Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Inferno (1980)

Nobody watches Dario Argento movies for lucid plots or nuanced characters. Inferno (1980) shows Argento at his fever dream best, a supernatural slasher film more striking than comprehensible.

Rose Elliot (Irene Miracle) discovers a book entitled The Three Mothers, a Latin text telling of three evil spirits who rule the world. This sets in motion a macabre chain of events, as Rose and her brother Mark (Leigh McCloskey) search for clues in New York, London and Rome. Their search leads to an escalating body count, leaving Mark to face the Mother of Darkness alone.

Inferno is nominally a sequel to Suspiria, recapturing that film's mad aesthetic. Argento revives that movie's wild color schemes, bathing sets in demonic red and soothing blue, creeping shadows hiding clawed demons, a menagerie of animals (rats, cats, iguanas) portending death. The international settings give the movie a broader scope than usual, with murder scenes filmed in Rome and New York's Central Park, capped by Keith Emerson's jolting goth rock score.

As expected, Inferno's storyline is a complete mess, with Argento roving between personages slain within minutes of their introduction. But his slayings are as garish and inventive as ever, with characters victimized by sewer rats and sharpened glass, tearing through cloth sheets, plunging into watery crypts or evading fires. Argento prolongs the killings for maximum gruesomeness; when one suffering character's decapitated by a butcher knife, it's a relief!

Admittedly, Inferno's acting is poor as its storyline: TV actors Irene Miracle and Leigh McCloskey are inert, while Italian actors like Alida Valli are hamstrung by silly characterizations. But the movie delivers on its promise of garish executions staged stylishly, and that's all we ask.

Monday, October 17, 2016

I Walked With a Zombie

I Walked With a Zombie (1943) marks Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur's second collaboration. As usual, they enrich a chintzy B Movie set-up with remarkable depth and ambition.

Zombie borrows its basic plot from, of all things, Jane Eyre. Nurse Betsy Connell (Francis Dee) arrives at the West Indian island of Saint Sebastian to treat comatose sugar heiress Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon). Her husband Paul (Tom Conway)seems more interested in wooing Betsy than curing his wife; Wesley Rand (James Ellis), Paul’s half-brother, a resentful drunk. Unable to cure Jessica, Betsy takes servant Alma’s advice (Theresa Harris) that the island’s voodoo rituals may hold a cure. Instead, the natives shun Jessica as a zombie, doomed to a living death in punishment for her family’s transgressions.

I Walked With a Zombie couches its horror as racial-colonial critique. Voodoo is the defense mechanism of an oppressed culture; Saint Sebastian's natives use it both as unifying cultural touchstone and defiance to the sybaritic, exploitative whites. Their subversive unity contrasts with the Holland family's tawdry melodrama, from Sir Lancelot's troubadour mocking Paul to a St. Sebastian figurehead pierced with arrows. If Lewton typically treats superstition as humanity's Achilles heel, it's no more destructive than mundane pettiness.

Lewton and Tourneur reprise Cat People's horror by inference, cast in suggestive shadows and half-believed myths. Jessica's somnambulism seems psychological rather than magic, destroyed by family guilt and betrayal from her faithless husband. Yet zombified reality bleeds into the story, from Darby Jones' bug-eyed factotum or a creepy climax involving a voodoo doll. Ultimately, privilege and power can't save the Hollands from supernatural vengeance or their own frailty.

Francis Dee struggles to rationalize events while growing engrossed in the island soap opera; she's endearingly sweet and smart. Tom Conway plays an agreeably charming cad, with Sir Lancelot stealing his scenes as a cheeky singer. Other players act with varying degrees of broadness; Theresa Harris and Edith Barrett give fine turns, but James Ellis overplays his drunken jerk.

Casual viewers wouldn't think a movie entitled I Walked With a Zombie to be any good. Credit Lewton and Tourneur yet again for transcending their budget and genre with a remarkably spooky chamber piece.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Big Sleep (1946)

"Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains!"
Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall made a dynamite couple, onscreen and off. Their second and best collaboration was The Big Sleep (1946), a classy adaptation of Raymond Chandler's iconic detective novel.

Phillip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) meets with General Sternwood (Charles Waldron), a wealthy aristocrat with two wayward daughters, Vivian (Lauren Bacall) and Carmen (Martha Vickers). Sternwood asks Marlowe to help resolve Carmen's gambling debts, but Marlowe suspects something else is going on. Vivian intercedes, steering Marlowe towards her father's missing friend Sean Regan, and bookseller A.G. Geiger turns up dead. Things tie back to Eddie Mars (John Ridgley), a gambler with close ties to Vivian.

The Big Sleep is a master class in cinematic storytelling. Howard Hawks' seamless direction matches a faultless script (co-written by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman) to navigate Marlowe's dense novel. Sleep manages not only snappy dialogue but telling characterizations, etching minor characters like the General and a sultry bookstore owner (Dorothy Malone) as strong as the leads. If the plot occasionally grows muddled, the movie has myriad charms to compensate.

Few directors bettered Hawks in charged dialogue or tough, professional characters. Marlowe disarms men and women alike with his incisive repartee. His dalliances don't disturb his work; he pegs Carmen as a troublemaker from her swooning introduction, and remains unfazed by hulking goons and smooth-talking villains alike. Naturally, the film centers on his relationship with Vivian, reeling from a sham marriage and gambling addiction. Chandler's rougher material (insinuations of homosexuality, making Geiger a porn dealer) scarcely seem missed.

Humphrey Bogart's never been more appealing, making Marlowe a tough guy with an abrasive, sensual edge. Even more than Sam Spade, it epitomizes Bogart's screen image as a hardboiled tough with a hidden heart. Lauren Bacall's sultry toughness makes a swoon-worthy match, more engaging than your standard femme fatale. She's duplicitous but also vulnerable and sympathetic, her chemistry with Bogart making even banal exposition into pointed barbs.

Martha Vickers saw her scenes cut to focus on Bacall; even so, her desperately damaged Carmen makes a strong impression. Dorothy Malone and Sonia Darrin play other Hawksian women, equally sharp and tough. Elisha Cook Jr. stands out as a friendly detective who meets a gruesome end. The movie's villains (John Ridgley's glad-handing gambler, Louis Jean Heydt's blackmailer) are more simplistic personages.

The Big Sleep is as edgy and stylish as any noir should be. For all its crackerjack craftsmanship, its stars are the main draw. And why not? There's rarely been a better pairing than Bogey and Bacall.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)

Charles B. Pierce made a B Movie hit with The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972), a docudrama about a Sasquatch stalking the Arkansas swamp. The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) applies the same techniques to a true crime story, a chiller several notches above your standard drive-in fare.

A masked killer called the Phantom stalks Texarkana, Texas in spring and summer of 1946. He targets exclusively couples, both at lovers' lanes and in their homes, leaving some dead and others traumatized. Captain J.B. Morales (Ben Johnson) of the Texas Rangers coordinates the investigation, but the Phantom manages to strike every 21 days, baffling his pursuers and terrorizing the townsfolk.

Part slasher movie, part police procedural, The Town That Dreaded Sundown presages later slashers in its lurid approach. The Phantom is an inscrutable psycho with a versatility Jason Voorhees would envy; he attacks with pistols, tire irons, pickaxes and a trombone. The most terrifying scene has him terrorize a high school couple, methodically toying with them as they try to escape. Pierce plays the scene with surefire creepiness, zoning out music for victims' cries, chirping crickets and the killer's labored breathing.

Pierce avoids tastelessness with relative restraint; the killings are graphic but the movie's grounded enough in small-town life to seem realistic. Pierce and writer Earl E. Smith provide sensitive vignettes of postwar Texas, with soldiers returning home, weddings and proms, along with Jim Roberson's scenic photography that provide jarring contrast with the brutal slayings. The most Texan scene shows terrified townsfolk buying out a gun store. Sundown's most egregious faults are a stentorian narration and groaning comic relief, mostly provided by Pierce himself as a bumbling deputy.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown resembles David Fincher's Zodiac as much as Halloween, showing police hunting an elusive murderer. Morales is an ace investigator baffled by a psychopath with no motive, who gets off on outwitting cops more than killing. Morales and the Texarkana police deal with intrusive townspeople, hysterical reporters and false confessions from attention-seekers. The killer's smarts combine with bad luck, as when a rainstorm prevents Deputy Ramsey (Andrew Prine) from foiling a murder.

Ben Johnson recycles his Melvin Purvis role from Dillinger, a flamboyant, cigar-smoking lawman bemused by his query. Andrew Prine makes a decent foil, a good cop completely out of his depth. Dawn Wells is a featured victim, surviving a home invasion and crawling through a cornfield to evade her assailant. Several cast members are Texarkana locals, convincingly authentic; actors Jimmy Clem (as a policeman) and Cindy Butler (as a victim) appeared in other Pierce films, notably Boggy Creek II: And the Legend Continues.

The Town That Dreaded Sundown ends with an action scene that provides catharsis, if not closure. The real Phantom never struck again but was never caught, leaving a half-dozen victims and an insolvable mystery in its wake. Credit Charles B. Pierce and his collaborators for making this enigmatic case into a compelling film.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016


Despite its dynamite star pairing, Scarecrow (1973) has been lost in the shuffle of '70s road movies. Gene Hackman and Al Pacino enrich an aimless drama, more impressive in moments than as a whole.

Two vagrants meet on the road in California. Max Millian (Gene Hackman) is a coarse ex-criminal, Lion Delbuchi (Al Pacino) a simpleminded ex-sailor. They join together, traveling first to Denver to meet Max's sister Darlene (Eileen Brennan), then to Detroit, where Lion's ex-wife (Penelope Allen) lives. They bond while getting into scraps, including a traumatic visit to a prison work farm, and dream of starting a carwash in Pittsburgh. Naturally, reality doesn't match their expectations.

Scarecrow is a long, episodic ramble across rural America. Director Jerry Schatzberg and writer Garry Michael White lean heavily on Of Mice and Men, with Max a fast-talking tough guy and Lion an innocent simpleton. Their relationship develops in familiar fashion, with Lion restraining Max's violent tendencies and Lion receiving harsh lessons in reality. Specific episodes aren't always predictable, but the overall film conforms to rote archetypes.

Nonetheless, Scarecrow gets mileage from its character interactions. Both protagonists alternately seek and shirk settled life. Max enjoys a long interlude with Darlene and a girlfriend that reminds him of his squalid background, steeling his resolve to visit Pittsburgh. Lion totes a gift for his son, but can't restore his life. His innocence shields him from adult responsibilities, unable to handle rejection. Their dream's far more alluring than reality, which disappoints them at every turn.

Schatzberg trades The Panic in Needle Park's urban cityscapes for Vilmos Zsigmond's gorgeous widescreen photography. Key scenes develop in long takes and wide shots, especially Max's confrontation with a bullying criminal (Richard Lynch), while Fred Myrow offers a minimalist, homey score. Varied set pieces range from amusing (Max's comic striptease) to horrifying (Lion's prison rape), though Lion's climactic breakdown is as affecting as it should be.

Gene Hackman plays to his strengths as a tough man undercut by insecurity. Al Pacino, having just hit stardom with The Godfather, works effectively against type, Lion's naivety coarsened by his gradually unspooling mental state. Supporting players register in moments: Richard Lynch's ingratiating villain, Eileen Brennan's weary sister, Penelope Allen's exasperated wife.

Perhaps Scarecrow isn't a classic because of its unfocused nature; like many road trips it jumps from scene to scene with little common thread beyond its characters. This makes the dramatic road logy and the ending a tragedic squib. Still, there's something to be said for any film with such phenomenal casting.