Friday, January 31, 2014


Matt Cimber, 1976
Starring: Millie Perkins, Lonny Chapman, Vanessa Brown, Peggy Feury, Jean Pierre Camps, Mark Livingston

Molly is spending time at the beach with her two nephews and tells them wild stories about her father and their grandfather, once a sea captain. She also regularly has affairs with body builders and other muscular men at the beach, sometimes fantasizing about murdering them. Are these acts taking place in her mind, or is Molly really killing men? These fantasies, combined with a strange version of the myth of the “Birth of Venus” that Molly hears trigger repressed memories in her and she begins to recall incidents of child abuse perpetrated by her father. She is clearly beginning to lose her mind as local police search for a killer who has been castrating their victims…

An unusual entry in the ‘70s horror and exploitation canon, The Witch Who Came from the Sea is probably what I would describe as a sensitive exploitation film, not quite as flagrant as Last House on the Left or I Spit On Your Grave, but clearly far afield from an introspective art house film. As with I Spit On Your Grave, Molly seduces men to kill them, but unlike the former, more infamous film, she is getting a more general revenge against mankind than specific revenge against her attackers. She focuses on muscular macho men and seems to be attacking a specific type.

This was briefly considered one of the infamous video nasties in Britain, but was eventually removed from the list. The violence is relatively tame, though there are a few surprising murders including one scene with a razor that I wouldn’t want to spoil. Most of this occurs throughout the film and the gory conclusion that seems inevitable is never delivered. Anyone expecting a lot of gore will probably be disappointed, as this is far more psychological and we are never really sure if Molly is responsible for her actions or simply imagining them. 

The slow, careful pacing and blend of sexual horror and Freudian psychodrama reminds me of other obscure ‘70s films like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and a very strange softcore film that also deals with the aftermath of child abuse, Through the Looking Glass, as well as ‘60s films like Repulsion and Night Tide. Director Matt Cimber was also responsible for He and She, The Black Six, and other cult and exploitation films. Screenwriter Robert Thom (Angel, Angel, Down We Go) was married to star Millie Perkins at the time and seemingly built the main role around her, even naming some of the characters after people in Perkins’ real life. This is also one of the first films shot by celebrated cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween, The Thing).

The Witch Who Came from the Sea certainly benefits from a solid lead performance from Millie Perkins (The Diary of Anne Frank), who seems to be constantly hovering on the precipice between instability and outright insanity. There is also a decent supporting cast made up of a number of B actors, including Lonny Chapman (The Birds), Peggy Feury (The Last Tycoon), Roberta Collins (The Big Doll House), George Flower (They Live), Vanessa Brown (The Ghost and Mrs. Muir), and Lynne Guthrie (The Working Girls).

The ocean and water symbolism may be a bit overwrought, but is still lovely and effective. As with Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Molly is an unreliable narrator and it is unclear whether the events unfolding are fantasy or reality. She opens the film by telling her nephews the story of her father, a sea captain lost to the ocean. Many of the scenes take place near water, whether on the beach or in a bathroom. The source of her instability - sexual abuse - may seem a little predictable, but this tricky, uncomfortable subject matter is well handled by the script. This sexual trauma is intertwined with love, pleasure, fantasy, identity, and puberty.

Though it was unavailable for many years, The Witch Who Came from the Sea is available uncut on DVD with a number of nice special features. It’s not a film for everyone, but film fans interested in more obscure exploitation fare and psychodramas will find a lot to enjoy here. It comes recommended, though the bleak subject matter is not for the faint of heart. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014


Increasingly impressive label Scream Factory have paired together two obscure films, forgotten ‘50s creature feature The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1956) and a prehistoric riff on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Neanderthal Man (1953) for a double feature Blu-ray release due out next week. The first film to rustle up some cowboys and dinosaurs, The Beast of Hollow Mountain may not be on par with the classic works of stop motion cinema, but it is an interesting early experiment nonetheless. Neanderthal Man will please fans of werewolf and other transformation themed horror films. 

The Beast of Hollow Mountain
Jimmy Ryan (Guy Madison), a Texan cowboy living in Mexico, has a problem with missing cattle. The locals claim that a nearby hollow mountain and the swamp surrounding it is cursed and that's where his cattle are disappearing to, but Ryan thinks his number one rival, Enrique (Eduardo Noriega) is to blame. Enrique is jealous because his beautiful fiancée, Sarita (Patricia Medina), has been flirting with Ryan. She thinks he is kind because he recently hired an old drunk, Sancho (Pascual García Peña), and his young son, Panchito (Mario Navarro). People have begun to disappear near the mountain as well as cattle and when Pancho goes missing, Panchito runs off, desperate to find his father. It is up to Sarita and Ryan to rescue the boy, though they aren’t prepared for what awaits them. 

The first movie to mix dinosaurs with cowboys, The Beast of Hollow Mountain is short on both beasts and mountains, showing more cows and desert than it does either of the titular elements. The monster in question is a lone Allosaur whose appearance is not explained. The titular beast takes an hour to appear on screen in a film with an 80 minute running time, and we learn absolutely nothing about the hollow mountain. There are some hilarious close ups of the dinosaur’s strange tongue and a nice “man in a rubber suit” moment when only the dinosaur’s legs are visible. While I love blends of Western and horror or sci-fi, as well as big monster movies and creature features, there simply isn’t enough here.

Willis O’Brien, special effects supervisor for King Kong, The Lost World, Might Joe Young, and others, created the story idea for The Beast of Hollow Mountain. It unfortunately just feels like a dry run for The Valley of Gwangi. For some reason O’Brien did not even do the special effects for The Beast of Hollow Mountain, which might explain why they’re so shoddy. The stop motion scenes don’t look that great, particularly not if you’ve seen a single Ray Harryhausen film.

While Edward Nassour, producer of some unsuccessful stop motion films, is listed as the director, it is likely that prolific co-director Ismael Rodríguez filmed the Spanish language version that was shot at the same time and helped to overcome the language barrier with the primarily Mexican cast. Star Guy Madison is likable, but he’s not enough to save the film as his character is little more than a stock heroic cowboy. Carlos Rivas (The King and I) is also likable as his friend and business partner, but he doesn’t get nearly enough screen time or anything interesting to do.

Patricia Medina’s (from Orson Welles’ Confidential Report) leading lady Sarita somewhat overcomes the weak scripting elements. She is amazingly independent for a ‘50s creature feature, despite the fact that she is the centerpiece of a dull love triangle. The overall story is unfortunately very tame with conservative to nonexistent amounts of sex and violence, some blatant racism, and stock characters in a cookie cutter plot. The last twenty minutes somewhat makes up for the doldrums of the second act. The conclusion is undeniably cheesy, but it’s also a lot of fun and will please fans of early creature features, dinosaur movies, and B Westerns.

Neanderthal Man
Professor Cliff Groves (Robert Shayne) is determined to convince his colleagues that the extinct Neanderthal species was just as intelligent as Homo Sapiens, if not more so. They ignore him, mostly because of his unpleasant personality. Coincidentally, a saber-toothed tiger is located in the mountains near Groves’ home and a scientists travel there to investigate, primarily expert Dr. Ross Harkness (Richard Crane). He is immediately taken with Groves’ lovely fianceé (Doris Merrick) and daughter (Joy Terry), and conceals evidence that Groves has been experimenting on animals and humans with a reverse evolutionary serum. After a number of bodies turn up and local women are attacked, how much longer can Harkness hide his discovery? 

Writers and producers Aubrey Wisberg and Jack Pollexfen were involved with a number of other B-grade genre films, such as They Came to Blow Up America, The Man from Planet X, Captive Women, and Daughter of Dr. Jekyll. Thanks to their punchy script full of unintentionally funny dialogue, Neanderthal Man is easier to get through than The Beast from Hollow Mountain and is more fast paced with more scares and action. It also looks a lot cheaper, particularly where the indoor sets and matte paintings are concerned. And the less said about the saber-toothed tiger, the better. 

There are also a slew of unlikable characters, namely Groves and Harkness, both of whom are selfish and egomaniacal. Star Robert Shayne (Adventures of Superman) is also subjected to some ridiculous transformation sequences when he turns into a prehistoric, subhuman beast with googley-eyes. The make up was done by Ed Wood regular Harry Thomas, so when things look silly, it shouldn’t be all that surprising. Though they are shown off camera, it’s amazing that the rape/attack scenes made it past the censors. Many of the women of the film are unmercilessly abused, including Beverly Garland (The Alligator People), Doris Merrick (The Big Noise), and Tandra Quinn (Mesa of Lost Women). The alleged hero, Harkness (Richard Crane also from The Alligator People) isn’t particularly kind to them either and waits entirely too long to reveal Groves’ murderous activities.

Directed by E.A. Dupont, the film doesn’t boast much in the way of creativity or technical skill and some of the dialogue is painfully boring. And yet, Neanderthal Man has so much unintentional humor, ranging all the way from the attacks to the foley effects, that it is definitely worth watching for fans of ‘50s B genre films, particularly the blends of sci-fi and horror that were so popular at the time.

The Beast of Hollow Mountain is presented in 1080p High Definition with its original 2.25:1 aspect ratio. This is supposedly the first creature feature to be filmed in Cinemascope and despite some sloppy effects, the print looks absolutely beautiful. Though there are some minor scratches and signs of debris, the colors and landscapes are so stunning that it’s easy to look past the minimal damage. Shot in black and white, Neanderthal Man is presented in a 1.35:1 aspect ratio and also looks great, probably better than it ever has. Unfortunately there are some moments where there is so much clarity that it’s easy to tell what is a matte painting or still shot. There seems to be less damage and debris on this print than on The Beast of Hollow MountainThe audio, DTS-HD tracks for both of the films, sounds very clear and dialogue is never muddy. 

This is The Beast of Hollow Mountain’s first official DVD or Blu-ray release, which is an achievement despite the fact that there are sadly no extras, unless you count the addition of a second film, The Neanderthal Man. Both films are also included in an extra DVD copy.

Though The Beast of Hollow Mountain and Neanderthal Man may not be for everyone, diehard creature feature fanatics will rejoice in the addition of two more obscure films being released on Blu-ray. Scream Factory should be celebrated for their continued effort to rummage through the MGM back catalogue and release forgotten delights, which is how The Beast of Hollow Mountain and Neanderthal Man came to see the light of day on Blu-ray. 

Friday, January 24, 2014


Alfred Sole, 1976
Starring: Linda Miller, Paula Sheppard, Brooke Shields

Karen, an adorable nine year old, is about to receive her First Communion. She is a favorite of the local community and the priest, Father Tom, gives her his mother’s crucifix as a present. Her older sister, the disturbed Alice, is jealous and menaces Karen by stealing one of her dolls and threatening her in an abandoned building. Alice often wears a strange, translucent mask that she uses to scare people. Not long after, on the day of the Communion service, Karen is murdered in the church by someone wearing Alice’s mask and a yellow raincoat. She is set on fire and the murderer steals her crucifix. Alice’s estranged father and aunt that she hates move in to help out her distraught mother. More people surrounding Alice are murdered and her mother is horrified to learn that Alice is the primary suspect. 

Initially released as Communion, the film was renamed Alice Sweet Alice and is also known as Holy Terror. One of the most underrated horror films of the ‘70s, this is something of an American giallo with a number of the visual and thematic tropes typically used in Italian horror of the ‘60s and ‘70s. I can see how it reminds critics of Dario Argento’s Deep Red with its abundance of childhood imagery mixed in with scenes of graphic murder, but this actually reminded me a lot of Aldo Lado’s Who Saw Her Die? (1972). That film shares much more in common with Alice Sweet Alice, including religious themes and the central location of a church, as well as sexually aggressive or repressed characters, and child victims. The latter were relatively rare in giallo films, but in Alice Sweet Alice the additional twist is that the killer might just be a child. 

Alice Sweet Alice would also make an interesting companion piece to Carrie, which was actually released the same year. Both films are concerned with a troubled central girl, female rites of passage, repressed sexuality, religion, and a dysfunctional home life. Though Carrie is a telekinetic and Alice is a potential psychopath, both girls were conceived during illicit sexual encounters between their parents, a shame that lingers into the present realities of both films. And like Carrie, Alice Sweet Alice has few likable or sympathetic characters. 

The characters are all unpleasant, including Alice herself, who is presented as a budding young psychopath when she tortures her sister and kills a cat. The film is certain a nasty piece of work and the general air of distaste makes it easier to believe that any of the characters are capable of murder, which certainly helps out the overall mystery. Alice’s family is unlikable, one of the neighbors is a child molester (Alphonso DeNoble from Bloodsucking Freaks) whose advances Alice barely escapes, and a number of other characters are undeniably sleazy.

In addition to the central murder mystery, there are many domestic drama elements that surround Alice’s dysfunctional family. To a certain extent, Alice Sweet Alice has a few too many characters and subplots, which can make things confusing, but also lends itself to the numerous red herrings and giallo-like sequences. The body count is relatively low, but the killer in the yellow raincoat with a terrifying children’s mask is very effective. Karen’s murder in particular is quite chilling, as it essentially happens in front of a church full of people, they just happen to be looking the other way.

Shot and set in Paterson, New Jersey, the film takes place in the early ‘60s. Director Alfred Sole primarily made his career as a producer or art director and this is one of his few films. It’s really a shame, because he managed to make the best of a confused script and low budget, as well as get some good performances out of largely inexperienced or unknown actors. This was the film debuts for both Brooke Shields and Paula Sheppard. Shields would go on to have a long career and Sheppard went to to star in the cult film Liquid Sky. Linda Miller, Mildred Clinton, Jane Lowry, and Niles McMaster also appear as the arguably less memorable adults.
Alice Sweet Alice is available on DVD, though I would love to see a Blu-ray. It comes with the highest possible recommendation and is particularly suggested for fans of early slasher flicks or giallo films. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014


Roman Polanski, 1976
Starring: Roman Polanski, Isabelle Adjani, Melvyn Douglas, Jo Van Fleet

A man, Trelkovsky, finds out about a newly vacated apartment in Paris and inquires about moving in. It seems the previous tenant, Simone, jumped from the window and badly injured herself. She dies a few days later in the hospital and Trelkovsky moves in to her apartment, which is still full of her belongings. His landlord and neighbors, who are all strange and obsessed with quiet, begin to wear on the passive Trelkovsky. He has a few friends over and receives a complaint about noise. As the days pass, they complain about seemingly any movement he makes, among other things, and he finds a human tooth hidden in his wall. 

Trelkovsky comes to believe that his neighbors are trying to transform him into Simone, as they increasingly request him to pick up her habits. This eventually drives the paranoid Trelkovsky to buy a wig and put on some of Simone’s make up and one of her dresses. He tries to form a relationship with Stella, a friend of Simone’s, but comes to believe that she is part of his neighbors’ conspiracy to drive him mad. He becomes desperate to avoid becoming Simone at any cost and his life begins to unravel. 

The Tenant is the last film in director Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, which includes Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. All three films focus on the growing madness and paranoia an individual (female characters in the first two films) experiences in a claustrophobic apartment setting. He explores the unnaturalness of living in a small space and the hazards of city life, particularly the dissolution of identity and the encroachment of society upon the individual. The Tenant explores these themes in more overt and comic ways than the earlier films in the trilogy.

That is the most important thing to remember about The Tenant - it is an absurdist work full of subtle humorist work and if you think of it as a straightforward horror film, you are likely to be disappointed. Trelvoksky’s attempts to follow the rules his neighbors lay down for him are comical. Their obsession with noise becomes contagious, jarring, and invasive. It would be easy to see both the novel and film as a critique against either the Nazi or Soviet governments. Both Polanski and the novel’s author Roland Topor lived through the former. 

Based on Topor’s novel Le Locataire Chimerique (1964), this is yet another film about an outsider, the film is concerned with issues of identity and privacy. Trelkovsky is seen as a foreigner and constantly has to remind everyone that he is a French citizen, despite his Polish name and accent. His foreignness increases once he moves into the apartment, where the other tenants constantly set him apart. It is unclear if this is in his mind or is really happening. Some elements seem supernatural, but unlike the more developed Rosemary’s Baby, The Tenant keeps things as ambiguous as possible.

There are definite elements of body horror that are also subtly present in the earlier Apartment trilogy films - the woman who jumps out the window and Trelvoksky’s visit to her in the hospital, the disabled girl, a tooth hidden in the wall, Trelkovsky seeing doubles of himself, the car accident, and his gradual transvestism. 

In addition to directing, Polanski also stars as Trelkovsky. Polanski had previously acted in his own films and the works of other directors, including a starring role in his comedy The Fearless Vampire Killers. He does an excellent job as the quickly unraveling Trelkovsky and is in nearly every shot of the film. He is funny, manic, and creepy in turns. He’s supported by a number of well-known actors, namely Isabelle Adjani, who plays his brief love interest, Stella. A mix of neurotic and ditzy, she exudes none of the madness or vulnerability found in her more famous roles. Shelley Winters and Melvyn Douglas also have great cameos and bring the full force of their personalities down on the film, remaining far more memorable than their limited screen time.

This is one of Polanski’s least regarded works and I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the glacial pacing, but there is some great atmosphere and wonderful cinematography from Polanski’s regular collaborator Sven Nykvist. There’s also a lovely score from Philippe Sarde that references some of the more comical elements of the film. If you can approach this more as a paranoid, absurdist tale, rather than as a horror film, it has much more to offer. The Tenant is available on DVD, though hopefully one day it will join the other two films of the Apartment Trilogy with a special edition Criterion release.  A box set would be even better. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014


Theodore Gershuny, 1974
Starring: Patrick O’Neal, James Patterson, Mary Woronov, John Carradine

In a small town in New England, a man named Wilfred Butler ran out of his house on fire. After his death, this is believed to be accidental. Many years later, Charlie, a lawyer, arrives to try to sell the house and meets with the town’s most important citizens. He works for the heir, Jeffrey Butler, Wilfred’s grandson. Charlie, along with his assistant, is trying to unload the house for a quick $50,000. He and his assistant stay the night to work out the details and, against the advice of the locals, sleep in the abandoned Butler house. That night they are brutally murdered and the killer calls the police, claiming to be Marianne, Jeffrey’s deceased mother. 

Tess, one of the citizens hoping to buy the house and destroy it, gets a menacing phone call and goes to the Butler house to investigate, but she is murdered. The town Sheriff and Mayor both meet with similar fates. Jeffrey Butler arrives at the Mayor’s house and is greeted by his daughter, Diane, with suspicion, as a violent patient at a nearby mental institution has escaped. Jeffrey introduces himself and the two go in search of the missing townsfolk. This search will lead them inevitably towards Jeffrey’s ancestral home, the Butler mansion. 

Silent Night, Bloody Night is one of the many predecessors to the slasher film and even predated Black Christmas, my favorite early slasher. Though it isn’t quite as scary or quite as well made as Bob Clark’s first horror masterpiece, there is a grim tone, dark, claustrophobic quality, and some disturbing subject matter including incest, sexual abuse, madness, and murder. A nihilistic film that looks critically at small town America, in a certain sense this reminded me a little of Blue Velvet. That might seem like a stretch once you’ve actually seen the film, but both films work to expose the seedy underbelly and dark secrets of supposedly wholesome, small town America. Unlike Blue Velvet, Silent Night is a gloomy film with little color or daylight, cramped interiors, snowy, desolate exteriors, and sepia flashbacks, but I think these add to the overall effectiveness.

Star Mary Woronov (Rock’n Roll High School) was married to director and writer Theodore Gershuny at the time and was also part of the Andy Warhol group that largely makes up the cast of Silent Night. This includes Ondine, Candy Darling, and Kristen Steen, among many more actors, artists, and designers. There’s also a nice little cameo from horror legend John Carradine. The acting isn’t particularly strong, but the cast delivers their lines seriously and there is fortunately no unintentional humor at work. The script has a number of plot holes, but moves along rapidly enough that these moments aren’t a major distraction.

Though contemporary viewers will likely not be fooled by the now somewhat predictable plot, Silent Night still has a number of effective red herrings and scare scenes, including creepy phone calls and POV shots from the killer’s perspective that predate Black Christmas by four years and limited, but intense moments of violence. One of the things I love about obscure American ‘70s horror is the frequent use of voice over, which appears liberally throughout Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, Messiah of Evil, and this film. In Silent Night it helps to keep the plot on track and, as with Messiah of Evil, mixes the narration with journal entries/newspapers articles and flashback scenes to tell the sordid tale of what went on in the house. There is a twist early on where characters we believe to be the protagonists are brutally killed, a la Psycho. That’s not the only allusion to Psycho, but I wouldn’t want to give anything else away. 

The atmosphere of doom and gloom, creepy “old dark house” setting, actually scary phone calls, and plenty of plot twists make this well worth watching and it comes highly recommended. The biggest drawback to Silent Night, Bloody Night is the quality of the print, which is frankly appalling. It’s in public domain, so there are a number of crappy DVDs available, including this one. I would recommend downloading it until someone comes along and finally restores the film. The film has been neglected for so long, because it only briefly played at drive-ins in the ‘70s. Elvira rescued it a decade later and showed it on Movie Macabre, introducing it to a new generation of horror fans, though there has been no definitive, well advertised DVD release. 
Don’t confuse this with the great ‘80s Christmas horror film Silent Night, Deadly Night

Edit: Apparently there is a restored double feature DVD from Code Red, which includes Invasion of the Blood Farmers

Monday, January 20, 2014

SISTERS (1973)

Brian De Palma, 1973
Starring: Margot Kidder, Jennifer Salt, Charles Durning, William Finley

After appearing on a reality TV show together, French-Canadian model Danielle and a contestant on the show, Philip, go out to dinner together. They are briefly accosted by Danielle’s ex-husband Emil, but successfully spend the night together in her apartment. The next morning Philip hears Danielle fight with someone, which turns out to be Dominique, her disturbed twin. It is their birthday, so Philip goes out to get them a cake, but is brutally stabbed to death by Dominique when he returns. A neighbor from across the street, a reporter named Grace, witnesses the murder and contacts the police. Emil shows up to help Danielle hide the body in the pull-out couch and clean up. The police don’t find anything, though Grace is insistent and privately figures out that Danielle has a twin. 

Though the detectives tell Grace to forget about everything, she decides to investigate the murder on her own. She hires a private investigator, who sneaks into the apartment and comes to believe the body is hidden in the sofa. Unfortunately it is taken out in a moving van. Grace also learns from another reporter that the twins were once conjoined, but that Dominique may have died after their separation. Larch, the private detective, continues to track the sofa, while Grace breaks into the mental hospital that may have more information about Danielle and Dominique. 

Sisters has received both praise and criticism because of its clear adoration of Hitchcock. De Palma obviously borrows from Rear Window and Psycho, but I think that rather than being derivative, De Palma does a number of interesting things here that foreshadow some of his more complex future films, particularly his ‘80s thrillers like Body Double and Dressed to Kill. De Palma also used Hitchcock’s long time collaborator Bernard Herrmann to write a moving score for Sisters.

This was his first feature length horror film and he previously made a number of comedies. Sisters would mark a major change in his career and for the rest of the ‘70s he primarily made thrillers or horror films. As with the later Carrie, De Palma cleverly used a split screen technique in order to show different events happening at the same time and also to create a visual links to Danielle’s fractured psyche. In addition, there are a number of clever techniques that draw attention to another of the film’s other main themes, voyeurism, which is first introduced in the opening sequence on the set of a Candid Camera-style show called Peeping Tom. This is, of course, a reference to Michael Powell’s powerful film of the same name about a serial murderer. 

With moments of brutality violence and occasional nudity, Sisters was clearly a somewhat low budget affair and lacks the meticulous design and robust set pieces of De Palma’s later films. The plot certainly has some hiccups, such as the issue of Grace exaggerating the phone call - all she saw was a bloody hand on the window, not the rest of the murder that she describes to the police. I can’t help but feel that this is intentional, though De Palma never bothers to explain it to us. The central theme of a woman succumbing to madness isn't nearly as richly as explored as it is in some '70s films I've reviewed recently, such as Images, 3 Women, or Let's Scare Jessica to Death, but it is a great introduction to De Palma's thrillers. 

Margot Kidder (Black Christmas) is the film’s roughest point as Danielle/Dominique. Her French-Canadian accent makes her sound drunk for much of the film. She is compelling as the confused, innocent Danielle, but does not have enough presence to really carry both of the twins the way Jeremy Irons did in Dead Ringers, for example. Fortunately she is not really the film’s sole protagonist, which is divided between Kidder and Collier. There is also a excellent appearance from William Finley (the star of De Palma’s later Phantom of the Paradise), who puts in a small, but memorable role as Danielle’s creepy ex-husband, Emil.

Grace Collier (Gargoyles) gives a good performance as determined reporter and amateur crime fighter Jennifer Salt. She is so ridiculously earnest that her role helps increase the film’s elements of comedy, such as a great scene where she first discovers evidence that Danielle might have a twin - the birthday cake with both their names on it - but she drops it on the detective’s leg. Jennifer also has a strange, unexplained dream where she learns about Danielle and Dominique. Multiple personalities and doubles figure strongly throughout De Palma’s work and Jennifer’s odd psychic link to Danielle seems to be an early example of this.

A combination of psycho-sexual horror akin to a giallo film, a Hitchcockian thriller, and dark comedy, Sisters comes recommended. There is plenty of perversity and weirdness, which makes the film well worth watching, even though I don’t think it is as developed as De Palma’s later thrillers. It was released on DVD by Criterion, though this edition surprisingly lacks the robust special features normally included in their releases. Hopefully they will revamp this sometime soon for a Blu-ray release. 

Friday, January 17, 2014


Robert Altman, 1977
Starring: Shelley Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Janice Rule

A young woman named Pinky begins working at a health spa in an isolated town in California. She begins to idolize a coworker, Millie, who is responsible for showing her the ropes. When Millie has an opening in her apartment, Pinky soon moves in. While Pinky is childlike and naive, Millie is full of misplaced confidence and hits on men who ignore her or mock her behind her back. Their apartment complex and the bar they frequent are owned by husband and wife Edgar and Willie. Willie is pregnant and has made a serious of disturbing mural paintings in swimming pools of sexualized, reptilian figures.

One night Millie and Pinky fight over a failed dinner party, and because Millie has brought Edgar home. After Millie yells at her, Pinky throws herself into the pool and winds up in a coma. She eventually wakes up, but has oddly taken on some of Millie’s personality traits. Willie, meanwhile, is about to give birth...

Based on a dream Altman had, 3 Women itself is thoroughly dreamlike. There is only a loose plot and most of the content is made up of a series of visual and emotional impressions. This is a film about the mutable, unfixed nature of identity, but where Altman could have turned this into a simple film about self-discovery, it becomes something far more sinister. This could not be described as an outright horror film, like Altman's earlier Images, but it is bizarre and disturbing enough that it will likely appeal to genre fans. 

Altman regular Shelley Duvall is excellent, as always, and gives off a perfect blend of confidence and desperation. Duvall wrote or improvised much of Millie’s dialogue and diary entries, which make up the central voice of the film. Though Millie is absurd and a clear object of pity or ridicule, Duvall makes her empathetic. It’s clear that her endless talking and the rules she has set up for her life are structured around a deep-seated anxiety and self-esteem issues. 

Sissy Spacek, fresh off the success of Carrie, is also quite good as the childlike and strange, if somewhat malicious Pinky. The lovely Janice Rule (Bell, Book and Candle) is excellent as the mysterious, maternal Willie, a character that doesn't fully emerge until the second half of the film, though her paintings have an undeniable influence over the proceedings. The work was actually done by Pittsburgh artist Bodhi Wind. Though there are male characters, such as Willie’s husband Edgar (Robert Fortier), they are largely anonymous figures with similar clothes and haircuts. Even Edgar doesn't play a particularly substantial role and his character has quite a bleak ending. 

Altman expertly uses water and mirror motifs and they appear in nearly every scene. Water is the setting for nearly every major event in the film. Millie and Pinky work at a health spa with mineral springs, there’s a pool outside of their apartment, and a fish tank within. Willie’s paintings, which eerily line the bottom of both pools, also tie the bar into the larger visual metaphor. This is contrasted with the California desert landscape that surrounds them. There are also doubles, reflections, and mirror images. Like Altman’s earlier masterpiece of female madness and identity, Images3 Women was inspired by one of my favorite Ingmar Bergman films, Persona, where one woman acts as a mirror and a double for another woman believed to be insane. As with 3 Women, the female characters share and switch identities, and these blurring lines of personality are a source of anxiety, unease, and eventually terror. 

Again, as with Images3 Women continues the fairy tale theme, evolving it into something more mythic. The three women could easily represent the three Graces or three Furies of Greek mythology or the three Norns of Norse mythology, as well as the almost universal concept of the maiden-mother-crone triple goddess aspects.The beginning of the film is slow and feels like a character drama, but makes a sharp turn at the end of the first hour mark, when Pinky takes a potentially lethal dive into the pool. 3 Women may be too strange or unusual for some viewers, but it is certainly one of Altman's masterpieces. In addition to the clever plot, which was loosely written by Altman himself, there’s a memorable score from Gerald Busby and, as with all Altman’s films that I've seen so far, some incredible cinematography. 3 Women was shot by Chuck Rosher, also responsible for The Onion Field.

Though it was unavailable for many years, Criterion has put out a wonderful edition of 3 Women with some great special features. Both this edition and the film come highly recommended. This is certainly the type of film that is worthy of repeat viewings and would make an interesting, if disturbing double feature with Altman’s Images.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

IMAGES (1972)

Robert Altman, 1972
Starring: Susannah York, Rene Auberjonois, Marcel Bozzuffi, Cathryn Harrison

Cathryn, a newly pregnant children’s author, is home alone and receives some upsetting phone calls from a strange woman who claims that Cathryn’s husband Hugh is out having an affair. Hugh calls to say he’ll be late and Cathryn panics. He comes home soon after, confused about her anxiety and sudden breakdown. Chalking it up to her pregnancy, he decides that they should take a vacation at their beautiful, isolated country home. Here, things get worse and Cathryn begins to see and talk to her dead lover, René, who died in a plane crash. Hugh is obvious to her growing insanity and to the aggressive advances from their neighbor, Marcel. Marcel has brought his young daughter, Susannah, and she and Cathryn become good friends. This positive relationship does not help her mind from unravelling and soon she believes she has killed someone, but can’t be sure what is real. 

One of Altman’s most ignored films, I don’t understand why Images hasn’t gotten more attention, because it’s certainly a masterpiece. A beautiful, subtle, eerie, and dreamlike film, it bears elements in common with Roman Polanski’s loose trilogy, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Tenant, as well as psychological horror like Don’t Look Now, Full Circle, or Let’s Scare Jessica To Death. As with several of the characters in these films, we don’t learn much about Cathryn’s past or the source of her neurosis. Altman has acknowledge the influence of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and the similarities are clear, but feel fresh. As with Persona, Cathryn is constantly subjected to doubles of both the men in her life and her self, in mirror images, reflections, lenses, shadows, and her imagination. 

Altman made a few other strange films about women succumbing to madness, such as 3 Women and That Cold Day in the Park. As with those films, it is almost impossible to separate Cathryn’s memories from her daily reality, or her motivations, fears, and desires, which are all inextricably linked together. And that is the genius of Images. It doesn’t matter why Cathryn feels guilt or how she has been traumatized. What is more important here is the journey into madness and the way it transforms her, much like the earlier Persona

The incredible cinematography from Vilmos Zsigmond is another of the film’s crowning achievements and in a way, reminds me of the pastoral Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, though Images is far more beautiful, if not outright painterly. Zsigmond also worked with Altman on The Long Goodbye and McCabe and Mrs. Miller, as well as with several other directors. The rain and mist-drenched Irish countryside is a perfect setting and appears either lush and lovely, or ominous and isolated. 

Cathryn’s voice overs, where she narrates the children’s book she is writing, were a powerful touch and give the film an additional layer of fantasy and fairytale. The book was actually written by star Susannah York. Some other aspects of York’s real life were portrayed in the film, such as her pregnancy. When she almost dropped out of the project because of it, Altman simply added it to the script. The combination of Cathryn’s pregnancy and her bond with the young Susannah add a further layer to the film, one that ties back in with the themes of childhood and fantasy. This fairytale symbolism is strongly contrasted with the building threat of violence and unpredictability, as well as the sexual scenes that suddenly appear just as quickly break off when Cathryn responds with horror and repulsion. 

Dizzyingly, characters and actors share names; Susannah, Cathryn, Rene, Hugh, and Marcel are all mixed between the five principle actors. Star Susannah York (The Fall of the House of Usher, Battle of Britain) is the film’s focal point and gives a powerful performance as a woman descending into insanity, frame by frame. René Auberjonois (MASH, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) is her clueless, carefree husband Hugh, Marcel Bozzuffi (Le deuxième souffle, The French Connection) is her dead, French lover, and Hugh Millais (McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Dogs of War) is particularly terrifying as her aggressive neighbor, Marcel. The young Cathryn Harris (Black Moon), looking remarkably like a younger York, is excellent as Susannah, Marcel’s daughter who quickly bonds with Cathryn. 

Images will reward the patient viewer and though it may not be the most conventional film, has a lot going for it. This is the type of film that is worth viewing multiple times, mostly due to the visual and emotional layers that are so rich, it would be impossible to catch everything the first time around. There’s also a wonderful score from John Williams. A blend of ethereal, sinister, and atmospheric, it’s one of his finest scores. 

Images is available on DVD, though I’d like to see a Blu-ray Altman box set sometime soon. It comes with the highest possible recommendation. 


Richard L. Bare, 1973
Starring: David Bailey, Tiffany Bolling, Randolph Roberts, Edd Byrnes

“Wicked, wicked, that’s the ticket!”

The majestic Grandview Hotel in California has become the site of several murders. Blonde female visitors check in, but then never check out. The hotel’s detective, Rick Stewart, is on the case, but is distracted by the arrival of his ex-wife, Lisa, who shows up to perform as a singer. He believes Lisa is in danger, particularly because she wears a blonde wig during her performances and the hotel’s quiet, awkward handyman, James, has begun to pay a lot of attention to her...

Written and directed by Richard L. Bare, Wicked Wicked was shot in what Bare called Duo-Vision, a split screen technique that allows two different visuals to be shown at once. Brian de Palma more famously used the split screen the same year in Sisters and later in Carrie. I really enjoyed the Duo-Vision. Though Bare doesn’t have the technical artistry of someone like De Palma, he is clearly having a great time applying the script concepts to the split screen. One interesting use of the Duo-Vision is when characters discuss their pasts and the split screen shows the actual events. They are often lying or exaggerating, such as when an older woman says she was abused by her husband (we see her killing him) or when Lisa says she used to be a ballet dancer (it was really burlesque). Often these scenes are very humorous and are an effective use of the split screen.

A lot about this movie fits into the realm of “so bad it’s good.” The dialogue, for starters, is hilariously unbelievable, which fits in perfectly with some of the performances. Soap opera actor David Bailey was cast as the plucky, yet downtrodden hotel detective, and his role often veers into the ridiculous. B-movie actress Tiffany Bolling (Kingdom of the Spiders, The Candy Snatchers) is memorable as his obnoxiously singing ex-wife/love interest. A young Vietnam vet, Randolph Roberts, was cast as the killer. Unsurprisingly, this is his only role of note. Edd Byrnes (77 Sunset Strip), Madeleine Sherwood (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Flying Nun), and Arthur O’Connell (Anatomy of a Murder) also appear. 

This campy slasher flick has an equal focus on music, comedy, and violence. Regardless of how you feel about horror comedies, Wicked Wicked has a feeling of freshness and excitement. Director Bare, mostly known for directing television shows like Green Acres, The Twilight Zone, and Lassie, really tried to do something unique and different, and though he doesn’t entirely succeed, he made a wildly entertaining film that has been seen by far too few people.

The film has an air of absurdity, but also charm, and will appeal to fans of B grade horror. The humor feels unintentional - everything is very straight-faced - but I expect Bare knew what he was getting himself into. There are certainly some flaws and the film does drag, particularly during the middle and we are forced to endure a lengthy scene of Tiffany Bolling single the catchy, but annoying title song. Another issue is that there is really no mystery who the killer is and, like a sloppy version of Psycho, we see why Jason has such blonde women/mommy issues. It’s a shame his identity is revealed so quickly, because the film introduces a number of oddball characters that could have been further explores.

There is a pleasant amount of gore and the effects hold up reasonably well. The lag in the middle of the film - plus that dreadful song - are easily forgotten by the film’s enjoyable conclusion. The ending is delightfully grotesque, as we glimpse Jason’s lair full of doll-like corpses. It’s clear the set designers were having a lot of fun that day, as well as Roberts, who is allowed to really go off the rails at the end of the film. 

Wicked Wicked wasn’t successful upon its theatrical release, so Bare’s planned follow up film, which was supposed to be another Duo-Vision film focusing on a plot to assassinate Fidel Castro, was cancelled. The film has been shown on Turner Classic Movies a few times, but has not yet released on DVD. I had the fortune to see it at a cult film screening. Though the theater is the best place to see Duo-Vision, you can find decent bootlegs floating around online. Wicked Wicked definitely comes recommended. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014


John Hancock, 1971
Starring: Zohra Lampert, Mariclare Costello, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Gretchen Corbett

Jessica has recently been released from a mental institution and she, her husband Duncan, and friend Woody travel to the New England countryside to a live in an isolated farmhouse. When they arrive, a pretty red-haired woman, Emily, has been staying at the house. She offers to leave, but Jessica invites her to stay, soon regretting this decision because Duncan is obviously interested in Emily. Jessica observes a number of strange things and fears she may be losing her mind again. She hears the story of Abigail Bishop, a young woman who lived in the farm house in the previous century and drowned before her wedding day. 

After she becomes increasingly disturbed, Duncan tries to tell Jessica to go back to her doctor. He has an affair with Emily and heads to town to call Jessica’s doctor. She is left alone in the house with Emily and notices how much Emily looks like Abigail Bishop. She becomes afraid, but can’t refuse when Emily convinces her to go swimming. Emily tries to down her, saying it was a joke, but then emerges from the water wearing Abigail’s wedding dress and tries to bite Jessica’s neck. A terrified Jessica hides all day, first in her bedroom and then in the woods, until Duncan finds her that night. He is unusually affectionate and she notices that he has a cut on his neck. She runs from him and finds other dead bodies around the farm. Will she ever escape Emily? Will she be able to tell what is real?

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, despite its lurid title suggesting a riff on The Cat and the Canary, is one of the most subtle and genuinely scary films of the ‘70s. It is also one of the most underrated and it’s a shame it hasn’t reached a wider audience. It borrows a little from Rosemary’s Baby in terms of an isolated female character and her growing sense of paranoia, but this is really rural horror and celebrates its pastoral, lonely setting at every opportunity. Stripped of most gore, violence, nudity, and even sexuality, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death relies solely on mood and atmosphere.

Director John D. Hancock also made Bang the Drum Slowly (1973) and a number of mostly unknown films. He did an incredible job with Let’s Scare Jessica to Death and it is definitely his masterpiece. The cinematography from Bob Baldwin is excellent, playing up the spookier elements of the farm and woods. The real star of the film is the truly incredible soundscape, which moves from eerie sounds of the forest, wind, and old farmhouse to the acoustic soundtrack music, to the disturbing whispering that is all in Jessica’s mind. Walter Sear contributed some creepy ambient, electronic sounds, making this one of the most effective soundtracks in ‘70s horror. 

Zohra Lampert (Splendor in the Grass, Exorcist III) is perfect as Jessica. She constantly hovers on the edge of anxiety - or outright madness - but for most of the film has a big, innocent, and infectious smile that helps make her character so sympathetic. Lampert never succumbs to cliche to portray Jessica and helps the audience to remain unsure whether the unfolding events are real or imagined. Her voice overs may come across as a bit silly, but I found them effective. The idea of an unreliable narrator that was so popular in Lovecraft’s writing can be tricky to pull of in a film, but works very well here as it becomes immediately apparent that Jessica was recently released from a mental hospital and may not have a solid grasp of reality. 

The two male characters, her husband Duncan (Barton Heyman from The Exorcist) and friend Woody (Kevin O’Connor, not to be confused with Kevin J. O’Connor from Lord of Illusions and The Mummy) are not particularly memorable and feel very generic, but this somehow works. They are both overshadowed by Jessica and Emily. The lovely, charismatic Mariclare Costello nearly overwhelms Lampert, but this shifting balance is effective because of the dynamic between the two characters. Costello is quite a presence here as Emily and it’s a shame she didn’t have a more robust acting career. 

There is, of course, the question of whether or not Emily is a vampire. I would only loosely call this a vampire film and I really enjoy the effort to keep things as vague as possible. Emily does try to bite Jessica, but most of her victims are covered in cuts, implying a knife or razor is used and not teeth. Her victims also act more like zombies than vampires, which makes me think more of ghouls than anything else. Speaking of zombies versus ghouls, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death certainly has a connection to Messiah of Evil. While they don’t share many plot elements, both are low budget, unexpectedly scary films with thoroughly weird, vague plots and centered around a female characters. 

A subtle film with moments of genuine horror, Let’s Scare Jessica to death is ultimately about haunting, both in Jessica’s mind and in the more literal story of Emily’s death and her obvious return. The film also uses horror cliches to its benefit quite frequently. Jessica arrives to the farmhouse in a hearse and stops at a cemetery to do grave rubbings, which she uses to decorate her bedroom. She sees a chair rocking itself, shadows move, they hold a seance, and she finds a corpse. Jessica’s tenuous optimism and joy keep these scenes from descending into predictability and though the plot may be a bit slow moving for some, the film is a fresh take on both female madness and vampirism. 

Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is available on DVD and comes with the highest possible recommendation. Hopefully it will receive a special edition Blu-ray release sometime soon and receive the wider audience it richly deserves. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2014


Werner Herzog, 1979
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Isabelle Adjani, Bruno Ganz

A German estate agent, Jonathan Harker, is told by his boss, Renfield, that he must leave his home town of Wismar and travel to Transylvania to help a mysterious nobleman buy property in Wismar. Harker obeys, but laments that the long journey will separate him from his beautiful wife, Lucy. The Transylvanian villagers are suspicious of the nobleman, known as Count Dracula, and believe him to be a vampire. Harker ignores them, but is repulsed by the strange Count. To his horror, the Count becomes obsessed with a picture of Lucy and wants to buy property in Wismar just to meet her. Lucy and Jonathan both experience disturbing nightmares and Renfield is sent to an asylum. 

Harker learns Dracula really is a vampire and nearly dies trying to escape from the castle. Dracula travels by boat to Wismar, along with his coffins. When the journey is complete, he kills the crew and makes it look like the plague. Abraham van Helsing and other doctors examine the corpses, but the plague spreads through the town. Jonathan arrives home, ill and in a state of delirium. Dracula is desperate for Lucy to love him, but she refuses and tries to convince the townsfolk that a vampire is in their midst. She is ignored and decides to take matters into her own hands and lures the Count into her bedroom, hoping to keep him there till dawn when the sunlight will destroy him. 

Mixing art house and horror, Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht has plenty of grim moments, mixing death scenes, depictions of corpses, rats, and more with director Werner Herzog’s trademark sense of atmosphere. As with Murnau’s original Nosferatu, Herzog’s film is based on Bram Stoker’s novel. One major different is that Murnau made his film without permission and Stoker’s widow tried to have every copy of the film destroyed. When Herzog completed his adaptation in 1979, the novel had entered the public domain, so he was able to restore more of the original plot and names. For some reason, as other directors have done, Herzog chose to rename Mina’s character Lucy, who is her friend in the novel.

Herzog remade Murnau’s classic, because he considered one of the greatest German films ever made and wanted to do his own take on it with presumably the only living actor -- Klaus Kinski -- who could convincingly do a rendition of Max Schreck’s rat-faced Count Orlok. Though I’m generally the first in line to declare my hatred of remakes, particularly horror remakes, this is certainly one of the finest. Much of this is due to the excellent casting, headed by Herzog’s long time collaborator, Klaus Kinski. Kinski is truly terrifying as the Count, but manages to keep his normally unbridled energy carefully controlled. 

Beautiful French star Isabelle Adjani (Possession) is perfect as Lucy Harker and her wide, round eyes are particularly adept at expressing the terror she experiences throughout the film. Bruno Ganz, one of Germany’s finest actors, also shines as Harker and is responsible for much of the film’s sense of unrelenting gloom, impending sickness, and utter exhaustion. His Harker is a good-natured, but flawed man and the film charts his painful descent into madness. His part in the bleak twist ending also sets this film apart from other adaptations of Dracula and it remains one of the most nihilistic. French writer by way of Poland, Roland Topor, also known for working with Alejandro Jodorowsky, is excellent as a very bizarre Renfield (which is saying something, considering the history of Renfield performances).

Another memorable element of Nosferatu is the cinematography from Jörg Schmidt-Reitwein, another regular Herzog collaborator. The rich colors of the film and natural settings do not present the ripeness and bounty of nature, but rather its decay and rot. Herzog depicts desiccated Mexican mummies from the Guanajuato museum, crumbling Czech castles, Carpathian mountains, a plague festival, and other atmospheric locations around Europe, making this perhaps the most visually sumptuous Dracula adaptation in existence.

Herzog’s Nosferatu is different than Murnau’s in several ways, despite the fact that Herzog changes very little from the original, capturing some scenes shot for shot. First and foremost, it lacks Murnau’s expressionist style and puts an emphasis on realism, but also manages to be more surreal. The normally volatile Kinski was apparently well-behaved on set, despite the fact that he had to spend hours having his make up reapplied every day by Japanese make up artist Reiko Kruk. This effective, creepy make up is one of the few ways the film abandons realism. The mood and tone are also completely different, partly due to the carefully measured pacing, which is much slower than Murnau’s, and the grim twist ending. The figure of Dracula is also explored in further depth. While Kinski’s portrayal is as animalistic as Max Schreck’s, if not more so, there is also an emphasis on the emotional elements of the story. He is an isolated, lonely figure searching for love, though he only finds death.

Commercially successful, this was one of five films directed by Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski. It comes highly recommended and is an excellent place to start if you’re a genre fan hoping to explore more of Herzog’s excellent films. Nosferatu is available as a 2-disc, special edition DVD, which comes recommended due to some lovely special features. On a final note, the film was made in both English and German at the insistence of the studio, but I recommend the German version. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

Jean-Pierre Melville (1917-1973)

Born Jean-Pierre Grumbach, the great director took his stage name, Melville, from the time he spent serving the French Resistance during WWII. Melville was his code name and reflects his love of American culture. The fact that he continued using the name after the war also reflects the importance of his Resistance experience on his life. His family were Alsatian Jews and he was forced to go into hiding during the war. Though his films Le silence de la mer and Léon Morin, prêtre were both set during the war, only his classic, L’armée des ombres, gives an accurate glimpse of his WWII experiences. After the war, when the French government turned down his application to become a director, he took matters into his own hands and was one of the first French filmmakers to create his own studio. 

Between the late ‘40s and early ‘70s, Melville made 13 feature films. Most of these are crime films with a focus on police, gangsters, and capers, though a handful of his early films are meditative dramas. He was heavily influenced by the American noir films of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. In turn, he deeply influenced if not outright began the French New Wave/nouvelle vague, as well as later crime and heist films. He was one of the first French directors to break out of the studio and use real locations, as well as an almost magical realist sense of space, lighting, and geography. Notably, he helped popularize the stylish criminal with most of his characters - as well as himself - regularly donning sunglasses, a trench coat, and Stetson hat. 

Melville was truly an auteur, not only directing his films, but writing most of them, becoming involved in set and costume design, cinematography, etc. He regularly worked with the same actors and his most famous stars include Jean-Paul Belmondo, Lino Ventura, and Alain Delon. Much of his incredible lighting and cinematography is due to Henry Decaë, who he worked with throughout his career. Melville was not only a director and appeared in some notable films as an actor, such as Jean Cocteau’s Orphée (1949), Eric Rohmer’s Le signe du lion (1959), Jean-Luc Godard’s A bout de souffle (1960), Louis Malle’s Zazie dans le métro (1960), and Claude Chabrol’s Landru (1962), among others.

On to his films. 

Melville’s first feature length film took me completely by surprise. Jess Franco regular Howard Vernon stars as a charming Nazi officer who boards with an elderly French man (Jean-Marie Robain) and his young niece (Nicole Stéphane) in their country home. They are not pleased to have him and revolt by maintaining a stubborn silence, despite his daily monologues about his love of France and French culture. He feels affection for the small family and firmly believes that the war will unite France and Germany. 
This meditative, bittersweet film kicked off Melville’s main theme of characters who are drawn together, but remain fundamentally at odds. He would also go on to make a number of films about WWII and it is surprising to see such a sympathetic, charismatic Nazi character so soon after the war. The cinematography is some of his most beautiful and pastoral and the film revolves around daily domestic activities, another theme Melville would regularly explore. 

Based on Jean Cocteau’s novel of the same name, Melville’s second film concerns the unhealthy relationship between brother and sister Paul (Cocteau’s paramour Edouard Dermithe) and Elisabeth (Nicole Stéphane). A series of unfortunate events - an accident at school, the death of their mother, the death of Elisabeth’s wealthy new husband - brings them closer together and removes all obstacles from their increasingly internalized lives. 
Though made up of selfish, frustrating, and unlikable characters, Les enfants terribles is one of Melville’s most psychologically complex films and Bernardo Bertolucci’s celebrated film The Dreamers steals unmercifully from it. Stéphane, returning from Le silence de la mer, may not have been Melville’s most beautiful lead actress, but she was definitely his most compelling and carries this film with a steely gaze and varied performance. Cocteau, a director in his own right and screenwriter here, commissioned Melville to adapt his very popular novel. Their working relationship was somewhat troubled and the film suffers from Cocteau’s insistence on casting Dermithe, who simply cannot compete with Stéphane. But the finished film is clearly Melville’s work, further developing themes from Le silence de la mer and introducing new visual concepts - such as black and white tiled floors - that would appear repeatedly in his later work. 

This melodrama about the fraught relationship between a con man and an ex-nun is perhaps my least favorite Melville film, but still has plenty to offer fans of early romantic drama. French pop idol Juliette Gréco stars as Thérèse, an aspiring nun who leaves the convent when her parents die in a car crash and she must care for her teenage sister, Irène (Yvonne Sanson). After a chance encounter, the innocent and lovely Irène develops a crush on Max (Philippe Lemaire), a boxer, mechanic, and con man. They have a second chance meeting where Max rapes Irène and she tries to kill herself out of shame, but survives. Thérèse tracks down Max and blackmails him into marrying her sister, who loves him despite the rape. Unfortunately for all involved, Thérèse and Max develop a poisonous love-hate relationship that will effect the happiness of all. 
Too melodramatic for my taste, Quand tu liras cette lettre is an interesting film because it contains another of Melville’s most powerful female characters, Gréco’s Thérèse. Though she intended to take religious vows at the start of the film, Thérèse is anything but sweetness, light, or naive; she is cold, independent, and ruthless. The frustrated romantic struggle between two opposing characters introduced in Melville’s first two films continues here and is further complicated by a moral debate.  
Quand tu liras cette lettre is not currently available on region 1 DVD. 

Melville’s first film to be openly influenced by the American noir genre, Bob le flambeur relates the tale of an aging gambler, Bob (Roger Duchesne). He has mostly given up on the criminal life, though he maintains a passionate gambling habit and still interacts with the Parisian underworld. Tired of always being broke, he and a few colleagues decide to rob the Deauville casino, but things go wrong and the police get wind of their plans. On the night of the robbery, Bob gets to the casino early and begins to gamble...
Influential to both the French nouvelle vague and contemporary gangster films, Bob le flambeur presents sympathetic underworld figures, friendships between crooks and cops, and a sense of whimsy that would not appear in any of Melville’s other films. The particular sense of morality exhibited by Bob would reappear in nearly all of Melville’s gangster films, though Bob le flambeur is the most lighthearted of these. Elements of the heist planning scenes would certainly resurface in future crime movies, such as The Italian Job (1969).

Though this is one of Melville’s least popular films, it’s among my favorite, probably because of the pronounced involvement of Melville himself. In addition to directing, he stars as Moreau, a dogged reporter on the trail of a missing United Nations delegate from France. Along with an alcoholic photographer (Pierre Grasset), Moreau spends one long night following the only available leads - several pictures of women who may be the delegate’s girlfriends - to track down the missing man.
His first film shot in America, Deux hommes dans Manhattan may not be the most complex mystery, but it perfectly captures Melville’s love for cities, his passion for America, and his interest in early American noir and gangster films. Melville’s on screen charisma was a surprise and remains the most delightful aspect of this odd film. Lacking some of Melville’s more pronounced themes, it prefigures Léon Morin, prêtre in the sense that it is essentially a lengthy moral argument disguised as a detective story. This straightforward tale of the reporter, photographer, and missing politician is really an unfolding debate about private versus public life, individual and family identity, and an examination of privacy and moral responsibility. 

Melville’s most subtle and enjoyable exploration of morals and identity is this unusual tale of an atheist communist and a country priest debating their individual belief systems in the Nazi occupied French countryside. Barny, played by the lovely Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima, mon amour) finds herself attracted to the young, handsome Father Léon (Jean-Paul Belmondo, in his first role with Meville). Though she initially resists, Léon wins her over and their weekly debates about the folly of religion turn Barny into a devout Christian. 
In the most female-centric of all Melville’s films, Léon Morin is one of the sole male voices - particularly attractive young male voices - in a small French Mediterranean village and naturally all the town’s available women are hot on his trail. Though Melville could have easily made this into a tale of lurid, forbidden romance, as with Le silence de la mer, Les enfants terribles, and Quand tu liras cette lettre, this is really a film about longing, repressed desire, and the endless search for identity and personal freedom. Though this is perhaps the least action packed of all Belmondo’s films, he and Riva are a compelling pair and make this quiet, personal film an undeniable success. 

Jean-Paul Belmondo returned to star in this dark, twisting tale of heists, gangsters, murder, theft, and betrayal. A thief named Maurice (Serge Reggiani) kills his acquaintance Gilbert (René Lèfevre) and steals a number of jewels and cash Gilbert was hiding after a recent robbery. Maurice plans a new heist with his friend, Silien (Belmondo), but is determined to get revenge after it seems Silien double crossed him. 
Le doulos is the first of several dark-toned gangster films Melville made after the light-hearted Bob le flambeur. Boasting some truly incredible cinematography, Le doulos is primarily concerned with the world of male gangsters - female characters in his next six films would be sparse - and focuses on the meaning of friendship and loyalty. This is also the first of several Melville crime films where any notion of black and white morality is quickly abolished. The script subtly, gradually unfolds the parallel plots of Maurice and Silien, constantly reforming what we think we know of the two characters, their motivations, and what they are capable of. This is also the first in a long series of films where nearly all the major characters would die at the end of the film. 

Belmondo returns again for this strange road trip film about a downtrodden young boxer who takes an impromptu job as secretary for a corrupt banker (Charles Vanel) on the run from the French police. After flying to New York, they try to collect all of Ferchaux’s savings in the U.S., but meet with some difficulties and are forced to hide out in swampy Louisiana. There the banker falls ill and tensions between he and the young secretary are at their most volatile. 
Melville’s first color feature and second film shot in the U.S., L’aîné des Ferchaux is also concerned with male friendship, loyalty, and identity. Though the banker Ferchaux and his secretary come from opposite walks of life, they are inherently similar. Greedy, corruptible, and selfish, Ferchaux and Maudet are dependent on one another and their relationship becomes increasingly bitter. While the two lead actors give strong performances, as always (Vanel was known for The Wages of Fear, To Catch a Thief, and many more), and there are some captivating set pieces, L’aîné des Ferchaux exposes some of the pitfalls of the road trip film, such as plodding travel scenes and the constant interruption of the film’s building tension. 

In my opinion, Melville’s first masterpiece is this carefully paced, gloriously shot film about Gu (Lino Ventura), an aged gangster who breaks out of prison and escapes to Paris, into the arms of his patient, faithful mistress (Christine Fabréga). She devises an elaborate plan to help him escape to the countryside and out from under the noses of the French police, where the two of them will live out the remainder of their lives. But Gu can't resist taking part in one last heist, though things to do not go as he hoped...
Despite some great male leads in Melville’s other films, the gruff, Italian Lino Ventura is my absolute favorite. He is perfect as Gu, a character who elegantly sums up Melville’s ideal protagonist. Gu may be a denizen of the criminal underworld and can clearly not resist the adrenaline rush of a final heist, but his oddly moralistic personality is a blend of fiercely loyalty and doggedly independence, coldly rationality and warm generosity. Le deuxième souffle is also noteworthy for two incredible sequences - the first during a lengthy heist scene and the second where opposing character case a room that will be a future meeting place - that have undeniably influenced future crime films. 

Melville’s second masterpiece and perhaps his most popular film is this bleak, stylish gangster flick starring Alain Delon as Jef Costello, a successful assassin. His luck changes when he is hired to murder a nightclub owner and is almost caught by the police. He’s temporarily saved by an alibi from his prostitute girlfriend (Delon’s then wife Nathalie Delon) and a false statement from the only witness, a nightclub singer (Cathy Rosier). Costello must figure out who contracted the hit before he is the next victim or the police close in on him.
In many ways, Le samouraï is the culmination of all of Melville’s gangster films and blends a well-written, simple script with a great leading performance, excellent overall casting, dazzling visuals, and a carefully constructed soundscape. Though Melville would play with dialogue, silence, and soundtrack in his other films, here sound is at its most precise, including a lengthy opening sequence with no dialogue. Delon, with his handsome face and icy, assured stare, regularly asserts that he does not need dialogue to play a convincing, sympathetic Costello. Melville enhances Delon’s largely non-verbal performance with close up shots of Costello’s pet canary, either peacefully resting or anxiously flapping its wings and rustling its feathers in a small cage. This is the ideal place to begin for Melville novices. 

Melville’s most perfect, accomplished film is this dark, nihilistic tale about the French Resistance, based on Melville’s own experiences with the Resistance. Lino Ventura stars as Philippe Gerbier, commander of a branch of the Resistance. L’armée des ombres catalogues his various adventurous, including his arrest, time spent in a prisoner of war camp, escape, punishment of an agent of the Resistance who betrayed him, and traveling to London with the secret head of the Resistance (Paul Meurisse). When Gerbier’s second in command is imprisoned and tortured, he and his accomplices must organize a dangerous rescue mission from which they may not return. 
This biographical film was not popular upon its theatrical release, but has since become considered a classic. It is my favorite of all Melville’s films and provides a bleak look at life during the French Resistance. Melville incorporated many of the elements from his previous crime films - incredible cinematography, powerful performances (Simone Signoret and Jean-Pierre Cassel are wonderful in side roles), themes of loyalty and underground societies - though the heist scenes are replaced with rescue missions and anti-Nazi actions. This deeply personal film expresses both the necessity and futility of the Resistance movement, outlining its minor successes and pervasive frailties. Lino Ventura gives the best performance of his career and one of the finest in ‘60s French cinema. While L’armée des ombres comes with the highest possible recommendation, it is a devastating film and left me unable to watch anything else for a few days afterwards. 
Alain Delon returns as Corey, a recently released criminal who becomes involved in the planning of a jewelry heist. He happens to cross paths with Vogel (Gian Maria Volonté), an escaped murderer. The two men team up and Vogel puts them in touch with an alcoholic ex-cop and sharp shooter, Jansen, who agrees to help them with the heist. Though the robbery goes off without a hitch, the police are hot on Vogel’s trail and the mob is after Corey. 
By now, I have to admit, I’m tired of this being the sixth Melville film in a row where basically every major character dies at the end of the film, generally in a shoot out. Aside from the fatalist, if repetitive ending, Le cercle rouge is another of Melville’s classic films, mostly thanks to three great performances from Alain Delon, Italian actor Gian Maria Volonté (A Fistful of Dollars), and Yves Montand (Wages of Fear). Volonté and Delon in particular and wonderful together and their combined charisma drives the film forward and provides an emotional and moral center. Though both Corey and Vogel are criminals and murderers, they are loyal to one another and share the excitement of the heist and the drive for freedom. 

Alain Delon returns in Melville’s final film, another tale of illicit heists and cops versus robbers. Delon plays Commissaire Coleman who is on the trail of three men that have robbed a local bank. One of them is hospitalized, but the three survivors use the loot to fund an even more extravagant heist. Coleman has his eye on one of his close friends, Simon (Richard Crenna), a club owner and the prime suspect. Coleman and Simon also share a mistress, the double crossing beauty Cathy (the sublime Catherine Deneuve). 
Though this last film of Melville’s may not be his best, it is still well worth watching for fans of the director or the crime genre; I don’t think you can really enjoy the genre without a healthy appreciation for Melville’s influential work. Delon was excellent as a criminal in Le samouraï and Le cercle rouge and also shines as a slippery police commissioner, willing to bend laws and manipulate the women in his life. It also curiously presents on of Melville's most interesting female characters, a lovely transvestite working as a police informer who seems to be in love with Coleman. Un flic also marks somewhat of a change for Melville, as not everyone dies at the end of the film. It would be interesting to see what he would have come out with next, but he died of a heart attack when he was only 55.

Though I watched all of his feature films, Melville made a short at the beginning of career that I was unable to find. I think it’s a little strange that Vingt-quatre heures de la vie d’un clown (1946) aka Twenty-four Hours in the Life of a Clown hasn’t been included as an extra on one of Criterion’s many Melville releases, but hopefully that’s planned for the future, as several of their Melville releases have fallen out of print and either need to be reissued or released on Blu-ray

For more about Melville, there are a lot of great resources, including an enjoyable article from Senses of Cinema. Rui Nogueira’s important book Melville on Melville is sadly out of print, but will hopefully see the light of day again at some point. Your local library may have access to a copy. Check out Ginette Vincendeau’s Jean-Pierre Melville: An American in Paris, the only English language book on the director that is currently in print. Also look for the documentary Code Name Melville, available as an extra on the region 2 Blu-ray of Le samouraï.

I could not possibly say enough good things about this master of French cinema and innovator of the crime genre. His work comes highly recommended and, I think, it is best viewed as a group to observe the development of his many ongoing themes. For a visual example of the clear themes throughout Melville’s films, check out this video essay, which shows common strains like characters smoking, domestic activities, men with hats, black and white tiled floors, characters looking into mirrors, etc.