Sure. I get it. FAST & FURIOUS 6. THE HANGOVER PART III. New sequels, new sequels. Yeah, yeah, yeah. For our readers in New York City, there are a lot of exciting movie options beyond the new releases at the multiplex this weekend. Thanks to the long weekend, we get a bonus, third midnight screening of most of the movies I’m about to mention. And if you aren’t in New York, you still may find a couple recommendations here worth pursuing, or rediscover some old favorites. (Almost all of these movies are available on DVD and/or Blu-Ray.)
Check it out!:
ACT OF VENGEANCE (a.k.a. RAPE SQUAD) (1974)
Where?: Spectacle’s May Midnights in Brooklyn.
What They Say: “ACT OF VENGEANCE is a 70s vengeance saga that sits alongside COFFY and DEATH WISH while delivering plenty of action and some grimy grindhouse moments. A man in an orange jumpsuit and a hockey mask has been stalking and tormenting women — you’ll never hear “Jingle Bells” the same way again. After Linda fails to find any help after her attack from useless yokels and the incompetent police, she vows vengeance, and collects a team of other victims to help hunt down attackers and other scum. Plenty of sticking it to the man, plenty of creepy POV voyeurism, Charlie’s Angels-style training montages, a pimp gets a serious beatdown in a scene Tarantino probably ripped off at some point, enough skin for the midnight crowd — this is pretty much a given.”
What I Say: Haven’t seen it. Actually hadn’t even heard of it before now, but you know I love COFFY. And if you’ve read my takes on HALLOWEEN, THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE, and THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, it’s clear I have an interest in grimy 1970s horror.
Hell of a shame about that title though.
BASIC INSTINCT (1992)
Where?: Nitehawk Cinema’s Nitehawk Naughties in Williamsburg.
What They Say: “Who could ever forget the sexual explosion Paul Verhoeven ignited with the early 1990s classic BASIC INSTINCT? Michael Douglas is the alcoholic/trouble cop, Detective Nick Curran, hot on the trail of wild woman mystery writer Catherine Tramell (Sharon Stone) after authorities suspect she murdered a man after a climatic roll in the hay. Brilliant in her role of seduction, Stone toys and taunts with every man and woman she meets (including the police in the now-legendary, and often spoofed, leg-uncrossing interrogation scene) but we never quite know if she’s the one. So, if you like your murders with a side of sex, this film is one naughty with a sharp edge.”
What I Say: Never seen this one all the way through. (Don’t worry. This isn’t a trend.) I was too young to get in the theaters at the time, even though, by that time, I’d already seen everything Sharon Stone was showing off here, thanks to ACTION JACKSON. Honestly my main hesitation has always been that I’m creeped out by movies where Mike Douglas humps around on younger ladies. It’s surely one of America’s oddest subgenres. Because otherwise this is a major blank space on my having-seen list. Joe Esztherhas was the biggest writer in movies at the time — sure, he’s not as beloved by geeks as Shane Black is, and it may not be popular for me to say so, but the guy can write. And more importantly, Paul Verhoeven is a world-class director, a canny provocateur, a pitch-black satirist, an epic shit-stirrer, a unique blend of arthouse and mainstream sensibilities. Does he often go too far? Was this one of those occasions? The movie sure did make a major ripple at the time. It’d be intriguing to see what BASIC INSTINCT is looking like twenty (!) years later.
BLAZING SADDLES (1974)
Where?: Downtown’s IFC Center at midnight.
What They Say: “A crazed grabbag of a movie that does everything to keep us laughing except hit us over the head with a rubber chicken. Mostly, it succeeds. It’s an audience picture; it doesn’t have a lot of classy polish and its structure is a total mess. But of course! What does that matter while Alex Karris is knocking a horse cold with a right cross to the jaw?
“The movie is, among other things, a comedy Western. The story line, which is pretty shaky, involves some shady land speculators who need to run a railroad through Ridge Rock, and decide to drive the residents out. The last thing they want there is law and order, and so the crooks send in a black sheriff (Cleavon Little), figuring the townspeople will revolt.
“Well, they almost do, but the sheriff (Black Bart is his name, of course) wins them over, and signs up a drunken sharpshooter (Gene Wilder) as his deputy. Meanwhile … but what am I saying, meanwhile? Meanwhile, six dozen other things happen. The townspeople decide to stay and make a stand, even though, as the preacher intones, “Our women have been stampeded and our cattle raped.” Bart rejects the advances of a man-killing woman who has been sicced on him (Madeline Kahn as Marlene Dietrich — Lili von Shtupp), and the people build a dummy town and lure the bad guys into it.” – Roger Ebert.
What I Say: The amazing thing about Mel Brooks’ comedies of the era — BLAZING SADDLES, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, SILENT MOVIE, HIGH ANXIETY — is their fidelity to the great films they’re spoofing. The quality and frequency of the gags and one-liners are almost a given when Mel Brooks is being , but what is so often overlooked is the breadth of his film knowledge. BLAZING SADDLES has as much in common with THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES as it does with any film in the parody genre — Clint Eastwood brought an encyclopedic awareness of American Westerns to his 1976 film, and so too do Brooks and his stable of legendary writers (one of whom was Richard Pryor, the original candidate for Cleavon Little’s role.) Beyond the justly-heralded main comedy players, the cast and crew were stocked deep with Western veterans, including Richard Farnsworth and Hal Needham. The cinematographer was Joseph Biroc, who worked on plenty of straight-faced Westerns, including ULZANA’S RAID, before this one. The secret to great parody is close attention to the originals, not superficial referencing of the most obvious details, which is why so many modern parodies are so shitty, and why Mel Brooks’ parodies are still as funny today as they ever were.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956)
Where?: Bryant Park’s Summer Film Festival.
What They Say: “Something is happening to the residents of California town, and a doctor (Kevin McCarthy) wants to find out what. Don Siegel’s gritty sci-fi thriller is the definitive version of this terrifying tale. Beware of the pods!”
What I Say: I think I was five when I first saw this movie. If that’s the case, then this movie is ground zero for pretty much all of my major interests. For one thing, it scared the fuck out of me. Love horror. It’s in black-and-white. Love the classics. Doesn’t hurt that to my eyes, Kevin McCarthy has the same scornful pout as Moe Howard. Love the Stooges. As much as I love the films of Clint Eastwood, this, not DIRTY HARRY, is the first Don Siegel film I ever saw. The script, adapted from Jack Finney’s novel, is by Daniel Mainwaring, who also wrote OUT OF THE PAST, one of the all-time great noir films. This isn’t some goofy creature-feature. This is some high-end shit. Absolutely, it would feel dated to a jaded adult in 2013. But hop in a time machine and ask five-year-old me if this movie doesn’t still have some real power.
Where?: IFC Center Midnights.
What They Say: “In this, the first true summer blockbuster, a lone great white shark trolls the waters surrounding the small island community of Amity. Despite his fear of the water, police chief Martin Brody obsessively investigates the vicious attacks and eventually follows the beast out into open water — where it tries to eat him, his two fish-hunting mates and their boat. The shark makes for the ultimate predator, striking at random and for no apparent reason. The chilling John Williams score signals impending doom with its now famous minimal two-note theme, and Steven Spielberg’s wise decision to limit glimpses of the shark itself (caused mostly by the mechanical fish’s talent for regularly malfunctioning) resulted in many an audience member questioning whether or not they would (or could) ever step back into the ocean.” – Time.
What I Say:
In addition to being the tremendous and influential box-office success that it was upon release in the summer of 1975, JAWS is an uncontested champion in its genre. In fact, the genre field is as limited as it is because of JAWS. Everybody and their inbred Mormon cousin thinks they can take a crack at a vampire movie or a zombie movie, but few dare to jump in the pool of great-white-shark movies. And the only reason is that almost everyone with half a brain cell knows that their attempt will be unfavorably compared. The original JAWS is just plain that good a movie.
Does JAWS really count as a horror movie? A great white shark is a very unlikely threat, especially as it behaves in this movie, but it obviously isn’t a supernatural one. There are great white sharks out there — though unfortunately, less and less of them every day. There are great white sharks, and in exceedingly rare circumstances, they have been known to bite people. But as large as its imagery still looms in the public imagination, JAWS is heavy fiction. You’re in greater danger from your next-door neighbor than you ever are from a great white shark, a fact many horror movies happily exploit. Peter Benchley and Steven Spielberg have both admitted to profoundly ambiguous feelings over JAWS being a smear job against sharks.
But some fears lock into us on a primal level. There’s not much need for humanity to fear great white sharks, but on a basic, molecular, evolutionary level, both literally and figuratively, we’re all afraid of what we can’t see. We’re all afraid of being eaten. We can feel superior to animals all we want to, but when you come right down to it, in our basest instincts — we’re them. We rarely admit it, but we know it. People are animals, and all animals are food for somebody. JAWS speaks directly to this fear, way more than pretty much any other big-name monster movie. King Kong and Godzilla, The Wolfman and The Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Predator and The Alien and those creepy cave fuckers from THE DESCENT, all of them might have teeth to bare at you, but ain’t none of ‘em known to swallow a man whole. That, I argue, is why JAWS still remains at the top of the horror-movie food chain. It’s a 37-year-old movie, so as effects and film stocks have changed, it can’t help but have lost some of its potency, but it’s the rare 37-year-old movie that retains so much of its original impact.
So yes, JAWS, is a horror movie. Just think of all of its tremendous horror moments — that opening skinny-dipping attack (its exploitation of the vulnerability we feel when nude subtly drawing a line to PSYCHO); the ominously-dim scene where the two fishermen cheat death (“Take my word for it and don’t look back!“); the daytime death of Alex Kintner and how it corroborates Chief Brody’s every last fear; the William Castle jump-scare that is the discovery of Ben Gardner’s boat; that horrible, almost slow-motion moment in the estuary when we finally get to see those titular jaws, right as they’re closing around a man; the brilliant tonal shift that is Quint’s Indianapolis speech; and so on.
The genius of JAWS, and what director Steven Spielberg and his writers (including Carl Gottlieb, Howard Sackler, and John Milius) and composer (John Williams) and cinematographer (Bill Butler) did with Peter Benchley’s book, was not only that they managed to wring every last horror moment out of the killer-shark scenario, but also the way that they welded it onto the American nautical-adventure tradition that goes all the way back to Melville’s Moby Dick but also includes all of the swashbuckling pirate movies of the 1940s, with the unlikely Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss standing in for Errol Flynn. There are genuinely rousing moments in that final third of JAWS, when Robert Shaw is barking out orders from the bow of the Orca, that feel like the horror is at our backs and we’re chasing the big fish. These moments of the movie make Spielberg’s subsequent INDIANA JONES films feel like a natural artistic progression (which they are). It’s the basis of Spielberg’s phenomenal career — that he can juggle genre so effectively even within a single movie. He’s modern cinema’s foremost utility player: He can find the horror moments in an action film, or a sci-fi, or even a historical drama, and he can balance all those with moments of comedy and pathos and big ideas and spectacle, and in the smooth transitions lies the key to why his movies work so well for so many people.
JAWS was a miracle moment for movies, where great writing and filmmaking (and perfect performances from Scheider and Shaw) all collide with a perfect premise, and together manages to brush up against the feel of myth. Even the cynics recognize it as a pivotal film in American culture. It’s a movie so mythic in our collective mindzones that even the behind-the-scenes stories remain endlessly fascinating to a legion of film fanatics — myself obviously included.
MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (a.k.a. SACRIFICE!) (1972)
Where?: 92Y Tribeca’s Rip Off Cinema: Italian Edition.
What They Say: “With the basic premise of A MAN CALLED HORSE involving a white man captured by natives and eventually learning to live as one of them, Umberto Lenzi’s MAN FROM DEEP RIVER (a.k.a. SACRIFICE!) finds a British photographer abducted while in a rain forest of Thailand. Adapting is made easy after he marries the village hot girl (selected by her after a blindfolded breast-fondling ritual of sorts). Also capitalizing on the success of the Mondo movies, Lenzi incorporates brutal scenes of tribal life and recreational activities – a weasel fighting a cobra, really, makes cockfighting look like a kissing contest. The movie is also said to have kicked off the cannibal cinema craze due to its truly gnarly flesh eating content.”
What I Say: Yeesh. Haven’t seen A MAN CALLED HORSE, let alone this one. But I have seen some Umberto Lenzi (i.e. NIGHTMARE CITY), and MAN FROM DEEP RIVER is considered to be the film that started the Italian jungle-cannibal genre which so many exploitation fans love so well. This man does not fuck around. This may actually be beyond the bounds of my legendarily steely constitution. But in its way, this is a historically important film, and certainly a rare chance to see it projected.
THE MASTER (2012)
Where?: Museum Of The Moving Image.
What They Say: “Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams all received Oscar nominations for their performances in Paul Thomas Anderson’s spellbinding saga of post–World War II America. Phoenix creates the indelible Freddie Quell, a wayward soul who falls under the spell of a spiritual guru (Hoffman), who may or may not be a huckster. In this haunting drama, Anderson creates one mysterious, richly evocative image after another.”
What I Say: People think I’m nuttier than Freddie Quell when I give voice to my sneaking suspicions that THE MASTER is actually a sly, deadpan satire that ends on an incredibly subtle punchline, so I won’t go into it publicly. I do think it’s interesting to note that PTA’s sophisticated sense of humor (note the complex and varied tones of comedy in his breakthrough movie BOOGIE NIGHTS, the fact that he’s great friends with Robert Downey Sr., the fact that he insisted on making a movie with Adam Sandler, and the fact that he married an SNL cast member, or okay, don’t note any of these things) seems to have been foregone for the apparent super-seriousness of his most recent movies, THERE WILL BE BLOOD and THE MASTER. Maybe everyone is right, maybe PTA is all grown-up and super-literary and completely serious now. Or maybe his impish sense of humor only went underground. It’s probably worth watching all of these movies another time just to see, yeah?
ONIBABA (1964) and KURONEKO (1968)
Where?: Anthology Film Archives.
What They Say:
On ONIBABA (“Demon Hag”): “A creepy, interesting, and visually striking [film], set in the 16th century in the midst of a civil war, about two poor women who live in the marshes and support themselves by luring wounded samurai to their deaths and then selling their possessions. Things get more complicated when the partnership is threatened by the younger of the two women becoming romantically involved with a neighbor, and the film builds to a macabre and eerie climax.” – Jonathan Rosenbaum, CHICAGO READER.
On KURONEKO (“A Black Cat in a Bamboo Grove”): “As it slides between realism and extreme artifice, using cinematic and theatrical devices, KURONEKO becomes increasingly, pleasurably difficult to predict. It’s alternately abstract and down to earth, recognizable and strange, and consistently surprising. […] Using spare dialogue…Mr. Shindo creates a supernatural story that combines folkloric elements with social commentary and a touchingly sad love story.” – Manohla Dargis, NEW YORK TIMES.
What I Say: Kaneto Shindo died in 2012 at the great age of 100. He made dozens of films, and not all of them were horror movies, but these two are, and these are the ones I’ve seen (courtesy of the Criterion Collection). If my opinion carries any weight, I’d urge you to see them both. They’re graceful period pieces, reminiscent of all the Kurosawa you may have seen, but they just happen to be ghost stories set in the samurai era. To my eyes, ONIBABA is a slower burn, a steady acceleration, until the final third where it goes deliriously, disturbingly, batshit crazy. KURONEKO is more consistently creepy from start to finish. Both are masterful. You don’t have to speak Japanese or know the culture. You just have to appreciate a great scary story. You’ll be rewarded with images you won’t soon forget.
THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 (1986)
Where?: Spectacle’s May Midnights.
What They Say: “The Sawyers definitely like to keep it (inbreeding and cannibalizing) all in the family and they are back with a bloody vengeance in this ultra gory sequel to the notoriously unbloody 1970s original. Tobe Hooper revisits the cast of cannibal backwoods characters that made him famous with big budget success following POLTERGEIST. Besides the hacking, chainsawing, and cooking, THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE PART 2 revolves mainly around smalltown disc jockey “Stretch” (who winds up recording some of the new killings) and Texas Ranger “Lefty” (played by Dennis Hopper). As always, it’s a dinner party you’d never want to be invited to but definitely don’t want to miss on the big screen!”
What I Say: I’ve probably said more than enough about this series already. This is one of those movies you’ll want to see with the midnight crowd just to people-watch. Who knows what kind of awesome maniacs will show up?
TIME BANDITS (1981)
Where?: IFC Center‘s Midnights.
What They Say: “An extraordinarily inventive fantasy in which schoolboy Craig Warnock is rescued from a dull suburban existence by a band of renegade dwarfs, who emerge from his wardrobe and whisk him off on an incredible journey through time and space. Guided by a ‘Time Hole Map of the Universe’, Warnock and his diminutive pals gatecrash history, meeting up with Robin Hood and Napoleon, and turning up uninvited in Ancient Rome and on the deck of the ill-fated Titanic. Sometime Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam fills the screen with bizarre images, and directs with a breathless ingenuity.” – Time Out (London)
What I Say: Well, look at that poster again. Look at that whacked-out Brady Bunch they’ve got going there. Can you really scan those faces and character names and not want to watch this movie immediately? And this poster doesn’t even feature the wonderfully charming band of six dwarves (including a mid-STAR WARS Kenny Baker) who are the film’s main heroes. This is Terry Gilliam right as he was moving from his brilliant work from Monty Python out into a broader, even more adventurous direction. 1985’s BRAZIL, arguably his masterpiece, was his next film. Doesn’t matter. Any Terry Gilliam is way worth watching. This one absolutely is. And oh yeah, in case you didn’t know: “Songs by George Harrison” does indeed mean the George Harrison you’re thinking of. See TIME BANDITS, for real.
[Read my Daily Grindhouse piece on 2009’s THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS.]
THE WARRIORS (1979)
Where?: Landmark Sunshine Cinema, at midnight.
What They Say: “A powerful gang leader is assassinated during a gathering of all of the gangs in New York City. One of the gangs, a small group called The Warriors, is scapegoated for the murder. On their long return trip on foot and by subway to Coney Island, they are ambushed throughout the night by an army of thugs at every turn. Walter Hill directs this influential and classic violent drama starring Michael Beck (XANADU).”
What I Say: Walter Hill’s filmography contains such a deep bench of titles that I don’t know I’d even rate THE WARRIORS as his lead-off batter. That’s not to bag on THE WARRIORS, which is a deep-blue genre classic and probably one of the greatest New York movies ever made. Naw, that’s only a statement on how very much I dig Walter Hill’s movies. [Check out my pieces on SOUTHERN COMFORT, 48 HRS., STREETS OF FIRE, and TRESPASS.] I’m also pretty sure I don’t need to introduce THE WARRIORS to any of you. Either you’ve seen it a dozen times already, or you’re catching a subway to the Lower East Side now for the midnight show. Right?
And with that said, that’s more than enough out of me. Have a great movie weekend!
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