director Tobe Hooper
America’s first nuclear family, as the test subjects are called, gives birth to a latent mutant son, some 35 years after their own demise by the titular occurence. Tobe Hooper’s ambitious but not ambitiously budgeted or perhaps able 1990 sci-fi/horror thriller, Spontaneous Combustion, seems kind of personal given the age of the protagonist Sam (Brad Dourif), and his own personal situation in the Nuclear Age.
It’s truly a mixed bag of a film, with so much focus on the set up, that the contemporary story dangles more loosely in time and import. The movie’s unevenness spans production quality, direction and even FX. The FX, gleefully CGI-free vary from weak to pretty cool, and maybe that’s the whole film’s trouble.
Why is it that Dourif only stumbles on his abilities at age 35. Is the trigger his learning of his hidden parentage? Of the cabal around him to hide his origins?
While you might wish for more, it’s still a pretty interesting little picture.
director Fritz Lang
While the City Sleeps, Fritz Lang’s second to last Hollywood film, feels more nominally noir that fully noir. Not that noir is such a definitive thing itself.
Visually, at least, Lang takes the film into the subway tunnel for a brief chase of the serial killer, in a brief but effective sequence of something much more noir than the rest. From what I’ve read, production costs and studio limitations hampered Lang’s visual style in his last couple of films.
So, yes, there is a serial killer, but the primary focus of the film is a media empire at odds with itself. With the death of the empire’s president and namesake, the heads of the newspaper, the wire service, and the photography branch all vie for the top job under the president’s ne’er-do-well son (Vincent Price, in short and tall dark socks at one point).
The ham-fisted script roils with plot points and way too many convenient twists, but still puts up a good testament to importance of the free press.
Dana Andrews is the one reporter with a nose for the news, but he’s a drunk who’s willing to put his fiancée out as bait for the “Lipstick Killer”. The convoluted drama is rife with noirish cynicism, but frankly, While the City Sleeps might be my least favorite Fritz Lang film I’ve seen.
director William A. Wellman
“She’s the only white woman on the island.”
Gilda (Dorothy Mackaill), a prostitute in New Orleans, accidentally kills an old lover who played her dirty. And now she needs to get out quick!’ Enter her seafaring beau, back from long months all over the globe.
“I’ve made my living the only way I could.”
Initially taken aback by this, Gilda’s fiancee still loves her and secrets her away to a small island nation in the Caribbean with no extradition policies. She’ll have to hide out, “Safe in Hell” while he ships out again.
William A. Wellman’s Safe in Hell bears it’s origins as a play, but it’s also primo pre-code storytelling and characterization: those on the outsides of “polite society” who would not find their lives depicted after the Hays Code kicked in, plus frankness about sex, and in some cases, a very humanitarian outlook.
I’d just watched Wellman’s Frisco Jenny of the following year, which held some very similar aspects. The lead Gilda is a strong woman, acting in self-reliance, doing what she has to in order to live. True, both Jenny and Gilda end up taking noble stances that ultimately lead them to the gallows, though this tragic ending further empowers their noble motivations rather than acting as pure punishment.
Another great bit of repartee:
“May I ask you senior what are your intentions for the chicken? Honorable I hope?”
Safe in Hell also has a pretty nice jazzy score, and a all too brief singing performance by Nina Mae McKinney (“The Black Garbo”).
director Jesús Franco
I think I may be forgiven for mistaking A Virgin Among the Living Dead as one of Jesús Franco’s lesser works. In reality, it’s one of his best.
The late 1960s through early 1970s, when gratuitous nudity was de rigueur, Jess Franco found himself as director. Franco burned brightly during this time and in this period made his finest films. True, along with some much less fine films, but when you’re releasing upwards to a dozen films a year, they’re not all going to be wonderful.
Here, Jess appears as a babbling idiot, a gofer for a family of arch weirdness, kooky sexuality, and supernatural possibility. Christina (Christina von Blanc) comes to visit, having never met any of her family before, and discovers her heritage isn’t what you’d call “run of the mill”.
For me, this is one of Franco’s most aesthetically pleasing films. The dreamy nightmare is beautiful and the plot isn’t challenged by unnecessary logic.
It’s been a decade since I saw Vampyros Lesbos and Venus in Furs, two other high point Francos. A Virgin Among the Living Dead may be in the running for my favorite.
director William A. Wellman
Frisco Jenny Sandoval (Ruth Chatterton) was raised in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, among the remnants of the Barbary Coast. She’s a young girl in love (and “in the family way”) when the 1906 earthquake hits and devastates the city and more specifically, Jenny herself. Poverty and begging alongside the slum preachers isn’t feeding her baby, so Jenny turns to the oldest profession and her own self-reliance.
William A. Wellman’s Frisco Jenny is pre-code Hollywood telling stories that would soon be deemed to salacious or racy to be frankly depicted in the years to follow. Jenny creates an empire, initially through managing other prostitutes, but then other madams as well. Her sly and not altogether on the level attorney Steve Dutton gets her out of many a jam, but also sets her up to lose her child into a wealthy foster family, setting the stage for later tragedy.
The character of Jenny is self-reliant and self-made, despite the limitations available to her and her reality of her times. The film’s empathy lies with her. And it’s interesting to see how empty the promises of the preacher, and later the grandstanding and self-righteous district attorney, typical emblems of societal correctness, echo hollowly.
director Roman Polanski
Fear thy neighbor.
“The previous tenant threw herself out of the window. Ha!” (I love Shelley Winters more every day.)
The Tenant takes personal alienation from society to new precipitous heights and then throws them out the window. Not once, but at least twice.
Roman Polanski’s 1976 movie was first recommended to me by a colleague from grad school who had a penchant for disturbing movies. And I had to agree, it out-paranoided Rosemary’s Baby in its portrayal of dissociation from one’s neighbors, right in one’s very building, right on one’s very floor.
The reason for the tenant’s fears, real or imagined, or real and imagined, brought on by alcoholism or the supernatural, this is societal dysphoria, pan-dysphoria.
“What right has my head to call itself me?”
Was Sven Nykvist’s claustrophobic cinematography an influence on the Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991)?
director Penelope Spheeris
I’ve got nothing but (ever increasing) respect and appreciation for Penelope Spheeris. Her 1980s movies reflect her keen interest in Los Angeles, its characters, its denizen. Hollywood Vice Squad perhaps comes off more anomalously, but still presents a picture of street culture in line with her other work.
Hollywood Vice Squad plays a like a little bit of old school exploitation. The crimes depicted purportedly were “based on true events” and Ronny Cox’s Captain Jensen lectures the mother of a runaway on the dark truths of the asphalt jungle.
The episodic drama/comedy doesn’t have much tension but it’s relatively fun. Carrie Fisher has a decent role as a young cop trying to break the glass ceiling in the vice squad. Frank Gorshin makes for a wonderful baddie, and he lights his cigarettes with stylish flips.
“Chile con carne to you too.”
director Andy Milligan
The first of Andy Milligan’s California-made movies, Monstrosity takes a major tonal shift from misanthropy in the direction of comedy.
Monstrosity opens on a crime spree, murder, rape, thefts all by a small gang of generally over-the-hill hoodlums and their molls. This rather bleak beginning gives way to a trio of dudes who cook up a golem-themed Frankenstein revenge plan that gives us a dim-witted, frizzy-haired hero monster to take back the night.
As wonky as it is still has that Milligan authorship to it, especially in some of the camerawork and editing. That said, it sort of seems like Milligan was sort of having a more fun time on the set? According to Jimmy McDonough’s biography on Milligan, it’s not entirely likely, but who knows?
The comedy is sort of grating, seesawing back and forth to mildly amusing at times.
The most a-typical Andy Milligan flick I’ve seen.
director Stanley Kubrick
The last time I saw Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita was not terribly long after I had read the Vladimir Nabokov novel. Both of these events were around 25 years ago. I’ve considered the novel to be one of the best I’ve read in my life, one I’ve recommended time and again, and something I’ve meant to revisit. I recalled finding Kubrick’s Lolita a bit of a disappointment.
Now, decades later, the novel not so fresh in my mind, re-watching Lolita evoked a much different response.
The black comedy, driven not just by James Mason’s obsession with Sue Lyon’s Lolita, but by Peter Seller’s manic scene-stealing romp as Clare Quilty, is in many ways an argument that cinematic adaptations do their best when they don’t adhere to the source material so avidly. Surely, fans of the novel will be annoyed, but it arguably makes for better cinema.
Like many a Kubrick film, it’s an experience in and of itself. And surprisingly and unsurprisingly, it seems like it would be the perfect companion piece to Dr. Strangelove.
Also, Shelley Winters is fantastic. Shelley Winters is always fantastic but she’s super duper fantastic here.
director Ed Wood, Jr.
Glen or Glenda is really Ed Wood, Jr.’s trash masterpiece.
Wood molds an Exploitation piece about the first well-known sex reassignment surgery into a very personal plea for tolerance for transvestism, and by proxy, other aspects of the non-cisgender spectrum. Coming in 1953, its message, while unbelievably clumsy and lodged in the limited language of the time, still seems an attempt at progressiveness. It’s entirely understandable to find it not just tin-eared but offensive.
Wood has a way with dialogue, uniquely Woodian, uniquely awful. And his staging of scenes is often so patently amateurish it seems like parody.
And yet, there are mesmerizing aspect of the film as well. And the discordance of elements, Bela Lugosi’s every moment for instance, breaks into accidental Surrealism, to boot.
It’s the personal angle that elevates the work above Wood’s typical genre work. A passion drives Glen or Glenda, even at its most ridiculous, imbuing it with an intensity not seen in Wood’s other films.