The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971, Robert Fuest)

“What goes up must come down.”
“Brilliant!”

No dialogue for the first ten minutes, stylish use of camera, Vincent Price, and a mechanical band called Dr. Phibes Clockwork Wizards – this is already a favorite movie. Huge step up from the Freddie Francis anthology horrors I’ve watched in Shocktobers past. But British horror just can’t help itself from being campy.

Vulnavia and dog:

Hopefully this was an influence on Se7en, as Phibes (Price, a few years after Witchfinder General and The Oblong Box) takes revenge on the doctors present during the hospital death of his beloved wife via the ten curses of the pharaohs, killing doctors with bats, frogs, rats, locusts, etc. It also may be an influence on the Saw movies, as Chief Surgeon Joseph Cotton has to cut a key from inside his son’s chest before he’s killed by a slow acid drip.

Inspector Trout (Lindsay Anderson regular Peter Jeffrey) figures out the curses thing but doesn’t do much else besides attract unfunny fish-name jokes. Dr. Cotton actually knocks him out to go face Phibes alone. Phibes has an unexplained female assistant named Vulnavia (Virginia North of a James Bond movie and a James Bond knockoff movie). A guy who describes himself as a head-shrinker gets his head crushed by a Halloween III frog mask. Terry-Thomas has a cute role as a doctor who secretly watches snake-charmer films when the housekeeper is away; he bleeds to death but still returned for the sequel.

T-T:

Quality cinematography by Norman Warwick (Tales from the Crypt). Who is Fuest? He went straight from making acclaimed horror films to ABC after-school specials. Gotta check out his Phibes sequel and The Final Programme.

Amazing locust death (LOL at the full-body smiling-woman sketch):

Pygmalion (1938, Anthony Asquith & Leslie Howard)

Dialogue exactly the same as in My Fair Lady, for the most part. Higgins here seems slightly less slimy, the ending slightly less foul than in the musical, but maybe that’s expectations talking. I suppose I enjoyed the musical more for the color cinematography and the songs; this version’s improved Higgins and more convincing/less glamorous Eliza wasn’t enough to tip the scales. Both versions could stand to lose Eliza’s drunk father.

Higgins here is Leslie Howard (49th Parallel), his pointless linguist friend Col. Pickering is stage actor Scott Sunderland and Eliza is Wendy Hiller (star of I Know Where I’m Going! and Major Barbara). G. Bernard Shaw adapted his own play for the movie, chose Wendy Hiller, and wanted Charles Laughton as Higgins. The two movie versions have the same cinematographer! Harry Stradling also shot Guys and Dolls, Johnny Guitar, The Pirate, Thrill of a Romance and a handful of Hitchcocks.

D. Ehrenstein:

Shaw, who saw film as the ideal medium for the piece, claims he never intended a romantic hookup for Higgins and Eliza. He even wrote a prose addendum to the script in which Eliza married and set up a flower shop, her antagonism toward Higgins continuing unabated. But he never wrote this epilogue as dialogue, and productions of Pygmalion, this film included, have always seen fit to end things on an upbeat note with a tantalizing hint of a budding love affair between master and pupil.

The Mask of Satan/Black Sunday (1960, Mario Bava)

I know there’s a rule that Italian horrors need a minimum of three titles, but I don’t see why this is mainly known as Black Sunday when The Mask of Satan is its original title and far more descriptive. I believe this is my first Mario Bava movie unless we’re counting Danger: Diabolik on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Fun camerawork, great lighting and atmosphere, and mixed effects (swell zombie makeup vs. rubber bat on a string). Opening titles are unintentially funny (The Mask of Satan, produced by Jolly Films).

Wide-eyed Barbara Steele (of 8 1/2) is the resurrection of a murdered witch from the 1600’s, killed by nailing a devil mask onto her face. In present day, a stumblebum professor (Andrea Checchi, hotel detective of The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse) pauses between clumsily destroying ancient relics to purposely remove the mask, and then I get confused because the witch is reborn but also has a doppelganger descendant living in the castle next door. The professor gets himself possessed, so his student (John Richardon of Torso and One Million Years B.C.) becomes our hero. He wrestles the devil in a hallway and wins! I’m used to rooting for resurrected ghosts to take revenge on the families of their murderers, but this movie makes it hard, the zombies all rotting and horrid with no vampiric panache. It also takes its Christ vs. Devils thing very seriously, and the townspeople with pitchforks and torches are the good guys.

Anyway, if I ever move into a castle, first thing I’ll do is measure all the walls House of Leaves-style to check for hidden passageways.

Scanners (1981, David Cronenberg)

“I’m one of you.”
“You’re one of me.”

Entrancing movie, full of oddball performances. Mostly bought the blu-ray because the cover art is so outstanding, but this was a pleasure to watch again. Completely holds up, even the scene where Cameron scans a computer (because, it’s explained, computers have nervous systems) through its modem over a payphone, since the movie itself seems to fully believe all the crazy stuff it’s telling us. But how come powerful psychics never notice gun-toting killers sneaking up behind them?

Good Scanners:

Patrick “The Prisoner” McGoohan runs a security company’s scanner program, recruits Cameron (Stephen Lack, later in Dead Ringers) off the streets, but the security company’s head security dude Keller (Lawrence Dane of Darkman 2) is secretly in cahoots with evil scanner Revok (the great Michael Ironside, later of Starship Troopers and Total Recall). Cameron tries to recruit reclusive artist Pierce (Cronenberg regular Robert Silverman, looking like Chris Guest in Waiting for Guffman) then teams up with Kim (Jennifer O’Neill of Fulci’s The Psychic) and her crew, scanner war ensues. Cameron and Revok are evenly matched, since it turns out they’re uber-scanner siblings, sons of McGoohan, so the final scan-off gets pretty extreme.

Bad Scanner:

Cronenberg’s follow-up to The Brood, which I should also rewatch. Warped, piercing keyboard soundtrack by Howard Shore. The scanner-controlling drug is named Ephemerol, which is a bit of genius I’m surprised hasn’t been used elsewhere (discounting Scanners sequels).

K. Newman:

There had been all sorts of rumors — and trashy paperbacks — about Soviet ESP experiments and their application to spying and warfare, which eventually inspired a U.S. program that would have some of its peculiar history told in Jon Ronson’s nonfiction study The Men Who Stare at Goats (2004), made into a film in 2009. In Scanners, Cronenberg evokes this shadowy area of paranormal research, as well as contemporary scandals involving botched drug testing, the less-than-ethical behavior of some sectors of the pharmaceutical industry, and the rise of private security and espionage outfits… The finale… can be seen as an optimistic mirror of the pessimistic finish of Dead Ringers, allowing for the mutual survival of the doppelgänger brothers in one melded form rather than ending in their shared death… It’s unusual in the run of films dealing with psychic psychopaths in exploring telepathy as well as telekinesis, and also touches—in its “human modem” sequence—on the fusion of man and machine that becomes central to Videodrome and The Fly.

Inventory: Rosenbaum’s best of the 90’s

I’ve already mentioned my love for film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum’s writing and his lists of favorite films, which I first discovered via his top-ten of the 1990’s (in an article that also reviews Cradle Will Rock, which I was crazy about at the time). But I never watched all ten movies on that original list until this year, having caught up with D’est earlier and rewatched Dead Man just now.

The top ten, with excerpts from Rosenbaum’s comments and links to my entries:

Actress/Center Stage
… the lack of a precise fit between these two actresses and eras is part of Kwan’s point, and the acute and moving historical pathos of Actress would be diminished by a better fit. (And anyway, what’s the point of wanting a precise duplication when we have the original Ruan Ling-yu?)

A Brighter Summer Day
All three of the Chinese-language works on my list are period films, set in the 20th century and made in places that until very recently have all but refused to recognize their own history … In the case of Taiwan, one can date the discovery of history – and hence an inquiry into national identity – to the recent birth of democracy in that country after half a century as a Japanese colony and then under the control of mainland China (1945-’49) and the Kuomintang (1949-’87). Prior to 1987, history was effectively a forbidden subject. For Edward Yang, the inquiry is autobiographical, harking back to his high school days in the early 60s.

Dead Man
Jarmusch’s crucial gesture–a simple yet highly significant step in the history of multicultural cinema–was to assume the existence of Native American moviegoers (a move signaled in part by his insertion of jokes addressed specifically to Native Americans), something no maker of westerns to my knowledge had ever done before; the implications of such a move are so far-reaching that many white spectators haven’t begun to sort them out.

Eyes Wide Shut
Kubrick’s adaptation of a masterful 1927 novella by Arthur Schnitzler. (Kubrick transplanted the action to 90s New York, but his movie has a great deal to say about every decade in this century except the 90s).

D’est
A virtually wordless film in which stasis and movement feel almost interchangeable–exemplified by a handheld camera endlessly scanning sprawled, sleeping bodies in a crowded depot–allows emotion to collect and build into a throbbing Jewish sorrow that mysteriously surrounds everyday images, such as cars driving through the snow or people waiting at night at a bus stop.

Inquietude
…combines the works of three authors, a one-act play and two stories, into an existential parable with every part welded into a single perfect shape … These three kinds of doom are seen meditatively through the telescopic lense of an angry yet reconciled wit, and the interlocking stories are inflected with a kind of magic that recalls The Arabian Nights.

The Puppet Master
…forming the middle part of a trilogy that begins with City of Sadness and ends with Good Men, Good Women. … The Puppet Master is only one of four masterpieces made by Hou in the 90s.

Satantango
If it weren’t for the Kiarostami film, I’d be tempted to call it the funniest movie of the 90s as well. Part of its power undoubtedly derives from the long novel by Laszlo Krasznahorkai that the author and Tarr adapted, but Tarr’s virtuoso, choreographed long takes are much more than translated prose.

When It Rains
Burnett’s astonishingly beautiful film compresses an extraordinary amount of what he knows about his hometown and the homeless into its 12 minutes, making it as succinct as a 12-bar blues chorus–and an implicit critique of the flab of most features.

The Wind Will Carry Us
Simultaneously a history of antiquity, the 20th century, and that endless stretch of time known as the present, it shows the interrelatedness of all three periods at practically every moment … As is always the case with Kiarostami, the innovative use of sounds and images makes them merely tools for articulating new kinds of content: we don’t see the offscreen characters because we don’t need to–Kiarostami’s movies are nothing if not focused. And the documentary techniques used to produce fictional details are as purposeful and suggestive as ever.

I would say I unconditionally love six of the ten (and need to see A Brighter Summer Day again; I watched the full-length version, but in VHS quality).

In Film Comment, his list is titled “Ten Best/Most Underrated”, omits Eyes Wide Shut and includes Histoire(s) du Cinema.

The “most underrated” tag makes sense. I couldn’t make a straight top-ten of an entire decade. I love some of the same big action flicks I loved then (Batman Returns, Terminator 2), plus the usual movies that my generation loves (Pulp Fiction, The Shawshank Redemption, Fight Club, The Usual Suspects), the oscar nominees (The Thin Red Line, The Age of Innocence, Boogie Nights, The Fisher King), the great American/Canadian independents (Rushmore, Crash, Barton Fink, Archangel), the decade-defining foreign films (Kieslowski’s Three Colors, All About My Mother, Farewell My Concubine, Princess Mononoke) and comedies from Groundhog Day to Cabin Boy.

Still unwatched from the 1990’s: multiple films each by Allen, Brakhage, Campion, Denis, Egoyan, Ferrara, Greenaway, Herzog, Iosseliani, Jarman, Kaurismaki, Leigh, Makhmalbaf, Nair, Ouedraogo, Philibert, Ruiz, Sokurov, Téchiné, Van Sant, Wiseman, Yang and Zhang.

So not counting any of the above, here’s an alternate/underrated top ten, in order of title length:

To Live
Matinee
Le Franc
American Movie
The Life of Birds
La Belle noiseuse
Storefront Hitchcock
City of Lost Children
Little Dieter Needs to Fly
Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America

Dead Man (1995, Jim Jarmusch)

Kind of a dark movie, as Depp moves west towards nothing good, becoming a killer of white men before/after being killed by one. But it’s also possibly Jarmusch’s funniest and most beautiful movie, with great music.

Nobody: Gary Farmer (how did I miss him in Adaptation?)

Thel: Mili Avital, whose film career didn’t take off after Stargate

This was possibly Robert Mitchum’s final film:

Two Marshalls named Lee and Marvin:

The Kid: Eugene Byrd, a regular on Bones
Conway: Michael Wincott of Alien Resurrection and Basquiat

Benmont Tench (at right): Andy Warhol in I Shot Andy Warhol

Crispin Glover played Andy Warhol in The Doors. This movie has two Andy Warhols!

Whahappan:

This Time For Keeps (1947, Richard Thorpe)

Esther Williams musical, feat. Apple Blossom Time, the Chiquita Banana song, Easy To Love (three times! And Esther’s in a whole separate movie called Easy To Love) and of course Inka Dinka Doo, since Jimmy Durante plays star swimmer Esther’s agent/”family friend”/wannabe-love-interest. Another wannabe: her greying boss Gordon (Dick Simmons), whom she almost marries at the end when actual love interest Dick (singer Johnny Johnston) is found to be engaged after Dick’s meddling opera-star dad Lauritz Melchior (the movie’s bad, but you can’t hold that against Lauritz) announces Dick’s engagement to another girl (soap star Mary Stuart, only in one scene). Despite this setback, Dick wins over Esther’s gramma (May Whitty, society rose gardener in Mrs. Miniver) and though I have no particular love for Dick, I’m glad Esther ends up with the only person in the movie within 25 years of her own age (besides bandleader Xavier Cugat – wouldn’t it have been great if she ended up with him instead?).

The Dirties (2013, Matt Johnson)

The Blair Witch School Shooting Elephant Project. Two nerdy kids enjoy making videos for school, videos involving too much sweary violence and too many blatant rip-offs of their favorite movie scenes. Their teacher tries to get them to tone it down, but they keep ramping up, filming a story of two kids (themselves) taking revenge on the Dirties (school bullies). Inevitably, one of the two takes this to the next level, sets up cameras in the school hallways and shoots some guys, while his companion tries to escape the scene.

Owen is the more normal one, crushing on a girl named Chrissy instead of devoting all his time to firing practice and bully identification like his friend Matt (played by director Johnson). There’s a third (never seen?) boy named Jared who’s filming a documentary of Matt & Owen – his presence is sometimes noted but usually not, and he appears to be present during the actual shooting, which was inspired as much by school shootings in the news as cult movies. So our The Dirties is his documentary footage, mixed with the stuff Owen and Matt film, plus their The Dirties uncompleted feature.

Watched this because of the excellent Cinema Scope interview with the director:

Matt is always feeling the camera. And he’s not alone. The concept of always seeing the camera and always feeling like you’re on camera is a very modern problem. And by “problem,” I don’t even necessarily mean that it’s a negative thing — this is just something that we need to consider. Kids these days are always filming themselves and they’re always acting like they’re on TV. Matt is just a guy that has actively put himself on TV 24/7. So he’s always trying to perform. And he can’t break the spell because he’s made this rule for himself of performing.

Johnson believes that realistic performances are paramount, so instead of casting actors for small roles, he performs the movie in public spaces.

All you’re seeing in The Dirties is just a lot of really good acting from people who don’t know that they’re acting. … The closest thing is something like Borat, but we’re not making fun of people here. We’re the stupid ones. I’m always the one who doesn’t know what’s going on. … That old man who walks up when Owen gets hit with a rock is the same kind of example. It’s not even a joke, that moment, it’s simply reality. The old man was just there, and didn’t know what was going on. The joke is on us.

Possession (1981, Andrzej Zulawski)

Funny that I’d watch this a couple days after The Tenant, not knowing of their connections. Both are made by Polish directors who started by working under Andrzej Wajda, both star Isabelle Adjani, involve protagonists living in apartments away from their native countries, and don’t seem like horror movies at all until they go nuts in the second half.

Sam Neill (same year he played Damien in Omen 3) returns to wife Adjani (a couple years after Herzog’s Nosferatu) in divided Berlin after a long time away on a spy job (he gets paid in wads of cash). It’s a rocky homecoming, and there’s much yelling around their son Bob, but each claims to have been faithful – until Adjani’s friend Marjie (Fassbinder star Margit Carstensen) delights in telling Neill that Adjani has another man, Heinrich (Heinz Bennent of The Last Metro and The Serpent’s Egg), an annoying new-age super-self-confident dude whose mother (Johanna Hofer of Above Suspicion and A Farewell to Arms) supports the affair (Heinrich also has a wife and kid we never see). Screaming fights ensue (“If I’d known [Heinrich] existed in this world I’d have never had Bob with you”), Adjani acts more erratic and Neill acts more obsessed (he reverse-lookups Heinrich’s address in the white pages), and I’m worried that this won’t be a horror movie at all, but a relationship drama that says women are shrews who tear apart marriages with their selfish desires (Zulawski was inspired by his own bitter divorce).

Not a good sign for your relationship when you sit at different tables:

Heinrich vs. Neill:

But then! Neill hires a private eye (who is terribly obvious when tailing people) to follow his wife and it turns out she’s staying in a third apartment, a place Heinrich doesn’t know about, and he spins bouncing off the walls when he finds out. Investigating further (by walking right in), the detective is killed by a psychic demon, followed a few scenes later by his partner (huh, a sympathetic gay character in 1981). Yes, Adjani is cheating on both men with a Scanner tentacle-demon, and there’s a pod-person connection when Neill meets his son’s schoolteacher who is the spitting image of his wife but with green glowing eyes.

Adjani takes care of the detective’s partner:

Trouble in the subway:

Neill becomes crazily thrilled by all this, gives Heinrich the demon-apartment address then kills Heinrich himself in a bathroom when the demon doesn’t finish him off. He later blows up the apartment, stabs Marjie for good measure, provokes the cops (I don’t understand how he thought ramming their cars with a taxi would end well) and plots to escape with Adjani, but she has plans of her own, finally (amidst a police shootout) revealing her new glowing-green-eyed Sam Neill pod person (“I wanted to show it to you. It is finished now”), who escapes the shootout.

Bloody Sam Neill driving a motorcycle through Berlin screaming:

Banned in the UK, though Adjani won best actress in France (over Huppert, Ardant and Deneuve) and it was nominated at Cannes the year Wajda’s Man of Iron won. I liked this an awful lot, and am looking for more Zulawski movies (Third Part of the Night, The Devil and On The Silver Globe sound good).