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Black Sunday (1960)

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A quick housekeeping note first: workload at my day job has gotten a bit heavier than usual, and that’s slowed my movie-watching-and-reviewing pace a bit as a result. Fortunately this will be temporary and I’ll be able to be a bit more prompt in future.

But it’s also why my latest go-round, Black Sunday, was a good choice as opposed to something longer and weightier. Instead this was a short monster/gore film, a bit of easily-digested mind candy that nevertheless lead to some food for thought. …You’ll see.

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Black Sunday is an Italian gothic horror film, but its Italian title La maschera del demonio – or, “The Mask Of Satan” – would have been a bit more descriptive. The mask in question is an iron one which gets nailed to the face of a woman in the opening sequence; Asa Vajda (Barbara Steele) is being condemned for witchcraft in 1600’s Moldavia, and the mask is one of the tortures being thrust on her, along with branding her and killing her lover and fellow witch Javuto (Arturo Dominici) before finally burning her at the stake. Asa’s brother is running the show, however, so before he nails on the mask – an Iron-Maiden type of thing with icky spikes on the inside – she curses his descendants and vows revenge. A sudden thunderstorm cancels the burning, however, so instead Asa is tucked into a remote corner of the family crypt, buried in a windowed casket with a cross permanently fixed within “eyesight” in case she ever tries to revive herself somehow. Javuto is simply dumped into an unconsecrated grave and left unmourned; and that’s that for them, the Moldavians think.

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But then 200 years later, a traveling pair of doctors run into some trouble with their carriage nearby the Vajda’s mansion, and start snooping around while the coachman fixes things – and discover Asa’s crypt. Dr. Kruvajan (Andrea Checchi) thinks the mask looks especially cool, so he breaks the window to take it – and then whoops, he cuts himself on the glass. And then yikes, he’s started by a nearby bat and breaks the cross. Meanwhile Dr. Gorobec (John Richardson) has run into pretty Katia Vajda (also Barbara Steele), one of the current residents of the mansion. Dr. Kruvajan notices she’s made quite the impression on Dr. Gorobec when he gets out of the crypt; so when the Vajdas summon the doctors at the inn later that evening, Dr. Kruvajan is more than happy to respond. Maybe he can get his younger companion into Katia’s good graces. The only problem is that the blood from Kruvajan’s cut is enough to start reviving Asa, and the broken cross means she is free to use her magic; and after telepathically reviving Javuto, enslaving Kruvajan, and trying to fend off Gorobec and Katia’s brother Constantine (Enrico Olivieri), Asa’s final goal is to take over Katia’s body and live forever.

So, initially I had a similar reaction to this as I had to The Wolf Man and Things To Come – it had a sort of B-movie, Mystery-Science-Theater feel, with moody gothic castles and ancestral curses and country-yokel villagers with torches and pitchforks. There’s a lightning-quick romance between Gorobec and Katia, there’s spooky music, there’s a wizened priest issuing carefully-worded warnings. There’s also a bit more gore to things than we’ve seen in horror films so far – spurting blood, eye sockets filled with writhing maggots, and such.

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And as I was thinking about that comparison, it hit me – what’s wrong with that?

In earlier reviews I’ve said that the tropes from these films got recycled in lesser films, and it’s these lesser films I ended up seeing first. Which is still very likely the case. But I still had the whole idea that anything you’d have seen on these horror-movie cheese fests would have been somehow less important – lower quality meant lower value. And that was affecting how I saw the higher-quality films later on; they were fluff I could easily dismiss.

But in all honesty, one of my absolute favorite films ever is Blood Freaka film I love precisely because it is so terrible. It will never, ever make it onto this 1001 Movies list; it’s a bit of an obscure thing that didn’t even make it onto MST3K’S radar. And yet I love every single poorly-acted, stupidly-plotted, cheaply-filmed minute of it, to the point that several of my friends have begged me to stop trying to show it to them. The fact that it is terrible by every possible measure is precisely why I love it.

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So….what difference does “quality” make when it comes to the value of a film anyway? At the end of the day, none – you like what you like, and if what you like happens to be a bugnuts movie about of vampire witches in Moldavia, then that’s all that matters, and the fact that it’s badly dubbed into English is probably part of the appeal.

So what I’m saying is that it’s taken this good film that looked like a bad film to revise my value judgement of bad films overall.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Shoot The Piano Player (1960)

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With his first film The 400 Blows, Francois Truffaut crashed onto the scene and established himself as an up-and-coming new filmmaker. But Truffaut suspected that people were kind of hoping for more of the same thing with his second film – something about kids again, perhaps, or something that was perpetuating more of this new “French New Wave” style that was now becoming A Thing. So to avoid setting a pattern, Truffaut did something different – an homage to American-style mob films.

Sort of. Charlie (Charles Aznavour) isn’t in the mob as such; he is the pianist in a seedy Paris bar, living in a cramped flat next door with his kid brother Fido (Richard Kanayan) to a prostitute (Michele Mercier) who babysits Fido and occasionally lets Charlie have a freebie if she doesn’t have any other clients. Charlie’s older brothers are connected to the mob, though – or at least, they run afoul of the mob, tricking them out of the proceeds from a bank heist. They’ve slipped off to the family farm out in the country – so the mob comes after Charlie, hoping to capture either him or Fido, holding them hostage in exchange for the money. Charlie does what he can to dodge them and keep Fido safe – but the mobsters surprise him at the bar one afternoon, strong-arming him into their car. They also kidnap Lena (Marie Dubois), the pretty waitress on whom Charlie has a secret crush. Fortunately Lena is smart as well as pretty, and quickly puts a stop to their plan, dragging Charlie along on her escape. Charlie is further delighted to hear her suggest they should lay low in her own apartment – but then delight turns to shock when they get there, and Charlie sees Lena has a poster with his face on it.

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And featuring his real name. For Lena knows his secret – he is actually Édouard Saroyan, a formerly celebrated concert pianist who suddenly dropped out of the limelight. Lena is also interested in Charlie, but she wants to know the story there first, understandably. Moved by his tale – success drove a wedge between himself and his wife, prompting his wife to suddenly reveal she’d slept with the agent who gave him his big break – Lena kisses Charlie, and the two…er, bond. Later they slip away to Charlie/Édouard’s brother’s hideout to lay low – but the gangsters track them down, forcing the Saroyan brothers into a stakeout to defend their money and Lena.

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It definitely seems more of an “American” plot, as Truffaut hoped – but there’s still a definite “New Wave” feel, with some moments where we hear Charlie’s inner monologue or where the film dives off on a brief tangent unrelated to the plot, like a charming early moment where Charlie is running headlong down a dark street to dodge the gangsters and trips and faceplants on a sidewalk just as another man is passing. The man helps him up and walks with him a short ways, showing Charlie the flowers he’s just bought his wife and talking about how much he loves her before they part. That actually sets up an interesting thematic subtext for the film; Charlie’s quest isn’t just to stay safe, he’s also a bit of a romantic looking for Real Love, who’s half-convinced himself he doesn’t deserve it. Both of the occasions he’s walking down a street with Lena, we hear his inner thoughts as he tries to talk himself into holding her hand or making some other romantic gesture, or kicking himself when he chickens out.

Charlie’s hesitancy is all Truffaut’s own invention, and I actually liked it. The film was inspired by a novel, in which Charlie is a much more assertive character. Truffaut made Charlie more of a hesitant, beaten-down character – and it fits the character much better, and makes his story more poignant. When we meet Charlie he’s on the verge of convincing himself he doesn’t deserve any better than the occasional hookup, and hardly dares hope Lena would reciprocate his interest. Lena’s reaction to his story gives him hope – which eventually is dashed again. Aznavour almost gives a non-performance, barely reacting to the things that happen to Charlie. But instead of coming across as wooden, it comes across as numb – just as numb as Charlie would be, and that is exactly why I find that final scene, with Charlie just sitting and playing piano again, so poignant in context.

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Cloud-Capped Star (1960)

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So, this one got kind of heavy.

Nita (Supriya Choudhury) is the oldest daughter, and second-oldest child, in a formerly-middle-class Bengali family now living as refugees near Calcutta. The family had been enjoying a comfortable existence in their former home until the 1947 Partition of India, when they were forced to move.

Not everyone is coping with the change all that well, however. Father Taran (Bijon Bhattacharya) is trying to run a modest school in the refugee camp where they now live, but since all the students are poor as well, it isn’t that lucrative. Mother (Gita Dey) is still bitter about the family’s diminished circumstances, and takes it out on all the kids. The oldest child Shankar (Anil Chatterjee) is determined to keep up with his singing career, eschewing work because it would cut into his rehearsal time. Younger son Mantu (Dwiju Bhawal) and younger daughter Geeta (Gita Ghatak) are still in college, but have a bit of a taste for bling. And while Nita would also like to keep up with her studies, she seems to be the only breadwinner – and often Shankar, Mantu and Geeta have sponged off what little she makes before she can turn the bulk of it over to her mother. She rarely has any left to spend herself, or to get little cheer-up gifts for her boyfriend Sanat (Niranjan Ray), a similarly-impoverished student himself.

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I could go into detail, but overall, the film is basically the story of how everything else in Nita’s life gradually and relentlessly gets taken away from her, just like her diminishing paycheck every month. First she gets pressured to give up her studies and work full-time. Then Geeta starts flirting with Sanat and turning his head. Then Taran is injured and left too feeble to work. Then Mantu is also injured and needs a costly medication. Then… it’s a relentless parade of one damn thing after another, everyone asking Nita if she wouldn’t mind just doing this one little thing for them, or making this one little sacrifice, for the good of the family. And poor Nita bears it all stoically up until the very end, when it seems that even her life is about to be taken from her – and she finally protests, throwing herself at Shankar and wailing that “I want to live! I want to live!”

Director Ritwik Ghatak gives poor Nita very few options for escape from her fate. But what little option she has, she feels would be even worse – everyone in the camp criticizes Shankar for not working, since he’s the eldest and is supposed to be helping support the family. But Nita herself encourages him to pursue his singing instead – the pair have a close bond, being the more ambitious pair of siblings; more so than dudebro Mantu or boy-crazy Geeta. Nita doesn’t want to give up her studies – but Choudhury lets us see just how much Nita looks up to big brother Shankar, and feels that him giving up his passion would be an even greater tragedy. So, fair enough, she’ll quit school, it’ll be okay. Not like she can do anything about it. Choudhury stays so heartbreakingly stoic through all of Nita’s crappy luck it nearly sends you numb – just as Nita is herself going numb until that very last anguished cry. She still hurts – you can see her privately suffering – but it’s suffering she hides from everyone, never saying anything until she can’t stay silent any more.

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Honestly, my only nit with the film itself is that it’s meant to lay some of the blame for Nita’s fate on their refugee status – but the fact that they are Partition Refugees is more hinted-at than it is flat-out confirmed; it’s possible that an Indian audience from the 1950s would have picked up on way more cues about the family’s status and it just sailed over my head. But it honestly felt more like Nita was just as screwed over by random bad luck and her own selflessness, and you can find that in any family in any part of the world, chipping away at someone until all she has left is a torn photo of her brother, an old love letter from an ex-boyfriend and very little time left.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Psycho (1960)

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In my review for Rope, I quipped that Hitchcock films were “spoiler-proof”. I believe Psycho is an exception – and, I think that affected my reaction.

I mean, I knew what happens in Psycho. I knew the twist at the end, about the nature of the relationship between Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) and his mother. I knew what befalls Marion Crane (Janet Leigh), the secretary whose actions we follow for the first act of the film. I almost didn’t watch this film this past weekend for that very reason – I was trying to choose between this film and one other, and polled friends to see if I should watch “the film that’s so famous I know what happens already” and “the film where it’s a total unknown”. People made their choices, but always asked what films I’d been talking about – and invariably when I told them, I would get a shocked “You’ve never seen Psycho?” and they would immediately insist that I watch it, even if it changed their earlier vote.

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So, I watched Psycho. And….I can’t help but feel that knowing what happens really lessened its impact. It’s a fine film, mind you – I immediately spotted much to admire in how the shots were set up, especially the moody grounds of the Bates Motel or Norman’s eerie “Parlor” where he invites Marion to a simple supper surrounded by a whole aviary of stuffed birds. That scene is also a masterwork for its two leads – both Marion and Norman have their own secrets, and are each desperately trying to keep them concealed, each one watching him or herself like a hawk to make sure they don’t each give anything away. Perkins is especially good as Norman – affable enough at first, and only gradually giving away hints that there’s something going on with him that isn’t quite right and perhaps you should be getting away from him. But all the shocks and surprises fell flat for me – either because I’d known they were coming, or I knew some of the film’s special effects secrets (i.e., chocolate sauce as a stand-in for blood in the shower scene).

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Roommate Russ and I discussed that after I watched. He said that prior to this film, movie theaters were a lot more cavalier about letting latecomers in to see a screening, even letting them stay to watch the beginning of the next screening so they could see what they’d missed. Hitchcock changed that with this film, he said, asking theaters to insist on punctual audiences. Hitchcock also begged people to please not spoil the film for others. That kind of thing can smack of being a hype-building trick – but I definitely feel like my knowing about the film did spoil it for me, and I really feel like I missed out on something.