Barrymore Best: The Spiral Staircase (1946)

ss17Ethel Barrymore & Dorothy McGuire in The Spiral Staircase (1946)

This month Turner Classic Movies is spotlighting “The Best of the Barrymores.” The Barrymore family regularly appears on TCM but every Monday evening throughout April viewers can tune in and catch a selection of films featuring one or more of the Barrymore siblings in some of their best roles. Next Monday (April 18) the TCM spotlight will shine on Ethel Barrymore and one of the films scheduled to air is The Spiral Staircase (1946) at 10 PM EST/7 PM PST.

The Spiral Staircase is a longtime favorite of mine and the film has been hailed as a prototype for many of the best giallo; the Italian genre films that I touched on just last week in a piece titled Death Walk Twice: A Giallo Double Feature. With thoughts of murder and black-gloved killers still running through my mind, it seemed like a good time to revisit this classic thriller that features an Academy Award nominated performance by Ethel Barrymore as the bedridden matriarch of a wealthy family that is concealing some unsavory secrets.

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A Quiet Place in the Country

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A Quiet Place in the Country was nominated for a Golden Berlin Bear at the 1969 Berlin International Film Festival. The film was spearheaded by Italian director Elio Petri, stars Franco Nero and Vanessa Redgrave, and includes the work of Ennio Morricone. Billed as a sadistic and erotic horror film, it reminds me of Piero Schivazappa’s The Frightened Woman (aka: The Laughing Woman) which was released in 1969, a fitful year for Italian psychosexual thrillers. I’ll admit to preferring the latter to the former, but A Quiet Place in the Country is not without various selling points. [...MORE]

Six Irish Tales of Terror & Imagination

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Many of my favorite horror and fantasy books are short story collections or compact novelettes. Some excellent examples of this include Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly, which contains his chilling vampire tale Carmilla among other fright-filled stories, or Oscar Wilde’s classic The Picture of Dorian Gray that runs a mere 176 pages (give or take a few depending on what version you may own). I’m also extremely fond of horror film anthologies made up of brief tales of terror that provide a variety of shocks in a short amount of time. It’s worth pointing out that before 1980 horror films generally clocked in under the two-hour mark but that isn’t the case anymore. Today I frequently find that many modern horror films tend to run too long and are bogged down by unnecessary filler. They often lose momentum and fail to maintain suspense so in turn, they end up relying on cheap jump scares to excite audiences and keep them in their seats. In my quest for more fulfilling fright films I’ve come across some exceptional shorts that manage to engross, amuse and startle viewers without wearing out their welcome and they rarely rely on jump scares to entertain.

To celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day I thought I would share a collection of outstanding short Irish horror and dark fantasy films that readers can view online free of charge. The six films I’ve selected showcase the talents of some up-and-coming Irish filmmakers who frequently incorporate Irish folklore and legends into their work. These films also demonstrate how potent a succinct shock to the system can be when it is thoughtfully executed by creative writers and directors. In fact, some of these short films are so accomplished and effective that you might find yourself wishing that they were full-length features.

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Wine & Wolves: The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

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I can’t let Halloween pass without talking about a Hammer film. They go hand-to-hand in my home and one of my favorites is Terence Fisher’s The Curse of the Werewolf (1961). The film features some sumptuous color photography, incredibly sophisticated make-up effects for its time and a powerful central performance from Oliver Reed. It also happens to contain many references to wine.

The Curse of the Werewolf begins with a hungry beggar (Richard Wordsworth) who arrives in a small 18th Century Spanish town while church bells ring out in celebration of a wedding. He immediately visits a local bar where the townspeople have gathered and are drinking wine in abundance from crude cups. When the beggar asks them to share their wine and food, he’s refused and told to visit the wedding party taking place at the home of a powerful nobleman appropriately named Marques Siniestro (Anthony Dawson). The local town’s people know just how sinister the nobleman truly is and suspect the beggar will suffer his wrath but they selfishly send him there anyway. Their heartlessness and lack of compassion for the poor man will eventually have a devastating effect on the whole community. Although this is a crimson colored film in more ways than one, The Curse of the Werewolf smartly stresses that the true horrors of the world are man-made even when they have supernatural connotations.

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Double Your Pleasure with a Dracula Double Feature

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On Sunday Oct. 25th and Wednesday Oct. 28th, classic horror fans are in for a real cinematic treat. Turner Classic Movies in association with Fathom Events and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment will be bringing DRACULA (1931), along with its Spanish language equivalent, back to the big screen. This Dracula double feature will be shown at selected theaters across the country and is accompanied by an introduction from TCM host Ben Mankiewicz. Tickets can be purchased online at the Fathom Events website.

Tod Browning’s DRACULA is rightly hailed as a horror classic while the Spanish version directed by George Melford was assumed lost and went largely unseen by modern audiences following its initial release until it was restored and distributed on home video in 1992. Both films were shot at the same time using the same sets but with different casts, which was a typical practice by studios in the early 1930s. Their goal was to appeal to international audiences eager to see new-fangled sound films in their own language. The idea quickly went out of favor due to the high cost of producing multiple movies but the Spanish language version of DRACULA is one of best examples we have of this popular practice.

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10 Trailblazing Horror Films Directed by Women

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Pictured above: Director Wendy Toye

All month long TCM has been airing films made by women on Tuesday and Thursday night as part of their groundbreaking Trailblazing Women series hosted by Illeana Douglas. According to Charles Tabesh, senior vice president of programming for TCM, the goal of Trailblazing Women is to “Highlight the impact of female filmmakers throughout history and encourage future female filmmakers.” The response has been overwhelmingly positive and it’s heartening to see TCM’s resources used to educate, inform and inspire viewers.

I’ve been enjoying a lot of the Trailblazing Women programming myself but since we’re in the middle of Schocktober, I thought I’d set aside some time to highlight some of my favorite horror films and thrillers directed by women who have left their macabre mark on a genre that many mistakenly assume is not very female friendly. The truth is that horror cinema is one of the few genres where women filmmakers are making impressive inroads and their groundbreaking work is well worth seeking out this month or any month.

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Every Dog Must Have His Day

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“What counts is not necessarily the size of the dog in the fight–it’s the size of the fight in the dog.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

One of the best new films I’ve seen in recent months is WHITE GOD (2014). This Hungarian production thoughtfully directed by Kornél Mundruczó tells the deeply troubling story of Hagen, a pampered pooch owned by a somewhat aloof thirteen-year-old girl named Lilli (Zsófia Psotta) who is abandoned by Lilli’s callous father and left to fend for himself. We follow the discarded pet on his harrowing journey through the streets of Budapest where he encounters other homeless dogs as well as abusive dogcatchers, cruel butchers and finally bloodthirsty dog handlers who train Hagen to kill. When he eventually escapes his torturers, he is a much meaner animal and forms a pack with other abused canines. In a brutal finale, the dogs roam the city taking revenge on the humans who have tormented them.

The film is weighted with biting social commentary as well as religious and political allegory but at its heart, WHITE GOD is a rather simple and profoundly sad story about a helpless dog that learns he must rely on himself and rebel against authority if he wants to survive in a dog-eat-dog world. It also doubles as a sensitive coming-of-age story about the young dog owner who learns a similar lesson although the perils and circumstances she faces are much more privileged and forgiving.

While watching WHITE GOD I was reminded of a few other films I admire that center around dogs like Hagen who were forced to take similar journeys while suffering the consequences of man’s inhumanity to man and animal alike.

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September 5, 2015
David Kalat
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The Misunderstood Legacy of Dr. Caligari

There are times when the received wisdom on a movie separates from the movie itself and starts to run down a track of its own. Consider “Play it again, Sam,” the Thing Everybody Knows about Casablanca even though that line is never spoken in the film. Thinking that’s a line in Casablanca is a trivial error with no real consequences—the sentiment is recognizable from the film, such that it can be true-ish if not strictly accurate.

But then there’s the strange case of Dr. Caligari. Somewhere along the line, the Thing Everybody Knows about this landmark classic of horror cinema took root in our culture like intellectual kudzu—quickly overtaking all available territory and choking to death all the alternative points of view. Thankfully, this remarkable film is making a mini-comeback thanks to some intrepid restorationists, affording an opportunity to rethink its legacy.  (Plus it’s on TCM this Sunday, so now’s the time to read up and do our homework on it, right?)

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KEYWORDS: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
COMMENTS: 19
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Past Lives: The She-Creature (1956)

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In 1956 the hip new fad was past life regression, thanks to the story of Bridey Murphy. In Colorado, amateur hypnotist Morey Bernstein had been experimenting his craft with Virginia Mae Morrow, who claimed to have died in Ireland in 1864, when she was known as Bridey Murphy. The story was reported in the Denver Post, and then published as a best-selling book authored by Bernstein in 1956, The Search for Bridey Murphy. It was briefly on everybody’s lips, with the New York Times reporting, “there were Bridey Murphy parties (‘come as you were’) and Bridey Murphy jokes (parents greeting newborns with ‘Welcome back’).”  Hollywood wanted to cash-in on the craze while it was still relevant, so Paramount rushed their official adaptation of The Search for Bridey Murphy, starring Teresa Wright, into production. It was released on October 1st of 1956. American International Pictures worked a little quicker, cranking their past life regression monster movie The She-Creature (1956) out in nine days, and getting it into theaters on July 25th. Though beset by casting troubles and budget restrictions, The She-Creature manages to create an atmosphere of voluptuous dread, aided by Paul Blaisdell’s insectoid creature design and efficient direction from bargain basement king Edward L. Cahn.

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Mae Clarke: Frankenstein’s First Bride

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FRANKENSTEIN (1931) airs tonight on TCM at 9:30PM EST/6:30PM PST

The name Mae Clarke might not immediately ring any bells but the fair-haired, spirited and sad-eyed beauty was a promising leading lady in pre-code Hollywood before personal disappointments, mental health issues and a disfiguring car accident took their toll. When Clarke died in 1992 at age 81 most classic film fans remembered her as the woman who gets a grapefruit smashed in her face by James Cagney during THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931) or they might have recalled her daring leap from a window to protect the man she loves in THE FRONT PAGE (1931). Thankfully, many of Clarke’s earlier films have been restored and made available since then. We’re now able to get a much broader understanding of why a 1932 issue of Picture Play magazine prophesied a “brilliant career for her” and Modern Screen claimed, “Mae Clark deserves a place among the big names of filmdom and will get there before long–watch her!”

Today TCM is featuring Mae Clarke in their Summer Under the Stars programming and you can catch her in a number of films including James Whale’s WATERLOO BRIDGE (1930), where she plays the doomed Myra. Many consider it her best film and Clarke often referred to it as her favorite role but today I’d like to focus on her often-overlooked performance in Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN (1931), where she plays the sympathetic fiancé of Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive).

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