Sunday, April 15, 2018

RIP Milos Forman, and an appreciation of HAIR

Recently on his site HOLLYWOOD ELSEWHERE, Jeffrey Wells confessed, in tribute to the landmark filmmaker who died this past week at age 86, that his most highly treasured Milos Forman film was a frankly unconventional and bravely accurate choice. I would expect nothing less from Mr. Wells, my very favorite movie blogger out there. And so I had to leave a comment: 

"Jeff, I love that you paid your ultimate tribute to HAIR, which I always felt was critically maligned for not being made in 1968. The fact is, it's a brilliantly realized, stunningly emotional film from Mr. Forman and his massive cast and crew. From its quietly rural then urbanely explosive opening "The Age of Aquarius" (performed dynamically by Renn Woods, in a dizzying, equally showy 360-degree pan shot) to the hilariously bawdy "White Boys/Black Boys" (led by Nell Carter and Ellen Foley), John Savage's moving "Where Do I Go" set against a miraculously deserted then instantly bustling Wall Street, Treat Williams' many exuberant numbers like "I Got Life," and most especially, Cheryl Barnes' stunning rendition of "Easy to Be Hard" after she's bawled out by her wandering husband (Dorsey Wright) who's abandoned her and their young son. In the long history of my movie watching career / avocation--upwards of 25,000 titles (more if we're including shorts and TV films)--there are only a few scenes that get me in my copious gut EVERY TIME: for instance, the endings of E.T., A LITTLE ROMANCE and IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE and the entirety of PONETTE always do the trick. But this scene gets me weeping for a full five minutes, because the song is so intrinsically moving, because Barnes is absolute perfection in her short, closely-watched performance, and because Forman's intense visual orchestration of the sequence, which is so simultaneously alienated and intensely intimate. 

"I saw HAIR on the big screen only once in Brooklyn at a park showing--huge screen and massively well attended. While weeping during "Easy to Be Hard," I could hear a little child close to me saying "Mommy, that man is crying!" Well, I WAS a mess...a joyous mess. I could not hide it. Never could, never will. The only scenes in HAIR that cause me to bristle are the LSD-tinged wedding fantasy sequence (which I find embarrassingly hokey and clearly filmed by someone who has never taken the substance) and the joyous "Good Morning Starshine," set in a rushing convertible full of hippies (I wince at the brash, Vegas-y arrangement overtaking Beverly D'Angelo's sweet vocals; I much prefer the Broadway version or even the top 40 hit by Oliver). But, as with many scenes in HAIR, most of Forman's other movies reduce me to overwhelmed tears: his top masterwork ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, of course, and the also unfairly treated RAGTIME (which I guess won't get the director's cut it screams out for), and also AMADEUS (which I love but feel a little worn out by), the satirical TAKING OFF, the Czech films LOVES OF A BLONDE and THE FIREMAN'S BALL, and his last truly remarkable film THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT. As fantastic as all of these titles are, though, HAIR will always be closest to my heart. It just is simply magnificent. RIP, Mr. Forman, and thank you for your overwhelming vision." 

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Film #175: Witchfinder General (aka The Conqueror Worm)

Among the horror genre’s most criminally overlooked classics, 1968’s The Conqueror Worm, which was US distributor American International's Corman-esque way of linking the film to the classic, long dead horror writer Edgar Allen Poe, in a bid for US box office success. Poe was then a big movie ticket seller and the inspiration of many Hammer horror and Corman-led vehicles like The Pit and the Pendulum, House of Usher, The Raven, and The Tomb of Ligeia, among many more (though the author's connection to this film is tenuous at best; his words are present only as some snatches of opening and closing poetry). Better known in the U.K. as Witchfinder General (the title under which it was eventually released on an MGM Blu-Ray box set including the Poe-connected anthology film Tales of Terror, the raucous two-film Dr. Phibes series, and the superb, Shakespeare-tinged horror black comedy Theater of Blood).

Reeves' version of this extraordinarily downbeat tale is a jaw-dropper. Despite its inobviously low budget, it succeeds in placing viewer right in this ornate but life-cheapening era. In it, Vincent Price leads as Matthew Hopkins, the real-life henchman for Cromwell's war-torn 17th century Britain who's assigned to locate and prosecute witches hidden within the country’s tiny townships. He’s an intriguing character because, with his obvious intelligence, he should be equipped to mitigate his dark side with common decency. Yet Hopkins is so consumed with lust and power that he can’t help but take advantage of the vulnerable, especially in a time where almost everyone was mad with fear and ignorance.

Rest assured, Price plays all this to the hilt in one of his very finest non-tongue-in-cheek horror performances. Without even the briefest moment of relief from the terror gripping the UK in this period of its history, the film is smartly helmed by long-depressed director/co-writer Reeves who, before accidentally overdosing in 1969, spearheaded two more dire, similarly-flavored pictures (The She-Beast with Barbara Steele, and The Sorcerers horror legend Boris Karloff). In keeping with those unsparing works, Witchfinder General is disturbingly set in a Hell where all moral boundaries have been violently erased, and all its subjugated inhabitants are capable of atrocities against even their closest confidants. No walk in the park, it is seriously distressing--the utter definition of horror.