Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Detective Sam Spade is hired by va-voom redhead Brigid O'Shaughnessy to find her sister ... only she doesn't have a sister, and people connected to the case keep winding up dead: a cargo ship's captain, a guy named Thursby, even Spade's business partner Archer. What's an amoral PI to do? Get to the bottom of it, of course, and in this case what everybody's chasing is a jewel-encrusted statuette of a black bird, paid in retribution by the Knights Templar to the King of Spain. Hooey, maybe -- but the bodies keep stacking up, so keeps Spade shifting allegiances in order to remain one step ahead of the law. John Huston's enduring take on Dashiell Hammett's quintessential grifter tale is still a hoot after eight decades. Humphrey Bogart is to Sam Spade what Boris Karloff is to Frankenstein's Monster. Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet turn in equally iconic performances as villains each looking to catch the mysterious Falcon for themselves. The penultimate scene, as the principals conspire to get their story straight for the authorities (and to hell with whatever really happened) is the greatest send-up of cozy butler-did-it mysteries ever concocted -- takes place in a parlor, even. Play it again, Sam.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Slither (2006)

Small-town lawman Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion, having a blast) is charged with protecting the province of Wheelsy just as a meteor lands and a space bug with a mission -- a reproductive mission -- hatches. Freakin' alien terrorist cells, I tell you what. The critter isn't choosy for a mate, picking the first target of opportunity, happens to be town boss Grant Grant, out in the woods with his mistress Brenda since his wife back home (the lovely Starla, who also happens to be Pardy's old unrequited love) won't give him any, boo hoo. Take a pinch of Alien (1979), a dash of Die Monster Die (1965), garnish liberally with some From Beyond (1986), next thing you know Grant has mutated into a giant space slug and taken up stealing raw meat so he can feed Brenda, whom he's tucked away in an abandoned barn while she... gestates. Not to give it away, an unholy rain of brain-eating space slugs ensues. Something for everyone. Lovecraftian homage to creature features of yore; James Gunn's witty script and direction target the funny bone as much as the gross-out gizzard. This is how a dud becomes an underground cult classic.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control (1997)

Errol Morris documentary focuses on four oddballs: a sculptor of topiary hedges, a lion tamer, an engineer who builds insect-like robots, and the world's foremost expert on the mole rat. Morris crosscuts footage of his subjects weighing in on what their obsessions mean to them with bizarre stock footage from old newsreels, educational films, and cartoons, then layers dialogue from one subject over visual footage of another -- disorienting techniques that deliver unusual punctuation, and uncover common ground between these disparate men and their works. What first seems a kooky conceit gone wrong slowly gels into a deeper meditation about how our passions shape our lives. Sublime, weird, hilarious, moving.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Reliably inaccurate psychic Criswell clears his throat and warns audiences of "grave robbers from outer space" (the film's working title) as this Z-grade masterpiece from Ed Wood kicks off. Airline pilots report flying aluminum foil pie-tins wobbling through the California skies. Innocent gravediggers are brutally attacked by thin-waisted creature-feature movie host Vampira. At some point, police inspector Tor Johnson becomes a zombie (plot twist: no one can tell the difference). Bela Legosi dies in real life, does not become a zombie, is replaced by the director's chiropractor (plot twist: everyone can tell the difference). Cops scratch their foreheads with their revolvers and stumble over cardboard tombstones while muttering dialogue so inept, it doubles back to a Zen-like grace: "It's tough to find something when you don't know what you're looking for." Fey aliens wrestle with cheap prop curtains and cross their arms in salute just before their own zombies choke them to death. Smart viewers seek solace in illicit medication. A classic of its kind, as the kids say.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The House that Dripped Blood (1971)

Robert Bloch-scripted anthology film from the always excellent Amicus Productions centers around a sinister rental property and the misfortunes of those who reside there. In "Method for Murder," a thriller writer (Denholm Elliott) is literally pestered by his latest creation, a dastardly strangler named Dominic. He is believed only by Stephen King, who cribs the idea for his novel The Dark Half. Meanwhile, Peter Cushing obsesses over a "Waxworks" museum where one of the displays resembles a former paramour. That Salome was a real head case, turns out. In "Sweets to the Sweet," Christopher Lee plays a frosty widow/father who disallows his daughter any toys or even friendship with other children; her new tutor takes umbrage but soon learns about the voodoo she do. Finally, a prissy horror film actor (Jon Pertwee) searches a curio shop for suitable vampire attire for his next picture. But "The Cape" he purchases is a little too realistic, as his co-star already knows, beautiful bloodsucker that she is. Fun atmosphere, brisk storytelling, numerous genre in-jokes, including several swipes taken at contemporary critics who complained about Hammer's typical gore and violence; at one point while wandering the wax museum, Cushing strolls dismissively past a figure of his co-star Lee as Dracula. But it's Pertwee who gets the best stuff, at one point mulling a mantle portrait of himself in his Doctor Who garb. The framing device -- a Scotland Yard officer investigating the disappearance of Pertwee's character -- has a weak payoff, but the individual stories are what counts.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)

The first of Hammer's Frankenstein series (and the only to feature Christopher Lee as the semi-titular Monster, though Peter Cushing would recur as Victor Frankenstein) also marks the start of the studio's long run of horror classics, establishing production aesthetics that continue to influence filmmakers. Dodging Universal at every turn (lawsuits awaited if the new film in any way resembled their iconic versions), Sangster's screenplay cribbed much from Mary Shelley's novel which had been discarded by James Whale, focusing on Frankenstein's immoral studies, propensity to murder, and descent into Mad Science rather than on the monster he creates, a mere symptom of his true ills. Terence Fisher's film is a feast for the eyes, summoning a deeply Gothic atmosphere straight away. Phil Leakey's creature make-up veered considerably from Jack Pierce's famous Karloff applications; the Creature suffers a more stitched-up, gruesome visage. Tame by latter-day standards, this tale of dark deeds and harsh consequences was initially panned for violence and gore by critics missing the film's subtle nuances: Was the Monster a figment of murderous Frankenstein's imagination? Or is his former accomplice Paul Krempe simply getting the last laugh as the Baron is led to the scaffold, the place where he acquired so many of the parts that went into his work? A cornerstone of modern horror.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Evilspeak (1981)

Coopersmith (a suitably miserable-looking Clint Howard) is admitted to a private military academy as a kind of charity case following the deaths of his parents. This being the kind of military academy where the hoary personnel in charge slyly approve of cadets torturing the underachievers, Coopersmith has a rough time of it. For punishment duty (though his crimes, beyond clumsiness, and lateness to class attributable to his classmates stealing his alarm clock, are never disclosed) he is sent to the basement of the abbey to "clean up." The school custodian, an old drunkard named Sarge who happens to live in said basement, doesn't much like this, but what the hell, it leaves him more time for whiskey. Besides, Coopersmith is mostly out of sight, especially after discovering a sub-basement filled with books of black magic. He steals a Tandy TRS-80 from the computer lab, lugs it down to his newfound lair, finds an electrical outlet in a cave otherwise illuminated only by the light of black candles, and starts coding passages from those dusty old pentagram-decorated books into the mainframe. The computer answers! The earliest version of the Internet was a gateway to a Hellmouth, who knew? Some brand of Satan worship ensues, wax dummies spurt red syrup, and at some point a nude woman in a bathtub gets eaten by possessed pigs, I kid you not. A lot of bad data went into the screenplay; garbage in, garbage out.