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!

Somebody’s Watching Me: Jane Fonda in KLUTE (Warner Brothers 1971)

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I was going to post on KLUTE last week, but between my Internet service going on the fritz and getting swept up in Oscar Fever, I never got around to it. Better late than never though, and KLUTE is definitely a film worth your time. It’s a neo-noir directed by that master of 70’s paranoia, Alan J. Pakula, who’s also responsible for THE PARALLAX VIEW, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and SOPHIE’S CHOICE. KLUTE is both an intense thriller and character study, with an Oscar-winning performance by Jane Fonda.

PI John Klute is sent to New York City to investigate the disappearance of his friend, Tom Gruneman. Seems Gruneman has been sending obscene letters to Bree Daniels, a call girl he met there. Klute sets up shop in her apartment building, shadowing her and tapping her phone. When he finally goes to question her, Bree says she doesn’t remember Gruneman, but it’s possible he could be the guy who once beat the crap out of her. Bree takes Klute to meet her ex-boyfriend/pimp Frank, who leads them to a hooker named Arlyn Page, now a hopeless junkie. Klute thinks Arlyn may hold the key to the mystery, until she’s found dead in the river. Meanwhile, Bree has the strangest felling that Klute isn’t the only person who’s been watching her….

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Jane Fonda won a well-deserved Oscar for her role as Bree. Tough on the outside, vulnerable on the inside, Bree’s a hot mess, only feeling empowered when she’s turning tricks, as she explains to her shrink. When she first meets Klute, she berates him (“And what’s your bag, Klute? What do you like? You like talking, a button freak?…Or maybe you like to have us wash your tinkle. Goddamned, hypocrite squares!”), but soon they sleep together, and she discovers she has feelings for him, making her extremely uncomfortable. It’s an edgy, honest performance, and Fonda nails it from beginning to end.

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The title role is played by Donald Sutherland, and he’s Fonda’s equal here. Klute’s more introverted than Bree, and equally awkward in expressing his feelings. Sutherland underplays as John Klute, and shows why he’s one of the best actors of the era. The supporting cast is more than capable, with Roy Scheider as Bree’s slimy former pimp particularly noteworthy. Charles Cioffi contributes a creepy piece of villainy, constrained yet obviously unhinged. The criminally underrated Dorothy Tristan has a brief but memorable turn as the pathetic Arlyn. Jean Stapleton (the beloved Edith of ALL IN THE FAMILY) and Shirley Stoler (THE HONEYMOON KILLERS, SEVEN BEAUTIES) are recognizable in small parts, but if you blink you’ll miss Sylvester Stallone, Warhol superstar Candy Darling, and porn icon Harry Reems in the disco scene.

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The great Gordon Willis does his usual superb job as Cinematographer, as he did with THE GODFATHER movies and his work with Woody Allen. Carl Lerner’s editing and Chris Newman’s sound add to the film’s paranoid mood. KLUTE doesn’t often get in the discussion of the classic movies of the 70’s, but it can stand right there with the best of them. The entire cast and crew combine to give KLUTE an existential sense of dread, a feeling that resonates as deeply as ever in today’s modern world.

 

Paranoia Strikes Deep: INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (Allied Artists 1956; United Artists 1978)

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These two versions of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS have much in common. Both are visions of the paranoia of their times disguised in the veneer of science fiction. But while the 1956 film is an allegoric warning of the dangers of Communism, its 1978 remake focuses on conspiracy theory paranoia in the post-Watergate era. The films are equally good reflections of the times they were made, and the differences lie mainly in the visions of directors Don Siegel (’56) and Philip Kaufman (’78).

Siegel’s roots were planted firmly in the old studio system. He began his career at Warners, then RKO before moving onto to independent productions in the mid-50s. INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was made for Allied Artists (formerly known as Monogram, home of The Bowery Boys and Bela Lugosi quickies.) Siegel was well versed in working within budgetary constraints. Early films like PRIVATE HELL 36 and RIOT IN CELL BLOCK 11 were low-budget but effective noirs notable for their toughness. Siegel’s version of the story has that noirish  feel to it, with the protagonist caught in an ever-downward spiral towards an inescapable fate.

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Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) is being held in the mental ward at a hospital. He’s hysterical, screaming about an impending doomsday. Psychiatrist Dr. Hill (Whit Bissell) is called in, and Bennell recounts the story of what’s been happening in his sleepy little suburb of Santa Mira, California. Bennell had just returned from a vacation when he’s told about a strange phenomenon occurring in town. People have been reporting their loved ones aren’t really their loved ones…they’re imposters. A young boy claims his mom is not his mom. Bennell’s girlfriend Becky (Dana Wynter) has a cousin who insists Uncle Ira is not Uncle Ira. Psychiatrist friend Dr. Kauffman thinks it’s mass hysteria caused by “what’s going on in the world”. But Bennell has nagging doubts about that diagnosis, doubts that are confirmed when he goes to Jack and Teddy Belicec’s (King Donovan, Carolyn Jones) home to discover a body on their pool table. An unformed body, approximately the same height and weight as Jack!

Things go steadily downhill as Bennell and Becky and the Belicecs find weird seed pods in the greenhouse. The pods bubble and ooze, popping out newly minted body doubles of the quartet. They burn the pods, and soon find out most of Santa Mira has been taken over by the pod people. Bennell and Becky are now hunted by the pod people, who are intent on making the couple one of them. The key is to stay awake, for only while humans sleep can the pod people take over their bodies. Bennell and Becky finally escape through an old tunnel, hearing music when they get to the other side. Bennell investigates, thinking there must be other humans, but is shocked to find the music’s coming from a pod farm! He goes back to Becky and kisses her, and to his horror realizes she fell asleep, and is now one of them! Bennell is chased to the highway, frantically trying to flag down drivers, yelling, ” Listen to me! Listen to me! They’re here! You’re next! You’re next! You’re next!” The drivers pass him by, thinking he’s just drunk or some kind of nut.

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Dr. Hill listens, but dismisses Bennell’s tale as the rantings of a deranged man. He leaves the room just as an accident victim is being brought into the hospital. It seems his truck was broadsided, and he was trapped by the weight of its load… filled with pods! Hill immediately realizes Bennell’s telling the truth, and calls the authorities. This INVASION ends on a positive note, with hope for mankind’s future. The message is quite clear, to remain aware and act when necessary. 50s worries about Communist infiltration (whether real or imagined) were at their peak during this era, and INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS offers a chilling warning to its audience. All the best science fiction includes some underlying message, and Siegel’s movie delivers without hitting the viewer over the head,  his film noir touch only adding to the frightening mood.

Philip Kaufman is rooted in another film school altogether, that of the director as auteur. Kaufman’s works are a product of the individualistic cinema of the 1970s, when visionaries like Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola were creating genre-bending films based on traditional themes like THE LONG GOODBYE and THE CONVERSATION. His influences were French New Wave directors like Goddard and Truffaut, and independent American mavericks like John Cassavettes and, to a lesser extent, Don Siegel. Kaufman’s version of INVASION ratchets up the paranoia, giving the viewer a much bleaker perspective of a world where it may indeed be far too late for hope.

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Kaufman’s protagonist is now Matthew Bennell (Donald Sutherland), and his occupation has been changed to Public Health inspector. A bigger change is in moving the setting from quiet suburbia to bustling San Francisco. This widens the scope of the horror, as we see even large cities aren’t safe from the vast conspiracy. It’s not just happening in some small, out-of-the-way burg, it’s right here in Big City America. Bennell’s colleague, microbiologist Elizabeth (Brooke Adams), believes her once-affectionate husband Geoffrey (Art Hindle) “is not Geoffrey” anymore. He’s now aloof, meeting with strange people, and always away from home. Bennell brings Elizabeth to see his friend, pop psychologist Dr. Kibner (Leonard Nimoy in a brilliant piece of casting).   Kibner has heard this complaint recently from others, and spouts some platitudes about a “hallucinatory flu” going around, caused mainly by people just not listening to each other anymore.

Bonnell’s friends Jack and Nancy Belicec (Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright) run a trendy Mud Bath health spa, and a cocoon-like body is found there. Bennell sees it, and begins to believe Elizabeth’s story. Bennell rushes to her and spies her doppelgänger in the greenhouse growing while she sleeps. He grabs her and returns to the Bellicec’s. Kibner is called in, but the body is nowhere to be found. Kibner’s still skeptical, and suggests they all get a good night’s sleep. It’s only when the camera follows him outside that we learn the truth… Kibner is one of THEM!

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Bennell’s stymied at every turn by government bureaucracy, passing him from one department to the next, some not taking his calls at all. The exhausted quartet finally fall asleep, and the pods try to overtake them, nearly encompassing Bennell until Elizabeth’s screams wake him up. They run but they can’t hide, and the rest of the film generally follows the original’s path except for a completely different ending that I won’t spoil here.

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Kaufman pays homage to the first film with cameos by Kevin McCarthy (virtually recreating his iconic highway scene) and director Siegel (as a cab driver who’s not what he seems). The newer INVASION utilizes sound editing to build up the terror, something the quieter original didn’t capitalize on. And the larger budget means better special effects, including a bit where a street singer’s head is transposed on his dog’s body. Kaufman’s version is closer to horror than noir, and it also has a sense of humor not found in the 1956 INVASION.  I like both versions, but enjoyed the Kaufman version just a bit more. Growing up in the 70s, I’m well aware that governments cannot be trusted. Young people today share these sentiments with me, at least some of them do. The story’s been retold twice since 1978, in BODY SNATCHER (1993) directed by Abel Ferrara, and 2007’s THE INVASION, starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Neither has had the impact the first two films did, both of which can hold their own in the horror/science fiction pantheon. I suppose as long as people are worried about conspiracies and the dehumanization of mankind, the story will be retold again. It’s only when we STOP worrying about what’s really going on behind the curtain that we as a species will truly be in trouble.

 

Special Veteran’s Day Edition: THE DIRTY DOZEN (MGM 1967)

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Happy Veteran’s Day and thank you to all who’ve served!

One of my favorite WW2 movies to watch is THE DIRTY DOZEN. This rousing all-star epic, flavored with superb character actors and moments of humor, was a box office success and remains a perennial favorite among action lovers. The formula (a band of military misfits unite to battle the enemy) became so popular it’s been rehashed several times in several ways, but none have ever come close to having the panache of director Robert Aldrich’s lively original.

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Army Major Reisman is given the assignment of whipping twelve convicts into fighting shape and taking on what amounts to a suicide mission: conduct a raid behind enemy lines on a chateau where high ranking Nazi officers assemble for R’n’R. Reisman’s a rebellious sort (“very short on discipline”) with contempt for his higher-ups, especially rival Col. Breed. One of the officers calls him “the most ill-mannered, ill-disciplined officer I’ve ever had the displeasure to meet”, but General Worden believes Reisman’s the man for the job. The Major’s introduced to his new charges at prison. There’s cocky Chicago hood Franko, gentle giant Posey, ex-officer Wladislaw, religious nut Maggot, dimwitted Pinkley, and eight other murderers, rapists, and thieves. Reisman and his right-hand man Sgt. Bowren are to take this “dirty dozen” and turn them into a team.

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The deal is the men will get their sentences commuted if successful, but if one of them tries to escape, they all go back to face the hangman. Franko tries some initial pushback, but is brought into line by his peers. The cons learn to depend on each other, though Army psychiatrist Kinder considers them “the most twisted bunch of psychopaths” he’s ever seen. Breed almost gets the mission quashed after being embarrassed by the troop, but they’re given a chance when the dozen capture Breed’s squad during maneuvers. Feeling they’re ready to roll, Reisman leads his men on the mission in an exciting, grisly 45 minute climax. Only three make it back, and Wladislaw is given the last word: “Killin’ generals could get to be a habit with me”.

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WW2 vet Lee Marvin leads the testosterone fueled cast as Reisman, a good soldier who dislikes authority. John Cassavetes was Oscar nominated for his role as Franko, the defiant mobster who becomes a hero. Charles Bronson (Wladislaw) was an old hand at these all-star action films (THE GREAT ESCAPE, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN), and 70s solo superstardom was just down the road for him. Donald Sutherland  (Pinkley) adds another goofy characterization to his resume, and 70s stardom awaited him, too. Telly Savalas, pre-KOJAK, is slimeball Maggot, while TV’S CHEYENNE Clint Walker plays big Posey. Ex-NFL star Jim Brown makes his film debut, and his “broken play” run while setting off the hand grenades is one of the action genre’s most iconic scenes. Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, George Kennedy, and Robert Webber are on hand as members of the “big Army brass” (to borrow a line from WW2 vet Ed Wood). Richard Jaeckel is the loyal Sgt. Bowren, and singer Trini Lopez appears as Jiminez (and even gets to sing “The Bramble Bush”). Besides Marvin, actors Borgnine, Ryan, Webber, Kennedy, Savalas, and Walker all served their country during World War Two.

Finally, in answer to that age-old barstool trivia question, “Name the members of THE DIRTY DOZEN”, here’s the lineup:

  • Franko: John Cassavetes
  • Vladek: Tom Busby
  • Jefferson: Jim Brown
  • Pinkley: Donald Sutherland
  • Gilpin: Ben Carruthers
  • Posey: Clint Walker
  • Wladislaw: Charles Bronson
  • Sawyer: Colin Maitland
  • Lever: Stuart Cooper
  • Bravos: Al Mancini
  • Jiminez: Trini Lopez
  • Maggot: Telly Savalas

Have a Bucket of Fun!: THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE (1977)

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Satire ran rampant in the 70s. Magazines like MAD and NATIONAL LAMPOON were eagerly devoured by hungry youth disillusioned with the status quo, while SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE and MONTY PYTHON’S FLYING CIRCUS kept us glued to our TV sets for must-watch comic nonsense. Moviegoers were treated to such farcical fare as THE GROOVE TUBE (1974), TUNNELVISION (1976), and LOOSE SHOES (1980). But without question, the side-splittingly funniest of them all was THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE.

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KFM (as I’ll pretensiously call it) was the brainchild of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, those geniuses behind AIRPLANE! The trio of comic terrorists first got together as college chums in a theatrical troupe known as The Kentucky Fried Theater. Making a name for themselves as unbridled smart-alecs taking potshots at everything in sight, they developed this hilarious gumbo of outrageous skits with the help of a young director named John Landis, whose only previous credit in the director’s chair was the horror spoof SCHLOCK! (1971), which I’ll get around to viewing sooner rather than later (I know you’re all excited about that!)

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THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, like everything the Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker team does, takes guerilla comedy to the extreme. A series of unrelated events, KFM skewers local news, commercials, PSAs (Henry Gibson in a United Appeal for the Dead), TV shows, and movies. There’s some Previews of Coming Attractions thrown in, touting “Samuel L. Bronkowitz” producions of R-rated titillation pics (CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL GIRLS IN TROUBLE), disaster movies (THAT’S ARMAGGEDON!!), and Blaxploitation (CLEOPATRA SCHWARTZ). The big set-piece is A FISTFUL OF YEN, a pitch-perfect kung-fu parody with leads that can’t pronounce their R’s (“Total consentwation”), cheesy sound effects, an evil villain bent on world domination, and an insanely funny conclusion.

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Filled with groan-inducing puns,non-sequiturs, ethnic humor, questionable taste, silly cameo roles (Bill Bixby, George Lazenby, Donald Sutherland, Tony Dow, porn star Uschi Digard, FAMOUS MONSTERS editor Forrest J Ackerman) and lots and lots of bare boobs, THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE is as edgy as it was when it was first made. It wouldn’t go over well with today’s easily offended, politically correct crowd. The film was a big hit with the “party animals” of the day. I remember seeing it at the movies stoned out of my gourd, like I was most of the time back then. But that was many moons ago, and today I’m…..

Nahhh, I’ll save the true confessions stuff if I ever want to start one of those “personal recovery journey” blogs. THE KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE  still makes me laugh my ass off! Stoned out of your gourd or stone-cold sober, just watch it and see. Unless you’re one of those overly sensitive types. Maybe you should go watch THE NOTEBOOK or something.