Black Narcissus (1946)

Black Narcissus – 1946

Directors – Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Starring – Deborah Kerr, and David Ferrar

Heading into this film, before I knew anything else about it other than the photo Netflix uses, I assumed that I wouldn’t like it. A movie about nuns? Booooorrring! Of course I wouldn’t like it.  But then it began, and the Archers logo came up (the people who made The Red Shoes, and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), and suddenly there was this chance that this film could be something more, much more than what is immediately present on the surface. As it happens, Black Narcissus was an austere, bland, and rather unimpressive yet beautiful looking journey through the wilds of British colonial India.

The story goes thusly…A group of relatively inexperienced nuns gets sent by their leadership, to India, charged with taking up residence in an abandoned palace high in the  mountains, and bringing the light of the lord to the local heathens.  The usual set of barriers present themselves in the form of cultural misunderstandings, a native Englishman versed in the ways of the locals, and the inner strife that comes when questioning one’s own…blah, blah, blah.  It doesn’t really matter, you won’t remember it in a few minutes, as I barely remember it now.

Plain, slow and for the first half nearly monochromatic, Black Narcissus tries to reach for the subtlety and distinction of Blimp and Red Shoes but was just never able to make it happen.  Deborah Kerr, who was so very arresting and vivid in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, staggers through this movie as emotionally one-dimensional as a tertiary character in a Dickens novel.  She doesn’t really change from one end of the movie to the other, aside from softening slightly to the brash Mr. Dean (David Ferrar), native Brit, envoy to the local royal government, and all around one note character.

Speaking of Mr. Dean.  It seemed like no one could decide quite what his character flaw/personality was going to be beforehand.  Is he a drunk, a cynic, or is he simply down on the snooty, dismissive behavior of the nuns to the locals?  Rather than giving him a set of characteristics, and building upon them, they decided to make him inebriated at times, moody at others, indignant and rude at still others, but without the rhyme and reason that would indicate he was a flesh and blood creation rather than a ham-fisted plot device.

Where the Brits seemed unduly rude and dismissive of their hosts, the Indian characters in the story, both Generals (young and old), the orphaned girl, as well as all of the children and villagers, all seem completely engaging and willing to learn about their guests without judging or strife.  Perhaps it’s because I come from a day and age that is more aware of and accepting of different cultures and personalities, but watching a film that comes out of the 1940’s makes western race relations seem positively barbaric and out of touch.

The one stand out, in terms of performance, is Kathleen Byron as Sister Ruth, the troubled, sickly sister who seems unable to handle the rigors and harsh conditions of the high mountain palace.  It actually wasn’t so much her performance, as it was the lack of performance.  Byron channelled Jack Nicholson’s work from the Shining, (or the other way around I suppose) all maniacal smiles and dangerous eyes, staring into space and providing her character with just enough vacancy to make her dangerous.  Sister Ruth is the most tightly wound of the nuns, and when she is pushed to her breaking point, she is unable to hold up.  It’s a shame really that she really didn’t have much impact until about two-thirds of the way through the film, but once she starts going, she is the most magnetic thing on-screen.

Similarly, halfway through the film, the color scheme begins to change from the sterile white robes and light-colored walls, into the rich swathes of color indicating lust, danger, and fear.  Beige and cream coloring gives way to deep shadowy reds, blues, greens, and oranges.  It’s really at this last third of the film that it becomes worth watching.  So much so, that it makes you wish the beginning part of the film was as interestingly composed, and executed as the latter part, although it doesn’t do much to change the fact that the story is a very dated one about the maddening effects of bringing religion to the uncivilized wilds

Despite my negative impression of the film, I did notice quite a lot of influence in a director whose films I truly do admire.  Wes Anderson, seems to have taken cues from the entirety of the Archers body of work, and for The Darjeeling Limited story cues from Black Narcissus in particular.  For example, the dramatic, rich use of color used as a backdrop against which every story plays out in all of Anderson’s films.  The diorama like composition Anderson utilizes, is equal parts Powell/Pressburger and Kubrick, but to his credit, Anderson does a much better job finding cohesion in all the disparate elements.

When it all comes down to it, Black Narcissus isn’t all that good, and certainly not worthy of its place on this list.  Sorry, Archers fans, I know it’s blasphemy to speak ill of saints Powell and Pressburger, but in this instance I think it’s justified.

“Not as good as Sister Act” – Ashley


Kes (1969)

Kes – 1969

Director – Ken Loach

Starring – David Bradley, Brian Glover, and Freddie Fletcher

Coal mining town? Check.  Dismal future? Check.  Bleak story and pale washed-out color palette? Check. Yup, we have ourselves a film from straight out of England from the 60’s.  Filled with angry young men doomed to continually revisit the heartbreak and disappointment that is their legacy, films like these made up their own film movement in the mid 60’s to the mid 70’s.  Where other movements like the French New Wave, and Italian Neo-Realism seemed to relish the joy and spontaneity that could be present in everyday life, this typically English set of films seemed steeped in the grimy misery that surrounded the working classes of hard scrabble England.  These films primarily deal with young men, raging and rebelling against a system that invariably gets the better of them.  While that may seem an overly grim assessment of the this genre, it’s not meant to take away from the fact that these films often illustrate that in such hard-times also exist small moments of beauty and freedom.

Kes, a film about a troubled young boy, bullied at home and at school, finds solace and acceptance in the act of raising and training a raptor (bird), and manages to illustrate this struggle for freedom and happiness quite effectively.  Juxtaposing the cramped, dirty, and oppressive imagery of the institutions that keep our main character, Billy, tied down, with imagery of him caring for, reading about, and training his falcon offer us a glimpse at the type of freedom Billy aspires to.

Far be it from me to chastise a film for being slow and depressing, but Kes in particular works very hard to crush and beat the anticipation and hope of something better right out of you.  Each character, Billy, Jude (or Jud if you believe IMDB), and their mother, as well as everyone at the school seem stuck in their routines.  Day in and day out, they aspire for nothing greater than to head to the pub for a pint, and beyond that perhaps a good snog to escape their realities.  There is no higher or greater goal for anyone to pursue.  The jobs are closer to punishments than careers, and the best anyone can hope for is maybe winning a marginal amount of money gambling, or a few jokes with friends after work.

Billy is no exception.  He trudges through school, endures teachers and bullies alike (although it can be hard to tell the difference), and often times suffers the same fate at home.  His brother Jude constantly berates him, and his ineffectual mother spends the majority of her time trying to catch a marry-able man.  He is lost, forgotten, and for all intents and purposes, completely alone.  Once Billy finds the falcon, Kes (of the movie’s title), suddenly a whole new world opens up for him.  He devotes his time and energy on something that gives back more reliably than something as short-sighted and temporary as gambling..  For a brief time, this animal brings Billy as close as he’s ever been to flying.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

However, as in all films of this sort, there is inevitably the point at which this new-found happiness is shattered, and we get to watch our main character crash back into the dreary life from which he came.  Often times, it is due to some strife or conflict from a parallel story-line that comes back around from earlier in the film.  In this instance it’s his contentious relationship with his older brother, Jude (it’s unclear whether or not they are actually brothers, but for all intents and purposes he is).  The film starts with them fighting, and hurling insults at the other, and it ends similarly.   Jude is determined, not to help his little brother find a way out, but to ensure that he is as unlikely to escape this life as Jude himself is.

(***End Spoilers***)

Movies out of England all seem to have a bit of melancholy to them, even Harry Potter was a boy forced to live under the stairs and be treated like a second class citizen.  From this time-frame in particular, they seem to be downright oppressive.  Kes is no exception to the rule, rather, it’s more proof of it.  The color scheme of the film is dishwater browns and grays,  and the camera work is mostly fixed position zooming and panning, tracking with our characters through these earthy, sparse environments.  I’m not sure if the lack of color, or stillness of the frame was intentional in this film or based out of necessity, but whether it was or wasn’t, it was exceedingly effective, tempering any expectation that Billy would be successful in his spiritual exodus, with the reality of his eventual conformity.

Definitely, a tear-jerker towards the end, Kes is a prime example of the “Angry Young Men” (dubbed so by the folks at the Filmspotting podcast) movement of English film, and the remarkable depression of an entire class of working people.  While it is not an easy watch, it does resonate with the viewer at an emotional level.  While none of the imagery has stuck with me in particular, the themes and tone of the film have been rattling around in my brain since I saw it.  It’s a tough watch, though, so be prepared.

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“Goddamn it, Kes!  You made me cry over a bird!” – Ashley

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An American Werewolf in London – 1981

Director – John Landis

Starring – David Naughton, Jenny Agutter, and Griffin Dunne

(Guest Review by Mike Petrik)

Warning! Spoilers lie within!  But, if you haven’t seen this movie yet, you’re silly and should stop whatever nonsense you are doing now and go watch it.  It’s on Netflix, so, no excuse.

John Landis wrote “An American Werewolf in London” at the tender age of 19.  I’ll say that again. He wrote this film when he was 19 years old.  That’s just insane.  Not only is this one of the best horror comedies in history, I’d place it as one of the best films of all time.  What did I accomplish when I was 19? I was in college. I lived at my parents house. I didn’t have a girlfriend. I never went out on weekends. I never wrote a screenplay. Basically, what I accomplished when I was 19 was watching “An American Werewolf in London” again.  He didn’t actually follow through with making the film until much later in life after the success of Animal House, but still, 19.

As a young writer, Landis had learned about a narrative technique called juxtaposition, or contrast in storytelling.  That is two opposing ideas put right next to each other to emphasize their impact.  And boy oh boy did he cram as much contrast into “An American Werewolf in London” as possible.  Which isn’t a bad thing.  Some may see it as a crutch, but the entire structure of the film relies on this device.  And he’s not the only one that utilizes juxtaposition.  To clarify, take another look at Ed’s recently reviewed William Friedkin classic “The Exorcist.”  Good vs. Evil.  Light vs. Dark.  Quiet vs. Loud. Ascending vs. Descending.  Hurricane Billy goes a’crazy with the contrasts.  Another good example is Tobe Hooper’s original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”  Everyone remembers the very creepy house where Leatherface and family live.  Filled with human skin lamps, and couches made out of human bones.  But the outside of the house is a big white country farmhouse on a beautiful summer day.  Which made venturing into the house that much more shocking.  Imagine if the exterior of the house had been a spooky haunted house with clanging shutters, thunder and lighting, and skeletons rattling.  By the time we get inside, the shock of meeting Leatherface wouldn’t have been as jarring.  But because of the contrast, seeing Leatherface slam that metal door is still the best part of the film.  I think you get the idea.  So, lets see how Landis uses contrast to his advantage.

The whole story structure itself uses contrasts.  A love story vs. a werewolf story.  A boy meeting a young nurse and falling in love, while at the same time struggling with the reality that he is a lycanthrope and is responsible for the death of several people and must kill himself or they are cursed to walk in limbo as the undead for eternity.  What’s genius about this is how the two stories run parallel to each other and how they tie together.  One can’t exist without the other, but they are booth doomed.  Brilliant.

The transformation scene.  Arguably one of the best, if not the best, werewolf transformations ever put on film.  That’s Rick Baker for you.  Anyways, not only is it shocking because it’s done in bright harsh light in a small London flat, but because of the contrast of the scene before it.  Our main character David is pacing around the apartment to that super upbeat and bouncy song, Bad Moon Rising.  He is looks in the fridge a few times, watches tv, reads a book, and even gets locked out of the apartment.  It’s really funny, then suddenly, bam!  Screaming, writhing pain.

My favorite part of the film comes in the form of a nightmare.  Our main character David is still in the hospital, unaware yet that he is a werewolf.  The changes his body is going through are causing very vivid and disturbing nightmares.  How does Landis approach the nightmares?  Why, with contrasts, of course!  David is at home with his family.  He is at the dining room table doing homework, while his Mom cleans up supper, and his younger siblings are watching the Muppet Show.  A beautiful suburban family evening.  Then, bam!  In through the front door storms nazi monsters, firing machine guns and cutting throats.  Setting the house on fire.  David wakes up from the dream and says exactly what everyone in the audience says; “Holy shit.”

I can go on and on.  The humor of his friend Jack, opposite the fact that he is a rotting undead corpse.  Silly bumbling London police opposite the insane climax of a massive car pile up in Piccadilly Circus.  The polite gentlemen in the subway tunnels as he is attacked by a werewolf.  Again, Landis wrote this when he was 19.  Not bad for a kid who can’t legally drink yet.

Moving on from narrative writing techniques, the number one thing people love about this movie is the special effects.  This was done in the days before computers, which makes it all that much more impressive.  All done in camera, and mostly in bright lights, Rick Bakers werewolf makeup is something many consider to be his masterpiece of his career.  Rivaled only by Rob Bottin’s work in 1982’s The Thing, I would agree that this is some of the best monster makeup ever put on film.  Seeing a rotting Jack corpse at a young age made a huge impact on me, and most likely contributed to my lifelong horror obsession.  Thanks, Rick Baker!

An American Werewolf in London has some all around amazing performances, most notably Griffin Dunne as Jack and David Naughton as our lead David.  If the writing and special effects had fallen flat, these two probably could have successfully carried the movie.  But, that not being the case, their hilarious performances were only the icing on the delicious horror comedy cake.

I’d say that’s about enough of me drooling over this film.  It’s a great little flick for the Halloween season, so perfect timing for me to tell you it’s on Netflix.  Go watch it. Thanks!


Who will survive…and what will be left of them?

So it’s my favorite time of the year…Halloween. So why not indulge myself a little and review some of the best horror, thriller, and suspense films in the book. Some of them I’m super thrilled about writing reviews of, and some are certainly popular but not necessarily my favorites. Read on to find out which is which. Enjoy!

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

A classic, certainly without which we wouldn’t have such staples as The Walking Dead, Dawn of the Dead and it’s remake, or the fantastic Shaun of the Dead, as well as a whole host of other films that have borrowed from it. The paranoia, mounting tension, and overwhelming odds of this first Zombie movie, transferred smoothly into non horror themes, such as isolation, race-relations, and fear of the Nuclear age in which we live.

L’uccello Dalle Piume Di Cristallo AKA The Bird With the Crystal Plumage (1970)

In this early film, Dario Argento, arguably the biggest name in italian horror, creates a film that is more Hitchcock than it is a slasher movie. The tension and carnage that ensues is more about pacing and misdirection than it is vicious thrills, and gore. That being said, it does have its share of gore. Oh, those italians, never short of gore. While good, I actually liked his later, more iconic film, Suspiria better than this one.

Deliverance (1972)

A horror movie of a different variety, rather than use a monster or a psychopathic antagonist, this film explores the terrible behavior exhibited by humans onto one another. The group of hunters looking to spend some time together having fun, get to know way more about each other than they ever wanted to know. Normally I wouldn’t give away any spoilers, but I think most people know exactly what the “twist” to this movie is. Men raping men has never been so much fun.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)

Quiet, slow, and nearly bloodless apparently equals really effective and terrifying. Who knew! Despite the fact that I credit The Exorcist with being better all around (scares, craftsmanship, and acting), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is pretty fantastic in its own right. By all means you should see the original version and relish in the grainy washed out film stock, the real locations that haven’t been over dressed or grimed up to such a degree as to make looking at them unsanitary, and the overall impact of a movie that can utilize calm as well as it does chaos. One hell of a good movie!

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

This film predates the slasher sub-genre of horror movies by close to 5 years, however it definitely shares and in some cases has inspired certain sadistic qualities in them. The movie gives us a family full of socially dysfunctional, nomadic killers as the source of our fear, an anxiety, and a nice everyday innocent family to compare ourselves to. More camp than scare. More sadism than not.

Suspiria (1977)

This film is far more surreal, and otherworldly than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the other Dario Argento film that I’ve seen. It is by far, more psychological and subtle in how it works under your skin, but also has a far less believable (read: ridiculous) set of traps and horrors for our heroine to escape. A room in a dance academy that is inexplicably filled with coils upon coils of barbed wire, is decidedly unbelievable, and therefore draws us out of the “story”. That being said, I still liked it better than The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, for its use of rich full color, and it’s dedication to that certain uneasy feeling.

Dawn of the Dead (1978)

Holy Shit! If you have managed to make it through your life to this point without seeing this movie, do yourself a favor, go buy (not rent) it and watch the shit out of it! For a movie that is so closely associated with the horror genre, Dawn of the Dead manages to be so relevent and forward facing on such a large variety of subjects. From race relations, religion, and consumer culture, to the nature of willful violence, and interaction between the sexes, not to mention some pretty outstanding makeup effects. This film has so much to offer first time and repeat viewers alike. Granted some of the makeup looks a bit bad by today’s standard, and some of the euphemisms seem a bit dated and clunky, but by and large this film has all the energy and fire of the films of the seventies, plus a pretty compelling horror story to boot. Make sure to buy the version that comes with the theatrical and directors cuts, so you can compare and contrast the values of each. (Hint: The Director’s Cut is better.)

Halloween (1978)

In terms of craftsmanship and construction Halloween is a master-class in editing and pacing. Featuring very little in the way of jump-scare type tactics, this film instead, skillfully builds the tension slowly through the use of shot composition, and editing, along with skillful acting and directing. Of course, John Carpenter is no stranger to the praise due to him from the horror fan community, including myself. I’ve enjoyed almost every single one of his films, and I only say “almost” because I can’t remember if there has been anything that I haven’t liked. Watch this!

Alien (1979)

In terms of futuristic visuals and slow building tension, Ridley Scott seemed to have cornered the market in the late 70’s and early 80’s. With films like Blade Runner and Aliens he helped to bring a living, breathing, realism to the science fiction genre that had before been absent. Where Star Wars was shiny and optimistic, Alien was concerned with the accurate depiction of its characters in a true to life setting. With Alien, he also managed to bring horror to a new level. For proof, just go watch the still terrifying trailer for the original Alien.

“The baby alien is soooooo cute! And there’s a cat!  And a butt crack!” – Ashley

The Shining (1980)

With the Shining, Stanley Kubrick made one of the finest films ever committed to celluloid (or digital mediums, I’m not playing favorites). The power and the impact of the imagery sticks with you long after the film is finished (they’ve been with me since I saw it way back when I was young.), and while the dialogue and delivery seems stilted at first, it all serves a grander purpose of creating a slightly skewed feeling in the viewer. The disharmony and discord starts to build at an imperceptible level, but once it rears its head, it is obvious that it has been around for a long while. Absolutely one of my favorite movies, and well deserving of being on this list!

“You know it’s a good horror movie if Shelley Duvall is in the film and still not the scariest part.” – Ashley

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

A classic in my circle of friends, this is actually a movie that I came to finally see rather late (only 4 years ago or so), and I’m really glad I did.  Part slapstick comedy, part horror movie, American Werewolf in London manages to balance the two genres giving a room for the comedy to live, without ruining the scary elements.  Then there is the astounding fully lit, werewolf transformation scene, something that was nearly impossible in the days before CGI.  Definitely worthy of its spot on this list.

“Suck it CGI!” – Ashley

Check out guest reviewer Mike Petrik’s review, here!

The Thing (1982)

Kurt Russell and John Carpenter have, together, made a pair of my most favorite films ever, Big Trouble in Little China, and this movie, The Thing. Along with being a completely absorbing well paced thriller in its own right, it also happens to have some really outstanding special makeup effects, and puppetry. Add in to the mix a young Wilford Brimley, Keith David in all his glory, and who could forget the heartbeat of a score that relentlessly pushes us onward, towards the end of the film. Outstanding all around!

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“One point for the great special effects makeup…one point for the sexy Kurt Russell beard…negative one million points for the hurting beautiful puppies” – Ashley

Poltergeist (1982)

As far as this list goes, the Poltergeist has perhaps left the smallest impact on me. All I really remember is the tiny woman with the child’s voice. She actually played good character in the film, yet still she stands out as a defining characteristic of this horror film far more than the big gauzy skeleton, the skeletons in the basement, or heaven forbid the terrifying child-sized doll that those shitty parents put in their kids room.

“Thanks to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, I know that Poltergeists are not ghosts.” – Ashley

The Evil Dead (1982)

Despite the fact that this film revolutionized the way that horror films were shot, produced, watched, edited, and scored, The Evil Dead was, in my opinion not nearly as good as its slapstick sequels, The Evil Dead Part 2, and Army of Darkness. Definitely worth watching, but make sure you watch the other two, so you can see director Sam Raimi reboot his own film, and make it worlds better.  Give me some sugar, baby!

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

This was the movie…the movie that scared the bejesus out of me as a kid far more than any other movie has ever done, before or since. Looking back at it now, it doesn’t make sense why this film had such a profound effect on me, but none the less, it did. The most terrifying image in the film (in my younger-selfs opinion), comes in the first 10 minutes, and the real terror of the first watch was the anticipation of whether it would be topped in the remaining 80 or so minutes. Not to mention, the film had a rather ingenious premise of allowing the victims to be vulnerable in their dreams, a place that no one can escape. Worth the watch, but I’ve heard you should avoid the remake.

Manhunter (1986)

The best of the Hannibal Lecter movie adaptations, this one combines the visual sensibility of Michael Mann, the menace and animalism of Tom Noonan, and the depth and intelligence of Brian Cox as Lecter into a luscious, dangerous, thrilling movie. Despite it’s inclusion on this list, I feel that the more popular Hannibal Lecter story, The Silence of the Lambs, is far inferior to this film, though there are many who would disagree vehemently. One thing that everyone can agree on, however, is that the remake of Manhunter, Red Dragon, is completely a piece of shit by comparison.  Brett Ratner my ass!

The Fly (1986)

Your standard story about a man who invents teleportation devices only to have it backfire on him when a simple little house fly gets caught in the machine with him. This film creeped me out quite a bit when I was a kid, particularly the arm wrestling scene. The Fly is a great horror movie, worthy of inclusion on this list!

Aliens (1986)

Quite possibly my favorite of the movies on this Halloween list. I grew up with this movie, so as a result, I am in capable of judging it in any way other than favorably. A great continuation of the story that began in Alien, one that manages to go far beyond it in terms of action, character development, and stakes. Where the original was effective through the isolation of its characters, Aliens succeeds by forcing them to band together to combat the threats from without as well as within.  This is when James Cameron was at his peak in my opinion (well, that or during the Terminator movies), not during the bloated gimmicky Avatar days.  Robot versus space-bug!  That really says it all.

Spoorloos AKA The Vanishing (1988)

If you’ve seen the remake of this film starring Jeff Bridges and Keifer Sutherland, then do yourself a favor, drink a bunch of turpentine till you forget that one, and when you’re back from getting your stomach pumped at the hospital, watch this creepy-as-hell movie. Using simple tactics to inspire fear, Spoorloos is surprisingly contemplative, and deceptively calm for a list such as this. Don’t let that fool you though, it’s terrifying all the same.

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

Creepy. Creepy. Creepy. CREEPY. This mind-bending film tests the limits of the audiences perception, making us debate up until the very end whether or not we think our main character is, in fact, crazy, delusional, or correct that there are strange beings out to get him. The fantastic Danny Aiello electrifies every scene he is in, and make sure to watch out for a small appearance by Ving Rhames, too!.

The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Way, way over-rated. While this movie isn’t bad, the fact that it took home best picture, best actor, best actress, and best director honors at the Oscars is a little absurd if you ask me. Hopkins was good as Lector, but not nearly as menacing as Brian Cox was in the role just a scant 5 years earlier. Foster was good as well, but has been much better in better things as well. Jonathan Demme, is the exception. Though I don’t think he necessarily deserved the Oscar for his work here, this actually is the best thing he has ever done. In fact, he did such a bad job on The Truth About Charlie, a terrible remake of one of my favorite movies of all time, Charade, that he ought to have any awards and accolades stripped from him.  He actually owes me an Oscar.  Watch Manhunter instead.

Scream (1996)

I saw this movie at just the right time for me to see this movie. I saw it with a bunch of really good friends, and had a really good time doing it. The movie as it turns out was pretty good too, turning the usual conventions of the horror movie on its ear to great effect. This movie also benefited from an up and coming cast, a good soundtrack, and a rejuvenated director, Wes Craven, ready to attack the genre that he helped create in the first place.

Tetsuo (1998)

It’s strange that this is the only Japanese horror movie that is included in the list of 1001 movies, that I’ve seen, especially considering the fact that Japan seems to specialize in decidedly creepy horror movies. Tetsuo is really more of a bizarre, sci-fi-sex-fantasy with a fair amount of blood in it. Basically a man turns slowly and painfully into a machine, a process which grants him great strength and power, but also makes him a terrible monster at the same time. If you’d like to know if you will like it, base whether you see it on this spoiler-ish phrase…”Drill penis”. And there you have it.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

I’m a fan of its concept, I’m a fan of the mark such a low-budget movie was able to make, but I was not a fan of the fact that it spawned a lot of cheap imitators, nor was I a fan of the movie itself. There was so much hype surrounding this movie, that it couldn’t help but fail in the eyes of a film student / horror film fan like me. You will never hear anyone say this again, ever, but I liked The Blair Witch Project 2: Book of Shadows way better.

“Ughkk…God!” – Ashley

Mulholland Dr. (2001)

My lovely wife would disagree of my assessment of this film. I thought it was an un-paralleled work of craftsmanship and genius, with a creepy/dreamy surrealistic concept that translated well to the glimmering, shining facade of Hollywood. She thought it was crap. In my humble opinion David Lynch redeemed himself after the terrible, and terribly confusing Lost Highway, to make a work that stands alongside his very best (Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, Twin Peaks, and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me). Of course he went right back to making terrible crap with Inland Empire, but there is no need to dwell on that here. Go see Mulholland Dr., one of the scariest movies that isn’t supposed to be scary , you’ll ever see!

“I know experimental narrative.  I like experimental narrative.  I went to film school to make experimental narrative.  You sir, are not an experimental narrative.” – Ashley

And there you have it.  Just a few of the horror selections on the list.  I don’t necessarily agree that these should all be held up and called the best of the best, but conversely, some of them are absolutely worthy of such distinction.  Good or bad, however, each has its importance in terms of the history and art of film.  Happy Halloween!


Un Chien Andalou (AKA: An Andalusian Dog)(1929)

Un Chien Andalou (AKA: An Andalusian Dog) – 1929

Director – Luis Bunuel

Conceived by surrealist auteurs Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, Un Chien Andalou is your standard story about a guy, posing as a nun gets hit by a car while a couple watches from a window.  And goes on to tread even more familiar ground when after witnessing the accident, the man spends great amounts of time and energy trying to knead and massage the womans breasts and butt while she tries to fight him off.  Not one to take no for an answer, he starts leaking ants from the hole in his hand, that is, until he loses his arm in their skirmish.  And of course who can forget the  straight razor cutting woman’s eye sequence which even by this point was extremely clichéd.

All joking aside, Bunuel and Dali managed to construct a piece of film that is just as shocking and talked about today as it was back in 1929.  While it is famous for the notoriety of its authors, the film itself is infamous today thanks to the aforementioned eye cutting scene.  My teacher in film school introduced the film, explained the intention, and then had to leave the room before showing it because of the ability of that image to upset.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching just once, if only to say that you did it.  The fact is, it would be hard to find more indelible imagery throughout the history of film than is found in the 20 minute run time of this one film, and while it has a statement, it is not one that is easy to discern from watching the film.

Strictly speaking, the narrative is meant to confound the brain.  It was conceived, purposefully, to seem fleeting and dream-like.  Dali and Bunuel practiced sleep deprivation in order to prepare themselves for the conception and script-writing phases of the film.  The imagery is meant to horrify while at the same time seem like it should make sense when it doesn’t.  This feeling of connectivity through the course of the film is what ties the images together.  Themes and undertones were the goal, not story and character.

Not shockingly, the film got mixed reception at its release, receiving positive marks from those in the art world, and negative ones from those not familiar with surrealism or (then) modern artistic expression.  Despite the mixed reception, Un Chien Andalou stood out as a masterwork of editing, composition, and pacing.  It is interesting to note, that it stands out as being far creepier and more unsettling than most horror or thriller movies released since.

While not for everyone, Un Chien Andalou, is definitely an important benchmark of cinema, as well as a springboard into the works of directors as diverse as David Lynch, Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, and Tim Burton.  It definitely deserves it’s place on this list!

“Bitch got her eye cut!” – Ashley


Fight Club (1999)

Fight Club – 1999

Director – David Fincher

Starring – Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, and Helena Bonham Carter

Firstly, I’d like to mention that this review was a special request from a friend of mine.  Normally all it would get would be a little bullet review simply because I had already seen it, although I do confess it deserves quite a bit more attention.  So, here we go.

Back in 1999, before I had read the book, learned the rules, and become swept up in the fervor that was Fight Club, I was blissfully unaware of what lay before me.  At the time, I was living in an apartment with 3 other guys, all of which lifted weights, and were at least partially if not completely into the pathos of the film.  All of us were in our twenties, none of us were in solid relationships and each of us was steeped in the malaise of the 90’s.  Everything about Fight Club not only seemed fresh, it was fresh.  Released the same year as the other major 1999 film with a genre defining plot twist, The Sixth Sense, I had no clue as to where Chuck Palahniuk’s tale of hard-won maturity was taking me.

Whether or not you like the film, Fight Club grabs away your attention, and doesn’t let you have it back until finished.  As the very definition of slick and flashy, but with the added bonus of subtext, the film sets forth with a social commentary unique to its place in time.  Equal parts special effects display, close examination of the modern-male condition, romance, and suspense film, Fight Club is unapologetically brazen and wonderful.

For those lucky enough to not know what it’s all about, here’s a brief rundown of the plot (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it).  The narrator, sometimes referred to as Jack (although we never actually learn his name), is stuck.  He finds himself constantly running the treadmill of the daily working-grind.  Business trips, catalog shopping, and time spent avoiding everything of substance in his life is taking its toll, and he finds himself unable to sleep.  In an attempt to turn his life right side up, Jack meets a girl (Marla), makes new friends (Tyler), and goes through the process of systematically dismantling his life in an attempt to put it back together again.  From nameless worker bee, to co-founding an underground street fighting ring, to working to bring down the system all in the name finding cure for the omnipresent male aggression that he suffers from, Jack walks a very long path to find himself in very familiar territory.

Despite its somewhat fractured method of telling it’s story, Fight Club is a fairly straightforward film.  Using a very visual, and interactive method of walking us through the narrative, we are placed directly into the character’s nerve center.  We see first hand, from Jack’s point of view, his plain, drab apartment being populated with equally plain, drab furniture.  We watch as his work-life gets drowned out by his new passion for fighting, and we feel the same panic when the boundaries of his comfort zone are reached.

Fincher utilizes the same grimy chic aesthetic that he used in Seven, and would later use in Panic Room.  Going along with the themes of the source material, everything is worn, threadbare, and ultimately falling apart.  From the house that Jack and Tyler move into on Paper St. to the tenuous relationships that hold our main character to his old life, we watch as the very fabric of his life is torn apart.  Aside from dressing the set accordingly, Fincher utilizes destructive imagery, achieved through the combination of CGI and simple practical effects.  Lighting, post-production coloration of the film, as well as on and off-screen narration provide a glimpse into the inner workings of the distressed mind of our main character.

What to say about the acting…I’ve never liked Brad Pitt better than I do in his role of Tyler Durden, and Edward Norton, coming off of his fantastic run of Primal Fear, and American History X, achieved a level in his career that he hasn’t before, or since.  Helena Bonham Carter provides the perfect foil to the Pitt/Norton duo, by playing crazy with issues in a really grounded sort of way, and numerous wonderful supporting roles are filled out by familiar faces, such as Meatloaf, Zach Grenier, Jared Leto, and a whole host of others that you’ve seen even if you don’t know their names yet.

Since my initial viewing, I’ve come to watch the film time and again on DVD, and I find that the story has changed a bit.  Coming out of the theater the first time, I felt empowered as a film student, a movie goer, and as a young man who didn’t quite know what he wanted out of life.  The macho posturing and gratuitous justification of the character’s extreme measures seemed completely justified to me.  Damn right I wanted to take something back from the world that had taken so much from me!  I too, wanted to punch my way into a happier life, have my anger and discontent work for me instead of against me, and find that dysfunctional, messed up girl who “got” me. (What!?  I said I was in my 20’s.)  Needless to say, I grew up.  My selfish view of the world changed, and I stopped being so focused on my own problems.  As I grew, and watched the film again, I realized there was a satirical bent to the film that I didn’t see when I was steeped in selfishness.  Now that I had a changed view of the world, and myself in it, I could understand the fact that the film wasn’t preaching anarchy, or violence.  Instead it was illustrating the nature of youth, and the power of experience, and acceptance as a means of learning and growing out of it.

Fight Club is a near perfect film, right up there with The Royal Tenebaums, The Big Lebowski, and Children of Men.  A true 10!

(***Warning Spoilers***)

“That dude is the other dude, and then he shoots himself.” – Ashley


More From the Vault

Every so often I’ve updated the list of films that I have already seen with brief reviews.  Call it the complete-ist in me, but when I’m done with reviewing each of the films in the book, I’d like to have reviewed every single film in the book.

Anyhow, here’s another batch for you to read.


Shichinin No Samurai AKA Seven Samurai (1954)

The Seven Samurai is the first movie that I had the pleasure of seeing from the master director Akira Kurosawa, and it is also one of his most praised works. Without a wasted frame, the story takes place over the course of almost 3 hours. Kurosawa, as he does in each of his movies, explores more than just the action and injustice featured in the plot. He is a humanist first and foremost, training his lens on the interpersonal relationships of the characters, tracking growth across this epic. As good as this film is, I would have to say that Kurosawa has numerous films that are even better, check out Stray Dog, Rashomon, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, and my personal favorite High and Low.

“Fuck yes!” – Ashley

The Ladykillers (1955)

Existing as a special combination of dark humor, and slapstick farce, The Ladykillers is exceptionally funny and unsettling. Alec Guinness stars as the leader of a group of criminals staying at the home of a hardy, vivacious older lady under the guise of being musicians. The plan is simple, rob a bank, and utilizing the trusting nature of the kindly old lady, and the remoteness of her home to their advantage, get away with it. Easily my favorite of Alec Guinness’ films (thanks in part to the Star Wars prequels that is), The Ladykillers features a solid cast of great actors, including a very young Peter Sellers.

Bob Le Flambeur AKA Bob the Gambler (1955)

My introduction to the fantastic Jean-Pierre Melville, I was captivated immediately by the cool as ice gangster come gambler Bob. This film is filled with signature Melville-isms. Glorious post war street scenes in Paris. Trench-coats. Honor among thieves. And who could forget the caper. To talk too much about this film is to give too much away, and to do that is to ruin it for those who haven’t seen it. Other classics by Melville: Le Cercle Rouge, Le Samourai, and the recently released in the U.S. Army of Shadows. All are fantastic, and deserve to be in this book! Incidentally, Bob le Flambeur was recently re-made into The Good Thief starring Nick Nolte and directed by Neil Jordan, and while I’m not generally a fan of re-makes, I really, really liked this film. Not quite as good as the original, but it was one of my favorite films of 2002.

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

The ultimate in hardboiled private eye crime stories, Kiss Me Deadly is a full on assault on decency. Kiss Me Deadly proudly presents itself as a grimy PI story, littered with bodies and intrigue. If you even have a passing interest in film noir, this should be your first stop. Violent, misogynist, brutish, and glorious, Kiss Me Deadly begs to be watched and dares you to look away. I myself, loved it!

The Ten Commandments (1956)

Apparently based on a book, The Ten Commandments is an epic in every sense of the word. Colored in bright explosive candy hues, and featuring huge sets, as well as a cast that number in the thousands, The Ten Commandments is more spectacle than great movie. Certainly not a waste of time, but not my first choice when choosing something light to throw in.

Det Sjunde Inseglet AKA The Seventh Seal (1957)

A classic, and well-loved film by Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman, The Seventh Seal stars an extremely young Max von Sydow as a knight who faces Death at a game of chess to decide his fate. This film is filled with themes that find their way into each of Bergman’s works, ranging from courage in the face of death, religion, and humanity. The Seventh Seal still holds up to this day, with luminous black and white photography that, thanks to Criterion’s Blu-ray edition, has never looked better.

Note: Don’t be fooled by the similarly themed, but much worse, “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey”

Kumonosu Jo AKA Throne of Blood (1957)

Kurosawa’s retelling of Macbeth set in feudal Japan. Shakespeare has never looked better as it does in the stark black and white, twisting shadows and swirling mists as seen through Kurosawa’s camera. Toshiro Mifune doesn’t disappoint in the lead role, but the real stand out is Isuzu Yamada in the as Mifune’s opportunistic, poisonous wife. The plotting and scheming starts right from the get go, all the way up till the frenzied end of the film.

“The Scottish play set in Japan.” – Ashley

Touch of Evil (1958)

One of the many trouble spots on Orson Welles’ resume due to studio interference, and financing issues, still Touch of Evil remains as possibly the best B-Movie ever made. Iconic (and sometimes hilarious) performances by Janet Leigh, Charlton Heston (as a Mexican) and Welles himself as the crooked cop willing to do almost anything to ensure justice prevails (just so long as it’s his justice). The movie is almost as famous for its long tracking shot opening as it is for any of the performances, featuring a nearly 4 minute shot done in one take which travels around cars, actors, and buildings. The film The Player, payed homage to it by mentioning it a few times during a similarly complex shot in that film.

Vertigo (1958)

Flopping on its initial release, Vertigo didn’t gain the acclaim it deserved until much later after it was released on video. Vertigo visits themes present in each of Hitchcock’s other works, including the obsession with blondes, innocence tainted with corruption, and the schlub who gets in over his head. Jimmy Stewart plays the schlub, Kim Novak plays the blonde, and gloriously technicolored San Francisco plays the innocence and the corruption. Vertigo has a twisty convoluted story with elements of surrealism, an interesting watch.

“Hey. Don’t I know you from somewhere?” – Ashley

Mon Oncle AKA My Uncle (1958)

My favorite of Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot films, Mon Oncle was also the first of them that I had seen. Tati, playing Hulot, is a master of visual comedy, and not in the same way as the Three Stooges, or even Buster Keaton. Tati is an artist whose work is appreciated the longer you watch. The plot of the movie is not so much important to the film as it is simply a guide to get our characters into interesting situations so we can watch them get out. If you liked this film, check out other films featuring the bumbling Mr. Hulot, including Trafic, Playtime, and Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot.

Les Quatre Cents Coups AKA The 400 Blows (1959)

My personal favorite of the French new wave movement was this small-scale film, personal piece from Francois Truffaut. Featuring the director’s alter ego, Antoine Doinel, The 400 Blows is the first in a series of movies, each about a different stage of life and the challenges that go along with them. The period from childhood to young adult is covered heart-breakingly here, following Antoine through the rough waters of his home life and his interaction with the outside world. Later chapters deal with finding love, getting married, having children, and growing old, but Les Quatres Cent Coups remains the directors most personal and his best.

North by Northwest (1959)

One of Hitchcock’s best, North by Northwest features Cary Grant, suave as ever, being mistaken for a government agent by a group of foreign spies. Just like in Hitchcock’s most famous works (of which this is one), the witty one-liners, suspense, and drama are heaped on generously. I can’t help but feel sad that a similarly themed, but better film featuring Cary Grant was left off this 1001 list. Charade, also featuring Audrey Hepburn, James Coburn, and Walter Matthau, is one of my favorite movies ever! Check out both Charade AND North by Northwest as a double feature! You won’t be sorry.

Some Like it Hot (1959)

Now this is an example of a classic, well-loved film, with actors that I really love (Jack Lemmon I’m looking at you), a premise that is more than suitable, yet the finished product never really caught me. It’s sort of like Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief. I never really saw what all the hype was about. That being said, I didn’t hate it either. It never made fun of me when I had braces, or turned me down for a date, my affections and this film have just always been mutually exclusive. Perhaps it deserves another watch…then again maybe I should just watch The Last Boyscout again.

“Monroe, and drag queens, together at last!” – Ashley

A Bout De Souffle AKA Breathless (1959)

Jean-Luc Godard is nothing if not a sacred cow of French cinema, and while I have loved some of his other films (Le Mepris, Bande A Part, and Masculin Femenine), Breathless or A Bout De Souffle never really did it for me. I can still rationalize why it was so revolutionary (use of jump cuts, editing, non-actors, and subscription to the aesthetic of the French new wave style), and see it’s importance, but I prefer other examples of New Wave cinema. If you are interested in seeing a Godard film, try Masculin Feminine, it is just as revolutionary and a bit more accessible.

Psycho (1960)

A prime example of Hitchcock in his prime. Psycho was so good, and so affecting that some of its actors were type cast just on the strength of this one film (Anthony Perkins, and Janet Leigh), so much so that without a little research it’s hard to think of what other films either of them has been in. Psycho may not be as visually shocking and gory as horror films of today, but it still manages to hold up over time and be just as unsettling as it was back in its day. Hitchcock has always excelled at making the comfortable un-comfortable (motels, birds, tea, dreams, the list goes on…), and the subtle touches in this film work perfectly. Consider for a moment that Perkin’s Bates is an amateur taxidermist of birds, and then that Janet Leigh’s name is Marion Crane a type of bird, or the fact before the crime Marion is wearing a white bra and a white purse, while after it she is wearing a black bra and purse. His attention to detail, and knack for foreshadowing is demonstrated in full force in Psycho and remains one of his best films. Despite all the uproar over the Gus Van Sant remake, I thought it actually did some justice to the original film and if nothing else brought it a little more deserved attention.

Note: This film also has the distinction of being the first American film to ever show a toilet flushing on-screen.

“Someone’s a mama’s boy!” – Ashley

Peeping Tom (1960)

Released the same year as Psycho, and dealing with similar subject matter, Peeping Tom wasn’t received with the same acclaim and attention that the former was. On the contrary, Peeping Tom was seen as subversive, perverted, and generally too shocking. The story revolves more around the killer than the victim in this one, whereas Psycho is presented more from the victim’s point of view. Either way, Peeping Tom is a fine film, one worth watching, however it is so similar to Psycho that I’m not sure it needs to be on the list of 1001 films.

The Apartment (1960)

As far as light-hearted, touching movies about someone recovering from a bout of depression, this one is my favorite. Billy Wilder directs Shirley MacLaine and Jack Lemmon in a sweet touching comedy without losing any of his trademark cynicism or the pointedness of his dialogue. The Apartment is another chance for me to champion the somewhat maligned talents of Mr. Fred MacMurray as Lemmon’s boss. MacMurray plays a fantastic creep who really defines the term “heel”.

“MacLaine, proving she’s a better actor than her brother.” – Ashley

Spartacus (1960)

Containing almost none of the trademark elements that make up a Stanley Kubrick movie as we know it (Kubrick apparently dis-owned the film before it’s release), Spartacus remains an interesting movie that isn’t great. It is, however, another example of a film that enabled an up and coming filmmaker to gain his voice, and define himself later on in his career. If only for that reason, Spartacus is a great film, but luckily for the studio, it has some other things going for it. Kirk Douglas plays the title role of Spartacus, and despite all the lavish set production, and concentration on spectacle, brings some heart to the slave who defied Rome.

Jules Et Jim AKA Jules and Jim (1962)

One of director, Francois Truffaut’s most well thought of films, Jules and Jim may be the Lost In Translation, or Juno of its time. Viewed from a certain angle, the plot is a completely moving and emotional story that you believe, so much so, that you can see yourself and those around you in the roles that these characters embody. Viewed from another perspective, it can seem a little precious or purposefully manipulative. Depending on what is happening in your life (I’m mostly thinking about whether or not you are in a relationship, and if you are happy), this movie can preach the glory of love and the pain of rejection. On the flipside, if you have shaken free the angsty, teenager-esque feelings everyone has had in their youth, you may feel like you’re being talked down to.

“I remember it being really boring.” – Ashley

Cleo De 5 A 7 AKA Cleo from 5 to 7

Taking place, as the title suggests, from 5 to 7, we get a slice of the life of Cleo played out before us. Sometimes we, along with Cleo herself, are a voyeurs into the lives of people around her, and other times we are focused on her as she roams around Paris. By and large Cleo lives a carefree, spoiled life, yet we still sympathize with her when times are hard, and cheer for her when they are good. This is a small film in a lot of ways, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t impacting and beautiful.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

I have to admit.  I didn’t like Lawrence of Arabia that much.  Perhaps I was too young to appreciate the aesthetic beauty of Lean’s desert panorama camerawork, or just maybe it was the epic length that decided it for me.  One way or another, I didn’t appreciate it as much as everyone else seems to think I should.

“Really long.” – Ashley

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Overly reliant on gimmicks and quick editing techniques, The Manchurian Candidate doesn’t flesh out the story nearly…wait, no that was the terrible re-make that came out in 2004.  The original 1962 version, is just as taught, and well executed today as it was at its release.  While the story between the two versions remained virtually the same, the consistent building of tension and anxiety, combined with the pitch perfect acting of Lawrence Harvey, Frank Sinatra (yes…Frank Sinatra), and the devilish turn of Angela Lansbury as the Queen of Hearts, makes for a fantastic film.

Lolita (1962)

It took me forever to finally see Lolita.  I have known the basic story (older man, younger girl) but had just never gotten around to seeing it.  And while I’ve been told that the book is much better, I thought the film was pretty good.  Not great, mind you, but definitely solid.  The shocking and controversial nature of the relationship was toned down a bit for the screen, and maybe as a result doesn’t seem all that shocking in today’s day and age.  Memorable turns by Peter Sellers, and Shelley Winters, not to mention it’s an early film of Stanley Kubrick.

The Birds (1963)

Despite being one of Hitchcock’s most popular, I actually think that The Birds is one of his most over-rated.  I think I owe it to myself to give this one another look someday, but right now I feel that it was too heavily based on the gimmick that had to rely on special effects.  Though it is not necessarily the fault of the movie, but the special effects seemed particularly dated and old fashioned.  Worth a watch, but not my favorite by a long shot.

8 1/2 (1963)

Federico Fellini is, by most accounts, a master of cinema.  One, that I have always had a little trouble getting fired up over.  It’s not that I don’t like his films once I’ve seen them, the problem comes in when it comes to motivating myself to see them.  I couldn’t tell you why, but his films consistently get pushed off when they come up on my Netflix Queue or when I see the one or two I have on my shelf.  I shouldn’t feel this way, considering I really loved the moving poetry, and soul baring passion in 8 1/2, yet it still happens.  One very definite reason to watch this film is the man-crushable Marcello Mastroianni, swaggering through as the alter-ego of Fellini himself.  Dealing with all the reservations with women, making movies, childhood, and the future that the director very famously dealt with himself, Mastroianni embodies a certain cool, yet believable character that begs to be watched.  Combined with imagery that leaves the audience wanting more, 8 1/2 is a fantastic film.

Well, that’s it for this time.  Thanks for reading!