Friday, December 28, 2007

It’s National Film Registry List Day!!!

In 1992, Congress passed the National Film Preservation Act, which essentially produces a list at the end of each year of 25 films to be preserved at the Library of Congress. Full details on who does the choosing and how can be found in the press release announcing the latest group here. There are currently 475 films designated thusly, meaning they either started out with 100, or my math is worse than I thought.

Films Selected for the 2007 National Film Registry

Back to the Future (1985)
Looks like someone felt nostalgic for a time when Bob Zemeckis spent fortunes making movies with real people, rather than one fortune filming people wearing motion capture nodes, and then a second fortune animating over the actor’s movement. The odd tech turn his career has recently taken casts the decidedly Sci-Fi Future movies in a surprisingly quaint light. We saw each once – enjoyed them – and have never felt the desire to revisit.

Bullitt (1968)
It’s easy to forget that forty years ago, it was considered a risk for a movie star to play a cop. In the late 60s, the news was filled with stories of entrenched police corruption, and images of violent clashes with college students were all over television. Bullitt changed all that. McQueen ended a box office dry spell with his portrayal of icy cool SFPD Lieutenant Frank Bullitt; not a hot dog or a head case, just an honest cop trying to keep his head above water in corrupt system (personified by Robert Vaughn – so good here that he was relegated to villains from then on). Bullitt quickly became McQueen’s signature role, oozing laconic machismo from frame one. Brit Peter Yates directs the San Francisco locals like a native, instead of a star struck tourist always making sure the Golden Gate is framed in the background of every shot.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)
It should never have taken this long to make the list. There is no other film involving aliens or spaceships that has the humanity of Close Encounters. To be able to pitch a story at an adult level and still tell it with the wide-eyed innocence of a child is a gift that Spielberg has never employed as effortlessly as he did here.

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)
Save your hate mail – this is on the list because it was directed by a woman, period. Nothing against Dorothy Arzner, but she approved the casting of the always unfunny Lucille Ball. At lease Ida Lupino is already on list.

Dances With Wolves (1990)
Coming at the viewer like a reformed alcoholic bleeding regret and earnestness out of every pour, it’s been quite fashionable to dislike Dances in the last few years. I’d rather see Open Range on the list than this, but give Kevin his due for putting his then blazing career at risk for a worthy cause.

Days of Heaven (1978)
Made back when Terrence Malick was still concerned with pacing, Days is certainly one of the most visually sumptuous films ever made. The Depression-era plot is utterly disposable – this is painting with light.

Glimpse of the Garden (1957)
A short film by Marie Menken. We once again quote the press release: “The beautifully lyrical “Glimpse of the Garden” is a serendipitous visual tour of a flower garden set to a soundtrack of bird calls.” With all apologies, this sounds like something Homer overhears Ned watching on television.

Grand Hotel (1932)
A big budget soap opera done in grand MGM style. Garbo, Crawford, and Lionel and John Barrymore contribute major star wattage; this is one genre that America does better than anyone else. Eat it, Finland!

The House I Live In (1945)
Now this I have to see! From the press release: “This short film directed by Mervyn LeRoy pleads for religious tolerance and won an honorary Academy Award in 1946. Singer Frank Sinatra takes a break from a recording session to tell kids that in America, there are a hundred different ways of talking and going to church—but they are all American ways. The film ends with Sinatra performing the title tune, an inspiring paean to America’s diverse cultural mosaic.”

In a Lonely Place (1950)
Never having been able to get past the ticks and mannerisms of Bogart, I don’t feel qualified to judge its merit, but Nicholas Ray’s direction provides for an enticingly melancholy look at L.A. at the mid-century mark.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
John Ford’s last great western, featuring the best film work of John Wayne’s career (and damn near that of James Stewart, too). The finest western ever made dealing with the passing of the land from the six-gun and the cowboy into a more "civilized" era.

Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
In order to assure a concerned public that there is more to American silent comedy than Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton, the NFR has pulled Charley Chase out of mothballs. I haven’t seen this one, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.

The Naked City (1948)
Equal parts Noir, police procedural, and documentary. Next time you enjoy an episode of Law & Order, thank producer Mark Hellinger and director Jules Dassin. One of the too few films on this list that is both a vital work of art and an important cultural landmark.

Now, Voyager (1942)
Of the 3 major “woman’s pictures” on this year’s list, this is our least favorite. Nothing against Bette, but I see clich├ęs where others see the moon and the stars.

Oklahoma! (1955)
A musical that’s much more fun than any description makes it sound. The only thing wrong with this production is the lack of Hugh Jackman.

Our Day (1938)
A 12 minute long amateur effort by one Walter Kelly of Lebanon, KT. It sounds like an interesting window onto a world now gone forever – and perhaps a Google search might just turn this one up.

Peege (1972)
A student film from Randal Kleiser. Randal would go on to direct Grease. Randal would also make The Blue Lagoon, Grandview, USA, and Honey, I Blew Up the Kid. I’m sure Randal is as surprised as anyone to see his name on the list.

The Sex Life of the Polyp (1928)
Admitting that you find any “member” of the Algonquin Round Table tiresome is usually a one way ticket to pariahville. Robert Benchley could be brilliantly witty, and this short has a good rep.

The Strong Man (1926)
Another silent comedy from another well regarded entertainer with a plummeting profile. This one is the work of one Harry Langdon, a former vaudevillian whose previous features feature titles like Long Pants and Tramp, Tramp, Tramp – and if that represented a Jeopardy question, the answer would be “Why isn’t the Scribe fond of silent comedies?”

Three Little Pigs (1933)
An early animated effort from Disney. I could barely tolerate Disney animation as a child, and as an adult I must admit to finding them nigh unwatchable. Aimed squarely at and below the level of small children, they never come near the high watermark of the Warner ‘tunes of the 40s.

Tol’able David (1921)
I’m aware of the film’s historical importance, but I doubt I’ll be searching through the debris of a post-apocalypse D.C. looking for it.

Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969-71)
The NFR’s description uses phrases like “avant-garde” and “structuralist film” way too freely for our taste.

12 Angry Men (1957)
5 decades later and still sharp as a tack. When the Martians wipe us out and start looking for good movies to watch, this might just make them wish that they had saved Lumet.

The Women (1939)
Remember when you had to go to Reno to get a divorce? Of course not – nobody does, but that’s what George Cukor’s all-girl epic is all about. See Grand Hotel above.

Wuthering Heights (1939)
1939 is often cited as cinema’s greatest year and the NFR seems to agree, putting two pictures on this list (not counting Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, etc.). William Wyler certainly had his work cut out for him in cracking Bronte’s tough egg of a book, but his haunted romance is of a type that truly isn’t made anymore

While they could dial down the over-reaching (lets get to the student films and art installations after we’ve got a few thousand on the list instead of 475) it’s not a bad bunch at all. Welcome to the vault!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Come Out To The Coast, We'll Have A Few Laughs...

...and a Merry Christmas!

From Hans, Karl, Theo, Franco, Huey Lewis-Looking Dude, Long Haired Asian Stunt Man Guy, & the rest of the gang!

Thursday, December 20, 2007

It Was A Very Good Year...

If you think that going over a years worth of theatrical releases is tough, try slogging your way through 52 week's worth of DVD releases – seriously! I found one site that had every DVD release from 2007 organized by week – great, except each page had several dozen titles and there were 255 pages - Hell with that! Here are, to the best of my memory, my favorites of 2007:

Volume I – Theatricals

The Witchfinder General (MGM-1968)
The General has certainly been making the “10 Best” rounds lately, and with good reason. The sad, short career of British director Michael Reeves left one flawed, but interesting film (The Sorcerers) and one masterpiece. Released stateside under the less elegant title, The Conqueror Worm, in order to capitalize on star Vincent Price’s association with previous Poe adaptations, Witchfinder is a deadly sober film – perhaps containing the best screen work from Price. Based on the life of Matthew Hopkins, who rode the civil war-ravaged British countryside on a very literal Witch hunt in the mid 17th Century (supposedly with Parliament approval) using various means of “persuasion” to extract his confessions. It’s a rough, occasionally unpleasant film that takes its real life horror seriously; presented without sensationalism by Reeves and without a trace of ham by Price. MGM has restored the film to its original length (inserting some more violent bits and excising a few topless scenes as per Reeves' intent) and reinserted the original Paul Ferris score, which had been dropped from the film when the rights shifted to Orion Home Video back in the 80s.

Monsters and Madmen (Criterion-various)
Boy, someone at Criterion must have a big crush on producers Richard and Alex Gordon! First came the lovingly prepared Fiend Without a Face, and now a four disc extravaganza of much loved 50s frighteners, featuring commentaries from the brothers Gordon, interviews with surviving cast members, and various bits of advertising ballyhoo. Boris Karloff stars in the two classier productions, Corridors of Blood and The Haunted Strangler, with two far lower budgeted Sci-Fi productions, The Atomic Submarine and First Men into Space providing bottom bill support. Definitely my favorite cover artwork of 2007.
Really - look at these!

The Day of the Triffids (BBC/Warner-1981)
Produced in 6 half hour installments by the BBC in 1981, this well written but budget-challenged series had been MIA on video in the states until this welcome edition appeared a few months back. John Wyndham’s book saw the end of humanity at the hand (petal?) of giant plant-monsters called Triffids, whose tongue-like appendages carry a deadly poison, but the author was chiefly concerned with how humanity begins to pick up the pieces after an apocalyptic event. First adapted in 1962 by producer Philip Yordan, the film excavated much of Wyndham’s social commentary in the process of fashioning a straight-ahead monster movie, though the film is well remembered by most children (who were closer to the level at which the story was pitched) who caught the film on television. Wyndham’s themes fared far better in the ’81 BBC production, though the budget constraints (like all their productions from that era, the interiors are shot on video and much that could have been filmed wound up being merely discussed) limit the scope of the effort. With expectations adjusted accordingly, it’s a swell show – though there’s still a definitive movie to be made from Wyndham’s classic. It’s worth mentioning that Wyndham’s themes fared better still in Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later, which borrowed much of its post-apocalyptic England from Triffids and its various film incarnations.

Twisted Terror Collection (Warner-various)
It’s certainly an indicator of the level of commitment that Warner Bros has to its library when something like this comes along. Bestowing quality video presentations on questionable titles is a trend we really, really like. The six films included are:

1. From Beyond the Grave – a late-cycle omnibus from Amicus features a fun setup (Peter Cushing runs an antique shop selling cursed items to deserving customers) but is hit and miss when it comes to the stories.

2. Someone’s Watching Me – the jewel of the box, this is a polished made for TV thriller effort from John Carpenter was made the same year as Halloween. The always breathy Lauren Hutton is a new resident of a luxury building in downtown L.A., and finds herself the target of a stalker. A very atmospheric film with plenty of good scares easily overcomes its TV trappings.

3. Deadly Friend – made during Wes Craven’s lean-between years (after the super-effective Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes and before Scream), this crazily-lame picture about a computer nerd who implants a robotic brain in the comatose body of a neighborhood girl is famous for a few effective gore moments, rendered uncut on this DVD for the first time ever.

4. Eyes of a Stranger – an oddball hybrid of a made-for-Lifetime feature mixed with a Slasher is notable for the casting of both Love Boat cruise director Lauren Tewes as a news anchor menaced my a killer and Jennifer Jason Leigh as her deaf mute sister. The rather brutal moments of violence that always seemed out of place are made even more so thanks to Warner restoring a few blood-soaked moments to this DVD (and, as with Deadly Friend, not mentioning it on the packaging)

5. The Hand – traditionally a means of winning a bet with someone who claims to be able to name all of Oliver Stones’ films, The Hand featured Michael Caine - here in prime late 70s-early 80s maniac mode - as a cartoonist who looses his drawing hand in a spectacularly filmed accident. As frustrations with his career and family mount, people around him begin to die mysteriously. Solid early work from Stone, although the occasionally too-literal approach drags the film down. Stone contributes another of his informative, listener friendly commentaries as well.

6. Dr. Giggles – the weakest film on the set, a huge statement when Deadly Friend is involved, stars Larry Drake as the titular doctor in this below par Slasher that has little to recommend other than the brief running time.

Greene For Danger (Criterion-1946)
Criterion strikes again. A close second for artwork of the year, Sidney Gilliat’s wartime mystery is set at a hospital in the British countryside during the Blitz, where German bombs provide the perfect cover for a murderer. Filled with top-drawer Brit thesps of the day (including an impossibly young Trevor Howard) but the show is stolen by Alastair Sim, hysterically funny as Inspector Cockrill without ever lapsing into parody. Criterion’s typically excellent supplementals round out the handsome package – a must see film that never got much play stateside.

Play Dirty (MGM-1968)
Forget The Dirty Dozen; Andre De Toth’s ultra cynical take on the standard WWII adventure film is one nasty piece of work. Michael Caine stars as a British soldier pressed into service to head a rag-tag bunch of losers in a mission behind enemy lines in the North African desert. Anyone expecting to see these guys learn to work together for the greater good are in for a very unpleasant surprise, as desertion, robbery, rape and murder are on the menu – and those are the heroes! Caine gets great support from Harry Andrews and Nigels Davenport and Green. Informed as much by Vietnam as World War II, it’s one of the few anti-war films that doesn’t fall into the trap of making combat exciting.

Looker (Warner-1981)
Michael Crichton’s thriller about a plastic surgeon to the stars hat gets caught up in a conspiracy involving the manipulation of digitally realized “people” just hit theaters about 20 years too soon. Most people only remember what is possibly the greatest, trashiest 80s theme song ever (“She’s got it all, yeah, she’s got it made – she’s a Looker!”) and the Tom Selleck-esque bad guy (we miss you, Tim Rossovich!) shooting the cool time-slip ray gun. Okay, name one other movie that ends with Albert Finney and James Coburn having a shoot out on a series of rotating commercial sets and I’ll take it off the list. No, I didn’t think you would.

Caligula (Image-1979)
British thespians, porn mogul hubris, and Italian zoom lenses combine for a truly rare specimen, an opulent film that reeks of cheapness. Image’s 3-disc set featuring an alternate “soft” version, hours of deleted and extended scenes, and two commentary tracks featuring stars Malcolm McDowell and Helen Mirren! Our favorite extra may be the Penthouse-made publicity documentary “hosted” by Bob Guccione himself; watch carefully, kids, for we may never see his like again.

Mr. Moto collection Volume 2 / Charlie Chan Collection Volume 3 (Fox-various)
Two new volumes of the Moto and Chan series from Fox debuted this past year, with the former completing the entire Peter Lorre/Moto cycle, and the latter capping off the 8 (surviving) Chan films of Warner Oland. The Moto films were tremendously popular in the 30s, at least until the dawn of WWII made the prospect of a Japanese hero in an American film a highly unprofitable proposition. Chan’s Chinese heritage made him a safer bet, and after the tragic death of Warner Oland in 1938, the role went to Sidney Toler, who would continue to play the role through the 1940s and emigrated with the series over to Monogram. For most Chan fans, however, Oland simply is Chan - all the personality quirks that would be stolen and lampooned for decades to come originated with him. Lorre’s Mr. Moto had the same quiet reserve as Chan, but was more than capable of violence when provoked. Unfortunately, these films have been the ill-advised targets of much derision over the years, for racial insensitivity both real and imagined. If the idea of a non-Asian playing an Asian is something you just can’t get past, I can’t help you. What anyone with half a brain will find in these films are lead characters that are invariably the smartest people in the room, no matter where they are. Both characters have excellent reputations, and are respectfully deferred to by colleagues all around the world. Each possesses a fierce intelligence and a humble nature, and always has the last laugh. But the occasional, achingly unfunny appearance of Stepin Fetchit (whose name would become synonymous with racial stereotyping) will remind viewers exactly when these films were made. Fox spent millions cleaning and restoring these films, in what must have been a tougher than typical corporate decision, and the resulting DVDs are fantastic. Each set contains 4 films (and in some cases more), plus very informative docus that put the films in the context of the time, and highlight the lives of the actors, key production personnel, and the authors who originated the characters.

And the disc of the year…

Cruising (1980)
Disc of the year honors go to William Friedkin’s once vilified classic, a head-first rush into the heavy leather world of a still-grimy NYC. The Scribe was originally drawn to the film after seeing images of Pacino in the midst of a poppers-fueled, fist pumping dance routine - all in the line of duty while hunting a killer targeting gay men in leather bars. It felt cool to champion a film that everyone else seemed either to passionately hate or completely avoid, but soon my alt-ironic adoration turned genuine as the film's considerable (yet subtle) strengths began to show through. Cruising wears its “undercover cop out to catch a serial killer” genre trappings like a Halloween costume, but ambiguity is the order of the day. Friedkin’s best films never concerned themselves with easy answers; even The Exorcist, easily his biggest hit, asked far more of its audience than they were probably accustomed to. In Cruising, everyone’s identity is suspect; from the supposed killers (Friedkin had actors who played victims also play the killer in certain scenes – a trick pulled off far more elegantly than it sounds) to the police who hunt them, everyone is painted in shades of grey. Massive leather squeaking, chain clanking kudos to Warner Bros for giving Cruising an unthinkably lush disc presentation, featuring commentary by Friedkin, and a retrospective documentary featuring nearly all players save Pacino (no doubt holding his energy for the yet to be announced Bobby Deerfield special edition). Unfortunately, Friedkin felt the need to tweak the film in several places, lengthening a few club scenes (which is fine), adding a Rocky-style scrolling credit for the opening (bizarre and unnecessary), and digitally blurring footage during Pacino’s dance sequence to simulate the effects of the poppers (insultingly unnecessary). There is also a bluish tint to several sequences that may well have been in the original theatrical version, and fell victim to poorly color-timed VHS home video editions. Reservations aside – a really stellar job.

Coming Next - Television!

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Happy Birthday, Roy Ward Baker!

Though history will probably note A Night to Remember (1958) as his greatest directorial achievement, it’s his terrific work for Hammer and Amicus that we salute him for on his b-day. Surprisingly, the success of Night didn’t lead to any other high profiles jobs, and Baker worked mostly in television until drafted by Hammer to helm the return of intellectual super-scientist Martin Quatermass in Quatermass and the Pit in 1967. Andrew Keir took over from American Brian Donlevy – a choice that had always irked Q’s creator Nigel Kneale, but forced by producers wanting an American lead to enhance sales across the pond – and brought a less abrasive, grandfatherly approach to the character. Kneale’s ripping story, about the discovery of the ruins of a Martian spacecraft in a London tube station, is a corker; brought to life in very vivid color, and marking a sharp upturn in production value from the smaller-black & white offerings produced by the studio in the mid 50s.

More Hammers followed, from the less than memorable The Anniversary and the downright gimpy Moon Zero Two (with a title theme that clings to your brain with razor wire) alongside higher quality television work for The Avengers and The Saint. But Baker’s late career best came in 1970 with The Vampire Lovers, possibly the best regarded late-cycle Hammer effort. It’s one of the few sexualized vampire tales that didn’t come off as pure exploitation, thanks to Baker’s tasteful handling of the strong, R-rated material. Baker’s last two films for the studio came within a year, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde and Scars of Dracula, the former falling victim to the trend of switching the racial or sexual identity of a classic horror character, and the latter a listless outing featuring a bored Lee as the Count.

Switching to Amicus brought several interesting shows, including a reunion with Cushing in …And Now the Screaming Starts and the omnibus pictures Asylum and Vault of Horror. The latter featuring a great payoff to a story involving vampires that is still censored on the recent MGM double feature DVD released earlier this year. The uncut import is available (though seriously lacking in the quality control department) if you have the ability to play PAL DVDs from Xploited Cinema here:

Returning to Hammer for one last film, Baker helmed the superb genre bender The Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, a co-production with the Hong Kong-based Shaw Bros. Peter Cushing returns (for the last time) as Prof Van Helsing, guest lecturing in China, who works with a large family of martial arts experts to rid a remote village of an ancient evil that is all too familiar to the professor. Produced at a time when Hammer was trying everything short of snuff films to get people into theaters, the film’s reputation suffered (and thumbnail plot descriptions don’t help) but recent years, and the growing critical appreciation for martial arts films, have seen the film rediscovered as a minor classic. And though I’m sure Baker had little to do with the martial arts scenes, a master’s hand was needed to bind the British gothic with Hong Kong chopic; it’s a recipe that shouldn’t work, but thanks to the chef, it does.

Master chef Roy Ward Baker turns 91 today.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Happy Birthday, Kristine DeBell!

First crushes are indelible. They live on, perfectly preserved in a sealed Mylar memory bag, untouched by time. Kristine DeBell wasn’t actually my first crush – that lovely lady is now happily married with several children – but she was my first movie crush, and for me, that’s a pretty big deal. I first laid eyes on her while stealing a peek at the otherwise verboten Meatballs on cable at a friend’s house. Kristine played one of Bill Murray’s counselors-in-training and displayed some nice comic chops. I was hooked on her girl-next-door, super hot under frumpy clothes looks, and I wondered if this was her first film.

It wasn’t.

Alice in Wonderland, a porn-musical version of the Carroll classic, was produced in 1976 by porn mogul and drug store heir Bill Osco, and starred Kristine (her first role) as Alice. While the film did feature hardcore sex, most people saw the film in a slightly watered-down (though still R-rated) cut that was released to most theaters and later on home video. Kristine acquits herself well, but the picture itself is one of those “funny” porn films that are invariably written, directed, and performed by heroically unfunny people. The humor typically manifests itself with the sort of camera mugging most often found in Italian comedies of the 60s and 70s, and renders the film almost unwatchable. The full length version restores a few minutes of hardcore scenes, though it was Kristine’s that garnered the most interest. Twice appearing in Playboy, Kristine was no stranger to nudity, but it was still amazing to see someone with her pouty, tomboy aesthetic doing full-frontal nudity, much less actual penetration. There is a possibility that a body double was used for her final scene, featuring all the XXX bells & whistles, but there’s little doubt as to her participation in earlier solo and oral scenes (to use industry parlance).

Her big shot at movie stardom would come a year after Meatballs in Jackie Chan’s ill-advised 1980 American movie debut, The Big Brawl. The picture is a mess, with Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse brought in to turn Jackie into the next Bruce Lee, ignoring the fact that with one exception, Clouse is a pretty lousy director. Kristine, playing Jackie’s girlfriend, looks as pretty as ever, but doesn’t have much to do, and the film effectively grounded the American film careers of both (though only one would return to Hong Kong and resume their place as its preeminent martial arts star).

The 80s were rough on Kristine, with sporadic film projects such as Rooster: Spurs of Death! and soap work on The Young and the Restless filling out her resume. Her career in the movie biz seems to have ended in 1990; I’ve heard that she left the business and married and has children. Wherever she may be, I hope she’s happy and well.

Kristine DeBell celebrated her 53rd birthday this past Monday, December 10th.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Color Me Concerned

It’s strange to think back on a time when the mass-colorization of black & white films felt like a real threat. Back in the 80s, with studios sitting on hundreds (no, wait – thousands!) of black & white titles, and a new market for “sell through” VHS tapes rapidly opening up, colorization looked to be a viable means to market older films to a younger generation that had grown up in a world of color film and television only – provided, of course, that they weren’t watching music videos or commercials. .

The first to fall victim to the process had to be recognizable enough to get people interested, and preferably in the public domain to forestall interference from filmmakers. Wikipedia says that Cary Grant was pleased with the work done on Topper – a statement that the Scribe has grave reservations about. Topper looked, for lack of a better word, like poop. Each frame was air brushed with garish pastels that bore little resemblance to their real-world counterpart. The delicate interplay between light and shadow that could be found in even the lowliest poverty row programmer had been obliterated, as each scene took on the appearance of a page from a disturbed child’s coloring book. Most filmmakers were horrified at the notion even before seeing what the results may be, and the appearance of Topper confirmed everyone’s worst fears. Ted Turner, an early proponent of the process, mentioned how wonderful it would be to enjoy Citizen Kane in glorious color. Welles, now well into the wine peddling/celebrity panelist phase of his career, was properly and publicly outraged. Unlike Frank Capra, Welles still had the power to sign off on any alterations to his masterpiece and would be able to fight off any attempt at vandalism. Other filmmakers would work with studios on the process; usually for financial reasons. George A. Romero had never seen any real money from Night of the Living Dead thanks to some fast moves from the Walter Reade Organization, the films original distributor, that resulted in Image Ten (Romero’s company) having their copyright removed from the prints. Because of its PD status, anyone could release the film on home video – and as anyone who ever glanced into the movie bargain bin back in the 80s and 90s could tell you, almost everyone did. Working with Hal Roach to colorize the film allowed Romero to finally copyright the work and make some much deserved scratch from his grand labors. Eventually, the controversy seemed to die down; legal restrictions would keep most classics safe, and the results were still too ugly even for the average viewer to bear.

But like Rasputin, colorization is a beast that just will not go down. Recently, companies like Legend Films have greatly improved the technical aspects of the process (and actually do quality color-timing work on films like Scorsese’s The Aviator, so they’re not total black-hatters), and while there’s money to be made, it’s hard to blame a corporation for doing what comes naturally. What is a crushing disappointment, however, is the participation of Ray Harryhausen (a noble and true idol of the Scribe) with Legend in the colorization of many of his 1950s classics – all beautifully filmed in black & white. Sony/Columbia released a 50th Anniversary disc of 20 Million Miles to Earth earlier in the year, and that same edition has just become the first Harryhausen film to be released on a high definition format (Blu-ray, for those playing the home game). But what should be a cause for celebration is nearly spoiled by the Legend Films colorization job that has become the disc’s main selling point. I didn’t quite believe the ballyhoo on Legend’s website - – trumpeting the enthusiastic involvement of Harryhausen with the process, and was deeply saddened to read the lineup of his classics that are in the coloring on-deck circle (read it yourself, I can’t bear to list them). But on the commentary track for the new disc is the master himself, waxing rhapsodic at the beautiful job done by Legend, and thankful that people can now see the film in glorious color. Now I’ll take Ray at his word that he would have originally made the film in color had they been given the money, but I’d also be tempted to look on the back of his neck for a tell tale band-aid, or check the trunk of his car for a giant seed pod. While the color job is far better than the travesties of 20 years ago – shadows now have a fighting chance and colors no longer bleed into each other like facial make-up applied with a Mauser – it does not, in any conceivable way, look anything close to right. The Ymir (so named in subsequent promotional materials but not in the film proper) itself is now rendered in a bright green, and seems about as magical as a certain ubiquitous insurance company mascot, and skin tones are just as pasty as ever. The original black & white version was included as well, and luckily it’s the same luminous transfer previously issued by Sony. The image features much less grain than the older edition, and is easily the best that the title ever has on home video. The new Blu-ray disc is the same as the previously released 50th Anniversary standard definition package, with the exception that the feature now features a full 1080p transfer. The increased resolution frequently reveals flaws in the source material, luckily Sony’s master seems up to the job – it’s a gorgeous transfer. Though the Scribe is eager, his HD screen-cap resources are meager, so I’ll point you to the good folks over at the invaluable DVD Beaver ( for a detailed comparison of color and black & white screen grabs that give an excellent impression of the differences, so go and judge for yourself. As for this viewer; these films live and breathe in beautiful black & white and anything else is defacement, period.

Ray Harryhausen is hero to many of us who grew up on a steady diet of his wondrous stop-motion effects work from Sinbad, Jason, and Nemo straight through to Harry Hamlin in Clash of the Titans. Short of gluing all manner of Dino-festoonery on some poor lizard.(I’m looking at you, Bert I. Gordon), stop-motion photography was the only practical means of achieving creature effects on film. Instead of being overwhelmed by the painstakingly exacting work, Harryhausen managed to give all his creations a distinct personality, and make them come to life in a way that a sweat-soaked man in a monster suit could never approach. 20 Million’s Ymir is no exception, with Harryhausen managing to coax emotion out of both a small clay statue (one frame at a time!) and out of an audience in equal measure. The film does occasionally falter; leading man William Hopper is a poor man’s Kenneth Tobey (and I’m talking third world poverty, here), and the Italian locale provides for lots-a waving of-a da hands and-a talkin like-a dis. The picture as a whole isn’t up to It Came From Beneath the Sea, produced by Columbia 2 years earlier, but the Ymir was arguably Harryhausen’s finest creature work to date.
Latter day effects masters Dennis Muren and Phil Tippet join Ray on the commentary track, though the bad taste left by their snarky, insulting track for Warner’s The Giant Behemoth still remains. The presence of Harryhausen seems to keep them in check, and the track is interesting until someone mentions how great is to finally see the film in color (they’re watching the colorized version while recording the track). It’s on the point of recommending that we run aground. It’s a wonderful picture, and a necessary addition to any nerdly grotto; but to patronize this edition is to support a ghastly practice, and who knows if we’ll ever get the chance to own this film – particularly in high def – sans color additives? Thanks to Netflix (and the lack of a logjam of requests for 50 year old Sci-Fi titles) I was able to get a copy right away, and I recommend you do likewise.
Say it ain't so, Ray!

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

At The Risk Of Being Called Out As A Warner Bros Plant…


It looks like Nolan has been reading "The Killing Joke"...

Monday, December 3, 2007

Getting Some Exorcise

This past weekend, the Scribe jumped at the opportunity to see Washington D.C.’s greatest tourist attraction. Prior to 1973 they were called the “Hitchcock Steps” but don’t go combing through your collection of Hitch DVDs, because the master never filmed there. It’s easy to see why the name stuck, though; located in the southeast corner of the Georgetown University campus, in the affluent Washington neighborhood from which the school took its name, the steps can be found at Prospect and 36th Streets, and provide an unforgettably steep access to M Street below. Perhaps the name came from the Vertigo than one might feel looking down from the top of the stairs, or maybe someone came at them from M St and thought that only a Psycho would make that climb, but that would all be forgotten after the release of The Exorcist in 1973.

The Exorcist gets the Scribe’s vote for best horror film ever made. Perhaps not the scariest (a set of giant tongs were needed to pry yours truly off the theater ceiling after a certain moment in Exorcist III), but William Friedkin’s film version of William Peter Blatty’s novel is quite simply the deepest, most heartfelt and truthful meditation on the nature of goodness and faith coming into conflict with an intangible, yet absolute, Evil that has ever been made. The film struck a raw nerve with audiences 35 years ago, making nearly $200 million in 1973 dollars, and over the ensuing years, would be ripped off more times and in more countries than is countable – with each one getting further and further away from what made the original so special.

Fear is a personal thing; what scares you may be laughable to me, and so on. What Friedkin’s film did so successfully was to exploit the fears that weren’t typical for a horror film. The loss of Faith, losing touch with your growing children (“That thing upstairs is not my little girl!”), and having an orderly, secular, “modern” world shattered by an Evil so powerful that the accepted truths of medicine and science are rendered impotent. Combining these with Friedkin’s documentary approach and Blatty’s literate and witty script made for a stunning picture, and it was not until The Silence of the Lambs nearly two decades later that a genre film was taken seriously enough to both garner Academy Award consideration and support extensive critical discussion (stay tuned to this blog for a larger-scale appreciation in the near future)

But for now, back to the steps…

After Nazi hunter/film director Burke Dennings dies in a fatal fall from Regan’s window to the bottom step on M Street early in the film, they hang over the remainder of the film like the Sword of Damocles. We know we haven’t seen the last of them – it’s just a matter of when. The time comes at the film’s conclusion, when Father Karras draws the evil out of Regan and into himself, and, in what Mark Kermode correctly calls the greatest act of heroism ever committed to film, leaps from her bedroom window and down all 97 steps to his death. In the film’s haunting final shot (unless you’re watching Blatty’s utterly unnecessary 2000 re-cut), Karras’ friend and final confessor, Father Dyer, stands at the top of the steps and looks out over the Potomac. Has the evil been vanquished? The chiming of Mike Oldfield’s "Tubular Bells" says ‘maybe’…

The stairs look mostly the same today; the upper landing has been spiffed up as part of the Car Barn next door, and the MacNeil house is still there at 3600 Prospect – albeit with a privacy wall built just high enough to discourage the curious, and without the wing closest to the stairs - a temporary addition provided by Warner during shooting. It’s a bit disheartening to see person after person walk by this most notable of landmarks, without so much as a glance; the Scribe was last here visiting friends in the fall of ’88 and remembers many photographs being taken while students and local residents proudly acknowledged their very own D.C. monument. On this chilly December night, the only sounds were the better angels of my nature telling me not to write “Karras Lives!” on the stone wall by the first step. So I took only photographs, and left only hushed echoes of admiration.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Taste My Frustration With Cablevision!

As part of an ongoing effort to drive subscribers back to rabbit ears and tin foil, the Scribe’s local Cablevision hub has been providing erroneous programming information for several of its HD channels for some time. Only a fool plans his MonstersHD broadcast recordings based on the CV-provided schedule, and a fools reward is exactly what I received. Seeing nothing but the unwanted Hellraiser and Dollman sequels that frequent my otherwise beloved MonstersHD channel, I scheduled no recordings. After being alerted by a sick friend who had initially attributed the confusion to fever-related dementia, I consulted the MonstersHD website and found that I had been missing several Hammer favorites, Taste the Blood of Dracula, Dracula has Risen from the Grave, The Satanic Rites of Dracula, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed, and Dracula A.D. 72.

Though the repetitive programming and questionable choices can be a prime source of agita, MonstersHD has a good track record in showing excellent prints of some pretty wonderful films – many of which, like Mario Bava's Planet of the Vampires, contain restored footage - something that the network would do better to advertise. Most of the Hammers on display are available from Warner Bros on beautiful (and anamorphically enhanced) DVDs, and, with a decent up-converting DVD player, one can achieve an image of near HD quality. But Satanic Rites had only been available from Anchor Bay many years ago in an overly dark, non-anamorphic transfer. The MonstersHD version is a revelation, featuring much brighter, stable colors on a clean unmarked print. Though no new footage is present, the MonstersHD broadcast runs noticeably longer, as it doesn’t suffer the frame drop-outs that the previous DVD did. One of the final films produced during Hammer’s death rattle, 1973’s Satanic Rites of Dracula continues the ‘Mod’ setting of the previous year’s Dracula A.D. 72, but dispenses with Johnny Alucard (get it?) and his Carnaby Street irregulars in favor of a more mature cast and a less derivative story (Dracula A.D. 72 carries many of the same themes and plot stylings of Taste the Blood of Dracula). The logic-defying storyline, however, is another matter. Despite being staked into oblivion by Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing) at the conclusion of the previous film, Dracula returns, without explanation, as the head of a multinational corporation. DracCorp, you see, is actually a front for a group of Satanists composed of a collection of Britain’s power elite, who obey the will of the Count without question. Their somewhat bizarre mission (again, at Dracula’s behest) would constitute a plot spoiler, but a comparison to someone sprinkling poison on their own vegetable garden might be apt. The police (Michael Coles looking more David Warner than David Warner returns as Inspector Murray) get wind of the nefarious goings on through an informant and call in Van Helsing as a kind of consulting detective.

Part horror, part police procedural, part spy movie and God-knows-what-else, Satanic's more riotous elements are more or less held together by Alan Gibson’s steady direction. Somewhat ironically, Gibson was only 33 when he helmed Dracula A.D. 72, yet seemed ill at ease with the “groovy, baby” antics of the younger characters. Satanic Rites, on the other hand, exhibits the both spirit and breezy fun of a more-macabre-than-average episode of The Avengers. Now in the interest of fairness, the film is far from perfect. The vampire’s demise tops even the lame purity-of-running-water routine from Dracula: Prince of Darkness, as Van Helsing lures the count into a patch of lethal Hawthorne (the aversion to thorns has something to do with Christ’s crown of same), and certainly more fun could have been had by transposing Dracula to a modern-day corporate setting than the rather drab, post-modernist grotto-office that we’re supposed to believe Christopher Lee’s haughty Count would feel the slightest bit comfortable with. Like the set, Lee also seems a bit drab here; he had made his displeasure with Hammer’s more extreme diversions from Stoker’s source book known to anyone that would sit still long enough to listen, and still insists today that he was emotionally blackmailed by Hammer into participating by telling him about all the personnel that would lose their jobs because the film couldn’t be sold without him. We love Chris, but along with Freddie Francis’ frequent griping about being pigeonholed as a horror director, it ranks among our least favorite negative remembrances of Hammer Studios personnel.

But as always, Lee perks right up when playing against Cushing – who may have had the same reservations with the increasingly daffy turns that the series was taking, but never felt the need to discuss it publicly. Their scenes together make watching Satanic Rites a more melancholy experience, as it would be the last time they would appear together onscreen together in a film. Though Cushing would reprise his role as a Van Helsing one last time for the studio in the genre-bending The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, a co-production between Hammer and Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studios, Lee would never again don the black cape for the studio.

If I had a Hammer…

Friday, November 23, 2007

Send in the Gorillas…

Okay, it’s really my fault for falling in love too early. It’s not like the previews for The Mist made any promises that it didn’t deliver; and when a director seemingly born to the task delivers the goods for more than half the time, that ought to be enough, right? What sort of percentage am I looking for?. I really, really wanted to come away from this having loved it the way I dine out – without reservations – but such would not be the case. There are just a few things I need to mention, and I’m afraid it’s going to be like a dead guys fridge…with lots of spoilers
Last chance to turn back
Okay, the good:
The acting was uniformly great. Thomas Jane gets better with every film, and he really shined in a role that doesn’t offer the usual leading man heroics that these films usually provide for their leading men (especially in horror pictures). Toby Jones, whose Capote I really didn’t enjoy the company of, made what should have been a bizarre casting choice seem natural as can be. And the digital photography was excellent – was this Darabont’s first time shooting like this? – like Zodiac, I think that the slightly bland look worked in favor of the story.**** I also loved the second two creature attack set pieces (inside the market and at the pharmacy).

The not so good:
If I remember correctly, the page-to-movie minute ratio is about 1:1, and even with Darabont’s tacked on ending (more on that later) this picture should have been about 20 minutes shorter. "The Mist" was a lean short story and should have been a mean little film – not bloated and slow moving, not even for a few minutes. Take the bit after the group returns from the pharmacy for example; Darabont allows the pace to really go slack at the exact moment in should have shifted to 5th gear straight through to the end. There was also way too much of an emphasis on Mrs. Carmody. After the 12th time the movie has to come to a halt to allow for one of her moments of religious mania, she goes from an annoying character to just plain annoying (and don’t think I didn’t notice the milk bit, Frank – remember what I told you back in October). And with the money they saved on film stock, couldn’t the effects budget have been boosted a bit? I like the Sam Arkoff spirit of the bug attack within the market, but the first creature attack in the loading dock is strictly Sci-Fi Channel Original stuff

The really bad:
Stop explaining everything! I don’t know how big a role Project Arrowhead played in the story (if any) but I really, really didn’t need the origin of the mist explained in such an unexciting, rote way. The more you explain something like this, the less scary it becomes – period. And (deep breath) what a hateful, hateful ending. I can already tell that criticizing this will bring out the “Oh, so you only like happy endings, huh?” reaction, but let me point out several places where it should have ended:

1. As Jane’s car leaves the parking lot. (“So long! Enjoy all that dog food!”)
2. The car just disappearing into the mist on the road after leaving his webbed-in house
3. Right after the huge whatever passes over the highway.

And, if you absolutely, positively need to have some “meaningful” downer of an ending, have Jane close the car door and walk into the mist while still yelling and crying. What comes after that is the most cynical, f*** you, Charlie ending that I’ve seen in a long time. It would have been one thing if this had been King’s ending and Darabont had been stuck with it, but to have made it up from whole cloth?
No sale, Ollie.
**** - It has been brought to my attention (thank you, Jeffrey) that according to Wikipedia, The Mist was intended to be shot on digital video, but switched to a grainy Fuji film stock instead. To me, this film looks more digital than digital; I've seen the kind of grain you get from 35mm and the kind you get from video, and I still say that at least some of this movie (1st loading bay scene, in particular) was digital. Why one would bother spending the time and money that it takes (even for the TV crew that was used here) to shoot on a film stock that will wind up looking like a format that would have been easier and cheaper to shoot on in the first place is lost on me. Maybe my theater had crummy projection, but their print was only a day old.
Kind of makes you go "Hmmmm", right, Arsenio?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

"To Find that I Was By The Sea, Gazing With Tranquillity"

In what was touted as a “rare public appearance” David Fincher brought his preferred cut of Zodiac to a sell-out crowd at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater last night, November 19th. Confessions of a Blogger – I really dig Fincher. Even in the gorgeous quicksand that was Alien 3 you could see a very specific vision at work. Aside from Michael Mann and maybe a handful of others, Fincher has the cleanest visual aesthetic of any working filmmaker, and with Zodiac, he finally has the confidence to tame the effects trickery and film the story in a totally unobtrusive style. His rep as a rough-riding auteur who works actors like a chip-shouldered Kubrick preceded him, so imagine our surprise to be greeted by someone so humble and soft spoken that he didn’t want to introduce the film himself, as he felt it would be too obsequious.

And as for the screening itself? The Scribe is on record for Zodiac being the very best film of 2007 so far. Zodiac heralded the return of the much missed ‘police procedural’ genre - in stark contrast to the forensics procedurals that we’ve been flush with since the 90s. Refreshingly free of CSI double speak about bullet trajectories, body gasses, and splatter patterns, Zodiac instead concentrates on the nuts and bolts of investigative work; immersing the viewer in decades worth of interviews and testimony of witnesses, victims, and even suspects. The ‘Zodiac’ terrified the Bay Area of Northern California with a series of shootings in the late 60s and early 70s, but like Jack the Ripper, only found true infamy after sending a series of letters and coded ciphers to major San Francisco newspapers, creating a climate of fear and paranoia similar to NYC’s own Son of Sam case. The letters always promised more victims (including school buses), taunted the police for not finding him, and even claimed credit for random crimes in the area that he had nothing to do with. Nobody was ever officially charged with the murders, and with the exception of the police assigned to the case and the journalists who wrote about it, the Zodiac nearly faded from public memory by the end of the 1970s. It was the publication of Robert Graysmith’s book “Zodiac” in 1986 that helped to re-ignite interest in the case; in the book, Graysmith accuses Arthur Leigh Allen on the basis of an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence gathered by the former cartoonist during his years at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Fincher’s film concentrates on the toll that years of chasing down dead end leads took on the men closest to the case – SFPD Inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), columnist Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr), and cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and deftly juggles each character in what must have been a logistical nightmare to structure at the screenplay level. The film covers more than a decade and throws enough names, dates, and alibis to make even the most attentive audience feel woozy, yet any patience exhibited is rewarded. Visually, the film has an amazingly exhilarating style yet never drifts too far from the docudrama approach that grounds the film in reality. When Fincher does dip into his bag of digital trickery to lock onto a yellow cab from above and follow it through the streets of downtown San Francisco, or show the passage of a year with a time-lapse recreation of the construction of the landmark Transamerica building set to Marvin Gaye's Inner City Blues, it always flows naturally from the narrative and never feels like the “showing off because we could” camera shots in Fincher’s previous Panic Room.

The 7 minutes that had been added to the film bring it back to the length it was prior to a New Orleans preview screening where the majority of moviegoers apparently felt the film ran too long. Had they asked me, I would have been happy to tell them that removing and/or chopping up existing scenes in order to speed up a film usually has the opposite effect. I noticed three completely new scenes and two extensions:

1. The scene with Melvin Belli (Brian Cox) on the AM chat show now features a new exchange between Belli and the show’s host.

2. When the detectives interview Belli during his Christmas party, there is now an additional exchange regarding the African safari he had just been on (“You must go there, gentleman…such a beautiful, savage place”)

3. A new scene outside Morti’s has Graysmith waking Avery out of a stupor in the backseat of a car (“Paul, you missed editorial, it’s 11:30!”)

4. To bridge a 4 year transition, we now have just under a minute of black screen featuring music and news clips pertaining to the years going by, sort of like the opening of Contact, only going forward.

5. Probably the longest single restoration, Toschi and Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) sit in Capt. Lee’s (Dermot Mulroney) office and pitch their case for a search warrant to the District Attorney over one of those tiny speaker boxes. A very funny, if somewhat redundant scene.

Any new material is a treat, but I’d say that the only substantial change is the 4-year transition; after the breathtaking Transamerica Pyramid scene, having only tiny text on the screen to indicate a 4 year jump is a bit anticlimactic. It’s funny to imagine a the look of satisfaction on the face of the studio executive, sure that taking 7 minutes out of a 165min film would turn it into a top grosser.

During the Q&A that followed, the painfully shy Fincher (who seemed to be attempting to hide behind a hand held microphone) fielded question regarding shooting features digitally (the Viper camera was used on Zodiac, but each digital camera has quirks that have to be dealt with), working with actors (If they’re not cooperating, make them to a bunch of takes without any direction and have them come crawling back), Mission Impossible III (besides not wanting to do another sequel with a “3” in the title all that much, the studio wanted to start production with only 40 pages of script and Fincher balked), and the surprising difficulty in getting permission to use vintage studio logos.

All in all, it was an amazing four hours. The digital projection at the Walter Reade was flawless, and rivals the recent digital Blade Runner showing at the Ziegfeld for pure clarity of image. It was also projected right off Fincher’s own digital copy; I’ve been slow to warm to shooting films digitally, even Michael Mann – who has achieved amazing night visuals with Collateral and Miami Vice - can’t quite get a handle on the excessive grain and the plastic sheen it can give to human skin. Zodiac is the first film that supports the argument that digital is the future of filmmaking. The slightly washed-out look is how most of us regard the period, and the clarity it gives to night shots (just look at the films opening shot, featuring fireworks over Vallejo) is stunning.

This cut of Zodiac will appear on DVD and HD-DVD on January 8th, featuring some of the best packaging we've ever seen.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Picking Gold From The Discount Bin – The Citizen X Edition

In writing about character actor Jeffrey DeMunn recently, I was thinking back over his impressive body of work, and his frustrating lack of recognition. Perhaps confusion with fellow journeyman James B Sikking has retarded DeMunn’s ascension?

The role that should have defined him, the one that should have gotten him noticed everywhere came in a 1995 HBO film about the manhunt for serial killer Andrei Chikatilo, Citizen X. When the bodies of several mutilated children are discovered in the woods just outside of Rostov-on-Don in Soviet Russia, pathologist Viktor Burakov (Stephen Rea), in spite of having no training as a detective, is assigned to the case by Col. Mikhail Fetisov (Donald Sutherland) a lifetime bureaucrat concerned only with placing someone expendable in charge of the case. Burakov uses forensic science to ascertain that the killings are the work of one man. His superiors, Communist Party officials all, dismiss his conclusions. They tell him that serial killers are a “decadent Western phenomenon” and refuse his requests for publicity, computers, and a consult with the FBI. Though Fetisov slowly becomes convinced that Burakov may be on the right track, he knows the futility of bucking the Soviet system – he gives him advice, but little help. Meanwhile, we meet a middle-aged factory administrator named Andrei Chikatilo (DeMunn), seemingly shy and introverted; Andrei is belittled mercilessly by his wife and laughed at by his children. After forgetting to place an order, he is humiliated by his supervisor in front of the entire factory. When we see Andrei at a train station, he wears the thousand yard stare of a desperate man. A train pulls in, gathers passengers, then departs – leaving behind Andrei and a young girl traveling alone. The girl, like most children of the region are poor and hungry, and she agrees to go into the woods with Chikatilo when he offers her something to eat…

As the death toll mounts, the “official” police investigation is limited to Party-approved suspects; as many victims were boys, it is their belief that a homosexual gang is responsible for the killings and Burakov is “encouraged” to pursue that lead exclusively. Disillusioned by the horrors he must bear witness to and discouraged by the bureaucratic wall put up around his investigation, Burakov begins to crack. But his job is saved when a now sympathetic Fetisov blackmails a party official (Joss Ackland) and gives both men – now working more or less as a team – the freedom to run the case their own way, which includes bringing in a psychiatrist (Max Von Sydow) to create a profile for the killer, thereafter dubbed “Citizen X”.

Written and directed by Chris Gerolmo, Citizen X had been made for HBO during a pre-Sopranos era when the cable network seemed to be concentrating on films rather than series. The mid-90s saw HBO producing a string of some of the very best films ever made for the small screen, like the hysterically arch Barbarians at the Gate, a comic-umentary look at the infamous RJR Nabisco buyout, and the searing Indictment: The McMartin Trial, featuring a career-best performance from James Woods as the spotlight-seeking attorney of a family accused of molesting children at privately run daycare center. Citizen X was based on another true story, that of the hunt for a particularly ghastly serial killer, the only one (ever reported, anyway) in the Soviet Union. Chikatilo admitted to some 50-odd murders after his capture, though many believe the actual death toll could have been much higher. The world caught up with the case during his trial, when images of Chikatilo seated inside a cage in the middle of the courtroom made him appear as a literal caged animal (the cage was there to protect Chikatilo, as the court was filled with the parents of his victims, clawing at the cage and screaming for his blood).

Gerolmo’s only major previous credit had been the screenplay for Alan Parker’s Mississippi Burning, and Citizen X displays the same low-key, near docudrama style – a smart choice when dealing with crimes this horrific, as a more heavily stylized approach would have reduced the admittedly sensational story to the level of direct to video potboiler. But Gerolmo’s neatest trick, and what keeps it relevant today (if somewhat ironically) is the incorporation of not only how the Soviet system suppressed the facts surrounding the case, but also how investigators had been restricted in their methods, to the point where they were only permitted to go after an “approved” list of suspects. And the sad irony of how a system that seemingly existed to keep the individual under the thumb of the state in effect created the perfect climate for a serial killer to operate within is well exploited by Gerolmo. The death-by-attrition of the Soviet system provides a fascinating backdrop for the story, even though it’s doubtful that men in bureaucratic positions would have fared as well as these characters supposedly did in the turbulent post-Glasnost years.

Stephen Rea, with his hangdog expression and eyes that seem to reflect every bit of despair in the world, is note perfect as Burakov. Rea takes the character from a functionary whose only concern is losing his place on the waiting list for a larger apartment, to a committed, passionate investigator. Sutherland has a bad habit of phoning in roles like these, but something (possible playing nearly all of his scenes opposite Rea) obviously inspired him to dig a bit deeper, savoring the role and coating Gerolmo’s dialog with a palpable smugness – when an over-excited Rea runs into Sutherland’s office after discovering that the killer is using the rail system to find his victims, Sutherland deadpans back “I know what the trains are, they sometimes get in the way of my limousine”. Von Sydow’s role is smaller, but where another actor would fill the role with quirks and ticks in order to get noticed, he smartly underplays. But possibly the hardest job falls to DeMunn; Chikatilo wasn’t a super-intelligent mastermind in the Hannibal Lector mold, just a man of below average intelligence with a crummy job and an emotionally distant family – almost a Russian equivalent of Jeffrey Dahmer. It’s a real tribute to DeMunn that he can generate sympathy for this man without ever asking for it – no falling on the mercy of the court or pleading for mercy or understanding; he knows what he’s doing is wrong and lies to the police from the beginning so that he can keep on doing it. There’s a stunner of a scene late in the movie where Von Sydow reads the “killer profile” that he had created directly to DeMunn, asking him quietly to point out any incorrect information. As he reads the report describing Citizen Xs childhood, family life, and sexual dysfunction, DeMunn shows us Chikatilo – possibly for the first time – acknowledging who he is and begins to weep.

Citizen X is one of the very best “true crime” films ever made for television, but you’d never know it from the enthusiasm of its studio. Considering HBO has about thirty cable networks under its corporate umbrella, we’ve rarely noted its presence on any schedule. The DVD from HBO video is perfectly serviceable; the reserved shooting style and muted color scheme are represented adequately, and the ratio is correct at 1.33x1 fullscreen.