Weekend Film Recommendation: Tarantula

It’s Sunday afternoon and the weather is bad for many of you out there, so just for fun I re-up this matinee B-movie suggestion from 5 years ago.

“Invasion of the Giant-Sized X” films were almost their own genre in the 1950s. Many of them were wretched (Attack of the 50 Foot Woman being generally considered the nadir), but some of them stand the test of time. If forced to choose my favorite giant insect film I would go with Them!, but since spiders are not insects I feel I have the right to also have a favorite giant spider movie, and it’s this week’s film recommendation: 1955’s Tarantula.

I preface this recommendation by expressing an opinion about B-movies, which is no one should be ashamed of making one as long as they know that is what they are doing. B-movies that pretend to be A-movies are typically an agony to view, but films that use a modest budget to achieve modest ambitions can be highly satisfying for the audience. The Frightened City, which I recommended a few months back, is one such worthy B-movie, and Tarantula is another. The makers’ goal was to tell an entertaining, scary monster story, and they pulled it off.

Like most of the giant critter films, this one begins with science gone awry, in the person of reclusive Professor Gerald Deemer (the wily old pro, Leo J. Carroll). He is concerned about the world’s food supply because he projects that by the year 2000, the Earth’s population will be — wait for it — 3.6 billion! Injections of a radioactive nutrient seem like a sensible alternative to traditional food: just look at how quickly Deemer’s test animals are growing. In the meantime, no one is trying the nutrient on humans, are they? Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: Tarantula”

Christmas Viewing Suggestions

Screen Shot 2015-12-24 at 19.05.45 For laughs, winces and surprising emotional weight try The Office Christmas Special. It was described by Johann as “a beautiful, bittersweet, and downright painful final send-off to the UK version of The Office. To enjoy the Christmas special it’ll be fine if you haven’t watched the first two seasons (even though you must have been living under a rock). But everything about this powerful ending to the show plays with the investment an audience has made with each of the characters “whether out of sympathy or pity.”

For nostalgia, warmth and wry observations it would be hard to do better than A Christmas Story, which I described as a film that “charms because it pokes fun at children’s capability for silliness yet also respects their capacity for earnestness (e.g., It *is* a breach of etiquette to go straight to a triple dog dare without an intervening triple dare). Though sweetly nostalgic about childhood in some ways, the film does not overly romanticize it: A Peter and the Wolf-esque subplot features a fearsome bully named Scut Farkas.”

scrooge-2 And for a darker yet ultimately uplifting Christmas story, there’s always Dickens’ masterpiece about Ebeneezer Scrooge. Two markedly different but top notch adaptations are described here.

See Moonlight

The film Moonlight is one of the best films I’ve seen about a young man coming of age, the roots of youth violence, and what’s behind the hard mask of so many minority youth, including those who become enmeshed in the criminal justice system. A hunger for human connection, compassion, and empathy often hides behind the hardness these young men project, underneath the Raiders’ jacket, the forbidding tattoos and intimidating muscles.

One incident in Moonlight was eerily reminiscent of an episode I witnessed at age 15 as a Boy Scout. There was more than a little bullying in Boy Scouts. That was often directed at vulnerable or perceived-to-be soft or effeminate boys. For reasons that were never clear to me, I was not victimized, even though I was a tiny kid and the troop’s only Jew.

The lead bully, whom I will call Steve, regularly tormented another boy, whom I will call Tim. Steve was older and larger. There realistically wasn’t much Tim could do. The adults never did much to help, either. I suspect they expected Tim to stick up for himself.

One day he did. On one cold camp-out, deep in woods, Steve made some cutting comment in Tim’s direction. Tim suddenly grabbed a small sled and smashing it over Steve’s head. Steve’s blood poured from a gaping head wound onto the snow, as adults ran from all directions to staunch the bleeding.

This being late-1970s white suburbia, no one was arrested or locked up. That’s probably for the best. I don’t know what happened to either boy in later years. Throw an off-the-shelf handgun into the mix, and this would resemble any number of Chicago homicides. It might even be labelled gang-related.

That was my first brush with potentially lethal violence perpetrated by a cornered young man defending his honor and masculinity. Every day, in my morning newspaper, I see more.

Keith’s Weekend Film Recommendations Come to a Close

Five years ago today, I for some reason decided to recommend a classic movie (Bullitt) to RBC readers. It was fun to do and I kept on doing it, week after week except for the occasional guest reviewer. I felt my energy flagging after 150 or so movie recommendations, but then the site was blessed with Johann Koehler’s arrival, who lightened the load with his own recommendations several times a month and thereby kept me going for a time.

I know it’s a popular feature and many people have written me over the years to thank me for recommending a film that they saw and enjoyed,which is always a good feeling. I have also learned some intriguing details about movies and actors from the film buffs who read the site, and I am grateful for that.

But a few months ago, I realized it was starting to feel like a job, even at the reduced level of work made possible by Johann’s contributions, so I have decided to end my recommendations here on this fifth anniversary.

Thanks for reading, and happy movie watching. And with that, over to Porky…

Weekend Film Recommendation: 28 Days Later

It’s time to close out our month of thrills, chills, and kills in the October movie roundup for 2016. After we started with ghouls in a Western in Bone Tomahawk, Keith recommended two oldies that took us from a spooky wager in The House on Haunted Hill to the possessed Hands of Orlac. Death and un-death have occupied a central role throughout the month, and it’s no different in this week’s recommendation, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: 28 Days Later”

Weekend **Double Feature** Film Recommendation: The Hands of Orlac

The idea that a possession or even more creepily a body part of a dead person can take over the life of its living owner has appeared in fairy tales and ghost stories for centuries. In cinema, the touchstone story of this sort is Maurice Renard’s 1920 novel Les Mains d’Orlac, which has been adapted to the screen many times, including in both films I am recommending this week as part of our scary Halloween month tradition here at RBC: The 1924 Austrian and 1935 US version of The Hands of Orlac (The latter is sometimes titled Mad Love).

The story concerns gifted pianist and composer Paul Orlac, whose hands are severely damaged in an accident. He survives his injuries, but his hands are replaced with those of a recently executed murderer by a talented surgeon. As Orlac and his devoted lady love Yvonne attempt to put their lives back together, the murders start again, and Orlac begins to suspect that his new hands are driving him to commit horrible crimes.

The 1924 version is a silent film directed by Robert Wiene and starring Conrad Veidt, who will be familiar as principals of the all-time cinema classic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which I recommended four years ago this week. Like that famous film, the Hands of Orlac is skillfully made in the expressionist style and is anchored by striking visuals and Veidt’s ability to movingly convey emotion without dialogue. The film was recently restored with a newly composed soundtrack and became deservedly popular on the classic film festival circuit:

The 1935 version is a talkie that changes the story substantially in an effective way. Here, the doctor is the central character and is driven by his lust for Orlac’s wife rather than any desire to help the composer. This was Peter Lorre’s first American film and he’s magnetic as a villain who is loathsome in some ways and pitiable in others. I like this version even better than the original because of Lorre’s strong performance, director Karl Freund’s visual sensibilities and the somewhat tighter pacing than the original.

Here is a short promotional film made for the US release of the 1935 version. It’s more than a traditional trailer because while Lorre was a big star in Germany (See Johann’s recommendation of Fritz Lang’s M), Hollywood had to introduce him to American audiences.

Weekend Film Recommendation: House on Haunted Hill

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Following Johann’s recommendation of Bone Tomahawk last week, Halloween month continues with another horror film, this one by producer/director William Castle. Castle was part film maker and part carnival barker, being famous for gimmicks such as placing nurses in theater lobbies ostensibly to aid any viewers who were overcome with fright, wiring seats to give mild shocks when a monstrous “Tingler” came on the screen, and, for this week’s film, pioneering “Emergo” technology which released a skeleton on a wire to sail over the audience. In 1959, he made what I consider his best film as a director: House on Haunted Hill.

Set at the historic Ennis House in Los Angeles, the film’s agreeably silly plot features menacing millionaire Frederick Loren (Vincent Price) who has offered a disparate cast of characters $10,000 to spend one night surrounded by ghosties and ghoulies. The event is allegedly a party for his current, faithless, wife Annabelle (Carol Ohlmart), who herself fears sharing the fate of her mysteriously deceased predecessors. The guests are a mousy secretary in Loren’s company (Carolyn Craig), a handsome test pilot (Richard Long), a stuffy psychiatrist (Alan Marshal), a money-hungry newspaper columnist (Ruth Bridgers) and the alcoholic survivor of some of the people who have been murdered in the house (Elisha Cook Jr.). The closing credits also include another cast member, in typical Castle tongue-in-cheek style: a skeleton appearing as “himself”.

I first saw this film on television when I was about 5 years old, and it gave me nightmares for months. I could not appreciate then what I can now, namely that Castle always served his horror with side dishes of corn and ham. There are certainly creepy moments and shocks in the film, but there is also campy fun, much of it courtesy of old hands Price and Cook. It’s also progressively amusing over the course of the film that the majority of Carolyn Craig’s dialogue becomes “Eeeeeeeekkkk!!!!!!!”.

House on Haunted Hill is spooky fun in the best Castle tradition. It makes for perfect Halloween month viewing.

p.s. Not long before he died, Castle got to be associated with one all-time great movie with a real budget behind it. He purchased the rights to Rosemary’s Baby and brought the project to Robert Evans at Paramount. Evans wisely agreed to let Castle produce the film only if a different director (Roman Polanski) helmed the project, and a classic horror film was born.

p.p.s. In case you are wondering, here is the fun-loving Castle’s “Emergo” gimmick in action.

An audience reacts to "Emergo"
An audience reacts to “Emergo”

Weekend Film Recommendation: Bone Tomahawk

For a few years now, Keith and I have made a point of running a themed month of horror films during October. We’re kicking off horror season this year with an utterly ghoulish and gory flick that is guaranteed to leave you feeling queasy. Think Eli Roth gets lost in the Wild West, and you’ll be on track to understand S. Craig Zahler’s debut film Bone Tomahawk. Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: Bone Tomahawk”

Weekend Film Recommendation: Fruitvale Station

I felt sadly unable to share in the joy that others voiced after Clinton’s resounding victory in the presidential debate on Monday night. I was too gripped by the candidates’ responses to the question about race and the criminal justice system.  Although Trump’s answer was straightforwardly disqualifying, and I’m heartened by Clinton’s sincerity and devotion to unraveling the pathologies of penal power, she nonetheless left me dissatisfied by what felt to me like an anemic answer. I’m evidently still processing the evening. In the meantime, I wanted to re-post a review I wrote in 2013 of Fruitvale Station, which appeared before places like Ferguson, Missouri entered the national consciousness, because that film that has since crystallized in my mind as a helpful touchstone for my thinking on the subject.

*************** Continue reading “Weekend Film Recommendation: Fruitvale Station”

Weekend **Double Feature** Film Recommendation: The Lodger

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I had long wanted to experience Alfred Hitchcock’s first foray into suspense, 1927’s The Lodger (sometimes subtitled “A Story of the London Fog”), but could never get through the film because the available prints were so beat up as to make it virtually unwatchable. To the rescue came British Film Institute, which despite the lack of the negative managed to restore the movie beautifully using a tinted print that had been maintained in excellent condition. Hitchcock’s version of the Belloc Lowndes tale as well as the best of the many subsequent efforts to remake it constitute my double feature film recommendations this week.

The story is set during a series of Jack the Ripper-like murders in London. One of the respectable families in the neighborhood takes in a mysterious lodger played evocatively in the 1927 version by early 20th century entertainment superstar Ivor Novello. His manner is strange, his habits are out of the common and he always seems to be out in the fog when the murders happen. Both the police and the family hosting him begin to suspect that a wolf has found its way into the fold. Hitchcockian magic ensues.

I embed here the restored version, which looks marvelous (Though BFI earns only an A minus because of a bone-headed decision to insert some utterly jarring pop love songs in at particular moments of the new score). But the real attraction here is Hitchcock, who even this early in his career shows how he will come to define with unbounded creativity the suspense film genre. His origins in the silent era no doubt helped him develop his “pure cinema” style of storytelling because of course without sound it’s all about shots, images and editing. What can also be seen in the Lodger is his impish ability to break tension with humorous moments. He and Eliot Stannard also changed the original story in a way that increases tension up to the very end. All in all, the movie serves both as entertainment and an education in the early years of The Master.

Novello went to Hollywood in 1934 and made an ill-fated talkie version of the same film without Hitchcock, but the story was taken up again to much better effect by a different group of filmmakers in 1944, and I recommend it as the second half of a double feature with the 1927 version.

This version keeps closer to the original story, making it as much a character study as a mystery/thriller. This provides a chance for the sadly short-lived Laird Cregar to showcase his considerable talents as an actor. He’s near-perfect as a man whose proper British exterior hides a roiling mass of emotion and need. The rest of the cast is also strong, particularly Sara Allgood as the woman of the house and George Sanders as a police detective. The production values are first rate, with much of the budget apparently spent by respected costumer designer Rene Hubert on a series of flouncy outfits for the bewitching Merle Oberon (More information about her career is in my prior recommendation of The Scarlet Pimpernel). The result is a movie that if not at the level of Hitchcock’s work is still a handsome and gripping piece of cinema.

p.s. The same story was made again in 1953 as The Man in the Attic and yet again in 2009 as The Lodger. As the man once said, “In Hollywood they don’t make movies, they re-make them”.

p.p.s. In Robert Altman’s fine film Gosford Park, Ivor Novello was portrayed by Jeremy Northam.