Monday, October 25, 2021


This past weekend Your Humble Narrator saw two real gems at this year's belated-from-May version of the Arthur Lyons Film Noir Festival:

El Vampiro Negro (The Black Vampire)--The "vampire" of the title is of a non-supernatural, psychological nature in this 1953 thriller from Argentina. It's another remake of Fritz Lang's M, loosely retold, although the child-killer still whistles "In the Hall of the Mountain King" when he sees little girls. Played by Nathan Pinzon--usually a comedy star--The Vampire is a nebbishy private teacher of English, tormented by his horrible compulsion.

The star is beautiful Olga Zubarry as a nightclub singer who has witnessed The Vampire disposing of a body, but initially avoids telling the police inspector (Roberto Escalada), not wanting the publicity for a reason that now seems quaint. The connection between our heroine and the handsome, repressed inspector, who has a paralyzed wife, sets up a plot payoff that fails to show up, and the movie, directed and co-written by the Uruguayan Roman Vinoly Barreto, rings other peculiar, convoluted but oddly effective variations on the M plot.

It's possible that the filmmakers attempt to pack too much story into the brief running time, and it's hard to quite pin down the movie's moral point of view. The acting is powerful, however, and the suspenseful flourishes toward the end work superbly.

The movie has a lush score by Juan Ehlert that perhaps sounds a little inappropriately idyllic. But the print shown in Palm Springs, restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive in cooperation with the Noir Foundation, shows off the cinematography of Anibal Gonzalez Paz beautifully. See this one if you get a chance.

The Cruel Tower--"I'm studyin' to be a crook," says Casey (Steve Brodie) as he shuffles a marked deck. That way, he hopes, he won't end up like his late colleague Tony. That's how desperate the characters in this roiling 1956 melodrama are; becoming a crook would be an aspirational step up in workplace safety.

They're steeplejacks, you see; the guys who scale water towers and smokestacks and church steeples for maintenance and repair. For those of us with a lifelong terror of heights, this is tension enough, but the movie, directed by Lew Landers, mixes in a romantic triangle between the splenetic boss (Charles McGraw), the handsome, haunted young drifter (John Ericson) who falls in with the crew, and smiling, statuesque Mari Blanchard, often referred to here simply as "The Babe." There's also booze, sabotage, juke-joint brawling and a Mission right out of Guys and Dolls.

Along with Brodie, the terrific supporting cast includes Peter Whitney, Alan Hale, Jr., glimpses of Stafford Repp and Dick Rich, and a nice bit by Carol Kelly as a sassy, deeply unimpressed waitress. The script, by Warren Douglas (adapting a novel by William Brown Hartley) has some ripe noir flourishes; asked if The Babe knows that her lover is married, a character matter-of-factly replies "She's not stupid, she's just evil."

Friday, October 22, 2021


Opening this weekend:

Ron's Gone Wrong--"B-bots" are the hot new item every kid wants. Shaped like big glowing Tic Tacs, B-bots are personalized robotic sidekicks programmed to cater to each individual kid's tastes, and to maximize their social media presence.

The craze for this highly plausible consumer product is the premise of this CGI animated comedy, a Brit production distributed in the states by 20th Century. Our junior-high-age hero Barney would love a B-bot for his birthday, but Barney's dad, a struggling novelties salesman, can't afford to get him a brand new one, so he gives him one that literally fell off a truck.

This is Ron (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), and he's damaged goods; he has indeed gone wrong, and his screwy malfunctioning antics generate much wacky mayhem. Initially appalled, Barney gradually learns to love his well-meaning but haywire pal in a way that the kids with functional B-bots can't. Ron, who seems like a cousin of the similarly minimalist and deadpan Baymax in Disney's 2014 Big Hero 6, is indeed a lovable presence.

The overarching point of Ron's Gone Wrong--that true friendship can't be programmed; it's messy and always requires compromise and acceptance--is a good one. But the movie's more direct and immediate points, about our society's alarming if not terrifying addiction to social media, are probably more urgently needed.

Thursday, October 21, 2021


In October's honor...

...Greater Phoenix Jewish Film Festival presents its first horror movie, for free! The unnerving short subject Dibbuk, about the efforts of a minyan to exorcise a man of the titular spirit, may be viewed from October 21 through October 24. Go to to watch.

Tuesday, October 19, 2021


Now in theaters:

Halloween Kills--Well, it certainly seems to, at the box office, at least. The new installment in the slasher series slaughtered at the multiplexes this weekend, even though it was available to stream for free on video. This suggests that people may still want the communal experience of moviegoing, at least for certain kinds of movies, horror flicks being an obvious example. I find this a cheering thought.

Unfortunately, it's not very good. It's handsomely produced, with a look and a premise and some cast members that link it nostalgically to John Carpenter's 1978 original, and it has some good ideas. But it fumbles almost all of them, and fails to be deeply scary.

Despite being burned alive at the end of the previous sequel (2018) generic masked killer Michael Myers still is not quite dead, and he plods around Haddonfield racking up more victims. Jamie Leigh Curtis is back as Laurie, hospitalized with a wound and fretted over by her daughter (Judy Greer) and granddaughter (Andi Matichak). The focus this time, cleverly, is on the characters who were little kids in the '78 movie: Anthony Michael Hall as Tommy, Robert Longstreet as Lonnie, and Kyle Richards, who returns to the role of Lindsey which she played in the original (the fact that the little girl from Halloween is now in her fifties is scarier than anything onscreen). Tommy raises an angry mob of townies to kill Michael, just like the torch-and-pitchfork-bearing gang at the end of Universal's Frankenstein.

I was irked when I saw clips of these scenes in the trailer; this does not strike me as the most auspicious moment in our history to extoll the virtues of mob uprisings. I was pleased that screenwriters Scott Teems, Danny McBride and director David Gordon Green did not, at least, fall into this trap; indeed, mindless mass rage is repudiated by the film, and Michael is described as a personification of fear, and the reckless destruction that can arise from it. The reactionary subtext of Michael's hostilities is also hinted at; his targets this time include a middle-aged gay couple and a middle-aged interracial couple.

Something really interesting could have been done with all this, but the movie is muddled and slow and clumsily structured, and--very much unlike the original--it falls back on gore. Buckets more blood are spilled, but Halloween Kills never comes close to capturing that pervasive sense of archetypical dread that Carpenter's film had.

Certainly I'm a fan of the idea of flinty old Jamie Leigh Curtis, past her fear and ready to rise up and kick Michael's ass. The trouble is, they already made that movie, back in 1998. It was called Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, and while it wasn't in the same league as the original, it wasn't a bad picture. It's where the series should have ended, but of course, the prospect of the kind of box office that Halloween Kills is having is the surest way to make a masked killer rise again.

Sunday, October 17, 2021


Playing at 6:30 p.m., Monday, October 18, at the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix:

The Maltese Falcon (1941)--This movie is, arguably, the original film noir; it was the earliest of the five movies to which the French critic Nino Frank applied the term back in 1946 (the others were Laura, Murder, My Sweet, Double Indemnity and The Woman in the Window). It's also one of the best of its kind, whatever name you choose to call the genre. If you've never seen it, the Friends of the Orpheum Theatre are doing you a solid by presenting it at that august venue this Monday. You're advised not to miss it.

Adapted from Dashiell Hammett's 1930 novel and directed by John Huston, it's the tale of how San Francisco private eye Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) gets caught up with a ring of shady characters obsessed with obtaining the title McGuffin, a figurine of a bird of incalculable value. Spade is (or poses as) a tough, cynical, amoral sort, and holds his own against the gang: oh-so-vulnerable femme fatale Brigid O'Shaughnessy (Mary Astor), fussy Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), nervous young "gunsel" Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook, Jr.) and jolly, lethal gentleman-thief Caspar Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet).

Every one of these performances and several others in the film--like Lee Patrick as Sam's loyal secretary Effie Perrine--is an instant classic; if they seem like stereotypical stock figures to modern audiences, it's because they were largely responsible for establishing the stereotypes. This is the quintessential screen incarnation of Bogart's pure tough guy persona; he works here without the gallant, romantic side he shows in Casablanca

Under Huston's amazingly confident direction--it was his directorial debut--these actors make the near-opaque exposition that they spew at each other a pleasure, whether you can follow it or not. There's little real action; much of the movie consists of the characters describing (often dishonestly) stuff that's already happened. Yet the film maintains its tension and wit throughout; on its own terms it's close to perfect.

Online, by the way, we're told to "expect some theatrical surprises throughout the show, making this a once in a lifetime cinematic experience." Dash Hammett himself couldn't have been much more cryptic.

Monday, October 11, 2021


Now in the multiplexes:

Venom: Let There Be Carnage--The King of the Rumbly Distorted Voice, Tom Hardy, is back in the dual role of Eddie Brock and Venom, the alien "symbiote" with whom he shares body-space. Eddie and Vennie have developed a bickering domestic relationship since the 2018 Marvel movie Venom; Vennie is constantly nagging his host to let him eat the brains of human "bad guys" like a kid begging a parent for permission to get a tattoo.

In this sequel, some of the Big V's genetic material gets blended with serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson), who bears Eddie a grudge. Cletus turns into an uber-Venom-ish monster called Carnage, who looks like he stepped out a Francis Bacon triptych. He busts out of prison and liberates his girlfriend Shriek (Naomie Harris), who can yell really loud, and the two of them go on a wild, vengeful rampage in San Francisco.

With his vague working-class Mid-Atlantic accent (he wears a Detroit Lions jacket even though he lives in the Bay area), Hardy's Eddie is a rather recessive leading man; mostly he's a serviceable straight man to Venom. But Harrelson puts on an entertaining show as usual, and Harris is freaky and memorable. Andy Serkis directed, working in a style of headlong visual shorthand that keeps the story flying forward like a driverless speedboat, and using the San Fran locations to good advantage.

But when I tell you what I liked best about Venom: Let There Be Carnage, it will make me sound just like the old guy that I am: It's an hour and 37 minutes long. That's right, this Marvel movie is a freaking hour and a half long. It doesn't have five endings; it doesn't keep you in your seat for more than two hours in fear that you won't feel like you got enough for your money. Make no mistake, there's plenty of weird, near-surreal action. The movie doesn't skimp, but it doesn't overload our plate, either.

Thursday, October 7, 2021


If you need an intriguing read for October, you might consider...

...The Case Against Satan, a brief 1962 novel by Ray Russell of Sardonicus fame. Somehow I had never heard of this one, now out in a respectable new edition by Penguin Classics if you please, but it's a gripping fast read, and it seems inarguably influential.

Set in a Roman Catholic rectory in a working-class Chicago neighborhood, Russell's book dramatizes an exorcism. At the time, apparently, this rite was so rarely performed and archaic that it was a novelty to readers it would not be a decade later, after the release of William Peter Blatty's 1971 novel The Exorcist and its 1973 movie adaptation popularized the concept.

In Russell's yarn, the possession victim is a pretty teenage girl. The exorcism is performed by a younger priest with a drinking problem and an interest in psychology and other "modern" ideas; he's supervised by his Bishop, an older, more traditional sort. The victim is bound to a bed, and at one point she has an upset tummy to a projectile degree.

In short, the book has broad resemblances to The Exorcist that seem unmistakable. Unlike Blatty, however, Russell leaves matters ambiguous; the story could, however unconvincingly, be interpreted in non-supernatural terms.

The author's narrative tone toward then-contemporary religious attitudes is snarky and contemptuous, referring, at the novel's opening, to the modern idea of God as "...a nodding Santa Claus with twinkling eyes and a spun glass beard..." and to modern religion as " unnatural thing of all light and no shadow, a pious bonbon so nice, so sweet, so soporifically bland that a Karl Marx can call it the opium of the people not without justice..." Russell, who died in 1999, lived long enough to see conservative religious attitudes in our culture swing the other direction; I don't know if he was comforted by this change or not.

I, for one, am fervently hoping for the Nodding Santa Claus. That said, if you're looking for a diabolical tale to pass an autumnal evening, rather than revisiting Rosemary's Baby or The Exorcist this year I'd suggest you pick the devil you don't know.

Saturday, October 2, 2021


Happy My Favorite Month everybody! The month of sanctioned spooky fun and, here in Arizona, a gradually waning inferno is blessedly upon us again.

The Wife did her usual fine job of bringing macabre festivity to Hacienda del Moorhead:

MeTV's old-school classicist Svengoolie favors us with a Franken-Fest throughout the month...

...kicking off tonight with 1948's Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, with its wonderful animated bat transformations, Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf man, Glenn Strange as the Monster, and the great Bela Lugosi, excellent in his final screen turn as Dracula. It wraps up on Halloween Eve with the 1965 rib-tickler Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster.

Your Humble Narrator is a lifelong fan of ol' Frankie myself; a few years ago I did a "listicle" for New Times online about the strangest versions of Frankenstein. Since then I might have added this can of ginger ale...

...meant to promote one of the Hotel Transylvania sequels, in which the monster looks like a member of a boyband.

Anyway, a safe and happy October to us all, and many happy returns.

Friday, October 1, 2021


Opening this weekend:

The Addams Family 2--Wednesday, the emotionally reserved daughter, is the focus of this sequel to 2019's animated adaptation of the classic Charles Addams cartoons from The New Yorker. Her exuberant clan gets on her nerves, and she's especially full of woe when her ebullient dad Gomez insists that she go on a family road trip. So when she is told that she may not be biologically an Addams, she's willing to listen.

The whole gang, almost, piles into the spacious, splendidly Gothic camper; along with Chloe Grace Moretz as Wednesday, Gomez (Oscar Isaac), Morticia (Charlize Theron), Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll) and Puggsley (Javon Walton), as well as the faithful, ever-gloomy Lurch (co-director Conrad Vernon), the ever-handy Thing, the moplike Cousin It (Snoop Dogg) and leonine pet Kitty Kat are along for the ride. Only Grandmama (Bette Midler) stays at home, to keep an eye on things (and party). Episodic wackiness ensues, as the family gets involved with everything from child pageants to bikers, while pursued by the shifty rep (Wallace Shawn) of a mad scientist (Bill Hader).

It's an above-average CGI production, with plenty of slapstick chases, fine voice acting and a standard emotional template; Wednesday gradually learns what family she wants to be part of. But the plot runs counter to the usual Addams Family schtick.

The retro-rerun network MeTV recently began airing the original Addams Family series (1964-1966), and I've watched a few episodes for the first time in decades. The show holds up amusingly, and what makes it work, I think, is that the actors don't play spooky. They have a hearty, aggressive geniality that makes them lovable--and, in the case of Carolyn Jones as Morticia, sexy--as well as funny in their macabre context. Even Ted Cassidy's baleful Lurch doesn't exactly play spooky; he's just deeply apprehensive.

The old series bounced the family's antics off of conventional midcentury banality, with the liberating suggestion that people who embraced their eccentricities might just be happier. Addams Family 2 comes to a really bizarre, shape-shifting finale, with the Addams folk in the clutches of the Dr. Moreau-like crazy scientist, that overshadows their peculiarity. Even the kiddie pageant world seems weirder than these title characters. Maybe the exposure of our culture to a couple of decades of reality TV has made the Addams Family seem normal.