Friday, October 30, 2009

An Opinion: Antichrist

It has been nearly a week since I saw Lars von Trier's latest controversial piece of work "Anti-christ" (2009). I debated with myself whether or not I should write about it. I wasn't sure of my feelings. The movie opened up a lot of questions for me regarding movies and how we should interpret them and what exactly is their purpose. I haven't answered those questions yet but I thought I should get down my thoughts before they escape me.

"Antichrist", depending on your film taste, was one of the major film events of the year. People have been buzzing about it for a while, though, word was it was pretty bad. At the Cannes Film Festival stories came in that people walked out during the screening. Some say people were throwing things at the screen. It has been described as a "train wreck" and "torture porn".

Now that it has open in Chicago, I looked forward to seeing the movie. I'm usually in von Trier's corner. I've celebrated his films in the past. I was a great admirer of his "Dogville" (2004) which several people slammed as "anti-American". I called it one of the best films of the year. I also enjoyed "Dancer in the Dark" (2000) and "Manderlay" (2006). I called his "Breaking the Waves" (1996) one of the best films of its year too. So walking into "Antichrist" I was expecting to be pleased. I felt I'm in sync with von Trier's artistic sensibilities. Those other films were considered controversial as well. So I didn't take much notice when people said "Antichrist" was a divisive film.

Earlier in the year I saw an older Japanese movie, Nagisa Oshima's "In the Realm of the Senses" (1976). It is generally regarded as a classic. The film shows acts of an intense sexual nature. Characters choke each other during the act and the film ends with the image of a jealous woman cutting off a man's penis. As I watched that film I began to feel dizzy. I was nausea. I don't have diabetes but my sugar dropped. I felt weak in the knees. It felt as if someone had hit me with a baseball bat in the chest and knocked all the wind out of me. I had to shut the movie off, lay down and eat some candy to restore my blood sugar. It was the most unpleasant movie going experience of my life. I have a pretty good stomach when it comes to screen violence. Slasher horror films have little effect on me. But, there was something about that film that left me so devastated.

I felt the same way when I saw "Antichrist". Unfortunately I wasn't in the comfort of my own home where I could shut off the movie and take a break. I couldn't tell the projectionist to stop the movie for me. I was weak in the knees again. My blood sugar dropped but I was too numb to get up and get some much needed candy. I was going to have to endure this until the very end. And I tried my best.

"Antichirst" makes me wonder, can a film be disgusting and vile and still have artistic merit? I suppose in theory the answer is yes but I've decided I don't want to see it done in practice. But does art have to comfort us? Do movies have to be pleasurable experiences for us? Can they rattle us and drive us to the point of vomit and still be about something? What if that was the director's desire? Can we fault him for achieving his goals?

I look at it this way. Lets say you have a student in a classroom who does disruptive things. They say mean things to the other students, they are rude, disobedient. Do you say, well, the child is engaging in individual expression and reward bad behavior or do you punish the child? In other words, by watching "Antichrist" and giving the film money are we rewarding bad behavior? Meaning, by seeing this picture are we telling Lars von Trier we want him to make more movies like this? I personally do not want him to. But does he care?

My gut tells me Lars von Trier is the kind of filmmaker who does precisely what he wants. He makes films for himself. Many times that is the best thing for an artist to do. I gather von Trier doesn't really care what the public thinks of his film. This was personal. Supposedly von Trier made this film after a two year battle with depression. You can tell something was wrong with him for making this.

The film stars William Dafoe as "He" and Charlotte Gainsbourg as "She". They are a married couple which has just lost their child. "She" is grief stricken. "He" is a therapist and thinks he can treat her. They go off to the woods, where "She" and the child went for their last summer vacation, a garden called "Eden".

After hearing about the buzz surrounding the film, the first hour or so of the film seemed very conventional. It was pretty slow moving and I wasn't having much interest following the story. It takes such a distant approach I felt. The viewer is isolated from these characters. But I felt I was on a cautious journey. I kept expecting some sort of twist. And then it happens, with in the last 40 minutes or so of the film. It turns extremely violent. We are now dealing with scenes concerning genital mutilation, male and female.

Was any of this needed? Could von Trier have given us the same message without the violence? I can think of another director who has explored issues of guilt, lost, trauma, relationships and good vs evil; Ingmar Bergman. His films "Cries & Whispers" (1973) and "Scenes From A Marriage" (1974) are prime examples. "Scenes From A Marriage" remains the most intense film I have seen on the subject of love and marriage. But von Trier dedicated his film to Andrei Tarkovsky, that other great existentialist. But I don't really see the comparison. Is "Antichrist" von Trier's "Solaris" (1972)?

Watching "Antichrist" the film felt as hallow to me as the recent Vince Vaughn comedy "Couples Retreat" (2009). Von trier has nothing meaningful to say about relationships. What, ultimately is he telling us? It is not the film's message which is controversial but the violence. But does the violence over shadow von Trier's themes? I think so. The bad reaction the film has been getting has been because of the violence. That is what people are reacting to. The group I saw this movie with were disturbed as well. No one moved once the film was over. I couldn't move for medical reasons. But when I did finally get up, I saw people walking outside saying they needed a drink. Other were smoking. People just had to partake in some sort of vice to ease what they had just seen. I eavesdropped to hear what others were saying and they all pretty much said the film was disgusting. They didn't understand what von Trier was doing. I didn't hear one person say, "boy, that was great! I can't wait to see that again!"

It seems to me "Antichrist" is a film full of symbolism and metaphor. The film goes for biblical references. "The garden of Eden", naming the characters "he" and "she". Animals in the garden are possessed and speak. This of course reminds us of the story of Adam & Eve. There an animal spoke too, the Devil, who disguised himself as a snake and tempted them to eat an apple. Von Trier asks the question are women evil, another biblical musing, since it was Eve who ate the apple first and tempted Adam to follow. But what about all of this? What is "Antichrist" hitting at?

On some level this can lead one to appreciate the film however. There does seem to be something artistic about the film. Von Trier seemed to have a vision and put it on-screen. He did not compromise. He must have known the kind of reaction this film would receive but he was bold enough to proceed anyway. I suppose you have to admire that. But the film is not a pleasurable viewing experience. Does that mean anything?

And that is why I have not written a formal review with star ratings. Rating are irrelevant with this movie. Plus I wouldn't know how much (or little) to give it. Do I bend over backwards in the name of artistic expression and congratulate von Trier or do I consider my personal reaction and respond to that?

Here is what others have written; "Lars von Trier cuts a big fat art-film fart with "Antichrist" starts off the review by "Variety" as it continues "derisive hoots were much in evidence during and after the Cannes press screening."

A.O. Scott of the New York Times called the film "ponderous" and says it is "so conceptually thin and so dull."

And finally Joe Neumaier of the New York Daily News states the film is "artfully horrific but artificial and soulless". Too bad the paper didn't let the much better critic Elizabeth Weitzman review it. It would have been interesting to read a woman's take on the film.

So I'm not alone in not fully celebrating the film. All I know is I never want to see this film again. I don't care if I can gain a greater insight into it after a second viewing. Now that I've written about it, I never want to discuss it again or even think about it. I want to erase it from my memory. After watching this film I started reviewing screen comedies on this blog. See there is a reason for everything. I needed to take pleasure in watching movies again.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Film Review: Zombies on Broadway

"Zombies on Broadway" ** (out of ****)

After reviewing the Abbott & Costello comedy "Hold That Ghost" (1941), I got an idea. Why not review a couple more of these comedy horror films? The problem with that idea is there are few comedies which are as good as the ones Abbott & Costello did. What, you don't believe me? Okay, then watch "Zombies on Broadway" (1945) starring RKO's comedy team Brown & Carney. Which many believe was RKO's answer to Abbott & Costello.

That statement is two-fold in my opinion. It can serve as a reference to recommend Brown & Carney. As if someone said, "hey, if you like Abbott & Costello, then you'll like Brown & Carney". But it also implies Brown & Carney aren't funny on their own and should be considered an imitation of Abbott & Costello. Sort of the low rent version. I wouldn't go that far but Brown & Carney don't quite leave the same impression on you other comedy teams like Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers or even Abbott & Costello do.

So why am I reviewing them? Well, readers should know by now I like discussing comedy teams, especially the comics time has forgotten. I'd like to expand my readers horizons and introduce all of you to films and movie stars you may not have heard of. Plus, "Zombies on Broadway" will serve as a good example on why blending comedy and horror is sometimes difficult and demonstrate why you should appreciate Abbott & Costello's ventures into the genre more.

Brown & Carney were both RKO contract players. RKO had placed them in a movie, "Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event" (1943), which is out of print and I have never seen. Apparently RKO thought they had something good and could provide an alternative to A&C. So they were placed in 11 other films between 1943-1946. Their first film as an official team was "Adventures of A Rookie" (1944), some have suggested this is their best comedy. Their last film together was "Genius at Work" (1946) which was a remake of Wheeler & Woolsey's (another RKO comedy team that I have also reviewed) "The Nitwits" (1935). Other highlights include "Step Lively" (1944) a remake of the Marx Brothers' comedy "Room Service" (1938) with Frank Sinatra and their sequel to "Rookie", "Rookies in Burma" (1943).

But it is perhaps "Zombies on Broadway" which is their most accessible film today. It has become their most popular. In it Wally Brown, the some what "straight man" of the team, plays Jerry Miles and Alan Carney, who sort of resembles Lou Costello, is Mike Streger (the teams used these names in a few of their pictures) they are a couple of press agents who work for gangster Ace Miller (Sheldon Leonard, who somehow got type casted for playing these kind of roles. Watch him in "Guys & Dolls" (1955) later he become a producer with fellow comedian Danny Thomas). Miller is about to open a nightclub called "Zombie Hut". So Jerry and Mike think it will be a great publicity gag if they advertise that a real Zombie will make an appearance at the club. But when Ace finds out they really don't have a zombie, surprisingly he becomes mad and doesn't want to promote false advertising, especially when a public crusader radio announcer, Douglas Walker (Louis Jean Heydt) is on Ace's back to expose him as a fraud. So Ace orders Jerry and Mike to go find a real zombie or else their lives will be at stake.

The team catches a boat to the island of San Sebastian, which served as same island where Val Lewton's "I Walked With A Zombie" (1943) took place. Many cite "Zombies on Broadway" as a semi-sequel (whatever that is) to Lewton's film. It even shares one of the same characters, a local singer (Sir Lancelot) who sings songs about death. Since "I Walked With A Zombie" was also made at RKO it would seem the studio was spoofing itself.

The boys are on the look out for a scientist, Dr. Paul Renault (Bela Lugosi) who rumor has it is an expert on zombies. What the boys don't know is the rumors are true and Dr. Renault is kidnapping the natives in an attempt to turn them into zombies. He wants to discover why do the witch doctors have powers which science cannot explain. The doctor has already made one zombie but previous experiments have failed. Before the locals start to get suspicious Renault wants his zombie to kidnap tourist. And guess who he decides on?

Films dealing with the occult and particularly zombies seemed to be all the rage in the 40s with films like "I Walked With A Zombie", the Bob Hope comedy "The Ghost Breakers" (1940) and this film. I'm uncertain what caused this trend, I wonder if it had something to do with the war.

"Zombies on Broadway" does make modest attempts to capitalize on the film's setting, a tropical island occupied with voodoo chants. And we even see one ritual. But that isn't really the problem. The problem is the film isn't funny. I laughed at a few bits here and there but largely I found the film to be slow moving and dull. Brown & Carney are in practically every scene but they don't have any established routines. This is what I think makes them a lesser team.

As I have stated both men were solos under contract with RKO. They never worked together before and hadn't established a chemistry with one another. They were just placed together. Other teams like Abbott & Costello or Olsen & Johnson had worked together on stage or radio or both. They were friendly and had good relations. They worked on an act together. They developed personas to play off of. Brown & Carney never went through any of that. Their characters aren't as clearly defined. Brown is suppose to be the leader of the team. He is the one with the big ideas, unless something goes wrong. Carney is his faithful best friend who goes along with him. On paper that sounds like your typical comedy team. But there is nothing memorable about them. Brown isn't much of a straight man, because sometimes it seems he wants to go for laughs and Carney isn't much of a comic because he hasn't separated himself as something unique. For instance, Stan Laurel was the innocent, child-like man. Jerry Lewis was a zany fool. Groucho Marx was a wise-cracking smart-alec. They each had a gimmick which made them memorable. After watching "Zombies on Broadway" you tell me what was Carney's gimmick.

The film's director was Gordon Douglas. He had a pretty long career in comedy. He directed the spy spoof with James Coburn "In Like Flint" (1967) as well as the Laurel & Hardy comedy "Saps at Sea" (1940) not to mention Oliver Hardy's solo film with Harry Langdon (after contract disputes between Hal Roach and Stan Laurel) "Zenobia" (1939), which isn't a very good film, though Langdon shines. I mention this because clearly Douglas must have known "funny" when he saw it. Wasn't there something he could have done here? Or was he under the thumb of the studio?

And what happened to Bela Lugosi? I didn't realize until recently what a sad career he had. As I mentioned in a previous review, in my family, because we are Hungarian, we always looked at Lugosi as a big star. But it appears after "Dracula" (1931) he didn't have much of a career. He also appeared in another horror comedy, the Ritz Brothers' "The Gorilla" (1939), which unlike most I actually enjoy as a silly comedy. Lugosi just seemed to be spoofing himself in every film he made after "Dracula". Though he did have a memorable role in "Son of Frankenstein" (1939). Here he just seems to be going through the motions. I can't believe even he thought this was a good film. He must have done it for the money. It isn't an embarrassment for him, that would happen later in the Ed Wood films, but, it is just sad to see him here, knowing he always wanted to be taken serious.

As much as I love to celebrate the forgotten comics like Wheeler & Woolsey, Olsen & Johnson, Joe E. Brown and Harry Langdon, sadly I can't do that with Brown & Carney. "Zombies on Broadway" (even the title doesn't make sense. The zombies are never intended to appear on broadway) is harmless and on some level I'd like to tell you to see it, just so you will expose yourself to something different and learn about a new comedy team, but, take your time. Watch the classic Abbott & Costello comedies like "Hold That Ghost" and "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948) instead if you are looking for some laughs this Halloween night. After a while, when you gain more of a curiosity for film comedy, check out Brown & Carney. But don't say I didn't warn you.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Film Review: The Seventh Victim

"The Seventh Victim" *** (out of ****)

As October draws to a close and I finish up my celebration of classic horror films, I had to review at least one more Val Lewton production.

My readers should know by now I am a great admirer of Val Lewton's films. I have reviewed nearly all of them including " The Cat People" (1942), "I Walked With A Zombie" (1943), "The Leopard Man" (1943) and even included "The Body Snatcher" (1945) in my "Masterpiece Film Series". And here we have one more title, "The Seventh Victim" (1943).

Lewton earliest films; "Cat People", "Leopard Man" and "I Walked With A Zombie" were collaborations with filmmaker Jacques Tourner. These films are considered Lewton's best by most film buffs. In fact it is Lewton who generally receives all the credit for these films success, rarely the director. It is said Lewton had a very large input in the final product. Each movie tends to resemble the other, regardless of who the director was. Some have suggested Lewton was a co-director.

I tend to give Lewton all the credit in my reviews too, so I'm not setting any records straight. However, you feel one can see a shift in style after Tourner was promoted by RKO studios to "A" level films. The post-Tourner films are entertaining in their own way but seem to lack an artist edge. There doesn't seem to be as stunning a visual aesthetic. The only one which seemed to come close was "The Body Snatcher" which was directed by a young Robert Wise, of "West Side Story" (1962) fame.

"The Seventh Victim" was the first film Lewton made after Tourner. The director was Mark Robson. This was Robson's first film. He would direct a few other Lewton productions; "Ghost Ship" (1943) which I have reviewed, and "Isle of the Dead" (1945). Readers may not recognize the name instantly but Robson would direct some important, highly entertaining films. One of his best is "Peyton Place" (1957) a masterpiece which I need to include in my series. He also directed the Frank Sinatra vehicle "Von Ryan's Express" (1965). But here in the early stages of his career naturally he was still learning. His films aren't quite as impressive as Tourner. He just seemed to be the perfect partner for Lewton. Wise and Robson moved in different directions, horror really wasn't their genre.

Still you'd have to be awfully prejudice not to admit "The Seventh Victim" has some nice moments and a story, which on paper, sounds pretty creepy.

The film starts off by introducing us to Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter, making her film debut). Her parents died when she was a young girl. Her older sister, Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) took care of her growing up. By now Mary is in a Catholic school, far away from her sister. The school principle informs Mary, they have not been in contact with her for months. It has been six months since they have received tuition payments from her. This worries Mary a great deal and she decides to leave the school and head for New York in an attempt to find her sister.

Once Mary arrives in New York she heads to a cosmetic factory which Jacqueline owns, Le Sagesse. She talked to her business partner, Esther Redi (Mary Newton) who tells Mary, Jacqueline sold the business to her. She has not seen Jacqueline since. In fact it seems no one has seen Jacqueline for quite some time. One lead takes her to an Italian restaurant, where she rented a room above. But the landlords say Jacqueline paid them rent, moved in, put new locks on the door and never came back, but, she still sends rent money.

Desperate for information Mary heads to the city morgue and the police. Here she meets a private investigator, Irving August (Lou Lubin) and a lawyer Gregory Ward (Hugh Beaumont) who knows Jacqueline and has been looking for her himself.

Finally Mary stumbles upon the truth, Jacqueline was part of a Devil worshipping cult. She has been preoccupied with death. In her room all that was found was chair beneath a hanging noose. Could the cult have kidnapped her? But why?

The whole Devil worshipping aspect of the film does make it sound scary and gives the film a certain edge, unfortunately, perhaps because of the time period, "The Seventh Victim" does do enough with it. Lewton has dealt with the occult before, "I Walked With A Zombie", and there Lewton did more with it, incorporating it into the story. Here we never really learn much about this group. Look at what Roman Polanski did with similar material in "Rosemary's Baby" (1968). Lewton and Robson never show us any of the rituals. They never make the characters truly appear evil.

But "The Seventh Victim" has three standout scenes which really make it worthwhile. The first scene deals with Inspector August and Mary sneaking into La Sagesse at night after August snooped around earlier but couldn't get into a locked room. Now they want to find out what was in there. In this sequence Lewton and Robson have cinematographer, Nicholas Musuraca, film it in shadows. The door they want is in complete darkness. The characters playfully argue with each other about who should walk first. Finally August does. Each step he takes puts him further and further into the pitch black. Almost as if he is entering the abyss. When he returns Mary discovers he has been stabbed. Lewton and Robson never show us what happened. That was a signature of Lewton's films. Keeping the violence off-screen.

Another successful scene has Mary in the shower when we see a shadow walking towards her through the curtain. It is Ms. Redi. She has come to warn Mary to stop searching for her sister. It will only lead to danger. Anytime you have a scene take place in a shower, you are going to have modern audiences think of Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960). I wouldn't be surprised if this scene inspired that one. We never see Ms. Redi's face. We only hear her voice. She is a faceless voice of evil. Of course this scene could have been filmed differently. The two ladies could have meet face to face. But the sequence seems more effective this way with the characters not being able to see each other.

And finally the last sequence deals with Jacqueline walking home alone sensing she is being tailed. It reminds me a lot of the sequence in "Cat People". Robson keeps the suspense going as each corner represents a new danger, a new challenge. We wonder what will happen to Jacqueline.

The only major downfall to the film is the script, which was written by Charles O' Neal and DeWitt Bodeen who wrote "Cat People" and its sequel, "The Curse of the Cat People" (1944), which I have also reviewed. A lot of the dialogue has that stigma of bad "B" movie lines. Normally Lewton's films are better written. Much of it doesn't sound realistic. One moment has Ward tell Mary to drink some milk to which she sternly replies she doesn't like to be told what to do. But the way she delivers the line just seems to come out of left field. It is such a harsh reaction.

The film probably has the best known cast of Lewton's films. Kim Hunter of course would gain great fame for her performance as Stella in "A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951) for which she won an Oscar for "Best Supporting Actress". Hugh Beaumont is best known for his role as the father in the television show "Leave it to Beaver" where his character's name was Ward also. And Tom Conway has a role as a friend of Ward, Doctor Judd. He appeared in "I Walked With A Zombie" and the Ava Gardner vehicle "One Touch of Venus" (1948) based on the Kurt Weill musical. If you close your eyes and hear him speak you'd swear it was George Sanders.

"The Seventh Victim" does have some loose ends and doesn't explore the Devil worship aspect enough but it still makes for a worthwhile viewing for a few reasons; Hunter's performance, some nice visuals, at times good atmosphere, and an interesting concept. It is not one of Lewton's best, but if you are a fan you're gonna want to see this one.

Film Review: Hold That Ghost

"Hold That Ghost" *** (out of ****)

As you know through-out the month of October I have been reviewing classic horror films such as Val Lewton's "The Body Snatcher" (1945), Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) and "The Wolf Man" (1941). But maybe you don't like horror films. Perhaps you find them too scary. Then have I got something for you, a comedy horror film.

What is it about comics and horror films? Think of all the comedians which have found themselves in haunted houses, facing ghost. There was the comedy short with Laurel & Hardy, "The Laurel & Hardy Murder Case" (1930), Harold Lloyd in the two-reeler "Haunted Spooks" (1920), Bob Hope ventured off on two occasions; "The Cat & the Canary" (1939) and "Ghost Breakers" (1940), not to mention the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy "Mummy's Boys" (1936) and the Olsen & Johnson comedy "Ghost Catchers" (1944). But no team has been caught in more ghostly situations than the comedy team of Abbott & Costello, probably best known for their encounters with the Universal Studio horror monsters. But "Hold That Ghost" (1941) preceded those films. In a way establishing the formula.

I've written once before about Abbott & Costello when I reviewed their comedy "Naughty Nineties" (1945), one of their best comedies. It features some of their best known routines, including "Who's on First". There's nothing quite that iconic in "Hold That Ghost" but the team gets in plenty of funny moments.

We all pretty much know the set-up to these haunted house stories. On a dark and stormy night a group of people find themselves in an equally dark house, which may have been abandon for years or is occupied by a strange family, with plenty of secrets. We can expect hands coming out of corners grabbing people, damsels in distress screaming and the discovery of at least one dead body. And we'll find all of that in "Hold That Ghost" except the film will interrupt those moments for comedy sequences. Maybe that is why comics find themselves in horror films, to show us there is nothing to be afraid of. The comics ease the tension and show us how formulaic horror films really are.

"Hold That Ghost" starts off pretty slow with Abbott & Costello as a couple of gas station attendants, who through a temp agency, land jobs as relief waiters at a swanky nightclub where Ted Lewis and the Andrew Sisters (who appeared in another Abbott & Costello comedy the same year, "Buck Privates" (1941) where they had one of their biggest hits, "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy") are performing.

The opening sequence actually focuses more on the musical numbers giving Lewis and the Andrew Sisters their screen time. Some may take great pleasure in knowing we get to hear Ted Lewis sing his signature song, "Me & My Shadow". But these scenes do serve a useful purpose. They help introduce us to the characters. We establish that Chuck (Bud Abbott) and Ferdinand (Lou Costello) are a couple of good natured losers who keep hoping for their big break. One day they would like to own their swanky nightclub. And we meet some notorious gangsters like "Moose" Matson (William Davidson) who has been having problems with Charlie Smith (Marc Lawrence) who wants to cut in on Matson's latest job and demands a percentage of the cut or else he'll talk to the cops. But Matson refuses causing concern for his right hand man Bannister (Russell Hicks). Who also wonders where Maton has hidden his fortune. Is a double-cross in the works?

After Chuck and Ferdinand get fired from their waiter positions, because of their comedy hi jinks, they find themselves back at the gas station only "Moose" Matson stops by and the boys find themselves in the back seat of his car during a police chase which ends in Matson's death. And since the boys were with him at the end, according to Matson's will, they inherit his property, an abandon hotel. And this is where the fun begins.

Now Chuck and Ferdinand, along with some other travellers, heading to different locations, have rented a bus. The guest include; Doctor Jackson (Richard Carlson), Norma Lind (Evelyn Ankers) and radio actress, known for her scream in horror programs, Camille Brewster (Joan Davis). As they all travel to their first stop, the abandon hotel, which is just off the state highway, the weather starts to get bad, leading the bus driver to ask if everyone can stay at the boys' hotel for the night until the weather clears. But the driver leaves them behind. It seems he works for gangsters who believe Matson's fortune is somewhere in the hotel.

Naturally everyone is scared to spend the night there and no one more so than Ferdinand. And the gangsters will use every trick to scare these guest into leaving so they can search the hotel.

As you can probably guess the best moments in the film belong to Abbott & Costello. The "scary" scenes aren't scary and are just used as situations for the comedy team to react to. There is a romantic sub-plot between the doctor and Norma, but it doesn't amount to much, which is actually one of the best things about the screenplay. It doesn't push the romance in our face or try to pretend the viewer cares about anything more than seeing Abbott and Costello. The film basically revolves around them.

The best comedic sequence is a dance between Ferdinand and Camille to the "Blue Danube" waltz. I wouldn't reveal what happens for all the money in the world. All I will say is, they are no Fred & Ginger. How they get through the dance with no bruises is a miracle.

There are also plenty of funny Abbott & Costello verbal gags, their speciality, like Ferdinand getting stuck explaining what a "figure of speech" means to Chuck and Camille. Some of the other exchanges though come from Ferdinand's fear, like when he afraid to go outside by himself because he has no one to talk to. Chuck simply tells him to talk to himself. But Ferdinand doesn't like to because he always gets stupid answers.

There is another funny moment when the men decide to go investigate a noise and tell the women to stay behind. But Ferdinand decides he'd rather stay behind too with the women, causing Chuck to tell him he can't, he's not a woman, though Ferdinand refutes, why not let him make up his own mind.

But the most memorable bit ( after the "Blue Danube" waltz) will probably be the candle routine, which the team would re-use in "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), their first of the Universal monster films. Here Ferdinand is left by himself with two candles but each time Chuck walks away the candles start to move on their own causing Ferdinand to constantly scream for Chuck. But each time Chuck arrives the candles stop moving.

Now as I said the main emphasis here is the comedy. Younger movie fans will probably not know this but Joan Davis was a very popular comedienne during this time and she helps out the boys providing laughs. She is the best known of all the supporting players in the film. She appeared in the Irving Berlin musical, "On the Avenue" (1937) with Dick Powell and was in "Sun Valley Serenade" (1941) which featured the Glenn Miller Orchestra.

The film was directed by Arthur Lubin. But who knows if "direct" is really the right word. Abbott & Costello's films consist of routines they had been doing for years on radio and stage. So there was little input a director could give them. They knew what worked and what didn't based on their performances. No director was going to change that. I assume Lubin's main job was just to make sure everyone was in frame. Though he did "direct" a couple other films with the team including "Buck Privates", their first starring vehicle and "In the Navy" (also 1941). And Lubin would direct more horror material with his version of "The Phantom at the Opera" (1943) with Claude Rains and Nelson Eddy. I have not seen this adaptation, but, as I understand it, it places more emphasis on the music rather than horror.

Those looking for some laughs come this Halloween night should check this movie out. If you really want to tickle your funny bone rent "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" too. Though I haven't reviewed it on here (yet) I do recommend it. And now you can find these films a lot easier. Universal has finally released these films on DVD in a special Abbott and Costello collector's set. I haven't seen any of these DVDs so I have no clue if there are any special features. But just being able to watch the films alone should tempt movie lovers to buy them.

Comedy buffs (especially Three Stooges fans) will also take pleasure in seeing Shemp Howard in a small role as a soda jerk. He often appeared in small roles with the team.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Film Review: 50 Million Frenchmen

"50 Million Frenchmen" *** (out of ****)

Although I would describe myself as a filmbuff, I am also a comedy buff. Comedy is my favorite movie genre and unlike most modern, casual movie fans, I take great pleasure in hunting down and watching comedies made by comedians and comedy teams which time has forgotten. On this blog I have tried to introduce readers to the work of such comics as Harry Langdon and the comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey. Now I would like to expand upon that even further. This time I would like to discuss the comedy team of Olsen & Johnson.

I have name dropped the team in some of my reviews but I've never actually written a review for one of the team's films. I wanted to change that immediately and bring them to your attention. I find it sad that so many entertaining films and movie stars get left behind and are dropped out of the public's sight. Many times these films are quite good but were perhaps a bit too ahead of their time. Sometimes there are copyright issues and films are believed to be lost.

None of that happened with this team. The team consisted of Ole Olsen, the straight man of the group. He is the slightly taller, slightly skinner one, and Chic Johnson, the more rotund one, known for his high-pitched laugh. They started off on vaudeville doing a musical act. Olsen on the violin and Johnson on the piano. Of their act it was said "no joke too old, no song too corny". They started to pick up some success and found themselves appearing on the radio. Naturally this gave them a wider audience. Eventually they were signed to a contract with Warner Brothers and later Universal.

Their brand of humor came to be known as "nut" humor. It was extremely off-the-wall. Think of the Marx Brothers mixed with the Ritz Brothers. Their comedy thrived on chaos. It is said their best work was on the stage where they could feed off the audience and ad-lib. Films confined them too much. They had to tone it down and couldn't be as spontaneous. One of their biggest hits was "Hellzapoppin", a stage play in 1938 and later made into a film at Universal in 1941. Several film historians claim that was their best film.

In total the team appeared in 9 films starting with "Oh Sailor Behave" (1930) and ending with "See My Lawyer" (1945). Strangely nothing happened to the team. Usually a team stops making films if one of them dies or becomes sick. They actually kept on working though back on stage and even hosting a short lived television program. So their style of humor wasn't completely out of date. Perhaps they simply lost interest in doing movies and not the other way around. Some of their other films include "Country Gentleman" (1936) and "Ghost Catchers" (1944).

"50 Million Frenchmen" (1931) was the team's second film. It was based on a Broadway musical from 1929 written by Herbert Fields and E. Ray Goetz with a musical score by Cole Porter. The play ran for 254 performances and featured such songs as "You Do Something To Me" and "You've Got That Thing". By the time the film was about to be released musicals had actually fallen out of the public's taste, after only two years, the first musical was the "Best Picture" Oscar winner, "The Broadway Melody" (1929), which I have reviewed. Because of this, Warner Brothers decided to scrape all the songs. So instead of a Cole Porter musical the film became a strict Olsen & Johnson vehicle. Cole Porter devotees (which I am among. Porter is my favorite composer) have ill feelings about this. This is the only feature length film adaptation of the stage play and no songs were sung, though "You Do Something To Me" and "You've Got That Thing" can be heard in the background.

In the film Ole Olsen plays Simon and Chic Johnson is Peter. A couple of American detectives in France. They happen to meet millionaire Billy Baxter (Lester Crawford) who has made a wager with Jack Forbes (William Gaxton) that he cannot win the hand of Lu Lu Carroll (Claudia Dell) in two weeks without the use of his money. You see, Jack is a millionaire playboy type. Billy feels the only way Jack can get women is by flaunting his money. Without it, Billy thinks Jack would strike out. So Billy hires Simon and Peter to trail Jack and make sure he doesn't write home for money and burrow from any of his friends.

In some way "50 Million Frenchmen" suffers from the problems I discussed in my review for the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy "The Cuckoos" (1930). The comedy team is really comic relief. The main emphasis of the plot is the love story and whether or not Jack can get Lu Lu to fall in love with him in two weeks. I didn't recommend "The Cuckoos" though said it wasn't a disaster. But "50 Million Frenchmen" is a better film and here's way. First of all, even the love story has comedic elements to it. William Gaxton gives a light-hearted performance. So we don't get a mushy performance with a cliche love story, though you will be able to guess what happens. The love story doesn't take itself too serious. Thus we are not without comedy even when the team is not on-screen. The film is much shorter than "The Cuckoos". "50 Million Frenchmen" is only 70 minutes. So the plot is not delayed. Events move briskly and keep our interest. And finally, when Olsen & Johnson are on-screen they brighten up the movie. They have some good moments, though, you do wish they had more screen time.

In the film Peter is a shirt chasing, fun loving kind of guy, always looking for a good time. Think along the lines of Harpo Marx, only with dialogue. Whereas Simon is the more serious of the two. He wants to pay attention to their job. They will have plenty of time to have fun after they get paid.

Some of the best comedic moments happen when Peter and Simon are mistaken for male escorts (!), this is one of those "pre-code" Hollywood films. Trying to escape from the angry ladies, they disguise themselves as a magician's (Bela Lugosi in an unbilled cameo!) assistants. They will do a trick where Peter is placed in a basket while Simon sticks swords through it. There will be a trap door for Peter to escape in and he is suppose to scream in pain when the swords go through. The cue for Simon to start will be two taps from Peter. Unfortunately Peter taps too fast and the trick door doesn't open. Another good sequence is the film's climatic chase scene. The boys get in a few good laughs here running away from a gang of policemen through all sorts of obstacles.

Besides Olsen & Johnson also providing laughs is Helen Broderick as Violent, another American on holiday in Paris. She is looking to get into trouble, and I mean of a sexual nature. She wants to see the seedy side of Paris, but nothing seems to offend her. Broderick is probably best known to classic movie lovers for her roles in two Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers' musicals; "Top Hat" (1935) and "Swing Time" (1936), playing the wise-cracking best friend.

The film was directed by Lloyd Bacon, who would directed another Olsen & Johnson film, "Gold Dust Gertie" (1931). He was also behind a few Joe E. Brown comedies (another talented forgotten comic I need to discuss) including one of Brown's best "You Said A Mouthful" (1932) with a young Ginger Rogers. And he did the great musical "42nd Street" (1933) and a Dennis Morgan, Rita Hayworth comedy "Affectionately Yours" (1941) which isn't very good. But nothing in "50 Million Frenchmen" seems to suggest the work of a director. The movie is shot pretty conventionally, merely placing the camera in front of the action and not moving it. I suppose everyone was still getting used to working with sound.

"50 Million Frenchmen" is a bit of a rarity. I honestly don't know if the film can be found on VHS (totally forget DVD). I happened to see it many years ago on TCM (Turner Classic Movies). To my knowledge it has not played since. But, if you were to see it, that would probably be the only place you would. Though you can buy some Olsen & Johnson comedies online by visiting the website, They have pretty reasonable prices, you can find some titles for as low as $7. Though I cannot comment on the quality of these copies.

The film was originally released in technicolor but for some reason all that exist is a black&white version. It is unknown if the technicolor print exist anywhere. For those Cole Porter devotees, you might take some pleasure in knowing a two-reeler adaptation of the play was made entitled "Paree, Paree" (1934) starring Bob Hope. It too can be seen on TCM from time to time.

I haven't seen all of Olsen & Johnson's comedies, so I can't say if this is one of their best films or not. But, I will say I think it can be a good introduction into the team's work, if you can find it. It is a shame they and so many other comics are forgotten today. Those who enjoy the work of Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers or Abbott & Costello should check out this comedy team. I think you'll find something to enjoy.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Film Review: The Shining

"The Shining"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)

Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980) more so than any other film I can instantly recall, takes us deep into a world of madness. The film and Jack Nicholson's performance rival that of "Taxi Driver" (1976) and Robert De Niro portrayal of Travis Bickle.

As I continue reviewing horror films for the month of October I knew eventually I'd have to face this film again. But discussing "The Shining" also allows me the opportunity to finally write about Stanley Kubrick, one of the all time great masters whom I've shamefully neglected. Ever since reaching the 300 reviews mark, it was one of my ambitions to review a film by Kubrick. And while I don't think this is his best movie, I suppose it is just as good as any other movie to start the discussion of his career.

"The Shining" is generally regarded as one of the all time great horror films. Initially, it was considered a disappointment. The film was based on a novel, of the same title, by Stephen King, whom reportedly did not like the film either. Claiming Kubrick had strayed from his vision too much. But King devotees also expressed dislike for the film claiming the same reason. The book is much different than the film.

I never liked that line of criticism. Book lovers will always use that as a line of defense to explain why any particular film is never as good as the book it was adapted on. What they fail to realize or understand is books and movies are two different mediums. What works in a book may not be "filmable". And the opposite is true. Books and movies exist in the whole private worlds. I don't care if a movie is based on a book, never compare the two. It is not important if a film is faithful to a book what is important is if the film is worth watching. The two concepts don't necessarily correspond.

As I watched "The Shining" again, making this my third time, I begin to realize, the more I watch this movie, the less I understand it. As I watch it over and over again I begin to ask questions and try to explain to myself how certain events can be possible. As I do that, I notice the film doesn't have any answers. This alone can divide an audience. You will look at this movie and say to yourself, it is a clever brain twister or a "gimmick" movie with one plot twist too many.

The first time I saw this film I was truly terrified. I was about 12 years old and a group of my friends got together to see what all the fuss was about. The next time I saw it I was about 20. At this point I began to pay attention to the cinematography, the music and sound design. From that perspective I thought the film was a masterpiece. An elegant example of an exercise in the horror genre. Kubrick creates the proper mood and atmosphere. The film is able to grip us and bring us into its world. That is what makes the film so effective. Just like the main character, who slowly slips into madness, the audience slowly starts to slip deeper and deeper into the story. We take every step with these characters. We are just as afraid as they are to see what is lurking around the corner.

I pretty much felt the same way again this time around but began to wonder, who is telling this story? The main character is Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson), a former school teacher and wants to take some time off to write a novel. He is offered a job as a caretaker at the Overlook Hotel, which shuts down during the winter and reopens in May. He and his wife, Wendy (Shelly Duvall) and their son, Danny (Danny Lloyd) will accompany him. But soon demons and spirits which occupy the hotel begin to take control of Jack's mind. Apparently a previous caretaker went insane from the isolation and killed his two daughters and wife.

As Jack beings to go mad can the viewer really consider his viewpoint reliable? And how the heck does he get inside that picture by the film's end? There is Wendy, but for huge chunks of the plot she is not around. So how can she know what exactly is going on? That leaves Danny, who is telepathic. He keeps seeing images of blood coming through an elevator door and the sight of two twin girls standing at the end of a hallway. Is that the two girls who were murdered? What do they want from Danny? Maybe Danny is crazy too. Has the house taken control of him? No, I don't think Danny can answer our questions either. The best way to explain "The Shining" is to change the subject. There will never be a satisfactory answer. But that doesn't hurt the movie. In fact, that is what makes it so eerie. Nothing makes sense. We cannot apply logic to the situation.

One of the problems King had, was with Kubrick's desire to cast Nicholson. Now, while I think Nicholson of one of the greatest actors of all time, I actually think King may have been on to something. Jack looks crazy before he actually goes crazy. He always has that famous sinister grin on his face. When we first see him he is being interviewed for the position. He says all the right things and doesn't allow anything to upset him. When he hears about the previous caretaker killing his family, Jack doesn't blink a eye. He merely assure the man, that will not happen this time. He even goes as far as to say his wife will love to hear that story. Really? She'll love to hear to it. You starting to lose it already Jack? Jack looks like a maniac that the shift in character makes it hard for us to determine when exactly did it occur. Was it as soon as he walked in there?But once Jack goes mad and becomes the Jack we all know and love he puts on one Hell of a show ("Heeeeere's Johnny!")

Shelly Duvall on the other hand is a woman caught in a world where she doesn't quite know how to react. She is all alone with a husband who has lost his mind and a son who takes to an imaginary friend, Tony, which may have possessed his body, and is preoccupied with "red rum" (murder backwards).

"The Shining" is filled with a lot of those famous Kurbrick stories. Kubrick was well known as a perfectionist. His films repeatedly went over budget and over the shooting schedule. "The Shining" hold the Guiness Book of Records for the most takes of a single shoot; 148. It is a scene where the cook for the Overlook Hotel, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) confesses to Danny that he too has, what he calls, "the shining", the ability to see images and speak with the mind.

Other stories consisted of Kubrick's constant picking on Shelly Duvall. Trying to isolate her. Duvall says now that she understands what Kubrick wanted to do, make her feel vulnerable, but also says she wouldn't want to go through the experience again.

"The Shining" took one year to shoot according to some sources. Originally it was planned as a 14 week shoot, which went overboard. Readers unfamiliar with Kubrick will find these kind of stories repeating themselves over and over. Over a career which spanned 43 years, Kubrick only directed 12 films. His first theatrical feature length film was "Killer's Kiss" (1956) and his final film was "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999), my personal favorite. In between were classics like "Barry Lyndon" (1975), "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), "Dr. Strangelove" (1964), "Paths of Glory" (1957) and "The Killing" (1956). Each one, in their own way, is a masterpiece. Few anti-war films are as powerful as "Paths of Glory". "The Killing" is in a class with the greatest heist movies ever made. And many believe "2001" re-defined science fiction.

"The Shining" may not be the best place to start your Kubrick collection, but, as far as Halloween goes, this is one of the essential horror films. It will freak you out. Watch it alone or with a group of friends and make sure you have the lights low.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Film Review: The Old Dark House

"The Old Dark House" *** 1\2 (out of ****)
James Whales "The Old Dark House" (1932) is a rousing, high energy ride. It puts on one Hell of a show.

Recently I reviewed the F.W. Murnau film "The Haunted Castle" (1921) and was surprised by Murnau's lack of innovation. It too was one of those "haunted house" stories but that film lacked atmosphere. It had no fun with the genre. It played everything too serious. You can't say the same about "The Old Dark House". This film is drenched in atmosphere and Whales seems to be having a blast pulling all the strings. This film does everything Murnau didn't do with "Haunted Castle".

Some modern, cynical eyes will look at "The Old Dark House" and say the film feels mechanical. It is too routine. On the surface they are right. Whales is concerned with the big picture not the small details. The film has certain objectives it must meet and isn't terribly concerned how it reaches these goals just as long as it does.

Arbitrary events happen merely because the plot demands it. But, in the film's defense I think both Whales and screenwriter Benn W. Levy are perfectly aware of this and merely see "The Old Dark House" as an exercise in the genre. As a result the film pretty much gives us everything we require from these type of films.

It is a dark and stormy night. Roads are being blocked off due to mudslides. You can't see your hand in front of your face. It is impossible to drive. The only shelter to be found is a creepy old dark house.

At this point in the story we understand the film's goals. It must get the characters inside the house. We meet the Waverton's; Philip (Raymond Massey) and Margaret (Gloria Stuart). Where are they going? It doesn't matter just get them in that house. Who are they? It doesn't matter, just get them in that house. Where are they coming from? Doesn't matter. Just get them in that house. They are traveling with Penderel (Melvyn Douglas). Who is he? It doesn't matter. Just get him in that house. He is one more body needed. Why is he traveling with the Waverton's? Who cares. Because of the weather Philip is lost and decides they should all take a rest and start again in the morning, when hopefully the weather will clear. The only place in sight is the old dark house.

Now that we are in the house the next objective is to make the house look creepy and to make the characters living there seem bizarre and dangerous. The first character we meet is Morgan (Boris Karloff) a disfigured, mute butler. Why is he mute? What happened to him? This isn't important. He is mysterious and strange. That is all that matters. The masters of the house are Horace Femm (Ernst Thesiger), who reveals he is wanted by the police for killing a man. Nothing ever more is said about the incident. Why? No need to. We just need to know he is dangerous. Living with Horace is his sister, Rebecca (Eva Moore), she is more masculine than Horace and is slightly deaf. She becomes the sinister old woman and because of her deafness at times provides comic relief.

Now the wheels are starting to spin in motion. But Whales throws one more ingredient our way. Two more strangers come in the night. Their car has been smashed by a mudslide. They are William Porterhouse (Charles Laughton) and his friend Perkins (Lillian Bonds). Once again, who they are, or where they were going or coming from is not important. We just need to fill up this old dark house with bodies so the possibility of a high death count is certain. Now everything is complete. And the fun starts.

As readers can tell everything goes according to plan like clockwork. We have the dark house, the damsels in distress, the menacing brute, the sound of rain hitting against the house, the burning candles, and whispers of dark family secrets which might get revealed by the end of the picture. As I said it is a formula picture but Whales is having too much fun playing around with convention that we take part in his delight.

I was surprised by the terrific cast the film has. All of these people were in the beginning stages of their careers and hadn't quite become household names yet. Boris Karloff gets top billing. He had just appeared in "Frankenstein" (1931) and clearly this film was an attempt to cash in on that film's success by having Karloff play a character with a similar appearance. Karloff doesn't speak in this movie and walks around like a hulk with cement in his shoes dragging his body from one room of the house to another.

Melvyn Douglas gets second billing, this is one of his first movies. In time he would come to play smart alec wise-cracking characters. Usually something like the funny uncle or comedic relief best friend. Watch him in the absolutely charming "Third Finger, Left Hand" (1940) with Myrna Loy, or "Ninotchka" (1939) or "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House" (1948). Here he has some of those same characteristics. He gets in a few good one-liners.

Laughton was known in Britain, but this was his American film debut. He would become best known for his roles in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1939) and the "Best Picture" Oscar winner "Mutiny on the Bounty" (1935).

Of the remaining cast Raymond Massey is the best known, especially to Powell and Pressburger fans for his performances in the "49th Parallel" (1941) and "A Matter of Life & Death" (1946), which I have reviewed. Gloria Stuart achieved her greatest fame for her role in "Titanic" (1997). Ernest Thesiger played the mad scientist in "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) also directed by Whales and reviewed already by me.

Whales had directed "Frankenstein" and would seem like an obvious choice for this film. He would also direct "The Invisible Man" (1933) with Claude Rains. So horror films became a speciality of his. Whales was also a homosexual, his life was the subject for the bio-pic "Gods & Monsters" (1998) and has been accused of putting in homosexual undertones to his films. Many have found examples of this in "Bride of Frankenstein" and they can be found here too. Thesiger is clearly a homosexual, and if not, I apologize, but clearly his character is suppose to be. He is presented as a "sissy man" who takes orders from his sister and is afraid at the first sign of danger leaving the other characters to contend with it. Also, a character called Saul (Brember Wills) is a homosexual telling Penderel at one point he loves him. I don't know what this really adds to the story but Whales found it amusing or interesting to put in these touches.

The only downside to the film is it doesn't really try to expand the medium in any way. I can't think of any startling shots. The cinematography is fairly conventional. It does what it needs to however. But "The Old Dark House" didn't pioneer any new film techniques. And perhaps that isn't a fair criticism. I don't think Whales intended the film to, its just that with "Frankenstein" clearly he was inspired by German expressionism, what was he inspired by here?

I don't know if this film will honestly scare anyone today but it is creepy in a certain way. It is a very good example of a classic Hollywood horror film. It's no "The Cat & the Canary" (1927) but it puts one one wild show. It is a very entertaining film from beginning to end. Movie lovers should hunt it down.

Film Review: Paranormal Activity

"Paranormal Activity" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

"Paranormal Activity" (2009) is one of those big audience pictures. It is a movie which requires you to be in a room filled with people screaming. Their screaming will become infectious and start to make you scream. You can watch the movie by yourself, which might be just as scary, but, I'd recommend seeing the film with a large audience in theatres.

"Paranormal Activity" comes out around the time when I said most of today's horror films are really screen blood baths. A majority of them are slasher films which want to disgust us. They don't play on our imagination. They have no artist aesthetic. "Paranormal Activity" refutes some of my ideas and confirms some.

Apparently the movie was made in 2007 (I hope that is not a "spoiler" to call it a movie), at least according to The film, as I understand it, appeared at some horror film festivals, received positive audience reaction, and managed to find distribution, it was even screened during the Chicago International Film Festival (which is not how I saw it).

A lot of hype and confusing information have surfaced regarding the film (some of that is intentional). A lot of people are proclaiming this is the scariest movie ever. Generally I like to avoid sensational statements like that. Confusion has arisen thanks to a pretty good marketing campaign which has tried to pull a "Blair Witch" on us, making us believed what we are watching is a true story. What we see on the screen is "found footage". Writer/director Oren Peli goes to such extremes to hit this point home that the film has no opening or closing credits. No one's hard work on the film is credited (including Peli). The film opens with a credit reading Paramount Pictures would like to thank the family of one of the characters in the film and the police. The idea is the film we are watching is what the police found in the home.

The film deals with two characters; Katie (Katie Featherston) and her boyfriend Micah (Micah Sloat). She is a college student studying English, he is a day trader. They have been together for three years and have recently moved into a house together.

It seems ever since Katie was 8 years old she has been the target of ghosts or spirits. Since living with Micah the events have become more frequent. This leads Micah to buy a video camera so he can tape what happens during their sleep. Of course he doesn't limit the filming to their sleep time. He is constantly filming everything, even their mundane daily activities like brushing their teeth.

Unable to deal with the situation any longer Katie calls a psychic (Mark Fredrichs) who informs them they are not dealing with a ghost. A ghost he tells them is a human spirit. He can sense a presence in their house and says it is not coming from a ghost. What they have is a demon. He cannot help them and suggest they call a friend of his who deals with this field.

The majority of the film takes place at night when they are sleeping and we hear loud noises. It sounds like footsteps. We hear grunting, loud bangs and once we see a shadow. These scenes cleverly divide the screen in half. The camera, which is now on a tripod, is positioned in the middle of the room. On one half of the frame we see Katie and Micah's bed. The other half of the frame shows us the hallway leading to the bedroom, with the door open. It is very dark since the lights are all shut off. This is clever because by breaking the frame in half we never quite know where to look. This heightens our senses. And since one half of the frame is in the dark we keep expecting something to appear from the darkness. If something does I won't reveal it here.

I honestly didn't find "Paranormal Activity" to be a scary film. It feels like more of a suspense film. The film reminds me of an episode of "Ghost Hunters", a "reality" TV show were are group of amateur ghost hunters investigate paranormal activity. The show, much like the film, consist of the characters saying things like, "did you hear that" or "I feel funny standing here", "I feel like something is here". Of course you really can't film someone's weird inner feelings or strange thoughts they have. You can only show us the person saying it. I don't find that very effective. Still, the film does have moments where is it suspenseful.

I usually damn movies where you have actors pretending not to be actors trying to act normal, like there is no camera on them. It usually smells phony. It is hard to realistically perform in a naturalistic style. Watch Henry Jaglom's films as an example. Rarely am I impressed with the performances but here Katie Featherston comes out looking the best. Sure, there are moments, when for the convenience of the plot, she "acts" it up. But, on the whole it is an effective performance which seems as real as you can get. Micah Sloat, has some of these moments too, but, I felt wasn't as successful as Katie. Mark Fredrichs as the psychic fares the worst. It is a total performance. His interview with them was a plot device used to establish who these characters are and the viewer can see right through it.

Still I'd suggest watching "Paranormal Activity". It is better than "The Blair Witch Project" (1999) but not quite as good as "Cloverfield" (2008). And since 2009 has been such a bad year for movies it is one of the better films of the year.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Masterpiece Film Series: Rosemary's Baby

"Rosemary's Baby" **** (out of ****)

In case any of my readers have wondered why, in honor of Halloween I normally review classic titles instead of recent horror movies there is a reason. I find today's horror films usually lack an artistic aesthetic. Today's horror films are usually slasher films. All we tend to see is a serial killer rip someone's guts out or cut their neck off with a chainsaw. It is pretty disgusting to say the least. But does that make it scary? I suppose to a lot of viewers the answer to that question is yes. For me, I find the films to be a blood bath, which, honestly, doesn't scare me. I like films which play on my imagination, films with a true sense of vision. I appreciate a good horror film and don't think just because a film wants to scare you therefore you have to lower your cinematic standards. A horror film can be a masterpiece of cinema. It can still tell an effective, engaging story and still make us look over our shoulder. Roman Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" (1968) is one of those films.

I must admit my all time favorite horror film is "The Exorcist" (1973), which I have included in my "Masterpiece Film Series" already but Polanski's "Rosemary's Baby" comes in a very close second. Strangely, or fittingly if you prefer, both films deal with the occult. They both have religious undertones to them. "The Exorcist" is the more graphic of the two for sure, but, both are engaging stories. Both films are smart and don't down play to the audience. "Rosemary's Baby" I doubt was packaged as a "teen horror" film. It should have a mass appeal because it treats its subject seriously.

"Rosemary's Baby" was Roman Polanski's first American film. He had directed films in England however, so was comfortable working in the English language. Those films were "Repulsion" (1965) and "The Fearless Vampire Killers" (1967), which I have reviewed. It seems appropriate that Polanski should direct this film. Of course "Vampire Killers" and this film share the occult theme, though "Vampire" is a comedy. But all three films are about tortured souls.

This film was based on Ira Levin's novel and was the first time Polanski would direct an adaptation, which he wrote himself. According to Levin it was an extremely faithful one at that. Some have suggested since it was Polanski's first he wasn't aware he could take liberties with the story.

I believe most people probably know the general idea behind the film. We follow a newly married couple, the Woodhouse's; Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes). They are about to move into a brownstone apartment, after the former resident, an elderly woman passed away. Though they are told it didn't happen in the apartment. She had been in a hospital and in a coma for months. Rosemary instantly falls in love with it but Guy, a struggling actor, wonders if they can afford it. In the end they take it.

Everything seems to be going fine for them. Young love, new apartment, prospects of having a baby, Guy lands a TV commercial and is up for a role on Broadway. They even seem to have nice neighbors, the Castevet's; Minnie (Ruth Gordon) and Roman (Sidney Blackmer). They have taken in a young woman, who was living on the streets and befriends Rosemary. But one day the girl's body is found dead. She had jumped out the window. This incident will begin Rosemary's nightmare. It will lead to an introduction to the Castevet's.

Rosemary senses the old couple are lonely and still grieving the lost of the young woman. So she agrees to a dinner date with them. Guy is at first against it, especially after he finds out he did not get the Broadway role he was hoping for. Reluctantly he agrees. At dinner the topic turns to religion. Roman and Minnie are non-believers and we find out so is Guy. But Rosemary was brought up Catholic. She says she is religiously confused at the moment but is not ready to denounce God or all organized religions. Guy however seems very take with the older couple.

After their meeting and many subsequent ones afterwards, good things start happening for Rosemary and Guy. The actor who was chosen over Guy has suddenly gone blind, Guy is now offered the role. And Rosemary is pregnant, but not after having a disturbing dream where she was raped by something that wasn't human.

What I think makes "Rosemary's Baby such an effective film is we, the viewer, have put this puzzle together before Rosemary. We know what is going on and are two steps ahead of her. We sit and watch with great anticipation hoping Rosemary will catch up to us. This builds a lot of suspense and tension. Even if you never saw this film before or knew the plot, you would still have a sense something dangerous is going to happen. Poor Rosemary is out of her element. She doesn't quite know what is going on.

You might suspect since Polanski takes the mystery out of the story it would become boring. But it doesn't. We are still gripped by the plot. The performances are effective by playing everything straight. Farrow and Cassavetes play their roles just as they would any other drama. This helps make the characters believable. We get some sort of sense of who they really are.

The two most effective and talked about scenes are probably the "rape" scene and the final scene. The rape scene is presented as a drugged induced hallucination. Which was typical during the 1960s. The final image still gives me chills to this day. If you have not seen the film and don't want to know anything in advance please stop reading now. SPOILER ALERT:

By the time the film ends Rosemary has given birth to the anti-Christ. At first she is told the baby died but learns otherwise. When she does discover the baby is alive, and surrounded by the other Devil worshippers the horror in the scene comes from never showing us the baby. Rosemary shrieks in horror at the sight of the baby and wonders what is wrong with its eyes. But Polanski correctly never shows us the baby. Better to play with our imagination and have us assume the worst. Whatever image we would conceived in our mind would be far worst than anything Polanski could show us. Nothing is more frightening than our own mind at work. SPOILER END

Those not familiar with Roman Polanski might find "Rosemary's Baby" a good place to start viewing his films. This, along with "Chinatown" (1974) and "The Pianist" (2002), I would say are his greatest works. Polanski even returned to the occult theme for his 2000 film "The Ninth Gate" starring Johnny Depp. I didn't find it to be as creepy or effective as this film however.

"Rosemary's Baby" was nominated for two Oscars. It won one for "Best Supporting Actress" (Ruth Gordon) and Polanski's screenplay was nominated but lost to James Goldman for the "Lion in Winter" (1968). Polanski got much more recognition for his screenplay than his directing. He was nominated for a Golden Globe and a WGA (Writer's Guild Award) but received no directing nomination.

Of course I couldn't talk about Roman Polanski and not mention what has been in the news recently about him. I was going to address it sooner by writing an opinion piece about it but I've been preoccupied reviewing horror films and movies which I've seen at the Chicago International Film Fest. This made for an added incentive to discuss "Rosemary's Baby". It would serve two purposes. I get to reviewing another Polanski film and discuss the current circumstance he finds himself in.

I've had mixed feelings about the whole ordeal. The woman in question has "forgiven" him and asked for the charges to be dropped repeatedly. Both have moved on with their lives. The judge in the case passed away. It happened many years ago but I understand that is no excuse. The act was still committed. A young girl was rapped and that is truly a terrible crime. Those who want to defend Polanski have said he has had a hard life. His parents were killed during the Holocaust, his wife Sharon Tate was brutally murdered and he has been living the life of a fugitive. Others have felt because he is an artist he is getting special treatment. Both sides I think have their points.

My ultimate feeling is Polanski is a great filmmaker. A true artist. He has carried the stigma of this incident all these years. Many people refuse to watch his films. Many were upset he won the Oscar for "The Pianist". Something similar happened to Woody Allen. I don't think this is fair. Their art is one thing and their private life another. Do the two affect one another? Probably. But the public is not in a mood to "forgive" either man. As for Polanski being in jail, it feels like a vendetta against him. The LAPD want to make an example of him. I believe politics are at play. Perhaps they feel their image is at stake. Either way the issue has turned into a mess. Hopefully it will all be resolved soon as Polanski can go back to making films for us to enjoy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Film Review: Bellamy

"Bellamy" *** (out of ****)

What happened to Claude Chabrol? There was once a time he was making enthralling, exciting films. To watch a Claude Chabrol film meant something at one time. He, like Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard, was an important figure in the French New Wave, making what many historians believe was the first film in the movement, "Le Beau Serge" (1958) one of his masterpieces.

Claude Chabrol is admittedly one of my favorite filmmakers. I use to delight in his cynical views, the way he would expose the dark secrets within the well-to-do. But as of late his films; "The Bridesmaid" (2006), "Comedy of Power" (2006) and "A Girl Cut in Two" (2008) all lacked Chabrol's bite. The edge was gone. He wasn't examining his characters the same way. The best of his more recent films are probably "The Flower of Evil" (2003) and "La Ceremonie" (1997), which I have reviewed. But if someone has only seen his more recent films, they might begin to wonder, what is wrong with me? Why would I consider Chabrol one of the masters of cinema? To see his genius you have to watch his older titles; "Le Boucher" (1972), "Les Biches" (1968), which I have also reviewed, "Wedding in Blood" (1974), "The Unfaithful Wife" (1969) and "This Man Must Die!" (1970). These are among his greatest efforts. The more recent titles I would consider mid-range titles. Not his best, but because it is Chabrol, there is usually something interesting about them.

Chabrol's latest "Bellamy" (2009) is a film I was greatly looking forward to as part of this year's Chicago International Film Festival. There were only two showings and both of them were sold out. Luckily I bought my tickets well in advance. So, this would suggest to me, there are many film lovers out there who look forward to see his films. His name attached to a movie still brings in an audience. But I doubt that there were many in attendance who walked out of the theatre feeling they had just witness a masterpiece. A film which would have a profound and lasting effect on them. There might have been a few who did, but, I doubt Chabrol devotees feel this is one of his best films.

I'm not one of these people who are going to make such exaggerated statements like, "this is the worst movie I've ever seen" or "Claude Chabrol should stop making movies". I've read such comments on the internet. These people appear to be interested in sensationalism. They want to use such bold words so others will read what they say and cause a stir. I'm not like that. "Bellamy" is not the worst film of all time. Claude Chabrol should not stop making movies. I have to believe he's still got one more great film left in him. And I'll continue to see his films based on that hope. I don't want to miss his next masterpiece.

"Bellamy" is a film which seemed to have some of Chabrol's usually characteristics but I could tell very earlier into the film, it wasn't going to amount to much. Or at least Chabrol's usual standards. Gerard Depardieu stars as Paul Bellamy, a famous police detective. He and his wife are currently on vacation in their country home. A strange man has been snooping around their home hoping to talk to Bellamy about an important matter. Francoise Bellamy (Marie Bunel) will not allow the man to speak to her husband. This is suppose to be their alone time. But the man is persistent and leaves his number. Bellamy is presented as the kind of man incapable to taking a vacation. He doesn't know what to do with free time. He enjoys his work and doesn't want to take a break from it. He immediately calls the man.

The man turns out to be Noel Gentil (Jacques Gamblin, who appeared in Chabrol's "The Color of Lies" (1999), which I have also reviewed). He has information relating to a famous news scandal concerning Emile Leullet, who has disappeared after being accused of insurance fraud and faking his own death. Bellamy doesn't believe the man's story and soon finds himself caught in a mystery greater than what he expected.

Chabrol tries to make things interesting by having us doubt Bellamy's character. No, we never suspect Bellamy is responsible for the crime, but, Chabrol has us question his past and raises questions about his marriage to Francois and whether or not she is cheating on him with Bellamy's step-brother Jacques (Clovis Cornillac). In this way in the film resemble Chabrol's much better film "L'Enfer" (1994) about a man driven by jealousy. And in Chabrol's defense the film starts to pick up at the end by raising several questions about the reality of the situation.

What I think is wrong with "Bellamy" is the film is a police investigation, which is fine, back in the 1980s Chabrol worked on a series of films concerning Inspecteur Lavardin, which also served as the title of one of the films back in 1986 and "Cop au vin" (1985). "Cop au vin" in particular had much more wit and exposed secrets within a wealthy family. Chabrol uses Bellamy as the lead character instead of making it Emile Leullet. He should have been the focus and explain his scam in further detail. Bellamy should have been a supporting character. Yes, Chabrol has some secrets about Bellamy, but, they are not as interesting as what we find out about Leullet and his wife (Marie Matheron) and another woman, Nadia Sancho (Vahina Giocante, a stunning beauty who was in "Lila Says" (2004). By not focusing on them I feel Chabrol is going away from what he does best. There were great possibilities with this material but Chabrol and co-writer Odile Barski, who worked on "The Color of Lies" and Barski who wrote Andre Techine's "The Girl on the Train" (2009), the best film I have seen at the festival, and a Chabrol-like thriller, have missed a good bet here. I guess they thought this set-up would be more mysterious.

But perhaps Depardieu wouldn't have taken the role if it was a supporting role. And anytime Depardieu is in a movie I feel it is a cause for celebration. He is best known perhaps for his Oscar nominated performance in "Cryrano de Bergerac (1990) as well as "Camille Claudel" (1989) and "Jean de Florette" (1987), the first French film I ever saw. He has put on a lot of weight. I remember when I saw him in the charming "Bon Voyage" (2004), he had lost some weight. He seems to have put it back on. Here he gives a much more relaxed performance. It is not a high energy performance. The film has many "quiet" moments between Bellamy and his wife in bed discussing the case. We can tell he loves her but Chabrol does raise questions concerning her affection.

One interesting thing Chabrol does is bring the film full circle. We see one image and later go back to it to realize it is not what we thought. Chabrol even adds another layer to it creating more doubts. It is a clever ending which gives the audience something to discuss afterwards. But I felt by the time this incident occurs it was too late to save the film. Still it does make us admire the old master and prove there are still moments when he does have some tricks up his sleeve.

And that is what makes "Bellamy" at times feel like a disappointment. We know Chabrol is a talented filmmaker. He still has the ability to tell us a story. But he has not been working at the top of his game now for years. And this leads me back to my original question, what happened to Claude Chabrol? "Bellamy" could have been a very successful film but I think Chabrol is following the wrong character.

I'm sure "Bellamy" will find distribution in America. Chabrol's name still carries weight with serious film buffs. So that shouldn't be a problem. However I will be curious to see what public reaction will be. Will the critics celebrate it as a masterpiece? A lot of critics had good things to say about his previous film "A Girl Cut in Two". Roger Ebert gave it the best review he has given a Chabrol film in years, also the highest star rating. But I felt it wasn't anywhere near Chabrol's best films. "Bellamy" is a nice improvement, but that is not saying much. I have reviewed "A Girl Cut in Two" so you can read how I felt about it. I still have faith in Chabrol and look forward to what else he has in store for us.

Will those not familiar with Chabrol have the same reaction as me? My gut tells me no. If you aren't familiar with his films you can't compare them to his earlier films. So those people might enjoy "The Bridesmaid" or this film. But I still wouldn't suggest starting off with this film. "Bellamy" has its moments but Chabrol could have done better.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Film Review: The Damned

"The Damned" *** 1\2 (out of ****)

Rarely has decadence looked so good. Here is a film which submerges itself in themes consisting of murder, lust, greed, pedophilia, incest and the worst of all activities; politics.

"The Damned" (1969) was directed by the great Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti. It is one of the few films I can think of which Visconti directed which has absolutely no likable characters. Every character engages in despicable acts. There is not one character we can relate to.

The film takes place in Nazi Germany (many consider this the first part of Visconti's "German trilogy") and presents Germany as a cesspool for incest, homosexuality and pedophilia. The first image we see during the credits is of a steel factory, where we see fire and lava. It looks as if we are in Hell, which is fitting for a film called "The Damned". Are we about to witness Hell on Earth?

The film revolves around the Essenbeck family and their steel factory. The film starts off with a birthday party for Joachim Essenbeck (Albrecht Schoenhals), the owner of the factory. Everyone gathers for the joyous occassion but already the wheels are in motion for deception. Many of Joachim's relatives and colleages want to take control of the factory. They are all driven by a thirst for power. The people include; Konstantin Essenbeck (Reinhard Kolldehoff), an unabashed Nazi supporter, Spohie von Essenbeck (Ingrid Thulin), her son, Martin (Helmut Berger), Herbert Thallman (Umberto Orsini) and his wife, Elizabeth (Charlotte Rampling), unabashed Communist, and Frederick Bruckman (Dirk Bogarde), Sophie's lover.

The happy celebration coincides with the Reichstag Fire. Immediately the family finds out the Nazis have captured those responsible. With the political environment rapidly changing in Germany, Joachim makes an import decision. Since it is apparent Hitler and the National Socialist are to be the dominate power, Joachim must protect his steel factory, which he prides above all else. It would be in the factories best interest if Konstantin become the new vice-president, replacing Herbert. With this news now each characters plan for power begins. Frederick wants to become president. In order for that to happen, first of all Joachim must die and the next in line, Martin must appoint Frederick the new head above Konstantin. But when will Joachim die and how do you get Martin to give Frederick control? The plan is simple. Murder Joachim and frame Herbert. Sophie, who has an incestuous relationship with Martin, has her ways to persuade him to agree to Frederick's demands. And this will lead us down the path to damnation.

Even though it was made 40 years ago "The Damned" can still stir emotions. It is a controversial film. Some of the most troublesome images may be of Martin pedophile addiction. Visconti doesn't leave much to the imagination. We see Martin's preying eyes hunting these young girls down. He caresses them and gently kisses them. Visconti's camera never breaks away. Or disturbing moments are the incest scenes. French filmmaker Louis Malle once made a film about incest between a mother and son, "Murmur of the Heart" (1972). Despite the topic, it is actually, in its own way, a charming film. Compared to "The Damned" however, it looks like Sesame Street.

The film probably has the best cast Visconti ever assembled. It might be at times hard to believe this international all-star are all Germans, especially since the film was released in English, still everyone does a remarkable job. Each actor is given a chance to shine. But with so many characters many times it feels as if certain characters are lost in the shuffle as we don't see them for huge chunks of the story. You wish there was more screen time for them.

Those that come out looking the best are Ingrid Thulin, best known for her work with Ingmar Bergman and his films "Cries & Whispers" (1973), "Hour of the Wolf" (1968) and "After the Rehearsal" (1984). Visconti really accentuates her beauty having the camera many times linger on her. Bogarde has some very powerful moments as an almost MacBeth type of character. He is largely viewed as a weak man. He doesn't have the guts to make tough decisions. It is Sophie who must do it for him. Charlotte Rampling looks absolutely stunning. What a beauty she was at one time. And even today she still manages to give wonderful performances. She and Bogarde would even work together again in the masterpiece "The Night Porter" (1974).

I've written before about the great Visconti. I included his final film "The Innocent" (1976) in my "Masterpiece Film Series" and wrote about his film "Sandra" (1965). Visconti is one of my favorite filmmakers. I often find not enough people are familiar with his work. When some think of Italian cinema Federico Fellini comes to mind or perhaps Bernardo Bertolucci or Rosselini but rarely do I ever hear Visconti mentioned. He was at one time an important figure in Italian cinema. It was he who made the first neo-realism film "Ossessione" (1943), an adaptation of "The Postman Always Rings Twice".

Visconti was someone who didn't have to make films to earn a living. In fact, he didn't have to do anything to make a living. He was born into aristocracy. His father was the Duke of Grazzano. But it became clear Visconti had developed a love for the arts. Visconti's first films were in the neo-realism tradition. But after the movement came to an end in the 1950s, Visconti started shifting styles. By the 1960s he was venturing off into sexuality. In my review for "Sandra" I said he was the wrong director for it. The film should have been more erotic given the subject matter. That wasn't his strong suite. His films also started to become much more lavish. They were really eye candy. They had an operatic nature in tone. "The Damned" is a culmination of all these things. When I first saw this film I reviewed it on amazon and compared it to the TV show "Dynasty". And in some ways it is like a soap opera.

After viewing the film again I now find it to be a stronger picture. It is one of Visconti's very best. It even managed to earn an Oscar nomination for its screenplay, which was written by Visconti and frequent collaborators Nicola Badalucco and Enrico Medioli. Sadly it was the only nomination Visconti would ever receive. The Academy hasn't even had the decency to award him an honorary award.

I wouldn't recommend this as your first film into Visconti's library, only because it isn't one of his more "typical" films. But it is a strong film. It may be too demanding for some viewers due to the themes and some moments of violence, but the film is gripping and fascinating. Film buffs should make every attempt to see it. One can see how this film would have inspired the play and film "Cabaret" (1972).

Friday, October 16, 2009

Film Review: The Haunted Castle

"The Haunted Castle" *** (out of ****)

F.W. Murnau was one of the great figures in silent cinema. He is responsible, for what I would claim, are two of the greatest horror films ever, "Nos-feratu" (1922), a movie which many film buffs cite as the greatest vampire movie ever made, and "Faust" (1926), which I have reviewed already, a supernatural account of the famous legend done with spectacular effects which to this day can amaze and excite viewers.

With such a reputation I have been greatly looking forward to seeing "The Haunted Caste" (1921) since Kino released their F.W. Murnau collection some months back. The collection consisted of previously released films like "Nosferatu" and "The Last Laugh" (1924) but the real treat was this film. It would be the first time "The Haunted Castle" would be on DVD.

With Halloween upcoming I thought now would be the perfect time to view the film and write about it. Sadly, the film doesn't live up to its expectations and left me feeling slightly disappointed.

When you make a movie called "The Haunted Castle" I think it is fair to assume first of all the film will be about a haunted castle. I was under the impression the movie was going to be one of those stories where a group of people get together in a creepy old house while unexplainable events occur, perhaps even the death of one of the characters. But that is not what this film is. Murnau has different ideas and goes about those ideas with a different approach.

My first reaction was to give the film a negative star rating. But, the more I thought about it, the more unfair I thought that would be. It wasn't this film's fault I walked in with preconceived notions and heightened expectations. So I decided to watch the film again, this time knowing what to expect, and evaluate it for what it actually is not what it doesn't become.

So, first thing first. "The Haunted Castle" is not a horror film. It is a slight mystery movie. The set-up could have made for a horror story but writer Carl Meyer (who wrote "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari", 1920) and Murnau didn't want to make one. The film takes place on a dark and rainy night where a group of people have come together at the home of Lord von Vogelschrey (Arnold Korff) and his wife (Lulu Kyser-Korff). They were suppose to go on a hunt, but the rain has delayed their plans for several days. Unexpectedly, a guest arrives, Count Oetsch (Lothar Mehnert), who wasn't invited in the first place. Oetsch was once put on trial for the death of his brother (Paul Hartmann). His former sister-in-law, now a Baroness (Olga Tschechowa) is expected to arrive with her new husband, Baron Safferstatt (Paul Bildt). Knowing this Oetsch refuses to leave. He wants to confront these two.

A film such as this is quite dependent upon tone. "The Haunted Castle" does a terrible job establishing a proper mood and atmosphere. We never really sense great danger at any time and Lothar Menhnert seems to be going out of his way to make the character appear sinister and mysterious. The film is also shot too brightly. The castle should be dark and gloomy. Murnau should be having fun playing around with shadows. Instead the film is shot pretty conventionally. No great effects, no memorable cinematography. Murnau isn't pushing the medium at all here. That is quite unusual I felt. He did some truly remarkable things with "Faust" and "Sunrise" (1927), his first American film. Here I get the impression Murnau was still developing his craft. Since many of his early German films are now considered lost, I don't know if he ever shot a film in this genre before, but, knowing what was to come, he made "Nosferatu" only a year later, it would suggest Murnau was still in his beginning stages.

I read that "The Haunted Castle" was considered one of the first "haunted house" stories. I don't know if that is true but what I do know is, if you are looking for a much more successful story dealing with a similar concept turn to another German filmmaker, Paul Leni, who directed "The Cat & the Canary" (1927). That is a vastly superior film compared to this which actually creates tension and suspense. It establishes a proper mood. The film is an exercise in atmosphere. Everything Murnau should have done here Leni does in his American debut film. I will have to include it in my "Masterpiece Film Series".

So why am I recommending this film if it doesn't take full advantage of the possibilities of the plot? As it is, "The Haunted Castle" is a somewhat interesting story. There is no real tension but it can hold your interest at moments even though the story is terribly predictable. I think most viewers will be able to figure out what is going on very quickly. I'm also recommending the film as a curiosity piece. If you like F.W. Murnau you'll want to see this, if only so you can see how Murnau grew as an artist in his later works.

Walking into the film I wasn't really expecting to be scared. The film was made in 1921 and I seriously doubt something this aged could have had such an effect on me. But I was hoping to be amazed by Murnau's technique. I also expected the story to be predictable, only because so many later films have drawn on it for inspiration, that we are now use to the set-up. But I thought I would have fun seeing Murnau play around with convention.

"The Haunted Castle" doesn't do these things but it shouldn't be avoided. Film buffs and Murnau devotees (does such a thing exist today?) will take a special interest in this. The casual movie fan will probably want to skip this. It wouldn't make for a fun Halloween viewing. Try watching "The Cat & the Canary" instead or one of Val Lewton's horror films for some some classic horror film fun.