Kurt Russell stars, in his third of five films with Carpenter, as R.J. MacReady, a helicopter pilot working at an American research station in the Antarctic. A dog makes its way there, pursued by armed Norwegians. The Americans rescue the dog, totally unaware of what it’s carrying. Carpenter heightened the paranoia of the story, creating a monster that could take the shape of anyone or anything, and enclosing the arctic setting so that the characters are constantly surrounded by cold and dark. They cannot leave their man-made compound, even though the terror could literally be around any corner. Wilford Brimley and Keith David also star. Although Carpenter usually provides his own musical scores, for this one, the legendary Ennio Morricone did the honors. A 2011 remake/prequel followed, but was deservedly forgotten.
Do the Right Thing (Crackle)
A different kind of “Thing,” Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) deserves to be part of the national conversation again, given its appearance in the recent film Southside with You, as well as the controversial release of the new The Birth of a Nation. Nate Parker’s new film is a rabble-rouser without offering much chance to ask questions; Lee’s film is a rabble-rouser that dares us to ask questions. It takes place on a scorching hot day in Brooklyn, in the neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant (or Bed-Stuy). We meet many memorable characters, all with interesting things to say, but the main events center around pizza delivery man Mookie (Lee), Radio Raheem (recently departed Bill Nunn), and the pizzeria’s owner, Sal (Danny Aiello).
As the day wears on and tensions rise, sometimes over race and racial misunderstandings, things come to a head as Radio Raheem enters the pizza parlor, blasting Public Enemy on his radio. The climax, an act of violence by Mookie, had commentators discussing the many sides of the story, as well as others fearing real-life riots if they went to see the movie. It all ends, famously, with seemingly conflicting quotes from Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Lee’s screenplay and direction were masterful, using rhythms, music and color like a pro, and raising the tensions slowly, using humor and other tools. Frankly, for most of its running time, it plays like a comedy. It received only two Oscar nominations, for Lee’s screenplay and for Aiello’s supporting performance, in the year that Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture. #OscarsSoWhite indeed.
Phenomena (TubiTV, Hoopla)
Many horror buffs know about the famous Italian master Dario Argento, but few have probably seen many of his movies outside of his great Suspiria (1977). When this movie was first released, it was chopped by some 30 minutes and re-titled Creepers (I owned a VHS copy). Since then, it has been restored to its full-length 116-minute version, as well as its original title, Phenomena (1985). The beautiful teenage Jennifer Connelly had been cast in her first movie role in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984), and it’s likely that Leone recommended her to Argento for his heroine Jennifer, a gifted young woman who can talk to insects.
Jennifer arrives at an Academy for Girls in the countryside (not unlike the one in Suspiria), where several murders have already taken place, and she begins sleepwalking. She discovers the nearby laboratory of a forensic entomologist, John McGregor (Donald Pleasence), and his chimp. Together they begin to figure out the mystery, but not before Jennifer gets herself involved with tons of maggots, a fly attack, and other creepy things. Argento was more of a master of atmosphere than storytelling, so it takes more than a little suspension of disbelief to get behind all this, but it’s worth it. The unsettling music score is by Goblin, but the movie also features tunes by Iron Maiden and Motörhead.
Nosferatu (Fandor, Shudder)
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari came a couple of years earlier, so Nosferatu (1922) isn’t the first great horror movie, but it’s probably the earliest one that’s still genuinely unnerving. Director F.W. Murnau is today considered the greatest master of German Expressionism in cinema, using odd angles, sets, and designs to indirectly suggest emotions. For this film, Murnau decided to tell the story of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, simply changing the names of all the characters. Stoker’s widow found out about it, sued, and tried to have all the prints destroyed; fortunately, she failed. A better film of Dracula has yet to be made.
The vampire is now Count Orlok, played by Max Schreck in rat-like makeup. He’s so creepy that an entire feature film, Shadow of the Vampire (2000), starring Willem Dafoe, was made on the suggestion that he was actually a real vampire. Shots of his silhouette, rising from his coffin, or traveling through a mysterious “negative” film exposure still have the power to make your blood run cold. Many musical scores have been composed for the film for various DVD releases, but Fandor features a gorgeous, full orchestral one, and also an unbelievably rich, high-definition transfer that has to be seen to be believed. Murnau only lived another nine years, dying in an auto accident in 1931 at age 42, but he made many masterpieces in his remaining time, including The Last Laugh, Tartuffe, Faust, Sunrise, and Tabu. Each of these are worth checking out.