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Fear Potion #9: Buried Alive Film Festival UnEarth’s World’s Best Horror to Atlanta

Posted on: Nov 19th, 2014 By:

2014BAFFPOSTERThe Ninth Annual Buried Alive Film Festival; Saturday, Nov. 22, 3:00 p.m. – 12:30 a.m.; Sunday, Nov. 23, 1:00 p.m. – 10:30 p.m.; Fabrefaction Theatre; Tickets $50 (all access, both days), $10 per programming block, available here. Opening night party Friday, Nov. 21, 8:00 p.m. – 11:59 p.m. @ Joystick Game Bar.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Need a reason to be bloody thankful this month? Well, here’s something to make your twisted Thanksgiving complete: the notorious Buried Alive Film Festival (BAFF) is back for its ninth reincarnation! Atlanta’s favorite, longest-running horror film festival will be at Fabrefaction Theatre on November 22 and 23. This year, Festival Director (and ATLRetro Kool Kat of the Week) Blake Myers and the Buried Alive team have exhumed three features and 50 short films—almost 20 hours of programming including nine American premieres and three world premieres! With a host of filmmakers in attendance, this year promises to be a glorious celebration of horror, further sealing Atlanta’s place as the horror capitol of the nation!

baskin 1The weekend kicks off in style with an opening night party at Joystick Game Bar on Friday, Nov. 21, from 8 p.m. to midnight. Come on out and meet the filmmakers behind this year’s fearsome feast of fright! But pace yourself, because Saturday’s programming starts off at 3 p.m. with Shorts Program 1: Tentacles, Kidney Stones and Cannibalism. This exploration of the darkly comic and disturbingly surreal spans the globe, from here to Turkey and back again. Highlights include the post-apocalyptic doom of THE LAST HALLOWEEN, a disorienting trip with four Turkish policemen into the gaping maw of Hell in the highly acclaimed (by no less than Eli Roth and Richard Stanley) BASKIN, the hilariously gory DEAD ALIVE-meets-“Love Potion Number 9” French splatstick of SPEED FUCKING and the world premiere of local director Jay Halloway’s subterranean terror UNDERLOCK.

Extreme_PinocchioBAFF reconvenes at 5 p.m. for Shorts Program 2: Some Real, Some Fake, All Fucked Up. Taking a more realistic turn than the previous program, these shorts focus on the horrors of the here-and-now, ranging from the twisted psychosis of EXTREME PINOCCHIO, also French, to the provocative documentary GLASS EYES OF LOCUST BAYOU. The standouts in this category—along with those previously mentioned—include the American premieres of the funerary revenge short PARA NOCHES DE INSOMNIO and the expertly executed murder of RELLIK.

After a short break, we’re back at 7 p.m. to ponder love, desire and the meaning of “togetherness” in Shorts Program 3: Healthy Relationships. Whether living or dead, functional or dysfunctional, human or inhuman, all of the permutations of companionship are on display in this variety of shorts. Two noteworthy local entries make debuts during this program—Brandon Delaney’s first-person dialogue MY BOYFRIEND’S BAG in its world premiere, and local filmmaker James Sizemore’s Satanic opus GOAT WITCH which hits Georgia screens for the first time. Also getting American premieres are two UK shorts: SKIN, which turns the hostage/captor relationship on its head, and the unsettling physical manifestation of a deteriorating relationship of SPLIT. Add in the Norwegian sadistic ANGST, PISS AND SHIT and the fetish-laden morgue visit of I AM MONSTER, and you’ve got an evening full of romance. Well, in a manner of speaking anyway.

satpanicNight falls with the festival’s first feature program at 9 p.m. This kicks off with two shorts: the tortured texts of M IS FOR MOBILE and the Georgia premiere of Patrick Longstreth’s Tybee Island-lensed giant monster rampage HELLYFISH. That’s followed by the world premiere of ATLRetro Kool Kat Eddie Ray’s long-awaited second entry in his epically comic tale of devil worship, rock ‘n’ roll warfare and government conspiracies, SATANIC PANIC 2: BATTLE OF THE BANDS!

As the festival heads into the wee hours at 11 p.m., the second feature program of the night is Andres Torres’ horrifying journey through the seedy underbelly of the New York art world and into the twisted mind of a lonely hot dog vendor, BAG BOY LOVER BOY. Driven by killer performances and an escalating sense of discomfort, this film—which meets us at the cross-section of William Lustig’s MANIAC and Roger Corman’s A BUCKET OF BLOOD—is well worth staying up for. The evening closes with a French short film that explores the unease lurking under the comforts of HOME.

988Feeling rested? Slept well after the horrors of the night before? Already got your brunch on and ready to go? Good! Because Buried Alive rises again Sunday at 1 p.m. with Shorts Program 4: Scary Animal Monsters from Outer Space at Your Service. As the program’s title suggests, the selection here is widely varied. The subjects range from the whimsical DEAD HEARTS to the vengeful water spirits of SHUI GUI, from a killer’s paranoia in SEMBLANCE to the wild Australian pathogenic zombie-kangaroo horror of WATERBORNE. Receiving its American premiere is the hilarious BUDGET CUTS, an instructional short on how to maintain your serial killer lifestyle when time and money are tight. Also making its American debut is THE BEAR FAMILY SECRET, a stark and powerful tale of homebound human horror set during the Brazilian dictatorship of 1970. And on the local front, Dayna Noffke unveils her latest work, RECOMPENSE, in its world premiere! It’s a twisty little gem in the EC Comics tradition, in which a prisoner finds out just how much his freedom will cost.

Hana-Dama-p1The first feature program of the day follows at 3 p.m. The supporting short, DONE IN, follows a man’s reminiscences as he pens his farewell to this world. In the featured slot is the American premiere of veteran Japanese director Hisayasu Satô’s HANA-DAMA: THE ORIGINS. A visually explosive exploration of the torment a young girl faces at school and at home, the film takes a novel path in its tale of revenge: a bullied student becomes possessed by a flower, the Hana-Dama, which makes manifest the secret desires of all those who have caused her pain.

At 5 p.m., we leave the realm of the photorealistic behind and enter Drawn and Quartered: The Animation Program. This series of shorts is bookended by the works of Edgar Allan Poe, in adaptations from Moonbot Studios: visually stunning old-school animation adaptations of THE RAVEN and THE CASK OF AMONTILLADO. In between, the festival is serving up two tales of teddy bear terror in MEAN TEDDIES and UNICORN BLOOD, the final evolution of life rising from a wasteland in Germany’s OMEGA, a wacky SHINING-inspired tale of wacky sibling rivalry and murder in the witty THE LAST RESORT and a knowing tale about the importance of choosing the right doctor in EYE IN TUNA CARE. On the local front, Amanda Smith fistoffirepresents a disturbing stop-motion account of a romantic dinner gone horribly awry in TRUE LOVE, and Wally Chung presents a cautionary warning about conformity and discrimination in TALL EVIL. One entry that stands out, however, is Finnish director Tomi Malkki’s FIST OF FIRE (aka TULIKOURA), the surprisingly touching story of a dying death metal drummer, his faithful dog and his post-mortem journey. Maybe my love of Finnish metal is showing through, but the short is moving and ghoulishly funny in addition to being totally and brutally metal. Malkki also will be in attendance, all the way from Finland, to talk about his film.

The second feature program of the day starts at 7 p.m. with another local offering: the Georgia premiere of Robert Bryce Milburn’s AMERICAN HELL, a short glimpse of the nightmare of isolation a family confronts when they are subject to a home invasion. That provides a perfect lead-in to the feature attraction, Adam Petke and sunderSean Blau’s THE SUNDERLAND EXPERIMENT, quite simply one of the most gob-smackingly original films this festival has to offer. This quietly building piece of cosmic horror is set in the isolated, fenced-off desert town of Sunderland. Something identifying itself as an “angel” has converted the town into a strange simulacrum of everyday society, and the adults into its surrogates. The children can either accept the angel’s “blessing” and become like their parents, or become the “fallen” and are left to fend for themselves in the wasteland surrounding the town’s border. One of the young men, David, is destined to learn the truth about his family, the town, and the true nature of the angel that controls their lives. It’s a stunning piece of work.

The festival closes on a holly jolly note at 9 p.m. with Shorts Program 5: A Very Special Zombie Christmas. MR. DENTONN opens the proceedings with the fairy tale-esque story of a sinister visitor that enters homes through mirrors and steals children’s souls. Afterward, we take a peek into the Troma-esque comedy of CHRISTMAS EVE PET MASSACRE, where the world’s worst family finds that their pets are more than glad to bite the hands that feed them. Then it’s off to Latin America for ZUGAR ZOMBIE—a potent cocktail of political corruption, the undead and grand irony. Finally, we wrap things up at the festival imagesmuch like we started: with a delicious look at Halloween. This time, it’s Jonathan Rej and Shane Morton’s ATLANTA ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE. A group of rowdy youths (the best kind) find themselves trapped in a cheesy haunted house when the zombie uprising breaks out. Is it all part of Professor Morté’s spook show? Or is it all too real? A labor of love from pretty much everyone involved with the dearly-departed Halloween haunt of the same name and the Atlanta horror film scene, it’s a gut-busting and gut-munching RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD-styled throwback to the heyday of ‘80s zombie horror. Stick around afterwards to find out the Festival winners (Disclosure: ATLRetro Publisher/Editor Anya Martin is a judge). It’s also the perfect way to close yet another fantastic run of the Buried Alive Film Festival.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

 

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Retro Review: Stop the World, I Want To See THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL Presented by Enjoy the Film and Cinevision!

Posted on: Oct 19th, 2014 By:

Ultimatum_a_la_Tierra_-__-_The_Day_the_Earth_Stood_Still_-_tt0043456_-_1951__-_FrTHE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951); Dir. Robert Wise; Starring Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal and Hugh Marlowe; Thursday, Oct 23 @ 7:30 p.m.; Cinevision Screening Room (visit the event page for address and directions); All tickets $10 (Atlanta Film Festival members save 20%); Tickets here; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Let’s kick off the Halloween season in retro style, and take a trip to 1951 and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Ben Ruder’s Enjoy the Film has partnered with the Cinevision Screening Room for a series titled Monsters in Black and White, delivering three classic features screened in optimal presentations. Special guests introduce each picture, and the series promises to give an intimate “film club” type experience that is sure to make viewers wish that every film they see could be shown with as much care.

In the years immediately following the media coverage of 1947’s mysterious crash in Roswell, New Mexico, the “flying saucer” became a symbol of mankind’s fears and hopes for the future. After seeing both the possibilities and dangers of science entering the atomic age at the close of World War II, and with nations looking toward the skies as they ushered in a new era in rocket technology, we gazed into the unknowable distances of space and wondered what an advanced technology might usher onto our tiny planet. Sure, there had long been stories of alien visitors landing on our world, ranging from H.G. WellsTHE WAR OF THE WORLDS to Siegel and Shuster’s SUPERMAN comics. But the speculation around the events in Roswell brought the topic of extraterrestrial invaders directly into pop culture’s field of vision. And while so many of these tales dealt with hostile attacks from Little Green Men, one stands out as a plea for peace from the heavens: THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL.

gal-bot-gort-jpgThe film sees alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his robot sentry Gort arrive on Earth to warn us against using our growing technological capabilities as a vehicle for greater violence, yet in a familiar turn, the benevolent visitor faces nothing but violence, resistance and persecution from the time of his arrival. The Klaatu-as-Christ metaphor (Klaatu—who also dies, is resurrected, and then ascends into heaven—even takes on the pseudonym of “Major Carpenter”) somehow escaped director Robert Wise’s view, but screenwriter Edmund North was clever enough to make the metaphor merely an emphasis of the movie’s universal themes. After all, the worries expressed in the movie knew no religious boundaries. We had just put the horrors of World War II to bed when the Cold War began, with tensions escalating between East and West. America had involved itself in the Korean War. Meanwhile, the US and USSR had started working seriously on competing space programs, and both sides had concerns that these programs would be of primary use as respective platforms of attack. All of these elements came together and formed the subtext of this film. And while the roots of the film’s themes are set deeply in the 1950s, the larger message of the movie—a call for understanding and cooperation between competing nations and ideologies—is something that never loses its poignancy.

…All of which makes the film seem far preachier than it actually is, when you get down to it. The movie itself is more than simply its message; it is also a compelling drama with nuanced performances from Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal. It is also thrilling, quickly paced, gorgeously photographed and full of groundbreaking special effects (few “flying saucers” of the era look as impressive as Klaatu’s, and Gort’s streamlined design is timeless in its elegance). Not to be overlooked is Bernard Herrmann’s classic score: a masterpiece of eclectic orchestration utilizing two theremins and a variety of electric instruments. It, along with the scores to 1950’s ROCKETSHIP X-M and ‘51’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, would forever link the theremin with the eerie sounds of science fiction.

A movie this impressive should be seen in the best conditions. And a well-preserved 35mm print with stunning sound, viewed with an eager audience, is the best way to experience THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. Lucky for you, then, that Ben Ruder, Enjoy the Film and Cinevision are giving you the chance to see it under precisely those conditions. Don’t miss out on catching this, one of the most impressive of all the classic 1950s sci-fi yarns in its natural habitat.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Just When You Thought It Was Safe To Go Back onto the Pavement! The World Famous Drive-Invasion Hits Turner Field!

Posted on: Sep 4th, 2014 By:

driveinvasion2014The World Famous Drive-Invasion 2014; Turner Field Green Lot (521 Capitol Avenue, Atlanta, GA 30312); Saturday, September 6; Gates open @ 10 a.m.; Admission $25 per person with car or $12.50 walk-up/no car ($26 through Ticketmaster).

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

You can’t keep some things down. When it turned out that the conversion to studio-controlled digital projectors made it impossible for the Starlight Drive-In to continue hosting the annual Drive-Invasion, things looked bleak for a while. But thanks to the tireless efforts of some of Atlanta’s finest, Drive-Invasion has found a new home: Turner Field. They’ll be setting up in Turner Field’s Green Lot and among the attractions you will find a 1000-foot grilling area, Jim Stacy’s Food Truck Midway (serving up a wide array of local culinary delights curated by Pallookaville’s own Mr. Stacy), the Silverscreen Gasoline Car Show (featuring the Discovery Channel CAFÉ RACER host and custom car celebrity, Atlanta’s own Bryan Fuller), an artists’ market, a kids’ play zone and two music stages.

Music-wise, you can expect an ear-filling variety of bands designed for maximum enjoyment before the sun goes down. You want some retro surf-rock action? Step right up and enjoy the sounds of Mystery Men?, Andrew & the Disapyramids (featuring ATLRetro Kool Kat Joshua Longino), and a tribute to the legendary Penetrators. You need some country-fried tastiness? Move it on over to the honky-tonkin’ tunes of Ghost Riders Car Club (featuring Kool Kat Spike Fullerton) and Cletis & His City Cousins (featuring Kool Kat Cletis Reid) . In the mood for some frenzied beat action? Get in the garage with The Brimstones, Rocket 350 and Jimmy & the Teasers. And for straight-up adrenaline-pumping rock and roll, blast off to Bigfoot (featuring Kool Kat Jett Bryant), Dusty Booze & the Baby Haters, Gargantua and The Biters.

But all that is prelude. They call this Drive-Invasion for a reason: drive-in movies. And they’re celebrating the end of the summer with a trio of beach party horror flicks that will keep the mood rocking until the last frame unspools across the screen: THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH, JAWS and MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND.

hpb001THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH (1964); Dir. Del Tenney; Starring John Scott, Alice Lyon and Allan Laurel; Trailer here.

THE HORROR OF PARTY BEACH answers the question “why only have one Creature from the Black Lagoon, when you can have a whole gang of them?” It tells a story old as time: when radioactive waste is dumped into the ocean, it creates a whole mess of monsters who then rise from the depths to kill innocent teens. It’s then up to young Hank and concerned father Dr. Gavin to find a way to stop the rampaging amphibious creatures. Imagine if HUMANOIDS FROM THE DEEP (1996) came out in 1964, and replace the gore and nudity with dancing and stomping beach music (provided by the Del-Aires, with half of their songs and all of the film’s score written by future porn legend Zebedy Colt!). HORROR zips along breezily thanks to director Del Tenney’s sure hand, and thanks to him keeping his tongue firmly planted in cheek. It’s not quite a send-up, but more a lighthearted take on teen horror and beach party flicks, much like INVASION OF THE SAUCER MEN (1957).

jaws-posterJAWS (1975); Dir. Steven Spielberg; Starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw; based on a novel by Peter Benchley; john oath Trailer here.

Then there’s JAWS. What can one say about this movie? When I was a tyke, it was so effective that even this unabashed horror movie fanatic—as committed then as I am today—believed that there were sharks hiding under my bed. (And yes, I fully grasped the logical problem in that scenario.) JAWS established Steven Spielberg as a Big-Time Director after years of working in TV and smaller-budgeted films like THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974). It also singlehandedly created the modern summer “blockbuster” phenomenon (and simultaneously marked the end of the “New Hollywood” period of the late 1960s and early ‘70s), and its style and craftsmanship has exerted a lasting influence far beyond its immediate impact. It is, in many ways, a nearly perfect movie. Pitch-perfect performances from Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw are wed to dialogue so fresh that it’s still being quoted, imitated and parodied nearly 40 years after the film’s release. Add to that Spielberg’s precise direction, one of John Williams’ best scores and Verna Field’s expert editing, which work together to create an escalating tension that reaches peaks high enough to make you completely ignore the badly malfunctioning mechanical shark.

mad_doctor_of_blood_island_poster_01MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND (1968); Dir. Eddie Romero and Gerardo de Leon; Starring John Ashley, Angelique Pettyjohn and Ronald Remy; Trailer (featuring narration from the legendary Brother Theodore) here.

Rounding out the program is MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND, probably the pinnacle of writer/producer/director Eddie Romero’s Philippine-lensed series of “Blood Island” movies. And while that may sound like a pretty small category for a film to qualify as “the best,” keep in mind that there are something like 10 of them (six in the series, and four tangentially related). In this entry, John Ashley—the co-star of multiple AIP “Beach Party” flicks—stars as a pathologist who turns up at Blood Island to study the health of the natives, only to find mysterious deaths linked to the appearance of what appears to be green blood. Throw in Angelique Pettyjohn, heaps of nudity and gore, some of the most ludicrous pseudo-science ever spouted in a movie script and a rampaging monster that must be seen to be believed, and you have what amounts to one of the most definitive drive-in movies ever created. While it may never be regarded as a cinematic classic, it is an experience that I wholeheartedly suggest you undertake. It’s not for nothing that Eddie Romero was named the National Artist of the Philippines in 2003.

And let me take this time to warn you: to survive your exposure to the energies of MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND and to ward off contagion in the days after Drive-Invasion, you must prepare yourself by taking the Oath of the Green Blood, which will ensure that you will never become a green-blooded monster. Vials of Doctor Lorca’s Green Blood Potion will be available to the first 1000 visitors who stop by the Drive-Invasion booth or Professor Morté’s Silver Scream Spookshow booth. Remember: stay safe. Protection is prevention.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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Retro Review: Revisiting THE VISITOR, The Most Insane Non-Indie Horror Movie Ever Filmed in Atlanta

Posted on: Jul 12th, 2014 By:

Contraband Cinema presents THE VISITOR (1979); Dir. Michael J. Paradise; Starring John Huston, Paige Conner, Glenn Ford, Shelley Winters, Lance Henriksen; One Night Only, July 12 @7:00pm, Eyedrum; Tickets $7.00 at the door and actress Paige Conner will be attendance.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

Early in THE VISITOR, an 8-year-old girl opens a wrapped present at her birthday party. Because we’ve been watching the movie, we know that the present contains a tacky statue of a bird, but now the girl inexplicably finds a gun. She grins, points it at partygoers, but then casually tosses it onto a table, which causes it to fire a slug into the back of another character, who then waits the length of a dramatic pause before collapsing to the ground. The entire incident goes from gift-giving to gunfire tragedy in less than 10 seconds.

The reaction among my friends watching the film in my living room was loud. “Wait, what?” “What the hell just happened?!” After a few moments and a few laughs, they calmed, awaiting the explanation that was sure to come.

But, of course, this is THE VISITOR we’re talking about. Explanations aren’t on its agenda, not when every second of screen time is another opportunity to smash a morsel of blazing, brain-melting insanity directly into the film. This is a movie in which legendary Hollywood director John Huston plays an “intergalactic warrior” matching wits with his greatest nemesis, a pre-tween telekinetic and her pet falcon. This is a movie in which director Sam Peckinpah plays an abortion doctor and Lance Henriksen an evil basketball team owner. This is a movie in which skating rinks and street food shops are the sites of supernatural murders. This is a movie in which the fate of the universe is decided in late-1970s Atlanta. But, above all, this is a movie that exists.

THE VISITOR fits loosely into the subgenre of supernatural child movies that bloomed in the wake of William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST (1973). Instead of a demon, little Katy Collins (Paige Conner) is under the sway of an evil intergalactic force named, of all things, Sateen, whose fractured soul is being reborn into children on Earth. I think. Honestly, the film is a tough to puzzle out, as if its heady ideas were being translated through some unfamiliar language which, in a literal sense, they were. The film was an Italian-American coproduction, written and directed by Italians and then translated into English for the sometimes-baffled American cast. But the film also routinely garbles cinematic language, connecting scenes and images that don’t make logical sense, dropping plot threads as soon as they’re introduced, and failing to explain, well, anything. In THE VISITOR, a guardian can tell a character that nothing bad will ever happen to her again about five nanoseconds before someone runs that character into a glass aquarium, and it’s not just OK, it’s expected. Anything less insane would belong to another movie.

THE VISITOR is the fevered brainchild of Italian schlock producer Ovidio Assonitis. He was The Asylum of his day, grabbing any idea that had traction in the public and churning out his own low-cost replica. From THE EXORCIST he invented BEYOND THE DOOR (1974). From JAWS (1975) he developed TENTACLES (1977) (also starring Huston!). From PIRANHA (1978) came, well, PIRANHA II: THE SPAWNING (1981). Right away, however, something felt a bit different about THE VISITOR. The production had a whiff of class about it as Huston’s name and cachet attracted more big names to the cast, including the likes of Mel Ferrer, Shelley Winters and Glenn Ford. Assonitis even shot scenes in Rome, Italy, before moving the production to the tax-friendly vistas of downtown Atlanta.

Paige Conner in THE VISITOR (1979). Drafthouse Films.

For locals the film not only exists as a virtual tour through a past version of the city—including looks at Underground Atlanta, The Omni and other retro locales—but as a dubious legacy for some of the Atlanta’s most famous figures. The credits reserve a special thanks for Mayor Maynard Jackson, who worked hard to bring the production to town, and the film owes memorable scenes and locations to the cavalier whims of Ted Turner. According to legend, Assonitis wagered the fate of the production on a Hawks game with Turner. If the Hawks won, the production would get access to Turner’s home as a shooting location free of charge. The Hawks did indeed win, and the production not only gained access to Turner’s home, but the Omni as well for a key scene in which the possessed little girl explodes a basketball with her mind. (Supposedly, eagle-eyed fans can spot Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the scene as well as radio personalities Neal Boortz and Steve Somers. So there’s that.)

It’s unclear whether the city or Turner were grateful for the chance to contribute. THE VISITOR flopped miserably (and predictably) at the box office, perhaps because the world just wasn’t ready to see Franco Nero (DJANGO [1966]) as Jesus Christ or to see Lance Henriksen attacked by a ceramic switchblade bird. The film made a paltry amount of money at the box office, and that’s just counting the money they got to keep. In an interview on the film’s DVD, Henriksen talks about the film’s legendary badness and his embarrassment at a screening in New York when he heard audience members demanding their hard-earned money back. Henriksen’s opinion of the film represents the consensus at the time of its premiere, but time has a way of changing the story, and THE VISITOR’s story has changed.

The film’s first supporter was supposedly Huston himself, who immediately recognized something special hiding among the frames of the film and kept an elusive VHS of the movie near his deathbed. It took longer for audiences to catch on, but a few did, and a passionate cult helped the film become a regular at midnight screening and trendy repertory houses. Audiences came for the irony and stayed for the film’s unrivaled uniqueness. THE VISITOR doesn’t make a lot of sense, but compensates with mood. THE VISITOR has a dreamlike tone, cultivating something like madness out of its odd juxtapositions of tone and images, or of the powerful performances in service of a story that can’t be unraveled. The film appears assured and confident in the story it’s telling, leaving audiences wondering if the answers are in there after all, just waiting for a keystone piece of information to unlock them. Does it make sense that Henriksen’s evil, but certainly human, tycoon character needs to marry his girlfriend in order to create another wicked psychic child? Probably not, but Henriksen seems to believe it, so why shouldn’t we?

The big coup for THE VISITOR in its reassessment came earlier this year, when Drafthouse Films, the distribution arm of the trendsetting Alamo Drafthouse theater chain in Austin, Texas, released a wonderful new Blu-Ray edition of the film, made with the kind of loving care and attention usually reserved for a Criterion Collection release of a prestige classic. It’s safe to say that more eyes have been on the film in the past year than in the past few decades, and the movie seems to be well on its way to a complete rehabilitation.

By this point in the article, you probably have an idea if THE VISITOR is for you. If it is, then I highly recommend seeing it as soon as possible, and Eyedrum, along with Contraband Cinema, are giving you the chance. Saturday night, July 12, the art gallery is hosting a screening of the film with actress Paige Conner in attendance. Alongside the film will be an art exhibit featuring “new and original pieces based on this unique film by a variety of local artists.” This is a special opportunity to experience a forgotten piece of Atlanta cinema history in the midst of its revival and rediscovery.

THE VISITOR, at long last, has arrived.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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Retro Review: The Plaza Theatre Celebrates 50 Years of The Beatles’ A HARD DAY’S NIGHT With a Gorgeous New Restoration!

Posted on: Jul 2nd, 2014 By:

A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (1964); Dir. Richard Lester; Starring The Beatles (John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr); Runs Friday, July 4 – Thursday, July 10 (see Plaza Theatre website for times and ticket prices); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Has it been 50 years already? Hard to tell when it comes to something timeless, and there are few films as timeless as The Beatles’ motion picture debut, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT. Chock full of great music, wild comedy, groundbreaking direction and a witty, snappy script, it’s enjoyable enough on any occasion. But with a beautiful, newly-minted restoration, there’s no better way to commemorate the movie’s half-centenary than spending an evening at the Plaza Theatre with the “Fab Four”.

When it comes to rock & roll movies, there are generally three camps. There are straight-up documentaries and concert films, like The Band’s THE LAST WALTZ, ELVIS: THAT’S THE WAY IT IS, WOODSTOCK or Dylan’s DON’T LOOK BACK. Then there are the films where a rock star gets shunted into some generally cockamamie scenario which has musical performances conveniently hanging off of it, such as most Elvis movies or Herman’s HermitsMRS. BROWN YOU’VE GOT A LOVELY DAUGHTER. Then there are those films where you’ve got a plot and actors that serve chiefly to prop up a handful of showcase musical numbers, featuring musicians that you don’t really see outside of those isolated performances, aside from maybe five minutes of acting to establish their presence in the film. This is typical of most 1950s rock & roll movies (Elvis vehicles excluded) like THE GIRL CAN’T HELP IT, ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK and—in later years—the Ramones’ tribute to these flicks, ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL.

Then, there are the exceptions, and A HARD DAY’S NIGHT is one of the most striking. It’s not a documentary, though it probably gets closer to the true spirit of The Beatles and Beatlemania than any documentary could. It’s not tied up in some convoluted plot that exists to just fill time between songs (that would be their follow-up movie, the winkingly self-conscious HELP!). And with The Beatles starring as themselves, it breaks away from the ‘50s template. At the time, it was truly revolutionary. There really wasn’t much else like it.

And it remains the single greatest rock and roll movie ever made.

Like Joe Bob Briggs used to say, it doesn’t have any plot to get in the way of the story. The Beatles have to make it to a TV studio for a live broadcast, putting up with Paul’s troublemaking grandfather (“He’s very clean.”) and the trappings of superstardom along the way. That’s it. But that threadbare plot allows plenty of time for the lads’ personalities to shine through and firmly establish each of them as distinct characters. It also allows ample opportunity to present The Beatles’ music organically: not only as score, but as source—in staged rehearsals and run-throughs leading up to their on-air performance.

The script is incredibly clever, providing constant tangential episodes within the film that deliver small moments of energy, so we never hit a dead spell in the journey. As a result, it plays as something of a sketch film, with the consistent forward dynamic of the band’s race to the TV studio maintaining an overarching momentum. In addition, screenwriter Alun Owen spent several days with the foursome and drew dialogue from interviews with the band to deliver Beatles “characters” that were true to each individual member of the group.

Director Richard Lester was a left-field candidate for helming the film, personally chosen by The Beatles on the basis of his work with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan on TV and in the 1960 theatrical short THE RUNNING JUMPING & STANDING STILL FILM. Visually inventive and wildly imaginative, he not only innovatively captured live music performances, but also delivered crazed comic sequences (such as the opening chase scene, a rapid-fire interview segment and the wild “We’re out!”/”Can’t Buy Me Love” romp). It all comes across as pure giddy exuberance in cinematic form. And even though it depicts The Beatles as prisoners of their own fame, it’s also early enough that we’re still seeing them enjoying the view from between the bars. (As Orson Welles said, “if you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.”)

Acting-wise, The Beatles are surprisingly confident on-screen. Paul comes across as level-headed and charming, George as dryly droll, John as sardonic and anarchic and Ringo as sensitive and compassionate. It’s Ringo in particular that shines during a sequence in which he escapes from the TV studio to anonymously wander about town and winds up palling around with a young kid. The keen script, Lester’s deft direction and Ringo’s performance join forces to create one of the film’s most memorable chapters.

And then there’s the music. Rather than use the film to push already-existing product, aside from the previously-released “Can’t Buy Me Love” and a quick medley of hits as the basis for their TV performance, the film uses newly-composed, original material by the band. And the resulting LP, their first to not feature any cover songs, is perhaps The Beatles’ first great album. With all songs written by Lennon and McCartney, it firmly established The Beatles as a truly self-contained unit—and one that sounded uniquely like themselves, rather than a large derivative of artists that came before.

I could write for forever and never be able to capture what strange magic this film conjures. It’s pure electricity on film. It’s full of the joy of life and the living of it. Like I said before, it’s the greatest rock & roll film ever made. And what the hell, one of the greatest films, full stop. And hey! If you need more convincing to see this after all of the superlatives I’ve been piling on, it has been newly digitally restored for the film’s 50th anniversary, with a new 5.1 sound mix created at Apple Studios, and word on the street is that the end result is a marvel.

So drop what you’re doing and see this at your earliest convenience. Even if you don’t know it, you need a reminder of why The Beatles were one of the biggest phenomena of the 20th century, and there’s no more entertaining way to get that reminder than with this film.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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RETRO REVIEW: Splatter Cinema and the Plaza Theatre Camp It Up at SLEEPAWAY CAMP!

Posted on: Jun 9th, 2014 By:

Splatter Cinema presents SLEEPAWAY CAMP (1983); Dir. Robert Hiltzik; Starring Felissa Rose and Jonathan Tiersten; Tuesday, June 10 @ 9:30 p.m. (free photos in a recreation of a scene from the film start @ 9:00 p.m.); Plaza Atlanta; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Friday the 13th is upon us this week, and Splatter Cinema has taken the bold step of avoiding Crystal Lake altogether. Instead, they and the Plaza Theatre bring you a blood-soaked classic from another camp: Robert Hiltzik’s SLEEPAWAY CAMP!

Horror movies are disreputable. If you have any doubts about that, ask yourself how many horror films have won Oscars versus, say, movies from any other genre. Ask yourself how many times a horror movie has been handicapped right out of the gate by critics for simply being a horror film. Ask yourself how many times a great horror film has received only qualified praise (“it’s good…for a horror movie”).

So, yeah. Disreputable. Marginalized. Ostracized.

But slasher flicks? Doubly so. At least.

Sure, they’re typically formulaic. Then again, so are gangster pictures. So are westerns. So are films noir. (Nobody walks into DOUBLE INDEMNITY and thinks, “I’m sure Fred MacMurray is going to get out of this just fine.”) But limitations sometimes produce great art. John Carpenter’s HALLOWEEN? Great art. Hitchcock’s PSYCHO? Great art. Tobe Hooper’s THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE? Great art.

SLEEPAWAY CAMP? Well, not even I am going to argue that this is great, much less art. But it’s fascinating. Sure, it was obviously designed to capitalize on the whole “people are getting slaughtered at a summer camp” trend that was raking in bucketloads of cash in the 1980s, and as a knockoff of an already-critically-maligned series, it’s automatically more disreputable than most.  But it’s visceral and pulpy in a way that 90% of FRIDAY THE 13TH films most definitely aren’t. It constantly teeters on the brink of ridiculousness, has a definite and palpable sense of danger, and pulls off the most insane climax of any entry in the slasher movie subgenre.

The plot is paper-thin, seeming to be merely a hook upon which to hang multiple corpses. Introverted Angela and her protective cousin Ricky are sent to Camp Arawak for the summer. There, she is bullied and attacked by a series of people, all of whom wind up dead at the hand of an unseen killer stalking the campgrounds. Superficially, this doesn’t appear that different from most entries in the FRIDAY series. But one thing that sets SLEEPAWAY CAMP apart is whom the film targets.

Typically, in FRIDAY THE 13TH movies, most of the victims are the camp’s counselors and staff, generally vulnerable women (and the occasional vulnerable guy). Their deaths are all the more likely if they have just had sex, are contemplating having sex in the near future, or have a passing interest in potentially having sex at some point in their lives. But in SLEEPAWAY CAMP, most of the people who get killed are the campers themselves. In slasher cinema, this is generally not done. It’s out of bounds. Kids are innocents, and our killers’ knives are out for those who have transgressed some kind of warped code of adult morality. But not here. At Camp Arawak, the kids and adults are jerks and bullies, and nobody is safe. This alone would make the movie one of the more morally questionable entries in the slasher field. Add in the increasingly bizarre ways in which people are slaughtered (beehive? curling iron?) and you’ve got reprehensibility writ large.

But beyond the victims being targeted and the means of their destruction, what also makes this film stand out from its competitors is its relentlessly odd tone. There are tons of slashers that attempt to inject some humor into the mix, but few do it with as straight a face as this movie. Other films, for instance, might play up the character of camp owner Mel Costic as an over-the-top bit of comic relief, as he constantly tries to spin the series of outlandish murders as simple accidents. But while he’s obviously something of a caricature, he’s no more or less overtly comic than any other adult in the picture. He’s the equivalent of Paul Bartel in Joe Dante’s PIRANHA: a comic authority figure, but not a jokey figure. He is, at least, more relatable than Angela’s aunt Martha, who seems to exist in some weird state of hyper-eccentricity that feels like it’s been borrowed from some other movie altogether. The presence of renowned character actors like Mike Kellin (as the aforementioned Mel Costic) and Robert Earl Jones (father of James) lends a level of credence and gravity to these roles that would otherwise be ham-handedly played for comedic effect. As a whole, the character work in the movie seems to work on an almost delirious TWIN PEAKS-ish level, where we’re thrown off because what we’re seeing is funny, but it’s not parodic or written as explicit comedy. And when it combines with the horror of the film’s content, it’s…off-puttingly humorous.

And that’s not even getting into the whole psychosexual aspect of the movie that just traipses giddily all over the line dividing “sympathetic” and “offensive” and builds up to a twist ending that has left jaws firmly planted on floors since 1983.

Upon release, the movie was generally ignored as just another kids-at-camp-getting-killed flick. But even then, there were rumblings of this being something bigger than that. I remember, after first seeing it as a VHS rental, talking with friends of mine about how mind-blowingly nuts the movie was. How inventive the kills were. THAT ENDING. And in the years since, a sizable cult has grown up around this movie as tales of its oddball charms have circulated among horror fans. Today, the movie holds an impressive 82% favorable rating at RottenTomatoes.com. From critics who really ought to know better.

So here we have one of the more disreputable entries in arguably the most disreputable subgenre of an already disreputable genre. And it has developed a large following and overwhelmingly favorable critical consensus. It has traveled the full circle of sleaze all the way back around to ultimate acceptance, like someone made a John Waters movie completely by accident.

So take some time out of your busy mid-week schedule to visit the kids at camp. No, not Crystal Lake. The other one.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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RETRO REVIEW Still Trapped in the Overlook After All These Years: The Plaza Theatre Presents Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING and Documentary ROOM 237!

Posted on: Jun 6th, 2014 By:

THE SHINING (1980); Dir. Stanley Kubrick; Starring Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall, Danny Lloyd and Scatman Crothers; Friday, June 6–Thursday, June 12 (see Plaza website for times and ticket prices); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

ROOM 237 (2012); Dir. Rodney Ascher; Starring Bill Blakemore, Geoffrey Cocks, Juli Kearns, John Fell Ryan and Jay Weidner; Friday, June 6–Thursday, June 12 (see Plaza website for times and ticket prices); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

The Plaza Theatre is presenting an intriguing pairing of films this month. Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece of horror, THE SHINING, is being coupled with Rodney Ascher’s documentary on that film’s obsessives, ROOM 237. See both: marvel at Kubrick’s handiwork and then marvel at the interpretations offered up by the movie’s most hardcore fans.

Recovering alcoholic Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) has just accepted a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel. The hotel, which was built on an Indian burial ground, gets snowed in and inaccessible during the winter, and constant care must be taken to ensure that the elements don’t take a toll on the building during those harsh months. The Overlook also has a troubled history—the previous caretaker lost his mind and killed himself and his family, and other horrors are suggested to have occurred during its many years of operation. Jack sees this assignment as a perfect time to get some writing done, and to rebuild his relationship with his family: wife Wendy and son Danny (Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd). However, Danny has “the shining”—the power of telepathy, and the ability to see visions of past and future events…a power that the hotel itself seems to share, and which could bring down the already-unstable walls of sanity that Jack Torrance has tried so hard to build.

Okay, last time we spoke, I described MARK OF THE VAMPIRE as being one of the more controversial classic horror movies. Well, THE SHINING is probably the most controversial modern horror film. It seems that most folks find no middle ground when discussing this movie: it’s either one of the greatest horror films of all time, or it’s an overrated piece of tripe. Very few people come away from it thinking “meh, that was okay.”

Why is that? Well, there are a number of reasons.

Firstly, there’s the temperament of the viewer, and a lot depends on how they feel about the change in direction Stanley Kubrick’s films took with his 1968 science fiction epic 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. While his earlier films are certainly full of extended takes, deep focus and long tracking shots, those films are also more dynamic—typically full of emotionally-charged, dramatic moments. 2001 established that he was unafraid of presenting long takes in a quiet and lingering manner that seemed to examine the characters from a distance. The shots seem to emphasize the isolation of his movies’ central characters in an oppressive, surrounding environment. Paradoxically, the combination of deep focus and extended shot length creates an immersive experience: the viewer feels the same overwhelming subjective experience of the film’s characters, but the tone of Kubrick’s approach keeps the viewer knowingly at arm’s length from those characters. The viewer feels as if he or she is there, but still distanced from the action. Depending on your taste, you can find this compelling and suspenseful, or you can find it cold, detached and boring.

Secondly, there’s the question of fidelity to the film’s source. Stephen King has never cared for this adaptation of his novel (though his initial hatred of it has calmed over time). And that’s kind of understandable. The novel was written largely as a way of dealing with his own alcoholism and the anger issues he encountered as a husband and father, and to see his sympathetic stand-in Jack Torrance depicted as being pretty well off his nut right out of the gate…well, I might take it personally too. Beyond the treatment of Jack Torrance, King has been consistent in his criticism that the film abandons many of his own novel’s themes. King also felt that Kubrick (being a staunch atheist) tried to muddy the waters of the supposed reality of the ghosts that haunt the Overlook Hotel—that he shifted the balance too far in suggesting that the spirits seen are all products of the mind’s eye. So if you’re among those who feel that a filmed adaptation needs to remain as faithful to its source as possible (particularly if you’re also a fan of King’s novel), you may walk away disappointed.

Thirdly, there’s the question of the acting in the film. To be sure, everyone’s performances in the movie are pitched over the threshold of what is considered normal. Jack, Wendy and Danny are all higher-strung than your everyday family members. Jack isn’t just crazy, he’s berserk. Wendy’s not just growing more upset, she’s panic-stricken. Danny isn’t just frightened, he’s rendered wide-eyed and speechless. And it’s easy to get rubbed the wrong way by what can be seen as overacting.

But, man, I can’t get on board with any of those criticisms.

I’m a huge fan of Kubrick’s technique. His utilization of these long takes creates a tension that I find nearly unbearable. The viewer remains merely and consciously an observer to what’s going on. And as you witness the events of THE SHINING snowballing while the film progresses, it’s as if the film’s compositional structure itself is telling you that there’s not a single thing you can do to help these people. You can sympathize with them if you like, but you remain at a distance. It is a detached aesthetic, yes, but there is purpose behind it.

Also, when it comes to fidelity to source material, a filmmaker should not be forced into a promise to remain faithful to any work they’re adapting. Film and literature are two completely different animals; what works in one does not necessarily work in the other. And an adaptation is an interpretation by definition, not a direct copy of what is being referenced. Criticizing THE SHINING for straying from King’s novel is like criticizing Picasso for not painting a photorealistic depiction of the bombing of Guernica, or John Coltrane for recording a My Favorite Things that only glances occasionally at Rodgers and Hammerstein’s original composition. Kubrick has his own goals, and uses King’s source as a jumping-off point to achieve those goals. Judge his film on its own terms, not the terms King lays down in his novel. (If a close adaptation is what you seek, search out the 1997 TV mini-series. It’s remarkably close to its source novel, thanks to King adapting his own novel for the screen, while faithful King director Mick Garris helms the production. It’s also dreadful.)

(Side note and potential spoiler: Kubrick fully expects you to come away believing that the ghosts are real. His aim, stated in interviews at the time, was to have the viewer question whether the hotel is really haunted, or if the visions are the product of Jack and Danny’s haunted minds until the latter choice becomes impossible. Ask yourself this: if the ghosts aren’t real, who opens the supply room door?)

And then there’s the acting. I agree that it can be over-the-top. However, some things should be kept in mind: both Wendy and Danny are still traumatized by the abusive acts of Jack Torrance (which are only hinted at; one event of abuse is detailed, wherein Jack broke the young Danny’s arm, but the implication is that this is the only thing he did that left a physical mark and that Wendy is able to admit). So “naturalistic” acting is probably not something that would fit. Wendy is constantly in a nervous state of denial. Danny is withdrawn and in a constant state of unease. Additionally, everyone’s fragile state of mind is being affected by the presence of the power that permeates the very walls of the Overlook Hotel. And then there’s the technical issue that all of the actors simply must deliver large performances, lest they be completely overwhelmed by their surroundings. The Overlook is such a huge, overpowering presence, that meeker performances would be lost in competition.

And let’s not forget the set design of the Overlook itself. It doesn’t make any sense. Look at it. Windows to the outside are present in rooms nowhere near an outside wall. Paths taken through the hotel don’t add up. It is subconsciously upsetting because we constantly get a sense that something is wrong, but we can’t quite put our finger on why. The “why” is that we try to force a logical layout on the landscape that is rejected by the hotel itself. The Overlook is like some Escher-esque labyrinth of madness, waiting to ensnare anyone who wanders inside and who is sensitive to its forces. The repeated patterns of the hotel’s décor lull us into accepting that this is order. But these merely disguise the chaos that undulates underneath this superficial fabric.

(In case I’m not making myself clear here, I love this movie.)

In short, it’s a masterpiece of horror cinema, and one of Kubrick’s most towering achievements. And like all great works of art, it has inspired debate and subjective interpretation. This is where Rodney Ascher’s documentary ROOM 237 comes in. Told entirely in voiceover and using a brilliantly conceived montage of images from Kubrick’s filmography and sources as disparate as SCHINDLER’S LIST and Lamberto Bava’s DEMONS, the film details the many theories and interpretations of Kubrick’s movie. These theories range from the outlandish (THE SHINING is an apology for Kubrick’s alleged part in faking the moon landing) to the less-outlandish (THE SHINING is a metaphor for the constant recurrence of violence in America) to the “let’s sync up THE WIZARD OF OZ and DARK SIDE OF THE MOON, man!” level of stoned college student ingenuity (THE SHINING is meant to be played forward and backward at the same time).

Smartly, the documentary doesn’t take a stance; just presents each person’s take on the film without judgment and allows you to evaluate each wildly differing interpretation on your own. For my money, the structure of the documentary is a little haphazard, jumping around from viewpoint to viewpoint, but it’s hard to argue with the ultimate brunt of Ascher’s film. This isn’t really about THE SHINING. This is about obsessive fandom. This is about film geekery. And to the subjects of ROOM 237, THE SHINING is like that elusive monolith in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. It stands impenetrable, but if you could only touch it, it could unlock untold worlds. All of the narrators feel like they’ve touched it and come away with The Truth. But in reality, they’ve been sucked into the labyrinth that is the Overlook Hotel just like poor Jack Torrance. It’s just not quite as unsettling to see them navigate their way around it.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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RETRO REVIEW: CIAO BELA! Celebrate the Legacy of Lugosi With a Week of Rare Screenings at the Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: May 27th, 2014 By:

The Plaza Theatre presents the Bela Lugosi Film Festival; Starts Friday, May 30 @ 8:00 p.m., final show Thursday, June 5 @ 8:45 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Schedule here; Tickets $5.00 per screening, available at Plaza box office.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

The Plaza Theatre is taking a week to honor the legacy of one of the greatest icons of horror to ever grace the silver screen, Bela Lugosi. And in doing so, they’re avoiding the obvious choices of programming; there’s no DRACULA, nor any of the films he appeared in for Edward D. Wood, Jr. Instead, we’re getting treated to a wide variety of his lesser-seen films, ranging from major studio productions (MGM’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE—see our Retro Review here—and 20th Century Fox’s THE GORILLA) to his most accomplished independent film (the brilliant WHITE ZOMBIE, which we’ve covered here), and the rest of the roster is filled with a sampling of the work he did for what was then known as Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” studios.

Born in Lugos, Hungary (previously part of Transylvania, now part of Romania) in 1882, Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó had aspirations to stardom. He found success on the local stage in his late teens, which prompted him to move to Budapest and join the National Theatre of Hungary, where he played numerous roles both before and after World War I, where he served on the Russian front. After his return, his political activism as part of organizing an actors’ union resulted in his fleeing the country after the Hungarian Revolution failure in 1919 made life difficult for those perceived to be leftist agitators. He made his way to New Orleans on a merchant ship, adopted the surname “Lugosi” to honor his birthplace, and began working the stage in New York, forming a stock company with fellow Hungarian actors and performing for immigrant audiences. Soon, Broadway beckoned, and Lugosi was quick to answer her call. After a series of successful parts in comedies and melodramas, he was approached with the role that would change the course of his life.

In 1927, he was cast in the title role of the smash Broadway adaptation of DRACULA. It ran for 261 performances before touring the country during 1928-29. Despite the play’s phenomenal success, when Universal optioned it for a motion picture, Lugosi was not their initial choice. But Lugosi lobbied hard for the part, accepting a smaller salary—only $500 a week—in return for having his acclaimed stage performance immortalized on the screen.

However, because Lugosi was so effective in his role, he quickly became typecast as a horror “heavy,” playing villains at nearly every turn, no matter how often he tried to demonstrate his versatility. And even though he proved a box-office draw during his time at Universal, he frequently found himself second-billed to co-stars like Boris Karloff, or cast in smaller roles. Sometimes those roles were instantly memorable—such as that of Ygor in Universal’s series of FRANKENSTEIN sequels—but other times, he found himself playing butlers or other domestics, most often as a red herring in some convoluted mystery plot. But a 1936 regime change in Universal, combined with a ban on horror films in the UK, led to Lugosi’s fall from favor with the studio and his decision to turn to the smaller studios of Poverty Row to supplement his income.

“Poverty Row” was an umbrella term for the plethora of smaller, independent studios that popped up in Hollywood’s golden age to capitalize on the need for cheap films to fill out the “B” slots of double-feature bills (hence, “B-movies”). Because the pictures were made quickly, even though they didn’t pay well, a featured player could get consistent work. Cast into Hollywood’s forsaken jungle hell, Lugosi could prove that he was all right. And it’s in these films, where we’re neither seeing the Universal “superstar” Lugosi, nor the Ed Wood films where he’s been unfairly regarded as an on-the-skids camp figure, where we can get a picture of Lugosi the working actor. Just an honest guy plying his trade. And while some of the films are more ludicrous than others, they’re all chances to witness that no matter how low the budget or how silly the concept, Bela Lugosi gave them his all. Frequently relegated to public domain home video releases, these movies are rarely shown in theaters, as they’re not instantly recognizable titles like DRACULA. So it’s a rare treat to see them once again where they belong.

THE CORPSE VANISHES (1942, Monogram Pictures) is one of the more lurid low-budget exploitationers of the 1940s. Here, Lugosi plays Dr. Lorenz, a horticulturist and mad scientist, who needs glandular excretions from virgin women to restore the youth and beauty of his octogenarian wife. He uses poisoned orchids to place young brides—at their weddings, yet—in suspended animation, and drags them back to his laboratory. Reporter Patricia Hunter (Luana Walters) is hot on his trail, however, and is determined to uncover the mystery of the orchid killer. Lugosi shows a great deal of restraint in his portrayal, which contrasts with the over-the-top aspect of the scenario, while the film displays tight pacing and a real sense of suspense. As a result, THE CORPSE VANISHES is one of Lugosi’s best Poverty Row horrors.

Keeping in tone with the “Lugosi distributes pleasant-smelling objects that wind up killing people” theme of the previous night, THE DEVIL BAT (1940, Producers Releasing Corporation) finds cosmetic chemist Dr. Paul Carruthers passing out “test samples” of his new after-shave lotion to those who have wronged him. Unbeknownst to his victims, Carruthers has been breeding giant bats, trained to attack those who wear the scent of doom. Here, Lugosi is deliciously over-the-top in his performance, relishing every bit of evil he sows forth. As the film takes a much more comic tone than THE CORPSE VANISHES, Lugosi’s portrayal supports the movie’s aims, establishing a kind of proto-ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES on the cheap. It was so successful, PRC made a sequel (without Lugosi), DEVIL BAT’S DAUGHTER.

INVISIBLE GHOST (1940, Monogram Pictures) finds Lugosi playing a Jekyll-and-Hyde role as Dr. Kessler, a normal family man who falls into a murderous trance-like state whenever he sees his wife, whom he believes to be dead, but is really just living in the gardener’s shed. The plot is absolutely ridiculous, but the film is salvaged by the inspired visual flair of celebrated B-movie auteur Joseph H. Lewis and Lugosi’s nuanced performance. The film is very nearly stolen, however, by Clarence Muse as Lugosi’s butler, Evans. While most roles for African-Americans in this era fell into broad caricature and stereotype, Muse remains intelligent, strong and dignified throughout.

In THE GORILLA (1939, 20th Century Fox), one of the rare non-Poverty Row productions on display here (yet one whose lapse into the public domain has placed it alongside them), Bela plays second fiddle to the Ritz Brothers, Fox’s answer to the Marx Brothers. Playing a butler, Lugosi is largely just there as sinister window dressing while the Ritz boys and Patsy Kelly (longtime star of stage and screen, she is, however, best known today as Laura-Louise in ROSEMARY’S BABY) clown around. It’s a spoof of the “old dark house” sub-genre, wherein the Ritzes are bumbling detectives protecting a wealthy attorney (Lionel Atwill) from a murderer known as “the Gorilla” while an actual escaped gorilla shows up at the estate. Everybody’s a suspect, and of course, all eyes are on Bela. It’s a shame he’s not given more to do, as Lugosi is in fine form, but the zany comedy keeps things moving along nicely.

We wrap things up by staying on the simian side of the street with one of Lugosi’s most insane, yet jaw-droppingly entertaining, motion pictures: BELA LUGOSI MEETS A BROOKLYN GORILLA (1952, Realart Pictures). What can I say about this movie? Where else can you see the musical comedy team of Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo carry out the most blatant rip-off of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis ever committed to celluloid? (Paramount studio head Hal Wallis, who had Martin and Lewis under contract, tried to purchase the movie in order to have it destroyed. They just couldn’t settle on a price.) Where else can you see Bela Lugosi on a tropical island planning to turn a man into a monkey? Lugosi, as always, gives it his all against the wacky backdrop, despite the fact that he was in poor health and hadn’t worked since 1946. People like to say that Lugosi’s Ed Wood pictures were his nadir, but at least those were earnest pictures. They were sincerely done. With this movie, though…who the hell knows what was going on in the filmmakers’ minds other than “let’s cash in on Lugosi’s name by pairing him with low-rent Martin & Lewis imitators?” And even then, you have to wonder why they were thinking that in the first place. It’s not like some time-tested means of making a profit. It’s just so gob-smackingly weird that I find it completely enthralling. It’s got to be seen to be believed, and even then you might not believe it. And to see it on the big screen? You gotta be kidding me.

So, that’s it. It’s nearly a week’s worth of Lugosi the working man. Giving it his all in movies that, frankly, probably didn’t deserve him (aside from the amazing MARK OF THE VAMPIRE and WHITE ZOMBIE, of course). But in movies that are made all the more remarkable and entertaining by his presence. Movies that were enriched by his old world style and class. It’s a rare theatrical treat that should not be missed by anyone who considers themselves a fan of the man, a student of cinema history or a horror movie aficionado. Because while these movies have long been easy to overlook, they—and the history they represent—are a vital part of the legacy of Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó. May they live forever.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

Category: Features, Retro Review | TAGS: None

RETRO REVIEW: MARK OF THE VAMPIRE! An Alluring But Controversial Lugosi/Browning Classic Haunts the Big Screen Once More the Plaza Theatre

Posted on: May 26th, 2014 By:

MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935); Dir. Tod Browning; Starring Bela Lugosi, Carroll Borland, Lionel Barrymore and Elizabeth Allan; Friday, May 30 (8:00 p.m., 9:45 p.m. and 11:00 p.m.), Saturday, May 31 (8:45 p.m.) and Sunday, June 1 (5:30 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.); Plaza Theatre; Tickets $5.00; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

As part of the Plaza Theatre’s week-long celebration of Bela Lugosi starting Friday May 30 (full preview here), one of his greatest—and most controversial—motion pictures gets a rare screening: his final collaboration with director Tod Browning, 1935’s MARK OF THE VAMPIRE!

Prague, 1935. An aristocrat is found dead, drained of blood, with two puncture wounds on his neck. The locals believe that vampires—in the form of Count Mora (Bela Lugosi) and his daughter Luna (Carroll Borland), whom they believe haunt the nearby castle—are responsible for the murder. Police inspector Professor Zeren (Lionel Barrymore) is skeptical, however, and is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery behind the mark of the vampire.

Tod Browning was in need of some luck. He’d had a stellar career making deliciously twisted silent features, most notably starring the incredible Lon Chaney. He was hired by Universal Studios to direct 1931’s DRACULA starring Bela Lugosi (with whom he’d worked on 1929’s THE THIRTEENTH CHAIR). Despite the film’s success, Universal was unhappy with Browning’s work, and he moved to MGM to direct 1932’s FREAKS. That film proved so scandalous and controversial (and commercially unsuccessful) at the time that Browning’s career came to a screeching halt. So, when MGM accepted his proposal to helm a remake of his 1927 silent LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (now considered a lost film, with the last known print destroyed in a 1967 fire), he was determined to make the most of it.

And he nearly pulled it off. Despite the film’s more unsavory aspects being removed (implications of incest between Mora and Luna, which resulted in Mora’s suicide and the pair condemned to an eternity of living death) and the film’s trimming from 75 to 61 minutes, the film works like gangbusters. Up to a point, that is.

You see, in the realm of classic horror, few films are as debated as hotly as MARK OF THE VAMPIRE. All of the ingredients of a Golden Age classic are there: a menacing, wordless performance by Bela Lugosi as Count Mora; Carroll Borland as his daughter, Luna, establishing a visual template followed by Maila “Vampira” Nurmi and Morticia Addams; and the deft, atmospheric direction of Tod Browning.

So, what’s the deal?

It’s the twist ending that provides the film’s payoff. It’s an ending that negates everything that came before. Things we have seen with our own eyes are now established as having been impossible. It’s a cheat. Even Bela thought it was ridiculous and pleaded with Tod Browning to change it. A much better ending (that even kept the light tone of the original’s) was suggested, and Browning refused to change course. I’m not going to spill the beans by detailing what happens, but it’s really impossible to talk about MARK OF THE VAMPIRE without bringing up the fact that many see the twist as a crushing disappointment.

And I’m right there with them. It’s such a blow to the film because the rest of it is so good. It’s largely the film that DRACULA could have been if Browning hadn’t been hamstrung by Universal’s budget-pinching measures. (The studio had recently sunk a lot of money into THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, and was facing financial difficulties due to the Great Depression. Unconvinced that the horror thing would pay off, DRACULA had many elaborate scenes scrapped and wound up hewing closely to the play in staging the film.) MARK OF THE VAMPIRE’s sets are sumptuous. The effects scenes are brilliantly pulled off, with Luna soaring on bat’s wings and Count Mora materializing out of mist. The photography by legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe is glorious. The performances of stage/screen legend Lionel Barrymore and Elizabeth Allan are rock-solid and ground the film firmly. The supporting cast (especially Lionel Atwill as Inspector Neumann and Donald Meek as the timid Dr. Doskil) is delightful. It all comes together so beautifully, only to be sold so short by an ending that aims for cleverness and lands in clunkiness.

If you can forgive the film its ending, there is so much there to enjoy. Just discount what you see happen on screen after the mystery has been solved, and imagine that Lionel Barrymore’s Professor Zelen receives a telegram saying something like “Sorry, can’t make it. Train held up at the station. Hope everything works out,” and you’ll walk out of the theater a happier person. But to miss the film on the big screen is to miss one of the best—yet one of the most unheralded—vampire pictures ever to come out of Hollywood’s classic era. Or at least 90 percent of one.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

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RETRO REVIEW: Hanging Out With MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED at The Strand

Posted on: May 17th, 2014 By:

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976); Dir. Peter Yates; Starring Bill Cosby, Raquel Welch, Harvey Keitel, Larry Hagman;  May 18 at the Strand Theatre @ 3:00 PM.

By Andrew Kemp
Contributing Writer

One of the truest joys of watching retro movies is that so many of them could never, ever be made today. We like to think of culture as a steady march of progress, but it’s more like a cycle of tides, with some particular mood cresting before receding, like the way the risqué shocks of the 1920s eventually morphed into the repressed sexuality of the 1940s. Moments come and go all the time, and what made sense for one era and one particular group of people can seem like it was beamed in from another world just a few years down the line. It’s not that they “don’t make them like they used to.” It’s more of a question of how they were ever made that way to begin with.

For example, look at MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED, one of the strangest studio comedies produced during a very strange period of the mid-1970s when the rules about mainstream movies had shaken themselves apart and nobody quite knew how to put them back together. One part workplace comedy, another part slobs-versus-snobs, but also part serious social drama, MOTHER exists in a kind of weird pocket outside of genre. If you haven’t seen it, there’s no easy point of context to prepare you for what to expect.

Just going off the title, it’s easy to imagine MOTHER as a forerunner to the trucker-film craze kicked off by Burt Reynolds a year later in SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT (1977), but although the title characters are certainly drivers, their wheels are attached to Los Angeles ambulances instead of highway big rigs, and their antics are more in service of retaining their sanity over making a big score. Mother (Bill Cosby) is an irreverent veteran driver tasked with breaking in the rookie Speed (Harvey Keitel), so named because of his past selling drugs as an undercover cop. Mother and Speed encounter rival companies, tension with other drivers (including Larry Hagman in a pervy supporting role), and a loose collection of setups and punchlines, all the while hoping to make enough dollars to keep themselves and their business afloat. Meanwhile, the unfortunately-nicknamed Jugs (Raquel Welch) moves to escape her job as the dispatch and den mother for the boys and become the first female driver in her staunchly chauvinistic profession.

Welch’s plotline exemplifies the film’s jarring shifts in tone. Viewers are invited to laugh along with the drivers and the wacky ways in which they let off steam—Cosby, in particular, is at the peak of his talent and delivers plenty of laughs—but the film also aspires to blow the lid off of what was, at the time, a pretty scandalous industry. In an effort to maximize profits, drivers would sabotage rivals, bribe police officers, and invent phony fares to milk government kickbacks. Less the lifesavers that their marketing would have you believe, the ambulance business was more like a taxi service with steeper leverage over its customers. If you weren’t worth the driver’s time, then good luck finding another way to the emergency room.

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED was the brainchild of animation giant Joseph Barbera (the latter half of the Hanna-Barbera empire) who enlisted Tom Mankiewicz to construct the screenplay. Mankiewicz was a veteran screenwriter who presided over the James Bond franchise during its transition from serious spy fare to pulpier, more audience-friendly material and his particular tastes are all over MOTHER, including pairing slapstick wit and sudden violence. Mankiewicz, in particular, knew how to construct a set piece, as did MOTHER’s director Peter Yates, who helmed the iconic Steve McQueen picture BULLITT (1968) and later the less-successful (but justly infamous) KRULL (1983). MOTHER is likewise stocked with big, high-concept moments that keep things from getting too limp or self-important, which would have been death for a movie that so desperately wants to be a good time.

Ultimately, the real appeal of the film is Cosby, Keitel, Welch, and the rest of the ragtag assembly of drivers. MOTHER, JUGS, AND SPEED is a “hangout movie,” one in which most of the fun comes from revisiting these characters like a group of old friends. That’s another appeal of retro cinema. For better or for worse, even as the world changes around us, our old friends remain exactly the same.

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED plays @3:00 on May 18 at The Strand. Get tickets HERE.

Andrew Kemp is a screenwriter and game designer who started talking about movies in 1984 and got stuck that way. He can be seen around town wherever there are movies, cheap beer and little else.

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