Sunday, October 28, 2012

Festival of Horror

There isn't a day between now and Thanksgiving in which at least one film festival can't be found somewhere here on Frisco Bay. This has actually been the case since the United Nations Association Film Festival began on October 18th. It ends tonight, while the Chinese American Film Festival ends tomorrow, and the San Francisco Film Society's French Cinema Now series runs until this Tuesday, October 30th (I can recommend the closing night selection Sister by Ursula Meier of Home notoriety, who will be on hand for the screening. Check Film-415 for more suggestions). The upstart Silicon Valley Film Festival comes to Santa Clara beginning Halloween night, and the venerable American Indian Film Festival begins here in San Francisco two days later. Before that's over, SF IndieFest's 11th Annual DocFest will have begun its two-week run at the Roxie and other venues. In the midst of all of these festivals are... more festivals, like the California Independent Film Festival in Orinda and Moraga, and the SFFS's Cinema By The Bay and New Italian Cinema here in Frisco proper. I count twelve in all, and that doesn't include Not Necessarily Noir III, the excellent series running through Halloween, where I've already seen brilliant neo-noir gems like To Live And Die In L.A. and Miami Blues as well as an extraordinarily rare 35mm print of Monte Hellman's 1974 Cockfighter. Perhaps I ought to think of that as a festival, as it self-identifies as on the Roxie website, as well. Anyway, after this dozen-festival (or baker's dozen?) streak ends on November 21st, we're likely to be in for a month or two of comparative festival drought, with only the Another Hole in the Head genre film festival and the touring Found Footage Festival detected by my feelers until Noir City opens in late January. Noir City's full line-up will be revealed at a December 19th Castro Theatre double-bill screening of as-yet-undisclosed titles. 

With two big writing deadlines (for forthcoming publications, more details later) and other activities, October's been busy enough for me that I haven't been able to go out to the cinema as much as I'd normally like, much less post on this blog. Because I've got big plans for celebrating Halloween with a family member's wedding on that day, I won't be able to see any of the horror movies playing during the last few days of October, like the double-features playing the final two days of Not Necessarily Noir III, the one playing Tuesday at the Castro Theatre, the screening of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (and the Cameraman's Revenge) with live organ accompaniment at Davies Symphony Hall that night, or the screenings of the original John Carpenter Halloween at the Balboa Theatre Tuesday and Wednesday.

Luckily for a busy groomsman like myself, there will be many opportunities to celebrate Halloween belatedly with plenty of special horror movie screenings throughout November and even into December. Of foremost interest is probably the Stanford Theatre, which has just extended its published calendar until the end of next month, continuing with the Universal Pictures centennial celebration it began in September by moving from the 1920s & 30s into the 1940s. As I mentioned in my last post, Universal horror rarities Werewolf of London and Secret of the Blue Room will screen on Halloween, but also on the following day before being switched out for a print of the famous Lon Chaney, Sr. silent Phantom of the Opera on Friday, November 2. Now we know that Universal's 1943 Phantom starring Claude Rains will play November 3-4 alongside Cobra Woman, a film that rarely gets labeled a horror movie, but that in my mind connects directly to RKO supernatural thrillers of its era like Cat People and The Leopard Man.   November 14-16 brings a double-bill of the Karloff-less 1940 reboot The Mummy's Hand and the Lon Chaney, Jr. star-maker The Wolf Man from 1941. The rest of November at the Stanford showcases Universal's range, bumping a Hitchcock thriller (Saboteur) up against a W.C. Fields farce (The Bank Dick), placing a Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes favorite (The Scarlet Claw) with an Ole Olson/Chic Johnson vehicle in which they make a cameo (Crazy House) , and devoting double-bills to Robert Siodmak noirs, or Abbot & Costello musical-comedies. A complete Deanna Durbin retrospective is promised for December at the venue.

Back to horror movies, the Napa Valley Film Festival is showing two of the scariest ones ever made alongside documentaries about them. Stanley Kubrick's The Shining screens November 7th just after the Frisco Bay premiere of Rodney Ascher's much-anticipated investigation into the film's cult and scholarly following Room 237, while George Romero's Night of the Living Dead screens after the last of three showings of what looks to be a more traditional making-of documentary, Year of the Living Dead. Less "traditionally" a horror movie, but no less horrific, and (in my view) no less great a film than Romero's, is Ted Kotcheff's Wake In Fright, which similarly finds one man up against a threatening army of individuals who want to turn him into one of their own (in this case brain-numbed alcoholic Australians rather than brain-eating zombies). It currently screens in 35mm at the Opera Plaza through at least November 1st. It also plays at the Shattuck in Berkeley, but I'm not sure that venue still has 35mm projection equipment on hand after a recent digital makeover, which I've been told has also left the California Theatre without 35mm capability, and the Embarcadero with only one of its screens 35mm-capable.

The films of Jan Svankmajer are frequently labeled as horror films, justifiably so, I think. There's little more cinematically unsettling than the visceral visions on display in films like Alice, Little Otik, etc. The Yerba Buena Center For The Arts devotes most of November in its screening room to the Czech animator, and is screening works by a perhaps-similar animator named Nathalie Djurberg in the galleries through January. The aforementioned Another Hole in the Head (HoleHead) festival has moved its festival from its traditional early-summer slot to bridge November and December, specifically in order to improve its position in the festival marketplace for for horror films particularly (undoubtedly the fest has made some spotty picks in the past), and is bringing such titles as The Killing Games, Road To Hell, and Deadball. The latter is HoleHead favorite director Yudai Yamaguchi's return to the scene of the crime of his first feature, Battlefield Baseball: the baseball diamond. San Francisco Giants fans should turn out in droves to see a splatter movie about a pitcher with a literally deadly arm, but note: one of Yamaguchi's previous film projects put him afoul of a Yomiuri Giant in 2005.

Atypically, the HoleHead offering I'm probably most curious about is actually not a film at all but the opening night party entertainment: a one-man Oingo Boingo cover act that goes by the name Only A Lad but is also known as Starbeast II. Oingo Boingo was one of the bands I saw perform live as often as I could in my high school and college days, seeing them six times before frontman Danny Elfman devoted his musical attention exclusively to composing film scores. It was a band formed out of the ashes of Los Angeles theatre troupe the Mystic Knights Of Oingo Boingo, whose sensibility was (so I understand) best documented by the 1980 cult-film oddity Forbidden Zone, which will screen at Terra Gallery before the opening-night party in a new colorized version. Director (and Danny's older brother) Richard Elfman will be in attendance to answer questions like: "why would you want to colorize Forbidden Zone?" He is known to be an excellent raconteur, and I confirmed this at an in-person screening (of the original version) at the Lumiere Theatre in 2004. Certainly one of the most memorable screenings I ever took in at the Lumiere, which sadly closed its doors as a Landmark-operated theatre just over a month ago, with no indication that it will find a new tenant to operate it in the time since.

Since Forbidden Zone really is no more a horror movie than The Rocky Horror Picture Show is (its relationship to the weirdest pop culture artifacts of the 1930s is not dissimilar to that of Rocky Horror's relationship to 1950s drive-in movies), let me steer back on the track I keep veering off of: horror movies showing after Halloween. The Pacific Film Archive's November-December calendar actually includes a number of horror or borderline-horror films on it. Barry Gifford will be on hand on the last Thursday in November and the first two Saturdays in December, for a five-program tribute to his screenwriting career including the often bone-chilling Lost Highway and more collaborations with David Lynch and international autuers. And the continuing fall tribute to pre-nouvelle vague French filmmaking includes a pair of eerie, supernatural-themed classics and one authentique horror movie, Georges Franju's unforgettable Eyes Without A Face. One last note: when I first saw that the PFA would presenting three new restorations of diverse, masterpiece-level works by avant-garde filmmakers on Halloween night I wrote it off as counter-programming. But I recently remembered that Vincent Price narrates one of the three, the lovely Notes On The Port Of St. Francis by Frank Stauffacher. It's good that the horror movie master's sonorous tones will be able to entertain an audience that evening, even if I'm going to have to miss it myself.