Friday, May 26, 2017

Jacques Tourneur's World of Shadows

Jacques Tourneur
Director Jacques Tourneur helped define two of my favorite film genres: film noir and horror. Tourneur got his first taste of the movie business when his father, French filmmaker Maurice Tourneur, moved to the US to work in the movie industry. They later moved back to France, but Jacques returned to the US in 1934. While working on the 1935 production of A Tale of Two Cities, he met Val Lewton. It was an occasion that would change Tourneur’s life. When producer Lewton was putting together a crew to make a series of low budget thrillers for RKO, he asked Tourneur to join his team. Their collaboration resulted in Cat People, I Walked with a Zombie (both released) and 1943’s The Leopard Man, three of the best horror films of the 1940s. These movies helped re-invent the look and feel of horror films. Tourneur, Lewton and the rest of their crew used shadows, light and sound to suggest that the greatest terror of all might be lurking in the characters’ own psyches. Tourneur was instrumental in helping shape the visual language and style of these films. Their success got him promoted to helming "A" pictures for RKO, such as 1944’s Experiment Perilous, starring Hedy Lamarr, and the 1946 Western Canyon Passage.

Robert Mitchum & Jane Greer in Out of the Past
In 1947, Tourneur directed Out of the Past; perhaps the most archetypal film noir of all. The story concerns Jeff Bailey, who owns a gas station in the small town of Bridgeport, California. He’s dating a local girl named Ann, and seems content with life. But his past comes calling in the person of Joe Stefanos, who works for gangster Whit Sterling. Whit needs Jeff to do a favor for him. It’s the only way Jeff can make up for some bad choices he made on a previous assignment for Whit. It seems that Jeff, Whit and Whit’s girl, Kathie, have a very complicated history. Jeff agrees to do the job, hoping it will free him of both Whit and Kathie once and for all. But Jeff gets caught in an ever-tightening web of deceit, lies and murder. And since this is noir territory, there isn't likely to be a happy ending.

That’s a brief summary of the complex plot of this quintessential noir, which features Robert Mitchum at his cool, sardonic best as Jeff and Kirk Douglas, who’s quite effective (and icily menacing) in an early role as Whit. Then there’s Jane Greer as Kathie, one of the most beautiful, calculating, alluring and deadly femme fatales ever to grace the screen. It’s one of the most memorable triangles in the genre. This top-notch cast gets to utter some razor sharp (and quotable) dialogue, courtesy of screenwriter Daniel Mainwaring, who adapted his 1946 novel Build My Gallows High for the screen. The film’s visual palette tells the story as much as the characters and their actions. The twisty structure of the narrative includes a lengthy flashback sequence; it’s an unforgettable viewing experience. Tourneur used the techniques he honed in his work with Lewton, and brought them to brilliant new heights in the film. If you're looking to watch a movie that truly radiates the essence of film noir, look no further than Out of the Past.

In many ways, the film is a story of obsession: Kathie’s with Jeff, Whit’s with Kathie, and Jeff’s longing to have a peaceful life with Ann, the normal girl from a small town. It’s the stunning look and visual motifs of the film that helps brings this theme across, courtesy of director Tourneur and master cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca, who had worked with Tourneur on Cat People. The lighting of Greer’s entrance as Kathie is one of the most famous scenes in all of film noir. Several other memorable set pieces, including a fire-lit sequence in a mountain cabin, bring out the true essence of Kathie’s dark side. You can almost see (and feel) the tendrils of Jeff’s fate closing around him. After the triumph of Out of the Past, Tourneur continued to direct films in a variety of genres, including Berlin Express, The Flame and the Arrow, and Great Day in the Morning. Then, the director made another visit to the ominous world of subdued terror, and the darkness within.

Niall McGinnis & Dana Andrews in Curse of the Demon
Tourneur returned to Lewton-esque territory in 1957 with Curse of the Demon. The film stars Dana Andrews as Dr. John Holden, an American psychologist and researcher, who arrives in London for a conference. Holden becomes enmeshed in a series of deadly events after the death of a colleague, Dr. Harrington. His investigation into Harrington’s death leads him into conflict with Dr. Julian Karswell, a charming but sinister mystic. Harrington had planned to expose Karswell as a fraud. But Karswell appears to possess unearthly powers, and is the head of a strange cult. Holden’s a skeptic who doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but as he delves deeper into these mysterious occurrences, his beliefs are turned upside down. As evil forces threaten him, Holden may have to accept that the supernatural is very real.

Dana Andrews gives a good performance as Holden, who resolutely believes only in what he can see, until his eyes are opened to a shadowy new reality. Peggy Cummins (who stole the show in the well-regarded 1949 noir Gun Crazy) offers solid support as Harrington’s niece, Joanna, who aids Holden in his investigation. But it’s Niall McGinnis who steals the movie as the urbane, suavely evil Karswell. In a way, Holden and Karswell are as obsessed as the characters in Out of the Past: Holden can’t see past the rational world until it’s almost too late, and Karswell believes his faith in the dark forces he serves will sustain him, no matter what. Curse of the Demon has some atmospheric sequences and good scares that recall the best of Tourneur’s work with Lewton. The significant difference here is that we do see the demon, at the beginning and climax of the film, so there’s no doubt that the threat is real. Some film historians have suggested that producer Hal E. Chester insisted that more shots of the monster be added to the movie over Tourneur’s objections. But in the context of the story, the creature’s appearance works, and is quite well done. In fact, the use of images, shadow and sound during the demon’s manifestations is vintage Tourneur.

The UK version of the film, entitled Night of the Demon, runs slightly longer, and features some additional scenes. Some viewers prefer the longer UK cut, others prefer the US version. I think both are effective in their own way, though the UK version gives Niall McGinnis more of a chance to shine in his role as Karswell. Both versions of the film are available on a “double feature” DVD released by Columbia/Tri-Star in 2002. Whatever version you choose to watch, the film is an excellent chiller that showcases Tourneur’s unique talents. He would go on to direct several more feature films, including the enjoyable 1963 horror spoof The Comedy of Terrors, featuring Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone. Tourneur also worked behind the camera in television, directing episodes of series like The Twilight Zone and The Wild Wild West. He passed away in 1977, but left behind an impressive body of work that has influenced filmmakers as diverse as Martin Scorsese and Mario Bava. If you're new to his films, Tourneur's oeuvre is worth a look, or if you're a longtime fan like I am, his filmography is certainly worth re-visiting.

This post is part of the "Favorite Director" Blogathon, hosted by my fellow bloggers at Phyllis Loves Classic Movies and The Midnite Drive-In. I'd like to thank them for having me as part of the Blogathon. To view the other entries, and get more info, please follow this link: http://phyllislovesclassicmovies.blogspot.com/2017/05/the-favorite-director-blogathon-is-here.html. Thanks for reading!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Let's Pay a Visit to "Corman's World"

Attack of The Crab Monsters. Rock 'n' Roll High School. Piranha. If any of these titles sound familiar to you, then you know we’re talking about the work of producer-director Roger Corman, long heralded as the “King of The B’s.” In the excellent documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, we get a comprehensive look at the history of this unique filmmaker. He's the man behind the original Little Shop of Horrors, who helped launch the careers of actors like Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda, as well as directors Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich and Ron Howard. Corman elevated the B movie to a whole new level with a combination of guts, style, business savvy and an eye for recognizing real talent.
Corman is legendary for completing films in record time and under budget, and always turning a profit. The documentary sketches a brief profile of Roger’s early years, and reveals how he initially produced a couple of profitable low budget films on his own. Then he signed a deal with B movie distributors American International Pictures. While at AIP, Corman found great success with films like Not of This Earth, The Day The World Ended and Rock All Night. These movies would primarily be distributed to drive-ins, where teenage audiences loved them. Focusing on that market, Corman put out one successful film after another, in a variety of genres. He often had actors double-up in roles either in front of or behind the camera. Corman perfected what came to be known as guerrilla filmmaking, shooting quickly, on location, and often without permits. He'd even use the sets from one film to complete another before he took them down!

In the 1960s, Corman cemented his reputation by producing & directing a series of stylish Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, most of which starred Vincent Price, including House of Usher (1960) and The Pit & The Pendulum (1961). These atmospheric movies were filmed in color and had higher budgets than the normal Corman fare. They remain well regarded to this day, and helped start an entire cycle of Poe-inspired films. Corman also branched out into other genres, including the biker movie. He directed The Wild Angels (1966) starring Peter Fonda (three years before Fonda starred in Easy Rider) and Bruce Dern. Fonda was also featured in the LSD drama The Trip (1967), which was written by Jack Nicholson, who had become a member of Corman’s stock company. After a falling out with AIP, Corman decided to form his own production company, New World Pictures, through which he released his films during the 1970s and 80s. New World's output included films such as Grand Theft AutoDeath Race 2000 and Battle Beyond the Stars.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011) features insightful interviews with many of the people who were hired and mentored by Corman, including Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Bruce Dern, Joe Dante, David Carradine, and Pam Grier. There are also some remarks from famous fans like Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth. Of course, we get a few comments from Roger himself, and some clips from his films. And we learn a few other things about Corman, including how he worked to help important foreign films such as Fellini’s Amarcord and Bergman’s Cries & Whispers gain wider release in the US. This is a fun, informative, and at times touching portrait of a true outsider who succeeded in Hollywood despite the odds, and gave a lot of people their first breaks in the business. Everyone who talks about Corman in the film has fond (and often funny) memories of and stories about working with him, and it’s interesting to see Jack Nicholson get genuinely emotional during his interview. Corman received an honorary Oscar in 2009, and there is a clip from that ceremony included in the movie.

Corman’s World was written & directed by Alex Stapleton. The film is currently available on DVD and Blu-ray. Both releases of the movie include “Extended Interviews” and “Special Messages to Roger” as well as the film's theatrical trailer. The extended interviews and special messages are delightful (including some further comments from Ron Howard & Martin Scorsese) and worth watching after viewing the main feature. If you’re a fan of genre filmmaking, you’ll really enjoy this look at the man behind such movies as Frankenstein Unbound, It Conquered The WorldGalaxy of Terror and Boxcar Bertha. Just watch out for The Beast With 1,000,000 Eyes! Here's a link to the film's trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngsD17ZAglE.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Music of James Bond.....Is Back

James Bond. The iconic character created by Ian Fleming has thrilled us with his big screen adventures since 1962’s Dr. No. But what’s the most memorable aspect of the films. The gadgets? The beautiful women? The action sequences set in exotic locales? Or is it the music, more specifically, the title songs? Andrew Curry, the mastermind behind the excellent albums Drink A Toast To Innocence: A Tribute To Lite Rock (saluting the rock and pop of the 70s) and Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasion (paying tribute to British bands of the MTV-era 80s), now turns his attention to Agent 007’s musical legacy. Songs. Bond Songs: The Music of 007, features a talented group of indie artists providing their versions of the theme songs to every 007 film, including the two “unofficial” Bonds: “The Look of Love” from 1967’s Casino Royale and the title track from 1983’s Never Say Never Again. This Kickstarter funded release is another fantastic "don't miss it" album from the Curry Cuts label.

The disc features some faithful covers, including Lisa Mychol’s energetic version of “The Man With The Golden Gun” and Popdudes’ appropriately rocking take on “Live & Let Die.” But there are also some stunning re-interpretations, including Freedy Johnston’s lovely acoustic rendering of “For Your Eyes Only,” Jay Gonzalez’ nifty bossa nova reading of “A View To a Kill” and Big-Box Store’s pared down version of “Die Another Day,” which I actually prefer to the original. The great thing about these songs is that while they often reflect the era in which they were first released, these well-crafted tunes definitely lend themselves to clever re-imaginings. So we get to enjoy the George Harrison-esque guitar (and Roy Orbison style vocal) on Gary Frenay’s version of “Moonraker” and dig Jaret Reddick’s pop/punk ride through “Thunderball,” which toughens up the Tom Jones original.

I have to admit I was really excited for this project, as I’m a longtime Bond fan who remembers sitting down in front of the TV and watching the movies on ABC, and as I got older, heading out to see them in theaters. One thing that surprised me about this album is that it enriched my appreciation of songs which really didn’t make that strong of an impression on me when I first heard them. For example, “All Time High” from 1983’s Octopussy, was never one of my favorites, but the excellent version by Zach Jones on this album had me re-evaluating the song. Minky Starshine's groovy remake of "Never Say Never Again" definitely surpasses the so-so Lani Hall version used for the film in which Sean Connery returned to the role of 007. Identical Suns amps up the guitars on their excellent rendition of "Goldenye," originally performed by Tina Turner. And I really enjoyed Cliff Hillis’ interpretation of “Writing’s on the Wall,” from 2015’s Spectre, originally recorded by Sam Smith. Hillis offers a compelling alternate take on that Oscar winning composition.

I haven’t even touched on the excellent contributions from Brandon Schott, Ryan Hamilton, Look Park (featuring Chris Collingwood of Fountains of Wayne) and Lannie Flowers, who gets the honor of providing his version of the classic “James Bond Theme.” All of the performers who worked on this album are clearly passionate about the music of 007, and it shows. As with the previous releases from Curry Cuts, I think you’ll be spinning this superb collection of music over and over, and discovering new favorites each time you listen. Whether you're a dyed in the wool Bond fan or a hip indie music aficionado, you'll really enjoy this record. It's one of the best releases of the year. Kudos to Andrew Curry, his team, and the artists who once again hit it out of the park with Songs. Bond Songs: The Music of 007. Here are links to the page where you can order the album: https://currycuts.bandcamp.com/album/songs-bond-songs-the-music-of-007, the video for Lisa Mychols’ awesome version of “The Man With The Golden Gun” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8j62GPN1_M, and a very cool promotional video for the release: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xydKx6EqUsc.

Author's Note: To read my coverage of the previous releases from Curry Cuts, you can follow these links for my thoughts on Drink A Toast To Innocence: A Tribute To Lite Rockhttp://jveclectic.blogspot.com/2013/07/all-hits-all-songs.html, and Here Comes The Reign Again: The Second British Invasionhttp://jveclectic.blogspot.com/2014/09/here-comes-reign-again-second-british.html. And for more on Songs. Bond Songs: The Music of 007, check out my interview with producer Andrew Curry over at Culture Sonarhttp://www.culturesonar.com/james-bond-theme-songs/.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Fred Dekker's "Creeps" Thrills & Chills

What movie combines elements of the sci-fi, horror and teen romance genres, and throws in a hard-boiled cop straight out of an action movie as a bonus? That would be 1986’s Night of the Creeps. The movie opens aboard a spacecraft, where two aliens attempt to stop a third from launching something from the ship. Cut to a black & white scene on Earth in the late 1950s. A couple on a date at Lover’s Lane sees something fall from the sky, and the guy goes to investigate; he makes a discovery, but meets a strange fate. Meanwhile, an ax-wielding escaped mental patient stalks & kills the girl, despite the fact that a young cop (who has a crush on her) had earlier warned her & her date to go home. We haven't made it too far into the movie, and we're already mashing up the genres!

Fast forward to the 80s and we’re at Corman (yes, it's a shout out to B-movie king Roger) University, where good buddies Chris & C.J. are trying to pledge a fraternity so Chris can impress a pretty coed named Cynthia. While C.J. thinks it's a dumb idea, he goes along with the idea to support his friend. As part of their initiation the frat members ask them to steal a body from the university med lab and dump it on a rival house’s front steps. When our heroes break into the lab, they find a cryogenically frozen body (hey, it's the guy from the 1950s prologue!)….who apparently isn’t dead! Suddenly, dead bodies are getting up & walking around, possessed by alien parasites, and a tough cop named Cameron (who's dealing with a few demons of his own) has to help Chris, C.J. & Cynthia fight off the terror of the...Night of the Creeps! As Detective Cameron says in the film "Thrill me."

B movie veteran Tom Atkins (The FogEscape From New York) shines as Cameron, the tough as nails cop who wouldn't be out of place in a Dirty Harry movie. He gets the movies' best lines, including the classic: “I’ve got good news & bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here.” When one girl asks “What’s the bad news?” His reply is “They’re dead.” The cast are all note perfect in their roles, including Jason Lively as Chris & Jill Whitlow as Cynthia. You'll also catch character actor David Paymer (Get ShortyThe American President, TV's The Good Wife) in a brief but noteworthy cameo. Everyone involved with the film obviously knew the tone & balance Dekker was trying to achieve. Night of the Creeps never gets too campy for its own good.

Tom Atkins takes aim in Night of the Creeps
Director-writer Fred Dekker grew up as a “Monster Kid” who clearly loved horror, sci-fi and fantasy films. He's a talented filmmaker, and the film isn't just a retread. Night of the Creeps is a well-tuned pastiche of genres, and there are many references (including character & place names) to famous writers & directors of fantastic films. If you're a fan of horror & sci-fi films from the 50s through the 70s, you'll find a lot to enjoy while watching this one. In addition to Night of the Creeps, Dekker directed & co-wrote another horror film from the 80s, The Monster Squad (1987), where a group of neighborhood kids face off against the classic Universal Monsters; it’s kind of like The Goonies meet Dracula & Frankenstein. These films are clever, affectionate homages to the fright flicks of the past. However, they're more than "B" films, though they fit squarely into that genre. These are solidly made, entertaining movies that old (and new fans) can enjoy.

There’s a lot of humor to be sure, but also good scares & a couple of darker moments as well. The movie is available on DVD & Blu-ray, and has some wonderful extras, including cast & crew commentaries and a making of documentary. The disc versions also feature the original ending, which Dekker reluctantly changed after a test screening. The theatrical ending is now included as part of the extras. As for The Monster Squad (a personal favorite of mine), the extras-laden “20th Anniversary Edition” from Lionsgate is now out of print (though used copies can be found online) but it has recently been re-released in a movie-only version by Olive Films. My review of that film can be found here: http://jveclectic.blogspot.com/2016/02/retro-movie-monster-squad.html.

Dekker's films were a little under-appreciated at the time of their original release, but have gained a cult reputation; they've spawned several revival screenings & cast reunions in recent years. I recommend checking out these movies if you're a fan of these genres. I think you'll find them both entertaining, with some likable characters & neat little moments that sneak up on you. Here’s a link to the trailers for Night of the Creeps http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhLGYUYTTD0 and The Monster Squadhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBG29nM_uEg