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by Sam Juliano
Mid October is upon us and finally it appears the cool temperatures normal for this time of the year are settling in.  The Caldecott series in underway, though I have been tied up at work as of late to do more than the pair I have posted.  But the pace will increase over the coming week.  Jim Clark’s superlative review on Persona in his ongoing Ingmar Bergman series and J.D. Lafrance’s splendid re-visitation of the horror classic Creepshow posted this past week.  Jamie Uhler’s HorrorFest 2018 continues with a fabulous review on a relatively obscure 1944 gem starring the great Erich Von Stroheim, based on Robert Siodmak source material:
The Lady and the Monster (G. Sherman… 1944) sci-fi/mad scientist
“As the famous saying goes from John Waters in relation to the work of pioneering camp showman William Castle’s reliance on theater and film gimmicks, “Strait-Jacket employed cinema’s greatest gimmick of all, Joan Crawford”. He didn’t mean it derogatorily, the film was a fever dream of lurid trash dementia, and Crawford was the only actress that could play all these twists and turns with such supreme aplomb. I bring it up here as it shows just how much the ultimate genres of the special effect—Horror and Science Fiction—really rely on, when the gallons of red gloop are done and the severed limbs hacked off, actor sto really sell the thing and, if I could borrow John Waters here, B-movie director George Sherman unleashes one of the best diabolical special effect of the outrageous, Erich von Stroheim, to wonder effect here. 
Of course von Stroheim often returned to such lurid plots because he had a real knack for the stuff, but also because his brilliant directorial career had been robbed out from under from him via Studio bosses in something of a dress rehearsal for what they’d later do to the burgeoning career of wunderkind Orson Welles. So, into the late 30’s/early 40’s, much of what we have from von Stroheim is stuff like the performance in The Lady and the Monster, and while after doing Greed or The Wedding March you almost mourn the fact, but realize, that hell, under any cinema tent, supreme low art like this deserves a might big spot too.
He’s asked to man Professor Franz Mueller (I love thinking of our Orange ignoramus’ sweating to the beat of our 21st century Robert Mueller every time I heard the characters name uttered in dialogue) here, a scientist determined to resuscitate and keep alive a brain after its organism has perished, a feat he’s able to accomplish early in the film via a dying small monkey he’s brought with him into the Arizona desert chateau of Dr. Patrick Cory. When a stiff shows up nearby, they race out to help as Doctors, but you know Mueller is secretly hoping it’s dead so he can have a human to try out on, a fact we’re given shortly after. The team of scientists succeed—one of the films strengths is tying everyone in on the potentially unethical but brilliant, work—and soon the brain begins telepathically controlling Cory, a feat seemingly advanced moreso at the prodding of the ever more deranged Mueller. A twist occurs when the corpse is revealed to be not just any stiff, but in fact the (supposedly) rich Mr. Donovan whose will isn’t what many had hoped for. The last reel because nearly a noir, with the widow and her lawyer realizing something’s amiss. Von Stroheim remains affixed as the bad guy even as Cory becomes increasingly controlled by the feedback speaking brain at the films center.
With a lean, often art filled script from a Curt Siodmak source novel, this relative cheapie plays great beyond its cost, as a noir-inspired looks drips menace and shadow throughout.Catching me off guard this is one I really, really enjoyed, and now will push it whenever underrated works of Horrors pre-Psycho era are sought. Highly recommended.”
Lucille and I saw a single film in the theater this week and though very well reviewed was mediocre at best.  It is purportedly Robert Redford’s final film.
The Old Man and the Gun ***       (Saturday night)               Ridgefield Park multiplex

 

 

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by Sam Juliano

Life has come and life has gone.
Time has gone by
with no one to tend it, 
happiness in its past, 
for it will never feel love again.      -Anne Crawford

Driving through a remote, swampy backwoods in the deep south, two young men, brothers Tim and John Branner find themselves stranded after their car gets stuck in a furrow.  John ventures forth to find a pole to help pry them out and stumbles upon a pigeon infested  plantation house that appears uninhabited and in serious disrepair.  Upon entering the house the boys see dust and spider webs everywhere, pervasive evidence that people haven’t lived in the gloomy manor house for quite some time.  Unpacking sleeping bags, the two young men resolve to spend the night, and proceed to ignite the fireplace.  The cooing of the pigeons continues to wrangle John.   This is the basic mise en scene of a television adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s 1934 short story “Pigeons from Hell” which is rightly considered to be the greatest hour of the early 60’s anthology Boris Karloff’s Thriller, and the one that even those with hazy memories seemed to recall vividly.  The episode is drenched in atmosphere, and the seemingly long-abandon manor house in a remote wooden swamp zone develops a life of its own, albeit with a terrifying twist.

Julie Fogliano and Lane Smith, through aching elegiac prose and ravishing art with a spectral underpinning, transform a derelict house into a dimension of memory suffused with a blurred point of view, one paying homage to life forces that once made this benign structure the center of the world.  Bereft of the consternation generated by the usual perception of evil spirits who find refuge in forsaken dwellings, A House That Once Was largely disavows the malevolent possibilities inherent in a place no longer tempered by humanity in favor of piecing together evidence based photos and objects that fuel interrogative word pictures.  The author’s tone is deeply melancholic if tinged by hope and a celebration of a life once richly lived.  Through searingly descriptive verse, minimalist and haunting Fogliano gives her award winning master illustrator Smith the opportunity to apply fantastical and metaphysical heft to what would on first glance to be an ordinary find, quite the flip side of the story of the woodcutter’s children published by the Germans Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in 1812.   Few picture books in modern times have as seamlessly woven word and image from collaborating artists to establish such literary and pictorial chemistry, though it is clear enough all the way back to the first double page spread that Fogliano and Smith are simultaneously interpreting each other’s vision. (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

On Friday at the Number 3 School Annex  where Lucille serves as Principal and I as children’s literature instructor, 2018 Caldecott contender Frane Lessac (a favorite son who grew up in bordering Cliffiside and graduated CPHS the same year as I did in 1972) and her husband author Mark Greenwood collaborated on a spectacular smart board and drawing presentation that had First and Second grade students enthralled. We are all so honored that Frane, one of the most popular and accomplished students in high school, is a major contender this year for the Caldecott Medal for her ravishing art in “We Are Grafeful: Otsaliheliga” authored by Traci Sorell. Frane and Mark are pictured here with Lucille, Supervisor of Instruction Lou DeLisio and Tours Truly (holding ‘We are Grateful’ and the new Australian Animal picture book Frane recently published. What a fantastic morning in Fairview!!!   We got to see our friend Frane Lessac again Sunday at the nation’s premium children’s bookstore, Books of Wonder in Manhattan. We also saw Caldecott winner Sophie Blackall, debut author Traci Sorell (We Are Grateful), Stephanie Graegin (The Thank You Book) and Lucy Ruth Cummins (Stumpkin). Also scheduled was two time Caldecott Honor winner Laura Vaccaro Seeger, though she got tied up. She was at BOW a short time ago. Danny is seen with each of the artists, all of whom Lucille and I chatted with comprehensively.

The exciting 2018 Horrorfest continues with two excellent capsules reviews by Jamie Uhler on a longtime personal favorite of mine (The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake) and Tales from the Darkside.  As always some excellent capsule reviews:

The Four Skulls of Jonathan Drake (E. L. Cahn… 1959) supernatural/thriller
A low budget chiller from an era in American Horror largely forgotten, this one displays many of the charms nonetheless. One is the total commitment to the story, however potentially ludicrous it appears on paper. Here we have the story of an exploration company that, while securing resources and new land centuries ago in a remote part of the world massacred the entire tribe in the area save one witch doctor who was able to escape. He then put a hex on every male family member of the Drake name, ensuring that they’d all be eventually visited by a descendent of the tribe, murderer, and then have their head lopped off, their skull extracted, and their head made into a shrunken head trophy. It’s happened to the three generations of Drakes, and when the fourth, and last, is targeted and nearly killed, the local authorities get involved even though they all remain thoroughly skeptical about the supernatural events clearly in the case. 
It’s a fun enough film, the type that would have played for real kicks on television in the decades after it came and went with little fanfare. No masterpiece, maybe only average, to slightly above average, but I dig this type of heavily enacted camp made by pros. Recommend.
Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (J. Harrison… 1990) anthology horror
A film that has often been called Creepshow 3 due to its involvement of George A. Romero and Stephen King and being episodic Horror, it goes a long way in explaining what this one is like. I’d never seen it, in fact I don’t even recall ever reading much about it either, so I was happy to learn of it and be able to screen it with real ease via amazon prime. Of course the films framing device—an affluent suburban wife played by Deborah Harry plans to cook the local paperboy she’s kidnapped for her nights dinner party only to be distracted by the three ‘stories’ he tells her—explains what you’re in store for as well; an eccentric, mostly funny mix of special effects laden horror of its time. 
The three stories are all successful to various degrees, especially for pure entertainment factor. The first might be the straightaway best, but produced the fewest laughs. In Lot 249 a graduate student (a young, dweebish Steve Buscemi) buys and sells antique artifacts to supplement his poor college existence at a school filled with rich students (amongst them are Christian Slater and a young Julianne Moore!). His most recent buy, a wooden crate labeled ‘Lot 249’ contains an ancient mummy whom he immediately reanimates to do his bidding and exact revenge on a few fellow students who conspired to rob him of an esteemed fellowship. A few gory deaths result, and the costumed mummy lumbers about humorously. The second one, Cat from Hell, was a George A. Romero adaptation of a Stephen King short story of the same name. The story is thin, but thankfully it only needs to stretch about 25 minutes, a feat which it does hilariously—a wealthy old curmudgeon (Uncle Lewis from Christmas Vacation) hires an assassin (the New York Dolls David Johansen, lol) to kill a black cat that he feels has demonic powers (it being a spirit of the thousands of cats he used in lab tests at his drug company). The sum for the kill, $100,000, seems great and killing a cat can’t be hard, but after being thoroughly thwarted, the cat actually climbs into the assassins mouth and down into his bowels, to then exit the next morning, killing all involved. Finally is Lover’s Vow, a symbolic Japanese Kwaidan like story where a struggling artist witnesses a monster massacre a bar owner, but, to keep his life must vow to never speak of it again. Later that night be meets the love of his life, who brings him security and stability and thus eventual artistic success. They marry and have kids, but on their 10th anniversary he feels he must no longer keep any secrets from his family. Upon telling them of the first night together, they all turn into versions of this beast, and massacre him.  

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by Sam Juliano

A week after Princeton, we attended an even bigger festival up in Chappaqua, New York on Saturday afternoon (where the Clintons have long resided) on the specious grounds of the Bell Middle School. Jeremy, Sammy and I met up with some our friends, with whom we chatted with while securing their most recent titles. Jeremy is featured below with Florence Friedman and Wendell Minor though photos were also taken with Caldecott legends Jerry Pinkney and Bryan Collier.  There were so many others we crossed paths with as well including Caldecott Honor winner Nancy Tafuri, Susan Hood, Jason Carter Eaton, the Ransomes and others. Next week Warwick!!!!

Both James Clark and J.D. Lafrance published extraordinary essays, with Clark’s review of Bergman’s The Silence the continuation of an ongoing series devoted to the iconic director.

Jamie Uhler’s latest Horrorfest review considers The Vampire Bat (F. Strayer/1933):  “A cheapie made to capture on the success of the Lionel Atwood/Fay Wray pairing in Doctor X from a year prior (review on that to come) and the Mystery of the Wax Museum that was set to arrive in theaters imminently, looks at least a decade older than each of these in comparison given its threadbare production. Sure, it borrows sets from James Whale’s great, lavish vehicles Frankenstein and The Old Dark House, which creates an aura beyond what would’ve been there otherwise, which is talk heavy plot (hey, actors could talk in the talkies now, so some of the early ones took full advantage!) and minimal suspense. That being said, it is a curious oddity, if a slightly mundane one. When you consider the plot, it uses a red herring in an actual, deranged young man who is obsessed with bats whom the townspeople suspect to be an actual vampire when several dead bodies turn up due to ‘blood loss’. As the townspeople build towards mob justice (surely lifted from Frankenstein), lead investigator Karl (the always stiff Melvyn Douglas) suspects more earthly suspects. Soon, Dr. Otto (the lean, cold Lionel Atwill) appears to be the prime target, and when his blood transfusion experiments are revealed for their more nefarious intentsto feed the artificial lifeforms the blood they need to keep going—we build to the films climax. It’s that idea, how science and technology can drive Horror rather than the classic Horror tales of Monsters and supernatural phenomenon from the Old World that provides something interesting, and relatively original. It would certainly become the norm for the cheapies made in the Horror and Science Fiction films for the next 3 decades or so. 

The direction is compact and subtle from Frank Strayer, perhaps greatest is his idea to use slowed, diagonal wipes to denote scene ends, evoking something like a bat wing or vampire cape cascading across our visual frame. While I wouldn’t rush anyone to see this one, in an age when the heavies—James Whale and Todd Browning—were defining what Horror looked like to American audiences, this is an interesting juxtaposition that I’d say Horror fans could stand seeing (of course Browning would make Freaks after Dracula and make any easy characterization of his aesthetic moot). If it was a bit brisker and more action oriented, which is perhaps unrealistic on poverty row, it’d have been tremendous. 

A ravishing biographical period piece “Colette” stars a luminous Keira Knightley in what could well be her finest performance since ‘Atonement’ as the radical bi-sexual title character who because of her gender is denied of credit for her famed writing by her husband, Henry, an unrepentant womanizer. Colette is actually the iconic French writer Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who was nominated for a Nobel Prize in 1948 and famously penned “Gigi” upon which the beloved Lerner & Loewe musical was based. This pioneer in women’s rights fought back with fiery determination, allowing Knighley to flex her acting chops with dynamic fortitude. Directed by Wash Westmoreland this exquisite British work features resplendent period cinematography by Giles Nuttgens and above all the absolute greatest score of 2018 by Thomas Ades, whose classical themes and melodious flow beautifully underscores the film’s temper. 4.5 of 5.0. One of the best films of the year. (Seen in Montclair Saturday night with Lucille, Sammy and Danny). (more…)

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by Sam Juliano

The annual New Jersey children’s book bonanza known as the Princeton Book Festival was staged Saturday at Hinds Plaza next to the Princeton Public Library. Jeremy, Sammy IV and I were thrilled to chat with Caldecott record-holder David Wiesner, who grew up in New Jersey and presented his new book “I Got It”; with good friend Lauren Castillo, whose new work “Imagine”, authored by Juan Felipe Herrera was center stage on her table, and with Rowboat Watkins, whose latest, “Big Bunny” was his own latest offering. We also crossed paths with David Ezra Stein, Greg Pizzoli, Daniel Salimieri, Susan Verdi, Angela Dominguez and others on this beautiful day in the center of the Garden State. (Jeremy pictured with Wiesner).

James Clark and J.D. Lafrance published magisterial essays this past week on Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets at the site.

Jamie Uhler’s continuing horrorfest essays this past week included fabulous pieces on George Waggner’s 1941 horror classic The Wolf Man with Lon Chaney Jr. and Lynn Ransay’s 2017 psychological horror You Were Never Here:

“One of the last of the singularly title Universal monster films, I’ve long really liked this feature anyways. Universal’s long held, and rightly earned, ‘House of Horror’ was running on fumes as the Forties hit. Frankenstein and Dracula had already been done within 3 variations each (with a fourth Frankenstein title in 1942), and things looked bleak. None of the new enterprises seemed to add much to the stable, but with the retreads continuing to rake in the dough, who could really care to establish new (1940’s The Invisible Man Returns, for example, was a smash, prompting The Invisible Woman to be rushed into production)? It was under this that The Wolfman came, a genuine new venture, featuring a new monster not previously explored in full in quite this way. Werewolf of London, from 6 years prior, doesn’t attempt the emotional anguish of this film, as good as it is (and I’m slated to do it this season). Some works wonderfully, while some does not—Lon Chaney Jr. is a little sluggish as the sensitive, love struck wolf, but otherwise, this stands tall with the classics of the Universal monster stable.  (more…)

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Tenth Anniversary at Wonders in the Dark!
Last week we at the film/arts site WONDERS IN THE DARK celebrated our 10th anniversary. So much has been achieved that to list them here would be a Herculean task. Decade and genre countdowns, weekly Monday Morning Diaries, spectacular essays from co-editor Jim Clark, terrific reviews from J.D. Lafrance, Allan Fish Online Film Festival tributes, the annual Caldecott Medal Contender series reviews, annual horror film round-up by Jamie Uhler, podcasts, are sure highlights but the archives of course reveal so much more an spill into opera, theater and music as well.  Thank you so much Joel Bocko -a friend and affiliate since almost the beginning- for reminding us of this monumental achievement.  It all began on September 7th 2008 with the following statement from Yours Truly:
“Today, September 7, 2008, a new blog is born. The main thrust of this cultural endeavor will be the publication of reviews, which will examine films, theater, concerts and opera. Several writers will be on board to bring the steaming excitement of Manhattan culture to the internet world. In the area of film, there will also be ongoing attention to classic and contemporary cinema by some terrific writers and a tracking of new DVD releases of art house product. As the site matures, it is also anticipated that pictures and photos will be utilized. This is a most exciting project and I am thrilled with the prospect of rewarding discourse by way of posts and comments.”
Within a day of that post my dear late friend and writer extraordinaire Allan Fish came aboard and the rest they say is history. I would never have envisioned this impulsive endeavor to last for a long ten years but here we are, still moving ahead albeit without our cherished friend, but still with relevance and terrific writers. HAPPY BIRTHDAY WONDERS IN THE DARK!!!
The 2018 Caldecott Medal Contender series will begin with a post set to go later today.  This is the sixth annual project covering the year’s noteworthy American picture books and it will run until mid-January, two weeks before the awards are announced.
Jamie Uhler has launched the annual Horrorfest via e mail and this year it is quite the comprehensive affair.  Jamie has agreed to allow posting at WitD so many others can engage in these banner reports and recommendations.  Here is the first of these reports:
I’m happy to announce, with some delay my official 31-in-31 October Horror list. I say ‘some delay’ as mid year my 7 year old external hard drive crashed, vaporizing 2.5 TBs of films instantaneously. I lost thousands of riches, but who wants to dwell in that much depression (plus, fuck it was all illegally downloaded for nothing anyway!). Undeterred, I had to cobble together to the best o of my knowledge what I had been stockpiling in a Horror2018 folder (a yearly exercise ensuring that I see more obscure works. You’ll notice this year the full fledged return of the classic 31-in-31, as past years got out of control, with sometimes over 50 films attempted in the expanded, more than 2 months Horror season. Thus, I’m trying to keep this one as much in the window of October as I can, perhaps only cheating into September to lighten my daily October load. This year’s selections also started much looser, without the sectioned off ideas of years past, which alas, still found some nice, interesting buckets to contain most of the picks into.
And, most interestingly, where in years past older films would make up 4-8 picks in general, this is the first year a dedicated commitment to older Horror was made, with 17 of the 31 being pre-1950. On this point you get a vacuum sucking out much of the trash that usually is appearing on most year’s lists. This is, again, for the first time really in these marathons. I look forward to the pre-discussions (I’m really interested in if Maurizio is familiar with the Inner Sanctum films), and the eventual mini-essay write-ups that follow each viewing.

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by Sam Juliano

Thanks to our film writer J.D. Lafrance for sorting out and re-starting the Twitter feed for the site.  As a result traffic has improved.  The annual Caldecott Medal Contender series is set to launch in a week to ten days and will continue until January, though the number of reviews planned to pen is a matter of uncertainty.  Our resident writers Jim Clark and J.D. continue to provide readers with extraordinary and diverse essays.

Lucille is set to have her partial kneed replacement later this morning in Engelwood where I will be holed up awaiting this stressful episode.  I’m sure all will be well and appreciate those offering their well wishes.

In a rural village in present day Zambia, an orphaned eight-year-old girl is accused of being a witch in “I Am Not A Witch”  She’s offered a choice of punishments: either accept enslavement in state-run camp tethered to a white ribbon or risk transformation into a goat. With a story formed from research on real-life African witch camps, director Rungano Nyoni (in a fantastic feature debut) and cinematographer David Gallego (Embrace of the Serpent) craft a world—and unique cinematic voice nicely mixing Kafkaesque comedy, anthropological inquiry, poignant drama, and feminist fairytale. (more…)

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