Author: Victoria Large

April 4, 2007 / / Main Slate
April 4, 2007 / / Film Notes

Though we often forget it, the Universal horror films of the 1930s are among the most enduringly iconic in the history of cinema. Look around next Halloween and consider it. A great majority of the representations of Dracula, from costumes to dolls, will be in the likeness of Bela Lugosi, and the ubiquitous green-skinned, square-headed images of Frankenstein’s monster will be derived from Boris Karloff in his makeup. Universal’s classic monster movies have long since made the rare and momentous leap from the screen to the collective subconscious. You needn’t have seen the films to recognize the characters and or even quote them offhand, imitating the accent of Lugosi’s vampire count or the exultant “It’s alive!” spouted by Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein. The films have been imitated and lovingly parodied through the years, and, in the realm of pop culture, their representations of the famous monsters have largely superseded even the novels from which the creatures originated. Perhaps it is appropriate then that The Bride of Frankenstein, the 1935 sequel that ranks as perhaps the most highly-regarded of all the classic Universal horror films, introduces another truly iconic – and this timely wholly original – monster in Elsa Lanchester’s characterization of the eponymous Bride.

April 4, 2007 / / Film Notes

Released in 1987, The Hidden makes no apologies for being what it is: a gritty genre flick out for a joy ride, replete with action set pieces and over-the-top violence (nine out of ten fans will use the word “flamethrower” when asked to offer a brief description of the picture’s content). We aren’t ten minutes in when the first big chase starts, complete with a car hurtling into a sheet of plate glass and the two men who are carrying it across the street. The high octane action of The Hidden is also anchored by that time-honored movie stand-by: a pair of mismatched buddy cops, reluctant partners who bond en route to saving the day. So what makes it special – more memorable than the dozens of other films in the same vein that loaded up video store selves in the 1980s, shiny guns and bright orange explosions splashed across cardboard sleeves on rows of VHS tapes? Part of the appeal of The Hidden is that it embodies these familiar genre tropes with great energy and humor, clipping along at a good brisk pace and topping everything off with a nifty sci-fi twist. Michael Nouri plays Tom Beck, an L.A. cop and family man investigating a string of crime sprees in the city. A young Kyle MacLachlan, fresh from his descent into the suburban hell of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and a few years away from his defining role as Special Agent Dale Cooper on Lynch’s TV oddity Twin Peaks, also stars as one of our heroes. Like Cooper, MacLachlan’s character here carries an FBI badge, but in this case it’s only a cover – his Agent Gallagher is actually a benign alien who’s hunting down the murderous body-switching extraterrestrial creature that killed his family. Beck and Gallagher’s uneasy partnership is the heart of the film and punctuated by great bits of winking humor (When Beck’s wife asks Gallagher where he’s from, he simply points upwards. “What’s that?” she asks, “North?”), but the body-switching villain that gives the film its title is well worth examining as well.

April 4, 2007 / / Film Notes

When sitting down to watch The Dark Crystal, a labor of love directed by legendary puppeteer Jim Henson and his frequent collaborator Frank Oz, you know you’re in for something unique in the truest sense of the word: not merely unusual, but one-of-a-kind. There really hasn’t been another film quite like it before or since. A “digitally enhanced” sequel titled The Power of the Dark Crystal is rumored to be in the works, but even that film won’t match its predecessor for sheer daring and ambition. Released in 1982 after being in production for five years, The Dark Crystal was conceptualized by Henson and British artist Brian Froud as the first live action film to feature only puppets and not a single human actor. This was a dream project for Henson, an attempt to explore new territory and push his art further.

April 4, 2007 / / Film Notes

“Times of transition are always magic,” the late Jim Henson is quoted as saying in Jim Henson: The Works, a hefty coffee table book chronicling the career of the visionary creator of the Muppets. “Twilight is a magic time and dawn is magic – the times during which it’s not day and it’s not night but something in between. Also the time between sleeping and dreaming. There are a lot of mystical qualities to that, and to me this is what the film is about.” Henson was referring to Labyrinth, the 1986 film that he described as being “about a person at the point of changing from being a child to being a woman.” Labyrinth indeed falls into a tradition of coming of age stories that straddle the line between the real and the fantastic, from family- friendly fare like the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz (one of Henson’s inspirations), to Neil Jordan’s grownup 1984 horror film In The Company of Wolves. It makes sense that this is so. Adolescence is certainly a liminal time in one’s life: neither childhood nor adulthood but a confusing in-between, and a film like Labyrinth populated by fantastic characters and possessed of an uncertain sense of time, place, and space perhaps more aptly conveys the outsized anxieties of adolescence than many realist films about young adults.

September 22, 2006 / / Film Notes

USA. 92min. 2002. Silver Sphere Corporation. Cast: Bruce Campbell, Ossie Davis, Ella Joyce, Heidi Marnhout, Bob Ivy, Larry Pennell. Music: Brian Tyler; Cinematography: Adam Janeiro; Produced by: Don Coscarelli & Jason Savage ; Based on a Story by: Joe Lansdale; Written by: Don Coscarelli; Directed by: Don Coscarelli.

Upon hearing a brief description of Bubba Ho-tep, one might assume that it was an intensely campy, irreverent B-movie that was pretty thin on characterization. The plot, can, after all, be summed up to some extent with the phrase, “Elvis versus a mummy.” It’s easy to imagine some caricatured version of the King of Rock n’ Roll taking on the monster. By now Elvis as an icon is as much a part of our collective subconscious—and as likely to be a Halloween costume—as any creature from the old Universal horror films. Elvis impersonators, Elvis on velvet, Elvis’ face repeated again and again like an Andy Warhol silkscreen; the idea of Elvis has become a vaguely tacky pop culture touchstone. Yet thankfully, Bubba Ho-tep is a more complex, and far more interesting, film than that phrase “Elvis versus a mummy” can convey. Writer-director Don Coscarelli, working from a short story by the idiosyncratic Joe R. Lansdale, succeeds in humanizing his Elvis and developing him far beyond a few rhinestones and a curled lip. As played by Bruce Campbell (himself a horror movie icon owing to his indispensable presence in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy), this Elvis becomes a hero to root for, not an object of ridicule.

August 28, 2006 / / Film Notes

USA, 1953. 89 min. Stanley Kramer Productions. Cast: Tommy Rettig, Peter Lind Hayes, Mary Healy, Hans Conried, John Heasley. Music: Frederick Hollander and Nelson Riddle; Cinematography: Franz Planer; Art Direction: Cary Odell, Rudolph Sternad; Produced by: Stanley Kramer; Written by: Dr. Seuss and Allan Scott; Directed by: Roy Rowland.

I first rediscovered director Roy Rowland’s 1953 film The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T years ago, tracking it down based on vague recollections from childhood. I remembered a very strange and very dreamlike movie, and, upon watching it again, I found my remembrances confirmed. In the years since it was released to relatively little acclaim, an appreciative cult following has sprung up around 5,000 Fingers, and It’s easy to see why. For lovers of unusual cinema, this is a real find. Right from the start it’s clear that 5,000 Fingers is something left of center, a more twisted take on standard Technicolor musical fare like MGM’s singing sailor flick Hit the Deck, which Rowland would a direct a few years later. Where did this oddity spring from?

July 28, 2006 / / Film Notes

USA, 1963, 119 min. Cast: Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Jessica Tandy, Suzanne Plushette, Veronica Cartwright; Produced by: Alfred Hitchcock; Original Music: Bernard Herrmann; Written by: Daphne Du Maurier; Screenplay by: Evan Hunter; Cinematography: Robert Burks; Directed by: Alfred Hitchcock.

One of the most striking reoccurring figures in the films of Alfred Hitchcock is that of the overbearing mother who seeks to control her grown son. Overbearing mothers appear as supporting characters in both Notorious and North by Northwest, while Psycho takes the characterization to a shocking extreme. Another Hitchcock horror film, The Birds, also features a conflict between mother and son that should not be overlooked. There is a good reason why discussion of mother Lydia Brenner’s possessiveness regarding her son Mitch dominates as much of the film’s dialogue as the titular birds do. A close examination of the mother-son relationship in The Birds reveals Lydia’s fear of abandonment as a central source of conflict in the film; one that lends even the mysterious behavior of the birds a greater meaning.

July 21, 2006 / / Film Notes

USA, 1987. 85 min. De Laurentiis Entertainment Group/ Renaissance Pictures. Cast: Bruce Campbell, Sarah Berry, Dan Hicks, Kassie DePaiva, Ted Raimi, Denise Bixler; Music: Joseph LoDuca; Cinematography: Peter Deming; Edited by: Kaye Davis; Produced by: Robert Tapert & Bruce Campbell; Written by: Sam Raimi & Scott Spiegel; Directed by: Sam Raimi

The Evil Dead was a film that beat the odds. It was helmed by a nineteen year-old working on his first feature, starred a bunch of unknown and largely untested kids, and financed mainly by Michigan dentists who believed in the young director and his friends when they pitched their movie. It was years after principal photography ended that The Evil Dead was finally completed and given theatrical distribution. It took still more time for this flick about five kids getting possessed by demons and most disgustingly destroyed while staying at an isolated cabin in the woods to gain popularity (and notoriety) on the video rental market. Word-of-mouth finally spread about this weird piece of work – a torrent of blood and gore made up of wild camera angles, arch surrealism, and oftentimes unintended humor.