Sunday, August 28, 2016

The Intriguing Story of "The Quiet Beatle"

As we look forward to Ron Howard's forthcoming documentary about the Beatles touring years, let's take a glance back at George Harrison: Living In the Material World, an insightful biography of the guitarist & songwriter. It originally aired back in 2011 on HBO. Directed by Martin Scorsese, this two-part documentary traces the life of Harrison from his time as a member of The Beatles through his solo career, up to his death from cancer in 2001. It’s an informative biography, produced with the participation of Harrison’s widow Olivia, and his son Dhani. Through interviews with them, and George’s friends and collaborators, including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Tom Petty and Eric Clapton, we get an in-depth portrait of the musician and the man, who was known (perhaps inaccurately) as “The Quiet Beatle.” There are some wonderful performance clips of (and a look at the stories behind) classic songs like Something, All Things Must Pass, and Here Comes The Sun. Much of the video footage and photos seen are taken from George’s personal archives, and were released by Olivia for use in the movie. 

Scorsese’s film is a story about Harrison and his music, but it’s also a thoughtful study of the former Beatle’s journey toward spiritual enlightenment and personal growth. There's some great coverage in the film on George's 1971 show, The Concert for Bangladesh, one of the earliest superstar benefit concerts. The movie also features Harrison's comeback in the late 80s & early 90s with the successful solo album Cloud Nine, and as a member of the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys, along with Tom Petty, Bob Dylan, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison. Like Scorsese’s 2005 film about Bob Dylan, No Direction Home, the movie examines the contradictions between being a public figure whose music is admired by millions, and the desire to have a private & personal life beyond that world. It's a rich portrait of the man, as well as the rock star, and it succeeds admirably in showing a side of George Harrison we haven't seen in other movies or books. The film is available for online viewing, and has also been released on Blu-ray & DVD. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fJh9O8pI4Ck.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Retro Movie: "Jessica" Is An Eerie Chiller

There are numerous versions of the vampire myth in books, movies, theatre and even music. The Twilight craze gave rise to a whole sub-genre of young adult literature featuring supernatural characters, and HBO’s True Blood had a legion of loyal fans. More recently, the excellent Showtime series Penny Dreadful gave us a new spin on Dracula, as well as some other classic monsters. But today let’s look at a different take on this often re-interpreted horror concept. I first saw 1971’s Let’s Scare Jessica To Death on the late show when I was around ten years old, and it definitely left a lasting impression on me. Zohra Lampert (best remembered as “the Goya lady” in commercials, and a frequent TV guest star at the time) stars as the title character, who’s recovering from a nervous breakdown. In order to make a new start, Jessica, her husband Duncan, and their friend Woody travel to a Connecticut farm, where they plan to live off the land. They encounter a woman named Emily, who’s been living in the empty house. They invite her to remain with them, and strike up a friendship with her. Is Emily really as innocent as she seems? She sets her sights on seducing Woody, and later, Duncan. Perhaps there's a dark underside to her free-living, hippie-esque personality.

An uncanny encounter in Let's Scare Jessica To Death
Strange and unexplained things start to happen: Jessica is hearing voices, and keeps seeing a ghostly figure in white. She learns the house was once owned by a woman named Abigail Bishop. The mysterious Abigail drowned, and is rumored to have been a vampire. Is that why so many people in the nearby town seem to have wounds on their throats? Is there really a ghostly presence in the house? Or maybe Jessica is having a relapse. Lampert gives a great performance, skillfully conveying the fragile state of Jessica’s psyche. The rest of the cast, including a young Gretchen Corbett in a key role, are also very effective. Director John D. Hancock slowly builds the level of suspense and terror to a fever pitch. Much like The Haunting (1963), Curse of The Demon (1957) or producer Val Lewton's Cat People (1942) and The Seventh Victim (1943), the horror here is understated, and in most cases, subtly suggested rather than shown.

We hear Jessica’s thoughts throughout the film, in a sort of interior monologue, and we see things as she sees them; but is any of it real? There are several eerie set pieces, including a seance, a haunting scene between Emily and Jessica in a cold lake, and a creepy confrontation in Jessica’s room. In the end, it’s our choice to decide if the events in the movie occurred or not. This atmospheric, well made thriller offers no easy answers. As Jessica says “I sit here and I can't believe that it happened. And yet I have to believe it. Dreams or nightmares, madness or sanity. I don't know which is which."  The film used to be a staple of late night TV back in the pre-cable days. While it may seem a bit dated now, it’s a quietly unsettling horror film that will stay with you long after it's over. The movie deftly combines elements of ghost stories and vampire fiction, and is significantly influenced by J. Sheridan Le Fanu's classic novella Carmilla.

Let’s Scare Jessica To Death is currently unavailable on DVD (though used copies can be found, if you look around online) However, the film can be viewed online at various sites, including Amazon. The film occasionally shows up on Turner Classic Movies, as well as other cable stations. I think it's one of the best fright films of the 1970s, and it holds up well on repeat viewings. Here’s a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cX4eZD3GiL0To read more about the film, seek out Rue Morgue, a magazine focused on the horror genre. The December 2016 issue features several articles about Let’s Scare Jessica To Death, including an interview with director John D. Hancock, and an appreciation of the film from author Kim (Anno Dracula) Newman. Here's a link to their website: http://www.rue-morgue.com.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Keep On Reading Bill Warren’s Fantastic “Keep Watching The Skies!”

Does the phrase Klaatu barada nikto evoke fond memories of watching The Day The Earth Stood Still? Can the mere mention of science-fiction films such as The Incredible Shrinking Man, This Island EarthThem! and The War of The Worlds bring a smile to your face? Then there’s a book on the subject you simply must read. It’s Bill Warren’s incisive, thoroughly researched study of the genre: Keep Watching The Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties. The book focuses on films produced between the years 1950-62, the first golden age of the sci-fi movie. Originally published in two volumes in 1982 & 1986, the updated & combined “21st Century Edition” was released in 2009, and is still in print. This massive tome covers everything from bona fide classics such as It Came From Outer SpaceInvasion of the Body Snatchers and Forbidden Planet to less honored (but still enjoyable) titles like Invisible Invaders, Devil Girl From Mars & Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.

Warren grew up during the time of these movies original release, and saw many of them on the big screen. He offers a personal (as well as historical) perspective regarding each film he covers. And while his criticisms of some of the genre’s less successful efforts can be a bit harsh, his informative & illuminating writing is a delight to read. His passion for these movies is infectious. Warren’s extensive coverage of these films includes a wealth of facts on actors, directors, screenwriters & crewmembers, and detailed information about production history, script changes & alternate versions. Each movie gets its own entry, in alphabetical order, and there are several helpful appendices offering further information that’s not featured in the main volume. And there are some great illustrations, photos & film poster reproductions featured throughout the book.

While it’s length (over 1000 pages) may seem daunting, it’s the kind of book you can savor a little at a time; you’ll find yourself moving throughout the book to read about your own favorites, and then returning to check out some more entries on films you may not have seen. Keep Watching The Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties is an indispensable guide to one of the most enduring of movie genres. If you’re a fan, you’ll truly appreciate Warren’s insightful and entertaining analysis of these movies. While you may not always agree with his assessments, you’re sure to learn something new about these films & the people who made them. The book is available in a print edition, as well as an excellent, affordable e-book version, which is the one I used to prepare this review. Highly recommended. And remember, as Scotty the reporter said at the end of 1951's The Thing "Keep watching the skies!"

Update 10/11/16: I just read on the DVD Savant site (http://www.dvdtalk.com/dvdsavant/index.html) that Bill Warren, author of Keep Watching The Skies! passed away on October 7. My condolences to his family & friends. His legacy will live on in the hearts & minds of those who've read, enjoyed & experienced his fine work.

Monday, August 1, 2016

"Stranger Things" Goes Back to the 80s

The year is 1983, and there’s something weird going on in Hawkins, Indiana. After a night of playing Dungeons & Dragons at a friend’s house, Will Byers disappears without a trace on his way home. At a government facility called the Hawkins National Laboratory, strange experiments are taking place, and a scientist runs away from (and is grabbed by) a creepy creature we don't see. A mysterious young girl (who seems to be on the run) with telekinetic powers shows up, and helps Will’s friends as they search for the missing boy. That’s just the beginning of Stranger Things, an entertaining series that's now available via streaming on Netflix. It’s an affectionate homage to genre films, TV shows & fiction of the 1980s with a decidedly Spielberg-esque tone. There are also nods to Stephen King & John Carpenter (dig that synthesizer score) and there’s even a little taste of the 90s, with a slight X-Files feel to the proceedings. But Stranger Things is so much more than just a retread.

As the story continues, the sheriff searches for Will, and finds that not everything is what it seems. Will’s Mom begins to experience odd events, and believes her missing son is trying to communicate with her, though no one believes her…at first. Will's older brother Jonathan gets involved in the mystery, as he helps Mike’s older sister Nancy, whose friend Barb has also disappeared. What will happen to our young heroes? What’s the real story behind Hawkins National Laboratory and Eleven’s strange powers? Who's the white-haired man in charge of the project? Can our heroes solve the mystery & find Will & Barb? You'll be binge watching this terrific 8 episode series to discover the answers to these questions.

The show's most recognizable stars are Winona Ryder (who’s quite good as Will’s Mom) and Matthew Modine, who portrays Dr. Martin Brenner, the lead scientist at the “secret” government lab. But the real stars of the show are the kids; Finn Wolfhard, Gaten Matarazzo and Caleb McLaughlin are perfect as Will’s buddies Mike, Dustin & Lucas. They’ll evoke fond memories for fans of films like Stand By MeE.T., The Goonies, Poltergeist, It and The Monster Squad. Millie Bobby Brown is excellent as Eleven, the young girl with mysterious powers who may hold the key to Will’s disappearance. David Harbour also gives a fine performance as Sheriff Hopper, who is drawn more deeply into the town’s mysteries as the series moves forward; he has his own reasons for finding Will & bringing him home.

The pitch perfect performances are enhanced by the series’ nostalgic look and atmosphere; it’s like someone found a lost TV series from the 80s and added it to Netflix. In addition to the Carpenter-esque score and the 80s pop & rock tunes on the soundtrack, there are a host of Easter eggs & visual shout outs to the era. The series has gained a lot of buzz since it was added to the Netflix lineup, through positive word of mouth & generally good reviews. The Duffer Brothers, best known for their work on the first season of the Fox series Wayward Pines, created the show. It's obvious that they love this material, and they treat it with affection & care; it's never just a carbon copy of what we've seen before in the genre. The series is enjoyable, consistently entertaining, enthralling, atmospheric & well-written. Stranger Things will draw you in, and you’ll find yourself caught up in its appealing retro vibe. Here’s a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWxyRG_tckY.