Thursday, December 30, 2010

Film Review: THE UNHOLY THREE (1925, Tod Browning)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 86 minutes.
Tag-line: "A Metro Goldwyn Picture."
Best one-liner: "If you tip that boob off to who we are, I'll lay some lilies under your chin!"

Though I don't believe he's ever been discussed on this site until today, I'm of the opinion that Lon Chaney might be the greatest actor who ever lived. From his achievements in self-mutilation to his mind-blowing makeup effects to his mastery of the crazy-eye to his portrayals of mad jealousy, mangling frustration, and unfettered pathos; he assembled a vast body of work that really can't be matched for variety, commitment, or poignancy- and half of his films are lost! Most are familiar with his turns in THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, but others, such as THE PENALTY, THE UNKNOWN, and HE WHO GETS SLAPPED reveal layers of brilliance that his most iconic films can only hint at. Some of my favorite Chaney anecdotes include:
•his performance in 1927's TELL IT TO THE MARINES was so convincing that the powers that be made him an honorary marine.
•a 1928 murderer claimed that Chaney's performance in LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT was so disturbing that it drove him insane.
•the apparatus worn by Chaney in THE PENALTY to make him appear legless caused permanent muscle damage and was so painful he could only wear it and film for a few minutes at a time before there was the chance he would lose consciousness. Take that, actors' unions!

Regardless, the film at hand is 1925 version of THE UNHOLY THREE. Directed by Tod Browning, who collaborated with Chaney on ten films from 1919-1929, it was later remade (as a sound film) with most of the same principals (including Chaney). While I haven't yet had the chance to see that version, most scholars tend to prefer the original.

The plot is truly whacked-out: a ventriloquist (Chaney), a midget (Harry Earles), and a strongman (Victor McLaglen) escape their day jobs at the carnival in order to perpetuate a long con at a pet shop where they pose as a sweet old lady (Chaney), a baby (Earles), and a regular dude (McLaglen), respectively. I don't wish to reveal too much beyond that, so here are- delightfully out of context- my eight favorite things about THE UNHOLY THREE.

#1. When we first meet Chaney's 'Professor Echo,' he's delighting the crowd with his well-cultured comedic stylings, featuring such rib-ticklers as the following:

It's almost an anti-joke, with a sort of amazing anti-climactic punchline. I love it. Afterward, he tries to sell his illustrious joke-book to the crowd- no wonder he got into a life of crime!

#2. When we first meet Tweedledee the Midget, he's raging on a stage across from Chaney's ventriloquism act. Actor Harry Earles may have the facial resemblance and stature of a baby, but his gnarled, take-no-shit-from-anyone, Edward G. Robinson-style countenance must be seen to be believed.

Then this guy down here, with a smirking little tot upon his shoulder, begins to heckle our dear Tweedledee...

...who commences to–


Now that is a character introduction, ladies and gentlemen. As an asskicker, I suppose that Harry Earles was the Weng Weng of his day.

#3. The leering grin and psychotic gaze of Lon Chaney, whenever he lays out an evil master plan. 'Unholy,' indeed! I believe that the same expression rests upon his face in THE PENALTY when he explains his insanely complex scheme in that film (which involves a sweatshop of women making hats!).

Also: Tod Browning's use of shadow whenever Chaney lays out an evil master plan.

#4. The disguises. While Victor McLaglen just has to take off his Tarzan/Hercules costume and put on some regular clothes, Chaney and Earles undergo complete physical transformations.

Earles sells us on the baby 100%, and as soon as the victims leave the room, he whips out the cigars that he keeps hidden in his diaper and lights one up. Overall, his movements and facial contortions are so uncannily accurate that you'll probably be taking a closer, warier look into the strollers you pass on the street each day. One of them might conceal a murderous jewel thief.

As Granny O'Grady, Chaney combines wig, posture, gesture, and costume (check out those lacy half-gloves!) into a flawless impersonation.

The lengths to which he perfected his gestures become especially evident when, for example, in a scene where a mark looks away and Chaney must accomplish something rapidly, out of character, but still in costume. You- like his unwitting victims- are lulled and have become unaware of the extent of the deception! Also, it's terrific to see him quickly pull off the wig and start yelling at his fellow crooks:

#5. Oh, and did I mention this is a Christmas movie, too?

#6. One of Chaney's cons involves tricking prospective pet shop customers into believing that his deadbeat parrots are of the learned, talkative variety. Of course, being a ventriloquist, he can fool the patrons quite easily. But how to visualize the act of birds 'speaking' in a silent film?...

It's pretty damned great.

#7. The courtroom scene. I won't give away any of the actual proceedings, but suffice to say, it allows for some fine character-acting. The judge, played by Edward Connelly, has that elitist gaunt-faced malice later realized in our era by the likes of Peter Cushing and Angus Scrimm. He's superb.

Chaney, on the other hand, embodies absolute anxiety to perfection.

In silent cinema, so many emotions run purer and freer: here, we can look past the traditional 'will-he-get-caught' pretense and look at Chaney embodying the entire concept of human frustration, the idea of an unscratchable itch. Bravo.
(And as a side note, in THE UNKNOWN, he takes this to a whole new level when he...shall we say... has a rather... disarming epiphany.)





In the end, while THE UNHOLY THREE is by no means my favorite of Chaney's films, or even my most loved of the off-the-deep-end collaborations of Chaney and Browning, it's another fundamental example of the man's genius and a 'gift from the past' of true imagination and unhinged virtuousity. Four and a half stars.

-Sean Gill

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Of Note to Fans of Bukowski... and THE ROOM

Readers of this site know of my appreciation for both Charles Bukowski and Tommy Wiseau, and truly I thought "ne'er the twain shall meet," so to speak. Well, I was reading Bukowski's 1975 novel FACTOTUM this morning on the subway, when what should I come across but the following passage:
"I finished my beer, got up and found a bottle of vodka, one of scotch and sat down again. I mixed them with water; I smoked cigars, and ate beef jerky, chips, and hard-boiled eggs. I drank until 5 a.m."
Clearly it's being referenced by the "scotchka" which is so infamously enjoyed by Johnny and Lisa in that one scene in THE ROOM.

Obviously, it's a sign that Tommy Wiseau's next film should be a Bukowski adaption starring himself as the Chinaski alter-ego. I would pay good money to see that.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Film Review: ELVES (1989, Jeffrey Mandel)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 90 minutes.
Tag-line: "They don't work for Santa anymore!"
Best exchange: "You look terrible." –"Yeah, well, I had a rough day at work... Santa got murdered."

In a familiar alleyway, now blanketed with snow and discarded tinsel...

–"What are you talking about?"
"It's my new Christmas tradition. Soon it'll be yours, too."
–"Tell me more."
"Alright, so once upon a time there were these young feminists who went into the woods to make a sacrifice to their goddess of 'anti-Christmas.'

I know that it sounds like one of those bad horror films which is trying to be bad and in the process loses all of its charm, but trust me, it's not. One of them, a virgin, cuts her hand by accident and her blood awakens an evil army of elves.

Er, actually she just awakens one elf. The budget was an issue. More on that later. Oh, and by the way this is the drawing of the goddess of anti-Christmas."

–"A feminist drew that?"
"Just go with it. Also, the elves were created by Nazis."
–"Nazis?! What kind of a Christmas movie is this, anyway?"
"I never said that it was a class act. Anyway, a series of bizarre events take place involving Nazis, elves, Christmas, and often a combination of all three. We meet a sleazy department store Santa
who snorts coke and utters the infamously quotable line 'SANTA SAID...ORAL.'

Before we get a chance to adequately hate him, he gets stabbed to death quite gratuitously in the nuts by an elf.

...Sooooo it's all up to a down-on-his-luck, chain-smoking, replacement department store Santa to save Christmas. Said new Santa is played by Dan Haggerty- Grizzly Adams himself!"

–"I remember that. It was kind of like LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE, except not as good."
"I don't know what you're talking about, but it makes Grizzly Adams very sad to hear you say that. Look at those big, doleful eyes. What sincerity! What excellent pathos! When he's on the screen, emotional responses are being enacted in the viewer, and it almost feels as if you're watching a real movie. He puts a lot of heart and soul into this VHS tape. He's a bit of a hardass, too. One of my favorite parts involves a DAWN OF THE DEAD-style mall shoot-out with some Nazis led by a guy who kinda looks like a young Michael Ironside."

–"Don't you mean Neo-Nazis? That guy's like 35."
"No, the movie takes great pains to explain that they are World War II Nazis. But don't worry about that- the biggest issue here is probably the monster."
–"You mean the ELVES?"
"Yeah, uh...the elf. Its mouth doesn't close. At all.

It has so few points of articulation, that it can pretty much move just one arm. And it's mouth doesn't close.

–"Hey I like the detail on that elf ear, there."
"Did I mention that it can't close it's mouth?"
–"That doesn't sound like a deal-breaker."
"Well, it's not. And I'm recommending the movie. Maybe this is why I'm recommending the movie. Regardless, the end result is that the elf looks like some sort of a lazy-eyed mouth breather. It's supposed a member of the new Nazi master race and the mouth thing knocks off at least 50 IQ points, even for a monster. Especially for a monster. I think the goblins in TROLL 2 probably look better. Consequently, the scariest thing in the entire movie is probably these giant teddy bears in leiderhosen."

–"That actually is pretty scary."
"As I often say, it's the little things that push a movie over the edge. Those head-scratching details that have you wondering if the movie was actually made by a human being. As far as I can tell, writer/director Jeffrey Mandel is an American, but he's got a few touches that are certainly worthy of Fulci or Castellari or Fragasso. Like how cheerful the Mom is as she drowns the family cat in the toilet."

–"What the hell? Why does she do that?!"
"Sometimes context can ruin a moment of genius. Then we got this annoying brat who spies on his sister showering:

and then screams 'You've got fucking big tits and I'm gonna tell everybody I saw em!' Why is this in the movie!? Why is this in a movie? And I haven't even touched on the whole CHINATOWN scene where a daughter learns that her grandfather is also her father."
"Exactly. ELVES is brutal. Also, someone utters the groan-inducing line 'When there is no more room in hell, the elves will walk the earth.'"
–"Yikes. It sounds pretty good."
"That's because it is pretty good. Also, David Lynch might be an ELVES fan."
"Check it out- a year before WILD AT HEART, we a psychotic female bathroom breakdown that involves excessive lipstick, kinda like Diane Ladd's in that Lynch film!"

–"I think you're stretchin' it."
"Maybe I am. But if ELVES somehow impacted the work of David Lynch, that would make me very happy. It's also the only holiday movie I can think of where Santa gets stabbed in the crotch repeatedly until he dies AND Grizzly Adams teaches a master's class in acting."
–"Well, pass the nog- this sounds like a yule-log gem."
"It's some kinda log. But I love it just the same."

-Sean Gill

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas from Junta Juleil!

I don't know if you can tell from the five-minute Photoshop job, but this is supposed to be a Christmas tree decorated with PHANTASM balls. Anyway. Happy holidays to all!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Commercial Review: THUNDERBIRD WINE AD (196?, James Mason)

Stars 5 of 5.
Running Time: 22 seconds.
Notable Cast or Crew: James Mason.

Submitted, for your consideration: Thunderbird. The American Classic. What's the word? Thunderbird. How's it sold? Good and cold. What's the jive? Bird's alive. What's the price? Thirty twice. That's just sixty cents, ladies and gentlemen. Now for those of you still asking, 'What the hell is Thunderbird?,' let me lay it out for ya. It's a low-end, fortified wine. Also known as a blockparty breakup, a poverty punch, or a gutter punk champagne. A cheap n' grubby beverage, which, despite possessing a translucent 'white wine' hue, is known to turn the mouth a tenebrous, inky black. Existing somewhere on the chemical spectrum between Clorox, gasoline, and rubbing alcohol, it's like something out of STREET TRASH.

Over here we have James Mason. Veteran actor of stage and screen and a memorable collaborator of Alfred Hitchcock, Carol Reed, Stanley Kubrick, Michael Powell, Nicholas Ray, Tobe Hooper, Sam Peckinpah, and George Cukor, among others. Nominated for three Oscars, he's played General Rommel, Brutus, Captain Nemo, Joseph of Arimathea, and Humbert Humbert. He even had his own TV show for a little while: THE JAMES MASON SHOW. His deep, velvety voice has delivered exquistely-worded put-downs to co-stars as disparate as Charles Bronson, Cary Grant, and Marlon Brando. A class act if there ever was one. So, you're probably wondering why I even brought him up in the context of Thunderb–

Now that may be the finest celebrity endorsement I have ever witnessed, this side of Bronson/Mandom.

James Mason begins with a moment of hesitation...

You can see it in his nervous eyes and his stiff demeanor. He knows exactly what he's about to endorse. In fact, he may have grown that seedy moustache expressly for the occasion. He's come to grips with the sacrifices that must be made in the name of earning a living, yet still he finds it difficult to maintain eye contact with the viewer. He looks downward, using the excuse of a steadier pour.

"I like the unusual flavor of Thunderbird wine. It's an exceptionally good drink for every occasion."

He slowly pours himself a glass. He hasn't lied to us yet. Not directly. Perhaps he does like that unusual chemical taste in the same way that some of us enjoy the occasional whiff of gasoline from a passing automobile. And note that he doesn't say it's an exceptionally good drink per se, he simply finds it well-suited for every occasion, just as I find Drain-O well-suited for every occasion I have to unclog a pipe.

"Thunderbird has an unusual flavor, all it's own. Not quite like anything I've ever tasted."

Still he looks away. He even uses the descriptor 'unusual' once more. He's falling apart. Under that silken neck scarf, he is sweating buckets. You can't tell because he's a pro, but he's never lied to his public before. He still manages to avoid coming straight out and saying that 'Thunderbird is worth your time and money because it is delicious,' though, which is admirable. I like that sculpture, too.

"I suggest that you try Thunderbird. It's really delightful."

'Delightful' is stretching it. And James Mason knows it. That's why he toasts us with his tumbler-of-Thunderbird-on-the-rocks-with-lime-garnish as he says it. It's an old magician's trick: sleight of hand, distraction, and visual flourish. I like that he never takes a sip of Thunderbird. Now most will probably cite advertising laws and so forth, but I'll always hold that he can't bring himself to do it. It's also possible that the fumes have generated some kind of temporary paralysis.

Ah, and only now do we see that it's officially described as an aperitif, which might be the most egregious example of false advertising yet. Perhaps it could stimulate an appetite for slow-roasted packing peanuts served with rubber cement sauce, or something of that nature. I have to assume, though, that James Mason has tried Thunderbird at least once, or else he wouldn't realize the necessity of so carefully tiptoeing through his adjectives. But it's all in that first look–

It's only for an instant, but he really does look like a turtle out of its shell. The bird may be alive, but the Mason's mortified. And yet, at the same time, he looks scuzzier than Humbert Humbert at his scuzziest. This is the look of a man who is about to hawk some toxic chemicals in the form of a wine bottle. Then again, it doesn't resemble wine in any way, so let's say it's the look of a man who's about to hawk some toxic chemicals in the form of a bottle of bottom-tier Triple Sec. It's like that Philosophy 101 conundrum whereupon if you grab the carrot to feed yourself, someone across the world who you don't know dies. Except here, it's James Mason's livlihood versus a couple of dozen melting bums and dissolving hobos. It's the cycle of life, and it's all laid out quite beautifully. Thank you, Mr. Mason. Now pass that Thunderbird. Let her gentle wings soar.

-Sean Gill