Devil’s Advocate: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which is streaming on The Criterion Channel at FilmStruck throughout the month of March, is rightly hailed as one of the best American horror films of the 1960s. It begins and ends with a mother’s lullaby but the unsettling story of Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse is anything but soothing. Mia Farrow and John Cassavetes star as a young married couple who move into an antiquated apartment building in New York with an unpleasant history. After reluctantly befriending some colorful and intrusive elderly neighbors (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmer), the Woodhouse’s lives are gradually transformed into a Faustian nightmare.

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Every Day Is Like Black Sunday (1960)

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Okay, it may technically be Wednesday, but there’s never a bad day of the week to pay a visit to Black Sunday (1960), the grandmother of Italian horror films. Sure, the country produced a few movies with horrifying or macabre elements, most notably Riccardo Freda’s I Vampiri (1957), but here’s where the magic really kicked into high gear and set the stage for a dazzling wave of phantasmagorical creations that would run well into the 1990s. [...MORE]

Coming of Age with Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

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I’ve been on something of an Eastern European tear lately with the release of the third (and final, for now) boxed set of “Martin Scorsese Presents” Polish classics, which had a tremendous run in New York and (in more scaled-down fashion) Los Angeles a while back. However, with all the attention Poland has been getting the past couple of years from cinéastes, let’s not forget that Czech films have an astonishing history as well and could easily merit a months-long retrospective. But where to start? If you’re browsing around FilmStruck, I’d like to point in the direction of one obvious and very irresistible candidate streaming on the Criterion Channel: Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), a beguiling supernatural fantasy that also happens to be one of the finest films ever told from a young girl’s point of view. [...MORE]

Venomous Snakes & Poison Ants: Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (1975)

“What we see and what we seem are but a dream, a dream within a dream.” – Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock (a variation of A Dream Within a Dream by Edgar Allan Poe)

In Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), viewers are reminded again and again of the “venomous snakes and poison ants” that populate the Australian outback. Despite these repeated warnings, the reptiles and insects we see are never an actual threat and cause no harm besides pilfering some leftovers from an unobserved picnic basket. The real danger is unspoken and invisible. It lurks unseen in the shadowy cracks and crevices of Hanging Rock, waiting to ensnare a group of innocent schoolgirls and their unsuspecting math teacher. As is often the case in real life, the horrors that eventually befall the characters in Weir’s film arrive without warning or reason but they leave the victims devastated as they try to make sense of a nemesis that has no fixed name and no discernible face.

This puzzling pastoral horror picture is currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of their Cinema Passport: Australia series, a curated selection of films from the land down under that also includes Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), George Miller’s Mad Max (1979) and Bruce Beresford’s Breaker Morant (1980). Watched together these films provide a thought-provoking introduction to the Australian New Wave that emerged in the 1970s and continued into the 1980s. Unlike many other international New Wave film movements that launched in the 1960s, Australia’s got a late start but the results are equally compelling.

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Dreams in the Witch House (1977)

HOUSE, (aka HAUSU), Kimiko Ikegami, 1977

It took the West a few decades to finally catch up with the phantasmagorical output of Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiko Ôbayashi, whose feverish sugar rush cinema would make Baz Luhrmann cry uncle. Actually, you could argue that we still haven’t quite come to grips with him since only one of his films is widely available now, but it’s a doozy: House (Hausu) (1977), a child’s nightmare on celluloid that represents Ôbayashi’s formal feature film debut. Before this film he had been cutting his teeth on many experimental film and TV commercials, the latter often featuring imported American stars like Catherine Deneuve, Charles Bronson, Sophia Loren, Kirk Douglas, and David Niven. If you want a taste of what that entailed, go to YouTube and do a search for “Charles Bronson” and “Mandom” to see what Ôbayashi was up to. You’re welcome. [...MORE]

The Funny Old Dark House

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“Don’t big, empty houses scare you?”
“Not me. I used to be in vaudeville.”

That wry exchange is one of the many little asides that typifies The Cat and the Canary (1939), airing in prime time this Friday on TCM. This Paramount production (now part of the Universal library) is the earliest surviving sound version of the original old dark house chiller that started life as a stage play by John Willard, and it’s a savory bit of counter-programming to Universal’s ongoing parade of beloved movie monsters (which were being toned down in the early throes of World War II). The idea of Hope starring in a horror movie (especially so early in his career — he’d only been starring in features since 1938!) sounds bizarre on paper, but it works beautifully in practice. Part of the charm here is the smart pairing of Hope (more subdued and urbane than usual here) with the gorgeous and charming Paulette Goddard, who was married to Charlie Chaplin at the time and was best known for Modern Times (1936). The chemistry between Hope and Goddard was so good they were teamed up for another horror comedy in 1940, The Ghost Breakers, and in between she made her most familiar film for many TCM viewers, The Women (1939). And as you can see in that promotional shot above for The Cat and the Canary, she also knows how to rock a Halloween costume like nobody’s business. [...MORE]

Day of the Doberman

dobermangang_1 Do you love dogs? Of course you do, and so do most moviegoers if Hollywood history is any indication. However, if you had to name the biggest decade for man’s best friend, which one would it be? The heyday of Rin-Tin-Tin in the ‘20s? The arrival of Lassie in 1943 or her TV reign in the ‘50s? Maybe, but for my money the winner hands down has to be the 1970s – and there’s one breed that personified the Me Decade more than any other. Just as the United States was plunging into the chaos of Watergate, the whole country seemed to go canine crazy in 1972 when the most famous comic strip pooch got a theatrical vehicle with Snoopy Come Home and the Newberry-winning novel Sounder became a multiple Oscar-nominated prestige release. [...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 Gaellic 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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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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Nameless Fear: The Lost Moment (1947)

Poster_of_the_movie_The_Lost_MomentI felt the past closing all around me like a fog, filling me with a nameless fear.
- Lewis Venable (Robert Cummings)

After enjoying many of the Susan Hayward films that aired on TCM last month, I decided to seek out some of her other work and in the process I stumbled across The Lost Moment (1947). And as regular readers know, I usually focus my attention on horror films and thrillers during the month of October and this neglected black-and-white gem that tells a haunting story about lost love and an unspeakable crime of passion is the perfect film to kick-start the season of scaring.

This surprisingly sumptuous Universal production takes place in Venice where an ambitious publisher named Lewis Venable (Robert Cummings), disguises himself as a writer and takes lodging in a sprawling waterway estate owned by the 105-year-old lover (Agnes Moorehead) of a renowned poet who disappeared under mysterious circumstances decades earlier. He hopes to gain access to a stash of love letters written by the poet to his lady love but the woman’s stern niece (Susan Hayward) suspects that the publisher is up to no good. While attempting to find the missing letters, Cummings’s character uncovers many horrible family secrets hidden within the walls of the crumbling cobweb coated estate that he hadn’t bargained for.

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