Halloween Screams!! – The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Halloween is my favorite time of year, and this year, I’m letting it start early. It’s the time of the year where Genre Films take over- we have horror, we have sci-fi, a little bit of fantasy. All things that go bump in the night show up on our screens. Horror is one of my favorite genres, but it’s the one that I am newest to, so there are a lot of great films (modern and classic) that I’ve missed. This year I am going to try to go back through the annals of Horror History and learn as much as I can- we’re going to check out the religious-themed horror films of the 70’s, the slasher films and body horror of the 80’s, Asian horror (a type of cinema that is a complete blind spot to me), and anything else that I simply haven’t tried yet.

We start this Halloween season with a classic film that I promised my roommate I would check out but have been scared to watch for years- the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. From 1974, and directed by Tobe Hooper (who directed one of my all time favorite films, Poltergeist), this first thing that I noticed when this movie started was how surprised I was by the craftsmanship of the filmmaking. The skill that went into making this obviously low-budget, borderline schlocky film is palpable. This skill makes the film all the stronger and scarier, since there are no surface level mistakes to separate us from the events we see on screen. texas-chainsaw.jpg

We follow the most 70’s-looking group of young people as they drive through the American South, footloose and fancy free, to clean the vandalized grave of a family member. They pick up a strange looking hitchhiker and are confused and disturbed by his bizarre actions. They explore the abandoned home of their grandfather. They observe the local slaughterhouse, speaking about the methods used to more humanely kill cows. The audience can feel the foreshadowing as Franklin (Paul A. Partain) acts out the motions of a Captive Bolt Pistol. The tension begins from the first moment of the film and does not relent, even after the credits have rolled.

The first few kills of the film are immensely scary. A famous moment in the film is the terrifying slamming of a sliding door, and this moment lived up to the hype that I had heard about it leading up to my viewing- I was just as scared as I was told I would be. But the further into the film, the sillier the killings become, almost moving into horror-comedy territory. This shift in tone didn’t make me laugh, but instead added to my discomfort. The fact that I couldn’t match the tone of the latter half of the film with that of the first half made me uneasy. As the film became schlockier, I could only imagine what my reaction would be if I were in as strange a situation as the protagonist of this film finds herself in- one of pure fear.

As a joke I commented to my roommate as we watched the film that I wondered whether or not this film was a Morrissey-esque commentary on the cruelty of the meat industry. But as the comment came out of my mouth, it moved from joke to commentary, because this really seems to be one of the objectives of the film. Add that to the knowledge that director Tobe Hooper became a vegetarian shortly before production and we can clearly see that this film, with all it’s scares and absurdities, is a movie that has something to say.

I think that is truly what gives this film the longevity that has lead to sequel after sequel, roboot after remake. Despite the questionable representation of people with birth defects, despite the dated costumes and the minutes long, scream-filled chase scene, we are still being told this story. At it’s core, Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a great movie with something real at it’s core. Plus, it helps that it’s scary as hell…

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Old and French: The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967)

I’ll be doing my best for this review not to just compare this film to Jaques Demy’s earlier musical, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, (1964), which is a much more famous but, in my opinion, a much less sophisticated film. Where The Umbrellas of Cherbourg has many of it’s roots in the tradition of melodrama and Opera, The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) has roots in musical theater. The film is a much more intricate, much more fun, and much more energetic entry into Demy’s informal romantic trilogy (Lola [1961], Umbrellas, and this final entry).

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The film centers on a pair of twins, Delphine and Solange (played by real life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Francoise Dorleac), who live in the small town of Rochefort. Solange, a composer, and Delphine, a dancer, yearn of Paris, and decide that at the end of the week they will set out for the big city. We are also introduced to their Mother (Danielle Darrieux) who runs a French Fry restaurant in the city, a sailor and painter who yearns for the Feminine ideal (Jaques Perrin), a music shop owner with an unfortunately silly last name (Michel Piccoli), and two young, charming traveling performers who have come into town for the weekend (George Chakiris and Grover Dale). They’re all brought together by a wonderful score and soundtrack, with music by Michel Legrand and lyrics by director Demy.

The sheer number of characters gives the film a lot of breathing room. Every character has their own song, their own moment to define who they are, so none of the characters feel superfluous or shallow. They all have something to add to the theme of the piece, which is simply, “Isn’t it magical to meet someone and instantly be in love?” Every person goes on a distinct journey, but I would wager to say that most of the characters are the same person at the end that they are at the beginning. The problem that most of them face is not internal, but rather external. The major problem of their life is that they haven’t met that right person yet.

The movie is something of a sing-through musical, and the scenes that are not set to music have rhyming dialogue (including a particularly impressive dinner scene at the middle of the second act). The characters effectively show their emotions through song and dance, and the combined use of the two- or lack-thereof- creates a unique emotional language for the film. During songs where characters express longing or regret, their is no accompanying dance. When characters are happy with their lives or are engaged in flirtatious discourse, there is a mix of song and dance. And when, finally, a person meets The One, there are no words that could possibly express their emotions. Their only possible way of expressing themselves is through dance. It’s only natural that the American Visitor of the film is played by Gene Kelly, who graces the screen with that joy of dance that he always brings to the table.

There is almost no way that this film could have had a sad ending. The world that the film inhabits it truly magical, and if the characters don’t meet the true love of their life, they still occupy this magical space, full of music and dance and, most importantly, color. The colors of this film are absolutely spectacular. The vibrant dyes of the wardrobe not only makes the huge cast of characters easily differentiated, but also shows us the different shades in the personalities of the characters. The costumes are not the only source of the color, the world also provides a lush array of tones that makes the whole world complete, and a joy to spend time in.

Young Girls of Rochefort brings the escapist element that we can expect from musical cinema. The brilliant score and songs will become a part of your musical theater playlist. The imagery will stick with you. Your heart will be warmed to the core, as it should be when the characters burst into song.

Christmas Movie Countdown

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The best thing about Christmas is undoubtably the movies- whether you’re a fan of the cheesy classics that bring back nostalgic memories of childhood, the newly discovered favorites that are used as a palate cleanser, or movies that take place at Christmas that aren’t really about Christmas, there’s a movie with a Red Santa Hat out there for you.

If You’re Looking for a Forgotten Classic: White Christmas (1954) is the film Chevy Chase is talking about when he says “We’re going to have the hap-hap-happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with…” well, you remember the rest. This heartwarming musical doesn’t have a lot of Christmas classics as the music, but the story, about two veterans-turned-successful showmen hosting a holiday performance at the inn of their former general, is full of Christmas fun. It also stars George Clooney’s Aunt, Rosemary Clooney, as Bing Crosby’s love interest.

If You’re Looking for a Cartoon: Olive the Other Reindeer (1999)This is not the obvious choice, and I could go on and on about the Rankin Bass stop-motion classics that defined my experience with Christmas growing up (Don’t get me started on Santa Claus is Coming to Town). But a little known cartoon that has just as much Christmas Cheer is Olive the Other Reindeer, about a precocious pup (played by Drew Berrymore) who mishears Santa on the radio and thinks that Santa needs her to come to the North Pole and pull his sleigh with the reindeer team. Add a mail man villain who hates the holiday season because of the havoc it wreaks on his back, and you’ve got a should-be classic on your hands.

If You’re Looking for Christmas Sequel: The Santa Claus 2 (2002). When I was a kid, I would set up shop on one of the windowsills of my living room and pretend to be one of the elves in the control room of this movie. Santa has to find a wife to keep his job, and ends up going back home and reconnecting with his son. A lot of people don’t like this movie- to them I say, how can you not like a movie that features teenagers using rock-climbing equipment to spray paint the walls of their school gymnasium?

If You’re Looking For Something as Cheerful as You are: Elf (2003). How can you beat the warm smiles of Buddy the Elf? Every line of dialogue in this film is a quote that can be used the whole year long. Will Ferrell is delightful. Zooey Deschanel is blonde! Santa is a little bit grumpy and that’s pretty cool! There’s not a lot to say about Elf other than- you should watch it.

If You’re Looking for A Christmas Carol Adaptation: The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992). As much of a Christmas fanatic as I am, I do not know Christmas Carol adaptations very well and I am sure there are dozens of classic versions that could be on this list. But my personal favorite version was brought to life by the Jim Henson company. This version has a fantastic soundtrack, a marvelous performance by Michael Caine as Scrooge, and the comforting and warm presence of the Muppets. The Ghost of Christmas Present is a role model for all.

If You’re Looking for Something that Barely Counts: Die Hard (1988) and The Shane Black Christmas Movies (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang [2005] and Iron Man 3 [2013])There are lots of movies that take place at Christmas time, and we can debate whether or not they are Christmas movies later, but sometimes you need something that doesn’t really have anything to do with Christmas to get you through the season. For these, there are perfect action movies that you can use as palate cleansers. Die Hard is a perfect, macho adventure that makes you thankful you’re wearing shoes this Christmas. Shane Black frequently sets his films during Christmastime, and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is the PERFECT blend of his dark humor and Christmas cheer. And for Marvel Fanatics, Iron Man 3 has the most holiday cheer.

If You’re Looking for Something to Remind you How Wonderful Life is: It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). What could me more heartwarming than to watch someone learn that all the sacrifices he made along the way were worth it? We’ve all seen it, and it’s a million years long, but I encourage all of you to take the time this Holiday season to watch this movie. It’s romantic, it’s nostalgic, it believes in you. We could all use something genuinely heartwarming at the end of the year.

If None of Those Are Your Style: My personal favorite Christmas Movie is A Christmas Story (1983), but I didn’t want this list to be too-obvious “Camille’s favorite movie” propaganda. Gremlins (1984) is another great holiday movie, with a hint of 80’s campy-scary. Christmas Vacation (1989) can make any holiday mishap look like a breeze. And there are the classics I haven’t personally seen: Home Alone (1990), and Jingle All the Way (1996). 

So, whatever your favorite Christmas movie, have an excellent holiday! And if Christmas isn’t your thing, watch some good movies this December 25th, just because Movies are the Best. 

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

planes-trains-and-automobiles-screencap-03Is there a story more quintessentially American than that of a workaholic father trying to make it home to Chicago for Thanksgiving who keeps facing disasters in his modes of transportation? Of course not. The classic Steve Martin and John Candy comedy rises above it’s simple premise and status as a “pop” film to becomes one of the nicest films I’ve ever seen in my life.

The director, John Hughes, is known for his classic high school films of the 1980’s. I may not need to list his films for you to recognize his influence on teen movie history, and he was known for bringing rich character to the archetypes of high school cliques. His first film as a director to focus on adult protagonists, John Hughes’s trademarks are all on display here- grounded character, a tender story, and undeniable comedy.

Planes, Trains & Automobiles is a rare comedy wherein the two main characters are legitimately good, nice people. Neal Page (Martin) is a successful, white collar worker heading home from a business trip to spend the holidays with his family in Chicago. He meets Del Griffith (Candy) while waiting for their delayed plane, where the two discover that Del stole Neal’s taxi earlier in the day. With the coldest of shoulders, Neal runs into Del again and again and again, and through a series of weather-caused travel mishaps, they become reluctant travel companions. While they frequently argue and insult one another, you can tell that they both just want to get home. Their desperation brings out the worst in them, but it is evident that this is, indeed, their worst.

The tightrope that is walked by the film is phenomenal. Without the turmoil, there, of course is no film, but the troubles that these two men face is delightful. As audience members, we crave their success and revel in their misfortune. There is nothing in the film that doesn’t need to be there and everything that needs to be in the film is included. The perfect example of this is the monologue that got the film it’s R-Rating. After one too many misfortunes Steve Martin gives a biting speech to an employee at a car rental facility. Without this scene, the film easily would have gained a PG-13 rating, but Hughes chose to leave the scene in. But the film doesn’t revel in this R-Rating either. It is a wholesome family film if I’ve ever seen one, but it kept the R-Rated material that it needed.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles is the film equivalent of a Thanksgiving Meal. It is at once wholesome and indulgent, best enjoyed with loved ones. Even upon first viewing, watching it feels like tradition. The film can be defined by what it is (heartfelt, original) as easily as it can be defined by what it is not (lazy, gratuitous). It is a funny, simple movie about Thanksgiving and how terrible traveling is- what is more American than that?

Old and French: Belle de Jour (1967)

Every once in a while you get to discover a classic movie. What I mean by this is exactly what happened when I watched Belle de Jour: I had always known about this movie. I had seen the poster, heard the title, known it to be a classic, even brought it up in conversation, all without knowing what the movie was actually about. I often got it confused with La Dolce Vita, and the two movies are pretty phenomenally different. So, the other day, when I read what the actual plot of Belle de Jour is, I was able to be really really excited about this movie that came out 50 years before I was born. I watched it immediately.

The plot that grabbed me so is a uniquely French story told by Spanish filmmaker Luis BuñuelA housewife who has anxiety about being intimate with her husband begins working at a brothel in the afternoons, before her husband gets home from work. Séverine (Catherine Deneuve) is happily married to her husband, a doctor, Pierre (Jean Soreal). She loves him, she is devoted to him, she cares about their relationship, and yet (or maybe because of all that) she finds it impossible to be physically intimate with him. The two don’t even share a bed.

Séverine is haunted with guilt and pressures based on this anxiety that she has. A friend of the couple, Mr. Husson, is always trying to seduce her, to get her away from her husband for a moment of passion. She is beset by strange dreams where men in a carriage punish her in front of Pierre for transgressions unknown to the viewer. And while her husband is understanding and doesn’t intentionally pressure her at any time, his language implies that he’s not the most excited to be in a relationship without a physical aspect.

And then, compelled by strange intrigue, Séverine finds herself at a Brothel. By even stranger circumstances, she finds herself working there. And then, although it seems bizarre to the viewer and to the woman herself, she finds herself enjoying it. Not necessarily the sex, which the movie never revels in (considering its subject matter and the reputation of the country of origin, the film is rather tame in the nudity department). Under the pseudonym Belle de Jour, she works the early afternoon shift at the house of Madam Anais (Geneviève Paige), and finds herself a sought after client. In this work, Séverine is able to find a low pressure form of physical intimacy that doesn’t include the emotional connection, and which allows her to maintain the emotional relationship with her husband without bringing in the physical aspect that she is so uncomfortable with.

Many of the films themes are discussed through dream sequences and strange conversations. These segments highlight Buñuel’s identity as a surrealist filmmaker– things are just barely stranger than they are in real life. But this is no Eraserhead. There is nothing here that should scare mainstream audiences away. It holds up remarkably well, at times seeming like a film from the last 10 years. The technique is not showy here. What is on display is content, this woman and her relationships, her insecurities and her budding new confidence. People are hurt, people make bad decisions, those decisions are worked through in a very human way. The movie is very grounded and a weird enough to keep it from being another movie about a bored housewife.

The star, Deneuve (who is also spectacular in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, another of the many films I watched trying to find a French movie to write about here) is spectacular in her role. Séverine is a difficult woman to understand, and is often quite chilly to the people around her, but I never found her unsympathetic or unreasonable. There is a good portion of humor to the film as well, provided by Anais, the other women at the brothel, and the patrons.

One of the selling points of the film, I think, is that the audience is never given cause to pity Séverine. We are not presented a portrait of a housewife who becomes a sex worker because of desperation. We don’t ask ourselves, “How could she have fallen so low?” Instead of a picture of destitution, we are given a genuinely interesting story about a woman grappling with a separation between physical and emotional intimacy and trying to keep the two separate in her life. We are witness to her journey without being put in a position to pass judgement on her. And if we were to pass judgement, it wouldn’t matter much- she is on this journey because she needs to be.

Say Anything… (1989)

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I cannot count the amount of fights I heard about Say Anthing… (1989) during my first semester at college. In my life I have a very vehement fan of the film, as well as a person who thinks it is a problemaode to negative relationships. I knew a lot about this movie going into it. I knew about kickboxing and I knew how the movie ended, I knew about the scene in the car (for those of you who maybe haven’t seen this movie I’ll try not to give too much away). What I didn’t know what the connective tissue, and where I would come down on this iconic film.

So, I watched it recently, and I’ve been thinking about exactly what makes Say Anything… so classic, and apparently divisive, today. The film has many obvious strengths. Lloyd, played by John Cussack, is one of the best high school movie boyfriends I’ve ever seen. He is genuinely kind to Diane, played by Ione Skye, a sheltered and intelligent girl who graduated at the top of her class. Lloyd himself comes from the other side of the tracks- he doesn’t have a lot of money, his friends are all girls and all punks, he was something of a slacker in high school. But he really likes Diane, he really cares about her and respects her, and he treats her very well.

The film also sheds some light on the lack of self-awareness that many young people have when they’re in their relationships. Lloyd’s best friend Cory, played delightfully by Lily Tyler, has written dozens of songs about a boy who she has recently broken up with, who was cheating on her for the entirety of their relationship. And Lloyd and Diane are no different. They take their relationship very seriously, and say things to one another that only those with the least possible emotional armor can say. Diane and her father have these types of conversations as well, showing us that some of the adults in this world also never developed that sense of self-awareness.

Diane’s father presents a lot of the things that I found problematic with the film, and since I have a lot of faith in director Cameron Crowe, I do think that these problems are intentionally included in the film- they are what makes the movie a classic instead of another forgotten romantic comedy of the 80’s and 90’s. The core problem of the film is that the two men in Diane’s life- her father and her boyfriend- think that there can only be one man in her life. When Diane wants to do something Lloyd doesn’t (or not do something Lloyd does), he always asks, “Did your dad tell you that?” When Diane says that she is going out with Lloyd or doing something with him, her father brushes him off and tries to talk about all the plans that he and his daughter have made. They put Diane in a position where she thinks that the two people are mutually exclusive. She has to choose one of them, and once she does, she has to lose the other forever.

Naturally, this makes no sense to her. She operates with complete honesty when dealing with the both of them, and is confused when they react negatively to her honesty. Her naivety makes her a great girlfriend and a great daughter, but opens up the opportunity for her to be taken advantage of by her father and boyfriend- which is ultimately what happens to her, over and over again.

I do think that this film works- I think that Lloyd and Diane have a very flawed relationship, but that the film is respectful of this. And while the end of the film initially may suggest that the world is sunshine and roses at the end, I think going back and thinking more about the “ding” will give it more meaning than on first viewing.