Thursday, September 25, 2014

An appreciation of director Tod Browning, master of Lugosi's 'Dracula

(This column originally ran in the Standard-Examiner newspaper)

By Doug Gibson

My friend, Steve Stones, and I have a blog on cult movies. As a result, sometimes we are asked to recommend a suitably chilling Halloween movie. That’s a little like being given $25 and being asked to buy that one novel you want more than any other novel. There’s just too much competition.

To enjoy great films, think of them as samplers of genres, directors or stars. You like Bela Lugosi, (I do), Check out “Dracula,” “The Black Cat,” “The Raven” and “Son of Frankenstein.” You like Vincent Price? Try “The Tingler,” “Tower of London” and “The Conqueror Worm.” I favor the older films but I don’t discriminate against new films. Watch Sam Raimi’s “Drag Me to Hell” and then rent his earlier films “Army of Darkness” and “Dark Man.”

 I hope people will discover, or re-discover Tod Browning, a director whose popularity peaked during the silent era. Although he directed Lugosi in “Dracula,” his career declined in the ‘30s and by 1939 it was over. As a boy late in the 19th century, Browning ran away from home and joined the circus. He was a contortionist and lived closely with the carny lifestyle. Later he was a fairly successful early silent movie actor before gaining fame as a director.

Always fascinated with the circus lifestyle, Browning cultivated the talents of a young actor named Lon Chaney. Dubbed the man of a thousand faces, Chaney was the biggest star of the late silent era. The actor was an incredible physical specimen, and a perfectionist. He created faces in two films, “The Phantom of the Opera,” and the now-lost “London After Midnight,” that have not been matched in fright value. Chaney died just before he was to film “Dracula.” His death opened the door for Lugosi and Boris Karloff (Frankenstein’s monster) to achieve stardom.

In 1927, Browning directed Chaney in the silent film “The Unknown.” It is my first selection for a Halloween evening. Set in a circus, it stars Chaney as circus attraction, “Alonzo the Armless,” who shoots arrows safely at a pretty circus girl, Nanon, played by a very young — and gorgeous — Joan Crawford. Chaney really isn’t armless, he’s a violent criminal on the lam. With a trusted assistant’s help, he wraps his arms to his sides to escape detection. Chaney is in love with Nanon. With his eyes and facial grimaces, he lets us know what a possessive, frustrating, tinder-box love it is. He can’t bear the sight of the circus strongman, Malabar the Mighty, who admires Nanon, and he encourages Nanon to distrust Malabar.

Chaney’s obsessive love for Nanon leads him to really remove his arms in an operation. When he returns weeks later, expecting to pursue Nanon and find his love requited, he discovers Nanon and Malabar have fallen in love and will be married soon. In my opinion, the two minutes of Chaney’s reaction to the news, bewilderment, frozen smile, pantomime of maniacal laughter and threatening glare, is the finest acting of the silent era. This is a tight, 50-minute film (some inconsequential scenes are lost).

Besides “Dracula,” the film Browning may be best known for is the 1932 “Freaks.” It is a masterpiece of surreal horror. The plot involves a selfish, beautiful trapeze artist (Cleopatra) who marries a little man (Hans) for his money. With her strongman lover (Hercules), she plots to kill Hans. Their big mistake is that they assume the circus “freaks” are little children, rather than adults capable of retribution. What they learn too late is that the “freaks” — and the actors really were such — act like children as a defense mechanism. They want to be left alone. But threatened in their environment, they draw strength from numbers.

For 40-plus minutes of this slightly longer than an hour film, we are not scared. Instead, we learn about life in a circus, and we view the “freaks” as human beings. The last 20 or so minutes are horrifying as the “freaks” gain revenge on two who would falsely request their trust and then try to kill one of them. The scenes of the “freaks” with knives and guns, peering through windows and under wagons, slithering, hopping, sliding and pursuing Hercules and Cleopatra through a dark rainy night are frightening. For years, the fim ended with a brief, jarring shot of what the “freaks” had done to Cleopatra. It’s one of the most shocking finales in film. But I recently saw “Freaks” on Turner Classic Movies and the print added an epilogue with Hans and other characters that diminishes the impact a little.

“Freaks” was ahead of its time. The suits at MGM hated the film and barely distributed it. More than any other film, it damaged Browning’s career. In fact, it was banned in Britain for 40 years. See it for yourself: it’s a masterpiece that draws on Browning’s love and respect for carnival life.

One more Browning film worth seeing is the 1936 “The Devil-Doll.” It stars Lionel Barrymore as Paul Lavond, a framed banker who breaks out of France’s Devil’s Island prison with a mad scientist who can turn people into doll-sized humans who can be manipulated by human masters’ thoughts. It’s a wild plot. Outside Paris the mad scientist dies. Lavond’s and the scientist’s widow — who is as crazy as her husband — continue the experiments. She wants to turn the whole world little; Lavond just wants to gain revenge on his ex-partners who framed him and also help his blind mother and daughter, who were impoverished by his imprisonment. He uses the “devil dolls” to get his revenge on his ex-partners and clear his name.

Watch this film for the special effects and Barrymore’s performance. He’s great as a mostly decent man who can’t control his thirst for revenge and knows it.

All these films are inexpensive, pop up on Turner Classic Movies and can be rented. Trust me, they are far better than “Saw VI,” or any of the “Saw(s)”.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Plan9Crunch retread -- Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn, Raimi and Campbell

By Doug Gibson

1987, Color, 85 minutes (less in some foreign versions). Directed by Sam Raimi. Cast includes: Bruce Campbell as Ash, Sarah Berry as Annie Knowby, Dan Hicks as Jake, Ted Raimi as possessed Henrietta Knowby, Denise Bixler as Linda, and John Peaks as Professor Raymond Knowby. Schlock-Meter rating: Eight stars out of a possible 10.

So many reviews like to call Sam Raimi's Evil Dead 2 a comedy, or a tribute to the Three Stooges, and there are some great "gross-out" gags, as well as my favorite comic scene, where Bruce Campbell's Ash, minus his possessed hand, traps it by piling a copy of Hemingway's "A Farewell To Arms" on a container holding the hand. Yes, this film contains a lot of comic parody, and after the first half Campbell plays his part mostly for laughs. And it's true that Raimi's very fast-paced, boom-boom-boom "I'm going to jar the viewer every 30 seconds" seems a tribute to Stooge-like filmmaking. And the excessive gore does desensitize the viewer after a while.

But let's not forget that Evil Dead 2 is a very scary, suspenseful thriller that throws out just about every horror/action plot element that exists. Most work. There are only a few clinkers, and the result is a cinema gem. Critic Roger Ebert pegged it best when he wrote that the film was not in bad taste, but about bad taste. Evil Dead 2 is sort of remake of Raimi's micro-budgeted Evil Dead, but with a little more plot and a twist ending that set up another, even more comic sequel, Army of Darkness. The plot: Ash and his girl Linda (Bixler) decide to squat for a night at a cabin in the Michigan woods. Once there, Ash turns on a tape recorder where a professor, who lives in the cabin, invokes a chant from The Book of the Dead that sends a demon to the cabin. From that point on, all hell breaks loose. Eventually, Ash and a few later arrivals, including the professor's daughter (Berry), are forced to fight it out with the demons.

The film is so fast-paced that you just marvel at the speed and special effects in the film that you forget the plot is pretty light. Director Raimi was destined for bigger assignments (A Simple Plan, Quick and the Dead). He's thrifty and economical. I suspect many minutes were spliced out of the final cut of Evil Dead 2 to maintain the fast pace, horror shocks and, yes, comic timing. Most of the cast is mediocre, except for Campbell, who is outstanding. For the first half of the film, he is largely responsible for carrying the flow of the film, and he uses the right amount of fear, fatigue, anger and outrage to pull it off. There are great visual effects, including a twisted, ominous looking bridge over a high drop, a dancing headless woman-demon, a human snake, a psychopathic hand, a woman being attacked by a tree, a demon's eyeball flying into a screaming mouth, and the most chilling, Ted Raimi's possessed Henrietta Knowby, a thoroughly gruesome old demon hag who hangs out in the cellar.

By all means rent or buy Evil Dead 2. It's well worth the price. However, while it is funny, expect more shivers than chuckles. Also, those who leave the room for a snack will miss several shock scenes. They happen so fast.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The once very obscure film 'The Great Brain,' starring Jimmy Osmond!

The Great Brain, 1978, starring Jimmy Osmond.

This isn't a great movie, by any stretch. The acting is hammy, and a very young Jimmy Osmond is frankly, too inexperienced, in my opinion, to play The Great Brain. But if you like the John D. Fitzgerald novels, you'll find the film a treat.

I'm glad it's out and that I taped it in the early 1980s. It's a definite G and post-toddler kids will like it. However, those adults unfamiliar with the Great Brain character may get bored at the juvenile story.

On the plus side, the sets of early, rural Utah are pretty well done and the cast, if inexperienced, is at least earnest. Also, this is a rare film that is almost completely faithful to a book. Fans of The Great Brain will enjoy seeing what they read faithfully adapted to the screen. Examples include The Great Brain, Tom D. Fitzgerald, having adventures with a Greek immigrant family, his fights with friends, his scheming with brothers, including narrator John D. Fitzgerald, and his change of heart when he helps a young crippled boy.

This is was once an almost impossible film to locate. It never runs on TV it seems and has never been released to video or DVD. Rumor has it the film is locked in litigation. That's a shame if true, because it seems ideal for a new production or a re-release via DVD to at least the Utah/Mormon market. Still, in recent years it has popped up on You Tube, and you can watch it above. My guess is that the copyright finally expired?

Fitzgerald's tales are still much loved and I hope someday an enterprising filmmaker produces a new version(s) of The Great Brain movies. The 1978 film was directed by Sidney Levin. It also starred Pat Delaney, Fran Ryan and Cliff Osmond.
-- Doug Gibson

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Steve’s five favorite John Waters films

By Steve D. Stones

Multiple Maniacs (1971) – The title of this black and white carny film is in reference to Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1964 cult masterpiece – Two Thousand Maniacs. Cross dresser Divine leads a group of freak show artists who perform in a show known as “Lady Divine’s Cavalcade of Perversions.” The performers kill the audience members after each performance to pick their pockets. Watch carefully for the puke eater, a bike seat licker, and a giant paper mache lobster named Lobstora.  Divine’s masturbation scene with a rosary in a church tests the limits of good taste.

Pink Flamingos (1972) – Considering what Johnny Knoxville has achieved in the Jackass movies, Pink Flamingos may not have the over-the-top shock value that it once had upon its release. It remains Waters’ most discussed film. The film concerns the life of Babs Johnson, a transvestite living in a rundown trailer in Baltimore, played by frequent Waters actor – Divine. Babs lives with her traveling companion and son, and claims to be “The Filthiest Person Alive.” She proves it at the end of the film by eating a pile of dog pooh, causing viewers to throw up whatever they had for lunch that day. A print of Pink Flamingos is archived at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Female Trouble (1973) – Many Waters fans consider this to be a sequel to Pink Flamingos. Divine is cast once again – but this time as teenage drop out Dawn Davenport. Davenport leads the stereotypical, dysfunctional, white trash lifestyle. She gets pregnant while still in high school, runs away from home for not receiving a pair of cha-cha heels for Christmas, works a few dead end jobs, and eventually commits murder. She is executed in an electric chair, but feels no remorse for her life of crime. Female Trouble may be Waters’ comment on the media’s obsession of crime and serial killers.

Desperate Living (1977) – This film was made famous by a bizarre nude scene of busty Liz Renay when she was in her late 40s. Waters steps up the poor taste and graphic violence a few notches by showing a castration scene, and nude gay men servicing pleasantly plump Edith Massey – in the role of bitchy Queen Carlotta. Waters calls this film his “monstrous fairy tale.” Cheap wooden sets were built to give the impression of a fairy tale castle. It’s all good (but not clean) fun.

Serial Mom (1994) – Ever had a neighbor who appeared to be so perfect and squeaky clean that you swore they lived an “Ozzie & Harriet” lifestyle, but later discovered they had a few skeletons in the closet? If you have, then you can relate to this film. Kathleen Turner plays the picture perfect, June Cleaver mother who hates her neighbors and is driven to murder. Once again, Waters is out to make a social comment about the news media’s obsession with serial killers and high profile court cases of celebrities – even before the O.J. Simpson trials of 1995. Waters also pays tribute to one of his director heroes – Herschell Gordon Lewis – by showing a scene of Lewis’ 1964 gore hit “Blood Feast” on a TV screen.

Happy viewing!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A cracker film from the 70s -- Swamp Girl

By Doug Gibson

"Swamp Girl" is a real "cracker" film. A deep South drive-in, Saturday matinee film that bombed at the box office largely due to that dichotemy. The film is very tame, tame enough indeed to play at a kids' Saturday matinee. That is was a best a soft PG is a bit perplexing given that the director was Don Davis, who was more comfortable shooting soft-core porn in that era. (Davis also has a memorable but small role as a drunk in Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space.)

"Swamp Girl" is an interesting film and watchable. It stars a "Marcia Brady" lookalike (Simone Griffith) who is a gorgeous teenage blonde named Janeen who lives in the swamp with her guardian, a black man she calls "Paw." It seems that Swamp Girl was abandoned as a baby and later Paw rescued her from drug dealers who killed her earlier guardian. Despite living in a swamp, swamp girl is gorgeous, with creamy white skin, tanned shaved legs, beautifully coiffed blonde hair and wears a cut summery type of dress. She also is friends with the local sheriff (Claude King) and the swamp ranger, played by southern crooner Ferlin Husky (he of Hillbillys in a Haunted House fame).

To go on, one day a con and his girlfriend are on the run. They turn up at Swamp Girl's house, kill "Paw" and take Swamp Girl hostage as they seek escape through the swamp. However, Swamp Girl, who knows the swamp all too well, turns the tables on the baddies and makes their lives miserable in the swamp. Eventually, the bad guy sinks to his death in quicksand and his girlfriend is eaten by 'gators. (There's a subplot involving some local criminals who want to kill Swamp Girl for some reason but viewers can ignore and just star at Griffith prancing through the swamp)

Besides the plot as mentioned, Ferlin Husky sings a song or two and I think there's a half-baked, chaste romance between Swamp Girl and a deputy. There's also, and let me make this clear, no R-rated material in this film. As mentioned, it's quite tame.

It's an enjoyable 70 minutes or so and is a chance to see a genre film (southern justice) that is very low budget and all late '60s early '70s deep South. And, it was filmed at a real swamp, Okefenokee Swamp Park, near Waycross, Georgia. It can be purchased via Something Weird, which recently showed the film on OnDemand cable. Enjoy the trailer above!