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October 11, 2014
David Kalat
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How Not to Stay Awake, French Style

Once upon a time I was very tired. More to the point, I was very tired in Montreal.

Julie and I were in Montreal for a child-free vacation, and we were so happy to have some time to ourselves we hadn’t done much planning. On arriving in the city we just looked around at what was going on, and saw that the Art Museum was going to be showing Marcel L’Herbier’s Fantastic Night (1942). I’ve been fascinated by the history of French horror and sci-fi films, and at the time I was considering fleshing out my chapter from Fear Without Frontiers into a book of its own—catching an actual 35mm print of this treasure was clearly must-see territory.

But how to spend the day leading up to it? Why, the Montreal Beer Festival, of course! And after a full day of sampling Canadian microbrews and eating sausages, we decided to burn off some of the woozy haze by walking to the Art Museum—some 4 miles away. We got there to find the Museum screening room’s AC was on the fritz, making the theater toasty. And so, warm and boozy and tired, we settled in to watch a B&W subtitled movie about a man who can’t stay awake. Hoo boy.

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KEYWORDS: Fantastic Night, La Nuit Fantastique, Marcel L'Herbier
COMMENTS: 4
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Friday Fearback: 31 Screams

Scream 31

A number of years ago, for reasons that seem a bit hazy to me now, I began a pseudonymous film blog called Arbogast on Film.  (I’m often asked why I chose the name Arbogast, an obvious allusion to Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. I have always just loved that name and back in the 80s I thought of throwing down a ‘zine with that name as a sort of catchall for the obscure and weird. Never got around to doing that and yet the name popped back into my mind when I was dicking around on Blogger and thinking to myself “I don’t have a personal blog, but if I were to have one it might look something like this…”) I already had the Movie Morlocks working for me and back then I was blogging twice a week rather than once, so it’s not as though I was itching for more work. No, as I recall, I wanted to do some writing apart from my established community, well away from the blognoscenti, where I could please myself and throw down some chancy stuff. I didn’t expect anyone to follow me and yet the site turned out to be popular. I kept it going for four or five years before pulling the plug. I was just too busy and couldn’t really afford to indulge myself in a spate of free writing… especially not when I had already dedicated several Octobers to a series I called “31 Screams.” I was bored with all the horror blogs that pulled out the same old titles year after year for the requisite Halloween Top Ten lists and so I thought it might be unusual and fun to review, not movies themselves, but some of the greatest screams in genre history. And so I did that, 31 of them every October, year after year, with the final tally being somewhere in the low triple digits. I think some of that work is among my best and it always kind of killed me that, as I’d sworn myself to pseudonymity, no one would ever know it was my hand moving the pen. So now, with your indulgence, I offer a look back at some of the great screams of all time, along with my eggheaded observations, inane asides and occasional bad language… [...MORE]

Freak Shows: Come one, come all to the Scariest Show On Earth!

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Lon Chaney in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924)

Last night FX premiered the new season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY. The award-winning horror anthology’s latest incarnation is called FREAK SHOW and it’s set in Florida during the 1950s at a circus sideshow where strange goings-on take place in and outside of the Big Top. The show’s creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, have admitted in recent interviews that they found inspiration for the new season in two classic horror films, Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) and Herk Harvey’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) but circuses and carnivals have long been a staple of horror cinema and director Tod Browning used the sideshow as a setting for numerous uncanny films before he made FREAKS. With Shocktober upon us it seems as good a time as any to showcase some of my favorite horrific or just plain odd and unusual films with scary clowns and sideshow performers that paved the way for AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW. So step right up ladies and gents! Tickets are free for today’s main attraction! Thrills, chills and rare delights await all who dare to enter!

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And Now Let’s All Agree to Never Discuss This Movie Again

Janet Leigh is TCM’s Star of the Month and that is, to say the least, kind of fitting.  After all, Janet Leigh is the most famous cinematic slasher victim of all time in one of the most famous and influential horror films of all time, Psycho, and this is October, the month most movie writers celebrate the horror film.  Psycho is also the only film for which Leigh was nominated for an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress, by the way, but she lost to Shirley Jones for Elmer Gantry) and practically the only film in which she was ever asked about in interviews.  Boy, I bet she got sick of talking about Psycho.  Frankly, I’m kind of sick of talking about it, too.

Smooth Cement

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NYFF: The Tales of Hoffmann (1951)

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For director Michael Powell, The Red Shoes was “mostly a sketch for The Tales of Hoffmann“. So far the sketch has eclipsed the full painting, with The Red Shoes a repertory film staple that plays regularly around the country (you can catch it in my cinema-starved hometown of Buffalo on November 17th!), while The Tales of Hoffmann has endured decades of neglect and chopped up film prints. Its relative obscurity should begin to lift, now that a new 4K scan of the original camera negative has been performed by the BFI, with support from The Film Foundation and StudioCanal.  The stateside premiere of the restoration occurred at the New York Film Festival, introduced by superfan Martin Scorsese and his long-time editor Thelma Schoonmaker (who was married to Powell until his passing in 1990).

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Elementary, My Dear . . . Well, You Know the Rest

gilletteopenLast week, the Cinematheque Francaise announced that it had uncovered a copy of Sherlock Holmes, which was ranked “among the Holy Grails of lost films,” according to restoration expert Robert Byrne, who is also on the board of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Essanay Studios released Sherlock Holmes in 1916. In their soon-to-be-published Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry, Michael Smith and Adam Selzer noted that the seven-reel film was the first feature-length version of Holmes’s exploits. It was also one of the last significant productions of Essanay’s Chicago-based studio before it closed its doors. But, the film’s real importance is its star, William Gillette, a prominent actor and playwright who was renowned on two continents during the first decades of the 20th century.

I have always been fascinated by forgotten stars—actors and entertainers who were beloved back in their day but who are now completely unknown. Sometimes, their careers lasted for decades; often they counted kings, queens, and presidents among their admirers. Yet, their talents go unsung to today’s audiences; their influences unrecognized. William Gillette was not only an acclaimed actor but also a playwright and stage manager whose fame rested on his interpretation of Sherlock Holmes on the stage. [...MORE]

We have the stars

Now, Voyager

(This article was written on Sep. 20th while visiting family in Lake Tahoe, and scheduled to post on Sep. 21. It was scuttled by a server malfunction and is here revisited in the spirit of “better late than never.”)

The etymology of “smother” is based on old German and Dutch words for “smolder,” and are connected to evocations of thick and suffocating smoke. But for those watching Now, Voyager (Irving Rapper, 1942) tomorrow on TCM, there will probably be more than just a few viewers who might think the etymological root really comes from simply adding the letter “s” to “mother.” This thanks to the performance by Gladys Cooper as the tyrannical matriarch lording over every detail in her daughter’s life. The performance earned Cooper a nomination for Supporting Oscar. [...MORE]

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October 4, 2014
David Kalat
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Ode to Strats; or How I Learned to Stop Being a Jerk and Love Sports Movies

I used to have a chip on my shoulder about sports movies. Actually, more properly stated, I used to have a chip on my shoulder about sports in general, and sports movies were just a subset of that entire category of human activity that I disdained. As a kid, I wasn’t athletic—I have joked I was an avid indoorsman. It wasn’t that much of a joke.

And as sports movies go, Hoosiers was my go-to case study, the exemplar of exemplars, Patient Zero. The 1986 film is a perfect conglomeration of sports movie clichés: the down and out kids who find self-confidence as a team, the star player who needs to learn the meaning of “team,” the washed-up has-been coach struggling for redemption, the game that comes to mean Everything in the World to the main characters, who have no shot at winning it until they do… I remember reading a review (in Newsweek, I think?) when it first came out that dismayed at how predictable and routine the story beats were.

For a time, back in the early 1990s, I taught a screenwriting class in Bloomington, Indiana. I was a terrible teacher. I think I crushed the spirit of everyone foolish enough to sign up for the class—the only thing I focused on was teaching Syd Field’s three-act structure and how to properly format your scripts. As if people who signed up for an extended learning program through a community arts organization in Bloomington, Indiana wanted to learn how to sell their scripts to Hollywood agents, rather than just have a rewarding creative writing class. Well, anyway, I used Hoosiers as a case study in story structure, because its status as a generic formula picture in the most formulaic of genres meant it wore its structure very obviously on the surface and was therefore easy to dissect.

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KEYWORDS: Hoosiers
COMMENTS: 12
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What’s your October pleasure?

Ghost and Mrs Muir

But enough about you — let’s talk about me. The Halloween costume and ornament catalogs have been coming for weeks and are lying about the house in various states of destruction, pawed at by the kids and chewed on by the rabbit. I gave them a cursory flip-through and haven’t looked back. Halloween for a great many in the 21st Century seems to be an especially charnel affair, all about severed arms and legs and jars of eyeballs and such and such. Zombies dominate the costume section but not the zombies of old, with their blank stares and solemn business attire – no, these are post-WALKING DEAD flesh-eaters, with their dangling mandibles and missing parts. Thank you but no. Blood and gore and free-floating viscera have their place and I’m grateful to live in a world where they can hang out. But that’s not Halloween to me. [...MORE]

Ghost Stories: THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (1946)

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October has arrived and as usual, TCM has scheduled a nice selection of films this month that will undoubtedly appeal to classic horror film obsessives like yours truly. Among the Hitchcock thrillers, silent scares, mummy movies and horror anthologies airing you’ll be able to tune in every Thursday and catch some spooktacular ghost movies. I love a good ghost story and if you happen to be one of the few who regularly keeps track of my blog posts you know that it’s a film genre I’m particularly fond of so I thought I’d take this opportunity to highlight one of my favorite ghostly movies that’s airing this evening; the fun, family friendly and still surprisingly fresh Abbott & Costello horror comedy, THE TIME OF THEIR LIVES (1946).

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