Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Park Row (1952): Sam Fuller's love letter to journalism

Samuel Fuller got his start in the newspaper business at age 12 working as a copy boy.  He eventually worked his way up the ladder to crime reporter by 17.  He went on to become a novelist, screenwriter and filmmaker, but journalism was always his first true love and Park Row (1952) is his sensational love letter to journalism.

In 1886, on Park Row in the New York City, home to the many newspaper outfits of the Big Apple, Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans), a down on his luck reporter dreams of one day running his own paper. While drowning his sorrows at the bar where all the newspapermen come to wet their whistles, it just so happens Charles A. Leach (Forrest Taylor), an investor and owner of a printing press, overhears Mitchell's grand ideas about running his own newspaper and offers him a partnership.  Leach will handle the printing and the business side of things, and Mitchell will be the editor-in-chief.  Mitchell takes him up on his offer and hires a motley crew from right there in the bar: Josiah Davenport (Herbert Heyes), a legendary reporter who came up with Horace Greely, Jeff Hudson (Dick Elliott) a fellow editor, Thomas Guest (Neyle Morrow) an out of work cartoonist, and Rusty (Dee Pollock), a plucky kid who volunteers to be the Printer's Devil, which is newspaper slang for apprentice.

Thus The Globe is off and running.  Their first story is of Steve Brodie (George O'Hanlon), the first man to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge and survive.  Brodie is thrown in jail for this feat. Their second story: "The Globe Frees Brodie". At first, they're so poor the first issue is printed on butcher paper, the second on wrapping paper. But one look down Park Row and it's clear everyone is reading The Globe.  It isn't long before they're giving "the oldest newspaper in New York", The Star, a run for its money. The Star is run by Charity Hackett (Mary Welch), a strong-willed publisher who is always one step behind The Globe, and has it out for Mitchell. The two newspapers quickly come head to head.

Sam Fuller made this film with his own money, which is always rare in the movie business, but practically unheard of back in 1952.  I have been a fan of Fuller's work for years, since I first saw Pickup on South Street (1953) and the reconstructed version of The Big Red One (1980). His films often have a pulpy feel and operate on a level akin to melodrama, but there's a certain bold truth to them I find irresistible.  For my money, this is his best film, hands down.  And that's saying a lot because he's made some great films, but this one is brimming with love for its subject matter, so much so that it's infectious and there's a joy palpable in every frame.  It is perhaps his most personal film, as you can glean from his background in journalism which I mentioned in the opening, or if not, the closest to his heart.

Fuller makes brilliant use of the crab dolly, often shooting whole scenes in a single take, his roving camera following the action from various angles, energizing the story, all the more important since it is a story of the written word, one which could easily become static and boring.  But not with Fuller at the helm, you can almost see him behind the camera, chomping on a cigar, and yelling for the camera to move faster, for the action to be bigger.  He was a larger than life figure, and it can be felt in a film like this, though I don't mean to say it's overdone, merely that it's imbued with a loving exaggeration that lives up to his feelings of what it was like to be a copy boy at a newspaper in those exciting times when the printed word really had the power to change the world.

I love this film.  See it if you get the chance, I promise you'll be hooked almost immediately.

My Rating:  30 out of 30

The Trailer:

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Thief (1981): "I'm the last guy in the world that you wanna to fuck with."

Thief (1981) is the first feature film from Michael Mann (Director of Manhunter (1986), Heat (1995), and Collateral (2004), to name a few), up to this point he'd directed a few documentary shorts and a TV movie called The Jericho Mile (1979), but this put him on the map. It's a flat out masterpiece, a subtle crime film that amplifies the inherent drama in the life of a jewel thief till it explodes. Literally.

Thief follows Frank (James Caan in a magnificent performance), an existential loner, recalling those from the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, with a single-minded drive to make up for lost time, by starting a family and earning enough to retire.  The film opens with Frank drilling a safe and making off with $550,000 in uncut diamonds.  His partners, Barry (James Belushi, in his film debut) and Joseph (William LaValley) listen in on the police band and keep a lookout.

The next morning, Frank meets with Joe Gags, his fence, at a diner.  They set a meet later to exchange the diamonds for cash.  Meanwhile, Frank has had his eye on the hostess, Jessie (Tuesday Weld).  He asks her to dinner.  She says yes.  He will pick her up at 8.  But back at Frank's used car lot, a front to launder the money from his heists, he gets a call that there's a problem.  Joe Gags took a dive from 12th story of a high rise.  He was skimming from the mob.  They found out and were none too happy.  Problem is Frank's money for the diamonds was in Joe Gags pocket when he died and now the money's gone.  In an intense scene, Frank pays a visit to Attaglia (Tom Signorelli), a connected guy, and scares the shit out of him, ensuring a meet and that he will get the money owed him.  At the meet is Leo (Robert Prosky, also in his film debut), the mob boss, and he proposes that Frank work for them and take down scores that have already been cased, nothing less than 500-600K.  Eventually, Frank agrees.

For Mann, the devil is in the details.  The film is based on a novel, "The Home Invaders" written by Frank Hohimer, a real life thief, who was incarcerated at the time of filming.  All the tools used for drilling, welding and safe cracking were real and the actors were trained to use them by a real jewel thief, John Santucci, who was a technical consultant on the film and played the small role of Detective Urizzi.  Santucci was more or less the model for the character of Frank.

For my money this James Caan's best performance, particularly the scene in the diner with Tuesday Weld where Frank talks about doing time, it's phenomenal.  And apparently James Caan concurs, he considers it his finest work after The Godfather.  Weld also gives a great performance as Frank's wife, a woman who's been down this road before, but can't turn away from the vulenrability in his eyes. Robert Prosky speaks with a sinister politeness throughout that masks his desire to control Frank, until he reaches the boiling point and shows just how vicious he really is.  Willie Nelson, of all people, turns in a good little performance too, as Okla, a big brother figure for Frank; they were in prison together and he taught Frank how to be a thief.  The film is also notable for having the film debuts of Dennis Farina, as one of Leo's henchman, and William Peterson, as a bouncer, along with Belushi and Prosky.

The color palette is a variety of blues, greys and greens, with some red mixed in.  The Chicago streets are perpetually rain-slicked throughout to reflect the street lamps and neon signs, giving it a sleek, yet gritty feel.  Chicago is not disguised here, but it's made to feel like any other metropolis with no overt shots of the iconic skyline, though the accents and the attitudes are pure Chicago.  Tangerine Dream's brilliant synthesizer score, (which was nominated for a Razzy, I don't know how), adds tremendously to the mood of the piece and charges the climax with an unforgettable energy.  If you haven't seen this film, you absolutely should, especially if you're a fan of Michael Mann's work.  I cannot recommend it more highly.

My Rating:  5 OUT OF 5!

The Trailer:

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Confessions of Thomas Quick (2015)

The Confessions of Thomas Quick is a documentary examining the scandal behind Sweden's most notorious serial killer.  Sture Bergwall aka Thomas Quick confessed to a number of unsolved murders, was tried and convicted for 8 of those murders based solely on his confessions.  There was no physical evidence tying him to any of the crimes.  Bergwall was a patient at Sater, a forensic psychiatric clinic for the criminally insane, when he began confessing to murders.

He had a troubled childhood, growing up in the 1950s and realizing he was homosexual at a young age, something which was not accepted at the time, this put him at odds with his own identity.  He used drugs as an outlet to escape his problems.  His drug of choice: Benzodiazepine.  He was first committed for attacking young boys, then later he picked up a young man in a gay club, went home with him and stabbed him 12 times nearly killing him.  After that, he was arrested for armed robbery, having kidnapped the family of a bank manager along with an accomplice.  It was this final offense that landed him a long-term stay at Sater.

The psychiatric team at the Sater clinic, lead by Margrit Norell, sought to understand the source of their patients' criminal behavior through therapy sessions.  It was in these therapy sessions that Thomas began confessing to murder after murder.  The psychiatrists worked to trace the behavior back to childhood trauma, in Thomas' case a particularly gruesome event: as a child Thomas was raped by his father, his pregnant mother came upon this scene and was so struck that she gave birth prematurely, as the fetus dangled between her legs, still connected by the umbilical cord, his father hacked off its limbs and force fed them to Thomas.  After thoroughly dismembering Simon (the fetus), his mother and father disposed of the body, concealing their crime forever.  This event was the foundation of his killings; he sought to replace Simon's body parts with those of his victims.  A terrifying story were it true, but this was the moment I knew without a doubt that Thomas Quick was not a serial killer.  It was too grotesque, too unbelievable to be true.  But remarkably none of the psychiatrists questioned this story or any of those that followed.

The film gives us access to Sture Bergwall, himself, along with a variety of individuals close to the case.  Though it is a bit of a letdown, him not being a serial killer, it is an interesting commentary on the fascination that the law enforcement, legal and psychiatric communities have with the subject.  It also illuminates the greatest misstep in the history of Sweden's justice system, with everyone from the psychiatrists to the police to the prosecutors and judges taking Quick's stories as fact when there was absolutely no physical evidence to corroborate them.  And sadly, due to Sweden's statute of limitations, most of these unsolved murders, mistakenly attributed to Quick, will likely remain unsolved.  

My Rating:  3 out of 5

The Trailer:

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Corpse Mania (1981): "Why does he keep killing people at random?" Because he's a necrophiliac serial killer, dummy

Another wacked out wonder from Kuei Chih-Hung, I reviewed his film The Boxer's Omen a few weeks ago, and I must admit I enjoyed that film much more than this one.  Corpse Mania (1981) tells the heartwarming tale of Li Chengyuan, a strange young man who's in love with Hongmei, a prostitute at Madame Fan's brothel.  Hongmei is ill with tuberculosis and unable to 'service' her usual customers, cutting down on Madame Fan's earnings.  So, when Li offers to buy Hongmei's freedom, Madame Fan is eager to sell.  The deal is made and Li and Hongmei are married quickly thereafter.  But Hongmei's tuberculosis only gets worse, however she refuses to go to a hospital and dies soon after.

This is where shit gets weird y'all, because instead of burying her and having a funeral and all that good stuff, Li keeps her corpse in his house.  Preserving it with a white powder, probably lye, which he applies to her naked corpse with a fluffy white mitten.  Yep, this dude is totally nuts.  He also has sex with her corpse apparently, though it is never shown.  On a side note, there is a good bit of nudity in the film, surprising since it's a Chinese film from the early 80s, then again not so surprising considering the title.  Eventually, Li is caught and committed to an asylum by the authorities.  Good call.  And of course, he's released a month before the point at which the film opens, when the police have discovered another woman's corpse, which has been sexually assaulted after death.  Li is the prime suspect, but is he really the one committing all these murders?  I've heard this film described as a Chinese Giallo and I think that's a fitting label because that's more or less what it turns out to be, though that's definitely not what I expected going in.

It comes off as cheesy at times, especially since the cops in the film are the worst ever.  I don't think they prevent a single murder.  The film's got some slasher moments with some good sprays of too red blood, which I enjoyed, and a good bit of gross out stuff with decaying bodies. The set design of these giant old mansions that Li lives in, covered in dust and cobwebs, give a nice gothic touch to the story.  The only genuinely creepy moments are when Li is alone with the corpses, a delusional twinkle in his eye.  Li's costume, blue silk pants and shirt with a white scarf wrapped around his mouth, sunglasses, and a black fedora, wielding an oversized, shiny, butcher knife is a sight to behold.  Not going to lie, it's most likely going to be what I wear next Halloween and no living soul will get the reference, which is how i like it.  Anyways, I won't give away the twist, I'll just say they fooled me.  All in all, it's an interesting film, with plenty of nudity and gore, but those are probably the most notable features.  I was kind of expecting more of a Chinese Jack the Ripper type story, but that was not the case.  It was not nearly as insane as the title suggests, and absolutely not as crazy as I expected after seeing The Boxer's Omen, which was one of the strangest films I've ever seen.

So, there's my two cents on Corpse Mania, as promised.  I still intend to see more of Kuei Chih-Hung's filmography, though this was not quite as manic as I wanted it to be, I still want to see more of his stuff.

My Rating:   3 Maggots out of 5

Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween Horror Recommendations (2016)

Changing gears a bit from the usual format, today I'm going to list my recommendations for what to watch on All Hallow's Eve.  I'll try to give you a good mix of classic and contemporary horror films, not an exhaustive one mind you, just a few of my favorites along with the finer ones I've seen.

Here goes.

Classic Ghost Stories:
The Others (2001)
The Orphanage (2007)
The Innocents (1961)
The Legend of Hell House (1973)
The Haunting (1963)
The Shining (1980)
The Old Dark House (1932)
Haxan (1922)
The Changeling (1980)
Kwaidan (1964)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Session 9 (2001)
The Devil's Backbone (2001)
Poltergeist (1982)
The Fog (1980)

Creature Features:
The 1930s Universal Monster Cycle (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Wolfman, Bride of Frankenstein)
Freaks (1932)
King Kong (1933)
The Thing (1982)
The Howling (1981)
An American Werewolf in London (1981)
The Blob (1988)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)
Dawn of the Dead (1978)
Day of the Dead (1985)
The Fly (1986)
Videodrome (1983)
Alien (1979)
Cronos (1993)
Demons (1985)
The Mist (2007)
Martin (1977)
It Follows (2014)
Near Dark (1987)
[Rec] (2007)
In the Mouth of Madness (1997)

Slashers and Gore Hounds Only:
The Evil Dead (1981)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
House (1977)
Deep Red (1975)
Tenebrae (1982)
Maniac (1980)
Thesis (1996)
Ichi The Killer (2001)
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
Peeping Tom (1960)
The Bird with Crystal Plummage (1970)
Hellraiser (1987)
The Devil's Rejects (2005)
Halloween (1978)
Cemetery Man (1994)
Suspiria (1977)

Horror Comedies:
Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn (1987)
Dead Alive (1992)
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Tucker and Dale vs Evil (2010)
The Monster Squad (1987)
Night of the Creeps (1986)
Fright Night (1985)
The Stuff (1985)
Ernest Scared Stupid (1993)
Frankenhooker (1990)
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)                                                      
The 'Burbs (1989)'
Waxwork (1988)
Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992)
Dead Snow (2009)
Cabin Fever 2: Spring Fever (2009)
Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Zombieland (2009)
Bad Taste (1987)
Re-Animator (1985)
Beetlejuice (1988)
The Frighteners (1996)
Hiruko The Goblin (1990)

Too Real to Deal:
Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
Angst (1983)
Audition (1999)
Dahmer (2002)
Stuck (2007)
Zodiac (2007)

Again not a comprehensive list, just some I think are worth watching this time of year.
Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Night of the Demon (1957)

Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon (1957), retitled Curse of the Demon for its U.S. release, is a stylish supernatural horror film.  The story begins one night as Professor Henry Harrington (Maurice Denham) drives through a shadowy forest to the mansion of Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall McGinnis).  Harrington agrees to call off his investigation into Karswell's satanic cult, if only Karswell will reverse the curse he's put on him.  Karswell says it's too late, Harrington won't survive the night. Harrington rushes home, as he closes his car in the garage, a mysterious cloud of smoke appears.  It billows out toward him and in the smoke stands a giant horned demon, come to collect his soul.  Harrington panics, jumping back in his car, backing out of his garage and straight into a set of power lines.  The power lines crash down on the car, sending sparks flying beside the driver's side door.  With the demon coming ever closer, Harrington has no choice but to climb out.  He does so falling into the power lines and being electrocuted to death.

Meanwhile, John Holden (Dana Andrews) flies to England to assist his friend Professor Harrington with the investigation into Karswell's supposed black magic cult for an international conference on the subject, not yet aware of Harrington's untimely death.  When Holden arrives at his hotel he meets with fellow men of science from the conference, Mr. O'Brien (Liam Redmond) and Mr. Meek (Reginald Beckwith) who inform him of Harrington's death.  Holden being the biggest skeptic of them all sees nothing strange in the circumstances surrounding his death, even though the rational O'Brien and Meek do.

Holden encounters Karswell in the Reading Room of the British Museum, as he pores over the books Harrington used for his research.  Karswell tries to persuade him to stop his investigation, but Holden won't budge.  Karswell leaves his card.  Written on the card in cursive is "In Memoriam of Henry Harrington, 2 weeks allowed", but when Holden hands the card to a stranger the writing is gone.  He chocks this up as a trick, but later when the card is tested by a laboratory it's found to have no trace of chemicals of any kind.  At Harrington's funeral, Holden bumps into Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), the Professor's niece, who believes Karswell is responsible for her uncle's death.  The pair team up to get to the bottom of things.

The film shows us supernatural and/or unexplainable occurrences from Holden's point of view and then reveals them to be false, leaving the viewer to question what's real and what's imagined.  Is Holden really cursed or is he going mad?  This is a common movie trope today, but in 1957 it was a novel idea, perhaps being one of the earliest instances of this theme on film.  Jacques Tourneur was known for his ability to make the most of a low budget, (see his films for producer Val Lewton, Cat People (1942), I Walked with a Zombie (1943) and The Leopard Man (1943), for proof).  With the great Out of the Past (1947), perhaps his best film, already under his belt he had developed a unique style of emphasizing the unseen, the darkness and the shadows, allowing the audience's imagination to fill in the blanks of the story with their own worst nightmares.  It's this style which elevates Night of the Demon beyond your average demon schlock picture.  That combined with the great performance by Niall McGinnis as the affable, yet devious, Karswell (an obvious stand in for England's real life master of the occult: Aleister Crowley) and a standout single-scene-performance by little known British character actor Brian Wilde, as Rand Hobart, a farmer who managed to escape Karwell's curse of the demon, the shock leaving him in a catatonic state.  Wilde is convincing as hell, committing to the role with an intensity uncharacteristic of the period.  The screenplay written by Charles Bennett was based on a short story, "Casting the Runes" by M.R. James, an English author famous for his ghost stories, who's since had many of his stories adapted for British television.

There was some dispute between producer Hal E. Chester and Tourneur as to whether they should show the demon at all.  Tourneur opting for the less is more approach and Chester campaigning for the opposite.  Allegedly Chester shot additional footage clearly showing the demon and inserted it in the opening and closing scenes, without the consent of Tourneur, Bennett or Andrews.  While I can see how the film would play better without a definite answer as to the existence of the demon, I still enjoyed the film a lot and thought the demon was pretty awesome looking.  I'd like to see a version without the demon footage, but alas none exists.  There are two versions of the film: the U.S. release (82 mins) and the UK release (96 mins.).  I saw the U.S. version, but from what I've read the UK version isn't much different, only incorporating some extended and deleted scenes with no alterations made
to the demon sequences.

My Rating:  4 Runes out of 5

P.S. the film is available for streaming on shudder.com.  I recommend checking them out, they've got a good selection of horror films.


The Haunted Strangler (1958)

Criterion Cover
The Haunted Strangler from 1958 stars Boris Karloff as James Rankin, a novelist researching the case of a serial killer known as 'The Haymarket Strangler' in Victorian era London.  The killer would strangle, then slash the throats of his victims.  However, Rankin believes that Edward Styles, the man hung for these crimes, may have been innocent.  He finds that a Dr. Tennant performed all the autopsies on the Strangler's 5 victims, and that he abandoned his practice immediately after Styles' hanging, later turning up as an inmate at an asylum.  From there the trail goes cold, it appears that Tenant escaped from the asylum with the help of a nurse who'd fallen in love with him, and the two fled never to be heard from again.

But Rankin is determined to ascertain the true identity of the killer to be sure another innocent man doesn't end up on the gallows.  In doing so, he discovers more than he bargained for.  Insinuating there's a plot twist, which there is and it's a good one, especially given the time in which the film was made.  But I won't spoil it for you.

The film is based on a short story by Jan Read, written specifically for Karloff, with a screenplay by John Croyden and direction by Robert Day, who Karloff collaborated with again later that same year on Corridors of Blood (1958).  Here they capture the 19th century feel of London by gaslight with rich black and white cinematography.  Nothing too flashy though, just a solid story giving a strong foundation for Karloff to work his magic in another great performance.  The makeup effects, or lack thereof, are a testament to the man's talent.  At 80 minutes, it's a tight little flick to watch after the witching hour.  If you're in the mood, enjoy some old-fashioned black and white horror.
The Great Boris Karloff
My Rating:  4 SCALPELS OUT OF 5