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Straw Dogs (Peckinpah, 1971) January 5, 2010

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Uncategorized, 1970s, Film reviews , add a comment

“I don’t know my way home,” says simpleton Henry Niles to a dishevelled David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman) at the end of Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece “Straw Dogs”. David, with one lens of his spectacles broken and cuts and bruises to his face, smiles and calmly replies: “That’s okay, I don’t either.” The two men drive towards the little Cornish village nearby, their futures uncertain. It’s a poetic and fitting climax to David’s story – a man who arrived in the little, unassuming English village timid and withdrawn, concerned more with his work than his restless, lascivious wife, and who leaves having found a bravery, or indeed an anger, he did not know he possessed. What he does with it now is up to him, but his life may have taken on a momentous change, one that will govern his future self. [Read full review HERE]

Alien (Ridley Scott, USA, 1979) March 23, 2009

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 1970s, Film reviews, Artfully Deranged, Feminism, Genre, Audience , 6 comments

Dir. Ridley Scott; Written by Dan O’Bannon; starring Sigourney Weaver, John Hurt, Ian Holm, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto

My introduction to Ridley Scott’s space opus came sometime after being bowled over by James Cameron’s sequel. I guess it must have been around 1990, before David Fincher released the third instalment of the Alien saga. My ignorance of Scott’s sci-fi horror had to do with the fact I wasn’t born when it was first released in 1979, and partly because my mother had withheld the video from her impressionable son’s eyes; possibly fearing permanent psychological damage. This fear didn’t last long, since my determination to witness the Alien’s first cinematic adventure far outweighed her parental guidance. Coupled with the fact Alien was one of my Mum’s favourite movies, it wasn’t long before I was another devoted fan of Alien, Ripley, and the space-horror franchise. And, for the sake of not undermining my mother, I can safely say there was no psychological damage causedat least, that’s what my shrink tells me.

My first impression of Alien was one that appears the going trend. Quite honestly, it was one of the most frightening experiences of my movie watching life. Director Ridley Scott concocts a claustrophobic, uncompromising cinematic experience that bottles up all that is good about the haunted house movie and delivers it with teeth sharp enough to cut through the screen and take your arms and legs off. From the minute the opening credit sequence starts (bringing you out of your home comforts - that include a reassuring open fire and a locked door - into the unending expanse of outer space), the hieroglyphic letters appearing slowly and methodically onscreen offering no sense of hope, you’re left exposed, alone, vulnerable.

Alien was developed in the mid-1970s, the brainchild of film school graduate Dan O’Bannon. O’Bannon had worked with John Carpenter on what would become simultaneously the most successful student film and the worst professional film ever released theatrically - Dark Star. The film, a precursor to O’Bannon’s Alien, saw a group of astronauts bidding to stay alive aboard a spacecraft housing a rather nasty but ultimately timid looking alien creature. After O’Bannon left film school and saw his next project fall flat on its face, he turned to friend and producer Ronald Shusett for help. Together, they fleshed out O’Bannon’s concept and started shopping it… [MORE]

Rating: 5/5

Bob Clark (1941 – 2007) April 6, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Horror, 1970s, Film reviews, Thriller/Suspense, Biographies , add a comment

On the 5th of April 2007, writer/director Bob Clark was tragically killed when an unlicensed, drunk driver, smashed head first into his car. Sadly, his 22 year old son, who was travelling with him, also died.

The director was most famous for the irreverent Porky’s films which saw, amongst other things, a group of horny, under-sexed teenagers spying on the girl’s shower rooms. The sudden appearance of a penis through a hole in the wall is what most people remember about the movie.

The director also brought us the holiday classic A Christmas Story, and worked with Dan Aykoryd and Gene Hackman on the action-comedy Loose Cannons. Certainly, Clark came under fire from critics who saw a lack of consistency within his work, and it is saddening he never found the form to surpass his horror masterpiece Black Christmas.

His later career was dominated by children and family entertainment both for television and film. Unfortunately, his new horror film Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things had production pushed back from its start date in 2006 to Spring 2007, and will therefore be left incomplete.

Below is my review of Bob Clark’s best film. This was first published by DVD Times in March 2003.

Canada, 1974 – director Bob Clark, unbeknownst to him at the time, waters the seeds planted by Hitchcock’s Psycho, and to a certain degree Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom, to which would fruit to bare a new sub-genre in horror cinema. Four years before the supposed fire starter, and most famous film to grace the genre Halloween, Black Christmas began the refining of conventions in laying the groundwork for Carpenter’s film to bloom. True, Halloween was the catalyst to a whole heap of movies which followed in the very late seventies and eighties, but it was Clark’s film that shone at the roots in terms of the generic aesthetics which became so prevalent.

Soon after Carpenter’s student years, he and Bob Clark would have a conversation, that ultimately spawned 1978’s Halloween, in which Carpenter told Clark how much he enjoyed his earlier horror film. According to Clark, Carpenter asked him if he would be willing to make a sequel to Black Christmas, to which Clark replied with an unequivocal ‘no’. However, Clark did divulge to Carpenter how he thought a sequel to Black Christmas would go, plot wise. If it were made, he told him, it would be titled Halloween, and would be based on a serial killer who was caught but then escaped from a mental institution to stalk victims on Halloween night. Clearly, Carpenter took this food for thought on board and with the help of Debra Hill, turned the idea into reality. So in essence, Black Christmas could very well be thought of as the unofficial prequel to Halloween.

The story is quite simple. At a sorority house, the girls are getting ready to go home for Christmas but begin receiving phone calls from a strange caller who won’t give his name. The next day, many girls leave, but one who should have met her father doesn’t turn up, which causes great concern for her safety. When another girl goes missing, the police begin searching the area and find a body nearby. Meanwhile, with only three students left in the sorority house, the phone calls continue, getting more and more menacing each time, but unknown to the remaining members of the house, the caller, and perhaps the killer, is closer to them than their nightmares could ever imagine.

Bob Clark’s career needed a boost, and as he showed with his later comedy Porky’s, he wasn’t someone who would shy away from breaking norms and subverting audience expectation – who would have expected the events of the shower scene, and that hole in the wall that overlooked the girls shower room!? Violent, shocking, and horrific stories were becoming regular pieces of American cinema, and Clark sensing this, grasped the opportunity to direct his first horror picture. Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs in 1971, Wes Craven’s Last House On The Left in 1972, and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist in 1973 were proof that the obscure, dangerous films put your name on the map, for better and for worse. His film hardly made the splashes the three prior films made for themselves, but it put his foot in the water, and it was in his small, but significant ripples that would elevate his film beyond just cult status.

Clark begins his film looking through the eyes of the killer, as he examines the house from the outside, and scales the wall to find a way in. The subjective, voyeuristic nature of the point-of-view camerawork beautifully places the audience inside the killer’s mind, as we stalk the house and become the voyeurs too. Clark mixes objective and subjective aesthetics to create scenes of intensity and suspense, not seen on film before, and rarely matched since. Unlike Tobe Hooper’s documentary style voyeurism in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in which the audience is dared to keep their eyes on the screen, Clark throws the audience no room for a breath of oxygen as he cuts from an objective shot into a point-of-view shot of what the killer sees, as if we are forced to partake in the action of killing itself, and not just in the selfish act of watching someone else’s life being taken. Clark compounds this with brilliant use of sound, deafening the listener with ear haunting rasps and screeches, as if he wants to hurt your senses.

Indeed, the director wants to unsettle the audience rather than give individual viewers incessant shocks, only for viewers to forget about them once they’ve left the theatre, or once they’ve turned off the television. What violence occurs in Black Christmas is largely implied, rather than explicit, and adds to the overall sense of physical emotion in the audience, because the ‘horror’ unsettles you on a personal level with your imagination creating the ‘terror’ implied. One wonderfully created scene has one of the girls being killed juxtaposed with carol singers singing at the door. The Christmas song plays over the violent, loud, blood bath, with images of happy children singing their hearts out combined with jerky, dark glimpses of a knife entering flesh, and a blood soaked hand becoming more and more lifeless with every blow.

Clark uses the phone as an extension of the killer, an extension of the evil, to great effect. Mixing different voices with jagged, undecipherable language, the director is able to create a monster, existing above human capacity through alienating the solid form of a human being into the detached, multi-faceted voice of grotesque, unseen evil. Elsewhere, he owes a debt of gratitude to Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu, and Fritz Lang’s brilliantly unnerving, sombre tale M from 1931. The killer moves within the shadows, his/her form largely subliminal, and what we do see of him/her is that of disembodied evil – hands holding a weapon, or an erratic eye, peering through a crack in the door. It also becomes apparent that the film doesn’t just share the voyeuristic nature of the photography with its counterpart The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, incidentally released the same year, it also shares similar themes regarding the real life serial murderer Ed Gein. In Clark’s film, like Hooper’s, the killer has a penchant for ornamental corpses, and here, he/she likes to leave them in the attic in ‘hello death’ posers, culminating in a viscerally, haunting final image that ends the film.

It wouldn’t be surprising if this film were cited as playing a major part in so-called feminist horror films made afterward, like Meir Zarchi’s I Spit On Your Grave, but of course Zarchi’s film could be looked at in a completely opposing way. Nevertheless, unlike the genre’s films to come where the clean, young virgins survive, and the dirty, man-eater’s meet horrible deaths, Black Christmas’ main female cast are largely the only ones for which we have any sympathy. Barb, played superbly by Margot Kidder, rises above any authority put before her. She doesn’t allow, at least visually, the caller to frighten her and in fact tells him/her where to go, and later when talking to the police she plays a little game when asked what her phone number is, telling the inept male cop that the number is Fellatio 20880, to which the cop unknowingly writes down. She has a rather unfeminine personality, she drinks too much, and swears in most of her sentences yet we get the feeling there’s some inner turmoil perhaps down to jealousy of some of the other younger girls and the beautiful, quiet but authoritative Jess, played by Olivia Hussey. Hussey caries the film with her quiet, pondering and wistful looks, grounding the almost unreal events, in real life reality, and in her character Jess, rebels against her boyfriend after she tells him she’s getting an abortion of which he is adamantly against, but she sticks to her guns. And the father of one of the girls who goes missing expresses dismay at the fact she might have been experimenting with drugs, drink and sex saying, ‘I didn’t send my daughter here to be drinking…and picking up boys’. The women in the film rebel against the constraints put upon them, and for the most part these restraints are embodied in the male characters, most of which are either inept or out of touch with present day reality.

As for the rest of the performances, well, for the most part they are very good. Keir Dullea, as the insecure, neurotic boyfriend broods around breaking things, shouting and acting like he has the credentials to be the killer, while John Saxon, as usual, is the ultimate professional giving his chief lieutenant a strong backbone, and Doug McGrath offers some comic relief as the inept cop.

Black Christmas is a fantastically, effective horror film, easing its way under your skin and it stands as a major contributor in the creation of a new sub-genre in horror culture. Halloween has a more refined characteristic and is arguably the better film, but Black Christmas inspired it in so many ways you have to give the plaudits to Clark’s film.

Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1979) March 22, 2007

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 1970s, Film reviews, War , add a comment

It’s rather inspiring, certainly for a fan of cinema, to see a movie where all the component parts come together so perfectly. By the time Marlon Brando appears from the shadows at the end of the film - the lighting casting deep shadows across his face, the orange glow telling us we’re either in hell or very close - you begin to wonder if indeed you’d actually been to Vietnam during the conflict. The film so perfectly places its audience in the nightmare that was the Vietnam war, we’re searching for our next breath, desperately trying to escape, twitching our necks to the left or the right - was that a bullet, another explosion?

Apocalypse Now lays out the futility of war before our eyes and it lets us experience it, to feel it, to touch it, to smell it. It does this by brilliantly bringing together every ounce of the cinematic spectrum. From the editing to the production design, from the sound and music to the lighting and cinematography. For example, the final twenty minutes have several of the best lit and photographed shots ever put to film. Brando appearing from the darkness and Sheen coming up from beneath the water are hauntingly iconic images that stay with you for a very long time. The film is the best war movie ever made, and probably the most important movie about conflict, Vietnam, and war.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (Milos Forman, USA, 1975)

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 1970s, Drama, Film reviews , add a comment

I think anyone would be hard-pressed to find fault with this fantastic movie. Jack Nicholson delivers one of his finest performances as R.P McMurphy. This film is all about the vitality of life and Nicholson embodies that beautifully but it’s Milos Forman’s perfect direction that makes this film so endearing. He lets the camera frantically move from character to character, peeking into their crazy little worlds, offering us a glimpse of their closed insecurities, whilst underpinning it all with McMurphy, the ‘full of life’ con, out for the easy road. The script is one of the best I’ve ever witnessed - you couldn’t have asked for a better adaptation of the book. Yet, it’s supported by an ensemble cast of characters who all deliver - their individualities laid bare for all to see. Brad Dourif as the stuttering wannabe Cassonova, Danny DeVito as the thirty year old trapped in a 12 year old’s body (You can’t split the cigarette up Danny and have two quarters!!) and Christopher Lloyd in his first ever role. But it’s the devastating finale that really hits home. McMurphy does more for the patients than the doctors ever could, and the film plays on this idea. It’s one of the greatest movies ever made - of that there is no question.

Diamonds Are Forever (Guy Hamilton, UK, 1971)

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 1970s, Film reviews, Action/Adventure, Thriller/Suspense , add a comment

Fantastic Bond and one of Sean Connery’s best. Diamonds Are Forever is off the wall, almost as if the writers supplemented their acid with a few Valium and wrote the whole damn thing while chasing imaginary chickens around their fortified living rooms. Several invincible Blofeld’s, voice-changing devices (that defy any logic), a fabulous leading lady who never wears any clothes, a pair of fruity bad guys who happen to be gay, and a car cassette player and tape that can hold the world to ransom - this is Bond at its finest. Connery is on top form and the film moves along at breakneck speed. Great stuff.

A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, UK, 1971) September 2, 2006

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 1970s, Drama, Film reviews, Sci-fi/Fantasy, Crime , 3 comments

Dir. Stanley Kubrick; screenplay by Stanley Kubrick; starring Malcolm McDowell

Stanley Kubrick’s mesmerising 1971 classic is an interesting beast. The film’s hallucinatory visuals depicting a strange, narcissistic society of the future, steeped in seventies art deco and harsh, contrasting lighting, paint a bleak, uncompromising picture. Kubrick’s use of implied violence, death and cultural destruction throw the viewer into a hellish, emotional quagmire of pessimism and hate.

Yet we’re complicit in the violence as Malcolm McDowell’s Alex narrates the story to us as if we are his friends, the only ones he can open up to. It is in this that the violence becomes sanitised, that we don’t necessarily feel guilty, or pity the victims of Alex’s senseless crimes. Kubrick isn’t telling us that violence is okay, he’s telling the viewer that masculinity is a broken concept. The violence is an indication of pent-up sexual frustration, delivered callously and cowardly to anyone that gets in the way.

Alex Jack, in his essay on Kubrick’s ‘Full Metal Jacket’ commented that the director flaunted the idea that ‘masculinity is a sick idealised myth’. This interested me because of the phallic symbols, rape and mother theme ‘A Clockwork Orange’ plays around with. Here, sex and violence are not two disparate entities that just so happen occur at the same time: sex equals violence, and this relates to the very opposing view that Kubrick was a misogynist.

There is an obsession with sex that permeates throughout the movie. Whether it’s Alex raping somebody, having consensual sex, thinking about sex, or being in a situation where sex is alluded to (the bar with the erotic, female shaped tables; his home with penis graffiti on the wall; the nurse and doctor at the hospital; the murder weapon at the woman’s house), the idea that it is a motivation in art, in crime, in society, is constantly portrayed. This motivation is male dominated. Women are the ultimate harbingers of sexual desire, and it is only them who can suppress it. This power leaves the male ‘Droogs’ (Alex’s gang) inwardly feeling threatened, which in part leads to cowardly rape. The Droogs attempt to re-establish themselves (redressing the balance between the sexes) by choosing to take what females hold sacred. This ‘choice’ is later explained by the priest who tells Alex: ‘When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.’ They see nothing wrong in the choices they make but Kubrick mocks them as they return to feed on mother’s milk back at the bar – the drinks and the breast-shaped pourer asserting motherhood and female dominance.

Sexual obsession also appears in the non-criminal characters, for instance, the nurse and doctor who are caught in the act of ‘in out, in out’, or the murder victim with the giant penis ornament. The obsession is channelled in a different way, and a lot comes from an institutional perspective. Alex’s ex-Droog’s join the police force while he is in prison. When he comes out they use their frustration to beat him to within an inch of his life. The sexual obsession within the ‘adult’ characters now becomes cloaked behind the police uniform, or the warden at the prison, or the psychiatrists treating Alex at the hospital. As pillars of a failing community they do not have the ‘choice’ so freely exploited by Alex and his gang, so they take it out in other, more ‘acceptable’ ways.

‘Choice’ is a major aspect of the film because the male characters are seen to enforce this idea of masculinity, but Kubrick sees this as ambiguous. Alex Jack sees Joker’s callous killing of a wounded, female Vietnamese soldier as Kubrick saying: ‘You men need to tuck away your penises and surrogate penises (guns), because you will never get anywhere with them. Masculinity is a myth and a dead end.’ The psychiatrists in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ take away Alex’s freedom of choice through psychological manipulation, and therefore strip him of his own self worth. ‘Choice’ is a freedom Alex is born with, but by being brought up in this society he has been conditioned and nurtured to think only one way. By taking away his ability to chose, society is being institutionally condemned to decay.

And how potent is this decay? Malcolm McDowell (who played Alex), speaking thirty years after the film was first release said, when asked about cinema violence mirroring real life: ‘Are we supposed to ignore the fact that we live in a very violent society?’ He continued, ‘maybe it’s frustration about the American dream gone sour. I don’t know what it is. It is the expectations of something that’s never quite fulfilled. There’s great anger and frustration around. There’s a lot of that.’ Kubrick doesn’t condone the violence of the film, he uses it to example freedoms of choice. When Alex is cured, violence still finds him and it suddenly takes on a more disturbing tone. The audience, complicit with the immorality of Alex’s previous endeavors, begins to sense more unease when the violence is turned on the murderer. In most cases, this would be an uplifting but sadistic closure, as the ‘baddie’ gets the same treatment he gave out to many helpless victims. Yet this does not occur. Why? Because it is the sense of freedom the anti-hero has now lost which sticks. This is more damning than society meeting out revenge and torture. Anyone who claims this film made them take a gun into school and start shooting people, clearly wants a scapegoat for their own psychosis. In effect, issues like the Columbine High School massacre only underline the points Kubrick is trying to make.

It is interesting how Alex’s ‘brainwash’ is the explicit indication of how Kubrick feels culture is dominated by the powerful, and how art has lost its authenticity. It could be argued that if power is gendered in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ this must mean the women are ‘asking for it’, but I believe women represent Kubrick’s idea of the natural order of things. In this futuristic world, women have a power over the men. What Kubrick then investigates is how natural order is tainted by the powerful (politicians and the media) by their exploitation of sex and violence. Pop-culture in the film is full of sexual references, which as mentioned leads to violence, and when Alex needs curing, the doctors use extreme doses of ‘ultra-violence’ and sexual activity to subdue his attraction to them. This doesn’t help Alex as his reintroduction to an outside world still dominated by sex and violence, leads to his victims taking their revenge. By being bludgeoned to nausea from something he once got a kick out of, Alex is forced to hate it. He loses his individuality and his freedom of choice. The film tries to tell us that pop-culture will eventually desensitize us to sex and violence to such a degree we won’t have any sensations left. Art simply dies, as exampled through Alex’s love of Beethoven, because as a drawback of the medical procedure that ‘cures’ him, the music he loves creates in him the same sick and paranoid feeling sex and violence does.

The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, USA, 1972)

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : 1970s, Drama, Film reviews, Crime , 1 comment so far

Dir. Francis Ford Coppola screenplay by Mario Puzo; starring Marlon Brando, Robert Duvall, Al Pacino, James Caan, Sterling Hayden.

The greatest film made about the mafia (or should that be American-Italian culture, familial loyalty, capitalism) that is only, arguably, bettered by its sequel and ‘Goodfellas’.

Sisters (Brian De Palma, USA, 1973)

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Horror, 1970s, Film reviews, Thriller/Suspense , add a comment

Dir. Brian De Palma; screenplay by Brian De Palma; starring Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley

Before De Palma’s 1973 psycho-thriller turns into a dreamy hallucinatory diversion into madness and hysteria, it’s a very effective film. Margot Kidder gives a good performance as Danielle Breton – a woman haunted by her twin sister. De Palma uses split-screen photography beautifully but his stylish flare isn’t as refined as it would become later in his career.

Carrie (Brian De Palma, USA, 1976)

Posted by Daniel Stephens in : Horror, 1970s, Film reviews, Thriller/Suspense, Sci-fi/Fantasy , add a comment

Dir. Brian De Palma, screenplay by Lawrence D. Cohen; starring Sissy Spacek, Nancy Allen, Piper Laurie, Amy Irving, P.J. Soles, John Travolta

Brian De Palma expertly adapts Stephen King’s novel about a shy, young girl who discovers her telekinetic ability is a perfect deterrent against her religiously fanatical mother, and the school bullies.

De Palma utilises his cinematic qualities to bring King’s story to the screen with great effect, culminating in a devastatingly frightening ending, where the director makes brilliant use of lighting, split-screen photography, and special-effects. Sissy Spacek provides a strong performance as the timid Carrie, but it’s Piper Laurie as her mother, who commands the screen with her portrayal of the crazed mother.

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