Film Discoveries of 2014

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Let the proliferation of year-end lists wash over you with a resigned calm. And let me add another one to the ocean of opinion. Today I’m presenting my top ten new-to-me movies of 2014. That is, older films that I have seen for the first time. They are the backbone of any movie-going year, whether it’s catching up to acknowledged classics (for me, The Best Years of Our Lives) or going trawling for obscure auteurist gems (Lubitsch’s Broken Lullaby, Edward L. Cahn’s Redhead).  It’s a way to draw attention to a wider range of filmgoing possibilities, so you don’t have to read about Boyhood for the bazillionth time (though, if you do, my appreciation is over here). All credit goes to prodigious blogger Brian Saur from Rupert Pupkin Speaks, who collects “Favorite Film Discoveries” from writers, programmers and filmmakers every year, and asked me to contribute once upon a time. I found the exercise invigorating, more so than the usual end-of-year recycling, so you have him to thank or blame.

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Friday Fearback: 31 Screams

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A number of years ago, for reasons that seem a bit hazy to me now, I began a pseudonymous film blog called Arbogast on Film.  (I’m often asked why I chose the name Arbogast, an obvious allusion to Alfred Hitchcock’s PSYCHO. I have always just loved that name and back in the 80s I thought of throwing down a ‘zine with that name as a sort of catchall for the obscure and weird. Never got around to doing that and yet the name popped back into my mind when I was dicking around on Blogger and thinking to myself “I don’t have a personal blog, but if I were to have one it might look something like this…”) I already had the Movie Morlocks working for me and back then I was blogging twice a week rather than once, so it’s not as though I was itching for more work. No, as I recall, I wanted to do some writing apart from my established community, well away from the blognoscenti, where I could please myself and throw down some chancy stuff. I didn’t expect anyone to follow me and yet the site turned out to be popular. I kept it going for four or five years before pulling the plug. I was just too busy and couldn’t really afford to indulge myself in a spate of free writing… especially not when I had already dedicated several Octobers to a series I called “31 Screams.” I was bored with all the horror blogs that pulled out the same old titles year after year for the requisite Halloween Top Ten lists and so I thought it might be unusual and fun to review, not movies themselves, but some of the greatest screams in genre history. And so I did that, 31 of them every October, year after year, with the final tally being somewhere in the low triple digits. I think some of that work is among my best and it always kind of killed me that, as I’d sworn myself to pseudonymity, no one would ever know it was my hand moving the pen. So now, with your indulgence, I offer a look back at some of the great screams of all time, along with my eggheaded observations, inane asides and occasional bad language… [...MORE]

Freak Shows: Come one, come all to the Scariest Show On Earth!

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Lon Chaney in HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924)

Last night FX premiered the new season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY. The award-winning horror anthology’s latest incarnation is called FREAK SHOW and it’s set in Florida during the 1950s at a circus sideshow where strange goings-on take place in and outside of the Big Top. The show’s creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuck, have admitted in recent interviews that they found inspiration for the new season in two classic horror films, Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) and Herk Harvey’s CARNIVAL OF SOULS (1962) but circuses and carnivals have long been a staple of horror cinema and director Tod Browning used the sideshow as a setting for numerous uncanny films before he made FREAKS. With Shocktober upon us it seems as good a time as any to showcase some of my favorite horrific or just plain odd and unusual films with scary clowns and sideshow performers that paved the way for AMERICAN HORROR STORY: FREAK SHOW. So step right up ladies and gents! Tickets are free for today’s main attraction! Thrills, chills and rare delights await all who dare to enter!

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“Everything means something, I guess.” Remembering Marilyn Burns

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Marilyn Burns gets top billing for THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974) and is the closest thing the movie has to a heroine but director Tobe Hooper seems for the film’s first forty to fifty minutes disinclined to do much with her — there are whole patches of the first reel where she is simply absent from the frame. Her character, Sally Hardesty, has a little bit of business early on when the protagonists hop out of the van on the periphery of a desecrated Texas cemetery and she makes some noise about looking for her grandfather’s grave (the character’s local contact is — rather disconcertingly for fans of HEE-HAW and civil liberty — John Henry Fauk, scourge of the Hollywood blacklist, playing a credible hayseed) yet just as this scene pushes towards the promise of a reveal, Hooper takes us back to the van. And then they’re on the road again. The protagonists stop at an abandoned house and some of them get out of the van and look around… but not Sally, who is obliged to hang back with her wheelchair-bound brother, Franklin (Paul A. Partain). These two speak sluggishly about some of the things they have seen and Sally offers a shard of backcountry wisdom: “Everything means something, I guess.” We’re nearly 45 minutes into an 83 minute horror movie and this is the best she can do. What the hell kind of heroine is this?  [...MORE]

“Weep no more my lady” Arch Oboler’s BEWITCHED (1945) on DVD!

Bewitched DVDRemembered today as a radio pioneer, and as the creator of the creepy anthology series LIGHTS OUT! (an influence on Rod Serling’s TWILIGHT ZONE and NIGHT GALLERY), Arch Oboler turned his hand in 1944 to the medium of motion pictures. His second go as a writer-director was BEWITCHED, a trim little B film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in July of 1945. The Warner Brothers Archive has included this forgotten gem in their collection, which makes this as good an occasion as any to reassess the film and to discuss it as a link in the chain of pictures (horror and non) that focus on a female protagonist whose sensitivities put her in harm’s way. First, some history. Oboler had conceived of the piece as a vehicle for Bette Davis, who headlined a production of the tale in October 1938, for the inaugural episode of Texaco Star Theatre. Then titled “Alter-Ego,” the story featured Davis as a young woman dealing, on the cusp of her engagement to a perfectly acceptable young man, with the manifestation of voices in her head — specifically one Carmen, a malignant bitch who goads her towards a tragic downward spiral. Oboler mounted the production again for the airwaves in 1939 for ARCH OBLER’S PLAYS, having retitled the play “Another World” and cast stage actress Betty Garde in the dual role of high-strung Joan and the needling Carmen. Between shooting BEWITCHED in November and December of 1944 and its summer release the following year, Oboler would revive the radio play in April 1945 for ARCH OBOLER’S YOUR RADIO HALL OF FAME, with Ann Shepard playing Joan and Mercedes McCambridge as Carmen — prescient casting if you remember (who could forget?) that McCambridge later provided the voice (or a significant portion thereof) of the demon Pazuzu in THE EXORCIST (1973). [...MORE]

Seeing Things, or “It’s one damned thing after another!!

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I used to love in movies when characters would play the “free association” game. You know the bit… the psychiatrist guy presents to the patient a series of seemingly innocuous, unrelated words for which the patient provides a response. “Safe.” “Baseball.” “Volcano.” “Mother.” “Danger.” “Sherbet.” That bit. I sometimes feel as though my mind plays that game, especially when I’m watching movies. I’ll see a particular visual and then — BANG — something related comes right to mind. [...MORE]

The Feel of Horror, Not the Plot

And so we arrive at another celebration of horror as we approach October.  It’s the only month that gets a genre all to itself as Sci-Fi September and Musical May have never really caught on despite my repeated attempts.  I even did a kind of November Noir once but that didn’t really work either.  The reason?  No holiday associated with the genre.  You see, sadly, there is no celebration of musicals annually in which kids all across the nation dress up as The Nicholas Brothers, Gene Kelly or Eleanor Powell, tap their way to your door and ask for treats.   There should be, of course, but there isn’t.  Nor is there a holiday for westerns, spy thrillers or war films.  In fact, they all get lumped into Halloween, really.  Want to dress up like a cowboy?  Halloween.  Monster? Halloween.  Accountant?  Halloween.    I guess that last one you could do any day but you wouldn’t get candy unless you bought it yourself.  So October’s for horror and every year, once autumn blusters in, I examine what it is about horror that I like so much.

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Stuff I love

I feel as though I’ve been complaining a lot lately. Pointing the finger. Assigning blame. And so, with my birthday looming, I’m going to take a break from all that and throw some love at you. [...MORE]

Looking after women

All the stuff in the news lately about a woman’s reproductive abilities and responsibilities and the impact these capabilities have on society in general and men in particular have got me thinking about California Charlie.  [...MORE]

The Road to Hell: Women in Fear and Flight

Give me a horror movie in which a woman climbs behind the wheel of a big American car and hits the road to meet her doom and I’m a happy hitcher. [...MORE]

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