our new release, and hope you can join in our celebration with the first stop on our fall tour. Word on the Street runs Sunday September 23 from 11 AM to 6 PM at Queen's Park Circle. We're at booth MM18. See you there!

For further details, visit the Word on the Street website.

Aug 9, 2012

Medicine Ball Caravan (1971)

Director: Francois Reichenbach
Writer: Christian Haren
Producer: Tom Donahue
Cinematographers: Serge Halsdorf, Christian Odasso, Jean-Michel Surel
Warner Brothers, 88min; color

B.B. King. Alice Cooper, Delaney and Bonnie, Doug Kershaw, The Youngbloods, David Peel and the Lower East Side, Stoneground w/ Sal Valentino

My next sentence is probably unique among any review of a rock and roll film.  You should probably read the book before seeing the movie.

It may be just as hard to see this 1971 Warner Brothers documentary, as it is to find Thomas King Forcade’s tell-all book, Caravan of Love and Money, which told what went on behind the scenes of the making of this film.  The Medicine Ball Caravan was a cross-country tour of 150 people, who would stop here and there to put on a rock and roll concert.  The whole point of the caravan, despite spreading peace love and good vibes on the way to their final destination (England- which is not shown in the movie), was to offer a counterpoint to Woodstock.  That 1969 festival is generally considered to be the signature event of the love generation, but still many felt that Woodstock was too commercial, especially once it became a franchise (with a record set and a movie), and did not give back to the counterculture which of course inspired the whole thing in the first place. Ironically, Warner Brothers, the same distributors of said record set and movie,  gave the green light to make this “anti-Woodstock”, which attempted to give an honest portrayal of what the love generation was really about.

Medicine Ball Caravan is unique among rockumentaries.  Monterey Pop, Wattstax and all the others would’ve happened even if the cameras weren’t rolling. Instead, the caravan was created for the camera.  In other words, it is a documentary in which fabrication is used to capture reality.  The end result however, is questionable in its truthfulness, as it features people who are way too conscious of the camera. Whether it’s cinema verité or reality TV, one fundamental is shared: the camera is too powerful a tool for people to ignore; it changes them- encourages them to be larger than life. Early on, we hear the Youngbloods do a rendition of the Beatles’ “Act Naturally” -a snarky aside to how all the hippies are supposed to be before the cameras.  (The song is even a mantra by some meditating longhairs).

Yet to understand all that subtext of the images between the musical acts, well, you have to read the book first.  For example, you find out that the supposedly candid moment of a hippie couple making love in the early morning is bogus because the man knew the camera was there, and his bravado was increased.  You also find out that the scene where everyone jumps in jello was a symbolic way of bringing all the people together.  Oh.  And perhaps most interesting, Sal Valentino, formerly of the Beau Brummels, is in a band called Stoneground, which is seen briefly in the movie, doing some Janis Joplin angst.   Thanks to the book, we are informed that this band is actually fictitious- it was formed solely for the movie, a house band for the caravan, and supposedly, their most inspired performances did not occur on film. 

What we get is a vague travelogue with musical numbers by B.B. King (doing a great “How Blue Can You Get”), Alice Cooper (before the horror show makeup, but still pretty wild), and finally, a bravura performance by East Side enfant terrible David Peel (the guy who released an album with the hilariously crass title “Have a Marijuana”), who provides the film some solely needed sparks. 

Otherwise, the movie’s drama is most potent in a sequence where the caravan happens upon a campus rife with protests of student radicals. The entourage is accused of exploiting their generation, whereas Peel counters that they don’t want this movie to be another Woodstock.  “The people we want to come are the shorthairs- long hairs stay away from this movie.”  This may be a naïve attempt at getting the establishment to understand the counterculture, but one can’t imagine anyone except a counterculture audience buying tickets for admission.

During this scene, someone offers the amazingly prophetic line: “We can’t get it together among ourselves, man”, which presages the self-destruction of the love generation.  If we are to believe what was written in Forcade’s account, the pretentious French director Francois Reichenbach always showed up too late to capture the authentic, unscripted moments on film, and had to ask people to recreate them.  And perhaps because the campus unrest was still in progress once the camera crew arrived, this sequence is the only one (other than the concert acts) that feels authentic.

For all of the filmmakers’ dissent towards Woodstock, this movie simply wouldn’t exist with it. It has the same structure, to say nothing of the same optical effects, as the filmmakers have no visual imagination of their own. So we see Doug Kershaw perform “Louisiana Man” in split screen, and Stoneground doing their thing with some acid-washed optical effects.-  they even employed the same editor to work on this movie (future Last Waltz director Martin Scorsese)! 

This is a dichotomy of a movie about the dichotomy of the love generation.  The filmmakers end up contradicting themselves just as much as their subject matter. Like the doomed generation captured on film, the people behind the camera can’t get it together amongst themselves either, man.

Aug 8, 2012

Turkish Star Trek (1973)

Director: Hulki Saner
Writer: Ferdi Merter
Saner Film; 72 min; color

Sadri Alisik (Turist Ömer), Erol Amaç (Mr. Spak), Cemil Sahbaz (Kaptan Kirk),
Ferdi Merter (Doktor McCoy)

Filmmakers in the exploitation racket would shamelessly rip off one hot property with copycat films that would duplicate the success of that commodity for as long as they continued to sell tickets. However, of all the low-budget knockoffs “inspired” by a Western Hemisphere trend, none seem so blatant, or as delirious, as those produced in Turkey. Movies inspired by Star Wars or Superman would not only copy the storyline, they’d even incorporate some footage from the source material! It is small wonder that they are pure gold for collectors of video obscura. Even when they are presented without subtitles, these films delight fans with their wonderfully crass acts of plunder and cheesy production values.

Turkish Star Trek (original title: Turist Omer Uzay Yolunda) is not completely a riff on the classic Gene Roddenberry TV series, as the lead role is that of a vagabond-type character named Turist Omer, (played by Turkish character actor Sadri Alisik, who has played this role in at least four other films), who gets beamed up to the Enterprise in this instalment. His adventures (think “Topol in Space”) are sly spoofs on classic episodes of the Star Trek franchise.

The film begins with the traditional opening credits sequence from the TV series (tinted in red), with liberal use of the “Star Trek” theme, and the Enterprise flying by the screen, with “whoosh” sound intact.  The credits too are padded with some surf music playing over a slide of a spiral galaxy.

And wait till you see the interior of the Enterprise.  The ship looks like a factory boiler room with a bunch of silly video screens placed about!  In this version, their Captain Kirk appears rather prissy, as opposed to the usual skirt-chasing archetype who has a green girlfriend at every asteroid. He doesn’t overact as much, either.  Spock, or “Spak”, is played by an actor who wears these silly plastic ears which do not resemble his skin tones, and actually (wisely?) conveys more emotion than Leonard Nimoy ever did.  In Istanbul, Spock is a self-mocking existentialist!  Rock on!

Even though the version I watched is not presented with subtitles, the histrionics of the actors are enough that you do get a sense of the story.  First, we get a remake of the classic episode, “The Man Trap”, as the crew beams down to a planet where a scientist couple does research.  The wife, Nancy, is an old flame of Dr. McCoy. We learn that she can change her appearance at will- she lures a security guard away by looking like some steely blonde.  The man is found dead with a bunch of strange red sucker marks on his face.  (Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” is heard on the soundtrack!)

Oh yes. Before we continue, two important notes. First, in Turkish Star Trek, people beam down by having these squiggly lines drawn all over them followed by the camera going out of focus.  Secondly, it is the guys in the green shirts that always get killed!

Suddenly we cut to a wedding scene (!) in which a bunch of people in really bad striped pants swarm around this station wagon with “Just Married” accoutrements.  Our hero, Turist Omer is suddenly threatened by mob types brandishing guns to sign a marriage license.  During his overacting, Omer prays to Allah, and suddenly appears on the same rocky setting that our crew beamed down to.  He is captured by this guy wearing leopard underwear who walks around like a robot (accompanied by clunking noises on the soundtrack!).  Omer is brought to the scientist couple, and then Nancy suddenly starts sucking his fingers!  (This is where we begin to see her “salt vampire” motif , stolen from the classic Trek episode.)

The landing party members beam Omer back up the ship with them, and first the lecherous beast tries to come on to the women on the bridge.  Thankfully, the females in Turkish Star Trek are a lot more aggressive—they respond by pulling phasers on him.  (The phasers, by the way, look like vibrators with handles.)  Meanwhile, Nancy kills a scientist crewmember, assumes his identity and then gets beamed aboard the ship.  Once you have such an interesting creature, especially if you know the original episode, it is rather annoying not to really do anything with the menace.  Instead the plot spends more time with Omer bugging Spock, and playing with all the dials on the control boards.  (Where would any Star Trek rip-off be without one Dutch angle shot of the crew falling all over the place?)

However, Nancy, in the guise of said crewmember starts to hypnotize all the lovely yeoman ladies, runs his/her/its fingers across the victims’ faces, and then licks the fingertips afterwards.  The Roddenberry universe was never so kinky!  Anyway, they beam back down to the planet, and discover the dead body of the real crewman.  Then Kirk and Spock do battle with some bad monster wearing rubber mask, gloves and a flame retardant suit (!) Then our real creature appears in the guise of a temptress for Omer, even a Vulcan bride for Spock, which thusly allows the plot to diverge into an “Amok Time” rip-off, where this dime-store version of Kirk and Spock do battle with each other as part of the Vulcan marriage rite (dinner and a movie just don’t cut it on Spock’s planet).  Disappointingly, no “da-da-dada” Star Trek fight music is heard.

Nancy’s husband meanwhile attempts to thwart the crew by having the landing party do battle with a bunch of duplicates of that same weird robot we saw earlier.  Omer saves the day by screwing up the professor’s machine.  Apparently, the creature had beamed down in the guise of McCoy.  Then the real McCoy beams down, and we learn from the professor that his wife’s true visage is that of a vampire who draws salt out of its victims.  Then the creature attacks Kirk while Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” plays!!

Having almost saved the day, the crew beams Omer back down to where they found him —but not without the actor doing an endless pantomime in the transporter room, even padding screen time by kissing everyone on the cheek… Spock included.  Omer appears right back in the middle of his shotgun wedding.  He and everyone is stunned at his new physical attribute… Vulcan ears!  Suddenly, that gives him the idea that he can save the day by giving the mobsters the Vulcan neck pinch.  The end.  I have a sudden urge to watch Pink Floyd in Pompeii.

(adapted from an article in ESR #16 about Turkish rip-offs)

Aug 7, 2012

The Secret of Wendel Samson (1966)

Among the most durable and entertaining films from the proliferation of American underground cinema in the 1960s is the prolific work of twin brothers, George and Mike Kuchar. Whether they worked separately or together, their valentines to kitsch (B-movies, pop culture) are often amazing home movie wonders. These deliberate odes to trash culture also succeed because of the seams that show: the post-sync sound, tacky props or effects, cartoonish acting, and incongruous locations further make one aware of the shortcomings of the very kind of camp that has inspired their work. Although perhaps George Kuchar's work is the better known, it is Mike whose films first appeared on DVD. What further separates Mike's movies from his brother's is that in addition to the campy feel, there is also a nightmarish tone to the work.

Both of these tones are found in The Secret of Wendel Samson, a 33-minute wonder that features avant-garde visual artist Red Grooms (best known for his pieces which comment on pop culture) as Wendel, who is first seen bound in a spider web made from rope.  He is “tangled up psychologically”, confused about his sexual identity- keeping his homosexual encounters secret from his girlfriend Margaret (played by Mimi Gross, daughter of artist Heim Gross).

Mike Kuchar typically began this film with only a germ of an idea (the spider web), after meeting Grooms at a party and deciding to make a movie with him.  Then he customarily built the movie as shooting went along.  What results is a fascinating psychological mood piece, which is for the most part, a straight melodrama, with only slight comic relief (as we chuckle at the Brechtian feel of it all, with rubbery post-sync sound which Kuchar dubbed months later), campy voiceovers (60s underground siren Donna Kerness is the voice of Margaret) and thunderous canned music overemphasizing the drama.  It is also a marvel of storytelling with its fragmented narrative, weaved much like a web itself, as the story is several splintered moments of time, being told at once, as though they were fleeting impulses from Wendel’s mind.

Wendel is walking with Margaret when he spies two mysterious guys looking at him from across the street.  After he has a fling with a man named Terry (an actor that Mike Kuchar befriended on the daily commute), and a bravura performance in front of the mirror rehearsing ways to break up with him, he leaves the man’s apartment (actually Heim Gross’ apartment, splendidly decorated with artifacts and paintings), while Margaret and the two mysterious guys secretly spy on him.

One fateful night, Wendel fibs about having to stay home to fix the kitchen shutters, and goes to have a homosexual tryst instead.  Margaret pays him a surprise visit, and (gasp) the shutters aren’t done!!   Wendel’s voiceover, “Something tells me she’s here for more than just a chitchat”, proves correct, as she spends an inordinate amount of time snooping around while he tries to paint.  (In this interesting moment, Kuchar had just asked Grooms to start painting anything- and he makes an off-the-cuff picture of a bird, which subconsciously is fitting, as it represents Wendel’s yearning to fly away, break free of this indecision.)

Alas at this point, Wendel can only woo Margaret in his dreams, as evidenced by the fantasy sequence, set in a restaurant, where the pair drinks wine, as he snuggles up to her.  (In an interesting real life doppelganger, Mimi actually had the hots for Red, but he wasn’t interested in her.)  Yet, it is also in dreams where Wendel finally has to confront the truth about his identity.

This is where the film pulls out all the stops (“…like a badly dubbed Hercules movie…”) for a completely outrageous sequence, (admittedly influenced by Orson Welles’ The Trial), as Wendel experiences a nightmare while Margaret’s demands for copulation ring on.  As Bob Cowan’s trippy electronic music enhances all the weirdness, the two mysterious men seen earlier (one played by brother George) put a Luger pistol to his head, and he is taken to a room filled with a bunch of creepy people.  Wendel is accosted by a middle-aged blond woman toting a Super Patrol laser gun, who strips down to a swimsuit, dances provocatively and demands “Make love to me”.  This woman is the starlet Floraine Connors, who would continue to act in Mike Kuchar’s movies for decades. (She is featured prominently in the director's hilarious The Craven Sluck, which is also featured on the same DVD as this film.  (By the director’s own confession, she is “still a glamour puss at 80”, even though she can only work for an hour or so before getting tired).

This fantasy woman shoots a laser beam at Wendel’s leg, and these sleazy voyeurs throw him onto the bed.  This moment makes an ironic comment on machism,  brilliantly underscored by the introduction of the “Superman” TV series on the soundtrack.  Our hero naturally fails at “manhood”, and is pinned against the wall while people shoot toy cowboy guns and plastic machine guns with sparklers.  In hilarious pixilation, bullet holes appear on the wall.  This sequence is made even weirder by Kuchar’s wobbly post-dubbing.  Then we end where the film begins, where the shots of Wendel tied up, walking the lonely streets, and a decisive moment on a field, all logically converge in its own neatly designed web.

(The Secret of Wendel Samson is featured on the Other Cinema DVD of Kuchar's Sins of the Fleshapoids. Although that underground favourite is the headliner, for my money, the true jewels of the disk are the bonus Mike Kuchar shorts: the film reviewed above, and The Craven Sluck)

Aug 6, 2012

Skip Tracer (1977)

Director, Writer, Editor: Zale Dalen
Producer: Laara Dalen
Cinematographer: Ron Orieux
Music: J Dodd, Linton Garner
Highlight Communications; 94min; color

David Peterson (John Collins), John Lazarus (Brent Solverman)

Back when Canada’s tax shelter movement was in full bloom, which encouraged dentists and lawyers to make movies with a 100% tax write-off, there were still films that didn’t attempt to be ersatz Hollywood commercial product, which was the norm for tax shelter fare.  Take Skip Tracer. This unsettling work opened in 1977 to good reviews on the festival circuit, and then, like all Canadian cinema not done by David Cronenberg, didn’t play well at the box office and slipped away, only to be occasionally revived in second-run venues whenever they do a “Best of…” Canadian retrospective, or to be shown on Bravo (when they still showed films to honour their CanCon requirements, instead of “Flashpoint” reruns. It only once made a fleeting appearance on home video (released to VHS under the title Deadly Business).

Skip Tracer is guerilla filmmaking at its finest.  Shot in roughly a month in the fall of 1976 for $145, 000, this is a lean, mean movie that unsparingly depicts the dirty things people must do to make a living.  Our “hero” is John Collins, a repo man who is in a slump.  Usually he is the top man of the year in terms of successfully collecting from delinquent debtors.  During his downtime, he shows the ropes to an eager young man, Brent Solverman. Through Collins, we learn that the trick to surviving this business is to be heartless.

Collins is a quick-witted cynic who seldom finds anything cheerful in his life.  When I first saw this film, I wasn't too crazy about David Peterson's performance: I thought he was straining too hard- straining with too much emphasis in his dialogue. On repeated glances, however, I realize that this is probably how Collins would act- playing over the top to perhaps disguise his shallow interior. 

Sometimes Collins doesn’t practice what he preaches, as there are moments when he lets his humanity precede his call of duty. Perhaps it is for this reason that he is no longer is the top dog of the company; as a result he no longer has a private office, and his effects have been moved to the common, open concept section of the bureau. It seems that Collins is as much at war with the competition in the office as the people who owe money. Most tellingly, he gets stabbed by someone he attempts to collect from. 

The key to Skip Tracer’s success is its constant element of surprise. The identity of his assailant remains unsolved.  Even the resolution of his consistent efforts to collect from a recurrent foil named Pettigrew, is shocking.  We are mostly observing a few moments in Collins' life.  Therefore the film is as disjointed and uneven as life is, just as in the films of John Cassavetes or his greatest disciple, Rob Nilsson.  All scenes in the film serve less to tell a story than to witness different facets of his character.  A more conventional film would naturally have the identity of the stabber resolved, or Collins' new partner would come to his rescue (if anything, Brent practically disappears from the plot, just as life could have it).  This incident nonetheless is the catalyst for Collins’ change in character.

Not too long before this scene, Collins is subtly trying to tell a client to get a loan through a bank instead of through his company, because the man would get charged a higher interest rate by this firm.  After he recuperates from his wound, Collins adapts a "fuck you" approach to everyone: the clients who always give him the runaround, and the agency that is always screwing him.

This striking film is written, directed and edited by Zale Dalen and produced by his wife Laara.  The film is mostly shot in long, single takes, which add to the element of surprise. The frame is so wide that anything could intervene.  One memorable segment features Collins hammering away at a drain pipe that one of his deadbeats is hiding in.  It is so uncomfortable to watch, as there are no safe cutaways- you are being forced to watch just what Collins puts up with in his daily routine.  But also Dalen has a great eye for detail.  Occasionally he will cutaway to involuntary gestures that people make, so you can really tell what they're thinking behind all that tough talk.

Filmed in canvases muddy browns and heightened whites, Skip Tracer has a washed-out look that compliments the gritty material.  Shot in the less picturesque avenues of Vancouver, this film is also an impressionistic essay about the cramped world in which Collins lives.  His realm is a claustrophobic office space with papers a mile high, a tiny bachelor apartment, seedy strip joints, bungalows with crying kids and expensive TV sets, and flat undeveloped suburbia with fancy houses in which ten-cent millionaires hide.

Skip Tracer puts to shame most of what passes itself off as Independent cinema today.  In contemporary usage, this term has been homogenized enough so that films with commercial ambitions made by smaller studios fall under this banner. It also puts to shame the mitigating factors that affect much of our country’s artists. After the critical success of this film, Zale Dalen’s follow-up picture, The Hounds of Notre Dame, was poorly handled, and has largely remained unseen, even in the usual slipshod ways in which Canadians must stoop to view their own country’s cinema. Dalen’s resume of sporadic feature films includes the futuristic punk fantasy Terminal City Ricochet, and the unreleased ensemble romantic comedy, Passion. Like many of our filmmakers who remained north of the border, he had spent much of his career directing television, as the feature films got fewer and further between.

Nonetheless, Skip Tracer is a dark horse milestone in Canadian cinema. It is a movie that didn’t deserve its early retirement from the limelight, but still, because it is an unsettling piece that one never truly shakes off, it keeps re-entering our psyche for play dates on the revival circuit. However you can see this, Skip Tracer is essential viewing.

(updated from a piece in ESR #3)

Aug 5, 2012

Who Is Bozo Texino? (2006)

“I guess you could say there’s a mystery to it; maybe you want it to be a mystery.”

The best film I saw in all of 2006 was Who Is Bozo Texino, a mesmerizing 55-minute black-and-white documentary by Bill Daniel.  The novel premise, about the search for the identity of a railroad graffiti artist, would already make for an intriguing film, but this piece is also a stunning decoupage of sight and sound- such a dense montage of striking visual compositions, and impressionistic voiceover. It is such a feast of a movie that one can scarcely believe it runs less than an hour.

Viewing Bozo Texino is to get the feeling of entering a secret society, and in fact, even attending the screening for it at Cinecyle in the fall of 2006 gave it that impression.  I had only learned about the event by one posting on a website, but the rest of the clientele however already seemed to be “in the know”.  The sense of being inaugurated into a subterranean culture is perhaps the perfect kind of inertia needed to view this film, which is in pursuit of an elusive subject.  (This screening opened with Bill Daniel’s two-minute short subject, The Underground Square Dance Association- a hilarious piece about another subterranean culture, which set the tone.)

The concept of people “riding the rails”, hobos hopping a freight train to a new frontier, harkens images of the Depression Era, yet, as one narrator suggests, the tradition dates back to Jack London era, the 1890’s. This custom of hopping on a freight train has outlaw romanticism, with the hobo (not a “bum”, but a “hobo”) as the classical renegade figure, defying responsibility and authority by charting their own destination on the rails. And to think that this tradition continues today is perhaps surprising, but that is also part of the film’s appeal. Although a lot of the people who speak on film are leathery, weather-beaten old men, one gets the impression that this tradition will continue, with the brief shots of young hippies running to catch a boxcar.  Very early in the film, we understand why this romantic notion continues in today’s society, with a breathtaking shot of a hobo in a boxcar looking at a mountain range.  It prefaces one man’s later observation: “To be absent from society is to be on a higher plane.”

During the making of this 16-year project, Bill Daniel has also edited for Craig Baldwin’s equally dense, found-footage collages.  That pursuit has served him well here, as it is a rhythm-perfect piece of film that moves like music, with crescendos and well-placed diminuendos.  Seeing this flurry of images and sounds in such a fragmented frenzy, one gets the whirlwind feeling of teetering from a locomotive.  And in moments when the film slows to a Zen calm  (where a single shot will play for a couple of minutes), it gives one the impression of a good rest at the end of a journey.

What is more, this remarkable film implodes the conventions of documentary, with its multitude of narrative viewpoints.  Its huge ensemble of anonymous voices is presented in as much a dizzying, disorienting fashion as the visuals.  Despite that we see some railroad riders onscreen in several scenes, they still remain as strangers to us: as phantom-like as the plethora of signatures and drawings on the trains that we see throughout.  A conventional A&E documentary would probably have started right off the bat with some exposition on Bozo Texino, yet we first see a (fleeting) shot of Texino’s drawing at the ninth minute, and only at the eighteenth (nearly one third of the film has already elapsed) does someone first mention his name.  Since this hour-long film is a condensation of a lifetime on the tracks, it makes sense that we only gradually learn of the central character, just as someone gradually would hear these stories as legends after time spent riding on the trains.

While perhaps documentary-like in its structure of talking heads, narration and candid shots of people catching rides on trains, this film more succeeds in giving the viewer a synthesis of what it is like to hop a freight train to parts unknown.  Its disorienting approach also compliments the fuzzy narrative, as this subculture is full of people who assume others’ identities.  John Easley, for instance, has adopted the signature of an older man named Coltrane (whose trademark is an Old West scout with long hair and a huge moustache).  As such, we hear conflicting opinions as to who is really signing the trains as Bozo Texino.  Unlike the case of Citizen Kane, perhaps we really don’t want to know the revelation of this “Rosebud”.

Because this subculture is so steeped in legend and lore, solving this puzzle perhaps robs it of its mystical quality.  This journey to uncovering Texino’s identity is another metaphor for the train ride—the destination matters less than the road trip.  On screen and on paper, Who Is Bozo Texino gives us a representation of a long exhilarating ride, with its blurry narrative and blinding editing, as a lifetime of memory and folklore is distilled into one hour.  Even more, each of these fleeting images is a miniature work of art in itself.  With the meticulous attention to frame composition and rich contrasts, Bill Daniel ably validates this vanguard lifestyle as an overwhelming experience.

It is perhaps over-simplifying this bohemian existence by romanticizing its freedom from the clutches of modern society, but how this film was being shown to the audience adds to that image.  Avoiding the usual trappings (literally and figuratively) of the film festival circuit, Bill Daniel would travel the continent in his van to show the film: fitting for the “wandering spirit nature” of its subject.  My seeing it in a cold, wooden screening facility (perhaps not unlike a boxcar itself) one October night further added to the visceral experience of this truly remarkable movie.

While you should see Who Is Bozo Texino on a big screen somewhere, somehow… you can purchase DVD’s of the film at

(originally published in ESR #18)

Aug 4, 2012

The Outsider (1951) - The Snob (1958)

One of the best and most prolific studios who produced those educational films we used to watch in public school, was Centron, based in Lawrence Kansas. Founded in 1947 by Lawrence H. Wolf and Russell A. Mosser, Centron’s educational films often stood apart from other studios producing mental hygiene movies, because they approached the material visually, as though they were making commercial movies. They didn’t rely so much on stagnant devices like talking heads and narration to enlighten the student body. Rather, the message would be wrapped up in narrative stories, and despite the meager budgets, these ten-minute epics were often well-produced little movies.  It is for this reason that many of their films even today are still worth seeing for their engaging storytelling and visual ideas.

Mind you, the subtext of these pictures (like many educational films in general) emerge today as being rather corny for their really square protagonists, but in truth, it may be that these movies already felt that way when they were originally released back in the 1940s and 50s. As youth became more prominent with each new generation, Victorian values began to change, and the white picket fence mentality that pervades many mental hygiene films seemed too squeaky clean for its own good.

By far the most important genre in all of educational films is that of social engineering. It manifested the number one reason that educational films were ever made: FEAR! Further, the social engineering films cleverly illustrated their scare tactics by showing the dire consequences of deviating from the social norm. In other words, such things as not making the bed would ostracize one from the rest of society. These pictures are often troubling today for their implicit social conditioning and sexual stereotyping (witness how subservient females are to males).

ABOVE: The Outsider. Note the framing, the lighting and even the positioning of the American flag, to suggest how Susan Jane is ostracized from the rest of the status quo. 

Many of the social guidance films that still do feel contemporary are by Centron. Their pictures, produced in conjunction with Young America Films, would follow their formula of being well-produced mini-movies, but would also have an open, unresolved ending, which would force the class to discuss what they had seen, and perhaps what would-should happen next. Many classroom films felt like cheats for their lazy unresolved conclusions. The Young America – Centron films on the other hand, had psychologically complex stories that would offer much discussion afterwards.

Of that remarkable output, two of the best are The Outsider (1951) and The Snob (1958), both featuring the gifted young actress Vera Stough.


The Outsider (1951)
Director: Arthur H. Wolf
Writer: Margaret Travis
Producers: Arthur H. Wolf and Russell A. Mosser
Cinematographer: Norman Steuwe
Centron; 12 min; B&W

Vera Stough (Susan Jane)

This is one of the best social guidance films, because it actually invests a lot of investigation into why the character Susan Jane is such a social misfit.  This little girl tries to fit into the social norm, but her attempts at doing so often fail due to misunderstandings.  To her credit, she makes the effort of going to them instead of waiting for them to come to her, by sitting with all the kids at the ice cream parlour.  But when the other kids order an ice cream, instead of the root beer she ordered, she interprets this as a signal of non-acceptance and runs off crying.  Later, in a neat shot that is reminiscent of a split-screen effect, she overhears two girls in the hall talking about not inviting someone to Marcy’s party on Friday night, and mistakenly believes they are talking about her.  Marcy goes to Susan Jane’s house to personally invite her to the party, and our heroine vows to work hard to fit in, from proper dress to not talking about herself.  The film ends on the ambiguous note, of course, just before she is to leave for the party, and title cards ask the audience what they think the fate of Susan Jane would be, and if our group has ever known anyone like her… or for that matter, if we are like her. 

This film was surprisingly made with a lot of care, even with attention to neat visuals.  The final scene heavily uses mirrors to give double images of Susan Jane, causing one to reflect just before she makes that crucial moment to fit in to the norm.  Unlike many of the “What do you think?” school of educational filmmaking, The Outsider paints a complex portrait of a shy individual, and offers suggestions that both outside factors and even her own awkwardness are contributing to her being out of the in-crowd.  Someone wisely thought to include a scene of Marcy asking her friends if somehow they are responsible for the girl’s not being able to fit in.  This question of course is not answered in the scene—that is left open for the viewers to discuss later.


The Snob (1958)
Director: Herk Harvey
Writer: Margaret Travis
Producers: Arthur H. Wolf and Russell A. Mosser
Cinematographer: Norman Steuwe
Centron; 12 min; B&W

Vera Stough (Sarah), Harper Barnes (Ron), Henry Effertz, Brady Rubin, Bret Waller

The girl who played Susan Jane in The Outsider is back- older and still out of the social status quo. On a Friday night, Sarah sits in her bedroom working on algebra, while next door, Ron and his friends are having their traditional Friday night bash, with good food, and all kinds of groovy jazz playing.  Sarah doesn’t want anything to do with them, nor do they with her.  However, Ron’s mother politely reminds him of the fact that when he was little, Sarah was the one who looked after him while had a fever.  That was a time, though, before Sarah went to junior high and got all hoity-toity.

What is so striking about The Snob is its maturity.  The performances are all realistic and the filmmakers approach this project like they were making a Hollywood movie (there is some inventive camerawork, and beautiful lighting).  This would be all for naught though, if the writing wasn’t easily as strong.  Happily, we get commentary from both sides about Sarah’s demeanour.  Her obsession ambition to succeed in school thusly results in a lot of misunderstandings with her classmates.  She tries too hard to fit in—her entry for the design of the yearbook is turned down in favour of someone else (we are not told why, but it may be that the other person won because he is well-liked, even if his entry could possibly be inferior to Sarah’s).  This surprisingly complex film is a labyrinth of misunderstandings and imagined slights.  Sarah’s contempt for her classmates could likely result from a conflict that she and her adversaries have long forgotten.  Is she so obsessive at being perfect (which thusly turns off everyone else) in an effort to fit in, or because she really feels superior to her schoolmates?  Is her “Who needs them?” attitude to her classmates a result of past failed attempts to fit in?

This all comes to a head when she is finally invited to another of Ron’s Friday night’s bashes.   She locks horns with newly elected school president, and runs out crying.  The film ends on this moment- asking the viewer “What next?’’ But this ending is not a cop-out, because even this final act stems from misread signals of both Sarah and her classmates. 

This is an amazingly complex film, with enough food-for-thought to fill something four times its length. Sarah’s conversation with her father, where we finally see her Achilles heel, is quite memorable- he says little, but his facial reactions ream volumes about his inability to help or understand his daughter’s behaviour.

In keeping with Centron’s usual quality, the performances, the direction, even the editing, are all top-drawer. (Today this film is even more interesting as one of the many industrial films made by Herk Harvey, who attempted to break into the movie business with his sole feature film, the cult classic Carnival of Souls.) The excellent Vera Stough, who plays Sarah (and the immortal Susan Jane), apparently did go to Broadway, and had some bit parts in 70s movies and TV series, but her work here suggests that she could have gone to far greater things.  

You can view both films below...

The Outsider:

The Snob:

Aug 3, 2012

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (1981)

Director: Lou Adler
Writer: Nancy Dowd
Producer: Joe Roth
Cinematographer: Bruce Surtees
Paramount; 87 min; color

Diane Lane (Corinne Burns), Marin Kanter (Tracy Burns), Laura Dern (Jessica McNeil), Peter Donat (Harley Dennis), Christine Lahti (Aunt Linda), Ray Winstone (Billy), Paul Simonon (Johnny ), Steve Jones (Steve), Paul Cook (Danny)

Early on, two of our three pissed-off teenaged girls, eager to escape all their suburban angst, are viewing their slipshod vehicle to freedom.  One of the girls looks at this rickety tour bus, and exclaims, “You gotta be fucking kidding me.”  The other girl replies, “Who gives a shit?  It’s our way out of this fucking town.”  This short, hilarious moment pretty much encapsulates the sassy tone of Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains; and for that matter, it is symbolizes its characters’ willingness to tolerate any situation, if it gets them a bit further on their journey to be rock and roll stars.  That “go for broke” sentiment is total rock and roll, and made by someone who would surely know.

Music producer Lou Adler didn’t make very many movies, but his rare sojourns into cinema were the last words of the love generation (Monterey Pop, which he produced) and counterculture (Up In Smoke, which he directed).  And although his direction here is sometimes flat, this cutting look at the punk music scene (with clever barbs at consumerism and its ample share of nihilism) benefits from a dynamite screenplay by Rob Morton (actually a pseudonym for Nancy Dowd, who earned her credentials for sass by writing Slap Shot), and game performances by its interesting cast.

Paramount put this movie on the shelf for three years before they released it, and even then, carelessly only let it run for a few days in limited engagements. Rather, the film found its audience with late-night airings on cable in the 1980s. Its appeal (and authenticity) is also helped in no small amount by the casting of Steve Jones and Paul Simonon (both of The Clash) and Peter Cook (of the Sex Pistols) as musicians.

At its core,Ladies and Gentlemen is a punk version of A Star Is Born.  Diane Lane (who was 15 during the production of this movie) plays Corinne, the leader of an all-girl punk act called The Stains.  Their gimmick is prancing around in trashy red nylons, skunk hair-dos, and no bras, while uttering the statement: “We don’t put out.”  Of course they can’t sing worth shit. (In fact, Christine Lahti, who has a small scene as Corinne’s aunt, has the best voice of all, as she sings along to Carole King on the radio!)  But what the Stains lack in musical talent (young Laura Dern plays the bassist!) they sure make up for in attitude.  (And this is punk- it’s not about musicianship, right?) Somehow, they become the opening act for the group The Looters in their cross-country tour.  Corinne has a dalliance with this one musician from the group The Metal Corpses (played by Fee Waybill of The Tubes)- and when he is found dead from an overdose (an image that doesn’t soon leave you), this scandal thereby forces the attention onto Corinne and her outfit, and before long, The Looters are opening for them, as the shows are now populated by Corinne lookalikes with the two-tone hair, trashy leather and nylon, chanting “We don’t put out.”  These scenes give more empowerment to young females than the likes of Madonna ever dared, or even Tiffany for that matter.  (And for my money, even with all the trashy threads, and Traci Lords brat pouts, Corinne is actually a more positive role model for young ladies than those half naked pop divas of today.)

Finally, enough is enough- the Looters are being booed off-stage by all the Stains fans, and lead singer Billy, with whom Corinne has also had a fling, manages to get this arena full of Stains-heads to realize how much they’ve been had, as all the Stains have really done is turn individualism into a commodity.  It’s an amazing scene, really, and it is a moment even truer now, with the way the mainstream swallowed the independent scene and turned it into commercial bubblegum.

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains is a very funny movie- and while it is a sharp satire, the laughter also evolves because it is so real and it pulsates with life.  But even if the movie is about pissed-off teenagers playing pissed-off rock and roll, it is also responsible.  With scenes of the guys in the Looters seemingly fighting each other every five minutes, the unforgettable shot of a rocker found with a needle in his arm, all captured by Bruce Surtees’ gritty cinematography, the world this movie creates is certainly no place for young girls.

As testament part of its troubled production history, because the original downbeat ending didn’t test well, Paramount had called the trio of young actresses back a couple of years after principal photography for a tacked-on upbeat conclusion, and I think the film is better for it. The finale is a brilliant MTV mock-up, in a startlingly prescient sequence featuring the Stains now all scrubbed up with poofy hair and those slutty long thin earrings, playing a brand of power pop, which turned the urgency and intensity of punk into K-Mart musak. This message is not lost in today’s climate of suburban mall pubescent yearning that Christina and company pawn off the racks at Walmart. The scene too is lent some authenticity because the girls had visibly aged in those two years, thus illustrating the time spent on their road to fame and fortune.

By the way, is the name The Stains a spin on the group The Wet Spots?

Aug 2, 2012

Edge of Hell (1956)

Writer-Producer-Director: Hugo Haas
Music: Ernest Gold
Cinematographer: Eddie Fitzgerald
Universal; 78 min; B&W

Hugo Hass (Valentine), Francesca De Scaffa (Jenette), June Hammerstein (Helen), Jeffrey Stone (Freddie), John Vosper (Mr. Hawkins), Ken Carlton (Billy)

The Czech-born Hugo Haas (1901-1968) was a highly regarded actor-writer-director in his native land [one of his indigenous directorial efforts, Skeleton on Horseback (1937), received raves at a recent one-shot New York screening], who like many filmmakers fled to America when World War 2 broke out.  Because he didn’t have conventional movie idol looks, the brawny Haas was instead given supporting character parts, often as villains or exotic roles (namely in such classics as Douglas Sirk’s melodrama Summer Storm, or the 1950 adventure film King Solomon’s Mines).  As the 1950’s began, Hugo Haas instead turned his attention to writing, producing, directing and co-starring in B-budgeted potboilers.  The tantalizing titles of these films evoke those of trashy drugstore paperbacks, or at least the magazines at the checkouts (The Other Woman; Pickup; One Girl’s Confession; Bait).  According to his fellow countrymen, his foray into such sensationalist fare, with tawdry budgets and lurid plots, was a long way from his work in his native land.  Also, because his work has been out of proper circulation for decades, it has been largely misrepresented as camp, or “so bad they’re good”, ironically due to the very scraps of cult film writings have kept his name alive for new generations.

One could call Hugo Haas a B-level Orson Welles: both would appear before and behind the camera in their pet projects and make the best with whatever resources they had.  Many filmmakers have successfully created an identifiable body of work within B-budgeted genre fare.  In truth, Hugo Haas’ films lack the innovative cinematic devices of poverty row auteur Edgar G. Ulmer, or for that matter, even the spacey literary visions of Edward D. Wood (to whom Haas has sometimes stupidly been compared by so-called cult film writers who should know better).  Yet they do have a unique personality: these modest pictures somehow belie their tawdry, lurid elements and become fascinating morality plays with surprising turns of redemption, sentimentality, and old world values.

The major criticism of Haas’ films is however well founded.  The writer-director would often cast himself in as the unlikely lead, who would have a doomed affair with a deceitful blonde woman who often had a young beau on a string to form a torrid love triangle.  And after seeing several of his films in a short time period, this formula becomes tiresome.  He would most commonly hire Cleo Moore as the female lead, but each of the lead actresses in his Hollywood epics is typically given ingénue roles taken under the wings of Haas’ own characters, suggesting a Svengali-Trilby plot device that further aggrandizes his own roles.  (To his credit though, Haas always gave good performances.)

Hugo Haas never shied away from outrageous symbols or heavy-handedness to make his point- and one of the definitive examples of that is in the deceptively titled Edge of Hell (1956), which may be the masterpiece of his thirteen American films as director.  It is a departure from his usual “deceitful femme fatale” formula: a Damon Runyon-esque fable that is by turns hilarious and tragic, culminating into a finale, which is outrageous, but not logically wrong.

Haas stars as Valentine (rhymes with “teen”), a vagrant who lives in the basement of an apartment house, and makes a meager living by performing on street corners with his dog Flip, and always within one step ahead of the law.  Like many of Haas’ characters, Valentine has fallen from the grace of his former glory days: he was once an actor and vaudevillian.  As the story progresses, he redeems himself upon being hired to perform with his dog at a child’s birthday party in the estate of wealthy Mr. Hawkins, arranged by Valentine’s neighbour Helen through her chauffeur boyfriend Freddie.  The refined Hawkins takes an instant liking to the earthy Valentine.  A delightful sequence in which the tramp performer entertains Hawkins with stories while the men share cigars and drinks is reminiscent of the moments in Chaplin’s City Lights (1931), where the Little Tramp is invited out by a drunk millionaire.  Thankfully, there is no scene where Valentine is turned out on his ear.  However, Hawkins exercises his rich person’s belief that money can buy anything when he offers an absurd amount of money to purchase Flip, since his kid won’t stop crying about wanting the dog.  Of course, Valentine turns down the proposition.  With the money that he made from the birthday party engagement, however, Valentine decides to share his wealth by throwing a party in his basement flat, in a truly wonderful scene that recalls the Frank Capra films of another era.  Indeed, the sentimental movies that Haas would make in the twilight of his career would seem out of the time in which they were made- more married to the tradition of 40s programmers than those of the late 1950’s.

However, I doubt that even Capra had concocted such a fascinating collusion of social class than this affair.  Throughout the film, Valentine’s hobo friends who live under the bridge are seen as aristocrats in tattered clothing.  They discuss their panhandling earnings in a patter similar to tycoons’ discussing stocks.  It is a joy to see these disparate characters thrown together in this party sequence—even the swarthy characters, like the slinky French girl Jenette and her shifty boyfriend Billy are equally welcome to share in Valentine’s good fortune.  Even at this soiree, the tramps (doubling as doormen) talk business like oil magnates, while the others drink and dance to phonograph records.  Still, the jibes against power and capital pervade the conversation.  (“Are you proud of your grandson?”  “He could be worse- he could be a politician.”)

Up until this moment, one wonders why the film is called Edge of Hell.  The title is justly earned after this wonderful scene, as the movie quickly changes in tone (even the overall look of the film, shot by Eddie Fitzgerald, becomes darker).  Some time has passed since the party, and we learn that Valentine has asthma (ironically, Hugo Haas would die of complications with asthma in 1968), and hasn’t been able to earn money on the streets.  He is eventually forced out of his home for non-payment of rent, and takes residence under the bridge with his hobo friends.  Meanwhile, Flip becomes ill, and Valentine realizes he is no longer able to take care of the dog properly, so he reconsiders selling the canine to Hawkins.  However, since Valentine is so desperate to get Flip a good home, he leaves with whatever small amount of money the butler had on hand at the moment.  Once Billy discovers that Valentine has sold the dog (knowing that he was once offered a tidy sum for Flip), he assumes that Valentine is loaded with money, and plots to rob him.  Helen and Jenette learn of his plan, and race to save Valentine in time.
ABOVE: Hugo Haas, June Hammerstein

The progression from light-hearted whimsy to tragedy is expertly maintained, culminating into a climax that is truly heartpounding.  Throughout the film, Valentine often associates his panhandling routines with acting.  Even in his final moments, he utters: “Don’t cry darling, I’ve been an old ham all my life; what can be greater for an actor than a death scene, don’t spoil it”.  The film however ends on an outrageous turn, smacking of “writer’s convenience” that would cause uproar in Screenwriting 101, as Valentine and Flip die at exactly the same moment.  While obviously contrived, this moment summarizes how Valentine and Flip are meant to be together for eternity.  Further still, Haas adds a bizarre finale, in which the man and his dog appear in front of a starry background, with liberal use of dry ice in the frame.  “Lord, can I show you some tricks?”  Roll of thunder. “Eternal life contract with no options.”  The background lights up, the music swells, THE END.

Haas was never so blatant with his spiritual overtones.  His supporters and detractors alike would have to agree, upon viewing this finale, that Hugo Haas was absolutely fearless in his pursuits.  Not only was he successful in making commercially viable movies while still filling them with his personal themes, no device was too heavy-handed enough to communicate his ideas.

Edge of Hell charts the path the Haas would take in the latter half of his career. He would gradually progress from noirish melodrama into more sentimental projects: Born to Be Loved (1959) and Paradise Alley (1962) are old-fashioned delights that deserve posts of their own. Hugo Haas would return to Europe and occasionally appear on television. Apparently, his star never diminished in Czechoslovakia: the works he made in his homeland during the 1930’s still draw an audience whenever they are played.

His Hollywood filmmaking career, however, is all but forgotten, and if one were to believe historians, justly so. Because Hugo Haas’ work has been out of circulation for so many years (save for scattered television play dates), a lot of misconceptions about his work have grown, and the inability to see his work in proper channels has allowed its unfairly negative reputation to grow.

In this age of information, it is astonishing how much Hugo Haas continues to be out of the public eye.  If one allows oneself to look beyond the poor production values, there is a genuine personality and richness to be found in his art.  Then as now, with so many movies being anonymously cranked out on the assembly line, Hugo Haas succeeded in being an auteur in the most subterranean antechamber of the Hollywood studio system.  Imperfect though they may be, the American films of Hugo Haas are worthy of re-discovery.

(Note: the above review is excerpted and abridged from an article on Hugo Haas, reviewing twelve of his American films, appearing in ESR #23, which is available at our store.)