Sunday, October 31, 2010

Trivia Time - Part 57

Hey, it's both Halloween AND the end of baseball season, so we're throwing you a few curve balls this time: the questions MAY have to do with "scary" movies or baseball movies (or scary baseball movies) or.....maybe not! We retain all rights to the contents of these questions.

So here is TT 57....we'll leave it to you to decide whether it is a trick or a treat, LOL!

Who Am I? I worked more on Broadway than in I did in films, although I made several movies during the 30s and 40s. I once nursed a very sick vaudevillian back to health 20 years before he and I appeared together in a film playing nephew and aunt. Who Am I?

1. Name the sick vaudevillian and the film in question in Who Am I?

2. In the film in #1, one scene shows the star sitting in a graveyard. Near him is a headstone with a name that has special significance. Give the name on the headstone and explain the significance.

3. In the same film in questions 1 and 2, there is a running gag about someone in the film resembling a famous actor. Name the famous actor AND the person who resembles him.

4. In the Blake Edwards film, Experiment in Terror, the climactic scene takes place in a ball park. Name the ballpark and the teams that were playing.

5. In a classic episode of Leave It to Beaver, Beaver calls a famous baseball player on the telephone. Name the player.

6. Name the two aliens in the first season of Rocky and Bullwinkle.

7. In one of his earliest films, this future star was a real "stiff". Name him, the film, the director and the stars.

8. In a movie made during her final decade, Bette Davis wanted to play both her part as well as that of the same woman 30 years earlier, to be shown in flashbacks. The makeup department did their best, but when cast and crew watched the dailies, it was clear that it wouldn't work. The director bravely took her aside and told her that she was not believable as a woman in her forties, even with makeup. Davis replied, "You're G**d***ed right!". Name the film.

9. The vaudevillian in Who Am I? once appeared in a Doris Day movie in which he took her to a baseball game. They both got to sit with the team in the dugout. Name the movie, the ball park, team, and the famous ball players who had speaking parts in that scene.

10. Name the famous baseball player who once had a speaking part on The Donna Reed Show.

Danny’s Not Here, Mrs. Torrance... He’s Watching Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”

Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as caretaker of the Overlook Hotel for the winter. A struggling alcoholic who has been sober for five months, he plans to work on his latest “writing project,” while his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), stay with him in the enormous hotel. Before the employees leave, a cook, Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), recognizes in Danny a shared extrasensory ability. Hallorann’s grandmother referred to ESP as “shining,” which the young boy handles by creating Tony, who lives in Danny’s mouth, talking to him and sometimes showing him pieces of future events. Danny can sense that the cook is afraid of Room 237, and Hallorann warns Danny to stay out of the room.

Jack had been informed by the hotel manager of the preceding caretaker, Charles Grady, who murdered his family with an axe before killing himself. Days pass, and Jack sleeps late, repeatedly tosses a ball against the wall, and nods off at the typewriter. As Jack’s behavior becomes progressively more antagonistic towards his wife and son, Danny has visions of mysterious sisters, bloody corridors, and the word “redrum” scrawled on a door. Soon, Jack is seeing people at the hotel, like the bartender, Lloyd, who serves him drinks, and it seems only a matter of time before the agitated writer picks up an axe.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining was not generally well received upon its 1980 release in theaters, but like several of Kubrick’s films, The Shining has, over time, garnered more fans and favorable reviews. Kubrick was well known for his rigorous shoots during production, a perfectionist for every shot of his films. His movie prior to The Shining, Barry Lyndon (1975), took an astounding 300 days to complete filming, whereas production for The Shining reportedly lasted over a year. Perhaps because of his lengthy shoots, Kubrick was never genuinely considered an “actor’s director,” as the actors sometimes were simply objects within a highly detailed construct (e.g., the privates standing at attention in 1987’s Full Metal Jacket or Alex and his droogs sitting at the milk bar in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange).

In The Shining, there are seemingly endless shots of far-reaching hallways and characters framed in vast, nearly empty rooms. Something as simple as Wendy bringing Jack his breakfast becomes an arduous task of rolling a service cart for a prolonged distance. Many horror films enclose characters within confined spaces (such as George A. Romero’s 1968
ghoul opus, Night of the Living Dead), but The Shining takes an alternate approach. There is plenty of room to move in the colossal hotel, but, like with so many of the hotel’s elements, it’s pure deceit. The isolated hotel is covered in a severe snow storm, so Danny and his mother can run, and they can even hide, but there truly is no escape.
There have been numerous readings of The Shining, with some critical writings or essays viewing the film as an allegory. While a literal translation of the film’s plot is not likely feasible, it is possible to focus more on its base components. Jack Torrance is either conversing with and being manipulated by ghosts or his mind is disintegrating (not unlike Jack Clayton’s 1961 The Innocents or its source text, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw). Theories can support either belief, but Kubrick’s infamous concluding shot, closing in on a simple photograph, adds a new element to any potential interpretation.

The Shining
was based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, which was adapted by Kubrick and author Diane Johnson. King has been vocal over his dissatisfaction with Kubrick’s film version. The author was most critical of the casting of Nicholson, believing that audiences would immediately see Nicholson as the mentally unstable character, as opposed to watching a man slowly fall apart. In 1997, King adapted his novel and produced a three-part miniseries directed by Mick Garris and starring Steven
Weber and Rebecca De Mornay. The television version was filmed in part at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, the hotel which inspired King’s original novel. Kubrick filmed some of the exteriors for the 1980 film at the Timberline Lodge in Oregon in lieu of the Stanley Hotel, another source of contention for King. (The interiors were filmed at Elstree Studios in England.)
The film’s Steadicam operator, Garrett Brown, invented the Steadicam, which he initially called the “Brown stabilizer.” He first utilized the Steadicam in Bound for Glory (1976) and won great acclaim for Rocky the same year, following Sylvester Stallone up the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum. His design originally covered the area from the operator’s waist to head, but he was able to employ shots in The Shining at knee height (accomplished by utilizing a wheelchair), as the camera travels behind Danny on a Big Wheel in the Overlook’s hallways. The tracking shots in Kubrick’s film are extraordinary. They are fluid and follow Danny so closely that it gives the impression of being pulled against one’s will, intensifying the dread of the boy turning a corner, as one can never tell what will be standing there.

Soon after its initial theatrical release, Kubrick pulled the film and cut the ending. The final shot was the same, but there was
a preceding scene that did little to explain the events of the movie. If anything, it unnecessarily piled on further intricacies to a labyrinth of ideas. There are apparently production shots, but the filmed scene reportedly no longer exists.

Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind composed a score for the film (Carlos had also written the Moog synthesizer music for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange). However, very little of their music was used, as Kubrick opted for already existing classical music to cover most of the film’s soundtrack. In 2005, Carlos
released the original material written for The Shining, with Rediscovering Lost Scores, Vol. 1 and 2 (also featuring selections from A Clockwork Orange and 1982’s Tron).
Though they are often referred to as “twins,” the ghostly Grady sisters in The Shining are simply dressed alike, as the film explains that the two girls are different ages. The well known line -- “Here’s Johnny!” -- was an ad-lib by Nicholson. Clearly a play on Ed McMahon’s introduction of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, Stanley Kubrick, who had been living in England for a number of years, reportedly did not comprehend the reference. Carson would later incorporate the scene in an introduction to one of the shows anniversary specials.

The Shining
is one of my favorite horror films. I
’m a Kubrick fan, and although he didn’t concentrate on the horror genre, the famed director was able to create scenes of sheer intensity and disturbing imagery that sears itself into the viewers’ minds. It’s a movie that, if nothing else, makes me glad that I cannot afford to stay at a gigantic posh hotel.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Trivia Time - Part 56 - the Answers

This is a short post because so many of you participated this week and did VERY well!

8. Name the stars of the ABC TV series, The Young Lawyers.

Answer: Zalman King, Judy Pace, and Lee J. Cobb

10. Between his work for the BBC and his feature films, Ken Russell made docudramas and films about six different composers. Name the composers.

Answer: This was difficult, and I didn't really expect anyone to get it. At the BBC: Elgar, Debussy, and Delius. Feature films: Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers), Mahler (Mahler), and Liszt (Lisztomania). Late-breaking news: after we posted this question, I actually discovered another Russell film about a composer: a made-for-TV movie called The Strange Affliction of Anton Bruckner. Which makes seven.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The High Price of Knowing in George Sluizer’s “The Vanishing”

A Dutch man, Rex (Gene Bervoets), and his girlfriend, Saskia (Johanna ter Steege), are on holiday in France. They stop at a gas station for a rest and to refuel, and sitting in his car is a man (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu) who affixes his arm with an artificial cast and sling. When Saskia enters the station for drinks before the couple hits the road again, she does not return. Rex searches the area and questions the gas station manager and employees, but there is no trace of the woman. Three years later, Rex is consumed by his search for Saskia. Though he has a girlfriend, Lieneke (Gwen Eckhaus), her companionship cannot outweigh his obsession. Rex has received postcards from someone claiming to know what has happened to Saskia, but when he waits at a specified meeting place, there is no one. When Rex finally makes an appearance on television to tell the story of Saskia’s disappearance, Raymond, the man from the gas station years ago, approaches him, saying that he can tell Rex of his girlfriends fate.

George Sluizer’s 1988 film The Vanishing (aka Spoorloos, the original Dutch title) is an elegantly complex feature, most notably for an early introduction to and subsequent spotlighting of the villain. Following Saskia’s vanishing, the film’s perspective switches to Raymond, a family man and school teacher, as his plan slowly materializes. He is meticulous, each of his acts another step towards his objective. What makes Raymond such an appalling character is the fact that he is thorough, mapping out every aspect and even practicing (at one point involving his daughter in a scenario, unbeknownst to her). Another frightening point is the origin of specific ideas, sometimes coming from someone else, such as his family. Raymond is, as he himself says, a sociopath, cold and detached, and his very nature is chilling. When his wife expresses concern that he may have a mistress, Raymond alleviates her worries not with charm but in a direct, businesslike manner.
Much of the film plays like curtains being drawn back, not for a shocking revelation, but rather to unveil the inevitable horror. Sluizer offers clues throughout the course of the film, not truly hiding anything. The ending may not be the preferred destination, but it is the only way. This gives deeper meaning to an early scene, when Rex and Saskia run out of gas in the middle of a dark tunnel. After retrieving gasoline, Rex drives the car out of the tunnel, visualized from his point of view. The meager light at the tunnel’s exit gradually increases, revealing to the audience what it can already see -- and standing in the light is Saskia, who is waiting at the end.

The Vanishing was based on the novella, The Golden Egg, by Tim Krabbé, who wrote the screenplay adaptation with Sluizer. The story’s title is referenced in the film by a description of Saskia’s dream, in which she is t
rapped inside a golden egg, a dream that Rex also experiences during his desperate search. Sluizer, who also produced, and producer Anne Lordon won a Golden Calf for Best Feature Film at the Netherlands Film Festival. The film was the Dutch submission for the Academy Awards’ Best Foreign Language Film category but was ineligible since a great deal of spoken dialogue was in French. Actress ter Steege, in her film debut, won an European Film Award for Best Supporting Actress (the very first year that the European Film Academy held a ceremony).
Actor Jeroen Krabbé is author Tim Krabbé’s brother. The actor has appeared in a number of films, perhaps most famously in The Living Daylights (1987) and The Fugitive (1993). He also co-starred with ter Steege in Immortal Beloved (1994).
Sluizer directed a Hollywood remake of The Vanishing in 1993, starring Keifer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, and Nancy Travis. The narrative structure is only slightly altered, with a significant change being additional screen time for the U.S. version of Lieneke (played by Travis). The most drastic revision, however, was the ending, which was compromised to allow for a more upbeat conclusion. The movie was a commercial and critical failure.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Nuanced Terror - Jack Clayton's "The Innocents"

Light and shadow flicker across the screen. Sobbing is heard as a pair of praying hands, clasping and unclasping, come into view. The sobs continue.

A woman’s suffering face appears above the tortured hands. Birds twitter…her distraught voice whispers…

All I want to do is save the children not destroy them. More than anything I love children. More than anything they need affection, love, someone who will belong to them and to whom they will belong.

And then, as a man’s voice asks Do you have an imagination?, the screen focuses, suddenly revealing a well-appointed office, an elegant gentleman and the woman we have already seen…who now sits in a chair and speaks animatedly with the man who continues to ask questions and explain the situation he offers.

Director Jack Clayton
These first moments of Jack Clayton’s masterful 1961 film, The Innocents, set the stage for a chilling and absorbing tale of bewitchment.

Deborah Kerr stars as Miss Giddens, an anxious, fragile-seeming young woman who begins her first assignment as a governess for two orphaned children on a remote estate.

Michael Redgrave briefly portrays the gentleman, Miss Giddens’ employer, whose questions and revelations prime and subtly spook her, before she sets foot in the stately home where events will unfold.

The action intensifies when Miss Giddens arrives at Bly, a magnificent manor that far exceeds her expectations in its grandeur and beauty. She is “very excited, indeed” to be there and her two “angelic” and precocious charges easily charm her. An earthy housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Megs Jenkins), serves to ground the excitable governess…whose journey proceeds from enchantment to confusion, to torment and disintegration.

Henry James
American novelist Henry James wrote The Turn of the Screw in 1898 while living in England in a large rambling mansion. James has recorded that the story was suggested to him by an anecdote he heard from the Archbishop of Canterbury. This scrap of a tale concerned young children haunted by the malevolent ghosts of a pair of servants who tried, again and again, to lure them to their deaths.

The James novella depicts a young governess on her first assignment, the care of two children living in a grand mansion on a vast estate. The plot deepens when the young woman, daughter of a vicar, begins to suspect the presence of the evil spirits of two deceased servants.

It was several years after James’ book was published before critics began to wrangle in earnest over the interpretation of the story. By the 1920s several had proposed that The Turn of the Screw was less a ghost story and more the tale of inexperienced and high-strung governess who succumbed to hallucinations and madness. A 1934 essay by prominent critic Edmund Wilson dramatically advanced this view.

Henry James himself was equivocal about his intentions, and statements he made on the subject have been cited to support both apparitionist and non-apparitionist views.

Fascination with The Turn of the Screw hasn't waned over the years and it has been adapted from the page to other mediums including opera, the stage, TV and film. In February 1950, Peter Cookson’s production of William Archibald’s stage adaption of the James novella debuted on Broadway as The Innocents; Beatrice Straight starred as the governess.

Eleven years later, the play was adapted to film by British director, Jack Clayton (Room at the Top). Though William Archibald was involved, it was Truman Capote who was primarily responsible for the polished screenplay.

Truman Capote
Capote endeavored to maintain the story’s ambiguity as he felt Henry James had originally conceived it – are the ghosts real or are they the fantasies of a governess gone mad?

Taking the modern view, it’s not difficult to interpret The Innocents as an intricately staged reflection of an unstable woman’s descent into madness: the film closely follows the increasingly erratic behavior and visible deterioration of the omnipresent governess; no one but the governess actually “sees” the ghosts she claims are present; by the film’s end, even the sensible and supportive housekeeper is at odds with the hysterical young woman…and there are many visual clues that the governess may be projecting her own imaginings onto her surroundings. It is no stretch these days to believe that a deranged governess would be capable of terrifying a frightened child to death.

But, viewed from another perspective, the tale can also be read as the story of an inexperienced but well-meaning young woman confronted with the supernatural in the form of malicious spirits. Her fervid determination to save the children from possession could explain her unorthodox behavior. And that is what most people believed when The Turn of the Screw was first published.

Enigmatic and haunting, The Innocents leaves the audience to its own conclusions.

A luminous turn by Deborah Kerr (in her own favorite film performance), Freddie Francis’ cinematography, the script of Archibald and Capote and Georges Auric’s original music all mesh under Jack Clayton’s accomplished direction to create the acknowledged masterpiece among the many adaptations of The Turn of the Screw.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Rich Man, Poor Man

I think most adults have had the experience of re-visiting one of their old homes or schools and most say the same thing – “It seems so much smaller than I remember.”  Sometimes seeing a movie or TV show from years ago can have the same effect. I was surprised to find that my reaction to the 1976 mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man was the same as visiting my old school – it just didn’t seem as impressive as it did the first time around.

A&E Home Video has released a boxed DVD set of both the original and sequel of this ground-breaking television event. Rich Man, Poor Man was the first of its kind, the mini-series that has since become a staple of television programming. When it debuted on February 1, 1976 on ABC, it caught the attention of the nation and kept it for the 8 weeks of its run (there are 12 episodes in total, 4 of which were shown as 2-hour specials). In those days before recording technology, Rich Man, Poor Man dominated its Monday night time slot.

Based on Irwin Shaw’s popular novel, Rich Man, Poor Man is the story of what we now refer to as a dysfunctional family. It portrays the life of the Jordache family during the period from the end of World War II to the late 1960’s. It is fascinating to watch for those who lived through those years as well as younger audiences who can experience a time before they were born. Axel Jordache (Ed Asner) is a harsh man, a German immigrant who runs a bakery with his discontented American-born wife Mary (Dorothy McGuire) and two sons, Rudy (Peter Strauss) and Tom (Nick Nolte). Rudy is the golden boy, and Tom the black sheep of the family, a dynamic that affects the feelings of the brothers toward each other and sets the stage for lifelong conflict. This is essentially the story of the two brothers whose lives disconnect as very young men. Rudy takes the path of higher education and successful business, while Tom is a wanderer trying to find his way in a hard world. The parallel, though very different, lives of the brothers eventually converge in later years with painful consequences.

34-year old Nick Nolte, who had already established an acting career, became an “overnight” star with his performance in Rich Man, Poor Man. His role as Tom was by far the meatiest and reflects more depth than Strauss’s Rudy. Tom breaks your heart, while Rudy’s rise to riches and power makes his character rather smarmy and hypocritical. Strauss, although handsome and charming, does not have the acting chops of Nolte, whose performance is tour-de-force. Strauss’s career continued in some good, some forgettable television roles, while Nolte went on to movie stardom. Susan Blakely, a young model turned actress, plays Julie Prescott, a beautiful young girl whose ambitions cause her to hurt others as well as herself. Blakely is lovely and was very popular at the time, but in my opinion not a good enough actress to carry the part. She continued acting in movies and television, notably as Frances Farmer in the TV movie Will There Really Be A Morning.

Rich Man, Poor Man was notable for its cameo roles by classic-era movie stars, including Dorothy McGuire, Van Johnson, Ray Milland, Gloria Grahame and Barry Sullivan. Even in 1976, television was considered by many movie actors as a step down, but Rich Man, Poor Man attracted them for its ground-breaking distinction and popularity of Shaw's novel. Dorothy McGuire's role in particular gave the opportunity for real acting. In a departure from her better-known movie roles, McGuire plays a frustrated, unstable woman as Mary Jordache, and her performance in this role was excellent. Others had fairly small roles that didn’t take much effort. I remember when The Towering Inferno hit movie theatres, William Holden said of his part “I could have phoned it in.” The same unfortunately applies to other famous stars who appeared in Rich Man, Poor Man, including one of my favorites, Ray Milland. It was great to see them, but some of them could have phoned in their parts too.  ( A note of interest:  The Towering Inferno was one of Susan Blakely's early movie roles, in which she played William Holden's daughter.)

The series was also a good vehicle for younger stars such as Talia Shire, Kim Darby and Kay Lenz. Television star Robert Reed gave a solid performance as Teddy Boylan, a man who affected the lives of all three principal characters. Bill Bixby, another popular television actor, was quite good in his role as Julie’s alcoholic husband. And of course, one of television’s best, most-hated villains was created in the series by William Smith as Falconetti. Smith’s forte is villains, and his character in Rich Man, Poor Man was by far his best work. The story of Falconetti and Tom in particular is so well-done that it is difficult to see unfold. Falconetti is indeed despicable, and Smith plays it to the hilt.

After the great success of Rich Man, Poor Man, a sequel was planned immediately after. Nolte refused to appear because he felt the story should not be altered to create a sequel. He had the right idea, because the sequel was a poor follow-up to the original story. Its popularity did not come anywhere near that of the original. It is fun, however, to watch it as part of the DVD set just to see where it takes the story. The DVD set also features commentary in Book One, Chapter One by star Peter Strauss and TV historian David Bianculli which is quite interesting.

There was of course no category for best mini-series yet in the Emmy awards, but Rich Man, Poor Man garnered 24 nominations, winning 4 awards: Best Director David Greene (there were actually several directors throughout the series, including Bill Bixby), Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Performance Fionnula Flanagan for her poignant performance as the servant girl Clothtilde, Best Actor in a Limited Performance Ed Asner as Axel Jordache and Best Music Score Alex North. Asner, who was tremendously popular as the crusty but loveable Mr. Grant in the Mary Tyler Moore show, still going strong when the mini-series was made, gave a marvelous performance as the cruel, enraged Axel Jordache, which probably surprised a lot of the comedy series’ fans. Why Nolte did not win an Emmy is beyond me – his performance as the ill-fated Tom was superb, not to mention that he was the glue that held the whole thing together. I have to say that I don’t quite understand why the score by Alex North was given an award. It must have been a thin year for TV music. North, who composed several truly great movie scores, including A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus, Shoes of the Fisherman and The Children’s Hour, turned out what I thought of as insipid and unmemorable music for Rich Man, Poor Man, a surprising turn for such a talented composer.

Although my experience in watching Rich Man, Poor Man again after 34 years was unexpectedly disappointing overall, that may be because in my memory it had grown to greater proportions than it was able to deliver now. It is not a bad show nor is it a great one. I guess it is just “smaller than I remember.”

Wanted: Fans of John Frankenheimer's "Prophecy"

To be frank, you won’t find many people who have actually seen this famous misfire and even fewer folks willing to confess they liked it. I proudly admit I have an affection for Prophecy, but heck, even the film’s director disowned it. Some films just don’t get any respect.

The film’s lead, Robert Foxworth, was pretty much pigeon-holed as a TV actor. His greatest success, from a commercial standpoint, was as the vanilla hero of the 1980s prime-time soap Falcon Crest. However, he was much better as an super-intelligent android in the underrated TV movie The Questor Tapes (an unsold pilot, I think). He also starred in several TV movies with Elizabeth Montgomery—they were a real-life couple for many years, until her death.

Unfortunately, there’s no Elizabeth Montgomery in Prophecy, only a bland Talia Shire as a pregnant cellist named Maggie. That leaves Foxworth to carry the load as Maggie’s intense physician husband Robert. After years of caring for poor inner-city patients, Robert gets an opportunity to resolve an environmental dispute between a paper mill and the local Indians in upper Maine. (A friend says he can easily explain to Robert—who’s a physician, not a government intermediary—what to do.)

Talia wonders: "Where's Rocky
when you need him?"
Shortly after their arrival in the wooded northeast, Robert and Maggie hear about a legendary Indian creature called Katahdin that guards the land. They also discover that several lumberjacks are missing, many Indian children are being born dead or deformed, wild animals are going crazy, and tadpoles are growing to the size of bass. To top it all off, they encounter this huge monster resembling a mutant grizzly bear that doesn’t like humans. Hmm…maybe the big city life wasn’t so bad after all!

I suspect this all sounds very hokey, but the setting (actually Canada) works well and there are several memorable scenes. The best is Katahdin's second major attack, in which our protagonists huddle in an underground tunnel and are forced to hear Katahdin brutally slaughter helpless victims. There’s also a surprisingly cruel scene in which a young boy in a banana-shaped sleeping bag tries to hop away from the lumbering beast. Surely, we think, a child will be spared. That’s about the time that Katahdin swats the kid against a tree and sends feathers from the sleeping bag scattering into the night.

Foxworth: "Sinatra gets a Frankenheimer
classic...I get Katahdin!"
Alas, after a gripping climax, the film comes to a convoluted end. A major subplot involving Maggie’s unborn baby is never resolved. Katahdin's demise seems rushed (there’s a thematic link between Maggie’s baby and the beast, though it’s never fully explored). It looks as if the studio tampered with the film’s ending or Frankenheimer tired of the project and just wanted to be done with it.

I first saw Prophecy in a Bloomington, Indiana theatre that was showing second-run movies for $1. I liked it then, but enjoyed even more when I saw it on cable in the 1990s. I eventually bought the tape and watched it with my nephew. He said he liked it. That’s two of us, at least.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Brian Clemens Serves Up a Different Kind of Vampire Film with "Kronos"

Britain's Hammer Films dominated the horror genre from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s with its Gothic tales featuring Christopher Lee as Dracula and Peter Cushing as Victor Frankenstein. However, its audience began to erode in the late 1960s as contemporary horror films, such as Night of the Living Dead (1968), staked their hold on the youth market. Hammer recognized that it needed to shake up its formula and hired Brian Clemens to write and direct a different kind of vampire film.

Clemens had earned a stellar reputation in British television as a writer for first-rate series such as Danger Man (aka Secret Agent) and The Avengers (he penned 32 episodes and produced many others). In an interview with The Monster Times, Clemens stated that he felt many of Hammer's movies had no heroes--the "monster" was the protagonist and the audience ended up rooting for the bad guy. His solution was to create a swashbuckling hero who hunted vampires--and thus Kronos was born.

German actor Horst Janson portrays Captain Kronos, a former member of the Imperial Guard, who travels Europe with Professor Grost (John Cater) with the sole mission of destroying the undead. His friend, Dr. Marcus (John Carson), summons him to the small village of Durward where several young women have mysteriously died...of old age.

The narrative itself is pretty straightforward. It's what Clemens and company does with it that makes Kronos so entertaining. This vampire doesn't drink blood, but drains the youth from its victims. Professor Grost explains that "there are as many species of vampires as there are beasts of prey." Grost also emphasizes that not all vampires can be destroyed with a wooden stake. That ultimately leads to a darkly humorous scene in which Kronos tries various methods of vampire destruction--stake, hanging, fire--trying to figure out which one will work on these particular vampires.

Clemens frames his shots to show that
evil surrounds innocence and good.
In his effort to dispense with vampire conventions, Clemens has his creature attack during the daylight. Most of the murders take place in a muted forest highlighted with pink, purple, and red flowers. Birds are chirping sweetly as a hooded figure enters the frame from behind the camera. Clearly, Clemens wants to show evil surrounding innocence--a motif he reinforces by frequently framing his shots with doorways, between trees, and even the mount of a cemetery bell.

Clemens embraces the folklore behind vampirism to the point of creating his own. The day after Grost buries a bunch of dead toads in the woods, Kronos digs them up. He explains his actions to Marcus by reciting this rhyme:
If a vampire should bestrode
Close to the grave of a dead toad
Then the vampire life shall give
And suddenly, the toad shall live.

Caroline Munro eyes Captain Kronos.
With his flowing blonde hair, the handsome Janson looks the part of a dashing vampire hunter--even if his thespian skills are merely adequate. But John Cater is perfect as his hunchbacked colleague Grost and John Carson provide solid support as Marcus. As a gypsy girl along for the ride, Caroline Munro has little to do besides act charming and look stunning (both of which she does well).

Composer Laurie Johnson, perhaps best known for his Avengers theme, composed the marvelous score. The title theme, which incorporates French horns accompanied by galloping strings, sets the mood immediately. With apologies to James Bernard, who did some fine work for Hammer, Kronos may be the best Hammer soundtrack.

It's clear from the closing scene that Clemens intended Kronos to the first in a series. Alas, that was not to be. Hammer provided lackluster support for the film and it failed at the boxoffice. In the U.S., it was released as Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter as the second half of a double bill with Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell. In the meantime, Hammer experimented with other genres (e.g., contemporary action, martials arts and monsters) with little success. It ceased film production after 1976. Fortunately for Kronos, it developed a cult following and eventually earned a reputation as one of Hammer's finest.

Trivia Time - Part 56

Excuse the late post, but I just back in town from a trip to "wonderful" LA (NOT!). Besides, I thought you guys needed more time to answer some of the questions from last week, but it looks like it didn't help....LOL!

OK, here's what you missed from TT Part 55:

Who Are We and Which Film is This? We appeared together only once, in a movie released in 1953. We have a lot in common: we're both extraordinarily beautiful women, we were both born in the month of August (although we are ten years apart in age), and we were both born in Los Angeles County. Our mothers were both involved in the theatrical profession in New York before we were born. One of us trained primarily as a singer, while the other studied piano and dance, among other things. Who Are We and Which Film is This?

Answer: Rhonda Fleming and Julie Newmar; the film was Serpent of the Nile.

Who Are We? I began as a folk singer and song writer, just like my mom; we both wrote some huge hits. Later I added acting to my repertoire as well. Who Are We?

Answer: Mae and Hoyt Axton

1. Name a hit written by the "mom" from Who Are We?#2.

Answer: Mae wrote "Heartbreak Hotel" which was a huge hit for Elvis.

2. One of the two women in Who Are We and Which Film is This? had a short-lived show in the '60s. Name the show and both stars (male and female).

Answer: My Living Doll, Robert Cummings and Julie Newmar

5. Besides the Beatles and Rolling Stones, name three other "British Invasion" groups which had their own feature films?

Answer: (Rick already named two of the three)
The third group was Gerry and The Pacemakers.

6. Name the films in #5.

Answers: Herman's Hermits, Hold On!
Dave Clark Five: Having a Wild Weekend (aka Catch Us If You Can in Britain)
Gerry and the Pacemakers: Ferry Across the Mersey

8. She, Jane Russell, Connie Haines and Beryl Davis were once part of a traveling gospel quartet which made an album that sold over a million copies. Name the actress/singer, the group, and the album.

Answer: Rhonda Fleming, "The Four Girls", and Make A Joyful Noise

10. Because of their exposure on these two weekly CBS '60s sitcoms, bluegrass music was introduced to a whole new generation. Name the two bluegrass groups and the two shows their music was featured on.

Answer: (Rick got Flatt and Scruggs and The Beverly Hillbillies)
The Dillards, (aka the Darling family on The Andy Griffith Show)

OK, ready or not, here comes TT Part 56:

Who Are We? One of us is a distinguished British actor, and one of us is an early British rocker. We were both in the film Expresso Bongo. Who Are We?

Who Am I? On my father's side, I'm descended from King Edward III and on my mother's side from Scottish Kings. My grandfather gave Oscar Wilde the idea for The Picture of Dorian Gray. My first role that really caught everyone's attention was in a Jimmy Stewart movie made in 1946. I actually made two films with Jimmy Stewart during my career. Who Am I?

1. Name the two Jimmy Stewart films made by Who Am I? #2.

2. In the first season of The Flintstones, what brand of cigarettes did Fred and Barney smoke?

3. In the 50s, CBS news had both a history re-enactment show and a history documentary show. Name the shows and the hosts.

4. This 50s TV show had as co-stars Rosemary DeCamp, Dwayne Hickman, and Ann B. Davis. Name the show.

5. Who was the star of the show in question #4?

6. Which Gomer Pyle co-star referred to himself as "America's slowest rising young comedian"?

7. Name two TV shows with Don DeFore in recurring roles.

8. Name the stars of the ABC TV series, The Young Lawyers.

9. In one film, Errol Flynn sang a song with his co-star. Name the co-star and the film.

10. Between his work for the BBC and his feature films, Ken Russell made docudramas and films about six different composers. Name the composers.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Exorcising Demons On and Off Screen in William Friedkin’s “The Exorcist”

Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is an actress filming in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. She begins to notice changes in her 12-year-old daughter, Regan (Linda Blair): aggression, apparent seizures, speaking obscenities and profanities, etc. Chris takes Regan to various doctors and psychiatrists, but the girl’s behavior only worsens. When the medical professionals cannot adequately explain some of Regan’s more bizarre actions (one doctor suggests that muscle spasms were causing an entire bed to shake), Chris turns to Father Damien Karras (Jason Miller), a priest and psychiatric counselor. Father Karras, who has recently begun to question his own faith, eventually requests the Church’s permission to perform an exorcism. Finding a priest with experience in exorcism, the Church sends Father Merrin (Max von Sydow).

The Exorcist (1973) is based on the novel by William Peter Blatty, who also wrote the screenplay adaptation. The author had wanted William Friedkin to direct. Friedkin had recently won an Academy Award for Best Director for The French Connection (1971), and Blatty had hoped that the filmmaker’s gritty, documentary style would add
realism to The Exorcist. Friedkin’s approach to the material is straightforward, a deliberately but effectively slow build to a menacing evil. On occasion, the film indeed feels like a documentary, as viewers watch Chris gradually learn what is happening to her daughter.
Blatty was not pleased with the version initially released in theaters, due to scenes that were cut from the film. Though the director has stated that he cut sequences at the bequest of the studio, the novelist felt that these scenes -- including a staircase conversation between the priests during the exorcism, with Karras questioning why Regan was chosen -- were essential to the plot. According to Friedkin, the excised scenes resulted in the two men not speaking to each other for years. Following the 25th anniversary DVD release, Friedkin returned to the source material and edited the cut scenes back into the film. Another sequence that had been removed was what has become known as the “spider walk” scene, where a contorted Regan does a reverse crawl down the stairs. Friedkin was unhappy with the effect, which was later digitally corrected (i.e., the visible cable could be erased).

There is the belief by some that The Exorcist was a cursed film. There were rumors of accidents on the set, sometimes resulting in injuries. Members of the crew or people related to them died during filming, such as Jack MacGowran, who played Chris’ director and possible love interest. Friedkin allegedly asked Fath
er Thomas Bermingham (a technical advisor who also had a role in the film) to exorcise the set. When the film was released, viewers claimed to be possessed or experiencing extreme psychological reactions, some referencing the purported “subliminal” flashing of a demon’s face (although it’s not genuinely subliminal, since it’s clearly visible). Some audience members would prematurely exit the theater during a viewing or would become physically ill. Blatty, however, attributes this not to scenes of demonic possession but rather the sequences of Regan undergoing strenuous tests such as a pneumoencephalography (enduring a needle in her neck and having her head taped down, among other things).

The Exorcist was such an overwhelming success that it sparked a horror subgenre of possessed people and the resulting scenes of exorcism. Not surprisingly, clones and sequels in
variably followed. Some of the more interesting takes on The Exorcist were: Alberto De Martino’s L’anticristo (1975/aka The Antichrist; The Tempter), Exorcismo (1975/aka Exorcism), starring popular and prolific Spanish horror star Paul Naschy (sometimes called the “Spanish Lon Chaney”), Un urlo nelle tenebre (1975/aka Cries and Shadows; The Possessor; and even the blatant Naked Exorcism, The Return of the Exorcist, and The Exorcist 3); and La endemoniada (1975/aka Demon Witch Child; The Possessed), directed by Amando de Ossorio, better known for his Blind Dead series. A Turkish film, Seytan (1974), is clearly an unofficial remake. Similarly, William Girdler’s Blaxploitation feature, Abby (1974), starring William Marshall (perhaps best known as Blacula), was sued by Warner Bros. for copyright violation. Mario Bava’s film Lisa and the Devil (aka Lisa e il diavolo), released before The Exorcist in 1972, was reedited with new footage added and retitled The House of Exorcism for its 1975 U.S. release.
John Boorman helmed Exorcist II: The Heretic in 1977. It follows Father Lamont (Richard Burton) investigating a death resulting from the exorcism of Regan. Blair reprises her role, and von Sydow appears as Father Merrin in flashbacks. The film performed poorly at the box office. Blatty fared a little better with The Exorcist III (1990), based on his novel, Legion, which was also the movie’s original title. The author wrote and directed the film, but the studio compromised his efforts, demanding rewrites, reshoots, and a title change. It featured George C. Scott as Lt. Kinderman and Ed Flanders as Father Dyer, both characters having appeared in the first film (Lee J. Cobb, who played Kinderman in The Exorcist, died in 1976). Jason Miller also makes an appearance as Patient X (with the insinuation that he is Father Karras, a studio alteration). Reportedly, the footage that Blatty originally shot has since been lost, which has been blamed on Morgan Creek Productions. The same year as The Exorcist III, the Exorcist parody Repossessed, starring Blair and go-to funnyman Leslie Nielsen, was released.

In 2003, Paul Schrader was fired as director of an Exorcist prequel (he had replaced John Frankenheimer, who had died in 2002 before filming had started). Schrader’s work was completely revamped by director Renny Harlin, and the movie was released in 2004 as Exorcist: The Beginning. After a poor reception of Harlin’s movie, Schrader was given additional funds to finish his nearly completed film. The movie, titled Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, received limited theatrical showings and subsequent video/DVD release in 2005. Although the film likewise was not well received, it’s generally preferred by fans of the series. Blatty publicly supported Schrader’s film, while expressing discontent for the 2004 version.

In 1980, Blatty wrote and directed The Ninth Configuration, an adaptation of his 1978 novel of the same name, itself a reworking of his own 1966 book Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane (also an alternate title for the film). The author reputedly considered it a sequel to The Exorcist. A notable connection between the two films is Capt. Capshaw (Scott Wilson, who was nominated for a Golden Globe), an astronaut with a fear of dying in outer space, and it was supposedly Capshaw to whom Regan is referring when she speaks her famous line: “You’re going to die up there.” In addition to Wilson, the film was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Drama and Blatty won for adapted screenplay. Several cast members, including Wilson, Miller, Flanders, and Nicol Williamson, would also star in Blatty’s The Exorcist III. The Ninth Configuration was not a success at the time of its theatrical release but has since gone on to achieve cult status.
Friedkin has boasted that he originally edited The Exorcist at the New York office building located at 666 5th Avenue. Radio and film actress Mercedes McCambridge provided Regan’s raspy voice during the young girl’s possession but did not initially receive a promised screen credit. She (and the Screen Actors Guild) were able to get her name added to the credits. The film’s original trailer, consisting of black and white flashes of a demonic face and a possessed Regan coupled with ear-piercing music, was supposedly banned by executives as it was deemed too frightening to play in theaters.

The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning for sound and adapted screenplay. It won a Golden Globe for Best Picture, with Golden Globes awarded to Friedkin, Blair and Blatty.

Just this month, Warner Bros. released The Exorcist on Blu-ray, presented in a “book” format with details of the film and trivia. The two-disc set includes the original theatrical version and the director’s cut (released in 2000 as “The Version You’ve Never Seen”), as well as previously available and brand new features. For more details, click here.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Route 66: Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing

The Route 66 "Halloween episode" was originally broadcast on October 26, 1962 during the show's third season. By then, Route 66 had lost some of the edge that made it one of the best television dramas of the early 1960s. Of course, it's clear that neither writer Stirling Silliphant nor the splendid guest cast intended "Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing" to be anything other than a lark. On that level, it's a modest success and all the participants seem to be having a grand time.

Buz and Tod oggling the girls.
The episode features two plotlines which eventually intersect (somewhat awkwardly). Series regulars Tod (Martin Milner) and Buz (George Maharis) land a job at Chicago's O'Hare Inn as "junior executives in charge of convention liaison." By virtue of a coin toss, Buz gets the plum assignment of supporting the secretaries' convention--which is like placing a wolf among the lambs. The incredibly bummed Tod ends up as liaison to the Gerenuk Society.

Tod learns that this mysterious "society" is a front for actors Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre, and Lon Chaney, Jr. (plus Martita Hunt from Brides of Dracula as their legal advisor). Lorre wants to make new horror films, but in the same vein as the old classics. Boris thinks that won't sell anymore and that they need to focus on contemporary horror. (Lorre explans to Tod that a "gerenuk" is an endangered species of antelope...thus drawing a parallel to the old horror stars.)

Meanwhile, Buz pursues one of the secretaries, only to learn that she's smitten with her former boss. In a weak plot development, Boris befriends the lovesick secretary and solves her romantic problems. Apparently, when Boris Karloff (the actors all play themselves) calls you on the phone, you listen!

Her reaction: "You look exhausted!"
There's a sloppiness to the whole episode, but there are minor delights along the way. Chaney has some very amusing scenes, especially when he's trying to frighten the lovelorn secretary while she appears oblivious to his Wolf Man makeup and ferocious growls. It makes one wonder why Chaney didn't try his hand at a horror comedy (a good one...not Hillbillys in a Haunted House). The highlight of "Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing" is the opportunity to see Karloff in makeup as the Frankenstein Monster for the first time since 1939's Son of Frankenstein. It's also fun to see Lon as the Mummy and Hunchback (with makeup similar to his father) as well as the Wolf Man.

If you're looking for a great Route 66 episode, this is not it. On the other hand, if you're a fan of the guest stars, you won't want to miss this lighthearted ode to their roles of the past.

Friday, October 22, 2010

It's Best to Sit Alone if You Watch James Cameron's "Aliens"

It is definitely best to sit alone in a chair when you watch this fast-paced, action packed sci-fi horror thriller. If you sit on a sofa beside other people, it is likely you will hit them swinging your arms, scare them by jumping out of your seat, or scream things like “no,” “look out,” “shoot it,” and “get out of there,” throughout the entire movie. The tagline of the movie is: “This time there’s more.” That means you will feel ten times the tension you did when you watched Alien!

Ellen Ripley, (Sigourney Weaver) the only survivor on the ship, Nostromo, is found floating in space by a salvage ship. Ripley has been in a cryogenic sleep for fifty-seven years. She wakes up to find herself in a hospital recovering. She soon learns that she is required to go before a panel of executives from her employer, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, to explain her reason for blowing up their space ship, Nostromo. The panel doesn’t believe her story about an Alien who sneaked aboard the Nostromo and killed every crew member on board but her. They tell her they don’t believe it because a colony of terraforming scientists has been living on the planet LV-426 for thirty years without seeing any Alien or Alien ship. She loses her space flight license and is offered a lowly job of running loaders and forklifts.

Ripley is plagued with nightmares about what happened on the Nostromo. Then, one day, Carter Burke (Paul Reiser), a Corporation lawyer, and Marine Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) inform her that all contact with the colony on LV-426 has been lost. They want her to join a Marine unit and explain what happened in detail on the Nostromo to help prepare them for what they will be facing LV-426. Ripley refuses to go because she is still recovering from the traumatic experience fifty-seven years ago. However, from Ripley’s point of view, it just happened last week. Realizing that she will never conquer the fears in her nightmares, she reluctantly agrees to go. Now the action begins so hold onto your seat!!!

Ripley meets the Marines on the warship, Sulaco. She is pleasant to all of them but Bishop (Lance Hendrickson) who is an android. Ripley is not fond of androids since an android tried to kill her on the Nostromo. She explains to them how only one alien killed the entire crew on the Nostromo. However, the Marines are rather boastful and think they are more than qualified to eliminate any aliens on the planet. Ripley isn’t happy about how lightly they listened to her story. She helps them load their supplies with a forklifter which foreshadows one of the best fighting scenes in the movie.

The Marines, Ripley, and Burke arrive on the LV-426, led by the young Lieutenant Gorman. The only colonist they find is a young girl who has been hiding from the Aliens by herself. Her name is Newt (Carrie Henn) and she tells them everyone else is dead. Soon they discover all the colonists are in one place. The young inexperienced Gorman sends his unit to locate the colonists and check for survivors. Gorman, Burke, Newt, and Ripley stay in the vehicle watching the progress of the Marines. They enter the building and are attacked by a slew of Aliens. Gorman, who panics and cannot decide what to do, is knocked unconscious when Ripley starts driving the vehicle into the building to save the Marines. She saves Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein), Private Hudson (Bill Paxton), and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn). The rest of the Marines are dead or taken by the Aliens to be cocooned. The rest of the plot is about how the Marines, Ripley, Newt, Burke, and Bishop try to survive.

Ripley’s relationship with Newt is one of the key ele-ments in the plot. The young girl has lost her family and is alone. Ripley becomes attached to Newt in a motherly way. It is her love for the child that makes Ripley the strong willed character she becomes in the movie. I own the uncut DVD of Aliens and there is a scene I wished had not been left out in the original version. Burke comes to see Ripley shortly after she has been found by the salvage ship. She has asked him to find her only child, a daughter, for her. Burke shows her the information and photo of her daughter who grew up and died of cancer. I think this scene was important to show why Ripley cares so much about Newt.

The plot progresses quickly and there are several twists and turns along the way. The ending is awesome. Ripley has a scene in the end that makes her one of the most famous kick-butt women characters in movie history. She says a line that has become a famous movie quote too. It is my favorite line in a science fiction horror movie.

James Cameron was told he could do a sequel to Alien only if his movie, The Terminator did well. Needless to say, it was quite a hit! Aliens was a huge hit not only in the United States but other countries too. It was the number one movie in the United States for four consecutive weeks. The movie totaled $131 internationally. The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards including Best Actress for Weaver although she didn’t win. Aliens did earn two Academy Awards for Sound Effects and Editing and for Visual Effects.

The movie was filmed over a period of ten months at Pinewood Studios in England. The terraforming colony scenes were filmed in a decommissioned power plant in London. Cameron thought finding the right cast was the hardest thing. Sigourney Weaver wasn’t sure she wanted to play Ellen Ripley again. It is a good thing she did because she was paid $1 million for her performance! Michael Biehn, Lance Henriksen, and Bill Paxton had all worked with Cameron on The Terminator. The casting of Newt was the biggest challenge. Approximately five hundred children tried out for the part, but Carrie Henn whose father was in the military was chosen.

James Horner, one of my favorite composers, wrote the music for Aliens. Horner said that Cameron gave him very little time to write the music. He thought he would never work for him again. However, Cameron liked Horner’s score in Braveheart (1995) and hired him to do the score for Titanic (1997) which is one of the most popular scores in movie history. As it turned out, Cameron also asked Horner to do the score for his successful movie Avatar (2009). Horner also did the score for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) which is one of my favorites, and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). I own all five of these movie soundtracks. I love to listen to them and yes, they are on my iPod. I look forward to hearing more of James Horner’s music in the future.

Michael Biehn replaced the actor, James Remar, who was to play Hicks just a few weeks before filming. There is one scene in the movie where we see the back of Remar playing Hicks, but no one can tell the difference between Biehn and Remar. All of the actors except for Biehn were trained by the S.A.S, the British Special Air Service, an elite unit. Cameron had only written about 90 pages of the script, but 20th Century Fox liked it and told him he could make the movie. The Alien nest set was used in the movie Batman (1989). The tiny bathroom in Ripley’s apartment was actually a British Airways toilet. The Alien Queen required 14-16 operators to move her. Lance Henriksen wanted to wear special contact lenses to make Bishop a really creepy android. However, Cameron said he didn’t have to wear them because his acting made Bishop creepy enough.

Alien and Aliens are my two favorite sci-fi movies. I vary from day to day which one I like the best. I do think the atmosphere in Alien is a little creepier. However, the action and excitement in Aliens couldn’t be better. It is such a fast-paced movie that once the characters land on LV-426, the ending seems like the next scene. The shadows and use of dark lighting, off whites, and grays make the setting seem so chilling. The aliens were hidden so well in the darkness that when they jumped out at Ripley, I found myself jumping out of my theater seat. The scene when the Marines are first attacked by the aliens, my husband told me that I squeezed his hand too hard. Afterwards, I put my hands on my lap and squeezed them.

My son and I have watched Aliens many times together. He loves the film as much as I do. I never watch my DVD without thinking of all those times we saw it together. He bought me the uncut video and then the uncut DVD. I read in Entertainment Weekly in the 20th Anniversary Double issue recently that the Alien Anthology is on a Blu-ray disc set containing Alien, Aliens, Alien3, and Alien Ressurection with five hours of new interviews and behind-the-scenes footage. Son, if you read this I want you to know that I would love this Blu-ray set. It sure would make a nice Christmas present this year.