RETRO REVIEW: TAB HUNTER: CONFIDENTIAL Traces a Star’s Journey from Teen Idol to Cult Icon

Posted on: Nov 18th, 2015 By:

tabhunterconfidential-posterTAB HUNTER: CONFIDENTIAL (2015); Dir. Jeffrey Schwarz; Starring ; Tab Hunter, Debbie Reynolds, John Waters; Opens Friday, Nov. 20Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Trailer here.

By Claudia Dafrico
Contributing Writer

TAB HUNTER: CONFIDENTIAL opens Friday Nov. 20 at the Landmark Midtown Arts Cinema. This enlightening and wonderfully fun documentary  chronicles the long career of actor Tab Hunter and the struggles he dealt with as a gay man in a time marked by intolerance.

In this day and age, people love to insist that celebrity culture has reached ludicrous levels of influence on our daily lives. They say that Kardashians rule the world around us, and this bastion of scandal- mongering and celebrity worship would never have been seen in “the good old days” before Twitter and TMZ. But as TAB HUNTER: CONFIDENTIAL shows us, that presumption could not be further from the truth. This compelling and charming documentary follows film, television, and recording star Tab Hunter from his highs as a teen heartthrob to the lows of family tragedy and a career crisis, all while being closeted for the majority of his working years. Now in his 80s, Tab gets to look back on his tumultuous experience in Hollywood and remind audiences that the cult of Hollywood was just as prevalent in the past as it is today.

tabhunterconfidential_002_Tab_ShowerBased on his memoir of the same name, the film showcases Hunter’s life from his childhood as the son of a German immigrant and an abusive, absent father, to his early (illegal) entry into the Coast Guard at age 15. After being discharged, Tab spent his time horseback riding, which led to him meeting Hollywood agent Henry Wilson and kickstarting his career in film. He served to be little more than eye candy in his first few roles in movies like ISLAND OF DESIRE (1952), which was lambasted by critics (Hunter himself acknowledges his lackluster performance in the film). He nonetheless continued to work, and eventually found success with BATTLE CRY (1955), a war drama based on a bestselling novel. As he went under contract with MGM, Tab quickly became a household name, and teenage girls became infatuated with him. MGM fueled this obsession by pairing him off with Natalie Wood, another MGM star. The two went along with the charade for their sake of their careers, but as Hunter playfully notes in the film, the “couple” had each other’s backs when it came to secrets: Wood was secretly dating bad boy Dennis Hopper while Hunter pursued his first long-term relationship with PSYCHO (1960) star Anthony Perkins.

Tab Hunter and Allan Glaser.

Tab Hunter and Allan Glaser.

The segment in the film that touches upon Hunter and Perkins’ relationship is both touching and heartbreaking. It’s clear from the way that Hunter reminisces that the two really did share a special connection, but the combined strain of homophobia and competing careers sadly prohibited any possibility of a successful romance. After he was nearly outed by a gossip rag in the height of his stardom, Hunter was put under immense pressure to keep his sexuality under wraps and continued to star in typecast roles for MGM. When these conditions proved to be too stressful for Hunter, he made the costly decision to break his contract with MGM, and his subsequent failure to establish himself in non studio productions led to his departure from mainstream Hollywood. He spent a number of years performing in dinner theatre shows and pursuing his love of horseback riding. He appeared in John Waters’ Odorama classic POLYESTER (1981) opposite the fabulous Divine (who he would later reunite with in LUST IN THE DUST [1985]), a move that brought about a resurgence in his popularity. Hunter met his long-term partner Allan Glaser (who produced CONFIDENTIAL) during the production of LUST IN THE DUST, and the two continue to share their lives together in California to this day.

tabhunterconfidential_006_Tab_SwimsuitThe beauty of Tab Hunter: Confidential lies within its refreshing optimism and the endearing nature of its subject. Even when discussing the struggles of his career, Hunter is joking and cheerful, and the portions of the documentary that touch upon his mother’s struggles with mental illness are laced with love and compassion. Hunter, unlike many of his peers who were in a similar situation of dealing with a homophobic Hollywood, ended up with a happy ending. It’s a real treat to be able to watch him express his love for life and remembrance of the past. And if you still believe that Hollywood is at its most scandalous today, be sure to check out this film to see how little has really changed since Tab Hunter’s heyday.

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ATLRetro’s Hellacious and Horrorific Halloween Guide 2015

Posted on: Oct 26th, 2015 By:

by Melanie Crew
Managing Editor

Calling all ghouls and gals! Come see why we think you should raise hell in Retro Atlanta this Halloween season!

1. Head Rolling Tunes! Get sinister All Hallows Eve (weekend) with a helluva lot of rancid rock ‘n roll! The Star Bar gets hellacious this weekend with Hell Night featuring326009_298795516804941_172672546083906_1195943_20653855_o2 BigFoot, Timmy James & the Blue Flames and Night Terrors on Friday (10/30)! Or get your horror punk fix with their 24th Anniversary Party & Halloween Bash featuring Horror Business, Pretty Vacant, Salad Days, Road to Ruin and Kool Kats The Casket Creatures on Saturday (10/31)! Get monstrous and go, go Godzilla on down to the Variety Playhouse for a night with the Blue Oyster Cult (10/30)! Rock out retro-style with The B-52s during their “Halloween Scream” show at the Fox Theatre (10/30)! The Earl gets monstrously metal with their Halloween party featuring Wolf Eyes, Timmy’s Organism, Video and Uniform (10/30)! And Smith’s Olde Bar terrifies with their Howl ‘o’ Ween rockin’ tribute night featuring The Cherry Bomb (Joan Jett); Learning to Count (Ramones); and TNT (AC/DC) (10/30)

2. Fangtastic Films! Halloween just isn’t the same without blood-filled horror flicks! If you’re craving the crazed, catch John PsychoCarpenter’s HALLOWEEN (1978) at 7:30pm across town [Hollywood Stadium 24 in Chamblee; AMC Avenue Forsyth 12 in Cumming; AMC Barrett Commons 24 in Kennesaw; AMC Sugarloaf Mills 18 in Lawrenceville; and Georgian Stadium in Newnan] on Thursday (10/29)! The Plaza Theater delivers killer screenings with Gerald Kargl’s ANGST (1983) (10/29); Victor and Edward Halperin’s monstrous classic, WHITE ZOMBIE (1932) (10/30); and don’t forget to Time-Warp it up with some uber musically-inclined transsexual aliens at as they continue their tradition of screening THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975), featuring the live cast of Lips Down on Dixie at midnight, with special Halloween treats (10/30)! Get bewitched with a screening of Kenny Ortega’s HOCUS POCUS (1993) at dusk at Atlantic Station during their “Spooky Film Fest” (10/30)! Ghosts invade Studio Movie Grill (Alpharetta/Duluth) with their 30th Anniversary screening of Ivan Reitman’s GHOSTBUSTERS (1984) at 7pm/9:30pm (10/30)! Celebrate 40 years with Dr. Frank-N-Furter and Jim Sharman’s cult classic, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) at AMC Phipps Plaza at 10pm (10/30-10/31)! The 9th Annual Atlanta Horror Film Festival haunts at DooGallery featuring 70 independent horror films from across the world (10/28-10/30)! And get homicidal at The Earl Smith Strand Theatre with their screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s horror masterpiece, PSYCHO (1960) at 8pm (10/31)!

3. Dance with the Dead. Do the Monster Mash with DJ Evil Jet at the Euclid Avenue Yacht Club’s annual Halloween Bash (10/31)! 10.31MarysPallookaville celebrates All Hallows Eve and their second year of corndogula slingin’ with their Ice Scream Ball & Halloweiner, featuring drink specials, music, tricks & treats, costume contests and more (10/31)! Or get ghastly and groove on down to Mary’s for their Hallo-Weenie Dance Party (10/30), followed by their Scary-oke! shindig and costume contest on Halloween night (10/31)! Or rattle your bones during Fernbank Museum of Natural History’s Martinis and IMAX’s Fright Night Halloween Party, dripping with devilish drinks, costume contests and more (10/30)! Spook on down to Callanwolde Fine Arts Center for their “Halloween Night on Callanwolde Mountain” family-friendly party featuring trick-or-treating, live music with the Callanwolde Concert Band featuring Matthew Kaminski, costume contests and more (10/30)! And party it up in Virginia Highlands with their Halloween Night in the Highlands event featuring costume contests and more (10/31)!

12079683_10153767154624015_1522384923892883865_n4. Gothic & Ghastly. It’s a night of gothic chills at Atlanta Symphony Hall as the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra presents a night of Danny Elfman’s music from the films of Tim Burton at 8pm (10/31)! Haunt on down to the Historic Oakland Cemetery for their annual hour-long Capturing the Spirit of Oakland 2015 Ghost Tours, featuring music, a fortune teller and more! Come on out and tiptoe through the graves, make a few new spirited friends and hear the hallowed tales of some of their eternal residents, running from 5:30pm to 10:30pm (10/29-10/31)!

5. Horrifying Haunts. It’s a gore-fest at Chambers of Horror Haunted House at the Masquerade as they terrify with their adults-only blood-infested splatter-fest [10/29-11/1, 8pm-12am/1am (weekend)]! Or creep on down to Netherworld Haunted House in Norcross and spook it up through Nov. 1 (7:30pm-10:30pm week days; 7pm-midnight weekends)! Ghastly-2015-illustration-with-title-banner

6. Thrilling and Chilling Theatrics. Be the Headless Horseman’s next victim and get your bones chilled at Serenbe Playhouse’s thrilling presentation of their immersive spooky attraction and show, THE SLEEPY HOLLOW EXPERIENCE, haunting through Nov. 8 (Wed-Sun at 8pm; Fri-Sat at 10:30pm)! The Arts Exchange spooks it up with their Halloween 2015 party featuring performance art, a spooky amphitheatre and experimental music at 8pm (10/31)! Get immortal with the Center for Puppetry Arts’ presentation of Jon Ludwig and Jason Hines’ THE GHASTLY DREADFULS: RAISING SPIRITS adults-only spook show filled with creepy stories, devilish dances and more (10/28-10/31; 8pm)!

7. Psychotically Psychedelic. Rattle your bones and get psychedelic at the Red Light Café with their Night of the Dead Halloween Party featuring gr8FLdude & frenz and Dead Affect (10/31)! Or jam it up with Honeywood during their Halloween trader-vics-halloweenshow at the Crimson Moon Café (10/31)! And it’s “Hawgtoberfest” at Hottie Hawgs BBQ with Swami Gone Bananas (10/31)!

8. Tricks or Tikis! Trader Vic’s takes a big hairy bite out of you with their Werewolves of London Halloween dinner event, featuring a prix fixe menu ($35/person) including monstrous starters, entrées and desserts. Werewolves & Pina Coladas, OH MY! Trader Vic’s calls all werewolves to come in & enjoy Pina Coladas à la Warren Zevon‘s “Werewolves of London” this Halloween! Costumes are encouraged & are worn best if your hair is perfect! Doors Open at 5:00 p.m. (10/30)!

9. Decaying Eighties. ATL Collective delivers two nights of rotting flesh as they raise the dead with their performance of Michael 10.31BasementJackson’s Halloween classic, “Thriller” at Vinyl (10/30-10/31)! Or do the Monster Mash at Steve’s Live Music as they dish out a spooky night with The Lizardmen and Devomatix (Devo tribute) (10/31)! Kool Kat Becky Cormier Finch and Denim Arcade deliver a rockin’ ‘80s Halloween show at the Dallas Public House (10/31)!

10. Groove Like a Ghoul! It’s a night of boos and blues as Danny ‘Mudcat’ Dudeck and the Atlanta Horns get down at their annual Halloween Bamboo Au Go Go Party with The Reverend & the Lady and Yoshito Kiyono at the Northside Tavern (10/31)! Put on those dancin’ shoes groove like a ghoul at The Basement as they get down with forty thousand years of funk during their Keep on Movin’ Halloween Dance Party (10/31)! And get ghastly and groove on down to the The Music Room for the Dangerfeel NewbiesSoul of Jazz Halloween Jam (10/31)!

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Retro Review: Splatter Cinema and the Cinevision Screening Room Shine a 35mm Light on Hannibal Lecter with THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS!

Posted on: Feb 18th, 2015 By:

silence-of-the-lamb-posterSplatter Cinema and Enjoy the Film present THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991); Dir. Jonathan Demme; Starring Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster and Ted Levine; Saturday, Feb. 21 @ 8:30 p.m.; Cinevision Screening Room; Tickets $10 (cash only); Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Splatter Cinema returns to the Cinevision Screening Room with the help of Enjoy the Film! This time, they’re delivering a 35mm archival print of what is probably the most celebrated mainstream horror film of the 1990s: Jonatham Demme’s staggering THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. But don’t be fooled by its widespread appeal. Demme serves up a disturbing dinner of pure horror. With some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

Trivia time: how many horror films have won Academy Awards? Precisely one—Jonathan Demme’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. Sure, you could make an argument that it’s not really a horror film, but a police procedural or crime thriller. However, if the horror film has taught us anything, it’s that some of its best examples transcend the artificial divisions of genre and the common tropes to be found therein. Michael Reeves’ 1968 masterpiece WITCHFINDER GENERAL, for instance, could be accurately described as simply a period drama depicting the all-too-human hypocrisy and fear-mongering of a 17th century opportunist who falsely labels his victims “witches” to further his power-grabbing. But that doesn’t dilute the weighty sense of pure horror that pervades and permeates the entire film. Likewise, LAMBS cannot be excised from the horror genre by a reductive view of its mechanics. Its function is to frighten, to shock. To horrify. And Demme knows how to twist nerves alongside conventions.

The plot is something that could have come out of any television franchise (and has been copied by many on multiple occasions): a serial killer is on the loose, and the only way to capture him is by turning to an imprisoned serial killer for assistance. Simple enough. But it’s in the details and execution that the film’s true horror is summoned.

The imprisoned serial killer is the infamous cannibal psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), whose game plan for liberation involves offering up information in exchange for weaseling into the mind of the investigating FBI officer, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster). Starling is seeking out murderer Jame Gumb (Ted Levine), nicknamed “Buffalo Bill” in honor of his penchant for skinning his female victims’ corpses. The film does not shy away from Gumb’s deeply disturbing actions, which are based on the gruesome case histories of Ted Bundy and Ed Gein (Gein having been the inspiration for horror films such as DERANGED, PSYCHO and THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE), among other real-life serial killers.silencehannibal

But while the portions of the film devoted to Gumb are the source of incredible dread, it’s the shadow of Lecter that extends over the entire film that provides so much of its horrors. From his gothic-influenced asylum cell, Lecter’s influence over the movie’s proceedings colors every frame. Whether it’s how he directs Starling’s perception of every event that takes place or how the audience constantly questions in what manner he will use those events to his advantage later on, his presence is felt throughout. And from what we know of him, this presence can be nothing but malevolent. When the film culminates in pulse-pounding setpieces of tension and repulsion, we do not walk out of the film having been thrilled. We walk out having been put through the ringer and looking over our shoulders.

Though the performances of Hopkins, Foster and Levine are all vitally important to the film’s success, as is the screenplay by Ted Tally and the source novel by Thomas Harris, SILENCE is largely Demme’s show. In the hands of a director with less genre experience, the almost surreal sense of the gothic in Lecter’s scenes and the seedy feel of Gumb’s house of horrors might have been toned down. The temptation would be to make Lecter’s environs clinical and sterile (as his Atlanta-based cell in the High Museum is depicted in Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER, based on Thomas Harris’ earlier novel RED DRAGON), and Gumb’s small-town home more under-the-radar normal. But Demme—then an arthouse fave for MELVIN AND HOWARD, SOMETHING WILD, STOP MAKING SENSE, MARRIED TO THE MOB and SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA—came from the world of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures. There he labored on exploitation movies like ANGELS HARD AS THEY COME and THE HOT BOX before directing such twisted takes on 1970s genre fare as CAGED HEAT and CRAZY MAMA. Under Corman’s tutelage, he learned his way around the worlds of exploitation and horror filmmaking, and applied those lessons well to this big-budget studio project. (Corman himself gets a cameo appearance as a Congressman.)

clariceIt’s a masterful evocation of influences from horror and exploitation’s past, and Demme conjures these elements in a subtle way, melding them with a more “mainstream” Hollywood approach that manages both to satisfy genre aficionados and invite in a more general public. It’s an approach that has been mirrored by the contemporary TV series HANNIBAL in its own telling of the mad doctor’s exploits. Meanwhile, Demme also manages to echo his earlier work for Corman by playing around with expected gender politics and slyly undercutting authority figures without alienating his audience. Demme is sure-footed every inch of the way, and while many of his films are as good, I’d be hard-pressed to say that any of them surpass this achievement. And for once, I agree wholeheartedly with the Academy voters who awarded this film Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Adapted Screenplay—only one of three films in history to sweep all five top awards.

As 35mm presentations are becoming rarer and rarer, it becomes exponentially more important to catch landmark films such as this—well-projected in their intended format—when the chance arises. That’s why I’m thrilled that Splatter Cinema is bringing this to Cinevision Screening Room in partnership with ATLRetro Kool Kat Ben Ruder’s Enjoy the Film. Ben has long been committed to expert 35mm projection, and his presentation of this archival print should be a beautiful experience. Add in the fun that Splatter brings to every screening they host, and you’ve got an event that cannot be missed.

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: Feminine Sexual Threat Meets Avian Apocalypse: THE BIRDS Attack the Plaza Theatre in the Last Weekend of Alfred Hitchcock Month

Posted on: Nov 28th, 2012 By:

By Robert Emmett Murphy Jr.
Special to ATLRetro.com

THE BIRDS (1963); Dir: Alfred Hitchcock; Screenplay by Evan Hunter (aka Ed McCain); Starring Tippi Hedren, Rod Taylor, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy; Fri. Nov. 30 – Sun. Dec. 2; Plaza Theatre (visit Plaza Theatre Website for showtimes and ticket prices); Trailer here.

Alfred Hitchcock, like a lot of thriller and horror filmmakers, always displayed an influence by Freudian theory. In THE BIRDS, he’s pared it down to one essential: all actions are motivated, most motives unconscious. Having first established that with the characters, he shows the same proves to be the apocalyptic secret behind the workings of the whole world.

Loosely based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story of the same title, THE BIRDS is Alfred Hitchcock’s only explicit foray into science fiction and fantasy. The screenplay by Evan Hunter (better known as crime writer Ed McCain) is awkward, but also ambitious. It’s Hitchcock’s immediate follow-up to PSYCHO (1960) and borrows from its device of a lengthy preamble, telling a story that proceeds along one narrative line until events outside the so-far-established frame of reference break that line, radically changing what the film’s about. When the main story arrives, it is disorienting and meant to be. Tippi Hedren plays a spoiled heiress who develops a crush on Rod Taylor which seems petulant – she wants to win his affection only to trump his mocking her – and a little creepy in its aggressiveness. She doesn’t know him at all, but stalker-like, she travels a long distance to arrive uninvited at his home.

Taylor lives in an island fishing community, and the first hint of the actual threat/main story comes is when Hedren is approaching the island by motorboat and a seagull flies into her, giving her a minor injury. That minor injury may have influenced Taylor in not immediately demanding she turn around and go home. So Hedren has a small opening and is not without wiles. Taylor starts to respond, but obstacles appear quickly. His clinging mother, Jessica Tandy, doesn’t like Hedren. Then there’s Taylor’s ex-girlfriend, Suzanne Pleshette, who surprisingly befriends Hedren, but also provides some insights into Taylor that suggests he’s as out-of-touch with his motivations as Hedren is.

The dialogue is a little strained, but covering interesting ground. It’s a love story examining people who don’t know why they do the things they do. It’s justifiably talky because every dialogue is a negotiation to establish one’s position in three-or-more-player power relationships.

This is also not at all what the film is about. As the threat escalates at an almost leisurely pace, the amount of dialogue decreases.

THE BIRDS attack Tippi Hedren and a group of children in one of the Hitchcock masterpiece's most iconic scenes. Universal Pictures, 1963.

What this film is about is the revenge of nature and the end of the world. The film won’t tell us why this inexplicable disaster erupts any more than Hedren can honestly explain her pursuit of Taylor. I don’t know if it was Hitchcock or Hunter who made the bold move to violate one of the fundamental rules of monster movies in their refusal to provide even a partial explanation for the events. It was ballsy though. I can’t think of another film driven by seemingly motiveless events that was anything but annoying, because in almost any other example, motivelessness is the same as incoherence. The original short story is ambiguous regarding explanation, but suggestive. The film, though, is completely opaque.

Maybe part of the success is that explanations are dangled in front of us, and they seem to make emotional sense, but clearly don’t make narrative sense. This is another of a string of Hitchcock films where ice-queen blondes appear to be the well from which all evil flows, but always Hitcock is always putting a modest twist on that easily misogynist interpretation of that “evil.” In VERTIGO (1958), Madeleine (Kim Novak) is bad, and drives a innocent man to obsession, but she’s not the main architect of the fiendish plot [Ed. note: Read our Retro Review of VERTIGO, which played last weekend at The Plaza, here]. In NORTH BY NORTHWEST (1959) Eve (Eva Marie Saint) is deceitful and part of the circumstances that put our hero at risk, but she is in on her deceit, she is serving a greater good and proves to be almost as much a victim of circumstances as our hero is. In PSYCHO (1960) Marion (Janet Leigh) is a criminal and a betrayer for sure, but none of her sins have any bearing on her fate.

Here, the apocalypse seems to arrive with Hedren, but as weird as she is, she does nothing that could reasonably provoke anything larger than Tandy’s jealous resentment. Moreover, as the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that the disaster is much larger than any of these lives or the geography we see in the film itself. When Hedren is accused of being evil’s harbinger by a hysterical woman, that seems only to reinforce the irrationality of the suggestion. But no other explanation is provided.

Semi-feminist writer Camille Paglia mined the irrational vein in search of meaning. She interpreted THE BIRDS as a celebration of the complex faces and threats female sexuality presents to a man, to the point that nature becomes an extension of that tension. She notes that more women play more pivotal roles in THE BIRDS than in any other Hitchcock film. The hero is defined by his relationships with his mother, younger sister (more like a daughter) and ex-lover, and that careful balance is thrown off by the appearance of Hedren. The disruption of the domestic balance is blown up to become the disruption of the balance of nature.

Once the bird attacks start escalating, each is paced and staged very differently from the one before, and this is where Hitchcock shows his true mastery. Every attack is remembered as a classic moment. Like Hedren sitting on a bench outside a school house waiting for Pleschette, a teacher, to take a break. Hedren lights a cigarette. We hear the children inside singing in unison. Hedren doesn’t notice what we can see over her shoulder, the playground jungle-gym gradually fill with hordes of silent crows.

Or like the largest attack, which, surprisingly, isn’t the last one. It features Hedren, who arrived at the island with caged birds, trapped in a cage-like phone booth while killer birds swirl around her (Hitchcock quite effectively put the camera inside the booth with her, so we shared the claustrophobia and shock of the assault).

And the climax, after the whole community finds itself under siege, and Hedren and Taylor’s family barricade themselves in his house. In the only scene taken directly from Du Maurier’s story, the attack becomes more frenzied, suicidal, and no defense can be adequate because there are so many of them, they are so small and there’s always another way in.

Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor in Hitchcock's THE BIRDS. Universal Pictures, 1963.

Two things come up in every review of THE BIRDS – Hitchcock’s choice to do without a conventional score and the landmark FX. Though there is no music per se, Hitchcock did use his favorite composer, Bernard Herrmann, to create scary, synthesized bird calls to counterpoint the calculated silences. For this reason, THE BIRDS is the eeriest sounding of all his films.

Then there are the special effects. Simply put, what Hitchcock achieved should’ve been impossible with the technology of the day. It contains more than 370 separate trick shots. Every technique then imaginable was employed here including a slew of matte paintings, trained birds lured by feasts of fish and food scraps, mechanical birds, stuffed birds, and a scene during which Hitchcock literally threw live birds at Hedren (under those circumstances, the animals’ aggressiveness was probably sincere and Hedren’s fear wasn’t acting). The scene where the children are attacked on the road (this is part of the same sequence where the birds gather on the jungle-gym) involved most of the above, plus meticulous animations integrated into shots of live actors, through a complex “yellowscreen” process executed by Disney’s Ub Iwerks, who was one of the technique’s inventors. And then there were the two unnamed female artists who spent three months hand-painting seagulls onto tiny film frames for a scene that lasted less than 10 seconds.

David Thomson refers to THE BIRDS as Hitchcock’s “last unflawed film.” These two clips cover the jungle-gym attack of children sequence. I still marvel that this was done in the days before CGI:

watch?v=ydLJtKlVVZw&feature=relmfu

watch?v=hplpQt424Ls

Robert Emmett Murphy, Jr., is based in New York. This article is number 58 in a series of 100 essays he is penning, inspired by the British documentary THE 100 GREATEST SCARY MOMENTS (2003). It is reprinted with permission. The moment selected for the list can be found at the 1 hour, 38 minute marker. 

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30 Days of The Plaza, Day 29: Vintage Vertigo That’s Not Just for the Birds: Hitchcock Takes Atlanta by Storm at The Plaza and the Strand This November!

Posted on: Nov 1st, 2012 By:

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

With November upon us and the gusts of the coming winter already chilling our bones, what better time than now to pay tribute to the king of spine-tingling thrillers, Sir Alfred Hitchcock? Thanks to the Plaza Theatre in Atlanta and Marietta’s Earl Smith Strand Theatre, you can spend some quality time this month with the Master of Suspense in his preferred setting: on the big screen and even better – remastered and in high definition!

Atlanta’s historic Plaza Theatre’s series promises special guests and vintage Hitchcock interview footage before each screening (show times TBA). They kick off the month with 1948’s James Stewart-starring ROPE, showing November 2-4. Hitchcock’s first color film, ROPE was based on the infamous 1924 Leopold and Loeb “perfect murder” scandal and seemingly unfolds in one continuous take. (Actually, it was shot in 10 shorter segments, with editing trickery covering up the fact that the cameraman would have to change the film magazine every 10 minutes.)

Up next is the film that ushered in what is now considered Hitch’s golden age—1951’s STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, showing November 16-18. The tense story of two men—played by Farley Granger and Robert Walker—who agree (the former, however, unwittingly) to “swap” targets of murder, the film contains some of Hitch’s most inventive and still-studied optical effects.

The Plaza follows this with a weekend of VERTIGO, showing November 23-25. Frequent Hitch collaborator James Stewart returns to star with Kim Novak in this 1958 tale of madness and obsession. A critical and commercial flop at the time of its release, the movie today is acknowledged as one of Hitchcock’s most personal films and topped the British Film Institute’s 2012 Sight & Sound critic’s poll as the greatest film ever made.

The Plaza closes out the month as THE BIRDS attack the coastal city of Bodega Bay from November 30 to December 2. The 1963 film stars Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, and was based both on a Daphne du Maurier short story and an actual case of birds infesting a California town. Though it was scored by Hitch’s frequent composer Bernard Herrmann, you’ll note that no actual music (aside from schoolchildren singing unaccompanied) is heard. Instead, Herrmann layers the soundtrack with electronically-created bird noises.

The Earl Smith Strand Theatre opens this month’s continuation of its series (all events begin at 8 p.m.) with a November 2 screening of THE BIRDS (tickets here). The pre-show entertainment starts with organist Misha Stefanuk (of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Theater Organ Society, or ACATOS) accompanying vocalists Kennedy Bastow and Cierra Ollis.

On November 16, the Strand brings us what is perhaps Hitchcock’s best-known film, 1960’s PSYCHO (tickets here). The story of a boy (Anthony Perkins), his mother and the girl who threatens to come between them (Janet Leigh), the film was shot at the studios used for ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS and was independently produced by Hitchcock on a small budget. The famous “shower scene” took an entire week to shoot and contains 77 different camera angles.

The Strand closes its Hitchcock series with 1959’s NORTH BY NORTHWEST (tickets here). Cary Grant comes as close to playing James Bond as he ever got in the role of Roger O. Thornhill, one of the “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue’s advertising world, who finds himself mistaken for a secret agent and pursued across the country. Besides the film being recognized as one of Hitch’s best (and on a personal note, I’d say it’s also his most fun), GQ magazine voted Cary Grant’s gray suit (which he wears almost throughout the entire film) as the best suit in film history.

So escape the frosty autumn air this November for some big-screen chills and thrills with these Hitchcock classics. And keep your eyes peeled for Hitch’s cameos!

Editor’s Note: Remember every time you shell out a few bucks to see a classic movie on the big screen, you are keeping the theatrical experience alive in vintage independent cinemas that are Atlanta-area historic treasures. ATLRetro will be running separate reviews/essays on some of these films. 

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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