TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS (1973) & FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM (1987)

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Freddie Francis’ Tales That Witness Madness, made for World Film Services in 1973, is clearly patterned after the Amicus horror anthologies. Of course, what better way to emulate the competition than to acquire the man who directed nearly half of the Amicus franchise, along with several of that studio’s top draw actors?

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The setup is simple and familiar enough: Donald Pleasance is the resident psychiatrist of an asylum, giving friend Jack Hawkins (in his final film) a tour of the grounds. Along the way, he tells the stories of four inmates.

In “Mr. Tiger,” Russell Lewis’ imaginary feline pet beast takes a sour view of his master’s verbally abusive parents. Just how imaginary the tiger is questioned after some clawing on the door and blood splattering on Oedipal walls.

A time traveling bicycle is at the malevolent heart of “Penny Farthing.” It stars Peter McEnery as an antique shop owner and Suzy Kendall as his wife. Soon, they discover the bike is literally antique and … we’re so sorry, Uncle Albert.

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“Mel” stretches credibility when Michael Jayston is more interested in an oddly shaped tree than he is in oversexed wife Joan Collins in something pink from Frederick’s of Hollywood. It’s the most remembered segment for a reason—it’s a camp hoot, with Collins channeling her inner jealous diva. The tree tries to upstage the human competition, which is not an easy task against Joan in a flimsy nightie, wielding an axe.

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AMICUS ANTHOLOGIES (1965-1974), PART TWO

Tales from the Crypt (1972, directed by Freddie Francis and written by Milton Subotsky) is the first of two anthologies directly adapted from Amicus’ spiritual inspiration, EC Comics.

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A group of five explorers encounter a crypt keeper (no, not that one, but rather  Ralph Richardson as a hammy monk) in an underground cavern. Each are shown the fate that awaits them.

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“And All Through the House” taps into Francis’ best qualities, making for an excellent opening segment. While her daughter is sleeping fitfully upstairs waiting for Saint Nicholas to arrive on Christmas Eve, Joan Collins is smashing a poker over her husband’s skull so she can collect his insurance money.

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Meanwhile, an inmate has escaped from a nearby asylum, dressed as Santa Claus, and someone is going to open the door. Collins is, naturally, perfectly cast as a bitch from hell in the guise of a sex bomb.

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The dialogue is pared down to bare minimum, making this a visual segment, alight in Christmas colors and blood, and choreographed to holiday music. It’s the original Silent Night, Deadly Night.

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“Reflection Of Death” is the weakest link here, about an adulterer (Ian Hendry) who leaves his wife and kids and suffers the consequences when his car crashes. Its twist ending is disappointingly inevitable, but Francis (barely) holds our attention with some innovative POV perspectives.

“Poetic Justice” features a superb, moving performance from Peter Cushing as Grimsdyke. He’s one of those despicable poor people: you know the ones who are always looking for free stuff, health insurance, and government handouts, just like the ones Jesus used to kick in the ass. Although a little senile, he’s kindhearted, loved by the neighborhood children, and communicates with his deceased wife (who is poignantly represented by a portrait of Cushing’s actual late wife). He’s also hated by his neighbors, especially the greedy, uptight James Elliott (Robin Phillips), who drives Grimsdyke to suicide and… this may be the first and only film of a zombie with an elegiac heart, forced to rip out the heartless. Cushing channels his grief to craft what may be his finest character acting.

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“Wish You Were Here” is a pallid reworking of “The Monkey’s Paw,” and delivers a “moral lesson” about being careful what you ask the genie for and how you ask it. Neither Richard Greene (as a zombie) nor Barbara Murray can salvage it.

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“Blind Alleys” features Patrick Magee delivering a strong performance as a blind nursing home resident revolting against dictatorial director Nigel Patrick, who is so adept at patriarchal evil that we can’t wait for his comeuppance, which comes in a wham bang finale.

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Although all of the Amicus anthologies had been profitable, Tales from the Crypt was their biggest box office hit (no doubt in part due to the built-in fanbase of EC Comics), so much so that instead of waiting a few years, the studio immediately went into production of…

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AMICUS ANTHOLOGIES (1965-1974), PART ONE

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With Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965, directed by Freddie Francis and written by Milton Subotsky) Amicus Productions (spearheaded by Subotsky and Max Rosenberg, who previously produced for Hammer and was a cousin to Doris Wishman) established itself as a vital competitor to Hammer Studios. Rather than imitating Hammer’s modernization of Gothic classics, Amicus developed its niche in the omnibus film. It was successful enough to be in full-fledged production for a decade, establishing a reputation as the go-to studio for horror anthologies. This, their introductory portmanteau film, clearly influenced by EC Comics, sets a pattern of to-be-expected unevenness. Still, Amicus installs themselves as a horror studio to be reckoned with, sparing no expense in procuring Hammer’s top actors: Peter Cushing (who would  star in all but one of the Amicus anthologies) and Christopher Lee. For its wraparound segment, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors opens to the duo (among other passengers) on a train. Dr. Schreck[1] (Cushing, saddled with a terrible German accent and glued on brows) pulls out a deck of tarot cards. “Pick a card, any card, and tape it three times,” Schreck tells his fellow passengers. Each participant will hear of a fate that may await them. Among the passengers is Christopher Lee who will, of course, factor into one of the five narratives.

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In “Werewolf,” Neil McCallum is an architect renovating an old dark house, which turns out to be cursed. The title monster is featured in this pedestrian tale of ancestral revenge with a “twist.”

With Alan Freeman  (better known as the U.K D.J. for “Pick of the Pops”) served up as a snack for a venus fly trap,”The Creeping Vine,” thankfully doesn’t take itself so seriously. It is refreshingly lightheaded hokum.

“Voodoo” is the worst of the lot; badly dated in its stereotypes, with Kenny Lynch belting out a stolen voodoo tune.

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“Disembodied Hand,” has elitist art critic Franklin Marsh (Lee) driving artist Eric Landor (Michael Gough) to suicide. Landor’s severed hand returns to exact revenge on the mean critic. It’s in the spirit of The Beast with Five Fingers, among others, and chock-full of two-dimensional caricatures of both artists and critics. It holds no surprises, but with Lee and Gough engaged in a bit of whistling-while-they-work fun, it’s easily the best episode.

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“Vampire” feature a young Donald Sutherland who discovers he is married to… a vampire! It barely raises a pulse.

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Seen today, Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors is more camp than horror, and its appeal is one of genre nostalgia. Still, the phenomenal box office success of Dr. Terror green-lighted a second portmanteau film in 1967, entitled Torture Garden (directed by Freddie Francis and written by Robert Bloch). It contains no torture nor any garden. Burgess Meredith (in a preposterous  disguise, reminding us of the Penguin) is Old Nick himself, going by the pseudonym of Dr. Diablo and moonlighting as a carnival barker who promises a tortuous exhibit that can reveal the future. “You’ll shake, you’ll shiver, but it’s all good fun,” Diablo hammily tells his patrons. Unfortunately, only one of the four tales lives up to that promise.

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“Enoch,” is the opening narrative. Michael Bryant’s inheritance money (from an uncle who took his time dying) is going to be spoiled by a mean ol’ puddy tat with a lot of doubloons.

“Over Hollywood” has Beverly Adams discovering the fountain of youth in Hollywood with robotic consequences.

“Mr. Steinway” might be seen as a poor precursor to Stephen King’s “Christine,” replacing a killer car with a killer piano. It’s as absurd as it sounds.

The first three segments are sloppily written and executed with little enthusiasm; each progressively worse, but the final segment single-handedly salvages the anthology.

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“The Man Who Collected Poe” finds Jack Palance (playing against type) as an Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed geek who may have found his soulmate in fellow fanatic Peter Cushing. However, somebody’s got something—or someone—hidden in the basement and … somebody’s got the fever, which leads to a fiery finale. Cushing and Palance clearly enjoyed playing opposite one another and their chemistry, along with clever writing, making one wish the previous segments had been as enjoyable.

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1970’s The House That Dripped Blood (directed by Peter Duffell and written by Robert Bloch) is a considerable improvement over its predecessors. Duffell lacks the visual astuteness of Freddie Francis, but he has superior stories to work with and a top notch cast. The connecting theme is the titular house, which has a bit of baggage left over from all who have resided there.

In “Method For Murder,” Denholm Elliott is a horror author who writes a character that becomes a tad too three-dimensional, much to his wife’s peril.

“Waxworks” stars Cushing as an uptight retired stockbroker and lifelong bachelor who visits a wax museum, only to see a figure of a woman whom he once was in love with. Obsession and unrequited love naturally go hand-in-hand, or head-on-plate.

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In “Sweets to the Sweet,” Nyree Dawn Porter is hired to tutor a young, motherless child  (Chloe Franks) who is unloved by her cold-hearted father, Christopher Lee. Without giving too much away, let’s just say the underlying theme is one few filmmakers would dare tackle today.

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“The Cloak” is the most famous of the four episodes, remembered fondly for its absurd humor. It stars John Pertwee (best known for his portrayal of Dr. Who) as an actor who mantles the cloak of a purported actual vampire. Hammer favorite Ingrid Pitt bares her fangs and, of course, a bit more.

All four episodes feature strong acting, which is a rarity in contemporary horror and should be a model for genre filmmakers. Elliot’s restrained performance in “Method For Murder” is admirable enough to forgive the predictable “twist.” The stylish “Waxworks” features an equally stylish performance from Cushing, although narratively it is the thinnest episode. “Sweets to the Sweet” is psychologically intense with three powerhouse performances, making it the strongest entry. Although John Pertwee is a bit on-the-sleeve in “The Cloak,” his performance suits the tone; but, he’s no match for Pitt.

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1970 EXPLOITATION TRIPLE FEATURE: EQUINOX, THE VAMPIRE LOVERS, AND TROG

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The 1970s were probably the most prolific decade in production of exploitation and horror films. The decade started off with Gordon Hessler’s mediocre Cry of the Banshee, co-starring Vincent Price and Diana Rigg. Daniel Haller’s adaptation of The Dunwich Horror was also surprisingly uneven, despite its well-received source material. Hammer Studios was still in full throttle, although its output increasingly met with mixed reviews and decreasing box office. Peter Sasdy’s Taste the Blood of Dracula was considered by many to be the last decent Hammer take on the infamous Count. Roy Ward Baker’s The Scars of Dracula was universally panned by critics. Scars‘ star Christopher Lee then made a stab at the character for a different studio in Jess Franco’s [1] Count Dracula, which co-starred  Klaus Kinski and Herbert Lom. Noticeably shot on a lower budget, Franco’s Draculawas deemed a faithful adaptation of the novel, but a noble misfire. Franco and Lee also teamed up for The Bloody Judge, which was a second-rate rehash of Michael Reeves’ final film, Witchfinder General.

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Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil, starring Herbert Lom and Udo Kier, was another offshoot of the late Mr. Reeves’ swan song, with the addition of graphic torture, and it’s reputation as one of the most revolting grindhouse films ever made still holds strong nearly a half century later. Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw was the third Witchfinder General copycat in one year. It disappeared quickly (rightfully so). At the opposite end of the spectrum is the camp-fest fundamentalist Christian exploitation Cross and the Switchblade, which aptly cast the whitest white man who ever lived—Pat Boone—as Hoosier Pentecostal preacher David Wilkerson, going to the ghetto to convert gang member Nicky Cruz (Erik Estrada). It was such a hit with the fundie circuit that they even produced a cross-promotional comic book that was littered throughout church pews to take home and keep “if you got saved.”

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The primary influence on Sam Raimi’s The Evil Dead (1981), the microbudget horror Equinox has a substantial cult following, enough to receive the Criterion Collection treatment. Equinox is a holy grail for lovers of  backyard filmmaking, and is almost as famous for its making of narrative. The story began with three teenagers, David Allen, Dennis Muren, and Mark McGee, who got together and made a monster movie. Discovering the likes of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen through the pages of Forrest J. Ackerman’s influential “Famous Monsters Of Filmland,” aspiring stop-animation animator Allen placed a personal ad in a 1962 issue of FM, inviting lovers of King Kong to correspond. Muren, whose monster memorabilia collection had been featured in an earlier article of the magazine, was the first to respond, followed by McGee. Shortly after that initial introduction, the three were meeting regularly for screenings and discussions of creature features and experimenting with 16 MM shorts. In 1965 Muren received money from his grandfather to make Equinox.

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Influenced primarily by Jacques Tourneur’s Curse of the Demon (1957), the film also pays homage to Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Robert Gordon’s It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), and Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963). The cast includes Muren’s grandfather as a hermit who is trampled on by Allen’s stop-motion demon, the Taurus. Ackerman has a voice cameo via a tape recorder playing in the hospital. Pulp fantasy author Fritz Leiber (once an apprentice to H.P. Lovecraft) plays Professor Waterman, who is in possession of a medieval book, which contains a gateway to another dimension called the Equinox. The movie begins on a picnic when David (Edward Connell) and Susan (Barbara Hewitt) discover Waterman’s book and unintentionally summon forth a demon.

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There are two versions of Equinox. In the original, the narrative is ambiguous and really just an excuse to unleash stop-motion monsters (courtesy Allen and Jim Danforth). In the second version, Jack Woods, credited as a co-director with McGee and Muren, over-explains everything to the point of tedium. Although neither cut is a long-lost masterpiece, the original, pre-tampering version is definitely superior. But it’s the winning extras in the Criterion Collection disc that are the highlight, spinning a narrative of fan love for the genre, paid homage by commentary from the surviving principals.

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Equinox has some “American dream” success stories: Muren went on to become an Oscar-winning visual effects artist for Industrial Light and Magic, and worked on Willy Wonka And The Chocolate FactoryFlesh Gordon, the original Star Wars trilogy, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the television series “Battlestar Galactica,” E.T.The AbyssGhostbusters IITerminator 2, Jurassic Park,  A.I., HulkWar of the Worlds, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, among many others. David Allen also had a successful career, working on Flesh GordonThe HowlingQThe Hunger, Young Sherlock HolmesGhostbusters II, Willow, Puppetmaster, and Honey I Shrunk The Kids, before dying prematurely in 1999. McGee had a career in B-movies, and Woods went on to work in sound.

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PETER CUSHING SIX PACK: THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, FLESH AND THE FIENDS, THE SKULL, TWINS OF EVIL,THE CREEPING FLESH, AND THE GHOUL

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Although Peter Cushing passed this mortal coil in 1994, he made a recent, posthumous appearance—albeit a digital one—in what is probably his most famous non-Hammer role as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Rogue One. His debut film performance was, aptly enough, for Universal horror icon James Whale in Man in the Iron Mask(1939), but it wasn’t until Terence Fisher’s 1957’s Curse Of Frankenstein for Hammer Studios that Cushing secured his iconic niche. Unlike the Universal Frankenstein series, Fisher focused on the doctor himself, as opposed to the monster. With his frosty blue eyes, silver-tongued elocution, and gaunt frame, bringing a fervent athleticism to his early performances, Cushing was ideally cast.

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Echoing John Huston’s brilliant deduction that Humphrey Bogart’s villainous screen qualities could be transposed to that of a protagonist in The Maltese Falcon, Terence Fisher next cast Cushing as the quintessential Van Helsing in Horror Of Dracula (1958). These dual roles, Frankenstein and Van Helsing, cemented Cushing as a horror genre star. It was typecasting that kept his services in demand, and for which he was grateful.

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He also made an excellent Sherlock Holmes in Fisher’s 1959 version of The Hound of the Baskervilles, again cast opposite Lee. It’s possibly the best screen adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous novel, and one of Hammer studio’s finest hours. Cushing brings an irreproachable, authentically physical fire-and-ice quality to the role. The film is relatively faithful to the novel, which will surprise those expecting Fisher to transform it into a horror opus—although it has his trademark red-blooded pacing and brooding atmosphere. Lee, as Sir Henry, may not be as exquisitely cast, but brings flair to the character. Someone must have forgotten to tell Fisher, Cushing, cinematographer Jack Asher, set designer Bernard Robinson, and composer James Bernard that this was an overly familiar story, because they approach it with a refreshing sense of discovery. Lee recalls his genuine affection for his late co-star in an interview included on the DVD. Unlike their Universal Horror predecessors Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, Cushing and Lee became best of friends. Co-starring opposite each other in twenty-four films, their chemistry was undeniable, and although they did substantial solo work, their names are practically synonymous.

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Cushing was cast as the infamous Dr. Knox for Britain’s Shepparton Studio in Flesh And The Fiends(1960, written and directed by John Gilling). Similar to his Victor Frankenstein, Cushing’s Knox is obsessed by his work. His is an icy, stern, brash, one-eyed doctor, but not without a degree of introspective sympathy, in sharp contrast to the deplorable Burke and Hare (as portrayed here by George Rose and Donald Pleasance). As with many “mad doctor” films, Knox is driven to immoral extremes by a medically regressive climate. The cast, which includes an early performance by Billie Whitelaw (best known as the literal nanny-from-hell in The Omen), is uniformly excellent. The production values surpass even the early Hammer entries; surprisingly, it’s also far more risqué. Gilling’s direction is assured,with an eye for detail, particularly (and admirably) gutter detail. Not so much horror as history, it’s a seriously underrated gem featuring a striking performance from Cushing.

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DAVID LYNCH’S THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980)

The Elephant Man (1980) David Lynch. Lobby card

Critics and audiences were surprised by David Lynch‘s Elephant Man(1980), which in itself is surprising. Apparently after Eraserhead (1977) became a cult favorite, the assumption was that Lynch was unable to tell a linear narrative. It’s the very old either/or label that audiences are prone toward. (Lynch would delightfully prove his narrative skills again with 1999’s quirky, but linear, The Straight Story).

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The only critic of note who was not surprised was Roger Ebert, in one of his most pedestrian essays. Hopelessly hindered by his belief in the bourgeois definition of “courage,” Ebert delivers a polemic,  writing that the death of *Joseph Merrick was, essentially, a suicide. Ebert further embarrasses himself in questioning the film’s point. We could just as easily question the point of virtually every film byTod Browning or Charlie Chaplin. Likewise, we could ask the purpose of an outsider art gallery. With dignity, grace, and sensuality, Lynch’s The Elephant Man edifies the outsider and obstructs our tendency to judge. Throughout his body of work, Lynch sympathetically locates the pulse of the alien, foreigner, and refugee with authentic depth. (Perhaps we should put Lynch into office instead of Donald Trump). Comparatively, Tim Burton is entirely artifice.

The Elephant Man (1980) David Lynch. Lobby card

Broken down, the narrative of The Elephant Man is quite orthodox, but Lynch imbues the film with such an imaginative touch that it never fails to feel like a revelation. Smartly, Lynch opens the film in a full-blown horror milieu with ecstatic black and white cinematography from Freddie Francis (a Hammer Studios regular), which paves the way to Lynch shattering all of our preconceived notions. He is aided considerably by Anthony Hopkins’ nuanced portrayal of Dr. Treves, who serves as the point of entry into the traumatic life of the so-called Elephant Man. Matching Hopkins is John Hurt’s sensitive, tour de force portrayal of Merrick. Together, the two actors locate Lynch’s rhythmic pulse.

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DAVID LYNCH’S THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999)

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Among idiosyncratic filmmakers, it seems only David Lynch can produce something G-rated and linear, for Disney Studios, without sacrificing his inherent quirkiness. To tell it straight, The Straight Story, along with 1980’s The Elephant Man (another linear film) may be his most accomplished and surprising work. It makes one wish Lynch had gone this route more often, which is to take nothing away from a string of masterful opuses like Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986),Mullholland Drive (1999), and Inland Empire (2006). Even more, one wishes Disney would have and gone this route more often, instead of bombarding us with the dreck they have become infamous for. Oddly, it took someone like Lynch to render Disney substantial again, albeit briefly.

The Straight Story (1999 David Lynch)

Written and produced by frequent Lynch collaborator Mary Sweeney with cinematography by Freddie Francis (of Hammer Horror and The Elephant Man), Straight Story is based on the true story of Alvin Straight. Richard Farnsworth is perfectly cast as the eccentric protagonist. The film is a tour de force for Farnsworth, whose last film this was (dying of cancer, he committed suicide months after filming). He is like a perfectly used note in Lynch’s composition.

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Reading the plot of the film, one suspects a typical Hallmark-styled production, which is probably why Mickey’s Clubhouse chose to distribute it. The Straight Story, like much of Lynch’s oeuvre, resonates with a pronounced, authentic spirituality. It is Lynch’s personal direction and interaction with his cast that gives this film its three-dimensional purity. Lynch has never overly plotted his films, which is why Dune (1984) proved an poor match for him. Rather, he is like a figurative painter, who works well with tenacious personalities, such as Laura Dern (in three films), Sissy Spacek, Harry Dean Stanton, and Farnsworth.

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Finding that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has recently had a stroke, Alvin (Farnsworth) sees one last life mission. Having not spoken to Lyle for a decade, very much ill himself, living with mentally ill daughter (Sissy Spacek) and shorn of both license and car, Alvin hops on his tractor mower and drives 300 plus miles to visit Lyle.

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Lynch and Farnsworth find poetry in Alvin’s pain. It is not self-pitying. Alvin has a past as a military sniper and, despite his simplicity and nostalgia, his character rings original and virtuous.

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On the road, Alvin encounters an assortment of wanderers. Like Alvin, they possess a whimsical quality, but are never condescended to as caricatures. One might suspect a Kerouac road fable at the film’s center, but Lynch has no movement to propagate. He is only interested in his people and how each comes to purgation.

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The unsung heroes of this film are cinematographer Francis, who composes his beautiful, yet dolorous landscapes with the aesthetic assurance of a Van Gogh, and composer Angelo Badalamenti, whose acoustic score is diaphanously choreographed to a  lyrical odyssey.

The Straight Story (1999 David Lynch)

To many filmgoers, the name David Lynch conjures up an image of a surrealist boogey man. Yet, Lynch has often been able to accomplish the seemingly impossible within surrealism: to paint individuals that we can identify and empathize with within a capricious, mesmerizingly-paced panorama. Even Lynch’s most skeptical, misanthropic followers will find edification in The Straight Story, without burdensome bathos or heavy-handedness.

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TERENCE FISHER’S THE HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) AND DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1968)

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Christopher Lee, as Dracula, greets John Van Eyssan’s Jonathan Harker and basically says, “Welcome, glad to have you as my librarian. That picture of your fiancee is lovely. I have to leave now, good bye.” After that, Dracula never speaks another word in the Horror of Dracula (1958). End to end, his footage probably runs less than fifteen minutes.

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Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster present Bram Stoker’s vampire as a feeding predator. To his victims, he is attractive and desirable. Throughout his Hammer films, Terence Fisher clearly presents evil as erotic temptation. Seen in this light, Dracula’s silent, predatory portrayal in the first “true” sequel—Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966)—makes perfect sense. This is what sets Fisher apart from his predecessors who told the same story, and the successors who imitated (and exaggerated) his style in increasingly inferior sequels. Continue reading