starlite recap: all treats, no tricks

alright, another installment of the starlite cinema series is in the books.

the halloween show was spook-tacular (see what i did there?), to say the least. country willie and the zombie apocalypse started things off with a shambling and ravenous set of living dead rock that is eating my brain even as we speak. from there we delved into the cinematic delights the legend of hell house (1973) and troll 2 (1990). we had to cut misterios de ultratumba (1959) due to time constraints (if you think rock shows never start on time, you should try one with fetid corpses), but the double feature was a scream. and, as if all this wasn't enough, on top of the usual movie madness we had extra treats. the annie street arts collective and friends pulled out all the stops for this one. lindsey made gingerbread zombies. our friend adam drew this bloodsoaked poster especially for the event:

and my friend mary made me this triple-decker peanut butter cup cupcake for my birthday:

i need a glass of milk just looking at the picture. it was incredible. the whole evening was a blast. thanks to everyone for coming and a special thanks to annie street and associates for everything they contributed. again, these screenings wouldn't happen without them.

speaking of being thankful, the november lineup is set and we have an old favorite and a sadly underseen gem for you. we are going to start things off with a charlie brown thanksgiving (1973).

yes, i know technically it's a television show, but for charlie brown i'll bend the rules a little. i make up the rules, anyway. i may even dig up a few dolly madison commercials to complete the experience.

our feature presentation is one of my favorite films about food and family, big night (1996).

it tells the story of two brothers, italian immigrants, struggling to keep their failing restaurant afloat in new jersey in the early fifties. one is a businessman, not a very good one, enamored of this new life in the states and committed to success even if it means compromise. the other is an artist in the kitchen, putting his heart into every dish for americans who want nothing more than spaghetti and meatballs. a rival generously offers to set up an evening where louis prima and his band will come in and put the boys on the map, ending their financial woes. the action centers around the preparation for, execution of and fallout from this titular big night. touching but never maudlin, it looks poignantly at artistic versus commercial success, the loss of self that can take place when trading one culture for another and, most importantly, the depth of fraternal bonds. it's beautiful, funny and redemptive and the food in it is unbelievable.

i'll post an update as soon as we get a date solidified. drop by if you can, it would be nice to see you.


a personal appeal

when you are beset by evil on all sides and things look their darkest, you can take whoever you want on your team but i'm sticking with mom.

she may not be handy with a stake, a silver bullet or a crossbow but, when the chips are down, if your mom is anything like mine, she will wade into the mouth of hell for you.

there's an important reason that i bring it up. if you keep up with things around here you may be familiar with the fact that my mom is a badass. her qualifications are many, but the one that is germane to our conversation today is that she is a breast cancer survivor. she's been to hell and back and faced some very real horrors of her own. she is as tough as they come, just one of the many reasons i admire her.

and, if you keep up with things around here, you've met my sister, haylee.

here she is at age eight after having just destroyed the competition with her bride of frankenstein costume (the hair is down, as this is post-carnival, but it was something to behold). we are a serious halloween family from way back.

haylee is participating, on behalf of our mom, in the susan g. komen race for the cure to benefit breast cancer research again this year. here is a link to her personal page. if you have the time, and are so inclined, please click on it and take a look around. she has set a modest goal and every little bit helps. if you are able to donate anything at all, it would be very much appreciated. if that's not an option, feel free to pass the link along if you can. if nothing else, please take a moment and think about your mom, your sister, your wife - all of the women that are important in your life - and let them know you appreciate them.

this is a cause that is near and dear to our hearts, obviously. as more advances are made, more moms and more kids get to have more halloweens, and that is but one good reason to take part. i sincerely appreciate anything you guys do to help haylee or other friends of your own who may be participating and to raise awareness. thanks for reading.

happy birthday to me

one more in the books. i can only hope my party is half as good.


operating by feel

here's an interesting little tidbit. you're familiar with house of wax (1953), right?

it was the early fifties and television was keeping people home in droves so the major studios unleashed the gimmicks to keep patrons coming to the theaters. 3-D was the wave of the future and with house of wax it was promised that "beauty and terror meet right in your seat"! dig out your old 3-D spectacles and check this out:

it's 1953, your competitor just came out with bwana devil (1952) the year before, beating you to the 3-D punch. ok, warner brothers, a lot is riding on this one. who shall we get to helm our first foray into the world of three dimensions? who is best equipped to put this chamber of horrors onscreen that will leap into the audience's lap? turns out, this guy.

that's right, andré de toth. andré de toth with one functioning eye. nothing against the man. he made some of my favorite movies, including this one. i just wish i could've heard his pitch. it must have been a lulu.


trailer tuesday

well, it's the last trailer tuesday of the halloween season and it just wouldn't be right to not have a little vincent price. ladies and gentlemen, i give you the abominable dr. phibes (1971).

this is one of my favorite performances of his and the film itself is gloriously nuts. phibes can only speak through a device which has a hose connected to a gramophone, he employs a clockwork band to provide music when he isn't shredding at the organ and, to avenge his wife's untimely death, his simple plan is to unleash the ten plagues of egypt upon those he deems responsible. yes, it is every bit as great as it sounds. lending a hand in this inspired lunacy are joseph cotten and hammer films beauty, caroline munro. really, see it. it has everything - extravagant art deco set design, tin pan alley automatons, bumbling police, sweet capes, a wicked sense of humor and retribution on a biblical scale. it is grand fun and completely unforgettable.


one man's abomination...

ah, the sweet, sweet lure of forbidden knowledge. we get back to the halloween action with a little look at my second favorite figure in horror cinema, the mad scientist.

i love these characters in all their variations. some are crusaders, working for the benefit of mankind, their eyes fixed on a prize that the rest of us simply cannot fathom. tragically misunderstood, they are often the victims of witch hunts and find their hands forced because to turn their back on their noble goal in the face of threats from philistines is unthinkable. if only they were just given more time...

at the other end of the spectrum we find the megalomaniac whose genius is eclipsed only by a blessed amorality that doesn't blink at the notion of aspiring to godhead. bodies? souls? mere tinkertoys! they have no time for your silly superstitions. take your ethical quandaries and go back to the dark ages, you buffoons!

i admire their eternal quest and unquenchable curiosity. i pull for them, noble and ignoble alike. the mad scientist serves a vital function for all of us. they are the envelope pushers, the boundary smashers. they give us a glimpse of the future and allow us to view it from a place of relative safety. we can sit back and deem them "mad" until it turns out that their crazy ideas - keeping organs alive for transplants, cloning, doomsday weapons - become business as usual for the generation that follows. they put their reputations and sanity on the line for all of us. plus, they have much cooler laboratories than any of those squares that do things by the book. do you think you'll find one of those gadgets with huge switches and sparks flying everywhere in the basement at johns hopkins? i should say not. here are a few of my favorite cinema scientists and their work. mad? who are we to judge?

a toast! to science!


rainbows end

i wanted to take a quick break from the halloween festivities to tell you about something i saw at the austin film festival today. the film is called rainbows end (2010) and i was lucky enough to get to attend its world premiere this afternoon.

it was directed by eric hueber, also the drummer in the band being chronicled, and is a hugely entertaining mix of experimental narrative and outsider art documentary. it follows the story of a group of eccentric east texans all on a collision course with california for one reason or another. the band, country willie and the cosmic debris, is on the way there for a recording session at the behest of the legendary stardust cowboy and a west coast tour seems like the most logical thing to do to cover that ground. of course, they'll need an opening act. who better than peter the band? peter, a singer of questionable talent but undeniable nerve, wishes/thinks/lives as if it is perpetually 1978. you shouldn't undertake a trip like this without a guide and that's where audrey dean comes in. audrey dean is an amateur parapsychologist and baton twirler extraordinaire on his way to the los angeles gay and lesbian center to use their resources to "learn the internet". throw in a busdriver/mechanic who has wrangled his way onto the tour so he can take his prize roosters to hollywood to make it big in the movies and the troupe is complete.

here's a quick look.

ultimately, what this movie is is a love letter to everyone who is crazy/gutsy enough to take their shot, those oddballs and down-and-outers who create their own universes that we end up celebrating twenty years after they're gone once hipster record store clerks "discover" them. well, you don't have to wait. hueber's film allows you to celebrate them right now, so get out there and do it. austinites, you have one more chance to see it this week at the texas spirit theater on wednesday, 10.27.10, at 10 p.m. everyone else, keep an eye on the festival circuit or visit their website for updates.

the film is very funny, but it's no joke. the one thing that i hope doesn't get lost in all this is that it's not a put-on. it may be fashioned into a narrative and is clever and occasionally tongue in cheek but the biggest reason it's funny is because it's true. this is willie and company every day, cameras or no cameras. they just happen to be hilariously bent. it's also bittersweet, rewarding and a true labor of love. it took seven years to finish and its production history, with its many ups and downs, completely reflects the fact that everyone involved truly believes in the central tenet of the film - get out there and make your weird-ass dreams a reality.

if you'd like to see willie in the flesh, he is playing a set of his zombie tunes at our starlite cinema series halloween spook show. that link contains the lineup and a link to the facebook event page. feel free to drop by and get a dose of weirdness in person.

p.s. support your local filmmakers.


vital-graph: the old dark house

this is the inaugural entry in what will be an ongoing series where i want to discuss the films that matter most to me. the only criterion that they will share is that they are indispensable to me, my desert island selections. some are established classics, some are definitely not, some occupy the grey space in between...

no better time than halloween to roll out this first choice, the one film i have watched more than any other, james whale's the old dark house (1932).

in the midst of establishing their dominance in the realm of early american horror cinema, universal studios picked up the rights to j.b. priestley's 1927 novel benighted, published in the states a year later as the old dark house. it's a darkly comic book, rife with the class-consciousness that permeates so much of the greatest work, literary and otherwise, from the UK. it ends on a decidedly more downbeat note than the film and the disillusionment of the post-world war one generation is much more keenly felt throughout. it's a distinctly different experience from the film and i recommend it highly as well.

my battered and beloved paperback copy from 1945.

universal turned over the reins of production for this adaptation to james whale in the wake of his success with frankenstein (1931) and it was most certainly an inspired choice. he was at the peak of his powers in the early thirties and few, if any, were as adept as him at combining deep black humor with literate eccentricity and gothic atmosphere. the alchemy of this particular production was so potent that he essentially defined a genre, and not for the first time either.

the film begins with a trio of travelers navigating the welsh countryside in a downpour so vicious they would be better off with a boat rather than their touring car. it is a deluge approaching biblical proportions and tempers in the car are frayed. after narrowly escaping a landslide (a nice piece of miniature work), in the distance they spy the lights burning in the titular house. sensibly, they stop to ask for shelter. it's the last sensible thing that happens for the next seventy minutes.

they are greeted at the door by the mumbling and menacing morgan, played by boris karloff, who is so unrecognizable from his previous turn as frankenstein's monster that there is a message prior to the film assuring you, the viewer, that this is indeed the man you came to see. here he is the drunken, savage and mute butler. he bids/grunts them entry and there we are introduced to the skeletal horace femm, the urbane and timorous half of the sibling pair that maintains the household. "my sister was on the point of arranging these flowers", he says, as he throws them into the fire and if it wasn't obvious before it certainly is now - we are through the looking glass. the other half of the sibling pair, the rigid, zealous and somewhat deaf rebecca femm, bursts in shrilly soon thereafter. if you're paying attention you may notice that she intimates that there are no beds available for our weary travelers. after a quick change of clothes for mrs. waverton, dinner is served!

another pair of travelers arrive, the nouveau riche sir william porterhouse and his chorus girl companion, setting up our collision of class quite nicely. charles laughton, in this role, is almost the storm's equal in terms of bluster but is shut down quite handily by ernest thesiger's delivery of the most unexpectedly funny line of the film - "have a potato". the after dinner conversation begins to strain the civility of the assembled and provides the excuse for our shifting groups to explore the house and take up the lackluster romantic subplot. in the meantime, morgan is in the kitchen drinking himself into a violent stupor and stumbles back to the dining room with bad intentions only to be subdued. while he is sleeping it off, the secrets of the house slowly begin to reveal themselves. mr. and mrs. waverton discover the ancient, invalid patriarch of the femm family upstairs and are treated to another take on the femms' twisted family history. meanwhile, downstairs, the newly lovestruck penderel crosses paths with the black sheep of the family, saul, who, with his knife-throwing and pyromania, makes the rest of the femm clan look positively stable. saul's attempt to burn down the house is thwarted but not without casualties. amidst the wreckage of the house, an uneasy calm settles as day begins to dawn and the only thing that is sure is that no one is going to be the same after so much quality time with the femm family.

there are two reasons this film has lodged itself so firmly in my head and my heart. the first is the consummate skill with which it is executed. the production design is striking. the sets are a mass of nearly impossible angles, even the shadows have shadows. there is a wonderful segment where gloria stuart is playing at casting shadow puppets on the dining room wall which shockingly transform into one of our hosts. the expressionist touches even extend as far as ernest thesiger's nostrils.

the cast is top notch. the film is the american film debut of ernest thesiger, charles laughton and raymond massey and the entire ensemble is photographed beautifully in a series of carefully composed and ever-shifting groups that subtly highlight the cycle of peculiar relationships that evolve and devolve over the course of one long evening. the sound design is elegant and clever. there is only music over the credit sequences so the sound of the storm raging outside functions as the score, with thunder providing punctuation for some scenes and rising winds accompanying the more tumultuous sections. everyone involved, not just whale, were at the top of their game for this one.

the other reason it sticks with me is because this thing is so far ahead of its time. the class-consciousness that was central to priestley's novel is actually overridden by persistent questions of morality and sexuality throughout the film. the femm family lives in a house divided. on one side you have the blasphemous and flamboyant horace and wicked and worldly roderick, on the other you have the pious rebecca and the mad saul. it is a division that will eventually be reconciled only by fire and death. james whale's perverse sense of humor is on display with the casting of noted british stage actress elspeth (billed as "john") dudgeon as the family patriarch. you also have the luminous gloria stuart showing a fair amount of her lovely, alabaster skin for 1932.

the way the cast completely gives themselves over to the offbeat material also provides the film with its longevity. it's such a strange combination of suspense and odd comedy but they seem to wholly believe in it. they don't treat it like a B picture, that's certain. ernest thesiger thoroughly inhabits the character of horace femm. every line is fraught with multiple interpretations, at least two of them hilarious. every arched eyebrow is withering. of all the cast, though, brember wills' portrayal of saul is probably the most committed, the most pivotal. he's only onscreen for a few minutes but his transformation from victim to madman is staggering. he simply cannot hold the mask of sanity together and the way he lets the crazy progressively show through the cracks is riveting. i would be hard pressed to think of a better example of maniacal glee in cinema. in the middle of the fight with melvyn douglas he bites his throat (a scene that was edited out of the 1939 reissue). he is completely out of control and it is perfect. he'd definitely rather light a candle than curse your darkness.

and, even though it probably makes me crazier than saul on some level, i wish i could live in this movie. the thunder and the rain, the fire and the brawls, the old matrons and the chorus girls - i love it all. i love it because it's never obvious, it's meticulous but it never does the thing that is expected. i've seen it dozens of times. i will, most likely, see it dozens more before i am through and it will always surprise and delight me. it will always welcome me home.

get your hands on a copy when you can!


trailer tuesday

this week's entry is for werner herzog's nosferatu the vampyre (1979).

this trailer is in english, as two versions of the film were made concurrently - one in german and one in english in hopes of finding a bigger audience in the states. i have seen the film in both versions - twice in the theater and countless times at home - and would really encourage you to watch the version in german if you have the choice. there is a quality of unease in the german version not present in the english. if you know me, you know of my fondness for herzog, kinski and german cinema in general. this film has so much of what i love about all of that bound up in it. the stylized work of german pioneers is filtered through the "new german cinema" to astounding effect. instead of danger to life and limb this time, herzog's recklessness manifests itself by putting his artistic reputation in harm's way in taking on one of the definitive films in all of german cinematic history. the ghost of murnau's original shows up periodically in this as some iconic shots are reproduced but herzog and kinski craft a sympathetic villain all their own. the vermin that max schreck orignally essayed evolves into a haunted, tortured abomination feasting on scraps, bitterly lonely. the pace can be glacial at times but this is only a positive for me, as i think it better establishes the otherworldly feeling necessary to immerse yourself in the film. you feel disjointed, stranded in the gloaming. popol vuh's score contributes mightily to that as well. before you know it, you're not sure what lies ahead. are you facing the longest, loneliest and most dangerous part of the night or should you be racing for that ruined abbey, fearful that you won't outrun that cock's crow?


entering the lists

do you know what i detest about the blogosphere? lists.

to clarify, i don't mean the cahiers du cinéma's 100 greatest films, year-end reviews (though we see too many of those) or occasional valid takes on an interesting subject in list form. i am referring to the daily flood of blogs that rely almost entirely on devices like this "top ten half-assed ideas we came up with once we realized generating good content every day is difficult", "seven things for vacuous morons who prefer 'factoids' to knowledge" and "five juxtapositions that are 'totally crazy' tied together by the lamest of premises" garbage. try getting off your lazy asses and writing something insightful once in a while.

to send this message most effectively, i figured the best way was to get down and wallow in their filth with them, speak their language, as it were. and, in keeping with the halloween theme, i scoured all of horror filmdom to generate what is probably the only list you will ever see on vitagraph, american. ladies and gentlemen...

the top ten ways i would dispatch bloggers who do nothing but write bullshit lists!

10. hatchet (2006) - we'll kick things off with this doozy. "any good ideas in there? nope."

9. the texas chain saw massacre (1974) - in this scenario i equate you and your blog with franklin. that says everything that needs to be said.

8. friday the 13th part VIII: jason takes manhattan (1989) - you weren't using it anyway.

7. city of the living dead (1980) - your ceaseless lists make me want to vomit my guts out so i figure it's only fair.

6. inside (2007) - oops! hope that doesn't interfere with your typing!

5. black christmas (1974) - is that the bag your maxim subscription came in?

4. pet sematary (1989) - i like to use a child to underscore your feebleness.

3. zombi 2 (1979) - i have a hilarious idea for "eight things you can't do without depth perception"!

2. halloween (2007) - only one thing would be more satisfying than crushing your throat with my bare hands...

1. psycho (1960) - and that one thing would be that you saw the error of your ways. you thought "maybe i'll try to fix this. i'll go back, apologize, try to set things right. no more banal and vapid filler. only substantial, unique and thoughtful work from now on. huzzah! it's a new day! it's the first day of the rest of my life! all i need now is a good, hot shower to wash the stench of the old me away once and for all. ah, purifying waters..." then i would end you. i would reduce your redemption to a hollow and meaningless void.

i think this is one of my top ten posts of all time.