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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Selections from my October Film Diary + Terrific new Streaming Service

Exploring the realm of the macabre and supernatural in film during October seems to be a ritual among classic movie fans.  It was great fun to join in this year, and while the horror genre is not my favorite, I'm highlighting some of my discoveries that span six-plus decades of film.

Island of Lost Souls (1932, D. Erle C. Kenton).  This is the first film version of the H.G. Wells story about a semi-mad scientist holed up on a remote island conducting experiments that turn animals into half-human hybrids.  (It was remade as The Island of Dr. Moreau twice in the later part of the 20th century.  Alas I've not seen either of these, but neither are considered classics.)  However, this earlier film is a fascinating early 'talkie' offering in the horror genre.   Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams star as the protagonists, and Bela Lugosi shows up in a small unrecognizable part after coming off his box office success as Dracula, but the major star, and the main reason one should watch this film, is Charles Laughton.  A terrific actor (and one-time director), he is deliciously diabolical as Dr. Moreau, but retains a human edge.  To my taste he doesn't overplay it. His dark hair and goatee really suit him.  I will say this one is decidedly not suitable for those sensitive to racist or sexist elements in their movie choices.  There is a detailed and fun review of this one at here (although Danny does not share my enthusiasm for Laughton's performance).  The DVD is on the Criterion Collection label.  The trailer is here:

The first appearance of 'the man' portrayed by
director Herk Harvey himself.
Carnival of Souls (1962, D. Herk Harvey).  Sticking with the 'souls' theme, a completely different film made three decades later, is a low-budget masterpiece.  I had not seen this until this past month, but learned that it's now a cult classic.  Made by Centron, a small outfit in my former hometown of Lawrence, KS. known primarily for industrial and educational productions, this was the director's and writer John Clifford's pet project while on vacation. They shot on a budget of some $30,000, and used location settings in and around Lawrence, including an organ factory I vaguely recall visiting as a child.  Harvey & company also resurrected a real abandoned carnival pavilion "Saltair" at the edge of the Great Salt Lake in Utah -- thus giving the film its name.   Also available in a gorgeous blu-ray by Criterion, it's fantastically eerie and unsettling, kind of a cross between the Twilight Zone TV series and Night of the Living Dead.  It has a surreal air about it and all the characters are just a bit 'off.'  It appears most of the budget was spent on cinematography -- it's so beautiful and creative.  A great choice was the use of a single organ score to accompany the film.

The main character is Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), who survives a car that drove off a bridge, and decides to start a new life as a church organist in Utah.  Mysterious live and undead people pop into her life and make it very uncomfortable, for her and for us.  For the moment, you can watch the entire film on YouTube:

The Vanishing (aka Spoorloos), (1988, D. George Sluizer).  This is the first, Dutch/French, version of the story that George Sluizer directed, based on the novel The Golden Egg by Tim Krabbe. It was remade in an American version in 1993 with Kiefer Sutherland, Jeff Bridges, and Sandra Bullock. I've not seen that one.  But I've read enough about it that I doubt I will anytime soon.  The original version is considered to be superior, and yes, it's fantastic.  A young Dutch couple, Rex and Saskia, (Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege), are on vacation in France, driving through the countryside, when Saskia disappears at a gas station in broad daylight.  Her boyfriend, Rex, embarks on a three-year journey to find her, or at least find out what happened, when he encounters the perpetrator, Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a seemingly normal family man with an extraordinarily macabre side.  This film plays with us almost from the beginning, with the jumps back and forth in time, and the fact that we know who the villain is, we just don't know Saskia's exact fate.  Rex and Raymond are on a collision course through most of the film's running time until the unsettling ending.  The thrills are mostly psychological, and its symbolism, both visually and in the script, make it required repeat viewing.  Be warned, though, if you are sensitive to disturbing depictions of the dark side of humanity, you may want to skip it.
Saskia and Rex, happily unaware what's to come.

Raymond, with Saskia in his sights.
The latter two of films were originally brought to my attention by the podcast 'Criterion Close-up', in which film aficionados Aaron West and Mark Hurne discuss films that are released on the Criterion home cinema label.  Criterion is a favorite of cinephiles for their high quality productions of the best films, and their packaging of the films along with unusually generous extras.  And this leads me to endorse a brand new streaming film service called 'Filmstruck'.  (Not a paid commercial endorsement here, but one out of enthusiasm for this service!)  It collects films from Criterion, along with those provided by Turner Classic Movies, into a smorgasbord of offerings of classic, modern, foreign, and arthouse films, along with commentary videos.  Take a look!  I've given up my Netflix membership in favor of this, as I choose to watch film in my spare time, and not episodic series, despite the quality of Netflix offerings in that space.  I was a beta-tester for Filmstruck, and am pleased to have a complimentary membership to the end of the year.  I will definitely renew.

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