What began as a project with the intended audience of two has rightly become a theatrical release because De Palma – a documentary on the polarizing filmmaker – can’t help but mesmerize.
Directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow lovingly roll camera while seasoned filmmaker Brian De Palma, now 75-years-old, walks us through his catalog. He shares anecdotes, talks candidly about successes and failures, and complains about the studio system. All of this is intriguing, but it’s the documentarians’ clear admiration for De Palma’s style, and the filmmaker’s charismatic presence as he articulates his craft, that make this film fascinating.
Baumbach and Paltrow juxtapose moments from De Palma’s films with images from other, related works – most predictably and illustratively, Hitchcock’s. While De Palma has never shied away from his obsession with Hitch, the doc allows him to expound on his both his fascination and his reasons and strategies for using the cinematic vocabulary Hitchcock created.
De Palma’s career has been scattershot at best, four decades littered with artistic peaks and valleys (Carlito’s Way versus Bonfire of the Vanities) as well as box office successes and flops (Mission: Impossible versus Casualties of War).
Movie buffs will love the candor and in-the-know stories from a man who came up with a bunch of scruffy new directors including Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese. De Palma passed the script for Taxi Driver on to his buddy Marty thinking it was more up his alley; meanwhile, he and Lucas auditioned for Carrie and Star Wars simultaneously – same actors, same auditions, same time.
But for true cinefiles, it’s his talk of technique that will compel. Why the long tracking shots? When and why do split screens work? What is he looking for in a score and how does he achieve it?
There are so many other topics picked at because, love him or hate him, De Palma is a director with such a quirky, brazen style that the potential for analysis is almost unending. The one topic he seems a bit too canny about concerns criticisms that his films are preoccupied with sexual violence against women, a topic he shrugs off. And though Baumbach and Paltrow slyly pair the filmmaker’s words with an image of an 18” drill bit, shot from between a man’s legs as it penetrates his nubile victim, they do not press De Palma with follow up questions. Disappointing.
But it’s a rare misstep in a film that manages to capture so much from De Palma as a film historian, a Hollywood insider, and an iconic American director and storyteller.
We’re on a music kick. Last week we looked at the best rock star horror movies, so it seemed only natural to move on to the best horror musicals this week. At our house, this particular sub-genre might serves as a kind of bridge between the two of us, since Hope generally hates musicals while George appreciates them. And though it is true that Hope can find some love in her heart for a musical with a side of bloodletting, it turns out that George only likes actually good musicals. Which is to say, they disagree a bit on this list.
Dude, 1974 must have been nuts. Brian De Palma’s first and only musical is a Phantom of the Opera/Faust/The Picture of Dorian Gray mash up (with some Frankenstein, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and more than a little Rocky Horror thrown in for good measure). That’s a heady mix, and while the film was nominated for an Oscar for its music, it isn’t exactly the classic you might expect.
A campy skewering of the soulless music industry, Phantom sees tiny Seventies staple Paul Williams as the Satan-esque Swan, a music executive with a contract for you to sign. Poor Winslow (William Finley) is just as wide-eyed about his music as all those would-be starlets are about their chances for fame and fortune in this evil world of pop super stardom.
Like many horror musicals, the film works best as a comedy, but Finley’s garish visage once he makes his transformation from idealistic musician to mutilated Phantom is pretty horrifically effective. The film as a whole is a hot Seventies mess, but that’s kind of the joy of it, really.
4. House (Hausu) (1977)
If Takashi Miike’s Happiness of the Katakuris were to marry Pee-wee’s Playhouse, this would be their offspring.
A spoof of sorts, Hausu tells the story of six uniform-clad high school girls named Gorgeous, Fantasy, Sweet, Melody, Kung Fu, and Mac. The nomenclature alone should clue you in on the film’s lunacy. The giggling sextet spend spring break at an aunt’s spooky house – or, in fact, a cheaply made set of an aunt’s spooky house. Not a single thing that follows makes sense, nor is it really meant to.
Expect puppets, random musical sequences, remarkably bad backdrops, slapstick humor, and an amazingly sunny disposition given the sheer volume of human dismemberment. The trippy nonsense wears a bit thin eventually. Luckily director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s film clocks in at under 90 minutes, so the screen goes dark before the novelty wears off.
3. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007)
Here’s a bizarre idea for a musical: The barber upstairs kills his clients and the baker downstairs uses the bodies in her meat pies. Odd for a Broadway musical, yes, but for a Tim Burton film? That sounds a little more natural.
Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is a full-on musical – Burton’s first – and every inch a stage play reproduction. For many films, this would be a criticism, but Burton’s knack for dark artificiality serves the project beautifully, and he achieves the perfect Dickensian Goth tone. His production is very stagy and theatrical, but never veers from his distinct, ghoulish visual flair.
As in most of Burton’s best efforts, Sweeney Todd stars Johnny Depp in the title role. Depp is unmistakably fantastic – consumed, morose, twisted with vengeance – and he’s in fine voice, to boot.
The supporting cast boasts a liltingly nefarious performance by Alan Rickman. As the judge whose sent an innocent Todd off in shackles, raped his wife, then took custody of his daughter, whom he leeringly admires, Rickman is wonderful as always. His duet with Depp on “Pretty Women” is the film’s real musical gem.
With Burton’s help, Depp found another dark, bizarre anti-hero to showcase his considerable talent. With Depp’s help, Burton gorgeously, grotesquely realized another macabre fantasy.
2. The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)
Takashi Miike is an extremely prolific director. He makes a lot of musical films, a lot of kids’ movies, a lot of horror movies, and then this – a mashup of all of those things. Like Sound of Music with a tremendous body count.
The Katakuris just want to run a rustic mountain inn. They’re not murderers. They’re lovely – well, they’re losers, but they’re not bad people. Buying this piece of property did nothing to correct their luck, either because, my God, their guests do die.
You might call this a dark comedy if it weren’t so very brightly lit. It’s absurd, farcical, gruesome but sweet. There’s a lot of singing, some animation, a volcano, a bit of mystery, more singing, one death by sumo smothering, and love. It sounds weird, truly, but when it comes to weird, Miike is just getting started.
1. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
Surely you expected no other atop this list because, honestly, nothing else comes close. The most iconic of all horror musicals, The Rocky Horror Picture Show boasts the best soundtrack, the best performances, the best mad scientist, and quite possibly the most fun there is to be had (legally) at the movies.
I’m afraid you’ve touched on a rather tender subject there.
Tim Curry is utter perfection as Frank-N-Furter (A Scientist). The entire balance of the cast is also amazing, but no matter how many times you watch Curry step out of that elevator, abuse his servants, or seduce his houseguests, it never gets old.
Creator Richard O’Brien’s raucous, once controversial film about a sweet transvestite, a slut, an asshole, and a couple of domestics who sing, time warp, throw rice, animate monsters, swap partners, and finally put on a show is still as much fun as it ever was.
Once a subversive take on the classic musicals and sci-fi films of the 30s and 40s, Rocky Horror is now a high-camp icon of its own.
We greet an honest to god expert for this week’s podcast, as Dr. Neil McRobert (you may know him better as NakMak!) joins us to talk about Stephen King films. Neil’s doctoral thesis concerned itself in part with King’s writings, and yet, somehow Hope decided she was still the more appropriate choice to determine the rankings of King films. Listen in and let us know who does a better job with the list. The whole conversation goes on HERE.
5. Dolores Claiborne (1995)
Taylor Hackford helms this generational saga of women in a man’s world. Not truly a horror film, it follows the tale of stern Mainer Dolores (the magnificent –as-always Kathy Bates), who’s been accused of murdering her contemptible boss, Vera Donovan (an outstanding Judy Parfitt). Dolores’s estranged daughter (Jennifer Jason Leigh) returns to the Maine island of her birth to support her mom from being railroaded, as the entire town believes Dolores has already gotten away with murder once.
The film is an achievement in casting above all things. Bates is brilliant, and so is David Strathairn, playing against type as abusive white trash husband and father. Tony Gilroy’s screenplay is delicately faithful to King’s novel, a character-driven drama that boasts some excellent lines – most of them landing in Parfitt’s mouth. Luckily she’s up to the challenge and makes it look easier than it should to be a bitch.
4. Misery (1990)
Kathy Bates had been knocking around Hollywood for decades, but no one really knew who she was until she landed Misery. Her sadistic nurturer Annie Wilkes – rabid romance novel fan, part time nurse, full time wacko – ranks among the most memorable crazy ladies of modern cinema.
James Caan plays novelist Paul Sheldon, who kills off popular character Misery Chastain, then celebrates with a road trip that goes awry when he crashes his car, only to be saved by his brawniest and most fervent fan, Annie. Well, she’s more a fan of Misery Chastain’s than she is Paul Sheldon’s, and once she realizes what he’s done, she refuses to allow him out of her house until she brings Misery back to literary life.
Caan seethes, and you know there’s an ass kicking somewhere deep in his mangled body just waiting to get out. But it’s Bates we remember. She nails the bumpkin who oscillates between humble fan, terrifying master, and put-upon martyr. Indeed, both physically and emotionally, she so thoroughly animates this nutjob that she secured an Oscar.
3. The Mist (2007)
Frank Darabont really loves him some Stephen King, having adapted and directed the writer’s work almost exclusively for the duration of his career. While The Shawshank Redemption may be Darabont’s most fondly remembered effort, The Mist is an underappreciated creature feature.
David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son head to town for some groceries. Meanwhile, a tear in the space/time continuum opens a doorway to alien monsters. So he, his boy, and a dozen or so other shoppers are all trapped inside this glass-fronted store just waiting for rescue or death.
Marcia Gay Harden is characteristically brilliant as the religious zealot who turns survival inside the store into something less likely than survival out with the monsters, but the whole cast offers surprisingly restrained but emotional turns.
The FX look good, too, but it’s the provocative ending that guarantees this one will sear itself into your memory.
2. Carrie (1976)
The seminal film about teen angst and high school carnage has to be Brian De Palma’s 1976 landmark adaptation of King’s first full length novel, the tale of an unpopular teenager who marks the arrival of her period by suddenly embracing her psychic powers.
Sissy Spacek is the perfect balance of freckle-faced vulnerability and awed vengeance. Her simpleton characterization would have been overdone were it not for Piper Laurie’s glorious evil zeal as her religious wacko mother. It’s easy to believe this particular mother could have successfully smothered a daughter into Carrie’s stupor.
One ugly trick involving a bucket of cow’s blood, and Carrie’s psycho switch is flipped. Spacek’s blood drenched Gloria Swanson on the stage conducting the carnage is perfectly over-the-top. And after all the mean kids get their comeuppance, Carrie returns home to the real horror show.
1. The Shining (1980)
It’s isolated, it’s haunted, you’re trapped, but somehow nothing feels derivative and you’re never able to predict what happens next. It’s Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece rendition of Stephen King’s The Shining.
Though critics were mixed at the time of the film’s release, and both Kubrick and co-star Shelley Duvall were nominated for Razzies, much of the world’s negative response had to do with a needless affection for the source material, which Kubrick and co-scriptor Diane Johnson use as little more than an outline.
A study in atmospheric tension, Kubrick’s vision of the Torrance family collapse at the Overlook Hotel is both visually and aurally meticulous. It opens with that stunning helicopter shot, following Jack Torrence’s little yellow Beetle up the mountainside, the ominous score announcing a foreboding the film never shakes.
What image stays with you most? The two creepy little girls? The blood pouring out of the elevator? The impressive afro in the velvet painting above Scatman Crothers’s bed? That guy in the bear suit – what was going on there? Whatever the answer, thanks be to Kubrick’s deviant yet tidy imagination.
Next week we will look at the best Canada has to offer the genre.
The following week, we are thrilled to tackle our sophomore effort at live recording the Fright Club podcast! We will unspool The Orphanage (2007) at Gateway Film Center on November 11, counting down the best Spanish language horror at 7:30, just prior to the 8pm screening.
In the meantime, help us prep for upcoming podcasts. What filmmaker, actor or actress deserves an entire podcast? Let us know on Twitter @maddwolf, on facebook @maddwolfcolumbus, or leave us a comment here.