Have a spooktacular night!
Have a spooktacular night!
Pay a dollar to see a man in love with death! Watch Tony Curtis saw Janet Leigh in two! From his start at the Coney Island sideshows to London, Paris and Berlin, the career of legendary escapologist Harry Houdini is charted in a screenplay by Philip Yordan adapted from the book by Harold Kellock which plays fast and loose with the facts, including his tragically early death. Houdini (Tony Curtis) meets Bess (Janet Leigh) while trying out his early magic acts and they marry quickly and move in with his mother (Angela Clarke). He takes a regular job in a locksmith factory but tries to escape from a safe and Bess finally agrees to go to Europe with him instead of putting a downpayment on a house with prize money earned when he escapes from a straitjacket at a Halloween show for magicians. That’s when he becomes obsessed with Otto von Schweger, the only other man to have done so. (He develops a fatalistic belief that good things happen to him on Halloween). Bess joins him on the road as his assistant and becomes a star attraction. He becomes infamous after escaping a police cell at Scotland Yard but is too late arriving at von Schweger’s home to meet the man, who had just died. He left him a miniature of a man in a glass case and it becomes Houdini’s obsession. When his mother dies he wants to make contact with her and loses himself for two years. A journalist persuades him to expose fake spiritualists and then he returns to the one trick that remains … Curtis and Leigh were husband and wife and Hollywood’s darlings when they made this and they’re utterly charming together – she’s beguiling, practical and loving, he’s obsessive, devoted and brilliant: they practically sizzle on screen. Director George Marshall stages this beautifully in a production that is a triumph of design, colour and performance with great costumes by Edith Head. Demonstrating Houdini’s focus using a bauble on a chandelier as an objective correlative is a brilliant example of how this is visualised. A splendid, tense, thrilling, witty and romantic biography from the Golden Age of Hollywood with wonderfully imagined tricks and illusions.
This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart: both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA. He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him. When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.
Christmas is coming so it’s time to take this out. But it works at Halloween, Easter and ice cream season too – which is all year round, isn’t it?! This classic Hollywood musical comedy drama is simply perfection. Adapted from Sally Benson’s New Yorker stories of a midwestern family at the start of the twentieth century, it tells the story of the Smiths through the seasons. Made at the height of WW2, this fantasy about a pretty family shimmers with the lustrous care of director Vincente Minnelli, whose background in theatre design comes to the fore in terms of staging, decor, colour, choreography and performance. Judy Garland has some great moments in a film stuffed with them – The Trolley Song, the romance with The Boy Next Door, the amusing scenes with her sister Lucille Bremer; but the standout moments are mostly those with little Margaret O’Brien as Tootie, on her Halloween outing, her destruction of the snowmen and her distress at their father’s proposed move to NYC. Judy soothes her with Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Funny, sad, touching and joyous, this is a forever film.
‘Tis the season to be spooky! The countdown to Halloween commences. See this wonderful John Carpenter film in its original widescreen version, not the pan/scan version so frequently used on television. A beautifully shot ghost story, a genuinely eerie tale of a (literal) haunting revenge on the northern Californian coast one hundred years after a shipwreck. A logical conclusion to The Birds (1963), perhaps, featuring Hitchcock’s most memorable heroine, Janet Leigh.
Top Halloween Movies
I got the chills and they’re multiplyin’! ‘Tis the season to get … scared out of your wits! Here are some of my favourite movies to get in the mood for the coming of the witches… as the spirit moves you.
Halloween (1978) d. John Carpenter
The scariest movie ever … maybe.
The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) d. James Whale
Practically perfect in every way.
The Fog (1980) d. John Carpenter
See this in its original widescreen incarnation not the pan/scan TV version. Beautiful ghost story, genuinely eerie. A logical conclusion to THE BIRDS.
The Uninvited (1944) d. Lewis Allen
So Rebecca-ish it’s spooky. From the novel by Irish Republican Dorothy Macardle.
Meet Me In St Louis (1944) d. Vincente Minnelli
Little Tootie goes wild and Judy gets melancholy. The most gorgeous film ever made.
Freaks (1932) d. Tod Browning
Once seen, never forgotten.
The Craft (1996) d. Andrew Fleming
Great Mean Girls scenario, terrific performances.
Le Streghe/Witches (1967) d. Bolognini, De Sica, Pasolini, Visconti, Rossi.
An extraordinary lineup of Italian directors. Watch out for Clint Eastwood and Helmut Berger when he first ‘encountered’ Visconti (memorialized somewhat scandalously by the inimitable Dirk Bogarde…) A portmanteau compendium of many aesthetic pleasures.
Practical Magic (1998) d. Griffin Dunne
Nicole Kidman when she was still recognizable. Cute adaptation of the Alice Hoffman novel. Both stars went on to become Academy Award winners. Sadly not for this!
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) d. Steven Spielberg
The essence of wonder. I want one!
Scream (1996) d. Wes Craven
Postmodernism for everyone. Great screenplay by Kevin Williamson, Craven does mainstream. Boo!
The Devil-Doll (1936) d. Tod Browning
Another freak scene from the great Browning.
The Haunting (1963) d. Robert Wise
Brilliant adaptation of the terrifying novel by Shirley Jackson. Julie Harris was never better; Claire Bloom was at her amazing peak.
Young Frankenstein (1974) d. Mel Brooks
The publicity is right – it IS the funniest film ever!
The Innocents (1961) d. Jack Clayton
Still the best James interpretation. Chilling.
Salem’s Lot (1979) d. Tobe Hooper
I know, I know, it’s not a movie but it’s the scariest thing that’s ever been on TV. And that’s official And if I didn’t include it, I would spend my Halloween in dread of something horrible coming through the window…
Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) d. F.W. Murnau
A great film by one of the great filmmakers. Simply unmissable. (And Herzog’s re-interpretation isn’t bad for a moonlit night, either).
Vampyr (1932) d. Carl Dreyer
And in the same vein …(ahem) my favourite Dreyer film, about the enigmatic Allen Gray and his adventures in the countryside.
The Lost Boys (1987) d. Joel Schumacher
Still the best contemporary vampire movie … and what a closing line!!!
The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) d. Henry Selick
Pretty Burton pictures and a lovely tale of Jack Skellington. As close as we can get to a modern Edward Gorey, probably.
Pumpkin Moon (2006)
Lovely story, beautifully told from the picture book by Preston and Batram. Don’t allow your cat to watch it tho’. This used to be screened on Sky One … sigh.
It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966) d. Bill Melendez
And speaking of pumpkins …