Monday, October 31, 2016

Movies to Watch on Halloween

Today is Halloween, and to get everyone in the mood for it, the cable this past weekend was flooded with horror movies.

But, with the beautiful mild weather each day and the World Series each night, there was little time left to watch any of them.

Two films that aired the night of game five of the series were Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” and “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” two of my favorites. Had they played either before or after the baseball game, I would have gladly watched them.

Both are a joy to watch and while they are comedies, they use all the elements of classic horror movies to their advantage.

Gene Wilder, in Mel Brooks 1974 film, is brilliant as the heir to the Frankenstein castle who finds his grandfather’s notes and creates a project of his own. The entire cast is terrific: Teri Garr, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, and Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher, who, when pressed to reveal her relationship with the original Dr. Frankenstein, admits: Yes! He was my – boyfriend! By the way, Mel Brooks, in a TV interview, said the name Blucher means glue maker, and that’s why the horses go crazy when they hear her name.

“Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” from 1948 is, to me, the comedy teams’ best film. Abbott and Costello play moving men who bring crates containing Dracula and Frankenstein to a museum and some great stuff happens when the monsters awaken and chase the guys. To further complicate things, the Wolf Man also shows up. Universal got Bela Lugosi to play Dracula again, and Lon Chaney, Jr. to reprise the Wolf Man. Frankenstein, in this picture, was played by Glenn Strange, who for many years played Sam, the bartender at the Long Branch Saloon, on the TV show “Gunsmoke.”

Because those two comedies were the ones I regretted missing, I wondered which horror movies – true horror movies – I would want to look at again?

Would I want to watch “The Exorcist,” probably the scariest movie I have ever seen? No thanks. Once was more than enough.

How about some of the classic slasher films like “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th”? I don’t think so. I saw a lot of them years ago and still remember all the twists, shocks and surprises.

As for classic monsters, I will watch almost any film with a werewolf in it. I particularly like the early ones featuring a sympathetic Chaney. Another older one I like is the low-budget “The Werewolf” from 1956 starring Steven Ritch and directed by Fred Sears.

The 1942 film, “Cat People,” starring Simone Simon, is another film I would gladly watch again. Its story, atmosphere and performances all add up to one creepy movie. The scene that gives me a chill is when Simone Simon, who we suspect is capable of turning herself into a large cat and killing anyone she is displeased with, is approached in a restaurant by another woman with rather feline features. The woman calls her, My sister, in another language, but the message is clear.

One more film that is on my watch-again list is “Curse of the Demon” (also called “Night of the Demon”), from 1957, starring Dana Andrews. This quiet little movie about an American in England and an curse that can bring down the wrath of some terrible monster, will stick with you long after seeing it. But, had the movie ended five minutes before it did, it would have been even better, creepier, and more memorable.

Which horror movies do you remember, and which would you watch again? Or, which films would you rather not see again?

Now, I’ve got to go. Little ghosts and goblins are at my door looking for treats.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

MOVIE: Monte Hellman’s “Cockfighter” starring Warren Oates & Harry Dean Stanton

Critics say the decade of 1970s was a golden age of movies. Newcomers were given a chance to do the stories they wanted, and commercially doubtful films found their way to the screen because the filmmakers believed in them.

But, having read Charles Willeford’s novel, Cockfighter, I had to wonder why anyone wanted to turn it into a motion picture? Did they expect audiences to flock to the theaters to see it. (Sorry about the bad pun there.)

“Cockfighter," the 1974 movie, was directed by Monte Hellman, a quirky filmmaker who directed Jack Nicholson in a couple of westerns in the 1960s, and who made the terrific “Two-Lane Blacktop” in 1971. “Cockfighter” was produced by the dean of low-budget movies, Roger Corman. It starred Warren Oates, a very good actor, who proves it again here. Also in the cast were Harry Dean Stanton, Richard B. Shull, Troy Donahue, Ed Begley, Jr., Laurie Bird, and Charles Willeford, the author himself, in a surprisingly big supporting role as the referee of the fights.

All those people made me want to see the movie. But before watching it, I read the book.

I found the novel jaw-dropping in its violence. The movie follows the book very closely. Willeford wrote the script himself and the fights are as they were in his novel. But, without the gory descriptions Willeford detailed in the book. The documentary-style footage of roosters fighting mostly looks like a lot of wings flapping and feathers flying about. Still, it is pretty brutal stuff.

Aside from the fights – which look real – the story of Frank Mansfield doing everything he can to be the top owner and trainer of gamecocks is quite good, better than the book, which is due to Oates, a likeable actor. His scenes with the other trainers, his brother and a woman who wants to marry him are well done, if very slow by today’s standards. Movies back then took their time and allowed an audience to observe the characters, unlike today when too many movies feel rushed and choppy.

Oates, Stanton and the other actors were very good in their low-key, naturalistic performances, which fit the style of the film. Hellman seems to have used a lot of non-actors and it all blends together very well. But be warned, this movie is pretty tough to take, even for a fan of Hellman, Corman, Oates and company.

(For movie posts on movies and television, see Todd Mason’s blog)

Friday, October 14, 2016

FFB: Cockfighter by Charles Willeford

Charles Willeford’s brutal 1972 novel, Cockfighter, can be read as an indictment of the sport in which two roosters are pitted against each other in a fight to the death with razor-sharp metal spurs attached to their feet.

Frank Mansfield is a Florida-based bird trainer, handler and gambler who, when we meet him, is fixing a cock fight by handicapping his chicken. I will not say how he is doing this and only note that those first few pages will give any reader a horrifying heads up of what to expect in the rest of the book.

During the tournament season, Frank travels around the southern U.S., entering his birds into matches and betting on the outcomes. While cockfighting is now illegal in all 50 states, when Willeford wrote the novel, it existed in a shadow world, technically illegal, but still a popular sport.

Willeford tells his story in a blunt, matter-of-fact style using Frank as his first-person narrator. But, too much of the book reads like a how-to manual on the care and feeding of gamecocks, peppered with flashes of shocking violence.

The novel also meanders off into Frank’s affair with a wealthy woman and his returning to his hometown to have a quick roll in the hay with a country girl who always hoped to marry him. Those sections are not surprising after reading Willeford’s 1955 novel, Pick-Up, about two dislikable characters. Frank is a pretty dislikable guy, but I will grudgingly say this for him, he is very good at his job.

The blow-by-blow descriptions of the many fights also make Cockfighter a difficult book to get through. But it is the author’s skill, and Willeford (1919-1988) was a very skillful writer, that kept me hanging in there to find out what happened to Frank and his champion rooster in the big, final match.

(To read about other forgotten books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Serial-killer film: The Town That Dreaded Sundown

Part mystery, part western, part slasher film, “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” is a good little picture from 1976.

Based on a true story, the movie is about a killer targeting young couples around Texarkana, a city on the border of Texas and Arkansas.

In 1946, a man described as big and “strong as hell,” assaulted and in some cases killed young couples parked at night on dark, deserted roads.

The movie opens in a semi-documentary style with an authoritative-sounding narrator setting the time and place. It then moves into horror film territory, when a man wearing a sack with eyeholes cut out stalks and attacks the couples. It then crosses over into a detective story when the local police, baffled by the case, call in a noted Texas lawman, played by Ben Johnson, to lead the investigation. Despite his efforts to protect the town and close in on the killer, the murders and attempted murders continue.

One of the intended victims is played by Dawn Wells of “Gilligan’s Island” fame. She is listed on the channel guide as co-starring with Johnson, but her part, unfortunately, is very small.

Johnson lends an air of authority and class to the low-budget film. In 1971, he appeared in “The Last Picture Show,” in a part that won him an Oscar for best supporting actor.

Others in the cast include Andrew Prine and Charles B. Pierce who also directed the picture. In 1972, Pierce’s first film, “The Legend of Boggy Creek,” was a low-budget hit.

Films like this were once hard to find, but “The Town That Dreaded Sundown” not only ran recently on Turner Classic Movies, but also is here on YouTube.

(For more overlooked films, see Todd Mason's blog.) 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

FFB: Old Hellcat by T.T. Flynn

Until this summer, T.T. Flynn was unknown to me. But after reading James Reasoner’s review of The Man from Nowhere, Flynn went to the top of my list of authors to read.

In 2002, Leisure Books published a paperback collection of three short western novels by Flynn – Gallows Breed, Old Hellcat, The Devil’s Lode – and called the book The Devil’s Lode. By chance, I found a used copy of it and dug in. The character of Shack Anderson in Old Hellcat grabbed me from the first paragraph and that is where I started.

Shack is an irascible, funny old cuss at the opening of the story. He does not like being old and he does not like being retired, although retirement was his own doing when he decided to give the cattle ranch he built up over decades to his daughter and her mild-mannered husband to run. The introduction to Shack, sizing himself up and talking to himself in a hotel room in town, comes to an end quickly when a woman he has known since his days as a hell-raising young cowboy and her days as a young dance-hall girl arrives with news. She tells Shack that trouble is brewing for his daughter and son-in-law.

A no-good, land-grabbing, cattle-rustling neighbor of Shack’s is trying to muscle his family off their land. On hearing this, Shack, the grumpy old goat, straps on his guns and, feeling young again, heads out to handle things himself.

The plot of Old Hellcat sounds pretty standard when summarized, but what makes this novel go is Flynn’s skill as a storyteller. The man was a master at launching a story quickly, painting brief but vivid word pictures of characters and situations, and handling action.

Flynn (1902–1979) wrote short stories and short novels for the western magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. Old Hellcat, which today would be considered a novella, was first published in the March 7, 1936 edition of Argosy.

Since buying this book, I found a copy of Flynn's 1954 novel, The Man from Laramie, so I will be reading more Flynn stories soon.

Anyone interested in reading or writing action stories should get to know the work of T.T. Flynn.

(For more forgotten books, check out Patti Abbott’s blog.)