Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Top Ten Movie Theater Experiences #4: “House of Dark Shadows” (1970) and “The Fearless Vampire Killers” (1967)

As a kid, I love movie monsters. My brother, Dale, and I collected the move monster models. We had all the Universal Studio Horror Icons, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolfman, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, the Creature from the Black Lagoon and Dracula.
I thought about monsters a lot. The first novel I tried (one of many that only went as far as a chapter or two) was about Godzilla. But I never got to see horror films. They were always on past my bedtime. The only monster films I got to see were the ones in which they met Abbot and Costello. Those were shown early Sunday morning (alternating with Francis the Talking Mule and Ma and Pa Kettle.)

Then an incredible thing happened. A soap opera added monsters. I always hated soap operas. They took daytime TV hours away from game shows, cartoons and reruns of “Leave it to Beaver”. But ABC took an average soap opera, “Dark Shadows” and added vampires, ghosts and werewolves. This made it “Must See TV” to me, long before NBC came up with the slogan.

I watched the show faithfully, and my two older brothers and two older sisters watched it as well.

So when a “Dark Shadows” movie came out, we went together. This was one of two movie outings that I remember with just us siblings and no parents. (The other was the musical version of “Scrooge” with Albert Finney. Both times we went to the Park Cinema in Santa Rosa.)

I’d always wanted to see a horror film at the theater. My parents must have been concerned I would be petrified. I was. It was great.

In the soap opera, everything moved at glacial speed and obviously character could only be rarely dispatched. All the actors from the show were in “House of Dark Shadows” but there must have been no concern for continuity with the show because characters were killed in rapid succession. (Usually being killed and then turned into a vampire so they could be killed yet again.)

And “The Fearless Vampire Killers” (with the alternate title “Pardon Me, But Your Teeth Are in My Neck”) was even scarier. My brother, Daryl, assured us this film was a comedy so it wouldn’t be scary. But the film was made by the great director Roman Polanski, so it managed to be funny and scary.

Polanski would make more frightening films (“Rosemary’s Baby”, particularly), but I wouldn’t see those until much later in life. (Polanski’s personal life was even more macabre.)

Even Dan Curtis who directed “Dark Shadows” would make better and scarier things (especially “The Night Stalker” and all the Kolchak adventures that would follow.)
But soon my mom made us stop watching “Dark Shadows” because Dale had nightmares. So I cherished this outing as a horror highlight in my life. Even though I’ve watched the show “Dark Shadows” as an adult and it has not held up well at all….I still consider this outing a movie going highlight. But now more because of Gwynne, Daryl, Lola and Dale than the films.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Noir Preaching

When I took my first film class I was surprised to hear the teacher pronounce the word “genre” with one syllable rather two. At he used the same definition I knew, a style or category of art. For instance, in film some genres would be romantic comedy, biography or horror.
The popularity of genres rise and fall. Musicals became big in the 1930s but began to lose their audience in the 60’s and have never come back strong. Super hero films were never really trend until the last decade. There was nothing more popular than the Western through the early days of film, until the 1960’s when they faded. But every once in while they pop back. “True Grit” by Ethan and Joel Coen which came out last year is a Western that has already made over $160 million.
There are sermon genres as well. The Hell Fire and Brimstone genre of sermon used to be very popular. But now, not so much. Now sermons about God’s love are more in vogue, and that’s all well and good. Sermons about sin aren’t very popular anymore either (though I kind of doubt they ever were.)
So it’s good there still is a genre of film that quite ably preaches about sin. That genre is Noir. The name comes from the French word for dark and it is used to describe films that focus on dark aspects of life; ruthless criminals and hapless murderers, shady detectives and beautiful, treacherous women. The first film by the Brothers Coen was a Noir. I just watched “Blood Simple” (1984) again and it reminded me that the truth about sin can never be silenced.
The film opens with a man and woman in a car on a dark night in Texas. They seem nice enough. The woman (Abby played by Frances McDormand) is married to a cruel man and the man (Ray played by John Getz) just seems to want to help. But they soon make a very bad mistake. Their affair leads to one death, then another and then another.
The Coens were working on a very small budget but with creative writing, camerawork and a dark wit. But perhaps the strongest piece of the film is the performance by M. Emmet Walsh as a greedy, vulgar detective whom assumes he can drag everyone down to him to his own detestable level. He’s right, of course.
Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” That’s not something we like to think about it. But the world of Film Noir reminds us that circumstances and the dark desires of the heart can lead even those that seem upright and respectable to consider and even commit the darkest acts.
“Blood Simple” is rightly rated R for language, sexual situations and extreme violence. There are some great Noir films from the days when film censorship kept such things off the screen.
Fred McMurray was a movie star that in Disney films like “The Shaggy Dog” and the TV show “My Three Sons” seemed like the nicest guy in the world. But in Billy Wilder’s great “Double Indemnity” (1944) the nice guy makes some very bad choices of the heart.
Noir films don’t even have to be about murder. “The Sweet Smell of Success” (1958) with Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis is about the world of New York newspapers and shows that gossip can also be deadly.
As I said, Noir films preach Jeremiah 17:9 very well. They don’t do as well with verse 14, “Heal me, Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.” But I guess that’s what Sunday sermons are for.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Top Ten Movie Theater Experience #5: “The Towering Inferno” (1974)

I’m thankful to some guest speaker or other who came to Wikiup Evangelical Free Church for going to see this movie with my dad. Someone said from a pulpit, “Dads, you need to spend time with your sons. Spend time doing things they’re interesting in… fishing, building model planes…Whatever they want to do.”
But, of course, there was something I’d rather do than throw a baseball around or panning for gold. When Dad asked what I wanted to do, I said go to the movies. And what was better during my late elementary school and Jr. High years than disaster movies? My brother Dale and I got to see “The Poseidon Adventure” together, the first PG film we saw without our parents. And PG movies in the ‘70’s got away with a lot more in those prePG-13 days.
So in a disaster movie those days, you knew you’d get cool special effects, some gore, some rough language, and best of all, women who would be forced by natural catastrophe to run around for much of the film in skimpy clothing (often just a man’s shirt.)
So, anyway, Dad and I went together, leaving the rest of the family behind, to see this Irwin Allen classic. Irwin Allen was a genius. Not only was he the King of the Disaster Film with “Inferno” and “Poseidon” and later the worst and therefore best disaster film of all time, “The Swarm” (a Bee film with an A cast) but also he produced some of my favorite TV shows of my childhood (“The Time Tunnel”, “Land of the Giants”, “Voyage of the Bottom of the Sea” and especially, “Lost in Space”.)
We went to see this at the Park Cinema. In the film, the world’s tallest building is having its debut, but Paul Newman, the architect, worries that bad guys William Holden and Robert Wagner cut corners during construction. Paul’s right, of course. The fire starts small, but soon threatens the party goers in the top floor.
The awkward thing was when the requisite woman in skimpy clothing appeared (Susan Blakely attired only in Robert Wagner’s shirt). You always hear people complain about the ratings board for American films dealing much more harshly with sex than with violence. There is a good reason for this. I can speak to this as a parent. If I’m watching a movie with one of my kids and someone is shot in the head and said head explodes, I can watch the screen or turn my head away, and my kid can do the same. We can even look and each other and say, “How Gross!” or “How Cool!”, whatever the case may be. On the other hand, if a naked woman appears on the screen… I don’t want my kid watching me watch the screen. I don’t want to look at my kid because we’re both embarrassed. Even if I cover my eyes, I wonder if my kid is covering as well and if I look, will my kid think I’m looking to see if I can look at the screen….
But fortunately, for my Dad and me and Susan Blakely, the power went out in the theater. So Susan was not consumed by flames. We sat in the theater, waiting to see if the film would start. It was not dark in the theater, because the emergency lights went on. We waited and waited, until an usher came in and told us that we would be given rain checks.
As we left, my Dad asked me whether I would like to see the rest of the film or see something else. The next week we returned to see all 165 minutes of disaster. Because I wanted to see those great movie stars, Newman, Steve McQueen and the master thespian O. J. Simpson. And went Susan Blakely scurried down the hallway (and I believe out a window), my dad and I watched. Our eyes fixed on the screen, not daring to look at each other.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Top Ten Movie Experience #6: “The War Wagon” (1967)

This may be my first memory in a movie theater. Maybe “Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs” was before this, (I remember being scared in the forest scene), but with Disney out of the vault schedule, I’m not sure what year I saw that. I might have seen “Thunderball” and “The Great Race” earlier, but they may have been rereleases and I know I saw them in drive-ins.
So I know, with certainty, that “The War Wagon” is the first movie I remember seeing in a walk-in theater. Saw it with my parents and all my brothers and sisters and I know it was in the year the film was released. And it was in Canada. I haven’t watched many films outside of the United States, so it stands out because of that. (There was “Swiss Family Robinson” in Mexico and “Orange County” in the Bahamas. But there have not been many more.)
My family came in late for “The War Wagon”, a Western with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. The credits had already run and when we came in the Duke and the Chin were in a bar. I don’t think we had any problem following the plot (Wayne and Douglas need to rob an armored stage full of gold, but they had good, lawful reasons for doing so.)
Now the amazing thing is when one, some or all of us kids complained about not seeing the whole film, my parents agreed that we could stay for the next screening. This was quite a revelation to me. That films played again and again and not only could you stay for parts you missed, but if you liked a film well enough, you could maybe stay to see it again. I’m not sure why this was such a revelation, but I’m not saying I was that bright of a kid.
I remember three things about that trip to British Columbia. One – my sister lifting me up to sit on a bridge and losing a tennis shoe in a river (and discovering at the shoe store that in Canada, tennis shoes were called ‘runners’). Two – Glaciers. Three – “The War Wagon”.