Welcome to your psyche
If a movie has ghosts or witches in it, it usually doesn’t inspire deep reflection from viewers, but at least three art-house movies now available for streaming practically demand it. Another one, at least raises the question of why monsters matter.
Sex is another theme that more often than not is featured gratuitiously, but another two movies this week will have you pondering the topic.
The subject of violence receives playful treatment from two movies that focus on comic book/folk heroes, while another two movies about psychological violence will likely challenge you.
Finally, you'll want to check out a classic movie of suspense in this week's lineup—an example of superb craftsmanship, and a celebration of a man who worked almost exclusively in these lower depths. Enjoy your trip!
Robin Hood (Netflix)
It was recently announced that, starting in September, Netflix will be streaming Disney films exclusively (which, of course, includes Marvel, Pixar, Star Wars, and the Muppets). But right now, fans can watch a handful of Disney animated features, including this favorite from my childhood. Robin Hood (1973) was so seminal that I remember being shocked the first time I saw the hero portrayed by a human being and not the sly fox voiced by Brian Bedford. (Later, I learned to love both the Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn movies, if not the Kevin Costner or Russell Crowe movies.)
Directed by Wolfgang Reitherman, this movie came from Disney’s ragtag middle period—well past the era of the dazzling, polished 1940s films—in which the pencil edges of the drawings were allowed to show, and an 83-minute running time was acceptable. The scrappy feel is perfectly suited for this story of an outlaw and his bear friend Little John (Phil Harris, also recognizable as Baloo in The Jungle Book) who rob from the rich, etc. Within that snappy running time are chases, escapes, rescues, robberies, disguises, archery, kisses, and songs sung by Roger Miller. The evil Prince John (voiced by Peter Ustinov) sucks his thumb and calls for “mommy” when he doesn’t get his way. Andy Devine (a cowboy character actor, best known for Stagecoach) voices Friar Tuck.
We Are Still Here (Netflix/Shudder)
This creepy-house story looks like it’s going to go the way of most other creepy-house stories, but it takes several weird left turns and will leave you wondering, “What did I just see?” Cult favorite Barbara Crampton, known for her role in Re-Animator, stars as grieving mom Anne Sacchetti. Following the untimely death of their son, she and her husband Paul (Andrew Sensenig) decide to move into a creepy new house in a weird small town and start over. The sinister Dave McCabe (Monte Markham) warns them that the house has a dark history. Their friends Jacob and May—two more cult favorites, Larry Fessenden (Session 9) and Lisa Marie (Ed Wood)—arrive to check things out. (May has psychic abilities.)
At first, it seems like We Are Still Here (2015) will be about malevolent ghosts, and then it seems like it will be about a bizarre cult of humans, and then it veers into demon possession as well. It’s difficult to predict just when anyone is going to die, and even harder to guess how it’s all going to end. Ted Geoghegan makes his feature directing debut with this, and also wrote the screenplay, managing to juggle things in a way that feels fresh, mysterious, and sometimes even funny (even if he sometimes bends his own rules). It’s not often that horror movies receive an endorsement from film critics, but We Are Still Here has racked up an impressive 95 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s available on Netflix as well as Shudder.
R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books for kids have apparently sold upwards of 400 million copies, ranking him just behind J.K. Rowling and Danielle Steel as the best-selling author alive. A fairly cheesy (but beloved) 1990s TV series was based on his books, and here is the first major feature film adaptation. On the downside, director Rob Letterman focuses on noise and visual effects, and Goosebumps (2015) isn’t quite as scary or as charming as it could have been.
But on the upside, the movie still has a kind of innocence reserved for those who discovered the thrill (and joy) of monsters at a young age—the movie pays tribute to just about every kind of fictional monster ever invented—as well as some harmless, dorky humor and a tentative teen romance. Dylan Minnette plays the teen who moves with his mom (Amy Ryan) to a small town, where he doesn’t quite fit in; his only friend is a misfit named “Champ” (Ryan Lee). But he does meet the cute girl (Odeya Rush) next door as well as her mysterious father (Jack Black). As Stine, Black is reined in, with a specific character to play, and it becomes one of his more likable roles. Watch for a cameo by the real Stine, playing, appropriately enough, a drama teacher named “Mr. Black.” (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski—see also The People vs. Larry Flynt—co-wrote the screenplay.)
Bitter Moon (Hulu/Amazon Prime)
Director Roman Polanski was a hot property in the 1960s and 1970s, and he won a much-deserved Oscar in 2003 for his moving The Pianist, but in-between, he was an outcast, better known for the various scandals and tragedies that plagued him than for his exemplary moviemaking talents. Bitter Moon (1992) wasn’t released in the United States until two years after its completion, in the spring of 1994. No one knew quite what to make of it. It received tepid reviews and unremarkable box office, presumably because of the dark, sexual subject matter.
Aboard a cruise ship in the Mediterranean, two English travelers, Nigel (Hugh Grant) and Fiona (Kristin Scott Thomas), meet a strange couple: the seductive Mimi (Emmanuelle Seigner, Polanski’s wife and muse) and her wheelchair-bound husband Oscar (Peter Coyote). A slightly repulsed, slightly fascinated Nigel listens to Oscar’s tales of sex, which grow darker and more experimental. Before long, Nigel unwittingly becomes part of their latest scheme. Shocking as it was back then, today’s viewers might be able to recognize Polanski’s genius; his way of thematically trapping characters, and his subtle penchant for dark humor. Weirdly, both Grant and Thomas were catapulted to stardom just weeks later with the release of a cuddly polar opposite: Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Shock Corridor (Hulu)
Now that the Criterion Collection library will be moving to a new streaming service, FilmStruck, this fall, Hulu subscribers only have until November to catch up on classics. Samuel Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) is a must-see of subversive cinema, a crazy masterpiece of jangled nerves and social injustices. Fuller began as a newspaper reporter and wrote his movies like he might have written huge-type headlines; when directing, he reportedly fired a gun instead of calling “action.” He made plenty of pulpy crime stories and Westerns in his day, but Shock Corridor is arguably his most ambitious film and perhaps his greatest achievement.
Bent on winning a Pulitzer Prize, journalist Johnny Barrett (Peter Breck) decides to go undercover, pretending to be insane and checking into an asylum to solve a murder that has taken place there. He interviews three main suspects, a former prisoner of war that thinks he’s a Confederate general, a black man who thinks he’s a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and an atomic scientist driven insane by his work and regressed to childhood. Of course, Johnny’s plans don’t go quite so smoothly; the place begins to affect him more strongly than he anticipated. Constance Towers plays Johnny’s girlfriend, posing as his sister, and James Best (later known for his role as the sheriff on The Dukes of Hazzard) plays the Confederate general.
Director Brian De Palma is currently the subject of a new documentary, which could hopefully bring some attention back to this incredible and criminally underrated talent. But a viewing of his early film Sisters (1973)—a Criterion Collection title—could accomplish that as well. Made a few years before his hit Carrie, Sisters was De Palma's first foray into dark suspense, using voyeurism and split-screens to increase its sense of unease. Margot Kidder gives a very strong performance as French-Canadian model/actress Danielle. We first see her as part of a TV show called Peeping Toms, wherein an unsuspecting guest is given the chance to watch a blind woman undressing.
A murder takes place in Danielle's apartment, presumably by her separated Siamese twin, Dominique, and a nosy reporter (Jennifer Salt) from across the way witnesses it through the window. She hires a private eye (Charles Durning) to help solve the case. As often as possible, De Palma uses doubles, and people watching other people, giving incredible texture and layers to his masterfully told story. Best of all is the score by Bernard Herrmann (a veteran of Hichcock movies, of which De Palma is an acknowledged fan), which is bold and terrifying, practically reaching through the speakers and throttling viewers on their couches.
The People vs. Larry Flynt (Crackle)
In the 1990s, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski became the masters of the offbeat biopic, aside from Ed Wood, Man on the Moon (about Andy Kaufman), Auto Focus (about Bob Crane), and Big Eyes (about Margaret Keane), they wrote this biopic about the infamous founder of Hustler magazine, Larry Flynt (Woody Harrelson). In The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), the magazine springs from a newsletter published for a nightclub, and with the help of stripper Althea Leasure (rock star Courtney Love), it becomes a smash success. And, from there, numerous enemies emerge.
One such enemy shoots Flynt, paralyzing him from the waist down. Another such enemy is none other than televangelist Jerry Falwell (Richard Paul), who takes Flynt to court for a highly publicized trial. Edward Norton plays lawyer Alan Isaacman, giving a remarkable performance in his first year as an actor; he received an Oscar nomination not for this, but for a slightly showier role in Primal Fear. Harrelson received a Best Actor nomination for his performance, as did Milos Forman (already a two-time winner for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus). If that’s not enough, Crispin Glover co-stars, and the real Flynt makes a cameo—playing a judge. Despite copious amounts of sex, it received critical acclaim, but did not break the box office.
The Spirit (TubiTV)
Will Eisner’s The Spirit comics, which debuted in 1940, are masterful achievements, groundbreaking in their use of shadow, space, rhythm, timing, humor, action, and just about everything else. The masked character was so popular, he has endured up to and past Eisner’s death in 2005. Frank Miller is also a comics legend, known for revitalizing the Daredevil series in the 1980s, and creating one of the greatest comic books of all time, The Dark Knight Returns. He also wrote several screenplays and co-directed the movie adaptation of his comic Sin City. In 2008, he was ready to write and direct his own movie, and what better than a feature film version of The Spirit?
The result, opening on Christmas Day of 2008, disappointed just about everyone (except me). It’s a completely visually insane trip, with Miller indulging in his own most imaginative whims. He freely mingles his own imagery with Eisner’s and comes up with something halfway between, and gorgeously mutated. Gabriel Macht is fairly boring as the hero, and the story and dialogue are ridiculous, but the supporting cast (Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Eva Mendes, Sarah Paulson, Jaime King, Paz Vega, etc.) lends some colorful charisma to this artificial, elastic pastiche. It also has less of a violence fetish than the Sin City or 300 movies, opting for style and movement over blood and gore. Stick around for the end credits to be treated to some original Miller artwork.
Corman's World (Hoopla)
There are hundreds of documentaries about the movies, but Roger Corman is as worthy a subject as you can get. Corman began back in the 1950s, first producing, then directing, a series of B-movies, each shot in a handful of days on budgets that wouldn’t even pay for a car today. He directed over 50 movies in the space of about 15 years before he turned to producing full-time. He was a brilliant showman and a great businessman, and had an incredible eye for talent: he gave Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Monte Hellman, Peter Bogdanovich, Joe Dante, Jonathan Demme, and Jack Nicholson, among others, their first big breaks.
Directed by Alex Stapleton, Corman’s World (2011) has the advantage of being able to interview the man himself, then in his 80s (he recently turned 90), as well as watching him on the set of one of his more recent productions, Dinoshark. Some of his grateful students show up to sing his praises (Jack Nicholson actually chokes up a little while talking about his old pal). And there are clips galore, including scenes from his greatest achievements, the color-and-widescreen Edgar Allan Poe series with Vincent Price. The film is available on Hoopla, a service that’s totally free to holders of public library cards; check your local library for details.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Fandor)
Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (he attended film school in Chicago; you can call him “Joe”) made his debut in 2000 with a remarkable, low-budget, experimental, black-and-white film called Mysterious Object at Noon. Since then, he has become one of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers, winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for this, his fifth feature film. Yet his films rarely follow any kind of linear story and can be challenging; he’s the most mystical and mystifying filmmaker working today.
The plot synopsis of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010) explains that Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) is dying and revisits his past lives while on his deathbed, but that’s too simple to describe what actually transpires. Ill with kidney failure, he has decided to live out the rest of his days on his farm with Tong (Sakda Kaewbuadee), and his sister-in-law, Jen (Jenjira Pongpas). His ex-wife’s ghost appears, and a ghost-monkey appears. We see flashbacks, stories about magical fish and water buffalo, and there are discussions about life and death; some of it makes sense, and the rest just perhaps offers something upon which to ruminate. Either way, this is a beautiful, strange, and memorable film.
The 39 Steps (Archive.org)
After a decade of making films, everything came together perfectly for Alfred Hitchcock with this, his first major artistic achievement. It’s all there in The 39 Steps (1935), the master’s sense of humor, timing, suspense, all his pet themes, everything. And it all meshes perfectly, and, even eight decades later, stands as a model worth studying. Robert Donat stars as a man visiting London; he meets a woman who claims to be a spy and is then murdered. So now he has some valuable information, is being chased by enemy spies, and has also been falsely accused of her murder.
His adventure takes him across country, encountering many interesting characters, and even becoming handcuffed to a woman (Madeleine Carroll) for a time. Hitchcock perfectly illustrates the “McGuffin” in this movie. The hero spends a lot of time trying to figure out what the “39 steps” actually are, but the truth is that it doesn’t really matter; only the mystery matters. It’s astounding how seamless all this is, how unforced, and how frankly entertaining. Hitchcock was one of the few filmmakers in history that could put together a film that would satisfy his own personal vision and artistry, but without compromising the audience’s enjoyment. Look for a young Peggy Ashcroft as the wife of a pious farmer; it’s a small, seemingly unimportant scene that, surprisingly, becomes important later.
The Witch (Vudu)
Writer and director Robert Eggers made his feature debut with The Witch (2016), which is not only in the running for the best horror film of the year, but also one of the best films of the year. Eggers did copious amounts of research for his 17th century tale, making sure that the dialogue, sets, costumes, and everything else about the story were as authentic as possible. The result is not so much a feeling of being transported to another time, but to another state of mind. In this world, witches are believed to be real—no question. All horror cliches involving disbelief and carelessness are gone. These characters live in actual fear.
In New England, a Puritan family is banished and sets up their own isolated farm near a spooky woods. Life is already hard, and then one day, while eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) is looking after the baby, it suddenly disappears, possibly taken by a witch. More crazy things begin to happen, and the family members begin to suspect each other of being under the influence of witchcraft. The gloomy atmosphere and eerie music is more haunting than it is flat-out scary, but this fascinating movie still subtly suggests parallels to life today, and, unlike many horror films, it demands thinking about.