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House on Haunted Hill (1959)

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

With Halloween coming up, I can’t believe I haven’t blogged on this classic horror film.

Please forget the terrible 1999 remake, which many people consider the only version of this film – this is the original, directed in stark black and white by William Castle, starring Vincent Price as an apparently eccentric millionaire who throws a “haunted house party,” where each of the guests will collect $10,000 for attending – if they survive until dawn. As critic Fred Beldin wrote, “cinema showman William Castle’s best films are imbued with an infectious sense of mischief that overcomes deficiencies, and House on Haunted Hill is no exception. An excellent vehicle for star Vincent Price and one of Castle’s most beloved concoctions, this lightweight ghost story is lots of fun even without the director’s trademark theater gimmicks. Price is in prime form, alternating between pure ham and quiet subtlety, able to express a macabre notion simply by arching an eyebrow. Co-star Elisha Cook Jr. has only one task here, to look shell-shocked and mutter predictions of doom, and he performs it with twitchy, sweaty aplomb. The rest of the cast is serviceable, with only ingenue Carolyn Craig standing out via her shrill shrieks and stilted line readings. Castle directs House on Haunted Hill to be spooky rather than frightening, with floating skeletons and flickering candlelight, but a few ghastly images of acid baths and hanged women slide in for the E.C. Comics crowd. Campy and creepy in equal measures, House on Haunted Hill deserves its status as a horror classic.”

You can see the entire film now, for free, by clicking on the image above.

Ida Lupino Gets A Retrospective – At Last!

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

Film director Ida Lupino, pictured above, is finally getting a retrospective of her work.

As critic Guy Lodge notes in Variety, “now in its third year, the Lumière Festival’s ongoing Permanent History of Women Filmmakers section isn’t a series of disconnected annual retrospectives — its three editions thus far build a chronological narrative of female innovation behind the camera. In 2012, the festival appropriately began at the beginning, celebrating narrative cinema pioneer Alice Guy; 2013 kept the focus French, as Impressionist filmmaker Germaine Dulac was put under the spotlight.

This year’s Lumiere fest expands the gender conversation beyond its own borders, with Hollywood feminist trailblazer Ida Lupino the subject of 2014’s section. British-born actor and filmmaker Lupino’s onscreen work alone would earn her a place on the historical honor roll of American studio cinema: Her intelligent, decidedly modern star presence was put to memorably flinty use in such films as Raoul Walsh’s High Sierra and Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner.

Yet it was as a helmer that Lupino did her most influential work. The first actress to seize creative control of her screen legacy by developing and directing her own independent projects, she subverted a studio system that otherwise stage-managed its stars’ careers at every turn. After a decade with Warner Bros. — one that found her frequently on suspension due to her defiant streak — she took the reins from indisposed director Elmer Clifton on 1949’s Not Wanted, an illegitimacy drama that she also co-wrote and co-produced.

Her direction there went un-credited, but that same year, she made her solo helming debut with Never Fear, an unsentimental study of a dancer’s cruelly disrupted career. Both Not Wanted and Never Fear will be screened at the Lumière fest, as well as her landmark 1953 film noir The Hitch-Hiker, in which the erstwhile movie femme fatale strikingly revised the gender norms of the genre.Rounding out the Festival’s selection is another 1953 noir, The Bigamist (the first film in which Lupino directed herself as star), as well as two of her most famous vehicles as an actress, Raoul Walsh’s They Drive By Night and Jean Negulesco’s Road House.

It’s far from a complete retrospective — her seething, still-resonant rape drama Outrage is but one omission — but it’s a valuable snapshot of a career that astonishes today, in an industry where female filmmakers are still forcibly on the back foot. Later this year, another singular screen icon, Angelina Jolie, will shoot for directorial kudos with her sophomore feature Unbroken; whatever the outcome, it’s Lupino who paved the way for Jolie and others to take flight.”

Read more about this important artist in my essay on her work in Senses of Cinema, by clicking here.

Now, how about a DVD / Blu-ray combo box set of Lupino’s films as a director?

Tod Browning’s The Devil Doll (1936)

Monday, October 13th, 2014

“Once you’re in my shop, I’ll wager you’ll do anything I ask.”

With Halloween coming up soon, here’s a few thoughts on Tod Browning’s hypnotic 1936 thriller, The Devil Doll, all but forgotten today in the wake of his highly successful film Dracula (1931), which despite its undoubted influence, is much less interesting as a film than this later work from the director.

Working from a screenplay co-authored by the unlikely trio of Garrett Fort, Guy Endore (author of the classic horror novel The Werewolf of Paris) and none other than legendary director Erich von Stroheim – this last credit is a real surprise, given von Stroheim’s other work in his films as a director in his own right, to say nothing of von Stroheim’s work as an actor in Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion just one year later in 1937 – based on the 1933 novel Burn, Witch, Burn! by Abraham Merritt (which subsequently served as the template for at least two other films in the 1940s and 1960s), Browning creates an eerie dream world of suspense, fantasy and mystery, aided in no small part by Franz Waxman’s gorgeous score, Lionel Barrymore’s bravura performance in the leading role, and the film’s then state-of-the art special effects.

As Michael Toole writes on the TCM website of the film, the film’s plot concerns “Paul Lavond, a falsely incarcerated businessman, and Marcel, a maniacal inventor, [who] escape from prison on Devil’s Island, and take refuge at the latter’s former laboratory where they are welcomed by Marcel’s wife, Malita (Rafaela Ottiano). The ailing scientist reveals to Lavond his secret formula for reducing living creatures to a fraction of their original size. Following Marcel’s death, Lavond returns to France to extract revenge on the three bankers who framed him and left his daughter [Maureen O' Sullivan] destitute. With the assistance of Malita, Lavond opens a toy shop where he poses as a kindly old woman and begins a campaign of terror [using a group of miniaturized humans as his weapons of destruction].

Few critics, if any, have ever commented on Tod Browning’s visual style, which could best be described as static and resembling a photographed stage play. This is certainly true of his most famous film, Dracula (1931) but The Devil Doll is another matter entirely. It’s a very smooth, visually accomplished piece of cinema that has earned it a cult following in recent years. The special effects are impressive for the era, particularly the scenes featuring oversized sets and ‘miniature’ people. Also part of the film’s cult appeal is Browning’s twisted sense of humor, which is most evident in the scenes with Malita who becomes addicted to miniaturizing humans. It’s actually surprising that the Hays Office didn’t have major censorship issues with The Devil Doll but they did dictate a moralistic ending in which the Barrymore character atones for his crimes.” Now available on DVD, it’s definitely a film worth checking out, and in my opinion, clearly Browning’s best work as a director.

Click here, or on the image above, to see a sequence from the film.

Media Services at UNL – An Incredible Resource!

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

Media Services at UNL are an often overlooked and invaluable resource for students and faculty.

As reporter Jack Forey wrote in the Daily Nebraskan on October 8, 2014, “Student fees cover plenty of things students themselves may not know about. Few students realize that one of those services allows them to rent a select variety of movies and video games, for free. ‘I had no idea we could get movies and video games from the library,’ said Matt Mejstrik, former University of Nebraska-Lincoln student. ‘The first thing I checked out was Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus trilogy and also his original version of Beauty and the Beast.

Paying student fees gives UNL students access to the wide range of materials provided by Media Services, located on the 2nd floor of the Love Library’s south building. Students can check out DVDs, video games, camcorders, laptops and board games. Items can be checked out anywhere from three to seven days. ‘Students should realize that there is an incredible collection of materials on film and video that are readily accessible to them through Media Services,’ said Wheeler Winston Dixon, professor of Film Studies at UNL. ‘A huge DVD collection, a remarkable library of books and online media sources can all be readily accessed through Media Studies. Students should take advantage as an essential resource and part of their education.’

The Criterion Collection is included in Media Service’s DVD and Blu-Ray collection. Director of Media Studies Richard Graham said Criterion DVDs can go out of print quickly, making them a rarity. ‘Criterion is renowned for their meticulous attention to digital transfer, interviews and the supplementary materials that they produce, as well as the films or directors they spotlight,’ Graham said. ‘So they certainly are a treasure.’

Graham guides the mission of Media Services and helps to grow the collection of available media. ‘I consolidate student and faculty requests for non-print materials or media materials and see what fits the current curriculum and research needs of the university,’ he said. ‘“Browsing the area and recommending purchases also lets us know that people are using the services and materials we provide.’

The wide selection of Criterion films, as well as a select offering of local Nebraska films, presents a unique opportunity for Film Studies majors, as well as students generally interested in cinema. ‘Under Richard Graham, director of Media Studies, the DVD library has grown exponentially and now includes classic films by nearly every major director, most of which aren’t available on Netflix or Amazon Prime,’ Dixon said. ‘Films by such directors as Cocteau, Fassbinder, Dyerer, Bergman, Rossellini, Fellini and others are now available directly to students. The collection keeps growing every day.’

Outside of the English department, Media Services serves as a study space for students of all colleges and majors. Study rooms can be reserved for hours at a time as students utilize the many resources available to them. Dixon comments, ‘Media Services provides an invaluable link to not only the arts, but also to all literature on everything from astrophysics to contemporary painting—literally all subjects, creating a database for students to use, which is an incredible resource.’

‘The arts are an essential part of everyone’s life,’ Dixon said when asked about the role media plays in the average person’s everyday life. ‘The books, films, music and art of the 20th century are deeply influential in 21st century society, and one can’t really understand the present without knowing the precedence – and importance – of the classics. Some of the material is pop art, some of it is high art, but a thorough understanding of the classics – in film, art, literature and other allied fields – is an essential part of a well-rounded college education.’”

Media Services at Love Library – an amazing opportunity for UNL students and faculty.

Manoel de Oliveira Directs A New Film at Age 105

Sunday, October 5th, 2014

At 105, Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira has just completed production on a new film.

As Vitor Pinto reports in Cineuropa, the director Manoel de Oliveira began production of O Velho do Restelo, a reflection on Portuguese history, produced by O Som e a Fúria, on September 9, 2014. Pinto continues, “at 105 years old, Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira is beginning the shoot for his new film, O Velho do Restelo (literally The Old Man from the Restelo) today in Porto. The short film sees the return of the filmmaker two years after his feature Gebo and the Shadow as well as his involvement in the omnibus film Historic Centre.

With a title evoking the pessimistic character created by Luis de Camões in his 16th-century epic poem Os Lusiadas, O Velho do Restelo is based on excerpts from the work O Penitente by Teixeira de Pascoaes, which recounts the life and work of Portuguese romantic writer Camilo de Castelo Branco. It is through these literary references, which also incorporate others such as those of Miguel de Cervantes, that the film will create a reflection on Portugal and its history. O Velho do Restelo will see actor Luís Miguel Cintra playing the role of Camões, Ricardo Trepa as Don Quixote, Diogo Dória as Teixeira de Pascoaes and Mário Barroso as Camilo de Castelo Branco.

Oliveira, who in an interview last year with French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma described the process of securing funding for the film as ‘a battle’ finally managed to raise enough funds in order to go ahead with the five-day shoot. O Velho do Restelo is being produced by O Som e a Fúria, and has backing from the Porto Film Commission and the Catholic University of Portugal. The film is expected to be completed by August [2015].”

As Kevin Jagernauth adds in Indiewire, “Manoel de Oliveira is 105 years-old, and while other filmmakers talk about retirement or wanting to try something different, the Portuguese director doesn’t know the word quit. That’s right, he’s already in production on his next project, so whatever little complaints you might have about your day, maybe take it down a notch because Oliveira is still shuffling around, getting it down.”

There’s hope for the cinema yet; the powers that be should give him all the financing he wants.

DP Jeff Cronenweth on Film vs. Digital

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

DP Jeff Cronenweth has these thoughts on working with film vs. digital cinematography.

As he told Paula Bernstein during an interview in Indiewire, “there is still something inherently magical about shooting on film, and to some degree, it’s mysterious and you get to be the wizard behind the curtain that makes everything happen, which I kind of love. But also, with digital photography, you’ve eliminated some of the things that could become problematic, both photochemically and technically in labs with scratches and all kinds of mysterious things that can arise. There’s not many surprises with digital, but there’s more risks you can take. You certainly sleep better at night because you don’t have to wake up at 4 am and call the lab to see if there’s still a job for you to do that day. But that doesn’t mean it’s any less work, you still have to put the lights in the right places and you still have to make good choices and fight continuity along scenes.

You have to be a smart filmmaker either way. It’s opened the door a lot in that it allows directors to work longer with the performance, you can get actors into a routine and force things out of them in a way. You watch David and after four takes in a row it sort of breaks the mold and you get something new out of what might otherwise be a safe performance. That’s really magical. I like the fact that you ultimately have more control. Back in the day you spent so much time, down to the tenth of the stock, in order to expose something, and there were all the lenses coming with it, be it Panavision or Arriflex. You’d go to the lab and they would try and get as close as they can, but then you’d walk into one theater and it’d be green, and then in another theater it’d look blue, so all of that work seemed to disappear when you finally got to the presentation.

Now, everywhere you go with digital, it all looks the same, which is somewhat comforting. You’ve given up a little magic, and you’ve given up a little texture, but you can work on that. There’s ways of making a lot of that come back if you have enough time. And there’s still piracy and environmental concerns, given the prints and chemicals, but that’s just the evolution of cinema. There’s still a lot to be discovered and it’s still super open, which is kind of what the industry has always done.”

You can read the entire interview by clicking here, or on the image above.

Netflix Steps Into Feature Films

Friday, October 3rd, 2014

Netflix plans to make feature films that bypass traditional theatrical exhibition entirely.

As Gregg Kilday writes in The Hollywood Reporter, “Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos shook up the Hollywood status quo twice this week with a couple of announcements signaling that the streaming video service is out to up-end the existing movie business just as it’s challenged the television industry. On Sept. 29, he announced a deal with the Weinstein Co. to finance the sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend, which will premiere on Netflix and in Imax theaters on Aug. 28. In a backlash from theater owners, exhibition giants Regal, AMC Theatres and Cinemark said they wouldn’t show the film on their own Imax screens.

Then, the following day, Sarandos announced an even more ambitious pact:  a deal to make four movies starring and produced by Adam Sandler (who also retains a non-exclusive, first-look deal at Sony). All four movies will debut exclusively on Netflix. Having dropped those two bombshells, Sarandos explains how Netflix’s growing global imprint has influenced the decision to begin producing original movies, why Sandler was willing to forego theatrical releases for the films and how exhibitors, resisting change, have all reacted ‘in lockstep.’”

This is a real game changer – you can read the entire story by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Oldest Single Screen Movie House in New Orleans

Sunday, September 28th, 2014

René Brunet, at 93, runs the extremely successful Prytania movie theater in New Orleans.

As Matt Higgins reports, “it may seem incongruous that a one-screen neighborhood movie theater is thriving in the multiplex era. Or that a 93-year-old is still in charge of the place. But the 100-year-old Prytania Theater and its nonagenarian owner, Rene Brunet, seem happy enough as exceptions to the rules. Since 1996, Brunet and his son Robert have kept the Prytania in business at Prytania and Leontine streets with a canny mix of low-cost, throwback movie selections and cutting-edge technology.

In one sense, it’s a reminder of a time when dozens of similar theaters operated all over New Orleans — and every other U.S. city. Yet in other ways, the Prytania feels right at home in 2014, an era when young college graduates are leaving suburbs for cities and ‘walkability’ has become a watchword of urban development.

In fact, while it may be too soon to declare a revival of the neighborhood theater, at least one would-be imitator may appear soon, with a historic building in the 600 block of North Broad Street slated to be converted into a four-screen theater in the coming months. Robert Brunet admits he was against his father buying the Prytania, which he reopened in 1997 just a month before the AMC Palace opened in Elmwood with 20 screens. ‘We struggled in the beginning,’ he said, ‘but my dad’s passion was the single-screen theater. He grew up in it.’

Which is not to say the Brunets are strictly about nostalgia. In 2006, they invested $850,000 in a major renovation, installing the equipment necessary to show digital movies rather than film. In fact, Brunet claims the Prytania was the first theater in New Orleans to do so. Industry experts like Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska, say there is really no way to continue operating at this point without having made that transition. Studios no longer even provide new movies in any other format. ‘Film is dead,’ he said. ‘It’s digital all the way.’

Older films, combined with new releases and selections with a local flavor, such as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Beasts of the Southern Wild, attract an audience that a multiple-screen suburban theater would not, the Prytania’s owners say. ‘We cater to our neighborhood,’ Brunet said. ‘Our films are similar to Uptown. It’s a good cross-section.’ And then there are the less-tangible things about the place that let you know you’re in New Orleans. ‘Here, you can come five minutes late,’ he said. ‘You can walk in with a cocktail, and we’re not going to throw you out. It truly is a neighborhood experience.’”

See? If you do right, you can still fill the house night after night – thank goodness!

Atom Egoyan’s Chloe

Friday, September 26th, 2014

Atom Egoyan’s Chloe is a remake of a film by Anne Fontaine; in many ways, it’s much better than the original.

As Egoyan notes of the overall theme of the film, “First and foremost, Chloe deals with the nature of intimacy. But I think the film is ultimately about what we look for in a relationship – to see someone else as we would like ourselves to be seen, and the idea of protecting someone else’s right to be alone, or to protect solitude. As Rilke wrote, it is one’s role as a partner to protect the other’s solitude, and yet there’s this balance between doing that and losing someone. That to me is what the film is about – how to be allowed to imagine ourselves and integrate that into a relationship.

In any love relationship, you have to protect yourself, but it you’re not aware of the explicit agenda of the other person, the skew can become really dangerous, even explosive. This is the terrain the film deals with – how to be allowed to imagine ourselves and integrate that in a relationship. And in some ways, the film is about the necessity and danger of creative interpretation of the self. Ultimately, we all need to believe in certain stories or narratives about ourselves. We all need to feel we have some control over how that narrative evolves. However, we have no control over the variables we can’t anticipate – all of the other emotional factors that come into play.

There’s always a variable when dealing with human beings. We are incredibly complex sensitive souls, and no matter how you think a relationship is defined by parameters, those can always evolve, so we need to be invested in other people. We need to fall in love and we need to go to those places, but we also need to equip ourselves in understanding how fragile other people are. If we don’t, there’s bound to be consequences.”

You can read more about this interesting, often unsettling film by clicking here.

Joseph Lawson, Genre Director – An Interview

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

I have an interview out this morning with Joseph Lawson, director of the forthcoming film Ardennes Fury.

As I note in my introduction to the interview, “Joseph Lawson is an American filmmaker who is an unabashed special effects fan, action movie enthusiast, and utterly pragmatic about how films get made today in a rapaciously competitive environment. He’s a commercial filmmaker, working in Hollywood, making films as entertainment. Along the way, he’s getting more and more of his own vision into his work, even as he struggles against tight deadlines and tighter budgets.

We first made contact when I wrote an article for Film International that was sharply critical of The Asylum, the company Lawson works for. Lawson responded in the comments section without the slightest bit of rancor, and suggested that we correspond about the production of his latest film, just wrapped a few days ago, Ardennes Fury. It’s his fifth film as a director.

Yes, Ardennes Fury is indebted to David Ayers’ big budget film Fury coming out later this Fall from Columbia Pictures; yes, you could call this another “tie-in” film from The Asylum, but at the same time, Lawson is absolutely sincere about what he’s doing, and all that the films really share is a similar title; they’re really two absolutely different projects.

Like American International Pictures in the 1950s and 60s, The Asylum makes commercial films for a price, and as Lawson makes clear, they don’t use interns or students – they just can’t stand the pace at the studio. Like it or not, The Asylum has a vision all its own. So what’s it like to make films in the Hollywood trenches today? Here’s a chance to find out, first hand.”

You can read the entire interview by clicking here, or on the image above.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/