Sunday, December 22, 2013

Mitchum & Leigh Have A "Holiday Affair"

Robert Mitchum & Janet Leigh in Holiday Affair (1949)
When you think of holiday movie classics, several titles spring to mind: It’s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, White Christmas and several others. But there’s a Christmas film that you probably haven’t seen, which is also worth your time. It’s 1949’s Holiday Affair, with Robert Mitchum and Janet Leigh. What’s that, you say? Perennial tough guy Mitchum and Leigh, future star of Hitchcock’s Psycho, starring in a feel good holiday story? That’s right, folks. It’s a delightful movie that should be added to your holiday viewing list. Reportedly, RKO studio boss Howard Hughes made Mitchum star in the film to clean up his image after he was busted for marijuana possession.

 Leigh plays Connie, who buys an expensive train set at Crowley’s department store, where Steve (Mitchum) works. She returns it the next day, and he suspects she’s a comparison shopper for a rival store. Connie tells him she’s a widow who’s bringing up a child on her own. Instead of turning her in, he gives her a refund. Unbeknownst to her, Steve gets fired for this good deed. Later, he becomes close to Connie’s son Timmy, and vies with her boyfriend Carl for her affections. Will Connie end up with Carl, a steadfast lawyer, or Steve, who seems to better understand her and Timmy? The usual comic complications, misunderstandings and touching romantic comedy moments ensue in this funny, heartwarming film.

Mitchum proves he has a flair for light comedy; Leigh is charming as Connie. The supporting cast includes Gordon Gebert as Timmy, Wendell Corey as Carl and the one & only Harry Morgan as an understanding cop. Directed by Don Hartman, this is a charming story that holds up well on repeat viewings. Sadly, it’s out of print on DVD, but its shown regularly on Turner Classic Movies during the holiday season; in fact, it’s being aired on Christmas Eve at 4:15pm. A made for TV remake was produced in 1996, but stick with the original. If you’re looking for a sweet, enjoyable tale to watch during the Yuletide season, I recommend Holiday Affair. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZDQWM8Hsx8.

Happy Holidays to all my readers & fans! Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a fantastic New Year! Thanks for checking out Eclectic Avenue! Keep on visiting the blog in 2014!

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Echoes of the Past "Beyond the Pines"

Derek Cianfrance’s 2010 film Blue Valentine was a powerful portrait of a relationship gone awry. It featured searing performances by Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams. Now Cianfrance & Gosling have teamed up again for the compelling 2013 crime drama, The Place Beyond The Pines. It begins as the story of motorcycle stunt rider Luke Glanton (played by Gosling) who is touring the country with a traveling carnival. When he runs into an old flame, he discovers he fathered a child with her. He decides to quit the carnival, and remain in town to provide for the boy. Luke ends up turning to robbing banks to get money for his son. He has a fateful encounter with a young cop named Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) who will have to make some important & life-changing decisions of his own.

This generational crime saga ends up going in directions you don’t expect. It’s a story about fathers & sons and the choices they make. Luke & Avery are men whose decisions echo across the years, and affect the other people in their lives in ways they can’t comprehend. Are the results of these choices fated? Could things have gone differently if these men traveled a different road? Are the sins of the fathers revisited upon their sons? This is an effective, often darkly themed film that doesn’t offer any easy answers.

The cast is peppered with familiar faces, including Ray Liotta, Eva Mendes and veteran character actor Harris Yulin as Cross’ father. Gosling & Cooper are very good, and if you’re used to seeing Cooper in more comedic roles, he will surprise you here. The film has a good sense of atmosphere, and is well directed by Cianfrance. You can almost feel the pull of fate on these characters, and the bleak lives that drive them to make difficult & risky decisions. The movie reaches for an epic feel that sometimes isn’t there, and portions of the story could have used a deeper focus, but this is a challenging film that isn’t a cookie cutter thriller. It's well worth your time; Cianfrance is a talented filmmaker, and I look forward to his next project. The movie is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and online for various forms of digital viewing. If you’re seeking something a little out of the ordinary for movie night, I recommend checking out The Place Beyond The Pines. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zz5jTy_lukk.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Covers Gallery, Volume VIII



Our eighth collection of noteworthy remakes, re-workings & re-dos…...

1. You Better Move On - The Rolling Stones’ version of this Arthur Alexander track is from 1965’s December’s Children (And Everybody’s). The Stones & The Beatles were fans of Alexander’s music, and both groups recorded covers of his songs on their early albums.

2. Can You Get To That? - Mavis Staples - The one & only Ms. Staples grooves on this remake of a Funkadelic tune, from her latest album, One True Vine (2013).

3.  For A Dancer- Katey Sagal – Beautiful take on the Jackson Browne classic by the star of TV’s Sons of Anarchy, who has recorded with the likes of Bob Dylan & Bette Midler. This version is on her latest release, 2013’s Covered.

4. Wagon Wheel – Darius Rucker had a country hit with this cover of the The Old Crow Medicine Show song. It’s on the former Hootie & The Blowfish member’s 2013 solo disc, True Believers.

5. Long Time Gone –Billie Joe Armstrong (of Green Day) & Norah Jones teamed up this year to record their own edition of 1958’s Everly Brothers album, Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. This is one of the strongest selections on that 2013 collaboration, Foreverly.

6. Sleeping With the Television On – Power popper Kurt Baker rocks out on this remake of a track from Billy Joel’s Glass Houses. Baker’s version is on his 2012 EP Want You Around.

7. Jolene – The White Stripes – The alternative rockers cover Dolly Parton’s classic on their album Under Great White Northern Lights (2009).

8. Somebody’s Been Sleeping - Foghat - Originally recorded by 100 Proof Aged in Soul, a group created by Motown songwriters Holland-Dozier-Holland, British rockers Foghat recorded their take on the song for 1979’s Boogie Motel.

9. When I Write The Book – Andrea Re - The Nick Lowe/Rockpile hit is re-worked into a slow burning soul tune by Andrea Re. It’s from the 2001 tribute album Labour Of Love: The Music of Nick Lowe.

10. Stop Her On Sight (S.O.S.) - Marshall Crenshaw - Best known for his hit Someday, Someway, Crenshaw does a nice job with this live version of an Edwin Starr song. This is one of the bonus tracks on the reissue edition of his debut album, Marshall Crenshaw, originally released in 1982.

11. For What It’s Worth - Lou Rawls - 60s rock meets classic soul on Rawls’ cover of the Buffalo Springfield hit. It’s on the disc I Can't Make It Alone: The Axelrod Years.

12. Magnet & Steel – Popdudes faithfully re-do Walter Egan’s hit, from 2013’s Drink a Toast To Innocence: A Tribute To Lite Rock.

Bonus Track: Hush – Billy Joe Royal – A sort of reverse cover for our bonus song. Billy Joe Royal recorded this Joe South penned tune in 1967, before Deep Purple released the most well known version of the song in 1968. Royal’s original recording is on The Very Best of Billy Joe Royal: The Columbia Years 1965-1972.









Sunday, December 1, 2013

Family Secrets & Lies Surface in "Stoker"

The title family in the movie Stoker (2013) gives new meaning to the word dysfunctional. When her beloved father dies in an accident on her 18th birthday, India Stoker is distraught. Tensions grow between India and her emotionally distant mother, Evelyn. They are both surprised when her Uncle Charlie (who India didn’t know existed) comes to pay his respects. Charlie is handsome, good-looking and intelligent. But India is suspicious of him and the true reason for his visit. Charlie stays around after the funeral, and sets his sights on Evelyn. When India sees Charlie arguing with their housekeeper, who later disappears, it’s only the beginning of a mysterious & twisted series of events.

As Charlie & Evelyn grow closer, India becomes interested in Whip, a student at her school. Another relative visits, and tries to warn the women about Charlie, with tragic results. Things aren’t what they seem for any of these characters. Charlie’s motives are far more devious than they first appear, and the complex India may have some secrets of her own. The jumping off point for this intriguing film is the Alfred Hitchcock classic, Shadow of A Doubt (1943). In that tale, Joseph Cotten starred as another Uncle Charlie, who visits his family, and whose easygoing demeanor hides a dark truth. In fact this story’s Charlie is named in homage to Cotten’s character in the Hitchcock film. There’s also more than a touch of the movie The Bad Seed (1956) here as well.

Mia Wasikowska (who played the title role 2010’s Alice in Wonderland) is very good as India, finding the right balance between innocence & a growing sense of her own sensuality. Matthew Goode is excellent as the smooth talking, devious Charlie. And Nicole Kidman is very good as Evelyn, who is initially drawn in by Charlie’s charming ways, with terrifying results. The film is visually striking, with some startling images of both beauty and horror, thanks to the fine work of cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon. The evocative score is by Clint Mansell, and there’s a great choice of songs used in the background of a couple of key scenes. The screenplay is by actor Wentworth Miller, who starred in the TV series Prison Break, and the film marks the American debut of Korean director Park Chan-wook, best known for The Vengeance Trilogy.

To say much more about the story would give away its twists and turns; this is a fascinating psychological thriller. If there’s any problem with the the movie, it’s that you may find it a little hard to sympathize with any of the characters, but that’s a minor quibble with this eerie, unusual film. If you’re a fan of the TV series Bates Motel, American Horror Story or Twin Peaks, you’ll likely enjoy this offbeat tale. Stoker is available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1I2PMInn7M.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

What Lurks Inside Room 237?

Have you ever been deeply enthusiastic about a movie, album or book? Maybe you’ve talked about it over & over with fellow fans? Or perhaps kept looking for the true meanings of the images, words or music over & over in your mind? Well, you’ve got nothing on the people featured in the film Room 237 (2012). This documentary features a group of Über-fans discussing their theories on the subtext of Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 version of Stephen King’s novel The Shining. While the film wasn’t a huge success on its original release, and King wasn’t pleased with the final result, it has since gained a reputation as one of the better horror films of the period. It's now considered a classic of the genre. The Kubrick devotees featured in Room 237 think there’s a lot more lurking behind the doors of The Overlook Hotel than ghosts, corridors of blood & creepy twin girls.

The movie features clips from The Shining & other Kubrick films, and is narrated by these admirers of the director, who remain off camera. They discuss their views & opinions on the true themes of the movie. The Kubrick aficionados include Bill Blakemore, Juli Kearns & John Fell Ryan, among others. The theories they put forth about what Kubrick is really discussing beneath the surface of the film include the massacre of Native Americans by the white man, the Holocaust and the possible faking of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Few filmmakers inspire as much intense debate & offbeat interpretation among their fans as Kubrick does, and this group is no exception. It’s fascinating to see what some viewers feel is the true message of this unsettling horror tale. 

To paraphrase one of the Kubrick admirers featured, “Even if my view isn’t what he intended to say with the film, does that make it any less valid?” And that’s a good point. We all bring our own histories, interests & feelings with us when we watch a movie, see a play, read a book, or listen to a new album. My take on a piece of art may be very different from yours, but that doesn’t make it invalid. While some of these ideas regarding the subtext of The Shining are pretty far out, there’s no doubt that these people are passionate about this movie, and Kubrick’s work as a whole. The film’s one drawback is that the same clips are used multiple times to illustrate the theories being discussed.

We’re all fans of something, be it the work of a director, the performances of a certain actor, the work of an author, a type of TV show or film genre, or the music of a band we love. While most people don’t espouse their theories as publicly as the people featured in Room 237, on some level, we’ve all been deeply affected by a piece of entertainment. This film celebrates movie fans, movie analysis & movie love, and that’s a good thing. Room 237 was produced by Tim Kirk and directed by Rodney Ascher. It’s currently available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download & viewing. One final note that may be of interest to fans: In the original novel, the room number used by King was 217; Kubrick changed it to 237 for the film version. Here are links to the film’s trailers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOxukprEwjg & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rHE5YUNkssQ.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

John Fogerty Takes the Oakdale Theatre on a Trip to "Bayou Country" & Beyond

John Fogerty’s songs (both with Creedence Clearwater Revival & solo) have become part of the American lexicon, so it’s no surprise that he played to a packed house at the Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford, CT on Saturday, November 9. He’s touring in support of his new album, Wrote A Song For Everyone, on which he re-recorded some of his classic tunes with artists like Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban, Bob Seger, Dawes and Kid Rock. On this tour, he’s performing a CCR album in its entirety each night, followed by some additional songs. Before the concert started, a slide show related some information on John’s life & music. Then a brief series of video clips & photos from throughout his career continued as the lights came down. It was a nice way to start the show, and a further reminder of his standing as a rock icon, and of the many memorable songs he's written and recorded.

 Fogerty took the stage, launched into the CCR hit “Hey Tonight” and followed it up with a fantastic, swamp-infused version of "Born On The Bayou." This kicked off almost two and a half hours of classic rock & roll. At this show, he played 1969’s Bayou Country, (though he saved one song from the album for the encore) and a host of other CCR and solo classics. It’s amazing to think there was a long period in the 1980s where he didn’t play any CCR material live at all, due to long standing legal battles with his record company regarding ownership of his music. But those issues are long past; John was shredding the guitar, jamming with his band and running back & forth across the stage, looking like he was about half his 68 years. His voice sounded great as well. He was having a ball, and seemed to have an endless supply of energy throughout the night.

 Song after song had the crowd singing along, cheering and dancing; How can you stay seated when you hear “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” or “Up Around The Bend?” There were also a few stories, including a funny one about CCR following The Grateful Dead at Woodstock, and playing to a sleepy (or was that stoned?) audience at 2:30 in the morning, which was followed by a phenomenal version of "Who''ll Stop The Rain?" The band was nothing short of amazing, offering stellar support; the group included veteran rocker Kenny Aronoff on drums, Bob Malone on keyboards, James Lomanzo on bass and Devon Pangle & John's son Shane, both on guitar. This was truly a talented group of musicians, and John clearly enjoyed playing with them, as well as hanging back on occasion and giving them each a chance to take the spotlight. His sheer joy & enthusiasm was contagious, and the audience loved every minute of this epic show.

Other highlights included an audience participation version of “The Midnight Special” and a lengthy, super-charged take on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” after which John called Aronoff “the greatest rock & roll drummer in the world.” The last portion of the show was a non-stop parade of electric, full tilt rock & roll, ranging from a cover of Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" to the CCR staple “Down on the Corner” as well as the 1985 comeback hits “Centerfield” and “The Old Man Down The Road.” The show reached a climax with a blistering version of the classic “Fortunate Son." When John & the band returned for the double-barreled encore of “Bad Moon Rising” & “Proud Mary” the crowd roared its approval. This was a wonderful night of music, celebrating not only John’s musical legacy, but also the enduring power of rock & roll.

Set List:
Hey Tonight
Born On The Bayou
Bootleg
Good Golly Miss Molly
Penthouse Pauper
Graveyard Train
Keep On Chooglin'
Joy Of My Life
Green River
Porterville
Who’ll Stop The Rain?
I Heard It Through The Grapevine
Lookin’ Out My Back Door
Mystic Highway
Ramble Tamble
Hot Road Heart
Commotion
Long As I Can See The Light
The Midnight Special
Have You Ever Seen The Rain?
Oh, Pretty Woman
Down On The Corner
Centerfield
Up Around The Bend
The Old Man Down The Road
Fortunate Son
Encore:
Bad Moon Rising
Proud Mary

Here are links to John performing "Fortunate Son" with Foo Fighters: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWOWGZ_xX0U, "Looking Out My Back Door" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4tRZG5qRDaw and "Wrote A Song For Everyone," with Miranda Lambert, from the album of the same name, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgkBJJOPl-Y. And here's a link to a previous post containing a review of Wrote A Song For Everyone: http://jveclectic.blogspot.com/2013/06/new-releases-from-john-fogerty-natalie.html.

Next time: A visit to Room 237

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The "Rocket Man" Flies High at Bridgeport's Harbor Yard Arena

We knew it going to be a special evening at Bridgeport’s Harbor Yard Arena (aka Webster Bank Arena) last night when Elton John’s cello players (who tour & record on their own as 2Cellos) started the show by powering through covers of “Smooth Criminal” & “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” That got the crowd warmed up for what turned out to be an incredible show. It was the opening night on Elton’s tour to support his current release, The Diving Board. But this wasn’t just about selling copies of the new album, or a perfunctory run through of “greatest hits.” Elton and his band roared through an energetic, passionate two & a half hour set that touched on music from throughout his long career, hitting several emotional touchstones for his fans throughout the night.

Opening with a powerful version of the classic “Funeral for a Friend\Love Lies Bleeding,” we were treated to a set packed with classics, which included such iconic songs as “Levon, Philadelphia Freedom, Tiny Dancer and Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me.” But there were also a few album cuts and surprises, such as: "Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock & Roll)” and “All The Young Girls Love Alice” from 1973’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, an album which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. And how about a performance of a deep cut like "Holiday Inn" from Madman Across The Water (1971)? Elton also performed several songs from The Diving Board, including “Home Again” and  “Oceans Away.” This was a show filled with musical high points, but for this fan, two of the best numbers were “Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters,” from 1972’s Honky Chateau, and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” from 1975’s autobiographical Captain Fantastic & The Brown Dirt Cowboy. Elton also did a solo turn at the piano, performing the title cut of his 1992 album, The One.

Elton performing live on a previous tour
Elton & his band were in fine form, rocking out and encouraging the audience to have a good time. It was clear from their enthusiastic performances that they were having as much fun as we were. Though he referred a few times to almost losing his voice, Elton sounded great, and had an incredible amount of energy. It was wonderful to see longtime sidemen Davey Johnstone (guitar) & Nigel Olsson (drums) looking happy to still be jamming with him after all these years. The entire band was wonderful, including an amazing quartet of backup singers: Tata Vega, Jean Witherspoon, Lisa Stone & her mom Rose Stone, who was a founding member of Sly & The Family Stone. Also on board for the show were Matt Bissonette on bass, Kim Bullard on keyboards and John Mahon on percussion.

There’s no doubt that Elton is a master showman, and he knows how to put on a great concert; not only was the music stellar, but the lighting effects & production were fantastic during the show as well. Elton mentioned that he keeps doing what he’s doing because of his love of the music & performing, and the support of his fans. In fact, before he began the encore, he walked along the front of the stage and actually signed items for people for a few minutes. You don't see many people at Elton's level of fame doing that at a show. To say he had the audience in the palm of his hand might be understating things. As a fan from way back (yes I owned his albums on vinyl), I’m a little biased on the subject, but of the three times I’ve seen Elton, this amazing night in the Park City may have been the best yet. I was moved, I was transported (lots of memories brought back during the show), I was rocked & rolled, I was energized, and I was thoroughly entertained. Thanks for a great night, Sir Elton.

Set List:
Funeral For A Friend/Love Lies Bleeding
Bennie & The Jets
Candle In The Wind
Grey Seal
Levon
Tiny Dancer
Holiday Inn
Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters
Believe
Philadelphia Freedom
Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Rocket Man
Hey Ahab
I Guess That’s Why They Call It The Blues
The One
Oceans Away
Voyeur
Someone Saved My Life Tonight
Sad Songs Say So Much
All The Young Girls Love Alice
Home Again
Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me
I’m Still Standing
The Bitch Is Back
Your Sister Can’t Twist (But She Can Rock & Roll)
Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting
Encore: 
Your Song
Crocodile Rock

Here are links to Elton performing “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z314pQhLb2Q & "Mona Lisas & Mad Hatters," http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UrOu0oc9aB4 "Someone Saved My Life Tonight" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJSeDujoC4c and “opening act” 2Cellos covering “Smooth Criminal”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mx0xCI1jaUM&feature=share.

Next time: John Fogerty rocks The Oakdale Theatre

Sunday, November 3, 2013

A Question of "Gravity"

Gravity (2013) is a fantastic film with solid work from George Clooney & Sandra Bullock. It’s essentially a two-character drama played out on the vast canvas of space. During a mission to perform service on the Hubble Space Telescope, a Russian missile strike on a defunct satellite causes a storm of debris. The space shuttle Explorer is damaged & rendered unusable by the debris, and astronaut Matt Kowalksi (Clooney) and Mission Specialist Dr. Ryan Stone must get to the International Space Station. With a dwindling air supply and not many options, our heroes have to race against time to find an alternate way home. And that’s essentially the story; it’s a simple tale that is well told & excitingly played out.

The film is equal parts character study, science-fiction adventure and a survival against the odds thriller. Clooney & Bullock prove why they’re movie stars with excellent performances that play up the personality traits we love about them, yet add some depth to what could have been stock characters in the hands of lesser actors. Bullock in particular gives a fine, emotionally layered portrayal.The film is visually dazzling, with wonderful production design, effects work & cinematography.The 3D here is effective as well; while it's not overwhelming, it adds another level of depth & reality to the story, creating an immersive experience. While many current movies don’t seem worth going out to the theater to view, this is one film that cries out to be seen on an Imax screen.

Directed, produced & co-written by Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men, Harry Potter & The Prisoner of Azkaban), this is a meticulously designed, shot & edited film. Cuaron & his crew should be commended for producing one of the best-looking science-fiction films of recent years. There are some interesting perspective shots, camera angles & of course, those beautiful space & star field vistas you’ll view during the film. But for all its grand scale, there’s still a kind of closeness & a “you are there” feeling. You’ll sense that you’re right there with the characters as they experience every trial, tribulation & success as the story unfolds. At the time of this writing, Gravity is still in theaters; this is one of those movies that lives up to its advance hype; see it on the big screen before it finishes up its first run. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OiTiKOy59o4.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

October Scares: The Haunting

We conclude our fright fest for this year with a brief look at a very eerie house. The Haunting (1963) is widely regarded by fans & critics as one of the best horror films of all time. Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) heads a group of people who are going to investigate unusual activity in a mansion called Hill House. It’s a supposedly haunted dwelling where unexplained events & several mysterious deaths have occurred. The others in the group are: Theodora (Claire Bloom), a psychic; Luke (Russ Tamblyn), a member of the family that currently owns the house, and the meek, sensitive Eleanor. As the quartet settles in, strange things begin to happen; doors seem to move by themselves, there are odd noises & ghostly apparitions. Most of the paranormal events affect Eleanor. Her delicate psyche appears to the target of the forces in the house, and the ghostly presence seems to focus on events in her own life. What's the real secret of Hill House? Will the house possess Eleanor, and consume her mind & soul?

The movie is based on the Shirley Jackson novel, The Haunting of Hill House. Director Robert Wise previously worked with iconic horror producer Val Lewton, and his influence is strongly felt here. It’s a visually interesting film; the horror is suggested rather than shown. What you don't see scares you more than what you do see. The actors are all excellent in their roles, but Julie Harris is a particular standout as Eleanor, whose fractured mind may reflect the ominous events occurring in the house. It’s a movie that works well as a psychological thriller, in addition to being a solid ghost story. Long a favorite of famous fans like Stephen King & Martin Scorsese, The Haunting is a classic tale of terror. The movie would be perfect viewing for Halloween or a cold winter’s night. The Haunting has just been released on Blu-ray and features a commentary by members of the cast & crew that was ported over from a previous DVD release. Here's a link to the trailer for The Hauntinghttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A-zIjOnl7ms.

Silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.” - From the novel by Shirley Jackson

Saturday, October 19, 2013

October Scares: A Double Feature with Haunted Carnivals & Eerie Mermaids


Carnival of Souls (1962) is one of those films that truly fits the definition of the term “cult movie.” Made on a small budget, it retains its reputation as an offbeat exercise in horror. The story concerns Mary Henry, who survives a car accident after a drag race. She then heads to Utah to begin a new job as a church organist. But as she settles into her new surroundings, a ghostly man keeps appearing and haunting her. She also has moments where she feels disconnected from reality, and it seems no one can see or hear her. And why is she being drawn to an abandoned carnival outside town? Is she being pursued by an otherworldly prescence, or is there a more terrifying answer to why these events are centered on her?

The ultimate reveal in the movie will seem familiar to today’s audiences, who have seen similar stories on TV shows like The Twilight Zone, and in films like The Sixth Sense, but it works very well here. It’s a tribute to the cast & crew that they get so much out of so little. There are some truly spooky sequences that really stay with you after viewing the movie. Producer-director Herk Harvey, who had previously worked on educational & industrial films, shot the movie on location in Utah. He employed mostly local actors, except for lead Candace Hilligoss. Amazingly, Hilligoss (who’s excellent in her role) only made one other film and did a few TV appearances and some stage work; it’s this role for which genre fans remember her.

While it was not a success on its original release, Carnival of Souls gained fans from countless late night TV showings and occasional festival screenings over the years. The movie has influenced many filmmakers, including George Romero & David Lynch. I remember seeing it on late night TV as a kid. It was unsettling, and it left you feeling uneasy, like you'd just seen something very different from the usual horror fare. This is a strange, offbeat film that plays more like a meditation on life & death than a straight on terror tale. The movie had fallen into the public domain for many years, and inferior video copies were available in bargain bins at your local video store. In 2000, the outstanding specialty label The Criterion Collection released an excellent two-disc edition of the film that includes two versions of the movie, a retrospective documentary and other extras. It’s still in print and available for purchase at online retailers. The movie is also available for digital download & viewing on various sites.

Another effective thriller from the same period is Curtis Harrington’s Night Tide (1961). While it’s not really a horror film, it’s another atmospheric story that will appeal to old school genre fans. A lonely sailor named Johnny (Dennis Hopper in an early role) enters a relationship with a woman named Mora, who performs as a mermaid in a sideshow at the marina. People keep telling him that her previous boyfriends have all met mysterious ends, and Mora (Linda Lawson) believes she may actually be a mermaid. As their relationship continues, a mysterious woman stalks Mora; she appears to know about Mora’s past, and warns her that her true nature will show itself. Is she really descended from the sea people? Who is killing the men Mora’s been dating? What does Murdock, the owner of the sideshow, know about all this?

Writer-director Harrington went on to a long career in TV & movies, including making the twist-laden mystery Games (1967), which starred James Caan & Katherine Ross. Here he evokes the mist-shrouded style of films such as producer Val Lawton’s Cat People (1942). Harrington was a fan of Lewton’s work & the influence on Night Tide is clear; there could be a supernatural explanation for some of the film’s events, but you’re never sure. What is evident is that some of the characters believe there are other forces at work, and that informs their choices in the story. The film is well directed; despite its low budget, the movie manages to convey an effective sense of the uncanny. Night Tide is another film that I recall seeing on WPIX's “Chiller Theatre” in my younger days, and I always remembered it, though I hadn’t seen it in many years, until I recently viewed it again on Turner Classic Movies. The movie has recently been released in a new, remastered edition on both Blu-ray & DVD by Kino Video; extras include a commentary by Harrington & Hopper, and a video interview with Harrington from 1987.

While I love the Universal horror classics of the 30s & 40s & many of the sci-fi & horror films of the 50s & 60s, sometimes it’s the more offbeat, spooky films like Carnival of Souls & Night Tide that get rooted in your psyche. They may not be as scary as you remember them, but they can still get under your skin, and find their way into the darker corners of your mind. Here are links to the trailers for Carnival of Souls: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkTz0EvfEiY and Night Tide: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LF6gPQh5t0A.

Next: Our Fright-Fest concludes with two very haunted houses