Archive for October, 2015



by Sam Juliano

The following film review of “City of the Dead” is offered up as a “Halloween” special.

    John Moxey’s 1961 low-budget City of the Dead is an eighty minute feature that in story, theme and execution could well have fit comfortably on Boris Karloff’s one-hour Thriller, which ran the same year and one beyond.  It wouldn’t even seem out of place as one of the one hour Twilight Zones shown a few years later, or even as an installment of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  Made on a shoe sting on studio lots, one could hardly anticipate the reputation it has enjoyed to this very day.  Sure it features Christopher Lee in a relatively minor role, and offers up an early assignment for celebrated cinematographer Desmond Dickinson, but upon conception and subsequent release it wasn’t especially distinguished.  Yet like fine wine, this fog enshrouded story about witchcraft set in the fictional “Whitewood” Massachusetts has risen in reputation and remains one of the very best films of his kind.  It trumps the very well made but didactic Burn Witch Burn, and it isn’t at all out of place to speak of it when recalling Mario Bava’s masterpiece Black Sunday, another monochrome gem made the same year as the British City of the Dead.   The story device of the young heroine being killed off early in the film was apparently lifted from Hitchcock’s Psycho, 

Known in America by a more sensational title, Horror Hotel, the film opens with a stunning prologue, set during the Puritan era in late seventeenth century Massachusetts.  A young woman named Elizabeth Selwyn (played by Patricia Jessel) is burned at the stake for “consorting with the devil.”  The hostile crowd cheers on her demise, while the woman appeals unsuccessfully to another Puritan named Jethro Keane to help her.  Keane, fearing for his own life remains silent, but privately urges Lucifer to assist her when a cloak of darkness suddenly descends to announce his arrival.  Selwyn boasts to the crowd that she has made her pact, before she is roasted on the pyre.  The scene then segues into the present at the home of Professor Alan Driscoll (Lee) who is highly respected by a young blonde beauty, Nan Barlow (played by Venetia Stevenson, the daughter of the director of Mary Poppins), who informs him privately that she wishes to do her research at a place where witchcraft once flourished.  Driscoll tells her he knows just the place – a town “off the beacon track” named Whitewood, and writes down the name of the “Raven’s Inn,” advising her to speak to the woman running the place, a “Mrs. Newless.”   (more…)


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fire 2

by Sam Juliano

Note:  This is the second review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 30th scheduled awards date.  The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be.  The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.

Fire trucks and the men who engineer them have always won the star struck adoration of the younger elementary school kids.  When the department runs demonstrations for school kids they are greeted with the most captive audience they could ever hope for.  Kids of course are hopelessly smitten with all the firefighter’s paraphernalia -the ladders the bells, boots and helmets and the stories of heroism that are relayed in simple but compelling terms.  At that most impressionable age, some kids are convinced they know their calling, while others can’t imagine anything more exciting than the prospect of responding to a three-alarm fire.  Even after they are told of the danger, and chances involved with this vocation, they see these prospective activities as adventurous and recipient of great respect around the community.  The carnival like atmosphere that often accompanies a big fire is as alluring as the scene-specific sounds that heighten the urgency of the moment.

Author-illustrator Mike Austin, creator of the irresistible picture book Junk Yard, knows precisely what sounds and visuals comprise this most dreaded of domestic calamities.  Using colorfully appealing mixed media art that recalls Donald Crews’ popular transportation books, Austin brings together some visceral spreads to re-create this sensory experience, accentuating the need to move quickly and how vital it is to have trained firefighters.  From the dazzling cover, which features a long hook and ladder truck that rolls out over the spine and back panel, through safety oriented end papers that compile the most important items needed to combat a fire, Austin understands that there is no hedging when it comes to equipment, which could in the end be the difference between life or death.  Or certainly that is the warning he tactfully presents in  a book that recreates the sounds that are exclusive to this event, and are so vital to the safety of those on both ends of the emergency.  Austin superbly relates the sudden intrusion of the way firemen are alerted by first depicting a tranquil, sunny day outside the firehouse, where Engine No. 9 is being attended two by two men, one of whom is playing with the company’s Dalmatian, who leaves out the window from the driver’s passenger side of the truck.  Another is re-situating a fire extinguisher in an open back panel that features and axe and a first aid kit.  The sun shines down innocuously enough, but then on the very next page the words “Alert! Alert!” and three notifications of “Fire!” each in progressively larger type are joined by the barking dog.  The next turn is terrific: The sounds of “Whoosh” accompany two fireman coming down the pole in a scenario that may well be outdated, but was always part and parcel to the calls decades ago. (more…)

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 © 2015 by James Clark

      With the catchment of the work of Jean-Pierre Melville and his acolyte Michael Mann—briefly entered by Roman Polanski in his Repulsion (not to mention a train-load of cosmopolitan auteurs getting away from it all by getting close to it all)—the camera’s acuity about the carnal timbre of the players is most important. In The Red Circle (1970) we have, amidst all its bespoke intricacies, a factor raising the bar as never before, namely, a dying actor getting by on much heart and much morphine, within a bolt of endeavor calling upon pretty high-toned vivacity. Veteran comedy and musical actor, Andre Bourvil, in the capacity of Commissioner Mattei, is introduced in the course of being bested by a young and violently buoyant felon who has become his responsibility to deliver to a Paris jail cell by way of a train ride originating, for the duo, from Marseille but having originated in Italy (and even including, rather quirkily, a German coach). The fugitive from justice has kicked out a window of their sleeping compartment in the crepuscule moments of early light when the weight of inertia weighs most dauntingly; and after unsuccessfully pursuing his charge through wooded territory and emptying his pistol in the general but not specific enough direction he returns to the now stationary chic vehicle where sophisticates show their wardrobes and breeding (one actually saying, “I say!”) en route to even more racy fun in the City of Light. The fugitive had, in the shadowy sleeper, shown one feature of his presence to be dominant, namely, a pair of gleaming dark eyes—the eyes of a ruthless predator. We soon discover that his name is Vogel (German for bird) and as he pounds through the rough terrain in his black suit jacket with white shirt and tie he could be a raven or a magpie, though the latter would belie his wordless bearing. Mattei, similarly sartorially elegant, shows us a pair of medically altered, faded eyes to match his chalky, carved-out facial features. Come to think of it, though, Vogel could be, more than anything, a hawk (with a problem of attaining to soaring and thus missing out on becoming an icon of masterful power and grace). And in his hapless victim’s phoning in his report of the incident he shows no overt embarrassment. “The prisoner I was accompanying has escaped.” Mattei may be on his last legs but his heart has not descended to the bathos of forgetting that others can be a handful and colleagues may either comprehend this or go to hell. (more…)

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the assassin


by Sam Juliano

The day of jack-o-lanterns, ghost costumes and teeth rotting candy is upon us, but no matter how you size it up it is tons of fun for most.  Kids will benefit mightily from the rarity of a Saturday Halloween, though parents obviously much less so.  Horror film lovers are in their own annual cinematic delirium, and various haunted house attractions are all the rage.  This is a time for at-home denizens to break out their Universal Horror, Val Lewton and Italian Giallo box sets, though there is plenty more for rustling up scares.

Mets fans are on Cloud Nine, though their World Series matchup with the American League champion Kansas City Royals is sizing to be a real barn burner.  Area football fans are celebrating their football win over the hated Cowboys.  The next several weeks will no doubt be the ones film fans remember the most when compiling their year-end lists.  But everything is hopping on all the artistic fronts including opera.

To be or not to be….A equally dramatic interpretation of that iconic phrase has been playing itself out at the site over the last several days, and it has culminated with some highly unexpected changes in the 2016 Science Fiction Films Countdown.  The project is still quite a time away, but we still haven’t firmed up the manner of how it will proceed.  Stay tuned. (more…)

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science fiction

by Sam Juliano

I would like to announce to all site readers that the sparring over the Greatest Science Fiction Films Countdown will not impact the fact that it will be happening in 2016.  The exact time it will officially launch is still undecided as are the specifications, and scene-specific involvement, but if anything was clear from all the dialogue in public and in private there are many interested parties, who want very much for the project to move forward.  I was frankly surprised but delighted that this particular genre has the kind of support it does.  Our excellent friend the prolific writer John Grant posted a fantastic comment on this week’s MMD that opens up another priceless avenue of research for aficionados:

I would very much like it if the SF Countdown went ahead, not only because in my humble way I’d like to contribute, having written quite a lot on f/sf movies for both David Pringle’s wildly misnomered Ultimate Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (I did the entirety of the cinema section) and my/John Clute’s The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (similarly), but because, in the event, I’d like to clue the folks at the gargantumassive online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction edition #3 into the countdown. (I devoted ~4 years of my life to the monumental 2nd edition, the last to appear in print.) I’m sure many of those associated with the SFE would be interested in the hypothetical WitD Countdown.

In case I’ve screwed up that link, as I so often do, here it is again, if I have:  http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/

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rude cakes 1

by Sam Juliano

Note:  This is the first review in the 2015 Caldecott Contender series that will be published at this site over the coming months, up until the January 30th scheduled awards date.  The books that will be examined are not necessarily ones that are bonafide contenders in the eyes of the voting committee, but rather the ones this writer feels should be.  The order they will be presented is arbitrary as some of my absolute favorites will be presented near the end.

You know the type.  Inveterate bullies.  Everything and everyone they engage with has strings of entitlement attached.  Words like “please” and “thank you” are alien to their nature and they are always violating territorial boundaries, swiping items that belong to others.  They are brusque, turn deaf ears on parental rules, and seemingly spend their time devising new ways to exploit laws of civility.  Forcing their way to the front of the line and greedily refusing to divide their gains well establish these narcissistic “rude cakes” as first place finishers in self-appeasement but at the very end of the line in veneration from their peers.  In other words they won’t be anyone’s best man or maid of honor, even with their wedding cake physique, nor will they ever be described as sweet regardless of the high saccharine content of their bodies.  If they stay the course they will gain little more than the proverbial pie in the eye from any man, woman or desert.

The very first picture book by the irresistibly named “Rowboat” Watkins, Rude Cakes showcases a baptism under fire for one who needs to be treated with his own medicine.  Watkins, who both authored and illustrated his maiden effort teaches his young readers the worth of humility and respect in a story where one is forced to incur a painful comeuppance.  Appropriately enough it takes putting the perpetrator in the same boat as those on the receiving end of this callous anarchy, with an extra degree of humiliation for good measure.  This pink double layer cake is invariably taught that being polite in the long run wins you so much more, and concurrently that there is always room for change. (more…)

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To all writers and readers of Wonders in the Dark:

by Sam Juliano

As everyone who has been following the site well knows, we have tentative plans to conduct a Greatest Science-Fiction Films countdown near the end of the first quarter of the new year.  Although I personally took the reigns of the past hugely successful five countdowns, I have yielded to others to set the rules and regulations of the new poll for several reasons.  First off, I personally need a break, though my involvement will still be as passionate and as time consuming as the other countdowns.  Secondly, I think it would be great to have us look at this genre from another angle, with new markers to gauge our examination of science fiction cinema.  I am not to be sure throwing up my hands and saying I am buckling under to pressure or that I am doing what I really don’t want to do.  If that were the case I would have resisted.  I want and welcome the change.  I always like to pursue new avenues when possible.  It has nothing to do with how well the past countdowns came down.  The evidence suggests they were monster hits.  But I see no reason to believe the 2016 venture will be any different.  There are other things going on at the site now, what with the Caldecott Contender series almost set to go and some promised Saturday action.  I am sure Allan will be posting some of his Obscuros and as always Jim Clark is there every other week with his painstaking work.  I wanted to clear the air, so there are no future misunderstandings.

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WTDW - cinematog b

by John Grant

The British gem ‘Whistle Down the Wind” came very close to making the Greatest Childhood/Adolescent Films Countdown.  At ‘Noirish’ the renowned John Grant reviewed it magnificently in one of the writer’s greatest essays.

UK / 96 minutes / bw / Beaver, Allied Film Makers, Rank Dir: Bryan Forbes Pr:Richard Attenborough Scr: Keith Waterhouse, Willis Hall Story:Whistle Down the Wind (1959) by Mary Hayley Bell Cine: Arthur Ibbetson Cast: Hayley Mills, Bernard Lee, Alan Bates, Diane Holgate, Alan Barnes, Roy Holder, Barry Dean, Norman Bird, Diane Clare, Patricia Heneghan, John Arnatt, Gerald Sim, Elsie Wagstaff, Hamilton Dyce, Howard Douglas, Ronald Hines, Michael Lees, Michael Raghan.

A number of movies have taken as their subject the mythopoeic tendencies of young minds, whereby they can generate fantastical explanations for misunderstood events, or even their own spiritualities—their own mythologies and religions, in fact. The Lord of the Flies (1963), based on the 1954 William Golding novel, is the example that usually springs most readily to mind; others include The Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Celia (1988), My Neighbor Totoro (1988) and, arguably, The Babadook (2014). First on the scene, though, and in my view the most effective of all of these—certainly the most poignantly beautiful—is Whistle Down the Wind.

In a small Lancastrian community, the three children of the Bostock farm—Kathy (Mills), Nan (Holgate) and the youngest, Charles (Barnes)—save a trio of kittens, the latest litter of farm cat Dusty, from being drowned in a sack by feckless farmhand Eddie (Bird). Charles tries to fob off one of the kitten on first his pal Jackie Greenwood (Holder) and then a Salvation Army street evangelist (Heneghan). The latter tells him that she can’t take the proffered kitten but that she’s sure Jesus will look after it. From this casual statement flows much later confusion.


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Brooklyn lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) meets with his client Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), a Soviet agent arrested in the U.S. in DreamWorks Pictures/Fox 2000 PIctures' dramatic thriller BRIDGE OF SPIES, directed by Steven Spielberg.

Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies”


Screen grab from Dennis Villeneuve’s riveting and taut mega thrilled “Sicario” starring Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro

by Sam Juliano

We are plowing through October like a hay ride on a whistle stop tour through a pumpkin field.  Mother Nature has finally realized that the calendar is what it is and we’ve been wearing jackets and coats the last week or so.  Yet for those in the Big Apple metropolitan area we do have a few low 70’s days predicted for this coming week.  Baseball fans in Chicago and New York are tied up with Cubs-Mets, and all fans of the sport are hoping for a great series.  And our wonderful friends Valerie and Jim Clark are still pulling for a Toronto Blu Jays comeback against those resilient Kansas City Royals.  Otherwise it’s NFL football, opera on the HD simulcasts and of course the very best time of the year for film fans.

The 2015 Caldecott Contender series will launch this coming week.  Reviews will post at various intervals all the way up until the day of the American Library Association’s awards on January 30th of 2016.  I’m not sure how many book reviews I’ll actually publish, but I am sure it won’t come anywhere close to the 51 of last year.  Still, some great books are in contention once again, and I’ll be doing my best to afford representative coverage.  Stay tuned.

The Wonders in the Dark hierarchy have decided on science fiction for the coming 2016 countdown.  The specifications/guidelines will be sent on in the coming months.  Though there is no complaint whatsoever with the great success of the last countdowns, we want to offer up a change of pace.  There also is a series tentatively planned for Saturdays, but I’ll keep that under wraps at the moment.  As always our resilient and brilliant Jim Clark is publishing his incomparable film reviews every other Wednesday and we remain eternally grateful for his stellar input.

Lucille, Jeremy,  and I attended a wonderful book reading by Rowboat Watkins on Saturday morning at the Curious Reader Bookstore in Glen Rock, New Jersey.  His wildly popular picture book Rude Cakes will be one of the first subjects in the Caldecott Contender series. (more…)

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Screen cap from Elem Klimov’s 1985 Russian masterpiece “Come and See” which was examined in a stunning 4,600 word essay by Jamie Uhler, which was the longest review of the entire countdown

The Last Picture Show

Screen cap from Peter Bogdonich’s 1971 gem “The Last Picture Show.” My own review of it attracted 79 comments, the most in the countdown.

by Sam Juliano

The latest countdown is complete and everyone involved in this long running venture can breathe easy and take a bow.  While I must cope with a behind-the-scenes position that to wind up this poll with some brief happy commentary is trite and flagrantly self-congratulatory, I am ever cognizant of how such a project could occupy one body and soul.  So if I sound a bit self-congratulatory so be it.  Heaven help all of us for feeling proud of our accomplishment.  To be sure, like practically all previous genre countdowns chaired by Yours Truly (Greatest Film Musicals, Greatest Film Comedies, Greatest Film Westerns, Greatest Film Romances) there was initial controversy as to what constitutes a proper voting entry in each respective polling.  I may be old-fashioned and free-spirited but I always thought that each voter was intelligent enough to make their own minds up as to which films conform to various genre interpretations.  The e mail chain that always precedes the site announcements was and is the place for sparring over such matters, and it was there where the film lovers voiced their own majority opinion on this recent poll.  The title Greatest Childhood/Adolescent Films Countdown speaks for itself, and pointedly asserts eligibility from ages 0 to 18.  But the main concern of this poll and the others that came before it isn’t the numerical placements nor the issue of a specific film doesn’t work for other voters who are fashioning their own ballots, but rather the reviews of the films and the comment sections under them.  A week from now nobody will remember where films ended up numerically, but there is more than a fair chance that the writing and discussion will survive well into the future.  That after all is the purpose of this and prior countdowns.  The use of “subject” is an excuse to group films together and get people to strut their stuff on the rhetorical front.  In Shakespearean lingo  “The reviews’s the thing……”

I originally intended to have a little fun and offer up a list of the ten “longest” essays, the ten essays with the most comments, and the ten with the most page views, but I have refined that after I was questioned about the worth of it all.  There is no worth whatsoever – the exercise is just to do a little re-visitation.  Some of the best reviews in this countdown were not long in the conventional sense -some in fact was rather short- but the longest ones were certainly works of splendid scholarship.  There is no greatest review or accomplishment, such a position is the domain of individual taste and judgement.  I loved many reviews in this countdown myself, and I have discussed them on e mail chains.  In any case I have refined my statistical intentions to brief mentions.  The longest review of the countdown was Jamie Uhler’s masterful piece on Klimov’s 1985 Russian work Come and See at around 4,600 words.  The runner up was the fabulous appreciation of Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, penned by Dean Treadway, which ran around 3,800 words.  The review that attracted the most comments was my own essay on The Last Picture Show with 79, and the runner-up was also my own essay on Anne of Green Gables/Anne of Avonlea with 63.  Comment totals are all relative and have much to do with timing, a domino effect and the willingness of the author to mix it up.  Kudos to Jon Warner for successfully placing a comment under every single one of the 83 reviews, but to all who found the times to engage. The quality of the writing was consistently excellent, so many of the comments were thoughtful. (more…)

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