Last of the WOOD-en Soldiers: RIP Conrad Brooks


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It was a fateful day in 1948 when 17-year-old Conrad Brooks, trying to break into movies, met a 24-year-old would-be filmmaker named Edward D. Wood, Jr. at a coffee and donut shop. The two men hit it off, both dreaming of Hollywood success, and worked together on an unreleased short “Range Revenge”, beginning a lasting collaboration and friendship. Conrad Brooks, who died today at age 86, will never be remembered as an actor the stature of Olivier or Brando, but his participation in the films of no-budget auteur Ed Wood will always hold a special place in the hearts of lovers of uniquely strange (some would say bad) cinema.

Young Conrad Brooks with horror icon Bela Lugosi

Brooks played several parts in Wood’s first film, 1953’s gender-bending GLEN OR GLENDA, about a man who loved to dress in women’s clothing. The director managed to get veteran horror icon Bela Lugosi

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Halloween Havoc!: THE BLOB (Paramount 1958)


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Teenagers save the world from the outer space menace known as THE BLOB in this 1958 indie-made sci-fi classic. The stars are a 28-year-old Steve McQueen (billed here as ‘Steven’), channeling his inner James Dean and cool as ever, and THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW’s  future Miss Helen, lovely Aneta Corsault. The cheaply made BLOB became a huge hit, and remains one of the best-loved sci-fi flicks of the 50’s.

After the peppy title tune “Beware the Blob!” (written by Burt Bacharach and Mack David), we find teens Steve (McQueen) and Jane (Corsault) out parking, as 50’s teens do, when a mysterious flying object crash lands in the distance. The curious kids investigate and come across an old man (veteran Olin Howland ) in the road, his hand covered with a purple gelatinous goo. The  geezer’s in obvious pain, so our young couple take him to Doc Hallen, who’s baffled as the goo creeps up the…

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Halloween Havoc!: NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (The Walter Read Organization1968)


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The late, great George A. Romero’s first feature, NIGHT OF THE LVING DEAD, was shot in the wilds of Pittsburgh, PA on a budget of $114,000. This unheralded,  gruesome little indie became a landmark in horror, influencing and inspiring generations of moviemakers to come. Better scribes than your humble correspondent have written countless analyses on the film, so I’m going to give you my perspective from my first viewing of the film… at the impressionable age of 13!

My cousin and I, both horror buffs, first saw it as the bottom half of a double feature in 1970. The main attraction was EQUINOX , which came highly recommended by Forrest J Ackerman , editor of the Monster Kid’s Bible, FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. As we eagerly awaited the main attraction, we sat through the warm-up, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. At first, we thought it was an older rerelease, because…

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Halloween Havoc!: THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (Bryanston Pictures 1974)


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The first time I watched THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE was at a drive-in around 1975. I remember laughing hysterically at the film; of course, I was tripping my brains out on mescaline at the time and laughed at anything! I’ve since viewed the film several times without chemical enhancement and I’m no longer laughing. I like it a lot, it’s a scary little exploitation shocker for sure, but one thing that really irks me is a  certain segment of critics who treat it as some kind of metaphor with deep meaning.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to like here. The tension is gripping, the horror relentless, and Tobe Hooper did a terrific job working with a miniscule budget. It’s just that over the years, critics have overanalyzed the thing to death, expounding on the political and cultural ramifications of it’s themes and blah, blah, blah. Whether or not all this blathering about…

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Trailer: Harbinger Down (Official)


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Last summer something caught my eye while scrolling up my Twitter feed. People I had been following were retweeting a Kickstarter campaign for an independent film. No, this wasn’t a Veronica Mars deal or Zach Braff begging the public for millions so he could make his own film. This was for a scifi-horror film that was going the whole practical effects route.

Harbinger Down is the brainchild of practical effects masters Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. whose own special effects studio Amalgamated Dynamics were instrumental in creating some of the practical effects for films such as the latest Godzilla and the underwhelming prequel for The Thing. It was their practical effects work for that prequel being replaced by CGI monsters at the very last second which convinced the two men to try and make a film using nothing but practical effects to show Hollywood bean counters and studio heads that there was still a place for the practical instead of going all-CG.

Their Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds to start Harbinger Down succeeded and in addition to the $387,000 or so raised and their own money and studio time the film began principal photography this past January. A rough trailer was shown around MArch, but now we have the first official trailer to Harbinger Down which looks like a love letter to Carpenter’s very own The Thing.

Film Review: Welcome To The Rileys (dir. by Jake Scott)


Last weekend, I went down to one of my favorite movie theaters, the wonderful Plano Angelika, and I saw one of the best — if unheralded — independent films of 2010, Welcome To The Rileys.

Kristen Stewart plays Alison, a 16 year-old runaway who, as the movie opens, is working as a stripper and prostitute in New Orleans.  One day, while at work, she meets a middle-aged businessman named Doug Riley (James Gandolfini).  Doug is in New Orleans attending a convention and he reluctantly accepts Alison’s offer of a private dance.  As soon as they’re alone together, Alison immediately offers to have sex with Doug for money.  Doug turns her down, Alison angrily accuses him of being an undercover cop, and a flustered Doug leaves the club.  Later that night, Doug happens to run into Alison again and, looking to make amends with her, he gives her a ride back to her “home,” which turns out to be an apparently abandoned and condemned row house.  Doug ends up sleeping over at the house (though again, he refuses to have sex with Alison).  The next day, Doug offers to pay Alison a hundred dollars a day if he can stay in her house while he’s in New Orleans.  Alison, who is always on the look out for extra money, agrees.  After a rough start, Doug and Alison settle into a bizarre sort of domesticity with the paternalistic Doug teaching Alison how to make a bed and Alison calling on Doug when one of her clients refuses to pay her for her services.

What Alison doesn’t know is that Doug has a wife in Indiana.  Lois Riley (played by Melissa Leo) hasn’t stepped outside of their suburban home in years.  Ever since the tragic death of their 16 year-old daughter, Lois has cut herself off from the world and her husband (even to the extent of tolerating Doug’s affair with a local waitress).  However, when Doug calls her from New Orleans and announces that he won’t be coming home for a while, Lois forces herself to leave the house.  While Doug is busy trying to escape from reality, Lois is driving down to New Orleans to try to bring him back.

When Lois reaches New Orleans, Doug introduces her to Alison and, to his surprise, the two of them almost immediately start to bond.  Lois tells Alison about how their daughter and Alison responds by telling the story (which, the film hints, might not be true) of how her own mother also died in a car accident.  Soon, both Doug and Lois have — for all intents and purposes — adopted Lois as their own daughter.  However, what neither has considered is that Alison might not want to a part of the Riley family…

Welcome To The Rileys is ultimately a touching and low-key exploration of grief, guilt, and the struggle to accept the occasionally unpleasant realities of life.  It’s also a portrait of three lost souls struggling to connect with the existence around them.  Jake (son of Ridley) Scott’s direction is properly low-key and manages to be affecting without indulging in any of the obvious tricks that one might expect to see in a film like this.  However, what makes this film ultimately work is a strong trio of lead performances from Gandolfini, Leo, and Stewart.

Playing Doug (a character that both I and the film had mixed feelings about), James Gandolfini gives a performance that’s so good that I never once found myself tempted to make any “Soproano”-related asides under my breath.  Though his Southern accent comes and goes, Gandolfini brings the perfect combination of warmth, concern, self-pity, and stubbornness to his role and he makes Doug an understandable and sympathetic — if not always likable — character.  A part of me feels that the film’s screenplay is a bit too quick to let Doug off the hook for some of his actions but, as an actor, Gandolfini never makes the same mistake.

Playing Alison, Kristen Stewart proves that it’s time to forgive her for starring in Twilight.  Her performances in Into The Wild and The Runaways provided hints that she’s actually a very talented actress but her performance here proves it.  She not only captures Alison’s sadness but, even more importantly, she doesn’t shy away from the anger that feeds off that sadness.  She never sentimentalizes her performance, there’s no moment where she pauses to let the audience know that she’s a good girl at heart.  Instead, she dares us to reject her while revealing just enough of her inner pain to make it impossible for us to do so.

However, for me, the film really belongs to Melissa Leo.  Whether she’s struggling to figure out how to drive her husband’s car or primly introducing herself to Alison (who, at the time, is dressed for work), Leo is simply amazing.  When Lois first appeared in the film, I was worried because it felt as if the filmmakers were using her agorophobia to justify Doug’s adultery.  However, Melissa Leo subtly and surely starts to peel away the layers of Lois’ outward repression until, by the end of the movie, Lois is the most vibrant character in the film.  Just check out the scene where Lois responds to a flirtatious man in a truck stop with a combination of pride, amusement, and surprise and you’ll see what great acting is all about. 

When Lois finally ends up in New Orleans, she seems to bring a whole new life to the movie.  What previously seemed to simply be a meditation on loss and sadness is instead revealed to be a celebration of life and love.  For a film that originally seemed to be about an errant husband and an angry runaway, Welcome To The Rileys eventually turns out to be a tribute to one woman who turns out to be far stronger than anyone gave her credit for.

With all the current Oscar hype surrounding films like The Social Network and The Kids Are All Right, Welcome To The Rileys is the type of low-key, subtle movie that will probably be forgotten in the rush to jump on all the more obvious bandwagons.  That’s a shame because it’s one of the best films of 2010 and one that deserves to be seen over the years to come.

 

A Quickie With Lisa Marie: Putney Swope (dir. by Robert Downey, Sr.)


One of my favorite recent DVD discoveries is an underground film from 1969 called Putney Swope.   Directed by Robert Downey, Sr. (who, as we all know, was the father of not only Iron Man and Sherlock Holmes but Sgt. Osiris as well!), Putney Swope is a hilarious satire of advertising, race relations, and everything in between.  It’s a must-see for anyone interested in American independent film, American satire, or just plain vulgarity in the service of art and humor.

Since the film takes place at the Truth and Soul Advertising Agency, it features several fake commercials that are so spot-on perfect that they could easily pass for the real thing if not for all the profanity and occasional nudity.  Below is my favorite Truth and Soul Commercial: