As previously noted, my wife and I have a tradition where I draft up a selection of horror films for Halloween viewing, and she picks one from each group: Contemporary, Classic, and Cult, and I thought I’d share my suggestions this year. Today features classic horror films, and mostly features the exact text I sent her.
This time I will apologize not for leaning on prior works, but for posting about films I have yet to watch, but they all have stellar reputations, and at least one of them will be viewed tonight!
DOCTOR X (1932, Criterion/VOD)
While I purchased a copy of the newly restored DOCTOR X — it was one of the rare early horror films shot on a very distinct, very early two-color Technicolor process (see also: THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933)) I have yet to watch it. It’s directed by Michael Curtiz, during his infamous horror run at Warner Bros, and stars Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray.
SISTERS (1973, Criterion/HBO MAX/VOD)
Also previously suggested. Classic Brian De Palma film about two sisters, two sides of the same coin.
DIABOLIQUE (1955, Criterion/HBO MAX/Plex/Roku)
Also previously suggested. “More of a thriller than a horror film, but it’s a seminal piece of film history for both. I haven’t seen it in over twenty years, and I’m eager to revisit it.”
THE VANISHING (1988, Criterion/VOD)
This has been on my watchlist for years. I think I had a copy on the DVR via TCM, but it may have been auto-deleted due to space.
THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES (1971, DVD/YouTube)
It’s campy, but very intelligent and darkly comic. Also, Vincent Price AND Joseph Cotten! (There’s a sequel I’ve been meaning to watch, but haven’t gotten around to.)
THE CAT AND THE CANARY (1927, epix/kanopy/Paramount+/VOD
I haven’t seen this yet but, similar to THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) — which we watched a few years ago — it’s an ensemble film along the lines of Christie’s AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (although this film predates both works). It’s directed by Paul Leni, who directed THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, notable for Conrad Veidt’s (THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI) performance that was blatantly ripped off for the look of the Joker.
(Criterion/Kanopy/VOD/Vudu/YouTube)? Robert Downey, Sr. passed away this week at the age of 85. While his son is mostly known for more accessible fare, Downey Sr. was an anarchic indie filmmaker, and there’s no better example of his cinematic skills than PUTNEY SWOPE.
PUTNEY SWOPE is a nihilistic indictment of Madison Avenue, American capitalism and everything it’s created (including filmmaking and anti-American capitalist revolutionaries), while also being damn funny and inventively shot. The faux-commercials it features are perhaps only rivaled by ROBOCOP (1987) or the best of Adult Swim. For instance:
I need to note that this is an incredibly insensitive film in ways I haven’t quite managed to personally reconcile — after all, it’s a film written and directed by a middle-aged white man about a Black man breaking the system — but it is also endlessly fascinating.
(Criterion/VOD) 444 days. That’s how long it had been since I’d been in a theater. I’m finally fully vaccinated, so yesterday I rode the bus for the first time in almost as long to visit the Music Box Theatre to see the only film I could catch there: Haifaa Al-Mansour’s THE PEFECT CANDIDATE. Thanks to the Chicago Transportation Authority, I arrived late. The lobby was empty, apart from one employee who glanced at the ticket on my phone and instructed me to leave on my mask at all times during the film.
I walked into the theater which, under normal conditions, can house over a thousand people. I stumbled through the darkness, trying to seek out my favorite seat, only to find it roped off to enforce proper social distancing. I found the closest seat with some leg space and settled in, trying to catch up with the film.
A few minutes later my eyes had adjusted, and I realized I was the sole person there.
Granted, this was a mid-afternoon screening of a two-year-old feminist Saudi Arabian film (just now receiving a U.S. release), but still. This was the first time I’d ever been the lone viewer for a Music Box screening, much less for a film playing in the main theater. It’s a miracle they’re still operating, but I’m glad they are.
If you aren’t familiar with Haifaa Al-Mansour, she’s often cited as ‘Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker’. WADJDA (2012) was her breakthrough film, but she’s also helmed American films such as MARY SHELLEY (2017) and NAPPILY EVER AFTER (2018). THE PERFECT CANDIDATE is the first film of hers I’ve seen, and I’m quite excited to dive into her back-catalog.
THE PERFECT CANDIDATE is about a woman doctor in a small Saudi Arabian town, Maryam, who lives with her father — a recent widow and musician — and her two sisters, and she aspires for more. The street leading to the hospital she works at isn’t paved and is a consistent mess — people are constantly being wheeled through mud — and incoming patients often outright refuse her, even if they require emergency care, solely because she’s a woman.
Due to a confluence of religious, bureaucratic, and patriarchal issues, she’s unable to attend a medical conference in Dubai, which she’d hoped would serve as a way to work her way into a better position, and due to similar religious, bureaucratic, and patriarchal issues, she ends up inadvertently applying to run for election to govern the town.
What follows is a relatively straight-forward, definitely disheartening, activist film that completely hammers home the gender inequality in Saudi Arabia while still being a thoughtful portrait of a family trying to repair themselves after the sudden death of their mother. Al-Mansour inserts a number of deft character touches, such as Maryam’s brand-new car, which she retains the plastic on the seats, but the car’s wheel wells are covered in mud because of the shoddy road. The sister dynamics are especially nuanced, with the younger sister outright rejecting her older sister’s attempts to make a difference, and the older sister being a savvy, confident, semi-supportive entrepreneur working within ‘the system’.
Was this film the one I imagined would be my inaugural post-vaccinated filmgoing experience? No, but I’m glad it was. It represents everything I’ve missed about cinema in the pandemic: the ability to walk blindly into a tale of another space and then leave the theater feeling altered.
(Criterion/HBO MAX/VOD) In A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, Peter Falk is Nick Longhetti, a construction foreman married to Mabel (Gena Rowlands, who was married to Cassavettes until he died in 1989) and they have three young children as well as a litany of family and friends that constantly drop by, barely giving Nick or Mabel a moment of peace. While this would be difficult for any couple, it’s complicated by the fact that Rowlands is incredibly intense woman, and often interacts with people in socially unacceptable ways. Nick describes her as “unusual, not crazy”.
What unfolds is a story of the two of them trying to cope with Mabel’s behavior, Nick’s detachment and frustration, and eventually Mabel’s breakdown. It’s a stunning depiction of a couple, one enriched by Rowlands’ absolutely astounding performance. She completely inhabits the role, bringing to life a character unlike one I’ve ever seen. It’s a nervy, nuanced take on a character that could otherwise come across as cartoonish. Rowlands was nominated for a Best Actress award for her role, but lost to Ellen Burstyn for the also-exceptional ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE. (I do prefer Rowlands’ performance, but they’re both great.)
It’s worth noting that Cassavettes never meant for Mabel to be considered ‘crazy’ — his words, not mine — but that she’s “frustrated beyond belief. More than being crazy, I think she’s just socially inept.” He also pulled from his own personal experience and his relationships, which seems obvious given how close everyone involved in this project are. To callback to my write-up regarding PLEASE STAND BY, this is the difference between writing a puzzle box story about someone with a neurological disorder, and writing an intimate tale about coping with people’s very human and divergent idiosyncrasies.
Just one more thing: COLUMBO fans will almost certainly be surprised to hear Falk whistling ‘This Old Man’, which was a tune that Falk turned into a Columbo affectation with the iconic episode -Any Old Port in a Storm-, which pre-dates A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE. Falk just always liked to hum or whistle it.
(Criterion/VOD) A very specific romantic drama from Michael Powel & Emeric Pressburger, where a willful woman — Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller) — has mapped out from her childhood the exact life she wants: to look lovely, to have fine things, and to have a husband with a title who can provide her with all she wants.
She has a life-plan which she’s followed through on and, frankly, most of us in these current days would envy.
She’s one step away from realizing it: she just needs one boat to see her to her title-bearing beau, and she’ll have seen her plan through. However, she meets Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), a RAF sailor/landowner of a tiny Scottish island meant to shuttle her to her final destination, storms prevent her departure, and her plans start to unravel.
In less-capable hands I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING! could have been a treacly melodrama, but master filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (THE RED SHOES, BLACK NARCISSUS) deliver up an extraordinarily winsome and surprisingly thrilling romance that also acts as a love letter to rural Scotland, not unlike OUTLANDER but with significantly fewer rape scenes. It’s worth noting that, while much of it was shot on location at the Isle of Mull, a significant portion of the film was shot in a British studio due to Livesey’s work schedule, and the fact that the seams don’t show is a testament to cinematographer Erwin Hillier’s skills.
What’s especially intriguing about the film is that there’s none of the push-and-pull and internal questioning that you have with most modern romantic dramas. From the moment Joan meets Torquil, she immediately realizes she’s in trouble, that this man could upend all of her hard work. Granted, it’s never stated outright, but Powell & Pressburger do a fantastic job of conveying it visually.
Unfortunately I was unable to locate a trailer, so this memorable scene will have to suffice:
(Criterion/HBO MAX/YouTube/VOD)? Hitchcock is arguably the progenitor of modern genre film, which I suppose is why no one thinks of him as a silent filmmaker, but he directed handfuls of silent films before his first sound film, BLACKMAIL, and THE LODGER is one of his most remarkable early achievements.
While THE LODGER lacks the sophisticated visual scene construction Hitchcock would become known for, it does feature a number of his other signature attributes: an infatuation with blondes, startling visual motifs (his focus on the lodger’s right hand, for instance) and sexual tension buoyed by a sense of danger. It also plays with color tinting, has an astounding use of graphic design, and the interstitials are uniquely gorgeous with their use of fonts and background visual elements.
As a mystery, THE LODGER is a bit lackluster, but Hitchcock’s command of cinematic language far makes up for it, and showcases how ahead of his time he was.
As usual, I’ve included a trailer below, but please don’t let it fool you: the restored BFI print that Criterion and HBO MAX have is thrillingly vibrant. There’s also a link to a YouTube copy of the film below and, while it’s more pristine than the trailer, it lacks the tinting of the restored print.
(Criterion/HBO MAX/VOD) I previously recommended Gillian Armstrong’s OSCAR AND LUCINDA but, apart from her 1994 adaptation of LITTLE WOMEN, she’s perhaps best known for her first feature film MY BRILLIANT CAREER, an adaptation of Miles Franklin debut novel of the same name.
MY BRILLIANT CAREER stars Judy Davis (she’s been in everything from BARTON FINK to NAKED LUNCH to FEUD: BETTE AND JOAN) as Sybylla Melvyn, a rather immature, somewhat naive, headstrong young woman in late 19th century Australia who wants to create, to impress herself on the world, and certainly doesn’t settle for simply getting married and settling down, even when she finds herself enamored with Harry Beecham (Sam Neill in one of his earliest film appearances).
MY BRILLIANT CAREER was released midway through the Australian New Wave film movement and, while it’s Armstrong’s first feature, it’s a remarkably well-executed film — she clearly knew what she wanted to do with it — and Donald McAlpine’s involvement as cinematographer lends a rustic, but striking atmosphere to the film, ably switching from pristine upper-class interiors to dust-enveloped farms.
Yes, Sybylla can be a bit much and maddening at times, but her journey is a worthwhile and rewarding one, without being treacly.
(Criterion/IndieFlix/VOD) Yes, another film with Orson Welles, albeit directed by Carol Reed (who had previously directed the stellar noir ODD MAN OUT). It’s not just one of my favorite noirs but one of my favorite films period. For example, I snuck in excerpts from the soundtrack it into my wedding playlist. (I’ll note it was the dining playlist, not the dance playlist.)
While I love everything about it — the zither-centric soundtrack, the clever use of post-wartime occupied space, the amazing chiaroscuro work and canted angles supplied by Reed’s go-to cinematographer Robert Krasker, Holly Martins’ (Joseph Cotton) writerly self-deprecation, and obviously Welles as Harry Lime and the marvelous scene construction of the cuckoo clock scene — I came to it far later in life than I should have. While other films have liberally borrowed from it — notably BRAZIL with its zither use and own Harry Lime — and while it’s widely considered one of the greatest British films ever made, I have the impression that it’s a film that is rarely watched by anyone apart from cinephiles and noir nerds like myself. It’s not a film you hear friends say ‘Oh, I saw that with my mom (or dad)! They absolutely loved that film. Let’s watch it again!’ Casual filmgoers don’t seem to speak of it with the reverence they would of, say, CHINATOWN.
Perhaps it’s because Cotton lacks the enigmatic charisma of Bogart, even though I can’t see Bogart as Holly Martins. Perhaps most people hate zither music. Perhaps I’m wrong, and youths organize weekly watch parties for it. Regardless, it is rich and substantial, and a film that folks should see far earlier in life. It captures a very specific time in a way that few movies do, and the fact that it has a complicated male relationship, an exceptional villain, and a thrillingly extraordinary chase scene, should be more than enough to merit anyone’s attention.
Or, perhaps I’m entirely wrong about all of the above and maybe it has aged terribly, now considered to be completely overrated. Watch and see for yourself. All I know is that I’ll never stop loving it.
(Criterion/kanopy/VOD) One of the first screenings I attended upon moving to Chicago was for Jacques Tati’s MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY at the Music Box Theatre. Sadly, it was in their sidecar theater and, if you think that room is ramshackle now, you should’ve seen it in the 90s. It was a matinee and, while I’d seen it before — I was introduced to Tati and MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY back when I was a Purdue student — I couldn’t wait to see it in a proper theater, even if the screen wasn’t much larger that one in a college classroom.
Sadly, in a predictably Tati-esque manner, the print burned and tore apart no less than twenty minutes into the film. So it goes.
But! I’m here to extoll Tati’s PLAYTIME, both his greatest film, and also the film that would doom him. Before PLAYTIME, he was a celebrated physical comedian who had directed several very visually clever and humorous movies, including MR. HULOT’s HOLIDAY. PLAYTIME was to be his magnum opus, and he sunk all of his money into a number of dazzlingly huge sets, all constructed to fuel his vision of satirizing modern urban architecture and mode of living.
The end result was an absolute marvel. At the risk of sounding pretentious, it’s pure cinema, each frame densely packed with revelations, but never overwhelming the viewer. It’s a marvelous onion of a work, one where you’ll see something new with each and every screening, jam-packed with gags, either with the blocking, a flourish of color, someone’s line of sight, but the film is always in complete command when it needs to draw your attention to one of the few plot-related setups.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched it. It’s one of the few films I’ll always make a point to catch when it comes to town. It’s an utter delight — one of a handful of films I consider ‘perfect’ — which is why it’s so sad that production overruns bankrupted Tati, then the film flopped upon release, and he never quite recovered from its failure.