Book Review--Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need to Know

Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need to Know
Ian Haydn Smith
White Lion Publishing, 2019

While there isn’t a definitive definition of what makes a cult film, there is an essential agreement among film fans that these movies are not business as usual. The description “cult” evokes thoughts of bizarre, potentially uncomfortable, or even controversial cinematic expression. In Cult Filmmakers: 50 Movie Mavericks You Need to Know, Ian Haydn Smith explores the works of fifty filmmakers that he categorizes as cult, following that essential definition.

Smith has compiled the most richly inclusive list of cult directors I’ve ever seen gathered in this category. His selections span gender, race, country, and background with fascinating breadth. As a result he has come up with an especially exciting list of filmmakers. While my own definition of cult doesn’t align with some of these directors: for example, the undeniably bizarre Tim Burton has nevertheless enjoyed mainstream success for most of his career which I don’t see as fitting that label, Smith always gets the spirit of this brand of cinema and the impact of each artist is undeniable.

The directors are presented in fifty brief entries of a few pages each. These are short bios, intended as an introduction to the works of each filmmaker. Instead of going into depth about the films or their impact on audiences, the essays focus on the nature of each director’s work and the movies that define them.

While this kind of book is ideal for those who are new to exploring film, as a long-time fan of so-called cult movies I found this to be an addictively enjoyable read. I learned more than I expected, primarily because Smith has moved beyond the usual suspects in compiling his list and particularly because he is so knowledgeable about world cinema, including visionaries like Vera Chytilova, Seijun Suzuki, and Amat Escalante in addition to directors more established as cult like John Waters, Kenneth Anger, and Ed Wood.

Smith covers a lot of ground in a brief book. By the time I raced through Cult Filmmakers, I had that rare feeling of disappointment that there were no more entries to read. The list of films at the end of the book, divided by director will come in handy. Reading about these varied talents got me fired up to revisit favorites, in addition to seeing something new.

Many thanks to White Lion Publishing for providing a copy of the film for review.

Now Streaming: Making Montgomery Clift

When it comes to public opinion of Montgomery Clift, two images tend to dominate. One is of a celebrated, influential actor who coupled unusual sensitivity with traditionally masculine roles. The other is a Hollywood tragedy, believed to be haunted and destroyed by his homosexuality and a serious car accident during the production of Raintree County (1957) which permanently changed his appearance.

In the documentary Making Montgomery Clift (2018), which is now available to stream, Clift’s nephew Robert Clift and filmmaker Hillary Demmon thoroughly examine the actor’s life and the widely accepted tragic narrative about him. At the core of the film is a critical examination of the claims in two biographies of the actor: one sensational book by Robert LaGuardia and another more complicated bio by Patricia Bosworth.

So what is the truth about Montgomery Clift? Was he a tragic figure? Or was he a devoted craftsman who had an unfortunate end, but essentially thrived in his life? Clift and Demmon make a case for the latter and while it is always wise to tread carefully with documentaries where family are involved; there is good evidence here that they are at least somewhat correct.

Clift’s brother Brooks was obsessed with documenting his life, which extended to recording his phone conversations. While that habit seems unsettling in retrospect, the resulting wealth of information from Montgomery Clift himself is invaluable. In his talks with associates and loved ones, the actor shows himself to be intelligent, funny, and committed to being the best actor he can be. He was clearly fascinated by his profession and the life that his roles reflected.

Clift was also not ashamed of his homosexuality as has often been claimed. While the way the society of the time viewed gay men was upsetting to him and ultimately destructive, he found nothing wrong with his desires or in showing affection towards the men he found attractive. His enjoyment of life and love are evident in the conversations, film footage, and other memorabilia shown in the film. Interviews with friends and associates also reveal a man who found a great deal of contentment in life if not a smooth ride.

The film is not meant to be an exploration of Clift’s work, but as it was so intertwined with his life, there is a fair amount of coverage related to his films. He is shown to be completely fascinated by and devoted to his profession, always making choices that supported the integrity of his craft. Several sequences in which Clift’s notations on his scripts are shown side-by-side with the films he made prove how clear-thinking and perceptive he was when it came to how a role should be played.

This perspective on Clift’s life and career is juxtaposed with input from his own family, which struggled to tell the actor’s true story. From the frustration his mother Ethel Clift experienced being accused of damaging her son by keeping him too close, to the fruitless battle Brooks fought with the publishers of the Bosworth biography to correct significant inaccuracies, there is a definite long-desired determination here to change the narrative where Monty is concerned.

I found those phone conversations, interviews with former associates, and script notes illuminating. Perhaps Clift was touched by tragedy, but his life contained a great deal more happiness and fulfillment than I previously thought and, most notably, was not destroyed by that infamous car wreck which has been said to have ruined him, but in fact came at the start of his most productive and satisfying time as an actor.

Whatever the full truth may be, Montgomery Clift was a fascinating, brilliant man who lived big and Making Montgomery is an interesting exploration of who he was versus how he was portrayed.

Many thanks to Team Click for providing a screener of the film for review.

On Blu-ray: William Powell and Myrna Loy Bring Thrills to Marriage in The Thin Man (1934)

The first film in the Thin Man series has long been my cinematic comfort food. William Powell and Myrna Loy are the kind of stars that feel like home, because their wit and high spirits lift you, despite or maybe because of the sour past you can see behind the characters they play. Life has imbued them with cynicism, which they medicate with cocktails, but they are also wealthy, occupied in pursuits that amuse them, and in love in a way that seems off-hand, until you recognize the forces working to pull them apart.

Much like the close-knit marriage that drives the Thin Man movies, Powell and Loy developed an easy, natural partnership on the screen, which they would also enjoy in several films outside of the series. The key factor was that they listened to each other. Director W.S. Van Dyke honed in on that connection; he’d purposely selected actors that were not heartthrobs, so that the romantic excitement came purely from chemistry.

Unsurprisingly, the thrill of Powell and Loy together neuters much of the rest of the film. Its greatest flaw is that the pair is absent from the long exposition in the opening scenes, a problem that is solved when Asta the dog pulls Loy into a bar, off her feet, and she is finally united with her boozy spouse. The best moments are between them: the Christmas morning where Powell blasts balloons off the tree with a bb gun, the smirking lack of concern with which Loy greets her man with another woman in his arms, and the chaos of the dinner party they throw together to catch a murderer are all classics and far more interesting than any mystery they have to solve.

Now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, the film looks magnificent; as luxurious as it should be. Special features on the disc include audio of a 1936 Lux Radio Theater broadcast of The Thin Man starring Loy and Powell, a theatrical trailer, and a 1957 episode of the lackluster The Thin Man television series starring Phyllis Kirk and Peter Lawford.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Streaming Classic Horror: Top Picks and Links to Great Flicks

I always enjoy watching great horror movies, but it is especially fun to watch spooky flicks this time of year. Here are some of my favorite picks for thrills and chills. I've also included a more lengthy list of links to great classic horror films below, many of which can be viewed for free!

Hour of the Wolf (1968) (Criterion Channel)
Ingmar Bergman's take on horror unsurprisingly goes right for the soul. In this surreal and mysterious film Max von Sydow is a painter who suffers from horrifying visions and Liv Ullmann is his tender-hearted wife. Most of the horror here is derived from an intense fear for Ullmann. She seems so vulnerable in the face of the mysterious forces pressing on her husband. 

Kuroneko (1968) (Criterion Channel)
I'm a big fan of a good Japanese ghost story and this is one of the best. A mother and daughter who are assaulted and killed by soldiers come back from the dead to take revenge on the violent men of the world. This is a beautiful film, with apparitions flying effortlessly through the trees and a magically disorienting mood.

The Last Man on Earth (1964) (Hoopla, Prime)
Before The Omega Man (1971), Vincent Price held off post-apocalyptic zombies in this first adaptation of Richard Matheson's book, I Am Legend. It's a less flashy, more somber take on the story, with more backstory. It all works because Vincent Price is so appealing as the titular last man.

Dead of Night (1945) (Kanopy)
This pleasantly spooky horror anthology with a cozy framing story turns into sheer terror thanks to a segment featuring Michael Redgrave and an absolutely horrifying ventriloquist's dummy that comes to life.

A Bucket of Blood (1959) (Kanopy, TubiPrime)
Though producer/director Roger Corman's Beatnik take on the Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and House of Wax (1953) is played tongue-in-cheek, there are plenty of chilling moments in this low-budget wonder starring beloved character actor Dick Miller in a rare starring role. If you like the mix of humor and horror in this one, don't miss Corman's The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) (Kanopy, Tubi) which shares the same sensibility, in addition to several members of the cast and crew.

Viy (1967) (Shudder)
This Russian production based on a story by Nikoli Gogol plays like a lively folk tale. An immature seminarian murders a young woman, and while he is able to cover up his crime, he is coincidentally ordered to keep watch over her body for three nights. Turns out, the lady is not quite at rest and she is out for revenge. The horrors take a while to unfold, but once the creatures of the underworld  rise up to take vengeance, this film turns into a wild and visually exciting ride. Mario Bava's Black Sunday (1960) (Kanopy, Tubi) is also loosely based on the same story.

The Queen of Spades (1949) (Kanopy)
In this unusual tale of a haunting, a greedy Captain kills an old lady for her gambling secrets. She sold her own soul to get them and from beyond the grave she now makes him pay the price as well. A delightfully spooky mood and eerie atmosphere make this an especially pleasing period flick.

Night Tide (1961) (Kanopy, Prime)
Dennis Hopper is uncharacteristically sweet and vulnerable in an early role as a sailor on leave. In this slow burn story he falls in love with a woman who may or may not be a murderous mermaid. Though he knows he may be in danger, the young seaman fears loneliness even more.

The Hands of Orlac (1924) (Kanopy, Prime)
The Peter Lorre film Mad Love (1935) is the most famous version of this story of a pianist whose hands are replaced with those of a murderer after a horrific accident, and while I love it's campy energy, I also appreciate this more creepily restrained, silent version of the tale. Rather than Lorre's mad doctor character, Conrad Veidt is the center of the action here as the tortured pianist who is horrified by the origin of his new hands.

Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (2019) (Shudder)
To fill our your Halloween viewing list, this fascinating documentary is a must-watch. The best actors, directors, and other creators of black horror are paired up to discuss their favorite films, their own work and what it means to be black and working in the genre. There are some fascinating duos here and as many of these films I have seen, my to-see list was nevertheless much longer after watching this.

Silent Horror
Häxan (1922) (Criterion Channel, Kanopy) 
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) (Hoopla, Prime)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919) (Hoopla, Kanopy)
Nosferatu (1922) (Hoopla, Kanopy, Prime)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925) (Kanopy, Tubi, Prime)

Hauntings and Creepy Houses
The Changeling (1980) (Shudder)
The Old Dark House (1932) (Shudder, Criterion, Kanopy)
Carnival of Souls (1962) (Criterion Channel, Kanopy
House on Haunted Hill (1959) (Kanopy, TubiPrime)
Kill, Baby...Kill! (1966) (Kanopy)

The Blob (1958) (Criterion Channel)
Fiend Without a Face (1958) (Criterion Channel)
Piranha (1978) (Hoopla)
The Tingler (1959) (Hoopla)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943) (Hoopla)

Vampires and Zombies
Ganja and Hess (1973) (Shudder, Prime)
Night of the Living Dead (1968) (Criterion Channel, Prime)
Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979) (Criterion Channel, Prime)
Messiah of Evil (Hoopla, Prime)

All the Colors of the Dark (1976) (Shudder)
Blood and Black Lace (1963) (Shudder, Prime)
Suspiria (1977) (Hoopla)
Five Dolls for an August Moon (1971) (Kanopy)
Black Sabbath (1963) (Kanopy, Prime)

There’s also a great collection of producer Val Lewton’s atmospheric horror films on Criterion Channel right now and, if you have the stomach for it, several of Herschel Gordon Lewis’ groundbreaking and gory splatter movies as well.

On Blu-ray: Claude Rains in Technicolor in The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1952)

There’s nothing quite like the cringe you feel when Claude Rains plays an unlucky character. Even when he is a villain, as he was in Phantom of the Opera (1943) and Notorious (1946), you can’t help feeling for him when life turns against him. This is the kind of sympathetic, if flawed man he plays in the intriguing, low-key thriller The Man Who Watched Trains Go By (1952). I recently watched a newly restored print of the film on a Blu-ray from ClassicFlix.

Rains is Kees Popinga, a modest bookkeeper living a quiet family life in Groningen, Holland. He is intimately familiar with the schedule of the trains that move through the town; they keep dreams of all the faraway places he longs to see in his daily thoughts.

Impeccably honest, Popinga cannot even grasp the concept of an ordinary man being corrupted by greed. His innocence is destroyed when he realizes his boss Julius de Koster (Herbert Lom) has been stealing from his company and altering his immaculate books. With a French police detective comes to town to examine those very books in order to investigate a crime, he realizes a life of good behavior could come to nothing.

Popinga’s rage at the injustice of it all quickly turns him into the corrupted man he so recently couldn’t comprehend. If a lifetime of playing by the rules can destroy him, he has nothing left to lose. After a violent argument with de Koster leads him to believe he has killed his boss, he escapes to Paris with the money he had stolen with plans to do the same.

Believing he has nothing to live for at home, Popinga pursues the mysterious woman (Märta Torén) who led to de Koster’s downfall, unbothered that it could result in the same fate for himself. No matter what pleasure he grabs though, he’s always left wanting more, and there is no chance he will be allowed to enjoy his ill-gotten wealth in peace.

Rain’s noirish descent into a life of crime is intriguing because he is so ill-suited to bad behavior. He’s capable of misdeeds, but darkness doesn’t run deep within him. He keeps pivoting back to the honest nature he’s always had. 

As the femme fatale, Swedish actress Märta Torén is a somewhat ambiguous character. She has no qualms about betraying Rains and stealing his money, but sometimes she doesn’t seem entirely corrupt. It’s impossible to tell if she sincerely feels that way, but there’s a part of her that appears to sympathize with the hapless Popinga. Sadly, Torén would die of a cerebral hemorrhage only five years later. She’s a sleekly mysterious presence here; it would have been fascinating to see what else she could have accomplished.

A very young Anouk Aimee, billed as Anouk, makes a brief appearance as a savvy prostitute who helps Popinga find lodging.

Many thanks to ClassicFlix for providing a copy of the film for review. This film is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

On Blu-ray: A Bucket of Blood (1959) Gets the Olive Signature Treatment

After releasing a high quality DVD of Roger Corman's 1959 production of A Bucket of Blood in 2018, Olive Films has upped its game in a big way with a Signature Blu-ray release of the film. I’ve already enjoyed the Olive Signature release of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), which with its wealth of special features, much like a Criterion Collection release, was so robust that taking it all in felt like attending a film class. A Bucket of Blood gets the same treatment here. In giving genre films this level of attention and respect Olive is properly recognizing their importance in cinematic history.

Though mastered from a new 4K scan, the disc image is clear, but not sharp. It retains a sufficient amount of grain, so that the film doesn’t lose the seedy feel that is the core of its appeal. I found it to be a good middle ground between providing an improved viewing experience and keeping the film firmly in its time and place.

Beloved bit player Dick Miller had his best role as Walter Paisley, the Beatnik coffee shop waiter who finds success as an artist when he covers corpses in clay. Not only was it his most celebrated part, but his character name would follow him to several other films. Fortunately, this seems to have amused him.

With a nod to horror classics including Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and House of Wax (1953), screenwriter Charles Griffith takes the horrific idea of stealing life to make art and connects it with a man who feels an intensely relatable sense of inadequacy. This concept is especially powerful in an age of social media stardom, where many struggle with feelings of inferiority in the face of easy, but uneasily held fame.

Miller is the perfect actor to embody these feelings of unfulfilled creativity and low self-esteem. Having struggled to be a screenwriter, before barely making a living as a character actor, even this early in his career he had experienced the frustration of having more to offer than the world cared to embrace. As adored as he was, he always wanted, and deserved a little more out of his career.

The special features on the disc are especially remarkable because the key players in this production are all such fascinating characters. A typically measured interview with producer/director Roger Corman is nicely complemented by a livelier interview with Dick Miller conducted by his long-time wife Lainie Miller. An archival radio interview with screenwriter Charles Griffith about his career neatly fills in a little more detail. You can sense the unity in a Corman production, because so often the individual memories they share are remembered the same way.

An incredibly goofy prologue filmed for the German release of the film in 1962 attempts to present A Bucket of Blood as the sequel to House of Wax, though the German release trailer also included on the disc more effectively presents the film as a horror production than the also included US trailer which makes it look like a wacky Beatnik sex romp.

Features also include an interesting gallery of newly-discovered on-set photography, and a silent Super 8 “digest” version of the film, which has the nice touch of being backed by the sounds of a film projector running. An essay by You Don’t Know Me, But You Love Me: The Lives of Dick Miller author Caelum Vatnsdal is an interesting review of the different stage and screen adaptations the production has inspired over the years.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the film for review.

Quote: David O. Selznick on Hollywood

Image Source

Hollywood might have become the center of a new human expression if it hadn't been grabbed by a little group of bookkeepers and turned into a junk industry.

-David O. Selznick as recalled by Ben Hecht

I don't don't recall having said what he quotes me as saying. It could be harmful.

-David O. Selznick

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