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The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of

JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY (1984)

The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of

Johnny Dangerously

It doesn’t matter how successful an actor is, at some point they’re bound to have a slump. It may seem as if Tom Hanks has been on an upward trajectory ever since he made a big splash in Splash way back in 1984. It’s easy to forget that he suffered a brief dry spell with The Burbs, The Bonfire of the Vanities and Joe Versus the Volcano before he got back on track with A League of Their Own. It seems as if Julia Roberts has been “Americas Sweetheart” for as long as some people can remember, but she hit a rough patch between The Pelican Brief and My Best Friends Wedding with films like I Love Trouble and Mary Reilly. Denzel Washington hit a snag in between Training Day and Inside Man and even Harrison Ford had a lukewarm period between Air Force One and Indiana Jones and the…

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JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY (1984)

Source: JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY (1984)

JOHNNY DANGEROUSLY (1984)

Johnny Dangerously

 

It doesn’t matter how successful an actor is, at some point they’re bound to have a slump. It may seem as if Tom Hanks has been on an upward trajectory ever since he made a big splash in Splash way back in 1984. It’s easy to forget that he suffered a brief dry spell with The Burbs, The Bonfire of the Vanities and Joe Versus the Volcano before he got back on track with A League of Their Own. It seems as if Julia Roberts has been “Americas Sweetheart” for as long as some people can remember, but she hit a rough patch between The Pelican Brief and My Best Friends Wedding with films like I Love Trouble and Mary Reilly. Denzel Washington hit a snag in between Training Day and Inside Man and even Harrison Ford had a lukewarm period between Air Force One and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

These actors were blessed to have relatively brief lulls in their otherwise sterling careers and never wanted for employment. Some actors have gone through long stretches of lousy roles mixed with inactivity. Following a disastrous 1962 remake of Mutiny on the Bounty Marlon Brando suffered a ten-year slump before landing his career-defining role as Vito Corleone in The Godfather. All through the eighties and into the early nineties John Travolta was thought to be as obsolete as an 8-track player (an occasional Look Who’s Talking gig not withstanding) until Quentin Tarintino cast him as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction. Robert Downy, Jr. looked like he was finished by the mid-nineties due as much for his substance abuse and police blotter as his lack of good roles. Alas, he seems to have gotten clean and between Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes his prospects look just fine, at least for the immediate future.

One actor who is currently basking in the glow of a major career comeback is Michael Keaton. Born Michael Douglas and raised in the greater Pittsburg area, he got his start working behind the scenes (and occasionally on camera) at Mister Rogers Neighborhood, which was filmed in Pittsburg.  He later headed out west to Hollywood. By the time he arrived in Tensile Town that other Michael Douglas (Kirks son) was already appearing on Streets of San Francisco and the eponymous host of The Mike Douglas Show already taken the name “Mike”. And so he chose Keaton as his new surname. After appearing on episodes of Maud and The Mary Tyler Moore Hour (a variety show, not the sitcom), he landed his first starring gig a sitcom called Working Stiffs. Co-starring James Belushi, the show only ran for nine episodes.

Keaton’s big break came when Ron Howard cast him opposite Henry Winkler in the movie Night Shift. Keaton then got his first big break in the film Mr. Mom, before reuniting with Howard in the comedy Gung Ho. He then received rave reviews for his role as a recovering drug addict in Clean and Sober and enjoyed success as a mental patient in the underappreciated comedy The Dream Team.

In 1988 Tim Burton had cast Keaton as the title character in the offbeat supernatural comedy Beetlejuice. Warner Brothers executives waited until that film was in the can before offering Mr. Burton the big budget event movie Batman. Burton accepted, then raised quite a few eyebrows when he cast Keaton as the title character. While his co-star Jack Nicholson seemed born to play the Joker, Keaton, a man of average height and build and who’s sex appeal was more of the Mick Jagger variety then Robert Redford, hardly seemed like the ideal choice to play Bruce Wayne/Batman. The Internet might have only been in its gestation period at the time but there were no shortage of batfans writing in to Warner Bros. and various fan magazines to voice their displeasure at Keaton’s casting. Yet as Burton saw it, this unconventional casting choice made sense. Why, Burton reasoned, would a guy like Mel Gibson or Harrison Ford (both of whom were considered for the role) have to dress up like a bat? They could just kick someone’s ass. John Peters, the films co-producer, pointed out that after seeing Keaton in Clean and Sober he knew that he was not the kind of guy you want to face in a street fight. Like James Cagney or Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, he was a guy with  enough pent-up rage to take on ten men twice his size.

In the end, people liked Keaton’s Batman. The film was a colossal box office hit. He and Burton reunited three years later for Batman Returns. The studio inevitably wanted a third installment but Burton decided he had enough of the Dark Knight. Without his director Keaton also decided to pass, even when Warner’s offered him a staggering $15 million to star in Batman III. It takes a lot of will power to turn down that kind of dough, but Keaton did. One has to wonder if he didn’t come to regret passing up that paycheck since the next two decades were not exactly fruitful. He made a few good films like Kenneth Branaugh’s version of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing and Quentin Tarintio’s Jackie Brown, and he pretty much ran away with Toy Story 3, providing the voice of a metro sexual Ken doll. He also had to make some absolute dreck to pay the bills, including Multiplicity, Herbie: Fully Loaded and Jack Frost. In the latter film he plays a man who dies and comes back to life as a CGI snowman to help comfort his grieving son. That’s the price of fame in Hollywood.

Some might blame Keaton’s drought on the notion that people who play superheroes are somehow “cursed” to always be identified with them. George Reeves who played Superman on television never got another roll. He later was found dead from a shotgun wound in his Los Angeles home. The death was ruled to be a suicide though many unanswered questions remain (see the movie Hollywoodland with the franchises current Bruce Wayne, Ben Affleck). Christopher Reeve was unforgettable in the Superman movie series. As Richard Donner who directed the first film said, “All we did was give (Reeves) the suit.” Alas, he never was able to shake the image of him as the man of steel, even when he became a real life superhero following his spinal injury after being thrown from a horse. Lynda Carter will always be Wonder Woman and Lou Farigno will always be the Hulk and we’re still waiting for Toby McGuire to find a plum role that doesn’t require a Spider-Man costume. Then again, Hugh Jackman has found roles beyond Wolverine, Christian Bale has done plenty beyond the Dark Knight and we’ve already mentioned that Robert Downy, Jr. has another franchise going.

Typecasting is something that all successful actors have to contend with and frankly there are hundreds of thousands of other out-of-work actors who would kill to be so “cursed”. Another reason for Keaton’s dry spell might have been the very reason why he became so famous in the first place and why he made an effective Batman, his uniqueness. Like it or not, it’s usually the more handsome leading men, like Tom Cruise, or the everyman, like Bruce Willis, that get the most work. A fireball of energy like Keaton can at times seem like a square peg to the guys at Central Casting. Woody Allen originally cast Keaton in The Purple Rose of Cairo as the matinée idol who becomes Mia Farrow’s love interest. Alas, Allen realized early on that Keaton could never pass for a romantic leading man in the 1930’s. He was let go and replaced by Jeff Daniels.

And then in 2012 his twenty-years of typecasting worked to his advantage when he landed the lead role in Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), playing an actor who has never been able to find a role that could equal his turn as the eponymous superhero. The film was a hit, won the Oscar for Best Picture and many people think that Keaton should have gotten an Oscar as well. Either way, he immediately landed another plum role in the following years Best Picture winner, Spotlight. Last year Keaton gave one of the best performances of his career playing Ray Kroc in The Founder. Just this week Keaton has been getting high marks for playing the villain in Spider-Man: Homecoming. He’s also slated to play the ringmaster in Disney’s umpteenth live-action re-embalming of one of their animated classics, Dumbo, which will also re-unite him with Tim Burton.

I mentioned that Keaton gave one of his best performances in The Founder. Prior to that a friend of mine asked me what I thought Keaton’s best performance was? Batman obviously came to mind and he was really good in Clean and Sober. I must confess that I was never a big fan of Beetlejuice, though he was quite amusing. I also always found Mr. Mom to be icky. But one early Michael Keaton film that wasn’t a big hit but has a real big place in my heart is the 1984 cult favorite Johnny Dangerously, a spoof on the gangster films of the 1930’s and 40’s.

The film begins in 1935. Well, sort of. The whole film is one big living cartoon filled with anachronistic jokes. When we first meet Keaton as the title character he’s working as the proprietor of a pet shop. A typical 1930’s street urchin comes in and tries to steal a puppy. Alas, an alarm goes off. Turns out Johnny attached an anti-theft tag to the dog’s tail, which set off the alarm. Such things were relatively new in 1984 and they sure as hell didn’t exist in 1935. “Go ahead, call the cops,” the kid yells in a typical Brooklyn accent of the period. “You think you’re pretty tough, eh kid?” Soon Johnny begins to tell the kid where a life of crime will get him. When the screen starts to get blurry and some harp music plays the kid asks what’s going on. “Eh, don’t worry, it’ll end in a couple of minutes,” Johnny assures the boy. “It always does this when I talk about the past.” Yup, it’s that kind of movie.

“Immigrants poured into America from all over the world, looking for a better life for their children,” says Johnny. “And over 97% of them settled in a two block area of New York City.” We meet young Johnny (Byron Thames), who was then called Johnny Kelly, a resourceful youngster making a living by selling papers on the street. Unfortunately he has a rival named Danny Vermin (Greg Olden), a nasty fellow who cuts the leash of a seeing-eye-dog, causing his blind owner to walk right out into traffic. He and Johnny get into a scuffle. It catches the eye of a gangster named Jocko Dundee (the late, great Peter Boyle). Seeing that Johnny has plenty of moxie, he tells him that if he’d like to make a fifty he should stop by the Club Maronie that evening. The offer suddenly seems enticing when he goes home and catches the doctor paying his mother a house call. She’s gonna need an operation, $49.95 (this week only).

We meet his mother (Maureen Stapleton, who just a couple of years earlier won an Oscar for the film Reds), a stereotypically loving Irish mother. It happens to be her birthday. “How does it feel to be twenty-nine?” he asks. “It’ll be a miracle if I see thirty,” she answers. We also see his younger brother Tommy, a wide-eyed little scamp who reads law books and colors in pictures of Oliver Wendell Holmes. “You’re father always did want you to be a lawyer,” Ma says, looking at a picture of her late husband dressed in prison stripes and strapped into an electric chair. “God knows he could have used one.” With a sick mom and a kid brother with a future. Johnny has no other choice. He decides to take Mr. Dundee up on his offer.

Jocko Dundee arrives at the nightclub/casino, run by Dundee’s archrival, Roman Maronie (Richard Dimitri), a hot-tempered Italian immigrant with a horrendous grasp on the English language (“You fugging iceholes!” “You cork suckars!”) Johnny arrives soon after, smuggling a pistol in a newspaper for Dundee. What ensues is a crazy slapstick fight where Johnny manages to take on Maronie’s henchmen and save Dundee’s life. “From now on you’re my boy.” When Dundee asks his name he answers “Johnny. Johnny Dangerously.” Flashing back to the present, the adult Johnny tells his young friend “Boy, I should never have picked that name.”

The story progresses and Johnny grows up “you’re typical poverty-stricken teenager.” We then see Johnny entertaining a young girl by doing the Charleston. But this being a mid-1980’s comedy, Johnny starts to breakdance, culminating in a wicked windmill. Another great Reagan era gag has a black guy walking down the street carrying a cathedral radio on his shoulder like a boom box.

Alas, Ma Kelly continues to need pricey medical care, and so Johnny joins the Dundee gang full-time. Back in the old neighborhood Johnny becomes a hero. Everyone in the neighborhood knows him as a gangster. Everyone that is except for Ma and Tommy.

And things aren’t great between them either. Tommy announces that he’s going to drop out of law school to get married. Why can’t Tommy wait until after he graduates?

Tommy: I can’t say it in front of Ma. 

Ma: I know why. You want to get laid.

 

Oh yes, it’s that type of movie.

Later Tommy shows up at Johnny’s penthouse where he has a bevy of scantily clad molls hanging around him. Ah, but Johnny’s here to set Tommy straight. He takes him into the bedroom and shows him…a film. Not a stag film but rather a medical film appropriately titled Your Testicles and You. If you ever wondered what it would have been like if Max Fleischer made an animated sex-ed film then here’s your chance.

Things continue to hurdle forward. Johnny meets a singer named Lil Sheridan, played by the radiant redhead Merilu Henner from Taxi (much as I loved that show I must say that if a woman that beautiful were driving a taxi cab overnight in New York in the seventies she’s de a statistic before the end of her first shift). At first they engage in a bit of Howard Hawksian banter, with Lil pretending she doesn’t like Johnny. Needless to say, they become an item.

Johnny also find himself with a rival when a Danny Vermin, the kid he used to knock heads with in the old neighborhood.

 

Danny: I’ve fulfilled a lot of people’s predictions about me. I’ve become a real scumbag.

Johnny: Good for you Danny. A lot of people go their whole lives without finding out what they want to be.

 

The grown up Danny is played by Joe Piscopo, the New Jersey native who joined the cast of Saturday Night Live during the 1980-1981 season, generally considered to be the franchises nadir. He was one of only two cast members to return the following fall. The other was Eddie Murphy. Essentially, from 1981 to 1984 SNL was The Eddie Murphy Show, yet Piscopo gained a fair amount of attention for his impersonations of Andy Rooney, Ted Koppel and especially Frank Sinatra. As one writer put it, “Eddie’s success went to Joe’s head.” Sadly he would never cross the Rubicon that many SNL alumni have and achieve movie stardom. Still, he’s damned funny in this film. One of the films best running gags involves Danny’s fairly idle threats. When Johnny hangs him on a hook Danny tells him “you shouldn’t hang me on a hook. My father hung me on a hook once. Once!

When Tommy finally graduates from law school he informs his big brother that instead of starting up a law practice he’s decided to join the D.A.’s office and fight crime. Fortunately the D.A. (Danny DeVito, another Taxi alum) is on the payroll. One of the cleverest scenes has Tommy showing up at the D.A.’s mansion with evidence to put Johnny Dangerously (who he doesn’t suspect is actually his brother) behind bars. That’s when the D.A. makes a proposition to Tommy. His dinning room suddenly becomes the set of a game show with tons of fabulous prizes! “And all of this can be yours if you’re willing to Play Ball!”

I guess by now you know that Johnny Dangerously is basically one big Helzapoppin’ style gagfest. Indeed, it could earn the title of being the best movie Mel Brooks never made. Director Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, National Lampoon’s European Vacation, Clueless) must have studied every gangster film that Warner Brothers ever put out. Michael Keaton’s model for the title character was clearly James Cagney, one of my personal favorite actors of all time. Lots of people have done impressions of Cagney over the years. Before playing The Riddler on the Batman TV series Frank Gorshin was best known as a Rich Little-like impressionist, Cagney being his specialty. Yet Keaton doesn’t imitate Cagney. He instead captures the actors swagger while creating a personality all his own.

Two people who must get a special shout-out are the film’s production designer, Joseph R. Jenning’s. He creates a sort of exaggerated art deco that seems like it would be right at home in a film of the era but at the same time is just funny to look at. Another is “Weird Al” Yankovick. Best known for his parodies of Top 40 hits, Yankovick has written his share of original songs and for this film he wrote a delightful gem called “This is the Life” (see the music video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N1n5XqwUkYw). For legal reasons it was not available on the original VHS release but thankfully it’s been re-instated for the DVD.

Once when I described Johnny Dangerously to someone they said that they didn’t think this movie would fly today (it barely took off in 1984, commercially speaking) because while people know The Godfather, Goodfellas and The Sopranos no one under a certain age has ever seen a gangster film with Cagney or Edward G. Robinson. Perhaps though when I first saw the movie I was not yet all that familiar with the depression era cops and robbers films. I was also unfamiliar with the “disaster” epics of the seventies (which I’m still not that big a fan of) yet I thought Airplane! was a riot. And of course what makes some people laugh isn’t going to work on everyone. I thought The Hangover was just okay, I hated Bridesmaids and Bad Moms and I think both the British and American versions of The Office are unwatchable, even though I like many of the actors from both versions (also, Amy Heckerling has directed some episodes of the American version). Still, Johnny Dangerously is my kind of comedy and if you like your jokes to be post modern and flying at you like bullets from a tommy gun then it’s probably yours too.

 

SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927)

The Best Movies You (Probably) Never Heard Of

sunrise

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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SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927)

Source: SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927)

SUNRISE: A SONG OF TWO HUMANS (1927)

sunrise

 

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.

couldnt-she-get-drowned

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

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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)

frailty_47

 

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cn73Wtem0No

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.
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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.

 

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