Music Box of Horrors 2014 — A Recap

Music Box of Horrors 2014Music Box Theatre

This past weekend I was able to cross another item off my movie-related bucket list — to finally attend a horror movie marathon. Every year for the past ten years, the Music Box Theatre (the best cinema in Chicago) hosts the Music Box of Horrors (formerly the Massacre), a 24 hour horror marathon from noon to noon. The selections are always eclectic and cover the vast spectrum of the world of film, everything from silent features to modern day favorites. While I unfortunately did not make it through the entire event (more on that later), I definitely got my money’s worth.

The Phantom Carriage [1921]

I couldn’t have asked for a better start to the festival than seeing the silent classic, The Phantom Carriage, accompanied by a live organ. Widely considered one of the greatest silent films of all time, it certainly lived up to the hype in my eyes. Its innovative use of double exposures to show the ghosts (including the “phantom carriage”) was a remarkable achievement for its time. Yet for a movie in which ghosts, the grim reaper and other spooky entities appear, the most frightening aspect is alcoholism; specifically, one man’s descent toward the bottom of the bottle and his struggles to move away from it. The film shares a lot of similarities with A Christmas Carol in that it looks back at moments where the main character’s life went wrong, and it’s actually quite depressing. The experience of seeing it on the big screen with live organ accompaniment was enough to keep things from getting too dour, however.

The Man They Could Not Hang [1939]

Next up was the lesser-known Boris Karloff sci-fi/horror flick, The Man They Could Not Hang. Karloff, entertaining as always, plays a scientist who has developed a mechanical heart which he hopes will bring the dead back to life. When he gets charged for the murder of one of his patients, he is sentenced to death, only to come back to life thanks to the very procedure he invented. He becomes a man out for revenge, trapping those who found him guilty while attempting to kill them off one-by-one. It’s a good bit of b-grade fun that doesn’t take itself seriously. At just 64 minutes long, it doesn’t overstay its welcome either.

Cat People [1942]

Another short-but-sweet low-budget classic was to follow, the original 1942 film Cat People. This one had a bit of a goofy premise — a young Serbian woman (a playful Simone Simon) believes she will turn into a panther when aroused, all because of an ancient tribal curse — but it works because of a terrific sense of atmosphere. We never see the woman physically change, but due to some creative camerawork and use of shadows, we can sense her threatening presence. Fun fact: director Jacques Tourneur and cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca later collaborated on one of the all-time great noirs, Out of the Past.

The Curse of the Werewolf [1961]

I was really looking forward to the next screening, The Curse of the Werewolf, because I had somehow never seen a Hammer film before. Unfortunately, I found it to be disappointing. The story was all over the place, and too much time was spent building up to such a small payoff. The werewolf itself didn’t make an appearance until the final ten minutes or so, and by then it was too little, too late. The makeup and special effects were major highlights, but the film itself didn’t do much for me.

The Borrower [1991]

The centerpiece of the marathon was arguably John McNaughton’s fairly obscure 1991 film, The Borrower, presented on Laserdisc (!) from the director’s own personal collection. McNaughton and a few others involved with the film were at the screening, and they did a Q&A session afterward. Originally the plan was to screen the director’s most popular work, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, but he offered to bring in The Borrower, a film that he hasn’t “discussed to death.” From the sound of it, the filming process was a real bitch, but the end result still holds up quite well. This was a crazy, over-the-top sci-fi/horror hybrid that was a real crowd pleaser. An alien serial killer is charged with murder and sent to live on Earth in human form as its punishment. It spends its time “borrowing” the heads of humans, acquiring new ones whenever its current head randomly explodes. Rae Dawn Chong (Commando, The Color Purple) stars as the police officer who is trying to figure out just what the hell is going on. It’s all utterly ridiculous, but also a total blast.

Nosferatu the Vampyre [1979]

At this point during the marathon, I was dealing with some really bad back pain (the seats at the Music Box aren’t especially conducive to long-term sitting, and I have on-and-off back troubles anyway) so I decided to take a break after the next film: Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre, starring the inimitable Klaus Kinski. This was another one I was eager to see, as I had really enjoyed another Herzog/Kinski collaboration from a past 50 Movies Project: Aguirre, the Wrath of God. It did not disappoint. Kinski’s portrayal of Count Dracula is downright frightening, and the film excels at building up a sense of dread. There is death and filth everywhere (so many rats…), and the film is about as dark as it gets.

Nosferatu the Vampyre turned out to be the end of my marathon, as I biked back home, passed out and didn’t get up in time for any of the morning screenings. I missed out on Dead Snow 2 (which I already saw and reviewed this summer), Nightmare, Shakma, Don’t Look in the Basement, Just Before Dawn and Audition (which I was hoping to revisit). Alas, I had a great time even though I only made it through half of the event.

Line of the night: “The law is quite explicit, one cannot divorce an insane person.” (Cat People)
Runner-up: “My dear Mr. District Attorney, your law is shockingly bad. I have the perfect alibi. I am legally dead. Your business is with the living.” (The Man They Could Not Hang)

Final rundown:
The Phantom Carriage [1921] – 8/10
The Man They Could Not Hang [1939] – 7/10
Cat People [1942] – 7/10
The Curse of the Werewolf [1961] – 5/10
The Borrower [1991] – 7/10
Nosferatu the Vampyre [1979] – 8/10

Eric’s Top Five Theatrical Experiences

For the last two weeks, my favorite local movie theater, the Music Box, has provided Chicago with what they have dubbed the 70mm Film Festival. As the last remaining theater in town that can play movies at 70mm (compared to the usual 35mm or digital), they brought in a wide variety of films to screen in this gorgeous format. One of these films was the biggest item on my so-called “movie bucket list” — 2001: A Space Odyssey. I was there for its very first screening (which was absolutely incredible), and it gave me the idea to compose this list of my top five theatrical experiences.

Now, one thing you will notice right away is that most of these have taken place in just the last few years. That’s because I never really went to the theater much when I was younger — it wasn’t until I moved to Chicago in 2008 that I truly fell in love with film. With so many theaters in town, all of which are easily accessible, I found myself going more and more. The fact that these are all recent does not make them any less memorable for me.


First, a few honorable mentions:
Antichrist [November 2009]
My first visit to the Music Box. I instantly fell in love with this theater. My girlfriend and I had no idea what we were getting ourselves into with Antichrist — let’s just say it was an experience I will never forget, for multiple reasons.

RoboCop [July 2012]
This was noteworthy for two reasons. 1) I met up with several movie bloggers for drinks and a movie, all of whom were good people. 2) It was freakin’ RoboCop on the big screen!

Miami Connection [October 2012]
The hype machine surrounding this revived 80s action flick was out of control, so I had to see it for myself. It turns out that the movie was an absolute riot, and I can’t wait to see it again. What made the screening even better was that I got to share it with my niece and her husband — we still reference the brilliance that is Dragon Sound to this day.

And now, the top five:

Drive [2011]
5) Drive [September 2011]
There was a lot of buzz surrounding Drive, and I couldn’t wait to see it. My girlfriend and I rode our bikes to a theater in Lincoln Park on a gorgeous summer night. I had a feeling I was going to like the film, but I was surprised at how much it blew me away. I ended up ranking it as my favorite film of 2011. I left the theater feeling like a total badass — how could you not? — and the first thing I told my girlfriend was that I needed a pair of biking gloves. I felt invincible on that bike ride home.

Beasts of the Southern Wild [2011]
4) Beasts of the Southern Wild [June 2012]advanced screening with a Q&A with Benh Zeitlin, Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis afterward
I had to wait an hour in line before this screening, and to make matters worse, a huge chunk of the theater was blocked off for contest winners. The only available seating was in the first few rows, and I was tempted to just say “fuck it” and walk out before the show. But I stuck with it, and I’m so glad I did. I got sucked into the world of the Bathtub, and I quickly forgot about how close I was sitting. I loved the film, and the Q&A with the cast and director afterward made me appreciate it even more. I was especially impressed with Dwight Henry, who came across as such a genuinely humble man.

3) The Room [2010-present]multiple screenings, some with Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero in attendance
I can thank my good friends Steve and Ali for turning me onto the madness that is The Room, and now I frequently return the favor to anyone who comes to visit. There’s nothing like showing someone The Room for the first time, especially in a jam-packed theater. I have been to two different screenings in which director/writer/”star” Tommy Wiseau and co-star Greg Sestero did a Q&A — once even getting dragged on stage to shake their hands — and they are endlessly entertaining. If you haven’t experienced The Room yet, you don’t know what you’re missing. Words cannot do it justice. Just make sure to bring a bunch of plastic spoons.

2001: A Space Odyssey [1968]
2) 2001: A Space Odyssey [February 2013]part of the 70mm Film Festival
This was the absolute #1 choice on my “movie bucket list”, and I am eternally grateful that I was able to experience 2001 the way it was meant to be seen (in 70mm, no less!). As much as I loved the film on DVD, seeing it on the big screen just blows it away. I got goosebumps as soon as the first notes to “Also sprach Zarathustra” began playing, and I remained glued to the screen from that point on. I get asked a lot what my favorite film is, and well, it could very well be 2001: A Space Odyssey. A flawless film.

The Master [2012]
1) The Master [August 2012]advanced surprise 70mm screening with Paul Thomas Anderson and nearly every major Chicago film critic in attendance
I stumbled upon this screening by pure chance — I just happened to sign onto Facebook at just the right time. Tickets sold out in a matter of minutes, but not before I was able to snag one. The Master had only been screened twice before this showing — both in Los Angeles — so this was a pretty big deal. I arrived later than anticipated only to find a line of people wrapped all the way down the street and around a corner. Somehow I was lucky enough to still get a good seat, but I was worried for a while.

The film was fantastic, my favorite of 2012, but the experience of being one of the first few hundred people in the entire world to see it made it feel unreal. There was so much excitement and nervousness in the room, and none of us could have predicted what was in store for us. And, to top it all off, Paul Thomas Anderson hung out in the lobby afterward to converse with anyone who wanted to talk. Events like this remind me just how much I love Chicago.

So there you have it — my top five theatrical experiences! What are your favorite theatrical experiences? Got a good story to tell?

Movie Review: The Master [2012]

The Master [2012]

The Master [2012]
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Writer: Paul Thomas Anderson
Genre: Drama
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams
Runtime: 137 minutes

New films from Paul Thomas Anderson don’t come around too often, so when they do, it’s a huge deal. Last night, a secret “pop-up” screening of The Master took place at the legendary Music Box Theatre in Chicago. This is the only theater in the entire city that can show a film in 70mm print (as The Master was filmed and meant to be seen), and the event sold out in less than two hours. Since the film won’t receive a worldwide release until September 21, this was an even bigger deal, and the demand was through the roof. Scalpers on Craigslist were reported to be selling tickets for hundreds of dollars, prompting the Music Box to send out Facebook posts and tweets warning moviegoers to avoid paying inflated fees. It already seems The Master is one of this year’s most talked about films, and after seeing it myself, I feel it will remain that way all the way through Oscar season.

The most common reactions coming out of this screening were “Wow” and “I need to process this.” I am in the same boat — even as I sit here, nearly 24 hours later, I am trying to wrap my head around what I just saw. Make no mistake: this is going to require more than one viewing to fully comprehend, but I will do my best here.

The Master [2012]

In its purest form, The Master is a character study of two men: Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) and Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Quell is a drifter, a Navy veteran with a troubled past who boozily ventures from place to place. After being chased out of an island town after an alcohol-related incident, Quell sneaks onto a luxury ship. This is where he meets Dodd, who learns of the intruder’s trespassing and allows him to stay on board — but only if he keeps a steady batch of mixed drinks coming his way.

It doesn’t take long for Quell to realize that Dodd is the leader of a new religious organization simply known as “The Cause.” With his loyal, pregnant wife Mary Sue (Amy Adams) at his side, as well as a sizable collection of followers, Dodd preaches to them day after day.

The Master [2012]

The comparisons between The Cause and Scientology are inevitable, but this should not be dwelled upon. While there are similarities between the two, The Cause works in its own right, and it could represent any number of cults. The point here is not to bash a certain organization but to show the man in power and his influence over those near him.

In this regard, the relationship between Dodd and Quell is endlessly fascinating. Quell is a bit of a wild man, and it’s almost as if Dodd sees him as a pet project. Both men are prone to explosions — Dodd when his beliefs are questioned — but yet they have a bizarre mutual respect for each other.

The Master [2012]

Of course, it helps greatly to have skilled actors such as Hoffman and Phoenix playing these multi-layered characters. The scenes with the two of them together are when the film really shines. One particular scene, the real centerpiece of the film, involves Dodd interrogating Quell, asking him a series of questions (including many repeats) to “cleanse” him. This is part of the grooming process, to see if Quell will be a fit for the organization. The interaction between these two men is astounding, especially as Phoenix twitches nervously, runs his fingers through his hair and even slaps himself as Hoffman grills him with intense personal questions.

Much will be said of Phoenix’s dedicatedly physical performance, and he deserves ALL of the accolades he will receive. Hoffman also warrants a great deal of attention, as he perfectly nails the demeanor and mannerisms of a cult leader (while also showing his insecurities). The real surprise here is Amy Adams. For much of the film, she is in the background, quietly by Hoffman’s side, seemingly acting as a loyal housewife. But there are moments where she strongly asserts herself and commands the scene, showing that she has a great deal of power, too. Her subtle facial expressions are phenomenal. These three deliver some of their finest performances yet, and they are rounded out by a stellar cast that includes Laura Dern, Ambyr Childers and Jesse Plemons.

The Master [2012]

I had the pleasure of seeing The Master in 70mm, the first time I have ever seen any film in that format. The difference between 70mm and the traditional 35mm is like night and day. It’s almost comparable to watching an old early-print DVD and then seeing the latest and greatest Blu-ray transfer, but that analogy doesn’t even do this justice. This is a visually stunning film in its own right, but if you have the option of seeing it in 70mm, it is an absolute must.

As stated earlier, The Master will almost certainly be one of this year’s most talked about films. Cults are always a tantalizing subject, and with two characters as dynamic as those played by Phoenix and Hoffman, it’s hard not to get sucked into the experience. Some may be disappointed with the slow pacing early on, but for those here for the long haul, this is infinitely rewarding. Based on my gut reaction, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this hold up as one of the year’s best.


Music Box Theatre’s Noir City: Chicago 3: Among the Living [1941] and The Glass Key [1935]

I had such a great time on Tuesday night with the “Men and Women of Conviction” double feature that I had to go back the next evening for another pairing of Film Noir. Wednesday’s selections were to be a double bill of Stuart Heisler films: Among the Living and The Glass Key. Unfortunately, there was a mix-up with the film company and the Music Box received the original 1935 version of The Glass Key instead. I was looking forward to seeing the 1942 remake, which is said to be the better of the two, but it was still a fun evening all the same.
Among the Living [1941, Stuart Heisler]
Among the Living [1941, Stuart Heisler]
A rarely screened noir/horror hybrid about twin brothers — one insane, one not. After their father passes away, the mentally ill brother escapes from the mansion where he was secretly locked up and leaves to start a new life. Problem is that this man is not properly suited for reality and ends up becoming a serial killer on the loose.

Albert Dekker plays the twins, the main difference being one is clean shaven and one is not. He is quite excellent in the lead role(s), especially when he is acting peculiar as the evil brother. Some of his interactions with his newfound gold-digging lady friend (played by Susan Hayward, who just oozes sex appeal) are hilarious. In fact, this movie was a hell of a lot funnier than I expected it to be, and it was a blast throughout. Definitely look it up if you get a chance. 8/10

The Glass Key [1935, Frank Tuttle]
The Glass Key [1935, Frank Tuttle]
This early adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s classic novel was noticeably different from the other three films I had seen at the festival. A heavier emphasis was placed on dialogue, and the movie was lacking in some of the more traditional noir elements. Still, it proved to be a capable replacement.

I enjoyed George Raft’s lead performance as the slick-talking “fixer” who is trying to clear his politician employer’s name from a possible murder charge. I didn’t feel that this movie was as memorable as the others, and it took me a while to get a feel for what exactly was going on in the first 1/4 of the film. However, the ending moments were brilliant, and the major plot twist was an unexpected surprise. Now I’m curious to see the 1942 remake. 6.5/10

Music Box Theatre’s Noir City: Chicago 3: Crashout [1955] and The Story of Molly X [1949]

For the third year in a row, Chicago’s legendary Music Box Theatre is hosting a Film Noir festival. A grab bag of cinematic classics and rarities, Noir City began last Friday and will conclude tomorrow evening. I was out of town for the first few days of the festival, so I missed out on some choice titles such as New York Confidential and The Blue Dahlia. I was able to go on Tuesday, however, and caught the “Men and Women of Conviction” double feature. Both movies are not available on DVD, so I was pleased to catch both of them on the big screen.

Crashout [1955, Lewis R. Foster]
Crashout [1955, Lewis R. Foster]
Six survivors of a prison break meet up in a hidden cave and agree to work together to escape the area. One convict, Van Morgan Duff (William Bendix), leads them along with the promise of sharing his bank loot that is buried deep in the mountains.

While dodging cops and watchmen, the convicts push forward by taking innocent people hostage and escaping increasingly tricky situations. It’s a suspenseful affair that includes some surprisingly brutal moments (such as the off-screen moment where someone is bludgeoned to death with a rock). The cast is great, although I did find Luther Adler’s performance to be a little too over-the-top. Bit roles from two lovely women (Beverly Michaels and Gloria Talbot) are welcome additions as well.

Crashout has a fun, quick pace, and it is wildly entertaining throughout. I thought the last scene was a little weak, but it still wrapped things up nicely. One of the better prison escape films I have seen. 8.5/10

The Story of Molly X [1949, Crane Wilbur]
The Story of Molly X [1949, Crane Wilbur]
This one was quite a bit different than what I was expecting. June Havoc stars as Molly X, a “brass-knuckled dame” who takes over her boyfriend’s gang after he is murdered. After finding out who killed her lover, Molly shoots down the assailant in cold blood and subsequently finds herself in a women’s prison. As the title indicates, the movie tells her story…

I have to say that it was refreshing to see a woman leading in this type of film. In the early stages, Molly X is gruff and doesn’t take shit from anyone. When she is locked up, she starts to break down and this is when the film starts to suffer. The entire middle section of the movie follows the introspective battles that Molly is dealing with, and it loses the grittiness that made the beginning (and later, the end) so intriguing. It’s an interesting character study, no doubt, but it kind of drags along before picking back up near the end.

I enjoyed The Story of Molly X, but it was a little underwhelming coming after the exciting Crashout. Still, June Havoc’s wonderful lead performance makes the movie worth watching. 6.5/10