Author: Michael Roberson

“My novel The Dead Zone arose from two questions,” writes Stephen King in his superb retrospective On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, “Can a political assassin ever be right? And if he is, could you make him the protagonist of a novel?” King worked backwards from there, arriving at the supernatural premise of a man granted dark visions of the future. Such a premise could have easily supported a novel without treading into such murky political waters, but that was where King’s interest lay, and what the story marches toward with an air of grim inevitability.

December 11, 2017 / / Main Slate Archive
September 21, 2017 / / Main Slate Archive

For 1963’s landmark The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Italian horror legend Mario Bava is credited with pioneering the giallo film, one of the most influential horror subgenres. But with 1971’s A Bay of Blood, Bava mixed the giallo film’s black-gloved point-of-view killers and highly stylized murder scenes with the body count framework of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None to create an even further-reaching subgenre: the slasher film.

A Bay of Blood (which is also known by a wide variety of alternate titles; Chain Reaction, The Ecology of Crime, and my personal favorite, Twitch of the Death Nerve) features one of the best opening scenes in the giallo canon. After some introductory establishing shots of the titular bay, we see a lonely countess in a wheelchair slowly meandering around her waterfront mansion. Through a trademark giallo point-of-view shot, we witness a black-gloved killer throw a noose around her neck and kick her wheelchair out from under her: a typical but impeccably stylish beginning for a giallo. After her death, Bava throws us a curveball. Rather than serving as the expected setup for a whodunit, the camera pans up from those black leather gloves to reveal the killer’s face. Just as the killer begins staging the crime scene, setting out a forged suicide note, a second killer appears and stabs him to death.

John Woo’s 1992 magnum opus Hard Boiled is spoken of by serious action movie fans in the awed, reverent tones usually reserved for films like Citizen Kane or Seven Samurai. Like those films, Hard Boiled displays an exceptional director at the top of his game, telling an engaging story with all the technical wizardry available to him.

John Woo burst onto the international film scene in 1986 with the smash hit A Better Tomorrow. He had been working as something of a journeyman director for eighteen years, a productive span during which he directed roughly a movie a year in genres ranging from martial arts films to screwball comedies, to varying degrees of commercial success. A Better Tomorrow, his sixteenth film as a director, changed all that. This gritty, sensationalistic tale of two brothers – one a gangster and one a cop – introduced two major elements to Hong Kong cinema: frenetic, two-fisted gunfight set pieces, and Chow Yun-Fat. With his signature matchstick clenched in his teeth and a pistol in each hand, Yun-Fat was instantly iconic, even inspiring a fashion trend in Hong Kong of young men dressing like his character in the film.

January 27, 2017 / / Main Slate Archive

Dr. Julian Karswell, as embodied by Irish character actor Niall MacGinnis, is one of the great unsung villains in horror film history. A charming – if perhaps a bit smug – occult expert and cult leader, Karswell is gregarious, honest in his intentions, and at all turns pleasant. However, as another occult expert points out to the rationalist protagonist Dr. John Holden, “[the Devil] is most dangerous when he’s being pleasant.”

January 24, 2017 / / Main Slate Archive

We live in an era of pastiche. In the lingering aftermath of the irony-drenched 1990s, young artists and patrons alike have mined the aesthetic of films from the ‘60s and ‘70s for camp value. As more and more modern films – particularly by young filmmakers – exploit these used aesthetics for laughs, it can be hard to tell where winking irreverence ends and sincerity begins. This is just part of what makes Anna Biller’s instant cult classic The Love Witch so refreshing, for while it emulates (very successfully) the heightened anti-realism of 1960s era pop filmmaking, it does so in a way that is entirely, boldly sincere. And while the absurd situations within the film often provoke laughs, you are always laughing with the movie, never at it.

December 17, 2016 / / Main Slate Archive

The key scene in Shane Black’s The Nice Guys happens early on, and it’s such a good gag that I’m loathe to spoil it, so if you have yet to see the movie, maybe skip to the end of this paragraph. Low-rent private eye Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is trying to track down a lead, and tries unsuccessfully to get a bartender to pull receipts for him. March comes back to the bar after closing time, wraps a handkerchief around his fist, and punches a hole in the window to sneak in, all the while giving typical hardboiled narration about how sometimes as a detective, you have to break the rules, “but it’s worth it as long as you get the results.” Except as soon as he punches the window out, his narration is cut short when he gets a nasty cut on his wrist, retches, collapses into a pile of garbage, and in a montage is rushed to the hospital. This scene is an exemplary manifestation of screenwriter/director Shane Black’s aim to simultaneously celebrate the genre of neo-noir and hilariously puncture its self-serious tough guy attitude.

September 19, 2016 / / Main Slate Archive

“The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?” – Edgar Allan Poe, The Premature Burial

Horror and the surreal go hand in hand. As a genre, horror can be summarized as the intrusion of the irrational into the mundane. In Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm, we have a very pure expression of the mundane, in the form of the suburban everytown that most of the characters agree is oppressively dull (or to put it another way, “dead”), and an even purer expression of the irrational, in the form of murderous dwarves concealed in dark robes, a beautiful violet-dressed woman who transforms into a ghastly tall ogre of a man, and a levitating silver sphere that roves the halls of the town mausoleum on the hunt for brains. And that’s just scratching the surface.

ERNEST & CELESTINE is a movie that achieves what most films aspire to, particularly those for children: it transports you wholly to another world. This can be seen from the very start, with crude drawings taking form over the credits style. These simple images reveal themselves to be a storybook drawn by the film’s protagonist, the precocious (though never obnoxiously so) young mouse, Celestine. Right away, we are struck by the effortless beauty of these images; in this scene and periodically throughout the film, the characters and their surroundings bleed into the foreground like watercolor paint soaking into a sheet of paper. It is as powerful an introduction into the film’s gentle aesthetic as is possible.