Mom, Me and Death Race 2000 (1975)

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To view Death Race 2000 click here.

When I was a kid, probably thirteen or fourteen, my mom and I would often spend Friday nights staying up late watching television. We would watch Letterman and weird infomercials. Sometimes we would catch a late-night movie—like The Birds (1963), or the utterly ridiculous made-for-TV movie The Boy in the Plastic Bubble (1976). Then there was the romantic drama Violets Are Blue (1986), which would keep us up no matter how late it was on. Mom and I would be hooked-in because of Kevin Kline and Sissy Spacek, two of our favorite actors. But we would quickly remember the film as a godawful mess. Of course, we’d watch it anyway, and laugh at the chewed scenery and Bonnie Bedelia’s character serving gazpacho. Mom would often tell me about bizarre cult films that she saw in the 1970s, hoping that we might stumble upon them during our weekly Friday night channel surfing. There were two films that she always talked about: one was Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters (1975), starring Joanne Nail. Mom first saw it at a drive-in when she lived (and partied) in Daytona Beach, Florida. The second was Death Race 2000 (1975), produced by the King of the B movies, the great Roger Corman, and directed by Paul Bartel (who also has a brief cameo), which she first saw on HBO in the network’s early years, in the summer of 1976. Of the two, Death Race 2000 was the most fascinating to her, and still is, and she’d joke with me about the film’s sanctioned vehicular homicide and humorous point system. “Children and old folks are worth the most points,” she’d say, as I was first learning how to drive.

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A Daring Directorial Debut: Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944)

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To view Madonna of the Seven Moons click here.

Arthur Crabtree is chiefly remembered for helming two imaginative science fiction and horror thrillers in the late 1950s, Fiend Without a Face (1958) and Horrors of the Black Museum (1959). But before he became associated with these cult favorites, Crabtree worked extensively with Gainsborough Pictures where he photographed some of the studio’s biggest hits including The Man in Grey (1943) and Fanny by Gaslight (1944), which helped make Stewart Granger a star. At Gainsborough, Crabtree built a reputation as an efficient and economical cinematographer who was responsible for giving these modestly budgeted costume dramas the polish and sophistication that they desperately needed so it’s not surprising that the British studio eventually gave him the opportunity to direct. Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) is Crabtree’s first feature film and it is a strange, inventive and daring directorial debut that you can currently catch on FilmStruck as part of their “Early Stewart Granger” theme.

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Sifting through Ashes and Diamonds (1958)

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To view Ashes and Diamonds click here.

Is it possible for a film to be revered as a world classic and influence an entire generation of its country’s filmmakers yet still be underrated? In the case of Ashes and Diamonds (1958), the best-known film from the great Andrzej Wajda (whom we lost last year), the answer could very well be yes. The film was a major salvo in the onslaught of Polish masterpieces made in the wake of Stalinist control in the country, and it made a world cinema superstar out of Wajda, regularly turning up in film retrospectives and popping up on best-of lists for decades. More recently it was inaugurated into the Criterion Collection and was included in Martin Scorsese’s internationally traveling film series Masterpieces of Polish Cinema a few years ago, which went all over Europe as well as New York and Los Angeles. [...MORE]

The Song Remains the Same: Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974)

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To view Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance click here.

Last week we left our intrepid Lady Snowblood wounded and desperate, crawling towards an uncertain future. In Lady Snowblood 2: Love Song of Vengeance (1974), she is all healed up and hacking away at the gangrenous Japanese government. In the first Lady Snowblood (1973) she successfully tracked down and dispatched the four tormentors of her late mother, so all of her personal scores have been settled. In the more diffuse sequel, she is a katana-for-hire, a paid assassin pretty high up on the police’s most wanted list. Departing from the original manga, screenwriter Norio Osada throws Ms. Snowblood into the battle between a group of anarchists and the sociopathic head of the military’s secret police. It is less a commentary on the Meiji period in which it is set than the then-contemporary struggle of the United Red Army against the Japanese government. In this sequel, Lady Snowblood puts her loyalties squarely with the revolutionaries.

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Pasolini’s Audacious Debut

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Pimps, thugs, prostitutes, thieves and other miscreants, these are the denizens of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone (1961). “Accattone,” a slang term for beggars and bums, is also the nickname given to Vittorio, our antihero, as played by Franco Citti in a break-out role that would bring him fame at the age of 26. He’d later be cast as Calò in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), where he was given the famous line “In Sicily, women are more dangerous than shotguns.” As the pimp in Accattone, one that treats all the women he comes across quite badly, he is completely deaf to such advice. [...MORE]

A Brutal Film Noir: Cavalcanti’s They Made Me a Fugitive (1947)

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To view The Made Me a Fugitiveclick here.

Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti had quite an interesting career. After several years directing films in France, the director signed a contract with the prestigious Ealing Studios in England. While Cavalcanti only made a handful of films at the studio before departing due to a contract dispute, his tenure helped to establish his career as a director. During his time at Ealing, Cavalcanti directed Went the Day Well (1942), Champagne Charlie (1944) and a vignette in the mysterious and creepy Dead of Night (1945), which is best described as a sort of proto Twilight Zone (1959-1964). Immediately following his stint at Ealing, Cavalcanti made three more films in the UK, all in 1947: Nicholas Nickleby, The First Gentleman and They Made Me a Fugitive, which is arguably Cavalcanti’s finest cinematic achievement.

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An Uneasy Friendship: David and Lisa (1962)

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David and Lisa (1962) introduces viewers to two young, attractive and deeply troubled patients living at a private mental health clinic. David (Keir Dullea) suffers from extreme anxiety and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), which causes him to become severely agitated when another person touches him. The childlike Lisa (Janet Margolin) has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and insists on speaking only in rhymes. The two also exhibit symptoms of autism. Over the course of the film, this unlikely pair form an uneasy friendship that allows them to confront their psychoses.

This sympathetic portrait of mental illness was directed by Frank Perry and based on a book by Dr. Theodore Issac Rubin, a former president of the American Institute for Psychoanalysis. Perry’s wife and creative partner Eleanor, who earned a master’s degree in psychiatric social work from Case Western Reserve University, wrote the screenplay. The film was made with just $185,000 and became one of the most prestigious American independent pictures of the 1960s, netting its creator’s several awards including Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. Although David and Lisa was a popular and critical success at the time of its release, it tends to be overshadowed by its 1963 Oscar contenders including  Lawrence of Arabia (1962), To Kill a Mocking Bird (1962), Lolita (1962) and The Miracle Worker (1962).

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Set Your Clock for Hour of the Wolf (1968)

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To view Hour of the Wolf click here.

It’s still a bit of a kept secret that almost every great world director from the 1960s and 1970s made a horror film at some point. Fellini and Malle did it. So did Kubrick. And, yes, Ingmar Bergman has one, too, even if you don’t count the supernatural eeriness of Fanny and Alexander (1984) or the harrowing revenge tale The Virgin Spring (1960). I’m talking about Hour of the Wolf (1968), an often overlooked tangent in between his bigger and more traditionally dramatic arthouse hits, Persona (1966) and Shame (1968), which stars two of his most reliable and powerful repertory members, Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullmann. This was one of seven features the stars made together, though only three were for Bergman.

Hour of the Wolf, or Vargtimmen in Swedish, also happens to be one of the granddaddies of the “isolated artist/writer loses his mind” subgenre of horror film, a now-storied tradition that includes The House that Dripped Blood (1971), Seizure (1974), The Shining (1980) and Secret Window (2004). Here Von Sydow has the honors as Johan, who lives on a remote island with pregnant wife Alma (Ullmann). We know from the start that something terrible has happened since Johan has gone missing with only his diaries and his wife’s memories delivered to the camera as evidence he lived there, and we soon come to learn that he was perpetually haunted by nightmarish visions during the title hour – the darkest, deepest time of night when, according to Bergman, the highest number of people are born and die. (More poetically, “It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are more real.”) Johan draws the various apparitions that plague him, who look like people except for unnerving habits like removing their faces and eyeballs. He’s also accosted by an aggressive art critic and seems drawn to an enigmatic baron on the other side of the island, where strange denizens like to congregate. [...MORE]

Vengeance is Hers: Lady Snowblood (1973)

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To view Lady Snowblood click here.

Lady Snowblood (1973) is an aria of arterial spray, gushing in myriad patterns against a variety of white fabrics. It takes Jean-Luc Godard’s tossed off comment that the blood in Pierrot Le Fou (1965) is “Not blood” but “red” to its logical conclusion, a festival of artfully composed throat-slittings and torso hackings. Blood spits out of human bodies like when Mentos are dropped into a bottle of Diet Coke. It frames killing as pure artifice, executed with impassive grace by the beautiful Meiko Kaji, seeking revenge for the mother she never knew. The story is faithfully adapted from the original comic book, of a child marked from birth to be a vengeance machine, to hunt down her mother’s tormentors regardless of the sacrifices to her own life. One of the greatest comic-book adaptations, it serves as the template for all subsequent female one-man-army films, from Ms. 45 (1981) to Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) all the way up to the upcoming Atomic Blonde (2017).

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Gunga Din (1939): An Original Blockbuster

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To view Gunga Din click here.

It’s summertime, which means we’re eyeball deep in the season of the blockbuster. These popcorn flicks widely vary in quality and entertainment value, but they all have one thing in common: they make money. And if they don’t make enough money during their run in the theater, they’ll rake it in with lucrative marketing deals with retail partners, toy manufacturers and home video sales. With all of the billion-dollar movie franchises that dominate our screens—Star Wars, Marvel, DC, Harry Potter, James Bond, among others—I’ve been thinking about the greatest blockbusters. The concept of the summer blockbuster is usually attributed to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975, and while that film certainly set the trend for many popular films that followed, there are numerous movies from classic Hollywood that served as proto-blockbusters, including Gone with the Wind (1939), The Ten Commandments (1956), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Gunga Din (1939).

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