Sunday 29 April 2018

The Masque of the Red Death (1964)

The Masque of the Red Death
Old horror movies are a lot of fun. Even when they are bad, they are usually fun, though for reasons unintended.

“The Masque of the Red Death” is a lot of fun, though I am not sure how much is intended and how much is not.

The movie is based on a short story by Edgar Allan Poe by the same name. It takes place in medieval Italy where a decadent and cruel prince, Prince Prospero (Vincent Price), is giving lavish parties and worshipping Satan while the countryside is plagued by a mysterious illness known as the Red Death. Already here there are links to some very famous Italian stories from the period of Black Death in the fourteenth century.

Anyway, Prospero has captured a girl, Francesca (Jane Asher), her father and her boyfriend, Gino (David Weston) and taken them to his castle to play with them. At the castle Prospero’s mistress, Juliana (Hazel Court), is jealous and decides to show her devotion by marrying herself to Satan. This includes a lovely inverted cross, burnt on her breast (oh gasp!). Meanwhile the guests are having a merry time, something that culminates in a masque ball involving a burnt great ape and a hooded figure in a red cape.

It is a silly story, it is difficult to claim anything else, and it makes little sense when you start thinking about it. Yet it is also completely bizarre and with gusto for the outrageous, especially whenever Prince Prospero is involved.

The production value it is very B in terms of acting and script. Some of the lines, especially Gino’s and Francesca’s, are toe-cringingly bad, beyond cliché and camp and deep into corny. Many, if not all, the scenes are staged as for a theater rather than a movie and there are details, such as Gino’s hairstyle, that scream of poor decisions.

Then on the other hand everything that relates to the bad guys tell of a much higher production value. The castle sets, the colored rooms, the evil ceremonies and particularly Vincent Price’s Prospero. It is such and odd clash. Was this made intentionally poor or were they serious and just decided to pour all their attention on the bad guys? This is supposed to be a cult movie and I can see why it would have a following. The camp value is pretty high.

The Death character is totally borrowed from Bergman. Here it plays cards rather than chess, but that is only a detail. In every other way this character just changed sets. But the other way is also true. I can see a lot of Rocky Horror Picture show in this movie to the extend that I suspect the producers of that movie used “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Black Cat” as their template.

I would not call this a good or a great movie by any standard. In fact I am surprised it is on the List, but it is a fun and bizarre movie to watch and certainly, with my taste for awkward movies, this one hits a lot of buttons. I have not watched any other movies by Corman so I cannot say if this one is representative, but apparently the List editors seem to think this is Corman’s moment of glory so I wonder just how campy his other movies are. Could be I should look into that.

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (Tini Zabutykh Predkiv) (1964)

Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors
Among many other pleasures, one of the great things about following the List is that I get to see things I probably would never have experienced otherwise. “Shadows of Our Forgotten Ancestors” is such a movie. I honestly do not think I would have searched out an old Russian (or Ukrainian) movie about folklore in the Carpathian Mountains, but because of the List I now have that truly unique experience under the belt.

This is not an easy movie to describe.

Because of the way it is filmed, and the story told it is a rather confusing film. Hand held camera was not invented by the Dogme concept or the found footage genre, but was happily employed by the producers of this particular movie. Combine that with a minimum of dialogue, which is generally replaced by songs and horns and general crowd noises, and I am not always certain of what is actually happening. Luckily, the story is so simple that the over-all picture is pretty clear.

We are with the Hutul people in the Carpathian Mountains sometime in an undefined past. The boy, Ivan (Ivan Mykolaichuk) lives in a tough and wild environment that takes both brother and father from him. He meets a girl, Marichka (Larisa Kadochnikova) from a rival family and they grow up loving each other. When Ivan comes of age he leaves his village to take up work in another village while back home Maricka falls into a river and dies. Ivan grieves for a long time and even when he takes on a new wife he cannot forget Marichka. His new wife, Palagna (Tatyana Bestayeva) turns to sorcery and finds another man as lover. Of course, this all ends poorly.

There are two big draws here, the primary one being the very detailed depiction of the Hutul people. We see it all, festive and slaving to make a living, summer and winter, music, songs, folklore, religion, anything. There is a large part here that serves as a very efficient documentary on a people I had never heard of before. It is not a cold, descriptive presentation, but one that is filled with all the magic and energy that is key to their lives. That makes for very interesting viewing.

The second draw is the unique cinematography. While I am just as sick of hand held filming as anybody else, there is something magic about the choices made here. The soundscape for one, replacing much of the dialogue, the jarring and jagged first-hand viewpoint is another. Something about it feels like an old silent movie trying to tell a story without title-cards. Which, curiously, is another ingredient of the movie.

I don’t think the style of filming would work on any story, but this one is so basic that it is possible and there is so much to look at. It is tempting to think that this would then be a naturalistic film using realism as a tool, but I would say it is in fact the opposite. This does not feel like reality, but a filmed fairy tale, which I am of the impression that it actually is. It is heavily stylized combined with the sense of being there.

It is an odd movie to come out of the Soviet Union in the mid-sixties. It describes and endorses the uniqueness of a cultural minority under a system that had been working very hard to eradicate non-conform cultures. Also there are no socialist themes here. No oppressed working class, no submission to the common good. How on Earth was this allowed to be made?

The story did not do that much for me and the characters were not sufficiently fleshed out. Sometimes I even got confused on who was who. How many big moustaches can you have in a movie? But that is not why you should see this movie. It is for the unique experience and the wonderful view into the Hutul culture that this movie deserves a viewing.

Sunday 22 April 2018

The Red Desert (Il Deserto Rosso) (1964)

Den røde ørken
”The Red Desert” (“Il Deserto Rosso”) is the fourth Antonioni movie following “L'Avventura” (1960), “La Notte” (1961), and “L'Eclisse” (1962). I have been on the fence with these three movie, slowly growing to accept them when considering them on their own terms. With “The Red Desert” Antonioni stretches those term to the extent that I have a hard time keeping up.

I get the impression that Antonioni got so excited working with colors that this became the theme of the movie. To use colors actively to reflect the moods of a woman. Antonioni went into this with a lot of zeal, painted fields and what-not and the result is very beautiful. The colors and color compositions are truly magnificent and very central in this movie. Not just saturated colors, that is an old trick dating back to “The Wizard of Oz”, but a subtle use that is both understated and very powerful, if that makes any sense.

The problem is that I think Antonioni got so absorbed in his use of colors that he forgot there is more to a movie.

When you watch an Antonioni movie you have to understand that it is a tableau, a mental state or a feeling he tries to convey, not an actual story. If you look for a story you will get disappointed. In “The Red Desert” there are truly no story at all. No plot what so ever. The Book sums it up very nicely: A neurotic woman (Monica Vitti) is looking for love but finds sex. Except Vitti’s character Giuliana is far beyond neurotic. I am no psychiatrist, but to me she seems to be schizophrenic.

So, Giuliana goes around being afraid of everything to the sound of disturbing electronic noises. Her surroundings are post-apocalyptic industrial landscapes with steam and pollution, mud and fog. Deeply unpleasant. I learned that this was filmed in Ravenna, which is disappointing as I always wanted to visit that place only now to learn that it looks like this. Yicks. Anyway, Giuliani had some sort of accident and now she is a mental case. She is looking for love or understanding and feeling very alone. Her husband Ugo (Carlo Chionetti) is often not present and quite busy at work. Though, to my mind, he is trying to be accommodating, but there is not to do. A business contact, Corrado (Richard Harris) is fascinated by Giuliana and wants to bed her. Giuliana thinks he may help her, but ends up being disappointed. Giuliana is pretty much trapped in her mind and her’s is not a case for amateurs. She needs professional help and a lot of it.

Seriously, that is all that happens over it’s two hours running time.

I found it a lot less engaging than the first three movies. Of course, Antonioni is all about making us feel all her anxiety, but it is so far outside the normal range of feelings that all I feel is pity. The emotional situations, typically alienation, of the characters in the other three movies were all belonging to normal, modern people. I can relate to them. Giuliana is not normal, she is ill and pretty badly. Without that connection two hours feel very long.

The one thing going for the movie is as mentioned photography, particularly the use of colors. The highlight here is a story Giuliana tells her son about a girl swimming on a beach where she can hear the rocks sing. That water looks so inviting I immediately felt like booking a ticket to wherever I could find such a beach.

In the final analysis, unless you are an Antonioni aficionado, you watch this movie for the use of colors and little else. It is not a favorite of mine.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

The Naked Kiss (1964)

Off-List: The Naked Kiss
The second off-list movie of 1964 is “The Naked Kiss”. It is not a movie I knew up front, but one that has been recommended. It was therefore not a given thing that I would like it. Ultimately I did, so thank you for the recommendation.

Samuel Fuller, the director, producer and writer of the movie, had made a name for himself as a somewhat controversial filmmaker, in that he picked and, enthusiastically, delved into the seedier and lurid parts of life. In “Shock Corridor” it was mental illness or outright insanity. In “The Naked Kiss” it is prostitution and pedophilia. I bet that got your attention.

Kelly (Constance Towers) is a prostitute who apparently is pretty sick of her profession. When she arrives in a small town she does one job and then makes a career change and starts working with handicapped children. Unfortunately, the one job she does take is with the local police chief, Griff (Anthony Eisley), and now he wants her out of town. Prostitutes do not belong in his town. Talk about hypocrisy.

However, Kelly is hugely successful in her new job and she meets a nice guy and they fall in love. His name is Grant (Michael Dante), he is the richest man in town and Griff’s best friend. Griff is strongly against a marriage, convinced Kelly is a gold-digger. Shortly before the wedding Kelly’s world come crashing down as (SPOILER) she finds out Grant is a pedophile and wants to marry her because she is also flawed, her being a prostitute. Kelly grabs a phone, knocks him in the head and kills hem (careful with those phones…) For Griff the case is clear. Kelly deliberately went after Grant’s money and killed him in the process. How will Kelly get out of that pinch?

For the first half hour I had some trouble paying attention to this movie. I suppose the filming felt like a throwback to the fifties and the story did not appeal much to me. But at that crucial moment where Kelly kills Grant, Fuller changed gear and this becomes a lot more interesting. The plot is piling up against Kelly and it gets quite exciting. In these passages “The Naked Kiss” is very much a film noir and a good one at that.

Constance Towers is by far the best actor on the set and giving her as much screen time as possible was a good choice. Her quiet despair is subtle and convincing, and her full steam misery is pretty good too. The rest are more B crew types, but they suit the movie.

There are flaws though. Not big enough to sabotage the movie, but odd enough that I cannot help thinking about them. They are, however, typical of Samuel Fuller.

First off Griff is a prick. His hypocrisy in the opening, his reluctance to recognize her change, his wild accusations and the vitriol he pours at her in the prison. But, alas, when he realizes she did not kill Grant for his money, but because he was a pedophile there are no apologies or remorse. In fact it would appear Griff and Kelly were lovers all along. Ehh, why is she kissing him instead of punching his face?

Secondly, Kelly did actually kill the guy violently. He may be a pedophile, but he did not attack her. She cannot claim self-defense. In most places that is not enough to kill a guy. Instead you go to the police. So, as I understand it she is actually guilty of murder. Something I have misunderstood?

A last item is the interrogation of the little girl at the police station. That made me cringe. Can you really rough up a child witness like that? And where are her parents? Maybe it is the age showing, but it felt wrong.

It ought to be easy to fix these details and the result would be a wonderfully lurid tale. I think I preferred “Shock Corridor”, but there is enough in the “The Naked Kiss” to make it worthy of watching. Whether I think it deserves a place on the List I am doubtful. At least I need to get a more complete view of 1964 first.


Wednesday 11 April 2018

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

En hård dags nat
How many songs do you know by The Beatles? 5? 10, maybe? 50? Personally I haven’t got a clue. Say a number and it is probably more. I grew up in the eighties, long after The Beatles broke up, but still I can say I grew up with The Beatles. They were everywhere. In the radio, in the song books, in television, on the record shelves of friend’s parents and as teenagers we would re-discover their music and share its youthfulness as had we been our parents generation. No other band has had that sort of longevity, at least not with me. But it goes beyond that. I keep discovering songs I like only to find out that this song is also a Beatles song.  I hear Beatles songs I feel certain I have never heard before and yet they sound familiar because in all likelihood I did hear it many, many years ago.

And I am pretty sure I am not the only one.

Strangely enough I never saw “A Hard Day’s Night” before, at least not in its entirety, but the songs are quite familiar. So, watching this I could combine the joy of a first viewing with the comfort of familiarity. I felt spoiled.

Obviously “A Hard Day’s Night” is a vehicle for The Beatles. The storyline is about the thinnest possible. It is basically a day in the life of the band. They are taking the train to London to appear in a televised show. To get there they have to escape a horde of screaming girls and deal with inane questions from journalists (Journalist: How did you find America? Lennon: Turn left after Greenland). The producers of the show are going nuts because of the antics of the band and finally they get to play. That is not really a lot, but sprinkled throughout are a number of zany subplots. Paul’s grandfather (a very clean man) is constantly causing mischief. The manager and the road manager have an ongoing argument abut being taller than each other and the band members tend to wander off.  George ends up with a marketing dude who is very impressed with himself and Ringo, encouraged by Paul’s grandfather, deserts the band to find the real life in the streets. This happens to end in a Keaton-scale police chase.

It is sweet and fun and very light and helped a lot by the four Beatles members being very sympathetic characters. There are also threads to a Monty Python style sort of comedy that is quite appealing. But at the end of the day, what really matters is the music. Rather than spontaneously braking into song, the music bits slide almost naturally into the action, basically by the band taking every opportunity to sing a song or as backing music to the action on the screen. It works very well and rather than being a musical this is a movie about a band playing music.

The music is great. In fact the rest does not matter, having the music is easily enough. Of the twelve songs used in the movie six of them were new material made specifically for this movie to be used as a soundtrack album. Normally I would think that such songs mainly would be filler compared to the “greatest hits” that would make up the rest, especially given the very short time Lennon and McCartney had to come up with them, but that is not the case at all. Every single one of them is a classic and are in my opinion better than their previous material. Especially the title song which is one of my all-time favorite Beatles songs.

The second disc of the Criterion edition I got contains a wealth of information and anecdotes of the movie. Somewhat repetitive though, by the third behind the scenes feature I felt I knew everything worth knowing about this particular movie. The historic account of the Beatles up to the point of the movie is very interesting though and well worth visiting for its own sake.

Rather than saying this was a good movie I would say that this was a movie I greatly enjoyed watching and I could easily see it again. Highly recommended. Very highly.

And now to something completely different… I have just returned from The States with my family and want to share with you the launch of the Falcon rocket last week as seen from Kennedy Space Center. I hope this works…
ups... Blogger has a maximum size of 100 MB so instead you may have to download it from here instead: