Wednesday, February 22, 2017

CARRIE


A woman bleeds while taking a shower. Butcher knives are plunged violently into female flesh to the accompaniment of shrieking violins. There's a crazy "mother" and a building with the name "Bates" on it. One of the characters is named "Norma".  Yep, this is Alfred Hitchcock's PSYCHO (1960) sure enough.

Except it isn't.

When I first saw Brian De Palma's CARRIE on first release in 1976 (at the old Americana Theater), I wasn't yet well versed enough in the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock to recognize all of the many homages to the Master of Suspense that the film contains. Homages? Some might call them swipes or out-right thefts, a cinematic act of grave robbing in which a young tyro appropriated several tricks from the bag of a genius in order to add some style and substance to what was otherwise a fairly routine teen exploitation flick.

CARRIE wasn't De Palma's first film but it was certainly the one that put him on the map. De Palma's first film was MURDER A LA MOD in 1968. He had been working steadily since then but it wasn't until his first Hitchcock inspired thriller, SISTERS (1973), that critics and audiences began to take notice. PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974),  a rock and roll version of The Phantom of the Opera never quite achieved the rarefied cult status of THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975), while OBSESSION (1976) was a vaguely disguised riff on Hitchcock's VERTIGO (1968). Following CARRIE, De Palma produced two other Hitchcock infused thrillers, DRESSED TO KILL (1980) and BODY DOUBLE (1984).

CARRIE was, however, the first film to be based on the works of horror writer Stephen King. CARRIE was King's first novel and while it had sold reasonably well, in 1976 King was certainly not the household name that he would later become. Combine two, young, up-and-coming and extremely talented artists and the result is a minor horror classic, one of the best of the 1970s.

CARRIE is the story of outsider Carrie White (Sissy Spacek in an Oscar nominated performance), who is constantly tormented by the worst bullies at Bates High School: the other girls in her gym class. The tormentors include Chris (Nancy Allen) and Norma (P.J. Stoles), while Sue (Amy Irving), is sympathetic towards Carrie's plight. When Carrie first menstruates in the shower in the title sequence of the film, it triggers horror and revulsion within the naive, innocent girl and something else. Her latent telekinetic powers come to the fore, powers that will ultimately spell doom for most of the faculty and students of Bates High.

Carrie is dominated at home by her overbearing mother, Margaret (Piper Laurie, in another Oscar nominated performance). Margaret, full to bursting with that old time religion, hates men and is determined to beat (literally) into Carrie's head the notion that sexuality of any kind equals the blackest sin imaginable.

At school, Sue and her boyfriend Tommy (Robert Redford look-alike William Katt), try to help Carrie out by having Tommy invite Carrie to the prom, a date which she eventually, reluctantly accepts. But Chris and her doofus boyfriend Billy (John Travolta), plot a plan to humiliate Carrie at the prom by fixing the voting for prom king and queen, insuring that Carrie and Tommy win and will stand underneath a precariously balanced bucket of fresh hog's blood, just waiting to drop upon poor Carrie. Drop it does, an event which triggers the maelstrom of terror that comprises the film's third act.

De Palma orchestrates the action with style to spare. His camera is constantly moving, prowling around library stacks and high school locker rooms, spinning around Tommy and Carrie as they dance at the prom. Several tracking shots start high and then slowly move into the desired objec of attention (similar to the magnificent crane shot in Hitchcock's NOTORIOUS (1946)). Cinematographer Mario Tosi shoots everything in a slightly hazy, gauzy, soft focus and Pino Donaggio's score is rife with references to the great Bernard Herrmann.

It's tempting to draw a parallel between Carrie and Jean Grey, the long-suffering super heroine Marvel Girl (at least, in her first iteration) in Marvel Comics' THE X-MEN. Both are red-headed teenagers with telekinetic powers. Both are feared by the "real" world. But Jean was fortunate enough to have the guidance and mentor ship provided by Professor Charles Xavier, allowing her to find a home among other misunderstood teen-age mutants. Carrie, on the other hand, had no guidance. Her mother was a monster consumed with hatred and fear, emotions that lead to the ultimate destruction of both women.

CARRIE was one of the few American horror films to receive Academy Award nominations for acting. Neither Spacek nor Laurie won but they both do superlative work here. A sequel THE RAGE: CARRIE 2 was released in 1999 while a television version of CARRIE was produced in 2002. In 2013, another cinematic version of CARRIE was released while CARRIE, the play, debuted Off-Broadway in 2006.

Forget 'em all and stick with the original, the first and best version of the material. The shock ending still packs a jolt and the rest of the film is skillfully and earnestly produced. Recommended.


Saturday, February 18, 2017

ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN


ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN (1948) is a classic Errol Flynn swashbuckler. Produced at Warner Brothers, the studio where Flynn made so many great films, DON JUAN is a rollicking, slightly tongue-in-cheek costumer which finds Flynn playing the legendary Spanish lover, a rake who pursues lovely young women all across Europe. He's aided in his escapades by stalwart companion Leporello (long time Flynn co-star and real life friend Alan Hale).

The action begins in England where Don Juan is mistaken as the Spanish suitor to a British princess. He and Leporello escape (using recycled footage from THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938)) and, armed with a letter of recommendation from Count de Polan (Robert Warwick), they return to Spain to serve in the court of Queen Margaret (Viveca Lindfors).

Don Juan finds his true love in the form of the lovely queen but there's intrigue and menace afoot as Duke de Lorca (Robert Douglas, in a Loki-esque look and performance), plots against the queen and her ineffectual husband, King Phillip III (Romney Brent). The Duke is aided by several henchmen, among them a young Raymond Burr as Captain Alvarez.

Don Juan faces many obstacles in exposing and overcoming the Duke's nefarious schemes and the narrative climaxes with a rousing sword fight between Don Juan and the Duke on an enormous staircase set.

ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN doesn't reach the heights of Flynn's greatest film, THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, but it's a marvelously entertaining film nonetheless. The Technicolor cinematography by Elwood Bredell, drenches the screen in vivid hues, toned down only slightly from the first eye-popping three-strip Technicolor of earlier years. Legendary composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (who scored ROBIN HOOD), was originally set to provide the music here but he retired from film scoring by the time the film went into production and was replaced by Max Steiner, who delivers a terrific score. The costumes and sets are gorgeous and the performances are all good. Director Vincent Sherman keeps things moving at a good clip and Flynn hadn't yet started his long, slow slide into dissolution and debauchery that ultimately sank his career. He's not at the top of his form but he still delivers the goods.

If you're looking for accurate history, go read a book. If you want an exciting, funny and beautiful to look at, old fashioned swashbuckler starring one of the greatest action heroes of the cinema, check out ADVENTURES OF DON JUAN. Recommended.


NOCHE ROJA


Vertigo, DC Comics' edgier, "alt/indie" imprint, launched an ambitious albeit short-lived publishing experiment in 2009 with the debut of Vertigo Crime, a series of original black and white noir crime graphic novels, pitched at an adult readership. There were 13 books published from 2009 to 2011. I read my first one the other day.

NOCHE ROJA (RED NIGHT) by Simon Oliver and Jason Latour is a tale of crime and corruption along the United States/Mexico border. Young girls are being raped and murdered and Jack Cohen, an ex-cop (with a dark past) turned private detective, starts an investigation at the behest of a social worker. The victims are all workers at local maquiladoras but what's the real connection?

With plenty of plot twists and turns, a surfeit of sex and violence NOCHE ROJA is definitely not for kids. I give Oliver's story three stars but my biggest problem with this work is the artwork by Jason Latour. Latour's style is heavily influenced by manga (have I mentioned lately how much I hate manga?). It's cartoony, loose and sketchy. As if that wasn't bad enough, the pages are drenched in black ink. It's like Latour channeled the ghost of Vince Colletta's ink pot and spilled every drop on his drawing board. Yes, noir means black but come on guys, don't take it quite so literally. There are panels and pages in which it's impossible to tell what you're looking at because it's so damn black. A little light wouldn't have ruined the story because it's plenty dark to begin with. I'm not advocating complete sweetness and light, just a little more clarity please. Because of the constant murkiness, I have to give the artwork one and a half stars.

I don't know what the other entries in the Vertigo Crime series are like but as a big fan of noir crime fiction, I'm willing to give them a chance. After all, they can't all be this black, can they?



Monday, February 13, 2017

THE RANGER


THE RANGER (2011), is the second novel I've read in the last year by mystery/crime writer Ace Atkins. The first, WHITE SHADOW, was a historical crime novel set in Tampa, Florida in the 1950s and in it, Atkins did for Tampa what James Ellroy has done for Los Angeles in his own series of historical noirs. WHITE SHADOW is a first rate novel as is THE RANGER.

An Edgar Award Nominee, THE RANGER is the first book in the Quinn Colson series. Colson is an Army Ranger back home from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. Home is Tibbehah County, Mississippi. What brings Colson back is the death of his uncle, the county sheriff, who apparently took his own life. But things don't quite add up. There's evidence pointing to foul play and as Colson starts digging further into his family's past, he uncovers secrets that were better left hidden.

He's aided in his search by Deputy Sheriff Lillie Virgil. She's just about the only honest person in the whole damn county, one of the few people, along with the one-armed vet Boom, that Colson can count on as his quest uncovers a nest of corruption and vice that seems to have touched almost everyone in the county. There's a shady real estate deal, meth heads, white supremacists, crooked politicians, a twisted preacher, a lecherous old man, strippers, prostitutes ("lot lizards") at the local truck stop, the Memphis Mob, an old girl friend, and an innocent, pregnant teenager who falls in with the wrong crowd.

There's beau coup bloodshed and violence and Colson kicks some major ass before all is said and done. Some of the carnage is the result of firearms, some courtesy of a bow and arrow. The book ends on a perfect set up with Colson being asked to run for the suddenly vacant position of sheriff. Swiftly paced, with nary a wasted word, Atkins gets everything right: the landscape, the people, the dialect. There's a strong, vivid sense of place and all of the characters are well drawn, especially the bad guys, of which there are many. The action, when it comes, is brutal and nasty and Atkins doesn't pull any punches. The book reminded me strongly of Phil Karlson's classic '70s exploitation action film, WALKING TALL.

Quinn Colson is a tough as nails action hero out to clean up the New South. I'm definitely going along for the ride.


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Saturday, February 11, 2017

20,000 YEARS IN SING SING


When I was a kid, anytime I saw a reference to the film 20,000 YEARS IN SING SING (1932), I was confused. What crime could someone commit that would get them that many years in prison? No one could possibly live that long. And there was no way Sing Sing prison (in upstate New York) had been around that long. What gives?

What gives is cleverly explained during the title sequence of this crackerjack prison drama that I watched for the first time the other evening. The film opens with a montage of prisoners walking through the halls and yards of Sing Sing. Each man has a number super imposed upon his chest, a number signifying how long his sentence is. There are hundreds of men, each with a number, which if added up, would amount to 20,000 years.

Spencer Tracy stars as tough guy Tommy Connors who gets 30 years in prison for robbery and assault. He has a chance to escape but doesn't take it. When Tommy's girlfriend Fay (Bette Davis), is injured in an automobile accident, the liberal/progressive warden Paul Long (Arthur Byron), grants Tommy 24 hours to leave the prison to see Fay on the condition that he must return when his time is up.

Fay has been injured by one of Tommy's associates, a mobster named Joe Finn (Louis Calhern). Finn tries to finish Fay off but Tommy intervenes and the two fight. Fay shoots and kills Finn but Tommy takes the rap for her. He returns to prison where he's tried and convicted and sentenced to death. He goes to the electric chair knowing that he was ultimately a stand-up guy who kept his word to the warden who always treated him fairly.

20,000 YEARS is a rock solid template for almost every prison picture that followed. All of the genre tropes are here including a bravura escape attempt set piece that's well staged. At this stage in their respective careers, Spencer Tracy and Bette Davis had both yet to become SPENCER TRACY and BETTE DAVIS. They were not yet stars with well developed screen personas but they were both extremely capable actors able to play any role they were assigned. Tracy is very good as is Davis, who appears here during the fifteen minutes of her career when she was actually pretty. Joan Crawford had the same amount of time for onscreen beauty.

Kudos must go to screenwriters Courtney Terrett and Robert Lord who adapted the book by real-life prison warden Lewis E. Lawes. The script is tight and compact and moves swiftly during the 78 minutes of running time. The real standout here is director Michael Curtiz, one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history. His filmography is loaded with good to great films including such varied classics as DOCTOR X (1932), THE MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933), CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935), THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938), ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938), DODGE CITY (1939), CASABLANCA (1942), YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942), MILDRED PIERCE (1945) and WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954).

Highly recommended.

THE SHADOW: THE SILENT DEATH


First published in April, 1933, THE SILENT DEATH was the 27th Shadow adventure and it's a good one. A mad scientist, Folcroft Urlich, plots to kill a succession of wealthy men by various means, ingenious killing devices that Urlich describes as "silent death". He's foiled by The Shadow in all but one of his attempts, a fiendishly clever death trap that claims two victims. But The Shadow gains valuable information from one of the victims before his final breath, info that leads the crime fighter to Urlich's hidden laboratory on Long Island.

Urlich's redoubt is a fantastic, pyramidal type structure, with the three levels rounded rather than angular. Within the fortress is a laboratory and a sunken pit which houses a gigantic device that has the capability of electrocuting everyone within the building and those without inside a prescribed perimeter. A mad scientist! A fantastic laboratory! An immense death machine! These are the elements that make pulp fiction so much fun.

The edition I read (finished it last night) was published in March1978. Once again, artist extraordinaire Jim Steranko does the honors on the cover art and this time, the image is not entirely inaccurate. There is a giant test tube of death in the story, two of them in fact, but rather than containing a damsel in distress, the tubes imprison two of The Shadow's agents: Clyde Burke and Cliff Marsland. But hey, Steranko's image captures the spirit if not the letter of the yarn and that's fine by me.

This one's a winner!



Sunday, February 5, 2017

PHANTOM LADY


Gorgeous cover art by Adam Hughes graces this slim trade paperback from 1994 that reprints seven vintage Phantom Lady comics stories from the Golden Age. The stories are all credited to "Gregory Page" and all feature wonderful artwork by Matt Baker.

Phantom Lady starred in her own title in the late 1940s and also appeared in ALL TOP COMICS. She was a shapely crime fighter with no super powers. Instead, she battled evil in a skimpy outfit using her trusty "black light" projector, a flashlight like device that instead of emitting regular, white light, gave off rays of utter blackness. In real life, Phantom Lady was actually Sandra Knight, daughter of a United States Senator. Her boyfriend was Don Borden, a square jawed but clueless young chap who could not discern that his girlfriend and Phantom Lady were one and the same, despite that fact that PL did not wear a mask or try to change her appearance in any way.

In these ten pagers, Phantom Lady sports her classic red and blue outfit. She later changed to a yellow and green get-up. When the rights to Phantom Lady were acquired by DC Comics in the early 1970s, she became a member of The Freedom Fighters, a team of Golden Age super heroes who lived on an earth where the Nazis won WWII.

These stories aren't masterpieces but they're all good, breezy fun with really solid artwork by the great Matt Baker.