Friday, June 12, 2020

From the Repertory | June 2020

SPRING NIGHT, SUMMER NIGHT

(J.L. Anderson | USA | 1967)


Flicker Alley takes a rare foray outside the silent era with their latest Blu-Ray release, J.L. Anderson's rarely seen 1967 film, Spring Night, Summer Night. Originally set to open the 1967 New York Film Festival, the film was instead pulled in favor of John Cassavetes' Faces and recut by its distributer into an exploitation film called Miss Jessica is Pregnant.

The subject matter of the original film is certainly ripe with lurid possibilities - in which half-siblings Carl (Ted Heimerdinger) and Jessie (Larue Hall) navigate the hothouse climate of economic depression in a depressed Ohio mining town, eventually finding themselves drawn to one another in unexpected (and ultimately taboo) ways. Anderson was a film professor working on a budget that would have made a shoestring look extravagant, and as a result Spring Night, Summer Night is often rough around the edges, its Italian neorealist roots stemming as much from its naturalistic aesthetic as from its nonprofessional actors. And yet there's something inescapably powerful about Anderson's observational style. His characters aren't well-spoken, they come from a poor, economically depressed town with few options and even less hope. That they find this small bit of happiness is a miracle in and of itself, and yet the discovery that Jessie is pregnant threatens to tear everyone apart. The non-professional actors lend a kind of hangdog weariness to their roles. Unable to find a place in the world, they carve out their own, and Anderson treats them with dignity and respect, refusing to judge them for the choices they make.

I was reminded in part of Dan Sallitt's 2012 film, The Unspeakable Act, which handles similar subject matter with comparable grace. It's easy to see how the film could be co-opted by producers with much seedier ideas who want to lure in curious audiences, but Spring Night, Summer Night is in fact something much more poetic - a hardscrabble yet deeply empathetic exploration of the seemingly hopeless outlook at the citizens of a small town with few economic prospects or room for personal growth, and the judgment and attacks lobbed at those who seek to carve out their own slice of happiness in order to survive. While I'm not convinced it's a long-lost masterpiece, Spring Night, Summer Night nevertheless represents the resurrection of an important piece of American independent cinema, a jagged, piercing look at small town life and the ruinous effects of economic depression that feels more relevant than ever.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)


Now available from Flicker Alley.




MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM

(Michael Curtiz | USA | 1933)

Directed by Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), 1933's Mystery of the Wax Museum is an early Technicolor horror film that was later remade by as the arguably more famous House of  Wax in 1953 starring Vincent Price.  The 1933 film featured Lionel Atwill (Son of Frankenstein) in the Price role as a demented sculptor named Ivan Igor whose partner burns down his beloved wax museum in a misguided insurance scam. Determined to rebuild, he is soon at the center of a string of disappearances as he tracks down unwitting victims who bear striking resemblances to his original figures. He becomes obsessed with his assistant's fiancee, Charlotte (Fay Wray), whose uncanny resemblance to his original Marie Antoinette figure leads to a shocking unmasking of the true nature of Igor's house of horrors. 

The early two-strip Technicolor process lends a kind of otherworldliness to the film, bathed in sickly greens and lurid, pre-code horror paranoia. Its pacing is a bit wonky, but Curtiz creates an often intensely unnerving atmosphere through sheer silence. With no musical score to guide the audience, we're often left adrift in Igor's madhouse, conjuring up some truly haunting imagery that has been beautifully restored on the new Blu-Ray from Warner Archive.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

Now available from Warner Archive.

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