Friday, October 9, 2015

Little Shop of Horrors: 1960 vs. 1986 (and also, 1982)

The They Remade What?! Blogathon is an event in which the goal is to compare an original film with its remake, presented by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the host site at the link.

It's common knowledge now that Little Shop of Horrors began as a semi-obscure Roger Corman movie from the sixties, if for no other reason than it was one of the first screen appearances of Jack Nicholson. How did it inspire a hit Broadway musical and a film adaptation of that musical? Thereby hangs a tale...

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Old Dark House

The Old Dark House
YouTube viewing

The Old Dark House was less of a horror movie than I expected, but it wasn't bad. I should have expected as much from director James Whale. Let's talk about him for a minute or two. 

Whale's movies really stick out from other films from the dawn of the sound era in Hollywood. For example, he wasn't afraid to move the camera for purposes other than following the physical action. There's a scene where the camera pans across a dinner table and back, focusing on the diners and what they're eating. It doesn't necessarily advance the plot, but it's an unexpected and unique little character moment in an ensemble film with a variety of unusual roles.

Whale got great and memorable performances out of his actors. Here, in a cast featuring such heavyweights as Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton, and solid players such as Melvyn Douglas and Gloria Stuart (old Rose from Titanic), the one who stood out for me was Eva Moore as the crazy old lady who steals scenes left and right. A religious fanatic, she mocks her brother, Ernest Thesiger, for his weakness and taunts Stuart in this terrific scene where she goes into the history of her effed up family.

Notice in this scene in particular how the shots are composed and edited: During her soliloquy, we see Moore surrounded by candles in one moment, then there's a cut to another shot of her, deeper in shadow, and then another cut to a bizarre, distorted image of Moore through a cracked mirror. After she's gone, we see Stuart looking at herself through that same distorted mirror and then there are cuts to those previous shots of Moore, as her words ("Laughter and sin!") echo through Stuart's brain and freak her out. Whale creates a sense of dread and paranoia with this sequence, and he pulls it off brilliantly, but it's Moore who sells this scene as her character's jealousy and spite towards her family comes gushing forth, taking out her frustrations on poor Stuart. Dynamite stuff.

This was another nice character moment.

There's a disclaimer in the beginning of House which clarifies that Karloff is, indeed, the same guy from Frankenstein. It turns out that his name was omitted from the publicity materials for that movie (but not from the closing credits), so House is actually his first credited starring role. In the early days of his career, he, like Greta Garbo, was a one-name-wonder, billed as simply "Karloff." (Nobody does that these days, it seems, except pop singers.) His role as the stalking butler isn't far removed from that of the Frankenstein monster, though I think he's better in that than in this.

Whale had the goods, having directed some of the most iconic monster movies of all time, including Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man, of course. The 1998 film Gods and Monsters was a wonderful tribute to the man, as portrayed by Ian McKellen. If you've never seen it, it's worth checking out.

Monday, October 5, 2015

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

House on Haunted Hill (1959)
YouTube viewing

The original House on Haunted Hill was better than I had remembered. We don't see any actual ghosts in the story, but the possibility that they exist isn't entirely ruled out, either. The plot doesn't quite hold up under closer scrutiny, but it's still entertaining. It's a William Castle movie, so you know it's meant to have an audience-related gimmick: in this case, it was "Emergo," a giant glow-in-the-dark skeleton that hovers over the audience during the film's climax. I can't say I missed its absence while watching the film on my laptop, but at least I've seen Emergo in action - even if it was for the wrong movie.

Later this month, I'll talk more about Vincent Price in general, but here I'll say that he's marvelous, as you might expect, in the kind of role that solidified his reputation as a master of the macabre. He and Carol Ohmart, who plays his wife, have a War of the Roses-kind of vibe between them; the way they trade pointed barbs at each other is a big part of the entertainment value.

The house itself is a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed edifice known as the Ennis House. Watching the film, I took note of its unusual facade and layout; it doesn't look like the traditional Gothic manor we tend to associate with haunted houses. It was built in 1924 by Wright's son Lloyd for retailer Charles Ennis, made of over 27,000 concrete blocks. It has quite a history in the movies. Besides Hill, it was first used in the Ruth Chatterton pre-code film Female. In more recent years, it has appeared in Blade Runner, Rush Hour, The Day of the Locust, and The Karate Kid Part III, among others, as well as such TV shows as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Star Trek: The Next Generation and also for commercials, fashion shoots and music videos. It's listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It is said that the success of Hill is what inspired Alfred Hitchcock to make a horror movie, which would go on to be Psycho. We may bitch and moan about horror movies today, but perhaps the reason why we do is because not enough A-list directors, like Hitchcock, make them. Hill may come across as low-brow, especially with the Emergo gimmick, but it was a big hit, and if it's true that its success led, however indirectly, to the creation of a masterpiece like Psycho, then it kinda makes one wonder what a Blair Witch Project or a Paranormal Activity or an It Follows could inspire, if a big-name director was willing to take that chance. Just a thought, anyway.

As for the remake, all I'll say about it is that with his mustache, Geoffrey Rush is the spitting image of Price.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Fear the walking links

...and we're back. I got quite a bit done on my novel last month, though perhaps not as much as I would've liked. It's a slow process, at least for me, which is ironic since the first draft was written during National Novel Writing Month (which is next month), where speed is key to success. Maybe I've forgotten some of the lessons I've learned from that event; I don't know, but it's not like I'm writing this under a deadline. I made progress, which is what matters, and I expect to keep going.

We've reached the three-quarter mark of The One Year Switch and I knew I was gonna take a hit stats-wise last month, and I did. So be it. I think I've made whatever point I was making with the gimmick posts, so I'm gonna ditch them for the rest of the year, except for the profiles. Maybe I'll bring some of them back next year, depending on which ones were popular and which ones I liked doing.

This month, however, I thought I'd try one more thing I've never done before by devoting (almost) the entire month to classic horror movies. I've got nine of them tentatively planned, emphasis on "tentatively," but I don't anticipate any big scheduling problems. Plus, the two blogathons planned for this month will also tie into the classic horror theme. And now that Oscar season has begun in earnest, I expect to actually see some new movies, so I'll have that to write about once again in the new release round-up at month's end. So stick around; last month was a necessary lull, but we're gonna get back into the swing of things again. The fun begins in earnest October 5.

Big thanks to Fritzi from Movies Silently for assisting me with this month's banner. Go check out her blog for everything you'd ever wanna know about silent movies. She came up with the logo, but if you look closer, you can see she also made some splatter effects that make Karloff look even creepier. Cool, huh?

Lotta links this month:

Courtney thinks awards can be as much of a curse as a blessing. (And he's right.)

Danny knocks it outta the park with this review of Gold Diggers of 1933.

And then there was that time when Paddy met William Wellman as a kid. (Also, if you're in Toronto this week, check out Paddy's short play.)

If you need to shoot a movie in New York, you could do a lot worse than go to Staten Island for location shots.

Why do people in old movies talk weird?

Here's a review of a new book about the era of the video store.

The original cast of The Warriors recreate their cinematic ride from The Bronx to Coney Island.

The daughter of Leonard Nimoy, and her husband, are making a movie about her father with an emphasis on the disease that took his life through his many years of smoking.

In other Star Trek news, Nichelle Nicholls recently took a trip into space.

In preparation for Star Wars Episode VII (which I will write about here): I saw a Facebook conversation about how to watch the previous six Star Wars movies, and someone posted a link to this article, which offers a pretty good suggestion. Long but worth reading... if this sort of thing interests you.

EDIT 10.2.15: I wrote a short piece about my glorious writing career for the Newtown Literary blog.

Monday, September 28, 2015

New release round-up for September '15

Once again, I didn't see any new films, so I'll talk TV instead...

...and there's only one new TV show that's on my mind right now. When I first saw the print ads for the new Muppet TV show, The Muppets, at first I was excited. Then I looked at them closer and thought: What are the Muppets doing with cell phones? Then I remembered: it's 2015, not 1979. No matter how often I see Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo and the rest in a modern context, I simply cannot get used to it. To me, they'll always be of the late 70s-early 80s, the time when I was a kid and watched them on TV. I understand they can't stay preserved in amber, though, as much as I might want them to, and I had been looking forward to seeing them back on TV.

Pam at Go Retro recently wrote back-to-back posts about the Muppets. The first was about why she thinks Miss Piggy sucks. I never thought about the pig and the frog as being in an abusive relationship. I mean, yeah, she was possessive and jealous and always making with the karate chops, but at the same time, despite her flirtatious nature, she had made it pretty clear that Kermit was the only man frog for her - until they "broke up" this summer, anyway. Pam's second post was a preview of the new show, in which we learn that there's a lot more sexual innuendo than usual.

Now that I've seen it, I have to admit that it's not too different in spirit from the original Muppet Show, although yeah, some of the humor, as well as the modern setting, will take some getting used to if you grew up with these characters (Kermit actually said "hell"!). Will wrote a piece that helped set my mind at ease. I didn't realize there was such an active protest against the new show, but then again, everyone's so hyper-sensitive and politically correct these days that it's possible for almost anything to be offensive to someone.

The new show has humor, but it also has moments of genuine drama. That's not new - some of the movies had such moments, especially the original Muppet Movie - but it still took me by surprise. Kermit and Piggy's breakup is being treated as seriously as any Hollywood romance, both within and without the show's context, and I like that. It's clear that Kermit has had to tolerate a great deal from Piggy over the years, as Pam pointed out, but I always believed he believed she was worth it. Sure, I know they'll get back together in the end, but I wanna see how this plays out. This new character Denise may seem like a better match for Kermit on the surface, but I'm sure we'll discover something peculiar about her in time. Speaking of romance: Fozzie dating a human girl? This is one of those new changes I'm on the fence about. I'm not sure I wanna think about Muppet-human sex.

Other observations: If the characters-talking-to-the-camera moments are a reality-show-inspired trope from other sitcoms, I don't think it adds anything of great value here. I'd rather see more character interaction.... I can see I'm gonna have to bone up on some of these modern celebrities. I've never heard of the band Imagine Dragons, nor did their music strike me as a big deal. And I know Piggy is dating Josh Groban, but I don't know who he is either.... Gonzo seems much less wacky, and Scooter was much ruder! I couldn't believe the way he talked to and acted with Elizabeth Banks. That's not the Scooter I remember.... Will was right, Fozzie does come across like a Woody Allen character around his girlfriend, but he always did have a neurotic streak. Fozzie was always my favorite Muppet, so I am glad to see him growing out of his role as Kermit's sidekick.... Where was Walter from the recent movies? Not that I'm that excited about him, but I thought he was conspicuous by his absence.

Overall, The Muppets isn't bad, but there are some things that still rub me the wrong way. I just have to keep telling myself when I watch that it's 2015, not 1979. Maybe I won't make the adjustment, maybe I will. And if you think this sort of thing makes me cranky now, wait until The Peanuts Movie comes out this fall...

The 2011 Muppets movie
Muppets Most Wanted
The frog prince: the legacy of Jim Henson

Friday, September 18, 2015

Saul Bass

In high school, I took a class in advertising and graphic design. It was quite a challenge for someone unused to the rigors associated with the field. 

I came to think of it as something akin to making art with letters. 

There was an assignment in which we had to design a logo for a word that would illustrate its meaning at the same time - similar to what this guy does. The word I chose was "hydrant." In addition to freehand-ing the letters of a font I got out of a book, I substituted the "H" with an image of a dog lifting his leg next to a hydrant and it kinda sorta made the shape of the letter. 

When I got into making comics, I had to hand-letter word balloons and design sound effects and logos, before computer lettering became more common. The approach I took was what I thought was the simplest one: to leave space for the text at the top and bottom of each panel and use a T-square to rule each line of text evenly. I knew that it was important for people to be able to actually read my words, so I took the time to make sure it came out right. 

Sound effects and logos were harder. My first comic book series had two different fonts for the title (seemed like a good idea at the time) and I remember all the long hours spent at Kinko's trying to shrink them down to the right size, and then struggling to make them level with each other and with the cover. As you might imagine, this was long before I got the hang of Photoshop and how scanners work. 

All of this is my way of saying how much I appreciate the work of someone like Saul Bass. In a time where movie posters have become less and less imaginative and distinctive visually, his work, much of it made in conjunction with his wife Elaine Makatura, stands out now more than ever.

And of course, in addition to posters and title credits, he also designed some of the best known corporate logos in the world.

His work seems simple, but speaking as an artist, I can attest to the fact that you have to do a whole lot of drawing and sketching and playing around with images to get to that level of simplicity in the end. Don't be fooled by what you see on the surface.

The fact that Bass' influence is still felt in Hollywood today is a testament to his impact.

Next: Ruby Dee

Movies with titles and poster designs by Saul Bass:

Jack Lemmon   Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson   Rita Moreno
Frank Capra   Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell   James Dean
Ethel Waters   William Powell
Tod Browning   Edith Head
Joel McCrea   Thelma Ritter
Douglas Fairbanks   Gloria Swanson
Robert Wise

Monday, September 14, 2015

Robert Wise

The timing for this post on Robert Wise is fortuitous: his birthday was last Thursday (the 10th) and he died on this day ten years ago. Once again, I didn't plan it that way. Just happened.

Speaking of milestones, this year marks the 50th anniversary of Wise's film adaptation of The Sound of Music, and there have been quite a few events surrounding the musical. The cast reunited for a screening at this year's TCM Film Festival. Vanity Fair did a nice piece which includes interviews with stars Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. There's also a new stage production that has begun this month throughout North America. I have never seen The Sound of Music. It always struck me as looking too saccharine-sweet for my taste - but of course, I know the songs. Everyone knows the songs.

Looking over Wise's filmography, I'm surprised to see how much genre material he did - not just the ones about the alien and the robot, the haunted house, and the TV spaceship - but stuff like The Andromeda Strain, The Body Snatcher (Karloff & Lugosi!), and The Curse of the Cat People! Not exactly the kind of movies that one would expect from the director of two of the greatest movie musicals of all time, but it's cool that he had such a diverse range.

Did you know that Wise was the editor on Citizen Kane - and was Oscar-nominated for it? His film career began at RKO in the 30s, editing sound and music. He edited such films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame and My Favorite Wife before Orson Welles recruited him for KaneHe also edited The Magnificent Ambersons for Welles. Here's an article that goes into a little more depth about Wise's experience on Kane, which is notable for, among many other things, Welles' use of "deep focus," which brings the fore- and backgrounds into focus thanks to special lighting. Wise would adapt the technique for his own films. 

I wanna talk about one film of his that I've seen on TCM several times but I've never written about until now: an ensemble called Executive Suite. It's a very fine, underrated drama about the machinations within a corporate boardroom when its head unexpectedly kicks the bucket. The pivotal character belongs to William Holden, who has an opportunity to change the direction of the company for the better, but is opposed by competing forces with agendas of their own. I think it's one of his best roles. He also gets to share a scene with his old friend Barbara Stanwyck, for the first time since they starred together in Golden Boy, the film that put Holden on the map, thanks to Stany.

Wise does a great job at balancing several different plot lines with a wide range of stars, including Fredric March, June Allyson, Walter Pidgeon and Shelley Winters. It's not based on a play, but it could be; it has a bit of a theatrical touch. There's no score in the film, a rarity in an Old Hollywood movie, but it doesn't really need much of one. The performances carry the film. CBS tried to revive Suite as a TV series in the 70s, but it only lasted one season.

Despite directing two Best Picture winners and a number of other memorable movies, and especially considering his connection to Welles and Kane, Wise doesn't really get mentioned in the same breath as other Hollywood star directors like Hawks or Wilder or Lang, and I don't think anyone's ever called him an "auteur." (One day I'm gonna have to write about why I think that word is extremely overrated.) He's gotten his due from way more than just the Academy: the AFI, the Directors and Producers Guilds, the Golden Globes, the Broadcast Film Critics, etc., but I get the impression that he's not as big a household name as he should be. Maybe I'm wrong - but there's no doubt that his place in Hollywood history is secure.

Next: Saul Bass

Films by Robert Wise:
The Day the Earth Stood Still
West Side Story
Star Trek: The Motion Picture

Jack Lemmon   Jean Arthur
Edward G. Robinson   Rita Moreno
Frank Capra   Bernard Herrmann
Joan Blondell   James Dean
Ethel Waters   William Powell
Tod Browning   Edith Head
Joel McCrea   Thelma Ritter
Douglas Fairbanks   Gloria Swanson