Review- Grease (1978)

Review- Grease (1978)

Along with most other households in the UK for members of Gen X (the best generation by the way), we had the soundtrack for the film Grease. When the film was finally shown on UK TV I recorded it and watched it fat too much. It was a ‘go to film’ for a time when I was young.

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But this was stopped when I asked my brother’s new girlfriend if she liked the film and soundtrack. She frowned and said ‘It’s a bit tacky…’ This stayed with me. How could I have been into something so lacking in sophistication and tacky?! My love for Grease abruptly ended.

I found myself recently revisiting the film when it was shown on TV again. Would I cringe and snigger whilst wondering how I could have possibly have watched such rubbish as a child? No! I loved it!

For those who have been living under a rock since 1978, the film concerns the holiday romance between Danny Zuko and Australian Sandy Olsson. As Sandy finds that her family are staying on in America rather than returning to Oz she starts at Rydell High School, not knowing that Zuko attends there. She also doesn’t know that he is the leader of a greaser gang known as The T-Birds. This leads to the tough and streetwise Danny she meets rather than the sensitive and caring Danny she knew from her summer holiday. Sandy is taken under the wind of a girl gang known as The Pink Ladies led by the inimitable Rizzo.

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The true star of the show, Rizzo

I love how theres another layer to the wit within the film that completely went over my head when I was a kid. Grease is full of filthy references as the teenagers characters (most of whom look like they’re actually at least 35) are unabashedly full of hormones and lust (except the pure and virginal Sandy). And so we get fantastic ‘blink and you’ll miss them’ gags such as a car door being slammed on Danny’s erection at the drive-in after he tried to get it on with Sandy and the appearance of the cling film during the Greased Lightning sequence.

And then theres the music which is just as steeped in nostalgia and a lost era as the film’s visuals and narrative are. And just like the rest of the film, the songs are just as funny. Possibly the greatest of these is the Beauty School Dropout sequence resplendent with Frankie Avalon. Surreal, hilarious and utterly inspired.

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But there are also poignant musical moments such as Sandy singing Hopelessly Devoted To You and Rizzo’s There Are Worse Things I Could Do. This isn’t a one note movie.

Grease originally started as a stage musical on Broadway  in 1972 and was instrumental in a revival of all things 50’s Americana in the 70’s which continued with American Graffiti and Happy Days. The film imbues the same wistful nostalgia which is gleefully part fact, part fiction as times gone by normally are when viewed through rose-tinted glasses. This doesn’t matter a jot however as Grease is still a fantastic piece of escapism.

In fact, theres very little difference between this and say, John Waters’ Cry Baby which just goes to show what a fantastic era both films draw inspiration from and how close to the bone and risqué they are.

Grease has also been the subject of many different kinds of film analysis. My favourite is the one that sees it as a lesbian text with Sandy being ‘femme’ and Danny being ‘butch’.

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Butch and femme

Grease is a film that was the highest grossing of 1978, with the soundtrack being just as successful when it came to record sales. And it was utterly justified.

Watching Grease after so many years was like being visited by an old friend.

***** out of *****

Review- Dracula (1958) *****

Review- Dracula (1958) *****

I have a long history with this film as I seem to remember it being shown on daytime TV here in the UK in the early 80’s. The thinking probably went along the lines of ‘We have such extreme horror movies now and so it will be safe to show this old 1950’s horror film which couldn’t possibly be seen as being scary anymore!’ I then saw the film as part of a double-bill of Hammer Horror films that were shown every Thursday night on Tyne Tees Television. I got to see most of Hammer’s films during this period as every week there was a new double-bill of two more of the studio’s back catalogue.

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This film, to me, is the definitive Dracula. Freddie Francis’ sweeping direction is perfect when paired with the opulent and beautiful set designs that are just as sweeping. The iconography and more gruesome elements of the narrative that made the Dracula myth more explicit, shocking and graphic were also placed centre stage on the screen for the first time- the fangs, the blood (which I would have thought was imperative to the legend but was often excluded at that point in time for obvious reasons) that appears to be redder than red (and because of this reminds me of Dawn of the Dead), the searing burn marks left by a crucifix being used against a vampire, the ending that leaves nothing to the imagination.

The pace at which the film gallops along at leaves the audience with a feeling of there being no filler padding out the film. Every scene feels essential. The film has no flab whatsoever.

But it’s the casting that is the most innovative and interesting thing about this film. Cushing as Van Helsing is amazing but it’s (unsurprisingly) Christopher Lee as Dracula who impresses. He imbues the role with the authority and menace required but also with something that up until that point hadn’t been fully explored on screen before- sexuality. Dracula has always been a sexy character and Lee’s performance fully exploits and utilises this. There is a seduction and intimacy regarding the ritual he employs to bite his victim’s neck. His vampire gains access to his victims because of his brooding good looks and his aura of the exotic and unknown. He oozes sex appeal just as later the blood of his victims will ooze out of their veins. In fact, there is an impression of his female victims preparing for his visit with baited breath as they lie panting and ready on their beds for him to enter their quarters with a swoosh of his cape. He arrives out of nowhere and in secretive fashion a bit like a much more sinister but no less sexual and stylish version of the Milk Tray man.

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The brooding sexuality of Dracula

Add to this the fact that the film just flows effortlessly and an ending that is still one of the finest climaxes to a horror film ever. It contains special effects that have aged very well indeed and are still a thing of beauty.

When all of these components are added together you have the perfect rendering of the Dracula legend and possibly Hammer’s greatest film.

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Now that’s how you open a film!

Review- The Square Ring (1953)

Review- The Square Ring (1953)

A British film from the 50’s about professional boxing. We get to meet those fighters who participate in a one-night event that involves a programme of many fights.

This film is like a snapshot of a long lost era of British filmmaking. We have great characters, a sly sense of humour at play and grit in the way the sport is portrayed as completely corrupt and in turn corrupting.

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The film also shows how truly brutal the sport is. The ending is totally gut-wrenching and completely unexpected.

We also get British film royalty in the guise of legends such as Joan Collins, Joan Sims and Sid James as part of the cast.

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Highly recommended.

4 out of 5 stars

Review- Yield to the Night (1956)

Review- Yield to the Night (1956)

Yield to the Night finds the character of Mary Price Hilton shoot her boyfriend’s lover and then spending her time in prison awaiting her execution by hanging. Her story is told in flashback during this stay.

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On the 7th day God created Diana Dors. From her TV appearances on The Two Ronnies (playing the head of a female army who wish to take over and make all men subservient) through to her appearance in the Adam and the Ants video for Prince Charming, Ms Dors was a regular part of my childhood.

I then discovered the TV series of Queenie’s Castle from the 70’s (filmed here in Leeds) which fully exuded Dors’ abilities as a great actress.

Yield to the Night was the only worthwhile foray into film for Diana with subsequent vehicles being a complete waste of her talents. This film is amazing. The flashback sequences which show how a sultry goddess could be driven to murder are fully rounded, believable and achingly painful. As are the sequences in which she is in captivity. Check out the internal monologues we’re privileged to partake in and how she is far from a blonde bimbo. These observations about her plight and her fate are reminiscent of Travis Bickle’s musings in Taxi Driver.

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A strong case is made for the brutality of capital punishment in a ‘civilised’ society and how wrong it is. Thankfully since the film’s release this has now been rectified. You will think of this film when someone comments ‘They should bring back hanging’ in response to a news story.

4/5 out of 5 stars

31 Days of Halloween- Day 23- The House on Haunted Hill (1959)

31 Days of Halloween- Day 23- The House on Haunted Hill (1959)

An eccentric millionaire invites five strangers to a haunted house with each receiving $10,000 if they last the night.

This is a William Castle film so you know it’s going to be genius. And it doesn’t disappoint. I love the house with it’s sliding doors, acid bath and shadow play. Vincent Price in the lead is once again perfect casting with his trademark wryness, camp and sarcasm being demonstrated in spades. There also seems to be more understatement and, dare I say, nuance in this role.

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The film itself looks amazing. I wish director Castle would get the proper adoration and respect for his films and legacy. The gimmicks associated with his films seem to overshadow the actual films themselves. This is a shame. I honestly thing Castle was an auteur who seriously influenced the genre of horror for the better. The House on Haunted Hill influenced Hitchcock when he was making Psycho apparently. I’m wondering if Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques influenced Castle’s film with the numerous double-crossings and red herrings that keep the audience guessing until the very last frame.

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Emergo was the gimmick Castle used for this film. During a scene concerning a skeleton an actual skeleton on a pulley would be flown over the startled audience. Genius.

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The audience experience ‘Emergo’

This film is currently (and inexplicably) in the public domain. I look forward to a really great Blu-ray release and transfer. The film’s beauty is a gem yet to be seen in all it’s glory.

4 out of 5 stars

Review- ‘On The Waterfront’ (1954)

Review- ‘On The Waterfront’ (1954)

A young ex-boxer and a priest team up with the sister of a victim of the local mob to find out who killed her brother and try to stop the mob from unfairly controlling all of the work and wages that should be going to the dockers in the area.

This is one of those films that everyone says is a classic but I hadn’t got round to seeing. All I can say is- the people who say this is a classic are undervaluing the film greatly. I knew as I was watching this that one of my favourite films that I hadn’t even seen for the first time from start to finish yet was unfurling before my very eyes.

Karl Malden, Eve Marie Saint and Lee J Cobb are all remarkable.

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But then theres Marlon Brando. One still of him from this movie, any still of him from this movie is worth a million Monets. The fact that he went into acting and the movies specifically is a wonder. To see his face, his expressions, everything about him in this film projected onto a huge cinema screen reminded me why I love the movies. Flawless.

5 out of 5. A masterpiece.

Day 16- 31 Days of Halloween- The Tingler (1959)

Day 16- 31 Days of Halloween- The Tingler (1959)

A scientist (played by Vincent Price with his usual aplomb) discovers an organism that attaches itself to the human spine and feeds on the feeling of fear from the host person. The parasite is known to be present as it makes the spine of the person feel a tingling sensation. For this reason its known as a Tingler.

Add into this premise a plot line involving a couple who own a small cinema, one of whom is deaf and mute and another story strand involving the wife of Price’s character and her potential infidelity.

I was obsessed with the film’s director William Castle as a boy as I had read so much about the gimmicks he dreamt up to make the audience’s moviegoing experience something out of the ordinary and in keeping with a ‘roll up, roll up’ circus host as well as a filmmaker.

The gimmick for The Tingler was for some of the seats in the larger cinemas to have an electrical device attached underneath so that some audience members really did feel a tingling sensation at the end of the film when Price’s character has to announce to the cinema audience within the film that The Tingler is loose in the theater somewhere. Castle also employed planted screamers in the audience and people who were told to faint at specific points. A young John Waters famously went to see this film on its original release time after time but only after checking under every seat until he found a seat that had the device attached.

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As I had read plenty about Castle and his brilliant brand of showmanship it was almost as if this overshadowed the actual films. His films weren’t available in England when I first read about his work and so there was an agonising wait before I could see any of his filmography.

And here in lies his greatest gimmick. For all of the pranks and hoopla, his film’s are actually amazingly made, beautiful to look at and constantly achieve just the balance of terror, kitsch and camp.

The Tingler is no exception. It captures the opulence and majesty of 50’s American living in some scenes (check out the set design) but also a kind of affectionate simplicity of small town life symbolised by the gorgeous little moviehouse.

But then theres the pure hilarity of The Tingler which is obviously a large rubber bug. Its one of the funniest scenes in the movie when Price tries to convince fellow characters that The Tingler could in fact kill a man effortlessly and quickly. But then thats the magic of Price- a camp knowingness and deadpan delivery. A raised eyebrow from him says more than a hundred lines from an inferior actor.

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Even the introduction from Castle could be evaluated as high art if it was viewed merely as a short film rather than as an intro to his movie. The filmmaker warns people of what is to come and that they should scream for their lives if they experience what is being played out to them on the screen.

High art. C’mon Criterion- release a William Castle boxset already.