by Steve Habrat
There was a time when audiences feared the vampire. He wasn’t viewed as a sex symbol, a glittery pretty boy who pined after a pasty high school girl, drove a sports car like Vin Diesel, and (I shudder to even write this) went out in sunlight. No, there was a time when the vampire was a monster, a creature that leapt from the shadows of our nightmares and hovered over us while we slept in the dead of night. He was a representation of plague, disease, and unholy death, a dusty, bat-like spawn of Satan that rested his pale skin in a coffin lined with the soil from the Black Plague. This was even before Bela Lugosi’s cock-eyed Count, a gentleman who politely told his prey, “I vant to suck yer blahood,” while reaching a contorted hand out from the lid of his coffin. Many regard Universal’s 1931 gothic horror film Dracula as the original and definitive vampire film. Anytime someone mentions the name Dracula, the face that comes to mind is Lugosi’s curled smile, widow’s peak, and bulging eyes. While Lugosi may be the poster boy for “scary” and “serious” vampires, perhaps the most terrifying vampire of all is Max Shreck’s Count Orlok, the pointy-eared demon who stalked the mortals of F.W. Murnau’s 1922 German Expressionist masterpiece Nosferatu. Alive with a creeping supernatural atmosphere that slowly closes around the viewer, menacing shadow play, and a performance that reigns supreme over all other movie monsters, Murnau’s Nosferatu stands as the greatest interpretation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Real estate agent Thomas Hutter (played by Gustav von Wangenheim) is sent by his boss, Knock (played by Alexander Grannach), to Transylvania to meet with Count Orlok (played by Max Shreck), who has recently purchased a home in the town of Wisborg. Saddened to leave his new wife, Ellen (played by Greta Schroeder), Hutter sets out on a lengthy trip into the country where he meets skittish locals, who all warn of “Nosferatu,” the undead that prowl the woods around Orlok’s castle. Ignoring their warnings, Hutter continues his trip to the castle, but as they get closer, Hutter’s carriage driver gets spooked and refuses to go any further. It doesn’t take long for another carriage to meet Hutter and he is ushered to the front door of the seemingly abandoned castle. Shortly after his arrival, Hutter meets with Count Orlok, a seemingly friendly enough individual who invites Hutter to sit down to a hot meal. As the hours pass within the darkened walls of the castle, Hutter begins to suspect that there may be supernatural forces at play. Meanwhile, Orlok has plans of his own for both Hutter and the new town that is expecting him.
Renamed due to not being able to obtain the rights to Stoker’s novel, Nosferatu is perhaps the most down-to-earth vampire film ever made. There are no undead bloodsuckers morphing into bats or wolves, just a misshapen ghoul with pointy ears and elongated fingers that wanders the empty halls of a dilapidated castle. Vampirism itself is presented as more of an apocalyptic plague rather than a satanic spell, as “plague” rats scatter in the diseased wake of Count Orlok. Every now and then, Murnau suggests that there are unseen supernatural forces at play, especially when Hutter nears Orlok’s secluded dwelling. At first, Murnau just shows animals scurrying about the brush and we get a few shots of what is supposedly a werewolf prowling around looking for prey. Once Hutter is picked up by Orlok’s phantom carriage, a handful of images are presented in the negative, almost like Murnau is ripping the shroud of normalcy off the film itself and showing the supernatural underbelly of the ordinary. He does this again later in film, when he shows us a close up of a spider stalking a tangled insect in its web, a symbolic reference to the spidery Orlok and his helpless prey unable to pull themselves out of his hypnotic web. As far as Orlok goes, the most fantastic aspect about him outside of his striking appearance is how he suddenly appears in front of people, manifesting almost of out thin air.
Then we have Shreck’s hypnotic and measured performance as the dreaded Count Orlok, a monstrous role that could be one of the most iconic in the history of horror. Shreck fills every single movement with malevolence, each rigid twitch of his finger or tilt of his head suggests a very long and hellish life as one of the undead. His fingers curl around like the legs of a spider, at one point jutting out from his waist as he skulks into Hutter’s room for a bloody treat. His ears resemble the ears of a bat and his eyes bulge out of his head, appearing to lack a pupil when viewed through the grainy black and white camera work. Then there are his fangs, which resemble the teeth of a rat as they jut out and hang over his lips. Muranu even compares his physical appearance to that of a Venus flytrap, which he does in a left-field lecture about the plant. There is nothing particularly gentlemanly about him as he hangs in a window and stares out of Ellen, whom he desperately wishes to have his way with. The two share a mesmerizing moment and they are not even in the same shot. Orlok closes in on a sleeping Hutter while Ellen, who is miles away, sees Orlok closing in on her dearly beloved in her nightmare.
While Shreck is actually more of a supporting player rather than top billing, he overshadows every other performer in Nosferatu. Gustav von Wangenheim overacts a bit as Hutter, but you suppose that he has to because he doesn’t have sound to fall back on. He’s the hero of the picture, one that falls victim early on in Orlok’s mansion of madness, but he tries his hardest to prevent the undead evil from spreading his plague. Greta Schroeder’s Ellen possesses a dark side as she suffers from horrific nightmares that cause her to wander the railing of her balcony. Alexander Grannach gets nuts as Knock, Hutter’s employer who snickers with glee over the arrival of his “master.” He has black circles around his eyes and he has a ring of frizzy hair that suggests that he has spent a night or two in the local loony bin. John Gottowt is also present as Professor Bulwer, the man who is basically responsible for pointing out the similarities between Count Orlok and the Venus flytrap.
While the lack of sound may turn many viewers away, those who stick with Nosferatu are in for a terrifying treat. There are a number of sequences that are iconic, especially the sequence aboard a ship that finds Count Orlok slowly picking off the sailors one by one. The sequence culminates in an image that is one of the most blood-curdling moments in horror history. Orlok’s stiff body bursts from a cracked coffin and reveals itself in all its bony glory, only to then make his way to the top deck and stalk the captain. Another sequence that rewards is the final moments of the film, with Orlok locked onto the neck of one of the main characters as the sun slowly shatters the night sky. If the repulsive Orlok doesn’t make you quiver, the seemingly abandoned gothic landscape will certainly make you tense. Atmosphere and architecture become major players in the film, especially the jagged, fang-like homes that comprise the Wiborg skyline and peer into Ellen’s bedroom like jaws waiting to bite into her flesh. Overall, as one of the original monster movies, Nosferatu is a surreal and haunting gothic horror film. The images that Murnau frames are guaranteed to stick with you the rest of your life and Shreck’s performance alone will give you a renewed fear of the dark. Nosferatu will forever remain that greatest and scariest vampire movie ever made.
Nosferatu is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
When looking back at the history of the horror film, one of the most essential early entries in the genre is director Robert Wiene’s classic silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Most people are familiar with Wiene’s German Expressionist masterpiece, even if they are not necessarily aware that they are. While some have surely stumbled across one of the many famous images from this surreal horror tale, most have been exposed to the mind-bending visuals through Rob Zombie’s music video for “Living Dead Girl,” which was essentially a condensed remake that starred Zombie and his wife, Sheri Moon Zombie. Credited as the film that kicked off the German Expressionist movement and single handedly created the twist ending, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a singular work that is alive with insanity and chilling in its dreamlike set design. It’s brimming with gothic points, ghostly performances, and a climax that will most certainly divide viewers. Over the years, the film’s writers have claimed that the story was based around a real life murder that occurred in 1913, and many critics have pointed out that the film is a product of the violence and confusion that gripped post-WWI Germany. One thing that is undeniable is that Wiene grabs you by the hair and rips you down the rabbit hole of insanity, and then leaves you to wander that shadows and alleyways that consistently threaten to rob you of your own grip on reality.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari begins with two men, Francis (played by Friedrich Fehér) and an elderly gentleman, sitting on a park bench when a woman in blinding white wanders past them. As it turns out, this woman is Jane (played by Lil Dagover), Francis’ fiancé with whom he shares a particularly chilling experience. The film then flashes back a few years to the German village of Holstenwall, where Francis lives with his good friend Alan (played by Hans Heinrich von Twardowski). Despite the fact that they both are in love with Jane, Francis and Alan decide to attend a carnival. While exploring the scene, the two friends stumble upon a sideshow act run by Dr. Caligari (played by Werner Krauss), who shouts about Cesare (played by Conrad Veidt), a somnambulist who slumbers in what appears to be a coffin-like cabinet. Dr. Caligari explains that Cesare can see the future and then encourages any brave soul in the crowd to step right up and ask the somnambulist a question. Alan volunteers and asks Cesare how long he will live. The slumbering Cesare awakens and warns Alan that he will be dead by dawn. The next day, Alan is discovered murdered, which immediately makes Francis suspicious of Dr. Caligari and Cesare. Francis alerts the authorities, but the next night, there is another attempted murder. Authorities arrest a small-time criminal, who denies having anything to do with Alan’s murder. Confused and desperate, Francis and the authorities race to find evidence that Dr. Caligari and Cesare are the ones responsible for Alan’s death but their quest to find the killer will lead them to a shocking discovery.
Right from the start, it isn’t hard to tell that something is off about The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The text titles appear to the viewer as though they were scribbled by a madman and then decorated with his construction paper creations inspired by his nighttime hallucinations. At times, they seem to be contorting into faces or crosses, the cryptic images of a severely disturbed mind. Francis appears hunched over with dark circles around his eyes, huddled up next to the elderly gentleman who rambles on about spirits being all around them. Seemingly out of nowhere wanders Jane, who appears like a specter that has wandered out of a graveyard just off frame. You half believe that Jane is one of the spirits that the elderly man whispers about, but then Francis begins his spine-tingling tale. From here, Wiene really unleashes the funhouse visuals on the viewer. The characters all wander a village that looks like the brainchild of Salvador Dali if he spent too much time in a graveyard sipping on a glass of absinthe. Windows look like they are melting to the floor, lights twist out of stone like metal snakes, and gothic buildings shoot every which way like thorns on a rose. All of the sets are then plunged into heavy atmospheric shadows that make Holstenwall look like Hell on earth. There isn’t a frame that Wiene doesn’t play up this unforgettable set design, holding a shot long enough for us to in this psychotic dream world brought to life by Hermann Warm. Just to make things creepier, Wiene uses color filters, rich orange to suggest the comfort of late afternoon, or hypnotic blue to imply the bewitching glow of moonlight.
Wandering this prickly maze is one of silent horror’s most recognizable monsters next Max Shreck’s rat-faced Count Orlok and Lon Chaney’s pig-like Phantom. That monster would be Conrad Veidt’s Cesare, the slinky somnambulist salve of Dr. Caligari. Donning a pitch-black body suit, a pasty face, and black circles scribbled around his eyes, Cesare nabs the film’s best and most dramatic scare moment. Wiene cuts to a close up of Cesare as Dr. Caligari coaxes him from his slumber. His eyeballs push against his sealed eyelids when suddenly they pop open with fiendish cognizance. He scans the crowd for a man or woman brave enough to face him, slowly turning his neck to face Alan, whose courageousness is diminishing by the second. It is perhaps the most terrifying moment in the entire film. Close behind it is the sequence where Cesare is sent after Jane in the dead of night. Cesare watches her for a moment, only to slink through the window like a shadow and glide right up to her bed. Jane awakens from her deep sleep and stares directly into the face of a ghoul, who responds to her screams by curling his black lips back into what appears to be a smile, one that screams evil. Just watching Veidt creep along the streets with careful footsteps is enough to give anyone nightmares, especially when you marvel at the otherworldly precision with which he maneuvers through the night.
While the supporting Veidt steals the film in his handful of scenes, the supporting acts are the furthest thing from ordinary. Krauss is equally frightening as the squat Dr. Caligari, who peers out at the citizens of Holstenwall through black make-up accentuating the lines of his face. Hidden behind a top hat and glasses, he scowls like Ebenezer Scrooge at anyone who dares point a finger of accusation his way, and an insidious grin spreads across his face as he shovels spoonful after spoonful of slop into Cesare’s mouth. Lil Dagover’s ghostly Jane wonders the film as if she is in a trance, a chiaroscuro spirit who is dragged over the rooftops by Cesare in one of the most iconic sequences of the entire film. Hans Heinrich von Twardowski is good-natured as the jolly Alan, who is game to play along with what he believes is a sideshow farce. Friedrich Fehér rounds out the cast as Francis, the hero of our story who doesn’t appear to have the handle on reality that he believes he does. In a way, he is almost like a detective the way he hurries along looking for any clue to help solve his friend’s murder.
The most controversial aspect of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is easily the twist ending, which some may view as a bit of a cheat. There is no doubt in my mind that in 1920, this tacked on surprise left many audience members with their jaws on the floor. I am one that falls into the camp of thinking that the twist is a bit unnecessary, as it washes away the flavor of the events that preceded it. At the time the film was made, the producers believed that the original conclusion was too disturbing, so they encouraged Wiene to shoot a more accessible finale. However, despite this minor complaint, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is still a film unlike any other. There are stretches were you forget you’re watching a silent film and there are images that you could freeze-frame and hang on your living room wall. Whether you’re a fan of cinema or just a casual moviegoer, you owe it to yourself to check out this significant and surreal work of art. Make it a double feature with F.W. Murnau’s Expressionist classic Nosferatu. Your dreams may never be the same.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Throughout the 1950s, most of the science fiction films that hit the screen were filmed in black and white and made on shoestring budgets. They were pumped out quickly to capitalize on the sci-fi craze that was running rampant through American audiences. Arguably the best science fiction film of the 1950s is director Fred M. Wilcox’s 1956 effort Forbidden Planet, a pulpy space opera that also acts as a retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Appearing as though it has leapt from the pages of one of those “funny books” and featuring an icy electronic score, Forbidden Planet is a film that truly tickles the eyeballs. It is all about the sky-high production values that are almost like staring into a cosmic rainbow, yet Wilcox doesn’t lean solely on the visuals. Forbidden Planet is also a cautionary tale about rapid technological advancement and those advancements spinning horribly out of control to the point of total annihilation. It perfectly reflects the anxiety and the tension of the 1950s, an era that saw the beginning of the Space Race, a general boom in technology, and the hydrogen bomb.
Forbidden Planet begins in the early 23nd century, with the United Planets Cruiser C57-D a year out from earth and traveling to the planet of Altair. It turns out that the crew of C57-D, led by Commander J.J. Adams (played by Leslie Nielsen), is there to investigate the fate of an expedition crew sent to Altair twenty years earlier. Upon entering orbit, the crew makes contact with Dr. Edward Morbius (played by Walter Pidgeon), who warns the crew not to land on the planet. Commander Adams ignores the warning and proceeds to land anyway. Minutes after touching down, the crew is greeted by Robby the Robot, an extremely intelligent robot who acts as an assistant to Morbius. Robby takes Commander Adams, Lieutenant Jerry Farman (played by Jack Kelly), and Lieutenant “Doc” Ostrow (played by Warren Stevens), to Morbius’ home, where the group is also introduced to his beautiful daughter, Altaira (played by Anne Francis). Morbius explains to the group that an unknown planetary force attacked and killed his crew and then vaporized their ship, the Bellerophon. Morbius then warns the group that they should leave the planet before they meet the same fate. But after equipment aboard C57-D is sabotaged, Commander Adams confronts Morbius about the damage. Morbius reveals that he has been studying an alien race known as the Krell, which mysteriously disappeared 200,000 years earlier, just as they achieved a great scientific breakthrough. As the days pass and the crew works to restore their ship, they discover that the damage may be caused by an invisible and extremely violent life form that watches from the surrounding hills.
Right from the start, director Wilcox works hard to establish a pulpy aesthetic that resembles something out of a comic book. Every color pops and flat out refuses to let you turn away. The environments look absolutely breathtaking, almost like a Technicolor dream made alien through a chirping electronic score that is just perfect. Yet despite all the cosmic color and alien blips, Forbidden Planet never once thinks about winking at the audience. It plays itself completely straight, something that will most certainly catch first time viewers off guard. Once the crew of C57-D lands on Altair, Wilcox is all about letting the viewer get to know the characters and the world around them. We are taken through glowing underground factories and shown all sorts of futuristic devices that do all sorts of wondrous (and dangerous) things. It truly is an immersive experience and not one moon rock is left unturned by the climax. While over half the film is explanation and plot development, the final stretch gives way to some pretty tense action sequences that really zip, bang, and flash. The less you know about the finale, the better, but just know that it will blow you away and have you wondering just how the filmmakers pulled all those effects off.
In addition to rich set design and the unforgettable score, Forbidden Planet is also loaded with unforgettable performances. Nielsen, who is mostly remembered for his comedic performances, is spectacular as the brave hero racing to understand the environment around him. We are never treated to a hint of his comedic talents and you can’t help but think that he would have made a great action hero if he had pursued it further. Pidgeon is commanding as our mysterious guide through this alien land. There is an angle of menace to his character and the heavy weight of tragedy is resting on his shoulders. Stevens is solid as Nielsen’s sidekick, “Doc” Ostrow, who is tasked with trying to understand the alien life form that is prowling around the ship. Francis is perfectly naïve and beautiful as Morbius’ sheltered daughter, Altaira, who is enamored by the “Earthmen” that keep visiting her home. Kelly is charismatic as the lovesick Farman, who desperately tries to cuddle up to Altaira. Earl Holliman also turns up in a supporting role as C57-D’s cook, who is desperate for another bottle of bourbon. Last but certainly not least is Robby the Robot, probably the most iconic character from Forbidden Planet. He may not have all that much to do besides moving heavy pieces of equipment with one hand or making 60 gallons of bourbon, but he is given plenty of personality through the voice of Marvin Miller, who elevates the walking pile of spinning parts into a real charmer.
Like most of the science fiction films of the 1950s, Forbidden Planet has quite a bit on its mind. You get the impression that Wilcox and his screenwriters, Cyril Hume, Irving Block, and Allen Adler, are reflecting upon the detonation of the atomic bomb and the rapid advancements that were being made in the Atomic Age. There is fear here that these great powers that America was experimenting with may also be our downfall. If you ignore the atomic fears that creep through the film, you’ll still notice that the film is incredibly influential. In addition to the breakthrough electronic score, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry has said that Forbidden Planet was one of his major inspirations for the classic show. The film is also mentioned in The Rocky Horror Picture Show during the opening song. Overall, brimming with personality, wit, thrills, chills, and charm, Forbidden Planet is an irresistible and massively influential entry into the science fiction genre. It has powerful performances, extraordinary set design, and special effects that continue to astonish to this very day. It is a deep and thoughtful journey through space that you will want to take again and again.
Forbidden Planet is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Of the all Atomic Age science fiction films I have had the pleasure of seeing over the years, the one that has always stuck with me most was Robert Wise’s eerie plea for peace The Day the Earth Stood Still. Released in 1951, just as the Cold War was getting underway and nuclear weapons were being developed and stockpiled at an alarming rate, The Day the Earth Stood Still nudged its way to the front lines of the B-movie saucer men epics and became one of the most pivotal in the genre. While many films become a product of their time, preaching a message against a political backdrop of yesterday, The Day the Earth Stood Still manages to resonate even in this day and age. Looking at The Day the Earth Stood Still today, many may find that the special effects have not aged gracefully and Gort may look like a man in a giant rubber suit, but the otherworldly atmosphere complimented by the chilling extraterrestrial howls on the soundtrack and the fear mongering radio broadcasts playing in the background of every single scene allows the film to grip you from the very first frame. It is certainly a mature work of art for the science fiction genre, one that comes from one of the most versatile directors to ever work in Hollywood.
A sleek and shiny UFO barrels into Earth’s atmosphere and parks itself right smack dab in the middle of Washington D.C. The public, the press, and the military all flock to the UFO in the hopes of catching a glimpse of an extraterrestrial. After a while, the UFO opens up and two figures, Klaatu (Played by Michael Rennie) and Gort (Played by Lock Martin), emerge from inside the ship. Klaatu announces that they have to come to earth in peace and that he wishes to speak to world leaders about an urgent matter, but naturally the military gets jumpy after he pulls a strange device from inside his spacesuit and they shoot Klaatu. In retaliation, Gort, a massive alien robot capable of disintegrating anything in his path, turns their weapons into ash. Klaatu is rushed to a local hospital where he shocks the doctors over his rapid healing abilities. While in the hospital, the President’s secretary, Haley (Played by Frank Conroy), visits Klaatu and discusses his mission. Klaatu pleads with him to gather all the world leaders together, but Haley explains that it is too difficult to get all of them together in one place. After Haley leaves, Klaatu breaks out of the hospital and begins trying to get to know the ordinary citizens of earth. He soon arrives at a boarding house where he meets pretty World War II widow Helen Benson (Played by Patricia Neal) and her young son Bobby (Played by Billy Gray). As Klaatu spends time with Helen and Bobby, he discovers that they may be able to help him on his mission, but the press and the military are growing more and more terrified of Klaatu and Gort with each passing day.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is not the type of science fiction film that relies on tons of flashy special effects (well, flashy for 1951), elaborate martian costumes, and lengthy sequences of explosions to entertain the audience. No, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a thoughtful science fiction film, one that sends a chill through ideas rather than nonstop action. Watching the film today, one can’t help but pick up the eerie similarities between the constant fearful radiobroadcasts chattering in the background and the fear mongering news of today. Klaatu and Gort haven’t been on the ground an hour and the press has already labeled them a menace to the human race, evil men from Mars who are ready to blast earth to tiny pebbles. When they emerge from their ship and state that they have come in peace, the press grows even more skeptical, especially after the nifty Gort retaliates by firing a powerful laser from his eye. And then there is the message of world peace, a plea for every man, woman, and child to live in perfect harmony. Wise and screenwriter Edmund H. North are really asking a lot of the human race, but when we had nuclear weapons aimed at each other with thumbs twitching over the triggers, you certainly have to give them credit for trying. Wise and North make the point that we turn too quickly to violence and refuse to look at situations in a thoughtful and peaceful manner. Why debate and discuss when you have the ability to blow your enemy off the face of the earth?
While Wise and North toss around these massive ideas, the actors all bring their A-game to this science fiction chiller. Rennie is easily the standout as the Chirst-like Klaatu, a peaceful extraterrestrial that is dismayed over Arlington National Cemetery and awed over the Lincoln Memorial. Klaatu is kindhearted, warm, sharp, and when it is needed, stern with the jittery masses. His meeting with Professor Jacob Barnhardt (Played by Sam Jaffe) is certainly an exchange that will make the hair or your arm stand up. Neal is superb as Helen Benson, who slowly realizes that this strange man that has shown up at her boarding house is in fact the alien that everyone is talking about. She becomes Klaatu’s capable ally and even manages to save his life in a critical moment. Gray does the typical “gee-whiz” youngster with ease and he really shines when he takes the inquisitive Klaatu on a tour of Washington D.C. Jaffe channels a certain frizzy-haired scientist as Professor Barnhardt and Hugh Marlowe stops by as Helen’s nasty boyfriend Tom, who tries to hand Klaatu over to the dreaded military once he learns who Klaatu really is. Then there is Martin as the awesome Gort, who really only walks around slowly or stands motionless. He really doesn’t have to do much to be intimidating and his presence sends an icy chill right through you even if it is a bit obvious he is wearing a rubber suit.
With its collectively strong performances, well-spoken script, and expert direction, it is quite easy to see why The Day the Earth Stood Still has become the classic that it has. Wise, who also directed films like The Haunting, West Side Story, and The Sound of Music, shows absolutely incredible range, even if this film was released before those three classics. It just absolutely amazes me that the same man directed all of those films. The Day the Earth Stood Still also manages to be fairly creepy at points, especially when Klaatu and Gort first emerge from the UFO and the stereotypical science fiction music oozes from the soundtrack. You’ll also be surprised to learn that the film holds up to multiple viewings and the suspense remains effective, especially if it watched with all the lights off. Overall, The Day the Earth Stood Still is probably the best and most important science fiction thriller of the Atomic Age. It is essential viewing for all film fanatics, especially if you’re a fan of the horror/science fiction/B-movies. Come for Gort and stay for the chilly warning of the final five minutes. You’ll be happy you did.
The Day the Earth Stood Still is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
If you find yourself being the type of person that can’t force yourself to sit down and watch a foreign art house film, you should really make an effort to start with and see Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo (The Bodyguard). Yes, there are subtitles in the film, so you will have to do a small bit of reading, but Yojimbo, which was the film that influenced Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, is such an entertaining film that you will find yourself forgetting that there are subtitles on the screen. Devoid of any off-putting pretension, Kurosawa puts more emphasis on limb-severing action and hearty comedy that will appeal to both average movie viewers and the art house crowd. A highly influential film, Yojimbo has been widely considered to be a true classic that finds its own influence in western cinema, creating a slightly surreal Japanese western that is ripe with dazzling black and white cinematography, packed camera shots, and some truly breathtaking showdowns that will leave you gasping.
Yojimbo follows a wandering, masterless samurai (Played by Toshiro Mifune) who happens upon a 19th century town that is caught in the middle of a war between two rival gangs. After dropping in to the local tavern, the elderly owner, Gonji (Played by Eijiro Tono), gives the samurai all the information about the rival crime bosses, Seibei (Played by Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushitora (Played by Kyu Sazanka). Gonji warns the samurai that he should leave the town before one of the gangs confront and kill him but seeing an opportunity to make a hefty chunk of change and a way to clean up the town, the samurai decides to stick around and devise a way to trick the gangs in to destroying each other. After infiltrating one of the gangs by displaying how skilled he is with a samurai sword, he sets his plan in motion but certain members of both gangs begin to suspect that he is not simply interested in aligning himself with one specific gang.
For the individuals out there who are fond of cinematography, the resplendent whites and the charcoal blacks from cinematographers Kazuo Miyagawa and Takao Saito are an absolute must-see and perhaps my favorite aspect of Yojimbo. The film, which was made in 1961, has such a sharp, luminous picture that I absolutely couldn’t believe my eyes. For any film fan, the picture here will certainly have you dying to go out and pick up the Bu-ray for maximum picture quality. Complimenting this masterful cinematography is hack-and-slash action that sends a severed arm flying here and buckets of flowing blood there. The best “ewww” moment comes when a mangy dog trots through the streets up to the samurai carrying a severed hand in his dingy mouth. It comes as such a shock to the viewer that it becomes a combination of funny and appalling. The fight scenes in Yojimbo suddenly explode across the screen—a technique that catches the viewer off guard at first and then is suddenly over just as quickly as it began. This is a method that Leone would apply in his slow building gunfights that would begin and end in a loud crack in each and every one of his sweaty westerns.
While Yojimbo is impressive with its camerawork and white-knuckle action, Kurosawa doesn’t ever forget to keep you laughing and rallying behind our masterless samurai, who consistently toys with each gang. Yojimbo is a highly comical film, especially when the two gangs decide to go head to head in the deserted streets. Each gang has members who brag about how fearless they are and how feared they should be. When our hero approaches one gang, three young gang members approach him and boast how dangerous they are. Our hero chuckles in their faces and calls them cute, enraging them enough to have them draw their swords and lunge at the cool, calm, and collected hero. In a flurry of gore, the dangerous criminals are reduced to blubbering babies crying for their mothers. Yojimbo plays with this constantly, offering the audience hot-headed tough guys who are quickly revealed to be cowards who run off to their stern and commanding mothers (I think the women in Yojimbo are scarier than the men are!). It is a gag that constantly grabs a few belly laughs, especially the scene where the two gangs charge each other in the streets and then retreat back to their lines only to charge again and then flee. While all the charging and fleeing is going on, Mifune represents the audience, sitting back and howling at all the cowardice that has been revealed.
Mifune is an actor who is in complete control of each and every scene, playing the levelheaded hero who never seems to break a sweat, almost like all of this is second nature to him. Mifune’s samurai, who tells one gang leader that his name is Sanjuro Kuwabatake, is clearly the inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s cigar chomping Man with No Name. Hell, at times, Sanjuro is seen chewing on what appears to be a cigar, further highlighting the impact. Another standout is Daisuke Kato as the vile Inokichi, Ushitora’s dim, overweight brother who adds a few more laughs to all the action scurrying about the town and speaking through bucked teeth. Tono’s Gonji is another lovable character as the elderly tavern owner who doesn’t want trouble and reluctantly aids Sanjuro in his quest to clean up the streets. Isuzu Yamada is a nasty piece of work as Orin, Seibei’s wife who hovers over her husband’s brothel and takes control when Seibei is too afraid to. Tatsuya Nakadai shows up as Unosuke, Ushitora’s youngest sibling who carries a pistol and nabs the film’s coolest battle with Sanjuro, who attacks the gunfighter with nothing but a sword and dagger.
While Yojimbo’s plot gets a little too thin at times, there is never a tedious moment to be found in Kurosawa’s western. There is something for everyone in Yojimbo, from the people who are looking for a love-reunited story all the way to those who just want to see a fearless hero cut his way through countless bad guys. Yojimbo has been caught in the shadow of Leone’s equally entertaining spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars but I think both films are equal in their eminence. As far as I’m concerned, both films are classics in their own right and their impact on cinema is quite clear. Overall, Yojimbo is a flawless action film that will keep the audience on its toes from beginning to end and one hell of a significant action hero. A must-see foreign classic with incredibly wide reach and appeal. How can you deny a film that contains the line “I’m not dying yet! There’s a bunch of guys I have to kill first!”
Yojimbo is available of Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 gangster epic The Godfather is without question one of the greatest films ever made. It’s so easy to see why so many people list this film in their top five films of all time. Not one frame of The Godfather seems like filler or like Coppola was having an off day when he made this flawless masterpiece. There is not one moment in the film where your eyes will wander from the screen or you will become antsy from its nearly three hour run time. It’s an absolutely riveting and extraordinary masterpiece, a harsh examination of family, loyalty, and the dark side of the American Dream. Incredibly influential, it laid the groundwork for the modern gangster dramas that trickle out from Hollywood every now and then, all secretly hoping that they may be the one that bests Coppola’s juggernaut. If you are someone who admires cinema, wishes to study the medium, or someone who works within it, The Godfather is a must-see film for both the technicalities and the story structure of Mario Puzo’s screenplay, which is based on Puzo’s own novel. If you are someone who is an acting buff, the film is a must-see for Marlon Brando’s legendary performance as Vito Corleone, the slurring Don who lurks in the shadows behind a desk and makes offers his victims cannot refuse. Hell, if you walk this earth and call yourself a human being, The Godfather should be required viewing.
The Godfather introduces us to Don Vito Corleone (Played by Marlon Brando), the head of a powerful organized crime family in 1945 New York. When an up and coming rival Virgil “The Turk” Sollozzo (Played by Al Lettieri), who is backed by the Tattaglia crime family, comes to the Don for political and legal protection for his drug business, the Don refuses and voices his dislike for the drug importing business. Sollozzo and the Tattaglia family retaliate by attempting to kill the Don and several other affiliates of the Corleones but they only manage to severely wounding him. His loyal sons all rush to his side and his vicious eldest son Sonny (Played by James Caan) takes over the family business while the Don recovers. The Don’s beloved son Michael (Played by Al Pacino), a war hero who has just returned home from service in World War II, reluctantly begins helping the family and ends up lashing out against those responsible for the hit on his father. The reprisal sparks a deadly gang war that sends Michael into hiding along with his younger brother Fredo (Played by John Cazale), but as the war takes more lives and enemies of the Corleones close in, Michael realizes that he must return to protect his father and take over the family business.
The Godfather has a thick plot with quite a bit going happening on the side. Coppola introduces us to several characters throughout the epic runtime and at certain moments, the almost three hour runtime doesn’t seem long enough to cover all the ground that Coppola and Puzo need to. The film, however, isn’t impossible to follow and its accessibility adds to the allure of it. Coppola wins back viewers because there are so many characters; a second viewing is almost necessary just to put faces with names. You are left wanting more from secondary characters like the Corleone’s enforcer Luca Brazia (Played by Lenny Montana), Corleone’s godson Johnny Fontane (Played by Al Martino), the Don’s daughter Connie (Played by Talia Shire), her husband Carlo (Played by Gianni Russo), and the Don’s consigliere Tom Hagen (Played by Robert Duvall). There is also the detour to Sicily that Michael takes where he meets the beautiful Apollonia (Played by Simonetta Stefanelli), who we only see for a brief time.
The technical aspects of The Godfather add to its place in cinema history, a film that is packed with moody lighting, incredible set pieces, a lush trip to Sicily, and rich performances that have become legendary. Throughout most of the film, the characters sit in darkened rooms, offices, and dens, shrouded in shadows with only portions of their faces visible in an amber glow. This dark color palette Coppola uses when the mobsters meet behind closed doors compliments the shadowy subject matter that he is exploring. While the cinematography is grainy in comparison to what we have today, the film avoids looking dated due to being a period film. The set pieces never seem boastful or too grandiose, just subtle enough to let us know that we have taken a trip back in time. Most period films slip in minor showy details to remind you that you are watching a period film but The Godfather is an exception. The flashiest thing in The Godfather is some of the cars that you will see either parked or driven around. Coppola also scores points by taking a scenic journey to Sicily, waltzing through the peaceful and verdant countryside, giving us a slight break from all the paranoia and suspicion that is threaded through the film, but even this trip isn’t airtight.
The most memorable aspect of The Godfather is the performances by the two main actors. Marlon Brando is at his absolute best when he is making offers that can’t be refused. There is a moment halfway through the film when he calls a meeting with the other heads of the five rival families after the murder of someone very close to him. Slurring through Puzo’s silky dialogue, Brando shines brighter and brighter as the scene goes on. He lectures about his loss, his conservative perspective, and his readiness to forgive and move on from the pain that plagues him. It is without question my favorite Brando scene in the entire film. Pacino also checks in with a haunting metamorphosis from a disinterested son who is the apple of his father’s eye into a brooding, chilly, and obdurate gangster. The Don wants something better for his war hero son but he is inevitably drug down into the seedy underworld full of deceit and betrayal. Puzo and Coppola understand that this metamorphosis wouldn’t occur in the blink of an and they don’t demand that it does. Coppola lets his camera sit on Michael, allowing Pacino’s eyes to convey the deterioration of his morality and his soul.
The Godfather isn’t simply a bullet riddled gangster film. The film is a complicated study of family and loyalty, understanding that loyalty is far from a straightforward path. The Corleone family wants so much more for Michael but he gives up an honest life to keep the family business together. The further in he gets, the easier it is for him to embrace darkness. He will kill for this family, to protect them and uphold their name. The film also exposes the dark side of the American Dream, pulling it up like a rock that has been stuck in the dirt, exposing the worms and filth that lurk underneath. The American Dream, which consists of prosperity and success, isn’t obtained by always playing nice and to keep all that comes with the American Dream, you won’t always be able to play fair. It is virtually impossible to find anything wrong with The Godfather and it is completely deserving of its place near the top of the greatest works in cinema. There a few films in the history of motion pictures that are pitch perfect, without one misstep or questionable choice, that continues to stand the test of time. The Godfather is one of those films.
The Godfather is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
There is much to behold and be repulsed at in Italian director Luchino Visconti’s erotic and melodramatic The Damned. Mirroring the rise and fall of Nazi Germany in a wealthy industrialist family, The Damned is an immensely profound film, slower than molasses and extremely homoerotic, certainly not a film for a mainstream viewer and only for a cinephile. At 155 minutes, Visconti puts quite a bit on our plate from the very beginning and does not hesitate to wear you out by attempting to keep up with everything that plays out in The Damned. It certainly had me at the brink of taking a time out half way through it to gather myself for the second act. A highly acclaimed film, The Damned is a hearty examination of what caused the Nazi party to cave in on itself, the perfidy, selfishness, corruption, and perversion that caused what was seen by many at the time as an unstoppable machine to rust and malfunction. As I watched The Damned, I became concerned with how all of these events were going to pay off and how they were going to affect me. On one hand, I was disturbed by the despicable nature of these monsters but on the other, I was saddened by their greed and deceit, their willingness to cut each other’s throats without blinking an eye.
The Damned introduces us to the members of the von Essenbecks, a wealthy industrialist family who is now facing the rise of the National Socialist party in Germany. The family patriarch Baron Joachim von Essenbeck (Played by Albrecht Schoenhals) calls a meeting on the night of the Reichstag fire to discuss the future of the family and their company. After a spat about doing business with the Nazi party, the Baron ends up murdered. The vice president of the family firm, Herbert Thalmann (Played by Umberto Orsini), who detests the Nazi party, is framed for the murder of the baron and he ends up fleeing the Gestapo. The uncouth SA officer Konstantin (Played by René Koldehoff) takes control of the family firm in the wake of the baron’s death. When Konstantin takes control, a battle begins within the family about who will get control over Konstantin. The showdown sucks in Konstantin’s disinterested son Gunther (Played by Renaud Verley), the scheming widow of the Baron’s only son Sophie (Played by Ingrid Thulin), Sophie’s new lover Friedrich Bruckmann (Played by Dirk Bogarde), and her sinister and pedophilic son Martin (Played by Helmut Berger). Playing the family members against each other is SS officer Aschenbach (Played by Helmut Griem), who is only interested in convincing the family to partner with the Nazi party so they can use them for weapons manufacturing.
The Damned is an epic film that is proficiently made and ends up being a soaring force. The cinematography from Pasqualino De Santis and Armando Nannuzzi is absolutely spectacular as they are largely working within a moody mansion where the family members lurk in the shadows and plot against one another. They approach the material with a soft focus, making the film seems like a bloody and ominous soap opera rather than a full-blown drama. The film should be shown in film school for it’s lighting, as it has to be some of the most dazzlingly lighting I have ever laid eyes on outside of an Ingmar Bergman film. At times, it resembles a film noir and then at times, it is lit in bright reds, indicating to the viewer that we are in a hellish nightmare. I also found the way that Visconti would suddenly push his camera in at his characters to be an interesting choice, one where he pushes the viewer right into the personal space of these vile individuals. At times, I wanted to be as far away from them as I possible could.
The Damned also features a legendary performance from Helmut Berger as the bisexual Martin, a frightening drug addicted pedophile that sexually assaults his mother and performs a dance routine in drag. A good majority of The Damned’s run time is shared with Martin and his decadent ways, the film becoming a faint study of a disturbed man in addition to the parallel that it already is. Yet even in all of his devilish ways, Martin is quite a sympathetic character due to the neglect he faces from his selfish mother. He is all but forgotten by the family and when he tries to express himself, he is met with eye rolling disgust from the conservative Baron, who is not very amused by his drag routine. Would things be different for Martin if he had someone genuinely accept and pay attention to him? Would he choose the path the he ultimately does? It’s possible and maybe some of his unforgivable actions would have been avoided. I have always been fascinated by films that force us to get inside the mind of the villain and The Damned ends up being one of those films, but Berger is so persuasive as Martin, allowing himself to get lost in the role, I really wanted out of his mind and to not have to look at his wicked eyes.
I will agree that The Damned is essential viewing for those who wish to study cinema or have a strong interest in the history of Nazi Germany. The film devises ways to work in real events, adding to the epic nature of the film. One scene places us right inside the “Night of the Long Knives,” which was when the SS massacred members of the SA, who were growing dissatisfied with Hitler . The way the scene plays out, heavy on the homoeroticism at first and then the slow build up to a flurry of bullets and death is a testament to how to properly mount tension within a motion picture. Next to Martin’s drag performance, it is one of the film’s highlight moments. The Damned, however, does begin to feel its length and those with a short attention span need to be warned before jumping into this. There are lots of extended conversations between tons of characters, making the task of keeping up with every scheme a real chore. I usually don’t have much of a problem sitting through long films but there were moments that were agonizing to endure. After the film ended, I realized that certain moments are agonizing because of their subject matter and depraved disposition, especially when Martin rapes his mother. The film was met with quite a bit of controversy when it was released and it is certainly not difficult to see why. The film is still harrowing to this day, especially the sequences of implied pedophilia. The Damned is never monotonous but rather the subject matter itself weighs heavy on the viewer, as it should. No one ever said that mingling with the devil and his minions was a walk in the park, and that is just what The Damned forces us to do.
The Damned is now available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
I wonder what the film snobs who snarled at J.J. Abrams and Steve Spielberg’s wide-eyed tribute to the escapist cinema Super 8 are now thinking about Martin Scorsese’s turn at bat. Truth be told, Scorsese’s Hugo is quite possibly the best movie I have seen all year. With 3D that rivals Avatar’s, some of the finest acting from child stars I have seen since Super 8, an extraordinary performance from Sacha Baron Cohen, and a reserved respect for classic cinema, Hugo is a sumptuous revelation that will live on for years to come. In fact, I’d be so bold to say that if Scorsese retired and never made another picture, there is no finer way for him to go out than with this film. Hugo places Scorsese’s heart on his sleeve, which is quite rare when we go back over his resume (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, The Departed, Shutter Island). It’s rare you find a film of this caliber, one that manages to capture the director’s spirit and boy if Scorsese’s spirit isn’t incandescent with childlike wonder. And from a guy who has made so many films about tough guys, who’d have thought he was a gigantic softie?
Hugo breathes new life into this cookie cutter Oscar season, loaded with the usual fare (The Descendents, J. Edgar, My Week with Marilyn, Shame), and it is utterly refreshing. Set in Paris during the 1930s, orphaned Hugo Cabret (Played by the breathtaking Asa Butterfield) tends to the clocks behind the walls of a bustling train station. He steals food from the cafés that line the station, people watches from behind the towering clock faces, dodges the ever-watchful Station Inspector (Played by Sacha Baron Cohen, who has never been better) and flits about the winding steam rooms and hidden grinding gears. In his spare time, Hugo sneaks around the station stealing trinkets that will help him fix a mysterious automaton, which he was building with his father (Played by Jude Law) before his father was killed in a fire. He steals parts from a toyshop owned by the bitter George Méliès (Played by Ben Kingsley). One day he gets caught by Méliès and as punishment has his notebook containing the instructions on how to fix the automaton taken away. Méliès tells Hugo that he must work for him and earn the notebook back. While working for Méliès, Hugo meets Isabelle (Played by the always great Chloe Grace Moretz), a young girl who hangs around the toyshop. They strike up a friendship and she begins to help Hugo on his quest to finish the automaton and Hugo aids her in her quest for adventure.
While there isn’t a kink to be found in the storytelling, the performances are all wonderful, and the film hits every emotional mark it needs to, the film soars because of it’s jaw-dropping 3D. It’s on the level of Avatar and even surpassing it in some respects. What I believe good 3D should accomplish is making me feel like I inhabit the world that the characters do. This is what saved Avatar and coaxed back audiences to see it again. You felt like you were on Pandora with the characters, not like you were just peering through a large opening. We are invited in to the world that Hugo Cabret explores on a daily basis. The opening moments of the film pulled the rug out from under me and I felt like I was dashing along that twisting labyrinth of metal and steam. While watching Hugo, I felt like I had jumped into a time machine and sped off into history.
Speaking of history, Hugo gives a concise overview of the history of cinema, even if it is succinct. These are told in minor flashbacks that tickle the viewers eyes by flashing clips of old silent classics, stock footage of WWI, and techniques applied by Scorsese himself. The film contains numerous scenes in which the actors have little to no dialogue and let their performances evoke the spirits of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and more. At times I almost found myself wishing that Scorsese had filmed Hugo in black and white, just to give the audience the full effect. I guess the producers may have feared it would overshadow the recent release The Artist, which is also a testament to early cinematic works. As someone who has studied the history of the medium, I was enthralled with Scorsese animated trip through history all while constantly nudging my friends and gasping over the nods to old films. Scorsese appears to never feel obliged to tip his hat and it felt like this was coming from the deepest depths of his magic loving heart.
Magic is the core of Hugo, as Scorsese professes his undying love for it every step of the way. He couples magic with imagination and our willingness to dream. He firmly declares that film is our way of capturing our dreams and showing them to the world. This goes against what is taught at stuffy film schools where they say film should not be a form of escapism but rather make political, moral, and social proclamations. For those of us who grew up marveling at the medium, this shatters what we have built film up to be and I ask why they must defile what is sacred to us fans? It must be quite a blow to their egos, as film schools like the one I attended gushed over Scorsese and his gritty works. It turns out they were wrong about that little guy. He dares to dream with the rest of us.
Hugo boats some truly exquisite performances from its young child stars. Kingsley conveys anger, resentment, and redemption with grace. Sacha Baron Cohen is Oscar worthy as the strict Station Inspector who has confidence issues and a hopeless crush on a pretty and fair Lisette (Played by Emily Mortimer). Asa Butterfield’s Hugo shines the brightest of all and he nabs our empathy just as nonchalantly as he takes a pastry from a café. Chloe Grace Moretz is flawless as always, but then again she has been a talent to keep an eye on since she broke out with last years stellar Kick-Ass. Christopher Lee pops up as an observant and baritoned bookshop owner who finds himself puzzled over the independent Hugo. All of these performances compliment each other and the true marvel is the performances achieved without copious amounts of dialogue. It’s like they are from a different era.
Hugo gathers it’s momentum in the first few seconds of flashing across the screen and it never slows down. Everything just clicks in this picture. You’ll find yourself grinning over it if you’re a film fan and enamored with it even if you are just a casual viewer. Scorsese pleads with us not to contain our imagination and our passion for the things that we love. They should guide us through this twisting and complicated world and allow us to discover what our purpose is in this life. Thanks for reminding me to dream, Marty, and assuring me that it’s more than okay to do so. Oh, and thanks for Hugo, the best film of 2011.