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July 5, 2014
David Kalat
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All kids love Alien

It was 1979; I was nine years old.  It was a Sunday morning and my parents were leisurely enjoying the Sunday paper.  I could see there was a front page story, illustrated with a massive photograph of what appeared to be the wreckage of a crashed spaceship on the moon or something.  I don’t remember the headline exactly—something to effect that a person (Scott-something, or something-Scott) had discovered alien life.

My heart quickened a bit—somebody’s actually discovered evidence of other life in the universe?  But also complete bafflement—this was huge news, and why weren’t my folks showing any interest in it?  As far as I could tell, they weren’t even reading this story.

My dad explained that this wasn’t the front page of the newspaper, it was the front page of the Arts section of the newspaper.  Ridley Scott hadn’t found alien life, he’d made a movie about an alien.  This was just an article about the movie, to get people to go see it.

My bubble burst, but I didn’t feel any disappointment.  My excitement just shifted.  I went from being excited about the prospect that we were not alone in the universe to being excited at the prospect of seeing this movie.  Because, oh man, did it look awesome.

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KEYWORDS: action figures, Alien, Kenner, Ridley Scott
COMMENTS: 16
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Matrimony, Madness and Murder: HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON (1970)

hhpModern weddings often bring out the worst in people. The attempt to meet family and social expectations while exchanging vows that occasionally read like a prison sentence can be a dangerous cocktail made worse by a deep focus on money matters. Instead of enjoying their “special day” couples and their accommodating families often end up obsessing over the high cost of gourmet cakes and designer dresses. And as the manufactured pressure mounts, the passion and purpose that brought two people together can get lost in the frantic shuffle down the aisle. Thankfully matrimony rarely leads to madness and murder unless your name happens to be John Harrington and you run one of the most fashionable bridal salons in Paris. Harrington is the main protagonist in Mario Bava’s incredibly stylish thriller HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON aka IL ROSSO SEGNO DELLA FOLLIA (1970), which airs on TCM underground this coming Saturday (11PM PST/2AM EST). The grisly title tends to conjure up all kinds of terrible images in the mind’s eye but the film, which details Harrington’s murderous exploits, is surprisingly free of gore. Corpses do pile up in HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON but they’re drenched in more bridal lace than blood. The film’s dreamlike atmosphere and Hitchcockian plot twists leave a lot to the imagination and viewers who tune in to TCM Underground on Saturday night should appreciate Bava’s bold color palette, inventive directing choices as well as his bleak sense of humor and willingness to scrutinize the myth of marital bliss as well as the fickle world of fashion with a critical eye.

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Ancient Evil is Now a Modern Industry: THIRST (1979)

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In Rod Hardy’s THIRST (1979) we’re introduced to Kate (Chantal Contouri), an attractive waif-like young fashion designer with a pet cat and a serious problem. Kate’s the last descendent of Countess Elizabeth Báthory, often cited as history’s first and most prolific female serial killer, and she’s been kidnapped by a group of power hungry aristocratic vampires known as ‘The Brotherhood’ who need her blood so they can fulfill their diabolical plan to turn the rest of us into human cattle. Will Kate outwit her sinister captors and survive her ordeal or succumb to her baser instincts? Thanks to a new Blu-ray package from Severin Films you can discover the answer to that question for yourself.

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Telefilm Time Machine: Home for the Holidays (1972)

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Eleanor Parker in 1972

The holidays can be a very difficult time for some. I know from firsthand experience that when you don’t have any family to rely on or any kind of financial security to speak of Christmas can feel like a national nightmare inhabited by drunken revelers, crazed shoppers and merciless merchants. This is only compounded by what author Anthony Trollope once called “the perils of winter.” More folks tend to die during the winter months than any other time of the year so when you’re coping with the death of a loved one or a life threatening illness the pressure to remain “merry and bright” can become wearisome and demoralizing. I mention all of this because one of my favorite telefilms seems to perfectly capture the darker aspects of the holidays that are so often swept under the rug. Throughout 2013 I’ve spotlighted a few of my favorite made-for-TV movies so it seems appropriate to conclude this unofficial series with a look at HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS (1972), a surprisingly grim and suspenseful Christmas themed thriller that also happens to star Eleanor Parker who recently passed away at the age of 91.

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More Cat/egories…

Harry & Tonto

My last post was spurred on (emphasis on “purr”) by the poster for Inside Llewyn Davis. The protagonist of that film at one point passes by a poster for The Incredible Journey (Fletcher Markle, 1963), which is a Disney movie about two dogs and one cat going trying to find their way home. The name for the cat that Llewyn Davis chases throughout the film is Ulysses, which was actually played by three tabbies – neither of which gets a credit in the film. (Sacrilege! Someone call P.E.T.A.) Whether the movie viewers then choose to consult Joyce or Homer for further inside references is a matter of taste. For me, because the story concerns a man who is ejected from his NYC environment who goes off on a series of adventures, which include alienating his family (and later getting back together with family), all while having some adventures on the road with a cat, I couldn’t help but think of Harry & Tonto (Paul Mazursky, 1975) – a film that starred two tabbies in the starring role of Tonto. But, mainly, it made me think of cats and movie posters. So here, as promised, are more images of exactly that. [...MORE]

Cinematic Cat-egories

Postcard of Luna Park

I was going to write about The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), because it’s screening tomorrow on TCM and, also, because the latest Coen brothers film, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013), opens theatrically this coming Friday. Instead, I got stuck on the Inside Llewyn Davis poster. There is something about its composition that I find very striking. To notice it, you’ll have to ignore the top and bottom, which are lame in the ways that most movie posters are routinely lame: emphasizing celebrity names up top, and then all the normal credits at bottom. The middle section, however, is inspired. I can’t stop looking at the cat. There are several reasons for this, and the first is due to the sight-lines, which immediately reminded me of the Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818) painting by famous German Romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. It’s a classic example of a visual construction where all the lines lead to the center. Except in Friedrich’s case the lines of the natural landscape converge on man, whereas with the Inside Llewyn Davis poster, the sight-lines provided by the New York City streetscape converge on the cat. I think this is great because, in my humble opinion, any movie poster is immediately improved with the addition of a feline presence. Since our furry little friends are said to have nine lives, in this post I’ll be looking at how cats have been depicted throughout cinema in nine different categories. [...MORE]

Adults Only: House on Straw Hill (1976)

lhIn the early 1980s British home video stores found themselves in the center of a storm when moral panic swept through the U.K. Religious leaders, parents and politically motivated individuals created what’s now known as the “video nasty” scare after discovering that stores were renting graphic horror films usually reserved for American grindhouses and indiscriminate drive-ins. Most of the objectionable movies were made in the U.S. or Italy where excessive violence and nudity had few problems getting past censors if it was properly rated but in Britain film censorship tended to be much more restrictive. Movies with explicit content and titles that often intended to shock such as CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST (1980), THE DRILLER KILLER (1979) and I SPIT ON YOUR GRAVE (1978) caused widespread outrage throughout the U.K. that led to them being removed from video stores, criminally prosecuted or cut for British audiences. The only British film that was apparently singled out during the video nasty scare was James Kenelm Clarke’s THE HOUSE ON STRAW HILL (aka Exposé; 1976). For decades this notorious erotic thriller has had the reputation of being one of the sleaziest films ever produced in Britain during the 1970s, which made it difficult to see. Badly cut or edited video copies circulated among the curious but the quality was always questionable. Thanks to the efforts of Severin Films I recently had the opportunity to catch up with this infamous film on DVD but it didn’t exactly live up to its seedy status. Is it an unsung cult classic waiting rediscovery? Or is it one of the most depraved movies ever made? In truth it’s neither of these things but I’m glad that Severin has saved the film from obscurity and given it a new life on DVD.

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Death Grip: The Beast With Five Fingers (1947)

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Society prefers death to be hidden.  Bodies are covered in sheets, buried in caskets. There are no morgues in malls, but they are cast into hospital basements, where even lost visitors are unlikely to stumble upon it. Our mortality is a fact of life we are abstractly aware of, but a mutual pact has been made to keep it out of public view. Horror films have exploited this reluctance by making corpses ultra-visible, re-animating limp flesh and exposing the viscera that once gave us life. Frankenstein is the model for this, its monster cobbled together from the remnants of other bodies. In a macabre subgenre, body parts are severed and gain life of their own, including one that involves, creeping, scampering, choking hands. The mangled classic in this strange sector is The Beast With Five Fingers (1947), in which Peter Lorre is convinced a severed hand is murdering the inhabitants of an Italian mansion. Other entries include The Hands of Dr. Orlac (1924), The Crawling Hand (’63), Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (’65) and, succinctly, The Hand (1981, an early Oliver Stone effort), but the Lorre film is the one that endures, and it has received a longer life in a DVD from Warner Archive,  released just in time for Halloween.

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Diabolique vs. Scream of Fear

I was gonna call this week’s post “2 Girls, 1 Swimming Pool” but decided against it.  But inspired by TCM’s upcoming screening of one of my all-time favorite thrillers, Henri Georges Clouzot’s Diabolique (AKA Les Diaboliques), I’m taking the opportunity to celebrate the twisted artistry of this gloriously macabre picture–and taking stock of one of its many knock-offs.

Clouzot’s is a dark and cynical cinema, devoid of hope and happy endings.  Which is unsurprising, since that is an equally apt description of Clouzot himself.  “All his work has been surrounded by an air of scandal and affront,” writes Roy Armes, “and the shooting of all his films is conducted in an atmosphere of bitterness and recrimination.  His own urge to dominate is perhaps reflected in his urge to dominate is perhaps reflected in his characters who seek outlets for their lust, hatred, and violence.”

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Nosferatu to you too, and the horse you rode in on

It’s getting ever closer to Halloween, and TCM is imminently going to screen the spectacular 1922 Nosferatu.  I was asked to contribute an audio commentary on this legendary horror classic for the UK Blu-Ray edition from Masters of Cinema.  In preparing my track I took the opportunity to challenge some of the received wisdom about the authorship of this film—but one disadvantage of the audio commentary format as a vehicle for that kind of discussion is that I was limited to the visual examples presented by the film itself.  To really make my case I wanted to be able to show some other film clips or stills—which is best suited to a blog!  So here we go—into the mad world of Nosferatu’s creator, F.W. Murnau Albin Grau!

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