Queen of the Outlaws: CAT BALLOU (Columbia 1965)

Lee Marvin  didn’t get many chances to show his comedic side; in fact, I can only think of two off the top of my head: the John Wayne/John Ford outing DONOVAN’S REEF (1963) and the 1976 spoof THE GREAT SCOUT AND CATHOUSE THURSDAY (I’ll be charitably silent about 1969’s PAINT YOUR WAGON!).  Then there’s the comedy western CAT BALLOU, for which Marvin won an Oscar in the dual roles of drunken, broken down outlaw Kid Shelleen and hired killer Tim Strawn. Marvin’s marvelous, but if the truth be told, it wasn’t much of a stretch for Marvin to play a hard drinker and a macho tough guy… there’s a little bit of Lee in both personas!

We know we’re in for a good time right off the get-go when the fabled Columbia Torch Lady morphs into an animated, six-gun packin’ cowgirl, a sure sign not to take things too seriously. CAT BALLOU concerns prim young Catherine Ballou returning to Wolf City, Wyoming to become a schoolteacher only to find her father’s ranch being threatened by the railroad company. When her father is killed at the hand of silver-nosed Strawn, Cat seeks revenge on the railroad along with her compatriots Clay Boone, a cowardly cattle rustler who’s hot for Cat, Clay’s Uncle Jed, who passes himself off as a man of the cloth, and ranch hand Jackson Two Bears. Cat hires a gunslinger of her own, the notorious Kid Shelleen, whom she’s read about in dime novels. What she gets is a broken-down drunk who literally can’t hit the side of a barn without a few belts in him!

Cat and company ride out to the infamous Hole in the Wall to meet the fearsome Butch Cassidy, who’s not so fearsome any longer… Cassidy and his gang are all old and decrepit now! But Cat’s determined to avenge her father’s death, starting by pulling off a daring train robbery. Then it’s on to railroad boss Sir Harry Percival, where she disguises herself as a hooker named ‘Trixie’, and winds up accidentally shooting the lustful old codger, arrested for murder, and sentenced to hang…

Marvin first appears rolling out the back of a stagecoach, and proceeds to steal the show with his comic antics. He’s half in the bag most of the time, but my favorite scene occurs when Shelleen tries to sober up and get back in shape for a showdown with Strawn, assisted by Two Bears. He takes a bath for the first time in years, then is strapped into a corset and dons his old gunfighter clothing and pearl-handled Colts ready to do battle with the enemy. The fact that Marvin plays both Shelleen and Strawn means that Lee Marvin actually ends up gunning down himself! The Academy should’ve given Lee two Oscars for that!

Jane Fonda  stars as Cat, who goes from wide-eyed innocent to outlaw queen. The movie was made during Jane’s formative film years, and the surprise hit did a lot to boost her stock as an actress to be reckoned with in the future. Jane fits right in with the Western milieu, as befits the daughter of oater favorite Henry Fonda . Michael Callan (Clay) and Dwayne Hickman (Jed) get their best screen roles in this one, and Tom Nardini (Two Bears) is a favorite of mine from AIP exploitation fare like THE YOUNG SAVAGES and THE DEVIL’S 8. John Marley plays Cat’s dad, Reginald Denny is villainous Sir Harry, and sagebrush vets Bruce Cabot , Arthur Hunnicut (as Butch Cassidy), Jay C. Flippen , and Burt Mustin appear in small roles.

One fun aspect of CAT BALLOU is the presence of Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye as wandering minstrels acting as a Greek chorus throughout the film. If Cole’s velvet voice sounds a bit gruffer than usual, it’s because he was suffering from the lung cancer that eventually killed him, four months before the movie was released. The pair stroll along singing “The Ballad of Cat Ballou”, written for the film by Mack David and Jerry Livingston, which also earned the film an Oscar nomination. Frank DeVol’s score, Chris Nelson’s editing, and the screenplay by Walter Newman and Frank Pierson were nominated, as well. Director Elliot Silverstein marks his feature debut; he would go on to helm only five others, including the Richard Harris Western A MAN CALLED HORSE. Straddling the fence between comedy and Western can be tough, and most are played too broadly, but in CAT BALLOU Silverstein and his game cast (especially Marvin) and crew make it work, and it’s one of the genre’s best. This CAT is sleek entertainment, and a whole lot of fun!



Hiding in Plain Sight: THE FRONT (Columbia 1976)

When a film gets labeled as a “comedy-drama”, chances are good you’re in for an uneven film. Such is the case with THE FRONT, Martin Ritt’s 1976 movie about the 1950’s blacklist. There are plenty of things to like about the movie, especially in the performances, but the somewhat heavy-handed script by Walter Bernstein results in an undeniably mixed bag.

Woody Allen  stars as Howard Prince, a lowly cashier perpetually up to his glasses in gambling debts, whose childhood friend Alfred Miller (Michael Murphy) is a blacklisted TV writer. Miller asks Howard to “front” for him, putting his name on Miller’s scripts so the networks will buy them, in return for a 10% commission. Soon the network clamors for more of Howard’s “work”, and he begins fronting for two other blacklisted writers. Although Woody didn’t write or direct THE FRONT, he’s still basically playing his nebbishy ‘Woody’ persona, but with a bit more of an edge: he winds up exhibiting bravery when he’s called before the House Un-American Activities (HUAC) committee. His final word to the committee is dead on target. Howard Prince is so close to Woody Allen’s characters in his own films, I get the feeling he rewrote some of his dialog (but have no proof of it).

The great Zero Mostel is on hand as Hecky Brown, a TV comic blacklisted for his alleged Communist sympathies. Mostel himself was a victim of blacklisting (as were writer Bernstein and director Ritt), and knew firsthand the suffering endured by not being allowed to ply his trade because of his political beliefs. Zero wasn’t just a funny man, but a fine dramatic actor in his own right; as the doomed Hecky he flawlessly walks the tightrope between humor and pathos. He and Woody work well together, and his swan song scene in the hotel room is a beautifully haunting tour de force. Zero Mostel, star of Broadway (FIDDLER ON THE ROOF) and movies (THE PRODUCERS), passed away a year after THE FRONT was released.

The major snag I find in THE FRONT is the portrayal of the Red hunters and their acolytes as cardboard villains without motivation. I understand both Ritt and Bernstein were bitter about their treatment during this dark time in American history, I get it, but the “bad guys” are delineated as so shallow it slants the movie way, way too far in one direction. I certainly do not condone the actions of HUAC and snakes like Senator Joe McCarthy; I’m a firm believer in individual freedom. But the anti-Communist characters are so one-note, there’s no real sense of why they’re out to get the ‘Commies’ unless you know a little something about history. Unfortunately, I find many younger people these days have no idea what the blacklist was all about, or even how and why it happened here in America.

The supporting cast features three other actors who landed on the blacklist – Herschel Bernardi, Lloyd Gough, and Joshua Shelley. Andrea Marcovicci has her best screen role as a left-leaning TV producer who falls in and out of love with Woody. Norman Rose’s stentorian tones add gravitas to the small part of Woody’s defense lawyer. Other cast members of note include Danny Aiello, Joey Faye (who was once Zero’s comedy partner), Lucy Lee Flippen, Charles Kimbrough, David Margulies, and Josef Sommer.

While THE FRONT is uneven, I thought the performances (especially Woody and Zero) saved the film’s script from becoming too preachy. The blacklist era was not America’s finest hour; censorship of any kind is abhorrent to me, and should not be tolerated. If you’re unfamiliar with the period, and this post has piqued your interest, even a tiny bit, I suggest you do some research. Google it. Go to your local library or bookstore. Educate yourselves… we can’t let it happen here again. Not in America.



Silk Purse: MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS (Columbia 1945)

Columbia Pictures cranked out 52 films in the year 1945, mostly ‘B’ movies with titles like LET’S GO STEADY, I LOVE A MYSTERY, EVE KNEW HER APPLES, ROCKIN’ IN THE ROCKIES, TEN CENTS A DANCE, and THE ADVENTURES OF RUSTY, along with their continuing series featuring Blondie, Boston Blackie, The Crime Doctor, The Durango Kid, and The Whistler. They were programmers, budget jobs, designed to fill a double bill  and a theater’s seats, bread-and-butter movies with no pretenses to reach any artistic heights.

MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS was one of those programmers, a quickie cashing in on the success of the previous year’s hit GASLIGHT. Whereas MGM’S psychological thriller boasted stars Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer directed by George Cukor, Columbia headlined their contract players Nina Foch and George Macready , good, competent actors but hardly box office draws. And in place of Cukor, Joseph H. Lewis sat in the director’s chair, fresh from directing oaters at Universal and East Side Kids pics at Monogram. Lewis had made some critics take notice with his 1941 psychological horror INVISBLE GHOST starring Bela Lugosi, that is what few critics bothered to see the low-budget Monogram effort.

Lewis took the somewhat derivative script by Muriel Roy Bolton and created a noir mood aided by his cinematographer Burnett Guffey, who later worked on noirs like KNOCK ON ANY DOOR and IN A LONELY PLACE , and won Oscars for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and BONNIE & CLYDE. The opening scene of Julia Ross, returning to her rooming house in the rain, is vintage film noir. Budget restrictions helped give the film a claustrophobic atmosphere, as Julia is set up, drugged out, and awakened in unfamiliar new surroundings. The scene of her coming down the staircase, her plan to escape thwarted by “husband” Ralph Hughes, is framed to heighten that sense of oppressiveness, and the denouement , taking place on the rocky sea-shore, is a tense little masterpiece of noir filmmaking. Only the tacked-on happy ending ruins what could have been a gripping scene.

Nina Foch as Julia Ross is great in a role that would’ve been terrible in the hands of a lesser Columbia starlet, say Jeff Donnell or Lynn Merrick. Foch’s acting ability was such that you believe this improbable scenario could happen, and your sympathy lies with her and her plight all the way. It’s too bad Columbia czar Harry Cohn didn’t think she had enough “sex appeal” to be a star, and kept her in a slew of ‘B’ movies until her contract ended. Granted, she’s no Rita Hayworth (no one is!), but Foch was quite an attractive woman, and her acting was head and shoulders above most of the Hollywood starlets toiling at the time. Nina Foch would move on to supporting roles in prestige pictures, and was a respected acting coach right up until her death in 2008.

George Macready makes a convincing, civilized psychopath as Ralph Hughes, who along with his mother (Dame May Whitty) tries to ‘gaslight’ Julia into believing she’s really Ralph’s mentally unstable wife Marian Hughes. Macready, the consummate screen villain, is all restrained rage, his eyes bugging when angered, his fondness for knives a giveaway into his dark soul. MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS isn’t a perfect film, but it’s perfectly constructed by Lewis and his cast. While it didn’t help poor Nina Foch’s bid for Hollywood success, Macready would go on to portray Ballin Mundson in GILDA the next year, and a long film career. Director Lewis made more films noir, including SO DARK THE NIGHT and the essential noir classics GUN CRAZY and THE BIG COMBO. It’s here with JULIA ROSS that he made his reputation as an auteur to be reckoned with, a brisk ‘B’ programmer that’s poor in budget but rich in atmosphere.

Cleaning Out the DVR #17: Film Noir Festival 3

To take my mind off the sciatic nerve pain I was suffering last week, I immersed myself on the dark world of film noir. The following quartet of films represent some of the genre’s best, filled with murder, femme fatales, psychopaths, and sleazy living. Good times!!

I’ll begin chronologically with BOOMERANG (20th Century-Fox 1947), director Elia Kazan’s true-life tale of a drifter (an excellent Arthur Kennedy ) falsely accused of murdering a priest in cold blood, and the doubting DA (Dana Andrews ) who fights an uphill battle against political corruption to exonerate him. Filmed on location in Stamford, CT and using many local residents as extras and bit parts, the literate script by Richard Murphy (CRY OF THE CITY, PANIC IN THE STREETS, COMPULSION) takes a realistic look behind the scenes at an American mid-sized city, shedding light into it’s darker corners.

Andrews is solid as the honest DA who pumps the brakes when the politicians, fearing the wrath of the voters demanding action, pressure the police chief (Lee J. Cobb ) into arresting somebody – anybody – for the murder. But it’s Arthur Kennedy who steals the show as a down on his luck WWII veteran caught up in the hysteria, put on trial for a crime he didn’t commit so political hacks can save (as Mel Brooks would say ) their phoney-baloney jobs. The cast is loaded with marvelous actors, including Jane Wyatt as Andrews’ wife, Cara Williams as Kennedy’s bitter ex-girlfriend, Ed Begley as a shady pol, Sam Levene as a muckraking reporter, and a young Karl Malden as one of Cobb’s detectives. Cobb sums the whole thing up best: “Never did like politicians”. Amen to that, Lee J! BOOMERANG is a noir you won’t want to miss.

Director Nicholas Ray contributed a gem to the noir canon with IN A LONELY PLACE (Columbia 1950) . Noir icon Humphrey Bogart stars as Dixon Steele, a Hollywood screenwriter suspected of murdering a hat check girl. Steele has a violent history well-known to the police, but new neighbor Laurel Grey (another noir icon, Gloria Grahame ) provides him with an alibi. Bogart, as the obviously off-center writer who may or may not have killed the girl, goes deep into his dark side, giving one of his best screen performances – and that’s saying a lot! The viewer is never quite certain if Dixon Steele did the deed until the very end, as Bogart’s psycho scenarist keeps everyone off-balance.

Grahame is one cool customer at first, but as things progress and Bogart’s rage rises to the surface, she becomes more and more frightened of him. Grahame and Ray were married while making IN A LONELY PLACE, but the union was becoming unraveled by this time, and they would soon separate. Frank Lovejoy, whom I’ve always thought was a very underrated actor, plays Steele’s former Army buddy, now a cop on the case. I especially enjoyed Robert Warwick as Charlie Waterman, the alcoholic former screen star who relies on Steele for handouts. Other Familiar Faces include Carl Benton Reid, Morris Ankrum , Jeff Donnell, and famous restaurateur ‘Prince’ Michael Romanoff, a friend of Bogie’s playing (what else?) a restaurateur. If you love movies about the dark side of Hollywood, IN A LONELY PLACE is for you!

Joseph Losey’s THE PROWLER (United Artists 1951) gives us Van Heflin as an obsessed cop who falls for married Evelyn Keyes after responding to a peeping tom call. Heflin delivers a dynamite performance as the narcissistic ex-jock turned officer, unhappy with his lot in life, who has most everyone fooled he’s a “wonderful guy”. Keyes is alone most nights because her husband works the overnight shift as a disc jockey. After he tries (and fails) to put the make on her, he returns to apologize. The lonely housewife dances with him while the song “Baby” plays on the radio, cozying up cheek to cheek, and then… well, you know!

Heflin resorts to anything to get what he wants, including setting up Keyes’ hubby and shooting him. After being found innocent in a coroner’s inquiry, literally getting away with murder, he convinces her of his innocence and the two get married. Heflin buys a motel in Vegas, and is ready to live the American dream, but there’s a hitch to his plans when Keyes discovers she’s already four months pregnant, and her deceased hubby was impotent! Realizing questions will be re-raised regarding their relationship while she was married, the two take off to a deserted ‘ghost town’ in the desert to have the child, away from prying eyes. I won’t spoil the ending, except to say it packs a wallop! THE PROWLER is essential viewing for film noir lovers, written by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo under the name of “front” Hugo Butler (and as an inside joke, Losey hired Trumbo to provide the radio voice of Keyes’ disc jockey husband, without the knowledge of anyone involved!).

Last but certainly not least, we come to WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (RKO 1956), directed by the legendary Fritz Lang , who knew a thing or two about crafting film noir! Casey Robinson’s extremely cynical script shows us the power struggle at a New York newspaper, with whoever discovers the identity of “The Lipstick Killer” terrorizing the town being named Executive Director. The characters are sleazy and unlikable, with everyone sleeping with everyone else, and only the top-notch cast makes them palatable, led by Dana Andrews as a Pulitzer Prize-winning TV broadcaster, Thomas Mitchell as the sly old-school pro, George Sanders at his smarmy, sarcastic best, Vincent Price as the dilettante son who inherits a media empire, Rhonda Fleming as his slutty wife (who’s banging art director James Craig on the side), Sally Forrest as Sanders’ secretary in love with Andrews, Ida Lupino as a gossip columnist Sanders sics on Andrews to seduce him, and Howard Duff as the lead cop on the case. You can’t get much better than that cast!

As the sex-killer with mommy issues, John Drew Barrymore (billed a John Barrymore, Jr.) looks more like Elvis than he does his famous father. Barrymore’s career never reached the heights of his dad, mainly due to his excesses, and his was a tragic life. Towards the end, he was cared for by daughter Drew, who’s had quite a career of her own. WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS is arguably Lang’s last great film, with moody cinematography by the great Ernest Laszlo (DOA, KISS ME DEADLY ). With that cast, Robinson’s pessimistic script, and Lang’s deft direction, it’s another must-see for film noir fans. Oh yes, before I forget, if that stylized ‘K’ for Kyne, Inc. looks familiar, it’s because it’s leftover from another RKO film:

That’s right, CITIZEN KANE! Who says RKO didn’t get the most for their money?


Five Films From Five Decades

Five Films From Five Decades 2

Those Swingin’ Sixties!

B-Movie Roundup!

Fabulous 40’s Sleuths

All-Star Horror Edition!

Film Noir Festival

All-Star Comedy Break

Film Noir Festival Redux

Halloween Leftovers

Five From The Fifties

Too Much Crime On My Hands

All-Star Western Roundup!

Sex & Violence, 70’s Style!

Halloween Leftovers 2

Keep Calm and Watch Movies!

Cleaning Out the DVR #16: Keep Calm and Watch Movies!

All last week, I was laid up with sciatic nerve pain, which begins in the back and shoots down my left leg. Anyone who has suffered from this knows how  excruciating it can be! Thanks to inversion therapy, where I hang upside down three times a day on a table like one of Bela Lugosi’s pets in THE DEVIL BAT , I’m feeling much better, though not yet 100%.

Fortunately, I had a ton of movies to watch. My DVR was getting pretty full anyway, so I figured since I could barely move, I’d try to make a dent in the plethora of films I’ve recorded.., going all the way back to last April! However, since I decided to go back to work today, I realize I won’t have time to give them all the full review treatment… and so it’s time for the first Cleaning Out the DVR post of 2018!

We begin with BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA (American-International, 1972), a Philippine-made “Women in Prison” entry by director Eddie Romero, the Roger Corman of the Philippines. Blaxploitation Queen Pam Grier stars as a feisty American hooker who escapes from your typical brutal jungle prison chained to rich white revolutionary Margaret Markov. If you’re expecting something along the lines of 1957’s THE DEFIANT ONES, forget it! Instead, strap yourselves in for lots of nudity (including the obligatory shower scene!), violence, torture, and a tongue planted firmly in cheek. For example, Pam and Margaret jump a pair of nuns and steal their habits in order to make their getaway!

Sid Haig, a CRV favorite!

Besides WIP veterans Grier (THE BIG DOLL HOUSE, etc) and Markov (THE HOT BOX), the film features the immortal Sid Haig , who’s a riot as a redneck cowboy bounty hunter hired by the local gendarmes to hunt the girls down, dead or alive! I always enjoy Sid in roles large or small, and here he plays this crazy cracker to the hilt! Also in the cast is Vic Diaz, a mainstay of these Filipino exploitation classics, as the ruthless drug lord ripped off by Pam, who’s also hunting our heroines. Lynn Borden is the horny prison matron who peeps on the girls, and wants a piece of Pam pie! BLACK MAMA, WHITE MAMA is a must for genre fans, who’ll love the violent’n’bloody climax!

From the Philippines, we travel to Spain for the Eurowestern THE TEXICAN (Columbia 1966), a strange hybrid of traditional and Spaghetti styles directed by sagebrush veteran Lesley Selander. This was Audie Murphy’s first and only foray into the Spaghetti genre, and his next-to-last film. and though he’s a little more clean-cut than most Spaghetti protagonists, he fits in with the material just fine (as a side note, Murphy was one of many Western stars who turned down Sergio Leone’s A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS , for which Clint Eastwood is eternally grateful!).

Audie’s still very youthful looking at age 41; unfortunately, the same can’t be said for costar Broderick Crawford, playing the villain who kills Murphy’s brother and triggers this revenge tale. Crawford, at age 55, looks mighty dissipated due to his years of heavy drinking, though it’s still fun to watch him snarl and growl his way through the role of mean town boss Luke Starr. Spaghetti regular Aldo Sambrell appears as Crawford’s right-hand gunman, adding his own brand of ‘foreign’ menace. Nico Fidenco’s score aids in setting the film’s mood, and the showdown in the swirling sandstorm street, followed by final retribution in Crawford’s saloon, is well staged by Selander. If you’re not an Audie Murphy and/or Spaghetti Western fan, you’ll probably want to pass, but those of you who are (and include me in that  number) will enjoy this minor entry in the genre’s canon.

GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE (Entertainment Pyramid 1972) was a surprisingly effective low-budget chiller I’d never heard of before. It starts in 1940, as two college kids are making out in a cemetery, when a crypt opens and vampire Caleb Croft attacks, killing the boy and raping the girl. This macabre opening sets the stage as the girl later gives birth to a strange little baby who prefers blood over milk! From there, we flash-forward to the 70’s, as the child (now a grown-up William Smith ) seeks to destroy his unholy father, working at the local university under the name Prof. Adam Lockwood. In reality, Croft/Lockwood is Charles Croyden, an 1800’s nobleman whose wife Sarah was burned at the stake in Salem. Lynn Peters plays student Anne, and of course she’s a dead (no pun intended) ringer for Sarah. Michael Pataki makes a pretty fierce vampire, Smith is always fun to watch, and the film even manages to sneak in a Bela Lugosi reference! Creepy and atmospheric, GRAVE OF THE VAMPIRE should be on any horror buff’s must-watch list.

Another surprise was RIOT ON SUNSET STRIP (AIP 1967), one of many Hippiesploitation flicks the studio made during those fabulous 60’s. Aldo Ray stars as Lt. Walt Lorimer, trying to keep the peace between the establishment forces and the kids on the Strip. Walt’s the voice of reason… until his daughter Andy (Mimsy Farmer) is given an LSD-spiked soda at a party and gang-raped by five punks. Mimsy’s interpretive “freak-out” dance is a sight to behold! The movie also features an overacting Anna Mizrahi as Andy’s pink-haired lush of a mom… perhaps she should’ve picked up some acting pointers from husband Lee Strasberg.

Mimsy Farmer freaking out!

The surprise part came for me when some of the great garage bands of the era performed. The Standells (of “Dirty Water” fame) do the title tune, featuring lead singer/drummer/ex-Mouseketeer Dickie Dodd and Russ Tamblyn’s younger brother Larry. There’s The Chocolate Watch Band, who sound like a punk Rolling Stones, and The Enemies, fronted by future Three Dog Night vocalist Cory Wells. The movie has some footage from the actual ’66 riot spliced in, and on the whole is pretty well done for this sort of thing. A psychedelic artifact definitely worth a look.

Last but not least, Roger Corman’s BLOODY MAMA (AIP 1970) is one of the  onslaught of gangster epics churned out after the success of 1967’s BONNIE & CLYDE. This one’s a cut above thanks to Corman and star Shelley Winters , giving a bravura performance as the infamous Kate “Ma” Barker without going over the top… well, not too far, anyway! Ma and her cretinous brood (Don Stroud, Robert DeNiro, Robert Wolders, Clint Kimbrough) rob, murder, rape, and kidnap their way to the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list before the carnage-filled finale, with Bruce Dern , Diane Varsi , and Pat Hingle joining them along the way.

Little Bobby DeNiro and “Mama” Shelley Winters

Young Mr. DeNiro plays dope fiend son Lloyd in one of his earliest pictures. In fact, this may very well be his first gangster role! It also marks the feature debut of cinematographer John A. Alonso, who went on to lens VANISHING POINT , LADY SINGS THE BLUES, CHINATOWN, FAREWELL MY LOVELY, SCARFACE, and many other films of note. BLOODY MAMA’s got a lot going for it, and Corman has said it’s his favorite among the many films he’s made.

There are a lot more movies I watched while sidelined, and more Cleaning Out the DVR to come! Next time, we’ll return to the dark world of film noir!



Halloween Havoc!: CHRISTINE (Columbia 1983)

Stephen King turned 70 last month, and the Master of Horror’s grip on the American psyche is stronger than ever, thanks to the unprecedented horror hit IT!, now playing at a theater near you. King’s macabre novels have been adapted for the screen since 1976’s CARRIE with  varying degrees of success; some have been unabashed genre classics, others complete bombs, most lie somewhere in the middle.

Top: Stephen King 1983
Bottom: John Carpenter 1983

Director John Carpenter had a string of successes beginning with 1978’s seminal slasher film HALLOWEEN, but his 1982 remake of THE THING, now considered a masterpiece of the genre, was a box office disappointment. Carpenter took on King’s novel CHRISTINE as a work-for-hire project. I recently watched it for the first time, and think not only is it one of the best adaptations of King’s work to hit the screen, it’s one of Carpenter’s best horror outings as well.

Nerdy Arnie Cunningham and his best friend, jock Dennis Guilder are your typical late 70’s high school students, obsessed with cars, sex, rock music, and football. Arnie is the target of school bully Buddy Repperton and his posse of thugs, who get suspended after pulling a switchblade on the poor sap. But things change for Arnie when he’s drawn to a battered old ’57 Plymouth Fury, nicknamed ‘Christine’, which he buys from its creepy owner, elderly George Lemay, who inherited the wreck when his brother committed suicide in it.

Soon a change comes over Arnie, as he spends all his time lovingly restoring “Christine” to her former glory. He starts gaining confidence, and soon is dating the hottest chick in school, Leigh Cabot. His appearance and attitude also begin to change, morphing into a 50’s-style JD greaser, complete with pompadour and leather jacket! Strange things begin to happen when ‘Christine’ is around: Dennis gets injured on the football field, and Leigh is trapped inside the car at a drive-in, choking on her burger! When Buddy and his bullies extract revenge by trashing ‘Christine’, smashing it with sledgehammers and taking a dump on the dash. But ‘Christine’ and Arnie have developed a psychic bond: he tells the auto “Show me”, and Christine herself morphs back to her old self, dead set on revenge…

CHRISTINE is a whole lotta fun, with some marvelous, murderous set pieces devised by Carpenter. King’s material and Carpenter’s style mesh perfectly, aided and abetted by Bill Phillips’ pedal to the metal script and Donald M. Morgan’s crisp photography. ‘Christine’ herself, according to carponents.com , was played by 23 different autos, including a couple of modified Plymouth Belvederes and Savoys, allowing Ted Allen, Roy Arbogast, and the rest of the special effects team to create their “twisted” regeneration scenes. The roaring engine sounds were actually dubbed from a 1970 Ford Mustang!

Carpenter peppers his score with snippets from classic 50’s artists to accentuate the mood, including Johnny Ace (“Pledging My Love”), Danny and the Juniors (“Rock and Roll is Here to Stay”), Dion and the Belmonts (“I Wonder Why”), Thurston Harris (“Little Bitty Pretty One”), Buddy Holly (“Not Fade Away”), Ritchie Valens (“Come On, Let’s Go”), Larry Williams (“Bony Maronie”), and Little Richard (“Keep A-Knockin'”). You’ll also hear ABBA, The Rolling Stones, George Thorogood, and Tanya Tucker on the soundtrack, just not on ‘Christine’s’ radio – she only plays 50’s rock!

The cast was deliberately made up of at-the-time unknowns, chief among them Keith Gordon as the nebbish Arnie. Gordon went behind the cameras as a director of films (MOTHER NIGHT, WAKING THE DEAD) and television (DEXTER, HOMELAND). John Stockwell (Dennis) played in MY SCIENCE PROJECT and TOP GUN; he’s also a director today. Alexandra Paul (Leigh) is best known as Lt. Stephanie Holden on TV’s BAYWATCH. William Ostrander (Buddy), who looks like a cross between Jim Morrison and Vinnie Barbarino, later appeared in RED HEAT and MULLHOLLAND DRIVE. Oh, and speaking of Vinnie Barbarino, Kelly Preston has a role as hot-to-trot cheerleader Rosanne.

The adults in the cast include Robert Prosky as the gruff garage owner where ‘Christine’ is stored, Christine Belford as Arnie’s nagging mother, Roberts Blossom as the weirdo Lemay, and the late, great Harry Dean Stanton as State Police Detective Junkins, who’s investigating all the outlandish murders. CHRISTINE puts Stephen King and John Carpenter together for the first and only time, and it’s a match made in… well, you know! Add it to your Halloween viewing list, kick back, and enjoy the ride.



Halloween Havoc!: DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! (Columbia/Hammer 1965)

Miss Tallulah Bankhead  jumped on the “Older Women Do Horror” bandwagon with 1965’s DIE! DIE! MY DARLING!, a deliciously dark piece of British horror from the good folks at Hammer. It was Tallulah’s first screen appearance since 1953’s MAIN STREET TO BROADWAY, and the veteran actress is a ball of fire and brimstone playing the mad Mrs. Trefoile, a feisty religious fanatic who locks up her late son’s former fiancé in an attic room in order to save her mortal soul.

Things start out innocently enough, as American Patricia Carroll (Stefanie Powers) travels to England to be with her new fiancé Alan Glentower (Maurice Kaufman). She’s received a letter from her deceased ex’s mother and agrees to pay her a visit, despite Alan’s protestations. Driving to Mrs. Trefoile’s ramshackle old farmhouse, Pat discovers the old woman’s more than a bit odd, holding daily church service for her servants, dressing all in black, and eschewing any food with flavor. Mrs. Trefoile freaks out when Pat wears a crimson outfit to dinner, insisting she change to a more conservative color immediately. Pat soon finds out Mrs. Trefoile considers Pat her daughter-in-law now – for life! Not only that, she locks Pat in an attic room and piles on the psychological and physical torture to convert Pat from her evil, secular ways. A deadly game of cat and mouse ensues as Pat desperately tries to escape from the gun-toting, Bible-spouting madwoman and her flock.

Tallulah has a field day as Mrs. Trefoile, performing sans makeup and her hair pulled severly back. It’s a bold change of pace for the glamourous actress, and Tallulah pulls it off in her own inimitable style. Mrs. Trefoile is the very model of sexual repression, and her devotion to her late son’s memory is illustrated as she talks to him and sleeps with his childhood teddy bear. A lesser actress would have gone over the top, but Tallulah manages to play things totally straight and creates one of the genre’s scariest psycho-biddies. She’s cast against type as the pious fanatic, as her sexual and hard-partying exploits were well documented by the press. Tallulah Bankhead made less than two dozen pictures, spending most of her career on the stage, but shows she was a master of movie acting with this juicy part.

Stefanie Powers is more than up to the task of acting opposite Tallulah as Patricia. DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! was made a year before Stefanie starred as TV’s THE GIRL FROM UNCLE, and is her best movie role. Later she teamed with Robert Wagner and veteran Lionel Stander for another hit series HART TO HART (1979-1984). Mrs. Trefoile’s servants include Peter Vaughn (GAME OF THRONES) as the lustful Harry, Yootha Joyce (HAVING A WILD WEEKEND ) as his powerful wife Anna, and a young Canadian named Donald Sutherland as the simple-minded Joseph. Wonder whatever happened to him?

Richard Matheson’s  screenplay takes it’s time building the suspense, slowly ratcheting things tighter and tighter for poor Pat until the final frightening crescendo. Horror fans are well aware of Matheson’s work in novels, short stories, film, and television. This was his only foray into ‘Grand Dame Guignol’ territory, and it’s one of the genre’s best. Director Silvio Narizzano made his feature film debut here; he’s best remembered today for the British hit GEORGY GIRL. Hammer Films’ original title to DIE! DIE! MY DARLING! was FANATIC, but when released in America Columbia changed it to play off Tallulah’s famed catchphrase (she called everyone “dah-ling”). Miss Bankhead was not amused, but by any name, this is a terrifying piece of work that belongs on your Halloween watch list. Bravo, Tallulah!