October 28, 2010

Halloween picks for fellow Halloweenies

As I've previously mentioned on this blog, I will happily watch absolutely any genre except super-scary horror. For both scholarly and entertainment reasons I wish I could bear it, but despite a perfect tolerance of violence and suspense my overactive imagination goes into hyperdrive when viewing anything aggressively terrifying. A film like The Shining, The Exorcist or even more recent fare like the Saw films would leave me unable to sleep or function for several weeks. I have refused, however, to let this handicap impede me from enjoying a marathon of spookiness every Halloween, and I thought I'd share some of my favorite discoveries. I feel that movie weenies do not receive adequate support in this arena - any Google search for non-scary Halloween flicks just leads you down a path of family-friendly animated specials. So here's suggestions for my cinephile brethren who enjoy the mysterious and macabre, but don't derive pleasure out of being utterly petrified. (But don't think for a second that these films can't also be enjoyed by non-weenies!)

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) - Oh hello, possible singlehanded launch of German Expressionism and inspiration for Tim Burton's entire career. If you like shadowy, lopsided sets with unusual angles and very unnatural-looking people (and who doesn't?), this one's for you. Full of twists and turns and years ahead of its time, you'd be doing yourself a disservice by skipping out on what some consider the film true horror film. And don't avoid it just because it's a silent film - it's short, sprightly and could give any number of talkies a run for their money.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) - The story has been filmed countless times, but I can only vouch for this version, which is regarded as (one of) the best. Fredric March is in fine form, winning a deserved Oscar for his dual performance. Miriam Hopkins is also a standout for her work as the prostitute Ivy, and their scenes together are incredibly risqué (gotta love that pre-Code era!). And let's not forget the transformation scenes - instead of taking the easy way out and cutting around it with timid camerawork, director Rouben Mamoulian employed a spinning 360-degree shot where the transformation happens progressively before our very eyes (and kept the mechanics of his technique a secret for decades).

The Old Dark House (1932) - As the title suggests, it's your classic oh-noes-our-car-broke-down-in-the-rain-let's-take-shelter-in-this-foreboding-mansion flick, but with a great  sense of humor and irreverence. The all-star cast includes Charles Laughton, Boris Karloff, Melvyn Douglas and Raymond Massey (among others) as the kooky/creepy residents of the house and its unfortunate but impeccably witty visitors.

The Invisible Man (1933) - Hard to believe, but Claude Rains' breakout role is one in which he's only momentarily visible. This being The Invisible Man, however, Rains is still very much the main character, and he takes viewers on a snappy and suspenseful ride. The special effects are still astoundingly good today, and I can't even fathom how they were able to create intricate interactions with all kinds of props and people.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) - To be honest, I was pretty underwhelmed by the original Frankenstein (1931). It's certainly an important chapter in cinematic history, with some good moments and of course Boris Karloff's iconic performance, but it hasn't aged very well as entertainment. On the other hand we have the sequel, which somehow manages to be funny, sad, spooky, campy, and genuine all at once. Some people griped about Karloff's monster learning to speak (only up to about a caveman level), but I think it adds depth to each of the character's many facets - dryly humorous, lonely, destructive, monster, man. (And if you're wondering whether you can skip ahead to Bride without seeing the original, you'll be fine if you have even a totally basic understanding of the Frankenstein story.)

Cat People (1942) - Meow! I thoroughly enjoyed this feline flick, which is considered emblematic of producer Val Lewton's approach - high gloss on a low budget, implying things instead of showing them, and coating the whole affair in dark, dripping shadows. If the presence of 40s psychology, ancient Serbian curses, giant wildcats and bewitching actress Simone Simon doesn't sell you, then believe me when I say that director Jacques Torneur's manipulation of the suspenseful scenes honestly rivals prime Hitchcock.

Gaslight (1944) - No ghoulies or beasties here, but it's a shadowy Victorian thriller that chronicles a descent into madness. Ingrid Bergman nabbed an Oscar for her great leading performance, including a marvelous final scene, and she's ably supported by Charles Boyer, Angela Lansbury, and Dame May Whitty - not to mention a spooky house that seems to be turning on her. Director George Cukor proved himself to be just as skilled with Gothic chillers as with the urbane comedies he's known for.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) - Invasion flicks from the 50s that may or may not have symbolized fears of Communism are a dime a dozen, but this is arguably the definitive one. What sets it apart, I think, is that while many of its peers succumbed to hysteria and (perhaps unintentional) camp, IotBS keeps a pretty detached and serious approach despite its modest means. There are no giant ooky creatures, just plant pods that eventually turn into people identical to ones you know. There's no blood and guts, just a barely perceptible transformation into a high-functioning zombie. Very tense, taut, and effective. "You're next!"

Horror of Dracula (1958) - Eager to delve into the world of Hammer Horror, I started with one of their most famous titles and was not disappointed. With all due respect to the original Lugosi Dracula from 1931, that film - like the original Frankenstein - reads more as a historical artifact than entertainment (at least to me). Hammer's version has two major things going for it: sumptuous Technicolor and a lack of American prudishness. Thus we get to witness bold erotic undertones and gloriously bright red blood spurting out of the staked chests of numerous victims. The plot's pretty twisty too - the focus keeps shifting between characters, and I'm not sure that there's ever a definite protagonist. Plus, the ending kicks ass.

Cape Fear (1962) - Not exactly a horror movie, but Max Cady (Robert Mitchum) is one of the most deliciously sinister villains ever, and the ominous lighting turns otherwise friendly suburbs and lakeside cabins into claustrophobic nightmares. But the scariest part is the well-exploited truth that police can't really protect you from a dangerous person swearing revenge until they actually strike, leaving the audience feeling as helpless as the terrorized Bowden family.

The Raven (1963) - Roger Corman directs the holy horror trio of Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Vincent Price - plus an insanely young Jack Nicholson! And it's kind of a spoof comedy! All the fixings are here - dark castles, black magic, nefarious schemes - but with hammy performances and a hearty wink to the audience. You could probably even watch it with kids, if they're okay with the somewhat relaxed pace.

Plus a couple of recent picks:

Shaun of the Dead (2004) - Horror and comedy may seem like strange bedfellows, but it was a natural and common pairing in the 30s. Shaun rocks it like it never went out of style, combining the British comedy trifecta of Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright for what was called a "romzomcom." It does get rather scary and even heartwrenching at times, but it's balanced well by the fantastically smart comedy and I'm sure most weenies can stomach it. Did I mention it's hilarious?

Zombieland (2009) - Another romzomcom (who would have thought that that phrase could have multiple applications?), but with a lighter tone than Shaun despite its more dire circumstances. The talented cast has great chemistry, and of course there's That Cameo which despite being spoiled all over the internet is still amazing.

And to augment your viewing, might I suggest a liberal sprinkling of Looney Tunes? I've been getting back into them lately due to my boyfriend owning all the giant box sets, and I promise that they're as funny as ever. Plus, it can be fun to pair shorts with features. This link offers some viewing ideas to get you started, but make sure you include one of the two cartoons starring the supremely underrated character of Gossamer. Because he's a giant red monster that wears only sneakers.

This is truly only the tip of the iceberg and includes just the movies I can vouch for personally. However, my Halloween list for future years keeps growing, and if you too are hungry for more I've included some links for exploring other fantastic but weenie-friendly fare.

Classic Universal horror
Val Lewton's RKO films
Hammer horror
Films directed by Roger Corman

Happy Halloween, everyone! I've got a full slate of flicks lined up for the weekend, but I'm afraid that those will appear in next year's installment. In the meantime, what are your favorite Halloweenie flicks?

October 15, 2010

Catching up on a lost cinematic childhood - #2

Some months back, I shared with you the terrible secrets of my movie-starved childhood. It wasn't that I wasn't watching movies; I just somehow managed to miss all the culturally important ones. But since I belive that 70s-80s blockbusters are just as important to film fluency as some of their loftier brethren, I'm holding myself accountable and trying to set things right. In my last installment I shared my progress catching up with classics from Star Wars to Dumb and Dumber, and here's more that I've either seen since or forgotten about for the first round. Again, these are films that seemingly everyone of my generation saw as a child or young teen (except me!).

Beetlejuice (1988)
Earlier this year, there was a Tim Burton exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that has since gone on tour. The exhibit featured drawings, designs, props, costumes, and any other film-related paraphernalia imaginable. Why do I mention this? Because sadly, I feel that Beetlejuice would have been more entertaining as an exhibit of this nature than as a film. The overall look of the thing is classic Burton and is a joy to revel in, but nothing seems to be gained from inserting people into the sets and costumes. I also found the character of Beetlejuice to be exceptionally grating. Sorry, Tim.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)
This was my first John Carpenter movie, and I was pretty underwhelmed. Everyone has a different definition of good silly and bad silly, and I'm afraid that this was bad silly for me. The undeniable charisma of Kurt Russell is a strong point, but mostly it felt like an 80s arcade game with some arcane depictions of women and Asians. I didn't give up on Carpenter, however, and discovered that The Thing (1982) was much more on my wavelength.

Die Hard (1988)
And speaking of charisma, holy 80s Bruce Willis! For as epic and explodey as this gets, it effectively milks a really simple premise of one man against a handful of others. Many action films undercut their own impact by having a lot of characters, locations, and plot details, but less is definitely more here. Willis is at his peak, conveying not only gruff charm but the rare notion that the physical hell he goes through actually takes a toll on him (most action heroes perpetually seem like they've done nothing more than lift a gallon of milk). I was a bit underwhelmed by Hans Gruber, to be honest (maybe the notion of a sophisticated villain just isn't as novel to me?) but that might be partially because instead of experiencing the memorable debut of a new talent as 80s audiences did, it was more "why yes, that is noted thespian Alan Rickman."

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985)

I ran hot and cold on this one. I think a lot of it depends on how on board you are with the Pee-Wee Herman persona, and while I could mostly dig it I think I was held back a critical 10% or so. That said, I did enjoy spending time in a completely uncensored Burton world that predates his seemingly interminable "kooky macabre" phase. I probably could have enjoyed it as a kid, but only if I had a special edition that edited out the Large Marge scene, thus preventing the need for years of therapy.

Rocky (1976)
I admit I approached this one with apprehension, because its reputation as a corny-but-classic underdog sports flick wasn't really doing anything for me. Why it has that reputation I have no idea, because this is first and foremost a romantic drama and a terrific one at that. It's just a superbly written, acted, and directed blue collar love story, with Sylvester Stallone acing the role of a talkative dork who is rather incidentally a boxer. It's telling that after the big fight, Rocky seems somewhat disinterested in the outcome and is focused solely on finding Adrian. Definitely deserves its classic status.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

A movie that combines film noir and cartoons? Where has this been all my life?! A combination that shouldn't work is a true delight, laden with cheeky references and wonderfully wacky characters of both the real and animated variety. Special effects that could probably be done pretty effortlessly today still hold up well despite how much harder it must have been to create them, and the animation and live-action meld seamlessly. Seeing it when I did was definitely for the better, though, since the villain (Christopher Lloyd) would have scared the crap out of me.

Return of the Jedi, the Indiana Jones films and the Bond films remain embarassingly unwatched by me, but I feel that I am slowly earning back my right to be an American child of the 80s. Have you seen any childhood staples for the first time as an adult? What did you think?