List: Top 10 Pre-Code Horror Films

For anyone who doesn’t know, ‘Pre-Code’ refers to a period in American film starting in 1930 and ending in 1934. While ‘Pre-Code’ suggests a time in film before the Production Code, a set of censorship guidelines created by advocate for morality Will Hays, the title is misleading. The Production Code was created in 1930 but was not enforced until 1934. Once it was, it became nearly impossible to get your film seen without being passed by the Code. But between 1930 and 1934, studios found they could get away with quite a bit, making for an entirely idiosyncratic batch of films that carried an incomparable attitude and swagger that was heavily diluted once the Code kicked in.

A number of different genres found their claim to fame within the studio system. These include but are not limited to the gangster film, female-dominated films (usually focusing in part on women’s freedom to casually sleep around without being criticized or punished for it; something entirely lost come Code enforcement), the musical and of course the horror film. Universal may be the primary studio known for their output in horror during this time, but almost all of the major studios dabbled in the genre. Pre-Code horror has a number of recurring traits; tendency towards novelistic adaptation, spill-over influence of German Expressionism, dependence on showcasing breakout stars by building films around them, streamlined run times, throwaway filler characters, prioritization of visualized atmosphere and most fun of all, a running streak of morbid sadism that prods at Pre-Code boundaries.

Note: I used a very broad use of the horror genre for this list. There are several films on this list that do not fit comfortably in the horror genre, but do contain horror in some fashion. Also, I do not like claiming ‘best’; I can only account for what I personally find to be good or bad, interesting or uninteresting.

All summaries taken from Internet Movie Database.

10. Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, Curtiz)
Studio: Warner Brothers
Summary: In London, sculptor Ivan Igor struggles in vain to prevent his partner Worth from burning his wax museum…and his ‘children.’ Years later, Igor starts a new museum in New York, but his maimed hands confine him to directing lesser artists. People begin disappearing (including a corpse from the morgue); Igor takes a sinister interest in Charlotte Duncan, fiancée of his assistant Ralph, but arouses the suspicions of Charlotte’s roommate, wisecracking reporter Florence.

When it came down to picking between this and Svengali, I realized either film could have been in this number 10 spot. What made me choose ‘Mystery’, the second Curtiz-directed two-toned Technicolor (Doctor X being the first), is that it’s a surprisingly fun ride…so much so that it sets itself apart from the other films on this list (except for number 5 but they are both such different beasts). It retains just enough for it to pass the horror test, but more importantly, it plays out like a light female-fronted detective film. Front and center is Glenda Farrell as Florence Dempsey, a firecracker of a reporter who presents herself as a hardworking ace and a casual party-goer with zingers to spare (and she can run circles around her male coworkers to boot). She may get a tad annoying from time to time, but I was impressed by how refreshing her character is even now, in that her agency drives the entire picture.

The highlights of ‘Mystery’ come from the non-horror elements; the audience is tricked into buying into one love interest, before it throws an entirely different and successful match at us in its final 30 seconds! A scene between Farrell and roommate (and catalyst for Lionel Atwill’s nefarious deeds) Fay Wray shows a casual air between two female friends that, even in its touch-and-go sparring, feels like it captures something authentic about two young women rooming together in a big city.  Between all this, there’s Lionel Atwill, who gets a much better chance to shine here than he did in Doctor X or Murders in the Zoo.

Pacing issues prevail throughout mainly because the scenes with Farrell are jarring in their rapidity when placed against anything else. But this took me by surprise; it’s underrated and more than deserves a look, and not just because this is where the origins of House of Wax lay.

9. The Most Dangerous Game (1932, Pichel)
Studio: RKO
Summary: An insane hunter arranges for a ship to be wrecked on an island where he can indulge in some sort of hunting and killing of the passengers.

A precursor to King Kong if you will, with RKO, Fay Wray and an island setting all in test-drive mode. The earliest filmed incarnation of a Battle Royale-esque concept I can think of, this is based on a 1924 short story where the humans become the hunted. As its placement here indicates, I prefer this to King Kong. Seeing the cast of characters slowly realize their predicament is well-executed. The existence of a 1932 film with this plot makes for an automatic treat. The dialogue is solid and Fay Wray is, again, divine. My big problem is that Leslie Banks as Count Zaroff does not work. He is far too artificial and hammy in his performance (even by early talkies standard) to register and this hinders the entire film.

8. Frankenstein (1931, Whale)
Studio: Universal
Summary: Horror classic in which an obsessed scientist assembles a living being from parts of exhumed corpses.

It could definitely be said that Frankenstein is a better film than a few of my higher choices. I used to place this in the same overrated pile as Dracula, but over the years I have come around on it. The source material is one of my favorite books and while the themes are truncated to the point of near evaporation (outside of the critical element of Karloff’s yearning which allows the film to ultimately work), the poor script is overcome by Whale’s glorious direction and Karloff’s magnificent performance. It says a lot that Karloff’s work makes up for the disappointing removal of his character’s ability to speak (my favorite aspect and section of the novel). How great would that have been to see with his glorious voice?

In a Gothic Literature class I wrote a response paper on the decision to change his character’s name from ‘The Creature’ as it is in the book, to ‘The Monster’ as he is represented in the film, and what it says about the thematic prioritization in each. That essential element of yearning on the part of Karloff is retained, allowing the entire film to pay-off beautifully. The famous scene in which Karloff murders the young girl is a milestone scene in Pre-Code cinema. Truncated as the film may be, it keeps the all-too important question ‘what does it mean to be human?’ and, taken as on its own terms, the film works even today.

7. The Black Cat (1934, Ulmer)
Studio: Universal
Summary: American honeymooners in Hungary are trapped in the home of a Satan- worshiping priest when the bride is taken there for medical help following a road accident.

If you need any further incentive to see this, just know that Karloff and Lugosi’s characters are named Hjalmar Poelzig and Dr. Vitus Werdegast, which serves as a hint for what you are in for. The Black Cat is a thoroughly bizarre and nonsensical trip featuring the first Karloff/Lugosi onscreen pairing and boy oh boy do they get to face-off. Their dialogue exchanges drip like a poison-tipped pen as they out-act each other. There is even a chess game with sky-high stakes. Classical music plays over almost every scene, an unheard of gesture at this point. The setting is an art director’s wet dream; an art-deco haven complete with digital clocks! And the title? The Black Cat has nothing to do with Poe; Lugosi’s character just happens to be deathly afraid of cats! Seriously; this film makes next to no sense, which is why a bit of surrender to it is necessary to appreciate it. For every bit of confusion and/or scene with the dull as doornails central couple, we are given highlights like the memorable trip into Karloff’s mausoleum containing the suspended body of Lugosi’s long-dead wife. This is one of the more twisted titles on either list.

Pre-Code Goodies: Lots. Karloff shown sleeping in the same bed as another woman (breaking the absolutely forbidden one-bed rule) and who can forget that flaying?

6. The Mummy (1932, Freund)
Studio: Universal
Summary: In 1921 a field expedition in Egypt discovers the mummy of ancient Egyptian prince Im-Ho-Tep, who was condemned and buried alive for sacrilege. Also found in the tomb is the Scroll of Thoth, which can bring the dead back to life. One night a young member of the expedition reads the Scroll out loud, and then goes insane, realizing that he has brought Im-Ho-Tep back to life. Ten years later, disguised as a modern Egyptian, the mummy attempts to reunite with his lost love, an ancient princess who has been reincarnated into a beautiful young woman.

If it isn’t clear by this point; I am a *huge* Boris Karloff fan. He was a master at his craft and one of the few actors who I would gladly watch in absolutely anything and everything he has done. He instantly elevates anything he appears in. My favorite performance of his is in 1945’s The Body Snatcher, a vastly underrated film (one that I rank up there with Cat People and The Leopard Man as far as Val Lewton produced fare goes). Just like Lon Chaney, his work goes so far beyond the makeup. That voice alone.

Getting back on track, The Mummy satisfies on every level. It has shivery moments, such as that prologue with the man-gone-mad pay-off. Karloff is all over this film barely concealing his character’s ulterior motives with a transparent soft kindliness. Then we have director Karl Freund who, in all honesty, is one of my favorite people ever to exist in the film industry. You know how some people have their favorite historical figures? Well, in the world of film history, Karl Freund is one of mine. The film moves along at a click and is consistent throughout (not something I can say for a lot of the films seen for this list, even some of the ones I really like). The leading lady here often gets overlooked but Zita Johann is a strong in both performance and character. Considering the number of other films with insufferable female leads (Mask of Fu Manchu, The Black Cat, White Zombie, Dracula, Murders in the Rue Morgue), this is a major plus. Finally, we get a short silent film within a film as a special treat.

Pre-Code Goodies: Zita Johann’s wardrobe for the climax is quite revealing.

5. The Old Dark House (1932, Whale)
Studio: Universal
Summary: Seeking shelter from a pounding rainstorm in a remote region of Wales, several travelers are admitted to a gloomy, foreboding mansion belonging to the extremely strange Femm family.

The Old Dark House is Karloff’s follow-up role to Frankenstein with both films directed by James Whale. Funnily enough, Karloff does not get much to do here. Despite top billing, he is a mute butler who I recall mainly lumbering in and out of the frame. Yet the film starts out with this little ditty written onscreen:

Producer’s Note: Karloff, the mad butler in this production, is the same Karloff who created the part of the mechanical monster in Frankenstein. We explain this to settle all disputes in advance, even though such disputes are a tribute to his great versatility.

Despite the hubbub surrounding Karloff here, and given how much of a fan of his I am, he does not factor into why this shows up on this list. What does account for its placement is that it stands out from the pack as a witty little oddity that crackles with personality and humor, while still being eerie. Whale’s atmospheric ‘old dark house’ uses creaking windows, barren hallways and dimly lit surroundings and allows it to work in tandem with the comedic elements. Our ‘ordinary’ characters find themselves at the house and are surrounded by a peculiar smorgasbord of a family. This collision between ordinary and peculiar characters makes for interactions throughout the film that are consistently weird, and that is where the humor comes into play. It’s almost like a warped sitcom at times and it’s a lot of fun. And that cast; while Karloff skulks in the background just enjoy seeing Charles Laughton, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Raymond Massey onscreen together. For a Pre-Code Horror film to have a cast filled to the brim with legitimately talented people is a one-time thing. Savor it.

4. The Invisible Man (1933, Whale)
Studio: Universal
Summary: A scientist finds a way of becoming invisible, but in doing so, he becomes murderously insane.

I will not have much to say about The Invisible Man because it has been about seven years since I’ve seen it. That I remember my reaction to the film, proclaiming it to be one of my favorites immediately upon finishing is a strong indicator for its high spot. It is the film that made me fall in love with Claude Rains, an actor who I rank among Lon Chaney, Charles Laughton, Conrad Veidt and Boris Karloff on a list of favorite classic actors. He only has his voice to get characterization across (and what a voice it is).

The effects are still impressive today as they harken back to a time where effects inspired less reactions like ‘how did they do that?’ and more reactions like ‘oh my Lord, Claude Rains is invisible!’. Rains gets himself into pretty muddy waters as he slips further and further from sanity; the joy comes from getting the progressive sense of characterization through only voice and dialogue and not sight. Just writing about what I can recall is making me realize just how badly I need to see this again.

3. Freaks (1932, Browning)
Studio: MGM
Summary: A circus’ beautiful trapeze artist agrees to marry the leader of side-show performers, but his deformed friends discover she is only marrying him for his inheritance.

What hasn’t been said about Freaks, the film that ruined director Tod Browning’s career and is now hailed by many as a masterpiece. This is a one-of-a-kind to be sure and thankfully, due to a rampant following that began many decades ago, no longer an unfairly maligned diamond in the rough. The message here is that monstrosity exists on the inside, not the outside. And in this case, the ‘freaks’ in question are kind-hearted and well-meaning souls, who have learned to take their outcast status and transform it into communal pride. The real ‘freak’ in question is the outwardly beautiful Cleopatra, played by the awesome Olga Baclanova, who manipulates, cheats and attempts murder in order to get rich from Hans (Harry Earles), a sideshow dwarf. Her fate is legendary in film history, a reveal that remains unsurpassed in its effect.

The use of people with various extreme deformities seems exploitative, and on some level of course it is. But on another more important level, Browning treats his characters with empathy and care, making their appearance something that serves as shock value only when it needs to.

2. Island of Lost Souls (1932, Kenton)
Studio: Paramount
Summary: An obsessed scientist conducts profane experiments in evolution, eventually establishing himself as the self-styled demigod to a race of mutated, half-human abominations.

If you haven’t seen Island of Lost Souls, this is the perfect time as the film was just released on Criterion Collection. I have sadly been unable to purchase it due to monetary constraints, but believe it is at the top of my to-buy list.

An adaptation of The Island of Dr. Moreau, ‘Lost Souls’ is drenched in sadistic perversity and who better to headline such a sentiment than Charles Laughton? There are so many reasons why this film is brilliant; not least that it balances questions of deeper meaning with schlocky goodness. On the one hand there are questions about the line between men and animal, does that line even exist and should we even be so bold as to test it? On the other hand there’s Kathleen Burke as ‘The Panther Woman’, a role cast in a publicized nation-wide search and man-animal amalgams on display as Moreau’s slaves are revealed to our hero Ed Parker (Richard Arlen).

The entire film is unsettling and this is exuded through Charles Laughton whose performance cannot be praised enough. He transcends the early talkie stigma and is transfixing in every shot and with every line of dialogue. Take his cruel plan to get the ‘Panther Woman’ to mate with Ed, in the hopes of breeding between one of his creations and a human. He tells her to go speak with him and as she does he watches, his eyes intent with sick voracity. It is sublimely troubling, even as a viewer, to see Laughton so desperate for control that he must be onsite at every possible moment, subtlety be damned.

Moreau’s desperate thirst for god-like control straddles his very real genius and his equally real sadistic nature. Whip-in-hand. his creations become his slaves where he rules his own world, king of his own self-built island of ‘lost souls’. Bela Lugosi has a small but pivotal role as the Sayer of the Law, leader of the animal-men. He asks the others, and the audience “Are we not men?” Devo’s answer to that is “We are Devo”. What’s yours?

1. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932, Mamoulian)
Studio: Paramount
Summary: Dr. Jekyll faces horrible consequences when he lets his dark side run wild with a potion that changes him into the animalistic Mr. Hyde.

It is necessary to appreciate how much Rouban Mamoulian was doing to experiment with the visual language of narrative film in a time where a primary concern was just getting the sound to come out right. Mamoulian, lucky enough to find a studio that encouraged his inventiveness (instead of requiring that he blend in as was done in the studio era), throws everything at the wall to see what sticks. We open with a 5 minute point-of-view shot that must have been hell to get right and stuns in technical achievement alone. Throughout, we also get innovative use of sound, following up on what he accomplished with 1929’s Applause. This goes so far beyond the limits of what could be considered stylized in a 1932 Hollywood film. But I’ll let you discover that on your own.

A really insightful scene-by-scene write-up of the film exists on a blog called And You Call Yourself a Scientist! I suggest you check it out; I read it immediately after seeing the film. I have never read the book, but there is so much that can be discussed from the adaptation choices (that I’ve read about without having read the source material), to how the visuals support the film’s deeper meanings and what those deeper meanings are. The seedy underground of London provides the backdrop as well as a contrast to decadent upper-class London. Hyde is a brute who gives into his violent urges at the expense of poor poor Miriam Hopkins who really kills it as prostitute Ivy Pearson. Her downfall is not easy to watch, especially by Pre-Code standards, because we actually feel like she has been through something severely traumatic. It may not be seen, but everything that is implied suggests humiliation, torture and rape, and it’s tragic once those implications hit the audience in the face.

The film is ambiguous as to just how much Jekyll remembers of his time as Hyde and it makes for a really active viewing from the audience. Our feelings towards him are being yanked in every direction.

What’s more is that the film uses the Pre-Code freedom in a way that revolves everything around sexual urges. In fact, its message implies that letting oneself go sexually is important. Hyde’s emergence is a result of his repression from Muriel (Rose Hobart), both of whom want to push their wedding date up assumedly so they can get at it (let’s also applaud the film’s matter-of-fact acknowledgement of female sexual urges through Muriel). The film’s ‘sexual repression isn’t good’ streak combats with the other side of the extreme; Hyde’s maniacal which clearly isn’t good either. The villains in most of these other films have other motivations of some kind, but Hyde is just pure cruelty. And what makes him so troubling is that he isn’t unhinged to the point of animal. He is calculating and brutal, and giddy about it. He is a creature operating on sadism; that this is his primary function is what makes him stand out from the crowd.

I chose this as my number one because it knocked me on my feet visually and thematically. It is filled with riches that will undoubtedly continue to reward upon repeat viewings and fantastic work from Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins.

Review: Take Shelter (2011, Nichols)

Originally posted on Criterion Cast October 25th, 2011

Warning: this review contains moderate spoilers

Jeff Nichols does not play the ‘is he or isn’t he’ game with his audience; Curtis (Michael Shannon) is succumbing to paranoid schizophrenia. We are invited to simultaneously experience events as the protagonist does, and to see the reality of the situation…at the same time. Take Shelter is an astonishing second feature by director Nichols whose first feature Shotgun Stories, plays out as pre-destined Greek tragedy. The interplay between conscious choice and being pulled further and further into something that was, on some level, always going to happen is present in both films. In Take Shelter, poor conscious decisions are made by Curtis, but he is also being helplessly dragged down by family legacies and a general feeling of doom.

Michael Shannon has rapidly made his way into being one of my favorite working actors. He is always playing with a push-and-pull between recoiled quiet and bombastic loud, and he knows how to portray a wide variety of troubled characters. He gets to be front and center in one of the year’s best performances as a man who knows what is happening to him but cannot stop it. Curtis is suffering from apocalyptic-centered dreams and hallucinations. His dreams also entail the people he knows turning against him. His wife Samantha (Jessica Chastain) remains out of the loop for a long time even though she knows something is wrong. When she does find out, it is her job to hold everything together even though it is clear everything is falling apart.

Take Shelter affected me quite heavily, mainly because it preyed on my fears and depicted them in ways that service the sad reality of the situation as opposed to the heightened subjective journey. After death, going insane might be my biggest fear. It is the suddenness of certain disorders existence that strikes me. Some of the heavier psychological disorders don’t creep their way into you; they make sudden and grandiose entrances. I have a friend who has been with someone for ten years. Everything was fine; no mental problems to speak of. Out of nowhere, he starts having urges to choke her, to hurt her and to hurt others. Next thing you know, he is admitted to a center and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He has a history of mental illness in his family, and that disorder tends to present itself in one’s twenties. They are still together and working through it, but it is something that has completely and irrevocably altered the dynamic between the two and everything they spent years building together.

The reason I tell this story is because hearing my friend tell it affected me much in the way this film did. It really gestates on the idea of a disorder going from nonexistence to rapidly coming to define a person. These things cannot be helped; at least not in their arrival, and what the film does is focus on the reality of the involuntary nature of these serious disorders. It goes without saying nobody chooses to have them; but the obviousness of that fact has prevented this facet of the topic from being explored in film as much as it should have despite the abundance of films about madness.

While the reality of the situation is a focus of the film, so is what is going on in Curtis’ head. Scare-tactic horror tropes are doled out for the dream sequences and while this felt misguided at first, the further the film engrained itself in his mind, the more it registered as the right choice (that it does not take over the film, but lends itself as one interspersed element, helps it succeed as well). One reason it was questionable at the start is there are a couple of moments that play as scares solely for the audience. These early moments have the audience seeing something Curtis does not see, meaning they exist for us. While they take up no time at all and are barely plural in number, it plays false to have things happening in his dreams that we alone experience.

Thankfully the film only does this briefly at the start; the horror tropes end up working really well. It allows a connective immediacy between the audience and Curtis. Films that depict mental instability via the subjective experience of the protagonist tend to be psychological thriller/horror fare. At its heart this is an intimate drama, but meshing genre conventions from both the horror and disaster genres give it the appropriately apocalyptic feel it needs for its metaphoric center to work.

It is always up-in-the-air whether I will get on board with a film unsubtle in the metaphor department. Financial problems loom over as heavily as the stormy clouds. Co-pays, insurance coverage, loans, expensive surgeries and lay-offs galore pop up everywhere. “Something is coming”, Curtis says. His psychological descent clearly represents the current state of America, and the film never tries to hide this. Nichols wants you to know what he is really getting at. There are a couple of reasons it works. One is that the film does not feel preachy even in its openness; in fact, its message feels necessary. No matter what your political inclinations are, it is difficult not to feel the growing sense of dread all around us. Nichols takes that familiarized feeling and translates it into a different filmic context. In that sense, Take Shelter is frightening in its resonance.

Another reason the metaphor works for me is that there are more subtle streaks that Nichols engages in that coexist with the other overt qualities (rain like motor oil anyone?). A key component of Take Shelter is that Curtis recognizes what is happening to him and still surrenders to his convictions. He checks out books on mental illness, visits his mother (Kathy Baker) to ask him questions about her psychiatric roots, and goes to a counselor. For every step he takes to acknowledge and pinpoint what is going on, he takes another step towards surrender. He takes out a loan, steals equipment from work, gives away his dog, builds the tornado shelter and asks for his good friend Dewart (the excellent Shea Whigham, who can also be seen on “Boardwalk Empire” every week) to be taken off his crew after a troubling dream. It is the knowing what is happening but not being able to stop it that not only makes the film alarming as a straight piece of storytelling, but it supports the metaphor by supplying the powerlessness of the average man.

It is worth mentioning the beguiling ending which drives home the primary metaphoric motivation by having the courage to make a metaphor literal in its final moments. Looking at it in this context, it is not really beguiling at all, but it still leaves your head spinning after leaving the theater. It may undo some of what had been built up with Curtis by ending in this way, but it is the sacrifice it makes for a bold move that will stay with you no matter where you stand on it.

Take Shelter works on its two operating levels; a very intimate drama about a man whose family legacies catch up with his mental state while his wife desperately tries to keep everything from falling apart, and a metaphor for our current economic climate. It may manifest itself openly, but it works hauntingly well because of Nichols’ precision and ability to have his film make its mark in more ways than one. Michael Shannon brings all of this together with his portrait of a man whose paranoia initiates a series of poor decisions that damage everyone around him. He makes us understand why he makes these decisions, and while we cannot stop him from doing so, we sure as hell wish we could.

List: 11 Horror Film Double Features

Hey folks! This is going to be short and sweet. There are endless pairings of horror films one could come up with, and many who could do a much better job than me. I mostly picked films that don’t qualify as creative choices; it was a quick and easy list. Here is  a sampling of some potential horror film double features that I think would work great together. It is intended to be introductory more than anything else and a lot of my favorite horror films don’t show up here (because I have quite a bit of them). More importantly, I’d love to hear from all of you what horror films would work well together.

Again…broad uses of horror. They don’t need to be horror films, but rather films with elements of the genre and/or ripe for good seasonal Halloween viewings.

Eyes without a Face (1960)/Diabolique (1955)
Two French films from the same era that are as incredible now as they must have been back then. Suspenseful and grotesque in equal measure. And with actresses like Simone Signoret, Vera Clouzot, Alida Valli and Edith Scob….need I go on?

Dead Alive (1992)/Re-Animator (1985)
Two films that combine horror and comedy seamlessly, both achieving a ‘where has this been all my life’ immediacy that kicks in and stays with you for a long time. Both will drown you in pure entertainment. They have memorable characters, absurd situations, gross-out gore and are impeccably crafted. I know most reading this will have likely seen these two films and I wonder if any have tried this double feature out before? I really need to someday.P.S. Jeffrey Combs crush may be a side effect of Re-Animator.

The Man Who Laughs (1928)/Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928)
Tragic silent films about clowns who are head over heels in  love with beautiful but unattainable women. Okay so both films are not really horror films at their core, but they are frightfully creepy. Laugh, Clown, Laugh had a tremendous impact on me; I saw it when I first started seriously watching older films. It was my first Lon Chaney film and he’s been a favorite ever since. Conrad Veidt is another personal favorite and these are two of the best performances from the silent era. And even so, Olga Baclanova almost steals the film out from under Veidt in The Man Who Laughs. Both will leave you profoundly sad and chilled. Oh and I’ll use this opportunity to plug the recently seen The Last Circus in here as a potential triple feature; on some level it’s indescribable.

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)/Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Robert Aldrich directed these films that feature former Hollywood stars in their later years camping it up in a big way. Gothic sensibility permeate through the air as we see truly fucked-up situations come to light as we reap in the joy of seeing them played out by veterans of the silver screen. If you haven’t seen Baby Jane but know of its reputation, you will be surprised that it manages to surpass its hype as a cruelly messed up piece of work. Yet, I almost find (from what I remember) Hush Hush to be more consistently gripping. Both are must-see’s regardless. What a way to spend an afternoon in the company of these thespians.

Night of the Hunter (1955)/Cape Fear (1962)
Reason? Why, Robert Mitchum of course! It has been a really long time since seeing these two films. While Cape Fear excels as a top-notch thriller of its kind, Night of the Hunter moves beyond, achieving a poetic vision that gets some really sinister stuff across in really complicated ways. Mitchum remains terrifying to this day, without losing an ounce of effectiveness as time has past.

Memories of Murder (2003)/Zodiac (2007)
These are two crime films that play with elements of horror in content, as well as the overwhelming true-story factor and that (spoiler alert) neither killer was ever caught. I could go on and on and on about Memories of Murder and how it uses symbolic pratfall (first time ever?) and tells a story of false conclusions, dead-ends and inept detective work to weave a film that has way too much going on in it to discern from a first viewing. It really is about detectives not catching a killer. Similarly, Zodiac depicts a series of false starts, but throw in some paranoia, looming dread and the Fincher-fashioned world of disturbia, and you’ve got an equally memorable work.

Perfect Blue (1997)/Black Swan (2010)
Everyone should watch the work of the late great Satoshi Kon. I cannot quite piece together how I feel about Perfect Blue, having seen it a long time ago and expecting something different (in need for a rewatch), but it would make a great companion piece to Black Swan. Both showcase characters as they descend into some form of delusional insanity or mental collapse. Where Black Swan allows the audience to understand the reality of what is happening to Nina even if we see it through her delusions, with Perfect Blue, Mima’s (wow those names are similar), descent is a lot more ambiguous to the viewer. So they make for two similar but really very different experiences.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)/Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Horror musicals from the 70’s!!!! If you haven’t seen Phantom of the Paradise; see it. Now. Thankfully it has a large following, but more need to see it. It may not be entirely consistent but it’s an underrated take on glam complete with Paul Williams……PAUL WILLIAMS as a Satanic record producer!!!!! I repeat; Paul Williams as a Satanic record producer. This is gold people. Gold! And not only are we graced with his presence but he wrote the music for the film. There are songs from this film I listen to on a daily basis. Then, if that weren’t enough, we get William Finley who basically could be Donald Sutherland’s freaky deaky cousin in one of the most memorable characters in a film from this list. Additionally Phantom has Jessica Harper, some really fun Brian De Palma direction and a wacky take on Phantom of the Opera. Just see it. Oh and there’s Rocky Horror Picture Show which I in no way need to explain.

Don’t Look Now (1973)/Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)
I am going out on a limb to say Donald Sutherland, despite being considered a great actor, is underrated. Or maybe it’s just that it took me a long time to truly appreciate him. It was while watching Invasion that I realized how much be brings to any scene. It’s uncommon what he can do with dialogue of any quality. I don’t know how many actors working today have this capability. These are two of my favorite films, with the latter being a recent first viewing. Nicolas Roeg has this kitsch vibe going here (as with all his films both the ones I consider among my favorites of all time and the ones I could not connect with) that is elegantly passive. Nothing much happens in it and it manages to transfix despite that. It’s an amazing use of Venice and it taps into this all-too understandable feeling that something is wrong. You can’t put your finger on it but something is just plain wrong. Something is happening and whatever it is it isn’t good. Both films get this across, and this feeling of paranoia is displayed so well in both films using different means. Let’s get the Donald Sutherland’s ass being the element of horror joke out of the way. It’s old. Move on. In all honesty, a film being unafraid or unashamed to feature average male nudity without the intended context of humor is refreshing to this day. When is that done even now? Philip Seymour Hoffman in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead is the only recent example I can think of…for an English-language film at least. OK; irrelevant rant over. On a final note, the ends of both of these films would rank in a Top 5 Scariest Film Endings list.

Killer Condom (1996)/Teeth (2008)
A Troma film about a gay detective hunts down a carnivorous condom and a film about a young girl with vagina dentata. Both contain humor, it goes without saying that the former does much more so than the latter. Teeth does a balancing act in that it is darkly funny at times but still manages to take itself seriously, and actually succeed in doing so, with a high-concept plot that sounds  a comedy. In fact, Teeth is more than a little close to being a feminist horror film and for that, and its stunning lead performance by Jess Weixler, I love it.

The Company of Wolves (1984)/Ginger Snaps (2000)
Speaking of feminist horror films, cases for the claim could be made for both of these films. The former has Angela Carter collaborating with Neil Jordan on an adaptation of her own short story, a feminist reworking of Little Red Riding Hood. They construct an elaborate artificial dreamworld where symbolism is everywhere and unconventional structure reigns as stories fold in and out of each other. Ginger Snaps also captures that hardship of female adolescence. I hadn’t been expecting much from this, for whatever reason, but it knocked me off my feet.

List: Pre-Code Horror – the 9 Films That Didn’t Make the Cut

Anyone who has experience with Pre-Code films knows how much fun they are. A treasure trove of gems waiting to be discovered with plenty of iconic works to be found, as well as plenty that remain underrated. For anyone who does not know, ‘Pre-Code’ refers to a period in American film starting in 1930 and ending in 1934. While ‘Pre-Code’ suggests a time in film before the Production Code, a set of censorship guidelines created by advocate for morality Will Hays, the title is misleading. The Production Code was created in 1930 but was not enforced until 1934. Once it was, it became nearly impossible to get your film seen without being passed by the Code. But between 1930 and 1934, studios found they could get away with quite a bit, making for an entirely idiosyncratic batch of films that carried an incomparable attitude and swagger that was heavily diluted once the Code kicked in.

A number of different genres found their claim to fame within the studio system. These include but are not limited to the gangster film, female-dominated films (usually focusing in part on women’s freedom to casually sleep around without being criticized or punished for it; something entirely lost come Code enforcement), the musical and of course the horror film. Universal may be the primary studio known for their output in horror during this time, but almost all of the major studios dabbled in the genre. Pre-Code horror has a number of recurring traits; tendency towards novelistic adaptation, spill-over influence of German Expressionism, dependence on showcasing breakout stars by building films around them, streamlined run times, throwaway filler characters, prioritization of visualized atmosphere and most fun of all, a running streak of morbid sadism that prods at Pre-Code boundaries.

I watched a lot of films for the first time for this list and there is a reason I wanted a blog post entirely dedicated to the films that would not be making the cut for my Top 10 Pre-Code Horror list. Film history tends to centralize itself on a select group of key films that have been analyzed and iconized to death. I don’t mind great films being discussed to the point of overkill, but it means a heaping pile of works get very much ignored altogether. The attention paid to horror films during this time period focus almost, but not quite, exclusively on the Universal films. You will find that three of the films many would expect to make the top ten actually show up here.

My opinions on the films that did not make the cut have a wide range from the enjoyable to the ghastly. Many of the films here are not very good, but I wanted to bring all Pre-Code horror into the spotlight and not just focus on my favorites. Indeed, there are films in here I would whole-heartedly recommend, that I tried hard to get on the list. There are films on here with fantastical moments that alone make a viewing worthwhile. And there are a couple of duds.

Note: I used a very broad use of the horror genre for this list. There are several films on this list that do not fit comfortably in the horror genre, but do contain horror in some fashion. Also, these are not in order and, as with every list I make and post, a declaration of subjectivity. I do not like claiming ‘best’; I can only account for what I personally find to be good or bad, interesting or uninteresting.

The Top 10 list will be posted before Halloween.

All summaries are taken from the Internet Movie Database

Doctor X (1932, Curtiz)
Studio: Warner Brothers
Summary: A wisecracking New York reporter intrudes on a research scientist’s quest to unmask The Moon Killer.

The two-toned Technicolor Doctor X cannot shake some necessary table-setting in its first half or its unfunny and uncharismatic reporter character played by Lee Tracy. It is largely saved by a surprising second half that goes in unexpected directions and contains a scene that preludes Carpenter’s The Thing, by having a scene that gathers its suspects and renders them frantically immobile as Doctor X seeks out the Moon Killer. Fay Wray gets to display some sass, even if her character is incapable of defending herself in the most basic way, as shown by a scene that has her being choked. Doctor X is worth watching but it really slogs through its first half too much.

Pre-Code Goodies – When the killer is revealed, we get to see his use of synthetic flesh as he rubs it all over himself in a genuinely WTF scene.

Dracula (1931, Browning)
Studio: Universal
Summary: The ancient vampire Count Dracula arrives in England and begins to prey upon the virtuous young Mina.

Here is the first of the ‘biggies’ not to make the cut. Truthfully I have always found, despite being a fan of Browning’s, this version of Dracula dull, hokey and overrated. Browning is no stranger to creating good atmosphere through his expertise gained during the silent era. He creates an appropriately heavy Gothic air, but is brought down by a weak adaptation that does not stand the test of time (can it even considered good in 1931?). Dracula is not bad; it is just difficult to separate it from the status it has gained throughout the years and feel anything but underwhelmed. Bela Lugosi can be good, but I have come to realize I am not much of a fan. While Lugosi possesses a persona that stands out, his acting ability feels too samey to register as anything but overdone; I simply do not get much out of watching him act onscreen. I have read Stoker’s novel twice and all I can see in this Dracula is a fun but schlocky lead performance that in no way scares, a multitude of unmemorable and dull characters and a notably effective atmosphere.

King Kong (1933, Cooper and Schoedsack)
Studio: RKO
Summary: A film crew goes to a tropical island for an exotic location shoot and discovers a colossal giant gorilla who takes a shine to their female blonde star.

This is another choice I expect to get slack for and also a choice that does not comfortably qualify as horror. Unlike Dracula, I really like King Kongt; its reason for not making the cut is as simple as there being ten other films I prefer over it. I also count myself as one of the few who resolutely like Jackson’s 2005 remake more; seeing it three times in the theater is proof of that. What satisfies about King Kong is its inventiveness in plot, ambition in scope, and the technical spectacle of it all. Not to mention Fay Wray, who is always wonderful. The characters manage to pop within their archetypes and the decision to make Kong a victim more than anything else is a kind of ambiguity that is not often found in early cinema; all the more impressive that this is accomplished through innovative effects.

Kongo (1932, Cowen)
Studio: MGM
Summary: This remake of West of Zanzibar made four years later tries to outdo the Lon Chaney original in morbidity. From a wheelchair a handicapped white man rules an area of Africa as a living god. He rules the local natives through superstition and stage magic and he rules the few white people through sadism, keeping them virtual prisoners. He lives for the day he can avenge himself horribly on the man who stole his wife and crushed his spine.

To say Kongo is a horror film is more than a stretch, but I defy anyone who has seen it to decry its inclusion on this list. I would absolutely urge anyone and everyone to seek this out. It remains to me an even more shocking film than Freaks, if only for its subject matter and the direct way it is presented. There may be much better films, but this needs to be seen to be believed. This is a sweaty, grimy, slimy and emphatically uncomfortable film that is loaded with sin, torture and elaborate revenge decades in the making. If only it had not been a stiff and stagy experience. More than a remake of Browning’s earlier Chaney collaboration, this is an adaptation of the stage play Kongo with Walter Huston reprising his role as the despicable ‘Deadlegs’ Flint.

Kongo takes place in an isolated and distorted environment within the used sets of Red Dust. The natives think he is a king with mystical power. He has a greased up lover named Tula played by Lupe Velez whose costume stays on her for reasons unknown to me, outside of a fuzzy theory I have relating to sheer tightness. Lula sleeps with every man on the island and almost has her tongue cut out with wire. Yep; that is what Velez gets to work with here. We’ve got a drug-addicted doctor whose schizophrenic nature ends up being filtered into romantic lead material. Who knew? Only in Pre-Code folks. We’ve got stereotypical gullible black natives up the wazoo; there really is no shame here.

The really shocking stuff (as if the above weren’t enough) comes with the Virginia Bruce character who gives a remarkable performance. She plays the daughter of the man who crippled ‘Deadlegs’. He has custody of her, spends eighteen years allowing her to grow up in a convent and then upon her visit, changes her life radically for the sake of it. The film uses passage of time in a notable way. We expect to see her initial visit with ‘Deadlegs’ after a scene that introduces her character within the boarding school before she goes to see him. We then skip years ahead and see Bruce; she is trapped, a desperate alcoholic entirely dependent on the cruelty of ‘Deadlegs’  to get her fix. She has been forced in what can only be deduced as forced prostitution. This is subject matter American film would not touch for decades.

A third-act twist really misdirects the characters and their motivations in a false way. The film was released through the Warner Archive and is also available on Youtube. It is a film that suffers for its flaws but is more than worth watching.

Pre-Code Goodies: Too many to name, but I cannot forget to mention that Virginia Bruce’s right breast briefly pops out of her blouse in what was surely unintentional but nevertheless kept in.

The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932, Brabin)
Studio: MGM
Summary: Englishmen race to find the tomb of Genghis Khan. They have to get there fast, as the evil genius Dr. Fu Manchu is also searching, and if he gets the mysteriously powerful relics, he and his diabolical daughter will enslave the world!

I could say the downfall of Mask of Fu Manchu lies in its blatant racism, but it isn’t. We are removed enough from 1932 to see the racism here as something akin to a novelty relic or an object of fascination worthy of study. It is truly offensive but in fact, Boris Karloff and Myrna Loy as a sadistic father-and-daughter team who want to wipe out the white race, is the best thing about this film. Between the ludicrously reductive traits of Eastern culture represented, the outlandish equipment housed in Karloff’s abode and the aforementioned two performances, this is fun stuff in spurts as long as you don’t take it seriously.

Everything outside of these scenes falls flat thanks to a shrill heroine who is useless and badly performed with insufferable mania by Karen Morley, a lackluster pace and a host of good-guy characters it is impossible to care about.

Pre-Code Goodies: Loy in an early uncharacteristic role as sadistic daughter gets the best and most Pre-Code worthy sequence. Terry (Charles Starrett) has been captured and Karloff lets Loy do what she will with him. She has him whipped as she looks on with feverish joy shouting ‘Faster!’. It is clear she is getting pleasure out of this. She then has him taken to her room where he lays there weak and helpless and she kisses him. Who knows where that scene was headed before Karloff comes in and interrupts her? It is all too easy to assume. It’s a scene that belongs in a vault titled “Examples of what Pre-Code could get away with”. Blatantly violent sadism within a woman? Whoa now. Granted, Loy’s character is an evil Easterner, but its presence is surprising enough.

Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932, Florey)
Studio: Universal
Summary: In 19th Century Paris, the maniacal Dr. Mirakle abducts young women and injects them with ape blood in an attempt to prove ape-human kinship…

‘Murders’ has Lugosi second-billed here to Sidney Fox (presumably because of her apparent trysts with Carl Laemmle Jr…..and Sr…yikes) in a role that is successfully in sync with his hammy onscreen approach. This is a fun trek through the underbelly of 19th century Paris with soaked expressionistic direction by Florey as well as being beautifully shot by the great Karl Freund. Well worth the watch, it features a good dosage of surprising material as well as grandiose monologues from Lugosi about man and ape.

There is some lurid material here as well such as an ape assaulting a human, a body being stuffed up a chimney, a prostitute being injected with a syringe while tied to a cross. This is one of the more consistently solid films on here.

Pre-Code Goodies: Everything mentioned above. That scene with the prostitute on the cross is chilling and evocative in use of shadow, and a general feeling of raw exhaustive hopelessness coming from the actress that stands out amongst any other scene featuring a woman in peril during this time (except in one case, in a film which will show up on the actual list), in that it feels real.

Murders in the Zoo (1933, Sutherland)
Studio: Paramount
Summary: A monomaniacal zoologist is pathologically jealous of his beautiful but unfaithful wife Evelyn and will not stop short of murder to keep her.

Between the poster and the summary I know what you are thinking; this sounds awesome. Unfortunately it’s not. Despite a few delightfully grisly moments (one of which is downright shocking for its time), Murders in the Zoo is brought down by none other than…Charles Ruggles….lots of Charles Ruggles. Ruggles gets the confounding honor of top-billing instead of Lionel Atwill. He plays a public relations type who gets to do his stuttering imbecilic fool act for what feels like eternity and what is actually a significant chunk of a film with a runtime of just over an hour. Lionel Atwill does what he can with what could have been a proper scenery-chewing character. Between his screen time being monopolized by Ruggles and that the camera never successfully attaches itself to Atwill, he is a missed opportunity here.

It is a joy though to see Kathleen Burke, of Island of Lost Souls fame, in a radically different part from said film. Her exoticism and piercing gaze make her stand out. The film has an ingeniously camp concept but while it is entertaining in spurts, it mostly falls flat.

Pre-Code Goodies: The opening scene features a man with his mouth sown shut. You read that right people. Atwill himself does the job as he says “You’ll never kiss another man’s wife again”. We’ve also got a jarring matter-of-fact death by crocodile pit and we see a snake strangle a character to death. I am sorry to report that the character is not played by Charles Ruggles. The opening scene takes place immediately after a witty opening credits sequence that pairs the actors with various animals. It’s a transition filled with dark humor.

Svengali (1931, Mayo)
Studio: Warner Brothers
Summary: Through hypnotism and telepathic mind control, a sinister music maestro controls the singing voice, but not the heart, of the woman he loves

If I could have had eleven films on my eventual list, this would have been my eleventh choice. A film that never quite gets a pace going and features dull dialogue is nevertheless a treasure of sorts. It is ahead of its time featuring the kind of low-angle shot featuring ceilings that Citizen Kane became known for doing eleven years before the fact. It has an ambitious and conscious effort to start as a lighter fare, shifting into morbid territory before a last shift into tragedy. It never becomes a horror film but contains elements of the genre. It has a performance from John Barrymore that combines his stagy background with his experience in silent film to create an expressionistic performance that matches Anton Grot’s minimalist expressionist art direction. Lastly it contains the teenage Marian Marsh, who may not be able to bring much depth to her role, but who has a certain quality with her sincere spunkiness that rivals the best of iconic screen presences.

Lastly, I cannot forget to mention a shot that takes place midway through the film. It starts on Svengali’s eyes and zooms out through the window into the miniature cityscape, whips around and zooms into the window of Marsh’s bedroom as Svengali begins his hypnotic control over her from across the city. It cannot be overstated. This is the crowning cinematographic technical achievement from any film on this list or the actual Top Ten list. This is a film that I sadly had not heard of before doing research for this list. It has moderate flaws but should be seen by anyone with an interest in early sound cinema.

Pre-Code Goodies: Through his hypnosis, Svengali makes Marsh pose nude for some artists in order to get rid of her live interest.

White Zombie (1932, Halperin)
Studio: United Artists
Summary: A young man turns to a witch doctor to lure the woman he loves away from her fiance, but instead turns her into a zombie slave.

This is the only film on this entire list I just plain hate. Sorry folks. It is a wasteland of a film containing a memorable use of music and a few noteworthy shots. That it is considered the first zombie film is not enough. The supporting performances are some of the worst ever in film. It is rigid and awkward in blocking. White Zombie has a reputation that is staggering to me. It makes me feel like I was watching a different film entirely.

Screening Log: October 1st-15th 2011

I’ve decided to add B+/B, etc. variations to my grades. The grades are meant to be arbitrary and serve mainly as a reminder to myself how I (very roughly and reductively) felt about a film on a letter grade scale. Since I never mean them as any kind of stamp, I feel there is no harm in slightly varying up the grade options.

283. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil (2011, Craig): B+/B

284. Martin (1977, Romero): B-

285. 50/50 (2011, Levine): B+/B

286. The Black Cat (1934, Ulmer): B

287. Inside (2007, Bustillo & Maury): A-

288. Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932, Florey): C+

289. The Mummy (1932, Freund): B+

290. Kongo (1932, Cowen): C+

291. The Howling (1981, Dante): C

292. The Ides of March (2011, Clooney): B-/C+

293. The Innocents (1961, Clayton): A

294. Murders in the Zoo (1933, Sutherland): C+

295. The Raven (1935, Landers): B

296. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, Mamoulian): A

297. Dead of Night (1945, various): A-/B+

298. The Tingler (1959, Castle): B+/B

299. Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2011, Tsui): B/B-

300. The Golem (1920, Wegener): C-

301. Shotgun Stories (2007, Nichols): B

302. Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, Curtiz): B+/B

303. Pontypool (2008, McDonald): A-

Review: The Ides of March (2011, Clooney)

Originally posted on Criterion Cast October 11th, 2011:

It is difficult to pinpoint why The Ides of March never quite had me in its grip. All of the elements are there with across-the-board talent working on the production. And yet while it has been overall well-reviewed, I take issue with several criticisms against it, which will be addressed forthwith. It is more than watchable and never a drag, but it is bogged down by various misgivings. These include an arguably miscast lead with Gosling’s protagonist instilling only indifference in yours truly. The story carries no impact by its conclusion, never escaping the inherent trappings of fiction and ultimately feeling artificial. The Ides of March is serviceable but forgettable, unable to establish itself in the pantheon of political thrillers outside of nicely showcasing the influence of those that came before.

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is a young and ambitious Junior Campaign Manager, who happens to truly believe in Mike Morris (George Clooney), a Governor and Democratic dream candidate full of lofty and grand statements (he comes complete with overt Shepard Fairey inspired artwork). The film takes place in Ohio as time closes in on the Democratic Primary. Morris competes with an Arkansas senator for the slot. When Stephen gets a call from the opposing candidate’s campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) who wants to meet with him, he grapples whether or not to go and whether he should tell co-worker, Morris’ campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man with a fierce streak of loyalty. Meanwhile, a budding romance with young intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) has consequences of its own. Stephen’s choices allow him to see firsthand that nefarious backstabbing, betrayal, hidden agendas, manipulation and deal making are just an everyday occurrence in the world of politics.

Clooney’s Lumet-like directorial approach values logically streamlined presentation. He smartly focuses on the interplay between characters that are rooted in history, feeling lived-in with all-encompassing cynicism radiating from all the major players. The writer of “Farragut North”, the play The Ides of March is based on, and screenwriters Clooney and Grant Heslov, make sure we feel the years entrenched between people who know how the game is played. Paul and journalist Ida (Marisa Tomei) are ‘friends’ but know that they will turn on each other at any second for any reason. Not only can you not trust anyone, but all the years of hard work are bittersweet because in this world, you are instantly replaceable. Our understanding of this is what transfers to the audience more than anything. Considering one of the film’s major purposes is to showcase the ‘behind-the-curtain’ interplay in politics, it is the highlight of the film.

Some are annoyed that the political corruption in the film is meant to be revelatory, stating that we are meant to be shocked when it is revealed that—surprise!—politics are dirty. The Ides of March never struck me as meaning to be revelatory. The film is advertised as a political thriller (somewhat misleading but the point remains). Blaming a ‘political thriller’ for posing revelatory through corruption is like chastising an action film for daring to showcase something as predictable as a car chase. The film presents corruption as very matter-of-fact and its job is to keep us engaged even though the audience senses the kinds of tropes that will likely come into play. This is where the film fails to deliver.

While The Ides of March is not meant to be revelatory, it is meant to get the audience to feel the cynical reality of its world like a punch in the gut. Yet because the plot feels artificial, it ends up being inconsequential. The turns the film takes should not, in theory, have been a hard sell. The story treks along, and goes where it needs to go, but the twists and choices being made never click. It always feels strung along in a paint-by-numbers way, where things merely happen because the script says they have to. What the film does want to have it gravitas and it only does when Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti are on screen. Only when these two appear does the film feel like it has the weight the loftily epic title suggests.

The film rests on Ryan Gosling’s shoulders and a combination of miscasting, lack of believability and uninteresting protagonist are large contributors to this film not quite working. Performance wise, it is difficult to believe Gosling as a doe-eyed idealist in the beginning, making it hard to care about his arc, which brings him to some surprising places. The second half of the film demands from him a wide teary-eyed panic stare of disbelief in scene after scene which becomes tiresome.

All in all, Stephen is just not very engaging and the audience caring about his transformation is essential. The choice to have his arc forgo a gradual process, favoring a 180 degree turn in one scene has a lot of potential, as long as the film can make the audience believe it. Since the prelude of Stephen’s journey does not resonate, how can we care about the severity of his survival-mode choices we suddenly see him making?

There are several issues involving the Gosling character that undermine the film’s plausibility. The first is that the decision Stephen makes early in the film to meet with Tom Duffy rings absolutely false. In Hoffman’s speech on loyalty (the film’s best scene), he speculates on why Stephen made what he so precisely calls a ‘choice’ as opposed to Stephen’s claim of making a ‘mistake’. I do not buy into his speculations. Stephen is not some new kid on the block. He is an experienced up-and-coming campaign manager. When the opponent’s campaign manager calls up and asks for a meeting, you simply do not go. There is nothing we see of Stephen before this decision is made to make us understand the choice. This event sets everything in motion, and since it rings false, as a result the whole film rings false. Let’s not even mention that the entire film takes place within around three days.

The Ides of March features wonderful support from all. George Clooney’s small role carries the right levels of elusiveness in an eerily appropriate bit of self-casting. Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood are both excellent, particularly Wood who does a lot with somewhat constricting and unbelievable material.

Another complaint that keeps popping up in reviews is the lament that the films dialogue was not characteristic of Mamet or Sorkin. I do not know when it became necessary for a film’s dialogue to need an auteurs streak in order to be smart. The dialogue taken on its own is quite strong, and it is characteristic of Clooney’s Lumet-inspired desire to not have any distracting style whether it is in directorial choices or writing and so on.

Despite smart dialogue, sleek succinct direction and a bevy of noteworthy performances, The Ides of March feels inconsequential. Between an air of going through the motions and a protagonist whose choices ring false from the get-go, headlined by a performance that feels inappropriately distant, the film never gets past serviceable.

Poll Results: Most Anticipated October Film Release

The poll results are in and there are definitely several strong contenders that voters seem to be most eagerly anticipating. I have a few planned posts coming up this month that I would like to shamefully advertise. The first is a review for The Ides of March which will be posted within a couple of days. October is always an exciting month for me as I love horror films. Every year I’d like to post a couple of horror related pieces. Hopefully next year I will feel somewhat ready to post a massive list of personal genre favorites. This month I will be focusing on Pre-Code horror. There will be a list including blurbs on all the films that do not make the cut. Something I have noticed in my viewings is that while the product as a whole tends to underwhelm (in some cases), there are always moments and/or aspects that stand out. The second horror related post I will make is a fun list of potential double features featuring pairs of horror films that I think would compliment each other in some way.

Without further ado, here are your results. Surprised? Pleased? Appalled? Share your thoughts!



8 votes – 23% – The Ides of March
7 votes – 20% – Martha Marcy May Marlene
5 votes – 14% – Take Shelter
5 votes – 14% – The Skin I Live In
4 votes – 11% – The Rum Diary
1 vote – 3% – The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence
1 vote – 3% – Sleeping Beauty
1 vote – 3 % – Real Steel
1 vote – 3% – The Thing
1 vote – 3% – Texas Killing Fields
1 vote – 3% – Johnny English Reborn

0 votes – Dirty Girl, Footloose, Fireflies in the Garden, The Big Year, Trespass, Margin Call, Retreat, Le Havre, The Three Musketeers, Anonymous, 13, The Double, In Time

Screening Log: September 15th-September 30th

268. Talk to Her (2002, Almodovar): A

269. Drive (2011, Refn): A

270. Word Wars (2004, Chaikin & Petrillo): B-

271. 42 Up (1998, Apted): A

272. Save the Green Planet! (2003, Jang): B

273. Meek’s Cutoff (2011, Reichardt): B+

274. If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front (2011, Curry & Cullman): C+

275. Red State (2011, Smith): D+

276. Attack the Block (2011, Cornish): B

277. Kill, Baby…Kill (1966, Bava): B+

278. White Zombie (1932, Halperin): D

279. Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011, Durkin): A-

280. Them (Ils) (2006, Moreau & Palud): B

281. Island of Lost Souls (1932, Kenton): A

282. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Kaufman): A