Thursday, August 14, 2014

Marihuana (1936)

Also known as THE WEED WITH ROOTS IN HELL, this is an above-average exploitation flick by Dwain Esper. The cautionary tale begins when a group of teens, seeking new thrills, succumb to the temptation of the "giggle weed" at a beach party one night. Before they know it, they're incapacitated by maniacal laughter and give themselves over to wild debauchery. It's all fun and games until one of their party drowns while skinny-dipping, and another girl, Burma, finds herself pregnant. After the father is killed while smuggling drugs, Burma gives up her baby on the advice of the dealers, and is roped in to selling drugs herself. She begins to enjoy the high life of a drug dealer with her reputation as "Blondie, Ice Queen of the Snow Peddlers", but her newfound success is threatened when she decides to kidnap her own child back, and must learn that crime does not pay.

Esper takes this sensationalist material and turns it into as stylistic tour-de-force that sometimes borders on the unintentionally surreal. The pacing is at times languid, almost dreamlike, and creates an odd and disorienting effect when intercut with undercranked silent footage, such as in the nocturnal skinny-dipping sequence. There are some good camera moves as well, and at one point Esper finds creative ways of obscuring frontal nudity with clever camera angles. He also employs an effective use of classical music on the soundtrack, particularly in the sequence where Burma is forced to walk home after rejecting her boyfriend's sexual advances, with the tone of the music creating an interesting contrast with the tone of the scene.

But most of all, Esper is clearly having a ball exploiting the subject matter, and makes sure his audiences -- who spent their hard-earned money to see it -- have fun too. With its scenes of wild parties, playful nudity and illicit drug-taking, this one's a hoot.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Birdcage (1996)

Watched this one tonight in honor of Robin Williams' untimely passing. The film is just as funny as ever, but it was certainly sad to watch it and realize we will never see any more performances by this incredibly gifted actor and funnyman.

A remake of the French farce "La Cage Aux Folles", THE BIRDCAGE holds up well on the strength of its phenomenal cast headed by Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman and Dianne Weist, ably supported by fine character actors including Christine Baranski, Tom McGowan and especially Hank Azaria. Williams and Lane are a joy to watch, and you can't help but get caught up in the fun they're clearing having with the material. Williams is generally playing straight man to Lane here, but he has a few moments where his brilliant, manic comic energy comes through at full force. He also manages some quietly subdued and genuinely touching moments, too.

Elaine May's screenplay offers many funny if familiar comedy situations, the best of which come directly from its French predecessor, combined with some mild satire of Clinton-era political scandals and the 24 hour news cycle. Mike Nichols' expert direction keeps things moving at a good pace and effectively builds the energy required of a farce comedy. But most of all it is the great performances that sell the premise and make this one a favorite I return to every so often when I need a good laugh.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

The Big Boodle (1957)

Tight, tough little thriller about an American croupier in Havana (Errol Flynn, in a fine late-career performance) who finds himself wanted by both the police and a crime syndicate after a mysterious woman passes him 500 counterfeit pesos over the gambling table one night. Flynn brings a subdued energy and quiet dignity to his role of the unlucky casino dealer trying to clear his name. Richard Wilson's skillful but unpretentious direction keeps the suspense strong and the story moving at a good pace through its many twists and turns toward the exciting climax at Morro Castle. Good location photography of pre-Castro era Havana by Lee Garmes adds to the atmosphere.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Haxan (1922)

Silent horror film from Denmark that has established something of a cult following over the years, about the history and practice of witchcraft in the middle ages. Astonishing direction by Benjamin Christensen demonstrates a singular visual style, bringing a painterly quality to the lighting through heavy use of shadows and high-contrast effects to achieve some indelible imagery. In its depiction of witchcraft and Satanic rituals, the film retains its power to unsettle and shock, with a liberal of amount of nudity and disturbing images such as demons draining the blood out of an infant before tossing it into a cauldron, and the witches lining up and kissing the devil's bare ass. Christensen himself plays Satan as a hideous, scaly, horned creature with a perpetually protruding and lascivious tongue. The various demonic creatures, with their grotesque masks and makeup, are especially horrifying in their design. There are some interesting depictions of the witches' rites and rituals, and the medieval witch hunts and instruments of torture used to extract confessions from them. Christensen ends his historical survey with an epilogue that offers hysteria as an explanation of supposed cases of demonic possession in the modern era, drawing a comparison between the persecution of the mentally ill with the persecution of accused witches in medieval times.

However, due to Christensen's approach to the material, the film does suffer from pacing and structural issues. It contains a number of truly memorable images, some of them among the most powerful and evocative from the entire silent era, but too many scenes tend to drag, especially when focusing on the minutiae of certain historical details, and overall the film feels like less than the sum of its parts.

Re-released in 1968 in a special sound version titled WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES, with an effective modern jazz score and narration by William S. Burroughs.

Seven Footprints to Satan (1929)

Delirious, terrifying late-silent American horror film, directed by Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen (HAXAN). A timid, wealthy young idler (Creighton Hale) dreams of going on big adventures to Africa, but on the night of a society ball, he and his financee (Thelma Todd) are kidnapped and taken to the lair of a group of Satanists, who enslave and torture victims through various means. The young couple encounter one gruesome, uncanny character after another in their attempts to escape before they are called for a meeting with Satan himself to determine their fate.

Christensen pulls out all the stops, employing the kind of highly-stylized lighting effects and grotesque imagery that he used so effectively in HAXAN, and putting it to the service of an "old dark house" thriller. He finds a magnificent use for some of Hollywood's most unusual character actors, with the likes of Sheldon Lewis, William V. Mong, Sojin, Nora Cecil, and Angelo Rossitto among the bizarre residents in the Satanists' den. Christensen's penchant for perverse imagery includes such moments as a young girl (Loretta Young, in one of her earliest roles) being stripped, bound and lashed as her feet are pawed by a gorilla (played by, who else, Charles Gemora).

The basic set-up is the stuff of countless "old dark house" movies, so popular around this time with films like THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927), THE CAT CREEPS and THE BAT WHISPERS (both 1930), and it's even possible to imagine it being played for "fright" comedy by someone like Bob Hope or Lou Costello. But in Christensen's hands, this familiar premise turns dark, taking a genuinely sinister turn, and becomes the stuff of nightmares. Indeed, the film has the emotionally-draining effect of a bad dream. It's exhausting, frustrating, terrifying, and even the light tone of its last-minute, twist ending does not alleviate the horror that has been built up over the previous hour, instead ringing as ironically false as Murnau's happy ending to THE LAST LAUGH. By that point, Christensen has already done his work in scaring us.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

High School Hellcats (1958)

Routine bit of '50s juvenile delinquency exploitation from AIP, about a good girl who arrives at a new school and tries to win the approval of the school's all-girl gang, but soon finds herself in over her head when things get out of control. The story has echoes of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE in its premise of an alienated teen rebelling against her distant parents who just don't understand her. Nowhere near as lurid as its title suggests, it's never quite as much fun as it seems like it should have been. Only the finale -- a visually striking sequence taking place in an abandoned, dark movie theater -- achieves the really melodramatic, hysterical tone that could have enlivened the rest of the film.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Africa Screams (1949)

Average Abbott & Costello vehicle, with Bud and Lou as a couple of New York department store salesmen who join a safari to Africa after convincing a scheming fortune hunter (Hillary Brooke) that Lou possesses knowledge of a rare map that will lead them to diamonds. What the film lacks in top-notch comedy material, it makes up for in a top-notch cast, especially Shemp Howard as a far-sighted crack shot and Joe Besser as the fussy butler. There are also fun appearances by Clyde Beatty and Frank Buck, playing themselves, and Max and Buddy Baer as a suitably tough pair of henchmen.

As one of the team's independently-produced pictures, it shows its low budget, with the safari clearly taking place entirely on sound stages and studio tanks, but in some ways the artifice just adds to the charm of the film. It certainly benefits from the skillful direction of the always-reliable Charles Barton. Though it's below the level of their best work, it still provides some solid comedy, especially in Costello's interactions with Howard and Besser. Costello also gets some good "fright" gags involving various wild animals, which are always good for a laugh. Other highlights include Costello trapped in a lion's cage, and a subsequent scene in which Abbott -- believing the lion has devoured Costello -- laments inconsolably about the way he treated his old pal, until he realizes Costello is still alive, and immediately loses his temper and smacks him across the face.

The best gag occurs as a throwaway. While Bud and Lou are having a heated argument in their tent, Joe Besser keeps popping in and out, filling up a glass of water. When they finally ask him what he's doing, Besser replies, with his inimitable delivery,  "Oh, my tent is on fire!"

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Violent, suspenseful modern-day Western, about a one-armed stranger, John J. McCreedy (Spencer Tracy), who shows up unexpectedly in a small, desolate town to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a Japanese farmer. The town has been all-but-abandoned except for a group of vicious, racist thugs who hold the locals in a grip of terror, even rendering the sheriff powerless. Tracy, finding himself up against a formidable cast of menacing tough guys, including Robert Ryan, Lee Marvin, and Ernest Borgnine, quickly figures out that the men don't want him poking around for fear of what he might find, and realizes he has to get out of town before he ends up their next victim.

John Sturges' masterful use of the Scope frame showcases the vast, bleak expanse of the Western landscapes, utilizing the large, sprawling spaces in unique ways to create a disorienting sense of claustrophobia. Sturges also handles the action sequences with characteristic skill, particularly the violent match in which Tracy brutalizes Borgnine with Judo moves, and the suspenseful show-down between Tracy and Ryan. Tracy is particularly effective in his role, bringing a world-weariness to the character that suggests he has seen a lot and is prepared to seek justice at any cost, and Borgnine stands out among the supporting cast, expertly demonstrating his range in playing a maniacal thug. The film benefits immensely from William C. Mellor's cinematography, Newell P. Kimlin's tight editing, and Andre Previn's rousing score.