When Animals Attack: The 70 Best Horror Movies with Killer Animals Edited by Vanessa Morgan, B.L. Daniels Moonlight Creek Publishing, 2016 In search of a light read, I came across When Animals Attack: The 70 Best Horror Movies with Killer Animals on NetGalley and decided to give it a try. It’s a collection of brief essays by an international array of authors with highly variable skills. This unusual read was often hard to put down, though not always easy going. When Animals Attack covers flicks from the forties to the present day, but for the most part the essays are about films from the 70s through the 90s. The coverage hits where it should: classics like Them!(1954) get attention and the best of the 1970s nature’s revenge heyday is well represented. You get a good sense of the arc of angry creature features, as they evolved from paranoia to parody. This is not a consistent read where quality is concerned. The writers run the gamut from student bloggers to award winning authors and filmmakers. Gems can be found along that whole range of experience, in addition to much lesser works. For the most part it doesn’t seem meant to be terribly deep and the generally casual tone of many of the reviews is playful and much like a friend describing a good time at the movies. Still, several of these essays could have used a more thorough edit. There are also some unusual format choices here. My heart was racing by the time I got through the review in which every other sentence was punctuated with an explanation point. The best of the essays are fascinating though. Among my favorites are those that share the films through a personal, nostalgic lens. I loved Erich Kuersten’s childhood memories of the TV movie Day of the Animals (1977), where he describes simmering with frustration in bed, not allowed to stay up as late as he wishes to watch the films he is curious to see. Warren Fahy shares amusing memories of his many times watching Jaws (1977) in the theater, including one viewing on vacation in Mexico where a theater employee frustrated him by putting a piece of cardboard over the screen during the gory parts in an awkward bit of DIY censorship. A few industry insiders also share their experiences. Beverly Gray worked for Roger Corman for several years, and her insights into of the production of Piranha (1978) provide great perspective on this unique filmmaker and the way he worked. Ultimately I got the mixed bag I expected from When Animals Attack. There is a bit of wading through less than polished writing, but when the essays connect, they are immensely enjoyable. I was also satisfied to come away with a long list of films to see. In that respect the book is most successful. Many thanks to Moonlight Creek Publishing for providing a copy of the book for review.
Throughout decades of movie fandom I’ve seen astonishing sights and transcendent works of art, and yet, if you asked me what I want to see at any given moment, I would probably ask to watch Glenda Farrell and Joan Blondell doing stuff. Whatever production they are in, they never let you down, whether individually or as a team. Pure charisma wins every time. I thought this as I settled down to watch Kansas City Princess (1934), which is now available on DVD from Warner Archive. This is one of five comedies that Farrell and Blondell headlined together for Warner Bros. In it they follow the familiar plotline of two dames on the make. This time they are manicurists with gold digging ambitions. Blondell loses the diamond engagement ring thrust upon her by a volatile gangster (appropriately named “Dynamite”, played by Robert Armstrong) and so she and Farrell hop a cruise ship to Paris to escape his wrath. They hook up with a millionaire to retroactively fund their trip. It’s not the best of the Blondell/Farrell pairings; I think that honor goes to Havanna Widows (1933), which was more solidly pre-code, but it’s fun to watch them banter as they slide in and out of trouble. You’ve never any doubt that these ladies could talk any man into anything. Fans of 1930s Warner Bros. flicks are familiar with the amazing players the studio rotated in and out of productions like a community theater group. Aside from the leads though, the cast is not as typically fantastic here. The exception is Hugh Herbert who is game as the easily manipulated millionaire Junior Ashcroft. The disc image is essentially clear, though with a fair number of specks. The sound has a bit of crackle and pop, but does the job. There are no special features on the disc.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.
A Bucket of Blood (1959) perfectly illustrates why producer Roger Corman never lost a dime on a film. Produced in five days, with a budget of $50,000, this dark comedy took a playful swipe at beatnik and art culture with thrift and efficiency, relying on sensational content and bizarre characters for impact. I recently revisited this darkly quirky film on a new DVD release from Olive Films. It saddens me to live in a world where an intriguing face like Dick Miller’s isn’t considered matinee idol material, but sometimes life gets things right. Often a supporting player in Corman productions, A Bucket of Blood was one of a few films in which the actor starred. Miller is Walter Paisley, a busboy in an arty beatnik café who aspires to be a sculptor, despite the mocking of his workplace patrons. After struggling hopelessly with a lump of clay, Paisley discovers a novel way to make art when he mistakenly stabs a cat to death and decides to cover it in clay. The resulting sculpture is a hit at the café and, much to his horror, he soon finds himself following up with human subjects. As his reputation as an artist blooms, the hapless busboy suffers guilt and fear of discovery. In this twist on the House of Wax concept, the villain is neither imposing or outwardly horrific. He’s just a weak, unlucky, and untalented man. The horror is in what he is willing to do in order to escape being ordinary. This is one of the best films Roger Corman directed, primarily due to the one-two punch of Miller as lead and Charles Griffith as screenwriter. Griffith was expert at creating oddball characters who would never dream that the strange things they do are unusual in the least. He creates a ridiculous world, made all the more wild by the fact that these people are actually quite familiar. A year later, Corman would direct The Little Shop of Horrors (1960) under much the same conditions, with Dick Miller in a small, but memorable role as a man who eats flowers, Charles Griffith as screenwriter, and a soundtrack which recycled much of Fred Katz’s jazzy Bucket score. The formula worked again. The Olive disc has good sound and a clean, slightly soft image. It’s great to have this film available in a high quality release.
Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the film for review.
Les Girls (1957) was Gene Kelly’s last contracted MGM musical. It’s a curious film, modern in some respects, old-fashioned in others. In this Rashomon-like story of a successful dancer, and his various entanglements with the trio of women who form his troop, elation and tedium rest side-by-side. I recently had the opportunity to watch this intriguing film on a new Blu-ray from Warner Archive. The film begins in a courtroom. Retired dancer Lady Sybil Wren (Kay Kendall) is being sued by her former troop mate Angèle Ducros (Taina Elg) for claiming in her memoir that she once attempted suicide because of her lover Barry Nichols (Kelly). Most of the rest of the film is in flashback, as the two women, and the third dancer in their group Joy Henderson (Mitzi Gaynor) share their widely differing perspectives on the situation. This drama is juxtaposed with a series of saucy song and dance numbers, written by Cole Porter (this would be his final film score). Les Girls starts out with a boisterous feeling: colorful, alive, and showing great promise. However, as the songs gradually take a backseat to the drama, it becomes less engaging. No one wants to see a long scene with Kay Kendall and Gene Kelly discussing their relationship difficulties. It’s better when she gets drunk and wheels around her apartment singing at the top of her lungs, or really does anything that showcases her ability to show complete faith in absurd behavior. The five Porter numbers are the highlight of the film, combining a modern sensuality with more dated elements like the back-up dancers in brown face. Kelly could get pretentious in his ambition to be arty; a number in which he tangles with a metallic rope is more silly than avant garde. There are some intriguing numbers though, the best of them partnering Gaynor wit Kelly, a wise choice, because she is more suited to the choreography than ballet-trained Elg and non-dancer Kendall. Elg and Gaynor are engaging in their roles, but as she often did, Kendall steals the film. I doubt the humanity of anyone who is able to resist the charms of this astoundingly charismatic woman. Everything about her sparkles. That she would die of cancer only two years later is one of the great losses of cinema. The disc image is sharp and clean, as is the sound. Special features include the interesting short Cole Porter: Ca C’est L’Amour, hosted by Taina Elg, which is actually more of a general overview the production. There’s also a theatrical trailer and the vintage cartoon Flea Circus.
It was impressive to see a full theater for the Sunday afternoon screening of Jean Renoir’s Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (1936). I didn't expect this lesser known work of the director to get such a turnout. The film played at SIFF Cinema Uptown for the third weekend of the 44th Seattle International Film Festival. René Lefèvre is the titular Lange, a publishing company clerk who longs to find an audience for his Arizona Jim cowboy stories. He’s never been to the American West, but clearly the movies and a big imagination have given him lots of ideas. His salacious boss Batala (Jules Berry) decides to publish the stories, but tricks the young man into signing away his rights to them. Batala then appears to die in a train wreck, inspiring the workers at the publishing company to continue on as a collective. Together, they make the Arizona Jim stories a sensation. When their devious boss makes a surprise return, Lange becomes determined to keep the rights to his work at any cost. Renoir’s leftist ode to socialism brought him both praise and danger as Germany began to advance upon France. When encouraged by the Communist party, he was happy to make more films in that vein as a way to fight fascism. He secured a visa to the United States when the Nazis also showed interest in his filming talent. Monsieur Lange is Renoir in the middle of his career, on the edge of making his greatest work. While films like La Chienne (1931) and Boudo Saved from Drowning (1932) had plenty of bite, the director would soon take his talent for poking at social convention and human absurdity to a transcendent level with films like La Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939). This production sits balanced between those two periods. Renoir captures a typically busy cast of characters, always in motion or conversation, rarely taking time to reflect on their actions. They don’t have the charm of his later ensembles, where even the most shallow characters have some power to seduce, but they are funny and sweet. You want them to succeed. Though Lefèvre’s passion for his cowboy world is endearing, the rest of his personality is a bit of a blank compared to his costars. You find yourself caring more for his ideals, or the happiness of his devoted girlfriend Valentine (Florelle), than him. It was a treat to see this rarely screened film in a restored print. While there were some moments where the image would get fuzzy, it was of essentially consistent clarity and the sound was remarkably good.
Last night at SIFF Cinema Uptown, I enjoyed the first SIFF screening of Amy Scott’s documentary about filmmaker Hal Ashby, Hal (2018). Brilliantly edited, compassionate, and full of insightful interviews, I learned a lot about this director who I have always admired, but I realize now not fully understood. I've always found Ashby to be a rabble-rousing rebel, but he is only that if striving for peace, love, and human connection is rebellious. Perhaps that is true; I hope not. Where the studios he worked with are concerned, the rebel label fit. He always had to fight to fulfill his artistic vision. Ashby found his first Hollywood success as an editor, winning his only Academy Award for his work cutting In The Heat of the Night (1967). That film was one of several he made with his mentor and friend, director Norman Jewison. While Ashby was married five times and fathered a daughter, it is clear that his most significant bond was with Jewison, who understood this workaholic, peace-loving rebel and gave him his first opportunity to direct: The Landlord (1970). The film starred a baby-faced Beau Bridges as a trust fund kid who buys a building in the black ghetto with gentrification on his mind, but finds himself increasingly involved with his tenants. A work of great idealism and anger at the status quo, it would possess all the elements of Ashby’s best work: empathy, eccentricity, and a core built on vibrant relationships. Scott follows Ashby through these great works (and the less satisfying productions to follow), which form one of the most remarkable runs of artistic and commercial success in the film industry. After The Landlord there was Harold and Maude (1971), The Last Detail (1973), Shampoo (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Coming Home (1978), and Being There (1979). They are all iconic works, created with frequent resistance from the studio, which Ashby and his savvy associates fought off with determined fidelity to their work. Scott weaves together a wild brew of letters, interviews and vintage footage, pacing it all as if she is seducing a viewer with waning interest. It really pops, confidently drawing you into Ashby’s passions. In a Q&A following the screening, producer Brian Morrow mentioned how many more recordings of Ashby they had and other fascinating stories that couldn’t be included in the film. Her fidelity to flow over the lure of all those other elements pays off. Ashby’s complexities are slowly revealed as the focus shifts occasionally from the work that consumed him to his less successful personal life. A teenage father, he abandoned his daughter, and after those five tries, he abandoned the idea of marriage in favor of taking up with a series of girlfriends who could accept that his true love was film. Childhood trauma also colored his life, as he was all peace and love in expressing his art, but less placid when it came to confronting his own demons. Unfortunately, Ashby could not maintain his all-consuming passion for film and work in an industry focused on profits. It was painful, but moving to see people he worked with like Jewison and Rosanna Arquette tear up with regret that he was not able to launch a third act and fulfill his ambition. Perhaps Ashby is not in the upper pantheon of directors as he deserves, but here you see many who have worked with, admired, and understood this uniquely gifted filmmaker. During the post-film Q&A I asked the film's producer Brian Morrow if anything he learned about Ashby during the production had surprised him. He talked about the overwhelming amount of audio content the director left behind and how impressed by the extent that he was a “wildly committed artist,” who would refuse to compromise his vision. He talked about remarkable clips where the director said he understood white privilege and the challenges of racial identity. It sounds like he was ahead of his time. In addition to Morrow, Ashby’s friend, former LA Weekly critic Michael Dare, shared some memories about the director; one of the best to be revealed later in this review. I was also amused that the projectionist leaned out to ask a question. That’s the first time I’ve seen that!
One of Ashby’s best films, Being There (1979) screened at SIFF Cinema Uptown the next afternoon. Starring Peter Sellers, Shirley MacLaine, and Melvyn Douglas, the D.C. set drama might be more relevant today that it was upon release. Sellers is Chance, a gardener who has spent his entire life in the home of a wealthy man. Chance appears to be on the spectrum, emotionally disconnected and possessing the intellectual development of a child. Obsessed with television, his understanding of the world is almost entirely drawn from the shows he watches, flipping constantly through channels. When the old man dies, he is abruptly thrust into a world he has never seen up close. Instead of struggling, the empty slate Chance presents to the world is like a blank check for this dignified, well dressed white man. He finds himself in the home of a dying millionaire (Douglas) with a loving, but lonely wife (MacLaine) who falls hard for him. His benefactor is well-connected, granting him an audience with the president (Jack Warden), who like everyone else sees his simple talk about gardening as profound musings about life. Chance becomes a celebrity: invited on talk shows and circulating with the international elite. Everyone sees what they want to see in his pleasant talk. Only Douglas’ doctor, played with intelligent compassion by Richard Dysart, understands the truth about this simple man. His is an important character that can be found in the best of Ashby’s films: the one who truly sees into people. It is Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude and Beau Bridges in The Landlord. Dysart knows that Chance is not a towering intellectual, but he also understands the people in his orbit and how the truth is something they construct to create their own safety. It’s all chillingly familiar. During the Q&A for Hal, Dare mentioned that the famous ending was not in the script and made up by Ashby on the set. Making that unusual scene happen depended on winning over the on-set spy Lorimar had put on the director. He told an amusing anecdote about how the director convinced the young man that he didn’t want to be responsible for blocking this remarkable shot. I hope that he realizes how important his cooperation was for film history. Hal screens again at The 44th Seattle International Film Festival on Sunday, 6/3, 12:30pm at the SIFF Cinema Uptown.