Commentary on Movies and TV by Brian Holcomb

Sunday, January 31, 2010


by Brian Holcomb

This nearly abstract existential western by Monte Hellman was made at the same time as the somewhat more conventional Ride in the Whirlwind. It was the usual Corman plan in which two similar films with interchangeable casts were shot back to back. Both films have their qualities, though I personally lean more towards this one simply because the film is so damn enigmatic. It's a film which finds a corner of your mind and stays there for a long time.

Warren Oates plays Will Gashade who, along with his simple minded sidekick Coley (Will Hutchins), agrees to guide a mysterious and cruel young woman (Millie Perkins) through some rough desert territory. Throughout their tension filled journey Gashade gets the feeling that they are being followed by a third party, someone the woman is aware of and is signaling from time to time. This turns out to be the brutal thug Billy Spear (Jack Nicholson). What these people want from Gashade and Coley is not known. They seem to have very clear objectives of where they want to go and how they want to get there. As their journey wears on, several of the horses die, the water supply runs out, Coley is left behind, and Gashade, aware that Billy intends to kill them, begins to execute a plan to get out of the situation.

This is about all the literal plot that exists onscreen. It's suggested that the events have something to do with Gashade's brother Coin, who may have been involved in the death of some "little person" in a nearby town. Whether this is a reference to a child is never made clear. At the end of the film the mysterious young woman seems to have reached her goal, firing her gun at a strange figure she clearly recognizes hiding up in the rocks. Gashade tries to stop her but she and the other man kill each other before he can do anything. The man on the rock is played by Warren Oates as well and when Oates as Gashade sees him, he calls out his brother's name over and over as the film ends, "Coin!".

Now whether this woman was out to kill Coin for revenge is open to much speculation. Perhaps Coin was involved in the death of the "little person" mentioned by Gashade in the beginning of the film. What is most intriguing about The Shooting is the constant sense of undefined menace throughout. The film has an otherwordly feel as though the action were taking place on the surface of the moon. Three lone people surrounded by vast areas of open space-it's an agoraphobic's nightmare. Like a Harold Pinter play, the excellent screenplay by Carole Eastman plays on ambiguity from all sides. The tension comes from each character trying to gain advantage over the other in some way.

Visually, Hellman shoots the film in a very clean, spare manner. He makes excellent use of very short but quick tracking shots and fills the screen with open spaces which seem to be drowning his characters.

The climax is as puzzling as the weird freeze frame that ends Walter Hill's Southern Comfort but it doesn't come off as some kind of arty addendum since the whole film was designed around this mystery. We may not know the exact details of what went on among these 5 characters but it doesn't really matter. Just like a news story in which we are told what happened to who, where, when and how, the WHY is often something no one can understand. It's the mystery of human nature itself.


THE FOG (1980) Film Review

by Brian Holcomb

John Carpenter follows up his tremendously successful Halloween with what was intended to be a throwback to the classic, suggestive horrors of Val Lewton. He half achieves this but because of last minute reshoots designed to make the film scarier for a modern audience, we are left with a film that's a bit schizophrenic in it's approach.

The story is a simple and very old fashioned campfire tale. In fact, it's all laid out for us by cranky John Houseman scaring the shit out of some kids around an actual campfire in the film's prologue. I'll let him sum it up:

"Almost midnight. Enough time for one more story. One more story before midnight, just to keep us warm. In five minutes, it'll be the 21rst of April. One hundred years ago on the 21rst of April, out in the waters around Spivey Point, a small clipper ship drew toward land. Suddenly, out of the night, the fog rolled in. For a moment, they could see nothing, not a foot ahead of them. And then, they saw a light. My God, it was a fire burning on the shore. Strong enough to penetrate the swirling mist. They steered a course toward the light. But it was a campfire, like this one. The ship crashed against the rocks. The hull sheared in two. The mast snapped like a twig.And the wreckage sank with all the men aboard. At the bottom of the sea lay the Elizabeth Dane with her crew, their lungs filled with saltwater, their eyes open and staring
into the darkness."

And of course they will rise from the dead on this night, the night that the community of Antonio Bay celebrates its centennial, to get their revenge. It's a little more complicated than that what with Father Malone (Hal Holbrook) mumbling about how the founding fathers stole the land from those doomed sailors. But it's a simple tale at heart, what Stephen King called a "Tale of the Hook" in his fine book on the horror genre, Danse Macabre, stories which bypassed the intellect for true, primal fears.

What Carpenter and his fine collaborator the late Debra Hill were so good at during this time was in crafting suspenseful, slow burn horror stories with multiple storylines. Halloween used the Dr. Loomis storyline to create real suspense and dread as the Shape stalked Laurie Strode and her friends. Loomis' pursuit elevated Michael Meyers into an abstraction of evil that the stalk and slash scenes could not by themselves. In The Fog they attempt to do something similar but perhaps influenced by Stephen King's very skillful manipulation of story and character in Salem's Lot, they take it to another level. Instead of running two main storylines, The Fog juggles quite a few more and attempts to create a real sense of community within its fictional Antonio Bay. This is all held together with an almost Altman-esque device: the local DJ Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) whose sultry voice spins late night jazz records from her dream of a radio station atop the Bay's spooky lighthouse.

Starting with Assault on Precinct 13, Carpenter had been perfecting what I would term a "NIGHT OF THE DAY BEFORE THE NIGHT" structure which worked like gangbusters for tension building stories. It's a classically 24 hour three part structure which allowed for a suggestive beginning that hinted at the dangers to come in the NIGHT. Followed by some slow building exposition and establishment of character and setting in the DAY BEFORE. This eventually gives way to a long final sequence which blows the lid off the tension in a series of intense set pieces. This is the third act or THE NIGHT. It's a structure normally used for classical Greek tragedy as laid out by Aristotle in his Poetics. An integration of all the dramatic unities-time, place and action.

The Fog follows this structure to a "T " and much of the film's overall effect is the result of this form. However the film fails to achieve the sense of completeness that Halloween did because its goals are so much more ambitious. Although the film is very slickly made, it was still produced on a very low budget. The slick look is the result of not only Carpenter's own grasp of craft and widescreen composition but also the beautiful night photography of Dean Cundey, a cinematographer who was known to be both skilled and fast.

However, the budget required a more restrained approach that goes against the massive buildup of the film's first two acts. The film's STORY promises that there will be a large celebration in town for it's centennial, including the unveiling of a memorial to the film's murderous founding fathers. It promises that the fog will roll in during these celebrations and much like the beach attack in Jaws would result in apocalyptic mayhem. Ghostly sailors emerging from the fog to shed blood as our main characters flee for safety. As staged in the final film, the ending feels unfinished and underproduced. There IS a town celebration but it seems that only about 10 people could make it that night and the memorial itself is underwhelming, reminding one of the tiny STONEHENGE from This is Spinal Tap.

But this is a small complaint. The Fog is a movie I've seen hundreds of times and will watch anytime it's on TV. It has so much wonderful atmosphere and that amazing, inimitable music that can only be John Carpenter even when it's Ennio Morricone (See or rather listen to THE THING). A flawed gem.


PIRANHA Film Review

by Brian Holcomb

Look at that poster. If there was ever a poster that came closer to capturing the tone of a movie it's this one by artist John Solie. A sly parody of the Jaws poster, it has a look that evokes MAD Magazine with the goofy looking oversize Piranha and the odd margin jokes all over the image. The 1978 film was the solo debut of the very underrated director Joe Dante and was written by none other than John Sayles. On the surface, it was a familiar product for Roger Corman's New World Pictures-a knockoff of a big budget hit. But in actuality it was more of a mischievous poker faced parody of its bigger budgeted progenitor.

Opening just like Jaws with hiking teenagers going skinny dipping and getting skinned, the story establishes its "mad scientist" plot by having them sneak into a swimming pool at a private research facility. Turns out that the US government had a program called OPERATION RAZORTEETH which involved genetic engineering of "normal" Piranha in order for them to be able to survive in fresh water and be used in the rivers of Vietnam. Of course, these razorteethed fish are released into the local rivers and it becomes a race of time before kids at a summer camp and a lake resort get placed on the menu.

Featuring a great cast of B movie icons and Corman regulars, the film is an early example of using the conventions of casting in order to make a satirical point. Actors like Dick Miller, Kevin McCarthy, and Barbara Steele are really only there to remind you of the famous films they are known for and how the characters in those films connect to this one. Dante and Sayles have a great deal of fun with the fact that their story of government created killer fish is completely ridiculous. In jokes are everywhere but without any reduction of violence or horror. This is the completely unique genre that Dante and Sayles established here and perfected in their next collaboration, The Howling. Films which operate as parodies of both a specific film and genre as well as film conventions themselves but which also play as effective examples of those genres as well. It's a post modern way of having your cake and eating it too.

Friday, January 29, 2010

DEMENTIA 13 Film Review

By Brian Holcomb

One of the many low budget shockers produced in the wake of Alfred Hitchcock's pop culture phenomenon Psycho, Dementia 13 is a surprisingly effective knockoff with unique qualities of its own. The oft told story is that Francis Ford Coppola saw an opportunity to make his first official feature film while recording sound for Roger Corman's The Young Racers on location in Ireland. He knew that Corman could never resist shooting a second film once on location since the major costs of shipping actors, crew and equipment had already been spent. So, Coppola sat up late for three nights and banged out a script with just enough exploitation elements to receive Corman 's financial blessing. With cash in hand, Coppola dove headfirst into his first "major" production, a film which has as much to do with Psycho as it presages the work of Italian filmmakers in the giallo genre.

People always marvel at the fact that Coppola wrote the screenplay in three nights. Well, this is a focused man who once wrote a script ("Pilma, Pilma") in a SINGLE night. Trying to get out of the draft by flunking his physical, Coppola fueled himself with cup after cup of black coffee and wrote a script that went on to win UCLA's prestigious Samuel Goldwyn Award. Now, THAT may have been a good script but Dementia 13 is clearly the work of a writer feverishly banging out pages over three days.Instead of Billy Wilder's goal of a screenplay that was a "clockwork mechanism", this script was a "patchwork mechanism". It's contrived, convoluted, and highly inconsistent in quality. It's also breathlessly spontaneous and desperately brilliant at times, erupting out of the mundane as though the man's mind was gasping for air trying to push the story along.

The thing is, the script didn't have to be very good at all. What had to be good were the set pieces and the filmmaking and luckily both are of very high quality. Coppola is in total command of the filmmaking from the very first scene, a rowboat ride on a lake in the blackest of nights (one of the benefits of low budget shooting was the lack of lights for many of the film's night scenes-all of which aid the film's atmosphere tremendously for appearing to be solid BLACK.) The touches of an inventive filmmaker are already present: When a man's dead body is tossed overboard, so is his transistor radio which continues to gargle rock and roll on its way to the bottom.

The central murder sequence, basically the film's "shower scene" is still one of the most atmospheric, poetic, and nightmarish horror set pieces ever photographed. It's derivative, but honestly scarier than anything in Psycho. When the conniving Louise (Luana Anders) strips down to her underwear to dive into a lake at night, Coppola designs the sequence for eroticism, poetic atmosphere, classic gothic creepiness and the revelation of a "double scare". Coppola's handling of the "double scare" is timed perfectly, shifting gears from the spooky to the shocking in just a few seconds. From the eerie image of a perfectly preserved dead little girl in an underwater grave memorial to Louise meeting a violent and painful death by ax on the shore above, the moments go off like firecrackers.

It must be added that Ronald Stein's very effective score and the photography of Charles Hannawalt contribute greatly to the film's overall effect. In fact, the film is so well made that it has withstood a public domain status which has condemned it to be seen in only the worst prints imaginable. I have never seen the film in any version that wasn't hit by a truck and it STILL works effectively.


Monday, January 25, 2010

"W" Film Review


by Brian Holcomb

Why this film was made while Dubya was still in office is a mystery. The film is reductionary on all counts falling back upon the standard linear arc that all biopics do in the end. I think it's a genre that never really works because the very idea that the life of a human being can be contained in two, even three hours is absurd. The worst of them fall victim to using lame dimestore Freud to create a narrative arc-i.e. If only his father loved him, blah blah blah-Personally, I think the question "WHY?" could be removed from the narrative of most films and would significantly increase their quality. Who can say WHY anyone does anything you know? It's presumptuous. That said, it can work if the film focuses on one side of a person's life for a short period and uses specific episodes to examine the subject in action, observing them making decisions and mistakes that reveal something about their possible flaws. Using the micro to illuminate the macro. THE AVIATOR was pretty effective in that respect giving us hints of the man Hughes would become through the extraordinary achievements of youth. But even there the impulse to editorialize couldn't be avoided: Mom cleaning the boy, keeping him CLEAN.

A movie like CHE with Del Toro is the worst example of how to do it right. 4 Hours of merely watching the back of Che's head, observing him thinking about God knows what doesn't work either. Now a film like THE HOURS AND THE TIMES got it right-it's about what may have happened on the weekend John Lennon spent with Brian Epstein. A weekend that may have had them share a more intimate encounter. The film doesn't dramatize a series of facts-Lennon being born, going to school, hooking up with Paul, George and Ringo in a series of "meet cutes". No, it's really just about these two guys on one weekend. The film just lets the audience hang out with Lennon and to let our own imaginations fill in the details of where he came from and the tragic end we all know will come. I think this approach is smart-for example the great Bob Dylan Documentary DON'T LOOK BACK gives me a clearer image of who the young Bob Dylan was than any 4 hour biopic could.

You might expect a harsh attack on President Bush from the director of JFK. But this is more like an affectionate kick in the groin of a good old boy you'd like to have a beer with, or with W today, a near Beer. Josh Brolin does fine work as the title letter but leaves you with the sneaking suspicion that Will Ferrell could've done it just as well. The film's satirical tone is not far removed from an SNL skit to begin with. All in all Stone is almost too fair to Bush throughout. He saves his bile for Dick Cheney (Richard Dreyfus) and Condelezza Rice (Thandie Newton), portraying Cheney as a conniving rat and Rice as a smiling harpy. Dreyfus does a good job of creating a real character out of his cariacatured material but Newton goes straight over the top and onto the White House lawn.

Saturday, January 16, 2010



Like James Bond and Batman, Sherlock Holmes is the latest character to get the fashionable reboot. This has proven to be a successful approach both financially and critically as the 2.0 versions of those classic characters have retained their core essence while allowing for changes that appeal to modern audiences who have seen it all. Even when they haven't. I'm sure many have little more than second hand knowledge of the Sherlock Holmes character and some may even think he was an actual person. Unfortunately he was not. But he and his world were so powerfully conceived by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle that what was nothing more than ink on the page began to take root in the human imagination as flesh. Holmes, like Dracula or Tarzan, could not be bound within the pages of a story but rather became the property of the world, of popular culture, and what many take to be the very essence of Holmes is not so much Doyle but the the work of his adapters-Sidney Paget who drew the original illustrations featuring the deerstalker cap and Inverness cape, William Gillette who brought Holmes to the stage, and Universal Studios whose series of films with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce even pitted the great detective against the Nazis.

I am a huge fan of the Holmes stories but I don't cry foul when I see him changed for the screen. I really like many of the films in the Rathbone series and certainly enjoyed his take on the character. I liked what Peter Cushing did with the part in the Hammer films version of The Hound of the Baskervilles and even enjoyed Christopher Plummer's slightly more emotional Holmes in Bob Clark's underrated Murder By Decree. Besides, as far as I am concerned the definitive version of the stories has already been produced. No one is likely to better the Granada TV productions starring the late Jeremy Brett with their intense fidelity to the character and letter of Doyle's stories. But that was a TV show and this current offering is meant to be a motion picture franchise. So, I fully expected a great many changes. In other words, I went in with an open mind.

It shut pretty quickly.

But not because Holmes was now a two fisted action hero who spends his spare time in cage matches. And not because Watson was a master of stick fighting. And surely not because Guy Ritchie applied all his Lock, Stock techniques to introduce the Victorian Era to some Rocknrolla. In all honesty this is some of Ritchie's most effective visual filmmaking ever. Besides, it's clear that he was nothing more than the hired help here.

No, the problem really wasn't with Holmes, Watson, Ritchie, Downey Jr, Jude Law or even Madonna. And the concept of this "Sherlock Holmes 2.0" wasn't the problem. The actual movie itself was the problem. See, there was none. The film called Sherlock Holmes that has been raking in the money at the box office this Christmas season does not really exist at all. It's an illusion. A Jedi Mind Trick. The film fades in...well, explodes in... and immediately plunges you into all this crazy action involving cloaked occultists, women strapped to altars, and Holmes and Watson as a Victorian dynamic duo rescuing the damsel in distress at the last second.

And that's about it for the next 2 hours.

It's a movie with all the fine side dishes you would ever want for a Thanksgiving dinner only someone forgot the turkey. Somewhere in the middle of the 110th chase scene you start to realize that you really have no idea why Holmes is chasing these people or if he's running away from them. Or why Holmes is even there. Watson you are less sure of since he's supposed to be getting married or something. But on the movie goes, Hans Zimmer tap dancing his jaunty Morricone-influenced score over all the cracks in the structure, Ritchie flying his camera all around a CG London, and Downey Jr trying to distract you from everything through sheer performance. He almost achieves it too the way he did with Tony Stark in Iron Man, making you forget you were watching nothing more than a CG robot flying around for almost the entire running time. But in this Sherlock he was defeated by both the weight of nothingness and the unwillingness to allow the film to coast on nothingness.

If the film just dropped all pretense of the supposed story about evil Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong) and his resurrection from the grave and just gave the film a simpler mystery to follow then the audience could relax and enjoy the banter and shenanigans of Holmes and Watson going around London conducting a boy's adventure. It could allow the actors to drive the movie the way Howard Hawks' Rio Bravo and Hatari did. Both films were designed as a kind of feature length sitcom-focusing entirely on "fun and games" between characters loosely tied to a central plot. It was a lesson that Hawks learned from making The Big Sleep, realizing that all that damn Chandler plotting was getting in the way of his good movie. "Who the hell cares who killed Owen Taylor?"

Much of this film reminds me of the way several of the '70s Bond films were supposedly made-random action scenes shot with stuntmen to capitalize on snow for ski chases or whatever would later be stitched into the story via closeups of Roger Moore. The screenwriter's challenge was to figure out how to tie them together. Here, screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham shovel the largest pile of BS they could find to tie up the loose ends of their stream of consciousness narrative and just put it into Sherlock's mouth in the "big ol' mystery reveal" climax. Objects randomly chosen throughout the film are connected by Holmes like the worst game ever played of Clue-

"It was Lord Blackwood in the graveyard with the raven's beak and Col. Mustard's revolver. See. I'm such a brilliant detective I spent a few hours in the editing room watching the whole movie over again and this is the only reasonable explanation I can offer. Remember once you've eliminated the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Even this total bullshit."

Directed by Guy Ritchie
Screenplay by Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham
Cast: Robert Downey, Jr, Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong, Kelly Reilly
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Running Time: 128 minutes
Rating: PG-13

Saturday, January 09, 2010


By Brian Holcomb

"Spielberg" is about as definitive a brand as there is in modern cinema. Both in content and cinematic style, the director has exhibited an effortless consistency throughout his large body of work. Perhaps only Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock have ever come near to this filmmaker's personal connection to mass audiences and immediate brand name recognition. Spielberg's position today as a kind of three headed dragon-technically proficient filmmaker, entrepreneur/businessman, and sometime studio executive- is secure. But his role as personal artist and "auteur", remains controversial. His tremendous box office success is partly responsible for this since elitist folklore suggests that high profit must equal low art. But it's also due to a certain shift in the contemporary definition of "auteur". What was once a theory that proposed that a director could express himself personally through random studio assignments came to be a label for the singular writer-director-genius and the cult of personality. Spielberg is clearly the last auteur standing from the original "Hitchcock-o-Hawksians" that championed everyone from Anthony Mann to Edgar G Ulmer. Because of this, his days as a television director for hire are very informative, as they illustrate the classic conflict between Hollywood's industrial production methods, committed to generating popular genre material for mass consumption, and the expressions of auteurism between the frames.

So much of Spielberg's early career as a contract director at Universal is mired by legend(much of that trumped up by the director himself) and by the very unavailability of the films themselves. Duel is a known quantity, but his follow-up to that film, Something Evil remains largely unseen. This is a great shame as it's a fascinating film both in terms of Spielberg's own development as a filmmaker and for how it anticipates many of the motifs of later films in the horror genre.

The film originally aired on the CBS network on January 21, 1972. In terms of it's status as a genre product, the film was produced to fill a slot in the CBS schedule and to capture an audience who, by 1972, had become gripped by tales of the occult. The early '70s was a fertile period for the TV movie, particularly of the suspense, horror and mystery genres and Something Evil was typical of the style, quite similar on paper to Crowhaven Farm(1970) for example. The story by Robert Clouse, who would later become best known as a specialist in martial arts films such as Enter the Dragon(1973) and Black Belt Jones(1974), is quite derivative and formulaic. Clouse's final teleplay is better than the story, however, but it's Spielberg's direction that really holds it together.

Set in the rural farmlands of Bucks County, Pennsylvania with its old country houses and barns adorned with Hex symbols, Something Evil tells the story of artist Marjorie Worden(Sandy Dennis) who moves into a new home with her Advertising Exec husband Paul(Darren McGavin), and their children Stevie(Johnny Whitaker) and Laurie (Debbie and Sandy Lempert). Tired of life in the hustle bustle of the big city, the open spaces of the country seem to be the perfect place to settle down and raise their family. Marjorie soon begins to experience strange events and comes to believe that their home and the land around it is the devil's playground. Being left alone with the children day in and day out, Marjorie slowly begins to lose her sanity. It appears that a demon may be trying to possess her. The isolation and atmosphere around the house take their toll on her and soon she fears what she might do to her children, that her will is not her own. Paul becomes concerned as she seems to be abusing the children. A friendly neighbor, Harry Lincoln (Ralph Bellamy), tries to help her confront the evil and save her family from spiritual corruption.

The horror genre is about as cannibalistic as they come, so there's less mileage to be gained from discussing the derivative elements than there is in examing how those elements are finally used. Granted, the story is a tossed salad of early '70s occult motifs crafted under the notion that the viewing audience simply wants more of the same. The rural setting is probably lifted from Thomas Tryon's "The Other" while the demonic possession theme is clearly influenced by "Rosemary's Baby", "The Mephisto Waltz" and, of course, William Peter Blatty's novel "The Exorcist". But it's important to remember that this was 1972, and though far from perfect, Clouse's script is a strong example of how something derivative can also push the genre into new directions. As a haunted house thriller of sorts, the script has less in common with earlier films such as The Uninvited or The Haunting than it does with films that followed it like Burnt Offerings, The Shining, The Amityville Horror, Mario Bava's Shock and Spielberg's own Poltergeist. In fact, much of Poltergeist's plot is so similar to Something Evil that it could be argued that the one was the pencil sketch for the other. Both films revolve around children who are threatened by supernatural forces in their homes and feature mothers who have to find the inner strength in order to face the evil and save them. But in this case, the sketch version is actually the more adult of the two. Where Poltergeist was designed to be a summer roller coaster ride of shocks and special effects, Something Evil deals very seriously with the subject of evil. Not only as an abstraction in terms of devils and demons, but of the kind of evil that exists in the everyday. Near the end of the film, Marjorie locks her children in their bedroom. Talking to them through the door, she confesses that she cannot trust herself anymore, that they need to stay away from her because she isn't sure she can keep from hurting them. As great as it is, this is the horror that Stanley Kubrick failed to achieve in The Shining. The horror of a loving parent who has become a monster and that of the parent themselves who are losing their grip on reality.

The most inspired element of Clouse's script is that it doesn't play the horror directly but rather takes a cue from Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw" and presents the story in a more ambiguous fashion. It's not quite as ambiguous as the James story but there is an attempt to suggest that much of the supernatural could be the imaginings of the lonely and isolated Marjorie Worden. This characterization of Marjorie can be traced back to Rosemary Woodhouse herself and the heroine of John Hancock's Lets Scare Jessica to Death released just a year earlier. All of these women are presented as feeling somewhat inadequate in the face of their responsibilities and fear that what they might be seeing is not so much supernatural as a telltale sign of paranoia and madness.

No matter its strengths, it's not the script that makes Something Evil memorable but rather the energy and vibrance of Spielberg's direction. In 1972, Spielberg was coming off of the success of Duel and the flurry of offers from other studios to direct a theatrical feature film. But he was still bound by the original 7 year contract he signed with Universal. Forced to sit around with nothing to do, he jumped at the chance to direct Something Evil if only as a technical exercise. As opposed to Duel , whose quality a humble Spielberg claims today to be about 99 per cent the work of writer Richard Matheson, Something Evil was random, episodic, and actionless with characters that weren't very well drawn. The same script handled by a more journeyman director would've resulted in nothing more than an extended Night Gallery episode with long stretches of padding. What Spielberg does to solve this problem is to expand on the ideas in the script, to try and find visual means to express the more abstract themes of the story. Unlike Duel or even Jaws, the story had no clear antagonist, no devil with horns who jumps out of the closet. His solutions were startlingly effective and very simple.

The first thing Spielberg does is to cast the film in a very Hitchcockian manner, using typecasting to fill in the sketchy characters. The three main players are cast not only for their skills as actors but for the on-screen history they carry with them. Sandy Dennis won an Academy Award in 1966 for her role in Mike Nichols' Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. By 1972, Dennis had been typecast as an eccentric and neurotic woman and this played right into the characterization of Marjorie Worden. Darren McGavin was already Carl Kolchak in The Night Stalker and brought with him a down to earth, rational and dependable quality that would carry him through countless roles in film and TV including the holiday classic A Christmas Story where he plays yet another All-American father. Ralph Bellamy, of course, brings a long history of character performances with him and allows for a sly wink to Polanski's film version of Rosemary's Baby in which he played the sinister Dr. Sapirstein. Spielberg gets strong performances out of them all, particularly Dennis who remains sympathetic even as she becomes violent and irrational.

Spielberg stages everything in an understated manner, allowing the supernatural to emerge from the natural, whether seen as a change in the intensity or direction of the wind, the swinging of a hanging barn light, or the subtle overexposure of the windows making the inside of the Worden home look like a hellish inferno . The effect created is that of the uncanny-not of shock horror, but of something not-quite-right. Most of the visual approach to the film is classic Spielberg. Scenes are played in long takes with careful blocking of actor and camera to create a kind of ballet between foreground and background action just as you would see in all of his subsequent films. The early Spielberg was highly influenced by the cinematic techniques of John Frankenheimer and the influence can be seen here, with a very energetic editing rhythm and the use of extreme telephoto and wide angle lenses for dramatic effect. Frankenheimer's 1966 film Seconds is very interesting in this regard as much of it looks like an early Spielberg textbook.The use of the long lens in the opening teaser coupled with slow motion creates a dream-like effect. Narratively, the former owner of the Worden home is seen running from the house to the second level of the barn and sensing a presence approaching him, falls to his death. Spielberg stages it in extreme slow motion and alternates between the compression of telephoto lenses and the extreme distortion of the wide angle lens to create a sense of mystery out of the ordinary.

But the most effective sequence in the film is the night walk taken by Marjorie when she is awakened by the sound of a child crying somewhere on the property. The choice of the child's cry is particularly specific, not the wailing that might be imagined but rather a plaintive series of cries and half-heard words from a child of about two or three years old who is being teased or abused. It always sounds farther away from Marjorie and causes her to look all about the house, checking the children's room and finding them sound asleep and finally outside to the old barn. Marjorie finds no child in here but rather a very startling and oddly disturbing abstraction. Opening an old woodburning stove, she discovers what appears to be a mason jar filled with some kind of pulsating and illuminated red goo. This one visual is one of Spielberg's most effective in the film as the object returns several times later in different places in the house, each time accompanied by the cries of the child as though the two things were somehow connected. The effect is quite surreal and unlike anything Spielberg has done in his later career. It's more like something you'd find in a David Lynch or Stanley Kubrick film.

Something Evil is an unfairly forgotten film in the career of Steven Spielberg and the early 70s horror genre.As an early work by an important filmmaker, there is an honest, unjaded enthusiasm in the film that comes from youth and which Spielberg cannot compete with today. His younger self, immensely talented and armed for the first time with the facilities of a major studio, is a torrential force behind the camera. As Orson Welles once noted, the movie studio was "the biggest electric train set any boy ever had." That is, any boy obsessed with movies and with the unlimited possibilities of filmmaking.

Something Evil(Jan. 21, 1972 on CBS)
73 minutes

Production Companies Belford Productions, CBS Productions. Director Steven Spielberg. Producer Alan Jay Factor. Teleplay by Robert Clouse. Photography Bill Butler. Music Wladimir Selinsky. Editor Allan Jacobs. Art Director Albert Heschong.

Cast Sandy Dennis (Marjorie Worden), Darren McGavin (Paul Worden), Jeff Corey (Gehrmann), Ralph Bellamy (Harry Lincoln), John Rubinstein (Ernest Lincoln), Johnny Whitaker (Stevie Worden), Laurie Hagan (Beth), David Knapp (John), Debbie and Sandy Lempert (Laurie Worden), Herb Armstrong (Schiller), Margaret Avery (Irene), Norman Bartold (Hackett), Sheila Bartold (Mrs. Hackett), Lois Battle (Mrs. Faraday), Bella Bruck (Mrs. Gehrmann), Lynn Cartwright (Secretary), John J. Fox (Soundman), Alan Frost, Carl Gottlieb, John Hudkins, Crane Jackson, Michael Macready, Paul Micale, Margaret Muse, John Nolan, Bruno VeSota, Connie Hunter Ragaway, Elizabeth Rogers.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010


by Brian Holcomb

Jimmy Duke Traynor makes some bold claims on his website, including having made 114 movies in 12 years in all genres. If true, this would place him in the running for the Rainer Werner Fassbinder Marathon. He states that his filmmaking style is most often compared to Alfred Hitchcock and James Cameron, two directors whose exacting compositions and editing seem to have had no influence on Mr. Traynor. In the case of this “Bastard”, Traynor also claims to have made the movie in 32 hours without a script. It goes without saying that these two elements do not often result in watchable movies, so to say my expectations were low would be an understatement. That said, “Beat the Bastard Down” was more than watchable, and it appears that Jimmy Traynor may actually be able to stand behind his bold claims.

In “Beat the Bastard Down”, Steve Kovalic plays Phil, a fast-talking, womanizing real estate agent who appears to use his day job as a front for his sexual conquests. He is introduced teaching his friends all about the art of the pick-up, exuding great confidence about his seductive skills. Things take a turn for our hero when he makes the mistake of playing with the wrong lady, Vivian (played with an intense psycho-sexuality by Teddi Florence). She’s the boss at his real estate agency and has her own ideas of how to handle his rejection. After reading a book called, “Beat the Bastard Down” by the author of the bestseller, “Shove It up His Ass”, Vivian decides to put Phil through the ringer.

As you watch the movie, you quickly realize that not only are the production values low, they are virtually non-existent. The settings are everyday living rooms, bedrooms, and offices. The technical quality is like an entry on America’s Funniest Home Videos. Hand-held and lit with mostly available light, the digital camcorder visuals never pretend to be anything but digital video. The sound, while quite clear, is filled with ambience much like a children’s birthday party. You also quickly realize that none of these deficiencies actually matter. They are all swept up by the charm and wit of Jimmy Traynor’s storytelling and sheer enthusiasm that must be the drug that drives a man to make 114 movies in 12 years.

There is something intangible about Traynor’s direction which involves you in the plot and characters in a way most indie filmmakers fail to achieve. Traynor has a certain clarity of thought that may stem from the fast shooting schedule and loose approach. As for the boldness he displays on his website, this is also very much present onscreen. As a filmmaker, he has no fear in going from a battle of the sexes black comedy to a very intense voyeuristic thriller when Vivian’s fianc’e shows up looking to physically beat the bastard Phil down. The movie takes a turn like Jonathan Demme’s suddenly tense “Something Wild”, and does not lose its footing for a second. You get the impression that this young man knows exactly what he wants and is headed right for it.

As for the claim that the movie was improvised in 32 hours, I am sure that was true. The movie has all the marks of a swift production. But while the dialogue may have been improvised, the content of the dialogue and the construction of the plot must have been carefully thought out by the director prior to shooting. It’s way too well constructed to have been made up on the set. This is actually what impressed me most about the movie, the fact that it actually told a story and told it convincingly. Most movies, indie or otherwise fail at this miserably.

The cast is either just like these people in real life or talented actors under the hand of a strong director, because every single character is well served. Kovalic, in particular, is perfect in the lead role, talking in a rhythmic patter that sounds like David Mamet at the Improv. Fabrice Uzan and Ben Schyan are also excellent as Phil’s womanizing buddies, as are Molly Bruno and Kevin Tan, who both take out their frustrations on Phil with hilarious results.

In the end, however, the credit goes to Jimmy Traynor. The man is as bold as his word, and as a filmmaker seems to be ready to reach out to a bigger audience. Or perhaps it’s the other way around, since most of us have yet to catch up on his other 113 films.

Jimmy Traynor (director) / Jimmy Traynor (screenplay)
CAST: Steve Kovalic … Phil Samms
Teddi Florence … Vivian
Fabrice Uzan … Gerard
Ben Schyan … Dean
Sheri Cohen … Patty “Pat”
Leroy Taylor … Daryl