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Seven movies

Carnival of Souls (1962)
BIG YES —  

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Even the opening credits are askew in this extreme low-budget black-and-white sort-of horror movie. The set-up: After an auto wreck kills two of her friends, Mary leaves town to take a job playing a pipe organ for a distant church, but she's haunted, maybe more than haunted, by memories of the wreck.

Several sequences are gorgeously filmed at what looks like an abandoned county fairgrounds, and all through the movie is creepy — sometimes in ways you'd expect a creepy movie to be creepy, but sometimes in ways you wouldn't expect. "It's funny. The world seems so different in the daylight. In the dark, your fantasies get so out of hand, but in the daylight everything falls back into place again."

There are no familiar stars, and I'd never heard of the director, writer, or anyone else involved. The movie flopped on first release, which probably tanked the careers of everyone involved. Since then it's slowly come to be recognized as something special, and I've seen it three or maybe four times.

It's all atmospherics, gorgeous cinematography and spooky organ music. It's like a Twilight Zone episode, though underwritten, but by the end it's a sweet dream with a touch of a nightmare about it. 

I'm not sure who wouldn't enjoy the hell out of this if they gave it a chance, especially if you watch it on your largest screen, with the lights turned down and the phone switched off. Be forewarned, there are some chopped-up public-domain versions on-line; look for an uncut version that runs an hour and eighteen minutes. And lastly, don't mistake Carnival of Souls for a 1998 smelly turd that stole its title.

♦ ♦ ♦

Detour (1945)
BIG YES — 

streaming freestreaming paid 

Now and again (and again) I ramble on about film noir — a French term which literally means 'dark movies'. Noir is the on-screen distillation of pulp fiction, where tough guys are tough, dames might be dangerous, and characters tend toward unsavory motivations or itchy temptations — so the characters are like real people I've known, sometimes maybe me. More literally 'dark', there are usually murky shadows, and things might go haywire in the dead of a dusky night. That's film noir, I love it, and Detour is a gem of the genre.

The movie opens with a man walking alone, along a deserted highway. He hitches a ride, then sips coffee in a cheap diner, until some sap plays the wrong song on the jukebox — not that song — yeah, that song — and the memories come flooding in.

Detour is a cheap movie — IMDB says the budget was $117,000, not a lot even in the 1940s — and it's about cheap people. Al Roberts is a pianist who dreams of Carnegie Hall, but instead he’s stuck playing in a saloon. His fiancé is a singer, but she dumps him and runs to Los Angeles, where she's hoping for stardom. He's miserable without her, so he hocks everything and hitchhikes to L.A., but along the way he meets up with Vera, a dame with a heart of coal.

There’s nobody on screen who looks 17 or 22, like in all of today's movies — no, these are grown-ups, and they're beat-up grown-ups at that. Roger Ebert described the main characters as "a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer."

It's the '40s so there are a few lines of icky sexism, and “That’s white of you, mister.” Ouch. Also, there are several mentions of Miami, which apparently used to be pronounced Miamuh. Other than that, and the wardrobe and the cars and the prices, it feels like it could all be happening today, and since it's noir, tonight.

Here's the protagonist, explaining his plight to the camera: “I know what you’re gonna hand me even before you open your mouths. You’re gonna tell me you don’t believe my story, and give me that 'don’t make me laugh' expression on your smug faces.” 

Sorry, Al, but it is an implausible story, and I wonder whether we can believe it all. Dude makes one innocent mistake after another, getting himself deeper and deeper in trouble. Sometimes when I watch this movie, I figure he's lying as he tells what's happened in flashback, but other times, hell, it's could've happened just the way he said. “Fate, or some mysterious force, can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.”

It's based on a novel by Martin Goldsmith (and I've finally ordered a copy). It's directed by Edgar G Ulmer, who almost invented the visual style of noir, and he reportedly stuck close to the script, which was written by Goldsmith himself.

Tom Neal and Ann Savage star, and this is the flick they're both best known for. It’s obvious why — he's quite good as Al, the hapless protagonist, and she's spectacular as Vera, the unscrupulous and unhinged femme fatale.

Not sure I've ever seen an actress snarl more believably, and allow herself to look so… well, savage, on screen. She's not a shrewd scheming women like you'll find in other great noirs like Double Indemnity or The Postman Always Rings Twice. Instead she's the embodiment of desperation — she has no master plan, she's making everything up as she goes along, and it makes the story even noirier.

The sets are minimal, it's beautiful black-and-white, the movie is barely an hour long, but the dialogue is golden.

Where you headed? East. Where you coming from? West. Sure, I know that, but where — L.A.? Maybe. 

“I was tussling with the most dangerous animal in the world … a woman.”

And maybe my favorite line, "What'd you do, kiss him with a wrench?"

Like too many of the best films, it wasn't a big hit in its first release. By the 1990s, though, Detour was a staple at revival cinemas, and I saw it half a dozen times at the Roxie and Castro in San Francisco. It's been a favorite of mine ever since. (Can you tell?)

After so many viewings, of course, I can see the seams holding it together, and they're sometimes stretched tight and frayed. Neal's narration is a twitch overwrought, and the song that jars his memory, "I Can't Believe that You're in Love with Me," is nothing special, and it's performed at least once more than necessary. Al's fiancé is an uninteresting character played by an uninteresting actress, and the plot relies rather heavily on coincidence.

That last point, though, has evolved from a minus to a plus, as I've noticed that life relies heavily on coincidence, too. Mine certainly has. It only goes to show, "Whichever way you turn, fate sticks out a foot to trip ya."

If you're a fan of blasphemy, there is a colorized version of Detour circulating, but if you choose that over black-and-white I'll think less of you.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Detour (1992)
MAYBE — 

streaming free 

Remakes almost invariably suck, especially remakes of great movies, and double-especially "shot-for-shot" remakes, where a lesser cast and crew films very nearly exactly the same scenes and dialogue. This is a shot-for-shot remake of the great Detour, but it's for a worthy cause so I'll allow it:

In making the original movie, director Edgar Ulmer was forced to alter its ending to make the censors happy, and he also snipped out a subplot — perhaps to keep the running time quick, or perhaps because the subplot didn't work well as drama. The goal here, then, was to film the movie as originally intended.

It's a project of pure passion, directed and produced by Wade Williams, a noted old-movie nut who owns a large collection of classic prints and distribution rights, and runs (or used to) a 'personal movie theater' in his native Kansas City.

Like the original, Williams' remake is set in the 1940s, with old-style cars (some of them beauts) and an old-style wardrobe (the leading actor seems to be wearing my father's pants). Unlike the original, the remake is filmed in color, but sometimes it fades to black-and-white, according to the mood of the scene.

A disclaimer: I've barely seen this film. It's never been released on DVD or streaming, and the VHS edition sold out decades ago, so the only way to see the Detour remake is a degraded VHS transfer at the YouTube link above. I needed to triple the brightness for the night scenes, and still some of it's so dark there was guesswork. I would love to find a DVD or legit streaming source.

The movie opens with a man walking alone, along a deserted highway. He hitches a ride, then sips coffee in a cheap diner, until some sap plays the wrong song on the jukebox — not that song — yeah, that song — and the memories come flooding in.

It's a different song, though, that triggers Al's memories, and I prefer the remake's tune (Irving Berlin's "Careless") over the original ("I Can't Believe that You're in Love with Me"). We get additional backstory about the driver who picks up Al when he's hitchhiking, and the negotiations for selling a used car involve different dollar amounts and more insults than in the original. Also, the remake pronounces 'Miami' correctly, and drops the "mighty white" line.

They brought in the original star's son, Tom Neal Jr, to play the lead. Is it a gimmick? Yeah. I find no evidence that he was an actor before or after this movie, but he's almost as good at it as his old man, looks just like him, and curiously, he does a better job reading the same narration.

Surprisingly, almost amazingly, they found someone up to the challenge of mimicking Ann Savage's astounding performance from the original — a stage actress by the unlikely name of Lea Lavish. She's sultry, she's evil, and she's exactly right for the part as the hard-drinking, hard-talking, and just plain hard Vera. This is the only movie Ms Lavish ever made, but she hit a towering home run in her only at bat.

On the downside, the actress playing Al's fiancé, the lounge singer, is no better or worse than the actress who played her role in the original — and it's her subplot that's been restored. The movie keeps coming back to her story of a wanna-be actress waiting tables in L.A., so about 1/4 of the movie simply isn't interesting. If the script wasn't changed much, I can see why Ulmer snipped her story from the original. 

As for the script, I must quibble with the credits. If the intent was to film the original without altering it, why does original screenwriter Goldsmith get credit only for "original story and photoplay," while the screenplay credit goes to Williams and an unknown co-writer named Roger Hill? I'm certain I can smell it when Williams and Hill have added something — in a 1940s movie, no dame says "You weren't that good in bed" — and just as blatantly, there are some snippets of dialogue missing from the original, some of which is missed. 

Williams deserves kudos as director, though. Other than Detour, he's listed as director for only two films — a 1960s soft-core porno, and a sci-fi oddity that may have never been released. And yet, this is a watchable film, and whatever its shortcomings there's no blame to be pinned on the director. There are even a couple of great noiry shots in the remake that should've been in the original. 

As an aficionado of obsession myself, I am staggered by the time and effort Williams put into this — an amateur remake nobody asked for and almost nobody has seen, but made with obvious love. On that basis it's one hell of an accomplishment.

Judged as a movie, it's OK, but there's no reason to see this instead of the original. It's highly recommended, though, if you've seen and loved the original Detour, and can't get enough, like me.

♦ ♦ ♦

Fantastic Voyage (1966)
MAYBE —   

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This opens with a wordy paragraph on screen, lingering long enough to read it several times, and informing us that what we're about to see is fiction, "but in this world of ours where going to the moon will soon be upon us and where the most incredible things are happening all around us, someday, perhaps tomorrow, the fantastic events you are about to see can and will take place." Well, science fiction at its best evokes a sense of wonder, and I hoped that silly intro was written with wide eyes.

The movie that follows has some wonder to it, too, as a bunch of sailors and spies get very miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a man who's comatose after an injury. They're supposed to navigate their way inside his body and perform some delicate laser-based brain surgery, because this guy has important cold-war info and god bless America, our side needs to know what he knows.

Once we're shrunk inside this man's body, though, the visuals are surprisingly mundane, with greenscreen work that seems uninspired. The characters are all only shallow 'types' — the military guy, the secretive guy, the spy guy, the surgeon, and Raquel Welch as the surgeon's assistant. We learn next to nothing about any of these people, because they're all just plot devices, and there's nothing much to the plot beyond what I've already described.

Stephen Boyd stars, but has nothing to do except look handsome and worried, which he does splendidly. Donald Pleasance has a phobia that's urgent in one scene, then never mentioned again. Some old guys in military uniforms look concerned for the length of the movie. Only Arthur Kennedy comes off well, as he's given several gee-whiz moments of awe, looking at the intrabodily scenery and saying things that seem semi-profound.

There is some enjoyment to be had here, but it could've been so much better, even for its time.

Several elements of the movie are simply stupid, like, for medical reasons I don't believe, our reduced submarine has exactly 57 seconds to navigate through a coincidental fistula, but the scene takes two and a half minutes. And when the ship enters the patient's inner ear, it's supposedly vital that everyone in the medical facility be absolutely quiet, because any sound would rock the microscopic ship — so a military guy announces this over the loudspeaker system, and then instead of emptying the room, everyone just stands there very quietly, trying not to knock any scissors off the table. What could possibly go wrong?

This movie came out when I was a kid and I remember wanting to see it, but the answer from my pop was no. He'd seen it himself and told me it wasn't very good, but he also mentioned that Raquel Welch was in it, and implied that her presence made the movie "inappropriate" for a boy my age. With that warning, I've wanted to see it ever since, and when I queued it up after all these years, I thought there'd be a sex scene, or something at least somewhat suggestive, but no. Ms Welch's character is as stereotypical and shallow — and as fully-dressed — as everyone else in the cast, and there's no smoochy-woochy whatsoever. Thanks a lot, Dad. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Final Programme (1973)
MAYBE — 

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In many noir movies, Sterling Hayden plays someone stoic, often a cruel cop. In this splashy sci-fi from the '70s, he plays a stoned and bearded weapons dealer, and honestly, that's why The Final Programme was on my watch-list. Hayden is great here, but he's deep in the cast, and the rest of the movie is an odd mix of melodrama and LSD-induced fantasy, all trying very hard to be bell-bottoms-era icy cool.

It's based on a novel by Michael Moorcock — no slouch at science fiction. The visuals and camerawork are exaggerated, and there's some dark humor as the story works its way, slowly but steadily, toward a finish that's intended to be mind-blowing. Whether your mind is blown will depend on whether you're still awake by the end. To my non-bell-bottomed sensibilities, it's all sort of a mess.

♦ ♦ ♦

Night Train (2009)
YES —  

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This is an intriguing modern low-budget thriller that must've came and went quietly — I’d never heard of it. Danny Glover plays the conductor on a train where a passenger drops dead, leaving behind a very, very valuable sci-fi MacGuffin.

Almost the entire movie takes place on the train, which is very clearly a movie set, and not a train. That's an annoyance but not a big deal — just think of Night Train as a play, and a pretty good one, with some crappy CGI tacked on.

There are only a handful of characters, but they bounce around like billiard balls, and it’s a jolly good time almost all the way to the end. It’s not Hitchcock or 2001, just a mostly-successful attempt to give you goosebumps. With LeeLee Sobieski, Steve Zahn, and especially Richard O’Brien, I enjoyed the ride.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

What Price Vengeance (1937)
NO —  

streaming free 

This is a fairly routine police story about chasing down an escaped prisoner. At the start of the movie, the cop is hesitant to shoot somebody, which causes great public criticism — we want cops to be quicker and deadlier with the gun? There’s a moral to the story, and the moral is reprehensible. 

Along the way, we're supposed to side with a cop who wears a military-style uniform and dresses his pre-teen son in a matching kiddie-cop uniform. To me, this is distasteful, but more often it's simply boring. I'm also distressed by the movie's title, which for proper punctuation should've included a question mark.

1/11/2022
 

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4 comments:

  1. I'm also a fan of the original Detour and I almost thought you were kidding about a remake. Have to see that ASAP.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maybe I should write a review of a movie nobody's made, just to see if anyone notices...

      Delete
  2. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h1Uf4kc2aTk

    jtb

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I am a sucker for this style of music — old-style country, I guess it's called, but to me it's folk or down-home or something. This is delightful!

      Delete

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