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Archive for the ‘Films’ Category

CavalcadeOfCreepiness

Now that my annual order of motorized coffins and life-sized Zacherley Chia pets have arrived, that can mean only one thing: Halloween is upon us. And like a decrepit, undead friend, we greet the season with much anticipation and large shovels followed axes to the head. This also means, of course, that it’s the 5th Annual Cavalcade of Creepiness at the Catalogue of Curiosities, hosted by yours truly, the Cavalcade Creeper. And don’t forget, as always, this is in conjunction with the month long horror-filled blogathon over at The Countdown to Halloween, a spookfest so amazing, so outrageous, your skin will crawl and your bladder will most likely become completely unreliable.  I will be posting all new illustrations, along with Halloween-themed strangeness over on the Catalogue of Curiosities tumblr site, the latest installments of Halftone Horrors and much more. Be sure to check in all month long as the madness ensues!

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VincentHouse

Funny, absurd, schlocky, at times horribly acted, and often downright creepy, William Castle’s 1959 horror opus, The House on Haunted Hill is all these things and more. Certainly my favorite of Castle’s filmography, House is also one of my favorite Vincent Price roles. Price seems to relish playing the ghoulishly smug Frederick Loren, and really, Price is the best thing about the film. His canny knack for pulling off even the most terribly written dialogue is something he brings to every role, and in House on Haunted Hill we see him at his smarmy best, delivering lines with that famous raised eyebrow and  slight smirk.

Above is my own take on a movie poster for the film, using the tag line of “the 13 Greatest Shocks of All Time” that can be seen in many of the newspaper ads for the film.

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TheReturnoftheLivingDead

TheLostSkeleton

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DoubleAgentDanger

 Lobby Card for Il Mondo Misterioso Di Pericolo Double Agent

The Mysterious World of Double Agent Danger (1966) or Il Mondo Misterioso Di Pericolo Double Agent was director Vincent Puceli’s entry into the EuroSpy/Spy-Fi genre of the sixties. Previously Vincent Puceli had done mostly Giallo-type thrillers and a few comedies, but The Mysterious World of Double Agent Danger  was his first big success in Italy. This piece of Technicolor eye-candy was one of the most spectacular of this crowded genre. Full of gorgeous, flamboyant music and meticulous art direction, Double Agent Danger made its way to the international market quickly, becoming a huge hit in Japan and America.

Isabella Vitti played Daphne Danger, a super-spy who was it it for the glory of playing one side against the other in a sinister game of international cat and mouse. Daphne Danger is a rogue agent battling bizarre evil-doers like the Hypno-Skull and secret government agencies such as the Council of Cardinals. This Cinestat Films release spawned a series of movies as well as a bevy of paperback novels. The film was first released in Italy in 1966, then was dubbed in English in 1968.

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There is a Los Angeles of the cinema. And of novels. This is the L.A. of dreams and nightmares, a place that exists on the periphery, a time and place that has been willed into being over that last 100 years, the modern L.A. stretching out across the desert like a monolith. This slippery version of the truth is the epicenter of glamour and glitz, of crime and punishment. This is the L.A. of Raymond Chandler and David Lynch, of Billy Wilder’s poison ode to Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard. It’s not the reality—far from it—but there are entire cottage industries devoted to this decadent mirror image. Not being from L.A. I have the luxury of indulging in this version, something akin to my romantic image of New York, seen forever in black and white, and as if everyone thing had become set dressing in a Woody Allen film. And that’s OK, I suppose. These are versions we cling to for one reason or another, spurred on by memories of sitting in the dark, watching hours of movies. All of this begs the pointed question: Which came first? L.A. or the movie version of L.A.?

Photographer Alex Prager knows this cinematic version of L.A. inside and out. Her Technicolor photos are steeped in reverence for Hitchcock films and B-movies of an old Hollywood that meets with the modern one. The lineage of her style can be traced directly back to such photographers as Cindy Sherman (especially Sherman), a photographer that also likes to stage entire scenes, microcosms of some unseen, fragile world only viewed through the lens of a movie camera. Cindy Sherman’s groundbreaking photo series, Untitled Film Stills, 1977–1980, are the likely forebears of Prager’s world. Sherman’s photos are all familiar in their own way. Haven’t we seen these scenes before, these characters? Yes and no—that’s the answer that Sherman is driving at. Her heroines are often photographed looking off-screen, as if a sinister presence was waiting just beyond the frame of the photo. These characters were always played by Sherman herself, doled up in wigs and make up that transformed her into some gangster’s moll, or femme fatale, or just a hapless victim. The photos, shot in grainy black and white, hinted that something terrible was about to happen, that, just like in the movies, we as the audience are unable to alter the future, we are made to be passive, watching until the final, fatal frame. Indeed, there is something deeply dark and disturbing about Sherman’s series that ultimately trumps the reference to certain movie tropes, and this is their ultimate power: they are tapping into something that we know on a basic level and then they are leading us further down a very dark hallway.

photo by Cindy Sherman

photo by Alex Prager

Alex Prager’s characters are more often than not female as well, archetypes from some B-movie, framed in strained, contrived poses as they too, often stare off-screen. But these cotton-candy photos insinuate a camera crew just out of frame rather than a killer/abuser about to strike. Whereas Sherman’s photos underlined a certain comment about how women are portrayed in the media (most particularly in film), Prager embraces the artifice of movie making itself—she is giving in fully to the characters and situations; everything is familiar, but unique and different at the same time. They are photos that love the movies, that are in love with the movies, that embrace the illusion that Hollywood readily provides. No doubt there is probably a subtext that Prager is driving at—after all, this is contemporary art—but the why seems less important next to the striking quality of the images themselves.

There are often dark deeds being conducted–staging that alludes to doom, to disaster, or to something so banal and everyday that surely there is terror hidden within their blandness. The situations, however vague or bleak are always formally imaginative, Prager deftly constructing each photo in such away that draws the viewer in time and again. Her photos are sumptuous, seductive, alluring. The colors and forms, the costumes and wigs, the compositions and staging all tie together to form a dark universe.  In one photo titled Eve, from her Big Valley (2008) series, a frantic woman is framed in that iconic green suit that Tippi Hedren wore in The Birds, being overwhelmed by attacking pigeons, but the background, with its rolling desert hills and looming  powerline, is obviously L.A.;all at once the photo is breaking and reinforcing the idea of  the appropriation of cinema. In another photo called Emily from the photo series Polyester (2007), a woman, pictured only from the waist down, is escaping down a rope, presumably out the window of an apartment building. Although no particular film is referenced, it seems as if this scene could have been lifted from any number of suspense movies. With these photos and others, Prager is erecting her own take on the power of cinema and its ability to fascinate, to capture a viewer’s imagination.

In recent years Prager has moved to making short films and commercials, which seems like a natural fit. One of her first short films Despair (2010), plays like a the crossroads of David Lynch, Alfred Hitchcock and Todd Haynes, a deadpan piece brought to life with Prager’s pension for luridly saturated colors and wonderfully contrived compositions.

In April of this year, Prager will be debuting a new exhibition of photographs complete with short film that ties into the series Compulsion (what seems to be a sly nod to Roman Polanski’s film Repulsion). A press release says this of the accompanying short film, La Petite Mort: the act of dying and the act of transcendent love are two experiences cut from the same cloth — the former a grand exit, and the latter a slow escape.”

Clearly L.A., and Hollywood in particular, continue to be fruitful muse for Prager. She is creating a landscape, a world that is so close in many ways, but one that still exists only in the world of the cinema, a place that can only come to life in a darkened theater, the audience captured by images that evoke an L.A. of wonder and darkness. This is the Los Angeles of the cinema, a distorted doppelgänger of the original, shimmering and pulsing out there in the sprawling desert of California, just close enough to touch.

You can find more of Alex Prager’s work at her website, Alex Prager Photography and Films.

All photos copyright Alex Prager and Cindy Sherman.

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All month-long illustrator Belle Dee has been hosting a tribute to The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. The Lost Skeleton is a hilarious homage to B-movies and is directed by Larry Blamire. What sets it apart from the standard-fare genre spoof which has spawned some truly terrible (and not very funny) films in the last decade or so, is Blamire’s deep affection and admiration of the movies he’s lampooning. He gets every detail right, and none of it feels forced or disingenuous. There’s a reason films like The Beast of Yucca Flats (1961) and Astro-Zombies (1968) endure, and Blamire understands that reverence.

My contribution to the tribute is a poster that pays homage to the B-movie poster itself, especially those promotional campaigns that belonged to the master of brilliant self-promotion, director William Castle.

TheLostSkeleton

If you’ve never seen The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, check out the trailer:

And be sure to check out the rest of Belle’s blog, Doo Wacka Doodles. Her Rondo-Award winning illustrations are a loving tribute to old horror movies and pulp magazines.

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Atheist. Provocateur. Eccentric. Foot fetishist. Luis Buñuel was all of these things and more. A Surrealist through and through, Buñuel was able to subvert even mainstream cinema, often working within ridged studio systems to produce films that were still deeply personal, that reflected his own sensibilities as an artist. Buñuel was also a dead-on satirist who crafted some of the most striking, controversial and visually stunning films ever made— a true original that produced images that would become iconoclastic. Who can forget the razor blade slitting the eye of a woman from his first film, Un chien andalou (1929)? His was a single-minded, uncompromised vision, tackling variations on the same themes for over 50 years: the Catholic Church, human desire and bourgeoisie society. He mined these tropes for decades, getting more mileage out of these ideas than most directors could have with dozens more. With The Phantom of Liberty (1974), the second to last film that Buñuel made for retiring for good, everything he had learned as a filmmaker, as satirist, as an artist was applied with truly groundbreaking results.

Perhaps the most subversive, audacious and freewheeling of Buñuel’s films, The Phantom of Liberty is also a movie that echoes the pure surrealism of his earlier works like Un chien andalou and the L’Age d’or (1930) as well as later films, Simon of the Desert (1965) and The Milky Way (1969). All of these films use non-narrative story structure to elaborate their particular scenarios, but it is the The Phantom of Liberty that is the most accomplished, the most daring. The film is structurally complex, revealing layer after layer, a charge of seemingly disparate scenarios that bleed into each other, one after the other. The brilliance of Buñuel’s conceit is that the film feels effortlessly random, truly dream-like (one of the tenants of a true Surrealist film). Unlike other films that claim to be “dream-like”, The Phantom of Liberty actually succeeds at this notion because Buñuel allows the film to give into this structure, or anti-structure, fully.  He uses traditional story genres like the gothic novel, with the more radical impulses of the Surrealists to tear apart both forms, to remake all storytelling in his own vision.

Part of a final trilogy of brilliant films—The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977) the other two—The Phantom of Liberty boldly declares that Buñuel would never compromise his vision, even as one of the elder statesman of a movement that ceased to be relevant (he was 74 when he made The Phantom of Liberty). Indeed, these are some of his most pointed, funny and scathing statements on modern life. And with The Phantom of Liberty, Buñuel was returning to, no, embracing his surrealist roots with this film: the essential randomness of the overall structure fell in line with the original mantra of the Surrealists that Buñuel began working with in the 1920s. John Baxter, author of the insightful biography, Buñuel, pulled from Buñuel’s own memoirs in his section on The Phantom of Liberty with this quote: “Chance governs all things. Necessity, which is far from having the same purity, comes only later. If I have a soft spot for one of my movies, it would be for The Phantom of Liberty, because it tries to work out just this theme.”

The Phantom of Liberty is an incendiary work, and, within the film’s non-narrative structure, Buñuel crafted a potent critical analysis of modern morals. This is in no small way related to fact that Buñuel took the film’s title from the opening of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto (“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of Communism”), a work that takes critical aim at the establishment of the day. But even more profound, and less literally, Buñuel seems to be saying that society is an irrational, utterly corrupt institution, that it provides the illusion of freedom, of free will, when in fact chance governs all.

The Phantom of Liberty is composed of episodes that seamlessly blend into one another, each one working its way into the next, scenes within scenes, one collapsing into the next. We begin in the Napoleonic Wars and then move into present day via nanny who is reading aloud the prior events from a book on the subject. Characters and situations evolve in what seem like random, disparate events, leaving the viewer to arrive at their own conclusions. There are 72 actors credited in the film, and Buñuel uses the expansive cast to develop a wide-cross section of types. He seems more interested in the type of work a character does, or what stereotype they fall into rather than developing that character, and, in many ways, this works to the film’s advantage. The audience is never able to grasp any underling motivation of the characters, they are more often than not subject to chance in many ways, and again this routes directly back to the main argument of coincidence versus free will. Are the characters simply victims of a cruel universe (or in this case a cruel director) or can they navigate their own destiny? Perhaps they are simply victims of their of desires, lustful or otherwise, trapped in a cycle of self-imposed impulse, much like Fernando Rey’s brilliantly lecherous character in Buñuel’s final film, That Obscure Object of Desire. Trapping his characters in one circumstance or another is nothing new for Buñuel—he has done this many times with amazing results: the party guests who cannot bring themselves to leave the dining room in The Exterminating Angel (1962), or the friends who are endlessly attempting to sit down to dinner but are continually thwarted by one thing or another in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

Buñuel cleverly undermines certain conventions of storytelling, playing with the audiences expectations with often genuinely funny results. In one episode, much is made of a certain French postcard, which we assume to be erotic in nature, but once it is shown turns out to be a completely banal photo of a the country side; in another episode, party guests take their food and eat it in private in the bathroom, while the others sit on toilets instead of chairs at a table full of food which is never eaten.

In many ways The Phantom of Liberty is all about the audience’s expectations and how Buñuel disrupts those assumptions by giving us what is closer to a dream rather than a film in any traditional sense of the word.

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