Valerie Tian and Ellen Page in Juno (dir. Jason Reitman, 2007).

All together now: aaaaawwwwwwwwwwwww.

But I don't care, I loved it. Ellen Page's wise waif Juno is not just perky/poignant/preggo, she's a necessary hero for the denizens of the disputed settlement between irony and whatever the fuck its opposite is purported to be.

I'm trying to remember if there's any other point in the movie, besides the part where she's sitting in the front yard in the guerilla-delivered living room set with her boyfriend and all the young guy athletes run by and she talks about "pork swords," where diegetic speech bleeds sneakily into voiceover: a neat trick, and a useful antidote to the problem thereof as it too often asserts itself in cinema.

The deleted-scenes feature on the DVD is of the rarer sort that is worth viewing. I understand why it was cut, on a couple of levels, but I must acknowledge the segment with the batty neighbor who responds to Juno's comment about a beautifully-colored sunset by saying that God loves all the colors--except Mexican. The laugh arrives with a smitten wince, and vice versa.



Paul Newman in Harper (dir. Jack Smight, 1966).

I've heard two different reasons cited as to why the title of this movie is Harper rather than Archer (or The Moving Target, the name of the Lew Archer mystery by Ross Macdonald on which it's based). One is that Macdonald himself requested it because he didn't want there to be an entire series based on his books, just the one--an explanation that I don't quite get, especially as there was one more adaptation a few years later, The Drowning Pool. The other is that Paul Newman insisted on the name change, because he'd had great success with films that he'd starred in beginning with "H." I prefer to believe the second, because it helps me resent Newman for getting the character all wrong. What makes Lew Archer such an appealing modification of the hard-boiled private eye character as developed by Hammett and Chandler is that he's so wearily blank and sensible. When confronted by difficult antagonists on either side of the law, his usual response is to make himself small like a hedgehog, or to trot out reasonable arguments dutifully in the face of their obvious ineffectiveness. Newman's Harper, on the other hand, is a cocky loudmouth, festering with "boyish charm." When Archer gets clubbed over the head in the novels (it seems to happen once or twice in every one), it always makes me cringe in sympathy; when it happens to Harper, I feel gratified.

The film has a good look and a good cast, so it's a shame that it misses the boat so completely when it comes to tone. It also amplifies the misogyny that Macdonald managed by and large to muffle, especially with Shelly Winters' character. There are about twenty female roles, it seems like, and none of them manage to escape caricature. For some reason, William Goldman decides to insert a plot element about Archer's estranged wife (a theme that was only ever alluded to in the books). All it does is force poor Janet Leigh to play the long-suffering repressed shrew. Other than that, the script adheres pretty faithfully to the novel--until the unforgivably flippant and un-Archer-like ending, in which ethics and emotional gravity go out the window with a smirk.


Step Brothers

Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly in Step Brothers (dir. Adam McKay, 2008).

The greatest American film of the twenty-first century so far? No. Or is it? No, that would be Anchorman, or maybe Talladega Nights.

Scoff if you want, but how many directors have three first films (or any films in a row) as intensely, fully realized as Adam McKay's trilogy of the "stuplime," to borrow a term from Sianne Ngai? (Will Ferrell must receive a lot of the credit, of course, as his ad-libbing is so pervasively constitutive of the flavor of these movies.)

There's only one moment in Step Brothers that feels like a misstep (pun noticed at the moment of commission). That's when the writers inexplicably feel it necessary to have Richard Jenkins spell out to us that the two nitwits played by Ferrell and O'Reilly are more interesting and endearing in their state of stunted maturity than when they get their socialized act together and learn how to fill out tax forms. It's not just that it's obvious; it's that it attempts somehow to justify what is appealing precisely because it resists assimilation into justificatory structures. Brennan and Dale are unacceptable. They're complete idiots, noxious to others and hazards to their own well-being. When they manage to pull off "normal" long enough to point the movie towards its inevitable resolution, it's funny because their version of normal is just as stupid as their version of stupid. To have them realize that the squares they become are boring squares is too easy, and reflective, cathartic acceptance on the part of those around them muddies the humor.

But this is one imperfection in the midst of a veritable grand ballet of unapologetically farcical comic debasement. Some of the funniest moments belong to Kathryn Hahn, as the frustrated wife of Will Ferrell's brother Derek. Some viewers might object to the way in which her desire is presented a manifestation of the feminine grotesque, but within the overall anthropological erotics of the film's universe, she's just another brave pioneer at the outer boundaries of self-respect and imaginable subjecthood. When she takes charge of a urinal in a restaurant men's room, it's a bracing moment of political idiosyncrasy. Her confidence exceeds practicality, but as we cut to the next scene, we're spared the complications; we're left with merely the optimism of her bravado.


The Phantom of Liberty

Valerie Blanco as Aliette, the missing girl in plain sight in The Phantom of Liberty [Le fantôme de la liberté] (dir. Luis Buñuel, 1974).

"I'm sick of symmetry": Jean-Claude Brialy.

Doesn't everyone hang out with their sister while she plays piano naked? Adriana Asti and Julien Bertheau.

Buñuel takes the discontinuities and absurdities of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie further still. Is there any other director whose approach, after decades, veers so resolutely towards comedy? (Usually it's the other way around.) And not just comedy, but very silly comedy.

Silly probably isn't the right word, as it denotes a lack of sense, and Phantom is far from senseless. What I mean to convey is the air of almost light-hearted farce that drifts through even the most violent or melancholy moments of the film. Prisoners are lined up against a wall and shot during the French Revolution. A man is diagnosed with an incurable disease, then goes home to find out that his daughter has been reported missing. A sniper picks off pedestrians from a room in a tall building. A police prefect is arrested for disinterring his dead sister. The stuff of surrealism, to be sure. But it is interspersed with material that would be in place in one of the British Carry On films of roughly the same period (actually, I've never seen any of those, but suddenly I want to): some swingers in a hotel try to get a bawdy party going with the other guests, including a group of monks; an ineffectual police academy instructor is mocked by his students; a polite party is held in which the guests gather around a table seated on toilets.

What gives it its weight, its significance, its unmistakable potency as art? Is it simply the expectations that accompany our awareness of the director's reputation? Well, probably in part. But even that speaks for the film's audacity. As I was saying, here's a veteran filmmaker who suddenly makes forays into whimsical parlor humor. Imagine if David Lynch's next movie were a college drinking farce a la Porky's.

More than that, however, Phantom is always resistant to classification, even in its most outwardly frivolous--or somber--moments. A great deal of it has to do with the pacing: the patient, unpredictable motion from one episode to the next, and the meandering stillnesses within each one, stillnesses that neither corrode into inertia nor harden into tension. A good deal of the time there is no good explanation for why we're watching what we're watching. It seems as though the camera had been set up just in case something important were to happen, and after the shooting had ended, the importance turned out to be as much in the waiting as in the payoffs. And yet there's no hint of improvisation, not at the level of plotting and transition. Everything is stamped with the confident anticipation of coherence.


Without Warning!

Angela Stevens and Adam Williams in Without Warning! (dir. Arnold Laven, 1952).

Straightforwardly scary noirish thriller-procedural that feels like it has blood and gore even though it doesn't. Adam Williams is understated--and pitch-perfect--as the wholesome-looking gardener Carl Martin (no relation to the fine poet!) who uses his shears to dispatch attractive blondes. Wholesome-looking, that is, until you catch a little tremor in the lip or flutter of the eyelid that says "deep psychosis." Even just the way he walks, kind of shyly waddling along like a guilty kid, is enough to make you uncomfortable. Angela Stevens, as a very game bar girl, makes her small role into a minor set piece.

The first directorial effort from Arnold Laven, who had been a script supervisor on films such as D.O.A. and He Walked By Night. He went on to do a handful more in the fifties and sixties (including interesting-sounding titles like Vice Squad, Down Three Dark Streets, and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue), and a ton of TV up through the mid-eighties.



Joe Don Baker in Framed (dir. Phil Karlson, 1975).

It was made in 1975, but it looks like it was made in 1972. Isn't it weird that it's possible to make that distinction?

Phil Karlson's follow-up to Walking Tall, and his last movie ever. Not his best, but pretty damn good. You have to love it when Brock Peters introduces himself as "Sam--without the bo."

Just look at Joe Don Baker. What the hell is he? He's not your typical tough guy, exactly--he's got too much dandy in him, too much deep-rooted moral weakness, about as much deep-rooted moral weakness as you can have and still be the hero. Who else is like him? OK, Burt Reynolds, I guess.

That's what Joe Don Baker is: the white Burt Reynolds.

Speaking of Burt Reynolds, the third issue of Abraham Lincoln will be out very soon, and it contains a groundbreaking poem about Burt Reynolds by Jennifer Knox.


In the Valley of Elah

Tommy Lee Jones in In the Valley of Elah (dir. Paul Haggis, 2007).

I'm glad I forgot that Paul Haggis was responsible for 2004's Crash when I watched this. It would have predisposed me to find reasons to hate it. And there aren't really any. It's hard to believe the two films were made by the same director.

So, yes, good movie. Other than that I really have nothing in particular to say about it. Sort of like most Clint Eastwood movies. (As it turns out, Eastwood was originally going to play Tommy Lee Jones' role in this film. Makes sense. It would have been exactly the same, except for the face.) I always enjoy them--even The Bridges of Madison County, somewhat--but I can almost never form a critique of them. They're just too reasonable. It would be like critiquing the perfectly intelligent, slightly old-fashioned guy who lives down the street and takes pretty good care of his lawn. And who would probably shoot somebody if they broke into his house in the middle of the night. Are you going to tell him that would be wrong? I'm not.


The Dark Knight

Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008).

"Welcome to a World Without Rules," reads the tag at the top of the poster for The Dark Knight: and below it, as in so many other advertising images for action thrillers over the past few years, is a minimally adjusted representation of the World Trade Center in flames. Even though Christopher Nolan's first entry in the Caped Crusader series, 2005's Batman Begins, was more explicitly about global terrorism, The Dark Knight taps with greater potency into the emotional aura of post-9/11 life. The Joker is not the fantasy equivalent of Bin Laden or al-Qaeda; he's more like a frantic projection of our own damaged ethical cores, an image of the kind of anti-human consciousness one would have to summon up to feel at home in the present ruleless world.

Rulelessness, chance, and anarchy are constant themes in this thundering, mournful behemoth of a movie. One character philosophizes that a flip of a coin is the only "fair" way to decide issues of life and death, as this chance-based gesture is the most accurate model of morality as it actually works in the world. The irony, which this character is too distracted to appreciate, is that to invoke fairness in the first place belies the theory. The Joker himself would never make such a claim: he is absolutely free from any concerns about fairness. He isn't capable of compassion, or self-doubt, or--most strikingly--fear. His own continued existence is of importance to him only as a moment-to-moment strategy for achieving his primary objective, which is, as he puts it, "fun."

The malevolent jouissance Heath Ledger embodies in his portrayal is so powerful it's almost too much to take in in one viewing. He's more believable and more terrible than any other Joker to date, including Jack Nicholson. Nicholson was funny, grotesque, and stylish, but not really scary--not this scary, anyway. Ledger is funny, too--like a heart attack. His "disappearing pencil trick" cements our understanding of his nature early on, even as it gets a big guffaw from the audience: we find ourselves gulping in mid-laugh.

The rest of the cast is excellent as well, but Ledger dominates to such an extent that any rehearsal of their virtues would be anticlimactic. And at any rate, other than the Joker, it's the total look and sound and mood of the film that one walks away remembering. Also its length: at two and a half hours, it starts to take on the feel not so much of an epic, but of a mini-series. I mean this in a good way: as in a season of The Sopranos or Deadwood or The Wire, part of the impact comes from spending so much time with the characters that when things take a drastic turn, it hits harder.

As I said, there's more to process here than is possible after watching only once, which is one of the signs of a great movie--or possibly a confused one, though even if this should be the final verdict, it's confused in ways that make it worth dissecting. It's hard not to distrust how entertaining the film is--surely anything that gives that much immediate sensual gratification must be a sham. But it's unsettling as well, and to Nolan's credit, it's not always easy to tell the difference: is it distress or pleasure with which we watch the world burn? And if our distress becomes the same as our pleasure ... I deleted what I had typed here, because it was just too morose.


The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Paul Frankeur, Delphine Seyrig, Fernando Rey, Bulle Ogier, Stéphane Audran, and Jean-Pierre Cassel in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie [Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie] (dir. Luis Buñuel, 1972).

June 14th is Bloody Sergeant Day! I'm marking that on my calendar from now on.

Structurally, this resembles nothing so much as a loosely-connected string of Monty Python skits. The humor is more muted, but not really less subtle. Which is to say, it veers away from outright slapstick only to the extent necessary to maintain the illusion that realism of some sort might still be viable at any moment. The most surprising thing about the film's satire is how gentle is, relatively speaking: Buñuel never seems to have outright contempt for even the most corrupt and irresponsible of his bourgeois puppets. In fact, the most immoral of them all, the drug-smuggling ambassador from "the Republic of Miranda," played by Fernando Rey, is essentially cute. They're all cute, and at times even intrepid. In his way, Buñuel was as indulgent of the middle class he skewered as, say, Wes Anderson is now. The most appalling moment occurs when the main characters bring a chauffeur into the house and offer him a martini--so they can comment after he leaves about how he gulps it instead of sipping it. But I'm sorry, that chauffeur was a dull lout. And we all know how Buñuel felt about his martinis. The Criterion DVD includes a short in which he gives his recipe for the "Buñueloni":

I'm impressed that Buñuel collaborator Jean-Claude Carrière also wrote the script for Jess Franco's The Diabolical Doctor Z, or Miss Muerte, which I commented on here last year. Whoa, check it out--also The Return of Martin Guerre, The Tin Drum, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And the Martin Guerre remake Sommersby with Richard Gere! Cat gets around.


The Savages

Laura Linney and Gbenga Akinnagbe in The Savages (dir. Tamara Jenkins, 2007).

Philip Seymour Hoffman.

I hadn't seen this when I made my Top Ten Films of 2007 list; it might have squeezed in at no. 10 or 9. I don't know about you, but I always get at least a little amusement out of films about typical, whining, privileged middle-class writers who worry that they're typical, whining, privileged middle-class writers. I see it as an allegory about the filmmaker. I know, I know, I'm full of stunning insights.

Laura Linney plays the writer--a playwright, to be precise--who tries repeatedly to get governmental grants, and finally resorts to a sketchy substitute (I won't give it away, as it's one of the movie's rimshots). She's a slightly dishonest neurotic in an unsatisfying relationship with a married man, and her brother (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an emotionally repressed Brecht scholar with a Polish girlfriend who's leaving the country because her Visa is expiring. (Will there ever be a character in one of these movies who's a literary academic and not also emotionally repressed?) Their father is beginning to suffer from dementia, and his girlfriend of twenty years dies, so they have to fly him from Arizona to New York and put him in a nursing home. As you would imagine, hilarity ensues.

I'm making it sound like I don't like it. In truth, it really is both sad and funny, and director Tamara Jenkins does a skillful job throughout of avoiding the Scylla of maudlin gloom and the Charybdis of false cheer, except for two or three regrettable missteps in the latter category, mostly coming at the end, one--unconscionably--involving a loveable dog. Even there, however, there's enough absurd denial involved in the character's actions to keep it within an allowable range of "merciless satire." Barely. Maybe. Overall, the cynicism/sentimentality needle throughout wavers somewhere between Happiness and Me and You and Everyone We Know.


All the King's Men

Sean Penn and Mark Ruffalo in All the King's Men (dir. Steven Zaillian, 2006).

Kate Winslet.

James Gandolfini.

All the King's Men came out in 2006 at about the same time as two other midcentury period pieces, Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia and Allen Coulter's Hollywoodland. All three were flops, I think, and none were received especially well by the critics. The Black Dahlia was a big mess with elements of brilliance, like a lot of De Palma; Hollywoodland was just dull and flat. All the King's Men is more well made than either of them, though it's not great, and I might prefer to rewatch The Black Dahlia before it, as I'm generally more interested in spectacular failures than modest successes.

Much of whatever praise the film has garnered has been for Sean Penn's performance as Willie Stark. It's such an actorly performance, though, that it's almost distracting. You can see the thespian muscles straining in his neck. Jude Law is perfectly serviceable in the thanklessly bland first-person narrator role as the initially principled reporter who slowly gets mired in the growing corruption of Stark's world, and Kate Winslet looks appropriately dismayed to see a ruined piano. Patricia Clarkson and Anthony Hopkins play Patricia Clarkson and Anthony Hopkins. The one real standout in the cast is James Gandolfini as Stark's untrustworthy lieutenant Tiny Duffy. The debased Tiny brims with menace and oozes ineffectuality at the same time: it's a painful, discomforting performance. I also like the way Mark Ruffalo nails the wooden "virtuous doctor" character from so many forties and fifties melodramas.

It's beautifully shot by Pawel Edelman--maybe a little too beautifully. It approaches the excesses of what I think of as the "blue ribbon movie," that is, the big grand production where every leaf trembling in the wind or sunset-soaked cityscape speaks the noble or ignoble condition of aspiring mankind. Think Dead Poets' Society or A River Runs through It. If you watch it on DVD, this is one case where the alternate ending is much better: I suspect it was changed for the theatrical release in order to cut down the running time.


Diary of a Chambermaid

Dominique Sauvage in Diary of a Chambermaid [Le journal d'une femme de chambre] (dir. Luis Buñuel, 1964).

Georges Géret and Jeanne Moreau.


Very little of Buñuel's characteristic surrealism here, and what there is consists largely in the casual suggestiveness of certain images: a Little Red Riding Hood girl collecting snails in a dark forest, an old man fetishistically caressing patent leather boots even in death, a churl torturing a goose. And yet it's every bit as disorienting in its way as Viridiana or other films from the same period.

The Parisian chambermaid Celestine, as played by Jeanne Moreau, plays her cards so close to her chest that we can't tell whether she's bluffing or just doesn't know the rules. Much of the film's emotional intensity resides in how it makes us concerned not just with what decisions Celestine makes, but with her ability to discern what is at stake, to exercise ethical judgment in those areas where it coincides with erotic friction. Her motivations seem complex, conflicted, ambiguous, though it's never clear whether this uncertainty is on her side or only ours.

Buñuel (with screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière) pushes the time of Octave Mirbeau's novel forward to the late twenties, when fascism in France was gaining ever more steam. This leads to a savage twist on the original ending, a twist that is both politically chilling and an occasion for Buñuel to serve a belated slap in the face to an old enemy, Jean Chiappe, the Préfet de police who banned L'Âge d'Or upon its 1930 release.


Prime Cut

Lee Marvin and Sissy Spacek fleeing the metal teeth of a combine in Prime Cut (dir. Michael Ritchie, 1972).

Angel Tompkins (no angel in this flick).

Gene Hackman eating a plate of guts ("I like 'em!").

Michael Ritchie (1938-2001) directed a handful of pretty good but not breathtaking movies in his lifetime (Downhill Racer, The Candidate, The Bad News Bears, Fletch), and some bizarrely misconceived ones (The Island, The Survivors, The Golden Child). Some, like Semi-Tough, The Couch Trip, and Cops and Robbersons, seem to belong to the latter category, but may yield hidden virtues to viewers in a future generation. Hell, maybe those other movies will too.

Prime Cut may be the closest thing he has to a neglected masterpiece. I mean, it's not, really. It's uneven in tone, and doesn't really have a strong narrative arc (OK, I confess, I've never understood exactly what a narrative arc is, but it seems like that might be what's missing here). What it does have is Lee Marvin badassing it up in top form, wonderful cinematography by Guy Polito, an exuberant Lalo Schifrin score, and some memorable set pieces--most notably the one in which Lee Marvin and Sissy Spacek are chased by a big red combine across a wheat field (possibly inspired by the cropduster scene in North by Northwest).

Sissy Spacek is used at times as a pornographic prop, as she would be again a few years later by Brian De Palma in Carrie. Lee Marvin, as the "good" mob guy sent into town to collect money owed by the "bad" mob guy, gallantly rescues her from the scumbags who are trying to sell her into prostitution: she and other girls raised for this purpose at an illicit orphanage are drugged and shoved nude into cattle stalls at a big flesh auction. But shortly thereafter, he shows her off in a transparent gown at the fancy restaurant of the Kansas City hotel he is staying at. After dinner, she regales him with heartbreaking stories of the amateur lesbianism she and her best friend were driven to in their manless teenage days at the orphanage. So you see what we're dealing with here. As in other of Ritchie's films, you can't tell if it's being played straight or for laughs, and either way it's creepy.

Gene Hackman plays "Mary Ann," the head of Mary Ann's Meat Packing, which is both a legitimate company and a front for the aforementioned slavery ring. Hackman hams it up (oh, there's a pun), leering and gloating and swaggering. He and his brother Weenie (Gregory Walcott) wrassle like five-year-olds, whaling the crap out of each other while the company accountants try to do their work: it's right up there with the kitchen fight scene in Gummo.

Location is key to much of the film's vividness: Chicago movie theater marquees, a county fair, enormous fields of sunflowers. Most of all, I love the shots of early seventies Kansas City. Near the beginning of the movie, as Marvin's limo rolls into town, one of his helpers (Howard Platt) looks out the window at a series of tableaux culminating in a big nuts and bolts factory, and says in a bemused Irish voice, "Jesus, what a bare-ass town."


Cop Killers

Bill Osco and Judy Ross in Cop Killers (dir. Walter R. Cichy, 1973).

Diane Keller and Jason Williams.

1973 gas prices.

Two small-time drug dealers blow away some cops and decide, since they're in it now, why not take out some more? And might as well throw in an ice cream truck driver, a gas station attendant, and a random guy for good measure. They also abduct the random guy's girlfriend and hold her hostage (teaching her how to snort coke along the way).

Filmed for $50,000 on location in Tucson, the movie makes liberal use of non-actors, some of whom are more talented than the leads. Larry Williams of Flesh Gordon "fame" is the more sadistic of the two outlaws. Gore supplied by Rick Baker in his first make-up credit.

Why do I like this movie? All I can say is that it has that same quality one finds in other films of the period, like Last House on the Left or Texas Chain Saw Massacre, of seeming to capture perfectly the blank horror of the public mood at the time (a slightly different flavor of blank horror, I would suggest, than the current one). The bad dialogue, stilted acting, sloppy editing, prurient exploitation scenes, insanely mismatched soft rock score, and grainy 16mm blown up to 35mm (the scratches on which are nicely preserved in the DVD transfer), all enhance the nihilistic doominess. Better social commentary through technical incompetence!


Eyes Without a Face

Edith Scob in Eyes Without a Face [Les yeux sans visage] (dir. Georges Franju, 1959).

Alida Valli.

Juliette Mayniel.

A dubbed version of Franju's film was released in the US in 1962 as The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus (on a double bill with The Manster). I'm thinking that, aside from the vocal synching, it must not have looked too terribly different to American viewers from other horror movies of that era. This is not a slight against Franju, but a reminder that some of the most innovative and hallucinatory images in cinema came out of the low-budget productions of that genre at that time, and have largely been consigned to the dung-heap of drunken irony (or "camp"). Granted, many of them might work better as silents.

And in fact, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the script (or at least the dialogue) of Les yeux sans visage: a doctor abducts young women and attempts to graft their faces onto his daughter, who has been badly disfigured in a car accident. It could easily be a schlock B movie. Strike that: it deliberately uses the trappings of such movies. What separates it from its American equivalents, or models, is largely pace. Everything is at the mercy of Franju's macabre visual lyricism--perfectly complemented by Maurice Jarre's mad, carnivalesque score.

The face removal scene is horrifying, and can't help but recall the notorious eyeball scene in Buñuel's Un chien andalou. Included on the Criterion disk is Franju's 1949 short Blood of the Beasts, which uses the pretext of being a documentary about slaughterhouses to allow Franju to indulge his surrealist's appetite for aestheticized cruelty. Horses, cattle, and sheep are killed, dismembered, and flayed before the camera, and the camera comes alive with a sadistic sentience. The effect is too rarified to be considered pornographic, and too frank to make it all the way towards art. It's more of an essay, an essay whose thesis is clouded by hepatomancy.

Blood of the Beasts [Le sang des bêtes] (dir. Georges Franju, 1949).

Blood of the Beasts.


Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told

Quinn Redeker and Jill Banner in Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told (dir. Jack Hill, 1964).

Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, and Lon Chaney Jr.

Sid Haig.

Late in Lon Chaney Jr.'s career, perhaps his most nuanced and humorous performance. He plays Bruno, chauffeur to the last remnants of the Merrye clan, a family stricken by a degenerative disease that turns them gradually into homicidal freaks. Assorted deformed uncles and aunts are confined to a pit in the basement, leaving only three younger Merryes to roam about the house and grounds of the crumbling old family mansion: Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), the most rational of the trio, relatively speaking; Virginia (Jill Banner), cute as a bug, which also happens to be a major part of her diet; and Ralph (Sid Haig), a bald, affable, cat-killing, cretin. Bruno has been doing a pretty good job of containing the Merrye menace up until the beginning of the movie, when a messenger (played by Mantan Moreland, one of the most politically incorrect old Hollywood character actors) falls victim to Virginia's deadly indulgence of "playing spider." The trouble escalates when a team of inheritors and lawyers descend on the house, with predictably ghastly results.

What would otherwise be a minor, albeit amusing campfest is raised quite a few notches by atmospheric cinematography, very effective comic acting, and the film's ability to inspire sympathy for both the deranged, psychopathic Merryes and their despicable would-be displacers (except maybe for the thoroughly loathsome attorney Schlocker, played by Karl Schanzer).


The Car

James Brolin in The Car (dir. Elliot Silverstein, 1977).

Kathleen Lloyd.

R.G. Armstrong.

There are (at least) two kinds of classic 1970s low-budget B-grade horror movies. This is the other kind.

Slightly adjust the hairstyles and clothes, and take away just a smidgen of the camera's sophisticated swoop-capacity, and so forth, and you could be looking at a film by John Sturges or Nicholas Ray from the mid-50s. Everything is framed in excellent rectangular narrativity-vision, the technicolor finely coordinated at the level of things like how the short-sleeve shirts and topographical wall maps match at the police station. I appreciate that stuff, dammit!

Further, James Brolin's Sheriff Wade Parent (who is, indeed, a parent) is the perfect protagonist for this kind of gritty little fish story. His Viking-like moustache alone registers shades of emotion and befuddled heroism too subtle for today's actors (though his son Josh has some of his presence). When Parent faces down the diabolical car that is terrorizing his small southwestern town, he is a study in courage mixed with helpless confusion. His bullets do nothing to the tires or windshield--it's like they evaporate before they even reach their target. It's downright chilling. The car is chilling. It's a black 1971 Lincoln Continental Mark III rebuilt to look like a cross between a coffin and a deathwatch beetle. Everything about it is freaky: its hoarse honk, its handle-less doors, its nearly opaque windshield, the way it scurries around in half-circles like something poisonous from under a rock. I want it. If I drove something like that, no one would screw with me ever.

Also featuring Ronny Cox, Kathleen Lloyd (who had previously done The Missouri Breaks), and a host of great character actors, like R.G. Armstrong and John Marley.