Horror On The Lens: Night Tide (dir by Curtis Harrington)


Night Tide

First released in 1961 and directed by Curtis Harrington, Night Tide stars a young Dennis Hopper as Johnny, an awkward sailor.  Johnny meets Mora (Linda Lawson), who works as a “mermaid” on the pier.  For Johnny, it’s love at first sight.  However, the more that Johnny pursues her, the more he learns about both her mysterious past and the dark fate of her previous boyfriends.

Night Tide is low-key and atmospheric gem of a movie, one that serve as an inspiration for low-budget filmmakers every where.  Lawson is perfectly cast as the enigmatic Mora but the film really belongs to Dennis Hopper.  Hopper’s naturally off-key presence made him perfect for the role of Johnny.

Night Tide is one of those low-budget movies that, because it’s in the public domain,  has been released on DVD (often in inferior form) by dozens of different companies.  Often times, films like this turn out to be fairly forgettable.  Night Tide, however, is an exception.

Film Review: The American Dreamer (dir by Lawrence Schiller and L.M. Kit Carson)


Since today would have been Dennis Hopper’s 84th birthday, I decided to watch the 1971 documentary, The American Dreamer.

Filmed in 1970, between the success of Easy Rider and the release of Hopper’s infamous follow-up to that film, The Last Movie, The American Dreamer is a cinematic portrait of a very specific time in both Dennis Hopper’s life and American film history.  Dennis Hopper was 34 years old at the time The American Dreamer was shot and he was at the top of his career.  As a result of the success of Easy Rider, he was regularly touted as being the future of American film.  He was a self-styled revolutionary who specialized in spacey yet compelling monologues about how American movies were about to enter into a new age.  Eager to try to capture the same audience that had made Easy Rider a success, Universal Pictures gave Dennis Hopper a million dollars and allowed him to take the money to South America, where he used it to film The Last Movie, a film that was designed to show who Hopper truly was as a filmmaker.  The American Dreamer was filmed while The Last Movie was in post-production and we do see a few scenes of Hopper editing the film.

That said, Hopper doesn’t really seem to be too interested in talking about the specifics of The Last Movie.  He does talk a lot about how he’s leading a revolution that’s going to forever alter the American cultural scene but again, Hopper doesn’t really go into too many specifics when it comes to his artistic vision.  He’s more into slogans than details.  Fortunately, Hopper was a compelling speaker so he holds your attention regardless of how incoherent his frequent monologues are.  The American Dreamer may not convince you that Dennis Hopper was a great director but it does prove that he was a good actor.  In this film, he’s acting the role of being an outlaw and a visionary.

As vague as he is about his artistic vision, Hopper gets a bit more specific whenever he’s talking about his love of weed, sex, and guns.  In between leading encounter groups with all of the women who are living with him in New Mexico, Hopper brags about being such a considerate love that he’s a “male lesbian.”  In another scene, Hopper talks to three giggling girl in a bathtub.  He explains that free love is a part of the revolution and that he’s helping people get over their hang-ups.  It’s impossible not to cringe as Hopper comes across less like a lovable eccentric and more like one of those cult leaders who ends up living in a compound in Nevada and getting into a stand-off with the government.

Hopper’s a bit more likable when he’s filmed rolling a joint.  Watching the film, you can tell that he was a man who truly loved getting stoned and he actually lets down his guard a bit and grins once he’s ready to light up.  However, Hopper is probably at his most natural and likable when he’s shooting a gun in the desert.  Hopper spends a good deal of the film talking about his love for guns.  On the one hand, it’s a bit alarming as Hopper doesn’t exactly come across as being the most stable person on the planet.  On the other hand, Hopper appears to be having such a good time that it’s hard not to be happy for him.  Hopper explains that, when you’re an outlaw and you’ve living in New Mexico, you have to have guns for your own protection and he makes a pretty good argument.  One of the frequent misconceptions about Hopper is that he was a hippie.  (This despite the fact that Easy Rider more or less ridiculed the hippies.)  The American Dreamer, with its emphasis on individual freedom and the right to protect yourself, shows that, even during the height of the Hollywood counterculture, Hopper’s outlook was essentially libertarian.  Watching The American Dreamer, it’s easier to understand how Hopper went from directing Easy Rider to becoming one of the few Republicans in Hollywood.  Indeed, whenever the bearded and often unwashed Hopper is seen walking through the desert or firing a gun at a cross, he comes across less like the revolutionary visionary that he’s trying to be and more like an old soul in a new world.

With its frequent use of freeze frames and its intentionally ragged editing, The American Dreamer is very much a film of its era.  That’s actually the main appeal of The American Dreamer.  It captures a very unique and very specific point of time.  It captures an artist during the brief period between his biggest success and his greatest failure and while the film may be frustrating on a narrative level, it’s fascinating as a time capsule.  The film is probably more poignant when viewed today than it would have been back in 1971 because, today, we know that The Last Movie bombed and that Hopper’s revolution ended as quickly as it began.  It was not Dennis Hopper who determined the future of American film but instead Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.  Hopper struggled, both professionally and personally, through the rest of the 70s and the early 80s before finally kicking drugs and emerging as not just as an in-demand character actor but also something of a pop cultural icon.  Watching The American Dreamer, it’s fascinating to compare the older Hopper — the one who gave witty interviews and who joked about his past excesses — with the pretentious and self-serious Hopper of the early 70s.

Still, The American Dreamer shows that Dennis Hopper was always a compelling figure.  It’s impossible not to roll your eyes while watching and listening to the youngish Dennis Hopper but, nonetheless, you do continue to watch and listen.

The International Lens: The American Friend (dir by Wim Wenders)


The 1977 German film, The American Friend, tells the story of two men.

Tom Ripley (played by Dennis Hopper) is an American.  He’s also a very wealthy criminal.  He wears a cowboy hat almost everywhere he goes and always tends to be a little bit too forceful when he talks to people.  Because he’s wealthy, he is tolerated by high society but everyone seems to view him with a bit of suspicion.  And perhaps they should because Ripley actually has a pretty good scheme going.  Working with an artist named Derwatt (director Nicholas Ray), Ripley sells forged paintings.  He goes to auctions and bids on these paintings, artificially driving up the price.  When Ripley isn’t selling forged paintings, he’s traveling around the world and speaking into his tape recorder.  He’s an existential cowboy, one who doesn’t appear to have any morals but who is still capable of exclaiming, “I’m confused!” with real anguish in his voice.

Jonathan Zimmerman (Bruno Ganz) is a German art restorer and picture framer who has a beautiful wife, two children, and a lovely shop.  He also has leukemia and is obsessed not only with his impending death but also his fear that he’s going to end his life without really doing anything memorable.  When Jonathan meets Ripley at an art auction, he refuses to shake Ripley’s hand because he knows about Ripley’s shady reputation.  Ripley is offended but slightly forgiving when he learns, from a mutual acquaintance, that Jonathan has been sick.

Back at his mansion, Ripley receives a message from a French gangster named Minot (Gerard Blain).  Minot wants Ripley to murder a rival gangster for him.  Ripley, however, tells Minot that he should contact Jonathan and offer him the contract.  Ripley then spreads a rumor that Jonathan’s illness has gotten worse and that both his doctor and his family are keeping the truth from him.  Now believing that he’s on the verge of dying and desperate to make some money so that his family won’t be helpless after he’s gone, Jonathan is far more open to accepting Minot’s unexpected offer to become a hired gun.

To his shock, Jonathan is able to carry out the murder.  However, Minot is not content to just have Jonathan kill one man.  Minot is concerned about the activities of an American gangster (played by director Sam Fuller) and he expects Jonathan to keep killing for him.  Meanwhile, Ripley, feeling a bit conflicted over his part in Jonathan’s new career, take it upon himself to help Jonathan out in his latest assignment.  And so, on odd friendship is born….

The American Friend is based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel Ripley’s Game (which, itself, is a sequel to oft-filmed The Talented Mr. Ripley).  In Highsmith’s novels, Ripley was always portrayed as being suave, well-spoken, and never suffering from self-doubt.  Dennis Hopper plays Ripley as a cowboy who appears to be in the throes of an existential crisis.  It’s quite the opposite of the literary Ripley but it works perfectly in the world created by The American Friend.  At times, there’s something almost child-like about Hopper’s Ripley.  As played by Hopper, Ripley is an unintentional force of destruction, one who targets Jonathan on an impulse and then, just as impulsively, decides to help him out.  It’s one of Hopper’s best and most multi-layered performances.

Dennis Hopper is equally matched by the great Bruno Ganz, who plays Jonathan as being a gentle soul who is as shocked as anyone to discover that he’s capable of murder.  Though he is morally offended by Ripley’s reputation, he still can’t help but try to help Ripley out when Ripley unexpectedly shows up at his shop.  Even towards the end of the film, Jonathan seems to be so happy to finally be doing something unexpected with his life that his joy is almost infectious.  You’re happy for him, even though you know things probably won’t turn out well for him.

As directed by Wim Wenders, The American Friend is a perfect mix of existential angst and film noir homage.  While there’s undoubtedly a political subtext to the film — one gets the feeling that Ripley’s destructive friendship with Jonathan is meant to represent the way that America views Europe — The American Friend works best as an homage to the glorious B-movies of the 40s and 50s.  (It’s probably not a coincidence that both Nicholas Ray and Samuel Fuller have prominent supporting roles.)  There’s a sequence on a train that’s the equal to Hitchcock at his best and the story’s conclusion will stick with you long after the film ends.

Sadly, most of the principle members of the cast are no longer with us.  All of them are at their best in The American Friend and Wim Wenders gives them all a terrific showcase in which to display their talent.  The American Friend is definitely a film worth tracking down.

Mardi Gras Film Review: Easy Rider (dir by Dennis Hopper)


If you are among those who wanted to celebrate Mardi Gras today but couldn’t make it down to New Orleans, fear not!  There is a solution to your problem.  You can always just watch 1969 counterculture classic, Easy Rider.

Easy Rider features one of the most famous Mardi Gras scenes of all time and adding to the scene’s authenticity is the fact that it was actually shot in New Orleans during the celebration.  If you watch the Mardi Gras sequence carefully, you’ll notice that several people on the streets of the French Quarter actually stop and stare directly at the camera.  It reminds you that you’re watching a movie but, at the same time, it also reminds you that you’re seeing something authentic.  Those weren’t just professional extras pretending to get drunk and glaring at Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda.  Those were people who were actually in the French Quarter for Mardi Gras and who just happened to end up getting included in one of the biggest cult films of all time.  If you want to know what Mardi Gras was like in the late 60s, this is the film to watch.

At the same time, after watching Easy Rider, you may be find yourself happy to not be in New Orleans today.  As with almost everything else in Easy Rider, Mardi Gras starts out as something exciting and full of promise but it ends as something dark and full of death.  One minute, Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Karen Black, and Toni Basil are walking down the streets of New Orleans and having what appears to be a good time.  The next thing you know, they’re in a cemetery and Peter Fonda’s sobbing and talking about his mother’s suicide while Toni Basil and Karen Black are freaking out.  Of the four of them, only Dennis Hopper appears to not be having a bad trip but then again, Hopper is so naturally spacey in Easy Rider that it’s kind of hard to tell.

The next morning, Fonda and Hopper leave New Orleans on their motorcycles and promptly get blown away by two shotgun-toting rednecks in a pickup truck.  It seems a fitting conclusion to a film that celebrates the beauty of the American landscape while, at the same time, suggesting that almost everyone who lives there is a complete and total prick.

Of course, the whole Mardi Gras sequence doesn’t occur until the very end of the film.  The majority of the film deals with the journey to New Orleans.  Billy (Dennis Hopper) and Wyatt (Peter Fonda) are two motorcycle-riding drug dealers who have just made a small fortune off of selling cocaine to Phil Spector.  Billy and Wyatt are heading to New Orleans to celebrate and visit a famous brothel.  Wyatt is cool and stoic and always seems to be thinking about something.  Billy is Dennis Hopper.  Easy Rider is often referred to as being a hippie film but neither Billy nor Wyatt is really a hippie.  They’re outsiders and they like to smoke weed but they’re also largely apolitical.  They just want to enjoy the open road.  If anything, they’re beatniks who were born a year or two too late.

As they ride from California to New Mexico, Billy and Wyatt meet plenty of people along the way.  They stop off at a hippie commune and then later, they get harassed by a bunch of rednecks in a diner.  The rednecks are menacing while the hippies are annoying.  The rednecks throw Wyatt and Billy in jail for “parading without a permit.”  The hippies have a mime troupe.  The rednecks drive around with shotguns.  The hippies try to grow crops in the desert.  (I’m enough of a country girl to know that Billy’s right when he scornfully says that nothing that they’re planting is going to actually grow.)  The rednecks are ignorant.  The hippies are smug.  None of them really seem like people that you would want to spend too much time around.

Along the way, Wyatt and Billy temporarily travel with two others.  The hitchhiker is played by Luke Askew.  We never learn his name but he does play a key role in the film when he gives Wyatt the tab of acid that will eventually ruin Mardi Gras.  Meanwhile, George Hanson is an alcoholic lawyer and he’s played by Jack Nicholson.  At the time that the film was shot, Nicholson was on the verge of retiring from acting so he could concentrate on directing and writing.  He took the role and expected, as almost everyone did, that Easy Rider would just be another biker film.  Instead, Easy Rider became a hit and a cultural milestone that not only won Nicholson his first Academy Award nomination but also made him a star.

Interestingly enough, Jack Nicholson is not really that good in Easy Rider.  His attempt at a Texas accent is terrible and you never believe him as someone who has never smoked weed before.  If anything, Luke Askew gives a far better performance than Nicholson and he actually has more screen time as well.  However, I think Nicholson benefited from the fact that George is probably the most likable character in the film.  (Depending on how you feel about Billy and Wyatt, you could argue that he’s the only likable character in the film.)  He’s not a smug hippie nor is he a murderous redneck.  Unlike Wyatt and Billy, he has a job that doesn’t involve selling cocaine to Phil Spector.  Whereas Luke Askew’s Hitchhiker seems like the type of guy who would just love to lecture you about why Vietnam is all your fault, George comes across as being a gentle soul. George is a character that viewers can feel safe identifying with, even if Nicholson is never quite convincing as someone so naive that he fears he’ll freak out after taking one hit off of a joint.

Easy Rider‘s critical reputation tends to go up and down, depending on who you’re reading or talking to.  There’s a tendency, among many critics, to complain that Fonda acted too little while Hopper acted too much.  Personally, I think there’s a lot of hidden wit to be found in Hopper’s performance and I love how annoyed he gets when they’re at the hippie compound.  As for Peter Fonda, he may not have been the most expressive actor but he did capture a certain feeling of ennui.  For most of the film, it’s hard to tell whether there’s anything actually going on in Wyatt’s head.  Then, we follow Wyatt and Billy to that cemetery in New Orleans and we discover that there’s actually quite a bit going on behind Wyatt’s wall of stoicism.  After watching Wyatt curse at a statue while sobbing, we understand why he keeps so much hidden.

When it was released in 1969, Easy Rider was a huge box office success and it inspired every major studio to try to duplicate it’s success with a counter culture film of its own.  (Hopper was given several million dollars and sent down to Peru to make a follow-up to Easy Rider.  The result was The Last Movie, a legendary disaster that temporarily ended Hopper’s career as a director.)  Seen today, Easy Rider is undeniably pretentious but always watchable.  The scenery is beautiful and the Mardi Gras sequence sets the standard by which all other bad trips should be judged.  Most importantly, the film works as a historical document.  Everything about it — from the music to the cultural attitudes to even Hopper’s attempts to imitate Jean-Luc Godard in his direction — makes this film into a time capsule.  Until they invent a time machine that works, Easy Rider is as close as some of us will ever get to experiencing the end of the 60s.

And finally, it’s the ultimate Mardi Gras film, even if it’s main message seems to be that everyone needs to stay the Hell away from Mardi Gras.  Or, at the very least, don’t accept LSD from a scruffy hitchhiker before rolling into New Orleans.  Seriously, the more you know….

The TSL’s Horror Grindhouse: Unspeakable (dir by Thomas J. Wright)


So, here’s a few good things about the 2002 film, Unspeakable.

First off, Jeff Fahey plays the governor of New Mexico.  Any film that presents us with a world where Jeff Fahey can be elected governor of an actual state has to be worth something.  Seriously, I’ve long thought that the country would be more interesting if actors were elected to run each state.  Here in Texas, for instance, there was a movement to draft Tommy Lee Jones a few years ago.  (Personally, I’d rather live under Governor McConaughey.)  Steven Seagal (agck!) apparently wanted to run for governor of Arizona and, of course, Cynthia Nixon actually ran up in New York.  There’s always a chance of Alec Baldwin running for something and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger actually did govern California for two terms.  Val Kilmer, I should add, came close to running for governor of New Mexico, where this film is set!  Personally, I’d vote for Jeff Fahey over Val Kilmer,  It’s the eyes.

Another good thing about Unspeakable is that it features Dennis Hopper playing a crazed prison warden who rambles about how much he enjoys sending people to the electric chair.  “I am God!” Hopper says at one point and you have to enjoy any scene that features Dennis Hopper saying, “I am God!” in a southwestern accent.

Another fun thing about Unspeakable is that it features Dina Meyer and Lance Henriksen as scientists!  Meyer invents this weird little headband thing that allows her to look into your mind and see your thoughts.  Let me repeat this for those of you who might have missed the significance: DINA MEYER HAS INVENTED A MACHINE THAT ALLOW HER TO SEE EXACTLY WHAT IS HAPPENING IN SOMEONE’S MIND!  If that wasn’t amazing enough, there’s also the fact that no one seems to be that impressed.  In fact, no one really cares.  Everyone just kind of shrugs it off.

Meyer and Henriksen ask for permission to test their invention out on death row inmates.  Sure, why not?  It’s not like Warden Hopper cares what happens to the inmates, right?  Meyer discovers that one of the inmates is innocent!  Unfortunately, no one cares.  Gov. Fahey, who is also Meyer’s former lover, refuses to commute the sentence because he’s got an election coming up and voters love the death penalty.  And so, that innocent man goes off to the electric chair.

But wait!  There’s a new prisoner on death row.  His name is Jesse Mowatt and he’s played by Pavan Grover, the doctor who wrote this film.  It turns out that he is America’s most prolific serial killer!  He’s murdered hundreds of people, all because of some weird issue he has with religion.  Anyway, it’s pretty obvious that this killer has a date with the electric chair but first, Meyer gets to use her amazing-invention-that-nobody-cares-about on him.  What she discovers is that this serial killer might be a demon-possessed monster who can use his mind to drive other people to do things like rip their faces off.  Or maybe he’s just really clever.  He does definitely have super strength and beats up any guard that comes near him.  It never occurs to the guards to use handcuffs on him or anything.  That’s just the type of prison that it is.

Anyway, I appreciated the film’s anti-death penalty theme but the film still got a bit too heavy-handed for my tastes.  Pavan Grover wrote himself a pretty good part but he doesn’t really have the screen presence necessary to do the whole irresistible sociopath thing.  Still, I appreciate any movie that features Jeff Fahey as a governor.

FAHEY 2024!

 

Horror On The Lens: Night Tide (dir by Curtis Harrington)


Night Tide

First released in 1961 and directed by Curtis Harrington, Night Tide stars a young Dennis Hopper as Johnny, an awkward sailor.  Johnny meets Mora (Linda Lawson), who works as a “mermaid” on the pier.  For Johnny, it’s love at first sight.  However, the more that Johnny pursues her, the more he learns about both her mysterious past and the dark fate of her previous boyfriends.

Night Tide is low-key and atmospheric gem of a movie, one that serve as an inspiration for low-budget filmmakers every where.  Lawson is perfectly cast as the enigmatic Mora but the film really belongs to Dennis Hopper.  Hopper’s naturally off-key presence made him perfect for the role of Johnny.

Night Tide is one of those low-budget movies that, because it’s in the public domain,  has been released on DVD (often in inferior form) by dozens of different companies.  Often times, films like this turn out to be fairly forgettable.  Night Tide, however, is an exception.

When It Comes To Halloween, Should You Trust The IMDb?


Dr. Sam Loomis

Like a lot of people, I enjoy browsing the trivia sections of the IMDb.  While it’s true that a lot of the items are stuff like, “This movie features two people who appeared on a television series set in the Star Trek Universe!,” you still occasionally came across an interesting fact or two.

Of course, sometimes, you just come across something that makes so little sense that you can only assume that it was posted as a joke.  For instance, I was reading the IMDb’s trivia for the original 1978 Halloween and I came across this:

Peter O’Toole, Mel Brooks, Steven Hill, Walter Matthau, Jerry Van Dyke, Lawrence Tierney, Kirk Douglas, John Belushi, Lloyd Bridges, Abe Vigoda, Kris Kristofferson, Sterling Hayden, David Carradine, Dennis Hopper, Charles Napier, Yul Brynner and Edward Bunker were considered for the role of Dr. Sam Loomis.

Now, some of these names make sense.  Despite the fact that Sam Loomis became Donald Pleasence’s signature role, it is still possible to imagine other actors taking the role and perhaps bringing a less neurotic interpretation to the character.

Peter O’Toole as Dr. Loomis?  Okay, I can see that.

Kirk Douglas, Sterling Hayden, Charles Napier, Steve Hill, or Lloyd Bridges as Dr. Loomis?  Actually, I can imagine all of them grimacing through the role.

Walter Matthau?  Well, I guess if you wanted Dr. Loomis to be kind of schlubby….

Abe Vigoda?  Uhmmm, okay.

Dennis Hopper?  That would be interesting.

Mel Brooks?  What?  Wait….

John Belushi?  Okay, stop it!

Dr. Sam Loomis

My point is that I doubt any of these people were considered for the role of Dr. Loomis.  Both director John Carpenter and producer Debra Hill have said that they wanted to cast an English horror actor in the role, as a bit of an homage to the Hammer films of the 60s.  Christopher Lee was offered the role but turned it down, saying that he didn’t care for the script or the low salary.  (Lee later said this was one of the biggest mistakes of his career.)  Peter Cushing’s agent turned down the role, again because of the money.  It’s not clear whether Cushing himself ever saw the script.

To be honest, I could easily Peter Cushing in the role and I could see him making a brilliant Dr. Loomis.  But, ultimately, Donald Pleasence was the perfect (if not the first) choice for the role.  Of course, Pleasence nearly turned down the role as well.  Apparently, it was his daughter, Angela, who changed his mind.  She was an admirer of John Carpenter’s previous film, Assault on Precint 13.  Carpenter has said that he was originally intimidated by Donald Pleasence (the man had played Blofeld, after all) but that Pleasence turned out to be a professional and a gentleman.

Laurie Strode

Of course, Halloween is best known for being the first starring role of Jamie Lee Curtis.  Curtis was actually not Carpenter’s first choice for the role of Laurie Strode.  His first choice was an actress named Annie Lockhart, who was the daughter of June Lockhart.  Carpenter changed his mind when he learned that Jamie was the daughter of Janet Leigh.  Like any great showman, Carpenter understood the importance of publicity and he knew nothing would bring his horror movie more publicity then casting the daughter of the woman whose onscreen death in Psycho left moviegoers nervous about taking a shower.

There was also another future big name who came close to appearing in Halloween.  At the time that she was cast as Lynda, P.J. Soles was dating an up-and-coming actor from Texas named Dennis Quaid.  Quaid was offered the role of Lynda’s doomed boyfriend, Bob but he was already committed to another film.

Not considered for a role was Robert Englund, though the future Freddy Krueger still spent some time on set.  He was hired by Carpenter to help spread around the leaves that would make it appear as if his film was taking place in the October, even though it was filmed in May.

Robert Englund, making May look like October

Interestingly enough, Englund nearly wasn’t need for that job because Halloween was not originally envisioned as taking place on Halloween or any other specific holiday.  When producer Irwin Yablans and financier Moustapha Akkad originally approached Carpenter and Hill to make a movie for them about a psycho stalking three babysitters, they didn’t care when the film was set.  It was only after Carpenter and Hill wrote a script called The Babysitter Muders that it occurred to Yablans that setting the film during Halloween would be good from a marketing standpoint.  Plus Halloween made for a better title than The Babysitter Murders.

And, of course, the rest is history.  Carpenter’s film came to define Halloween and it still remains the standard by which every subsequent slasher movie has been judged.  Would that have happened if the film had been known as The Babysitter Murders and had starred John Belushi?

Sadly, we may never know.

Film Review: The Hot Spot (dir by Dennis Hopper)


As befits the title, the 1990 film, The Hot Spot, is all about heat.

There’s the figurative heat that comes from a cast of characters who are obsessed with sex, lies, and murder.  There’s the literal heat that comes from a fire that the film’s “hero” sets in order to distract everyone long enough so that he can get away with robbing a bank.  And, of course, there’s the fact that the film is set in a small Texas town that appears to be the hottest place on Earth.  Every scene in the film appears to be drenched by the sun and, if the characters often seem to take their time from getting from one point to another, that’s because everyone knows better than to rush around when it’s over a hundred degrees in the shade.  As someone who has spent most of her life in Texas, I can tell you that, if nothing else, The Hot Spot captures the feel of what summer is usually like down here.   I’ve often felt that stepping outside during a Texas summer is like stepping into a wall of pure heat.  The Hot Spot takes place on the other side of that wall.

The Hot Spot is a heavily stylized film noir, one in which the the traditional fog and shadows have been replaced by clouds of dust and blinding sunlight.  Harry (Don Johnson) is a drifter who has just rolled into a small Texas town.  Harry’s not too bright but he’s handsome and cocky and who needs to be smart when you’ve got charm?  Harry gets a job selling used cars, though he actually aspires to be a bank robber.  Harry finds himself falling in love with Gloria (Jennifer Connelly), a seemingly innocent accountant who is being blackmailed by the brutish Frank Sutton (William Sadler).  Meanwhile, Harry is also being pursued by his boss’s wife, Dolly (Virginia Madsen), an over-the-top femme fatale who is just as amoral as Harry but who might be a little bit smarter.  Complicating matters is that, while Harry’s trying to rob a bank, he also ends up saving a man’s life.  Only Dolly knows that Harry isn’t the hero that the rest of the town thinks he is.  She tells him that she’ll keep his secret if he does her just one little favor….

The Hot Spot was directed by Dennis Hopper (yes, that Dennis Hopper) and, from the start, it quickly becomes apparent that he’s not really that interested in the film’s story.  Instead, he’s more interested in exploring the increasingly surreal world in which Harry has found himself.  The Hot Spot plays out at a languid pace, which allows Hopper to focus on his cast of small-town eccentrics.  (My particular favorite was Jack Nance as the alcoholic bank president who also doubles as the town’s volunteer fire marshal.)  The film is so hyper stylized that it’s hard not to suspect that every character — with the possible exception of Harry — understands that they’re only characters in a film noir.  For instance, is Dolly really the over-the-top femme fatale that she presents herself as being or is she just a frustrated housewife playing a role?  Is Gloria really an innocent caught up in a blackmail scheme or is she just smart enough to realize that the rules of noir requires her to appear to be Dolly’s opposite?  And is Harry being manipulated or is he allowing himself to be manipulated because, deep down, he understands that’s his destiny as a handsome but dumb drifter in a small town?  Do any of the characters really have any control over their choices and their actions or has everyone’s fate been predetermined by virtue of them being characters in a film noir?  In the end, The Hot Spot is more than just a traditional noir.  It’s also a study of why the genre has endured.

It’s a long and, at times, slow movie, one that plays out at its own peculiar pace.  As a result, some people will be bored out of their mind.  But if you can tap into the film surreal worldview and adjust to the languid style, The Hot Spot is a frequently entertaining and, at times, rather sardonic slice of Texas noir.

Film Review: Blood Red (1989, directed by Peter Masterson)


The time is the 1890s.  The place is California.  Sicilian immigrant Sebastian Collogero (Giancarlo Giannini) has just been sworn in as an American citizen and owns his own vineyard.  When Irish immigrant William Bradford Berrigan (Dennis Hopper) demands that Sebastian give up his land so Berrigan run a railroad through it, Sebastian refuses.  Berrigan hires a group of thugs led by Andrews (Burt Young) to make Sebastian see the error of his ways.  When Sebastian ends up dead, his wayward son, Marco (Eric Roberts), takes up arms and seeks revenge.

Have you ever wondered what would have happened if the famously self-indulgent directors Michael Cimino and Francis Ford Coppola teamed up to make a movie about the American Dream?  The end result would probably be something like Blood Red.  Like Cimino’s The Deer Hunter and Heaven’s Gate, Blood Red begins with a lengthy celebration (in this case, in honor of Sebastian’s naturalization ceremony) that doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the film but which is included just to make sure we know that what we’re about to see is more than just a mere genre piece.  Like many of Coppola’s films, Blood Red features a tight-knit family, flowing wine, and a score composed by Carmine Coppola.  The only difference between our hypothetical Cimino/Coppola collaboration and Blood Red is that the Cimino/Coppola film would probably be longer and more interesting than Blood Red.  Blood Red is only 80 minutes long and directed by Peter Masterson, who seems lost.  There’s a potentially interesting story here about two different immigrants fighting to determine the future of America but it gets lost in all of the shots of Eric Roberts flexing his muscles.

For an actor known for his demented energy, Eric Roberts is surprisingly dull as the lead but Blood Red is a film that even manages to make veteran scenery chewers like Dennis Hopper and Burt Young seem boring.  (Hopper’s bizarre attempt at an Irish brogue does occasionally liven things up.)  The cast is full of familiar faces like Michael Madsen, Aldo Ray, Marc Lawrence, and Elias Koteas but none of them get to do much.  Of course, the most familiar face of all belongs to Eric’s sister, Julia.  Julia Roberts made her film debut playing Marco’s sister, Maria.  (Because the film sat on the shelf for three years after production was completed, Blood Red wasn’t released until after Julia has subsequently appeared in Mystic Pizza and Satisfaction.)  She gets three lines and less than five minutes of screen time but she does get to briefly show off the smile that would later make her famous.  Today, of course, that smile is the only reason anyone remembers Blood Red.

Music Video Of The Day: God’s Gonna Cut You Down (2006, dir by Tony Kaye)


This is a case where I like the song more than the music video.  This video was actually filmed three years after Johnny Cash’s death.  As far as “official” music videos are concerned, I always feel like a musician should have some sort of say into how their music is visually interpreted.  Obviously, Johnny Cash wasn’t around to have anything to say about the video for God’s Gonna Cut You Down.

Since Cash wasn’t available, director Tony Kaye filled the video with cameos from other actors and musicians, a few of whom (though not many) were previous Cash collaborators.  Among the celebs who make an appearance in this video: David Allan Coe, Patricia Arquette, Travis Barker, Peter Blake, Bono, Sheryl Crow, Johnny Depp, the Dixie Chicks, Flea, Billy Gibbons, Whoopi Goldberg, Woody Harrelson, Dennis Hopper, Terrence Howard, Jay-Z, Mick Jones, Kid Rock, Anthony Kiedis, Kris Kristofferson, Amy Lee, Adam Levine, Shelby Lynne, Chris Martin, Kate Moss, Graham Nash, Busy Philipps, Iggy Pop, Lisa Marie Presley, Q-Tip, Corinne Bailey Rae, Keith Richards, Chris Rock, Rick Rubin, Patti Smith, Sharon Stone, Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Brian Wilson, and Owen Wilson.  Some of the celebs — like Dennis Hopper and Kris Kristofferson — seem like they naturally belong there.  Others seem so out-of-place that you’ll want to throw something.  You know how that works,

God’s Gonna Cut You Down is a traditional folk song.  I’ve heard countless versions of it.  I prefer Cash’s version to the more traditional gospel arrangement but, then again, I tend to find gospel music to be dull in general.  Cash’s arrangement brought new life to an old song.

Enjoy!