John Huston: The Asphalt Jungle

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It Happened One Night), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon reviews The Asphalt Jungle (1950).

Another noir film by John Huston, The Asphalt Jungle is a heist film that’s more gritty than jaunty. As in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the characters fail (this can’t be a spoiler for a Huston film, can it?) at their task. While the characters are engaged in illegal activity, the film portrays them somewhat sympathetically, allowing the audience all the complex emotions necessarily inspired by likeable but flawed characters doing meticulous but condemnable deeds.

Vice is a recurring theme in this film—every main character has at least one vice, and the vice turns out to be the character’s undoing. Vice is weakness, but it’s also an addiction; Doc (Sam Jaffe) says, “One way or another, we all work for our vice.”

The Asphalt Jungle features at least ten significant characters, each of whom gets enough time on screen for the audience to be able to follow the plot and its intricacies. In addition to being the inspiration for many crime thrillers and capers (including the highly regarded Rififi), it serves as a study in making a story with so many important characters and plot points easy to follow without insulting the audience.

The Asphalt Jungle was one of Marilyn Monroe’s early films, before she had fully developed her sex goddess persona. MGM didn’t see her potential, and failed to sign her to any long-term contract. You can see in this film the beginnings of what she would become, but you can also see a little of the road she might have taken with more influence from a director like Huston, who respected her abilities more than her appearance.

Huston won an Oscar for directing and shared another with Ben Maddow for the screenplay. While I don’t consider it one of Huston’s best, it’s certainly a very good film worth studying for its contribution to its genre and for its story construction.



Killer Cuts, Part Six

By DC Green
Last of a Series

Killer Cuts #13 - Night of The Creeps & More

If any movie can proudly stand as the perfect potpourri of 50's contrivance and 80's aesthetic, that movie is Night of the Creeps. Written and directed by Fred Dekker (who also brought us the criminally underrated The Monster Squad), this particular gem was originally released to VHS in 1986 only to be lost to us for nearly 25 years until Sony finally bowed to fan requests and released the movie to DVD and Blu-Ray in 2009.

I think of all the "lost" horror movies of my youth, Night of the Creeps holds a special place in my heart. With overwrought dialogue and broad performances that mesh straight-laced portentous 1950's atomic-age invasion movie delivery with 1980's teen angst, Night of the Creeps is frankly a hoot.

A meteor, alien slugs, zombies! If this all sounds to you like a description of James Gunn's Slither (2006), you'd be right. Gunn claims to have never seen Night of the Creeps, but to have been inspired by David Cronenberg's 1975 cult-classic Shivers (aka They Came from Within). While this may be true, all I know is that while watching Slither, I couldn't get my mind off Night of the Creeps.

Leaving no room for debate, this movie is horror-geek heaven --- it’s got scares (alien slugs who force their way into your body, disgusting zombie action), it’s got laughs (the fast-talking dialogue, the ham acting, the grotesque sight gags), and it’s got shotguns...and tits. Tits and shotguns -- yep, what a combo.

Bottom line: Night of the Creeps is a great way to start or finish any horror marathon, and the more sleep deprived or inebriated you may be, the better it gets.


So that's it for this year's Killer Cuts. Stick to these thirteen films and your scare cinema soiree can't go wrong. I hope all of you discovered something new in this set that you've either never seen before or had long since forgotten about -- most importantly, I hope you enjoyed yourself while watching any of the selection on this list.

As a final bit of fun, I've made a list of my top 13 favorite horror movies, though there are MANY more where these came from. I don't have avant-garde horror tastes (ex. no Human Centipede for me), and can heartily recommend any of these films for the mainstream horror palette. Adding or substituting any of these into your fright film festival will result in a good time being had by all.

The Butcher's Dozen (in no particular order)

2. The Evil Dead Trilogy (a bit of a cheat, I know)

7. Halloween (1978)

10. Psycho (1960)

13. Scream


Killer Cuts, Part Five

By DC Green
Part Five of a Series
Killer Cuts #10  - Videodrome

David Cronenberg is an admittedly weird breed of Canadian, and his movies are always interesting, if not always successful. Videodrome manages to be both of those things, as well as a prophetic treatise on the increasingly plugged-in-yet-tuned-out world we currently live in. In Videodrome, the voyeuristic and disconnected nature of technology literally dehumanizes us (here in the form of television), leading us to sexual (and other) depravity, mental breakdown and finally something altogether worse. Despite hitting theaters 27 years ago, Videodrome remains as exciting, disturbing and relevant as ever.

Killer Cuts #11 - Undead

This visually-stunning-yet-low-budget Australian horror-comedy from 2003 has to be one of the more "unique" zombie pictures ever made, what with the meteor showers and space aliens and killer undead fish. Written, produced and directed by the Spierig brothers (who also crafted the VFX out of their garage), Undead is the sort of movie that holds nothing back in terms of throwing wacky sci-fi/horror concepts at the audience, and if wacky horror is your thing (fans of Peter Jackson's Brain Dead aka Dead Alive comes to mind), you'll find Undead to be crazy, gory, hilarious, and guaranteed to satisfy.

Killer Cuts #12 - Pontypool

Based on the novel Pontypool Changes Everything, and the subsequent radio drama of the same name, Pontypool manages to take a single-set, dialogue-heavy screenplay and turn it into a tension filled horror treat. Imagine the original War of the Worlds radio drama filmed a la Hitchcock's Rope, and that should give you some idea of the conceit and tone of Pontypool; the story of a news radio DJ who struggles to stay on the air despite the fact that the world (or at least a small borough in Canada) is going to hell in a hand basket.

I'm not going to give away the method by which all hell breaks loose, as this is part of the mystery and intrigue of Pontypool, and even though the catalyst of this chaos seriously strains credibility, it works as an effective fear mechanism if only because of the environs in which the narrative takes place.

Though Pontypool can drag on a bit, it maintains a high level of tension throughout and manages to deliver scares that may not make you jump or cringe, but ones that get under your skin and stay with you well after the end credits have rolled.


Killer Cuts, Part Four

By DC Green
Part Four of a Series

Killer Cuts #8 - The Funhouse

When I think of movies that exemplify the slasher genre of the 1980s, the usual suspects come to mind (Halloween, Friday the 13th, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), but one movie that is often overlooked is Toby Hooper's criminally underrated The Funhouse, which in many ways stands as the anti-slasher film, a movie that, while embracing the conventions of the sub-genre, also seems to eschew them for more iconographical and emotional scares.

This is not to say that The Funhouse is a great movie, or even a great slasher picture...in fact, it sometimes pales in comparison to its more pop-culture friendly kinsman, especially when compared to the only slasher movie to truly transcend the sub-genre, the original Nightmare on Elm Street. The Funhouse is however an interesting and original movie, one that may reignite your old fear of clowns and of all things freakshow.

In many ways this unusually moody and emotionally driven slasher piece displays a deft touch in composition and storytelling that Hooper would later show in Poltergeist, but then subsequently lose all ability to repeat as he shot craptacular scare cinema like Lifeforce and The Mangler.

So when looking for a taste of something different in your slasher cinema, The Funhouse may be just what you need.

Killer Cuts #9 - The Devil's Backbone (El espinazo del diablo)

The Devil's Backbone (El espinazo del diablo) is a spooky and atmospheric ghost tale cum gothic thriller from director Guillermo Del Toro (Blade 2, Hellboy, Pan's Labyrinth). Taking place at an Spanish orphanage in 1939 during Spain's civil war, The Devil's Backbone tells the tale of Carlos, a newly arrived young boy who finds himself encountering the dead spirit of a former resident, Santi, who appears with a cryptic warning that "many will die."

If and how this tragedy comes to pass, as well as the secret to Santi's mysterious death and other goings-on at the orphanage are all part of the giant mystery that is The Devil's Backbone. Superbly crafted with both beauty and elegance, this gothic gem is as emotionally moving as it is creepy.

As a word of warning, the film was originally shot in Spanish, but for those of you who can't stand reading subtitles, there is a tolerable English dub available as well.

John Huston: Key Largo

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon reviews Key Largo (1948).

The first time the audience sees ex-Major Frank McCloud (Humphrey Bogart), he’s riding a bus headed for Key Largo, and we see his reflection in the bus’s rearview mirror. This is our first symbolic clue that McCloud’s past informs his character and therefore also his future. He knows that change is difficult—at one point in the film he says, “Your head says one thing, your whole life says another; your head always loses.”

McCloud plans to tell George Temple’s survivors how he died and where he is buried. James Temple (Lionel Barrymore) and Nora (Lauren Bacall) operate the Hotel Largo, which is where most of the film’s action takes place.

Six other characters have taken up residence at the hotel, one of whom stays in his room upstairs. These guests are soon revealed to be gangsters involved in counterfeiting. Their boss, Johnny Rocco (Edward G. Robinson), is in the country illegally, but has plans to return to his life in the States. He reveals his ruthlessness in several ways—keeping the hotel closed to the Seminoles who have traditionally stayed there during hurricanes, challenging McCloud to a duel but handing him a weapon that is later shown to be unloaded, and blaming the death of the deputy on a couple of Seminoles wanted by the police for escaping from custody.

Most heartbreaking, however, is the scene in which Rocco makes the oft-inebriated Gaye Dawn (Clare Trevor, an Oscar winner for her performance) sing a cappella for a drink; when her performance doesn’t meet with his approval, he refuses to supply her with alcohol. In a quiet but powerful rebuke of Rocco’s behavior, McCloud fixes a drink and gives it to Gaye. Trevor repeatedly asked Huston for rehearsal time, but the director kept delaying, insisting they had plenty of time; he gave her no warning before they shot the scene, and he used what they shot. The lack of rehearsal kept Trevor’s performance of the song rough and unpolished, and the scene is one of the most powerful on film in any era. The scene also shows what it takes for a person to make a significant change in their lives—Gaye is the only major character to significantly change the direction of her life by film’s end.

While Key Largo is a gangster film, Huston eschews some of the types of scenes that are usually expected of the genre—there are no chase scenes and no love scenes, for example. The director and actors create all the suspense, and they do so in confined spaces—a hotel boarded up for a hurricane, and later aboard a boat. The film inherits the confined spaces from the play on which it is based. Huston almost always chose good material to adapt to film, and Key Largo is no exception.



Killer Cuts, Part Three

By DC Green
Part Three of a Series

Killer Cuts #5, 6, 7 - ReAnimator, From Beyond, Dagon

For today's Killer Cuts we're going for the horror hat trick and featuring three films by director Stuart Gordon, all loosely based (and by “loose” I mean middle-aged porn actress loose) on stories by one Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Gordon is a director who I find to be hit or miss, but he seems at his strongest when adapting and modernizing Lovecraft, all the while adding his own sense of psycho-sexual perversion and dark humor to the proceedings.

Re-Animator is wrong on oh-so many levels, it is a darkly funny, disturbing and somewhat erotic take on obsession and lust. Anchored by a manic career-defining performance by Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator is a movie that for many reasons could not be made in today's extremely politically correct zeitgeist. Maybe it could, but I think modern pop culture would have a hard time getting past the headless cunnilingus. While we're on the subject, the fact that I used the words "headless cunnilingus" in describing the film should make you want to fire this guy up in the old DVD/Blu-Ray/Streaming-whatever as you trek through your terror trove this Halloween.

From Beyond is a deeply flawed movie, particularly in the final act -- but up until then it delivers as much freaky dirty horror fun as one can legally have. Bringing back his leads from Re-Animator (Jeffrey Combs and Barbara Crampton), Stuart Gordon goes deeper into the rabbit hole of pain and sex and pleasures of the flesh, almost but not quite stepping into Hellraiser territory. Yes, some of the effects in From Beyond are laughably bad, as is some of the dialogue, but ultimately a horror movie like this should (in equal parts) freak us out, disturb us a little, and do it all while titillating some primal urge within us. Despite its great and many flaws, From Beyond manages to do all of those things.

Dagon is the most recent of Gordon's attempts to adapt Lovecraft and is a movie that finds itself as the odd man out. Not as wild and fun as Re-Animator and not as memorable as From Beyond, Dagon is nonetheless a creepy and effective horror film, imbuing the viewer with a palpable sense of dread and discomfort.

Perhaps the thing that sets Dagon apart from Gordon's previous films on this list is a distinct sense of restraint. Call it the maturity of a director much more experienced than when he made his first two Lovecraft adaptations, or chalk it up to the natural result of a creepy setting that lends itself to suspense -- either way, Dagon is built on a potboiler framework with a sense of isolation that makes the movie quite effective. Those who prefer slow escalating scares to the madcap insanity of Re-Animator or the kink of From Beyond may find that Dagon is their favorite of the three.


Killer Cuts, Part Two

By DC Green
Part Two in a Series

Killer Cuts #3 - The Midnight Meat Train

With a name suitable only for horror or porn, The Midnight Meat Train is a disturbing mystery wrapped up in a gruesome riddle. Who exactly is Mahogany (snicker -- Vinnie Jones in what I swear IS NOT a porn movie) and what is his sinister purpose? This is exactly the question that art photographer Leon (Bradley Cooper) seeks the answer to after his chance encounter with Mahogany, an encounter that leads Leon toward a dark destiny from which there is no escape.

Based on the short story by Clive Barker, The Midnight Meat Train is a brave sort of horror film, smarter than you'd think at first glance and willing to take you to unexpected places. While the ending has been found to be a bit divisive among horror fans, it doesn't matter whether you willingly accept the ending of the film or not, you'll enjoy the very stylish, very bloody trip there.

There was a bit of controversy surrounding this movie's release (or lack thereof) and it's kind of criminal how Lionsgate treated this film. After internal management changes, LIonsgate began pushing the release date of the movie back indefinitely, using their dollars to promote lesser films such as The Strangers (which I didn't think was nearly as effective as everyone else) and Saw IV, so they decided to bench MMM for an undisclosed period of time. After horror fans began clamoring for it by way of online petitions and requesting it for festivals, Lionsgate finally relented, releasing it in a limited engagement in August 2008 --- to second run theaters. That's right, this baby didn't go straight-to-DVD...it went straight to the dollar theater.

I don’t know about you, but with a title like The Midnight Meat Train, and given its relatively low budget, you would think that the Lionsgate marketing department would push it to an October release, and have a field day with this one. "This Halloween, don't drive to the party, take the train." The sexual innuendo and publicity via bad taste alone would be pure gold..."Up For Some Naughty Halloween Fun? Ride The Midnight Meat Train." Those aren't great examples, but you get the point. Bottom line: Don't make the same mistake as Lionsgate, do yourself a favor and ride the train this Halloween.

Cemetery Man (Dellamorte Dellamore) is an Italian horror comedy (don't worry, it's in English) that, like most Italian horror, is part gonzo fright film, part existential meditation. The one thing that Cemetery Man has over most of its Giallo progenitors is an actual plot, though in the Italian horror tradition, the ending of this one will leave you scratching your head. However, the sex, blood, humor and hypnotic visuals will ensure you stay happy in the process of getting there.

Buffalora, Italy, is a town permeated by strange happenings; the town is often subject to intermittent earthquakes, and ever more strangely, the dead residents of the cemetery like nothing more than to crawl themselves up from the ground, hungry for living flesh. Francesco Dellamorte (Rupert Everett) is the caretaker at the local cemetery, and is a man tasked with the most peculiar of jobs -- keeping the dead in their graves...a job with which Francesco is becoming more and more disillusioned.

Francesco's problems are further compounded when he falls in love with a newly widowed beauty, sending his life into twisted new entanglements. Cemetery Man is weird, sexy and way out there, a description that should earn it a place in your Halloween horror catalog.


Killer Cuts, Part One

By DC Green
Part One of a Series

When the calendar passes into October, my mind inevitably turns to Halloween...chills, thrills and more specifically, horror movies. As you may know, I'm a bit of a horror aficionado and love nothing more than settling down in a darkened room on a cool, crisp October night and spending some time with a few fright flicks.

So as I build my list of celluloid scares to spend time with this Halloween, I thought I would share some choice cuts with all of you to help build your own menu of macabre movies to enjoy in celebration of All Hallow's Eve. I'll profile a couple films a day for the next week or so as everyone prepares for their Halloween entertainment.

Killer Cuts #1 - Trick 'r Treat

Trick 'r Treat is a great throwback to horror anthologies such as Creepshow or Trilogy of Terror, or Tales From the Darkside: The Movie, though better than any of those. Writer/Director Michael Dougherty (screenwriter for X-Men 2 and Superman Returns) weaves a web of interrelated tales that include a school principal with bad intentions (Dylan Baker), a disturbing urban legend about a "school bus massacre", a red riding hood (Anna Paquin) who finds herself chased not by a wolf, but (ironically) by a vampire, and finally an encounter between the old neighborhood curmudgeon (Brian Cox) and the mysterious "Sackboy." The film is far from perfect, but it's a new Halloween classic—the sort of horror movie that hasn't been made in years; it's original, gory, creepy, disturbing and darkly funny.

It's a shame that Warner Bros. never released Trick 'r Treat theatrically, because a late October release would have made them the budget back on this baby and then some, particularly if they had released it soon after Anna Paquin earned her horror hottie cred with True Blood. Originally scheduled for release in 2007, WB put it on the shelf for two years and sat on it until fan outrage finally convinced them to release it straight-to-video last October. I suppose the ultimate audience for this movie would have been built on video anyway, but a theatrical release could have done wonders for its profile. Either way, do yourself a favor and stream or give Trick 'r Treat a spin in the player this Halloween.

Killer Cuts #2 - Splinter

This cinematic slice is a bit of a modern throwback as well, recalling the kind of creature features that have become such a rarity these days. Like John Carpenter's The Thing, where isolation and suspicion are used in conjunction with a truly horrifying enemy, Splinter uses this same formula to create a sense of panic and dread that sticks with you long after the movie is over.

A young couple (Paulo Costanzo and Jill Wagner) on a camping trip find themselves kidnapped by a fugitive (Shea Wigham) and his strung-out girlfriend, only for the four of them to face something much worse when they stop to fuel up.

Typically I find that F/X maestros don’t make for particularly effective directors (Stan Winston and Robert Kurtzman both come to mind), but with Splinter, director Toby Wilkins appears to have bucked the trend. Splinter is atmospheric, suspenseful and disturbing, and more importantly, it's realistic and respectful of both its characters and the situation in which they find themselves.

All in all, Splinter is a terrific way to fill one's modern monster movie quota when it comes to your Halloween horror choices, with the only caveat being that the shaky-cam filming style is a minor annoyance, but one that doesn't detract from the overall experience.


John Huston: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon reviews The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

John Huston’s first film after World War II was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), re-teaming him with producer Henry Blanke and star Humphrey Bogart from The Maltese Falcon. Huston won Oscars for his screenplay and directing, and he directed his father, Walter, in an Oscar-winning performance. The film in on the AFI’s list of the top 100 films.

Huston returned to the theme of a failed quest, with three drifters prospecting for gold. The titular treasure lends the film its other key themes: gold can corrupt the best of men; the difference between honesty and trustworthiness; and money isn’t everything.

Bogart plays Fred C. Dobbs, a role that posed some risks for the actor, who had spent the last several years playing heroic characters to break his early bad-guy typecasting. Dobbs, however, was no mere two-dimensional villain. We meet him as a broke American expatriate in Tampico, Mexico, begging for change from an American tourist, played by John Huston. Dobbs and another American expatriate (Curtin, played by Tim Holt) are offered work, for which they are not paid. They meet up with aging prospector Howard (Walter Huston), who tells them about a deposit of gold in the Sierra Madre. Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard agree to mine the gold together, making promises about the treasure and each other. The wizened Howard warns of the pitfalls of such arrangements: “As long as there’s no find, the noble brotherhood will last. But when the piles of gold begin to grow, that’s when the trouble starts.”

The longer the three treasure hunters spend in the wilderness, the more Dobbs begins to lose his connection to reality. He starts talking to himself, and becomes convinced that Curtin and Howard are trying to cheat him out of his share of the gold. This descent into madness provides Bogart with one of his best opportunities to show what he can do as an actor.

Along the way, the characters must make decisions regarding the trustworthiness of one another and the other characters they meet. Dobbs, Curtin, and Howard are perfectly honest when they make their plans at the outset, but Howard, ever the voice of reason, says “I know what kind of ideas even supposedly decent people get when gold’s at stake.” Later, when the three of them cross paths with Cody, a prospector from Texas, they try to disguise their purpose in the jungle; Cody sees through their attempted subterfuge, and tries to ingratiate himself with the trio. He never fully gains Dobbs’ trust, and ends up paying dearly for it.

Dobbs’ and Curtin’s lack of money at the beginning of the story provides a powerful and understandable motivation for the pursuit of the gold in Sierra Madre. Howard tries to inform them of the dangers along the way, including priorities: “Water’s precious; sometimes it can be more precious than gold.” Dobbs’ obsession with the treasure blinds him to what he stands to lose, but Curtin learns from his losses, and the audience can see him following Howard like a surrogate son and learning everything the old man has to teach.

The use of music in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre deserves a special mention. As the three main characters make their way through the Mexican jungle, the music is bright and up-tempo to reflect Howard’s expertise and enthusiasm; the same theme is brought down-tempo to underscore how difficult the same journey is for the much younger Dobbs and Curtin. Later, as Dobbs goes more obviously mad, the string-heavy music starts to sound like bees (a musical idea that’s been used in similar ways in more recent films, including The Dark Knight).

Earlier in the film, during a fight in a bar, however, no music backs up the action. The fight looks less choreographed than much action in more recent films, and the film does not manipulate the audience’s reaction to the violence in the scene.

John Huston’s vision as a director was mature from the start, but The Treasure of the Sierra Madre established him as a major force in film.



John Huston: The Maltese Falcon

The USPS has issued a set of four stamps honoring great film directors and the films for which they are most remembered. The four selected are: John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), and Billy Wilder (Some Like It Hot). We will be exploring the lives and work of these directors over the next several weeks. In this post LR Simon reviews The Maltese Falcon (1941).

John Huston’s adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, which is one of the more important debut efforts by a director, followed the source material closely. Huston made changes to few scenes, and added only a new, slightly altered ending. Two previous adaptations of the novel did not perform well at the box office, and the studio did not expect much from Huston’s version. While Huston’s screenplay was faithful to the novel, his vision for the film included a deeper understanding of the themes of the novel than the earlier films had. Audiences and critics received Huston’s adaptation so enthusiastically that Huston went on to direct all of his subsequent screenplays except one, Three Strangers (1946).

Huston’s preparation with extensive storyboarding allowed the crew to work efficiently, which was important for the film’s tight budget. Because Huston was a trained artist, he was able to communicate camera angles and movement, composition, and lighting in his storyboards.

The casting of Bogart as Sam Spade proved to be important to both Huston and Bogart, who would work together several more times. Prior to The Maltese Falcon, Bogart had been typecast as a villain or a heavy; this flawed but heroic role allowed him to take on a variety of roles that had been denied him, such as romantic leads (Casablanca, Sabrina). Bogart would give better performances in other films, but he gave Spade more dimension and humanity than Hammett gave him in the novel.

Huston’s The Maltese Falcon became the model for future detective melodramas. The writing, direction, and production were clean and uncomplicated. By limiting the scenes of action, Huston created a sense of claustrophobia or paranoia that would characterize film noir. Elements of Huston’s work here certainly influenced other great noir films, including The Big Sleep and Double Indemnity.