Jonathan Demme 02/22/44-04/26/17

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Multi-talented director Jonathan Demme has died. He got his start with Roger Corman and debuted with a biker movie and naturally graduated to women in prison flicks before entering mainstream Hollywood and making his name with some fine films starring terrific women like Goldie Hawn and Melanie Griffith.  His first critically acclaimed movie was however the wonderful Bo Goldman screenplay Melvin and Howard, one of the best of the Seventies with an unforgettable performance by Jason Robards as Howard Hughes and beautifully shot by longtime collaborator Tak Fujimoto. He made some wonderful documentaries particularly the landmark music film Stop Making Sense with Talking Heads:  who can forget David Byrne on stage in that enormously boxy suit? But his name will be forever associated with a shocking adaptation that is one of that tiny number of films to win the Big 5 at the Academy Awards – The Silence of the Lambs won for Actor, Actress, Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Director. He may have made some missteps and unnecessary remakes but humour, humanity and compassion shone from his work. Demme will be missed.

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Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011)

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Highly entertaining documentary about the exploitation/trash maestro who had ambitions way beyond his pay grade.  We hear from a variety of his alumni and the man himself, his brother Gene (another producer), his wife (and fellow producer) Julie and former assistant Frances Doel, among many others, about how the engineer who got screwed over money on the movie The Gunfighter decided to put on a show himself and debuted with The Monster From the Ocean Floor. By the time he made The Wild Angels he was directing his 100th movie which is stunning. He meant the world to Jack Nicholson who made his debut with The Cry Baby Killer – and then didn’t work again for a year! Nicholson describes Corman as his ‘lifeblood’ and bursts into tears. Corman kept him in work and gave him writing and acting jobs for a decade before he made his breakthrough with Easy Rider – which wouldn’t have happened without The Trip, which Nicholson wrote and it starred Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper: AIP wouldn’t make Easy Rider with Hopper and it went on to make history – as well as pots of money (as it were…) There are great clips of all the era’s material but the best storytelling comes from William Shatner recalling the personal jeopardy the Cormans experienced during the making of The Intruder, that fierce discourse on integration. The seventies stuff –  crazy funny movies like Hollywood Boulevard and Rock ‘n’ Roll High School is interspersed with really good interviews with Allan Arkush and Joe Dante and we learn about Corman’s own personal viewing tastes, choosing to distribute great films by European auteurs through his own company. The big studios took his formula and made multi-million dollar versions of Fifties exploitation content that made his name so he moved more fully into straight to video. There is no mention of the studio he set up in Ireland in the Nineties – presumably on grounds of taste.  Nor of his big studio movie from 1993, Frankenstein Unbound, his last directorial outing. Personally I’d like to have seen Monte Hellman speak about their collaborations but instead we get Paul WS Anderson and Eli Roth. That’s showbiz! Directed by Alex Stapleton.

 

Happy Birthday Roger Corman! 04/05/2017

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Aside from being a great opportunity to look at 50 years of wonderful poster art and titles to die for, today is trash-horror-exploitation maestro Roger Corman’s 91st birthday. The legendary Pope of Pop Cinema started life as an engineer but lasted just 4 days in the job. After a spell studying literature and reading scripts for Hollywood studios he got into the whole filmmaking thang himself and created a company that eventually served as a film school for some of the most notable directors in American cinema, from Francis Ford Coppola to Martin Scorsese, Stephanie Rothman to Joe Dante, Peter Bogdanovich to Penelope Spheeris. The most acclaimed of his work is the Edgar Allan Poe series, adapted by top-class scenarists like Richard Matheson and Robert Towne. His own best work as director (The Intruder) was so controversial he steered clear of such subject matter (racism) again and passion projects like Von Richthofen and Brown aka The Red Baron eventually gave way to serial producing:  his last directorial effort was a quarter of a century ago (Frankenstein Unbound). He audited acting classes with blacklistee Jeff Corey to understand performance and meet talent – which is how Jack Nicholson got his break in Cry Baby Killer and Robert Towne started writing screenplays. What I love about his early work is the way the women come to the fore:  June Kenney, Fay Spain, Beverly Garland and Susan Cabot are some of my favourite ladies and some of his alumni like Paul Bartel, Ron Howard and Demme have called upon him to act in small character parts in their mainstream successes. I once presented him with a project on biker movies and it was returned to me with the dry comment ‘Very accurate.’  High praise indeed! A scattering of my own fave raves from this renaissance man would include Gunslinger, Sorority Girl, A Bucket of Blood, The Pit and the Pendulum, The Wild Angels and Cockfighter. So much choice! Happy Birthday Mr Corman!

Dressed to Kill (1980)

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A film that practically embodies the term Psychosexual. Brian de Palma’s outrageous, explicit Hitchcockian homage (some might say rip off, Hitch called it fromage) still has the power to shock, with its jawdropping opening sequence – married Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) masturbating in a shower while her lover shaves in a mirror. She fesses up to her psychoanalyst Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) that she’s faking it because her lover’s not really up to it then asks him if he’s attracted to her. She does the  Vertigo shtick at the Metropolitan in Kim Novak’s off-white coat and when she drops a glove (fetish alert!) she attracts a man in shades (another warning).  He gets her off in a taxi (yes, this has to be seen to be believed) then wakes up to find a medical notice in his apartment …. and enters an elevator to leave the building when she suddenly remembers her wedding ring and presses the button to return to the scene of the extra-marital crime … You had me at hello!!! Call girl Liz (Nancy Allen) is the only witness to the murder – while the killer is a mysterious tall blonde in shades. Dickinson’s teenage inventor son Keith Gordon plays private dick, Allen becomes the woman in peril stalked by the tall blonde in shades, the shrink gets taunting messages from Bobbi, a transgender patient, and it all ends just the way you want:  blonde on blonde. Crazy, classic warning cinema – beware of shrinks and nooners! The soundtrack by Pino Donaggio is brilliant. Wild!

Mommie Dearest (1981)

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Joan Crawford said in the early 1970s that the only young modern actress who had what it took to be a star was Faye Dunaway. Maybe she planted an idea …. This quasi-delirious festival of camp Hollywood eating itself boasts a stunning – and perhaps fatal – performance by Faye Dunaway. Her impersonation of Crawford as a bat shit crazy obsessive compulsive derives from ingrate adopted daughter Christina’s infamous memoir, which she waited to publish until after the star’s death although there were signs she had been writing it beforehand. Being the cuckoo in the nest (one of four, in fact) of a narcissistic exhibitionist and likely bipolar cannot be easy (it’s not!) but doing it in the public eye must have been a certain kind of hell.  For Christina as played by the bizarre little Mara Hobel (who won a Razzie!) there is a kind of fascination in watching the mad mother take revenge, over and over again against the child’s perceived slights. The big scenes are the ones everyone knows – the beating because of wire hangers in the kids’ closet;  the midnight rose-cutting after she’s fired by MGM; wanting the child to eat rare meat; the brutal attack on a teenage Christina which was witnessed by a trade journo (who confirmed it.) However the narrative is damaged by a performance that takes it a little de trop, as Celeste Holm might aver, and Dunaway merely said of it that a director other than Frank Perry might have reined her in at times (even if the likeness is uncanny).  Her boyfriend, then husband, photographer Terry O’Neill was one of the producers. There was no reining in those shoulderpads though and the adaptation by Robert Getchell, Tracy Hotchner, Frank Perry and producer Frank Yablans loses steam every so often, especially in the second half when mother and adopted daughter were more or less reconciled (Diana Scarwid plays the adolescent and adult Christina) and she just appears like a Mean Girl to alkie Mommie. It’s not quite mad enough to be trash nor lurid enough to be exploitation. But there is great chutzpah in the opening montage when we watch Crawford prepare herself without once seeing her face – right up until the point where she’s ready for her grand entrance. And it is literally unbelievable but true that this sixty year old drag queen replaced her twentysomething daughter on a daytime soap when the girl was hospitalised with an ovarian tumour. That’s showbiz! And boy would I love to have her closet and get her round to scrub my floors!

Werewolves on Wheels (1971)

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What on this good earth could possibly be better than a biker film – unless it’s a biker horror film?! Adam (Stephen Oliver) and his crew The Devil’s Advocates (nominative determinism or tempting fate?!) are tooling around as bikers do until he falls under the influence of One (Servern Darden) and his cult… Donna Anders, appearing here as DJ Anderson (confusingly, her real name!) , plays his girlfriend Helen, who doesn’t like the hand of Tarot cards she’s dealt at the story’s outset. When they come across One and his gang in the deconsecrated desert church their food is drugged, she turns into a werewolf and soon infects Adam. (Is this a feminist act?!) They flee but get picked off one by one and when Adam and Helen transform in front of the others, the gang kill them. A few of them return to the church to kill the satanists but they recognise themselves in the procession …Notable for its footage of real-life bikers doing what they usually do, this was co-written by director Michel Devesque with David M. Kaufman. Oliver was best known for playing Lee Webber in TV’s Peyton Place between 1966 and 1968 and appeared in a number of other biker outings:  Motorpsycho (1965), Angels from Hell (1968), and Cycle Psycho (1973). You’ll recognise other cast members from The Last Movie. Cinematographer Isidore Mankofsky earned his stripes shooting for Encyclopaedia Brittanica but after this he made Scream Blacula Scream and in the following years got credits on films as diverse as The Muppet Movie, Somewhere in Time (sigh!), The Jazz Singer, Better Off Dead and One Crazy Summer:  a versatile talent.  Likewise Levesque, who followed this with Sweet Sugar, another exploitation outing, but who also had an impressive career as an art director on such fare as Supervixens, Beneath the Valley of the Super-Vixens, Carquake and Foxes. There’s a notable psychedelic soundtrack provided by Don Gere. This is pretty good as biker werewolf movies go, which is to say, what more could you want from such a fabulously preposterous genre mashup?! If you’re hairy you belong on a motorbike! You read it here. PS cat lovers beware.

The Baby (1973)

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Sick and twisted! That’s how I like my exploitation horror and that’s what this is, a film that goes full retard long before Lars Von Trier decided to cross the crass line. Baby (David Manzy) is the grown man in a playpen cared for by his indolent mom (Ruth Roman) and scary big-haired sisters (Marianna Hill and Susanne Zenor) and their idyll is interrupted by a nosy social worker (Anjanette Comer) with ideas of her own about what she might do to him… A surprisingly taut comment about society, family and perversion, written by Abe Polsky and directed by Ted Post with a great score composed by Gerald Fried. I’ve written about it at Offscreen:  http://offscreen.com/view/whole-lotta-motherlove. Great fun!

Billy Jack (1971)

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Some years ago Vanity Fair told me what I suspected for years:  my obsession with this film proved I am a film snob. What can I say? I saw it on TV when I was thirteen years old and it speaks to the thirteen year old in everyone about unfairness, killing animals, bigotry, viciousness in all its forms. In the days before you could find such things on the internet I discovered the soundtrack album on vinyl in a backstreet store on a trip to London. The hero is a half-Navajo former Green Beret back home after ‘Nam and invariably dragged into violence despite his wish to be a peace-loving law-abiding citizen who’s exploring his Native American heritage and practising hapkido. He comes to the rescue of kids at a freedom school run by Delores Taylor, who happens to be the wife of actor-writer-director-producer auteur, Tom Laughlin. This was absolutely mega on the drive-in circuit and slayed all comers upon re-release after AIP pulled out and Fox messed it up in theatrical and was the second of four movies about BJ. If you don’t love this movie you were never thirteen and you definitely never wore flowers in your long blonde hair. All you gotta do is relate. Peace and love, dudes. This is the source.

Frightmare (1974)

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Aka Cover Up. And on this eve of lost souls it is only right to return to the world of Pete Walker, that sleazy trash maestro of Britcult, encompassing cannibalism, lunacy and serial killing. As you were.  Jackie Yates (Deborah Fairfax) has been dreading the release from a mental asylum of her father Edmund (Rupert Davies) and stepmother Dorothy (Sheila Keith) who apparently ate 6 of their victims in a 1957 killing spree. Now they’re back. And a lot of young people are disappearing in the neighbourhood. Time for Jackie to turn Nancy Drew with her boyfriend Graham (Paul Greenwood). The complicating issue in her quest to stop the driller killers is her stepsister Debbie (Kim Butcher!) who wanders  off at night with a biker gang and appears to have a genetic predisposition to human flesh …  Written by Walker and David McGillivray with sounds by Stanley Myers (any relation to Michael?!) in an outing which boasts the usual Walker flourishes and desposits what Rosemary Woodhouse might call a sort of chalky undertaste. Notable for an appearance by the lovely Leo Genn in his second last screen appearance ever, as psychiatrist Dr Lytell. Care in the community? Psycho on the streets! Happy Halloween!

Sleeping With the Enemy (1991)

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Julia Roberts’ stardom really is the touchstone for the Nineties. Here she’s the abused young wife of violent OCD psycho Patrick Bergin, that dashing Irishman who wears a black coat and a great moustache and has his finest cinematic moment to date in Map of the Human Heart, Vincent Ward’s masterpiece. The unloved-up mismatched couple live on the beach in modernist fabulosity while he lines up all the cans so that they face the right way out (just like David Beckham). It really is a shock to see him administer a beating to America’s happiest hooker. A boating accident leads him to believe she’s dead – but she’s in the middle of Cedar Falls, Iowa, donning drag and a nifty moustache with her new and bearded neighbour’s assistance to visit her disabled mom in a nursing home having faked her funeral six months earlier. This is meat and drink to director Joseph Ruben who is working with the Ron Bass/Bruce Joel Rubin adaptation of Nancy Price’s novel. There are no real surprises here if you’ve ever wondered what it might be like if Fatal Attraction were to be reversed with added Berlioz. Just remember:  it’s all about the facial hair.