Showing posts with label Vincent Price. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vincent Price. Show all posts

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Cursed Films: Review by Ally Russell

Review by Ally Russell

Cursed Films is a five-part documentary series about some of Hollywood’s most troubled horror movie productions. From real skeletons on the set of Poltergeist (1982) to The Omen (1976) star Gregory Peck’s airplane being struck by lightning, Cursed Films examines the factual and fictional stories surrounding The Exorcist (1973), Poltergeist, The Omen, The Crow (1994), and Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983).

These films were plagued with on-set accidents, seemingly supernatural occurrences, and even tragic deaths, like that of young film star Heather O’Rourke (Poltergeist, 1982). But were these films actually cursed (or blessed by the Devil himself—as claimed by the crew of The Omen)…or did they simply suffer from a series of untimely but purely coincidental occurrences?

Beauty Day (2011) was filmmaker Jay Cheel’s debut documentary, and in addition to it premiering at the New York Museum of Modern Art as part of the Canadian Front Programming series, the film was also nominated for a Genie Award in the Best Doc category and was an official selection at the Hot Docs. Cheel is also the co-host of the podcast Film Junk.

Considering his enjoyable and compelling film short Twisted (2016) and the subject matter of his 2016 documentary How To Build a Time Machine, writer and director Jay Cheel is no stranger to subjects that are taboo or just plain weird, including urban legends and curses.

I was granted access to episodes two and three of Cursed Films (2020). Episode two, which focused on the 1982 film Poltergeist, was outstanding. Woven throughout with commentary from horror fans and expert interviews from individuals like film critic April Wolfe and science writer Matthew Hutson (The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking), episode two offered insightful analysis on society’s obsession with one of the horror industry’s most beloved films.

The episode delved deep into the film’s history with interviews from Special Make-Up Effects Artist Craig Reardon (Poltergeist, 1982) and Director Gary Sherman (Poltergeist III, 1988), both of whom serve up some sage advice about our collective ability to get swept up in the sensationalism of Hollywood horror and its gory details.

What I found most enthralling about episode two of Cursed Films was Jay Cheel’s treatment of the subject matter. Cheel is careful to avoid cheap thrills and instead handles the topic with sensitivity—letting the horror of the history speak for itself.

With commentary and past footage, Cheel explores the anxiety, fear, and grief that the cast and crew experienced and gently reminds viewers about the unfortunate loss of human life that occurred during and after the filming. That combination of horror and heart makes for a strong documentary episode about the tragic legacy of a film that has touched the lives of many horror fans.

Episode three, which focuses on the 1976 film The Omen, is enjoyable and worth watching, but it is noticeably less cohesive than episode three. And while episode two is emotionally charged, episode three seems to lack that same sentiment because we don’t spend as much time with the cast and crew.

The beginning and end of episode three focus on the unfortunate events surrounding the production of The Omen, including airplane and automobile accidents, but the remainder of the episode is dedicated to commentary from expert occultists. Commentary from these individuals is interesting and provides viewers with a new perspective on the occult and curses in popular media. However, interviews with these experts shift the focus of the narrative away from the film itself, so viewers who are hoping to get an in-depth look at the dark history of The Omen may be disappointed with the change in tone between episodes two and three.

For those reasons, episode three of Cursed Films felt slightly disjointed and didn’t seem to complement episode two.

It’s undeniable that Cheel has respect for the genre and endeavors to give horror fans more than the recycled and regurgitated content that we’re used to. So, despite the contrast between episodes two and three, I’m still looking forward to watching the remainder of the series when it premieres on AMC’s streaming video service Shudder.

Opting for sentiment over sensationalism, Cursed Films gives horror lovers the documentary series they deserve; a worthwhile watch for horror fans and film history buffs alike.

Ally occasionally creates content for the Horror Writers Association’s Young Adult & Middle Grade blog, SCARY OUT THERE. She also hosts the FlashFrights podcast, which can be found on Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud. Ally lives in Boston and works in publishing. She can be found on Instagram at @OneDarkAlly.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps (1956)

Ida Lupino and Dana Andrews with director Fritz Lang

After two decades of making films in America, director Fritz Lang was at his wits end. The 1950s was difficult time in the film industry. Television was a major rival for audience’s time and attention. For Lang, good opportunities were fewer and far between. It also didn't help that Lang had developed a reputation for being cruel to his actors. In an effort to salvage his Hollywood career, Lang met with producer Bert Friedlob. Friedlob was quite a character. He had dabbled in many different businesses, (he was a liquor salesman and even managed circus acts) and became a film producer while he was married to his third wife actress Eleanor Parker. His films included A Millionaire for Christy (1951), The Steel Trap (1952), The Star (1952) and others. Lang needed a producer and Friedlob was ready and available. According to Lang biographer Patrick McGilligan, after Lang signed with Friedlob, the producer wasn’t interested in any of the directors ideas however the two agreed on one project in particular. Friedlob owned the rights to the novel The Bloody Spur by Charles Einstein. The former  journalist's book was based on the true story of William Heirens, a Chicago based serial killer who targeted women and left messages behind scrawled in lipstick. Lang was familiar with the “lipstick killer” case and agreed to direct the movie. According to McGilligan, the killer in this story reminded Lang of Peter Kurten from his German film M. When William Friedkin interviewed Lang in 1973, they discussed Lang’s interest particularly in films about murderers and criminals. Lang didn’t want to admit it but he did agree that his interests did lie in “social evils.”

While the City Sleeps (1956) follows a cast of characters at the Kyne newsroom at a time when the company as at the brink of major change. Amos Kyne (Robert Warwick), head of the Kyne empire, died just at the time when his newsroom was working on their biggest scoop. A lipstick killer is on the loose. On the story is Edward Mobley (Dana Andrews), the head of the Kyne telecast, Mark Loving (George Sanders), head of the Kyne newswire and Jon Day Griffth (Thomas Mitchell), the Kyne Newspaper’s chief editor. They are in competition for the top spot along with resident newspaper artist Harry Kirtzer (James Craig) to take over where Amos Kyne left off. Unfortunately they're faced with Kyne’s son Walter Kyne (Vincent Price), the spoiled rich brat who has no newsroom experience but likes the power his new position gives him. While the team battles for the top spot by trying to solve the lipstick killer case, the women of the newsroom are also making their mark. Mobley’s girlfriend Nancy Liggett (Sally Forrest) is Loving’s secretary and also Mobley’s pawn to lure the lipstick killer. Women’s story report Mildred Donner (Ida Lupino) isn’t afraid to manipulate her coworkers to play office politics with the big boys. And then there is Kyne’s wife Dorothy (Rhonda Fleming), who is having a secret affair with Harry. Dorothy and Nancy catch the eye of the lipstick killer (John Drew Barrymore, billed as John Barrymore, Jr.). Will Mobley and his police detective friend Burt Kaufmann (Howard Duff) get to them in time before the killer does?

Dana Andrews, Sally Forrest, Thomas Mitchell and Ida Lupino

Producer Friedlob's screenwriter Casey Robinson adapted Einstein’s novel to screen. According to Lang biographer McGilligan, "Robinson had no journalism experience; and the script would lack the real-life verisimilitude the director usually boasted." It did seem unrealistic to me that Andrews’ Edward Mobley was more instrumental in solving the mystery than Howard Duff’s Lt. Burt Kaufman. Friedlob and Robinson also injected an anti-comic book message into the story which did not age well. According to the AFI, “Friedlob announced that the film would address one of the concerns currently publicized by Senator Estes Kefauver, that of the effect of comic books on "juvenile delinquency’" and how the film would be a "weapon in the growing battle against the corrupting force of comic books on young minds." Comic book publisher Tony London pushed back saying that the film's message cast a bad light on an entire genre when only a few bad apples were to blame. Fast forward to 2018 and comic book franchises drive the current film industry. What would have Friedlob thought of that?

Rhonda Fleming and Vincent Price

In a publicity piece for the film, Fritz Lang said the following regarding Rhonda Fleming, "She amuses all the male instinct and she displays her physical assets to great advantage in the picture." Fleming often played such roles which were the complete opposite of what she was like in real life. In an interview with George Feltenstein for the Warner Archive Collection podcast, Fleming said,
“We went on to do While the City Sleeps with Fritz Lang. Which is one I really didn’t want to do because it was what my moral values didn’t stand for. A cheating wife, betraying her husband and lying. I almost turned it down but I guess I wanted to work with Fritz Lang and a great cast. But some of those naughty and not so nice roles were actually wonderful opportunities to play a wider variety of roles and not be mixed up in nice and sweet roles. It’s a favorite of many of my fans, these films.”

Independently produced, United Artists was originally going to distribute the film but in a last minute effort to get the film out on the market quickly Friedlob sold the completed film to RKO. Released in May 1956, While the City Sleeps was well-received. McGilligan said "it was considered a taut, well-made suspense film” and got good reviews in the trades. Friedlob and Lang went on to make Beyond a Reasonable Doubt released that same year (a review of that title coming soon!). Unfortunately, Friedlob died suddenly, just a month after the release of their second film together.

Fritz Lang is my favorite director and that’s because I’ve come to enjoy all the movies I’ve seen of his, even the not so great ones. (To date I’ve seen all but four, his two lost silents and his last two films made in Germany). In While the City Sleeps, the serial killer storyline is besides the point. This movie is really a suspenseful newsroom drama. It’s more about the social politics of an office than it is the hunt for a murderer. Everyone in the film plays to their strengths. And what a cast! Andrews, Lupino, Sanders, Mitchell, Fleming, Forrest, Craig, Price, they are all superb in this picture. Even Barrymore is convincingly frightening as the blood-thirsty Robert Manners. One thing I love about Lang’s films is how the female characters are portrayed. In a male-driven office, the three principal women are not simply pawns in their game. When Sanders tries to manipulate Lupino to get ahead, she manipulates him right back. Forrest isn’t content being the spurned fiancee who Andrews cheats on. A brief moment of defiance helps save her life. Fleming’s part is probably the weakest of the three but she also has her strengths including fighting off the killer. The film has some editing problems. There were some loops added for dramatics that were too noticeable to be taken seriously. A few shots seemed to be sped up or shot in reverse for a similar effect.

While the City Sleeps (1956) is available on Blu-Ray from the Warner Archive Collection.

Warner Archive Wednesday - On (random) Wednesdays, I review one title from the Warner Archive Collection. Thank you to Warner Archive for sending me a Blu-Ray copy of While the City Sleeps (1956) to review!

Monday, January 8, 2018

The Whales of August (1987)

Lillian Gish and Bette Davis in The Whales of August  (1987)

"Passion and truth -- that's all we need." - Sarah

Sometimes you need strong voices to tell a quiet story.

Actresses Lillian Gish and Bette Davis were two forces to be reckoned with in the film industry. Gish and Davis helped usher the medium in its earliest days and broke down misconceptions of what actresses were capable of. Throughout their many decades in the business, the two had never worked together and remarkably hadn't even crossed paths. It wasn't until 1986 when they would come together to make the swan song of their respective careers: The Whales of August (1987). It would be the final completed film roles for both actresses (Davis appeared in one more film but did not finish her part).

Set on an island off the coast of Maine circa the mid-1950s, The Whales of August is a gentle tale of two elderly sisters, Sarah Webber (Lillian Gish) and Libby Strong (Bette Davis), vacationing in their summer home. Both widowed, Sarah tends to Libby who is now blind. The two sisters couldn't be more different from each other. Sarah is an optimistic and gentle soul who enjoys the small things in life and the company of good people. She especially loves the romantic attention she gets from the handsome and recently widowed Mr. Maranov (Vincent Price), whose pension for old customs charms her. Libby has grown bitter in her old age and senses death is just around the corner. She chides Sarah and others for insignificant things because she's not capable of letting herself be happy in her current state. Their lifelong friend Tisha (Ann Sothern) often stops by to gossip with the ladies and offer some unsolicited advice. Local handyman Joshua Brackett (Harry Carey Jr.), who is a little too loud for his own good, also stops by to help the sisters tend to their beautiful cliff side home. We follow these five souls over a few days in August, the one month out of the year when you can see the whales from the coast line.

Ann Sothern and Vincent Price in The Whales of August (1987)

As a lifelong New Englander, I've always been drawn to quiet stories like these. Simple tales about simple lives are sometimes the most potent. When you strip down everything down to its essentials and you focus on the emotional lives of people there is much to uncover. Everything is felt much more acutely because the events in your life aren't fighting with a lot of other stimuli for attention. As a teenager in the throes of the angst of my own simple life, I was drawn to the stories of Louisa May Alcott, Henry James, Thomas Hardy and Jane Austen and would have been enthralled by The Whales of August. It would have spoken to me in a more profound way. Today I live a busy and stressful life and sometimes long for a simpler existence and I get in touch with my past with movies like this.

The Whales of August came out at a time when home video had reinvigorated interest in both classic film and the many aging stars who were still with us. Films like On Golden Pond (1981) and Cocoon (1985) were showcasing older stars in lead roles. Producer Mike Kaplan, who had worked with Lillian Gish on the set of The Comedians (1967), wanted to find a starring role suitable for the elderly actress. Kaplan attended the off Broadway premiere of David Berry's play The Whales of August in Rhode Island and immediately thought this was the perfect story not only for Lillian Gish but for Bette Davis as well. Davis turned down the role of Libby Strong and so did Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. Davis had been sick after a stroke and a mastectomy when she was strong enough again she became interested in the role and it was hers.

For the role of Mr. Maranov, John Gieguld was on board but due to a scheduling conflict he had to bow out and was replaced by Vincent Price. For the part of Tisha, Kaplan was reluctant to hire Ann Sothern who had become partly immobile due to a stage accident. Sothern won him over and uses a cane to get around in the film. The part seemed destined to be hers considering she named her own daughter Tisha. In fact, Tisha Sterling appears in the film as the younger version of the role her mother plays. Price will simultaneously charm you and break your heart. He brings a gentleness and old school charisma to the part.

Lillian Gish's Sarah and Bette Davis' Libby were roles that seemed custom made for the two actresses. Gish was adept at playing parts of women who were gentle in nature yet strong in spirit. In an interview during the filming of the movie Davis claimed that she had no connection whatsoever with Libby and that it was just a part. But one can see that an older Davis was very much like Libby cantankerous, feisty yet vulnerable. It's marvelous to watch both of these legends so effortlessly play these parts not just because it suited them but because of what they could convey. Ann Sothern's Tisha is the quintessential small town socialite. She received an Academy Award nomination for her role and it ended up being her final film.

This film was never going to be a blockbuster. A story about isolation, loneliness, growing old in a small community isn't going to draw many to the cinema. Instead, The Whales of August was a passion project for Kaplan, director Lindsay Anderson and writer David Berry. The ending of the play was changed for the movie per director Lindsay Anderson's request and to make the film more receptive to movie audiences. It was also an opportunity for legendary actresses Gish and Davis to once again play leading roles. For Vincent Price, who hadn't been working on much for a while, it was an opportunity to do something different. In an interview he said, "I felt the things I was being offered were already done." Price admired the writing, the dialogue and the heart of the play. He went on to say, "Maine is basic America." The setting itself is its own character. The film was shot on location at the Pitkin house on Cliff Island near Portland, Maine.

Filmed in September and October of 1986, Lillian Gish was 93, Bette Davis 78, Vincent Price 75, Ann Sothern 77 and Harry Carey Jr. 65. This is an opportunity to watch five legends who had vastly different careers come together in one beautiful movie.

If you've ever been hesitant about watching this film, whether it's a fear of exploring the complexities of growing old or seeing your favorites in such an advanced state. The Whales of August is a compelling movie with a lot of heart and reassures us that there is a good life to be led even at the end of our time here on earth.

The Whales of August (1987) was recently released on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber. This edition comes packed with extras. I particularly liked the 1 hour and 12 minute piece that includes on set interviews with the five main players Price, Gish, Sothern, Carey and Davis in that order. Davis' interview is difficult to watch because she gave the poor interviewer such a hard time. Other extras include on set interviews withLindsay Anderson, Mike Fash, Jocelyn Herbert, other interviews with Mike Kaplan, Mary Steenburgen, Margaret Ladd and Tisha Sterling, as well as audio commentary with film critic. The Blu-Ray quality

Many thanks to Kino Lorber for sending me the Blu-Ray of The Whales of August for review!

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