Monday, February 20, 2017

You Can Still Be "Afraid of The Dark"

The following post is part of The Movie of the Week Blogathon, hosted by the Classic Film & TV Café. Thanks to Rick at that site for including me in the lineup! You can find info on & get links to the rest of the entries in the Blogathon here: http://www.classicfilmtvcafe.com/2017/01/the-movie-of-week-blogathon.html. Enjoy reading these posts about some classic made for TV movies!

In the long ago & far away days of the 1970s, before reality shows and NCIS & Law & Order spinoffs took over prime time, there was a little thing called the “Movie of the Week” on ABC. Actually, all three networks regularly produced original movies during the 1970s, but for me, it feels like ABC telecast a number of the most memorable suspense, horror & fantasy films, including Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), Dan Curtis’ Trilogy of Terror (1975), the original The Night Stalker (1972), and a terrifying little tale called Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which aired in October 1973. If, like me, you saw this movie in your younger days (I was 10 years old at the time) it probably left an indelible impression on you. It's still one of my favorites from the era.

Kim Darby in "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark"
The story concerns Sally Farnham (Kim Darby) and her husband Alex. They move into a house inherited from her late grandmother. Sally discovers a bricked up fireplace in the basement, and asks the local handyman about it. He’s a little evasive, but tells her that her grandmother had it bricked up following the death of her grandfather. He advises her to leave it alone. But a curious Sally uses some tools to pry open a small side door that leads to a sub-basement. When she leaves the room, strange voices are heard from below. Mysterious things start to happen, and Sally is almost sure she hears those same weird voices calling her name, over & over.

One night, while she’s alone, she feels something grab her leg and hears the words, “We want you.” When her husband returns, he doubts her story, but makes sure the fireplace door is bolted shut. The next night, Alex & Sally host a dinner party for some of his work colleagues, and Sally sees a strange creature under the dinner table, which scurries away. No one else sees or hears anything. Later that evening, while she’s taking a shower, several of the little monsters turn out the lights and attack her with a razor. When she flicks the lights back on, they scurry away. Once again, only Sally sees them.

Alex begins to doubt his wife’s mental stability, and urges her to spend time with a friend while he’s away on business. The creatures attack Sally again, and tell her they want her spirit. She becomes even more frantic as the creatures continually terrorize her. Sally’s doctor prescribes some sedatives for her, and her friend Joan stays over with her. Alex returns from his trip, and goes to visit the handyman in order to discover the true history of the house. The creatures trap Joan outside, and drug Sally’s coffee. Will Alex return in time to save her? The film’s terrifying final moments (which I won’t spoil for you here) are what stayed with me after I first saw the film. I’m sure the creepy ending freaked out a lot of kids from my generation, who were peeking out from behind their favorite couch pillow during the movie’s conclusion.

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark was one of those films we all talked about at school after it aired, like many fondly remembered made for TV terror tales, such as the titles mentioned earlier, or others like Gargoyles (1972) and Satan’s School For Girls (1973). Solidly directed by John Newland (the host of the late 1950s anthology series One Step Beyond) and starring Kim Darby and Jim Hutton, the film is quite atmospheric with some truly chilling sequences. Darby is best known for starring alongside John Wayne in True Grit (1969) and as “Miri” on an episode of the original Star Trek series. She gives an excellent performance as the beleaguered Sally, and Hutton (TV’s Ellery Queen) is quite good as Alex. There are a couple of bonuses for classic TV fans: William Demarest (Uncle Charlie from My Three Sons) plays the handyman, and Barbara Anderson, of Ironside & Mission: Impossible fame, co-stars as Joan. The spine-chilling score is by the veteran TV & film composer Billy Goldenberg.

The film was written by Nigel McKeand, who also penned scripts for the The Waltons & Family. Those TV series were obviously in quite a different genre than this horror classic. The movie may seem kind of tame by today’s standards, but you won’t soon forget those spooky creatures and their eerie voices. In 2011, writer-director Guillermo Del Toro, an acknowledged fan of the movie, produced a new version of the film, also titled Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which has some interesting moments. But that big screen film is really more of a re-imagining of the story than a remake. The original TV chiller is available on DVD, and a trailer can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fz3dB0z08vs. And remember “Free...free…..she set us free….”

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Lake Street Dive Grooves At College Street

Lake Street Dive - photo by John V
Lake Street Dive, the pop/jazz/soul ensemble led by magnetic front-woman Rachael Price, took the stage Saturday night at New Haven's College Street Music Hall for a sold out concert, and made the place their own. Kicking off their set with the title track from their 2014 album Bad Self Portraits, the band treated us to a spectacular show. Price’s voice is simply astonishing. It’s an instrument unto itself: sensual, soulful, and powerful. From the blues-ier sounds of “I Don’t Care About You” to the dance pop stylings of “Call Off Your Dogs” the strength & power of her vocals soared across the venue. Rounding out the band are the incredible Bridget Kearney on standup bass & vocals, the fluid and multi-talented Mike Olson on guitar, trumpet & vocals and the solid & commanding drum work & vocals from Mike Calabrese. Everyone contributes immeasurably to the eclectic sound & overall success of this amazing group.

The band’s strong chemistry makes it all look easy; they’re so in sync and comfortable with each other on stage that they can trade riffs & vocals effortlessly, jumping from tunes like a jazzy cover of George Michael’s “Faith” to the rocking “Hell Yeah” without missing a beat. And they’re fun. Their obvious joy at playing together and strength of spirit as a band is infectious. From kinetic performances such as “Spectacular Failure” from their current release Side Pony, to more sultry numbers like “Seventeen,” and "Saving All My Sinning" the group essentially blew the roof off the place, and showed lesser bands how it’s done. I can’t say enough positive things about Lake Street Dive, or their out of this world performance & undeniable groove. I would very quickly run out of ways to praise them, and just keep telling you how awesome they truly are. Any band that busts out a rocking cover of the McCartney/Wings number “Let Me Roll It” (with Price helping out on guitar) and shortly thereafter can touch your heartstrings with their soulful love song (and audience favorite) "My Speed" deserves your rapt attention.

Lake Street Dive - photo by John V
This was one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time. The audience's enthusiasm level never abated during the entire concert. If you like Motown, The Beatles, dance pop, classic soul, or jazz, Lake Street Dive’s unique melting pot of sounds should appeal to you. The group first met at the New England Conservatory in Boston, and have been performing together since 2004. The band's popularity has been steadily on the rise recently; they're on the road for the next couple of months. If you get the chance, they are truly a must see; run, don't walk to your local venue and check them out. Joey Dosik, a talented singer-songwriter/keyboardist, opened the show at College Street, and his smooth soul & cool vibes were a perfect appetizer for Lake Street’s performance. Ironically, Dosik also covered a McCartney/Wings tune in his set, the Back to The Egg track, “Arrow Through Me.” You can find out more about Lake Street Dive at their website here: http://www.lakestreetdive.com. And here’s a link to Joey Dosik’s page: http://joeydosik.com. You can also read my review of Side Pony here: http://jveclectic.blogspot.com/2016/02/lake-street-dives-genre-hopping-party.html, and check out a live performance of "Call Off Your Dogs" here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fFKG6bS01ns&spfreload=5.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What If Dracula Had Ruled England?

Alternate histories have become a staple of the science-fiction and fantasy genres. Authors like Harry Turtledove, Eric Flint & Orson Scott Card have penned successful series based on “what if” versions of United States & European history. One of the more entertaining & unique examples of this type of fiction are Kim Newman’s Anno Dracula novels, originally published during the 1990s, and now back in print thanks to the folks at Titan Books. The first book in the series, Anno Dracula (1992), takes place after the conclusion of Bram Stoker’s original tale; in this version, Van Helsing fails to defeat Dracula; the Count marries the widowed Queen Victoria, and becomes Prince Consort of The British Empire. A large number of vampires infiltrate British society, and take over the government. England now belongs to the undead. In Newman's world, many humans willingly allow themselves to be “turned” and become vampires to attain wealth or elevated social status. 

A mysterious killer is targeting vampire prostitutes, and it’s up to Charles Beauregard (a human agent of the mysterious Diogenes Club) and the vampire Geneviéve Dieudonné, to track down the killer and stop him. As the murders continue, anti-vampire sentiment rises; riots and public confrontations cause emotions to run high throughout England. Our heroes have both allies & enemies, many of whom have their own secrets and hidden agendas. Can this killer, dubbed “Jack The Ripper” be discovered and captured? Will the repercussions of these murders cause Dracula to lose the control he’s gained over England. Is there a plot to destroy him, and end the vampire's control over England?

Part of the fun in reading Newman’s engaging, deftly written & well-researched stories is that, in addition to his own original creations, he populates his saga with characters from a host of other fictional universes. It’s a kind of “mega-crossover.” Fans of fantastic fiction will enjoy appearances by and references to heroes & villains from many other books, comics and films, including Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Professor Moriarty, and Dr. Moreau. There are also real life historical personages appearing in the series, such as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Billy the Kid and John Merrick, better known as The Elephant Man. You’ll find yourself going back over the pages to spot the famous or infamous characters you might have missed; was that The Lone Ranger who just wandered by? Did Newman just insert The Invisible Man, Fu Manchu & Sherlock Holmes into the story?

The series continued in 1995 with The Bloody Red Baron, a very different spin on the exploits of the famed air ace. In that book, Dracula sides with the Kaiser during World War I, and tries to help Germany defeat England. The third entry in the series, Dracula Cha Cha Cha (1998) moves the action to Rome in the late 1950s, as a large cast of characters gather for the Count’s latest wedding. One of the guests is an undead secret agent named Bond, and you'll notice that Barnabas Collins, Tarzan and even Michael Corleone show up for the festivities. The fourth book in the saga, 2013’s Johnny Alucard, features Martin Sheen, Andy Warhol, Orson Welles and Francis Ford Coppola, who’s working on his epic film adaptation of Dracula, that's set to star Marlon Brando. There are also appearances by or allusions to pop culture icons like Jim Rockford, Columbo & Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

All of the titles in the series feature appendixes, additional material and notes from the author as “extras,” which detail the various books & films he’s referenced during these "metafiction" adventures. There will be a new entry in the series featured in Newman's upcoming short story collection, Anno Dracula 1899 & Other Stories. The prolific author has also written additional stories about The Diogenes Club, and a volume of tales about Professor Moriarty entitled The Hound of The D’Urbervilles. If you’re a fan of books like Philip Jose Farmer’s Newton-Wold stories, Alan Moore’s graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or TV series such as Penny Dreadful, the Anno Dracula series is recommended reading.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Dark Corners of the "House of Games"

When is a con not just a game?  When does curiosity cross the line into obsession? David Mamet’s intriguing thriller House of Games (1987) tries to answer these questions, and throws some additional puzzles into the mix. Lindsay Crouse plays Dr. Margaret Ford, a therapist who has just written a book on addiction. One of her patients is Billy, a gambling addict. He tells her that he owes a large sum of money to people who are going to kill him because he can't pay off his debt. She decides to intervene and heads to a gambling club called the House of Games, where the people Billy owe the money to hang out. There she meets an enigmatic con man named Mike (Joe Mantegna), who agrees to forgive Billy’s debt if she’ll pose as his girlfriend in a high stakes poker game, and watch for his opponents “tell.” After a surprise revelation at the end of the game, Margaret asks Mike to educate her on the art of the con. Her goal is to write a book about the world of con artists & criminals…but this is a request that the good Dr. Ford may come to regret.

What follows is an elaborate game of lies, misdirection & double-crosses, as Margaret gets drawn deeper into Mike’s world. She becomes obsessed with him, and gets addicted to the high she feels from getting away with a con. When a scheme to obtain a large sum of money goes wrong, she finds herself trapped in a web of deceit & murder. Just how deep is Margaret willing to go to understand the mind of a criminal? Can she extricate herself from the labyrinthine trap she's fallen into...and does she really want to? House of Games is an intriguing study of the contrasting personalities of the two lead characters. There's Crouse’s Margaret, a tightly wound professional who understands obsession because she's an obsessive herself; and Mantegna’s cynical yet magnetic con artist, who’s got a devil-may care attitude and is always one step ahead of the game …or is he?  To say too much more about the plot would spoil the fun; let’s just say you’ll enjoy this visit to the world of con men, grifters & their unlucky marks.

This film was playwright Mamet’s (Glengarry Glenn Ross) directorial debut, and he does a fine job bringing his twist-laden screenplay to life. Mamet has a true gift for wordplay, as he’s shown in so many of his stage plays & films. While some have criticized Mamet’s dialogue for being overly stylized, I think it’s perfect for this kind of story. The cast gets the cadences & feeling of the words just right. Much of the insight into these people comes from dramatic pauses, a look, or a line of dialogue that might have a double meaning, which is another Mamet trademark. The gritty cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia neatly captures the seedy look & shadowy corners of Mike’s world. The movie has a real film noir look & feel to it, which is well suited to the dark themes of the story. House of Games is a fascinating thriller, and it gets even better upon repeat viewings; it's a personal favorite of mine.

The performances are outstanding: Crouse (who was Mrs. Mamet at the time) gets a fantastic part to play; Mantegna shows us the star quality that led to so many other memorable roles after this film’s release. And there are some great supporting performances, including Ricky Jay, a young William H. Macy, and the late, great J.T. Walsh. The film is available from The Criterion Collection in an excellent DVD special edition. Extras include commentary from Mamet & Jay, a documentary on the making of the film, interviews with Mantegna & Crouse, and the film’s original trailer. If you’re looking for a smart thriller with an edge, House of Games is a safe bet. On another note: if you enjoy this movie, you might want to check out noir-ish thriller from Mamet, The Spanish Prisoner, which was released in 1997, and stars Campbell Scott & Steve Martin. Here’s a link to The Criterion Collection's site entry for their edition of House of Gameshttp://www.criterion.com/films/831-house-of-games.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Swimming Into "The Shallows"

For most viewers of a certain age, Jaws is still the standard bearer for shark films. There have been many variations on the story since that Steven Spielberg classic defined the summer popcorn movie upon its release in 1975. They include several sequels & inferior knock offs like 1977’s Orca, as well as entertaining B-flicks like 1999’s Deep Blue Sea, featuring super-intelligent predators facing off against Samuel L. Jackson. There’s also the ongoing Sharknado series, which spoofs both shark & disaster films and adds increasingly outlandish situations to each new entry. On the other end of the spectrum is 2016’s The Shallows, a well-made thriller starring Blake Lively. The shark in this film just might give Bruce from Jaws a run for his money.

Lively plays Nancy Adams, a medical student grieving the loss of her mother. She travels to a secluded beach in Mexico once visited by her mom, with her surfboard in tow. Nancy spends some time surfing & chatting with a couple of local natives. After they leave, she notices the carcass of a whale floating nearby. While riding one last wave solo, she is knocked off her board by a great white shark, and her leg is seriously injured in the attack. Nancy ends up swimming to a nearby rock, and has to temporarily bind her wounds. Meanwhile the shark is still circling, and threatening to finish her off…and the tide is coming in quickly.

What follows is a suspenseful tale of resourceful human vs. crafty shark, as Nancy tries to figure out a way to get to shore, and/or contact someone for help. Director Jaume Collet-Serra ratchets up the tension in several exciting & truly terrifying sequences. He wisely uses the CGI shark effects sparingly, and truly communicates the sense of menace & threat offered by this monstrous creature. Serra clearly learned from Spielberg’s “show less is more” technique from the original Jaws, which was forced upon him by technical issues with the mechanical shark on that film, and ended up being very effective in the final product. The movie's visually striking cinematography is by Flavio Labiano. 

Blake Lively does fine work here in a tough & physically demanding role; she did several of her own stunts in the movie. Her character is essentially on screen for the film’s entire running time. She effectively conveys Nancy’s range of emotions during this challenging situation, from the initial fear & hopelessness right on through to her incredible strength & determination to survive. There are several other actors that show up in the film in brief supporting parts, the most recognizable being character actor Brett Cullen, who plays Nancy’s father. But this is Lively’s show all the way, and she’s excellent. The movie is an exciting, well-produced survival story, and if you enjoy the genre, The Shallows is recommended viewing. The film is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and also for digital download. Here’s a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vPOpE-_42as.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Retro Movie: The Last of Sheila

In the intriguing mystery tale The Last of Sheila (1973) film producer Clinton Greene (James Coburn) invites a group of friends aboard his yacht for a week-long cruise. The onboard activities include a special "Gossip Game" in which everyone is given a card containing a secret. The object of the game is to discover everyone else’s secret, but protect your own. As the contest continues, it quickly becomes clear that our host has a far more serious & challenging sort of game in mind. It turns out that everyone on the cruise was present on the night Clinton’s wife was killed by a hit & run driver a year ago. Is our host looking to unmask the killer & get revenge for her untimely death?

As the story unfolds, we get to know the other passengers (or are they suspects?) including a once powerful agent (Dyan Cannon), a director (James Mason) who’s fallen on hard times, and a starlet (Raquel Welch) who's too big for her britches. Everyone seems to have a hidden agenda, a real secret outside of the game, or both. The friends (and sometimes enemies) interact & toss icy barbs & bon mots at each other as the game continues. Did one of the guests kill Sheila on that terrible night a year ago? Or was it really an accident? Will even more deaths result from this tricky & revealing game of cat & mouse? If there is a killer in the group, how far will he or she go to protect their secrets? What may have started as only a game is going to turn out to be very real, and very deadly.....very quickly. The excellent cast also includes Ian McShane, Richard Benjamin & Joan Hackett. Everyone is at the top of their game and throws themselves into their roles; you can see they're all having a great time.

There’s a lot of witty dialogue, courtesy of the script by Stephen Sondheim & Anthony Perkins, which pokes knowing fun at the movie business & its stars. Many of the characters are thinly disguised versions of real-life personalities. For example, Dyan Cannon's role is patterned after Hollywood super-agent Sue Mengers. The film's clever plot twists & turns are also a highlight for whodunit fans. Sondheim & Perkins were real life puzzle & mystery buffs. Both men used to host real-life event nights featuring intricate puzzles, murder mystery games & scavenger hunts. The Last of Sheila is an engrossing thriller that will keep you guessing throughout the story. I really enjoyed the movie when I first saw it on late night TV back in the 1970s, and its a title I tend to re-visit every so often. Even though I know the solution to the mystery, enjoy the rich performances & sharp writing. There was talk of a second collaboration between Sondheim & Perkins, but sadly, that project never materialized.

Director Herbert Ross is probably better known for movies like Funny Girl, The Sunshine BoysThe Goodbye Girl & Steel Magnolias, but he also directed the film version of the Nicholas Meyer Sherlock Holmes novel The Seven Percent Solution, which was released in 1976. That's the story where Holmes teams up with Sigmund Freud to solve a case. That movie is also worth a look for genre fans. But for now, sit back, relax, fix yourself a drink, and enjoy The Last of Sheila. You’ll have a lot of fun trying to figure out whodunit. The Last Of Sheila is available on DVD from the Warner Archive collection. The disc features an informative commentary track with stars Richard Benjamin, Dyan Cannon & Raquel Welch. The film also turns up occasionally on Turner Classic Movies. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EPLgmD_RTLU. And a note to music fans: yes, that is the one & only Bette Midler singing "Friends" over the movie's closing credits.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

An Offbeat & Funny Coming of Age Story

Every once in a while, I like to champion a film that readers of this blog may not have seen, but is well worth viewing. This time out, it’s a little movie called Son of Rambow (2007), a film by writer-director Garth Jennings & producer Nick Goldsmith, who also teamed up for the big screen version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in 2005. Son of Rambow is the story of two British school kids: Lee Carter, the requisite bad boy, and Will Proudfoot, a more shy young man, whose family belongs to a strict religious sect called the Plymouth Brethren. Due to his family’s beliefs, Will is not allowed to watch TV or see movies. When the two boys become friends after being thrown together by circumstance, Lee invites Will to star in a movie he’s making, inspired by First Blood (1982), the first appearance of RamboAfter seeing the Sylvester Stallone action film at Lee's house, Will agrees to participate in the project.

The two boys work on the film using video equipment they secretly borrow from Lee’s older brother, who’s something of a bully. Will hides their activities from his widowed mother, who’s struggling with her decision to leave the Brethren, and start a better life for her family. The boys' ideas for the movie become even more ambitious, and the rest of the school, including some French exchange students, become involved in the project. Lee intends to enter the finished movie in a young filmmaker’s competition. As their friendship grows stronger, both Will & Lee will find themselves tested as their personal lives interfere with the film they're making. Both boys must grow up a lot faster than they thought. Can their friendship survive? Will the movie get finished?

Son of Rambow is a charming story with a gentle & quirky sense of humor. In some ways, you can compare this film to the character driven, whimsical movies of director Bill Forsyth, like Gregory’s Girl (1981) or Local Hero (1983). It’s a coming of age story that has some laughs, a few tears, and leaves you smiling at the end. The movie gives you a real sense of the 1980s timeframe in which its set, with believable & relatable characters. The cast is very good, with Will Poulter as Lee and Bill Milner as Will giving wonderful performances. I highly recommend checking out this film, which is based on writer-director Jennings & producer Goldsmiths own childhood experiences in the 1980s. This is one of those "under the radar" type of films you'll definitely recommend to friends after seeing it. It’s a highly enjoyable movie; Son of Rambow is available on DVD. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnVt0tqT7YQ.