Monday, March 31, 2008

Madness and Vulnerability

There’s no getting around my own feelings regarding Asia Argento and I’m not even going to pretend that I don’t have them. Within her immense beauty and whatever craziness that we perceive to be there, she truly is a unique force when it comes to the screen presence she projects. The ways in which somebody responds to that presence is going to have a lot to do with how they respond to BOARDING GATE, the new film from Olivier Assayas. It’s the cinematic projection of following her to the ends of the earth and I went with it completely willingly. It’s possible that I can’t fully be trusted with my opinion of the film because of what I think of her, but there’s not much I can do about that. She makes her first appearance in BOARDING GATE seen from behind, a tattoo reading simply “23” visible on the back of her neck and within moments she is giving former lover Michael Madsen that look only Asia Argento can give someone, that one which speaks volumes of madness and vulnerability. She takes control of the frame at this point and doesn’t give it up. She’s not in every scene in the movie, but she is the movie. I don’t know if Olivier Assayas is in love with her, afraid of her or simply fascinated by her but it’s been a long time since there was a film which was so much about a director’s interest in his lead. Or maybe it’s just been a long time since there has been a lead actress who has the effect she gives off.

The plotline deliberately defies easy summarizing, so I’m not going to even try. Suffice it to say that Argento plays an ex-prostitute named Sandra living in Paris, looking to break off from her relationship with businessman Miles Rennberg (Michael Madsen) and how this results in an unexpected excursion to Hong Kong. It’s an oblique narrative with a series of scenes between Argento and Madsen which seem to rival similar sections of CONTEMPT in terms of both sheer length and the intimacy of the performances with each other but this leads us to several sequences of striking energy during chases through Hong Kong. There is a plot in BOARDING GATE, one which sorts itself out in surprising ways by the time it ends, but in many ways it’s beside the point while still being compelling in its own twisty way.

The basics of what BOARDING GATE is attempting in its guise as a thriller isn’t necessarily too different from what has been done before, from DIVA on down and it’s gorgeous in its glossiness as photographed by Yorick Le Saux. Looking for substance in its style might be missing the point, because Asia Argento is its substance. It’s not a movie where her past is revealed and we get soul-baring speeches. Instead, it presents her to us as she is and doesn’t apologize for it, simply allowing us, daring us, to take in all of her physicality and sensualness. We don’t always know what she’s thinking and in the end it’s possible the film doesn’t know either. But it’s very clearly hypnotized by her. To call it her best performance wouldn’t be the right way to phrase it, because of the nature of the film. I suppose it could be called the most striking use of her presence that I’ve seen so far. When you imagine your favorite actresses and what sort of film you would want to see them starring in, one which presents them in a way which is uncompromising and a genuine reminder of why you feel the way you do about her, this is the sort of film you may dream about.

But I shouldn’t ignore the nature of how Assayas photographs not only her but the people and places around her. It’s almost a case of pure cinema which offers a feel of intoxication that didn’t dissipate even when I stepped out of the theater. Overanalyzing it with words feels wrong right now and part of me just wants to let the fumes it gives off to linger inside me. But simply put, BOARDING GATE set a charge through me which is rare these days. Judging from some of the reviews that I’ve seen, not many others feel this way about the film, so I guess it’s not for everyone. I guess sometimes that’s just the way it goes.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Inventing The Modern Woman

You don’t need to give me a title, all you need to do is say “Michael Caine Heist Movie!” and I’ll show up. I’ve seen GAMBIT, I’ve seen THE ITALIAN JOB. I’ve even seen DEADFALL. Hey, I’ve even seen SILVER BEARS, not that I remember very much about it. The title for this one, for the record, is FLAWLESS, not to be confused with the 1999 Joel Schumacher film and certain to bring pleasure to everyone trying to come up with a lame “FLAWLESS sure isn’t!”-type comment so they think they’re being clever. But whatever the title, it’s a heist movie, it’s set in 60s London and it stars Michael Caine (teamed, for the first time since BLAME IT ON RIO, with Demi Moore) so I’m already interested. It’s just a few weeks since THE BANK JOB, another period heist movie set in London and maybe the world wouldn’t be a better place if we always got such movies this often, but hey, it sure wouldn’t hurt. And I’d be a little happier. Of course, quality sometimes varies. The opening of FLAWLESS includes a brief montage of business women seen throughout modern-day London, tipping us off to notions of how much the world has changed since the era of when the bulk of this movie is set in. It’s a strong jumping off point and it’s unfortunate that the movie wasn’t content with that strength.

In this setting we encounter Demi Moore buried under mounds of old-age makeup, being interviewed by a reporter about what she remembers of the days when she was one of the few female executives in existence, a time that saw the invention of modern woman. In 1960 London, Laura Quinn (Moore), that female executive, works at the London Diamond Corporation where she has already been passed over numerous times for promotions in favor of less-qualified men. When the night janitor Hobbs (Michael Caine) approaches her in secret with some disturbing news regarding her future with the company he also proposes to her a foolproof plan which he has bee formulating for years to get into the heavily-guarded diamond vault and steal a relatively small amount of stones which will help them both financially. Naturally, things do not go precisely to plan—or, more to the point, what she is told the plan will be--and Laura soon finds herself in over her head as the investigation into the crime begins.

Though I’ve seen references out there to the film being set in “swinging London” the 1960 setting actually places it a few years before that period so it has no such elements. It did, however, make me continually wonder when the first season of MAD MEN is going to come out on DVD. Within this nicely cool environment we are introduced to the welcome rarity of not only a woman in the lead but one who is not burdened with an unnecessary love interest throughout. Romance between Moore and Caine is fortunately ruled out immediately—this isn’t ENTRAPMENT—and even when Lambert Wilson enters the film as an investigator (sort of this film’s equivalent of Denis Leary in THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR) the movie seems to be resisting those temptations. It’s actually easy to imagine a rewrite that would bring such a romantic triangle into play and it wouldn’t have even altered that structure that much, so it’s actually a little surprising that the movie chooses to never go there. A little admirable too, but it’s hard not to think that, like its lead actress, the movie feels a little cool without such extra layers of emotion. It’s too bad because I want to like this movie more than I do and it’s hard not to mention that even ten years ago this would have gotten a wide release just like a normal movie. Now, it gets a limited opening while simultaneously being available to view at home on Ultra VOD, whatever that is. Of course, it is a movie about two lead characters dealing with aging, loneliness and their own mortality, which isn’t quite what gets the big bucks on opening weekend these days. But the big problem with FLAWLESS isn’t that it feels like an anomaly in this marketplace, but that it never feels quite as sharp as it needs to be, that there’s an extra layer of oomph which is missing. The film was directed by Michael Radford who also directed, among other titles, the Asia Argento vehicle B. MONKEY, another film involving diamond robberies that I vaguely recall could have used more zip to it. FLAWLESS never quite becomes dull but at some points it’s not too far off from being so. Photographed by Richard Greatrex and sporting a production design by Sophie Becher, it’s a consistently elegant looking film. But it seems to be reaching for a significance that it never achieves. The idea of how far women have come since the time the film is set in is a powerful one and should be enough. But the script by Edward Anderson also brings in political asides about South Africa and notions of living ones life philanthropically and if all this isn’t too far-reaching, it certainly never seems to tie it all together. And why is it stating these things to us? Shouldn’t it illustrate that within the story and let us figure those things out? Isn’t that what subtext is supposed to be for?

Within its icy-cool storyline, we have an icy-cool protagonist in Demi Moore, maybe one that is a little too icy. She may annoy me as a celebrity but I have no strong dislike for her as an actress and she certainly looks period appropriate. But while the exterior is necessary for the character she is obviously written with an interior that has a lot going on underneath, one that is frustrated by where she has gotten to in life and I’m just not getting that from her. The accent is also a problem which the film tries to explain by referring to her as an American who studied at Oxford and has worked for the Diamond Corporation ever since. Sound like something added to the script after the fact to me, and considering the time frames we are given means that she attended the school during the way, which seems odd. Now, I have to point out that I like the fact that this is genre movie with a woman of a certain age in the lead, in fact I think it’s terrific. I just wish it were a more successful example In all honesty, I don’t know who else would be right for the part as this point in time—ten years ago Rene Russo could have worked, but of course she got her starring role in a heist movie. So I’m not sure what the answer is. Moore dominates the film and while Michael Caine’s role is by nature secondary but he is of course terrific, nicely underplaying the part and displaying very little vanity in his continually unshaven appearance. In addition to Lambert Wilson from the MATRIX sequels, we also get Joss Ackland from LETHAL WEAPON 2 as the head of the Corporation.

The thing is, I’m excited by the notion of a heist movie with Michael Caine, I’m just not sure the actual movie shares that excitement since it honestly seems more interested in some of the too-serious themes that it aspires to. A day later, I remember the nicely explansive sets as well the enjoyable jazz score by Stephen Warbeck with it’s use of Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” a particular highlight. I also remember the perfectly lacquered look of Demi Moore in period garb as well as the always-welcome sight of the great Michael Caine going through the machinations of this type of scenario one more time. It’ll be a fairly enjoyable viewing on DVD but it’s hurt by how much it doesn’t want us to figure out for ourselves what it wants to say about men, women and how we should behave in the world. I remember thinking that THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR 1999 seemed insubstantial but that film has only gained in substance for me over the years. When it comes to a genre film such as this, it’s all right to have those things in mind. But maybe it should give the viewer a chance to make a big thing out of those elements, not vice versa.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Too True To Be Good

So where has Daniel Waters been all this time? Has he been writing? Just hanging out? Why aren’t there more Daniel Waters scripts for us to quote from endlessly? And has it really been 19 years since Winona Ryder got to say so much of that addictively memorable dialogue in HEATHERS? If it’s taken this long to hear her say words by Waters again, well, at least it happened eventually. SEX AND DEATH 101 is a welcome return to hearing some of that dialogue again and even if it feels rough around the edges, I’m not sure that those edges should be shaved off.

Suave ladies man Roderick Blank (Simon Baker of LAND OF THE DEAD and THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA), an executive for a gourmet fast-food chain looking forward to his impending marriage, receives a mysterious email containing a long list of women’s names. At first noticing that it contains a full list, in chronological order, of the thirty-odd women he has ever had sex with. But instead of stopping at his future wife, the names of seventy-odd names follow. He soon comes to the conclusion that the remaining names can only be all the women who he will be having sex with during the rest of his life. After making this determination he becomes obsessed with going down the list to fulfill having sex with every single woman listed but he soon begins to wonder just how much this will affect his own destiny. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman known only as Death Nell (Winona Ryder) is becoming notorious for putting men into comas as a way of payback for their alleged sex crimes.

It sounds like it could be a plotline for a twenty-first century version of LOVE AMERICAN STYLE and early on it seems to be taking such an outlandish approach that it seems difficult to imagine how the idea could be sustained. Fortunately, Waters keeps his scenario in the air by coming up with ways for his lead character to respond to his unusual situation. The movie gets better as it goes along and is continually bringing unexpected developments into its story. Once Roderick Blank learns of the vaguely fantastical reason for receiving the list—in some ways a more grounded approach to the ‘heaven’ sequences in those kinds of movies—he has a series of reactions and notions relating to his own insecurities of how he wants to live his life. In some ways, it comes off as its own version of the Five Stage of Grief. And this character, within this very bizarre storyline and at times ridiculous humor, is somehow played as surprisingly adult and human. The low budget clearly shows at times, but SEX AND DEATH has a surprising degree of bite to it lacking from mainstream romantic comedies these days. The explorations of the ugliness in glamour, to put a phrase on it and trying to find some humanity within that, does certainly recall elements of HEATHERS, that much is certain. But while the most outrageous sections throughout may not be as memorable of the earlier film’s greatest moments, the surprising amount of depth it has, even during some extremely dark, comical moments, mean that it will probably stick around in my head and remain interesting on repeat viewings. I fully admit that it’s kind of all over the place, but the fact that it seems to demand a realistic response within its comedy from its characters at times is almost enough to put me on its side. Fortunately, there are more than enough laughs throughout as well. And plenty of nudity too, I should probably mention that.

Simon Baker is surprisingly good in the role, bringing dimension to his part and making him likable in a believable way, while never compromising the nastiness of what his character does at times. The nature of Winona Ryder’s part is that she has to linger on the outskirts of the narrative as an enigmatic figure, almost paralleling how we think of the actress herself these days. There are a few vague echoes of Veronica Sawyer in her performance and it’s kind of wonderful to see her in this sort of part again. Also appearing (some of whom doing surprisingly good work) are Leslie Bibb from POPULAR, Julie Bowen from LOST, Mindy Cohn (yes, Mindy Cohn), Dash Mihok, Neil Flynn, Sophie Monk, Frances Fisher and Patton Oswalt, who gets a laugh almost every moment he’s onscreen. Many names on the list are recognizable as references to other films (Carlotta Valdes? Jackie Shawn?) which could have partially inspired this one, some look to be names from films that Waters himself wrote, one is named “Greta Samsa” which is just…weird. There’s also a famous lesbian power couple named Bambi Kidd and Thumper Wynt and I can’t help but love the implications in that one (If you don’t get that reference, I can’t help you).

Daniel Waters appeared after the film for a ridiculously long q & a, but one that was hugely enjoyable to sit through. He spoke about his past films (HEATHERS, BATMAN RETURNS and his three for producer Joel Silver), why it’s taken so long between projects as well as addressing the subject of the never-made HEATHERS 2. He addressed the nature of his creative style, describing it as “the middle ground between Luis Bunuel and Harold Ramis, with that being a good indication of why it is sometimes difficult to get a grip, tonally, on what he’s going for. The film was shot in Los Angeles on a low-budget and he mentioned (Jokingly? Tough to tell) that he had at one point considered setting the film in Vancouver, just for the hell of it. This jab at runaway production got some applause from the crowd. He seemed like a guy who would be great to sit down and talk with for a while and though he was bemoaning how long the session was going on for, I had no complaints.

The evocative line, “Too true to be good,” turns up at one point, even appearing on the poster, and is in certain ways representative of the film itself. It disregards certain notions of what is expected in romantic comedies these days making it tough to always get a handle on where it’s going. Some may be turned off, but it’s willingness to walk a certain tightrope makes SEX AND DEATH 101 unexpectedly honest and the direction it winds up going in is ultimately satisfying.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Something You Don't See Every Day

So much of Neil Marshall’s DOOMSDAY is lifted from John Carpenter films, especially those which feature Snake Plissken, that there’s no getting around discussing it. For cryin’ out loud, even the credit font is borrowed from Carpenter. Somebody reminded me that Marshall’s THE DESCENT, which I liked a lot, used the font as well, but considering how close DOOMSDAY is, it still has to be brought up. I mean, aren’t the Movie Police supposed to watch over things like this? Does this mean that if I make a romantic comedy set in New York I can use Woody Allen’s font? If I make a wacky comedy filled with wanton destruction can I use John Landis’s?

But, honest admission here, as derivative as DOOMSDAY is, I honestly kind of enjoyed it. It’s such a pastiche that it plays like an alternate PLANET TERROR script commissioned for GRINDHOUSE in case the Rodriguez version didn’t work out and seems to revel in everything it’s trying to do. True originality may be at a minimum here, but at least the movie commits to what it’s doing, I’ll give it that much. Ultimately, it works well enough as a popcorn movie that I wound up wishing that I’d bought some popcorn before it started.

The film begins in more-or-less present day as a new strain known as the “Reaper Virus” spreads through Scotland and the British government has no choice but to seal off the entire island. After a lengthy voiceover explanation informing us of the nature of the quarantine and its aftermath, using full animation to display the layout of the setting, the narrative picks up again in the year 2035 (or, as the titles inform us, “2035 NOW” in case we still hadn’t caught on to the inspiration). The virus has resurfaced in London just as satellite photos evidence that there is still life on the other side of the wall. Desperate to find a cure, the government dispatches a team of specialists led by ruthless operative Major Eden Sinclair (HOLLOW MAN’s Rhona Mitra), to locate who or what may still be alive on the other side. Sinclair, by the way, is missing an eye, in case you weren’t clear on what character she’s supposed to resemble. Instead of a patch, she is outfitted with a bionic eye which is actually pretty cool, but never quite utilized as much as you’d think. A few of the team members are given the names Carpenter and Miller but hey, I guess if ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK had characters named Romero and Cronenberg then it’d be petty to complain about that. Anyway, the ultra-tough Sinclair has her own personal connection to the beginning of the original outbreak, but none of them have any idea what to expect when they reach the other side.

What they find is not just some MAD MAX/ROAD WARRIOR chocolate to stick in their ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK/L.A. peanut butter but, in addition to some Romero and Gilliam echoes as well are some surprising structural similarities to APOCALYPSE NOW. There’s the framework of a lone soldier sent with a team on an official trip up north (not upriver, but close enough) in search of a mysterious figure, an evening show setpiece staged in a way that recalls the Playboy Bunny USO sequence as well as an vague overall feeling of the “going back in time to earlier periods of the country” notion that Coppola always claimed he was going for—I could be more specific, but some of this is genuinely unexpected so hey, experience it for yourself. And once Mitra and her team reach their destination, they encounter the Kurtz-like figure Kane, played here by Malcolm McDowell in a role that should have “Special Guest Star” attached to the billing, espousing of all his mad philosophies as he is framed in shots which strive for enigmatic Brando-like compositions.

It is fun and it is extremely gory and I did have a surprisingly good time, but there really isn’t much to chew on here and whatever else you want to say about John Carpenter’s films back in the day that was rarely ever the case. The climactic car chase, one of the many George Miller lifts throughout is pretty damn good and there is something pretty cool about the futuristic world created here by Neil Marshall, which has enough going on for use not only in potential sequels but also any graphic novel series that he might have in mind as well.

Rhona Mitra is great to look at, fun to watch and actually a pretty believable ass-kicker. She’s also more enjoyable in the role than a number of other attempts at female action heroes from the past few years. Her character never reaches the mythic levels that Snake Plissken resides in but really, how many ever do? Bob Hoskins is likable in the what is pretty much the avuncular Lee Van Cleef role and there are also plum roles for Adrian Lester, Alexander Siddig and THE DEPARTED’s David O’Hara as well as McDowell’s extended cameo. Unfortunately, one director Marshall seemingly hasn’t lifted from enough is James Cameron and his penchant for casting interesting people in small roles, like in ALIENS. Here, most of the team members are pretty much non-entities.

But one of the big problems with DOOMSDAY is that THE DESCENT was promising and effective enough that I’d really like to see a new Neil Marshall film, not just something he directs and is loaded with homages to other movies. Still, I don’t regret having seen it. It’s not all that memorable but it is fun and on DVD it’ll be ideal to enjoy with some beer and pizza. But really, Marshall has already displayed enough glimmers of talent that he should try to genuinely form his own identity as a filmmaker. And he could start with coming up with his own font. Seriously, if he does that, he’ll feel better. But he can feel free to keep on casting Rhona Mitra in roles where she kicks ass. Her, I have no complaints about.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Deep Down

I didn’t make it to every night of the Bava series at the Egyptian, but the ones I did show up for were well worth it. The one big disappointment was that the print of PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES apparently wound up elsewhere, through no fault of the Cinematheque. I heard rumblings that there would be a make-up screening of the film some point this summer. That should please not only the people who were there Thursday night, but the ones I talked to who hadn’t been able to make it and will be thrilled if they get another chance.

As for what I did see, LISA AND THE DEVIL remains fascinating, if very much a tough film to get a grip on. The lead character of Lisa Reiner as played by Elke Sommer seems to affect the events around her as much as an average dream where we ourselves have no control over anything. While this adds to the unique mood of the film, and I give Sommer a lot of credit for being willing to play such a role, it still makes her a difficult character to willingly follow along with. But while the overall experience may be slightly ponderous, some of its more humorous moments involving Telly Savalas lend a sort of gallows humor feel to it, as if Bava was trying to say that none of this should be taken too seriously, it’s just the legendary mysteries of life and death that we’re dealing with here. If nothing else, it’s an attempt to expand the boundaries of the genre beyond where it ever goes even today and if it’s never really been seen by many people. The privilege of viewing one particular shot of Sylva Koscina with that ultra-plunging neckline that doesn’t seem to be held up naturally on a giant screen at the Egyptian is one of those moments that you simply don’t easily forget.

Seeing A BAY OF BLOOD aka TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE in such a place is also slightly revelatory because it frees it from grimy looking and sounding tapes, discs and grindhouse prints and lets us judge it in a manner which makes it play as more of a pitch-black comedy of manners more than anything else. It’s a surprising development considering it is esentially a very early version of what we know as the slasher movie. But after countless examples of those types of movies with essentially nothing to them, it’s great to see one which not only remains enjoyable, but seems to have more to offer as the years go by. Along with its viewpoint on the ways of the world is an enjoyably eccentric group of chacters including—hell, especially—the women, represented by Claudine Auger, the unknown Anna Maria Rosati and the eccentric Laura Betti. And it was a print which beautifully showed off the array of colors throughout and sounded great, the better to focus on the striking score by Stelvio Cipriani. Plus it has that ending. Few things will ever top the giddy feeling that you could sense in the audience when I saw a screening of this film about a decade ago, but hearing the audience response yet again was a wonderful thing.

What can I say about FOUR TIMES THAT NIGHT, which played after A BAY OF BLOOD? No, seriously, what can I say about it? The RASHOMON-stylings of the plot—presenting four possibilities of what really happened on a date between a young couple—aren’t really worth getting into, but what is worth discussing are the moments throughout where Bava is clearly doing something unexpected with the material such as the compositions of gorgeous female lead Daniela Giordana presented nude but not really nude or how he implies a busy nightclub with very little means at his disposal. It goes on too long and by a certain point I really didn’t need to see the doorman run up and down the stairs yet again, but I still feel like watching a few sections of it again. I should point out that not only does male lead Brett Halsey seem to drink nothing but J&B based on how many bottles of it he has but, as the friend I was with pointed out, he doesn’t even seem to have a kitchen in his swanky bachelor pad that comes complete with a swing. And I know how random this sounds, but am I the only person who expects the “Scientist” who appears to explain things to us to be revealed as the devil at the end? Yeah, probably.

I didn’t need to see DANGER: DIABOLIK again, especially since it just played at the New Beverly a few months ago. But I wanted to. Getting to see it in a theater yet again (even in this Paramount archival print that seems to have some sound issues) is just pure pleasure for me. It’s the look of the film, it’s the mood, it’s the music, it’s all ultra-cool, guilt-free pleasure for me. Diabolik and Eva, as portrayed by John Phillip Law and Marisa Mell are a couple without an ounce of realism to them, played by actors who barely seem human to begin with. And yet, they each bring a dimension of feeling, of heat, to what they play and it’s a combination of elements that somehow works. You don’t need to be convinced that he’d do anything for Marisa Mell. Looking at her when she looks at him, you could believe that maybe anything is possible. Just like how the films of Mario Bava give us something other than what is normally expected and while you may not be able to pin down what is so unique, the effect it has is unmistakable. There’s nothing really to add in closing right now. It’s just another series of reminders of why I love film as much as I do.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Knowing a Lot About Monsters

“I’ve got good news and bad news, girls. The good news is your dates are here.”
“What’s the bad news?”
“They’re dead.”

So now I guess we’ve gotten to the point where there’s a Fred Dekker double bill at the New Beverly. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. I watched NIGHT OF THE CREEPS plenty of times on cable way back when. I was working as an usher the summer THE MONSTER SQUAD came out. It opened the same day as CAN’T BUY ME LOVE, which did much better business, and was gone in two weeks. Then years later suddenly it was as if I looked up one day and there was this massive MONSTER SQUAD cult out there. When did that happen, anyway? Outside the New Beverly the sign with the showtimes for the SQUAD/CREEPS double bill trumpeted “Rare 35mm print!” and “The only 35mm print Sony has!” respectively. When I bought my ticket the cute girl taking my money asked, “Are you excited?” Well, yeah, it’s a Fred Dekker double bill, how could I not be?

Two films very much sharing a lot of the same sensibilities, even though one is ostensibly for kids and one is very R-rated, THE MONSTER SQUAD and NIGHT OF THE CREEPS will always be stuck back in the 80s. Extremely slight in plot, haphazardly scripted and lacking in well-drawn characters, they are nevertheless two films that are extremely hard to dislike. Part of this is nostalgia, yeah, but they’re also very eager to please and it’s hard not to get at least a little caught up in their extremely earnest desire to entertain.

Essentially THE LITTLE RASCALS MEET FRANKENSTEIN (and the other Universal monsters) the non-Universal THE MONSTER SQUAD follows a group of kids with their own monster club who spend most of their time arguing about matters such as whether or not the Wolfman could drive a car. When one of them stumbles onto the diary written by the one and only Abraham Van Helsing, the kids learn of the existence of a powerful amulet and become aware of the arrival of actual monsters, in the form of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman, the Mummy and The Gill Man, seeking that amulet in an attempt to rule the world.

The kids aren’t all that memorable, but much of the rest of THE MONSTER SQUAD holds up pretty well. Running only 82 minutes, the film, scripted by Dekker and his friend Shane Black (the same year LETHAL WEAPON opened), contains a narrative (pretty obviously inspired by ABBOT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN) which moves at such breakneck speed that you might not notice all the things that don’t make much sense—did the mom really buy Van Helsing’s diary at a garage sale? Rated PG-13 it’s obviously aimed at kids but for this day and age there’s some surprisingly un-P.C. dialogue and a few bits that kids might be genuinely scared by—in the best way, of course. Maybe that explains the cult—kids who watched it on TV when they were young and actually got scared by it. But those scares all seem appropriate with the tried-and-true monster movie atmosphere the movie is going for. With the advent of CGI just a few years away when this was made, this was one of the last times that a movie could present Dracula turning into a bat by panning away and showing us the action only in shadow, but the movie feels thrilled that it is able to show this to us. There’s a genuine respect and appreciation throughout for what these monsters represent in history—the opposite approach taken by Stephen Sommers when he made his own monster rally, the reprehensible VAN HELSING.

Among the monster action there’s plenty of smart-aleck dialogue which could only have been written by Black, along with the reprise of a joke from NIGHT OF THE CREEPS involving a character saying “Two-thousand year old dead guys do not get up and walk away by themselves!”—cut to the two-thousand year old Mummy walking down the street. Along with the comedy, there are a surprising number of weighty moments which help give the movie its own identity, one of the best of which has Frankenstein’s monster faced with a Halloween mask of his own face. It’s these very special touches that help give THE MONSTER SQUAD its own identity, as the young characters seem to learn that sometimes the ones that they think are monsters don’t always turn out to be that way. Adding to this is the memorable character of “Scary German Guy” enjoyably played by Leonardo Cimino who has his own secret (“You sure do know a lot about monsters.” “Yes, I suppose I do.”) that only we in the audience are ever privy too.

The kids, while cute, don't make much of an impression and the story may be a little thin, but the adults in front of the camera manage a lot of the heavy lifting. Duncan Regehr is a slimy Dracula who gives his own unique interpretation to the role. Tom Noonan is an absolutely amazing Frankenstein monster, providing it with more of a tortured soul than any actor has probably brought to the part since the forties. Stephen Macht and Mary Ellen Trainor (also in the LETHAL WEAPON movies) are the main parents, on the verge of divorce in a real-world subplot that contrasts with the fantasy elements. Jonathan Gries (REAL GENIUS, but also Benjamin Linus’s father on LOST) has just a few short scenes as the human half of the Wolfman but nails the part to such a surprising extent that you almost remember him as being around more than he actually is. Familiar faces like Stan Shaw and David Proval turn up as well for plenty of wisecracks. The movie is very well shot in Scope (it was produced by Peter Hyams and at times looks like one of his films) and the exciting Goldsmith-like score is by Bruce Broughton. I could toss out some more criticisms about it but the more I think about it, it just seems like too likable a movie. I’ve long said that I always like it when a movie contains a final shot which cranes up from all the wreckage of the climax as all the characters seem to congratulate each other as the credits roll. Coming as that damn Monster Squad Rap plays, this might be one of my very favorite examples of that. Patrick’s sister is still pretty damn good-looking, too.

NIGHT OF THE CREEPS opened a year earlier in August 1986. I think I went to see THE FLY instead, but finally caught up with it on cable. A mish-mash of different genres, it’s even more rooted in the eighties, has several uninteresting actors in the lead roles, a script that holds up to even less scrutiny than THE MONSTER SQUAD and is pretty juvenile. It’s nearly impossible for me to dislike it.

After a short prologue in outer space and a long prologue set in 1959, we settle in at Corman University during Pledge Week in 1986. Chris Romero (Jason Lively, Rusty in NATIONAL LAMPOON’S EUROPEAN VACATION) is bemoaning his loser status to roommate James Carpenter Hooper (Steve Marshall, essentially the poor man’s Ilan-Mitchell Smith) when he suddenly finds himself smitten by Cynthia Cronenberg (Jill Whitlow, the perfume salesgirl in WEIRD SCIENCE). Desperate to win her over, he convinces his roommate to join him in pledging a fraternity, unaware that the frat’s biggest jerk Brad (Allan Kayser, the poor man’s William Zabka) is already Cynthia’s boyfriend. Given the task to steal a dead body from one of the college labs, the two guys chicken out, but not before freeing a cryogenically frozen body which for 27 years has housed a collection of slithering creatures in its brain and now that it is out is ready to unleash more creatures on the unsuspecting campus. Enter Police Detective Ray Cameron (Tom Atkins, in the role of his career) who is awakened from a pleasant dream which turns into a pertinent nightmare, coming to the crime scene where he discovers the cryogenics lab (“What is this, a homicide or a bad B-movie?”) but is annoyed to learn that there is a body missing (“Corpses that have been dead for twenty-seven years do not get up and go for a walk by themselves!” Cut to…). As he seeks out the two college kids, he finds himself confronted with an unthinkable threat involving zombies, the slithering alien creatures and also something which forces himself to confront his own past.

The character names listed above should give the idea of the in-jokey vibe that the movie goes for. The frat comedy scenario when we hit the present day section goes on too long but the slithering creatures, when they take hold on the plot, are pretty creepy. There are a few definite similarities to James Funn's SLITHER from a few years ago, but I honestly prefer CREEPS. Once it becomes a full-fledged horror movie, with comedy fully intact, it’s at times extremely enjoyable. It is, after all, hard to hate a movie which has a reanimated corpse bursting through the floorboards of a house as Tor Johnson rising from the grave in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE plays on the television. But it can’t be denied that once Tom Atkins hits the scene as Detective Cameron everything clicks together. Answering every phone call with the catchphrase “Thrill me!” ( a line Shane Black, who wasn’t involved in this film, gave to Val Kilmer in KISS KISS BANG BANG) he owns the movie, making it hard to ever be all that interested in the college kids. He’s twisted because of his past, yet the more you learn about him, the more you root for him and when he is forced to defend himself within the walls of the sorority house during the climax, it all becomes a thing of twisted, pulp beauty.

I’m not going to even bother with the younger cast members. Tom Atkins is the show here. His character is a noir goof; he knows it, Dekker knows it, the movie knows it. But somehow within all the craziness he brings a dimension to the performance showing that he totally gets this guy and all the elements he brings to it combined with that priceless dialogue he has becomes unforgettable. Future Oscar nominee David Paymer plays a med student who gets killed and becomes a zombie. Suzanne Snyder, actually one of the lead girls in WEIRD SCIENCE, gets busted down to a bit part here as a sorority girl and Dick Miller, given a “Special Appearance by” credit, appears as a Police Armorer in an enjoyable bit.

Fred Dekker was still in his twenties when he directed these two movies. CREEPS has a lot of show-off camerawork expected from a first-timer and SQUAD dials this down a little, but not too much, as it very much is the product of the Spielberg-era of fantasy filmmaking. But within their frenetic approaches and wise-guy dialogue is the feel of somebody having fun creating these two films and it shows. It’s hard to ignore that each has its own not-inconsiderable flaws, maybe expected from someone still learning the craft, but it’s still too bad that Dekker never became the top-flight director it looked like he might become for about five minutes back in the eighties. Tom Atkins as Detective Cameron barks out “Thrill me!” many times. These two movies live up to the demand of that phrase.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

But What Good Is A Dream

After all of the negativity that’s out there in the world, I need to talk about something which is the exact opposite for me. There are some films that you love that you want to share with everyone you ever meet. But there are also films that you want to somehow keep to yourself, to not share with others. Maybe they won’t get it, maybe they won’t understand. Maybe, even worse, they’ll have such an opposite reaction to it that the negative energy of that will drain away a little bit of what makes the film so special for you and that just can’t happen, no way. Jacques Demy’s THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT is just that sort of film. If you watch enough films with a degree of darkness to them, maybe it takes something so deliriously happy, hopeful, full of life and all the possibilities within to cause you to fully embrace what is within its frames. Over the years I’ve lost interest in a lot of musicals, both vintage and recent, which seem to be about a fake sort of emotion that I can’t relate to. Often to me their images of perfection, like in old MGM films, make them seem remote and stifling. ROCHFORT, a cinematic collision of the French New Wave and the feel of those old Hollywood musicals, feels alive, feels real, however stylized as every frame of it is. The film was a box-office failure in the states when released and even now, through some brief searches around the net, I can still find harshly negative opinions on it. A Gene Kelly biography I once glanced at dismissed it as garbage in a few paragraphs. Maltin gives it two stars. And yet there’s not a single thing you could ever say which would keep me from being absolutely convinced that it’s one of the most beautiful things in the history of, well, anything.

The plot is both simple and as complicated as a kaleidoscope. While THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG, Demy’s previous film which was presented in the form of an operetta, took place over a period of years and focuses on one single couple, ROCHEFORT takes place over one long weekend and deals with a large group of people. As a large fair comes to the provincial town of Rochefort, twin sisters Delphine and Solange (real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorleac), are planning their imminent move to Paris as they yearn for love. Their mother (Danielle Darrieux) owns a café in town which is the hub of much activity. She still thinks of the man she left ten years ago named Simon Dame, because she couldn’t imagine being known as “Madame Dame”. Unbeknownst to her, Dame (Michel Piccoli of DANGER: DIABOLIK and CONTEMPT) has moved back to town to open up a music store where he has unknowingly struck up a friendship with Solange, whose music career he tries to help by contacting his old friend, the famous composer Andy Miller (Gene Kelly). Delphine, meanwhile, has broken up with her boyfriend, bitter gallery owner Guillaume (Jacques Riberolles), who has been displaying a painting which looks remarkably like her. What she doesn’t know is that it was painted as a vision of “feminine ideal” by sailor Maxence (Jacques Perrin) who though he spends much of his time in her mother’s café, their paths have somehow never crossed…and so it goes. It’s a world of fate, of chance, of people yearning for the hope that their true love is just around the corner, not knowing that they really are and they don’t know to look to see them. And amongst all this, I haven’t even brought up the members of the fair played by George Chakiris and Grover Dale or the ax murder which gets a few musical numbers of its own.

When Deneuve and Dorleac turn around just a few minutes in to sing their “Twins Song” directly to the camera you’re either going to revolt or embrace every single glorious second of what is to come. I know that some people revolt. I’m the guy who does that sometimes. But the films of Demy, including LOLA, BAY OF ANGELS, THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and the Los Angeles-set MODEL SHOP possess a world view which I somehow click into instantly. It’s an extension of the PETER PAN intro “All this has happened before and will happen again,” extended to the matters of how every love story is at once unique to the person experiencing it and identical for what people have always gone through. It’s the possibility of relationships, that the next person you pass on the street could be a love from the past or the last great love of your life. This is all brought to its utmost extreme in ROCHEFORT, which is shot entirely in real locations—even many interiors are shot with many windows to the outside visible to continue the feel of the town as character—yet it’s beyond stylized with people everywhere dancing in the streets, mostly outfitted in bright Tutti-Frutti colors, almost filming the actual town of Rochefort as if it were a backlot. This may be one of the only places on the globe which I would want to visit simply because of it’s appearance in a movie (Piz Gloria in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE is another which comes to mind). While Michel Legrand’s music for CHERBOURG was done in a more classical style, the approach here is more big-band/jazz, adding a more appropriately upbeat tone for this story. And the choreography that goes with it, sometimes criticized, feels to me just right in its imperfections and ideal to go with this film. It may love Hollywood musicals, but it very much has its own idea of what it wants a musical to be.

Many elements from Demy’s earlier films recur here, such as life in a provincial town, a centralized café, old lovers reappearing in life, a stranger arriving in a white convertible. There’s even a brief mention of a character from LOLA in dialogue, a touch Demy used in a number of films, even to the point of having characters recur, lending the feel of a continuing universe. At one point Michel Piccoli’s character muses aloud that a visiting friend may not recognize him, yet later when the friend arrives it’s Piccoli who doesn’t recognize him right away. That sums up a great deal of what Demy’s films are about—worrying about what is coming, then when it’s right in front of us we never seem to realize it right away. THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG is about that time when you are 20 and you know exactly what you want and the way the world works. Of course, the film’s characters learn otherwise. THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT, on the other hand, is about that time in life when you are a few years older. You’ve learned a few more things, maybe you’ve already been hurt and things seem that much messier. The film is messier as well and it feels totally appropriate. Within that frenzy is the joy which makes up the film and the hope in life for what may still be to come.

The reputation the film has has, at least in the United States, goes back to when it was first released. While CHERBOURG may have been an arthouse hit in 1964, by the time ROCHEFORT rolled around in 1968, it simply wasn’t the right time for such a candy-coated musical. There’s also the sad fate of Deneuve’s sister Françoise Dorleac, who, after filming BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN but before the release of this film, was sadly killed in a car crash in Nice in June of 1967. She was only 25. Additionally, its American release was no doubt hampered by being shown in a dubbed version. All of these misfortunes seem to have combined into making it the wrong film at the wrong time. Fortunately, the dubbed version seems to have vanished off the face of the earth and the current DVD, in French with subtitles, is immaculate and the right way to see it.

It’s a thrill to watch every single cast member, even after multiple viewings. Deneuve is of course luminous, but there is additional bittersweet joy in watching Dorleac, maybe because it’s all too obvious what a tragedy it is we never got to see her in more films. I went through a period a number of years ago when I began to wonder if Michel Piccoli was in every film made in Europe in the sixties. His demeanor, a man resigned to the sadness in life, makes him instantly likable, maybe more than anyone else in the film. Gene Kelly, fittingly, is given the most memorable introduction. Around 55 when this was shot, he’s still spry, if not quite what he used to be, but I suppose this was the last look at ‘classic’ Gene Kelly that ever existed. His first number, shot more like a traditional Hollywood musical than anything else in the film is a thing of wonder. It’s very clearly not him singing, but that’s definitely his voice speaking French and dialogue scenes and it’s obviously the actual production audio. In these scenes he looks eager to please, happy to be there and not a little terrified. Watching the film again I’m very aware that it runs a little over two hours. But at one point as a section began which I didn’t remember favorably, I suddenly found myself enjoying it as much as any other scene in the film. That’s what ROCHEFORT does—it strips away your defenses, your cynicism. While it plays, all is right in the universe.

The notion that it feels like a thematic follow-up to THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG and the fact that it presents characters very much in a transitory stage in life has long made it seem like THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT was meant to be the second film in a prospective musical trilogy. Sadly, that third part was never made. But by the time we get to the celebrated final shot of ROCHEFORT it seems to me like the entire film is almost as pure an expression of joy, of hope, of potential, that I can imagine. I can’t guarantee that everyone will have the feelings of love for THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT that I do. But it has stayed with me through the years as I think of its characters, of what it says about all the right things in life. It’s a film I truly love and I make no apologies for that.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

There's Always a Bottle

You know that you’ve been doing this for a long time when you not only attend a double bill that you’ve seen before, but it consists of the exact same prints that you saw the last time. On night two of the Mario Bava festival at the American Cinematheque it was the same 35mm print of 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON they showed in 2002, still looking immaculate and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE was screened once again using Joe Dante’s personal 16mm print. Just like Thursday night, the Egyptian was surprisingly crowded. I wondered how the audience would react to 5 DOLLS. Would there be a sudden revolt once the opening party sequence began with all those zooms? Fortunately, the audience stayed seated and seemed to enjoy the film. Yes, there was some laughter at those fashions and probably some bafflement at a few of the plot turns, but with this film deadpan silence isn’t a total necessity. Even more surprisingly, I found myself loving this oddball film maybe more than I ever have before.

There’s little point in once again going over the plotline of this TEN LITTLE INDIANS knock off where jet-setters vacationing on an island are knocked off one by one as there’s much discussion over scientific formula-MacGuffin and the money that is being offered for it. Watching the film this time I found myself paying more attention to Jill, the sensitive artist played by Edith Meloni, who is currently having an affair with Trudy, the wife of the formula’s creator, played by Ira Furstenberg. In thinking about the attention the film pays to Jill’s paintings it occurred to me that the film is actually populated by characters who represent some of the key aspects of society, specifically the industries of art, science, finance and service. Along with those factions, there are several additional wives to several of the men who seem to serve little relevant function in this world. It’s as if 5 DOLLS presents us with its own microcosm of the world and what happens to the rich, the weak, the strong, the indentured and the bystanders. The order the characters are knocked off —or, it should be stated, the order we believe they are being knocked off—seems somehow equivalent to how people fall by the wayside in the rat race of life itself. What we learn at the end seems to tie into all this, forcing us to reevaluate the seemingly noble proclamations of a key character. And among these adults, we have the barely explained character of Isabel who represents youth—a child, specifically, who darts in and out of the film, eavesdropping on people as would a child hiding at the top of the staircase listening enviously to the adults downstairs having a good time. Or, in other cases, cowering around the corner as they yell and scream at each other, as if hiding from ones parents. The way she interacts with several of the characters at various points indicates that she could become like any one of them later in life and the way she seems to be going at the end, what the film seems to be saying about what happens to youth…well, sometimes that’s just the way the world works. Maybe it’s a crazy theory but this is 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON we’re talking about, so thinking outside the box is probably allowed. Either way, it made this film about some of the shallowest people imaginable seem richer than it ever had and even more deserving of praise that I could give it, as truly off-the-wall as Bava’s direction in the film might be. And if it’s all nonsense, then I still have moments like the remarkable Edwige Fenech running along the beach after discovering the houseboy’s body as the exhilarating score by Piero Umilani plays on. It’s lingering moments like that which make 5 DOLLS such a favorite of mine and make me want to watch it again right now.

From the elegant trash of 5 DOLLS the second feature of the night brought on the elegant brutality of BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, the classic early giallo about beautiful models at the Christian Haute Couture fashion salon being savagly murdered by a masked maniac. Even on 16mm, I found myself continually looking for all the background details going on during the scenes at the Christian Haute Couture. There’s continual activity going on in those sections that keep the eyes darting all around the frame. It also stood out for me how adult the film is, not just in its depictions of violence in a sexually charged atmosphere, but how even in the midst of the sometimes-stilted dubbing, there’s a maturity to the characters relationships on a level that is almost unheard of today in films of this genre. This feels especially true when viewing what Eva Bartok as Countess Christina Cuomo does with her performance in the last part of the film. It’s the sort of element which adds to the intrigue and it also to the elegant-yet-sleazy tone, reminding me that these characters inhabit a world nothing like the one we know today. As stated before, it was Joe Dante’s own 16mm print that the Cinematheque screened, one which looks to be cobbled together (by Dante himself?) from various sources to make a complete version. As far as I can tell, it’s pretty much identical to the version available on DVD, except that it features the American title sequence, not the more stylized cast introduction credits seen on disc. It’s good that it’s there and maybe the vibe it gives off adds to how effective it is, but it’s a shame such a beautiful looking film is presumably only available to be screened like this. The compositions and colors throughout seem to demand an emphasis of that feel of luxurious deviance and I can only hope that at some point a print will exist that allows it to be viewed in such a way.

Dull films, like houseboys, come and go, but there’s always a bottle, to steal a familiar line heard in this double bill. Fortunately, there’s also 5 DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON and BLOOD AND BLACK LACE, two films which continue to unveil new shadings in their own unique moods, giving me an added appreciation for what was accomplished in Italy long ago. Now I’ve got to figure out where I left that J&B.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Drops of Water

Opening night at the American Cinematheque for the Mario Bava festival was well-attended and enjoyable. I even spotted Edgar Wright on the premises at the Egyptian. Joe Dante introduced the double bill of BLACK SUNDAY and BLACK SABBATH, telling a little bit about the background of both films and also specifying which version of each film we were going to see. The prints, both dating from the early part of the decade, were in decent shape and great to view on the huge screen.

Both films played just great to me. BLACK SUNDAY (titled THE MASK OF SATAN on this version) expertly holds its mood and if its English-produced soundtrack isn’t entirely ideal (I’ve never seen the Italian version and the last time I saw the American AIP cut was a long time ago) the many effective passages throughout overwhelm anything else. This tale of a witch (the otherworldly Barbara Steele) who returns several centuries after being put to death to hopefully feed off her ancestors plays like a dark, sinuous adult fairy tale that genuinely feels like it has come to earth from some other realm. The moment of that mist appearing at the bottom of the frame just before Andrea Checci’s Dr. Kruvajan has his first unknowing encounter with the supernatural is the sort of effect that helps make the movie. Not an effect that serves as a loud crash, but an encroaching feeling of dread from a force that is unknown and beyond the comprehension of an intellectual mind. And maybe the effect of Barbara Steele’s performance is hampered by the dubbing, in both roles she manages to sell that feeling of someone so imbued with the feeling of being haunted in ways she doesn’t understand that it truly is a part of her soul. And it’s hard to take your eyes off those eyes.

But as great as it is, it was the triple-pronged horror of 1963’s anthology BLACK SABBATH which had the greater effect on me last night. Shown in the subtitled Italian version under its original title which translates as THE THREE FACES OF FEAR, this print has obviously been shown several times during the past few years. But the way the colors leapt off the screen and the effect this gave off more than made up for any scratches. “The Drop of Water” has imagery that is powerful and haunting in its primal nature, the proto-giallo lounge vibe of “The Telephone” is infectious, but viewing “The Wurdalak” in this context struck me as being a more successful exploration of certain ideas presented in BLACK SUNDAY—though not having Barbara Steele is definitely a drawback—and all of the elements combined here make it a true masterwork of the horror genre. I’m now convinced of that. Even Boris Karloff being dubbed into Italian cannot be considered a real drawback. Again, I haven’t seen the American cut of the film in years (the last time may have been during an all-night marathon at the Nuart back in 1994) but, more than any version of BLACK SABBATH I’ve ever seen, this feels like the true version of this film. Seen together, this double feature of magic, desire and the power of seemingly benign drops of water are films which serve not only as an enjoyable kickoff to the festival, but an ideal entryway into the world of Mario Bava for anyone who is interested.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Of the Dark and Light

Something I always feel I need to remember is how sprawling the history of film is. There are far too many movies to see and there’s only so much time I have to see them. What I have to do is deal with the ones I do see in the best way I know how. And keep in mind that there is always more to learn about them.

The Mario Bava series at the American Cinematheque is about to begin and I am anxiously looking forward to going, but first there is some unfinished business I need to take care of. I never got around to putting down any thoughts on Tim Lucas’s epic biography on the director, MARIO BAVA: ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK when it was finally released last fall. In some ways, coming up with the right way to describe my reaction to it was a little daunting at the time. It still is, but I think I also wanted to keep my response a little bit to myself. I’d waited a long time for that book. I can remember talking with someone at a Christmas party in 2000, wondering just how much longer we’d be waiting for it. I actually own every issue of Video Watchdog, the journal that he has published with his wife Donna since 1990. I never subscribed for reasons which are just as mysterious to me. No, I’ve simply bought every copy in stores, on newsstands, wherever I would find the latest issue. But not at all mysterious is the fact that it did truly affect how I looked at films. The birth of the magazine coincided with a time in my life when I was open to new concepts, new types of movies that I hadn’t explored yet. Way back then I was really beginning to study Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, countless others…but there were the more fantastic areas of cinema to explore as well. Looking into horror movies that I learned about through reading Video Watchdog led to Hammer Films, to Dario Argento, to Italian Horror films…and of course to Mario Bava. What I get from his films is not expert narrative, but a mastery of a feel which can so rarely be found in such genre films. From him I get a mood, a feel of color, a frisson, which is unavoidably different from what many lesser filmmakers ever seem to think to offer. From his eye came a particular way of photographing Barbara Steele’s face, Christopher Lee’s hands, Boris Karloff in his twilight, John Phillip Law scaling the side of a castle, the pure and utter dream feel to LISA AND THE DEVIL along with many others including the unforgettable finale of TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE, which Joe Dante once referred to as “the greatest ending since CITIZEN KANE.” I remember the gleeful expressions on the faces of the audience after a Cinematheque screening ten years ago and it would have been hard to convince any of them otherwise. His films are sometimes slow and very much come from another time and place but if you’re willing to take that dive, it can be hard to go back to the way it was before where other movies can seem more…normal.

Learning about the films he had made and the circumstances they were made in increased my interest in movies that came from that part of the world during that point in time. The Euro-lounge vibe of DANGER DIABOLIK and FIVE DOLLS FOR AN AUGUST MOON tied in to my increasing fixation on lounge scores overall…I could go on with this, but I won’t. MARIO BAVA: ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK is a book I have waited a long time for and the wait was more than worth it. A volume which has essentially been in the works for Tim Lucas’s career as a journalist and film historian, it’s a physically huge piece of work, weighing a full 12 pounds and is 1128 pages. It’s bigger than most coffee table books and has several times the text of any normal book as well. Fortunately I pre-ordered it years ago before the price went up, a wise choice on my part. It is daunting, yes, but like diving off that cliff to explore Bava, his films and Italian genre cinema in general, it is worth it. It’s a culmination of what Tim Lucas has spent a lifetime learning, but it’s also a pure expression of love for cinema. Reading Video Watchdog through the years has been an outlet towards allowing my love of film to grow. An accomplishment on the level of this book reminds me of how much I have actually discovered and loved about films through these years, but it also feels like a signpost telling me how much more there is to learn. It’s a thrill to have this book in my possession and I feel proud every time I open up to see my name in there, my real name, among the patrons who purchased it early on. And it’s spelled correctly, too…even my high school yearbook didn’t get that right.

The book reveals Mario Bava as a man who affected the world of film in ways which have never been fully appreciated. The cult which has been deservedly building around his name in recent years is actually somewhat similar to the character of Max Castle in Theodore Roszak’s novel FLICKER...only the effect Bava has had on the world has been a positive one. In Bava’s films, it is possible to get the feel of the true joy of making a film. And within that, you can get a true sense of the personality of the man who made it. I’m not sure how much more is needed from a movie.

Martin Scorsese, who was praising Bava in Film Comment way back in the seventies, provided the introduction to ALL THE COLORS OF THE DARK, writing of it, “It deserves a place on the bookshelves of all serious film lovers.” As usual, he’s right.

Yes, many of Bava's films can be found on DVD these days. But there's nothing like seeing them in the theater. The American Cinematheque series Mario Bava: Poems of Love and Death runs from March 13th and through the 23rd. If you need to find me, I’ll be at the Egyptian.