Alright, now we’re moving! Today, we look at Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, Roger Corman’s THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM, Tobe Hooper’s THE FUNHOUSE and Andrew Domink’s KILLING THEM SOFTLY. Four films spanning nearly sixty years which still show that people are always trying to find new ways to ramp up the suspense.
FILM GEEK JOURNAL – ENTRY 30
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956) – Alfred Hitchcock remakes his own film with this more lavish, big budget update. Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart) is attending a medical conference in Morocco and decides to use the business trip to treat his family to a vacation (More than 50 years later, people like Liam Neeson are still making this mistake). A mortally wounded man literally falls into Stewart’s arms and warns him of an assassination set to take place. To keep the couple silent, the would-be assassins kidnap their son and now it’s a frantic search to prevent the killing and find the boy.
There are a lot of differences between this film and Hitchcock’s 1934 original. This one is the Technicolor dream that Hitchcock could do now that his status as a living legend was not in contention. Although big productions were nothing new to him (Just look at how he took the simple set-up of REAR WINDOW and made it one of the most complex studio sets ever.), Hitchcock seems to be playing with unlimited resources. Though many films throughout history can say to be inspired by the films of Alfred Hitchcock, this is one of those films like NORTH BY NORTHWEST in which you can’t imagine anyone else handling the material quite like this. It’s a fun and tense crowd pleaser.
And here is where I get into trouble because here I give my one and only caveat for this exceptional film. It’s the use of the song “Que Sara Sara,” a classic tune, don’t get me wrong. But by shoehorning it into the story and using it as a plot device for the climax, it feels like a level of pandering that this film should be above. ★★★½ (out of ★★★★)
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961) – Nicholas Medina (Vincent Price) has lost his wife Elizabeth (Barbara Steele), he says to a strange blood disease. But when Elizabeth’s brother (John Kerr) travels to Spain to visit Medina, he has his doubts. Medina is after all descended from one of the most legendarily evil figures of the Spanish Inquisition. Given his fascination with the period as well as the power fear has over people, it could be that Medina has merely followed in the family tradition.
For this follow-up to THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER, director Roger Corman wisely brought back many of the same figures that made the previous film a classic. With this film, Corman proved that lightning could strike twice. This film marked the beginning in earnest of the famous Poe cycle, a series that boasted a slew of great talent and at least three bona-fide classics (USHER, this film and my personal favorite, MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH). To this day, no one has made better Edgar Allan Poe films than Roger Corman, though to be fair Stuart Gordon’s very different PIT AND THE PENDULUM is pretty great too.
Vincent Price is his undeniably chilling self and proves once again why he is one of my favorite horror icons. Richard Matheson has written another crackerjack script. Matheson wisely took the basic feel of the Poe tales and weaved original stories that kept the Poe spirit alive (Okay, maybe Poe would have been miffed by THE RAVEN, but all is fair in love, war and show business). Barbara Steele was still fresh from becoming one of the main figures in the new wave of Italian horror thanks to Mario Bava’s BLACK SUNDAY (a.k.a. THE MASK OF SATAN) and Riccardo Freda’s THE HORRIBLE DR. HITCHCOCK. She added another fine notch to her canon with this film, even if her dialogue was dubbed by someone else after the fact.
THE PIT AND THE PENDULUM is a reminder why Corman was not merely a great cinematic entrepreneur but a great artist as well. This film is a classic, and it’s merely one of many from Corman. ★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
THE FUNHOUSE (1981) – A group of teenagers go to a shady carnival and decide to sneak into the funhouse and spend the night. Things go wrong fast when they spot the horribly deformed son of one of the carnival barkers murdering a woman from the show. Once the barker becomes aware of the kids, he sends his son after them to finish them off.
Tobe Hooper had both the good and bad fortune of creating what I consider to be the perfect horror film. THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE is perfect because it keeps a sustained feeling of dread and terror throughout the running time. It’s a feel that everybody, including Hooper himself, has spent the last forty years trying to replicate without success. It is perhaps a wise decision on Hooper’s part that many of his films go for different types of scares than TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE – from the Stephen King adaptation SALEM’S LOT to the sci-fi apocalypse in LIFEFORCE. This has led some to deem him as a man who peaked early. This consensus hurt him and later on, he did indeed make a few disappointing flicks.
What THE FUNHOUSE proves, like many other Hooper films from the era, is that genre fans, myself included, have been giving Hooper a raw deal. This is an exceptionally well-made horror film with a vibe completely different from what Hooper had tackled before. The film is atmospheric and contains teens that may seem to fit into the stereotypes, but they never seem like psycho fodder.
Elizabeth Berridge (AMADEUS) does a great job as the heroine and Kevin Conway, who plays three carnival barkers, is unforgettable Also look for William Finley (PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE) in a cameo that accentuates the inherent smoke and mirrors of the horror genre.
The film may take a little too long to really get going. The film is almost halfway done before the plot starts to move. Nevertheless, you should check out THE FUNHOUSE, it’s a winner.
Oh yeah, and that Scream Factory Blu-ray is gorgeous. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
KILLING THEM SOFTLY (2012) – A two-bit also-ran in the crime world comes up with a plan to rob a mob-run card game and pin the blame on the guy who runs the games. He hires too none-too-bright thugs to carry out the crime and surprise surprise, it seems to go off without a hitch. The local crime bosses call in an enforcer from out of state to set things right. Someone’s bound to get killed, a lot of someones, if only people weren’t so antsy about it. Things continue to escalate throughout the film.
After PULP FICTION really took off back in 1994, we were inundated with a slew of Tarantino wannabes for the next five years or so. Some of these wound up being pretty decent, most of them were transparent and terrible and none of them were a patch on their inspiration, naturally. It’s the type of film I had hoped we had gotten away from. But every couple of years, someone comes out with another film of this type and seems to be convinced that they have a fresh take on the material. KILLING THEM SOFTLY is the latest such film and it’s about as stale as they get.
The film is a pretentious mess. It has all the symptoms of those Tarantino knock-offs (as well as a little bit of Coen Brothers) and then adds in a bunch of mumbo jumbo about the economic crisis in the United States (it takes place back in 2006, just so it can draw parallels to the bailout) and pompous naval gazing about the end of the world.
Director Andrew Domink had previously done two films I greatly enjoyed, CHOPPER and THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES BY THE COWARD ROBERT FORD. But as different and exemplary as those films seems, this latest effort seems like the misguided debut of a recent film school graduate. Sure, the acting is pretty good. But everyone here seems to be present based on Domink’s prior successes. Everyone seems to realize how bad this material is and they don’t look happy to be there. I know I sure wasn’t happy watching this mess. ★ (out of ★★★★)
Total films watched in 2013 so far: 133