Monday, November 06, 2017


Well, yes, Thor: Ragnarok  roks. It is as funny as advertised, and the movie really benefits from the sensibility of its director, Takia Waititi (What We Do In The Shadows) and his offhanded way with a joke, as well as the setup to that joke, as a means of defusing the standard-issue grandiosity to which these pictures usually default. Watiti's touch is unusual among Marvel directors, and he ends up lightening (but not watering down) the feel of the entire movie, even the more de rigueur CGI battles toward which the movie eventually moves. And it made me realize that over the past couple of years my favorite Marvel pictures are either the more-or-less self-contained origin stories (Captain America: The First Avenger) or, more often, the ones which don’t take themselves too seriously—Ant-Man, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Iron Man 3 and now this one—as opposed to the ones which make too much of a show of not taking themselves too seriously, like the Guardians of the Galaxy pictures. (The answer to how my admiration for the stand-alone thrillers Logan and, from a few years back, Wolverine, fit into this neat little observation is that they don’t.)
As for the cast, Chris Hemsworth and Mark Ruffalo work a comedy-team sort of magic (even when Ruffalo is in Big Green mode) that is, forgive me, a particular marvel, and I was continually grateful for the patented elliptical smarm of Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster, overseer of the super-sized gladiator spectacle which ends up pitting Thor against his old pal The Incredible Hulk. Cate Blanchett wears her antlers well—her entire Emma-Peel-as-the-Goddess-of-Death-look, actually—as Hela, who unfortunately presides, however grandly, over the movie’s most conventional aspect, the Marvel villain bent on destroying Asgard and ruling the universe. But the biggest surprise is Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, a hard-drinking, ass-kicking bounty hunter who is stranded on the garbage planet which the Grandmaster calls his kingdom. She has enough attitude for two movies and the sexy style to back it up, which she wears even during her big entrance, a (big) misstep which immediately seals her status as the most welcome, no-nonsense (yet good-humored) female addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe yet. In the words of a friend who saw Thor: Ragnarok the same day I did and was equally impressed by Thompson, more, please!
But it’s the movie’s day-glo-disco sheen that most seduced my eye. That sheen is most apparent on Goldblum’s garbage planet, but the pretense-deflating shimmer even finds its way to Asgard as well, where some of the more typically overwrought iconography is leavened by the visual attitude of the production design. Thor: Ragnarok  is also resplendent with reminders of the epic, dynamically detailed panels of Jack Kirby, the artist who was originally responsible for the memorable energy, visual weight and occasionally hallucinatory fever of the early Mighty Thor comics. (If you've seen the movie, imagine Thor's confrontation with the demon near the beginning of the film done up in frames that stretch over two full comic-book pages, with Kirby's customary sense of scale, clarity and striking lines.)
The picture that Thor: Ragnarok most happily reminded me of, however, was not (thankfully) either of the previous two Thor pictures, or any other Marvel picture really, but instead Mike Hodges’ simultaneously reverent and revisionist Flash Gordon (1980), which was positively awash in opulent, sublimely tacky production design and correspondingly outrageous costumes courtesy of Danilo Donati. That Thor: Ragnarok could be said to be circling in anywhere close to the orbit of that movie’s magnificent Mongo is perhaps the highest compliment I could give it. Mark Mothersbaugh, who supplies the score, doesn’t come close to the exuberant operatic explosions which Queen provided for the 1980 movie, but he hits his own bouncy balance between Euro-disco bliss and a more standard-issue symphonic sonic landscape which, more often than not, brings a touch of Flash (“Aaaaah-ahh!”) to the ears and contributes to the contact high the movie offers with seductive and disarming ease. As it happens, we are treated to not one, but two action sequences choreographed and edited to the sonic thunder of Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song,” which serves the same function, and that gets Thor: Ragnarok an “Aaah-aaah-aah Aah!” of its own, more or less, with which to link back to Queen’s kitschy Flash Gordon theme. 
I’m sure we’re due for a lecture or two from the sect of Those Who Know More Than We Do About Such Things, much like we got this past summer when Spider-Man: Homecoming managed to curry too much favor from critics and audiences, about how Thor: Ragnarok dishonors the spirit of the original Marvel Comics source material or somehow or another provides cause for offense among hard-core genre wags. But I don’t much care how engaged it is with the MCU or whether or not it stays true to the way things panned out in the canonical texts (Jesus Christ…). The fact is, the movie may simply be too much fun for sourpusses seriously worried about whether or not this is the Thor they grew up with. I don’t think it’s necessarily misguided for some of the more poker-faced among us to express displeasure at the way the whole Marvel/DC blockbuster aesthetic has swamped American movies. But if even half of the superhero stuff that has come before were anywhere near as entertaining as Thor: Ragnarok is, I suspect there’d be a whole lot less complaining.


Saturday, October 28, 2017


Last night, at the tail end of a long and weird day, after all the rest of the folks who live with me were snug in bed, I shut off all the lights in the house, settled into my living room movie-watching chair and fired up a vintage Hammer classic I’d never seen before, The Reptile (1966). Even though it was directed by John Gilling, who helmed one of my favorite Hammer pictures, The Plague of the Zombies (from the same year), my expectations were low—I’d heard from trustworthy sources that it wasn’t a top-drawer offering from my favorite genre-oriented studio. But The Reptile, despite being a bit of a slow burn (as, admittedly, many Hammer pictures are, especially to a generation weaned on visually hyperactive remakes and reboots of established classics), turned out to be a creepy, well-earned scare, and the lead-up to the reveal of the titular creature pays off with a much more frightening and convincing makeup design than the one we got at the end of The Gorgon, which is probably a better picture overall. Beyond the reveal, The Reptile doesn’t really have much of a finish, but watching it in as much darkness as my little house in Glendale could muster reminded me of the mortified delight I used to take in staying up late on Friday night to watch the CBS Late Movie, which is where I caught several of the Hammer movies I would grow to love, even ones like Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed which I had already been lucky enough to see theatrically.

On those nights, I would glue myself to the chair in my parents’ living room, fully aware that I couldn’t make too much noise—the TV couldn’t be too loud or my dad would come storming out of his bedroom, demanding to know what the hell all the noise was and, worst of all, insisting that I shut the TV off and go to bed. So there was a certain amount of tension in the situation for me even before the late night movie theme song came on, which of course heralded the official start of the real scares.

During the movie itself, I would sit rigid in the chair, my full attention riveted to the screen. There was a twofold reason for this. 1) Because I was completely consumed by the nightmarish stories that were unfolding before me. But also 2), because I was convinced that lurking just outside my peripheral vision, hidden somewhere in the shadowy corner of the room, perhaps near the front door, was a monster the equal of anything in the movie, poised to lunge out from said shadows at precisely the moment of my discovery of it. And God help me (He never did) if I had to get up and go to the bathroom during a commercial, because who knew what lay in wait for me on the long walk from my chair to the toilet.

I flashed on all of this while I was watching the movie last night, the memory of how much fun it was as a kid to be totally taken to the cleaners by a movie like The Reptile. It was dark enough in my house last night that when the male lead went creeping through the old dark house and came face to face with the reptile itself, the frightening visage concocted by Hammer’s makeup team seemed to lunge out of the shadows of my own house, and it honestly scared the shit out of me. I was a 57-year-old adult who felt reduced to the emotional responses of his 13-year-old self, and very pleasurably so.

In thinking about it in the light of the morning after, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad for my daughters’ generation, kids who are surrounded by every iteration and manifestation of technology; who never have to wait until 11:30 on a weekend night to get their horror movie dosage, who approach the vintage classics of the genre with suspicion or having already been exposed to their various gruesome highlights and surprises via memes and GIFs and other strands of Internet magic; and whose exposure to horror movies almost always come in group settings where the default response is usually set to ironic deflation or laughter, settings in which the movies have virtually no chance to be effective in the way they were intended.

This sort of superiority to the experience of watching a vintage horror movie with an audience is certainly not restricted to young people. This past Thursday night I was lucky enough to attend a Halloween-themed screening of Hammer’s The Brides of Dracula (1960), which I’d never seen projected, at the beautiful Alex Theater in downtown Glendale, and the audience was primarily comprised of folks 10 years either side of my age. These people were only too happy to giggle at anything, especially any acting, that seemed even slightly over-florid. And just in case anyone should think they were taking things too seriously, at each and every appearance of an obviously phony vampire bat, rather than just settle into the movie and accept the convention of the effects of the day, there was a ripple of laughter as if to say, “I must let everyone around me know that I know how funny those fake bats are!” Thanks for the information, Gladys and Herb. Now pipe down! Fortunately, the movie was as good as it always has been, certainly engrossing enough to offset the offenses of a bunch of bat gigglers.

I still love horror movies, the old ones especially, but new ones too, when they live up to the potential of the genre and honor it instead of simply splattering it all over the walls. But I so miss that feeling of being a child totally at the mercy of a movie which orchestrates, by design or by accident, an audience’s fear so completely. I remember being a bit older (around 15) and coming across Night of the Living Dead (1968) as the second feature (airing around 2:00 a.m.) of Sinister Cinema, the weekend horror movie program which originated out of Portland, Oregon in the 1970s. The movie had already been anointed (and excoriated) as a midnight cult hit, but as far as I knew this was the first time anyone had shown it on any TV program that I could see. And much like those CBS Late Movie showings from just a few years earlier, I was mortified as I watched from my bedroom (a little less likely to get yelled at by Dad from there), and just as paranoid to scan the room for possible monsters as I ever was.

A couple years later, in college, I saw the movie projected for the first time, a midnight show at a local Eugene, Oregon mutliplex, and I was filled with nervous dread and anticipation almost as if I’d never seen the movie before. The movie started, and as the fear began to ratchet up, somebody outside, a drunk or a prankster, began banging on the exit door to the parking lot. It went on for a couple minutes, before the door-banger could be dissuaded by a theater employee or a security guard. But by then it was too late—the thought that, hey, what if that banging was a ghoul outside trying to get into the theater, just like what was happening in the movie?! What then???!!!! I left the screening genuinely worried, if only for a minute or so, that we might all emerge from the darkened auditorium into the darkened parking lot to a world already at the mercy of the intestine-gobbling, all-too-living dead. And that fear made the movie even better, more fun. I haven’t experienced anything as simultaneously exhilarating and genuinely horrifying at a movie since that night.

How old were you when you first saw Night of the Living Dead? You can answer in the comments column below, of course. But this was a question I originally posed to friends on my Facebook page last week, and most who answered confessed to a range of ages that would probably, on some objective scale, be determined to be too young for such an experience. But from such scars comes a unique appreciation of the genuine horror movie experience, and none of them expressed any regret at having endured the movie for the first time at such tender ages. Horror scholar and historian Richard Harland Smith relayed a story very similar to mine, recalling an ideal viewing of NOTLD on late-night television as a youngster, alone in his parents’ country house, unnerved and compulsively checking the backyard during commercial breaks “and behind the shower curtain in the bathroom when I ran in to take a leak.” Another Facebook friend described seeing it theatrically in high school in 1970, at around age 15, having to convince the two friends he attended with, who fled to the lobby at various points during the film, to stay there so he could go back in and watch the rest of the movie. The dead silence of the audience as the lights came up matched that in the car ride home, with the two friends who were furious at their pal for having put them through such a nightmare.

And then there’s an eerie tale told by Dean Treadway, one of the hosts of the podcast Movie Geeks United. He has given me permission to copy and paste his remembrance of his first encounter with Romero’s classic, and I’m happy to present it to you now:

I had a similar first time viewing experience. Late night on WTCG Channel 17 (the early TBS), probably about 12 midnight or so. The film scared me to no end at that age (around 12). I should add, while I was watching the movie on WTCG (which was then still a little ol' Atlanta station), somewhere around the middle of the film, technical difficulties arose at the station. Back then, when that would happen on TV, everything would stop, and get real quiet. The screen might go black for a few seconds... and then a station logo would come up on screen, sometimes still silently. This happened that night, and as I was sitting in our TV room, with the picture window behind me pointed towards the inky backyard darkness, that inimitable station announcer came on and said those immortal words, in that low authoritative but worrying tone: ‘One moment, please.’ More silence. By this time, I was looking outside at the dark nothing, awaiting the moment where a lone zombie would come and smoosh his rotting face against the glass. It was the apex of my fright up to that point. Romero's movie came back on after a minute or so, a seemingly protracted minute. I was relieved, up to a point (still had the last half of the movie to go, including the extra somber ending). But I never forgot that one moment. It's stayed with me for years and still gives me the gooseflesh. And I still wonder if someone at the station was punking us viewers with a phony crisis for scaremongering giggles. I'll never know, but I do know that it worked.”

That’s the best Night of the Living Dead story I’ve certainly ever heard, and I am ultra-envious of Dean for having lived and survived it. May Halloween be full of similar frights, humanoid reptiles and ghouls and other unexpected, unimaginable creatures lurching out of the dark of the imagination whose only mission is to grab us kicking and screaming back to the good old days of universally chilled childhood spinal columns, recharging us to deal with the real-world demons that will always be waiting when the lights come back on.


Friday, October 20, 2017


How often have you heard someone (usually a blurb whore, but sometimes someone you actually know) describe a movie as being “indescribable” or “unlike anything you’ve ever seen before”? And then you go see the alleged one-of-a-kind work and not only is it quite describable, it’s usually describable in terms of many things have come before or since. Not so Nobukhi Obayashi’s Hausu (House) (1977), a spirited, schlocky horror comedy that is so in tune with its own inexplicable wavelength of bizarre, cutie-pie and sometimes strangely lovely images as to make David Lynch look calculated and schematic in comparison. (The frightening images that are packed into Hausu’s bulging skin are as likely to inspire peals of laughter as fear, but laughter that may after a while begin to acquaint you with genuine madness.) Obayashi’s slapdash sensibility is firmly rooted in the explosively playful attitude of Japanese pop culture, and his cluttered, strangely cheerful mise-en-scene accesses the dark underbelly of that imagery while never betraying its playful, oddball innocence.

The plot, such as it is, involves a young schoolgirl named Gorgeous who recruits her pals Kung Fu, Fantasy, Sweet, Prof, Melody and Mac to accompany her on a summer trip to her mysterious aunt’s dilapidated mansion after plans for a summer camp fall through. Gorgeous also undertakes the trip as a way of escaping the impending remarriage of her father, a film composer (“Leone tells me my music is better than Morricone’s”) to another woman, the beautiful, slightly stoned-looking Ryoko Ema, who is always posing, looking off into the horizon, a wind machine keeping her hair in the perpetual motion of a shampoo ad. 

The early sequences in the film, particularly those dealing with Gorgeous's father breaking the news of his nuptials, are fantastic avant-garde-tinged experiments in which the frame is divided, broken-down and sometimes shattered into ever-shifting geometrical forms which unsettle the viewer and work out Obayashi’s visual muscles for the real test to come. Once the girls hop the train to Auntie’s house (the train constantly shifts between a stylized live-action vehicle and a cartoon chug-a-lug, with Obayashi playing all kinds of hilarious tricks with the rear-projected, painted and cardboard representations of the passing countryside), Gorgeous relates the story of how Auntie lost her fiancĂ© in the war (Obayashi appropriates the restrained style of Ozu here, enough to make head-spinning contrast with the girls’ giggly commentary as the story unfolds.)

But once the girls arrive at Auntie’s house, which is situated on top of the creepiest matte-painting of a mountain ever devised, they are greeted by the wheelchair-bound biddy and her sinister cat Blanche, who seems to have the run of the manse and may be behind the evil goings-on that almost immediately begin to unfold. Critic David Edelstein, in his review of Hausu, suggested that language was insufficient to convey just what Obayashi manages to achieve with his singularly grotesque and absurd imagery, and I tend to think he’s right. But even if it could, I can guarantee you that reading any account of what you actually see in this movie—and yes, I’m pretty much willing to guarantee you have never seen anything like it—couldn’t possibly be as much mind-twisting fun as actually seeing it unfold, especially amongst a full house of dropped jaws at, say, a late-night movie screening. Hausu is, in many ways, the perfect midnight movie, because as it is gets loopier and loopier, and as Obayashi unpacks his arsenal of cut-and-paste analog mattes, superimpositions, slow-motion, stop-motion, hand-drawn animation, frame-busting camerawork and Shining-esque torrents of bloodletting (three years before Kubrick’s movie was released, mind) and all manner of baroque horror effects inspired by what scares an 11-year-old most, the slight edge of delirium that sets in from staying up late does everything to augment the movie’s will to discombobulate the viewer, all while it proceeds to dismember its characters in the most outrageous and collage-friendly ways.

Obayashi's movie doesn’t set out to “scare” you in any conventional sense—it’s too over the top for that, though some of the ways the innocent girls are dispatched— by a chomping and apparently quite hungry grand piano and, most memorably, by the cinema’s most devilish lampshade—have the ability to get under your skin despite the cheerfully manic and homemade feel to many of the effects. It is a horror movie chiefly in the sense that it deals with horror tropes not so much to be deconstructed as to be experienced like something completely new, as if this were the first movie the viewer might have ever seen—it has that quality of happily perverted innocence. Evan Kindley, writing about the movie a few years ago for Not Coming to a Theater Near You round about the time the movie started gaining traction in cult circles here in the US, got it exactly right: “The movie feels a little too fast and too dense for human viewing, like a state-of-the-art product that hasn’t undergone enough safety testing yet.”

House is a movie that is, in the end, impossible to adequately describe whose genuine, maniacal level of insanity is equally impossible to overstate. As such, it may be one of the few genuine cult phenoms in Japanese horror movie culture that might successfully resist the inevitable swing at a watered-down remake to make it more palatable for mainstream audiences who would be presumably uninterested in the very aspects that make Hausu  remarkable in the first place. There’s nowhere to go but homogenization and boredom in such a task; the complete sincerity, the lack of self-consciousness apparent in every frame of House, even the appearance of it being practically hand-made, is its best defense against the rapacious tendencies of a movie culture as eager to consume original ideas as Auntie and her possessed mansion is hungry for those delicious schoolgirl morsels.

As I suggested earlier, Hausu is best experienced with a large group of folks who know not what to expect—barring its appearance at the stroke of 12:00 in a theater near you, this movie would be an ideal selection for a Halloween party screening, and the splashy Criterion Blu-ray would surely look great projected on the wall of your very own haunted house. But however it happens, see it for yourself. It’s not that they don’t make ‘em like this anymore; it’s more accurate to say that they’ve never made one like this, before or since.


If you’re having people over to bob for apples and the like (people still bob for apples at Halloween parties, don’t they?), you might want to have an atmospheric horror movie on the big screen just to help set the fun mood, or perhaps to distract from the foul stench of a well-intentioned party gone horribly dull. And Hausu would be an excellent choice. But what if you’re running dry of ideas for what to throw in the DVD player for your guests? Hopefully you would never have to resort to such measures, presuming you have a fairly high horror movie IQ , but in case you need one there is certainly no lack of usually blog-bound listicles of Halloween horror movie options—“The Best 100 Horror Movies Ever Made,” or “The 30 Greatest Horror Remakes,” or “The Greatest Christopher Lee/Peter Cushing Pairings, Ranked!” These lists are, more often than not, compiled by folks who are at best only seasonal dippers into the horror film tradition, or at worst enthusiasts who have, shall we say, a lot of holes in their horror film education that desperately need to be filled.

Fortunately, comedian-writer-self-described horror film geek Kevin Maher has come up with the best Halloween horror listicle I’ve yet read: "Eight Great Horror Movies You've Never Heard Of (But I Have Because I'm Better Than You)." If you weren’t able to guess from the title, Maher’s piece is a spot-on parody of the sort of list-making exercise that takes apparent pride in what the writer might imagine to be his/her esoteric taste, which is then adorned by a thoughtlessly dashed-off descriptive sentence or two rife with errors-- factual as well as of the spelling, punctuation and mismatched picture variety. Maher skewers these listicles with hilarious precision; if you’re a survivor of the Halloween horror listicle phenomenon (or maybe you’ve even written a couple yourself), you’ll find much to appreciate in his appropriately shallow, abundantly humorous ribbing. And I wouldn’t dream of spoiling any of the fun here. Check out Kevin's listicle (that sounded kinda nasty) for yourself, and then go pick a movie on your own. You don’t need help from a bunch of bloggers, and Maher’s piece will cure you of the desire to suffer through another one of their malnourished posts ever again.

And since I know after reading “Eight Movies”  that you’ll be thirsty for more of Kevin Maher’s sharp wit and observational alchemy, here are a few more road maps to satisfy your seasonal jones (with the occasional trip beyond it) for fun facts and bubbles o’ thought about some of your favorite movies:

"100 Moments in Poltergeist" that Kevin loves.

And speaking of Stephen King, it’s not “Bingo!” it’s "Kingo!"

Beware the ball! "21 Phantasm Phacts!"

And finally, just for the Tet of it, "Six Movies That Are Secretly About Vietnam."


Saturday, October 14, 2017


If you’re a baseball fan, particularly if you’re a Dodgers, Astros, Cubs or Yankees fan, the real baseball season started this past Friday with the inauguration of the American and National League Championship Series. I’m a Dodgers fan, which means I’m among that group who, arguably, have gone the longest without the satisfaction/excitement/nail-biting terror of seeing their team in the World Series, the next step for whoever wins in the NLCS. The Dodgers last appeared in the World Series in 1988, capping a memorable run with a championship by beating the Oakland A’s. That was 29 years ago. The Cubs are the reigning MLB champions, having won last year’s World Series after a 107-year drought. And the Yankees, a mainstay of the World Series around the turn of this century, last appeared in an October championship series in 2009.

The only team to come close to the current measure of long-suffering lack of major league glory experienced by the Dodgers would be the Houston Astros, who have made exactly one appearance in the World Series, back in 2005, when they were swept in a tight four-game sequence by the Chicago White Sox. The Dodgers have, over their storied history, seen a lot of time in championship games, of course-- 18 World Series appearances, five wins. But by the simple measurement of time, 29 years since their last World Series against only 12 for the Astros, this ought to be the Dodgers’ year. However, baseball is baseball, a game of inches, as they say, and it’s also one, for all its fetishizing of statistics and historical trends, which turns on unpredictable tides, a game in which past glories can pivot to unforetold misfortunes and almost nothing, good or bad, goes exactly as expected. All that, of course, goes ground-rule-double for the playoffs.

So, as a way of relaxing and basking in the atmosphere of the game when things get too tense with my team, I like to enhance the experience of the baseball season by watching some of my favorite baseball movies. But you won’t find sentimental audience favorites like The Natural, A League of Their Own or Field of Dreams on my shelf. What you will find, however, are titles like Ken Burns’ epic documentary Baseball; Ron Shelton’s sweet-and-sour love letters to the games, Bull Durham and his remarkable biopic Cobb; John Sayles’ Eight Men Out, which recounts the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal; Sam Wood’s (and Gary Cooper’s) The Pride of the Yankees; John Lee Hancock’s undervalued and very moving The Rookie; Bernie Mac in Mr. 3000; an early Robert Aldrich effort entitled The Big Leaguer; The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars  Motor Kings, a comic look at the era of the Negro Leagues starring Billy Dee Williams and Richard Pryor; Michael Ritchie’s The Scout, starring Albert Brooks; and, speaking of Michael Ritchie, the picture I consider to be the best baseball movie ever made, Walter Matthau and Tatum O’Neal in The Bad News Bears.  That’s a list of favorites which I think covers almost all the facets of what I maintain, for all the flaws and frustrations of its more organizational aspects, is still America’s great pastime.

And now I’ll add to that list of impeccable base-runners the rubber-faced (and rubber-armed) Joe E. Brown as minor league pitching phenom Frank X. (Francis) Farrell, who makes a splash in the big leagues for the Chicago Cubs in the 1935 comedy Alibi Ike, based on Ring Lardner’s 1915 Saturday Evening Post short story of the same name. (If you’re between innings this weekend, you can read the whole story here.) The movie, directed by Ray Enright (Dames, The Spoilers), like Joe E. Brown’s genially loose-limbed performance in it, captures effortlessly the aw-shucks bonhomie of Gardner’s style, fortunately minus the casual anti-Semitism of the time. And in its casting of real baseball players to back up Ike in the outfield (journeyman and one-time Brooklyn Robins-- later the Dodgers—first baseman and right fielder Babe Herman, and Boston Red Sox outfielder Smead Jolley) and on the mound (Cubs and Browns pitcher Charlie Root), Alibi Ike amasses an amiable authenticity that helps the whole show go over like a well-turned double play. 

Baseball players being the nickname-addicted specimens they are and always have been, Frank (or Francis) quickly becomes Alibi Ike to his teammates, a moniker given to commemorate his proclivity for coughing up excuses for everything he does, on and off the field. Ike dazzles his teammates (especially catcher Roscoe Karns) and his crusty but benign manager (William Frawley) with his confidence, which is backed up by an unhittable fastball and flailing, anything-goes style of play. When asked by his boss whether he’s ready to pitch, Ike’s favored response is “I’m as loose as goose grease!” And what we see of Ike on the mound is as apt a manifestation of that down-home proclamation as there ever could be.

When I first saw Alibi Ike a couple of years ago I couldn’t stop laughing at Ike’s/Brown’s delivery of those unhittable fastballs. Poised to strike, Ike drops to a low position facing the batter, dangles his throwing arm like a limp noodle, then gathers both arms together into a wind-up that resembles nothing so much as a human-scaled tornado brewing up to full speed, before an unruly release and kick of the leg that would flush Dodger left-hander Rich Hill with envy. Brown’s “mechanics” on the mound are so outlandish I couldn’t believe, when Enright positions the camera behind the catcher to show Ike’s full delivery to the mitt of his battery mate, how Brown’s athletic stand-in could manage to duplicate the movement of this singular physical comedian so precisely. I also laughed because I couldn’t help but admit that, however absurdly funny Brown’s wind-up looks when compared to other pitchers in the history of the game, his delivery looked more convincing than the one Tim Robbins managed to muster as the wild but supposedly effective Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh in Bull Durham.

What I didn’t know at the time but subsequently found out was that Joe E. Brown was, early in his career, yet another embodiment of my high school English teacher’s philosophy-- to effectively emulate bad writing, or inarticulate characters, one must first know how to do it right. Well, it turns out that Joe E. Brown knew what he was doing all along, and that it was Brown himself in those wide shots, delivering fastball strikes as the tornado-armed Ike to his catcher. Brown began life with a traveling circus troupe when he was 10 and, as he wrote in his 1956 autobiography Laughter Is a Wonderful Thing, “began haunting the knotholes around big league ball parks when I wasn’t on stage or practicing… I was playing semi-pro baseball by the time I was 15.” According to Lee Lowenfish, who in 2016 wrote a terrifically informative article on Brown for the National Pastime Museum entitled "The Remarkable Baseball Passion of Comic Actor Joe E.Brown," Brown was an excellent left-handed-hitting second baseman who was good enough that he eventually earned a contract to play with the minor league St. Paul Saints in 1910, when he was 18 years old. But Brown was only a few games into his pro baseball career when he broke his leg sliding into third base, an unfortunate occurrence which was soon followed by yet another leg injury. The would-be baseball star was forced to conclude that baseball would have to be an continued obsession, not a vocation, and that he was most likely to find success down the path to show business from which he had, for a few years, strayed.

So, some 25 years after his brush with professional baseball greatness, Joe E. Brown channeled his love of the game into almost-forgotten classics like Elmer, the Great (1933; Mervyn Le Roy), also based on a Ring Lardner story, and then Alibi Ike (1935), both of which deserve to not be forgotten and are now available on DVD through the good graces of Warner Archives. (For eagle-eyed DVR programmers, they also show up occasionally on Turner Classic Movies.) These slight, entertaining pictures really are two peas in a pod, both revolving around bumpkin baseball players who take their league by storm while dealing with romantic entanglements and the crooked influence of gamblers on the game. The only significant difference between them is that Ike slings rockets from the mound, while Elmer is best at hitting said rockets into space with his bat. 

Another big difference, of course, is that Ike’s paramour is portrayed by the impossibly luminescent Olivia De Havilland in her film debut. De Havilland doesn’t exactly steal Alibi Ike from Brown—who could?—but her appearance goes a long way toward explaining right out of the gate how moviegoers might be able to spend the next 82 years trying unsuccessfully to keep their eyes off her, whether appearing as Hermia in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1934) or just this past year initiating a feisty legal pursuit of Ryan Murphy over her portrayal in the TV producer’s recent Hollywood camp fest Feud. At 101 years old she is, thankfully, like Ike’s patented whirling on the bump, her very own tornado, and long may her winds blow.

“Nobody’s perfect,” Joe E. Brown said for Billy Wilder in probably the actor’s most renowned moment in the movies, and certainly no one would ever claim perfection for Alibi Ike. I wouldn’t say that it’s necessarily one of the great baseball movies either. It is, however, an undeniable charmer, anchored by Brown’s passion for the game and his unflappable ease and energy as a performer. At one point, while being pressured by Chicago mobsters to throw a big game, a fly lands on Brown’s nose. Without missing a fraction of a beat, Brown blows at it and continues with his dialogue, ceding the annoying insect not even so much as a Fieldsian “Get outta here, fly, you bother me!” It’s that relentless, tenacious spirit and conviction, along with a tornado pitch delivery, which Brown embodies at his best, and in Alibi Ike his best is right there on the field, as loose as goose grease.


Saturday, September 30, 2017


Let’s talk memorable movie killers for a second. Since Mrs. Bates first slashed her way through the shower curtain in Room 1 of that roadside motel in Psycho (1960), franchise-minded murderers have had a hard time of it in the consistency department, regardless of how strong they may have lunged out of the gate. Established classics of the genre, like Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street have all given birth to an array of sequels, remakes and reboots that may have extended their nasty protagonists’ shelf life, but none could approach their origins in terms of frights or filmmaking quality.

The exception to this rule of inconsistency and ever-diminishing returns in serial killer movie franchises seems to be the maniac who may have been the most unlikely to succeed, or certainly to endure, to begin with. He would be Charles Lee Ray (played with customary intensity by Oscar-nominee Brad Dourif), the madman who ends up reincarnated and reinvented, in a satiric nod to the Cabbage Patch mentality of ‘80s toy merchandising, into the body of an innocuous, mass-produced “Good Guys” doll, and thus set upon a whole new career of murderous mayhem as Chucky the Killer Doll in 1988’s Child’s Play. Directed by Tom Holland (Fright Night) and co-written by Holland, John Lafia and Don Mancini, from Mancini’s original story, the movie was a sizable hit and therefore, given the model of the other popular monsters of the day, a sequel was most certainly de rigueur.

Child’s Play 2 (1990), buoyed by Mancini’s inventive screenplay and John Lafia’s sprightly direction (which improves upon the efficient but occasionally inelegant work of the journeyman Holland), takes the concept of a rampaging killer doll seriously enough to render the scares while more deftly acknowledging the essential silliness of the whole concept, and the result is a sequel which not only honors its predecessor but even improves upon it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Child’s Play 3 (1991), which hit theaters only 10 months after the release of Child’s Play 2 and seemed born not only to capitalize on what was now clearly a potential cash cow (or dollar doll), but also to fulfill the widely held perception that the longer a movie serial killer sticks around, the more tepid the terror becomes. The movie did underwhelming business in the US, with grosses only slightly exceeding its modest budget, and it seemed that Chucky’s brief reign as America’s most purposely plastic psychopath might be at an end.

But, as Chucky himself might say, not so fast. After a seven-year hiatus, Mancini took a page from the James Whale playbook and made the move to rather boldly refashion his franchise. (And by this time, it really was Mancini’s franchise-- along with Brad Dourif’s voice and the influence of producer David Kirschner, credited with the Chucky doll’s original design, Mancini’s writing was and still is the most important creative element to remain consistent throughout the Chucky series, lending the whole enterprise a degree of personal investment that no other horror franchise can claim.) Mancini chose to more openly reference the humorous and satiric possibilities of his basic premise, its implicit connection to the very history of horror, and, like Whale before him, even began to hint at the gay sensibility that informed it. (Mancini himself is out and proud.) Bride of Chucky (1998), not only introduced those elements, very much making it to Child’s Play what The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) was to its landmark predecessor, but it also brought Jennifer Tilly into the Chucky family as Tiffany Valentine, Charles Lee Ray’s still-human and equally antisocial girlfriend who, through an escalating and baroque set of circumstances, finds her own soul also trapped in the body of an appropriately voluptuous doll.

The resulting film, an engaging hybrid of horror thriller, road movie and satire of middle-class domesticity, was directed by Hong Kong veteran Ronny Yu (The Bride with White Hair) and shot by Peter Pau, whose next project, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, would win him the Academy Award, and it’s a visual feast, especially compared to the previous three pictures. Bride was also a Chucky-universe game-changer, its embrace of the comic potential of the franchise premise (and its strong box-office numbers) setting the stage, after another relatively lengthy hiatus, for the series’ most controversial and divisive movie, 2004’s Seed of Chucky, a no-holds-barred, blood-soaked farce that confused and put off a good portion of the built-in Chucky audience who would have had little objection to continuing the march toward the formulaic that Child’s Play 3 seemed to promise.

Few, in fact, were ready for the relatively radical departure from formula that Mancini served up, a blistering lampoon of insular Hollywood culture featuring a spectacular turn by Tilly not only as Tiffany but also as “Jennifer Tilly,” a grandly entertaining act of diva character self-assassination which may have no equal in the history of any movie genre. And that’s not all, folks. Seed also casts Chucky and Tiffany as conflicted parents in a Hardly-Ordinary People scenario involving their gender-conflicted son Glen (or Glenda), voiced in impossibly touching, comically dexterous fashion by Billy Boyd (Pippin in The Lord of the Rings), right alongside the expected cornucopia of eviscerations, roasted corpses, death by acid bath and assorted voodoo-induced soul transferences.

Seed of Chucky was also Mancini’s directorial debut, the official handing over of the Chucky franchise to the one creative force who seemed best positioned to shepherd it forward, and it saw him at serious work developing the visual acuity that Yu seemed to inspire. More than anything, Seed found Mancini working out the influence of Brian De Palma’s insouciant pictorial wit, and it even features a rousing score by Pino Donaggio (Carrie, Dressed to Kill, Blow Out). But audiences didn’t bite, and even some of the Chucky faithful felt betrayed by Mancini’s unapologetic dive into the deep end of viscera-smeared burlesque at the expense of more familiar, conventionally mounted thrills.

Nine years later, writer-director Mancini rebounded with Curse of Chucky (2013), which in part served as a response to those who complained that Chucky wasn’t scary anymore, a chance to prove that a more straightforward approach to the material could still deliver the jolts. The movie sidestepped the dread of a simple Child’s Play reboot, extending instead to a story that incorporates the history of Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif appearing bodily for the first time) and a strong new character, the wheelchair-bound Nica Pierce (played by Dourif’s daughter, Fiona), set against the evil of Chucky amidst the confines of a shadow-rich, very old, dark house. Mancini didn’t entirely eschew humor in Curse, but it’s clear that the film represents a distinct move to reestablish Chucky’s dominance as a figure of fear, and the result is that while the tone is much less overtly comic, the laughs that do arrive are more integrated to the pitch-black tone of the entire piece. (Chucky was always on some level a quipster, so any attempt to avoid the laugh lines would be as much a betrayal of the Chucky legacy as some purported Seed to be; and of course, some did complain that the new movie wasn’t funny enough.) Curse was also the first film of the franchise to be released straight to Blu-ray and digital downloads, and the financial success which followed, combined with the strongest reviews of any Chucky film to date, did much to dispel the perceived stigma of direct-to-video releases as a wasteland bereft of quality or prestige, at around the same time that Netflix (and later Amazon) were doing the same thing.

But as Bride and Seed have proved, Mancini turned out to be a filmmaker not entirely comfortable with the notion of resting on the few laurels that might come his way while working in such a “disreputable” genre as horror. In the wake of the successful premiere of Curse, Mancini served as a producer and wrote two episodes of the critically acclaimed Hannibal during its third (and final?) 2015 season, and as a writer and supervising producer for the first two seasons of SyFy’s sensational horror anthology series Channel Zero, all while concocting and shooting the seventh film in the Chucky series, which drops, presumably from horror heaven, on Blu-ray and digital download this Tuesday, October 3.

The movie Chucky fans have waited four years to see is called Cult of Chucky (2017), and I’m guessing it’s going to be the one to unite, in this profoundly fractured age in which we live, those who pine for the straight-up gory days with the audiences who have always enthusiastically embraced the series’ envelope-bursting exploration of its own satiric potential, as most vividly expressed in Bride and especially Seed. The simple fact is, the through-line of Don Mancini's role as chief creative force in the Chucky series has ensured its standing, improbable as such a thing may have seemed in 1988, as the inarguable best and most consistently provocative series of its kind.

Mrs. Bates, Leatherface and Freddy Krueger all got groundbreaking classics, then a dribbling run of increasingly useless “sequels” and reboots and remakes for their trouble (though The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2 was a hoot and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare proved a fascinating, franchise-capping experiment in meta-awareness); Michael Myers had one good Halloween night; Pinhead disappeared into the hellraising wilderness of Blockbuster Video shelf filler; and Jason’s adventures at Camp Crystal Lake were never any good to begin with, which I suppose would qualify the Friday the 13th series as the most consistent slasher franchise of all. But somehow the Chucky saga just keeps getting better, crazier, more inventive. Cult of Chucky is packed to the cackling rafters with surprises, jolts, laughs—none of which will be spoiled here— and serves as a smashing showcase for Mancini’s continuing growth as a director of considerable finesse and visual expressiveness.

When we last left Nica (Fiona Dourif), she had been handily framed by her battery-operated bĂȘte noire and convicted of the murders that, of course, Chucky committed. And speaking of commitment, Curse ended with one for Nica, into a maximum-security mental hospital where her future could only be deemed unpromising. But the movie was also tagged with a last-minute surprise appearance by Chucky’s original BFF, Andy Barclay (played by original Child’s Play child-actor-turned-grownup Alex Vincent), who has spent his journey toward adulthood perpetually tortured by the memory of his redheaded, two-foot-tall tormentor. In Curse’s final images, Andy takes violent steps to begin exacting a systematic torture-revenge on Chucky which is extended, in satisfyingly surreal fashion, into the opening action of Cult.

Nica, having been sedated by her attending psychiatrist (Michael Therriault) into accepting responsibility for the murders in the last film, is transferred to a minimum-security facility, where her attempts to salvage her sanity are undermined not only by some of the patients in her therapy group, but also by her doctor’s introduction into therapy of a vintage Chucky doll (“I got it at Hot Topic.”) to ostensibly help her erase her lingering belief in Chucky’s malevolent bent and face her own guilt. This development, which  for all the world looks, in the movie’s trailer, like just another (strained) attempt to get Chucky inside the locked doors of the facility, all the better for the lunatic to really take over the asylum, is slowly turned on its head—the doll is adopted instead by another patient, Madeleine (Elizabeth Rosen, channeling a young Lilli Taylor), whose own mental fragility may have something to do with a past history of infanticide.

But it turns out, Chucky having been a mass-produced toy, after all, that there are plenty of killer dolls to go around. When more than one Chucky shows up inside the walls of Harrogate Hospital, Mancini starts cranking up the guessing game. Just which one is the real murderous moppet? Or maybe, somehow, they all are. And what about that mutilated object of torture locked up in Andy’s den, the one who looks not like a Good Guys toy but instead like the evolved Bride/Seed/Curse-era Chucky and who cackles and cracks wise just like Brad Dourif? Maybe we’re all as crazy as Nica is supposed to be.

Not to worry. Mancini has concocted a clever and involving scenario that, if the crowd I saw it with last week is any indication, successfully thwarts just about every attempt at audience second-guessing and fulfills, with plenty of pleasurably assured filmmaking bravado, the giddy and genuinely shocking implications of the movie’s alliterative title.

What’s most exciting about this latest chapter, beside its confident extension of the Chucky saga well beyond the lazy, regurgitative storytelling that has earmarked so many other horror movie sequels, is the manner in which Mancini honorably delivers the goods, replacing cynicism with the desire to surprise and delight his audience with an imaginative jolt of a tale that by now has also taken on, for Chucky’s fans as well as his creator, a very personal resonance.

But the movie is memorable not just for the gory spectacle of Chucky’s kills which, back in the day, might have been enough. Director Mancini has considerably upped his game, and our experience, by capitalizing on the lessons learned from all those De Palma allusions—split diopter effects, split-screens, overhead tracking shots and the like—which have informed every Chucky film since Bride. With Cult of Chucky, in the way the movie extracts so much teasing visual and aural delight from its giddily nightmarish circumstances, Mancini moves beyond allusion and reveals himself to be a legitimate heir to De Palma in his prime. If Bride, Seed and Curse were movies that were clearly informed by De Palma’s expressive use of editing and the camera, then Cult of Chucky is the first movie in the series so drunk on its own premise that it feels as if it might have actually been directed by the artist who so pleasurably choreographed movies like Sisters, Raising Cain and The Fury, pictures which charge ahead in their conviction that they’ve got what it takes to rattle and excite an audience through pure movie love alone. The way Mancini adapts and improves on what was a perfectly satisfying murder-by-shattered-overhead-mirror sequence from Bride for a bravura sequence in Cult—a gorgeous diorama of death staged in a sky-lit hospital room in which shards of glass slow-motion mingle with falling snow before the execution of a shocking (and shockingly emotional) finish—is all the evidence you’d need to suspect that there might just be a Carrie or a Dressed to Kill in this director’s future. 

Also included in the Cult’s company, a return appearance by the series’ guardian/avenging angel Jennifer Tilly, which ends up feeling, perhaps improbably, less important than the presence of Fiona Dourif, who battles deliciously with her dad (in fine form here yet again) for the title of Heart of the Franchise. Mancini clearly loves what Dourif brings to the party so much that he manages to reward Nica with a fate that would feel inevitable if we’d only the imaginative capacity to anticipate it. (That audiences won’t is as much a tribute to Dourif’s conviction as to Mancini’s cleverness.)  

There are plenty of organically welcome twists and turns in this episode, and even a clunky expository moment or two which are quickly forgiven through the abundance of shivers and laughs. But the ultimate trajectory of this Cult will not be ruined by Yours Truly, and it’s my advice that you avoid any review which looks to be any more than 10% plot recitation before seeing for yourself this terrific new addition to the legacy of the movies’ shortest, most defiantly plasticine maniac. Cult of Chucky finds the sweet spot where humor and horror coexist better than any of the previous entries, and in the process happily, and with demonic relish, cements the status of the Chucky franchise as the most durable, elastic and creatively deranged horror series since the heyday of the Universal monster classics of the ’30s and ‘40s. Now, there’s a cult worth joining, and Mancini can rest easy in the knowledge, as his Cult is unleashed upon the public this coming Tuesday, that he’s honorably earned a lifetime charter membership among the scariest in the business.


On Curse of Chucky: "With Six You Get Screaming"

Shock Waves Podcast Episode #67: Don Mancini talks Cult of Chucky