Monday, March 25, 2024

late night with the devil & immaculate

There is a lot of creativity and ingenuity on display in Cameron Cairnes and Colin Cairnes's Late Night with the Devil, found footage film of a 1977 midnight talk show turned into a rollicking, unexpectedly horrific live broadcast across America's living rooms. Even the fictional talk show's name and logo, Night Owls, is clever and lovingly designed (it would make for a good coffee mug or T-shirt). The show's elevator pop jazz music (the fitting original score is by Glenn Richards and Roscoe James Irwin) is a quirky, but believable, touch. Even though one, especially those with an inkling of classic horror knowledge, can telegraph some of the plot elements of show host Jack Delroy's (a very credible, solid David Dastmalchian) desperate attempts to beat Carson in the ratings (a lot is inferred from the jump in the film's backstory-packed prelude of well-wrought, vintage-dressed magazines, photos, and media clips). For those looking for creepy Exorcist-inspired horror or a hot, Network-inspired scathing media satire, it's not super satisfying in either regard. Instead, it's more about the charming, cornball production on display, and the intricacies of craft (the sound design is particularly inventive).  As the show's guest flat-out skeptic, Ian Bliss, with his daggered, crisp, Richard Dreyfuss-esque voice and beady eyes, is the film's scene stealer. It plays somewhat flat on a screener, but it's quite good with a game audience, especially in stadium-style seats, as if you are one with the TV audience within--if this was intentional, it feels like a nice, appropriately hokey nod to the grand William Castle. ***

Where Late Night with Devil is imbued with some slippery humor, Michael Mohan's Immaculate is gorily bleak. Young Cecilia (current "it" star Sydney Sweeney) plays a Michigander who joins a convent in rural Italy. The joint is spooky and Cuckoo's Nest-strict (with Novitiate / Doubt-level nunnery monsters at the helm). Catacombs loom underneath (the setting for one of the film's best sequences) as does an icky, mysterious history. Besides a chain-smoking, brazen cohort, fish-out-of-water Cecilia is on her own and mostly at sea. The "immaculate conception" in the film is no surprise, but what Cecilia endures in the remainder is the film's hook and main source of suspense and social commentary. If the film is an allegory, scripted by Andew Lobel, it is a surprisingly grimy, wrenching and virulently anti-Catholic one unlike the run of most religious horror flicks of late that oft come with a gossamer, holy conclusion (studio Neon has cannily used pious complaints against the movie as advertising). It's an attractively made pic, but there is a bit of triteness here and there--the wavering candle flame sound effects are turned up (too high?) as are an unnecessarily piled-on slew of jump scares. There's a lot of howling grief and rage in the light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel coda, with visual references to Rosemary's Baby, House of a 1000 Corpses via Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. Sometimes it all feels a bit too much, yearning for it to get dished on a slightly more subtle level, but still occasionally effective throughout. One of its highlights--a really gorgeous, melodic score by Will Bates. **1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, March 8, 2024

high & low - john galliano

My review of Kevin Macdonald's documentary High & Low - John Galliano is here at Film-Forward. Because of its subject, it's more morose and unsettling than a typical enjoyable, fizzy fashion doc.

Saturday, March 2, 2024


Released limitedly in exploitation theaters within the mid-1970s, and largely forgotten since, Pat Rocco's film Drifter (titled Two Way Drift in the opening credits) with a script by Edward Middleton (a pseudonym of lead actor Joed Adair), is an unconventional picture (both for its roughly-hewn filmmaking and its portrayals of queer life), and has been newly restored and re-released by Kino Lorber as part of their eclectic and vital Kino Cult Blu-Ray series. The film is a rambling portrait of a rugged, bisexual hustler, "Drift" (Adair) in Southern California that navigates stray encounters and also a fragile romance in his past. 

The film opens in emotional crisis with frenzied, melodramatic music (the uncredited score is mostly sourced from library music, including a piece by Johnny Pearson, that sometimes smothers over the ambivalence of its characters, perhaps trying to musically exorcise their inner torments) as Drift and his former flame, Steve (David Russell), are bathed in moonlight, displaying a twisting moment of tenderness, and suddenly a physical altercation. The film has an intriguing  structure: two running plot lines in different spaces of time--that, perhaps purposefully, never come together. 

Although released in the mid-70s, the film finished its shoot in 1969. Indeed, it unfurls the feel of West Coast late 1960s into the early 70s with its splashy Technicolor: colors on clothing, flowered bedspreads and the big pastel automobiles of the early and mid-60s visibly starting to fray and go to seed; a “Sock it to Me” throw pillow appears on Steve's couch (one can imagine Jonathan Adler reproducing it now as pricey kitsch). A 1967 tune by Phil Coulter and Bill Martin, "I Gotta Get the World Off My Back" (an appropriate lyric for Drift's life) that plays upon nasally Dylan folk rock, figures tinnily in a remote desert bar. The California fashions and settings recall the L.A. of Tarantino’s recreated Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Quirky, marginalized characters emerge as lonesome, bohemian, on-the-fly folk, searching for connections. One of the more arresting sequences finds Drift in a cramped, Murphy bed-studio flat hooking up with its swarthy tenant, Wagner, (Dean Shah-Kee) who ends up bailing in the wee hours of the morning. When Drift awakes, he fearfully suspects he'll see Wagner's gay roommate or partner, but he unexpectedly meets a striking late shift cocktail waitress, Klamath (played by Bambi Allen). We glimpse her washing up and removing false eyelashes in a tight bathroom; when she first sees Drift, she tilts a shaded light in his direction, having the flair of a noir actress. One of the more distinctive characterizations is from Gerald Strickland who plays the aging Dana, a designer ready to change genders, giving away old male-identifying clothes to Drift. Drift is becomes stricken by European beauty and dreamer Karen (Inga-Maria Pinson), with her films of Garbo book in tow (allusions of old Hollywood glamor appear, almost as a sort of unattainable ghost in this scrappy independent film; in one moment, Gold Diggers of 1933 and 42nd Street appear upon a theater marquee). They flirt and skip around town in montages, with cheery freeze-frames: from the idyllic Echo Park bridge to a really cool-looking amusement park, The Pike in Long Beach, (supposedly frequented by the gays back its heyday; personally, I'd love to go back in time and check out its haunted mansion). Drift's entanglements with individuals are fleeting, intimate, sometimes tender. When the film shifts from these close connections to a group of people in its climax, it becomes more uneasy and insidious in its sharp shadows: an uncomfortable stag party where Drift and Karen are asked to perform for gawking businessmen.

Drifter is less sexy than its premise on paper (not to mention its pulpy poster) and more arty, introspective. Indeed, Rocco originally intended for it to be a commercial release with hopes of being picked up by a mainstream distributor. 

Despite the film's merits, it occasionally feels a bit sluggish, in need of some tighter reaction shots. There’s also an overriding lack of magnetism from Adair.  However, critiques are difficult to square against such a risky, bold picture. Similar to kinfolk films such as work by Gus Van Sant (its hard not to think of him when seeing the sweaty, lanky male outcasts on open roads and deserts on display here) and, of course, Midnight Cowboy, the quintessential film of its kind in 1969, Drifter is about the “getting and taking” within lives of hustlers. There is also an element of sexual confusion (when Drift peers at spreads of breasts in a magazine shop, the score is suddenly violent and threatening; when he looks at idyllic spreads of men, the score is suddenly more tender--cutting to Drift's remembrance, or perhaps imagination, of a desert tryst with Steve). Adding to the muddle, is how unfulfilled, both sexually and narratively, the relationship between Drift and Steve appears to be. ***

The Kino Blu-Ray also features short films by Rocco; Autumn Nocturne is perhaps the most sensuous and affecting (loved how it repurposed the romantic sweep of Franz Waxman's Peyton Place score). 

The performers, creators, history, and vivid LA locations of Drifter are carefully considered and described on the sparkly and informative commentary track by film historian Finley Freibert

-Jeffery Berg