Friday, December 2, 2011

Capsule Reviews 12/2/11

Up the River (John Ford, 1930) - This early sound Fox comedy finds its strengths in leisurely pacing and breezy tone, and features entertaining early performances from both Tracy and Bogart (in their first and second film roles, respectively) as a pair of cons from very different backgrounds who befriend one another in the hoosegow and loosely glide around a plot involving love, scams and baseball. As was often the case with Ford comedies of the era, it relies heavily on vignette technique and is generally less concerned with matters of landscape and atmosphere, though dabs of expressionism seep through occasionally, such as in the excellent opening prison break sequence. The result is pleasingly winsome, loony comedy, far from Ford's forte but more than adequately rendered here, interspersed with the usual reflective Fordian touches, including a melancholic neighborhood hay ride (the best scene in the film), as well as heavy and affecting use of the parade-style music the director would return to so often throughout his career.

The Lost Patrol (John Ford, 1934) - A meager British patrol traipse aimlessly about the Mesopotamian desert during World War I after their commander is killed by an Arab sniper. The troop eventually reaches shelter in the form of a desolate oasis, setting into motion their slow, methodical eradication by the faceless death that surrounds them from seemingly every direction. Ford's vision for the material is lean, dreadful and hallucinatory; he clearly conceives of this increasingly unhinged community as a portrait of terror, and in everything from the rhythmic pattern of deaths to the arc of McGlaglen's "final girl"-esque character, the film can pretty accurately be labeled a proto-slasher, and it's easily the closest thing to a true horror film Ford ever made (the casting of Bela Lugosi in a particularly maniacal role is not happenstance). But the actual Fordian moments are few and far between, and writer Dudley Nichols' deathly banal dialogue and schematic scenarios hold it back from every really taking off. To top it all, Ford had wanted the movie completely musicless, but at the eleventh hour Max Steiner was commissioned by the studio to compose one of his truly abysmal Mickey Mousing scores; it completely saps the images and sequences of their emotional tension, and for that it was awarded the Oscar.

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962) - In this micro-budgeted cult horror fave (the sole feature from industrial filmmaker Herk Havey) a young church organist survives a fatal drag race crash and treks off to Salt Lake City for a new job, hounded by terrible visions at every step. What is lacking in direction and veneer is more than made up for with a genuine sense of desolation, and a particularly firm grasp of one simple but oft-overlooked Horror truth: that creepy architecture and atmosphere are almost entirely dependent on the human presence. Only in the compressed nightmare logic of its final sequences does the movie give form to its most scattershot impulses and begin to resemble something of an authentic vision, but as an overall mood piece its effectiveness and eeriness if difficult to deny. The striking on-location photography (in and around Salt Lake City, in particular the creepy Saltair Pavillion) and unconventional casting of non-professional locals go a long way towards instilling the movie with its distinct, lasting character, and its influence over a certain kind of low-budget horror filmmaking - beginning with and epitomized by Romero's Night of the Living Dead - can still be felt strongly today.

The Ninth Configuration (William Peter Blatty, 1980) - The opening scene is in effect a litmus test of one's appreciation for what's to come: over Denny Brooks' bittersweet ballad 'San Antone', images of moons and spaceships and fog-shrouded gothic castles and grieving men fill the screen, a strangely stirring cornucopia of discordant emotions and tones that acts as a microcosm for the utterly unclassifiable two hours to come. Here Blatty adapts his novel Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane, the tale of a madman on a personal pilgrimage in an experimental military psychiatric residence, and it seems that for many critics the film stands as an exercise in the dangers of granting a writer privilege over the cinematic vision of his own material. However it is precisely Blatty's rough-hewn, personal urgency behind the camera that gives the movie so much of its mysterious power; one gets the sense that a more objective, surer hand would have resulted in a far less interesting result. A cast of formidable character actors and an award-winning screenplay have done nothing to salvage Configuration from obscurity over the years, and Blatty would go on to direct only one other feature, 1990's Exorcist III. If the latter stands as the more successful effort (indeed it's one of the better horror films of the 90s), it's because Blatty brought to it a more orderly, formalist approach that better served both his weighty concerns of faith and sacrifice, as well as his gestures toward the surreal. The seeds of a personal omniverse are scattered between the two movies, resulting in some interesting criss-crossing references, however they are united most prominently perhaps by Blatty's overt love for the patter of rain against a window.

The Killer Is Loose (Budd Boetticher, 1956) - After a single viewing I'm tempted to dub The Killer Is Loose both a small masterpiece, and perhaps the most undervalued entry in Boetticher's oeuvre. A cop (Joseph Cotton), while arresting a crooked bank clerk (Wendell Corey), accidentally kills the latter's wife. Years pass, and the psychopathic criminal escapes from prison to exact his revenge on Cotton and his wife, leaving behind a slew of bodies as he inches closer toward his ultimate targets. The thing that jumps out most is how harsh and tactile the violence here is: a prison driver is murdered by Corey for his vehicle, but his body isn't simply dumped out of the truck, the camera follows closely as it splashes raggedly, sloppily into a filthy ditch of mud; in the scene where Corey visits and eventually murders his former army sergeant (the best in the movie, a model of ominous, sustained tension), a body isn't simply shot and killed, it flails violently, with milk bottles shattering and kitchen cookware exploding. A fairly jarring depiction for its day, and one that clearly anticipates the stark, brutal mode of bloodshed found in Boetticher's later work. Corey is fantastic through all this as the deadpan, volatile killer, and in his possessed, post-murder proclamations of helplessness and his climactic excursion into cross-dressing, he acts as a walking perversion of the famous credo that proliferates the Ranown cycle: "A man can do that". There is also fascinating use of sound and off-screen space to heighten the ever-present sense of anxiety and to construct moments of pure portent: Corey staring up into the cloudless sky and being met with a large rumble of thunder after escaping prison is one of the most haunting moments in all of Boetticher. This was the last feature the great director would make before jumping into the Westerns that inarguably comprise the apex of his career, and if those films represent an unusually rarefied level of B-movie craftsmanship in the history of American cinema, The Killer Is Loose as their antecedent deserves at least a passing mention in the conversation. It's lean, expressive, gripping stuff, and I can't wait to sit down with it again.


Jeff Duncanson said...

A couple of these are going on my Ziplist, for sure.

Drew McIntosh said...

Jeff, feel free to drop back in and let me know what you thought of any of these.