Friday 27 August 2021

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)



“Motorsavsmasakren”? Do I know “Motorsavsmasakren”? Of course, I know “Motorsavsmasakren” or “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” as is its correct, original name, but I have always known it by its Danish name, which frankly sounds more awesome, at least to me. This film is an institution! Did I ever watch “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”? ehh… no… I actually do not think so, at least not until now. But I know it, I know all the elements, Leatherface, the girl on the meat hook, youngsters getting caught by cannibals and that image of the chainsaw wielding cook running through the bush.

Why I never actually saw it, I cannot tell. It would have been the kind of thing we would have watched back at campus, but it just never came up or we just cut the line at “Evil Dead”. In hindsight that is a bit silly. “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” would have fitted in just perfectly.

This is a movie that could easily have become one of those ridiculous movies made by amateurs by enrolling their friends, but somehow, like with “Night of the Living Dead”, the idea, creativity and energy to actually pull it off, made it work despite itself. It is realistic enough, camp enough and (certainly) barbaric enough to hit the right balance. Back in the day it moved the boundary for what you could show in a movie and were probably considered way across that line, but with just the right amount of camp it pulls back and there is something even… funny about watching the completely insane Leatherface keeping track of all these awful intruders that just won’t die, alright?

The story is that five youngsters, Sally (Marilyn Burns), her wheelchair bound brother Franklin (Paul Partain) and their friends Kirk (William Vail), Jerry (Allen Daniziger) and Pam (Teri McMinn) are on an outing in a van and stop at an old homestead belonging to Sally and Franklin’s family. They are short on gas so when Kirk and Pam spot a house, they go asking for some. As nobody answers them knocking, Kirk goes right in (?) only to meet a big man (Gunnar Hansen) with a mask made of human skin who immediately, without preamble, knocks him down with a big hammer. Pam, of course, walks in to look for him and finds some scary shit. Her screaming immediately calls Leatherface to the scene, he grabs her and puts her on a meat hook, still screaming, while he cut up Kirk with his chainsaw.

For the last third of the movie, we see Sally run through the brush, chased by Leatherface (after he quickly dispatched Jerry and Franklin), captured she is tied up with the most horrendous family ever, ready to become the evening dinner and finally fleeing again with Leatherface and his chainsaw in hot pursuit.

This is gory and violent and brutal with not much more point to it than to present a nightmare scenario. The ultimate in “don’t mess with the locals”. It should be absolutely terrible, either because of the scare or because it is so disgusting, but somewhere, as I wrote above, it is also so over the top, without breaking form, that I could not help laughing. Somewhere between the dinner party from hell and the insane chainsaw wielding Leatherface it hits a nerve of camp that is just priceless. Back in campus, in the nineties we would play Doom, the hottest thing at the time, and the most ridiculous and yet most awesome thing you could do was to take that chainsaw and run around, impotently and yet menacingly and cut up the bad guys (or each other) and as spectators we would roll around laughing watching a player run around with some chainsaw dude chasing him. And it all comes from “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”.

The production value is not super high, this was made on a shoestring budget, the acting is, well, amateurish, but the energy! Whoah! I am not really into gory horror but this is a classic for a reason.

Do I dare recommend it?

Friday 20 August 2021

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)


Off-List: Murder on the Orient Express

Are there any whodunnits more iconic than Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”? Not that I can think of.

For this kind of story, it is a curse to be famous because you do not want to spoil the guessing game and yet I had happily forgotten the resolution of this murder mystery. Incredible but true. I am probably getting old. In any case, I had a great time watching the mystery getting unraveled with Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) tying all the little pieces of information together.

What I had even more fun with, was watching the greatest assembly of acting credentials ever to perform in a single movie. A bold claim, but one that may actually be true. It may be easier to mention who was not in this movie.

Hercule Poirot, the famous (in Agatha Christie’s novels) detective, is returning from the Middle East and boards a train, the famous Orient Express, in Istanbul, heading for France and England. The first-class section is fully booked by 12 other passengers (sounds like a small train…) and they only just manage to squeeze in Poirot.

Shortly into the ride, the American businessman Ratchett (Richard Widmark) offers Poirot a small fortune to protect him from an unknown danger. Ratchett has been receiving threatening letters, but Poirot refuses and the morning after Ratchett is dead. Mr. Bianchi, director of the train line, implores Poirot to solve the mystery and a sudden snowdrift may just offer enough time to do so.

So, who did it? Was it,

The loud and obnoxious Mrs. Hubbard (Lauren Bacall)?

The pious Ms. Ohlsson (Ingrid Bergman)?

The charming Countess Helena Andrenyi (Jacqueline Bisset) or the just as charming Count Rudolf Andrenyi (Michael York)?

The stout Colonel Arbuthnot (Sean Connery) or his girlfriend Mary Debenham (Vanessa Redgrave)?

Maybe the butler did it (John Gielgud) or Ratchett’s secretary (Anthony Perkins)?  

Or the elderly, slightly infirm and very aristocratic Princess Dragomiroff (Wendy Hiller) or her maid Hildegarde Schmidt (Rachel Roberts)?

One cannot rule out the bodyguard (Colin Blakely) or the car salesman (Denis Quilley), surely?

And that train attendant, Pierre (Pierre Paul Michel) was just a little too close to all the action, no?

This list, of course, is mostly an excuse to write up the amazing list of actors and actresses participating in this spectacle, for a spectacle it is. This may be a murder case, but it is played for nostalgic reminiscence of a nobler time long gone, when train rides were spectacular and the high and mighty would be sharing a train car. The music, the décor, the costumes, this all has a lighter and easier air than is normally due a crime scene and Poirot solving the case is more the unraveling of a riddle than the apprehension of a dangerous criminal. All very gentleman-like.

I did feel a bit odd with Albert Finney as Poirot, but I guess that is simply because I am so used to David Suchet’s rendition of the famous detective in the TV-series. Cannot really blame Finney for that.

“Murder on the Orient Express” is the first of my off-List movies for 1974 and, honestly, I find it odd that this one was left out. It was nominated for six Academy Awards and won one (Ingrid Bergman). It is a fluffy piece, but an incredibly taste one. I would have added it to the List.


Saturday 14 August 2021

The Conversation (1974)



1974 was a good year for Francis Ford Coppola. Not only did he win with “The Goodfather part II”, he was also nominated twice personally for “The Conversation”. In the shadow of “The Godfather I+II” it is easy to miss “The Conversation”. Personally, I had not even heard about it before watching it. It is a much smaller movie in scope, more a character study than anything else, but perhaps because of this narrow scope it reaches a depth shared by few other movies.

Harry Caul (Gene Hackman) is a surveillance expert. This is the high-tech version of the private eye. Corporate espionage, extramarital affairs or political shenanigans, Caul is the expert. He is a technical wizard, builds much of his equipment himself, and knows all the tricks in the business. Harry Caul is also a very lonely man. All this surveillance has made him the ultimate voyeur and because he can glean all the secrets from other people, he is convinced he himself is just as exposed to others. He never tells anybody any personal details and are nervous around anybody who asks him questions. We see how this makes women around him give up on him. Nobody wants to be kept at arm’s length.

This voyeurism also becomes a bit of an obsession in relation to his work. Professionally, what he observes is not his business, he simply delivers the tapes or photos to his clients against payment, but somewhere he is losing that professionalism and gets engaged in his material. Harry suspects, becomes convinced even, that the couple he is asked to keep under surveillance are at risk of getting murdered. His only input are those recordings and photos he has, but hearing them again and again enables him to piece together a picture.

The problem is that, like the blind man touching only part of an elephant, the image he gets is wrong. A murder is in planning, but he got the wrong victim, and he is powerless to do anything to prevent it. At the same time he learns that all the care he takes to shield himself is futile. He is as prone to surveillance and tricks as his marks and as powerless to prevent it. His innermost secrets, those he guards most zealously, are there for the taking.

For a man like Harry Caul this is complete destruction. He is a failure. This is also a warning about the dangers of surveillance.

For a movie as downbeat as this, “The Conversation” is very engaging. We are truly getting under the skin of Harry Caul, and we feel we understand his sorry and very lonely existence. He is paranoid, but even his paranoia offers him no protection and no answers. I know this is a movie that should make me depressed, but Coppola and Hackman are just too good to let me dismiss the movie.

Beside a brilliant performance by Gene Hackman, “The Conversation” also sports an amazing jazz soundtrack. This is the kind of music that gets under my skin and I can easily think of an autumn afternoon where I would feel like listening to nothing but this.

As a little bonus we also get a young Harrison Ford as Caul’s client’s spooky assistant. A small but important role, feeding Caul’s paranoia.

“The Conversation was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay (by Coppola) and Best Sound. All three highly deserved nominations. It is early into my 74 movies to say, but I could see Hackman getting a nomination too.

Highly recommended.


Monday 9 August 2021

600 Movies Anniversary


600 Movies Anniversary

With “Dersu Uzala” I reached movie number 600 on the List. I have reviewed quite a few more movies, including the off-List entries and the special Danish edition entries, but among those on the big List, this was number 600.

From 500 to 600 I went from 1968 to 1974 and this has taken me exactly two years. It is slow, I know, but slowly the movies are accumulating. My shelves with DVDs are starting to look pretty impressive.

Following my own tradition, I have to issue some sort of award that must include all movies watched up to this point, but be inspired by the period I have just been through. Well, if there is one thing that typifies this period it must be the counter-culture theme. It runs like a red thread through so many of the movies, either as a main theme, a side theme and influencing the choices both of characters and filmmakers. Counterculture can be many things, but in the late sixties and early seventies it was almost everything that would break with the established way of doing things. The embrace of the alternative, sometimes simply for being different. It is easy to sit back today and ridicule it, but for those involved this was a big and important thing and it was an energy you had to tap into if you wanted your movie to sync with the zeitgeist.

I made a count, probably missing some, and identified 28 movies that definitely contains countercultural elements, either intentionally or unintentionally. My award will be to the movie where counterculture is the most dominant element for better or worse. From my larger list I have nominated seven movies:

Zabrieski Point

                Antonioni’s misfired attempt at nailing the counterculture. Although he failed, you cannot blame him for not trying.

Five Easy Pieces

                Maybe a surprising entry, but I think this movie embraces the rebellion of the existing and search for something to replace it by going its own way. The essence of counterculture.

Easy Rider

                Biking across the US, smoking weed, and doing everything the establishment hated. Need I say more?

Midnight Cowboy

                An incredible look into the zeitgeist of the age, the entire setting is the counterculture in NYC around 1970

The Graduate

                Earlier than most counter-culture movies, this is a movie that almost defined the anxiety of stepping into established adulthood and deciding not to.


                Antonioni’s more successful depiction of alternative lifestyles before it turned sour.


                A movie about the greatest hippie festival ever, how can this not embrace counterculture?


And the winner is:

Easy Rider.

There is not a single element of this movie, in front of or behind the camera that is not heavily influenced by the counterculture and its legacy is almost the definition of the age.


Friday 6 August 2021

Dersu Uzala (1974)


Dersu Uzala

The first movie of 1974 is Kurosawa’s Russian movie, “Dersu Uzala”.

Vladimir Arsenyev was a Russian explorer of the Far East of some fame in Russia. During his exploration of the Primorsky Kraj region (the region of Vladivostok, east of the Amur river) at the beginning of the century, he befriended an indigenous hunter named Dersu Uzala about whom he later wrote a book. This book fascinated Kurosawa already back in 39 and he got as far as early shooting before he gave up the project. The wilderness of the site itself play so large a part in this story that without access to Primorsky Kraj the movie would not work. Fast forward to 1972 where Russian Mosfilm reached out to Kurosawa and offered him a chance to direct a Russian production of Arsenyev’s book on location. Kurosawa when into this 100%.

This may seem like an odd movie for a director famous for his samurai movies, but Kurosawa was a lot more than that and to me “Dersu Uzala” has quite a lot in common with “Ikiru”, a brilliant early movie of his.

Arsenyev (Yury Solomin) is a captain in the Russian army in the first decade of the twentieth century, who is tasked with mapping the wild hills of the Primorsky Kraj. He brings with him a small term of soldiers, but otherwise it is just him and the enormous wilderness. Out there he meets the indigenous hunter Dersu Uzala (Maxim Muzuk). Dersu is a bit eccentric but also intimately familiar with the wilderness and while the soldiers initially see him as a bit of a clown, he soon earns their respect. Through Dersu Uzala they learn to see the real wilderness, the animals, the spirits, the resources and the few odd inhabitants. He becomes Arsenyev’s guide, not just for his mission but for the land itself.

When Dersu Uzala also saves them from certain death on a number of occasions a bond for life is made between the Captain and the Hunter.

This is a very slow movie and fairly long. Kurosawa tries to make us experience and feel this wilderness and through an Ozu like meditative pace he is quite successful. There is not so much a progressive plot as an evolving friendship and understanding of this world, so much that it at times feel like a lyrical documentary and that is meant as a positive.

Dersu Uzala is like a Rousseau noble savage juxtapositioned with the civilization Arsenyev represents. The wilderness free of guile. But it is also a savage wilderness where only the strong and those willing to learn survive and Dersu Uzala is a survivor. When Dersu gets old and his eyesight poor, Arsenyev invites him to stay with his family in town, but Dersu withers in the town. For a free spirit, civilization is a prison, full of rules and don’ts. Dersu Uzala is as wild as the wilderness.

I liked “Dersu Uzala” a lot. The meditative pace is perfect for it, and we become observers together with Arsenyev. Maxim Muzuk is very convincing although he is Tuvian and therefore from an entirely different part of Sibiria.  This is a love letter to this region and to a wilder past. We see one of those magnificent Sibirian Tigers and it is symbolic that this is the spirit of the wilderness and there are now so few left.

“Dersu Uzala” won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1976 and it is a recommendation from me.

Note: Do yourself a favor a watch it in Russian. The English dubbing is… well… not as good.