"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

July 25, 2012

Classic Cult Films (Movie Reviews)

Here are ten great cult films from the "classical era," from the 1920s to 1960s (see my previous post about cult films for a definition of the genre).
  • A Page of Madness (1926) by Kinugasa Teinosuke and with Inoue Masao and Nakagawa Yoshie. Rather exhausting avant-garde film by a young Japanese director from the 1920s, showing that Japan was at the forefront of modernism in both art and film. Famous modernist author and future Nobel-Prize winner Kawabata Yasunari wrote one of the scripts for the film. The film is set in a mental asylum, where a man who feels responsible for the schizophrenic condition of his wife has taken menial employment, and contains a barrage of startling imagery and haunting dreamlike visuals. Any cinematic device known at the time is used. One haunting scene occurs when the male patients of the asylum are aroused by the dance of "the wife" and cause a riot; they are then given Noh masks to make them peaceful. (7)  
  • L'Age d'Or ("The Golden Age," 1930) by Luis Bunuel and with Gaston Modot, Lya Lys and Caridad de Laberdesque. Although the earlier Un Chien Andalou starts with a famous sequence in which an eyeball is sliced open in merciless close-up (a scene that still has people fainting), it is only 15 minutes long and therefore L'Age d'Or is Bunuel's first proper feature film. It has also more plot, wedged in between a mock documentary about scorpions (= human society?) and an homage to De Sade's Salo, with Jesus as main reveler and ending in a shot of a cross decorated with female scalps. A man and a woman are passionately in love with one another, but their attempts to consummate that passion are constantly thwarted by the Church and bourgeois society. The atheistic humanist Bunuel fought a lifelong rebellion against the Catholic Church that had shaped life in his Spanish home village of Calenda with a heavy hand. The film consists mainly of a string of loose scenes and gags: four bishop are found mummified on a rocky island; a young woman discovers a cow in her bed; and during a reception, a cart full of workers crosses the living-room. The feelings of the continually interrupted lovers find an outlet in Bunuelesque fetishism when the woman finally seeks satisfaction by sucking the marble toes of a statue - sex is both terrifying and hilarious. Bunuel's surrealist masterpiece L'Age D'Or is nonsensical, erotic, and offensive. At the premiere in Paris in 1930, the film caused a riot as the outraged audience trashed the theater. Until the early 1980s, the film was banned in many countries. (9)
  • Le Sang d'un Poete ("The Blood of a Poet," 1930) by Jean Cocteau and with Enrique Rivero, Elizabeth Lee Miller and Pauline Carton. Although a complete novice as far as film was concerned, in 1930 French poet and playwright Cocteau received a million francs from his patron le Vicomte de Noailles to make any film as he pleased (the Vicomte had also sponsored L'Age D'Or). That became the present one, four poetic episodes about an artist: (1) An artist sketches a face of which the mouth comes alive. When he wipes it off, it sticks to his hand. Finally he manages to wipe it off on the face of a female statue. (2) The statue can now speak and urges the artist to pass through a mirror. This leads him to a hallway in a hotel where he peeps through the key locks into various rooms, seeing weird goings-on (a little girl being whipped and later walking on the ceiling; a hermaphrodite). He returns and smashes the statue. (3) Boys have a snow fight. A young boy dies because one of the balls contains a stone. (4) The statue is now a woman who plays cards with the artist. Under their table lies the body of the dead boy, which is reclaimed by his guardian angel. The artist looses the game and shoots himself. People watching from a balcony applaud. Not surprisingly, Cocteau's film shared in the scandal of Bunuel's work. The scene in which the sponsoring Vicomte appeared as one of the viewers on the balcony had to be reshot as he could not be seen to applaud a suicide. By the way, Cocteau only used non-professional protagonists, often other artists. Criterion essay by Cocteau. (8)
  • Freaks (1932) by Tod Browning and with Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams and Olga Baclanova. This film became a virtual career-ender for director Tod Browning of Dracula-fame. The film is set in the circus milieu which at that time still had an "attraction" of people with various medical disorders: from persons suffering from dwarfism to microcephalics and a man without limbs. The point of this enthralling film is that the physically fit people around these physically challenged ones are the true "freaks," for they prove to be morally flawed, while the "sideshow attractions" all possess a marvelous humanity. Shocking is of course that no make-up or effects are used: these are indeed people who have strangely deformed heads or lack limbs. A trapeze artist marries her colleague who is a dwarf, tearing him away from his equally small-sized but wise girlfriend. Of course the trapeze woman has another guy on the sly, a sort of bodybuilder. Together they have hatched the plan to poison the dwarf and steal his fortune. But they have forgotten about the wonderful solidarity among her new husband's colleagues, who enact a terribly revenge... Browning filmed the story at a quick pace and without sentimentality, melodrama or exaggeration. It goes without saying this film could only be made in the Precode period. The film upset contemporary audiences and was banned for decades in some countries, but found lasting fame as a midnight cult item. (8.5)
  • The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) by James Whale and with Boris Karloff, Elsa Lanchester and Colin Clive. Sequel to the 1931 iconic movie, surpassing it in artistry thanks to its satiric elements as well as having more depth and emotion - it rises above being a mere horror pic. Besides stalking the countryside and killing those who don't like him, the Monster speaks in this film ("Drink!" Good!"), and even smokes a cigar. He also likes violin music. But above all, he desperately wants a friend... In the end, the sinister and campy Dr. Pretorius manages to convince the unwilling Dr Frankenstein to join forces and concoct a female partner for the monster. Her creation is a delicious set piece with the usual thunder and lightning. The Female Monster is played by Elsa Lanchester (who was married to Charles Laughton) in all too short screen time, but she makes the most of it. She has a terrible electroshock hairdo (a la Nefertete) and hisses like an angry swan, but what is worse, she doesn't want to be "friends" with Boris Karloff! Guess what happens next... This is a B-movie that got the A-treatment, true Hollywood Pop Gothic, but above all, as director Whale had free reign, he could impose his stylish vision on the material and make the only sequel in film history that surpasses the original. (8.5)
  • La Belle et la Bete (1946) by Jean Cocteau and with Jean Marais, Josette Day and Mila Parély.  The one and only "Beauty and the Beast," and not for children, as it concerns those obscure matters we secretly fear and desire - like a true fairy tale. The Beast is, of course, the potential Beast in us all, something which was very obvious immediately after the cruelties of WWII. Belle lives with her father, two snotty sisters, and a renegade brother, whose handsome but fickle friend wants to marry her. But she can't think about marriage as her father needs her - she runs the whole household as her sisters are too lazy to do anything. On the way back from a business trip (the family fortune is threatened) the father happens upon the Beast's castle. He plucks a rose for Belle in the garden and is taken prisoner and told he most die - unless he will send one of his daughters instead. Belle is the only sister who dares take up the challenge and she starts living with the Beast in his castle. She gradually discovers that the Beast is human, sympathetic, and superior to humans. Cocteau uses haunting images and Freudian symbols. The castle is the wet dream of a Gothic Dali - the candelabra in the entrance hall are held by living human arms and the statues along the walls are alive, their eyes follow those who pass by. Cocteau had the friend, the Beast and the prince into whom the Beast is finally transformed all played by the same actor (Jean Marais) to show "the unconscious obstinacy with which women pursue the same type of man." But as the Beast was so superior, Cocteau says that his transformation into Prince Charming would come as a terrible blow to Beauty, condemning her to a humdrum marriage and a future that I summed up in that last sentence of all fairy tales: “And they had many children.” Criterion essay one and two. (9)  
  • Gojira ("Godzilla," 1954) by Honda Ishiro and with Takashi Shimura, Akihiko Hirata and Akira Takarada. Special effects by Tsuburaya Eiji, music by Ifukube Akira. Due to nuclear testing, a monster reptile with radioactive breath is revived. It goes on land in Japan and starts destroying Tokyo in a mad stomping rampage. Who can stop it? Together with King Kong, this is the iconic monster movie. Born from Japanese memories of WWII when almost all cities were destroyed by fire bombing plus renewed Cold War fear of the atomic bomb in the only country to have suffered two nuclear attacks. Filmed in a dry documentary style. It is just a man in a rubber suit trashing a small mock-up of Tokyo, but thanks to the moody black-and-white it works. Gojira grew into a large franchise with increasingly low and childish production values - in fact, this is the only film worth watching from the whole Toho "kaiju" (monster film) stable. Go for the original Japanese, not the mutilated 1956 U.S. release. (8)
  • Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) by Ed D. Wood and with Gregory Walcott, Tom Keene and Mona McKinnon. This has been called the "worst movie ever made," "so bad it is good again" - such movies were a staple of the midnight cult circuit where they led to unintended laughs. Not only the acting in Plan 9 is inapt - with one guy reading from the script hidden in his lap - but also the direction mixes up day and night. Moreover there was zero money, so the background often is just a curtain (also in the cockpit of a plane!). Wood wanted to use Bela Lugosi and had shot some footage of him, when the actor died - the director used the footage he had and supplemented it by having an acquaintance walk around with his face covered by a cape. A truly posthumous role for man who made Dracula famous! The story is a serious one turned silly: a more advanced ;civilization is worried about mankind possessing nuclear weapons while still in a mentally infantile stage of development. They want to prevent humans from developing the next big weapon that might destroy "the universe," so they have several plans to contact and warn mankind - Plan Number 9 involves the use of zombies (of all things), but I must say that the zombies are rather attractive, especially the female vampire. The question remains: may we use a film that was meant seriously for unabashed guffaws? (6)
  • Last Year at Marienbad (1962) by Alain Resnais and with Delphine Seyrig, Giorgio Albertazzi and Sacha Pitoëff. A mesmerizing, ambiguous film that defies interpretation: a man and a woman visiting a Baroque castle annex luxury hotel may or may not have met last year at Marienbad. The man tries to persuade the (married) woman to run away with him. Through enigmatic flashbacks and disorientating shifts of time and location, the film explores the relationships between the two characters in a dreamlike atmosphere. Conversations and events are repeated in several locations inside the castle and in the park that surrounds it. There are numerous tracking shots of the castle's corridors, with voice-overs that have an almost hypnotic quality. In the end, it is best the leave the riddle as it is and enjoy the mysterious atmosphere. (9)
  • Night of the Living Dead (1968) by George A. Romero and with Duane Jones, Judith O'Dea and Karl Hardman. The iconic zombie film and perhaps the best horror movie ever created; an independently made cult film. The radiation from a fallen satellite may be the cause that the recently deceased rise from their graves and as cannibals hunt for the flesh of the living. A group of people is trapped in an old farmhouse in rural Pennsylvania, and beleaguered by a whole army of zombies. The human conflict ;within this group is also flashing up - one guy is an incredible egoistic jerk, others have caught the zombie virus. The film is not an ordinary horror flick for giggles and halfhearted screams, but packs a hard-hitting, cruel punch. Nobody escapes. A girl kills her mother, a boy and his girlfriend die in a fiery car crash after which the zombies enjoy the barbecue. And the African-American hero of the film is shot between the eyes when he thinks the police have come to free him and waves at them from the window - the redneck cops take him for a zombie (but the motive could well be much worse than that). The film is a mirror of the tensions in American society in 1968, both racial conflict and the Vietnam War - it has been called "subversive on many levels."  Romero also revolutionized the horror genre and was an important influence on "slasher films" from the 70s and 80s. And he demonstrated you can make a great film on a tiny budget (pace Ed Wood). The movie is in the Public Domain. (9)