Guest Post: Underrated '78 at Rupert Pupkin Speaks

Click on over to Rupert Pupkin Speaks to see my list of underrated flicks from 1978. It's always a blast to make these lists for Brian Sauer's excellent recommendation site. Be sure to check out the other lists!

On Blu-ray: Underseen Surfing Classic Big Wednesday (1978)

The bittersweet nostalgia of Big Wednesday (1978) feels authentic, because it was made by men who lived it. A story of friendship and loss of innocence set against the backdrop of the 1960s California surfing scene, the film flopped upon its release, though it has developed a cult following over the years. Now it is making its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.

Director John Milius wrote Big Wednesday with journalist and fellow surfer Denny Aarburg. They based the story on their own teenage experiences indulging in the new 1960s surfing scene. Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt, and Gary Busey are Matt Johnson, Jack Barlow, and Leroy “Masochist” Smith respectively, a trio of friends who grow up alongside the ocean, obsessed with waves, girls, and having a good time. The Vietnam War bursts into their idyllic bubble, bringing uncertainty and fear into their lives. Turbulent times and the added responsibilities of adulthood change their lifestyles, but the lure of the surf remains ever present.

Milius creates an innocent world, where despite the drinking, sex, and fist fights, kids are essentially decent and driven by an inborn code of honor. They may not always do what they should, but they understand the difference between right and wrong. Milius films these good-natured teens in golden light, which exposes the wholesome white gleam of their teeth and their perpetually sunburned skin. They live on cheeseburgers, Cokes, and sun.

In a reassuringly maternal performance in what would be her final film role Barbara Hale (Perry Mason) plays Jack’s mother (she was also Katt’s real mother). In her elegant way, she shows an understanding of what these kids are about. In the midst of her son’s party, which rages out of control downstairs, she sits calmly in her room, reading a book. When an apologetic Jack comes to speak to her, she asks that they mind the coffee table, but in staying away from the action, she demonstrates a sort of weariness with all that youthful destruction, but also an essential trust that they won’t go too far.

And Mrs. Barlow is correct. While they ride to the edge of destruction during a wild night in Tijuana and fake injuries and homosexuality to avoid service in Vietnam, the boys also support each other with unwavering devotion, and when it is time to grow up, they each in their own way embrace maturity.

While these relationships, and particularly the friendship between Matt, Jack, and Leroy form the essentially sound emotional core of Big Wednesday, its most impressive moments are in the surf. The camera swoops close to its surfers, going deep into the waves, then shooting back to show the daunting majesty of those walls of water. Peaceful moments of paddling are punctured with the roar of the waves as the water presses in on the surfers. Perhaps there is a war being waged across the world, but nothing beats the power of nature, and in boldly facing that force, these kids bolster their own sense of self.

The lead actors learned to surf for the film, but were doubled by Australian surfing champions Peter Townsend and Ian Cairns, and Bill Hamilton (who is the father of surfing champion Laird Hamilton). Their stunt work, and that of other supporting surfers is jaw dropping. If there is anything that makes this film a classic, it is the tension and wonder of these scenes.

When it comes to surfing, Matt is the most talented of the three, finding a small measure of fame for his laidback control of the board. It hurts him to see new surfing stars emerge as he moves into family life. Though his legend endures and he remains adored by the locals, he never seems to feel satisfied by his legacy. He hasn’t performed the important work of learning to like himself first. Vincent captures Matt’s shame and self-inflicted hurt in one of his most sensitive performances.

Katt is a a more clear-eyed, but also more conventional counterpart to the more rebellious Matt. He feels comfortable working within the system, but also a bit stunned when he does everything right, but still falls short of satisfaction. In a wild performance that is nevertheless more controlled than much of his future work, Busey throws himself into his comic relief role, offering a taste of what was yet to come.

Upon its release, Big Wednesday met with box office failure and mixed critical reception. Some appreciated Milius’ earnest statement, others found it heavy-handed and poorly acted. In the years since, its nostalgia and the stunning impact of the surfing scenes have attracted more positive acclaim.

Special features on the disc include audio commentary by Milius, a theatrical trailer and the short retrospective documentary, Capturing the Swell (2003).

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

On Blu-ray: An Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Release Rich in Special Features

I just finished binging the new Olive Signature Blu-ray edition of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Every pore of my body now seems to be packed with some sort of fact about this sci-fi classic. The disc's got special features lengthier than the film itself, and they’re just as fascinating. This is a fine tribute to director Don Siegel’s genre classic.

An amped up version of Jack Finney’s 1954 novel The Body Snatcher, the first screen adaptation is frightening partly because its characters are forced to stay on the run, with little time to consider or think rationally about what is happening to their world. The story of a small town that is flooded with pods which grow replacements for its citizens has been claimed to be an analogy for multiple society ills, but its author’s intent was simply to terrify. It gets the blood pumping because to rest is deadly, but without time to reflect, the fear of the unknown intensifies.

This was a rare starring role for Kevin McCarthy. He would be cast as privileged jerks for much the remainder of his film career, also spending much of his time working in television. It’s a shame he didn’t get to lead more often, because even in a role where there is so little time to learn about his character, he deftly reveals the core of his being and with that jutting chin, his look is pleasingly distinct.

His costar, British actress Dana Wynter, was also rarely a lead in Hollywood films, and like McCarthy found more substantial roles in television. The two are a good intellectual match. As a pair of slightly weary divorcees, they’re both worldly, cool and elegant, with enough emotional maturity to handle the terror they must face.

One of the highlights of the Olive disc is a retro audio commentary featuring McCarthy and Wynter with director Joe Dante. Both actors seem to relish sharing their memories and the clear regard they have for each other is charming. It helps to have Dante there to provide historical context to the conversation.

A new alternate audio commentary with film historian Richard Harland Smith is packed with a dizzying array of facts. As usual, Smith ensures that every player gets a bit of the spotlight. The most amusing supporting appearance: future director Sam Peckinpah as a meter reader.

For a movie with such a short running time, there are endless areas to explore here. The rest of the package features a dozen different featurettes, essays, galleries, and the like exploring aspects of the film from where it was shot, to what it all means. There’s a good mix of perspectives, including family members of those in the production and industry experts. The overall effect is like taking a master class about the film.

The high-definition digital restoration is easy on the eyes, with good contrast, but not excessively sharp.

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

On Blu-ray: Robert Taylor and Stewart Granger in The Last Hunt (1956)

Based on a novel by Milton Lott, but featuring real buffalo herd thinning, the Richard Brooks-directed The Last Hunt (1956) is an unusual mix of fact and fiction. It comes from a period where westerns took on more moral complexity. Heroes are less certain, violence isn't as superficial, and a feeling of weariness is in the air. The film is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, with a few vintage special features.

Stewart Granger stars as Sandy McKenzie, a skilled buffalo hunter who is aching to get out of the business. He is dragged back in by the cruel Charlie Gibson (Robert Taylor), who takes pleasure in the killing that increasingly repulses Sandy. Gibson also kidnaps drunken skinner Woodfoot (Lloyd Nolan) to join them, while Sandy hires the half-native ginger Jimmy (Russ Tamblyn) to skin as well.

They are an efficient team, setting up stands and piling up skins, working as well together professionally as they clash personally. It’s stunning to watch the massive herds of buffalo in their crosshairs. The footage was captured during the annual herd thinning at Badlands National Park and Custer State Park in South Dakota and the energy of the animals is palpable. It makes it all the more brutal to watch these magnificent beasts sink to their knees one at a time, their power extinguished, as the men ambush them.

Gibson doesn’t reserve his killing for animals, murdering a tribe of natives who he believes have stolen his horses. He spares a young woman (Debra Paget) and her child, forcing her to cook for the group. She is resigned to her fate, eventually falling in love with the gentler Sandy.

There’s a deep sense of loss and resignation to The Last Hunt. Sandy, Woodfoot, and Jimmy are all participants in a violent profession, but they are essentially tender. They are disturbed by Gibson’s sadism; his job as much a joy for him as a way to make money. Paget is given little to do in this scenario, but even she has more courage and strength than her captor, making her less passive than she seems at first. Tamblyn gets a little more opportunity to develop his conflicted, mixed-race character, but is also a mostly passive presence.

Taylor is at his best here: grizzled, mean, and yet still a little pretty. He’s nasty, but you can’t look away. That said, Nolan steals the show as a battered, but still joyfully messy character that’s a lot more fun than the rigid men he portrayed for most of his career. He is so uncharacteristically loose and relaxed that he is almost unrecognizable. Granger is a solid presence alongside them. While he not as commanding in his performance, he's appealingly dignified in his pursuit of decency.

It’s a brutal film, but infused with a compelling moodiness which the cast embodies effectively.

Special features on the disc include a pair of TV promo spots for the film, one which includes a brief glimpse of Tamblyn’s incredible tumbling skills. There’s also an original theatrical trailer.

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

Book Review--The Bad Sixties: Hollywood Memories of the Counterculture, Antiwar, and Black Power Movements

The Bad Sixties: Hollywood Memories of the Counterculture, Antiwar, and Black Power Movements
Kristen Hoerl
University Press of Mississippi, 2018

It’s been a turbulent few years in the world and while movies can be a great escape from the chaos, they can also provide a revealing window into the past. Enter The Bad Sixties: Hollywood Memories of the Counterculture, Antiwar, and Black Power Movements, a new book by Kristen Hoerl that examines the ways film and TV have presented the protest movements of the 1960s versus the way they actually played out. It’s an academic, but accessible exploration which includes the distortion and exclusion which has colored audience view of the past.

Hoerl focuses much of her attention on the way television shows of the 1980s like The Wonder Years, Family Ties, and thirtysomething portray the aftermath of the 1960s, but she does dip into movies both of the time and after the fact. She assesses an array of viewpoints, from the of-the-moment Easy Rider (1969) to later popular hits Dirty Harry (1971) and Forrest Gump (1994), which vary widely in their approach to what the decade had to offer.

In a satisfyingly diligent way, Hoerl works consistently to set the record straight, validating the decisions and place of women and people of color in the movement, recognizing those that diverge from the heteronormative, and acknowledging groups that never or rarely get the cinematic treatment. She explores the way the Black Panthers have been misrepresented in popular culture, while also noting the exclusion of the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Young Patriots, and the Brown Berets from screen narratives. Whether ignored, overly sensationalized, or distorted, these groups are often underserved in favor of promoting a point of view that validates the status quo. Her term for this collective erasure: selective amnesia.

As it critiques the way protest movements have been portrayed in film and television, Bad Sixties serves as a reminder to view media with a critical eye and an awareness of the different perspectives and goals of those who create it. It also reveals a past with many characteristics in common with the present, from the drive to change societal structure to the establishment that scorns dissent.

Many thanks to University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of the book for review.

On Blu-ray: Village of the Damned (1960)

The greatest thing about the sci-fi horror classic Village of the Damned (1960) is that it makes a big impact with simple means. A half dozen blonde wigs, the collective blank stare of a group of children, the mere idea that thoughts could mean the end of your existence. I recently revisited the sci-fi classic on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.

George Sanders stars as Gordon Zellaby, an aging professor in a May-December marriage who is delighted when he learns his wife (Barbara Shelley) is pregnant. He is less enthused when he realizes every woman of child-bearing age in the village is pregnant, including virginal residents, and it seems to be connected with a mysterious blackout suffered by the entire population. When all the women give birth to towheaded tykes with psychopathic stares, it is clear that something has gone terribly wrong.

Eventually the destructive and seemingly all-powerful nature of the children is revealed. The villagers are at a loss as to what to do, but can hardly get to the point of facing the trouble because they can’t believe such violence has invaded their peaceful village. As creepy as the kids are, the feeling of nowhere being safe is almost as potent.

It is interesting to see Sanders take a break from villainy and even make himself vulnerable. His famous deep purr becomes a rumble of confusion as he works with the villagers to unravel the mystery of these stone-faced children. Of course he could never play anyone lacking intelligence, and that’s the horror of it, because even the most clever mind is in peril if the enemy can read thoughts as these kids can.

Village of the Damned has aged into an interesting phenomenon. It’s been the rightful target of humor over the years: those identical rigidly-styled blond wigs, the robotically formal speech of the children, and the way they all move in a mass like a herd of sheep is almost as hilarious as it is terrifying. The film still elicits chills though. Budgetary limitations meant that the eerie glow of the kid’s eyes in attack mode had to be superimposed over photos and the resulting stillness makes them seem all the more powerful and impenetrable. There’s also the helplessness of the villagers, who do everything the audience would to save themselves. When the characters aren’t stumbling into dark basements or opening the door to strangers in the middle of the night, it is much easier to relate to their fear.

The Blu-ray image is sharp and clear, revealing every unnerving detail. A sole special feature on the disc is commentary by Chronicles of Terror – Silent Screams author Steve Haberman.

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

Streaming Diary: Spooky Films to Stream for Free at Kanopy

Judging from the vibe I’m getting on social media, Halloween season started early for a lot of us in 2018. I usually start binging on horror flicks when October rolls around, but this year, I’ve been at it for weeks already.

This is the first Halloween season I've had access to Kanopy streaming service, which I can use free of charge with my city and county library cards. I write more about the service here.

I’ve always been impressed with the variety on this service. There’s fantastic indies, documentaries, classics, and lots of psychotronic titles. It’s also got a diverse collection of horror films, so I thought I’d share my picks for this most wonderful time of the year:

Start at the beginning with a collection of the best silent horror classics, including the stylistically influential The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1919)the first cinematic take on Dracula (though unofficial): Nosferatu (1922)John Barrymore delighting in getting ugly for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)Conrad Veidt in one of his best early performances in The Hands of Orlac (1924),  and the documentary-style witch flick Haxan (1922).

There’s also an amazing selection of classic horror flicks, among the best are Barbara Steele in Black Sunday (1960)the first, and most faithful, adaptation of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)indie classic Carnival of Souls (1962)Boris Karloff in Black Sabbath (1963)lesser-known Bela Lugosi pic White Zombie (1932)Vincent Price in The House on Haunted Hill (1959)and Night of the Living Dead (1968), which just had its 50th anniversary.

For a quirkier take on horror, Roger Corman-produced The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and Bucket of Blood (1959) are a perfect double feature.

There’s also a lot of intriguing modern horror films. Of course, on this site “modern” is the seventies: Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie are at their best as a grieving married couple in Don’t Look Now (1973)Roman Polanski’s apartment building-set The Tenant (1976) would be a great anxiety-inducing pairing with Rosemary’s Baby (which, alas, is not on Kanopy), Black Christmas (1974) helped set the template for slasher flicks, and Ganja and Hess (1973) is a fascinating experimental take on the vampire flick.

Also check out Britt Ekland and Telly Savalas in Lisa and the Devil (1973), and more Barbara Steele in The Long Hair of Death (1964).

Enjoy the chills!

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