Frankenstein at 90: The genius of Boris Karloff

One of the greatest horror movies of all time debuted 90 years ago today. In its honour, here’s a post I originally wrote in 2010 about the enduring power of Frankenstein:

It’s a little late for Halloween, but I’ve been in a monster movie frame of mind. The classic monster movies, that is, which to me have always been the Universal Pictures horror of the 1930s to 1950s — Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolf Man, et cetera. I loved ’em as a kid in the 1980s and lately have been on a jag watching some of these classic black and white flicks for the first time in 25 years or so. What’s amazing is how well many of them still hold up, particularly those starring the man who I’d say was the king of monster movies — the original and best Frankenstein’s Monster, Boris Karloff.

Bela Lugosi‘s immortal Dracula seems to get more ink today, and Lon Chaney Jr‘s tragic self-loathing Wolf Man was also great, but Boris Karloff created a monster who defines horror. Try not to imagine Frankenstein’s Monster as the cliched star of everything from breakfast cereals to video games to really bad Hugh Jackman movies. Instead picture the Monster as he first appeared in 1931, looming from the darkened screens. An abomination against life, a morality tale about man’s desire to play god, a creature cursed for the way he looks.

The very first scene when we see the Monster in “Frankenstein” is remarkable. The Monster walks eerily backwards into a dark and gloomy room, almost unnoticed for a fraction of a second — then the camera abruptly quick-cuts inward, two beats, to an extreme, silent close-up of Karloff’s heavy-lidded, haunting eyes. It’s still chilling 80 years after it was filmed.

Karloff’s portrayal is a marvel of economic emotion, terror and innocence all bundled together. The physicality Karloff brought to the Monster defines it; the locked-kneed, lurching walk, flailing hand movements, the monosyllabic grunts and groans. 

The famous “monster meets the blind hermit” sequence in “Bride of Frankenstein” is a bit hard to watch without bias today because Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” did such a glorious job of sending it up, but try to picture it as it seemed in 1933. It’s an amazing little character arc, as the Monster learns and grows an astounding amount in just a short time, from guttural grunts to emotion-packed short sentences. Treated with brief kindness, we see his potential, which makes what happens next that much more stinging.

The naked emotional need of the blind man and the Monster is startling. But what we’re seeing here is a real attempt at human connection between two utter outcasts, a connection that is of course shattered by the outside world’s cruelty. “Alone: bad. Friend: good.” That line could have sounded awful done wrong, but Karloff puts just the right spin of hope and sadness on it. The genius of Karloff is in full flight in this scene, as he’s alternately savage, needy and rocked with childlike glee. He helped form the whole “monster you feel kind of sorry for” motif we’ve seen everywhere from “King Kong” to “Twilight.”

Karloff’s skill is more notable when you compare his portrayal to that of other actors who’ve played the Monster — in the many sequels to the 1931 movie we saw actors like Glenn Strange and Lon Chaney Jr. take on the role, but they lacked that almost-sweet innocence Karloff brought. What was a character of real tragic depth became the more familiar lumbering monster we now know, still cool, but not quite as shocking and strange as the half-human Monster Karloff created in the first three films. And Frankenstein’s Monster on film since has never quite managed the power of the Karloff years.

Sparks, Velvet and Harlem: Comfort viewing for when you miss that live concert buzz

Do you remember music? Three recent terrific music documentaries might not have been quite the same as going to a sweaty concert back in the day, but they still gave me quite a buzz – one fondly visiting some old friends, one giving me a deep dive into a band I’ve barely explored, and a third simply exploding with the sheer joy of live music, humans together in crowds and all the things we can’t quite do like we used to. All three are well worth your viewing time.

The very first time I remember listening to The Velvet Underground was in university, at a friend’s house, and there might have been alcohol involved. My cool friend put on The Velvet Underground and Nico, and somewhere between “Heroin” and “European Son,” I got lost. It didn’t sound quite like anything else I’d listened to, mean and lo-fi and rambling and full of jagged edges. I was hooked for life. The first big ol’ CD box set I ever bought was the Velvet Underground’s 1995 Peel Slowly And See containing pretty much everything they’d ever done. I’m a fan of all the solo work of Lou Reed, John Cale, Nico, even Mo Tucker. I even have a tattoo of a Lou Reed lyric on my arm. 

So I’m a fan, which means that any documentary about the Velvet Underground has to pass my nerdy standards. Fortunately, Todd HaynesThe Velvet Underground documentary gets the job done, despite a kind of unimaginative title. When you love a band so much that you kind of know their story by rote it’s hard for a documentary to stun you, but I found myself caught up in Haynes’ approach, mixing split screens, plenty of footage of Andy Warhol’s Factory and rare scenes of the band at work. It’s a movie that kind of washes over you, like the propulsive debauchery of Sister Ray in its never-ending live jam form. 

Haynes talks a lot to the band’s surviving members Cale and Tucker, and plenty of Factory scenesters and hip fans like Johnathan Richman, but he tries to keep The Velvet Underground from being one of those endless parades of talking heads. Yet I don’t know how well the movie might work for Velvet novices, as it’s so impressionistic at times that it occasionally flits past a narrative. But then again, when I think of the Velvets, I think of them as an experience, something to dive into, possibly while sitting at a friend’s house with a head full of beer at 2am, wondering what that clatter and buzz coming from the stereo could possibly be. Watching The Velvet Underground and letting it suck you into their shadowy world is well worth it.

On the other hand, sometimes you want a documentary to show you something new. Sparks is a band I have been kind of generally aware of (I always loved their “Eaten By The Monster of Love”) without being a huge or knowledgeable fan. Edgar Wright’s delightful The Sparks Brothers made me a fan for life, which is the ultimate sign of success for a music documentary. Sparks are brothers Ron and Russell Mael, who’ve bubbled around in music circles for more than 50 years. From their early rock that teetered between pop and prog to their embrace of synth with songs like “The Number One Song In Heaven,” they marry some insanely catchy melodies with wry, sarcastic lyrics. 

Their story spans from their first big hit, the bombastic 1974 “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us,” all the way up to writing the music and story for Leo Carax’s beautifully strange musical Annette starring Adam Driver this year. 

Wright tells their story with humour and creativity, using animated interludes, plenty of great vintage footage (I’ll never get tired of watching Ron Mael’s stern scowl at the camera) and candid current interviews with the brothers. The Sparks Brothers manages to touch at least briefly on every one of their 26 albums, rather than just sticking to the biggest hits. It’s a nice idea that makes the documentary feel much more authoritative in its approach. 

Wright leaves in just enough mystery about the Maels – you finish realising you don’t actually know much about their private lives, but that’s not really the point. It’s about the music and their creativity, as they’ve charted a path somewhere between pop stars and cult acts and defiantly followed their muse the entire time. You can’t ask for a better career than that.

Summer of Soul (…Or, When The Revolution Could Not Be Televised) might be one of most joyous movies of a rather joyless year. It’s a documentary about the nearly forgotten 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a kind of Black Woodstock that took place over several weeks at a Harlem park and featured huge crowds jamming to legends like Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone, Mahalia Jackson, Sly and the Family Stone and much more.

I love documentaries that introduce you to something a bit hidden – the Harlem festival drew tens of thousands and was filmed, but the footage was abandoned and forgotten for decades. The Roots’ Questlove has done a remarkable job directing this feature which juxtaposes stunning footage from the concerts with broader context about the turbulence late ‘60s and the Black experience in America. It’s deep when it wants to be, but more importantly Summer of Soul is sheer cathartic bliss, with beautiful crowds and remarkable music. 

Some concert movies have one or two stand-up-and-cheer moments – Summer of Soul is packed with them, from Mahalia Jackson and Mavis Staples duetting to 19-year-old Stevie Wonder getting his funk on. For some reason the moment that stuck with me most was seeing the somewhat uncool Black band The Fifth Dimension blow the crowd away with their none-more-hippie anthem “Age of Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In,” pumping with uncomplicated positivity onstage and the same singers much older, watching back their performances 50 years later, grins on their faces. “Let the sunshine in,” indeed. It’s hard to imagine I’ll watch a more uplifting movie all year. 

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.  

I’m already a little sick of the multiverse

I’m a comics geek, a mild obsessive who can tell you in detail about the difference between all the Robins or who the best and worst Avengers of all time were. And I love me a good game of “What If” more often than not. But I’ve got to say that I’m already getting pretty sick of the flood of multiverses getting rolled out in both comics and movie adaptations.

“Multiverses” – or alternate versions of existing characters – have a long, strong history in comics, of course, going all the way back to those Superman “imaginary stories” of the ‘50s and ‘60s, on to thinly-veiled spoofs like the Squadron Supreme of the ‘70s and ‘80s. There were so many infinite earths and alternate possibilities that DC had a big ol’ Crisis on them back in the mid-1980s meant to simplify everything. There’s been at least a dozen other crises since then.

I absolutely loved learning about Earth-3 and Earth-X back in the day. But whipping out the Captain Ecuador of Earth-78 or the Victorian Batman of Earth 342 who’s also Sherlock Holmes has diminishing returns after a while. There have been many, many great stories involving alternate or reimagined versions of existing characters – it’s one of the ways that icons like Superman or Batman have proven so durable in nearly a century. 

Yet both Marvel and DC now seem determined to not use multiverses sparingly, but to make them the centre of their latest intellectual property strategy. Over in DC Comics, you’ve got Infinite Frontiers and Flashpoints and notions like the idea of seeing Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck’s Batman spread their wings, while Marvel is getting as lost in multiverses as DC did before their ‘80s Crisis, with the kind of underwhelming What If? cartoon show apparently entirely created to give us a shiny team of “Guardians of the Multiverse” versions of the characters we already knew, and the new Dr. Strange and Spider-Man movies set to dive deep into the multiverses of madness. 

I’m still a geek, so I do get a thrill when I see Alfred Molina’s awesome Doctor Octopus from two Spider-Man reboots ago popping up again through some timey-wimey shenanigans. I thought seeing multiple Spider-Men and -Women collide in Into The Spider-Verse was one of the best comic films in recent years. DC’s “President Superman” – a thinly-veiled Barack Obama homage who’s both Superman and the President of the United States – is a cool spin on a shopworn idea. 

But it can get old real fast and becomes the equivalent of a writer just throwing ideas into the air to see what sticks. I dip into DC Comics’ never-ending Crises now and then and it all just becomes a gaudy blur of evil Batman and sideways versions of Flashes. I skipped entirely a recent series of Avengers comics all about yet another evil alternate version of the team.

The multiverse too often becomes all about the colourful over-the-top spectacle of a dozen Batmen together rather than about a good story like Into The Spider-Verse told. It’s all about callbacks and easter eggs rather than forming a solid character arc. It’s fan service turned into plot. A character’s got to have more meaning than “wouldn’t it be cool if Batman, but from Albuquerque?” 

Like I said, the alternate realities of comics have been around a while now, and it used to be, they were a bit of a treat – the bi-monthly issues of What If? in its ‘70s heyday, the goofy stories of Batman and Superman’s sons fighting crime together. But when they start to become the main event all the time, it all just blurs together into an endless stream of writer’s drafts and easy shortcuts to character – what if Wolverine was Aquaman? What if Green Lantern was from apartheid-era South Africa? What if the Hulk was a 6-year-old boy? 

It’s easy for anyone with an imagination to knock off 50 of these multiversal variants in the space of an hour, really. But to make an actual character out of them, that isn’t just a kind of hollow echo of someone else’s creative work? That’s the hard part, and rather than endlessly revisiting the past to riff on it, it’d be great to see all the comics shared universes try a little harder to be new things, rather than new versions of old things. 

Timothy Dalton, the Bond with a killer’s eye

There’s a lot to be annoyed about right now, but in my nerdy brain one of the things that most irks me is that due to New Zealand’s ongoing Delta outbreak I’m probably not going to be seeing the long, long-delayed new James Bond No Time To Die any time soon. 

It stinks, but it is what it is. The cure for that, though – watch some of the other 24 James Bond movies! And with all the talk ramping up about this being Daniel Craig’s final Bond adventure and who the next Bond might be, I felt like taking a look back at the brief tenure of the almost forgotten Bond, Timothy Dalton.

Dalton only managed two Bond movies, the shortest tenure as 007 outside of George Lazenby’s 1969 one-off in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Dalton’s term got stymied by delays and legal wrangles (a perpetual Blofeld-level villain in the Bond industry) and after waiting five years for his third film to kick into gear, he left and was replaced by the shiny if a bit insubstantial Bond of Pierce Brosnan. 

Dalton had been earmarked for years for James Bond – he was offered the role way back in 1968 before Lazenby, but he waited to take it on until he was a bit more seasoned and closer to 40. Yet although Dalton’s tenure was short, and the movies he were in never quite rise to Skyfall or Goldfinger levels of greatness, he was for a short time an excellent James Bond. 

Dalton is not exactly underrated by Bond fans – in fact, he’s been called “under-appreciated” so often that he’s actually maybe getting a bit over-appreciated in some circles. But I think for the general public, Dalton’s tenure is sadly barely remembered, which is a shame, because he was very good and unlike almost every other Bond before or since, he didn’t wear out his welcome by the end.

The Living Daylights ramps down the puns and gadgetry of Roger Moore’s tenure for a more realistic tone. But it’s saddled with a rather convoluted plot and rather than one indelible bad guy like the best Bond flicks, it’s got at least three jousting with each other. (Although any movie that features Joe Don Baker as a Bond villain I very much approve.) The story revolves around corrupt arms deals and people caught in between callous leaders during the fading days of the Cold War. It feels rather timely viewed 35 years on, with its climax featuring Bond riding into action in war-torn Afghanistan. Debuting with a minimum of pomp, Dalton’s Bond is immediately comfortable – ice-cold and professional with a hint of something more. He’s far less showy than Moore or Connery and it’s easy to see he’s the direct forefather of Craig’s own approach to Bond. 

Dalton’s second Bond, License To Kill, is stripped-down and streamlined, a straightforward tale of Bond seeking revenge against a drug dealer who crippled his friend. James Bond “going rogue” has been done a few too many times by now, but this was the first time in the movies – you get the sense that Bond is a tiger being let out of his cage. It’s rather brutal and got a very Miami Vice/Death Wish vibe to it, a world away from Roger Moore fighting on moon bases. It faltered badly in the US – License to Kill stands out as still the worst-performing of the Bond movies financially in the US with a mere $35 million, and it had the bad fortune to open in the summer of Batman. Yet it holds up far better than many other Bonds do with its angry Dalton anticipating Craig’s debut in Casino Royale. Dalton really comes into his own in License, doing a lot with his shark’s smile and never letting you forget for long that Bond is basically a hired killer. As the sinister drug dealer Sanchez, Robert Davi is one of the better Bond villains of the ‘80s. License deviates a lot from the Bond “formula” which hurt it in the go-go ‘80s, but today its mean streak and Dalton’s unsparing performance make it work well. 

What’s interesting in both of Dalton’s movies is that the fate of the world is never at stake. No nuclear annihilation or killer viruses here – these are smaller-scale battles, even if they are capped with plenty of explosions and daring chases. It was a brief blip for Bond. With the Pierce Brosnan era, big, bold Bond was back, inflated to ever more ridiculous extremes until Casino Royale came along to downsize everything once again. 

A fusion of Sean Connery’s alpha-male physicality, Moore’s wit, Craig’s wounded brute, Brosnan’s slick polish and Dalton’s glittering carnivore’s eye would probably be the iconic “best Bond,” but Timothy Dalton came very close to giving us a Bond that stepped right out of the novels. It’s a shame he didn’t get a better run, but those are the breaks, 007. 

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. 

The cosmic horror of being Nicolas Cage

There have been many different Nicolas Cages

There was the offbeat comic who emerged in movies like Moonstruck and Raising Arizona, the Oscar winner or nominee of Leaving Las Vegas or Adaptation, the askew popular action hero in Con Air and Face/Off, and the somewhat lost jobbing actor who appeared in an seemingly endless parade of barely-noticed flicks with titles like Rage, Arsenal and Kill Chain. He’s appeared in well over 100 films.

No matter what the material, Cage is always at least a little interesting even in the worst of movies, and a well-deserving cult has formed around him. I’ve been a fan at least since the Vampire’s Kiss days, when I rented a somewhat random VHS tape and ended up staring slackjawed at the screen, wondering what the hell I’d just seen.

It’s hard to see a pattern sometimes in Cage’s relentless productivity, allegedly at least some of which is due to money troubles

But one clear underlying theme has developed in some of Cage’s recent work – one man facing the cosmic horror of an uncaring universe, an idea straight out of H.P. Lovecraft. There’s been a string of movies in recent years where Cage takes his abilities to the outer limits, portraying a string of gruff, stoic men fighting against the random chaos and carnage the universe can produce. In movies like Mandy, Color Out Of Space, Willy’s Wonderland and Pig, Cage has morphed into a kind of bronzed icon of the doomed hero, a figure out of myth and horror who simply fights back, the best he can. 

Not all of these movies are created equal – Willy’s Wonderland is a goofy B-movie lark while Pig is a surprisingly touching drama – but what they all feature is Cage, uncaged, taking bold chances that didn’t seem possible in the days when he was doing fluff like Honeymoon In Vegas. He’s done his share of unmemorable generic action flicks, but when he wants to, Nicolas Cage still surprises you. 

In 2018’s Mandy, an almost unbearably dark slice of psychedelic horror, Cage’s wife is murdered by a Satanic cult and he amps up for a run of heavy-metal vengeance. In Willy’s Wonderland, he’s a mute janitor who ends up fighting animatronic cartoon characters in a haunted funhouse. In Color Out Of Space, a loose adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s groundbreaking cosmic horror tale, Cage and his entire family are overwhelmed and transformed by a malign presence from beyond the stars. And in Pig, what seems to be yet another riff on John Wick, about a recluse whose pet pig is stolen, turns into a surprisingly melancholy, affecting meditation on revenge and acceptance that doesn’t go anywhere you expect it would. Pig isn’t steeped in fantasy like the other three films, but at its heart we still have Cage as a man fighting back against fearful, overwhelming forces – in this case, all of modern society. 

In all four of these movies, Cage is a solid, looming figure – he’s bulkier, beardier than he was in his lanky 1990s stardom, a hulking presence. And in each of them, he faces a world that’s out to hurt him, in which fate is unpredictable and often malign. He does more with his eyes and a piercing stare than a lot of the excitable gestures of his earlier career. 

It’s a good fit for Cage in his latter years (he’s now 57), because he’s channeled that quirky likability of his earlier films into a more ominous allure. Even in a strange experiment like Willy’s Wonderland, where his character is mute the entire film, he holds your attention in a movie that would be fairly unmemorable without him. And in something like the justly well-reviewed Pig, where he’s also highly restrained, he’s still very capable of breaking your heart a little bit as a hermit who is also kind of a sage. 

I’m digging Cage’s cosmic horror phase. I know there’ll be several more Nicolas Cages to come before his career is done – I’m particularly looking forward to seeing an elder statesman Cage – but in a world where everything we knew seems to be a bit uncertain and shaky these last few years, Nicolas Cage staring into the void and fighting back against its horrors seems like the perfect man for the times. 

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. 

Charlton Heston and the humbling of the alpha male

Charlton Heston, screaming on the beach. Charlton Heston, bleeding out in a fountain. Charlton Heston, being dragged off to the insane asylum.

“I feel lonely.” – Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes

There’s a special place in my heart for Heston’s dark apocalypse trilogy of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, the three brutal dystopian futures of Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green and The Omega Man. I’ve watched each of these movies multiple times over the years, and Heston’s clench-jawed, manly man everyman struts through each one of them like a soon-to-be-deposed king. You can’t take your eyes off of him.

Heston had a gung-ho heroic image polished in such films as Ben Hur and The Ten Commandments. But in the 1970s, he cleverly subverted his image with this run of bleak sci-fi classics, each of which positions Heston as a so-called “superior man” who’s repeatedly humbled.

In every one of these films, he loses, hardly the “heroic narrative” but perfectly in place for the pre-Star Wars bleak vision of much 1970s science fiction. In Apes, he’s discovered he’s been a fool all along, and that his most cynical ideas about humanity have come true. (In the underrated and utterly nihilist Beneath The Planet of the Apes, Heston only pops up briefly to bleed to death and bring on a nuclear apocalypse, making the first movie’s ending seem positively idyllic.)

In The Omega Man, Heston dies Christ-like, shot down and bloody while trying to save the world, while in Soylent Green, he’s hauled off by the police to an asylum or worse, spouting crazy conspiracy theories about humans being turned into food.

Matthias: “You are discarded. You are the refuse of the past.”
Neville: “You are full of crap.” – The Omega Man

It’s easy to see Heston as a dinosaur from another age 50 years on, especially with his image off the screen. Heston in later life was a pretty gung-ho Reagan conservative and infamously a cheerleader for the National Rifle Association. (However, for those who want to paint him entirely as some Trumpian troll in real life, it’s worth noting that he was also an outspoken supporter of civil rights and marched with Martin Luther King Jr.)

But on the screen on the 1970s, Heston’s image was crucial to making the doom trilogy of films work. Our first sight of him in Planet of the Apes is him alone, on a spaceship, smoking a cigar (!!!) and ruminating about man and his place in the universe. In The Omega Man, he spends much of the movie alone in his doomsday bunker of a house, the “last man on earth.” In the crowded future of Soylent Green, he’s rarely alone, but his gradual uncovering of the title conspiracy leaves him utterly alone in a crowd by the end.

Yet what I like about Heston’s clench-jawed manly man image in the apocalypse trilogy is that it’s always on the verge of cracking. John Wayne or Clint Eastwood’s earlier films also served up manly men archetypes, yet Heston’s arrives imperfect from the get-go in these films. He’s the portrait of the American white male circa 1970, screaming “it’s a madhouse” as the world around him changes in ways he can’t fathom. The seeds for the popularity of the flawed, “un-Hollywood” leading men of the 1970s played by DeNiro, Pacino or Hoffman are found here.

Heston is so watchable for me in these films partly because he is humbled, again and again, in this apocalypse trilogy. In Apes, he’s reduced to a mute, naked beast, running through the bush in terror.

Life is a series of humiliations for us all, really, of attempts to climb to the top of the heap and constantly finding the flaws within.

Heston’s vivid presence keeps these films alive today, even with his sometimes retrograde sexism and unquestioned white privilege. The subtle ways the narratives in these films question his status stand out now. The opening half hour of so of Planet of the Apes, before those apes come along, is a showcase for his diamond-sharp, Darwinian worldview. One of the central images of Planet of the Apes is him realising he’s no longer the alpha male, again and again.

George Taylor: The way you humiliated me? All of you? YOU led me around on a LEASH!
Cornelius: That was different. We thought you were inferior.
George Taylor: Now you know better.

Mere minutes after this exchange, Heston’s Taylor is left weeping on an empty beach, pounding sand and beholding the ruin of his world.

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.