Film Review: The Greatest Story Ever Told (dir by George Stevens)


The 1965 biblical epic, The Greatest Story Ever Told, tells the story of the life of Jesus, from the Nativity to the Ascension.  It’s probably the most complete telling of the story that you’ll ever find.  It’s hard to think of a single details that’s left out and, as a result, the film has a four hour running time.  Whether you’re a believer or not, that’s a really long time to watch a reverent film that doesn’t even feature the campy excesses of something like The Ten Commandments.

(There’s actually several different version of The Greatest Story Ever Told floating around.  There’s a version that’s a little over two hours.  There’s a version that’s close to four hours.  Reportedly, the uncut version of the film ran for four hour and 20 minutes.)

Max von Sydow plays Jesus.  On the one hand, that seems like that should work because Max von Sydow was a great actor who gave off an otherworldly air.  On the other hand, it totally doesn’t work because von Sydow gives an oddly detached performance.  The Greatest Story Ever Told was von Sydow’s first American film and, at no point, does he seem particularly happy about being involved with it.  von Sydow is a very cerebral and rather reserved Jesus, one who makes his points without a hint of passion or charisma.  When he’s being friendly, he offers up a half-smile.  When he has to rebuke his disciples for their doubt, he sounds more annoyed than anything else.  He’s Jesus if Jesus was a community college philosophy professor.

The rest of the huge cast is populated with familiar faces.  The Greatest Story Ever Told takes the all-star approach to heart and, as a result, even the minor roles are played by actors who will be familiar to anyone who has spent more than a few hours watching TCM.  Many of them are on screen for only a few seconds, which makes their presence all the more distracting.  Sidney Poitier shows up as Simon of Cyrene.  Pat Boone is an angel.  Roddy McDowall is Matthew and Sal Mineo is Uriah and John Wayne shows up as a centurion and delivers his one line in his trademark drawl.

A few of the actors do manage to stand out and make a good impression.  Telly Savalas is a credible Pilate, playing him as being neither smug nor overly sympathetic but instead as a bureaucrat who can’t understand why he’s being forced to deal with all of this.  Charlton Heston has just the right intensity for the role of John the Baptist while Jose Ferrer is properly sleazy as Herod.  In the role Judas, David McCallum looks at the world through suspicious eyes and does little to disguise his irritation with the rest of the world.  The Greatest Story Ever Told does not sentimentalize Judas or his role in Jesus’s arrest.  For the most part, he’s just a jerk.  Finally, it’s not exactly surprising when Donald Pleasence shows up as Satan but Pleasence still gives a properly evil performance, giving all of his lines a mocking and often sarcastic bite.

The Greatest Story Ever Told was directed by George Stevens, a legitimately great director who struggles to maintain any sort of narrative momentum in this film.  Watching The Greatest Story Ever Told, it occurred to me that the best biblical films are the ones like Ben-Hur and The Robe, which both largely keep Jesus off-screen and instead focus on how his life and teachings and the reports of his resurrection effected other people.  Stevens approaches the film’s subject with such reverence that the film becomes boring and that’s something that should never happen when you’re making a film set in Judea during the Roman era.

I do have to admit that, despite all of my criticism of the film, I do actually kind of like The Greatest Story Ever Told.  It’s just such a big production that it’s hard not to be a little awed by it all.  That huge cast may be distracting but it’s still a little bit fun to sit there and go, “There’s Shelley Winters!  There’s John Wayne!  There’s Robert Blake and Martin Landau!”  That said, as far as biblical films are concerned, you’re still better off sticking with Jesus Christ Superstar.

18 Days of Paranoia #18: Nineteen Eighty-Four (dir by Rudolph Cartier)


Well, here we are at the end of both March and the 18 days of paranoia.  We started things off with a review of The Flight That Disappeared and now, we end things with a look at the 1954 BBC production of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

“Orewllian” is a term that gets tossed around a lot nowadays, largely by people who the real George Orwell probably would have viewed rather dismissively.  Ever since the election of Donald Trump, for instance, it’s become rather common for certain people of twitter to say that “Orwell was right” or that we’re living in an “Orwellian nightmare.”  I remember after Trump’s press secretary blatantly lied about the size of the crowd at the inauguration, there was even a commercial that featured Zachary Quinto giving a hilariously overwrought reading of the final passage of George Orwell’s 1984.  “He …. LOVED …. BIG …. BROTHER!” Quinto declared while staring grimly at the camera.

Interestingly enough, many of the same people who complain about Trump’s lies being Orwellian never used the term during the previous 8 years, when we were being constantly told that a permanent recession was actually a sign of a strong economy and that if people liked their doctor, they could keep them.  The fact of the matter is that, for a lot of people, “Orwellian” is just a term that they use whenever a politician from the other side does something that they dislike.  It makes you wonder how many of them have actually read 1984 because, if they had, they would surely know that — if we truly were living in the world depicted in Orwell’s novel — no one would be allowed to acknowledge it and, in fact, Orwell and his books would have vanished down the memory hole.  Just the act of saying that we’re living in 1984 without getting sent to a reeducation camp is proof that we’re not (or, at least, we’re not just yet).

That’s not to say that 1984 isn’t an important work of literature.  In fact, it’s probably one of the most important books ever written, which is why it does it such a disservice to glibly toss around the term Orwellian.  Even if we aren’t living in Orwell’s world right now, it’s probably easier than ever to imagine a scenario where we eventually could.  The Coronavirus pandemic, for example, is just the sort of thing that could lead to the people accepting the idea that the government is meant to be a Big Brother and that those who disagree deserve to be reported for the good of the people.  It’s easy to imagine a future where people believe that history started with the Coranavirus and that everything that happened before the pandemic was just a hazy rumor, like Europe before the Renaissance.  As such, even if the term Orwellian is overused, 1984 is still a book that needs to be read and understood.

There have been several film adaptations of 1984, some of which are better than others.  My personal favorite is the 1985 film, which was directed by Michael Radford and which starred John Hurt and Richard Burton.  Running a close second, however, would be the version that was made for the BBC in 1954.

This version sticks closely to Orwell’s novel, though it downplays the book’s sexual themes.  (This is not surprising considering that this version was made for 1950s television.)  Though it condensed Orwell’s story, it hits all of the important points.  Winston Smith (Peter Cushing) is a member of the Outer Party who works at the Ministry of Truth and who lives a rather drab existence in London, “the chief city of Airstrip One.”  He is a citizen of Oceania, which has always been at war with Eurasia.  Winston lives under a system of government called Ingsoc and every day, he spends two minutes hating a mysterious figure named Goldstein.  All around him are posters of Big Brother, watching him and judging.

On the outside, Winston is a loyal party man but on the inside, he has questions and doubts.  How can he not when he works for the Ministry of Truth?  His job is to change history to reflect whatever the current version of it may be.  Some of his co-workers, like Symes (Donald Pleaseance), are openly cynical about what they do.  Others, like O’Brien (an imposing Andre Morell), seem as if they might be sympathetic to Winston’s doubts but Winston cannot be sure.  Meanwhile, Winston has found himself obsessed with Julia (Yvonne Mitchell), who is a member of the Anti-Sex League but who might have doubts of her own.  (Then again, she could also be a member of the Thought Police.)

When Winston is finally arrested for being a thoughtcriminal, it leads to a harrowing interrogation where he learns that truth doesn’t matter, the numbers add up to whatever the party says that they add up to, and that no one is strong enough to survive the ordeal of Room 101.

The BBC adaptation of Nineteen Eighty-Four was, for the most part, a live performance with a few filmed scenes inserted into the action.  Still, the fact that the majority of the actors were delivering their lines lives brings a certain immediacy to the film.  Everyone seem nervous and edgy.  In real life, that could have been due to the fear that they would miss a line but it also feels appropriate for people who spend every day of their life being watched and judged by Big Brother.  The entire production does an excellent job of creating a world where every minute is suffused in an atmosphere of dread and fear.  From the minute we first see him, Winston seems to know that he’s doomed.  The fact that Big Brother would rather torture and brainwash him rather than just make him disappear just makes things worse.

The production is full of actors — like Cushing, Morrell, and Pleasence — who would go on to become leading figures in the British horror industry and all of them do an excellent job bringing Orwell’s horror to life.  Peter Cushing, with his mix of intelligent features and neurotic screen presence, makes for the perfect Winston Smith and Andre Morrell is just as perfectly cast as the fearsome O’Brien.  The scene in which Winston is forced to confront Room 101 is still a harrowing one and this film perfectly nails the novel’s famous ending, doing so in a low-key manner that’s far more effective than the overwrought approach that other adaptations have brought to the final scene.

Nineteen Eighty-Four can currently be viewed on Prime.  The print is a bit grainy but that only adds to the film’s power.  It comes to us like a hazy vision of the future.

Other Entries In The 18 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau
  3. The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover
  4. The Falcon and the Snowman
  5. New World Order
  6. Scandal Sheet
  7. Cuban Rebel Girls
  8. The French Connection II
  9. Blunt: The Fourth Man 
  10. The Quiller Memorandum
  11. Betrayed
  12. Best Seller
  13. They Call Me Mister Tibbs
  14. The Organization
  15. Marie: A True Story
  16. Lost Girls
  17. Walk East On Beacon!

Escape From New York (dir. by John Carpenter)


 

escape-from-new-york-movie-poster-1981-1020189511Before you start, note that Escape From New York was recently showcased in Jeff’s 4 Shots from 4 Films post to celebrate Kurt Russell’s birthday. For another take on the film, check out Jeff’s review. Please check that out, and then double back here, if you want. 

When I was little, my Aunt would sometimes take my older brother and I with her into Manhattan. In a little movie theatre near 82nd Street, she’d get us a set of tickets for a film, help us get seated with snacks and then either stay for the movie or leave to perform housekeeping duties for someone nearby if she had work and we weren’t allowed to hang out on site. John Carpenter’s Escape From New York wasn’t a film she stayed for (she loved Raiders of the Lost Ark), but it was okay. I was introduced to Snake Plissken, who ended up being cooler than Han Solo to my six year old eyes. Instead of being the hero, here was a criminal being asked to a mission. It showed me that even the bad guys could be heroes, now and then (or better yet, not every hero is cookie cutter clean). The film became an instant favorite for me. As I also do with Jaws and The Fog, I try not to let a year go by without watching Escape From New York at least once. It was my first Carpenter film.

The cultural impact of Escape From New York is pretty grand, in my opinion. It had a major influence on Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear video games and also spawned a few comics with Plissken, complete with Jack Burton crossovers with Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China.

Carpenter brought in most of the same crew he worked with in his previous movies. The film was the third collaboration between Carpenter and Debra Hill, who previously worked with him in 1978’s Halloween and 1980’s The Fog. Though Hill didn’t write this one, she was still the producer, along with Larry Franco. There’s also a bit of speculation on whether Hill performed the opening vocals describing New York or Jamie Lee Curtis handled that. Cinematographer Dean Cundey (who worked on most of Carpenter’s early films) returned to help give the movie it’s gritty look, which is helpful considering how much of it takes place either at night or in darkened rooms. Another interesting part of the production is James Cameron, who was the Director of Photography when it came to the effects and matte work. One of the best effects shots in the film has Plissken gliding over Manhattan, which was designed by Effects member John C. Wash. The shot on his plane’s dashboard of the city was made from miniature mock up with reflective tape that made it appear as if it were digital, which was pretty cool given that they weren’t on an Industrial Light and Magic budget. There’s a fantastic article on We Are The Mutants and on the Escape From New York/LA Fan Page that focus on Wash’s technical contributions to the film.

For Carpenter’s career, Escape From New York marked the start of a great working relationship with Alan Howarth. Howarth, who also worked on the sound in the film, assisted Carpenter with the soundtrack. I’ve always felt this brought a new level to Carpenter’s music overall. You can easily hear the difference when Howarth was involved. Where Carpenter excelled at general synth sound, Howarth’s touch added some bass and depth. Together, they’d work on Christine, Big Trouble in Little China, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Prince of Darkness and They Live together. On his own, Howarth was also responsible for both Halloween 2, 4 and 5.

For the writing, Carpenter worked with Nick Castle, who played Michael Myers for him in the original Halloween. Escape From New York’s story is simple. In 1988, the crime rate for the United States rises 400 percent. As a result, someone had the notion to turn Manhattan into a prison for an entire country, setting up walls around the borough and mines in the waterways. When Airforce One crashes in the borough nearly a decade later, the recently arrested war hero / fugitive Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is given a mission. Go in, rescue the President and/or the tape he’s carrying in 22 hours, and Plissken receives a pardon for all his crimes. To ensure that he follows through, he’s injected with nano-explosives that will kill him when the deadline hits. What seems like a simple mission becomes a little complicated when Snake discovers the President was captured by The Duke of New York, played by Issac Hayes (I’m Gonna Git You Sucka). Given that I’ve commuted to Manhattan more times than I can count, the film holds a special place in my heart.  The concept of the entire borough being a prison was mind blowing as a kid. The concept still holds up for me as an adult.

For a film about New York, there were only two days of filming actually spent on location there, according to Carpenter’s commentary. Most of that was used for the opening shot at the Statue of Liberty. The bulk of the film was made in Los Angeles, Atlanta and St. Louis. At the time, there was a major fire in St. Louis. The damage made for a great backdrop for both the crash site and the city at night. The film does take some liberties with locations, though. For example, as far as I know, we don’t have a 69th Street Bridge in Manhattan, but as a kid, it didn’t matter much. From an action standpoint, it might not feel as intense as other films. Even when compared to other films in 1981 – like Raiders of the Lost Ark (released a month earlier) – Escape From New York doesn’t have a whole lot, though I still enjoy what it does provide.

escape_from_new_york

Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) has 22 hours to save the President in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York.

Casting seemed to come easy for the film. Hill, Castle and Carpenter reached out to some friends.  Kurt Russell and Carpenter worked together on Elvis, that was easy enough. Russell’s work with Carpenter would continue on in The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China and Escape from L.A.  From Halloween, Donald Pleasance was brought on to play the President, along with Charles Cyphers and Nancy Stephens as one pissed off flight attendant. From The Fog, we have Tom Atkins as Nick and Adrienne Barbeau as Maggie, who happened to be married to Carpenter at the time. According to Carpenter on the film’s commentary track, the sequence for Maggie’s exit needed to be reshot and extended. The scene with her body on the ground was filmed in Carpenter’s garage and added to the film.

Ernest Borgnine’s (The Poseidon Adventure) Cabbie was a favorite character of mine. Like most cabbies, he knew the city well. He even prepared for some of its challenges with molotov cocktails. Harry Dean Stanton (Alien, Christine) played Brain, the smartest individual in the room and the supplier for gas for the Duke. If you look close, you’ll also catch Assault on Precinct 13’s Frank Doubleday as Romero, which his crazy looking teeth. To round it all out, Lee Van Cleef (The Good, The Bad & The Ugly) plays Hauk, who puts Snake on his mission. And of course, it wouldn’t be a Carpenter film without a George ‘Buck’ Flower cameo. Buck was kind of Carpenter’s lucky charm in the way Dick Miller was for Joe Dante’s films. Good Ol’ Buck plays an inmate who sings Hail to the Chief.

Overall, Escape From New York is a classic Carpenter film that’s worth the watch. Whether you do so while wearing an eyepatch or not, that’s on you. We all have our preferences.

 

Escape From New York (1981, directed by John Carpenter)


What’s your favorite John Carpenter film?

Halloween is an obvious choice.  It’s probably the film that John Carpenter is best-known for.  The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13 are two other popular choices.  Libertarians and anarchists have embraced They Live as a sacred text.  In The Mouth of Madness is one of the few films to capture the feel of a classic H.P. Lovecraft story.  Christine is one of the best of the Stephen King adaptations.  My techphobic father recently purchased a Blu-ray player just so he could watch Big Trouble In Little China whenever he felt like it.

For me, though, my favorite will always be Escape From New York.

Everything about this movie, from the premise to the execution to the darkly funny ending, is pure brilliance.  For those who have been living off the grid for the last 40 years, Escape From New York takes place in what was, at the time of the film’s initial release, the near future.  Due to a 400% increase in crime, Manhattan has been turned into a floating prison.  A wall has been built around the island.  The bridges are covered in mines.  All of the residents are prisoners who have been sentenced to a life term and the Chock Full O’Nuts is now literally full of nuts.

There’s a new resident of New York City.  He’s the President (Donald Pleasence!) and he was supposed to soon deliver a classified cassette tape to the Soviets.  Instead, with the world on the verge of war, Air Force One has crashed in Manhattan and the Duke of New York (Isaac Hayes!!) is holding him hostage.  Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef!!!) recruits notorious criminal Snake Plisskin (Kurt Russell!!!!) to sneak into the prison and retrieve the cassette and save the President, by any means necessary.  If Snake succeeds, he’ll get a pardon.  If Snake fails, he’ll die due to the microexplosives that have been injected into his system.

How unbelievably cool is Kurt Russell as Snake Plisskin?  Before fanfic was even known by that name, people were writing stories about Snake Plisskin’s past and how he lost his eye.  Delivering his lines in a Clint Eastwood-style rasp, Kurt Russell gives one of the best action hero performances of all time.  (Snake was the role that transformed Russell from being a clean-cut former Disney child star to being a cult film icon.)  Everything that Snake says is quotable and, even with tiny explosives circulating through his blood, Snake never loses his cool.  Sometimes, it doesn’t seem like Snake cares whether he lives or dies and that’s what makes Snake such a strong hero.  He’s wiling to take the risks that no one else would.  If he saves the President and the world, cool.  If he doesn’t, neither was probably worth saving anyways.  At the end of the film, Snake reveals that there are things that he does care about.  If you don’t appreciate the people who sacrificed their lives for you, don’t expect Snake to do you any favors.

Snake gets some help from a rogue’s gallery of familiar faces, all of whom have their own reasons for trying to save the President from the Duke.  Harry Dean Stanton is Brain while Adrienne Barbeau is Maggie.  Brain is the smartest man in Manhattan and Maggie’s good with a gun and it’s too bad that we never got a prequel about how they met.  My favorite of Escape from New York‘s supporting cast is Ernest Borgnine as Cabbie, who is the perfect New York taxi driver and whose taste in music plays off in an unexpectedly satisfying way.

Escape From New York is John Carpenter at his best, an exciting race against time full of memorable characters and thrilling action.  Whenever I go to New York and I cross over a bridge into Manhattan, I think about Snake, Cabbie, and the gang driving through a minefield.  Everyone who meets Snake says “I thought you were dead,” but we know better.  Snake Plisskin will never die and neither will my love for Escape From New York.

6 Horror Performances That Deserved An Oscar Nomination


Despite making some inroads as of late, horror films still never quite get the respect that they deserve when it comes Oscar time.  That’s especially true of the performers who regularly appear in horror films.  If it’s rare for a horror movie to receive a best picture nomination, it’s even rarer for someone to get nominated for appearing in one of them.

And yet, it takes as much skill to make a monster compelling as it does a historical figure or a literary character.  In fact, it may take even more skill.  After all, everyone knows that Queen Elizabeth I actually ruled over England and that Atticus Finch was an attorney in the South.  However, everyone also knows that there’s no such things as vampires and that the dead cannot be reanimated or raised as a zombie.  It takes a lot of skill to make a monster seem human.

With that in mind, here are 6 horror performances that deserved, at the very least, an Oscar nomination:

1. Boris Karloff as The Monster in Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein(1935)

The great Boris Karloff is perhaps the most egregious example of a deserving actor who was consistently ignored by the Academy because of the type of films in which he appeared.  In the role of Monster, Karloff was never less than brilliant and he set the standard by which all future monsters are judged.

Dracula (1931, directed by Tod Browning)

2. Bela Lugosi in Dracula (1931)

When viewed today, it’s perhaps a little bit too easy to be dismissive of Lugosi’s grandly theatrical interpretation of Dracula.  But, if you can ignore all of the bad imitations that you’ve seen and heard over the years, you’ll discover that Lugosi’s performance is perfect for the film in which he’s appearing.  Indeed, Lugosi’s best moments are the silent ones, when he goes from being a courtly (if vaguely sinister) nobleman to a hungry animal.  In those moments, you see why Lugosi’s performance endures.

3. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960)

Ah, poor Anthony Perkins.  Before he played Norman Bates, he was considered to be something an up-and-coming star and even something of a neurotic romantic lead.  As with Lugosi’s Dracula, we’ve seen so many bad imitations of Perkins’s performance that it’s easy to overlook just how good he is in the role.  He was so perfect as Norman that spent the rest of his career typecast.  And, sadly enough, he didn’t even get a much-deserved Oscar nomination out of it.

4. Christopher Lee as Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man (1973)

Christopher Lee was one of the great actors and, though he may be best remembered for his horror work, he actually appeared in almost every genre of film imaginable.  Lee was often dismissive of the Dracula films that he made for Hammer so, as much as I’d love to argue that he deserved a nomination for The Horror of Dracula, I’m instead going to suggest that Lee deserved one for the role that he often cited as his favorite, the pagan Lord Summerisle in The Wicker Man.  Lee brings the perfect mix of wit and menace to the role and, in the process, shows that not all monsters have to be undead.

5. Donald Pleasence as Dr. Sam Loomis in Halloween (1978) and Halloween II (1981)

Much as with Lugosi and Anthony Perkins, it’s important (and perhaps a little bit difficult) to separate Pleasence’s performances in these two slasher films with all of the imitations that have followed.  In both films, Pleasence does a great job of playing a man who has been driven to the verge of madness as a result of having spent too much time in the presence of evil.  As potentially dangerous as Sam Loomis sometimes appears to be, there’s no way not to sympathize with him as he continually tries to get people to understand that he wasn’t the one who left Michael escape.  If nothing else, Pleasence deserved a nomination just for his delivery of the line, “As a matter of fact, it was.”

6. Betsy Palmer as Pamela Voorhees in Friday the 13th (1980)

“I’m an old friend of the Christys.”  AGCK!  RUN!

Great Moments In Television History: Lonely Water (1973, directed by Jeff Grant)


From the end of World War II to 2007, the UK’s Central Office of Information used to produced Public Information Films (known as PIFs), which would often air on television during children’s programming.  These were the British equivalent of the “More You Know” PSAs that appear on American television.  A typical PIF would deal with a safety issue, warning children to be careful crossing the street or while visiting a farm or when thinking of sticking a fork into an electrical socket.

One of the most notorious PIFs was first broadcast in 1973 and aired for several years after that.  Lonely Water warned children about the danger of foolish behavior and risk-taking at lakes, ponds, and other pools of standing water.  Aimed at the 7-to-12 year-old age bracket, Lonely Water was narrated by Donald Pleasence and featured a black-clad figure watching as children foolishly dived into danger.  Even though the children ultimately do the right thing, it only leads to Pleasence declaring, “I’LL BE BACK!”

Lonely Water reportedly scarred a generation for life and led to several traumatized British children deciding to never learn how to swim at all.  In 2006, it was voted as the UK’s 4th-favorite PIF of all time.

Previous Great Moments In Television History

  1. Planet of the Apes The TV Series

Panther’s Revenge: Night Creature (1978, directed by Lee Madden)


Axel McGregor (Donald Pleasence) is a world-famous author and big game hunter who, while on a hunt in the steamy jungles of Thailand, is maimed by a ferocious panther.  With both his body and pride wounded, Axel posts a reward for the panther, demanding that it be captured and brought to his private island estate.  When the panther is delivered, Axel plans to set it free so that he can hunt and kill it and regain his lost virility.  Unfortunately, as soon as McGregor sets the panther free, unexpected guests show up at the island, Axel’s two daughters (Nancy Kwan and Jennifer Rhodes), his granddaughter (Lesly Fine), and an obnoxious tour guide named Ross (Ross Hagen).  The panther proves to be harder to hunt than Axel was expecting and soon, one daughter has been killed and another daughter suffers a fate worse than death when she becomes Ross’s default love interest.

Night Creature is a strange film.  It was obviously made as a part of the nature-gone-wild cycle that started in the wake of Jaws but, once the daughters arrive at the island, there are several lengthy stretches where the movie concentrates more on the love triangle between Ross and the daughters than on the panther.  When the panther does show up, the attack scenes are so confusingly shot that it is difficult to be sure what has really happened.  Director Lee Madden goes overboard with slow motion shots of the panther stalking its prey and an attempt to introduce some psychic bond between Axel and the panther largely falls flat.

At least we get Donald Pleasence, playing one of his twitchy roles and suffering another extended nervous breakdown.  Night Creature may not offer much but it does have one of the best Pleasence freakouts ever captured on film.  It’s always a pleasure to watch Pleasence chew the scenery, especially when he’s joined by panther.

International Horror Film Review: Nosferatu in Venice (dir by Augusto Caminito, Klaus Kinski, Luigi Cozzi, Mario Ciaino, and possibly others)


Nosferatu the vampyre is back!  Well, maybe.  It’s complicated,

This Italian production from 1988 was originally envisioned as being a semi-official sequel to Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu, which was itself a remake of F.W. Murnau’s silent classic.  The idea was that Klaus Kinski would reprise his role and this time, his feral version of Dracula would haunt Venice.  Kinski agreed, initially, to reprise his role.  However, after arriving on the set, Kinski lived up to his infamous reputation for being difficult.  He announced that he would, under no circumstances, don the famous make-up that he wore in Nosferatu.  And while Kinski was undoubtedly a good actor who was capable of giving performances that kept him employed despite reportedly being insane, Nosferatu without the makeup is not really Nosferatu.  He’s just another vampire.

Still, Kinski was a big enough star that he got his way about the makeup.  He also attempted to get his way during the first day of filming, when he refused to take any direction from director Mario Ciaino.  When Ciaino attempted to figure out why Kinski was being so difficult, Kinski declared that he had been promised, by producer Augusto Caminito, that he would be allowed to direct the film.  This led to Mario Ciaino quitting during the first day of production.  Producer Caminito took over as a director, though apparently Kinski did end up directing several of his own scenes.  Reportedly, other scenes were directed by Luigi Cozzi.

However, Kinski didn’t stop with getting the director replaced.  He also demanded that nearly the entire cast be replaced as well.  Kinski, in fact, was such a terror on the set that it was common for members of the crew to refuse to work with him, which perhaps explains why Kinski seems to spend so much of this film wandering around Venice by himself.

As for the film itself — well, yes, it’s exactly as big of a mess as it sounds like it would be.  Kinski plays a vampire who may or may not be Dracula.  Actually, very few of the traditional vampire rules seem to apply to him.  He wanders around in the daylight.  He looks at his reflection in a mirror.  He does, however, drink a lot of blood so I guess some things never change.  Because he refused to wear the vampire makeup or shave his head, Kinski spends the entire film looking like the aging lead singer of a 70s prog rock band.  At the same time, it must be said that Kinski actually does give a fairly good performance.  He’s a vampire who is desperate to find someone pure of heart who can end his ennui-stricken life.  Kinski’s screen presence is undeniably powerful and he looks appropriately miserable.

Christopher Plummer has the Van Helsing role and Donald Pleasence plays a priest who always seems to be somewhat nervous.  (In other words, a typical role for Donald Pleasence.)  Plummer is in Venice because, back in the 18th century, it was the last place that Kinski’s vampire was seen.  This leads to several confusing flashbacks, all of which are somewhat randomly sprinkled throughout the film.

There’s not really any story beyond Kinski walking around with a stricken-look on his face but, oddly, the film kind of works. Despite all of the directors who worked on it, the film is often visually stunning.  I think it’s the power of Venice.  No other city has quite the same atmosphere as Venice and it turns out to be the perfect location for a film about an ennui-stricken vampire.

(I know that when I visited Venice the summer after I graduated high school, I often found myself thinking about vampires.  That’s just the type of city it is.)

Anyway, the film will be best appreciated by Italian horror enthusiasts and Kinski completists.  Others will probably be bored out of their mind.  If you just want to see a good horror film set in Venice, I recommend Don’t Look Now.

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.