Archive for the ‘Westerns’ Category

 

HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER (1973)

 

Certainly as a director and a little less so as a star, Clint Eastwood has worked in just about every genre there is. One glaring exception is horror, or so it would seem. HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER comes pretty damn close. It’s a genre rope-a-dope. You see the star of THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY and he’s riding a horse and carrying a six-shooter, so you think you know what kind of a movie you’re expecting. And then you get hit with something else entirely, but not right away.

 

 

 

Here I find myself in the unfortunate position of spoiling a movie early on simply by describing it in terms of the horror genre – since for a long stretch, the story of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER would not lead one to conclude it should be filed anywhere other than the Westerns shelf of the library.  

 

 

But, at the very least, Clint Eastwood as director and star uses some elements of the ghost-story genre in the construction of HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER.  The unnamed gunslinger appears out of the haze of the frontier heat on his way into a town that he eventually paints blood-red (literally) and re-names “Hell,” and the wailing score by Dee Barton of PLAY MISTY FOR ME is at all times more horror-movie than Morricone 

 

 

Clint’s second film as director after the aforementioned PLAY MISTY FOR ME, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER was heavily influenced by the styles of Clint’s mentors Don Siegel and Sergio Leone.  Unlike PLAY MISTY FOR ME, which was a then-contemporary thriller, HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER would have seemed like a return to familiar genre terrain for Eastwood. But this was no usual shoot-’em-up. It was the first of many sly and bold deconstructions of his own “nameless gunfighter” persona – this is no hero, but a ruthless avenging angel.  And maybe “angel” isn’t remotely the right term.  

Actually it definitely isn’t.

 

 

Written by Ernest Tidyman, creator of SHAFT, and moodily lensed by Eastwood regular DP Bruce SurteesHIGH PLAINS DRIFTER lets you know almost immediately that this isn’t Gary Cooper territory. The townspeople of Lago are nervous about a trio of murderous outlaws, led by Stacey Bridges (played by Geoffrey Lewis), who once terrorized the place and are rumored to be on the way to do it again. So when a mysterious stranger, in a familiar tall, dark and handsome form, rides in from the desert and shoots down some nasty customers, it would seem he’s the answer to Lago’s prayers.

 

 

But when a well-dressed blond lady tries to meet-cute with the stranger by bumping into him, he forces her into a barn and not very ambiguously forces himself on her. This is within the first fifteen minutes of the film. It’s startling and upsetting, and while there are indications the woman seems to enjoy it, that only makes it more difficult to process. Our movie’s hero has done one of the worst things you can do to anyone to a seemingly innocent person. And we’re still supposed to root for this guy? Can you imagine the Salon thinkpieces if this film were to come out today?

 

 

Of course, as it turns out, nobody in Lago is innocent or pure. But we don’t know that at the time of the sexual assault. And even once the truth is revealed, this moment still doesn’t sit right. Nobody deserves such a violation, and even if logic were perverted and contorted enough to make rape seem justifiable, does that make things better? Is anything really resolved? And why are we watching in the first place?

 

 

Twenty years later, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Science awarded Clint’s film UNFORGIVEN for its canny deconstruction of the star’s own persona and that of basically every American action hero of the past century. But — not to take anything away from UNFORGIVEN, which is a favorite — HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER proves Clint had been doing that all along. The gulf between what an audience expected from Clint in 1973, when he first rides into this movie on a white horse, and then what he proceeds to do in short order, is unfathomable. It’s still shocking today. No action star before or since had been so daring with their onscreen persona. No movie star period would risk such a vicious reversal of expectations.

 

HPD

 

 

Like HIGH NOON, this story is about a lone gunfighter preparing to face off against three outlaws in a frontier town. Like THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, the story finds a town hiring a mercenary to teach them to fight against invaders. But in HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER, the hero abuses the authority he’s given: He assaults a woman, drinks up the town’s booze, appoints a little person (Billy Curtis, who is excellent in the movie) the town sheriff, defaces the scenery, and ultimately abandons the people in their supposed time of need. He’s an unchecked anarchist at best.

The Western is maybe the single genre where American audiences most expect our heroes to be heroes. Clint Eastwood used the Western to make us ask ourselves what that means.

 

 

 

— JON ABRAMS. 

 

 

ME

 

 

 

 

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The Big Gundown (1966)

Sergio Sollima is only the third most famous of all the Sergios who made Westerns in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s.  You already know Sergio Leone, and you may even know Sergio Corbucci.  There’s also Sergio Martino, Sergio Garrone, and Sergio Bergonzelli, but I don’t have room to write a book here!  Sergio Sollima is a clever, versatile director who built sociopolitical concerns into his enormously entertaining filmography.  He is maybe best regarded for his terrific crime films, including REVOLVER and VIOLENT CITY — both amazing places to start.  He’s not the most prolific of “spaghetti” Western directors.  In fact, Sollima only made three Westerns, all in the span of three consecutive years – THE BIG GUNDOWN, FACE TO FACE, and RUN, MAN, RUN! but they are more than enough to place him among the exalted ranks of Leone and Corbucci.  All three of Sollima’s Westerns starred the Cuban-born Tomás Milián, who played the same role in two of them.

RUN, MAN, RUN!

In THE BIG GUNDOWN and its sort-of-sequel RUN, MAN, RUN!, Tomás Milián plays the crafty, unruly bandit Cuchillo.  In THE BIG GUNDOWN, Cuchillo spends the first several scenes entirely unseen, only discussed.  He’s wanted for the rape and murder of a young girl, and it’s his bad luck that the lethal Jonathan Corbett is the mercenary hired to find and destroy him.  Now I happened to have seen RUN, MAN, RUN! first, out of chronological order, so I knew going into it that Cuchillo may not be guilty of these crimes, but for most of THE BIG GUNDOWN, you are to assume he’s the bad guy. And that makes things complicated, because he’s so comical, funny and annoyingly likable.  Cuchillo is a thief and a scoundrel, and he isn’t always too polite to women, but he wouldn’t do something quite so horrific as the act of which he’s been accused.

 

Cuchillo & The Gang

 

One of many interesting elements of THE BIG GUNDOWN is that you don’t know that Cuchillo is innocent for most of the movie, which gives the majority of the scenes some mighty fascinating tension.  Cuchillo is a raging trickster and a puckish anarchist, a Bugs Bunny or a Daffy Duck, enjoyable and infuriating – and it’s frustrating to like him so much, if he is in fact the kind of man who the senator claims he is.  Contrast this situation to what goes on in THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY, where a hangman rattles off a list of all the crimes of which Tuco, Eli Wallach’s character, has been accused, including “raping a virgin of the White race, and statuatory rape of a minor of the Black race.”  In Leone’s world, the way these offenses are added to a checklist is played — literally — as gallows humor.  Leone isn’t interested in exploring these accusations, preferring the punchline to the possible pathology.  In Sollima’s world, we still have the charming and devious Mexican bandit character, but not only is he more overtly interested in pursuing women throughout the course of the movie (Leone’s film runs almost three hours but has little time for female characters), but unlike Tuco, Cuchillo is definitively exonerated of egregious sexual misconduct.  Considering they were both released within a year of each other, it’s fascinating to ponder the parallels and variations between THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY and THE BIG GUNDOWN.  Most obviously, these two wonderful films share a wonderful lead actor.

 

 

THE BIG GUNDOWN is primarily built around its marquee star, Lee Van Cleef, best known for his role as “Angel-Eyes” (THE BAD) in Leone’s THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY.  This movie was made soon after that one.  Sollima wrote it with Sergio Donati, who wrote for Leone (ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) among many others. Here Van Cleef, as Jonathan Corbett, is playing a more heroic character than he did in THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY – but for much of the film we can’t quite tell for sure.  Corbett can be pretty nasty, as seen in the introductory scene where he calmly toys with three wanted men he’s got cornered – we know he’s bad; we just figure he’s better than the man he’s tracking.  Once Corbett sets out on Cuchillo’s trail, the movie becomes the same kind of Tom & Jerry cat-and-mouse game Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach played out in THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY – only even more satirical and way more sociopolitically engaged.  There’s a scene where the two gunmen arrive at a ranch presided over by a beautiful woman who is surrounded by big beefy henchmen, and the subtext is practically exploding out of everybody’s ears.  It’s hilarious and awesome.

 

There is currently a version of THE BIG GUNDOWN up on YouTube, but the complete Italian cut of the film is what you want to see, and on the biggest screen possible, which is what I got to do in 2012 thanks to the “spaghetti” Western series at Film Forum.  It’s obviously one of the greats in the genre, having influenced everything from THREE AMIGOS! (in the form of the fancy-pants Teutonic killer with the monocle who haunts Corbett)to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (Tarantino used parts of EnnioMorricone’s typically wonderful score).  It’s also, not for nothing, one of the most straight-up entertaining movies I’ve ever seen.  Ever!  No exaggeration.  Instantly one of my favorite movies of all time.  And it’ll probably be one of yours too, maybe even as soon as you hear the rousing Ennio Morricone theme song.

Visit me on Twitter!:  @jonnyabomb

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

“Now remember, when things look bad and it looks like you’re not gonna make it, then you gotta get mean. I mean plumb, mad-dog mean. ‘Cause if you lose your head and you give up then you neither live nor win. That’s just the way it is.”

— Clint Eastwood, as The Outlaw Josey Wales in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES:

Clint Eastwood’s career is so long-running and so varied in subject matter that the mainstream reactions to his work have really run the range.  He was nobody, then he was a sudden success, then he was underrated, then he was accused of shallowness and sadism, then he was ignored, then he was discovered as a great director, then there was a backlash or seven, then he was called overrated by some, then the waves of rediscovery surged and ebbed and flowed, and so on.  By any measure there are plenty of bright spots on that lengthy resume, many under-seen and under-appreciated films, and some stone-cold masterpieces.  As actor and collaborator he has THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY and DIRTY HARRY, and as director, he has UNFORGIVEN, BIRD, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, and this one right here.

 

 

THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES is about a farmer who joins the then-raging Civil War when his family is massacred by marauders.  When the war ends, he becomes an outlaw rather than surrender his guns.  In the course of his travels, he meets a variety of companions and, as their protector, forms a kind of frontier community that due to his outlaw status he may or may not be able to join for good.

Time Out New York has referred  to THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES as “messy” and “rather ponderous” and I truly hope that you take my word for it over theirs.  THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES takes everything that Clint ever learned from Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, and everything he learned from cinema in general and Westerns in particular, and pours it all into this one glorious epic.  The film is stuffed with savvy references to the history of American Western cinema, from the dizzying callback to the “Ecstasy Of Gold” sequence from THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY when Josey’s home is attacked, to a pointed reference to the white scorpion from THE WILD BUNCH, to about a hundred visual cues and thematic echoes of the work of John Ford, particularly in the complicated, layered depiction of Native American characters, which is virtually unique to THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES.


  

 

 

One part revenge picture, one part Lone Ranger & Tonto picaresque (a travelling odyssey with the greatest Indian sidekick ever in movies, Chief Dan George), one part political allegory, and one part mournful hymn, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES is clearly Clint’s warm-up lap before UNFORGIVEN.  It’s a meditation on violence and the effects of a life of violence on its perpetrators.  Interestingly, it factors in the Native American experience in an unusual way, as something of a peripheral but running concern.  Josey’s most consistent companion in a film where he has several of them — something of an irony in both the one-man-army Eastwood career and in a film where he’s billed as an outlaw — is Lone Watie, a very elderly man of measured speech whose easygoing, pointed humor and relaxing manner are a fascinating contrast to the typical clenched-teeth Eastwood gunslinger performance.  The most charismatic, funniest role in the entire movie is carried out by a then-77-year-old man.

 

 

Chief Dan George

 

Consider also the taciturn young Navajo woman, Little Moonlight, who gets wrapped up into the defacto community that Josey Wales and Lone Watie pick up along the way in their travels.  Her very existence in the film has an accumulated history to it — she is visually reminiscent of the Comanche squaw in THE SEARCHERS, but while that character was treated with less respect, literally booted down a hill by Jeffrey Hunter and laughed at by John Wayne, there is a redemptive quality to how Little Moonlight is portrayed here.  She gets to carry a gun!  I’ve seen a ton of Westerns and I’m pretty sure I never before or since saw an Indian squaw get a chance to fight alongside the heroes.

 

 

There’s also the warrior chief Ten Bears, a character who isn’t in much more than one scene but is played indelibly by the 1970s’ go-to Native American character actor, Will Sampson.   An artist in life, Sampson was often framed as a looming, possibly dangerous figure on film.  He was the deaf-mute Chief in the anti-establishment classic ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST and the observant man-who-knows-whales Jacob in the wackadoo killer-whale epic ORCA.  While even those roles bordered on stereotyping, THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES inverts the image by portraying Ten Bears as a fearsome warrior chief, but then immediately equating him with the film’s hero.  There is an instant recognition of equals that passes between Ten Bears and Josey Wales.  It’s not unforeseeable that, had he lived, Will Sampson could have gone on to his own UNFORGIVEN, playing a similar violent-but-self-aware character in advancing age.  Clint would direct, of course.

 

 

The brilliance of THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES is that it works on so many different levels at once — it can and has been watched as a Clint’s-so-badass manly-man classic action film, from the epic gunfights right down to the quotability — but there’s an incredible depth and poetry to its engagement with American history and American film.  It’s simultaneously traditional and revisionist.  No action star before or since has ever been as knowing and sly about his onscreen persona as Clint has been, and none have deployed it so cannily.  If all you see when you look at Clint is “Dirty Harry” or “The Man With No Name,” well, he gives that to you here, but even as he’s delivering it sincerely, he’s also serving it up as a rejoinder.  For one thing, this is a good movie to watch for any of those skeptics who assume Clint’s acting is limited.  Here he fills in the image of his standard vengeful-gunslinger character with pools of complicated emotion.  Josey Wales can be nasty, not only to his enemies but to many who deserve compassion.  I mean, in this movie he spits on a dog!  Josey Wales is often a dick.  He’s maladjusted but that makes sense:  He’s a veteran.  He’s seen heinous things, and done them too.  He’s good at killing, less so at living.

 

 

 

There’s a lot more to be said about this movie, from the sweeping landscapes by cinematographer Bruce Surtees (PLAY MISTY FOR ME, THE GREAT NORTHFIELD MINNESOTA RAID) to the score by composer Jerry Fielding (THE WILD BUNCH, THE GAUNTLET), but there’s only so much time and space.  Let’s end with a special hand for the bad guys:  John Vernon, who plays Clint’s ally-turned-nemesis Fletcher, has between this, his roles in POINT BLANK and CHARLEY VARRICK, and Dean Wormer in ANIMAL HOUSE, played at least four of the greatest heavies in film history.  (Five, if you count KILLER KLOWNS FROM OUTER SPACE.)  He could do ominous erudition with ease, but here there’s a melancholy and a weariness to his relentless pursuit of his quarry in THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES that really stays with you, as much as Clint’s iconic warrior-gunman does.   Eastwood regular Bill McKinney, probably best known for his part in DELIVERANCE, is menacing and monstrous here as the more straight-ahead villain, Captain “Redlegs” Terrill.  A hero is only as tough as his toughest enemies.  It’s not easy to play the equal but opposing force in a Clint Eastwood action film, but both of these gentlemen do a phenomenal job.  Respect.  Thank you.

 

@jonnyabomb

 

The Professionals (1966)

THE PROFESSIONALS is a politically-charged white-men-in-Mexico Western that starts out bombastic and boistrous and maintains that stance throughout.  The opening vignettes introduce the four lead characters in their most characteristic arenas.  Rico Fardan, the reserved, pragmatic, always-prepared leader, is shown testing out a new machine gun that you know full well you’ll eventually see him use, due to the fact he’s played by Lee Marvin.  Hans Ehrengard, the frontier-era horse whisperer, is shown punching the shit out of an animal abuser.  That’s quintessential Robert Ryan, doomed decency and temperamental violence often in the same character.  Jacob Sharp, the archer, is  bringing a live captive into town for sentencing.  As played by Woody Strode, he’s a proto-DJANGO [UNCHAINED-style], a calmly-effective bounty hunter in an unfriendly time for guys who look like him.  And Bill Dolworth, the devilish explosives expert, is first introduced in bed with a woman who we quickly find out is another man’s wife, because the guy is about to walk in the door and Dolworth is pulling on his longjohns and diving out the window.  Burt Lancaster, one of the greatest Hollywood leading men ever, could play noir and he could play arthouse drama, but here he’s the comic relief and the leading man all in one.

Lee + Burt

Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode.  That is kind of an all-star super-team of old-school movie tough guys.  If I have to bring up THE A-TEAM to get some of you youngsters to go watch this lesser-acknowledged classic, then that’s what I’m going to do.  It’s clear where that popular 1980s action template came from — the grizzled and grey veteran soldier, the horndog ladies’ man, and the two other guys who handle all the transportation.  Four guys with their own individual and shared histories take on a dirty job no one else is able or ready to handle.

The Professionals (1966)

In THE PROFESSIONALS, these four rough riders are hired by big-business tycoon Ralph Bellamy — you know him best from a weirdly similar role in TRADING PLACES — to rescue his young wife from a marauding revolutionary who has taken her south of the border.  Bellamy perenially played a lovelorn shnook but here he’s an intriguingly nastier sort of character.  In the great Hollywood tradition of casting great stars in ethnically incongruous roles, Jack Palance plays the revolutionary, “Jesus Raza,” and the Tunisian-by-way-of-Italy bombshell Claudia Cardinale plays the Mexican-born “Maria,” an old flame of Raza’s, as it turns out.  If you’ve read my page before you already know how I feel about Claudia Cardinale. Or you could just look at a picture:

The Professionals (1966)

THE PROFESSIONALS is a great big-screen action classic, three-times Oscar-nominated, with some fascinating sociopolitical subtext.  Writer-director Richard Brooks (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, IN COLD BLOOD) adapted Frank O’Rourke’s novel for screen with the legendary Conrad Hall (COOL HAND LUKE, BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, FAT CITY, AMERICAN BEAUTY) believably and beautifully shooting California for Mexico.  The movie works just fine on the level of supreme entertainment, but if you read Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation, as I did when I was lucky enough to learn from him as an undergraduate, it becomes apparent that THE PROFESSIONALS is reflective of the era during which it was made.  The Professionals are comparable to the American Green Berets, an elite military-trained fighting force, who are sent into a foreign nation for dubious reasons and in the course of their adventure they become disillusioned with their mission.  Very potent stuff, but it’s buried under a rollicking mainstream Western facade.  The subtext is there if you want to think about it, but you can also just sit back and enjoy.

The Professionals (1966 film)

Since I’m a huge Robert Ryan fan, I do wish he had a little more shine in the movie.  According to some interviews on the Blu-Ray, Ryan wasn’t well during filming, which could explain it.  (I’m also a Woody Strode fan but unfortunately Woody Strode being underused in a film is somewhat more routine occurrence.)  Ryan and Strode, as the horse wrangler and the team scout, are really playing strong support to the buddy-movie pairing of Marvin and Lancaster, the gunman and the dynamite setter.  Ryan does play an interesting contrast to his frequent noir antihero persona, though.  This is one of his most thoroughly decent roles – Ryan’s horse expert is tender and protective of every horse the group encounters.  He’s one of those guys who seems to care more about animals than people, and who can blame him, in a movie where one species is clearly more consistently trustworthy than the other.  Many of this movie’s heroes have abandoned ideals for commerce when it begins.  What makes the movie ultimately so thrilling and rewarding, then, even more than the banter and the gunfights, is to watch them rediscover actual virtue.  That these Professionals end up refusing a hefty payday for the right reasons and manage to stick it to a corporate fatcat in the process is arguably even more satisfying today than in 1966.  Besides, who can resist the following exchange:

“You BASTARD!”

“Yes sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you sir, you’re a self-made man.”

THE PROFESSIONALS showed tonight at 92Y Tribeca but I didn’t get this piece up in time.  So:

Call me a bastard on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

The Professionals (1966 film)

The Professionals (1966)

The Professionals (1966)

 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

 

 

THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962, d. John Ford) is essential.  It’s essential as a work of storytelling art.  It’s essential as cinematic text.  It’s an essential piece of the careers of its stars, and of that of its director.

 

Stewart,  Ford and Wayne

 

This film came towards the end of John Ford’s directing career, and it’s the second-to-last he made with John Wayne. (DONOVAN’S REEF, a lark, was their final collaboration.)  This one has incredible symbolic power.  Without getting into a more fraught conversation about offscreen politics, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are two of the stars in cinema history who most clearly represent America.  Wayne was the pioneering, swaggering, boistrous side of America, and Stewart represented a more relatable, emotional, idealistic, and valiant side.  THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE is where these two visions of America collide, and where they diverge.

 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance PUNCH

 

This movie arrived at what was almost exactly the midpoint of American cinema.  It’s an explosive elegy for the great films of the 1930s, the 1940s, the 1950s.  From here, the 1960s dawned, and America changed.  The genius of this film is how it is about all of these things even while providing a terrific story.  The way that the film is bookended by scenes that take place in the character’s old age certainly confirms the historical reading of the film, but it’s certainly also possible to enjoy the film as a purely commercial old-school Western.

 

Wayne + Stewart

 

Stewart plays a lawyer whose Arrival in a frontier town called Shinbone begins with a brutal assault by the guy in the title, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin!).  He’s rescued by the Wayne character, the only man around who isn’t afeared of Liberty Valance.  What follows is nothing less than a battle between civilization and frontier justice.   Wayne wants to deal with the outlaw gang in the most effective way, while Stewart argues for the more democratic solution.  On top of that, both Wayne and Stewart are in love with the same girl (Vera Miles, best known to younger generations for her role in PSYCHO).  This movie has an incredible cast, including Ford stock players such as John Qualen and Andy Devine, and Woody Strode and Edmond O’Brien on the side of goodness and decency, and Strother Martin and Lee Motherfucking Van Cleef on the side of lawlessness and nasty-actin’.

 

 

And then there’s Lee Marvin, patron saint of shitkickers, who from this role graduated to leading-man parts.  He played heels and heavies for years before playing this, quite possibly the nastiest of them all (although he’s pretty fucking ugly in THE BIG HEAT).  Lee being Lee, he continued to play bad men, but they were a more likable breed.  This was arguably his last straight-up villainous role.  After this definitive bad-guy, there was no way to deny that Lee was not on the iconic level of a John Wayne, rather than playing support to him, which is why their next movie, DONOVAN’S REEF, literally isn’t much more than a series of epic slugfests between the two of them.

 

Van Cleef, Marvin, Stewart, Wayne

 

This movie is necessary in every way.  It’s a virtual textbook of masculinity, it’s a profound statement on history and mortality, and it represents some of the best work of all of its bold-faced participants.  Fail to see it and fail to have your opinions on film taken seriously.

Stare me down on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

 

Liberty

 

Lee Drankin

 

Woody

 

 

Pacific Rim Elysium (2013) Anchorman 2

There are some potentially great movies coming out this year. Go anywhere else on the internet and you will read about movies like PACIFIC RIM and ANCHORMAN 2 and THE WORLD’S END and ELYSIUM. I’m excited about those too. There’s also all the obvious nerd bait like STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS and HUNGER GAMES 2 and THOR THE DARK WORLD. Not really my thing, but it’s certainly understandable if those are the kind of titles that make your heart do a happy dance.

But step off the beaten path with me. Let’s take a moment to give some attention to the real weirdos out there. Let’s look at some of the movies of 2013 which no one in their right mind is looking forward to. I’m not talking about intentional cult items like MACHETE KILLS or ESCAPE PLAN. Those movies are that guy or girl at the party who’s trying too hard to be sexy and therefore failing big for exactly that reason. I’m talking about the ugly guys or girls who just don’t give a fuck what you think they look like. They just wandered in off the street because they got a whiff of the guacamole dip.

This isn’t about schadenfreude.  Well, not really. I mean, I’m no saint. There are a couple movies I wouldn’t mind watching crash and burn. In that category are ENDER’S GAME — written by a bigot, directed by the guy who made X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE; sure, no way that pairing could go wrong — and a pair of Vince Vaughn movies, one where he hangs out at Google for an entire movie and another movie where he plays a sperm donor, because no one learned anything from THE SWITCH and holy Lord do I ever not want to see or ever be asked to think about Vince Vaughn donating sperm.

But generally, my natural good nature wins out and I am a sweetheart who only wishes the best for everyone. Still, there are some movies coming up in 2013 whose very existence perplexes me. And that in turn makes me curious. Call me a a jerk, a creep, a kook, a contrarian, a nihilist, an anarchist — I’ve been called all of those things before and that was only this morning at the nunnery — but I like really bizarre movies that make no rational sense, and I like it even better when those movies turn out to be entertaining.  So the following bunch is a group I’ve got my eye on in 2013 (some are getting real close now!):

_______________________________

Assault on Wall Street (2013)

ASSAULT ON WALL STREET (May 10)

Why It Could Be Cool:

It’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 meets WALL STREET!

Why It Probably Won’t Be:

It’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 meets WALL STREET!

_______________________________

Java Heat (2013)

JAVA HEAT (May 10)

Why It Could Be Cool:

It’s the caveman version of HEAT!

Why It Probably Won’t Be:

Mickey Rourke may actually be an Al Pacino, but Kellan Lutz is no Robert De Niro. I mean, maybe he is. I’ve only seen him in ARENA. He did not come off too brightly there. Also, his name is Kellan Lutz.

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Robosapien

CODY THE ROBOSAPIEN (May 28)


Why It Could Be Cool: “From the producer of SPIDER-MAN, X-MEN, and IRON MAN…”

Why It Probably Won’t Be: …And the director of SOUL SURFER!

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Sinbad The Fifth Voyage (2010)

SINBAD THE FIFTH VOYAGE (May 31)

Why It Could Be Cool:

Pseudo-stop-motion-animated skeletons!

Why It Probably Won’t Be:

Skeletons aside, this looks impressively bad. Like ten dollars worth of stolen garbage. I bet you Sinbad doesn’t even do his MacDonald’s milkshake routine!

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After Earth (2013)

AFTER EARTH (May 31)

Why It Could Be Cool:  Will Smith! A clone of Will Smith! Space! Volcanoes! Monkeys!

Why It Probably Won’t Be: M. Night Shyamalan.

But that also means it could be as funny as THE HAPPENING. At this point, Shammy is probably done for as a serious director. But as a director of hilariously-solemn unintentional-comedies, he’s got a better shot than most.

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Axe Giant

AXE GIANT: THE WRATH OF PAUL BUNYAN (On DVD June 18)

Why It Could Be Cool:  Well, it’s a horror movie about the legendary giant lumberjack Paul Bunyan.  Ain’t a thing I can say I’ve ever seen before, and brother, I’ve seen plenty.  Also, while there are no signs from the trailer or the official site, there’s still a better-than-average chance of a cameo from Babe The Blue Ox.

Why It Probably Won’t Be: Actually, I have no reason to expect it won’t be amazing.

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Hammer of the Gods (2013)

HAMMER OF THE GODS (July 5)

Why It Could Be Cool: It’s a movie about Vikings!

Why It Probably Won’t Be: Vikings that say “Kiss my axe.”

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R.I.P.D. (2013)

R.I.P.D. (July 31)

Why It Could Be Cool: I’ll never not have hope for a movie that has Jeff Bridges and James Hong in it, and unlike most of the huge movies this summer, this one seems to have a sense of humor about itself.

Why It Probably Won’t Be: It’s trying way, way hard to be both GHOSTBUSTERS and MEN IN BLACK at the same time. See if you can spot the big, gaping difference.

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The Frozen Ground (2013)

THE FROZEN GROUND (August)

(No trailer yet.)

Why It Could Be Cool:  Cage versus Cusack. Hate to paraphrase myself so quickly, but: It’s like HEAT for weirdos.

Why It Probably Won’t Be:  This comes to us from 50 Cent’s production company, Cheetah Vision, and yes, 50 Cent co-stars in the film.  50 Cent’s movies are becoming an obsession of mine — not because they’re particularly awful, but because they aren’t particularly good, despite often tremendous casts.  Also, NOBODY KNOWS ABOUT THEM.  He’s so famous yet his movies are so under-the-radar.  But that’s a much longer conversation.  THE FROZEN GROUND is based on a true story.  John Cusack plays Robert Hansen, the notorious serial killer, and Nicolas Cage plays the Alaskan cop who hunts him down.  It’s no secret that Cage, once (and still) a tremendously gifted and unconventional actor, took a severe detour into mostly silly movies.  It’s less commented-upon that John Cusack has kind of done the same thing.  There’s an outside chance that a movie teaming the two of them could end up being great, but even if it doesn’t, it can still be colossally entertaining.

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Don Jon

DON JON (October 18)

Why It Could Be Cool:  Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of the smartest actors around and this is the first movie he wrote and directed.  He seems to have brought his old accent from LOOPER along, and that was surely a fine movie.  Scarlett Johannsson, who is also great, is his co-star, and she looks particularly phenomenal in this trailer.

Why It Probably Won’t Be:  Well it still could be.  There’s a ton of major talent involved. But I have to admit, and you probably should also, that if it were anyone other than Joseph Gordon-Levitt making this movie, there’d be plenty of cause for agita.  It’s hard to escape the suspicion that JGL came up with this movie back when Jersey Shore was hot.  It’s tough not to notice that Scarlett is using one of her SNL accents.  It impossible not to consider that porn addiction is pretty difficult to make charming on film. And on top of all that, Tony Danza.

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The Butler (2013) The Butler (2013)

THE BUTLER (October 18)

Why It Could Be Cool: There are a lot of good actors in this movie.

Why It Probably Won’t Be: Watch the trailer. Listen to and look at all the shit those good actors are made to do, say, and wear. Listen to that music. Have you done all three? Great! Now your incontinence is cured!

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Gallowwalkers

GALLOWWALKER(S) (release date unknown, may actually have already been out for two years)

Why It Could Be Cool:

It’s exactly BLADE, but then also a Western!

Why It Probably Won’t Be:

I mean let’s be reasonable with our expectations here.

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Bookmark this page because I will be updating it as I discover more beautiful treasures!

@jonnyabomb

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is a phenomenal oddity, even amongst the ranks of indie-horror and little-known cult movies.  Producer/director Charles B. Pierce and his writing partner, Earl E. Smith, crafted the story from a real-life occurence, the “Texarkana Moonlight Murders” committed by a serial killer who was never caught.  Pierce and Smith are slightly better known for their 1972 Bigfoot movie, THE LEGEND OF BOGGY CREEK, which took a similar halfway-a-documentary approach to material even less rooted in fact.  Pierce also worked as a set decorator on films like COFFY, DILLINGER, BLACK BELT JONES, and THE OUTLAW JOSEY WALES.  He reportedly became friendly with Clint Eastwood, to the point that he supplied the story for SUDDEN IMPACT (the Dirty Harry movie with Sondra Locke) and arguably even the line, “Go ahead, make my day.”  So we’re talking about one of those mildly-obscure but noteworthy figures — not everyone can be Eastwood-famous, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of filmmakers with stories to tell, both onscreen and behind-the-scenes.

What makes THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN such an endearingly bizarre curiosity is the tone of the movie.  It plays something like a prehistoric America’s Most Wanted episode, only spookier, sillier, and way weirder than any straight-faced reality-TV true-crime documentary ever.  It also falls in an interesting zone on the continuum of essential horror films of the 1970s, coming two years after THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE — with its deadpan John Larroquette narration — and two years before HALLOWEEN, with its unforgettable masked killer.  Either inspiring or predicting the canny casting choices of HALLOWEEN, THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is filled with unknown actors, with two significant exceptions.  In HALLOWEEN, the veteran character actor pursuing the killer was Donald Pleasance.  In THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, it’s sturdy Western star Ben Johnson — oddly enough, playing a Latin character, Captain Morales of the Texas Rangers.  In HALLOWEEN, the ingenue with an attention-getting name was Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis.  In THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN, it’s Dawn Wells…. You know, Mary Ann from Gilligan’s Island.   I think I mentioned this movie isn’t entirely serious.  (Mary Ann is actually not at all bad in the movie though!)

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN shuttles through genres and tones frequently throughout its brief running time.  Some parts, the ones that establish the towns where the killings took place, are as dry yet nostalgically appealing as a 1950s educational film.  Occasionally, the tone veers wildly into ridiculous farce, such as when a deputy (played by Charles Pierce himself) draws the short straw and is forced to dress as a woman in an ill-advised attempt to draw out the killer.

But the actual horror-movie scenes are by far the most memorable.  The scenes where the masked killer stalks and attacks his victims have a sloppy, unpredictable energy and a weirdly-detailed specificity.  There’s a scene where the hooded murderer straps a woman’s arms around a tree face-first, ties a knife to a trombone, and starts stabbing her in the back as if he’s playing an instrument.  It’d be funny if it weren’t so absurdly horrible.

Oddest of all, the climactic scene of the film recalls nothing so much as a Western.  (The film’s title has that vague vibe also, come to think of it.)  Towards the end of the movie, Ben Johnson’s Captain Morales and his sidekick Ramsey (Andrew Prine) spot the Phantom Killer in broad daylight and chase him through the woods until they reach train tracks.  They get a few shots off, but the killer uses the passing train to escape.  I don’t know about you, but the last time I saw Ben Johnson near a moving train it was in THE WILD BUNCH.  And that was based remotely off of real life too.  What’s so intriguing about the invocation of Western tropes is that, THE WILD BUNCH excluded, many Westerns ended in triumph for their heroes.  This surely doesn’t.  The Phantom Killer escapes, and as the movie tells us, he was never caught.  While the movie takes its liberties with fact, this part of the account of the Texarkana Moonlight Murders is resolutely true.

Somehow, even after decades of true-crime accounts since, the experience of watching THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN manages to make the knowledge of this cosmic injustice feel haunting and eerie.  It’s one of the most oddly genial serial-killer movies you’ll ever see, but that ingratiating quality can be disarming.  It’s still a pretty damn freaky little movie.

THE TOWN THAT DREADED SUNDOWN is coming to Blu-Ray soon, courtesy of Scream Factory (the horror division of the DVD label Shout Factory.)

Breeze through my small town on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb