Friday, January 30, 2009

The House Between 3.0

Today is a big day in Fantasmoland not only because of our forthcoming tribute to foreign zombies, but also because it marks the premiere of the third (and final) season of The House Between. Fantasmo regulars know the story already, but in brief this is an online sci-fi/horror series in which Rob, myself, and several other Fantasmo folks participated in for writer/director John Kenneth Muir. John proposed the series to us when he was here to speak at our Fantasmo celebrating John Carpenter, and being none the wiser as to the rigors of independent film production we readily said yes : )

It was a labor of love for all involved, and it’s a little bittersweet as this marks the final run of the series. For those following it so far, I think you’ll really enjoy the third round. It’s easily the best yet. If you’re new to the show you can catch all the old episodes and the new at several locations. The easiest place to look though is The House Between official site at: You can also read production diaries and see other info at the blogs run by John and Joe Maddrey (linked on the right side of this page). Oh, and you don’t want to miss this if for no other reason in that Rob and I actually appear on screen in at least two episodes together (a THB first)!

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Movie Review: My Bloody Valentine 3D (2009)

Anyone who reads this site regularly knows from the jabs I make here and there that I am not a big fan of horror remakes. It’s not so much that I object to the idea of remaking a movie in general, more that it is such a pervasive trend right now that it seems there’s not an original idea left in Hollywood. And worse still the remakes tend to add nothing new, or actually drain the life out of what was once an interesting premise. The other night my Team Fantasmo partner in crime Rob Floyd and I headed out to the local multiplex to catch the newest entry in the remake sweepstakes, My Bloody Valentine 3D. Generally I wait until DVD for this sort of thing, but I’d read raves about the 3D and convinced Rob that we needed to see this in the theater (and being of like mind he didn’t need much convincing : ) I should state off the bat that I am a fan of the original. Not a diehard by any means, but certainly a fan. The original had a creepy setting (a mine), an iconic villain (killer in a mining outfit), decent production values, and a down-to-earth cast. While it may not have matched the brilliance of Halloween, it certainly could hold its own with Friday the 13th. So as someone who respected the original, and felt it would be a concept difficult to mess up (especially in 3D), I had some good will going into this. Unfortunately while all the comments regarding the 3D were pretty much on the money, the film was wildly hit-or-miss . . .

MBV3D (sorry, I hate clever abbreviations but that title is just plain cumbersome) starts out with an intro that recalls the original. Teens are having a party in the local mine, which goes awry when a deranged miner named Harry Warden commences killing everyone. While the reasons behind Warden’s rampage may vary a bit from the original, this opening was a nice homage and actually pretty effective in terms of pacing and execution. It also serves to introduce a love triangle between the film’s primary characters Tom, Sarah, and Axel, and includes some great 3D shots. Essentially Tom and Sarah are high school sweethearts and Axel is the third wheel who pines for Sarah. When the craziness in the mine goes down Axel and Sarah abandon Tom, leaving him to have a close encounter with Harry Warden. Now this situation is all the more terrible in that Tom was only going to the party to appease Sarah. So the guy is being gracious and sensitive by attending this soiree, only to be stabbed in the back (figuratively) by his girlfriend and rival in being left as bait for a crazy miner. Pretty cold-blooded. Luckily the local sheriff (played by Tom Atkins!!!) shows up and saves Tom Not Atkins, killing Harry Warden in the process.

Now before proceeding any further with this synopsis, I have to say a word here about the great Tom Atkins. If you don’t know who he is, this is one of the great horror icons of the 80’s. Most will recognize him from his star turn in Halloween 3: Season of the Witch, but he had standout roles in the likes of The Fog, Escape From New York, Night of the Creeps, Maniac Cop, etc. He’s one of those people who can bring a bright light to even the worst B-movie. Someday very soon I will do a series on Atkins, but suffice it to say his appearance in this film makes it worth the price of admission alone in my opinion. And despite being up in years now, his performance did not disappoint. He has great lines, cool action moments, and hey . . . he’s Atkins what else do you want?!? So if you’re an Atkins fan already you definitely want to see this, and if you’re not you soon will be!

Okay, so the movie flashes forward 10 years at this point. Tom Not Atkins left town after the incident not wanting to face his fears, and Axel and Sarah got married and had children. Tom has come back though because it turns out his father (who happened to own the mines) has passed on leaving Tom with the deed. Needless to say he isn’t fond of the place and plans to sell it to a developer, leaving the majority of the townsfolk pretty upset (including Road House’s Kevin Tighe, or Steven Seagal’s Today You Die’s Kevin Tighe depending on your inclination). Add to this that Axel is having an affair with a grocery store clerk who is carrying his child, reopening the love triangle full force. At the same time all this is happening, a deranged miner shows up and starts killing more people all around town. The murders cast suspicion on everyone from Tom (our troubled hero) to Tom Atkins, resulting in a mystery that would give any random episode of Murder She Wrote a run for the money.

You see, it’s the murder mystery element of this film that really causes it to run off the rails. While the original had a mystery element as well, it focused its efforts on the slasher component. There were some creative set pieces around town early on, but it wisely spent the vast majority of its running time in the atmospheric mine tunnels (whereas MBV3D spends about five minutes in the beginning and end of the film). In the remake there are exciting moments now and then, but the movie is consistently brought to a screeching halt by the police procedural aspect and sleuthing. Honestly I cannot fathom why in the world you would waste a premise that allows you to have a deranged miner chasing teens through a creepy mine . . . in 3D!!! Instead we have a film that likes to give you a lot of shots of people walking around the back woods of Pennsylvania. I could understand if the scenery was particularly breathtaking or eerie, but that’s just not the case. MBV3D will give you a great visual sequence that lasts a minute or two, and then give you 20 minutes of Tom Not Atkins, Sarah, and Axel misinterpreting clues and conversations. Pretty riveting let me tell you.

Rob and I had a conversation after the end of the movie, which I think sums up the frustration we were feeling. What it comes down to is that these remakes of 80’s films seem to be able to pull elements from the originals which are recognizable, but are unable to capture any of the spirit that made them great. In the case of MBV3D there are several examples of moments in the film that I thought were pretty great. There’s the nice mine sequence in the beginning, a wild chase at a motel, and plenty of cool 3D effects. Furthermore there’s Tom Atkins! And this last point can’t be stressed enough. The casting of Atkins makes it clear that the director has a love of this type of film and the era from which it sprung. Atkins was not cast accidentally, he was sought out because the director loved his work. He could have gone for a bigger name, but he chose an obscure cult hero that would be appreciated by the faithful. So I’m betting that he didn’t set out to make a lifeless remake, or that he didn’t have respect for the material. It’s just that for some reason the qualities that made the original work proved elusive. In this case some of the fault lies in the script, but even some of the suspense scenes fall a little flat. Either way this one is a missed opportunity.

The release of MBV3D is not a total loss despite its lackluster qualities. We do get to see Atkins on the big screen again and there are some great 3D sequences. Perhaps best of all though is that it prompted a re-release on DVD of the uncut version of the original film. A bit of a legend has developed around My Bloody Valentine’s lost footage, as it was heavily cut for its initial theatrical run. The bare bones DVD released by Paramount a few years back did nothing to fix that in any way, but to promote this new film they have released a pretty decent special edition disc with the cut footage reinserted and a few documentaries. This alone gives the remake meaning. Honestly though, it’s worth going to see on the big screen for the 3D. Watching this at home would be a bit of a chore for all but the most fervent Atkins devotees (which of course includes yours truly : ) Oh, and be sure to stay until the last of the end credits have rolled for a final surprise (and it’s not finding out that the gaffer was Jeff Gatesman)!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Episode 44 News!

Hey Superfans,
Big news for our Friday the 13th celebration on February 6th! I'm excited to announce that we will indeed have a live call-in Q&A with original Friday the 13th villain Betsy Palmer (aka Jason's mom). Ms. Palmer will be talking about her iconic role, what it's like being the mother of a horror legend, and life at Camp Crystal Lake. All this plus the first three films, including the uncut original and the third film in 3-D!!! It doesn't get better than that!

Of course, don't forget we have our BIG zombie night coming up this Friday (1/30) at 8:00 p.m. Two great films from Australia and New Zealand, the latter being an early work from Peter "Lord of the Rings" Jackson. Great stuff! See you there!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Joseph Maddrey: The Fantasmo Interview

Hey Superfans!
You may remember a few weeks back I posted info about a documentary coming out called Nightmares in Red, White and Blue: The Evolution of the American Horror Film. The very kind producer and author Joseph Maddrey allowed me to screen it, and pose some questions to him regarding the film. I can tell you upfront that this documentary is a real treat for horror fans, and features some amazing interviews with horror legends. What's nice too is that it's an intelligent exploration of themes that run through American horror, rather than a superficial clip festival along the lines of Terror in the Aisles and its ilk. Anyhow, without any further ado here is my discussion with Joseph Maddrey!

JB: The documentary is based on your book of the same title from 2004. Was the idea of doing the documentary in your mind while you were writing the book, or is it something that came later?

JM: When I wrote the book I wasn’t even thinking of it as a book, let alone a documentary. The first half of the book (the chronological section) was the outcome of an independent study in college. The documentary idea came from the people at Midnight Movies, who bought the adaptation rights and then, a year later, hired me to make the documentary. Needless to say I jumped at the opportunity.

JB: You explore two primary concepts in the film, firstly that these films are reflections of the time and place in which they are made, and secondly that they involve the struggle of the individual or “outsider” with some type of threatening entity. As a lifelong horror fan, did these elements jump out at you initially or coalesce during your research? Were there any other aspects you found competing with these in developing your thesis?

JM: Growing up, I was constantly watching and reading about horror movies – always searching for things I hadn’t seen. (This was the age of mom and pop video stores, when finding the really good stuff took some legwork.) I kept a running chronological list of titles and that was how I started noticing thematic similarities among films from particular time periods.

When the book was published, a friend of mine who hadn’t read it yet said, “But did you write about why you, personally, are interested in horror films? That’s what I want to read about.” Of course, I hadn’t. Another friend read the book and commented that, while he understood my thesis, he believed that the true appeal of the horror genre was its universal themes – fear of death, fear of change, fear of the outsider, etc. So in conducting interviews for the documentary, I tried to pursue the historical, the personal and the universal.

There are countless other concepts that we might have explored in the documentary if we’d had more time. Ultimately, the challenge was not finding things to say, but narrowing the scope and creating a coherent narrative.

JB: Your book and the film manage to cover a tremendous amount of ground (basically the entire history of American horror cinema) in a fairly concise number of pages/running time. I found it interesting that there was such a parallel in terms of the economy you were able to employ in both formats, given that they could have easily spiraled into epic length. Was this part of the design from the outset, or did it happen naturally?

JM: I didn’t really plan the book that way – I just have a natural tendency to economize when I write. Some people appreciated that about the book and some people didn’t, but I never tried to write a definitive book on the subject. I just wrote about the things I was most interested in at the time. With the documentary, we consciously tried to keep the narrative moving at such a fast pace that the viewer’s mind would never wander off of the subject.

JB: One thing that is striking upon viewing the documentary, is just how many giants in the field you were able to conduct interviews with. Folks like John Carpenter, George A. Romero, Roger Corman, Larry Cohen, etc. The interviews largely stick to the general subject matter of the film, rather than delving into discussing each filmmaker’s catalog of hits. In taking this approach, it explores a different avenue than you usually see in discussions with these individuals. Did the avoidance of gushing fan types of questions aid your efforts in opening up discussions?

JM: When I started, I didn’t dare to hope for some of the interviews I ended up getting. And honestly, when I was sitting in the room with some of these legendary filmmakers, it was hard not to stray off topic – I had to constantly remind myself that I was fishing for soundbites for a specific narrative. Even so, there were some gushing fan questions (John Carpenter said he was sick of talking about that damned William Shatner mask).

For the most part the interviewees seemed eager to talk about films other than their own. The trick, with short interviews, was knowing what films to ask them about. I read a ton of interviews with all of these guys before we sat down and turned the camera on, so I knew which films they had claimed as influences. In my experience, filmmakers – and storytellers in general – love to talk about their influences.

JB: No doubt you have a truckload of additional interview footage that you weren’t able to include due to time constraints and relevance to your themes. Is this something fans may look forward to seeing on a future DVD release (hint hint, nudge nudge)?

JM: There are definitely a few extras that should go on any DVD release – answers that didn’t really fit the specific narrative of the documentary, but would be of interest to fans. For instance, I started every conversation by asking the interviewees how they first became interested in movies. For me, every single response was compelling. There were also some great anecdotes about getting into the business – Carpenter learning to edit at USC, Bousman campaigning for the director gig on Saw 2….

JB: In my opinion you scored a major coup in obtaining your narrator Lance Henriksen. First off he’s a fixture in horror/sci-fi filmdom, and secondly he has such a wonderful voice. I have to imagine given the part the subject matter has played in his career, he has some degree of fondness for the material. Did you observe this to be the case in working with him on the project, and do you feel that vibe enhanced his performance?

JM: I couldn’t imagine anyone better for this project than Lance, and it was a thrill to work with him. I think he does have a particular affinity for genre films, but based on my own experience of working with him and on what I’ve heard from other people who have worked with him, he brings the same level of enthusiasm, talent and dedication to everything he does. Roger Corman said that the great thing about working with Vincent Price was that he put himself 100% into whatever he did, no matter how silly the role or the film might seem at times. I think the same thing can be said of Lance. He’s humble, down to earth, and very comfortable in his own skin… I think that demeanor enhances everything he does.

JB: You are credited as writer and producer on the film, and Andrew Monument as the editor and director. Having talked with you a little bit about how you two worked as a team on this, I know it was an interesting process. As the creator of the source material, was there a time initially where you considered assuming the duties of director? Did you find letting go of a certain amount of “authorship” control difficult?

JM: I was responsible for the narrative and the interviews, but visually this is Andrew’s film. If I had been dealing with anyone else, I would have been reluctant to relinquish control, but Andrew and I had worked together in the past and I was confident that we would see eye-to-eye 95% of the time. Since I’m on the west coast and Andrew is on the east coast, we had to work independently most of the time, but we never had any significant creative differences. I can’t imagine being able to do that with anyone else, so I’m glad he was as excited to do the project as I was.

JB: Something that occurred to me while watching the film, is that there are a number of examples of horror films/filmmakers from Canada (particularly in the 70’s and 80’s) that echoed what was happening here (e.g. early David Cronenberg, My Bloody Valentine, Black Christmas, Prom Night, The Burning, etc.). Did you find universals like that in your research, in which the trends driving American horror films frequently crossed borders?

JM: I think it’s easier to draw comparisons between popular trends in Canadian horror and U.S. horror than it would be to draw comparisons between U.S. horror and European or Asian horror. Your examples show that Canadian filmmakers certainly jumped on the slasher movie bandwagon (though, admittedly, only after Bob Clark provided John Carpenter with the idea for Halloween). I didn’t focus on Cronenberg too much in the book or the documentary – not because he’s Canadian, but because he’s such a unique storyteller. I believe that the man is a true genius, and I thought I’d need a completely separate narrative in order to discuss his work properly.

JB: The film has a really nice flow to it, but one of my favorite bits was a Friday the 13th montage of Jason attacks. Seeing all those kills from the Friday films in quick succession hammered home just how much violent imagery they contain (and that I had viewed over the years). Even so, I couldn’t help but laugh while watching them because, strange as it may seem, I’ve always found those to be innocent and goofy despite the content. Conversely, if you were to do a montage of the Saw or Hostel films, which are just as over-the-top, I think my reaction would be pretty different. Do you find that same sort of qualitative difference in the teen horror films of the 80’s vs. those of today? If so, how do you account for the distinction given the similarity in nature (e.g. superhuman or faceless killers dispatching hapless victims in creative fashion)?

JM: I can’t take any credit for the F13 montage – that’s all Andrew (and of course John Muir, who gave us a provocative soundbite to illustrate). Andrew was the one who realized that we could create a montage of gruesome murders in such a lighthearted, playful tone. I think this was true because of the direction that the series took over the years – since the mid-80s, fans have known not to take Jason too seriously. Tom McLoughlin talked about consciously adding tongue-in-cheek humor to the series with Jason Lives. I think that was the first instance of self-parody in the series. It was the modern-day equivalent of pitting Frankenstein and The Mummy against Abbott and Costello. It’s also the film that re-introduces Jason as a superhuman zombie, rather than a vengeful human being. As Darren Bousman points out in the documentary, the later films in the series give us undeniable cues that we’re not supposed to think of Jason as “real.” By contrast, the Saw and Hostel series haven’t gone the way of self-parody yet, and the monsters are still very human.

JB: One point you highlight in the documentary is that the filmmakers who delve into horror are frequently outsiders, and typically do not come from a conservative point of view. Going back to the 70’s and 80’s slasher films for a moment, it has frequently been observed that they seem to support a socially conservative point of view in that freewheeling behavior is punished with severe consequences (i.e. death). In an interview segment John Carpenter dismisses this suggestion, at least in terms of the granddaddy Halloween, stating that the film was just an assignment. That may be, but the overwhelming number of films which adopted this structure makes one wonder. Do you feel given your thesis, that the culture of a particular time period influences the message of the films, that Carpenter is a little quick in his dismissal of this trend? Or is there something to the observation that these films were pushing a certain set of values, even if subconsciously?

JM: First of all, I don’t think that John Carpenter was dismissing the trend of slasher movies in general. He was just speaking about one film – Halloween. That film has been identified as the trend-setter among slasher films, but Carpenter himself didn’t consciously set out to create the trend or reflect the conservative movement in American culture.

That said, I think that a lot of great horror films do subconsciously reflect cultural trends, because serious-minded filmmakers are in tune with the world they live in. I believe that 100%. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t other things going on behind the films… As I said, we could have made several different documentaries exploring several different theses, utilizing clips from the same films. We could have structured it to explore the auteur theory, like the second half of the book, and it would have been a different beast altogether.

I do think of many of the people I interviewed as cinematic “outsiders” – and I believe they thought of themselves as outsiders at some crucial point in their lives (if not now). Most of them got interested in horror films when they were kids and were still trying to sort out their personal beliefs and find their place in the world. Mick Garris said that the horror genre is about “arrested development,” and in some respects I think that’s true – in a lot of cases, these horror filmmakers are still exploring the fears of adolescence, still examining personal beliefs.

Those kind of explorations go deeper than politics, so I don’t think we can say that the horror genre is essentially either liberal or conservative. There are two lines of thought on the subject. One says that this is an inherently conservative genre – it reinforces our fear of the outsider. The other says that it is inherently revolutionary – it prompts us to champion the outsider. I think that the best horror films do both.

JB: Okay the BIG question – when and where will fans be able to see this fantastic documentary?

JM: I wish I had an answer for that, because I really want people to see it. Right now, we’re submitting to film festivals and shopping for a distributor. I don’t know where it will finally end up. I’m hoping for some kind of release by summer.

Well there you have it from the source. I'd like to thank Joe again for taking the time to answer these questions, and I'll be sure to keep you all posted with developments on the release of the film. In the meantime, if you want to know more and see the trailer you can check it all out over at the official site.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Fantasmo's Doppelganger?

One of the things I'm always on the hunt for are grand old movie palaces (or at least bona fide theatrical venues) that do what we do at Fantasmo. There's nothing cooler than finding revival screenings of cult films on the big screen, projected from actual film. From time to time I highlight these on here, with past examples including the Golden State Theatre in Monterey, the George Eastman House in Rochester, NY, and more recently the AFI Silver Theatre in D.C. What's even better is when I come across one that is agonizingly close, to the extent that I might just overcome my sedentary lifestyle and trek to the site. Well, over the holiday I had some time to search a bit and found one that is shockingly close in name and purpose to Fantasmo! It's actually called RetroFantasma, and it's a (gasp!) double-feature of cult/horror held monthly at Durahm's Carolina Theatre!

The show has been going on for 10 years (to Fantasmo's 4), and has actually featured a number of the films we've shown including: Fright Night, Clue, Xanadu, From Beyond, Motel Hell, and Night of the Comet to name but a few. They even showed Mighty Peking Man!! They've also done some rather obscure titles such as Dead & Buried, Equinox, The Manitou, Blood Beach, Deep Star Six, etc. This place really has good taste : ) And this month is an awesome looking double-feature which may require a road trip. They're screening John Carpenter's The Thing and the uber rare 1979 alien invasion film The Visitor (which to my knowledge is unavailable on video at this time), both in 35 mm.

In summary, great name, great films, and very much worth checking out (although from what I can tell they have yet to have a Seagal night . . . hey, nobody's perfect)!

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Movie Review: Quintet (1979)

It’s not often I come across amazing genre films from the 70’s and 80’s that I’ve never heard of. As someone who grew up in those decades and lived and breathed this stuff, it’s always a wonderful surprise to hit on a film that appears out of nowhere. Such is the case with a 70’s sci-fi gem I watched on Christmas day called Quintet. What’s most surprising of all, considering how under the radar this film was, is that it is directed by the great Robert Altman and stars Hollywood legend Paul Newman. You would think with that sort of talent involved this film would be a well known quantity. I don’t know what it’s release history on video has been previously, but as far as DVD is concerned it’s only been put out as part of a box set packaged along with other obscure Altman films and MASH. From what I gather, it hasn’t been readily available for some time and consequently has fallen into obscurity. And unfortunately, as it is packaged with 3 other films with totally unrelated subject matter, it’s likely that it won’t find it’s way into the hearts of sci-fi fans this time around either. Nevertheless I figure it’s worth reviewing anyway, so I hope you enjoy the following.

It’s hard to summarize Quintet with a plot synopsis, because it’s not as straightforward as an outline of events would suggest . . . but I’ll give it my best shot. At it’s basic level, the film recalls 70’s post-apocalyptic films like The Omega Man and The Ultimate Warrior. Some cataclysm has brought the world to the brink, sending mankind into a new ice age. What few inhabitants remain on the frigid earth are gathered in a dilapidated city waiting for the end to come. The film opens with Essex (Paul Newman) returning from the wilderness with his wife Vivia (Brigitte Fossey) whom he met in the wastelands where they lived on seals (until those eventually ran out). Having no other means for survival, the city is their only option for obtaining food and shelter.

Once in the city Essex looks up his brother and a family reunion of sorts occurs. Essex and Vivia are welcomed into his brother’s home, and a celebration is planned. Of particular excitement is the realization that Vivia is with child (a rare occurrence in the world of Quintet). Essex leaves briefly to get some food for the group to have dinner, only to witness the apartment blow up killing his wife, brother, and his brother’s family. With nothing left to live for, Essex embarks on a quest to uncover the reason for the bombing. In so doing he discovers the city’s inhabitants have developed a brutal game called Quintet, which sees the participants hunt and kill each other. Essex subsequently assumes the identity of a doomed player, and works toward winning the game and avenging the death of his family.

That’s the surface story of Quintet, and it’s a premise I like a lot to begin with. As a huge fan of this genre, particularly its 70’s incarnations, I’m sort of predisposed to dig this. But to be honest, after The Omega Man and Heston’s several terrific stabs at the material, it takes something special to wow me at this point. Something either a) that gives the material a unique spin or b) is just gung-ho fun. Quintet doesn’t really measure up on the latter, but delivers solidly on the former, and no doubt that’s due to the signature style and vision of Altman. Even though he has a great premise with the game, and a cool actor (at just the right weary age) in the form of Newman, that’s just window dressing. Altman would rather use the trappings of B-grade post-apocalyptic sci-fi to explore deeper themes involving what it means to live and feel alive.

Although other films in the genre have pondered deep questions inherent to the material, they have done so at a grander level (i.e. if we don’t learn how to play nice with each other we’re going to blow up the planet and that would be terrible so let’s be better people if we can). Essentially they are morality tales that are distinct from one another only via the degree of optimism they show in their endings. Things may be turning in the right direction with the new youth of The Omega Man, but nothing can help you if your favorite food is Soylent Green. Well, Quintet could really care less about all that. There’s an ice age on and whose fault it is doesn’t really matter. What does matter is what makes the existence of a person worthwhile even in such conditions. Right and wrong are not necessarily the chief consideration.

In Quintet, the players of the game find meaning in life by living in constant fear of death at the hands of their fellow players. Life is so harsh and brutal in the fading world, that the only joy can be derived from playing the game. Adrenaline and competition give the people a reason to carry on their grim existence. When Essex finally confronts the closest thing to a villain the film has in Grigor, the orchestrator of the Quintet games, there is a moral debate. Essex sees the whole business as a waste of life, and one can certainly see his point given what he’s lost. Altman however doesn’t tip his hat to a clear winner of the argument, forcing us to recognize how such circumstances could lead to something like Quintet. We all want the noble Essex and what he stands for to win the day, but Altman suggests that the reality is we would devolve to the level of Grigor in such a situation.

Altman’s a fairly provocative filmmaker, and to be honest I can’t say I love any of his films in particular. But without fail I’ve found every film I’ve seen by him to be interesting. MASH, Short Cuts, 3 Women, Gosford Park, Pret-a-Porter, The Player, Popeye, and Quintet are my Altman experience thus far. Among those Quintet is the only one I would return to with great enthusiasm, but I would have no hesitation in recommending any one of them. They are all interesting worlds he invites us into, and he always has something to say. Even Popeye. I hated it as a kid expecting the cartoon, but seeing it later I appreciated his take. And you’ve got to love a big studio turning such an individual loose on a beloved cartoon character . . . what were they thinking?!? In all of these, Altman doesn’t seem so much interested in entertaining as he does in playing with the medium for whatever purpose he has in mind. MASH is another great example. If you love the series and never saw the film, try that one out. It’s a whole different animal, and straight narrative is not on the menu.

One significant detail I do have to mention, because it can be disorienting when viewing the film. The whole thing is shot in a very peculiar fashion. To give Quintet a frozen, delirious feeling, Altman smudged the border of the camera lens with Vaseline. This leaves the only clear image in the dead center of the screen. To get an idea of what this is like, imagine losing most of your peripheral vision and you’re on the right track. It’s really bizarre and at first I thought it must be a poor transfer or something. Nope. It’s totally deliberate, and judging by comments I’ve read online it looks like most either love it or hate it. I found it worked for me, as it seemed to be appropriate to the style and mood of the film. I can see where some would find it distracting, even unpleasant, but that’s sort of how you need to feel in watching this. Just know going in that you don’t need to adjust your television set, and you don’t have a bad disc.

In summary, Quintet was a major surprise to me on all fronts. Firstly it was a surprise in that I’d never heard of it. How could this be? Secondly it was a surprise because Altman managed to put together a very Altman film, and still made it an entertaining sci-fi yarn. In other words his style did not totally trump storytelling, and the material was not treated as beneath him. He honestly directed a great 70’s post-apocalyptic movie that functions as entertainment and thought provoking art house fare. With an A-list leading man no less. If I have one qualm with the film it’s that it lacks a dynamic score a la Ron Grainer’s soundtrack to The Omega Man. But this is a much darker film, and there aren’t supposed to be a lot of leap out of your seat moments. Still, the subdued score sounds a little too much like a TV movie for my tastes . . . but it’s passable. That aside, if this sort of thing is your cup of tea you really need to hunt this one down Essex style, especially during these long winter months when you can feel the cold waiting just outside your door.