La Jetee/Sans Soleil (Dir. Chris Marker, 1962/1983)
Told in a series of still photographs that, through dissolves, the pace of editing & artful sound design, achieve a kind of meta-motion, La Jetee is one of French filmmaker Marker’s few forays into narrative film. Mostly known as an experimental documentary director (although Terry Gilliam’s “remake” of La Jetee, 12 Monkeys, has given it a popular boost in the Marker oeuvre), Marker’s film seems to be science fiction, but most of the images are from post-war France, or somehow bring to mind concentration camps, occupation, and resistance. It’s a love story not unlike the one in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with odd time travel elements, and a melancholy, pervasive sense of doom throughout. The Criterion set also includes Sans Soleil, a meditation on the failures & successes of a particularly French brand of radical politics (notably May ’68, the general strike that brought about the downfall of the De Gaulle government), and a film more indicative of the full body of the filmmaker’s work. A female narrator reads from the letters of globe-trotting cameraman Sandor Krasna while Marker shows us images of such exotic locales as Japan, Iceland & Africa. The sections on Japan appear strikingly prescient for 1983, all but predicting the rise of digital culture. While all of these elements may sound wildly disparate, the whole is transfixing & quite effective. Highly recommended.
The Nightcomers (Dir. Michael Winner, 1972)
A kind of prequel to Henry James’ haunting Turn of the Screw, this unnecessary & quite daft muddle trades murk for atmosphere, fetishism for sensuality, and mush-mouthed anachronisms for the subtle gothic underpinnings of the original. Brando, as the brutish Quint, climbs trees, explodes frogs, and speaks in the kind of Irish brogue mustered by pub-crawling Minnesotans on St. Patrick’s Day. One must remember this is the phase of Brando’s demented career that also spawned his calico bonnet-wearing bounty hunter in Arthur Penn’s Missouri Breaks, the completely enigmatic blond kidnapper in Night of the Following Day, the bearded cosmic guru who lives in the back of a semi-truck in Candy, and the cotton-jowled Mafia don in Coppola’s The Godfather (a performance no less crazed for being universally lauded). There’s some nudity, but it’s mostly Brando, who taunts matronly Thora Hird with the threat of his nakedness. It’s hard to remember what her response is, but ours is a resounding, “Yuck, God almighty, no. Really. Please, no.” The two child actors, lonely over-educated delinquents with ghosts for friends, must be first-rate to make their performances work (see Jack Clayton’s marvelous 1961 adaptation, The Innocents), but these two moppets, Verna Harvey & Christopher Ellis are militant non-actors, which is to say, they cannot, for the bloody lives of them, act at all. If you’re a fan of watching Brando go slowly insane, which I am, there’s much to snigger over while watching The Nightcomers. If you’re after anything, and I do mean ANYTHING else, keep moving…
Panic in Needle Park (Dir. Jerry Schatzberg, 1971)
Upper West Side junkies on the go, Kitty Winn & Al Pacino, find grim solace in horse and one another. Winn, emotionally wounded after an illegal abortion demanded by her unfaithful boyfriend Raul Julia, meets up with crafty hood Pacino & they fall in love, sort of. Written by Joan Didion & John Gregory Dunne, Panic in Needle Park is a haunting study of need & emotional depravation, but it doesn’t go down easy. The narrative is an unrelenting downward spiral & some of the shots of NYC’s “Needle Park” have a documentary candor that will surely make you flinch once or twice. While it’s no secret that Pacino is an actor’s actor, it’s Winn (Exorcist, Exorcist II: The Heretic, Peeper) who steals the show here.
Pick-up/The Teacher (Dir. Bennie Hirschenson, 1975/Howard Avedis, 1974)
While The Teacher is a slightly above-average high school wish-fulfillment sexploitation film made somewhat watchable by the presence of a voyeuristic psycho played by the great Anthony James (…tick…tick…tick, Vanishing Point, Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven), the real find in this Grindhouse Double Feature is Pick-Up. Two girls -- one a happy-go-lucky freak shamelessly letting her freak flag fly, the other a very strange occultist who spends most of the film having acid-soaked visions based on her Tarot readings & surreal memories of being molested by her priest as a child – hitch a ride with a pretty likable hippie (who looks a lot like a blond Gram Parsons, wearing a weird kind of Nudie Union Suit) named Chuck. Chuck is driving a large, pretty awesome mobile home across Florida for a crusty, cigar-chomping salesman who keeps yelling at him over a wall-mounted telephone behind the driver’s seat. When a hurricane strikes, the mobile home is stuck in the swamp & Chuck & the happy hippie girl frolic naked in the bayou for what seems like hours. Meanwhile the dark, brooding Manson girl is visited by straw-hat wearing senatorial candidate who wants to tell her whatever she wants to hear, a mystical black goddess in a flowing cape, and the creepiest clown EVER committed to celluloid. She writhes naked on a big white altar in the middle of the swamp, has visions of playing a church organ & spouts cryptic nonsense in voice-over. When it’s her turn to bed Chuck, they do it on the altar while the other girl is raped & killed by the toothless rednecks not chosen for John Boorman’s Deliverance. The music is a crazed mix of synthesizer skree, wild guitar psychedelia & pretty spooky freak folk. A dated curio for sure, but WHAT a curio. Highly recommended.
Trog (Dir. Freddie Francis, 1970)
Aging anthropologist (!?!) Joan Crawford, armed with her “hypo-gun,” engages in a battle of the wills with a prehistoric troglodyte (A “trog,” for those of us in the know), while wearing a series of quite comely multi-colored lab smocks. Now, Joan Crawford knows a little something about battles of the will. She faced off against Coca-Cola, Louis B. Mayer, Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? & even an axe-wielding version of herself in Strait Jacket! So, why not a shambling Neanderthal? Until you’ve Joan play Annie Sullivan to Trog’s hairy Helen Keller, you just haven’t lived. Rush down to Vulcan & rent this immediately or my respect for you will diminish greatly. I see you there, standing at the New Release shelves, wondering if you’ll ever get to see Stephen Frears’ The Queen, Almodovar’s Volver, or that Reno 911 movie, but I’ll bet you dollars to doughnuts Trog is in, just sulking there amidst the Just In section, eagerly awaiting your hungry eyes!
Vigilante (Dir. William Lustig, 1983)
Lustig produced more exploitation films than anyone other than Roger Corman & David F. Friedman & directed The Violation of Claudia (1977) & the Maniac Cop series. Here he helms a Death Wish-style revenge flick that benefits greatly from the combined exploitation chops of Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, Medium Cool), Fred Williamson (M*A*S*H, Three the Hard Way, Hell Up in Harlem), Joe Spinell (Rancho Deluxe, Taxi Driver, Winter Kills), and Woody Strode (The Gatling Gun, Kingdom of the Spiders, Che!). Forster’s wife & child are killed by a very strangely dressed gang of street thugs (like those weird, pretty harmless bubblegum motorcycle gangs Jackie Chan always fights, only deadly serious) in one of the most brutal onscreen child murders since Assault on Precinct 13. The whole movie revels in over-the-top violence but also takes thoughtful, unexpected plot turns into grey areas of vigilantism, and contains some pretty smart scenes for this genre. Recommended for the cast & some great moral curveballs.
Who Can Kill a Child? (Dir. Narciso Ibanez Serrador, 1976)
A great, nearly forgotten, entry into the Creepy Brood of Killer Children genre (The Brood, Devil Times Five, Village of the Damned, etc.), Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? is a methodically-paced stunner shot on an island off the coast of Spain. In it, a reasonably happy married couple, expecting their first child, vacation to an island the husband visited years before. There’s nothing at all remarkable about this couple except that they’re about to have a baby. The island seems to be deserted, but soon it becomes apparent that the children have murdered off most of the adults after realizing that looking darling will often keep them from being mowed down like the evil urchins they really are. Opportunistic bastards! The scene in which the husband is finally forced to shoot a child is as shocking & yet beautifully-filmed as any in the history of cinema. Very little motivation is given for the children’s behavior, unless you count the first ten minutes of the film, in which we are deluged with documentary footage of children abused in Nazi concentration camps, Biafra & Vietnam. A very spooky, stylistically unique horror film. Highly recommended.