Friday, April 11, 2014

13 Flicks

The upside to occasional nights of insomnia is the guilt-free time to catch up with movies on obscure cable channels or from the dusty corners of my DVD closet. After all, at 2 a.m. few productive activities are possible and the alternative forms of entertainment at that hour (aside from reading) are more likely than not to get one in trouble. The following 13 movies were among the more agreeable nocturnal diversions.

Violet and Daisy (2011) – The title characters are two very unlikely assassins. Their unthreatening appearance helps them to get close to their targets and to get away afterward. They are two teens played by Alexis Bledel and Saoirse (pronounced, I’m told, Ser-sha) Ronan, best known for her role in Hannah. They want to take a break from work, but they also want dresses from a line by their favorite pop star. They don’t have the money for the dresses, so they agree to a well-paying assignment. Things take an odd turn when their hit proves to be a kindly fatherly fellow. Off-beat in a good way.

How I Live Now (2013) – Saoirse Ronan also stars in this film based on the Meg Rosoff novel, and coincidentally again plays a character named Daisy. Daisy is an American girl visiting her cousins in the English countryside when terrorists detonate a nuclear device in London. A ground war ensues. (Whether the war is civil or involves a foreign invasion isn’t clear). Daisy and her extended family face martial law, evacuations, enemy and friendly fire, militias, and common criminals. Fortunately, the English haven’t experienced a ground war on their own soil in the past few centuries, but many other peoples have, very recently in the Balkans and Caucasus as well as currently in Syria and elsewhere. It says something about postmodern ways of thinking that the least credible part of the plot is the love story. Worth a look.

According to Greta (2009) – Hilary Duff is a suicidal teen sent to live with her grandparents for the summer in Ocean Grove, NJ, a notoriously restrictive and upscale Jersey Shore community next to shaggier Asbury Park. She tests the patience of those around her, including her new boyfriend whom she very nearly (accidentally but carelessly) causes to be arrested, something he can’t afford because of his juvenile record. Her plans to kill herself before the end of the summer are really a hostile act toward her family – especially her mother. It is uncertain to the end (not least to herself) whether she will follow through or rethink the matter. As troubled teen movies go, this one isn’t bad – not great, but not bad.

Psychomania (1973) – This is pure exploitative fun involving the occult and an English biker gang called The Living Dead. The gangmembers find a way to become, in fact, living dead, and proceed to terrorize the neighborhood. Made in the fading days of hippiedom, this movie is hard not to enjoy.

Val Lewton Collection: Nine horror movies produced by Lewton for RKO in the 1940s. I’d seen all of these before over the years, but wanted to see them again. All are atmospheric in way rarely seen in movies today.

Cat People (1942) – Simone Simon stars as Irena Dubrovna, a mysterious Serbian artist living in New York City. She marries a fellow named Oliver but is reluctant to consummate the marriage because she believes she is cursed—that she will turn into a panther and kill him. Oliver, understandably, sends her to a psychiatrist, but there is reason to believe her fears are well-founded. Her shrink, Dr. Judd, finds this out when he unprofessionally makes a play for his patient.

I Walked with a Zombie (1943) – These are not the newfangled zombies who ravenously chase and eat people; these are the old-fashioned zombies who have had their wills taken from them by their voodoo masters. Betsy is a Canadian nurse hired to care for Jessica, a plantation owner’s mentally ill wife, in the West Indies. Betsy is told Jessica has had her will burned out of her by a fever, but she begins to suspect voodoo. So do the islanders, and they don’t like it. Creepy and moody.

The Leopard Man (1943) – A leopard with no history of being anything but tame escapes and terrorizes a small New Mexico town. Or is the leopard responsible for the deaths? Is someone or something else behind the attacks? Although this is a shoestring budget B picture, few movies better illustrate the difference between old school and new school horror. Today, horror films are graphic in the extreme. This one (clip posted below) manages to be terrifying with nothing more graphic than a door.

The Seventh Victim (1943) – A woman searches for her sister who went missing in Greenwich Village. Her investigation uncovers the existence of an urban satanic cult– a plot very much ahead of its time.

The Ghost Ship (1943) – Tom signs onto a ship as Captain Stone’s 3rd officer. Crew members begin to die. Tom suspects the captain is a psychopath responsible for the deaths. He has trouble getting anyone to believe him.

The Curse of the Cat People (1944) – Oliver is back, this time with his second wife. Though this was made only two years after Cat People, more time must have passed in movie-land because their daughter Amy is in elementary school. Amy has an imaginary friend. Oh wait, she’s not imaginary. She is the ghost of Oliver’s first wife, again played by Simone Simon. (When we were kids, my sister loved this movie.)

The Body Snatcher (1945) –In Edinburgh in 1831, Dr. MacFarlane pays for bodies for medical research and isn’t picky about their provenance. Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff camp it up.

Isle of the Dead (1945) – In the First Balkan War in 1912, a number of people are trapped by a quarantine on a Greek island due to a plague outbreak. It seems the island might be plagued by something else, too: a female vampire here called a vorvolaka.

Bedlam (1946) – In 1761 London, Master George Sims (Boris Karloff) runs a mental asylum with authoritarian and sadistic zeal. Nell is committed to the asylum as a patient, but is really working undercover for reformists. It is not the safest of assignments.

Lewton’s movies will not appeal to everyone, but modern horror screenwriters would do well to watch them. The greater license allowed in present day filmmaking is all very well and good, but graphic images are no substitute for eerie atmospherics. They can supplement sometimes, but not replace.

Scene from The Leopard Man (1943)


  1. I've not seen most of these with an exception of some of the Lewton films: Cat People, The Body Snatchers (I enjoyed that one, good atmosphere), and I Walked With A Zombie. I'll have to keep an eye out for some of the others over time. Thanks for the reviews.

    Yes, I agree I think most horror directors forget about atmosphere & suspense for gore, which doesn't do much for me.

    1. It's fun to see some of the techniques in older films that remain constant in horror -- such as the jump-scare with the train in the above clip.

      Of the newer ones, "How I Live Now" is probably the best -- not the most fun, but still the best.

  2. I saw a pretty good buzz for "How I Live Now". It is interesting how these dystopian apocalyptic films are back in fashion. Seems like the cycle is back again. :)

    I caught the first three of the Val Lewton movies on TCM a few years ago. I loved them. Each one had great atmosphere and some surprisingly creepy sequences. I should pick up this set, because I'm sure it would make the grade for our Halloween viewing. Thanks for reminding me about those flicks!

    1. One of the legacies of WW1 (of which we will be hearing much in this centenary year) is the sense that full-blown catastrophes unexpectedly can overtake us from seemingly minor causes. Waves of dystopian films express that foreboding in an ebb and flow. I suppose the good news is that the waves tend to be mistimed,