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Retro Review: A Meanness in This World: Traveling Through Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS at Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema

Posted on: Feb 20th, 2015 By:

badlandsBADLANDS (1973); Dir. Terrence Malick; Starring Martin Sheen, Sissy Spacek and Warren Oates; Tuesday, Feb. 24 @ 7:00 p.m.; Landmark Midtown Art Cinema; Tickets $11; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

If you’re looking for a reason—any reason—to go see a movie, look no further. The Landmark Midtown Art Cinema kicks off its “Midtown Cinema Classics” series with one of the greatest modern American films, Terrence Malick’s debut feature BADLANDS.

Some filmmakers take decades to find their voice. Yet there are others who seem to arrive on this earth fully formed. Orson Welles stormed out of the gate in 1941 having assembled his influences into an entirely identifiable personal style with CITIZEN KANE. David Lynch emerged from the shadows in 1977 with the most David Lynch-iest film ever made, ERASERHEAD. Martin Scorsese captured everyone’s attention with the first example of what can only be called a Martin Scorsese Movie with 1973’s MEAN STREETS (while not his debut, his two previous features were the atypical BOXCAR BERTHA, a project-for-hire under the auspices of Roger Corman, and WHO’S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR?, a short film he expanded over the course of several years into a very different feature). And that same year, Terrence Malick debuted his own idiosyncratic means of storytelling with the brooding, brilliant BADLANDS.

Told from the viewpoint of Holly (Sissy Spacek), a 15-year-old girl growing up in The Middle of Nowhere, South Dakota, BADLANDS examines Holly’s infatuation with 25-year-old greaser Kit (Martin Sheen) as they slowly fall in love. While she obsesses over him romantically as they explore each other’s philosophies on life, his own psychotic and amoral side reveals itself and together they violently remove any obstacle that threatens to stand between them and the life with each other they desire. Based loosely on the real-life murderous exploits of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, BADLANDS also stands as a poetic examination of life, love and death set against the dusty, sun-baked plains of the Midwest.

Contemplative in tone and deliberate in pace, BADLANDS set the tone for Malick’s further career as he examined such subjects as war (THE THIN RED LINE), the founding of Jamestown (THE NEW WORLD) and the meaning of life itself (THE TREE OF LIFE). Even at this early stage of his career, though, he proves himself a master of imagery and composition and creates an experience that is pure cinema. Painterly tableaux fill the screen and slowly reveal their emotional heart as Spacek’s narration combines with the haunting strains of experimental classical composers such as Erik Satie or Carl Orff. Moments of incredible beauty are carved out of nothing but light, color and shadow. Divorced from attempts to emulate the rhythms and cadences of literature or stagework, Malick’s world can only exist in those rays of light captured by a camera, painstakingly edited into a cohesive statement and then projected onto a screen.

Badlands-104But lest this sound like a movie full of art-film clichés that holds you at arm’s length with its own sense of pretentious self-importance, BADLANDS is instead Malick’s most accessible film and a perfect entry point for those unfamiliar or intimidated by the visionary director’s work. It may perhaps be his masterpiece (with DAYS OF HEAVEN running close behind). Malick’s singular approach is wed to an incredibly compelling story, so that the dynamic of the narrative propels the audience through even the film’s most low-key moments. When you combine this with the career-making performances of Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek, you have a film that it is nearly impossible to look away from.

Presented as part of Landmark Midtown Art Cinema’s “Midtown Cinema Classics” series, you have the rare opportunity to immerse yourself in one of the modern classics of American cinema in its natural habitat—on a theater screen. Please do not let this pass you by.

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 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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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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Mall Insecurity: Just A Few More Chopping Days Left Until Splatter Cine-mas at the Plaza Theatre

Posted on: Dec 9th, 2013 By:

Splatter Cinema presents CHOPPING MALL (1986); Dir. Jim Wynorski; Starring Kelli Maroney, Tony O’Dell, Russell Todd, Barbara Crampton, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov; Tuesday, Dec. 10 @ 9:30 (photos and merch table open @ 9); Plaza Theater; Trailer here; Facebook Event Page here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

In the middle of the holiday season, when shopping centers are teeming with masses of bargain-hungry consumers, who doesn’t wish that a few bloodthirsty killbots could be unleashed to thin out the crowds? Look no further than the Plaza Theatre for some vicarious thrills as Splatter Cinema presents CHOPPING MALL!

You know, there was a time when a Jim Wynorski movie meant something. Granted, it didn’t mean much. But you knew what you were getting when you saw his name on the screen—an exploitation movie that didn’t take itself seriously in the least, and that sent itself and the genre up for affectionate ribbing. In short, a kind of low-rent Joe Dante flick (which makes sense, as both directors came from the benches of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures farm team). This is best exemplified in his two most fully-realized movies: his 1983 feature debut THE LOST EMPIRE (a comic variation on THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME but with a lot more nudity) and his more successful follow-up, CHOPPING MALL.

CHOPPING MALL answers the age-old question, “what would happen if mall security was handled by robots, and a freak lightning storm caused them all to go kill-crazy on a bunch of teens partying in a furniture store after-hours?” This question has plagued theologians, philosophers and scientists for centuries, and finally found all of its potential ramifications explored in full, rich, intellectual detail in the hands of Jim Wynorski. The answer, of course, is “well, the kids would start dying in hilariously bloody ways, and it would look a lot like DAWN OF THE DEAD if, instead of zombies, there were really cheap robots that looked kind of like Number 5 from SHORT CIRCUIT, yet acted like the ED-209 from ROBOCOP.”

Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov in CHOPPING MALL (1996).

Wynorski’s direction is perfectly adequate for this. It’s not pushing any envelopes or even trying to be groundbreaking in any way, but it’s tight and well-paced, creating a fun sense of tension while at the same time allowing you to chuckle at the complete outlandishness of it all. The movie hides its cheapness reasonably well, making the most of its Sherman Oaks Galleria setting, and features a host of familiar faces to distract you from the low budget. Among the teens getting slaughtered are Kelli Maroney from NIGHT OF THE COMET, Tony O’Dell from HEAD OF THE CLASS, FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2’s Russell Todd and scream queen Barbara Crampton of RE-ANIMATOR and FROM BEYOND fame. Cameos are provided by the always-welcome Dick Miller (as Walter Paisley, his character name from A BUCKET OF BLOOD) and the delightful team of Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov, reprising their roles of EATING RAOUL’s Paul and Mary Bland.

In short, CHOPPING MALL is just a whole hell of a lot of fun, and one of the better (and bloodier) ways to blow off steam this time of year. If you want to turn your over-taxed, shopped-out brain off and have a riotously good time, you could hardly do better than watching a shopping mall turn against the idiots populating it. And don’t forget to show up early and get your photo taken in a gore-filled recreation of one of the movie’s scenes! It truly is the most wonderful time of the year.

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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Head-Crushing, Nuclear Waste-Guzzling Mutants Unite at the Plaza Theatre for the Troma Film Festival!

Posted on: Jun 26th, 2013 By:

The Plaza Theatre presents the Troma Film Festival; Starts Wednesday, June 26 @ 7 p.m., Thursday, June 27 @ 5 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Schedule and Event Info here; Tickets $30 for 2-day passes, $12 for single day passes, available at Plaza box office.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Troma Entertainment. Say what you will about them, they’ve survived nearly 40 years of independence while assaulting the very idea of good taste, and simultaneously bringing the concept of the B-movie into the home video age. And for two inglorious nights, the Plaza Theatre brings Atlanta a look back at the filmic legacy of Troma, the films they’ve produced and the films they’ve distributed with the Troma Film Festival.

Troma started up shop in 1974, the brainchild of extravagant frontman Lloyd Kaufman and the behind-the-scenes, lurking-only-in-shadows figure of Michael Herz. (Seriously, Michael Herz is the Sasquatch of independent cinema: only seen running awkwardly in blurry 8mm film clips shot from a great distance away.) The team not only created and distributed their own sex comedies for the exploitation/grindhouse/drive-in circuit (such as SQUEEZE PLAY!, THE FIRST TURN ON! and WAITRESS!), but also provided assistance to outside productions such as John Avildsen’s 1986 classic ROCKY (which was edited on Troma’s flatbed editing equipment) and Louis Malle’s 1981 feature MY DINNER WITH ANDRE.

But it was in 1984, just after the advent of the home video revolution, that Troma made its first big, bloody splash. THE TOXIC AVENGER started with Lloyd speculating 10 years earlier that a horror film set at a health spa would be interesting. Over the years, the idea mutated like Toxie himself, becoming a self-referential (the film is set in the fictional Tromaville, NJ, which would become a mainstay of Kaufman/Herz-helmed Troma flicks) and hyper-violent superhero spoof. While the film came and went in general release with little notice, its success in midnight screenings led to nation-wide coverage and its successful distribution on VHS through Lightning Video. Significantly, though, because Troma had faced pushback over certain gory scenes in getting the R rating needed to gain widespread theatrical exhibition from the MPAA, they discovered that home video was a surefire way to bypass the ratings board and use that to extend the Troma brand.

Troma followed up on the huge success of THE TOXIC AVENGER with 1986’s similarly mutated CLASS OF NUKE ‘EM HIGH. Co-directed by Kaufman and Richard W. Haines, the film continued on the same parodic path as previous, sending up the sensationalistic “high school gang” film tradition that reached from 1955’s THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE to ‘82’s CLASS OF 1984, spiking it with the heady taste of radioactive waste. The film was another success for Troma, both theatrically and on home video, and the company began hacking out a place in the home video market that they sought to fill with outside productions.

Much like Kaufman’s role models in American International Pictures and Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, Troma ventured into the world of acquisition, finding independently-produced films from other movie-makers that stylistically fit under the Troma umbrella. They picked up “Tromatic” flicks like the notoriously gore-filled and sadistically sleazy BLOODSUCKING FREAKS, the revenge comedy SURF NAZIS MUST DIE, the Belgian import RABID GRANNIES and the surprisingly good-natured spoof MONSTER IN THE CLOSET. Meanwhile, earlier Troma productions like their sex comedies saw new life in video stores across the country.

Constant advertising and coverage in magazines like FANGORIA helped to ensure that their target audience of horror-and-gore-loving young adults was constantly in the know when a new Troma flick was hitting the shelves. In the mid-80s, if you were a teenager into horror and comedy, it was pretty much a guaranteed thing that you went through a Troma phase. While plenty of people tried to emulate the mixture of gross-out humor and blood-soaked horror that the company reveled in, Troma had established itself as a reliable brand for all your disgusting needs and had that part of the market pretty much sewn up.

If this were something like VH-1’s BEHIND THE MUSIC or an E! TRUE HOLLYWOOD STORY, you’d expect a fall right about now. And hey, look! There’s one right here!

In 1988, Troma undertook their most expensive film to date, TROMA’S WAR. The film was created to send up hyper-patriotic war films of the Reagan era like RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART 2, INVASION U.S.A. and MISSING IN ACTION (and, by extension, the Reagan administration’s attempt to glorify war in general). However, its blatant over-the-top violence and subplot involving terrorists spreading AIDS to the US led the company to run afoul of the MPAA once again. While cuts had been made to previous Troma films, at least their storylines remained comprehensible. After submitting the film twice to the board, nearly 20 minutes were removed in order to receive an R rating, and the film was butchered so heavily that it made even less sense than your typical Troma flick. It flopped in a spectacular fashion, the critical response was abysmal, and the negative press even affected the home video release. The financial loss to the company was nearly fatal.

It wasn’t until 1996’s TROMEO AND JULIET that Troma began to establish itself once again. An ambitious attempt to create a comic version of Shakespeare’s play that was both relatively faithful and Tromatic, the film was the first collaboration between Lloyd Kaufman and James Gunn (SLITHER, SUPER and the upcoming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY) and it was a breath of fresh air after an unsuccessful series of TOXIC AVENGER and NUKE ‘EM HIGH sequels. TROMEO was critically acclaimed and had successful art house engagements in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, where it played for over a year. Suddenly, with a huge return on a $350,000 investment, Troma was back on the map. While 1999’s TERROR FIRMER and 2000’s CITIZEN TOXIE: THE TOXIC AVENGER IV were comparatively less successful, they did help to keep the brand above water and in the public eye.

And, as is to be expected, Troma managed to turn things around.

Troma’s website had long been a fan destination for original Troma-related content, and they decided to pursue a novel idea: an anthology series called TALES FROM THE CRAPPER entirely presented on their website. They enlisted model/actress/producer India Allen to develop the series with a budget of $250,000. Allen backed out of production halfway through, and later sued Troma for breach of contract, slander, sexual harassment, trade slander and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The resulting footage was nearly unusable, and Troma attempted to salvage the project as a series of two DVD releases. It was a huge blow to what was turning out to be a second coming for the studio.

But then in 2006, Troma returned with POULTRYGEIST: NIGHT OF THE CHICKEN DEAD. A satirical horror movie take on the fast-food industry, the film was plagued with production problems throughout its shooting. Effects didn’t work, money was short, actors weren’t being paid, sets were destroyed prematurely…in short, it was what you’d expect a Troma shoot to be like. Despite all of the troubles, though, it was completed on schedule and was released to Troma’s best notices to date, and finally saw wide release in 2008. Publications ranging from ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY to THE GUARDIAN singled out the film as “an exploitation movie with soul” and “wonderfully bold” (respectively), while NEW YORK magazine and SALON.com chose the movie as a Critic’s Pick.

Feeling gusts from the winds of success at their backs, Troma decided to partner with Canadian filmmaking team Astron-6. Known at the time for their short films disguised as fake trailers for imaginary 1970s and ‘80s movies (including COOL GUYS, LAZER GHOSTS 2: RETURN TO LASER COVE and FIREMAN), Troma released a DVD of their shorts to great acclaim and co-produced the epic FATHER’S DAY with them. A spoof of 1970s rape-revenge flicks (with the genders reversed), supernatural horror and slasher movies, screenings of the film were greeted with wild enthusiasm, and it looked like this was to be a harbinger of another grand new era for Troma Entertainment.

But then, this is Troma we’re talking about. You know what’s about to happen.

A huge rift between Astron-6 and Troma pretty much put a kibosh on there being any more collaboration between the two parties. Astron-6 claimed that Lloyd was selling bootleg DVD-Rs of the film at screenings, which led to early piracy of the film. Troma’s initial poster art removed Astron-6’s logo. Disputes and conflicting claims from both entities over a “making of” documentary (which was critical of Troma) led to it not being included on the DVD release of the film. Troma scrapped the planned Astron-6 commentary track from the release, and included an early cut of the film rather than the finished, final cut.

So that leaves us here, as we stand reflecting on 40 years of Tromatic entertainment. Still with me? Good.

Because Troma is still with us as well. Like cockroaches, they will survive to be the only film studio standing after the nuclear holocaust that will obliterate all other life in the year 2025, the studio run by a coterie of mutants and some guy wearing a Toxie mask carrying around Lloyd’s head in a jar. And probably Michael Herz. No matter who’s come after them for their exercises in poor taste, no matter how shoddy their business practices may or may not be, Troma springs eternal.

May the lord have mercy on us all.

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

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Really Retro: Sergio Leone Meets Norse Legend WHEN THE RAVEN FLIES at The Plaza & A Retrospective on Vikings in the Movies

Posted on: Jun 20th, 2013 By:

WHEN THE RAVEN FLIES (Iceland/Sweden 1984); Dir. Hrafn Gunnlaugsson; Starring Jakob Þór Einarsson; Sunday, June 23; 3 p.m.; Plaza Theatre; Preshow presentation and weapons/crafts for sale by Sons of Loki; Sponsored by Scandinavian American Foundation of Georgia; $8 general admission, $6 for SAFG members; PG-13; violence; parents should exercise caution when bringing children; Trailer; Facebook event page.

By Anya Martin

Vikings may come from cold climates, but Dark Age Scandinavians are hot right now, at least on screen. The TV series, VIKINGS, was such a hit that The History Channel has renewed it for a second season. With promises of capturing the authentic violence of the Vikings in Dark Age Britain, HAMMER OF THE GODS (2013) hits theaters July 5. The main villain in THE AVENGERS (2012) was Norse trickster god Loki, and THOR: THE DARK WORLD, a second feature about that Norse-God-turned-Marvel-Superhero premieres in November. Even Mel Gibson supposedly has BERSERKER, a “real and visceral” Viking feature in preproduction.

In the midst of this seeming Viking fever, critically acclaimed Viking adventure movie WHEN THE RAVEN FLIES (HRAFNINN FLYGUR) will get a rare return to the big screen at the Plaza Theatre on Sun. June 23 at 3 p.m. WHEN THE RAVEN FLIES recounts an Irishman’s quest for revenge on the Viking raiders who savagely killed his parents and abducted his sister. Ancient Norse gods figure prominently in the plot, and the prerequisite violence ensues. However, the film is as much a Western in its structure as a mythological saga with striking visuals of the desert replaced by stunning cinematography of the unique Icelandic landscape. Director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson describes himself as a disciple of Sergio Leone, John Ford and Akira Kurosawa, and the influence of all three is apparent. WHEN THE RAVEN FLIES is evocative of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, in that a mysterious stranger Gestur (Jakob Þór Einarsson) plays off tensions between Thor and Erik, the two brothers who lead the Viking band.

Poster for EMBLA, aka THE WHITE VIKING.

WHEN THE RAVEN FLIES has won several awards, including being voted one of the outstanding films of the 1980s at the Tokyo International Film Festival and Gunnlaugsson winning the 1985 Guldbagge Award for Best Direction, the Swedish equivalent to the Oscars. It was also nominated for the 1986 International Fantasy Film Award for Best Film.The movie is the first of the Raven Trilogy, which includes IN THE SHADOW OF THE  RAVEN (Í SKUGGA HRAFNSINS, 1987) and EMBLA (2007), aka the director’s cut of THE WHITE VIKING (1991), which was originally edited by that film’s producers without Gunnlaugsson’s approval.

If the melding of real Viking lore and Leone couldn’t be cool enough, the screening will be preceded by a live weapons demonstration by the Sons of Loki. These contemporary Vikings will also be present in the Plaza Lobby before and after the movie with Viking handicrafts and weaponry for sale and to answer questions about Scandinavian culture in the Dark Ages.

Still over the history of Hollywood, Viking movies have been relatively rare, compared to other historic-based genres such as the Western or the sword-and-sandle epic. And good ones with any relevance to actual Viking culture even rarer. Therefore, at ATLRetro, we decided to dig a little deeper to excavate a brief saga of Norse-inspired cinema.

THE VIKING (1928).

The first appearance of Vikings on film that we could find was THE VIKING (1928), a silent that chronicles Leif Ericsson‘s journey to the New World. The costumes apparently are strictly Wagner, the weaponry inauthentic and the actual history tenuous, but Leif’s father enthusiastically slaughters Christians and Princess Helga has a sexy winged helmet and heavy black eyeliner.

Unfortunately, Hollywood didn’t return to the world of the Vikings until the 1950s when a sudden splash of features hit the big screen. The first, PRINCE VALIANT (1954), was based on the popular comics series, directed by Henry Hathaway (who would go on to direct TRUE GRIT[1969]) and starred a young Robert Wagner. It was a fun sword-and-sorcery romp with links to the King Arthur legend and the bonus that the sword actually sung, but the plot has virtually nothing to do with authentic Vikings. Always one to follow a trend as cheaply as possible, Roger Corman followed with THE SAGA OF THE VIKING WOMEN TO THE WATERS OF THE GREAT SEA SERPENT (1957). In this cheesy fantasy frolic, a young way-pre-FALCON CREST Abby Dalton leads a bevy of scantily clad Norse babes to battle a monster and rescue a missing man.

Then came THE VIKINGS (1958), the first actual epic Hollywood treatment starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Ernest Borgnine and Janet Leigh. Full of battles and striking cinematography in Norwegian locations, this romanticized story of two brother vying for a Welsh princess was directed by Richard Fleischer (20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA [1954]) and also benefitted from visual designs by Harper Goff, another 20,000 LEAGUES veteran as art director. Some time around then, by the way, was the only other Norse-inspired TV series, TALES OF THE VIKINGS, which ran about 19 episodes from 1959-60. Alas most of the footage is lost, but it lifted scenes and props directly from THE VIKINGS movie. You can hear the jaunty theme song here! Oh, wait, there was also the silly British children’s cartoon NOGGIN THE NOG which ran from 1959 to the mid-70s.

Italian giallo director Mario Bava (DANGER:DIABOLIK; BARON BLOOD) also tried his hand on two spaghetti Viking features, ERIK THE CONQUEROR (1961) and KNIVES OF THE AVENGER (1966) with American action hero Cameron Mitchell, who would go on to become best known as Uncle Buck in 1960s TV Western series THE HIGH CHAPARRAL. The first steals its tale of two brothers plot directly from THE VIKINGS, but is noteworthy for rich cinematography, strong action and dancing vestal virgins. California-based living history and educational group, the Vikings of Bjornstad point out in their wonderful Viking Movie List (see link at end), “This is a Viking-related movie. It’s 786 AD. The ships had red and white striped sails. Once in a while, someone yells “Odin!'” They go on to mention inaccurate costumes that even sometimes have clearly visible zippers, an “underground throne room left over from some Biblical Philistine movie” and a Viking village that seems to be made out of Lincoln logs. KNIVES OF THE AVENGER  is basically a spaghetti Western reset in the Dark Ages mixed with pirates, supernatural magic and lots of knife-throwing which the trusty Vikings of Bjornstad spare no punches to declare “Worst Viking Movie Ever!” As for Cameron Mitchell, maybe he aspired to be the Clint Eastwood of Italian Viking epics since he also starred in THE LAST OF THE VIKINGS (L’ULTIMO DEI VIKINGHI, 1961) and ATTACK OF THE NORMANS (I NORMANNI, 1962).

Charlton Heston is THE WAR LORD (1965).

In general, the 1960s weren’t good to the Vikings on screen, whether outright fantasy or not. THE LONG SHIPS (1964) is a lightweight adventure about a Viking quest for a golden bell in the Holy Land. Directed by Jack Cardiff, cinematographer of THE VIKINGS, and starring Richard Widmark as a Viking warrior and Sidney Poitier as a Moorish king, the movie is not really very Viking except for the presence of a long ship and round shields. But the action scenes nonetheless are amplified by lush Yugoslavian locations, and the titles were designed by Maurice Binder who crafted the Bond openers. Not surprisingly, Charlton Heston also did an obligatory stint as a Norman war lord in THE WAR LORD (1965) charged with defending his Duke’s land again Frisian invaders, who are costumed to look like Vikings, not a far stretch considering they came from near Denmark and were eventually conquered. Despite the stringy chainmail and Hollywood backlot locations, The Vikings of Bjornstad give this one a thumbs up, noting that Heston is well cast and it’s “one of the few films that touches on the differences between the Christian Normans and the pagans they ruled.” They also wouldn’t mind seeing a better update of another Hollywood film that had potential, ALFRED THE GREAT (1969), which starred David Hemmings as King Alfred and Michael York as Viking Chief Guthrum.

Britain’s Hammer Films, known for its high quality low budget horror, served up THE VIKING QUEEN (1967). The goofy plot is involves women wearing much too little to be comfortable in British climates, a Viking-Roman forbidden romance and a Brits versus Romans rebellion which evokes Celtic tribal queen Boudicca. Nobody obviously cared to check and see that Vikings didn’t raid the U.K. coast until long after the Romans had already left. Meanwhile, Danish film HAGBARD AND SIGNE (aka THE RED MANTLE/DEN RODE KAPPE, 1967)  transplanted a ROMEO AND JULIET storyline to two warring Viking families. Filmed in Iceland, Roger Ebert called it “a beautiful, lean spare film…the sleeper of the year,” and the Vikings of Bjornstad overall give it a thumbs up for aesthetics and action for the time.

Perhaps mercifully the long ships barely got unmoored during the ’70s, with the highest profile feature THE NORSEMAN (1978) sinking at the box office despite starring a hunky Lee Majors, at the peak of his SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN fame, with a Tom Selleck moustache as Greenland’s Prince Thorvald. It followed the frequent Viking movie plot of a journey to the New Land, in this case to free his father King Eurich (Mel Ferrer) who is imprisoned by Native Americans, and the brawny cast also included quirky character actor Jack Elam, then a Western staple; NFL stars Fred Biletnikoff and Deacon Jones, and Denny Miller (TARZAN THE APE MAN, 1959). Oh, lest we forget, Walt Disney action-adventure flick THE ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD (1974) included a lost Viking colony.

In the ’80s, ERIK THE VIKING (1989) literally became a bad joke. Alas it was to be a Monty Python vehicle starring Graham Chapman, but while Terry Jones directed and John Cleese plays the villain, audiences just didn’t find it funny maybe because of the sheer unlikelihood of Mickey Rooney, Eartha Kitt and Imogen Stubbs appearing in even a satire of a Norse saga. Tim Robbins valiantly gave his best effort to star as Erik who ironically was tired of marauding and goes on a quest for a magic horn of peace.

Well, that’s in the English and apparently Italian speaking world of mainstream movies. In Iceland where Vikings actually lived, the 1980s produced a number of features that purported to be more authentic takes on Norse culture. The first was OUTLAW, THE SAGA OF GISLI (UTLAGINN, 1981), based directly on the Gisla saga. Then director Hrafn Gunnlaugsson embarked on WHEN THE RAVEN FLIES, the film which is playing at the Plaza and became the first installment of a Viking trilogy. Norway also produced THE LITTLEST VIKING (1989), a charming children’s tale about a daydreaming boy who seeks to end a feud with another clan. It apparently has lots of stunning fjord shots.

In the ’90s and 2000s, the mainstream Viking feature took a turn towards being more gritty and gory, allegedly to be true to the times or well, because, dark sells movie tickets. Several interesting ventures featuring high-profile directors and actors sailed onto the big screen. The first was ROYAL DECEIT (aka PRINCE OF JUTLAND, 1994), a supposedly period-accurate retelling of HAMLET starring Christian Bale as a sixth century Danish prince whose father (Tom Wilkinson) is murdered by a power-hungry uncle (Gabriel Byrne, who would be back in Viking robes as the surly old chieftain in The History Channel’s VIKINGS this spring). Of course, he has the hots for his hot mama (who else but Helen Mirren?!). The Vikings of Bjornstad like that the costumes, weaponry and sets are simple, hence probably more period accurate, but otherwise found it disappointing despite what would seem to be a strong cast. The European version is 17 minutes longer than the US/Region I DVD version.

THE 13TH WARRIOR (1999)

Next up is the uber-violent THE VIKING SAGAS (1995), directed by Michael Chapman, the cinematographer of Martin Scorsese‘s RAGING BULL (1980). It starred Ralf Moeller (TV’s CONAN, GLADIATOR) and was actually filmed in Iceland. Alas, the acting and script are not much, but it has a mythic quality with a magic sword – as much a must seemingly for a Viking movie as a medieval fantasy one – and more of an authentic look than most of its predecessors, actual Icelandic movies excepted.

And then THE 13TH WARRIOR (1999) nailed the look and feel of a Norse legend perhaps better than any Hollywood film that came before it. Originally titled EATERS OF THE DEAD and based on a Michael Crichton novel, it was meant to be a gory but realistic retelling of BEOWULF, but really more captured the spirit of a Robert E. Howard short story though its outsider hero, an Arab ambassador played by Antonio Banderas, was more spirit and intellect than Conan the Barbarian brawn. Unfortunately, director John McTiernan (DIE HARD, PREDATOR) was not allowed the final cut (the idea of a director’s version someday being released seems increasingly remote especially with McTiernan now in prison). However, enough of McTiernan’s vision remained that THE 13TH WARRIOR acquired a loyal fan following (including a high recommend from ATLRetro and an even better authority – the Vikings of Bjornstad).

Yeah, we are going to skip quickly over the disappointing PRINCE VALIANT (1997) – ATLRetro would love to see a PRINCE VALIANT that’s true to Hal Foster‘s wonderful comic which has been recently resurrected by masterful illustrator Gary Gianni, but this is NOT it. And no time is worth devoting to BEOWULF (1999) starring Christopher Lambert who at some point after GREYSTOKE did completely forget how to act. And the Vikings of Bjornstad say everything worth saying about BERSERKER: HELL’S WARRIOR (2004) in this phrase – “time-traveling immortal Viking vampires who wear sunglasses in discotheques…So overdone.”

The Vikings of Bjornstad rank Polish movie THE OLD FAIRY TALE (STARA BASN, 2003) as “the best Viking movie” for its historical accuracy. Directed by Jerzy Hoffman, who has been called Poland’s John Ford, the 9th century story revolves around a wicked Polish king and a Viking-raised hero. Apparently, Viking reenactment is big in Poland, which the Vikings of Bjornstad think may have contributed to it, first, getting made, and second, its high quality. Also well worth a view for its stunning Icelandic scenery and interesting take on the quintessential Saxon/Norse legend is BEOWULF AND GRENDEL (2005), starring a pre-300 Gerard Butler and featuring some of the best Viking era costumes of any film.

In South Africa-filmed low-budget BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (BLOOD OF BEASTS, 2005), Odin punishes a Viking princess (Jane March)  by trapping her in a castle with a beast. A Gallic bande dessinee hero finally gets big-screen treatment in the French animated comedy ASTERIX AND THE VIKINGS (2006) which seems to forget that Vikings weren’t around yet in AD 50. Robert Zemeckis‘s much-touted 3D BEOWULF (2007) honed so close to the original poem, probably thanks to Neil Gaiman being involved in the script, but yes, the animation even of beautiful Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s evil mother, is decidedly creepy.

PATHFINDER (2007) starred Karl Urban, who certainly looked mighty Norse as Eomer in THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, as a Viking raised by Native Americans who ends up leading the tribe that raised him in battle against new Viking invaders. A crappy remake of a much better 1987 Norwegian movie, the story really comes from Lapland/Sammi mythology. Directed by Marcus Nispel (TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE [2003], CONAN [2011] ), it’s gory melodrama with lots of mist. The same year (2007) also saw the release of the more serious and well-reviewed SEVERED WAYS: THE NORSE DISCOVERY OF AMERICA.

Jim Caviezel (THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST) travels back from the future to 8th century Norway in  OUTLANDER (2008). Viewers who ignore that this mash-up of Norse mythology and sci-fi is light on history may have silly fun. It features both laser guns and swords, a monster, John Hurt as the old king, Sophia Myles as the prerequisite sexy princess and Ron Perlman as a gruff Viking with, let’s just say, poor manners.

And then there’s VALHALLA RISING (2009). Director Nicholas Winding Refn (DRIVE) spares no punches with the ultra-violence in which Christian Vikings and a mute slave (Mads Mikkelsen, HANNIBAL, CASINO ROYALE) headed for the Holy Land get blinded by fog  and end up in the New World. An article in Movie Fanfare on the “Top 13 Viking Films You Need to See” (see link at end) perhaps put it best: “VALHALLA RISING plays like THE VIKINGS co-directed by Terrence Malick and Italian gore specialist Umberto Lenzi!”

And oh yeah, there was some movie about a Marvel super-hero named THOR (2011).

For more about Vikings in the Movies, check out the Vikings of Bjornstad’s Viking Movie List, as well as Movie Fanfare’s “Top 13 Viking Films You Need to See.” 

 

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Retro Review: Feeling Lifeless? Head to the Plaza Theatre for an appointment with Herbert West: RE-ANIMATOR!

Posted on: Feb 11th, 2013 By:

RE-ANIMATOR (1985); Dir. Stuart Gordon; Starring Jeffrey Combs, Bruce Abbot and Barbara Crampton; Starts Friday, Feb. 15; Plaza Theatre (visit website for show times and ticket prices); Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Atlanta’s historic Plaza Theatre has become well-known for bringing new life to classic films. It makes sense, then, this week that the Plaza ins mot only making the dead return in FRANKENHOOKER, but also exhibiting the nefarious dead-raising actions of Herbert West: RE-ANIMATOR.

Prior to 1985, Stuart Gordon had been best known as a leading theatrical director in Chicago, having founded the Organic Theater Company with his wife, Carolyn Purdy-Gordon. Gordon had overseen such important productions as the world premiere of David Mamet’s SEXUAL PERVERSITY IN CHICAGO, E/R EMERGENCY ROOM, Gordon’s own three-part sci-fi epic WARP! and his adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s THE SIRENS OF TITAN. After 1985, however, Gordon became as inexorably linked with H.P. Lovecraft as Roger Corman once was with Edgar Allan Poe.

It all started with a desire to see a Frankenstein movie. Gordon had been discussing horror movies with a friend of his, who had asked if he’d read Lovecraft’s short story “Herbert West: Reanimator,” itself a parody of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. Though Gordon was familiar with Lovecraft’s fiction, this story had eluded him. He tracked down a copy at the Chicago Public Library, and was inspired to adapt the story for the stage. After struggling with the material, Gordon (along with his writing partners Dennis Paoli and William Norris) decided to update the setting and adapt it as a television series. After writing 13 episodes, the team was discouraged from pursuing a TV deal due to horror’s lack of success on the small screen. Instead, Gordon was introduced to producer Brian Yuzna, who was enthusiastic about turning the project into a feature film. Yuzna brought Gordon out to Hollywood to shoot the film and landed a distribution deal with Charles Band’s Empire Pictures.

The story, in short, is this: at Miskatonic University, Herbert West has arrived having already been driven out of Zurich for experimenting with a reagent that will reanimate dead bodies. He teams with fellow medical student Dan Cain to further test his reagent. First, Dan’s girlfriend’s cat is reanimated. Then it’s the school’s dean. And then the blood really starts to flow.

Lovecraft has long been a problematic author to adapt. His best-known tales are built on what has come to be known as the Cthulhu Mythos, which postulates that this world was once ruled by alien Elder Gods that have since either fallen into a deathlike slumber or have lost their access to this plane of existence. Because a glimpse into these other planes or even merely a quick glance at one of the Great Old Ones is often enough to cause insanity in Lovecraft’s characters, it’s got to be pretty hard to translate the mind-bending incomprehensibility of Lovecraft’s cosmic horrors to a visual medium with any chance of success.

Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West, RE-ANIMATOR (1985).

It stands to reason, then, that perhaps the most successful direct adaptations of Lovecraft are those not related to the Mythos. Which is where we find RE-ANIMATOR. Even though its sardonic humor and oceans of gore would seem to be far removed from the reserved and serious-minded attitude of Lovecraft’s fiction, the film hues remarkably close to its source material. The short story was written as a parody to begin with, so the film’s humorous tone is not a huge departure from Lovecraft’s intent. And as grisly as the film is, the events it depicts are largely taken directly from the first two chapters of the story and portions of the final chapter. None of this is to suggest that Lovecraft would have approved of the film, as he didn’t even approve of his own short story the movie is based upon, having unhappily written it purely for the publishing money. And even though the story is universally considered his least work, as an inspiration for a horror flick, it’s pure gold.

A lot is made of RE-ANIMATOR being a horror-comedy, but I think that what makes it work is that it’s more than just simply funny; it’s fun. It’s not a movie chock full of belly laughs, but it tells its story with such a perverse sense of glee that it’s hard not to get caught up in the movie’s charm. In addition, the screenplay never downplays the horror in favor of the humor, instead drawing the latter out of natural reactions to the former, and out of the well-developed chemistry between the film’s characters. And Gordon’s direction is surprisingly tasteful for such a bloody film. Every shot is composed thoughtfully, and his deft hand at pace and timing keeps things tightly-wound throughout. This may sound blasphemous to the devout film buff, but RE-ANIMATOR is precisely the kind of movie that James Whale would have made if he had made BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN in 1985.

Barbara Crampton and a disembodied head in RE-ANIMATOR (1985).

However, all of this would likely be for naught if it weren’t for the remarkable performance of Jeffrey Combs as Herbert West. Combs plays West as remarkably arrogant and self-important while simultaneously nervous, brittle and on the edge of psychotically unraveling. Combs’ performance was instantly memorable, crafting a variation on the “mad scientist” archetype that is strong enough to stand with any of the legends. And while Bruce Abbott as Dan Cain is a bland (yet likeably bland) co-star, Barbara Crampton stands out in what could have been a throwaway part as Dan’s girlfriend Megan. Thanks both to the screenplay and Crampton’s solid acting, Megan transcends the mere “damsel in distress” role and becomes a believable, human character. Moreover, Crampton’s smart acting choices in every scene make her come across as being game for whatever “WTF?” moment the film throws her way (and thanks to the inventive effects work, there are plenty). As a result, the viewer doesn’t get pulled out of the film, their suspension of disbelief shattered, by suddenly becoming concerned about what the actress (rather than her character) is going through.

RE-ANIMATOR, in short, captures what is fun about horror movies without looking down its nose at them. It’s smart, energetic, delightedly (and delightfully) wicked and full of inspired set pieces and visuals. It’s not just one of the top horror films of the 1980s. It’s one of the top horror films full stop.

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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Let’s All Go to the Horror Con! Our 10 Best Retro Reasons To Attend DAYS OF THE DEAD ATLANTA

Posted on: Feb 1st, 2013 By:

What are we doing this weekend?! We’re heading down to the Sheraton Hotel Atlanta, one of the most Retro of downtown hotels, to hang out with thousands of horror fans at the second annual Days of the Dead. Last year, we drove all the way to the golf-cart-riding Stepford Wife wonderland of Peachtree City, but was it worth the hour-long commute. Hell, yeah, if only to hang with super-friendly and nice Kate Rambo of ROCK N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL, aka Dey Young, and have her sign a photo to us “I have never done detention in my entire life”! Alas Dey won’t be there this year, but if anything, there is a larger rogues’ gallery of monster, scream queens and heroes! OK, money’s tight, but where are you going to spend it? The Mall? And besides you have to worry about real zombies there.

1) BUTCH PATRICK! Yes, the original Eddie Wolfgang Munster from THE MUNSTERS, one of our two favorite Retro horror-sitcom TV shows. Sure, he’s more than all grown up now, but we can’t wait to hear any memories he might be willing to share about growing up at 1313 Mockingbird Lane.

2) RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD REUNION! OK, who didn’t want to party with a spikey red-headed Linnea Quigley getting drunk and dancing in a graveyard in this quintessential ’80s zombie black comedy. Days of the Dead has gathered Linnea and seven other starts of the cult classic which spawned four sequels. See everyone on stage at a noon panel. Don’t eat people, we say! Brains!

3) RIFF RANDELL! We’re still fantasizing of hanging with the Ramones and blowing up our high school, even after all these years, so we can’t think of anything more awesome than to meet and get the autographs of P.J. Soles who played Joey’s biggest fan in cult classic ROCK ‘N’ ROLL HIGH SCHOOL (1979). In case you’re too young to know this cult classic, get yourself educated by readingMark Arson’s Retro Review here. Oh, yeah, P.J. was in a few other obscure horror movies like CARRIE and HALLOWEEN.

4) HOUSE OF 1000 CORPSES/DEVIL’S REJECTS Reunions! Rob Zombie’s two best movies aren’t actually Retro but they sure look that way, being tributes to the over-the-top exploitation flicks of the 1960s and 1970s. DAYS OF THE DEAD has rangled 13, by our count, of the cast, but we have to admit we’re most excited about Mr. Machete himself Danny Trejo, Michael Berryman, who also gave us the willies in Wes Craven‘s THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1966)and Sid Haig, one of those rare B-movie icons and character actors whose career spans the decades from Jack Hill’s blaxploitation films of the 1970s to the chaotic, creepy Captain Spaulding. Quite frankly you scared the sh-t out of us and since we’re not easily scared, for that we salute you, Sid, as a true master of horror. A reunion panel is Saturday at 1 p.m.

5) PATTY MULLEN! Get ready for Splatter Cinema’s Tues. Feb. 12 screening of Frank Henenlotter‘s FRANKENHOOKER (1990) at The Plaza Theatre by meeting the actual Frankenhooker!

6) DICK MILLER! Poor Murray Futterman can’t escape our favorite feel-good holiday movie monsters GREMLINS (1984) even on vacation. We promise we’ll be polite to the consummate character actor and won’t bring our Stripe along to ruin his con. We also haven’t forgotten that he was in the original Roger Corman-directed LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960) and played the police chief in ROCK N ROLL HIGH SCHOOL.

7) GUNNAR HANSEN! Leatherface in the original TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974). He’ll even be on a panel with Marilyn Burns, the only survivor of the original rampage, on Sun. at 1 p.m.  Nuff said.

8. COMICS ARTISTS! Hopefully by now you’ve read our exclusive interview with James O’Barr, creator of THE CROW, who will be bringing along  pages from his new THE CROW: THE ENGINES OF DESPAIR series. If not, check it out here. Also at Days, look for two of our favorite Atlanta-based artists, Chris Hamer, a master of the quirky creature and bonafide Kool Kat, and Jason Flowers, who recently completed work on THE NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD trading card series for U.K. sketch card company, Unstoppable Cards. All three will be bringing con-exclusive prints and new works, so be sure and seek out their tables.

9) SPOOKTACULAR SHOPPING! Horror cons are the perfect place to stock up on both macabre memorabilia and creepy clothing, costumes and accessories. One booth we’ll definitely be stopping by is that of Athens, GA-based artist Jeanne the Maskmaker, who crafts one of a kind visages worthy of the Red Death’s Masquerade Ball.

10) PHANTAMAGORIC PARTIES! On Friday night, wear your craziest, creepiest costume to the Monsters Ball at 11 p.m. followed by karaoke at half past the witching hour. Then on Saturday at 10 p.m., Atlanta’s own most extreme Halloween attraction Chambers of Horror presents a concert by Fiend Without A Face  featuring Brent Hinds of Mastodon, followed by the MurderBall and Side Show Party, featuring Captain Stabb-Tuggo and Maybelle’s Sideshow, a Chamber-of-Horror-themed burlesque show, a costume contest, prizes and the Wheel of Torture.

Days of the Dead main con hours are Fri. Feb. 1 from 5 to 11 p.m.; Sat. Feb. 2 from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; and Sun. Feb. 3 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Door prices are $55 for  a weekend pass and $25 for a day pass. Park at the hotel for only $5 with validation from front desk (valet parking exempted). For more info, visit http://www.daysofthedead.net/atlanta/.

 

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Get Set for a Swinging Time with Vincent Price at THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM! A New Digital Restoration at Atlanta’s Historic Plaza Theatre!

Posted on: Jan 30th, 2013 By:

THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961); Dir. Roger Corman; Starring Vincent Price, Barbara Steele and John Kerr; Premiere Friday, Feb. 1 @ 8:00 p.m. with giveaways; then nightly at 8 p.m. Feb. 2- 7; Plaza Theatre (visit website for times and ticket prices); Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

Finally, after years of waiting, it is now possible to see PIT AND THE PENDULUM on the big screen once again in a newly-restored, high-definition digital presentation. For far too long, the movie has been hard to see in optimal condition (even the most recent MGM Midnite Movies DVD of the title isn’t anamorphically enhanced for widescreen presentation). This is something that’s always struck me as odd since it’s one of the best-remembered films of American International PicturesEdgar Allan Poe cycle, was a huge box-office smash at the time and contains some of the most defining scenes in post-1960 horror. Be that as it may, as far as securing prints go, it has been one of the more obscure films of Roger Corman. Thankfully, that’s changing now, and THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM can be seen in all of its glory and grandeur at Atlanta’s historic Plaza Theatre from Friday, February 1 through Thursday, February 7. Friday night’s showing will feature a special giveaway of two free tickets to all nine days of the Atlanta Film Festival: a $600 value! It promises to be an event big enough to befit the legendary teaming of Corman, Price and Poe.

Roger Corman. The name means many things to many people. To some, it primarily conjures up images of cheaply-made and quickly-shot horror/sci-fi fare from the 1950s and ‘60s. Flicks like CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA, A BUCKET OF BLOOD and THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. For others, it is chiefly and inextricably linked with the development of the “New Hollywood” of the late 1960s and ‘70s. Movies from American International Pictures and New World Pictures that helped launch the careers of talents like Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Robert De Niro, Barbara Hershey, Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda. For a former co-worker of mine, it means “that aloof guy who would stroll into the New Horizons office and ask if Jim Wynorski had called.”

But for a certain set of the man’s fans, the first things that come to mind are two names: Edgar Allan Poe and Vincent Price.

In 1960, American International Pictures was seeing the market for their low-budget, black-and-white output shrink. Roger Corman had been their most prolific filmmaker, churning out low-budget schlock in 10 days or less (mind you, it’s some great schlock, and never without a sense of wit and intelligence behind it all), and convinced studio heads Samuel Z. Arkoff and James H. Nicholson to take a risk on shooting a full-color widescreen film with a larger budget (a full $300,000!) and a longer production schedule (a full 15 days!). The success of this film, HOUSE OF USHER, pushed AIP to demand more of the same: another Poe adaptation, made by the same team and starring the same lead, Vincent Price.

Corman complied and assembled his USHER team: cinematographer (Floyd Crosby), set designer (Daniel Haller), score composer (Les Baxter) and screenwriter, the now-legendary horror author Richard Matheson. Matheson had seen a good deal of success as a writer in the decade previous to his teaming with Corman. He had adapted his novel THE SHRINKING MAN into the smash sci-fi/horror film THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, and his novels and short stories were in high demand. He had just been added to the stable of writers employed by THE TWILIGHT ZONE, and was also selling scripts to western- and war-themed TV shows. In short, Corman (in a typical move for him) had spotted an up-and-coming talent that he could grab for relatively cheap: someone who might be willing to trade some of the money he could get from a higher-paying gig for the relative liberty of a Corman screenwriting job. The pairing worked so well on USHER that Matheson returned for this, and several of the films following this in Corman’s Poe series.

The film is set in 1th Century Spain, and follows Francis Barnard (John Kerr) as he visits the castle of his brother-in-law Nicholas (Vincent Price) to investigate the death of his sister Catherine (Barbara Steele). Nicholas recounts that Catherine had been driven mad by the castle’s history and atmosphere, had committed suicide and now walks the castle halls as a ghost. When it is uncovered that Catherine had been interred alive, Nicholas is sent into paroxysms of fear and plunged into madness as he has visions of the traumatic events of his childhood. It all culminates in Nicholas’ break with sanity as he tortures his household in the dungeon beneath the castle’s floors.

Because of the slightness of narrative material in Poe’s short story, which is set nearly entirely within a prison cell over the course of a few nights, Matheson was encouraged to devise a way to shoehorn Poe’s tale into just the film’s climactic scene. In doing so, he created a psychologically rich screenplay centered on the main character’s neuroses, all of which seem to stem from a terrifying event witnessed in his youth. This psychological approach to gothic horror would prove to be incredibly influential in the years to come, as reverberations of its themes (along with their visual depiction by the team of Corman, Crosby and Haller) would be seen in many of the great Italian gothic horrors of the 1960s and ’70s, as Tim Lucas uncovered in his 1997 interview with screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi in VIDEO WATCHDOG #39. Gastaldi admitted that the film had inspired his screenplays for Mario Bava’s THE WHIP AND THE BODY and Antonio Margheriti’s THE LONG HAIR OF DEATH: “Yes, of course! THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM had a big influence on Italian horror films. Everybody borrowed from it.”

Vincent Price, too, returned to the AIP fold. Price had starred to great effect in HOUSE OF USHER, and brought equal parts menace, dignity and emotional complexity to what could have been a flatly-played character in lesser hands. In THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, he would be given even more to chew on as Nicholas Medina (and, in flashback, his crazed Inquisitor father, Sebastian Medina). Some have argued that perhaps Price sank his teeth a bit too deeply into the role, which required him to shift from a refined-but-fragile gentleman persona to that of a raving madman at a second’s notice. And it’s true that Price seems to be having the time of his life, relishing every utterance and mannerism, and basically being Vincent Price at his Priciest. But in a film that demands a tone that almost tips into the surreal, his nearly over-the-top performance works perfectly as a piece with every other element in the production.

Barbara Steele, fresh from starring in Mario Bava’s international gothic horror success, BLACK SUNDAY, is also incredibly memorable as Catherine, delivering an impressively expressive performance. However, it’s hard to objectively discuss her work in this film beyond the physical aspect of it: thinking that her natural British accent didn’t mesh with the other actors’ performances, AIP had her part dubbed in post-production by another actress.

Visually, Corman and his team work wonders with what little budget and time they were given, using impressive sets borrowed from other studios, violently active camera work and dream/fantasy/flashback sequences warped and twisted optically and displayed using a blue and red color palette. Corman’s direction is—as usual—tight and effective, providing impressive and perfectly-timed jolts while steadily building an atmosphere of oppression and madness. For pure horror, it is the highlight of the entire Corman/Poe series, and artistically tied only with THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH (MASQUE may be more thematically and symbolically rich and more daring in its approach, but PIT beats it on pure fright value).

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: Tricks & a Cinematic Treat at The Plaza as the Silver Scream Spookshow Unearths Another Vincent Price/H.P. Lovecraft Classic for Its Fifth Anniversary

Posted on: Oct 13th, 2011 By:

By Philip Nutman
Contributing Blogger

Silver Scream Spookshow Presents THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963); Dir: Roger Corman; Screenplay by Charles Beaumont; Starring Vincent Price, Lon Chaney Jr., Debra Paget; Sat. Oct. 15;  kids matinee at 1 PM (kids under 12 free & adults $7) and adult show at 10 PM(all tickets $12)Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

Vincent Price is back to haunt The Plaza in THE HAUNTED PALACE (1963) another H.P. Lovecraft adaptation, and Halloween’s on its way! Cthulhu bless The Silver Scream Spookshow! Yes, yet another chance to see classic AIP/Roger Corman cinematic madness on the big screen in 35mm this Sat. Oct. 15! More Professor Morte and his madcap gang of monsters and monster babes! Oh, and some old Spookshow family members may return, too. Yowza!

THE HAUNTED PALACE was promoted as another Corman-Price-Edgar Allan Poe film, but while the title comes from a line in a Poe poem, it’s actually a very loose adaptation of Lovecraft’s THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD, one of his more famous novellas. If you’ve never read it, you should. But more importantly, you should make a date for seeing the film at The Plaza this weekend because it’s the fifth anniversary of the Spookshow, it’s a terrific print of the movie, and Professor Morte is promising a magical event (literally).

“THE HAUNTED PALACE has become a favorite movie here at Morte Manor,” the Professor cackled to ATLRetro from his crypt in his secret batcave. “I watch this movie once a week, and I listen to the soundtrack [composed by Ronald Stein], which is amazing, all the time.” Before laying back down in his coffin, Atlanta’s favorite master of the macabre whispered in ATLRetro’s ear that there will be some stunning legerdemain this weekend (that means magic tricks, as in sleight-of-hand, as in smoke and mirrors, gang), including a certain supernatural experience which, if we understood Morte’s whisper correctly, has never happened live on stage before…

Now, back to the movie. THE HAUNTED PALACE is one of the best Lovecraft adaptations to make it onto celluloid. Not only does it star Saint Vincent Price, it also features everyone’s favorite Wolfman, Lon Chaney, Jr., and hot babe, Debra Paget, from THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and who smooched with Elvis in LOVE ME TENDER (both 1956). The excellent script was written by the late, great Charles Beaumont, one of the finest short story writers of his generation, who penned over two dozen classic episodes of Rod Serling’s THE TWILIGHT ZONE TV show (He also wrote the screenplay for the Zsa Zsa Gabor turkey, QUEEN OF OUTER SPACE [1958], but, hey, no one’s perfect).

So, there’s only one place to be this Saturday: The Plaza Theatre! And as Professor Morte says, “be prepared to be scared!”

ATLRetro terrifying trivia:

  • THE HAUNTED PALACE was Debra Paget’s last movie before she retired after marrying a Chinese millionaire and later became a devout Christian.
  • Charles Beaumont is the subject of a terrific documentary by Jason V. Brock, CHARLES BEAUMONT: THE SHORT LIFE OF TWILIGHT ZONE’S MAGIC MAN (2010).
  • Beaumont’s birth name was Charles Leroy Nutt.

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