The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie – 1976

Director – John Cassavetes

Starring – Ben Gazzara, Seymour Cassel, and Timothy Carey

Film noir, was a movement in film, typified by stark, harsh imagery, criminal or crime elements, and an overwhelming sense of foreboding and unease.  This particular style of film saw its birth from out of the optimism and idealism of American life in the post World War 2 era.  The growing unrest Americans were feeling in the early 50s took root in the realization that this feeling of elation wouldn’t last forever, and that the unified nationalism that got people through the war was finite.  This ended up creeping into the social consciousness and eventually made its way out to popular culture, saturating the works with an often disaffected outlook on life that celebrated the strength and ingenuity of the bandit or gangster just as much as it did the policeman or community leader.

As the artists and tradespeople began to realize what it was and gave a name to it, the label of film noir, and all the gravity that came with it, came to be.  Film noir became a tool, much like German expressionism, a visual and atmospheric means of conveying mood and the general psyche of a set of characters.  All through the 60’s, the power of the medium allowed for a more rapid reach to a more and more diverse audience.  Anti-heroes became just heroes, and as such, became more appealing to a wider and wider set of audiences.  These racy and taboo subjects became sought after by the masses, and eventually, gave way to studio sanctioned artistic freedom and championed the subversive nature of a lot of the best films of the 70s.

Films known for challenging the system and pioneering the path between commercial success and artistic integrity are the hallmark of the 1970s, and as such a filmic meeting of the methods and underlying themes that define film noir, with the freedom and influences indicative of the 70s, should be astoundingly and amazingly good.  Add in an artistic, talented actor with a career worth of standout film performances as the director, and this should have been gangbusters. Well, it isn’t, and it wasn’t.

For a film with a very simple, straight forward plot, (man over-extends himself, man runs afoul of shady characters, man struggles to make it right while trying to stay alive) it seems only necessary that crafting and growing the characters would be the obvious emphasis of the film.  Ideally the result would be a lean, mean story, free of excess frills and self-serving script.  As it turns out, however, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie is a bloated, meandering mess from start to finish, and If you thought that my intro for this review was not only unnecessarily long but also more than a little over proud of itself, then you will be well prepared for what this film has to offer.

Even by 1976, John Cassavetes was an old hand at film work. A talented character actor, Cassavetes played pivotal roles in some of my very favorite films, from Rosemary’s Baby, to The Dirty Dozen, to the fantastically underrated remake of The Killers.  As a director, he is an aimless mess.  He fetishizes and takes pleasure in watching his characters struggle, and ultimately fail to connect with one another as they drift through the narrow, tiny little lives that they lead.  It seems to me that these are people who are so uncomfortable in their own skin that their only chance of survival is to band together and treat life as a war of attrition.  Success for them, in any small measure is nearly impossible, and as such their misery and lack of ambition defines them.  They are effectively one-dimensional personifications of a stick in the mud, or a wet blanket.

None of the charisma or energy that actors like Ben Gazzara and Seymour Cassel bring to their other work, shows through here.  Perhaps most tragically, Cassavetes himself seemed to be so captivated by the lives of characters along these lines that he steeped himself in this same kind of oppressive, joylessness that became the calling card of his directing career.  Where as Gazzara and Cassel could move on to other projects, and try on other characters, Cassavetes mired himself in films like Shadows, Faces, and Woman Under the Influence, (the latter two also made it on this list, only God knows why).  The terrible part is that I’ve only seen clips of his other directorial efforts, and I was immediately turned off.  I had to force myself to sit through this one, all the while hating the terrible club performances, the clunky “natural” dialog (which by the way, just seemed un-rehearsed, not natural), and the unnecessarily long and annoying closeups.

To call The Killing of a Chinese Bookie a film noir is to insult the genre.  The power of films like Kiss Me Deadly, Double Indemnity, Murder My Sweet, as well as modern neo-noir films like Blade Runner, and Brick, is the strengths of the characters, not their weaknesses.  The audience wants to root for capable people facing overwhelming odds, not someone who makes awful choices.  Phillip Marlowe is smart, charismatic and ready for anything, where as Gazzara’s Cosmo Vittelli is short-sighted, reactionary and not very bright.  In short he is a victim of his own actions, and truthfully he gets what he deserves.

Though the settings, and plots of these films are similar, the differences represent a tremendous gulf between what film noir organically was during it’s heyday, and what The Killing of a Chinese Bookie ended up being two decades later.  While reading up on the making of this film, I happened upon an essay that explained, at least in part, one of the ways this film went wrong.  In it, Cassavetes explained that Ben Gazzara was so in tune with the character that he’d had in his head, that he barely gave him any direction at all, and often would just let him roll through scenes without interruption.  After reading that, it seemed pretty obvious that this was true, and served as proof that this film had no one to steer it in any direction at all, which is why it feels like it is in park throughout the entire thing.

Since a lot of people love Cassavetes’ directing work far more than I, some even equate him with Hitchcock, Scorsese or Kurosawa in terms of importance, so it seems fair to include one of his films on this list, but three?  I would have much rather seen the far more rich and noir-ish films of Jean Pierre Melville on this list, such as Le Cercle Rouge, Un Flic, Le Deuxieme Souffle, and Army of Shadows.  I guess I’m glad that I’ve seen it, but only because that means I’ve gotten it out of the way, and don’t have to see it ever again.

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Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (AKA: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror) (1922)

Nosferatu

Nosferatu, Eine Syphonie Des Grauens (AKA: Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terror) – 1922

Director –  F. W. Murnau

Starring – Max Schreck, Greta Schroder, and Gustav van Wangenheim

Of the many different genres of cinema, horror seems to be relegated to the bottom of the list when it comes to perceived importance and impact.  Drama, perhaps, is the category voted the most likely to get recognition and accolades, where as comedy seems to get the people’s choice award, but for my money some of the most effective and memorable films reside firmly in the realm of suspense, tragedy, and horror.  Even films that are billed more as mystery like, Psycho, or science fiction, such as Aliens, have elements directly rooted in the anatomy of the horror film.  Brimming with dark imagery, unsettling characters, and casual situations gone wrong, films such as The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Thing are very obviously direct descendants of Nosferatu.  it doesn’t end there either, F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece has informed the structure, tone, editing, and atmosphere of movies as a whole, and worked its way into the DNA of the language of modern cinema.

The most striking feature of Nosferatu, is the look of the film (duh…it is a silent movie after all.).  Though not as exaggerated and dramatic in appearance as fellow german expressionist work, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, I found the imagery more immediate and haunting.  Starkly black and white (with only subtle color washes to provide a different feel for outdoor versus indoor scenes), Nosferatu relies on stillness and subtle creeping atmosphere to first un-nerve the viewer, then slowly build the tension of the film to a boiling point.  From the long shadowed gothic architecture of the vampire’s castle to the dilapidated, shell of a building which he inhabits upon his arrival in the fictional coastal town of Wisborg, the set pieces lend to the characters aura of danger, and the looming danger that follow with him.

Borrowing obviously from the Dracula story, originally by author Bram Stoker, Murnau and his lead actor Max Schreck craft a version of the vampire character rooted not so much in sexual charisma and riches, than it is in brute strength and fear.  Count Orlok as this Vampire is known, looks sleep deprived, starved, and ravenous.  There is a ferocity in the portrayal that is far more present and vibrant than almost every other vampire that I’ve ever seen depicted in film.  Orlok looks like a cross between the Tall Man from the Phantasm films, and a burned rat, and frankly seeing him for the first time, silhouetted in the archway of his manor, is more than a little unsettling.  The film even refers to him as the “Bird of Death”, further likening him to the dangerous animal that he is.

His appearance isn’t his only weapon though, throughout the film, the vampire utilizes impressive strength, mind control, power over animals, as well as a peculiar telekinetic ability which allows him to, non-corporally interact with the world (self-moving coffins, and doors opening in a simple, but effective stop-motion animation).  When these qualities are added up in one package, Orlok seems like an unstoppable force and brings a real sense of dread with him as he lurks slowly through the scene.

One of the first examples of a Cult Film, Nosferatu nearly didn’t survive after the estate of Bram Stoker sued for copyright infringement and a court ordered all existing prints of the film burned.  This bankrupted the production company who had neglected to acquire the rights to the Dracula story.  Luckily, copies of the film had already been shipped around the world, and survived destruction, eventually being copied and cultivated by fervent fans and film enthusiasts the world over.

As far as acting goes, the discussion should start and stop with the film’s terrifying lead, Max Schreck.  His gaunt frame and solid performance helped to create one of the most indelible characters ever created.  The rest of the cast does a fine job in their roles, but they only ever really play second fiddle to Schreck/Orlok, causing us to miss him when he leaves the frame and thrill us every time he is back on the screen.  His performance is so legendary, that a number of rumors have built up around both the character as well as the actor, painting him as everything from a true method actor, to a a real life sadist who simply plays himself on-screen.  It is these rumors that inspired a fictionalized telling of the actor’s life during the filming of Nosferatu, in the form of “Shadow of the Vampire” starring John Malkovich as Murnau and Willem Dafoe as Schreck.

From the research I’ve done (readings and such about the making of both Nosferatu as well as Shadow of the Vampire) I can find no evidence that any of that is true.  Instead, it would seem that this rather powerful character has simply had the effect of coloring people’s impression of a rather popular stage character actor.  Like many actors, (ie: Maria Falconetti from Passion of Joan of Arc, Linda Blair of the Exorcist, and Jaye Davidson of The Crying Game), Schreck seems to have used up all of his intensity, charisma and skill to be remembered for one great work of art.  Though he continued acting, it is always Nosferatu that he will be remembered for, and vice versa.

I feel like there is so much more that could be said about this film, including comparisons to other films, and weighing and mapping the influence that ripples even through the films of today, but I feel the best service I can do is simply to tell you to watch it.  Just watch the shit out of it.  I know it’s silent, and sometimes silent films can be boring, but this film is worth it (not that others aren’t worth it, mind you).  To see this film is to see one of the keystones in the history of film, a film that helped to define the rules which are adhered to even today.  So do yourself a favor and watch it, you won’t regret it.

“Nosferatu be needing some veneers!”  –  Ashley

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

The Man Who Sho tLiberty Valance

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance – 1962

Director – John Ford

Starring – Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Vera Miles, and Lee Marvin

In the westerns of the thirties, forties and fifties, there was a clear line of right versus wrong, good guy versus bad.  At the beginning of the film, when someone new rides into town, all you have to do is check out the color of his hat, and by paying careful attention, you can fairly reliably ascertain whether they are a hero or a villain.  In the films of the late sixties and seventies, the west is filled with anti-heros, outlaws, and characters whose motivations are all colored in shades of gray.  A good man and a bad man are harder to tell apart, both through their deeds and their choice of clothing.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is roughly halfway between these two extremes.  Our main character may be obviously good, but he has a limit and can be pushed over it.

A sort of companion piece to the earlier Jimmy Stewart film, Destry Rides Again, this film explores the somewhat darker side of being an upstanding citizen.  Where in Destry, Stewart played a character who overcame the danger and conflict through sheer force of will, never letting his ideals falter, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance sees him as a strong-willed man left with no further options than to turn his back on his idealism and resort to violence.  Whether one film was a commentary on the other, or if it was just a sign of changing times is something I can’t say for sure, but together, each illustrates the glory and the grime of standing up for what you believe in using what is essentially the same character as a means of illustration.

Liberty’s story is a familiar one.  Jimmy Stewart plays Ransom Stoddard, a well-meaning yet naive lawyer, who while on a stagecoach heading into the small town of Shinbone runs afoul of a local desperado and general bully, Liberty Valance (the one from the title).  Valance, played by the deliciously malicious Lee Marvin, beats Stoddard to such a degree that he is in need of treatment by the local nurse/doctor, which forces him into the lives of the local restaurant proprietors (including the love interest of local tough guy and town hero Tom Doniphan played by John Wayne).

As Ransom mends, he searches for a legal means of defeating Valance, educating the town, and unbeknownst to him he works his way into the heart of the restaurant owner’s daughter Hallie Stoddard.  As this affection becomes more and more plain, Ransom runs the risk of ostracizing his best and only chance of beating Valance at his own game.  Without Tom Doniphan standing in between the outlaw and himself, Ransom will be forced to either use violence and maybe live, and or stick by his ideals and likely die.

Well, hopefully the title of the film should explain that someone, at some point, actually does deal with Valance, but the grand question is who, and ultimately the question becomes Does it matter?”  The world is a violent place full of trials and challenges.  Is rising to face those challenges on those terms a failure of character?  Does it diminish the fact that you do what you can to find a better way, or does the need for self-preservation trump such minor concerns?  Not to mention if you go against your ideals, resort to violence, then find out that it wasn’t even you who ended up solving the problem, what then?  Are you still culpable for the choices you made, or do you get a pass?

(***Warning Spoilers***)

The film posits that it is all about perspective.  Ransom Stoddard, gets teased, taunted, beaten and worn down so low, that he finally picks up a revolver, squares off with Liberty Valance, takes aim, and shoots.  Liberty ultimately got what he wanted.  The high-minded, goody-two-shoes, was knocked from his high-horse and forced to come down to his level.

Ransom drew, shot, and Liberty ultimately died, but it wasn’t Ransom’s bullet that did the killing.  Tom Doniphan, watching from the darkness, made the shot that killed Liberty Valance and saved Ransom’s life.  The towns people held Ransom up as a hero, and by saving his life, Tom made sure the woman he loved was happy, but did it negate or tarnish Ransom’s sacrifice?  I think it did.  Ransom took the woman Tom loved, whether he meant to or not, so through his bullet Tom responded by robbing Ransom of  both his ideals and the ability to deal with the problem himself, although ultimately it cost him everything.

Tom tells Ransom what he did, freeing and trapping him with his choices at the same time, but it doesn’t change what everyone in the town thinks happens. The outcome is still the same.  The only ones affected are Stoddard and Doniphan.  Their perception of their own actions defines how they see themselves, and ultimately informs their actions on into the future.

(***End Spoilers***)

That’s pretty heady stuff considering that Destry Rides Again was really more of a typical hero cowboy story about men wearing white hats saving damsels in distress from the men in black hats.  Wayne’s Doniphan and to a different yet just as important degree Stewart’s Stoddard are each wearing multifaceted hats made up of constantly shifting shades of gray.  Each man is not what you might consider a bad guy, nor are they as undeniably good as compared to the heroes of earlier westerns, but I would argue that this makes them each more compelling characters, capable of a more realistic portrayal, and ultimately more relatable to the audience.

Definitely worth a look, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is leagues better, in my opinion, than another John Wayne film Stagecoach, but not nearly as good as some rather grittier and challenging westerns out there like Once Upon a Time in the West, The Oxbow Incident, and a film not on this list (though it should be), The Proposition.  Check it out.

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!

Beat the Devil (1953)

Beat the Devil – 1953

Director – John Huston

Starring – Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Jennifer Jones, and Gina Lollobrigida

So you’re fond of the big stars of the hollywood system?  You like yourself a little bit of character acting, done by character actors, huh?  What’s that?  You like the whole thing tied together by a famous, yet dependable director?  I guess I have the film for you…to skip in favor of something else.

Unfortunately, for all of us, Beat The Devil doesn’t quite live up to what it could have been.  Though the film doesn’t really make any obvious miss-steps or do anything overtly wrong, it still manages to fall rather flat, and be somewhat un-inspired.  All of the individual elements that make up this film are, on their own, very successful, but when they are tied together they cease to gel.

The plot.  The plot is tricky, mostly because I don’t really remember it.  What I do remember, however, is… International playboy, and conman…I think…, Billy Dannreuther (Bogart), and his gang of cronies (the best part of the movie played by talented character actors Peter Lorre, Ivor Barnard, and Robert Morley) are planning a heist of some kind when their ship is delayed and they are all stranded in a small coastal town in Italy.  Mix in some love interests in the form of the sexy Gina Lollobrigida, and plucky Jennifer Jones, whose husband, the straight man, Edward Underdown, tries unsuccessfully to stymie the shady dealings the entire time.

Beyond that, the plot is a mystery.  It’s simply an excuse to let these elements mingle, and with any luck, turn into cinema gold.  Unfortunately, the luck doesn’t quite hold out.  Instead, the charm and quick paced, sarcastic dialog of Billy takes the place of any plotting or exposition.  The sexy femme fatale wife of Billy, played by Lollobrigida, never really seems at odds with the spunky, young, love interest, Jones, who overtly swoons over him despite her husband, and the gang of cutthroats who threaten her at every turn.  Nothing builds on anything else, everything just sorta stops in its tracks before it can really get started.

The cinematography seemed like it was trying to borrow from the immediacy and off-the-cuff nature of Italian Neo-Realism, but paired with the convoluted plot and lack of motivation, it just seemed a little rushed and out-of-place.  Shot in black and white, in mostly real locations rather than studio set-pieces, Beat the Devil seemed much grittier than a lot of films of the studio system.  This had the unfortunate effect of making them seem somehow lower budget, or like it had a rushed production or something.  I’m not really sure why, but it just seemed…light.  Like it was missing something.

I realize that I’ve just spent this entire review bemoaning the film, but I really didn’t think it was bad, it was just…blah.  There were bright spots though.  Some of the dialogue was snappy and fun.  The interactions, and rivalries that play out amongst Peter Lorre and Robert Morley as the gang of criminals was very entertaining and watchable, and in fact, those were actually the best and most memorable parts of the film.

After watching Beat The Devil, it makes me appreciate films that ARE able to pull off all of the different elements that this one tries.  Films like The Third Man, The Big Lebowski, the original version of The Ladykillers, Kind Hearts and Coronets, After Hours and even His Girl Friday, which are able to flawlessly combine humor, action, danger, and even things like dark humor and death, to make something memorable, funny, and better than the sum of their parts.

It’s my impression that the only reason for the inclusion of this film onto this list of greatest films ever made, is the strength of its potential, rather than the success of the result.  The hope is that when everything comes together you should have something really special, not something that you have trouble remembering a few minutes after its finished.

Not a bad watch, but if you’re spending your time looking through the list of movies you must see, you’ll more than likely want something more gratifying.

“Gina Lollobrigida – beautiful. Movie – meh.” – Ashley

The African Queen (1951)

The African Queen – 1951

Director – John Huston

Starring – Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn

When I was in junior high, I got my first computer.  Along with a 14.4 kbps dial-up modem, floppy disk drive, and the home-edition of Microsoft Works (not Word, mind you, works.) that machine of the future came with a copy of the Encarta Encyclopedia CD-Rom.  That laughably slow and instantly outmoded program, had a whole glossary of movies, a few with accompanying video clips, only the best ones mind you.  Now since only the most renowned films came with video clips, it goes without saying that it was a point of pride for me that I had seen all but two of those select few films.  The first one was 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the second…was The African Queen.  Take that Encarta!  It took me till 2012, but I finally beat you!

The African Queen is at its heart a love story, though it’s a love story that’s wrapped up in a war, adventure, thriller, and at times a comedy.  It’s the early days of World War 1, and we start at a british-run mission in the heart of an African colony of Germany.  Reverend Sayer and his sister Rose (Hepburn) staff the mission, attempting to spread the gospel to the un-enlightened natives, when they receive word of the start of the war.  They are advised that German soldiers are on their way to oust any enemies to the interests of Germany, and have to leave behind their life’s work if they want to escape with their lives.  This news pushes the reverend too far and, unable to cope, he falls ill and eventually dies leaving his sister to fend for herself.

As the arrival of the German soldiers looms close at hand, supply ship captain Charlie Alnut (a particularly grizzled Bogart) arrives just in time to offer Rose a mode of escape.  Though he is course in his manners and seems generally uncouth to the prim and proper English upbringing that Rose is used to, Charlie is a welcome sight.  The two make their way down river toward friendly territory, all the while avoiding Germans, Alligators, mosquitos, leeches, harsh weather, white water rapids, and each other along the way.

So I’ve made it fairly plain that I haven’t ever really been a fan of Katherine Hepburn.  This has been a point of contention between my wife and I, as she simply adores Hepburn (despite the fact that she has seen Bringing Up Baby, which is one of Hepburn’s most terribly annoying roles).  My dislike is ingrained in me so deeply, that I’ve actually avoided The African Queen because of its star.  Upon having actually seen it, I am disappointed to say that maybe I was being a bit harsh with my immediate dismissal of Hepburn.  It’s a good film.  More than that, it’s a great film!

To classify this film is not as easy as it can be with some other films.  With so many genres mashed up together in the story, it really fits into so many different categories.   Perhaps the best fit for my purposes here is to call it a romance.  We really get to see a pair of people go from not really liking the other, through friendship, courting, and eventually we see them emerge as true companions and best friends.  While the going is tough, the nagging and pestering they inflict upon each other actually strengthens the bond they have, and raises the stakes of the film in direct relation to the danger level.

When Rose demands that they try to strike a blow on behalf of the british navy against the Germans, Charlie is initially against it.  He stands to lose his boat, his lively hood, and potentially his life.  It is plain to the audience that without someone to share his life with, a friend, a purpose, he really has nothing to live for anyway.  The companionship with Rose illustrates this fact to him, and as they draw closer to their target, the thing he fears most is losing the woman he loves and respects.

Rose, too, gains from this relationship.  She learns to soften her rather stuffy and stuck up exterior.  Charlie shows her that there is a romance, and beauty to the world that she was here-to-for un-aware of, and that it can’t necessarily be attained through scripture and strict adherence to manners.  Ultimately, they learn that they need one another.  The off-hand relationship they have at the beginning of the film becomes all-consuming, dwarfing the danger, uncertainty, and even the beauty that lies ahead of them.  Each becomes the other’s reason for moving forward, and the pair becomes the reason and the reward for the audience’s continued attention.

As far as the performances, I don’t think Humphrey Bogart has ever been bad.  He makes everything I see him in at least a little bit better, and more than likely, he is the reason that it was excellent.  There are a select few actors who are capable of doing what other actors accomplish in half the time and with a quarter of the exertion.  Bogart is one of them, and is most deserving of all of the praise that is lumped upon him.  Hepburn on the other hand is equally matched to Bogart…in this movie.  I remain skeptical as far as her other roles go, but I am at the very least excited to find out if my initial impression of her holds true, or if I had her wrong the whole time.  I’m not quite sure what to wish for…to be right from the start, or to be wrong but with a fresh new body of films to look forward to.

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by the African Queen.  For a film that I had such an adverse reaction to before watching, it was certainly a treat to be proven wrong about it.  The plot, pacing, cinematography (gorgeously filmed in Technicolor, by the way), and yes, even the acting, really do make this one of the best films ever made.  A deserving addition to this list, and definitely something worthy of your time and attention.

“Told ya so!” – Ashley