The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of


The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of


Mary Pickford, arguably the biggest female star of the silent screen, was once quoted as saying that “It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of talkies instead of the other way around.” Part of this statement might have been stimulated by sour grapes. Though Croquette, her first “talkie” was a hit, even winning her an Academy Award, Pcickford’s career faltered soon after.  It’s a tantalizing hypothesis. The idea of synchronizing sound and moving images had been around for nearly as long as their have been movies. Shortly before the Lumier brothers exhibited the world’s first projected motion pictures in 1895, Thomas Edison had patented the Kinetephone. This was a peep show device with synchronized a Kinetescope – a motion picture device where rolls of film were shown to one viewer at a time through a peephole – with a cylindrical phonograph record. People would…

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Mary Pickford, arguably the biggest female star of the silent screen, was once quoted as saying that “It would have been more logical if silent pictures had grown out of talkies instead of the other way around.” Part of this statement might have been stimulated by sour grapes. Though Croquette, her first “talkie” was a hit, even winning her an Academy Award, Pcickford’s career faltered soon after.  It’s a tantalizing hypothesis. The idea of synchronizing sound and moving images had been around for nearly as long as their have been movies. Shortly before the Lumier brothers exhibited the world’s first projected motion pictures in 1895, Thomas Edison had patented the Kinetephone. This was a peep show device with synchronized a Kinetescope – a motion picture device where rolls of film were shown to one viewer at a time through a peephole – with a cylindrical phonograph record. People would listen to a sound recording through a pair of earphones that resembled a stethoscope while viewing the movie.


Numerous experiments were made before Western Electric and Warner Brothers patented the Vitaphone, a sound synchronization system that was used in The Jazz Singer, the first talking feature. It wasn’t the first “sound” picture. Movies have always played with some kind of musical accompaniment, whether a piano in the nickelodeons, a Wurlitzer organ that was connected to various other instruments to create sound effects (drums, whistles, bells, etc.) or a full orchestra which was often utilized for grand premieres in L.A. and New York. By 1927 studios were already supplying theaters with pre-recorded soundtracks made up of music and sound effects to play along with their respected films. After all, it was a lot cheaper than hiring an organist, let alone a full orchestra. Even singing had been seen in the movies by this point, but synchronizing lip movement with pre-recorded dialog was a major challenge. Alas, Warner Brothers made it work and when Al Jolson turned to the audience and said, “you ain’t heard nothing yet”, audiences gasped with amazement. A motion picture actually TALKED!


As we’ve seen time and time again, once someone takes a risk and strikes gold Hollywood’s knee jerk reaction is to try and do the same thing. Dorothy Parker, one of many east coast scribes who traveled out west to add some much needed verbal wit to the screenplays then being written was asked what was Hollywood’s favorite “ism”, as in modernism, realism, impressionism, etc. Her response? “Plagiarism.”


We can all remember about a decade ago when Avatar came out and the studio bigwigs were saying that within a few years almost every movie would be made in 3-D. Well, 3-D cinematography has certainly enhanced movies like Hugo, The Life of Pi and Gravity but after a while moviegoers became more cautious about which stereoscopic movies they were willing to pay a surcharge to see (and don’t kid yourselves. That’s the real reason why Hollywood has been pushing 3-D). And so after The Jazz Singer came out “talkies” were all the rage.


And that’s pretty much all they were, talking. Cameras had to be housed in a sound proof booth and couldn’t be moved. Microphones had to be hidden in some sort of prop – a table centerpiece, a statue, and a houseplant – and the sound quality was rarely very good. Many of the great silent stars couldn’t make the transition to sound. Clara Bow was marred by her thick Brooklyn accent. Emil Jannings, the German actor who won the first Oscar for Best Actor, was virtually incomprehensible in English. Other actors had so refined their silent screen personas that adding dialog was nothing but an intrusion. There was nothing wrong with Buster Keaton’s voice but it completely ruined his deadpan reactions to the most death-defying stunts. Lon Cheney only made one talking picture, a remake of one of his earlier triumphs, The Unholy Three. He was slatted to play the title role in Dracula but died before he had the chance. Would this “man of a thousand faces”, one of the most expressive and purely cinematic thespians ever to step before a camera, be able to scare audiences as much with the addition of his voice? We’ll never know for sure.


In the end their was only one person who had both the foresight to know that adding a voice would destroy his signature character and also had the financial power to prevent that from happening. That was Charlie Chaplin. He recorded a soundtrack for City Lights (1931), which included sound effects and a beautiful musical score that he himself composed. He gleefully came close to crossing the line with Modern Times (1936) in which he sang a bunch of gibberish but never actually articulating. He finally did give in when he made The Great Dictator (1941) where he played both a Hitler-like despot and a Jewish barber who somewhat resembled the Tramp but didn’t wear the trademark bowler hat, tails, etc., thus sparing fans of having to hear their beloved Tramp speak. The success of City Lights and Modern Times seems to indicate that an audience for silent pictures still existed.


One can’t really say that movies never “needed” sound. After all, if there were no need for dialog then there wouldn’t be any need for title cards. Alfred Hitchcock, who’s 1929 feature Blackmail became the first British talkie, said that “the problem with silent films is that people’s lips would move and no sound came out. The problem with talking pictures is that once sound came in people started photographing plays.” Eventually audiences got tired of static talking films and filmmakers demanded that they be allowed to move their cameras. In time sound would indeed open up new doors and become a welcome part of the film medium. Without synchronized sound we could never have the musicals of Busby Berkley, Astaire and Rogers or the Arthur Freed musicals at MGM. Film noir is all but inconceivable without the dialog and voiceover. Orson Welles put his radio background to full use in Citizen Kane and the visual effects in Star Wars would never have been as effective without Ben Burtt’s revolutionary sound design.


Still, there was something magical about silent films. Directors who learned how to tell a story entirely through movement, close-ups, etc. made the best of them. While the melodramas of D.W. Griffith might seem a little dated today there were some films that continue to pack a wallop. The silent comedies are as evergreen as anything caught on film. Erich Von Stroheim’s monumental epic Greed is as powerful today as it was in the twenties and would only be ruined if the human voice were added.


And then there are the German expressionist films. These eerie, beautiful films set in a nightmare world where everything seems to be in turmoil. They would influence the horror films of the thirties and continue to see their influence on more contemporary films, most notably the films of David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) and Tim Burton (his version of Batman and Sweeny Todd especially). But the films that were made in Weimar Germany and later in Hollywood are among the most well crafted and visually stunning films ever made. They remain technically dazzling and don’t have any need for spoken words.


German Expressionism began as a movement in painting. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner organized a group of artists who called themselves Die Brucke or “The Bridge”. Their members included Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Auguste Macke and George Grosz. These men filled their canvases with harsh, foreign colors, grotesque figures and asymmetrical architecture in order to comment on a world that was becoming more and more industrial, mechanized and un-human. Then came the dramatic works of Georg Kaiser, Ernst Toller, Arnold Bronnen and Bertold Brecht.


It was after World War I that expressionism reached the cinema. Economically, the Treaty of Versailles left Germany for dead and the country plunged into a Great Depression far worse than the one the U.S. would face in the thirties. The German mark was literally not worth the paper it was printed on. This anger and disillusion that would tragically lead to the rise of the NAZI party and the Third Reich. But for the time being it helped spark one of the most exciting movements in cinema history.


The first German Expressionist film was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Directed by Robert Wiene and written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, Caligari told the story of a mad scientist who hypnotizes a sleepwalker to kill on his behalf. The film was meant to be a statement on how international governments manipulated others into fighting in the Great War. A framing device that opened and closed the picture in an asylum muted this commentary. From a cinematic standpoint Caligari does seem kind of stagey. Its sets are rather two-dimensional and the camera mostly stays stationary. Yet the film creates a great, creepy atmosphere and the surreal sets are a wonder to behold. Soon the German film industry was thriving with some of the most unusual and visually arresting films ever made.


There were two main directors of the movement. First there was the Austrian born Fritz Lang. He first achieved fame with his two-part film Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler. His most famous film was the expressionist science fiction film Metropolis. The grandfather of such movies as Things to Come, Blade Runner, Brazil, City of the Lost Children, Batman, The Matrix and countless others, Metropolis is an amazing film that is as dazzling today as it was back then. His first sound film was M (1931), the story of a child killer (Peter Lorre) who is hunted down by other despicable members of an urban underworld. M could very well be the first great sound film. Rather then simply using the soundtrack to record dialog, Lang utilized sound to create mood, tension and to work with, rather than against, the images on the screen.


Released in the same year the NAZI’s came to power, M was meant to be an attack on fascism and the paranoia and scapegoating that it stirred up, a fact that was lost on the party officials. Shortly after the films release Joseph Goebbels contacted Lang about making propaganda films. That night he boarded a train for Paris, then booked passage to America. The day he arrived in New York he applied for American citizenship. He found work in Hollywood where his expressionistic sensibilities were put to use pioneering the film noir movement with pictures such as Fury, You Only Live Twice and Scarlet Street.


The other giant was Friedrich Wilhelm, or F.W, Murnau. A contemporary of Germany’s famed director Max Reinhardt, Murnau began making movies after World War I. Most of his earliest films are lost, depriving us the chance to see his progression as an artist. The movie that made him famous was Nosferatu (1922). A plagiarized version of Bram Stokers novel Dracula and subtitled A Symphony of Horror, Nosferatu is still one of the creepiest vampire films ever made. Unlike most German Expressionist films it was filmed on location but was lit so beautifully by cinematographers Fritz Arno Wagner and Gunther Krampf that it created an eerie, otherworldly quality that still creates a chilling atmosphere today.


He later also directed The Last Laugh (1924), which chronicled the mental breakdown suffered by a hotel doorman (Emil Jannings) when he’s demoted to a washroom attendant for no other reason then the fact that he’s getting on in years. As visually stunning as it is heartbreaking, The Last Laugh is noteworthy because it relies almost completely on visuals, utilizing only one title card in the whole film. In 1926 he created another feast for the eyes with his version of Goeth’s Faust legend. This was the last film he would ever make in Germany.


By 1926 many filmmakers from Central Europe were heading across the Atlantic to the promise land of Hollywood. The lure was unmistakable. The U.S. economy was booming in the 1920’s and Hollywood studios could offer superior production faculties and lots more money. Directors such as Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, Joseph Von Sternberg and Michael Curtiz would thrive in California, as would actors like Emil Jannings, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Soon Murnau would join them when William Fox, the head of the Fox Film Corp. (the precursor to 20th Century Fox) offered him the chance to work in Hollywood.


His first film for Fox was Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. To describe the plot is almost laughable. It takes place in a small, lakeside community. There’s a Man (George O’Brien) and his Wife (Janet Gaynor). Their names are never given. Nor are any of the other characters in the film. They live in a small cottage that doesn’t appear to have any electricity. Like the films he and others made in Germany, the contours of the cottage are very asymmetrical and askew. They appear to be poor, yet they live with an older woman who’s identified in the credits as “The Maid” (Bodi Rosing), so they apparently aren’t that bad off. They also have an infant.


The cottage looks like it could be in the 19th century, but then we meet “The Woman From the City” (Margaret Livingston). She looks every bit the modern-day flapper. She whistles for the Man and he comes and joins her. They seem to have been carrying on an affair for some time. The Maid knows about it and probably the woman does too, judging from the forlorn look in her eyes.


The Flapper then suggests that the two of them should run off to the city together. As for his wife, the Mistress asks, “Couldn’t she get drowned?” This question is asked in the form of a title card. Murnau didn’t like title cards. Indeed, he all but abandons them half way through the film. Given that we quickly dissolve to a shot of the woman in a boat that capsizes it’s safe to say that the title card is superfluous. And yet Murnau had the cards graphic designer animated the word “drowned” so that it looks like it’s sinking to the bottom of the screen.


The mistress then takes him to the lake and into the bull rushes, makes two bundles of reeds for him, then hides them in his sailboat. He is to take his wife out on the lake, capsize the small vessel and use the bundles of reeds as a floatation device for himself while she drowns.


Though clearly conflicted, he takes his wife out on the lake the next day. All is still and silent until they get out into the middle of the lake, then he begins to approach her. The Woman is terrified. She doesn’t put up a fight. Instead she clasps her hands and begs for forgiveness. Admittedly, the acting is performed in a sort of larger-then-life pantomime that by 1927 was growing stale as more subtle, naturalistic acting became the order of the day. Indeed, for some modern audiences it may be hard to take seriously, at least at first. But if you’re willing to surrender to it then you’ll almost certainly become enthralled.


Ultimately, the man can’t kill his wife. He rows the boat ashore, his shame written all over his face. As soon as they dock she runs away. Though they appear to be in the middle of nowhere a streetcar line appears to run through their lakeside community. She boards the car. The Man catches up and pays their fair. He kneels down and begs for forgiveness.


They arrive in “The City”, a metropolis that was clearly created on a backlot. They go and eat at a modern, art deco restaurant. Next they go into a church and witness a wedding. Then they get their portraits taken at a photography studio. At one point they walk across the street. The urban landscape dissolves and is replaced with the bucolic countryside where they live. But it’s only a brief respite. Soon they’re in the middle of a busy intersection with honking cars and carriage drivers yelling at them.


This effect of moving from the country to the city while the Man and Woman are in the foreground is one of the many optical effects that Murnau helped pioneer. At the time there were no optical printers, let alone CGI. The effect was achieved through double exposure. In other words the exposed film had to be rolled back in the camera while the second element was photographed. When printed the two images appear together as one. In order to achieve this effect the cameraman had to measure EXACTLY where the original exposure began. Parts of the camera lens would have to be matted off and so as only to expose part of the frame, then matted off again to photograph the reverse. Even more amazing is that many of the double exposure shots that Murnau achieved in this and earlier films also had the camera move! It would be fifty years before George Lucas and his special effects team on Star Wars would perfect the motion control camera system, allowing them to shoot multiple elements of spaceships, planets, etc. and seamlessly blend them together. Murnau and his cinematographers, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, had to meticulously keep track of their exact camera angles in order to achieve these effects.


The two of them go to an amusement district, clearly modeled on Coney Island. Later, Man and Wife are back on the lake, riding on that same sailboat back to their cottage. That’s when a storm hit. The boat capsizes and the man swims ashore. A search party boards their row boats and armed with lanterns go out and try to find the woman. The grief-stricken husband is sure that he’s lost her forever. But alas, she survived thanks to those bundles of reeds that were still strategically hid in the boat.


Again, a plot synopsis hardly does the film justice. Sunrise, as its slightly pretentious subtitle suggests, is a visual tone poem. It’s a film about emotions, not ideas. It’s told purely through beautiful imagery and close-ups. If at any point one of the characters uttered a single word it would completely kill the illusion.


Sunrise wasn’t exactly a “silent” film mind you. In fact, it’s in some ways one of the first films to truly integrated music, sound effects and image. While Warner Brothers was developing the Vitaphone, Fox was working on a sound-on-film system called the Movietone Sound System. Vitaphone was a sound-on-disc system that recorded the sound on a record, which was subsequently synchronized with the projected image. The obvious problem was that if was easy for the sound and picture to get out of synch. Whereas Movietone, on the other hand, recorded a soundtrack that was optically printed on the edge of the film print, thus guaranteeing proper synchronization. Warners may have been the first studio to produce a talking feature with The Jazz Singer, but the Vitaphone soon proved too unreliable to become the industry standard. Movietone and other sound-on-film systems were much more reliable.


Sunrise boasts a beautifully evocative score by Hugo Riesenfeld and Emo Rapee. The film also does a fine job utilizing sound effects, particularly in the urban scenes.   A year later Fox launched Movietone News. The longest running newsreel series, Fox continued producing them until 1963, long after television became the main source for electronically delivered public affairs info.


Sunrise also had the distinction of being released in the year that the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences began giving out their annual Academy Awards. For this year and this year only, the winning actors took home Oscars not for individual performances but for their entire body of work for the year. Janet Gaynor won not only for Sunrise but also the films Seventh Heaven and Street Angel. The films two cinematographers, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, won the Oscar for Best Cinematography. The film also won the award for “Best Unique and Artistic Picture”. This was one of two prizes that were awarded to what the Academy voters felt was the finest cinematic work of the year. The other was “Outstanding Picture”, which went to the airplane film Wings. Quickly realizing the futility of having two different top prizes, the latter award became today’s “Best Picture” category. The other was dropped all together.


Both O’Brien and Gaynor were lucky. They both possessed good speaking voices and continued to work well into the sound era. O’Brien went on to star in numerous Westerns and became part of John Ford’s unofficial stock company. Gaynor also did well in the thirties, appearing in the original versions of both State Fair and A Star is Born. Her popularity began to wane by the end of the thirties but she continued to work well into her seventies, frequently appearing on television series ranging from General Electric Theater to Love Boat.


Murnau made two more films, 4 Devils and City Girl, neither were very successful. He left for the South Pacific where he began to shoot a documentary about Tahiti. Originally it had some sound interviews but were later edited out. The film was censored because it contained shots of bare breasted native women.


Murnau didn’t seem to be interested in making the transition to sound, although it was starting to look like he might not have a choice. Alas, we’ll never know if he could have made the transition. He died in 1931 at the age of forty-two when his chauffeur, a fourteen year old Filipino boy, crashed his Rolls Royce. Avant-Garde film maker and author Kenneth Anger claimed in his celebrated book Hollywood Babylon that Murnau was actually performing fellatio on the young man, a rumor that may be just that. In 2000 John Malkovich played the director in Shadow of the Vampire, an odd film that suggests that Max Schrek, played in the film by Willem Dafoe, was actually a vampire. Less than two years ago it was reported that his skull was stolen from his family plot in Germany.


Today, the only kinds of silent films, that is movies without any synchronized dialog, are either relegated to such avant-garde films like Godfrey Reggio’s Koyoniskatsi or used as a gimmick as in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie and Michael Hazanavicius The Artist, 2011’s Best Picture winner. To make a film entirely visually would be an awesome challenge for a filmmaker today. Would the public go for it? It would be a hard sell for sure. But maybe if we lived in a more film-literate society and more people were exposed to silent films at an early age then perhaps they’d be willing to watch a picture where no single person makes a sound.


FRAILTY (2002)

The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of


WARNING: This article contains spoilers.

Just before this years Academy Award ceremony on February 26th the world received news that the industry lost both a fine actor and by all accounts a great guy, Bill Paxton. His family will have to wait until next year to see him listed in the ceremonies “In Memorandum” montage but a clearly shaken Jennifer Aniston made sure to give him a shout out before the video started.

Bill Paxton was born in Fort Worth, Texas on May 17, 1955. He was raised Roman Catholic, a bit of an anomaly in the Dallas metro area at the time. A photograph exists of an eight year old Paxton being hoisted up to see President John F. Kennedy arrive at Love Field Airport on that fateful day on November 22, 1963. Within an hour he would learn that the President had been shot. The photograph is…

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FRAILTY (2002)

Source: FRAILTY (2002)

FRAILTY (2002)



WARNING: This article contains spoilers.

Just before this years Academy Award ceremony on February 26th the world received news that the industry lost both a fine actor and by all accounts a great guy, Bill Paxton. His family will have to wait until next year to see him listed in the ceremonies “In Memorandum” montage but a clearly shaken Jennifer Aniston made sure to give him a shout out before the video started.

Bill Paxton was born in Fort Worth, Texas on May 17, 1955. He was raised Roman Catholic, a bit of an anomaly in the Dallas metro area at the time. A photograph exists of an eight year old Paxton being hoisted up to see President John F. Kennedy arrive at Love Field Airport on that fateful day on November 22, 1963. Within an hour he would learn that the President had been shot. The photograph is now on display at the museum in the on the sixth floor of the Dallas Book Depository.

Paxton moved to Hollywood in order to forge an acting career. He would never become a superstar like Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson or Denzel Washington but he found work. He had small roles in such films as Stripes, Weird Science and Commando. In 1984 he had a small role in The Terminator. This film led to a long personal and professional collaboration with James Cameron. He later gave Paxton one of the lead roles in Aliens and The Abyss. Bill had a very funny role in True Lies as a would-be ladies man who turns out to have a problem with incontinence. In Titanic he had the relatively small but pivotal role as the undersea explorer who leads a diving crew down to the undersea wreckage of the doomed vessel to retrieve what they hope will be the Heart of the Ocean, the blue diamond and one of Hollywood’s great McGuffin’s that set the wheels in motion for what would go on to be the biggest hit in Hollywood history. Paxton later also narrated James Cameron’s documentary about the Titanic wreckage called Ghost of the Abyss.

Along with his many credits in James Cameron films Paxton gave memorable performances as Morgan Earp in Tombstone, Frank James in Frank and Jesse, astronaut Fred Haise in Apollo 13. Like a number of film actors of a certain age he was the beneficiary of the new renaissance in TV dramas when he played Bill Hendrickson as the patriarch of a polygamous family in the HBO series Big Love. I must confess that I had never seen the show. After Paxton’s death I decided to check it out. I’ve been binge watching it ever since. Paxton again played a real-life figure from American history in the mini-series The Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s playing he patriarch of the McCoy clan. Recently he was cast in a TV version of the movie Training Day. The show received terrible reviews and dismal ratings so it was unlikely that CBS would have renewed it. Paxton’s untimely death certainly sealed the shows fate.

Immediately after his death I wrote a short post about Paxton studying film production at NYU and that he originally wanted to be a film director. In 1980 a novelty band recorded an odd song called “Fish Heads” and Paxton made a short film (the term “music video” was not yet widely used) that aired on Saturday Night Live and on Mtv from time to time. You can the film at this link:

Paxton continued to occasionally direct music videos in-between acting gigs. These included Pat Benatar’s “Shadow’s in the Night”, Now Order’s “Touched by the Hand of God” and “Eat You Alive” by Limp Bizkit. It wasn’t until 2001 when Paxton finally got the chance to direct a feature film. It was only a modes success, grossing about $17 million but boy, was it something!

Frailty was the work of first time screenwriter Brent Hanley. Like Paxton he was a native of East Texas. He claimed that the idea for Frailty came from “growing up in the buckle of the Bible Belt and reading a lot of Stephen King.” The producer of the film was David Kirschner, a man who made a name for himself by first producing the animated film An American Tale and also the very lucrative Child’s Play horror film series.

Frailty begins with an FBI agent (character actor Powers Booth, who worked with Paxton on the film Tombstone) returning to his office and seeing an ambulance parked outside of his bureau headquarters. Sitting in his office is a young man in his thirties who introduces himself as Fenton Meiks (Matthew McConaughey). He tells the agent that he knows who the “God’s Hand Killer” is. Apparently there has been a very active serial killer in the Lone-Star State whom the agent has been trying to apprehend, albeit with no success. Meiks tells him that it’s his younger brother Adam. Only hours before Fenton got a call from his brother right before he shot himself. Before Fenton could report Adam he needed to keep a promise and burry him back in his hometown of Thurman. Then and only then could he reveal where Adam buried his victims. The agent is naturally skeptical but he decides to indulge Fenton. He gives Fenton a pair of handcuffs and places him in the back of a squad car. The two of them drive off while Fenton begins to tell about his very unusual childhood (thankfully, he’s a lot less cryptic then he is in those Lincoln ads).

The story flashes back to the late-seventies. Fenton and his younger brother Adam (Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter) are heading home from school in the town of Thurmond, which looks like it could be a Norman Rockwell painting. They live in a small, non-descript house that has one eccentricity. It’s located right next to a rather big public rose garden.

We learn that their father, played by Paxton and known only as “Dad”, works as a mechanic in a nearby town. Their mother died while giving birth to Adam. Despite this fact they seem like a perfectly happy family. As often happens in such a dynamic, Fenton has to step up and take on some extra responsibility. He’s shown cooking dinner while Adam watches TV. Dad comes home from work and by all accounts seems to be a cheerful, loving father.

Then one day everything changes.

While the boys are asleep in their room Dad barges in and tells them that he’s just had a vision. An angel came to him in his sleep and told him that God has a mission for him and his sons. Essentially, the three of them are going to hunt down demons and cast them back down into Hell. Adam is scared when he first hears this but being so young and impressionable he believes every word of it. Fenton on the other hand just looks at his Dad in disbelief.

The next day things seem to have returned to normal. Dad wakes the boys up and takes them to school. But just as they exit his car (an El Camino. Go figure) he tells them not to tell anyone about the angel. “I won’t” says Adam as he scampers off to class. Fenton can’t believe what he hears. It wasn’t a dream after all.

Dad starts to come home with “tools” and “weapons” to fight demons. These include a lead pipe and a pair of work gloves. Latter he shows up with a double bladed axe. This is starting to get to be too much for Fenton.

There have always been two different schools of thought when it comes to dealing with the supernatural in movies. On the one had the magic of makeup and special effects allows filmmakers to realize all kinds of monsters and creatures, be they Dracula, the Frankenstein monster, Godzilla, you name it. But there’s another school of thought that argues that it’s better NOT to show any monster and let the audience imagine the horror. Prime examples of this school of though include Val Lewton’s film Cat People, Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby and some of M. Night Shyamalan’s better films. Bill Paxton clearly leans towards the latter in Frailty. When he has his “visions” they’re very abstract. The first time he sees the “angel” all we see is a white light hit a trophy on Dad’s mantel. When he discovers the axe we see a heavenly white light hit an abandon barn. There is one vision that is a bit more literal then the others. Dad is working underneath a car at the shop. The undercarriage rises up and morphs into a cathedral. We then see an angel (that looks a lot like Matthew McConaughey) fly towards him wearing a suit of armor and wielding a flaming sword.

It is at this point that Dad puts Gods plan into action. Fenton returns home one day and sees that Dad has compiled a list of “demons”. “Dad, these are peoples names,” Fenton protests. “No son,” Dad answers. “They’re demons.”

A short while later Fenton is wakes up to the sound of his Dad driving up. He goes outside and sees that his old man has abducted a blonde woman (Cynthia Ettinger), tied up and gaged with mascara running down her face. He calls Fenton and Adam into his tool shed. In a flashback sequence we see him arriving at her house (“even though he had never been there before he had no trouble finding it,” says the grown up Fenton in voice-over. “God showed him the way.”) When he sees the woman leave her house he calls out her name, “Cynthia Harbridge?” When she responds he clobbers her with the lead pipe. Back at the shed he removes his work gloves and touches her arm. Dad becomes paralyzed with fright. Fenton just looks on in disbelief. Dad then picks up the axe and brings it down on her.

Later in the rose garden the three of them bury her dismembered body. “Didn’t you see she was a demon son?” Dad asks Fenton. “I saw it Dad,” answers Adam with all the enthusiasm of a young boy eager to please his old man. Fenton isn’t buying it. He knows his Dad is crazy.

A second “demon” is sent back to hell. Fenton still doesn’t have any faith. So Dad is going to teach him some.

He wakes his son up one morning and has him dig a hole ten feet deep. “Pray for a miracle,” he tells his boy. Fenton doesn’t. He now hates his father and God. “He might be able to make me dig this stupid hole but he can’t make me pray!” Once the hole is dug they move Dad’s tool shed on top of it. Now they have their dungeon.

After abducting a third victim, Fenton runs away. He heads to the local police station and tells the sheriff (Luke Askew). He takes Fenton home, sits down with Dad and tells him Fenton’s wild story. “Of course I don’t believe a word of it,” the sheriff assures Dad. Fenton convinces him to check out the cellar. When they arrive there is no body or any sign of carnage to be found. Just as the sheriff walks up the cellar stairs Dad hits him over the head with the pipe. He then raises his axe. “May God welcome you,” he says before killing the sheriff.

Fenton, Adam and Dad bury the cop in the rose garden. “I’ve never killed another human being before,” Dad weeps. “I’ve seen you kill plenty,” Fenton retorts. Dad nearly loses it and raises his ask. Thankfully Adam intervenes.
*******************************Spoiler Alert****************************************


It’s at this point that Frailty begins to take an unusual turn. Dad tells Fenton that the angel told him that Fenton was a demon. Dad doesn’t believe it though. He tenderly touches the boy’s face. He won’t destroy his son. He’ll instead make him see the light.

And so he locks Fenton down in the cellar. Only when he has a vision and accepts his fate will Dad let him out. Finally, after several weeks of being locked in that dungeon Fenton says that he received a vision. He’s ready to fulfill his destiny.

Once again God gives Dad the name of a demon. They abduct him and bring him back to their layer. Fenton is given the axe. He knows what he has to do. And so he raises the instrument of destruction and uses it….to kill his father!

By this time Matthew McConaughey and the FBI agent have arrived at the rose garden. He then tells the officer of a promise he made. We flash back to the two boys burring their father.

Fenton: Adam, if you ever destroy me, promise that you’ll bury me here in the rose garden.

Adam: I promise to God I’ll bury you here.


That’s when the agent learns that Matthew McConaughey is actually Adam, the younger brother. The God’s Hand killer was indeed Fenton. Adam was just waiting for God to put him on his list in order to destroy him. “Do you believe all this?” asks the agent. “I’ve always believed,” Adam answers. We then flashback to see the very “demons” that Adam saw (and that Fenton couldn’t see) when Dad laid his hands on his victims. No, we don’t see any horned goblin but rather the wicked deeds that they have done. One poisoned her husband, one abducted children and one date rapes a girl. Adam then places his hand on the agent. Turns out that he’s a demon too and murdered his mother in a most gruesome manner.

I like horror movies but I’ve often said that they were the Chicago Cubs of movie genres. So few winners. But every now and then they play a great game and last year they won the World Series.

I do love the old Universal horror films of the thirties and forties but I can’t say that they ever really scared me except when I was a little kid. I still think they’re fun and unlike the bad guys in the endless parade of slasher films that have been churned out since the early eighties, those creatures at least have a personality. But when it comes to horror movies that were really scary, by which I mean horrifying, for my money that golden age roughly spanned the years 1968 through 1980. It was in these years that horror movies were starting to be treated with at least a modicum of seriousness and major directors and actors were appearing in Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen and The Shining while some great low-budget gems like Night of the Living Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween were movies that really, really frightening.

What made these films so effective? Well, for one thing they tended to take place in natural surroundings. Much as I love the old studio bound haunted house movies and the German Expressionist films that inspired them it’s pretty hard to look at them and think, “This could happen in real life.” You can’t say the same about Rosemary’s Baby, a film about devil worshipers in contemporary New York. Or Halloween, which takes place in a Midwestern suburb. The Exorcist may have had some pretty dazzling make-up effects but it was the naturalism of the world around it that made it all seem so palpable. Even Night of the Living Dead. I don’t believe in zombies but George Romero came up with such a natural, almost documentary like way of shooting his fright fest that it all seems like something that’s just happening right before our eyes.

Another important ingredient, at least when it comes to the major studio releases is that you had some real world-class actors appearing in these films. Of course there were actors like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price who absolutely relished their roles and were a joy to behold. I’m not the biggest fan of the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise but I gotta hand it to Robert Englund, he dives into his role as Freddy Kruger no matter how often he’s had to play that burnt up child molester.

But who the hell remembers Colin Clive, who played Dr. Frankenstein? Or how about David Manners who played John Harker opposite Lugosi in Dracula? The classic horror films of the thirties and forties are hardly textbook examples of the Stanaslavsky method (one example of superb natural acting in a horror film would be Lon Chaney, Jr. who starred in The Wolf Man. Yes, he made a terrific canine monster but what made the performance so much more believable was his incredibly natural, tortured performance when he wasn’t the werewolf).

Frailty is wisely set in a very believable East Texas community. It’s an impressionistic setting to be sure. At first the town is portrayed as this bygone, halcyon world of yesteryear. Slowly but surely the color pallet grows darker and the shadows more ominous. Bill Paxton was certainly blessed to have veteran cinematographer Bill Butler behind the camera. In a still active career that spans over forty years, Butler has shot such suspense films as The Conversation and Jaws as well as the musicals such as Grease and comedies like Stripes. Since the latter was one of Bill Paxton’s earliest credits it’s safe to assume that he first met Butler on that film. Butler was also the director of photography on the first Child’s Play film, so obviously he and producer Brent Hanley knew each other well. For those of you who enjoy the technical aspects of moviemaking you’ll want to check out the DVD featurette (which can also be seen on YouTube for those of you who wish to stream the movie) which shows how Butler was able to light the process shot of McConaughey and Powers Booth driving in a rainstorm. Driving scenes are notoriously difficult to shoot while on location and process shots so often look fake. Not in Frailty. Paxton himself likened watching Butler work to watching Zubin Mehta conduct.

Something else I love about Frailty is that it taps into some things that I for one find genuinely terrifying – the notion that one of your parents would go crazy and the dark side of religious dogma. I for one didn’t have a very religious background and I can promise you that eternal salvation or damnation are two things that I don’t concern myself with on a daily basis. Still, I was more or less raised to believe that there was a loving, all powerful benevolent God in Heaven and an evil Satan in Hell. With Easter coming up it’s easy to just concentrate on the colored eggs and bunnies but there’s no light without dark. Films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen all tapped into the Biblical teachings that Satan is real, that demonic possession is a possibility and that an anti-Christ will some day materialize. There are some people in extremely orthodox religious sects for whom this is a day-to-day concern. But not for most of us. The fact that the above three films all deal with Satanism affecting the lives of secular people and the ability to make it believable is what I found really terrifying. Other films that also tap into our primordial fears are often rooted in something quite real. Halloween is quite simply about the bogyman stalking the babysitter. Sounds kind of crazy but the idea of being stalked by anyone is quite terrifying. Not everyone liked The Blair Witch Project but I did. The idea of being lost in the woods and hearing weird sounds and stumbling upon manmade things that I don’t understand, that to me is scary. My apologies to all those who loved The Ring but for my money watching a videotape and then dying a few days later is not something I’m afraid of.

Going back to the Stephen King connection, the film that Frailty is probably most indebted to is The Shining. A lot of Stephen King fans, and Stephen King himself, didn’t like Kubrick’s adaptation because of the liberties that were taken. In the novel the hotel that the family stays in is clearly haunted and the protagonist is basically a good man and the demons of the hotel are more a metaphor for his alcoholism. Kubrick opted to keep the audiences guessing until the very last frame as to whether or not the hotel was really haunted or that the family was just going crazy because of their claustrophobia. In Frailty we of course think that Dad is crazy and are thrown for a loop when we discover that it was all true all along. As in the Kubrick film, the Dad in Frailty uses an axe to dispose of his victims (this was another thing that angered King and his die-hard fans. In the book Jack Torrance’s weapon of choice was an oversized croquet mallet). For my money the idea that your parent or guardian, the person who you rely on to protect and care for you, would one day go crazy and turn against you is just about the most frightening thing I can think of.

Much of the credit for Frailty, and indeed any film that works, goes to the actors. Both John Houston and Martin Scorsese have said that directing is ninety percent casting. Think about that for a second. It doesn’t matter how great a script you have, how fine a director and production crew and how large a budget, if you don’t cast the movie right then it’s doomed to fail. Every great actor has one or two movies that they weren’t very good in. A professional actor will give every role he or she plays their all. It’s not that their acting was “bad” in one particular movie but just that they weren’t cast in the right role.

People from all aspects of film production have made good directors, be they producers, writers, cinematographers, editors, production designers, you name it.

Many actors do make fine directors partly because they instinctually know who will be right in a role and whom they can act off of. Certainly Paxton was on the money casting fellow transplanted Texans in the film. Frailty was actually shot in Southern California. I’ve only ever driven through Texas but I’ve certainly known a lot of people from Texas. Their authenticity makes me feel like I’ve lived there my whole life.

In many ways the success or failure of the film was dependent on casting the boy as children. It’s always hard to find kids who can act natural and not come across as coy and phony. Paxton hit the nail on the head with Matt O’Leary and Jeremy Sumpter. Both play their roles perfectly. Sumpter is a cute kid but he’s cute in the way that kids are in real life. One of the merciful moments of comic relief comes when little Adam says that God spoke to him and gave him his own list. He hands Dad a piece of construction paper. “Isn’t he that kid who’s been picking on you at school?” Dad asks about the name scribbled in crayon. “He’s a demon,” says Adam with an impish smile. Hey, you can’t blame a kid for trying. Both boys have grown up to be professional actors.

It’s a shame that Frailty wasn’t a bigger hit but in one way it was a blessing. No movie genre has produced more pointless sequels then the horror genre. It doesn’t matter how many times they kill Jason, Freddy, Michael Meyers or Chucky, they come up with some lame reason to bring them back so they can add to their body count. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a good sequel to a horror film. I don’t even like The Bride of Frankenstein. I went back to look at it not too long ago only to discover that it’s basically the template for every lame horror sequel ever made (Dr. Frankenstein and the monster didn’t really burn up in that windmill). Frailty was spared that indignity.

Paxton only directed one other movie, a golf film called The Greatest Game Ever Played. I’m surprised that he didn’t direct any episodes of Big Love. Whether he could have become a full time director like Clint Eastwood I’m not sure but he certainly knew what he was doing. Paxton still looked and seemed pretty young when he was pushing sixty and lord knows that a person in his or her sixties can’t really be called elderly anymore. It’s easy to see Paxton acting well into his golden years. Alas, those are performances we’ll never be able to see.

Frailty is streaming on Netflix.



The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of


The goal of this blog, very simply, is to bring to light movies that either weren’t widely seen during their release or films that have somewhat fallen into obscurity.  The hope is that someone who hasn’t seen these films will take a look at them.  I certainly can’t promise that you’ll like them and I’m sure that if the movie being profiled doesn’t sound like your cup of tea then you’ll probably skip that one.  I certainly hope you’ll watch every film that I write about but hey, we’ve all got things to do.

When compiling a list of potential films to write about I inevitably started to list some titles that I’m well aware aren’t for everybody.  I imagine that some of my past entries will have their detractors.  I know that there are people who gave Return to Oz a shot and just didn’t like it.  Some will…

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The goal of this blog, very simply, is to bring to light movies that either weren’t widely seen during their release or films that have somewhat fallen into obscurity.  The hope is that someo…




The goal of this blog, very simply, is to bring to light movies that either weren’t widely seen during their release or films that have somewhat fallen into obscurity.  The hope is that someone who hasn’t seen these films will take a look at them.  I certainly can’t promise that you’ll like them and I’m sure that if the movie being profiled doesn’t sound like your cup of tea then you’ll probably skip that one.  I certainly hope you’ll watch every film that I write about but hey, we’ve all got things to do.

When compiling a list of potential films to write about I inevitably started to list some titles that I’m well aware aren’t for everybody.  I imagine that some of my past entries will have their detractors.  I know that there are people who gave Return to Oz a shot and just didn’t like it.  Some will dismiss Beyond the Valley of the Dolls as a cheesy sex comedy and not appreciate the its off-the-wall humor and craftsmanship.  XXY, a film about a transgender teenager might sound unusual to some but I do feel that if you give the film a chance you’ll not only like it but understand transgender people better, which is important in our current political climate.

Sick:  The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist is definitely not for the squeamish.  It features some extremely graphic imagery and has a subject matter, namely hard-core S&M, that will simply be too off-putting for some.  But if you are willing to look beyond the films more shocking moments you’ll be rewarded with a documentary about the triumph of the human spirit, the healing power of art and humor and, above all else, a bona fide love story.

Bob Flanagan, the subject of the film, was the worlds oldest known survivor of cystic fibrosis.  A horrible disease for which there is currently no known cure, cystic fibrosis, or CF as it’s sometimes known in short-hand, causes frequent inflammation in the lungs.  This results in an abundance of mucus and can lead to all kinds of breathing problems.  It can also cause problems in the liver, pancreas, kidneys and intestines, often resulting in uncontrollable bowl and urine production.  Most people with CF die in childhood.  Few have ever lived past seventeen.  At the time of the documentary Flanagan was already in his forties.

Flanagan had to endure a childhood filled with pain and discomfort.  At some point though he grew to realize that by inflicting pain onto himself he actually was able to not only elevate the pain caused by the disease but that it also brought with it an erotic rush.

In one scene we see him telling a story about his childhood.  When he was in high school he used to tie himself up by the wrists when everyone else in the house was asleep.  He also talks about whipping himself with a belt that he had stuck pins into and getting blood all over the bathroom wall.  “I always had this terrible Catholic guilt,” he says during the monologue.  “My Mom would knock on the door and I’d think to myself ‘you see, you do this kind of stuff and bad things happen.'”  Bob’s gleefully dark sense of humor is a big part of his M.O.

Eventually Bob fused his love of S&M and his dark sense of humor together and became a performance artist – Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist.  He would appear on stage wearing nothing a but a cape and a pair of underwear over his frail and bruised body.  Along with the IV tubes sticking out of his arms and torso are various piercings, tattoos and other bruises brought about by his self-inflicted masochism.  At one point he sings a parody of “Supercalofridgulasticexpialidocious” from Mary Poppins, which he renames “Super Masochistic Bob with Cystic Fibrosis/ Just how long he’s gonna live is anyones prognosis.”  He then sings a chorus that goes “umdidalittle dittle, I’m gonna die, umdidalittle dittle I’m gonna die…”

Along with this self deprecating humor Flanagan also puts his body through some very painful rituals right on stage.  These range from shackling his arms and hoisting himself up, to taking off a bathrobe and revealing a free weight tied to his penis to actually driving a nail through his johnson.  This scene is showed in graphic detail during the film.  I hope I haven’t lost you by now but if you were to look away during that scene I would not judge you.

Bob also has a number of fine art instilations that he puts together for a private show.  These include “the wall of pain” which comprises of several video monitors showing parts of Bobs body going through various bondage rituals and a coffin with a note saying “sorry to be late” hanging from the door of the casket.  One particularly clever little piece of fine art is an “invisible man”, one of those plastic anatomy sculptures depicting a man with a plastic epidermis that allows us to see the anatomy within.  Bob rigs the little plastic sculpture up with tubes to depict it secreting mucus, fecal matter and semen, all made mostly from hair care products and all secreting at abnormally high rates.

Bob also makes performance art films with Sheree Rose, his partner of fifteen years.  Sheree, who is also a photographer, is a true dominatrix.  She’s not an actress or prostitute who dresses up in a tight leather outfit and gives guys spankings.  She’s a true blue sadist.  She admits how as a child she was very bossy and combative and would lead other children down to the basement and touch them in places she shouldn’t.  Somehow she and Bob got together and it proved to be an unusually compatible match.  She was willing to work on his art projects and to help take care of him while Bob was willing to submit to whatever type of hardcore bondage Sheree yearned to try.  He even drew up a “contract” that gave her complete dominion over his body.

Whereas Bob usually comes across as humorous and even kind of carefree (at least when his CF isn’t acting up), Sheree seems more aloof.  She doesn’t seem like a mean person but she does seem to harbor a great deal of hostility.  We get an idea why when we see a home video from a recent Thanksgiving visit with her parents.  They fight and squabble worse than Frank and Estelle Costanza and you just sit there wishing you can leave the room.  Who knows?  Maybe if she didn’t find Bob she would be as outwardly miserable as her parents.

Bob’s home life seems to have been the polar opposite.  We meet his parents, both of whom look like the nicest, most straight-laced people on earth.  His mother reflects that “I read some of his book and I just wondered ‘where was I?'”  The Dad claims that they were the most tight-knit family imaginable.  We later see Bob with his brother Tim who says that Bob was a sort of moral cop when they were younger.  Tim, who is gay, thought he was the one with unusual sexual appetites.  Things are never as they appear.  This might also be true of the Flanagan’s home life.  Happy as they may seem it couldn’t have been easy raising a child with cystic fibrosis.  We learn that Bob had a sister who died at twenty-one and another sister who died in infancy.

While Bob’s unusually dark sense of humor and his artistic streak may have helped him get through life it’s clear throughout the film that he has a very big heart and genuinely wants to help others with this horrid disease.  We learn that when he was young he went to a camp for young children with CF.  Once he was old enough he became a councilor, a job he held well up until the time of this documentary.

Also in the course of the film we meet a young girl from Ontario named Sarah who is also afflicted with CF.  She had read Bob’s memoirs and felt a kinship with him and through the Make-a-Wish foundation was able to meet Bob.  She bonded with both Bob and Sheree, who wonders if she might want to try S&M herself.  Bob talks Sheree out of it.  Sarah admits that she can understand Bob’s attraction to S&M because for once it allows him to be in control of his body.  Sarah later returns to L.A. to see Bob and Sheree again.  No, she doesn’t get into bondage but they do take her to get one of her nipples pierced.  A special feature on the DVD shows Sarah in 2003.  She’s married and raises horses.  I did a google search to find out about her today.  I’m sorry to say that she passed away early in 2016.  Still, she seems like she lived an eventful life.

As the film progresses, Flanagan’s health deteriorates.  Eventually his breathing problems become unbearable.  Sheree tries to convince Bob to take part in some bondage exercises but it’s soon clear that he’s too sick for any sex games.

I don’t think a spoiler alert is necessary since the subtitle of the film is The Life AND DEATH of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist.  Sure enough, at age forty-three, the cystic fibrosis gets the better of him.  Director Kirby Dick happened to be present during his demise.  We see Sheree as her cold hard exterior erodes and as she tearfully begs Bob to stay alive.  The final moments of his life are captured in still photographs as his body perishes and is removed from the hospital room.  This might seem unusually macabre but so was Bob.  At one point he says that he would like to be buried with a video camera in his coffin so that one of his collectors can watch his deterioration.  I’m quite sure that due to the embalming process it now takes many years before a body decomposes but then I’m not an undertaker.  Still, I can see the humor in such a notion.  I can also see how Bob Flanagan can and should be looked upon as a hero, a man who found a way to express himself and (for the most part) enjoy his life despite a crippling, painful and messy illness.  It also can be looked upon as a true blue love story.  Sure, Bob and Sheree are an unusual couple but it’s clear at the end of the film that their love was genuine.  Hell, watching Bob die from CF was a hundred times more poignant then watching Ali McGraw die of nothing in that other Love Story.

The film’s director, Kirby Dick, has pretty much made a career out of exploring human sexuality in it’s many facets, both positive and negative and everything in between.  One of his first films was Private Practice:  The Story of a Sex Surrogate.  His later films include Twist of Fate, which explores the child abuse cases within the Catholic Church;  Outrage, which explores repressed homosexuality within the Republican party; The Invisible War which centers on the epidemic of rape within the U.S. Arms services and his flawed but often informative This Film Is Not Yet Rated, which explores the clandestine way that the MPAA rates movies.  One thing we learn (surprise, surprise) is that their far harder on films for depicting sex and nudity than violence.

We live in a very curious time when it comes to human sexuality.  I’m quite amazed and delighted that people have accepted the idea of gay marriage and that the Defense of Marriage Act was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.  I think it’s very good that we’re beginning to understand that some people are transgender, that someone can identify themselves as being of a different gender then the one they were born with.  I do think that Katlyn Jenner’s public transition, while partially done to boost ratings of that dumb TV show has helped the public at large to understand transgender people better.  And yes, I am completely against any law that bars people from using the restrooms that correspond with their gender identity.

I also must point out the fact that during the nineties we had a president who was nearly brought down due to an extramarital affair with a consenting adult.  Among those who lead the Clinton impeachment were Newt Gingrich, who twice divorced a sick wife to be with a younger woman and Dennis Hassert, now serving time for pedophilia.  Right now we have a president who was caught bragging about how he likes to “grab (women) by the pussy” and can walk in on beauty pageant contestants while they’re changing.  Bob Flanagan might seem “sick” to some in a figurative sense, but he only ever wanted to inflict pain onto his own body and receive pain from a consensual, adult life partner.  I can only speak for myself but if one were to compare Bob Flanagan to Donald Trump I can tell you right away which one of them is truly sick.


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