Freud and Superman and Fellini and sleaze-house dens all make walk-on appearances just in the introductory passages of Brian de Palma’s Hi, Mom!, a quasi-satire, or at least a loosening up of, the malevolent Hitchcockian Rear Window. A bizarre-world antecedent to Taxi Driver, this is a film with Robert De Niro obsessively subjecting New York to his viewfinder until he is himself victim to and participant in an artistic nightmare. Relentlessly aware of its own spectatorship and shot-through with neurotic ambivalences, the film always has film on the brain, and the muscles, and the loins. But De Palma refuses to rest on this tried-and-true meta-textual laurel, instead wandering off – skipping, even tumbling – in untold and untested directions. Call him a Hitch parasite all you want, but Hi, Mom! commandeers Hitch for its own sinful purposes. Continue reading
Hectoring becomes a professional endeavor, or professional filmmaking becomes a form of hectoring the audience in John Huston’s whacked-out Beat the Devil, entirely denounced when it was first released and somehow bent and mutated even further sixty four years later. Temptation begs that I reclaim the film by arguing that it was “misconstrued’ upon release, but I’m not entirely certain it exists to be construed. That might only breed domestication, curbing the film’s vigorous unruliness. With a regular goon squad of odd cartoon shapes masquerading as people waiting around in a squalid sea-port town, the whole film seems to exist to breathe in the salt water. The most exciting moment is entirely about an aging, wheezy Bogart and a pair of portly fellows schlepping after a runaway car, teasingly dramatic music massaging out the irony of their failure to exert more than a modicum of effort. It’s awkward, heinous, mismatched, and oddly brilliant in its idiom. Continue reading
Meant to review this in memoriam for Bill Paxton earlier this year, but with Powers Boothe passing as well, I had no choice but to get around to it. Both are great in this underrated horror film from arguably the worst period for the genre in film history.
I read that Frailty’s narrative represents “an abuse of cinematic power” and, putting aside the puritanical aftertaste of that statement, how is this a criticism exactly? The American horror film landscape circa 2001 was infested with irony from head to toe, a casualty of the Scream generation that has since then only lacquered itself in respectability with the advent of hipster irony. But Bill Paxton’s directorial debut Frailty is deadly serious. Making a film about a father telling his kids – with both the slithering charisma of a snake-oil salesman and the slippery morality of a totem to middle-Americana – that God has commanded them to murder demons disguised as honest citizens, Paxton and screenwriter Brent Hanley were practically paving themselves a path to easy, self-congratulatory criticism of middle America. But they never thumb their noses at their audience in Frailty, a gravely humble rumination on the sins of the father dressed up as a low-slung Southern campfire tale that evokes the haunting vacancies of life and the sometimes-clawing need to believe in moral purpose with zealous conviction (pardon the pun). At any cost. Continue reading
With The Mummy generally serving no one’s interests and possibly nailing down the coffin on Universal’s Dark Universe project, let us look back at one of the best – and most underrated, non-canonical – Universal Horror films, and the first to feature their two biggest stars.
Director Edgar Ulmer’s most famous film was the sour-day, soggy-bottom 1945 noir Detour, but that film is also an apt description of Ulmer’s entire career. His films can all be found at the inflection point where a detour along the established path – a spontaneous search for a new route to the same American narrative of success – sours into an endless circle of constant motion, a sense of incessant delay. His best films suggest, as Noah Isenberg has argued, that any and all detours to get us out of national, personal, and social crisis are nothing more than roads leading to nowhere. Continue reading
Dreamlike – and as lush as Mario Bava’s visual resplendence ever got – Lisa and the Devil is the half-crazed tipping point between the director’s earlier, Hitchcock-indebted slashers and the artistically emancipated deranged pop-art flourishes of his ward Dario Argento. Released in 1973 – and heavily recut two years later for American audiences to cash in on the Exorcist craze – Lisa is evidence not to paint Bava with the wide brush of obligatory pastiche, as though he was always performing his own idea of what a Bava film was supposed to be. Never stagnant, his films all reveal their personal eccentricities and oddities, the markers of a restless consciousness at work. A tragically comic fun-house reflection of existential panic, Lisa and the Devil recollects Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad to bridge the high and low art divide as Lisa (Elke Sommers) finds herself lost not only amidst Spanish corridors but time and space themselves. Continue reading
The title of this quintessentially ‘60s-product-of-hot-headed-Italy suggests a sex kitten romp, but the name is a much more literal in this deliciously macabre take on the spirit of Daphne de Maurier. As is seemingly the first commandment of all Giallos – to be obeyed with holy penitence – the narrative is paradoxically simple yet horrifyingly obtuse, but it boils down to the ghostly menace of young Melissa Graps terrorizing a European village around the turn of the 20th century, a village newly visited by a doctor (Giacomo Rossi Stuart) there to autopsy one of the bodies. Kill Baby, Kill also further develops Mario Bava’s formal fixation with the architectural impossibility of the mind. With one foot in the psycho-sexual and the other in the undulating tension between the supernatural and modern medicine, Kill Baby, Kill frolics with many of the thematic devils twisting the throat of mid-century life. Continue reading
After a long way away, I’ll start posting pretty furiously for a while again. First up is a trio of Mario Bava films to celebrate the return of Midnight Screenings!
Mario Bava’s 1963 omnibus film – the fitting inspiration for the band of the same name – isn’t among Bava’s many lesser-masterpieces of cinema. But it does showcase – with tripartite allure – how pliable his aesthetic predilections really were. A murderer’s row of guiding hands from Roberto Rossellini to Jacques Tourneur to Raoul Walsh all helped Bava in his younger days as a cinematographer – or, more accurately, he helped them – and his turn to directing later in life (already in his ‘40s when he completed his first film) cast further light on how preternaturally he knew how to enlighten the screen with a purity of visual/aural technique that even many more thematically literate directors had no clue for. He famously considered himself a hack of sorts, but his films reveal both a strikingly lucid command of the screen and a particularly lurid and consistent moral worldview that suggest he was much more than a mere mercenary for hire. Continue reading