Movies I Have Never Seen #17: Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986)

What is it: Today, of all days, you know who this guy is. He’s the hockey mask-wearing serial killer who starred in about a jillion gory movies between 1980 and 2003 or so (to be precise, 10 Friday the 13th movies, one reboot, and one “team-up” with Nightmare on Elm Street’s Freddy Krueger). The sixth instalment, Friday The 13th Part VI: Jason Lives, is the charmingly low-key story of a boy with a dream … a dream which involves killing lots of teenagers. 

Why I never saw it: To be blunt, Jason scared me. I was an ‘80s horror movie buff – I loved Nightmare On Elm Street, even the awful ones, and it’s not unfair to say that David Cronenberg’s The Fly changed my life. I grooved on The Lost Boys and The Thing. Yet, for years, I was repelled and a little freaked out by the Jason movies, which were culturally everywhere in the ‘80s – parodied in Mad magazine, homaged by other movies, et cetera. Jason was of course a bit of a rip-off of John Carpenter’s Halloween and its own stalking silent killer Michael Myers, but there was something even more bleak and disturbing about his hockey-masked visage – a blank white canvas with staring eye-holes where a soul might be. He lacked the elegance of a Dracula or the pathos of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. All he did was kill. I even remember seeing the paperback adaptation of Jason Lives sitting on the racks in our local Kmart as a kid, where I’d flip through the pages each time I saw it – figuring it was less horrifying than seeing the movies themselves. These movies seemed more terror than horror to me – I like my horror movies with a dollop of wit in there, and sight unseen, the reputation of the Jason movies is that they were brutal, nihilistic gore-fests without the cheesy parody that made Freddy Krueger or Evil Dead II a bit more, well, loveable.

Does it measure up to its rep? Do the Friday the 13th movies have a rep, outside of horror aficionados? It turns out, years later, some of them aren’t really all that bad, although I’ve still only seen a handful of them – and I’m fond of the weirder later entries like the insanely over-the-top Freddy Vs Jason monster mash, or the absurdist “let’s just send the serial killer into space in the future, then” comedy of Jason X. But to see Jason in his pure, summer camp ghoul element, you’ve got to go back a bit. The Friday The 13th series has a weird chronology – Jason himself barely appears in the first one and doesn’t don that iconic hockey mask until Part III. For the next several sequels, the pattern was set – Jason returns, kills a lot, is defeated by some spunky teenager. By the time Part VI rolled around in ’86, the series was evolving from a creepy, somewhat human knife killer and the rather unstoppable demonic figure that Jason became by Jason X. If you’re imagining what a Friday the 13th movie might be like, then starting with Part VI isn’t actually a bad place to go. 

Worth seeing? “Some folks sure got a strange idea of entertainment,” the town drunk mutters at one point, just before he gets murdered. Jason Lives is the platonic ideal of the ‘80s slasher horror movie in its mainstream moment – lifting from everything from Frankenstein to James Bond to Rambo, with beloved period cliches like the perpetually angry cops, ripped-jean and pastel fashions, synth-driven pop music, the teenagers who run around rutting every chance they get. The movie starts with a thoroughly dead Jason being accidentally resurrected by one of his teenager enemies and given new superhuman endurance, and escalates from there. You can’t expect part six of a series to bring much new to the table, but with Jason Lives the execution is glossily polished to a Tupperware shine. It’s schlock, but in the right mood it’s massively entertaining schlock, really, and less sadistic than one might expect (sure, teens die, but nobody is really tortured here – Jason is quite efficient). There’s a fair bit of humour and in-jokes here, but not enough to push it into Scream meta territory. It’s simply an effective scare-fest which isn’t trying to be clever. Sometimes, on a Friday the 13th, that’s all you really want. “It’s over. It’s finally over,” we’re told at the end. Spoiler warning: It wasn’t over. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #16: The Decline of Western Civilization (1981)

What is it: Long before she directed Wayne’s World, Penelope Spheeris was known as a pioneering documentary filmmaker for her chronicling of the gritty reality of LA’s music scenes. Over three films from 1981 to 1998, she covered punk and metal stars and never-weres, fans and bands with an unsparing eye. The first of her movies, 1981’s Decline of Western Civilization, looked at bands like Black Flag, Germs, X, the Circle Jerks and Fear in squalid, sweaty detail, and it’s widely regarded as one of the best music documentaries ever made. 

Why I never saw it: Despite its cult status, Decline and its two sequels were barely released and almost impossible to watch for decades. Long ago, when I worked at video stores and paged through ink-stained fanzines, I’d hear about these movies a lot, but pre-YouTube or eBay, good luck ever actually watching them. Finally, a few years back, the entire series was released on DVD with a bunch of cool bonuses, and I finally sat down recently to watch them. Can punk still shock more than four decades on?

Does it measure up to its rep? Music documentaries are one of my favourite genres, whether they’re behind the scenes concert footage, making-of histories, birth-to-death storytelling or day-in-the-life voyeurism. Decline  is a little bit of all of the above. These aren’t superstars – X and Black Flag are probably the best known of the bands here, and this is a pre-Henry Rollins Black Flag at that. Even by 1979 and 1980, punk was a bit past its first wave, and so you’ve got a variety of fiery young bands trying to figure out who they are – whether it’s the bludgeoning rage of Circle Jerks and Fear, the angst of Germs and Black Flag or the more arty, performative work of almost-forgotten bands like Catholic Discipline, this is a snapshot of a moment in time but an anger that’s still understandable today. We see heaps of roiling, brutal men in mosh pits, slamming against each other in an intimate way that seems even more invasive in a pandemic world. Spheeris has a knack for capturing the propulsive motion of punk, with a visceral touch that makes you feel like you’re back in these crowded, grotty rooms decades ago. We see the bands off stage – Black Flag in an insanely over-graffitied squalid crash pad, The Germs’ doomed, mumbly lead singer Darby Crash cooking eggs and playing with his pet tarantula. (Crash would be dead at 22 of a drug overdose suicide before this movie even came out.) There’s a tinge of hopelessness to Decline, especially when Spheeris talks to the fans like nihilistic skinhead Eugene, but that’s balanced out by some incredibly passionate performances, like young Black Flag singer Ron Reyes screaming out “Depression’s gonna kill me.” It’s strange to think that now, 40+ years on, most of these angry young men and women are either nearly senior citizens – or gone. Unlike slick, polished reality TV versions of life, the squalor and power of Decline never feels fake. 

Worth seeing? Decline of Western Civilization isn’t for those with gentler musical tastes – while some of the bands like X are excellent musicians whose snappy tunes still hold up well today, all of them are loud and confrontational. The Germs are barely holding a tune, with the chaotic power of their only album turned into a muddy, jagged roar. Spheeris closes Decline with a terrifying, mesmerising set by Fear, whose lead singer is shown as a bare-chested, swaggering Johnny Rotten on steroids spitting out homophobic and sexist taunts as the kids in the mosh pit smash into each other. It’s like a vision of Dante’s inferno, and it’s awful, yet at the same time, it’s amazing – the power of punk at its most primal, with a chorus screaming “I don’t care about you / F— you!” Fear’s thundering, cruel set seems to sum up everything that’s come before it. Punk could be awesome and it could be ugly and it could often be both at the same time, and Spheeris’ magnificent documentary captures it in all its complicated sprawl. I’m definitely moving on next to check out 1988’s equally cult but slightly more absurd hair-metal saga Decline of Western Civilization II and the reportedly even darker street kids-focused Part III, but the first Decline movie still packs the punch of a brawl in a mosh pit. It isn’t meant to make you feel good, but like punk itself, it’s meant to make you feel something. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #14/15: What’s Up, Doc? (1972) and Paper Moon (1973)

What they are: We’ve lost quite a few silver screen legends lately, but behind the camera, one of the biggest curators and creators of cinema history also left us last month – director Peter Bogdanovich. His death may have been overlooked a bit in the never-ending 24-hour news cycle, but for a certain breed of movie hound, at a certain period of time, Bogdanovich was the great hope for the Future of Cinema. His breakthrough movie, 1971’s ode to a vanished idea of small town Texas life, The Last Picture Show, was nominated for eight Oscars and won several. Bogdanovich followed that drama up with two big genre swerves – the goofy comedy What’s Up, Doc? with Barbra Streisand and con-man comedy/drama Paper Moon, which saw Tatum O’Neal become the still-youngest competitive Oscar winner by nabbing Best Supporting Actress at just 10 years old. When Bogdanovich died last month, I realised I needed to finally get around to watching Doc and Moon and fill in some big gaps in my film knowledge. 

Why I never saw them. The theme of many of his obituaries was that Bogdanovich came into movies like a comet, burning brightly and then flaming out. He loved classic Hollywood, and his best movies are all homages to the 1930s and 1940s. His debut, 1968’s Targets, is a fond love letter to horror icon Boris Karloff combined with a still-shocking look at a mass shooting. The Last Picture Show is one of my favourites, a monochrome gem of nostalgia and bittersweet romance that manages to both romanticise and demonise the American dream, with an utterly luminous young Cybill Shepherd and Jeff Bridges. Next, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon were both popular and critical hits.

But then Bogdanovich steered Shepherd into two notorious flops, Daisy Miller and At Long Last Love, and his career for the rest of his life alternated between moderate successes and mild failure, as well as grim personal tragedy. A keeper of the flame for cinema history, he wrote some excellent books on the many classic Hollywood stars and directors he befriended over the years (he was notably close to the great Orson Welles, and his final film was a documentary on Buster Keaton), but when he died, many of the Bogdanovich obituaries cast him as a kind of example of lost potential. I don’t quite think that’s a fair way to measure a life. 

Do they measure up to their rep: Let’s take each film separately. What’s Up, Doc? is essentially a colourful homage to screwball comedies of the 1930s, with Streisand and Ryan O’Neal filling the Katherine Hepburn and Cary Gran-type roles. Streisand is someone I’ve never always warmed to, but she’s a fiery, wisecracking delight here, a predecessor of the oft-maligned “manic pixie dream girl” archetype. She splashes into O’Neal’s stiff academic’s life almost at random and upsets the dull order of his world. In one light, her character’s stalking of O’Neal and his intense fiancee (a great Madeline Kahn) may be annoying, but if you ride with Doc’s giddy vibe, you’ll get caught up in Barbra’s freewheeling spirit. While I don’t think it quite beats the heights of Grant and Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, Bogdanovich’s homage is a light and hilarious ride. 

Paper Moon isn’t quite so loose and frivolous, although it’s also very funny. Bogdanovich went back to a gorgeous black-and-white for this caper starring real-life father and daughter Ryan and Tatum O’Neal. Ryan is a con man who shows up at the funeral of 9-year-old Addie’s mother. He might be Addie’s father, or he might not. O’Neal agrees to take Addie on a road trip to the rest of her family, but along the way also drags her into his complicated cons, scheming his way across Depression America. Bogdanovich expertly balances Paper Moon between comic and tugging the heartstrings, but is just cynical enough not to make this feel like a Disney movie. He’s helped by Tatum O’Neal, who’s utterly amazing as Addie – her character develops and expands throughout the movie and manages the almost impossible task of feeling like a real, chaotic and somewhat unpredictable child instead of just an actor.  

Ryan O’Neal anchors both these movies, although he’s upstaged by his female co-stars. He’s an interesting case of an actor who was a big star but also tends to blend into the scenery, I find. As a slippery con man in Paper Moon and a stuttering geek in Doc, he never entirely convinces, but he’s also oddly enjoyable to watch playing off the stunning Streisand and the remarkable Tatum. But both of these movies are far more about the women than they are the ostensible main character. Bogdanovich was a spectacular director for women – Cloris Leachman’s Oscar-winning turn in The Last Picture Show is a perfect example – and whatever the ups and downs of his career, he created some of the most indelible roles for women of the 1970s. 

Worth seeing? Viewed 50 years on, Bogdanovich’s great trilogy of films is about his love for the history and form of cinema itself, and that great American theme of the desire to better oneself, whether in money, love or location. The Last Picture Show is stark and sharp as a knife, while What’s Up, Doc? is a silly blast nearly as manic as the Bugs Bunny cartoons it got its name from, and Paper Moon combines elements of both of them to create a satirical yet heartfelt tale of a con man’s mild redemption.

Bogdanovich might have been a comet in that he never really bettered these three films in his career, but he certainly left a lot of great work behind and was one of the last men who knew and worked with the golden stars of Hollywood’s peak years, and worked to keep their names alive. That’s not a bad legacy to have at all. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #13: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

What is it: The mother of all Satanic panic possession stories, and widely considered one of the best psychological horror tales of all time. Mia Farrow is Rosemary, who seems to live a perfect life with her actor husband Guy (John Cassavetes). But when they move into a new apartment, they become close to their mysterious neighbours, and when Rosemary becomes pregnant, she discovers she’s caught in an evil web she can’t escape. The “Satanic horror boom” that ran through the 1970s from The Exorcist to The Omen starts here. 

Why I never saw it: I’ve been rather tardy to a lot of the truly iconic horror films of the 1970s, as this occasional series has shown on several occasions. I think the horror movies you hear rumours about as a kid can haunt you even more if you haven’t gotten around to seeing them as an adult. I mean, I checked out Cronenberg’s The Fly when I was like 16 and became a fan of its goopy glory for life, but I didn’t see The Exorcist until I was in deep into my 40s because it sounded a wee bit too scary. I’m funny that way.

Does it measure up to its rep? Some movies are so famous you know the broad strokes of their plot without even seeing them. It’s a sign of a classic when you finally watch it and still be sucked right into the story. Roman Polanski may be a deeply problematic human, but his skill as a director is hard to cancel entirely. In movies like Chinatown, Repulsion and The Pianist, he’s always in control no matter how chaotic the situation he puts his characters in. He sets a foreboding tone for Rosemary from the start, where everything appears normal, but has an oddly menacing vibe. Nothing much truly scary happens in this movie, but it leaves you feeling unmoored and shaken, just like Rosemary herself is. Brief surreal glimpses of Rosemary’s dreams or a horrifying seduction sequence stand out sharply from the carefully ordered world. It’s that juxtaposition of the mundane and the horrifying that makes Rosemary’s Baby work more than 50 years on.

Farrow, who I mostly know from her days making Woody Allen movies, is terrific, going from wide-eyed ingenue to a truly haunted figure over the course of the movie. And it’s a real trip to see Ruth Gordon, whom I will forever associate with the classic Harold and Maude, hamming it up as the gossipy sinister neighbour (she won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as a result). There’s also a firm subtext about Rosemary’s marginalisation as a pregnant woman – her agency is usurped constantly by her husband, friends and authority figures, and it’s hard not to see the picture itself as a bigger metaphor for the claustrophobic traps too many women were – and are – put in by society. Rosemary’s Baby implies far more than it shows, which in my mind at least almost always makes for a better horror movie. Polanski’s general restraint makes the shocking final 10 minutes of the movie hit that much harder. You’ll never think of “Hail Satan!” in the same way again. 

Worth seeing? The idea of Satan sneaking his way into your life has been done to death in movies and horror, but the devil is in the details here. Polanski’s keen eye for how the ordinary moments in life can be hiding something else make Rosemary’s Baby a vision of hell far scarier than some guy in red with horns.  

Movies I Have Never Seen #12: Faces (1968)

What is it: Independent film pioneer John Cassavetes’ breakthrough film, an intense, almost unbearably voyeuristic look at the disintegration of a middle-aged couple’s marriage told over the course of one free-wheeling night of affairs, drunkenness and messy, messy lives. A sharp break from more formal storytelling in film, Faces often feels like it’s being made up on the spot, threatening at any second to collapse on itself. It was and still is divisive – Pauline Kael hated it, but Roger Ebert called it “astonishing.” “He has made a film that tenderly, honestly and uncompromisingly examines the way we really live,” Ebert wrote. The way we live is, of course, messy, unorganised and often makes no sense to us. Cassavetes tried to show us ordinary life in a way sometimes called “cinematic jazz.” A cult taste at the best of times, Cassavetes died too young but his fingerprints can be seen all over film today – The New Yorker has said that he “may be the most influential American director of the last half century.”

Why I never saw it: I grew up on a steady diet of Lucas and Spielberg and it took me years to broaden my cinematic tastes a bit. “Cassavetes” was one of those arty names that always seemed to float just beyond the horizon, daunting by its sheer reputation. Would I like this stuff? Would he be someone like Robert Altman or Kurosawa, who blew me away and showed me whole ways of thinking, or would he be someone like Fellini, who I still haven’t quite managed to crack? 

Does it measure up to its rep? Faces is more than 50 years old now, and yet it’s still confrontational and raw. There’s a reason Cassavetes’ work is still pored over and analysed today. He attempted to show us real life in a way that feels totally improvised (but wasn’t). He made movies his way, outside the studio system. Faces was a tiny production, made in glittering 16mm black-and-white with an endlessly probing camera that anticipates today’s reality TV. It ended up getting nominated for Oscars and riding the wave of groundbreaking movies circa 1967-68 like Bonnie And Clyde and The Graduate that were slowly breaking down Hollywood’s ossified ways. But Faces is far more punk rock than The Graduate’s sly and polished Simon and Garfunkeled cynicism. 

Faces is a story that’s as old as time – a couple get tired of each other, experiment with other people, then end up back where they started – but it’s the way Cassavetes tells this story that makes it feel like the audience is eavesdropping on something they weren’t meant to see. With game actors like the astounding Gena Rowlands, Seymour Cassel and (in other films) Peter Falk and Ben Gazarra, Cassavetes built up a company of like-minded souls who wanted to use cinema to probe into the heart and mind. 

Cassavetes pushes you, with his scenes of drunken, plotless hijinks or gritty, intense arguments, to the point where you sometimes ask yourself why you’re sticking with this movie, only to find as the credits roll that you can’t stop thinking about it. Faces demands you engage with it, question it, not half-watch it while scrolling on your phone. These days, that feels like a challenge. 

His characters often do inexplicable, nasty and self-sabotaging things. And we often do that in real life, too – good god, the number of times I finish up a day thinking, “Why did I do this thing? Why did I act that way?” Cassavetes used film to try to explain the human spirit, an impossible and yet endlessly fascinating task.

Faces tests your patience – every Cassavetes film I’ve seen seems overlong at the time, but you aren’t ready for them to end. The controlled chaos of their production is the antithesis of tightly-controlled blockbusters, and movies like Husbands or A Woman Under The Influence leave you feeling vaguely battered, half-drunk yourself, and yet… somehow happy to be alive, to be here on this endlessly complicated world, flawed and broken like everybody else in Cassavetes’ cinematic universe. 

Worth seeing? Absolutely, but if you’re one of those people who want movies to entertain and only entertain, you may give up the ghost. Stick with it, and you’ll be left with a movie that both frustrates and haunts you, and may just end up sucked down the Cassavetes wormhole. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #11: Isthar (1987)

What is it: First off, before we get into Ishtar, let’s talk about how awesome Elaine May is. With the late Mike Nichols, she was half of Nichols and May, a hilarious and subversive comic duo who took America by storm in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, with their dry, improvisational wit inspiring folks like Steve Martin and David Letterman. A lot of their stuff is still pretty darned funny today. After Nichols and May ran their course, Elaine May became a screenwriter, director and wry actress in her own right – her fingerprints are all over movies as a writer and “script polisher” including Tootsie, The Birdcage, Labyrinth, Reds and Heaven Can Wait

May’s work as a film director never got quite as famous as her former partner Nichols (The Graduate, Working Girl) but her small filmography – just four movies as director – is a treasure trove of askew, insightful comedy that’s well worth hunting out. You’ve got Walter Matthau in the 1971 black romantic comedy A New Leaf, a perfect little offbeat love story between spoiled rich jerk Matthau and May herself as a ditzy botanist; the twisted hit man buddy comedy/drama Mikey and Nicky with a fantastic John Cassavetes as a man having a nervous breakdown and Peter Falk as his best friend; and her masterpiece, 1972’s The Heartbreak Kid, starring the late great Charles Grodin and an absolutely luminous Cybill Shepherd in one of the meanest, most biting romantic satires I’ve ever seen. May was a pioneer for women in filmmaking – when she signed a deal with Paramount to make A New Leaf in the late 1960s, she was the first female director in decades to break that glass ceiling, in a world where female directors were as rare as snow leopards in a desert. But she also fought with the studio bosses from her first film to her last, culminating in her being fired from Mikey and Nicky and actually stealing some of the film canisters and hiding them in a garage in a bit that sounds like it was ripped straight from an Elaine May movie. 

And then there’s 1987’s Ishtar, her fourth and final film as a director, a word that became shorthand for “box office disaster.” Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty were massive stars at the time, and an epic road trip buddy comedy starring them as hack musicians caught up in a Cold War-era spy plot seemed like it’d be a box office bonanza in the heady 1980s. Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. May, still around at 89, never directed another major Hollywood movie again, although she did continue working as a screenwriter and occasional actress and these days she’s widely remembered for her career highs rather than the occasional lows. 

Why I never saw it: While I’m a connoisseur of fascinatingly bad movies – I proudly own Plan Nine From Outer Space, The Room and Toxic AvengerIshtar was seen as more of a bloated classic Hollywood misfire than a movie that’s so bad it’s good. I only finally got to it recently because I’ve been watching May’s utterly charming earlier films, and it felt like it was time to finally come to terms with the one that basically ended her directing career. The reason Ishtar flopped are many, but it basically boils down to money and hubris. May had a reputation as an indecisive and somewhat spendthrift director, which worked for smaller character-focused work like The Heartbreak Kid, but Ishtar was one of those big booming ‘80s comedies where excess was part of the furniture. Throw in the big egos of Beatty and Hoffman and the studio heads, and autopsies of Ishtar show it’s clearly a case of far too many cooks labouring over a rather mediocre, overstuffed dish. 

Does it measure up to its rep? So how bad is this film, anyway? At the time of its release in 1987, you’d have thought Ishtar was a child-eating serial killer, so bad was its press. Roger Ebert called it “truly dreadful” and endless reams of newspaper and magazine copy focused on the wasteful big budget and production dramas. But while there have been efforts to reclaim Ishtar in the years since as some kind of underrated gem, in reality it’s somewhere in between. Distanced from all the drama about budget and production, it’s not the worst movie ever made, but it’s also a clunky patched-together beast that lacks the tight focus of a twisted buddy comedy like May’s Mikey and Nicky

Here’s the main problem – you’re asked to buy Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty, two of the world’s biggest movie stars, as sad-sack loser songwriters convinced of their own genius. Their star power overwhelms the premise. Hoffman comes off marginally better – “overconfident loser” is part of his whole vibe – but Beatty, much as I like him, is simply not plausible as a fumbling dimwit. Beatty can play losers – the iconic Clyde Barrow in Bonnie and Clyde, Robert Altman’s doomed gambler in McCabe and Mrs Miller, the corrupt politician having a nervous breakdown in the terrific Bulworth – but he’s not right for this role at all. When the movie focuses on Hoffman and Beatty as failed musicians performing their terrible songs, it’s fitfully amusing, but when the action shifts to Morocco, where they’ve somehow managed to land a few gigs, it turns into one of those very ‘80s spy action comedies with a convoluted, confusing plot about lost magical maps and duelling factions in the Middle East. A little bit racist now in its ogling of the culture and traditions of a “foreign land” (a scene where Hoffman starts screaming in pidgin Arabic does not age well), Ishtar loses what little grounding it had when it goes to Morocco. I will admit the recurring gags with a blind camel are pretty good, though.

Ishtar has the bones of a decent movie in it – recast Beatty with someone like an ‘80s Michael Keaton, trim the Morocco adventures and focus more on two loveable loser songwriters, and it might work, but then it’d probably be a different movie entirely. Elaine May’s comedy is at its best when it picks at the recognisable foibles and flaws in everyday life and exaggerates them. When you start having Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty in a pitched gun battle with helicopters in the Moroccan desert, you lose that. Regrettably, May’s career took the brunt of the Ishtar fallout and the resulting backlash hurt women directors in general, which seems more than a little unfair as it sounds like Warren Beatty and others own a fair bit of the blame as well. 

Worth seeing? More of an interesting failure rather than a world-shattering bomb for the ages, it’s a compromised, uncertain comic romp lacking the focus of May’s other films. If you’re making a pilgrimage through history’s “biggest bombs” it’s worth seeing, but on its own merits the pleasures are sporadic at best. I’d definitely start with The Heartbreak Kid if you want to get a better feel for May’s witty charms. Ishtar may have bombed, but Elaine May’s career was more like that of a shooting star. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #10: Nightmare Alley (1947)

What is it: One of the classic film noirs, 1947’s Nightmare Alley stars Tyrone Power in a dark and perverse tale of power corrupting absolutely. Power is Stan Carlisle, a charming carnival worker with big dreams and bigger ambition. Stan works his way into the act of carnival mind-reader Zeena, then steals her act and uses it to become a nightclub star, fleecing his way to bigger and bigger pockets. He takes off with chipper carnival sidekick Molly as his assistant, but soon falls into the web of a canny psychologist (a stunningly cold Helen Walker) who’s even better at manipulation than he is. Stan’s career soon crumbles into a nightmare of alcoholism and despair. 

Why I never saw it: Nightmare Alley was a passion project for Power, who wanted to show his range after making his name in swashbuckling heroic roles. Stan is a helluva role, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing how morally flexible he is, discarding old friends at the drop of a hat in his lust for fame. Like the old spiritualists, he preys on the needs of lonely people and claims to see “spirits.” Of course, the bold and daring Nightmare Alley was a flop at the time for audiences who found it too dark and unsparing, and it sank into obscurity. Thankfully, an excellent new restoration by the Criterion Collection puts it into the canon where it belongs.  At the very start of the film, young Stan is disgusted by the carnival “geek,” a sideshow attraction played by a drunken lush who’s somehow less than human who entertains the crowd by biting the head off of live chickens. “How can a guy get so low?” Stan wonders. But by the end of the movie, a crushed, alcoholic Stan is well along on the same dark road. The movie’s original pitch-black ending was lightened to allow a happy romantic reunion, but it’s still doused in sorrow – there’s no going back when you’ve fallen this far. 

Does it measure up to its rep? One of those hidden gems that film noir is full of, Nightmare Alley is far more appreciated now than it was back in the day. In fact, Oscar winner Guillermo Del Toro is prepping a remake of it starring Bradley Cooper and Cate Blanchett, so expect the original to get even more attention soon. I’d definitely put it in the upper tier of noirs I’ve seen. There’s a masochistic air to Nightmare Alley, which has just enough dark humour and strong performances to keep it from being a mawkish morality tale. Power is particularly devastating in it, with a layered performance taking him from confident striver to national success to the very bottom of the heap, an unrecognizable wreck in the final scene. Sadly, Power would die shockingly young of a sudden heart attack at only age 44. But with classics like this, The Mark Of Zorro, Witness For The Prosecution and others, one of Hollywood’s biggest stars left a sizeable legacy to enjoy today. Nightmare Alley was his favorite film. 

Worth seeing? I love a good film noir, and this one stands up with other genre classics like Double Indemnity, Kiss Me Deadly and Touch of Evil. Embrace the darkness behind the carnival midway lights, and take a trip to Nightmare Alley. It’ll haunt you. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #9: Zardoz (1974)

What is it: The one where the late, great Sean Connery spends most of the movie wearing nothing but a giant orange space diaper. A rather big flop on its release in 1974, it’s generally regarded as one of the strangest science-fiction movies that came in that weird time in between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars, when science-fiction movies turned into cosmic head-trips, equally rich in big ideas and spaced-out nonsense. How weird is Zardoz? It starts off with a floating giant stone head descending into a crowd of gun-waving savages, and delivering this speech: “Zardoz your God gave you the gift of the Gun. The Gun is good! The Penis is evil!”

Why I never saw it: Zardoz is on the obscure side. Director John Boorman delivered the hillbilly hit Deliverance, and this was his follow-up, in the days when directors got to do whatever crazy shit they dreamed up if they scored a big box office winner. So Boorman (who co-wrote, produced and directed this passion project) came up with a lofty tale set in the distant year of 2293, where what’s left of the human population is divided into the feral “Mad Max” style “Brutals,” and the hippie immortal “Eternals,” who live in their own closed-off world. When “Brutal” “Exterminator” Zed (Sean Connery) ends up infiltrating the Eternal world, it sets up a culture clash between enlightenment and instinct, life and death, and also lots of Sean Connery doing stuff you never saw Sean Connery doing anywhere else. At first, you think this will be some kind of weird post-apocalyptic Western, but it gradually turns into a darkly funny weird riff on “Tarzan” before swerving into another bleak and nihilistic direction entirely at the climax. The movie was a bomb at the time, and post-James Bond Connery never did anything quite so strange again. But Zardoz is kind of a cult fetish object now, although still on the obscure side, and even today, its odd pace, fractured hallucinogenic narrative and overstuffed philosophy make it a bit demanding on viewers. It strives for the profundity of 2001 or Tarkovsky’s Stalker, but falls a little closer to the cheeseball fest of Logan’s Run

Does it measure up to its rep? Absolutely, in that it’s frustrating, weird and sometimes slow and yet full of more searching ideas and deep thoughts than pretty much the entire Star Wars franchise post-1983. The experimental science fiction of the 1970s – 2001, Solaris, Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, THX1138, The Man Who Fell To Earth – led to many spiritually-tinged, oddball narratives that weren’t just about people having wars in spaceships. They aren’t all successful, but there’s a fevered, inventive passion to them that is sadly missing in a lot of science fiction since. Connery’s character is curious – a monosyllabic brute at the start who gradually becomes more and more talkative and curious as he turns the tables on the “Eternals.” He’s hugely unsympathetic, raping and murdering at will, but then again the aloof Eternals are pretty flawed themselves. It’s hard to quite figure out what Boorman’s point ultimately is with the shapeshifting script, but despite all that, there’s a lot of startling images in Zardoz – the remarkably ominous floating head, groovy prisms, mirrors and colours galore, the dazed and ruined world of the Eternals, and a startling time-lapse shot at the very end that’s unsparingly brutal. 

Worth seeing? If you want your mind blown and to see Sean Connery’s least flattering wardrobe since the blue terrycloth jumpsuit in Goldfinger, Zardoz is definitely worth a look. Heck, Zed’s bizarre look was so iconic it even inspired a Superman frenemy I rather dig. It’s a movie that really is trying to make a statement, and even if in the end that statement is rather half-baked and obscure to me, it’s worth the weird, wild ride. 

Movies I Have Never Seen #8: Alfie (1966)

What is it: “What’s it all about, Alfie?” A time capsule of swinging ‘60s London, it’s the movie that made Michael Caine a superstar and broke many longstanding movie taboos in its frank depiction of a bed-hopping Lothario and the damage he leaves in his wake. Caine’s Alfie is an unapologetic cad juggling multiple women with a casual sexism that’s pretty savage more than 50 years later, yet despite his character’s nastiness Caine also charms – it’s the birth of one of the cinema’s greatest stars. 

Why I never saw it: First things first – I’ve always liked Sir Michael Caine, who brings authority and intelligence to pretty much everything he does, even A Muppet Christmas Carol. However, my exposure to him began with middle-aged Caine – the first movie I remember seeing him in was Blame It On Rio (1984), nominally a very ‘80s teen sex comedy about a man having a mid-life crisis affair with his best friend’s daughter. It’s highly creepy stuff in hindsight, yet what sticks out (besides the plentiful nudity that first caught teenage me’s eye) is Caine’s nuanced, frazzled performance, far better than the movie itself merits. I later grew to dig Caine in such ‘80s flicks as his hilarious turn in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and particularly his Oscar-winning role in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. Yet it’s taken me years to really dig into the great run of 1960s/70s movies that made Caine’s career – the astonishingly gritty Get Carter, the classic heist flick The Italian Job, the marvellously intricate duel of wits that is Sleuth. And there’s 1966’s Alfie, his first enormous hit, which in some ways feels as ancient as Victorian times to today, but still has plenty of bite. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Alfie is a product of its time – post-war London, men who don’t bother with birth control, country clinics for tuberculosis patients and women who come second to men in almost every arena. It’s got a bit of a reputation as a light-hearted swingers’ comedy romp, but it’s really more of a drama – like Saturday Night Fever, another movie that is far darker and more cynical than its frothy reputation. Alfie dumps women at a moment’s notice, refers to them as “it”,  and fathers two children that we know of with little consideration for his lovers. Frequently breaking the fourth wall to laddishly address the audience, Alfie at first seems a charming jerk, but we soon see the damage he leaves behind. The emotional heart of the movie is a harrowing abortion sequence involving the wife of one of Alfie’s friends (a terrific Oscar-nominated performance by Vivien Merchant). What makes Alfie linger is Caine’s performance, which balances swaggering arrogance and snarky wit with just the faintest glimmers of self-analysis. He’s a confident Cockney bastard, and you often hate him, but Caine gives him more depth than say, Robert Redford or Peter O’Toole might have. There’s something a bit reptilian about Alfie, a sense that something is always held back. Alfie gets his comeuppance, in a way, but you’re still left with the impression he hasn’t really changed enough, or paid for the pain he dealt out. By 2020 standards, the world of Alfie is a time capsule, but there’s still a lot of Alfies out there today breaking hearts on Tinder and treating women with the same casual disdain Alfie did half a century ago. 

Worth seeing? Absolutely. Go in expecting a reflection of the world of 1966 which is pretty rough’n’tumble compared to today’s expectations of relationships, but underneath it all, a lot of how men and women interact today is still as cruel and callous as Alfie himself. It’s also the birth of a charismatic, unforgettable movie star, whose long career has always married Cockney confidence and charm with a hint of something darker, self-contained and possibly unknowable.

Movies I Have Never Seen #7: Suspiria (1977)

What is it: One of the grand touchstones of moody horror, Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria. This highly influential film is a surreal nightmare about a young ballet dancer who discovers her new school is not what it seems. Inspired by Italy’s giallo horror subgenre (but not, according to many, technically a giallo film itself), Suspiria is drenched in vivid colours and disturbing sounds, and a horror film like few before it. 

Why I never saw it: As I’ve mentioned before, while I love a good horror movie, I’m less of a slasher movie fan. Suspiria’s blood-soaked, intense reputation kind of scared me off for a long time, and for many years, pre-streaming, it was also kind of a difficult movie to find to actually watch it. 

Does it measure up to its rep? Suspiria isn’t a movie you go to for plot – the “haunted house” storyline (well, haunted dance school) is as old as the movies itself. But where it soars is in creating a nightmare world all its own. Much of what makes a good horror movie work is mood. And Suspiria is almost all mood. The acting can be wooden and the story is a thin thread to drape the atmosphere around. Yet it all works, because Suspiria is about unsettling you. It’s that pounding iconic score by the band Goblin, which ramps up for the film’s gory set pieces to almost unbearable intensity. The gory scenes are brash and brutal, but the bulk of the movie basks in creating a more subtle unsettling dread. It’s seen in the film’s striking use of colours (it was the final film to use three-strip Technicolor), which make even the most gruesome of scenes oddly beautiful. In its own way, it uses colour as memorably as The Wizard of Oz, Vertigo or Black Narcissus. It feels like an adult fairy tale, a Snow White without dwarves but plenty of witches. Argento’s chilly, removed storytelling gives Suspiria a very Stanley Kubrick vibe. It’s defiantly original and unforgettable. 

Worth seeing? Absolutely, but not for the squeamish or easily rattled. As a sheer exercise in macabre, colourful style, it’s a cinematic milestone and perfect for the spooky season.