Saturday 31 December 2022

Happy New Year 2023


Happy New Year 2023

Another year has gone by and again it is time to take stock. I think most people will agree that 2022 was not one of those years that will be remembered with fondness. Sure, this is the first new year post-COVID, but that already seems like such a long time ago and so much have happened since then. There is now war in Europe again and a bloody one at that and we are looking into an energy and an inflation crisis on top of all the other crisis’s plaguing us. I have an app on my phone telling me what the electricity price is over the next 24 hours so I can plan when to do laundry or use the oven, something I would not have thought of a year ago.

All is not bleak though. One man’s death is another man’s bread as the (Danish) saying goes. I work with renewables, and this is a field that is booming, as in gold rush boom times. We are hiring and are very busy and if all goes well, I will be opening our new Copenhagen office sometime in 23. If you are interested in this field you may want to check out the Danish Energy Island project, which is labelled as the Danish equivalent to the Moon project. Truly exciting stuff.

This was also the year where Sight and Sound presented their new and updated list of the 100 best movies ever and the number one spot, the best movie ever made, was: “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080, Bruxelles”. Interesting choice…

I have listed 55 movie reviews on this blog in 2022. Of these 46 were List movies and 9 off-List movies, making this the slowest year so far, but I am in no rush so never mind that. The period covered is 1975 to 1978 and three List years per calendar year does seem to be my pace now. A thing I have noticed in this period is how difficult is has become to limit my off-List movies to only three titles. There is just so many interesting movies out there that never many it to the List. This was also the first year without a new release of “1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die” and while it may bee too early a call, this could be the end of an era. It does also seem like the host of 1001 bloggers have been thinning over years, either from abandoning the project or by finishing it and this blog may end up as an anachronistic artifact, but then, so am I.

On my book blog I have read and reviewed 13 titles which is almost three times more than the target I have set for myself, so I can be pleased with that. This took me from 1794 to 1811, 17 years, and I am now far into the Napoleonic wars, in the period known as Regency. So, that means I am looking into a lot of Jane Austen stuff.

I would like to wish everybody a happy new year with my sincere hope that 2023 will finally be a better year. I think we all need that.


Thursday 29 December 2022

Up in Smoke (1978)


Up in Smoke

This was a lot better than I dared to expect.

Anthony “Man” Stoner (Tommy Chong) leaves his wealthy, but not very understanding, parents in his old Volkswagen with a Rolls Royce grill tied to the front. The car breaks down and Man is stranded.  Pedro de Pacas (Cheech Marin) wakes up confused, steps in his children’s breakfast and pees in the laundry basket. He gets his act together and takes his pimped-up car for a spin in high spirits. Pedro takes up a hitchhiker he thinks is a woman but turns out to be Man. Man has a joint the size of a salami and they are immediately best friend.

What happens next involves starting a band, hunting for dope with a Vietnam veteran and driving a car made from “fiberweed” (hardened marijuana) across the border from Mexico believing they are smuggling upholstering. Throughout they are chased by an anti-drug squad led by Sgt. Stedenko (Stacy Keach), but Pedro and Man hardly register this, partly from being high and partly because of the incompetence of the drug unit. When they pick up two girls on the way, they give them the idea to enter a Battle of Bands competition at the Roxy Theatre. What happens there just have to be seen.

A summary of this movie will never do it justice as it is one of those movies where it is the way it is acted out rather than the nominal story that matters. Cheech and Chong were a known comedy duo, and this movie is largely a vehicle for their stunts. These circle around drugs, especially marijuana and are of a very anarchistic nature. At first, I was a bit apprehensive, fearing another substance abuse movie, but it very quickly won me over. This is a hilariously funny movie.

It is a trashy sort of humor, very low at times, but never mean. They do some really stupid things, usually while heavily intoxicated, but they are rather innocent and even sweet. The peak of this is of course the concert at the end of the movie. It is a total disaster at first. Man is freaking out from stage fear and the girls gave him the wrong dope to fix it, so he tumbles around on the stage. Pedro enters wearing a pink ballet skirt and a Mickey Mouse hat and together with the smoke from the burning marijuana car venting into the venue, they get it turned around and into an unforgettable show. I will see if I can find a picture of Pedro in his outfit for this post.

“Up in Smoke” is credited as the first “Buddy stoner film” and is as such the mother of all those genre movies that followed. Movies like “Harold and Kumar”, “Knocked Up” or “Grandma’s boy”. In fact, Wikipedia lists more than a hundred buddy stoner movies including a lot of well-known titles. This is what “Animal House” was for the college movie, and here is the wild thing, “Up in Smoke” is still one of the best of them.

I am pleasantly surprised that the editors of the List have shown enough range to include a movie like “Up in Smoke”. Sure, founding a genre is a big thing, but the List is thin on comedies and especially of the trashy sort. This is a brilliant entry and a good warmup for New Year’s Eve. Highly recommended even for non-smokers like me.


Friday 23 December 2022

Shaolin Master Killer (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin/Shao Lin San Shin Lui Fang) (1978)


Shao Lin San Shih Liu Fang

Hong Kong is well represented in 1978 with two movies on the List and that is not one too many. Both are excellent representatives of the genre of Hong Kong kung fu movies.

We are somewhere in southern China. The Manchu has conquered China, replacing the Ming with the Qing rule, and are seen by the local population as oppressors. This would place the story in second half of the seventeenth or early eighteenth century. Liu Yude (Gordon Liu) is a student of a teacher with links to a resistance movement. This places both teacher and students in conflict with the local Manchu General Tien Ta (Lo Lieh) and his brutal and capable henchmen. In a crackdown, Liu Yude manages to escape. He decides to seek out the Shaolin temple to learn kung fu as a means of fighting the Manchu.   

The temple is (of course) a mystical, Buddhist place, in isolation from the rest of the world. Liu Yude becomes a monk under the new name San Te and undertakes training in kung fu as well as general Buddhist schooling. This is the bulk part of the movie. San Te must go through 35 different “chambers”, each teaching a different skill and we watch a surprising number of these chambers in detail. He learns balance by jumping on floating logs, arm strength by carrying buckets with daggers strapped to the arms, head strength by nodding sandbags and so on. San Te is skilled and fast and cause some friction in the temple. Not all are convinced San Te has pure intentions, but think he is driven by a desire for revenge. When San Te graduates and is offered to head any chamber he wants, he desires to open a 36th chamber to teach kung fu to the outside world to fight the Manchu. This gets him kicked out of the temple.

This opens up the third chapter where San Te finds a handful of promising students and exacts his revenge on General Tien Ta.

This is the “Rocky” of kung fu movies and the ancestor of movies like “Karate Kid”. The three chapters of “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” are now, and has been for many years, also prior to this movie, a trope, bordering cliché. Yet, it is this training period that excites us and that we want to see. How this regular person transforms from a novice to an expert through a training program condensed into a montage. Except that in “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” this montage lasts an hour and far outshines the first and the third chapter. I do not know anything about martial arts but what I see in movies, so I have no idea if any of this training makes sense. It looks mystical and brutal and I suppose that is the point. San Te’s final skill in kung fu is so sublime it is magic.

The obvious reason for watching a kung fu movie is for the fighting sequences and there are a lot of those. It is the sort of fighting that look more like dancing and with surprisingly little wire work. Again, I am no expert in these things so I cannot say if it is great, but although there is a lot of it, it does not overstay its welcome. It stops short of getting tiresome.

The weakness of “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” may be in the (lack of) complexity of the story. There really is not much of a story going on here and the characters a sketchy to begin with. With only two major objectives to the movie, the fighting and the training, there is not room for much else. The Manchu is a generic oppressor, the town is a generic occupied town and the killed friends and family only serves the purpose of being that. In this respect, the other 1978 kung fu movie “Five Deadly Venoms” is a lot more complex and interesting with a convoluted plot. Yet, it is not really fair to compare the two. What “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” brings to the table is also significant and although we have seen training montages before, I have not in any earlier movie seen it this elaborate.

Gordon Liu had a breakthrough with this movie and has been starring in a ton of movies since, including the “Kill Bill” movies. The career Bruce Lee could have had had he not died early.

“The 36th Chamber of Shaolin” is a fun and easy watch, also for an audience not into martial arts and it is a recommendation from me.

Tuesday 20 December 2022

Dawn of the Dead (1978)


Zombie - Rædslernes morgen

I get the impression that “Dawn of the Dead” is considered by many as one of the greatest horror movies, or zombie movies, ever made. At least that is what Wikipedia writes. I am not as impressed, but that is not the same as saying I did not like the movie. It does have a lot going for it.

The zombie apocalypse is in full swing. As TV production is winding down and general panic is on the rise, TV-producer Fran and her boyfriend traffic reporter Stephen decide to escape the sinking vessel in the station’s helicopter. They are joined by two SWAT deserters Peter and Roger, who are disillusioned with the losing battle against the zombies.

They end up on the roof of a mall, almost out of fuel. The mall has everything they need (except fuel), but is also infested by zombies who seem to be drawn to this important place in their previous life. Roger, Peter and to some degree Stephen get the mall cleaned up and barricade the entrances with trucks. Unfortunately, Roger gets bitten in the process and we all know what that means. The three remaining characters spend weeks in this consumer heaven until eventually a biker gang spots the helicopter and decides to plunder to mall. Mayhem ensues.

I loved George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”. Despite or perhaps because of its very limited budget and the very confined space it worked tremendously well. “Dawn of the Dead” was made ten years later and with a much larger scope but fails to excite me to the same degree. We still get the siege scenario, but it is difficult to take it very seriously. The zombies move in slow motion and although they are horrible creatures they are also pushovers and do not in the same way spell doom. Instead “Dawn of the Dead seems to go for the same sort of gory comedy as Peter Jackson’s early movies, especially “Braindead”. You can watch “Dawn of the Dead” exclusively for the million ways to kill zombies (and the million ways zombies can kill people). The production team clearly had a lot of fun with that.

The reason critics love “Dawn of the Dead” is its criticism of consumerism. Once the group lands on top of the mall, the movie changes gear and lets the group indulge in the suburban fantasy of getting a mall of their own to do with whatever they want. I was reminded of the South Park episode where Cartman gets his own theme park and enjoys having it all to himself. Until he realizes what an empty experience that is. This is also what happens to our group of now three people. If the bikers had not raided the mall, they would have suffered some sort of meltdown. Are the bikers then interrupting their little slice of heaven or saving them from it?

This is a movie with gaping holes and less than great acting. Where does electricity come from when everything else have broken down? Or water for that matter? What causes this zombie disease, and don’t they die of… well something, completely unable to care to themselves as they are? But this is just not one of those movies where you should think about those things. “Dawn of the Dead” is over the top and in your face. Characters do stupid and illogical things, sometimes because they are flawed characters, and sometimes because the script is flawed. But why care when all you really want to see are some gory shots of zombies getting their brains splattered on the wall.

One thing you cannot take away from “Dawn of the Dead” is that it created our image of what a zombie looks like. If anybody, even children were asked to describe a zombie, they would do the stunted walk and the empty face created by “Dawn of the Dead”.

A recommendation? Well, there are days where this is just great stuff and others where I think this is pretty stupid, but I bet it was fun to make it.

Wednesday 14 December 2022

Vil du se min smukke navle? (1978)


Off-List: Vil du se min smukke navle?

The third off-List movie for 1978 is a blast from the past. At least from my past, it is. “Vil du se min smukke navle?” was the young love movie back in my childhood and although it was dated already when I became a teenager, this was still the reference point for the genre in Denmark.

Claus (Birger Larsen) is a shy and sensitive ninth-grader (which makes him around 15 years old) who has reached the age where girls are becoming very interesting. One particular girl, Lene (Lise-Lotte Rao), is flirting a bit with him and when the class is going on an outing to the Swedish forest for a week their relationship gets ample chance to develop.

This is not a movie with a lot of plot going one. Mostly we just follow these young people on the brink between childhood and maturity doing what they normally do on such trips. Claus is just as much hit by puberty as the other children and do not really know what to do about it. Lene is the adventurous one. When she looks at him and smiles, his world is all good, when her attention is elsewhere or she is goofing with the other boys, he withdraws into himself. They are clumsy, but when they are together everything is great.

It sounds silly and light, but the special quality of the movie is that it perfectly catches the weightlessness of that first love and the awkwardness it also causes. Where other movies distance themselves with comedy or ridiculing the youngsters, this movie takes them seriously and is very honest in its portrayal of them. I feel sympathy for Claus and Lene and I remember that confusion. When they finally have their romantic boat ride in the early morning, it feels as if it is all coming together in a way few movies manage.

“Vil du se min smukke navle” is also very much a product of its time. The immediate expression is very much 1978 with the notorious cloths, color scheme and hair cuts of the day, but also on a more profound level does it represent its time very well. It is the innocent time before the eighties, it is the great freedom after the hippie era and in this time they can find that remote place in a Swedish forest where the outside world does not exist.

The idea of school classes going on a cottage trip to socialize is quite an institution in Denmark (and may well be elsewhere as well) and while I can probably not claim they started with this movie, it has formed the mythological background for these trips. Consciously or unconsciously every generation since hope to find something out there like this class of ninth graders did.

Most of the cast were amateurs, which is not surprising given the age of the characters, and even for the director Søren Kragh-Jacobsen this was his first movie. There are moments where you can tell that this is not an expensive production, but it is far outweighed by the innocence and naturalism of the acting and presentation. Søren Kragh-Jacobsen would go on to become one of the best Danish directors with lot of movies under the belt and, surprisingly, so did Birger Larsen. He did not do much acting after this movie, instead he went into film production and eventually became a recognized director as well of both movies and television. Sadly, he died in 2016, just 54 years old.

I can highly recommend this movie, also to an international audience. There is something very universal about it that I think anybody who has been young and in love will recognize.

Saturday 3 December 2022

The Tree of Wooden Clogs (L'albero Degli Zoccoli) (1978)



When I learned I was in for three hours of Italian social realism with “The Tree of Wooden Clogs” (“L’Albero degli zoccoli”), I was worried, but this is a very unique movie and not at all what I expected.

“The Tree of Wooden Clogs” is a movie without any plot in the traditional sense. Instead, we simply follow a group of peasants in the Bergamo region of Northern Italy some time near the end of the nineteenth century. And here I mean follow in a very literal sense. The camera is a fly on the wall, observing what is going on. There is no explanation, there is not progressive story or story arch, there is no melodrama. We simply see and experience the life of these peasants living as tenants in a larger structure (commune farm?) owned by the local landlord.

Life is hard and precarious for these peasants and even small misfortunes may be disasters when you are living on the edge of existence and therein lies the drama. There is no need for schemes or strange coincidences when a sick cow is enough to threaten very real ruin. Some disasters are averted, others not and when that happen, the consequences are fatal.

So, what we see is a series of vignettes that just depicts life. A pig gets slaughtered, a peddler comes by to sell cloth, one of the older peasants nurtures tomatoes in chicken dung and gets the fruit ready before the others. A young man approaches a young woman, and they fall in love and in a lengthy scene they get married and visit her aunt in Milano.

None of these scenes lead anywhere, there is no climax. It is simply an honest depiction of these people’s lives and as such this feels more like a museum than a movie. I went into this expecting melodrama and a string of misfortunes leading up to a big disaster, but that sort of cinema tropes does not fit at all this movie as they never fit real lived life. It is not nostalgic either. There is nothing of the cozying up to life in the past when everything was better. In that sense, this is a brutal movie where dung smells, and poverty is not fun at all. Sure, the community moves together, spend time with each other and try to help each other where they can, but not because of altruistic good, but because it is a means to survive. As peasants there is no way they can manage on their own.

This is realism and it is social in that it wants us to understand where these people are coming from, but it is a window more than an agenda movie. It does not judge but tries to be objective. People are not good or bad, they just are. If something is bad, it is the social structure that all these people are living in, that life may be so hard and so unprotected that even small problems may be disasters.

“The Tree of Wooden Clogs” won the Palme D’Or in 78 and has received a lot of acclaim. I can understand that and agree with a lot of it. As this window, this museum piece, it is hugely interesting, and I could imagine even more so for Italians trying to understand their past. I do like this sort or reenactment, and this is far more than old buildings and costumes but an actual understanding of the lives of these people. A critique though may be that with the absence of plot and story arc, three hours of running does feel like a long time. The question is how long time you really want to be in this museum.

The bottom line is that this is a very unique movie, and a very well and honestly made one. This never looks like amateurs in front of the camera and I do believe I am looking at life in the 1890’ies. That does deserve a lot of credit and I find it possible to live with and even appreciate the lack of a progressive story arc. It is a recommendation from me.

Thursday 24 November 2022

Days of Heaven (1978)


Himlen på Jorden

“Days of Heaven” is the second movie on the List by Terrence Malick and it seems to me that he got stuck with the same themes. A bit like Hitchcock, telling the same story in different wrappings.

This time the young, lost couple is Bill (Richard Gere) and Abby (Brooke Adams), pretending to be siblings for convenience and with Bill’s sister Linda (Linda Manz) as a hanger-on and narrator. They escape Chicago around the time of World War I after Bill accidentally kills a foreman in a factory. Ending up in the Texas panhandle, they take jobs as seasonal farmhands.

The young owner of the farm, known only as “The Farmer” (Sam Shepard), is rumored to be sick and on the brink of death and since he clearly has taken a liking to Abby, Bill cooks up the plan that Abby will marry him and when he soon will die, she will inherit the farm and all its wealth.

Only, the rumor was greatly exaggerated, and The Farmer is feeling fine. He is just a bit weirded out that his new wife is a little too familiar with her “brother”. The period of bliss is broken when the farm is hit by locusts and shit hits the fan in every way possible.

This is again the story of young people of dubious morals who seeks freedom and wealth, but are finally caught by a civilization who does not accept that they can do whatever they want. Mainly because their means are highly illegal.

I know there is a certain appeal to those stories, but they rarely sit well with me, usually because the characters come off as stupid and selfish. “Days of Heaven” is no different. It also adds a another very common theme that always sat poorly with me, that of the triangle drama. I cannot explain it, but I have always found triangles to be worse than gore and violence, making it particularly hard for me to watch. Childish perhaps, but there I am.

“Days of Heaven” is, according to both the Book and Wikipedia, one of the most critically acclaimed movies in cinema history, and it seems this acclaim is mainly directed towards the photography. This is also by far the most attractive element of this movie. Especially the landscape shots are a wonder and in its meditative slowness, the camera will often dwell on a particularly spectacular view, whether it is the colors or the distant horizon that is in focus. I find it hard though to extend this acclaim to the rest of the movie. The same meditative slowness made it incredibly difficult for me to stay focused on the story and it never managed to suck me in. Frankly, it is a boring movie, with the drama coming from elements I care nothing about.

This is also the first movie on the List with Richard Gere. I have a longstanding and probably irrational antipathy against Richard Gere, so that does not exactly help.

This would likely be a very polarizing movie and I may be terribly biased, but from my particular standpoint, this is not a recommendation.

Thursday 17 November 2022

Convoy (1978)


Off-List: Convoy

One of my favorite movies in my childhood was “Convoy”, so when it was time to pick off-List movies for 1978 I was not in doubt, “Convoy” had to be one of them. Rewatching it so many years later does make me question why I liked it so much back then.

Trucker Martin Penwald (Kris Kristofferson) with the CB handle “Rubberduck” has a chance encounter with photographer Melissa (Ali MacGraw) in the desert. He then joins with fellow truckers “Love Machine” and “Spider Mike”. They are tricked into speeding by Sheriff Lyle Wallace who then extort money from them. At the next truck stop they all meet up and a fight erupt that knocks out Sheriff Wallace. That makes the truckers fugitives, and they make a dash for the state border.

Eventually many truckers sympathize with the fugitives and join them, forming a massive convoy. People are baffled, what is all this about? This includes the local politicians who want to make some political coin out of this strange movement. Meanwhile, Spider Mike has to leave the convoy to get home to his pregnant wife. He is ambushed by Lyle and local law enforcement, beaten up and held as bait. The bait works, Rubberduck rides out to save his friend and is joined be a bunch of other truckers. Together they trash the town, free Spider Mike and head off to Mexico. Will they make it?

There is no doubt the script here is a mess. There is no purpose for half the characters, including Ali MacGraw’s. What exactly is it the truckers are so upset about? Why is Rubberduck hell-bent on being a hero?

Sam Peckinpah was hired as director and beside being in general a total disaster, he also tried to turn a script that was really just a song, into a Peckinpah movie. Something about a crusade for freedom, standing up against corrupt authorities and a heroic, but doomed showdown. The trucks lining up for a cavalry charge is very much a Peckinpah move. The studio however kicked out Peckinpah and remolded the movie into something akin to “Smokey and the Bandit”. The result is this weird comedy /doomed crusade thing with agendas in all directions.

But then again, it is also just a simple story about cowboys (truckers) who do not give a damn about authority and give it to the Man. It is just more impressive when this is done in big trucks. And all that trucker jargon sets them apart and make then real cool. At least to small boys.

Watching “Convoy” today I can see why the cartoonish car (truck!) chase through the desert made a big impression on me back then, but politically this is a very problematic story. Its counterculture angle is very close to Trumpism, and independence becomes vigilantism, which in turn is legitimized by degrading the legal authority to a corrupt and illegitimate entity (again, very Peckinpah). I just do not think I can board that train.

“Convoy” was a monster hit all over the world so somewhere between Peckinpah and the comedic mainstream reworking it got something right. I certainly thought so 35 years ago. Maybe it was just the trucks.

Saturday 12 November 2022

Grease (1978)



Welcome to planet Bubblegum.

Although widely loved, “Grease” is not my jam. In fact, it is about as horrible as it gets.

Sometime back in the fifties, we follow Sandy (Olivia Newton-John) and Danny (John Travolta) through their senior year in high school. Sandy is Australian and newcomer to the school while Danny is the cool leader of the T-Birds group, complete with black leather jackets and greasy hair. During summer break they had a fling, but as school starts Danny resumes his role as too cool for school.

Sandy as a “good girl” finds it difficult to blend in with the cool people although she does get associated with “The Pink Ladies”. Danny has to make a choice to remain aloof and cool or getting along with Sandy, but in the end, Sandy solves his problem by turning badass so they can fly off together on a pink cloud (literally).

“Grease” is very much a 1950’ies musical in the MGM tradition. It is even set in that era. Both plot and setting are a pastiche with all the clichés, making it an exaggerated and unreal world, but likely one many people would wish they lived in. We have the classic breaking out in song scenes, the dancing-out-of-nowhere tropes and a reduction of plot to a bare minimum, exactly as if this had been “Oklahoma” or “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers”. This means of course that it is a movie that has to be judged on those terms, but it also means that for me it is behind on points right from the outset.

It does not help that I am obviously outside the target group. The boys in the movie may not be dancing cowboys, but you only really have to replace the Stetsons with black leather jackets. With the risk of sounding misogynic they come across as young girls dream of what cool guys would look and sound like and then amped up a notch or three. From my point of view, they look like morons and losers and Danny as the worst of them as he really should know better. In “Saturday Night Fever” he was also a smart ass but somehow more likeable, probably he was equipped with more dimensions and represented a type and an attitude of the time. In “Grease” he is just a jerk. But hey, I am not a 14-year-old girl.

I believe the audience is supposed to identify with good girl Sandy who dreams of love and must pass a rite into adulthood to fulfill her dreams. Smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol and dress and act like a woman (?). Her story is in any case more interesting than that of Danny’s, but sadly underplayed (It is a musical after all).

The comparison with “Saturday Night Fever” is apt, not just because of John Travolta, but because both movies aimed at and succeeded in getting through to youth culture at the time with the major difference that “Saturday Night Fever” is a music movie, while “Grease” is a musical, which makes the movie watching experience massively different. “Grease” replaces coolness with cliché and relevance with pastiche. The music of “Grease” went on to be massively popular on a global scale, even long into the nineties you would frequently hear the songs at parties, but today I would say that the soundtrack of “Saturday Night Fever” has a lot better lasting power. That is cool today, “Grease” is not. Or maybe it is still me being outside the target group.

Of course, I watched “Grease” in my youth, who did not? But the only fond memory I had of it was watching Olivia Newton-John in her badass outfit. That worked on early-teen me (hey, I am a guy). Taking on “Grease” so many years later only confirmed my impressions from back then. I struggle with the nauseating sweetness, looking for something to like and finding that even badass Sandy has lost much of her lure.



Friday 4 November 2022

The Deer Hunter (1978)


Deer Hunter

Before I started this project, the quintessential seventies movie would have been “The Deer Hunter”. It encapsulated everything I thought I knew about movies in the seventies and those were mostly negatives. At this point, having reviewed some 80% of seventies movies on the List, my view on movies from the seventies is a lot more nuanced and yet “The Deer Hunter”, so many years later, still confirms all my preconceptions about it and feels incredibly seventies.

We find ourselves in a steel mill community in western Pennsylvania (though with a hunting ground in the Cascades…) in the later part of the sixties. A wedding is in preparation and over the course of this wedding we are introduced to a group of men, most of which work at the mill and all of them belong to a Slavic community. This latter detail has no particular impact on the story as such, but adds color and demonstrates that this is a very tight community.

Some of the men, Mike (Robert De Niro), Nick (Christopher Walken) and Steven (John Savage), the groom, are about to be shipped out to Vietnam, while the others, including Stan (John Cazale), John (George Dzundza) and Axel (Chuck Aspegren) stay home. As does Linda (Meryl Streep), girlfriend of both Mike and Nick.

In Vietnam all three are captured by the Vietcong and as prisoners forced to play Russian Roulette. Mike manages to set them free but then they get separated. All three men are broken in their way and that is explored in the last third of the movie.

This is dark, grim and depressive all-round and told at a glacial speed. The portrait of the town makes it dirty, grey and not outright poor, but not prospering either. These are salt of the Earth people and don’t you forget it. It is filmed in that somewhat chaotic and naturalistic seventies fashion where people speak on top of each other without really saying anything and the filmed characters seem to have forgotten about the camera.

The wedding itself is a folkloristic highlight but lasts the better part of an hour in which only three things are really accomplished: Characters are introduced, Nick makes Mike promise him that he will get him home from Vietnam and Nick proposes to Linda.

Vietnam is portrayed as hell on Earth, whether it is the captivity scenes or the fall of Saigon scenes. Terrible stuff. But most heartbreaking is the aftermath, how the veterans return home and are no longer able to fit into their community.

The message of “The Deer Hunter” is very clear: War is terrible, and it ruins people, one way or another. Mike, John and Steven are simply three examples of this. None of them can function afterwards, they are changed physically, mentally or both and not for the better.

There is no happy end to “The Deer Hunter”, no little corner where things are alright, no excuse available and the end scene say that this is the price for serving their country.

I cannot disagree with this movie in any way. I have no doubt that this is what war does to people and that a lot of high-level leaders at any time in history has a lot to answer for. But it does not make me love “The Deer Hunter”. It is three hours of depression in slow motion. It is a story that could easily be told in two hours and it hammers home its points with no mercy. That may make it an important movie, but not anything to enjoy watching.

I suppose this is a movie you have to watch eventually, but not one I can honestly recommend and my guess is that it will be another 20 or 30 years till I try again.

Friday 28 October 2022

Animal House (1978)


Off-List: Delta-kliken

It is 1978 and I have as usual selected three off-List movies to watch and review. This was more difficult than usual with plenty of great movies to choose from, yet I was never in doubt that I had to watch and review “Animal House”.

“Animal House” is the mother of all college comedies. Every single college comedy made since refers back to this movie, some more directly than others, whether it be the Nerds movies, American Pie (though technically high school) or “Accepted”. “Animal House” founded an entire genre and still remains among the best.

At the Faber college we find two polar opposite fraternities, the elite Omega house and the cool Delta house. While the Omega’s are straightlaced, elitist and mean, the Delta’s are fun, open and rebellious towards authorities. It is 1962 and the Delta’s are doing their best to party and skip actual schoolwork. The Deltas include such notable characters as Bluto (John Belushi), Otter (Tim Matheson), Flounder (Stephen Furst), D-Day (Bruce McGill), Hoover (James Widdoes) and many more.

Dean Vernon Wormer (John Vernon) has long seen the Deltas as a disgrace to the college and is looking for a good excuse to close it and expel the Deltas. To that end, he is setting the Omegas up to find dirt on them. This of course starts, if not simply extends, an ongoing war between the fraternities. The pranks pulled are awesome and hilarious.

In the end however the Dean manages to get them expelled and rather than repairing the situation, the Deltas set out on full scale rebellion. Crazy, career-suicidal, and outrageous.

There is no question this is one of the funniest college movies ever made. It is not a joke per minute style, but the setup and the pranks that are hilarious. The horse prank is gorgeous and Belushi is fun just by appearing. But it is also a rebellion movie in the tradition of “Zero de Conduit” and “If…”, where the students are challenging the system in an all-out attack, from which there is no way back. That makes it a very seventies movie in a way few college movies have been since. The way the Deltas are solving their problems by simply not addressing them is very counterculture. It takes a little to get the head into that mindset.

Everybody involved in this movie, with the exception of Donald Sutherland and Verna Bloom, were in the beginning of their career and if “Animal House” did not make them, then it was at least a huge step forward. John Landis as director, Harold Ramis as scriptwriter and Ivan Reitman as producer all went on to become huge. If you do not recognize those names, I am wondering why you are reading this blog. Karen Allen as Katy, Kevin Bacon as Chip Diller and Bruce McGill started out here and got excellent careers as did much of the cast. Even Elmer Bernstein with a long career in scoring behind him founded a new way of scoring comedies and did little else for the next ten years.

In fact, as great as “Animal House” is on it own, its real value should be measured in its legacy. Who has not been to a toga party in college? Who does not recognize these types from their college days? In fact, what campus did not screen this movie over the next forty years (I know our dorm did… a few times…). “Animal House” has left its mark everywhere.

It was also one of the few movies John Belushi did in his far too short career.

Don’t throw away you student years, but if you have to, this is the way to do it.


Friday 21 October 2022

Five Deadly Venoms (Wu Du) (1978)


Wu Du

My completely prejudiced and stereotypical image of a Hong Kong kung-fu movie is that of poor production value, thin if any plot, totally exaggerated acrobatics and dubbing on the funny side of bad. I feel convinced there are a lot of those out there, but “Five Deadly Venoms” (“Wu Du”) is none of the above and it may make me revise my view on Hong Kong movies.

The old master of the Poison school (Dick Wei) is dying and sends his last and youngest pupil, Yang Tieh (Chiang Sheng), on a mission: He must find the school’s treasure and give it to charity before his five older schoolmates does. The treasure is hidden with an old man and the five older schoolmates are bound to be looking for it. The kicker is that none of them know each other, except that they exist. The Poison clan, I suppose, are assassins and therefore live and work in hiding. In order to identify them however, the old master gives each a brief introduction: Centipede (Lu Feng), the superfast one, Snake (Wei Pai), who uses one hand for fast, high precision attacks, Scorpion (Sun Chien), with deadly kicks and darts, Toad (Lo Mang), with super strength and invulnerable skin and Gecko (Kuo Chui), who can climb and stand on vertical surfaces. Each of them superior to Yang Tieh.

Now start a cat and mouse game where the various assassins ally with one of the other to find the treasure and rat each other out. The town police force is fighting an uphill battle to get to the bottom of this and it does not help that their leader is completely corrupt and in the pocket of Snake. For a while Yang Tieh keep in the background, but eventually he joins the fight, but with or against who?

This is of course a kung-fu movie and therefore revolves around a lot of awesome fighting. And it is really awesome. The crazy stunts are kept to a minimum (though definitely not absent!) and the fighting looks fairly real. The victims of these fighters look terribly hurt and this is not a movie for the squeamish. The thing with these super fighters is that in one-to-one combat they cannot be defeated, but in a two-to-one situation they are vulnerable (except against henchmen, whose only role is to be afraid and die). So, in every situation the objective, as in real war, is to have local superiority.

What made this movie interesting for me though, was not the fighting but the intricate plot of hidden identities. In this way it can be places somewhere between an Agathe Christie story and a game of chess. Who is who? Who is really aligned with who? And will something happen to tip the balance (yes, it always does). Even without elaborate fighting sequences this would have been an interesting movie.

I was also surprised by the production value of “Five Deadly Venoms”. The colors where knife sharp and the settings were elaborate and to my understanding historically correct, although it is never clear exactly when it is supposed to take place, sort of a pre-europenized China. The acting is, well, not as bad as it could be, but I am never a good judge on East-Asian acting. What I consider overacting could well be par for the course. But most of all I was never bothered by bad dubbing. Maybe because my copy was in Chinese and therefore fitted well to the imagery, but even the grunts and sighing was not as bad or extreme as I would have expected. This movie really had production value.

In the final verdict it comes down to if the movie managed to keep me entertained and interested throughout and it did and plenty. And that makes it a recommendation from me.

Sunday 16 October 2022

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)


Jimmie Blacksmith

The seventies seem to have been the heyday of Australian cinema. The list editors certainly were inclined to include a lot of movies from down under. I am not really surprised, they usually distinguish themselves with their high quality and production value. For anybody interested in Australian cinema in general I can recommend the ACMI in Melbourne, which I reviewed some years ago.

“The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith” is the latest Ausie movie on the List (for me) and my the first 1978 movie. It is a movie of exceptionally high production value that takes on one of the harder subjects around, racism.

We follow a young fellow called Jimmie Blacksmith (Tom E. Lewis). He is half Aboriginal, half white and has been taken in by a missionary family to “take the black out of him”. This is around the year 1900, Australia is all about the Federation plans, but the real issue here is racism. The Aboriginals are at this time herded together in shantytowns and ragged camps with rampant alcoholism and prostitution. Jimmie is torn between his Aborignal family and culture and the European culture he is being schooled in. When it is time to leave the missionary home, he aims to make a life for himself as an upright citizen.

This is a very difficult target. Jimmie finds it hard to find work, and the employers he eventually finds, abuse and cheat him on the simple basis that he is a “Black”. The racism is truly rampant, and it is everywhere the same.

Eventually it is too much for Jimmie. His current employers, the Newby’s, refuse to pay him what he is owed (a small fortune) on the basis of him hosting some of his (black) family and they want his (white) wife, Gilda (Angela Punch McGregor) to leave Jimmie to find employment elsewhere. Something clicks in the head of Jimmie and he attacks and kills the women of the Newby household and then goes on a rampage among those people who have abused him.

The movie is based on a novel, which in turn is based on a real character. How much of the original events eventually made it into the movie I have no way of telling, but it is obvious that this is a (traditional) story about an outlaw in the vein of Billy the Kid and Ned Kelly, with the angle of explaining the villainy with rampant racism. In this way racism is the source of the problem and the murders simply the inevitable result of it. This angle of making a notorious criminal a justified freedom fighter was typical of the seventies revisionist stream and may feel a bit ham-fisted today.

I read the main story here as about the rampant racism, the systemic, the mental and the direct racism aimed at Aboriginal people and culture, and this is the earliest movie I have watched that goes this far. We even have a schoolteacher who puts it into words, listing all the evils done to the Aboriginal people and culture by Europeans, including killing 270.000 of them. A staggering number!

I do applaud the topic and the wish to bring it to attention and I have no doubt that the scenes of racism seen here are true enough. My objection to the movie is a mere general one, something that has little to do with this topic. We get to see a lot of Jimmie Blacksmith and from what we learn he is smart, he has pride and he is resourceful and he is not that prone to rash and emotional actions. Then how is he suddenly turned into a blood thirsty maniac, killing women and children at large? I fully understand he is being provoked and I also understand that it is building up over a long time, but it is both very sudden and very extreme and does not fit his character at all. I would have expected something smarter, something more just and effective, not this.

The explanation is unfortunately right in front of us. There is a real story about a half-blood mass murderer and racism is then appropriated to explain the murderer. Sort of a backward argumentation, turning an outright criminal into a justified revenging angel.

Sadly, I am struggling buying this angle. It is too forced, and that is a shame because the topic is too important to be trivialized.

Despite being one of the biggest productions at the time, the movie did remarkably poorly in Australia. I guess the Aussies at the time were not ready for this view on their past yet.

I give it a mixed recommendation but thumbs up from here on highlighting the source problem.


On an entirely different note, I watched “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” last night on a plane and I strongly recommend it. That is by far funniest movie I have watched in many years. Maybe I should review it…

Tuesday 11 October 2022

Eraserhead (1977)



“Eraserhead” is the first David Lynch movie on the List, but certainly not the last. Lynch is a legend. Some love his movies, others hate them, but it is impossible to not have an opinion on them. Even when I am completely weirded out by his movies, there is something compelling about them that sucks me in.

“Eraserhead” is a good example of his most surreal movies. Even his most mainstream movies have surreal elements certainly, but few are as thoroughly surreal as “Eraserhead”. To describe it in an objective sense is almost pointless. There is a guy called Henry (Jack Nance) with very tall hair, who lives in a lousy apartment in a noisy, industrial neighborhood. Some of the scenes are dreams of his, others may not be dreams, but are certainly as weird as dreams, while others again seem to be Henry externalizing his impression of events around him, sort of his interpretation of what is going on. He is visiting his girlfriend at her parent’s house for a very strange dinner and learns that his girlfriend has given birth to a baby. Henry and his girlfriend, Mary (Charlotte Stewart), now live together in his apartment, taking care of the bay, only, the baby is a freakishly misshapen creature that is constantly crying. Eventually Mary gives up and leaves and Henry is left to care for the sick monster on his own.

Interspersed within this frame are the even weirder dream scenarios, which include a stage with a singing girl with puffy cheeks, a sexual encounter with the girl next door and Henry’s head falling off to be taken by a boy to a factory and made into pencils.

All this is presented in a gloomy black and white cinematography with dark industrial sounds and very little dialogue.

As soon as we are talking surrealist and certainly when it is Lynch, we know that everything we see is a metaphor for something else and that very little of it should be read for its face value. The task for the viewer is then to try to work out the metaphors. I cannot say I am good at that, but I have also resisted the temptation to read up on all the, most likely, very clever analyses out there. It feels good to build my own impression of what I saw.

To me, what we see is Henry’s emotional impression of his surroundings. His life is confined and claustrophobic, hence his small and shabby apartment. He is nervous around other people and projects his anxieties onto his family in law, the awkward interview externalized. The baby is an intruding little monster challenging him, hence it is depicted as a such. Maybe when he loses his head, he is eaten up by an uncaring world into something useless. Inside, he is himself a helpless freak of a child and the girl in the radiator is, well, salvation? An angel? Freeing him from being himself?

Maybe I am completely off, but the oppressive gloominess is undeniable. The nightmare that has closed Henry in, is shared with us and I feel as claustrophobic as he does, watching it.

Many of the images are Lynch classics. The girl on the stage element is also used in “Twin Peaks” and “Mulholland Drive” and to some extent in “Blue Velvet”. The man pulling the levers that control the world. The dark-haired seductress challenging the lead character.

“Eraserhead” feels like a mental state, an image on a feeling and as such there is meaning in everything and over time, I will likely uncover more details and get some understanding, yet the most important understanding is the unconscious one I experience simply by watching it.

“Eraserhead” is deeply unpleasant and wildly fascinating, difficult to love but impossible to let go of. And definitely not for a Sunday afternoon with the children.

Yes, I have grown to like David Lynch movies, even when I feel deeply disturbed by them.

Saturday 8 October 2022

Sleeping Dogs (1977)


Sleeping Dogs

“Sleeping Dogs” is a new addition to the List from the major overhaul of the 10th edition of the Book. Its claim to fame is that it launched the careers of director Roger Donaldson and actor Sam Neill and according to several sources (the Book, Wikipedia) placed New Zealand on “the map” and hailed as the best New Zealandic movie ever. Yeah, I will come back to that later.

In a near future Smith (Sam Neill, and yes, all men here go by surname while the women go by first names…) leaves home due to a family dispute. We later learn that his wife, Gloria (Nevan Rowe), has an affair with the unsympathetic Bullen (Ian Mune). Smith venture on a life as a hermit on a deserted island off the Coromandel peninsula. Meanwhile New Zealand is thrown into turmoil. I am not at all certain about the details, but it is something about increasing energy prices (strangely familiar…) causing unrest, government provoking violent incidents so they can turn fascist and assert their power with military force.

Smith is drawn into this fight when it turns out his island is a weapon cache, and the authorities believe he is affiliated with the rebels. In a fascist system there are no innocents, so Smith is left with no choice by to escape, which in turn makes him a celebrity on the rebel side. Smith does not accept that role, he wants nothing to do with any fight and just want to be left alone and for a while get work as a handyman at a motel. That is, until the American army (!?) shows up headed by Colonel Willoughby (Warren Oates) and Bullen (who is now a militant rebel) coerce Smith into helping him with an assault on the soldiers. The evil guy, Jesperson (Clyde Scott) carries an uncanny resemblance to Putin…

Where “Sleeping Dogs” is best, the ordinariness of the scenery and the characters help lending a naturalistic feel to the story. This is a story of regular people in a regular world. The amateurishness of some of the acting efforts lends credibility to this angle. The same dilettante element, however, sabotage the credibility of other scenes. A lot of the actions and many of the characters are simply unbelievable when they are not just being ordinary people. The only actors who really get away with their roles are Sam Neill himself and Warren Oates. This element is not limited to the acting efforts but also the script, the choices made by characters and even the plot.

I did wonder a lot about the plot and the aim of the movie. What is it really about? The threat of fascism? An antiwar statement? Anti-establishment? It seems to say that people in power, aka. the government, will want more power and use any excuse to get that, because control and power is… well what governments want. That, maybe, what “the righteous” should do is simply stand back and refuse to take part in the power struggle. It feels as if the authors have taken a banana republic model and applied that on a modern western country as if New Zealand in southern Vietnam. Interesting, maybe even an amusing, idea, but it just does not work out. The turmoil element and civil war aspect just does not go well with New Zealand. It is not a Trumpish mid-western state after all and it is not El Salvador or, yeah, South Vietnam.

Somewhere between the low production value, weak plot and confusing message of the movie I found it increasingly difficult to buy into and really, the only reason to include it on the List is the launching of careers. As to calling it the best NZ movie ever is an insult to much better NZ movies in the nineties.

So, not much of a recommendation from me.       

Sunday 2 October 2022

Suspiria (1977)



The (in)famous Dario Argento, master of the giallo genre is back, as gory and flamboyant as ever.

“Suspiria” takes place on a private ballet school in the Black Forest of Germany. It is a gothic looking place in a gothic looking town, but an otherwise harmless looking place. As Susan Bannion (Jessica Harper), an American student of ballet, arrives at night, in torrential rain, a girl is running away from the school, mumbling incoherently. Susan is refused entry to the school. Shortly after we see the escaped girl getting horribly killed by a demonic looking creature in one of the goriest openings to a movie I ever saw.

That sets the stage pretty well.

When Susan arrives at the school the next morning, everything looks neat and quiet and completely harmless. The teachers are a bit old school, but that is to be expected. Susan is befriended by one of the girls, Sarah (Stefania Casini) who is convinced something sinister is going on at the school. True enough, strange events start happening: Maggots raining down from the roof, the blind pianist getting killed and eaten by his dog and Susan getting so sleepy in the evenings…

When Sarah also goes missing, Susan is truly alarmed and discovers that the ballet school has a past involving witchcraft. From there it gets pretty wild.

The most powerful element of “Suspiria” is not even the wildly gory parts, but the very strong, saturated colors and backlighting though blankets and windows. The otherworldly and psychedelic effect of this sets a stage for an environment where literally anything is possible. The soundscape goes along well enough, but probably better in the day. The visuals however were clearly adopted by David Lynch and for long parts I felt I was watching Blue Velvet or Twin Peaks. To begin with it feels exaggerated, as if to create a cartoonish or expressionist environment, like “Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari”, but the further we get into the movie, the more I bought into this scenery.

Unfortunately, “Suspiria” was never able to entirely shed the cartoonish, or amateurish, feel, at least to me. Part of that was the over-the-top goriness, but more than anything the ridiculous dubbing. The tenor of the voices was so disconnected from the actual scenes that I had the impression of voice actors sitting in a cozy room reading up from a script while drinking coffee. It had the not-intended effect of making me giggle over the misfortunes of the characters rather than being horrified.

It is not as if the movie does not try, though. So many scenes are set up to be almost intolerable to watch so you want to cry “STOP!”, and with proper dubbing it may have worked. Instead, it often became comical, and it made me wonder if I should have watched it in Italian language instead.

I am not a fan of gory movies and I do not feel thrilled about people getting chopped to pieces, but I will grant that “Suspiria” is very inventive at building up a mysterious parallel universe and I will give it points for that. And some extra points for the laughs the ridiculousness of it generated.


Tuesday 27 September 2022

Soldier of Orange (Soldaat van Oranje) (1977)


Hemmelig mission

Paul Verhoeven and Rutger Hauer is back and this time in a very different movie from “Turkish Fruit”. “Soldier of Orange” (“Soldaat van Oranje”) is a war epic, the kind of movie that celebrates heroic and patriotic feats, where men are real mean and women pretty and… not so much more. Really far away from “Turkish Fruit”. Yet, it would not be a Verhoeven movie if it did not have a subversive element or two.

In 1938 a group of young men are starting university in Leiden. They become friends and we see them together in a number of settings, including a photo session. Each of these young men will have a different fate during the war. Erik (Rutger Hauer) is the one we follow the most. He is not, like Robby (Eddy Habbema), drifting towards the resistance, nor is he like Alex (Derek de Lint) joining the Germans. Circumstances, such as when Jan (Huib Rooymans) gets in trouble for being a Jew, forces him to commit and soon he is wanted by the Gestapo. Erik and Guus (Jeroen Krabbé) are spirited away to England, where they meet the Dutch Queen and are soon engaged on a secret mission to smuggle out some high-profile leaders for Queen Wilhelmina’s exile government. A mission that does not exactly go according to plan.

Erik Lanshof was a real character, and the movie is based on his own story. Tying a story to real events has the distinct advantage, especially when filmmakers are true to the story, that the plot does not follow a standard storyline. There are twists and turns here that a classic Hollywood screenwriter would not have liked, and few of the characters are as black and white as the almost cartoonish format will have us think. This is also the Verhoeven trick, to lead us into a cliché world of exaggerated color and characters that are easy to classify (think “Starship Troopers” and “Robocop”) and then undermine it by throwing in some gray or just some ugly reality.

The young men think they are invincible. A little war will just be fun. Teasing the Germans is just next level of pranking and suddenly it is deadly serious and death is really ugly. Guus, the overconfident womanizer, gets a very bad wake up call and his demise is like the ugliest of all. What is a hero really out there in the real world? How many terrible mistakes by the heroes do we not hear about?

Speaking of Guus, I had this strong feeling that I knew his face from the moment we see Jeroen Krabbé in the first scenes, and then it struck me, its Dr. Nichols from “The Fugitive”! It is such a distinct face.

“Soldier of Orange” is a big production, the biggest in The Netherlands at the time, and it shows. There are no half measures on the production value and it feels impressive as a grand film and maybe that is its problem. At least until halfway in. It feels like flag-waving, as The Netherlands wants to celebrate its heroes. Maybe they needed that as a counterpoint to the Anna Frank story which is the one most people know. But when I caught the Verhoeven undercurrent, when imperfections and gray zones sneak in, when humans become small, then I started to appreciate the movie. It is random circumstance that set people up as friend or foe, as hero or coward. Even the worst traitor is fighting for something. Even the biggest hero fails. That is total Verhoeven and that is, I believe, why this movie is on the List.

 I certainly liked it better than “Turkish Fruit”.


Monday 19 September 2022

The American Friend (Der Amerikanische Freund) (1977)


Den amerikanske ven

The seventies was a fertile period for many young directors and I am enjoying watching the early movies of directors who would grow into famous and influential filmmakers. Wim Wenders is another one of those and though “The American Friend” was by no means his first movie, it was his international breakthrough.

“The American Friend” is a neo-noir, which is already a plus for me. We never learn exactly what is going on, just bits and pieces. Lighting is faded, it is always either sunrise or sunset as if the characters are living in that half-light. Everyone is doomed in some way or another but retain some level of coolness. In the case of “The American Friend” there is the additional element of naturalism that just makes it scarier. This is not a cartoonish world but a very familiar one.

We follow the story through two viewpoints rather than one. Tom Ripley, American, (Dennis Hopper) deals in art forgery from a base in Hamburg and Jonathan Zimmerman, German, (Bruno Ganz) is an art expert who due to a blood disease now just do picture framing. They get in contact at an art auction where Jonathan recognizes Tom as a fraud and refuses to shake his hand. In return, when Tom is contacted by a gangster, Minot (Gerard Blain) looking for a hitman, he recommends Jonathan and exaggerates his poor health.

Minot contacts Jonathan and suggests that he take the contract to secure funds for his wife and son. Jonathan first refuses, but Minot tempts him with an expensive second opinion on his condition in Paris. One Minot of course falsifies. So, Jonathan becomes a hitman and through a very intense pursuit actually succeeds. Minot wants to follow up with a second hit, but Tom has come to like Jonathan and intervenes and eventually they have to fight together against a bunch of gangsters.

I never understood what the gangster war is about. Who are the people they are killing? And why? And why are they suddenly after Tom and Jonathan? But neither do Jonathan. Or Tom for that matter, though at least he understands how dangerous they are. And it is that uncertainty, that unseen, unexplained presence that makes them terrifying. Jonathan is in far deeper than he can even understand and suddenly finds himself living a double life apart from his wife and child. Who are both as adorable and innocent as it is possible to be.

This half-life, half-light and inability to control your own life is at the heart of this movie and it works surprisingly well. It is not quite a suspense movie, and it is not quite a European art movie but it is somewhere in between and succeeds at that.

I love the language element. Characters are using “natural” language, which means an odd mix of German, English and even a bit of French. Accents are sometimes heavy, but natural, and it helps me believe in the story. The Book mentions an American-European conflict, but I do not see that at all. There are no misunderstandings here, just the haziness of reality using people from different places to give it an international and even more mysterious flair.

Noir, or neo-noir for that matter, never have happy endings and it is no spoiler to say that this movie is true to form, but there is a sense of closure that provides some satisfaction and that is another plus in my book. It is an ending I will probably contemplate for a while.

In fact, the more I think about it, the more plusses this movie accumulates, so I guess this ends up with a recommendation from me. And hopefully a lot more from Wim Wenders on the List.


Saturday 10 September 2022

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)



I am wondering why I never watched “The Hills Have Eyes” before. This falls well within the sort of movies we liked to watch on campus back in the nineties and a lot of the storyline was familiar to me, but alas, this was a first viewing for me.

“The Hills Have Eyes” is an early movie by horror/slasher legend Wes Craven. This is from the part of his career where his movies were more driven by enthusiasm than budget, but that is often how the best movies, or at least most watchable movies, are made.

A middle-class family enroute to California is making a detour through the desert to look up some obscure silver mine. When they make a brief stop at a derelict tank station they are warned to stay on the main route and make no stop in the desert, but this sort of people never listens to good advice. Soon they find themselves lost on a dirt road with a broken car. To be stuck in the desert, underequipped and with a broken car is bad in itself, but this particular desert is home to a family of feral cannibals… How will that work out for the stranded Carters?

“The Hills Have Eyes” is a movie in the same vein as “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in that a group of unsuspecting outsiders venture off the main roads and civilization to enter a depraved and barbaric world. A theme that has been used far outside the horror genre, but has been particularly embraced by that one. We know something is wrong out there, but the characters do not, and they usually find out too late that this is a very dangerous place.

Another trope is that the outsiders are particularly obnoxious, with problems or complaints that are utterly insignificant to the much more serious situation they are about to find themselves in. You feel like shouting to them to pay attention and NOT do stupid, silly things, but that is the point, no? Bobby (Robert Houston) is the first to realize something menacing is out there when he finds one of his dogs gutted, but nobody is listening to his worries. When Lynne and Doug (Dee Wallace and Martin Speed) insist on sleeping in the car rather than a trailer to have a cozy time, Bobby and we know this is a very bad idea, but there is no getting through to them. The father (and grandfather to the baby) Bob (Russ Grieve) learns the truth when he hikes back to the gas station for help but too late. His death is a gruesome one.

The feral family is a counterpoint to the victim family. In many ways a parallel, even. Except they are the hunters and have shed civilization. Jupiter (James Whitworth) as the family head is particularly gruesome with his broken face, but it is Michael Berryman as Pluto with his particular physical appearance and sinister acting that steals the picture. I learned later that he is a really nice guy and very intelligent, but his acting skills are excellent, and he is very convincing as a monster. Berryman had and still has an amazing career.

Had a movie like this been made today (and they are!) I feel certain that everybody would die a gruesome death, maybe leaving a testimony as found footage or something, but the direction of “The Hills Have Eyes” is a little different. The point here is that only by becoming murderous and feral themselves, like emulating the desert family, will the Carter family or what is left of it, make it through. The victims have to become the hunters themselves and shed their civilization. That is not so unusual a plotline either. It is probably more in line with the age in which it was made. The “Aliens” movies went is the same direction.

“The Hills Have Eyes” was made on a low budget and sometimes it shows, but it is actually not a bad thing. Intentionally or unintentionally, it allows for a dark humor to sneak in and gives it a cartoonish element that makes this more enjoyable to watch than the gruesome story would allow. This has probably contributed to its popularity and its cult standing. Personally, I am too easily startled for horror movies and does not really have the stomach for slasher movies, but these qualities make “The Hills Have Eyes” endurable for me and even entertaining. Dare I say enjoyable?

“The Hills Have Eyes” is one of the important and defining movies of its genre and it is a recommendation from me.