This is one of those films in which case the story of its production is more interesting than the film itself. Warren Steibel, a television producer, had an ambition to make a movie and convinced a wealthy friend to put up $150,000 to make it. Bonnie and Clyde (1967) had been released recently so Steibel suggested to his roommate, Leonard Kastle, a composer, that they make a film based on the true story of an obese nurse and a Spanish-American con man who fleeced and sometimes murdered women they met through lonely hearts clubs in the late 40’s. Steibel convinced Kastle to write the screenplay, arguing that he had the necessary experience since he had written librettos for his operas. They fabricated a screenwriter’s name for the producer’s sake while Kastle researched court records for the case and came up with the screenplay. After the producer read and approved the screenplay they revealed their ruse. Martin Scorsese was hired to direct but fired after a week when it became obvious that his approach to the film would cause them to exceed their limited budget. A few scenes that Scorsese directed were used in the film. Kastle ended up directing with assistance from cinematographer Oliver Wood, who has had the most illustrious career, besides Scorsese, of all those who worked on the film. Kastle detested Bonnie and Clyde due to its glamorization of violence and chose a quasi-documentary style for his film, making his characters and their deeds as unglamorous as possible. One of the advantages of using unfamiliar actors in a film is that the viewer is never sure whether they are acting or not which works especially well with Kastle’s documentary style. As one critic remarked, he forgot he was watching a film and felt he was peeping through a keyhole. I found it to be a bit like an early John Waters film minus the camp. It has its humorous aspects but overall one is left with a feeling of disgust which most likely was the intention. Despite writing several more screenplays, Kastle never made another film and refused offers to make a sequel or something similar to The Honeymoon Killers.
The Honeymoon Killers at imdb.com
As of April, 2017, The Honeymoon Killers is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.com.
Three short films by one of England’s and cinema’s most highly renowned directors. I decided to explore his first three films based on the strength of the superb The House of Mirth (2000), the only other Davies film I’ve seen. All three films, Children (1976), Madonna and Child (1980), and Death and Transfiguration (1983) are autobiographical depictions of his ordeals growing up poor, Catholic, and gay in Liverpool. Davies originally wanted to act and write. Unsuccessful in his attempts to sell the screenplay for Children, he eventually received an offer from the British Film Institute to direct the film himself despite the fact that he had absolutely no experience directing. Based on that film he managed to get accepted at the National Film School where he created the second film as his graduation project. The final film, made on a minuscule budget, demonstrates his maturation as a filmmaker and establishes his signature cinematic style which has been described as poetic. His first two feature films, Distant Voices, Still Lives (1988) and The Long Day Closes (1992) are also autobiographical. On the commentary track Davies claims that being gay and Catholic ruined his life. “I am celibate, although I think I would have been celibate even if I was straight because I’m not good-looking; why would anyone be interested in me? And nobody has been. Work was my substitute.” Even though he renounced Catholicism and became an atheist at age 22 he says he cannot lose the sense of guilt instilled in him by what he calls “that pernicious religion”. The films and commentary may strike some as being full of self-pity though Davies would probably say he was just being brutally honest, trying to convey his frame of mind in the period of his life depicted in the films. The films are bleak and challenging and as one American critic put it, “make Ingmar Bergman look like Jerry Lewis”. Considering how many of the world’s greatest artists led miserable lives, it almost seems as though a tortured soul is a prerequisite for great art. Though making films about his past may not have had a cathartic effect for Davies, it has led to the creation of some great cinema.
The Terence Davies Trilogy at imdb.com
As of September, 2016 The Terence Davies Trilogy is available to buy on a Region 2 DVD from Amazon.com.
o.k. is Michael Verhoeven’s fourth feature film. Unlike his excellent The Nasty Girl (1990), o.k. is an experimental film undoubtedly inspired by other films from the New German Cinema. For this film that translates to a minuscule budget with a deliberate disregard for realism creating a Brechtian distancing effect. The story is based on the Incident on Hill 192, the torture, gang rape, and murder of a young Vietnamese girl by U.S. soldiers which occurred in 1966 during the Vietnam War. However, there is no mention in the film itself that it is based on real events nor any hint in the beginning of its serious subject matter. Before the story gets started the actors, out of character, introduce themselves and sort out their wardrobe. They portray American soldiers but speak German throughout the entire film while a clearing in a Bavarian forest stands in for the Vietnamese jungle. The Vietnamese girl is played by Austrian actress Eva Mattes (who has also appeared in films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Werner Herzog). The first half of the film is actually quite funny as the five men dig trenches, play cards, tell jokes, and tease each other. The rape and torture scenes however are graphic and disturbing. The innovative cinematography is by Igor Luther who also shot The Tin Drum (1979). Despite the unconventional approach this is a well made film including some remarkable editing and naturalistic performances. It created a controversy leading to the cancellation of the 20th Berlin International Film Festival when jury president George Stevens (director of Shane) resigned after failing to get the film removed from the festival, claiming it was anti-American. Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989) is also based on the same event.
o.k. at imdb.com
As of July, 2016 o.k. isn’t available on DVD as far as I can tell but can be streamed at rarefilmm.com.
The plot device of Grand Hotel (1932) has been copied so many times that it became known as the Grand Hotel formula or theme in which a disparate group of unrelated characters are brought together by varying circumstances in an enclosed setting. Escape to Glory, a B movie from Columbia, utilizes the formula with good results. On the eve of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany in 1939, a group of American passengers and one German professor board a British freighter bound for New York. Unknown to the passengers, the ship is also carrying a large shipment of gold. Among the group is a criminal intent on killing another passenger, a crooked district attorney who did him wrong. Tension mounts when the freighter is approached by a German U-boat. Much to the concern of the passengers, the crew unveils the ship’s hidden weapons and fire at the U-boat. After inflicting heavy damage to the freighter the U-boat submerges as a heavy fog sets in. Now the crew and passengers of the freighter must repair the damage and figure out a way to elude a torpedo attack from the Germans. It could have been a great film if Columbia had invested more money in the production. The score and the special effects are the major weaknesses. Director John Brahm would go on to direct noir classics like Hangover Square (1945) and several episodes of The Twilight Zone, one of which, Judgment Night (1959), has a plot that shares much in common with Escape to Glory.
Escape to Glory at imdb.com
As of June, 2016, Escape to Glory is available to stream at rarefilmm.com.
Nietzchka Keene (1952-2004), writer and director of The Juniper Tree, had a background in Old Icelandic Studies and won a Fulbright Fellowship to make a film in Iceland. She ended up making a different film than she had proposed which upset some of the people at the Fulbright Program but the actors felt the story was essentially Icelandic even though it was based on a fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. The fairy tale is the evil stepmother variety in which a widower with a young son marries another woman who gives birth to a girl. The stepmother, jealous of the boy, kills him, cooks him in a stew, and serves it to her husband. The stepmother also manages to convince her daughter that she killed her half brother. Keene adapted the tale to include witchcraft which is an undercurrent in many of the Grimm tales that involve women. She also made the role of the little girl and her experience the focus of the film. She and her older sister are forced to flee their village after their mother is accused of being a witch and burned at the stake. They seek the protection of a man in order to survive and when they come across the widower with the young son the older sister casts a spell which prevents him from ever leaving her.
In an interview included on the Rhino Edition DVD Keene explains that she isn’t making a statement about witchcraft noting that the film never shows that the spells actually work. She feels that many who were accused of witchcraft in the early 17th century were merely practicing folk medicine. The sisters use the only knowledge they have in an effort to control an environment in which they are extremely vulnerable. Keene was more interested in creating a fairy tale world and a mood of melancholic loneliness which is part of the reason she chose to shoot in black and white on bleak locations.
The film was shot in 1986 but due to financial difficulties not released until 1990. Originally a 13 year old girl was cast to play the lead role but when that didn’t work out Keene was able to get 19 year old Björk to play the part even though she had just given birth to her first child. This was Björk’s and Keene’s feature film debut. Björk’s subsequent international success as a singer is the main reason this film is still in circulation. Keene made one more feature film which was first shown four years after her death.
The Juniper Tree at imdb.com
As of April, 2016 The Juniper Tree is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.com
Set in a Siberian mining village in 1947, the film is a semiautobiographical account of the misadventures of a young boy and a slightly older girl with whom he develops a tenuous friendship. The bleakness of the dreary industrial nightmare in which they live is intensified by the excellent B&W cinematography which alone makes the film worth viewing. At times it takes on a surreal quality which calls to mind the work of David Lynch, especially Eraserhead. First time director Vitaly Kanevsky, who spent eight years in a Soviet labor camp, only received enough funding for a ten minute film, had to edit it several times before Russian censors would approve it, and yet it won the Caméra d’Or (Best First Feature Film) at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival.
Freeze Die Come to Life at imdb.
As of November, 2015 Freeze Die Come to Life is available on VHS at Amazon.com. Though not currently showing, it’s also apparently available for streaming at Mubi.com.
Shot in two days on a $30,000 budget using leftover sets from another film this Corman quickie is a hilarious sendup of police procedurals. A lot of the humor is in Mel Welles’ portrayal of Gravis Mushnick, a skid row florist and his unique take on the English language: Girl asking about Seymour’s plant: “I mean doesn’t it have a scientific name?” Mushnick: “Yes of course but who could denounce it? You would like maybe to buy something?” Every character in the film is wacko from Burson Fouch (Dick Miller) who buys flowers in order to eat them to Mrs. Hortense Fishtwanger from the Society of Silent Flower Observers of Southern California to the masochistic Wilbur Force (Jack Nicholson in his third film). Even the radio station that Seymour’s hypochondriac mother listens to is twisted: “This is radio KSIK. You’ve been listening to music for old invalids. Our next selection is entitled Sickroom Serenade.” The screenplay is by Charles B. Griffith who also plays a robber in the film as well as providing the voice of Audrey Jr., Seymour’s man-eating plant. He is considered by some the father of American black comedy and Quentin Tarantino dedicated his film Deathproof to Griffith, citing him as one of his main influences and calling him the “father of redneck cinema.” Other Corman/Griffith collaborations that have achieved cult classic status are A Bucket of Blood (1959) and Death Race 2000 (1975). I thought perhaps part of the joke was that the score seems written for a straight horror film but apparently it’s the same score written for A Bucket of Blood but re-edited. In fact, composer Fred Katz sold Corman the same score as if it was new music for seven films! I was disappointed by the ending but considering that the screenplay was written in two days, the tiny budget, and time constraint (Corman had to finish before the sets were torn down) one can’t really expect perfection. Corman didn’t think the film had a future after its initial theatrical run so he didn’t copyright it and it’s in the public domain which means that outfits like Alpha Home Video can distribute lousy prints of the film. Amazon streams the same lousy print free for Prime members but they also stream the Legend Films colorized version (not free). The Legend Films DVD also has a restored B&W version and is available from Amazon.com.
The Little Shop of Horrors at imdb.
As of September, 2015 The Little Shop of Horrors is available to rent from Netflix.
Dialogue from Little Shop of Horrors at allreadable.com
Ultra low budget film (under $5,000) with some passable performances and good for a few laughs. It was shot in seven days and the acting improvised. The suicidal main character, Jimmy, is a superintendent in a Hollywood apartment building which provides the setting for a series vignettes involving the eccentric tenants. Among those tenants is a washed up actor played by the film’s only veteran actor, Bert Kramer, whose performance is easily the best in the film. Kramer passed away in the year following the film’s release. Seems like a dry run in director Stefan Lysenko’s quest to break into commercial filmmaking rather than something that was too unique for Hollywood. In particular, the use of songs and montages to develop the character and create atmosphere is reminiscent of a trend in mainstream American films. The biggest problem is that the story is half-baked. The premise of a man contemplating suicide and searching for a reason to go on living sets up an expectation for some profound insights but apparently Lysenko had none to offer and the resolution of the story’s central dilemma is too superficial.
Between Christmas and New Year’s at imdb
As of August 2015 Between Christmas and New Year’s is available to stream at Vimeo