Monday, April 11, 2011

James River Film Festival Highlights

Richmond holds an annual film festival each April. The festival doesn't tend to focus on any theme or genre - they'll have a night of short films from local universities, or some independent work, maybe a reading or two thrown in. Once every couple of years, however, they'll screen a thing or two that peaks my interest and this year I was delighted to find out they were screening the Spanish language version of DRACULA with a live soundtrack AND a rare 35mm print of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. On the same night! Yay!

Movie the first - DRACULA. The introduction wasn't anything I didn't already know - the film was shot at night on the same stage as Tod Browning's film, the long shots of Dracula aren't Carlos Villar, but Bela Lugosi, a money-saving maneuver - but the highlights included seeing this old film on a big screen in a theatre with an audience AND musical accompaniment by guitar whiz Gary Lucas.

On the musical aspect. Lucas, looking cool in a purple fedora and loose fitting grey suit, took the stage after being briefly introduced as a performer with Captain Beefheart. He said a couple of words and the film started rolling. He played along with the DRACULA theme song at a little too high a volume, so I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to concentrate on subtitles. It really was that loud. But after the credits, he toned it down and I was immediately sucked in to watching the movie, almost tuning out Lucas as he played along. He's that good. You don't even realize you're hearing something performed live.

The only time I was sentient I was watching a live performance along with the film is that some of the music is slightly anachronistic. There's a Spanish feel to some it, a rock n roll feel to other parts, with softer notes played with women are conversing on screen. He also switches between acoustic and electric depending on the action, which is pretty cool. It updates the film in some ways, but you are still aware you're watching a movie from the Thirties. It's a weird feeling, but not a bad one.

On seeing DRACULA with an audience. I've seen this version of the film many times and often pair it as a double feature with Bela Lugosi's version. But this was my first time with a theatre full of other film fans and it was a little annoying, even though it is interesting to see how different people react to certain films I myself am very familiar with. Yes, the movie is stagey and akin to a stage performance, because it originated as such. Yes, it's eight decades removed from our current movie watching brains. And yes, sometimes it's hokey. But it ain't all that fucking funny. You would think people were watching stand up or something the way they were guffawing at Dracula's facial expressions. I think a lot of times people don't know what to do with themselves when they watch something old or removed from what they are used to. Laughter is their way of dealing with it. I've seen it happen with all sorts of films, usually films that are a lot more 'shocking' than this one. Overall, it was cool to see this on a big screen, stupid laughter from stupid people aside.

And, I never realized how much I love Renfield. It really is his movie in a lot of ways, at least this version. I love watching him go nuts. It's easily one of the best performances throughout the movie. And he gets so much more screen time than Dracula. It would seem he upstages the cloaked one in many ways.

Movie the second - NIGHT OF THE HUNTER. Charles Laughton's first and only feature, the wonderful melodrama starring Robert Mitchum, is easily one of my favorite noir pictures. I was delighted to be able to see this on a big screen in 35mm! This feature kicked off with a reading from the novel by Minnesotan author and film fan, Peter Schilling, Jr., appearing with fake LOVE/HATE knuckle tattoos. It was a cute gesture, but kinda weak. This is a dude wearing a navy blue blazer and those little wire-rimmed glasses. Oh well. I'm like, shut up, get to the movie.

On seeing this with an audience. The audience here was more reserved. Everyone was respectful of the film and there was the occasional giggle, but overall, this was a more somber affair than most. Preacher Harry Powell is just so damn evil! You can't take your eyes off him. And Pearl is just so darn cute. I don't like kids, but I would cuddle Pearl in a second.

On the movie itself. It's been years since I've seen this and only ever on VHS. I feel like I paid a lot of attention this time (I was also stone cold sober, hehe). You know how it is. You can see something over and over and then like the tenth time you see it, you pick up on stuff you might have missed. This time I was hyper-aware of the kids and their mistrust of the adults. I'm not saying I missed this entirely before, since it is overt, but I really felt for those kids this time around. They loose their dad, which they get to watch, they loose their mom, the other adults are drunk or unbelieving - there's no one they can trust. And while Mitchum's Preacher is what the film is most memorable for, the kids are really what carry the movie and who you feel for. It's just such a painful movie, in that you feel the same pain and really, really want to see Preacher get what's coming to him. I need to read the novel. I could only love it.

It was so fantastic to be able to see these two old films in a festival environment. To go to two different amazing venues in my city on the same night and watch two of my favorite films is what I want every day to be like. Richmond isn't the roaring metropolis it should be and these things just don't happen on the regular around here. I'm glad I got to be a part of it this year. Here's to more genre offerings in years to come! Yay!


  1. I cannot stand it when the audience ruins the movie. I've walked out on a couple of films because of the crowd talking or calling out.
    Without being rascist or xenophobic, does this seem to happen more in the States than anywhere else? It almost seems part of the movie going experience to heckle the film.
    Anyway, not seen the Spanish version of Dracula, but Night of the Hunter is one of my favorites - I envy you seeing on the big screen.

  2. Robert Mitchum was the original punk, sporting a switchblade and LOVE-HATE tattooed onto his knuckles in 194-freakin'-6. It's like if Franz Ferdinand was shot by an assassin with a studded, neon pink mohawk!

  3. @cyclops. I know! It pains me to even go see a movie on opening night any more. Damn kids! hehe

    @chris. I love Mitchum in this movie, even if it is melodramatic and over the top. He is totally badass.

  4. In discussing the character of the Preacher, Laughton described him as a "diabolical shit."

    "Present!" answered Mitchum.

    One of my favorite movies.

  5. New blood, here.

    In defense of the hyenas during Spanish DRACULA, Carlos Villarias does look pretty ridiculous in the part--definitely the weakest link in the film. Lugosi himself frequently comes across as ridiculous (though it's usually the fault of those behind the camera, rather than Bela himself), and poor Carlos is no Bela.

    I love expressionism, and NIGHT OF THE HUNTER is just a hell of a movie (not a noir picture, though). This and CAPE FEAR feature Mitchum at his most badass (and Scorsese lifted from both when he remade the latter). The Frenchies over at Cahiers Du Cinema ranked this one as the second-best movie ever made. I'm a fan, but that's a bit much. It sucks that Laughton never made another movie after this, sure, but sometimes I think it sucks even more that he delivered such a great first effort then didn't bother to provide an ending. As undeniably great as the rest of it is, NOTH basically disintegrates in the final act. That last segment is so divorced from the tone of the rest of the film that the uninitiated in the audience are in danger of whiplash, and the ending is just godawful.

  6. @mykal. Love the anecdotes. This film apparently had a few. The kid that played John had apparently won a New York Critic's Award, which was like the equivalent of a Golden Globe back in the day, an award which Laughton never received. When asked to do a scene differently, Billy responded to Laughton, 'did you win a New York Critic's Award,' to which the answer was no, of course. I love that!

    @cinemanarchaeologist. Welcome and thanks for stopping by. I know what you mean about the ending. Sam, my boyfriend and movie-going companion, had never seen this particular film before and although he enjoyed it, he mentioned as we were leaving the venue how abrupt and unsatisfying the ending was compared to the rest of the film. It's a shame, really, to have such a powerhouse fizzle out on us like that. And there is some particular reason or another Laughton didn't make another movie - but it's lost to my memory for now.

    wrt Carlos vs. Bela. I know, I know. Some of those facial expressions can get pretty goofy at times, but hey, it's from the 30s! It could practically be a silent movie they way they all ham it up for the camera. And my love will always lie with Bela, womanizer, ego maniac, and druggie as he was. They just don't make 'em like that any more!

  7. Jenn: With regard to why Laughton didn't direct another picture: He was devastated by the very mixed (mostly poor) critical reaction to Night of the Hunter. Laughton, and everyone connected with the movie, thought they had something special; but the film flopped both commercially and critically. Laughton was so disgusted with the reaction to the film, he never directed again (although he described directing the film one of the happiest times of his life).

  8. Jenn: PS - I got this info from the special features on the blu-ray Criterion release of Night. Also, one of the special features is outtakes of Laughton directing. Everyone is deadly, deadly series - both actors and director. As one point, I thought Shelly Winters was going to blow her brains out in frustration - Laugton made her do a take about a million times.

  9. Hi Mykal. I heard Laughton was pretty upset over the critical stuff. Oh well. He got to be married to the Bride of Frankenstien, even if it was a farce on his part.

    Wrt the Criterion release - I'd love to see that. Put that one in on the Amazon wish list.

  10. Mitchum is easily the most intimidating tough guy in classic cinema, for my money. Maybe all cinema ever. In CAPE FEAR he wears a floppy hat and high-waisted shorts with dress socks and loafers and still manages to be absolutely terrifying. :P

    Seeing these old movies on the big screen can be a revelation. I saw MALTESE FALCON in a theater a few years back, and even though I'd seen it so many times I could almost recite the dialogue, I still noticed new things, mainly b/c of the scale, I guess. Every time I get a chance to see a classic on the big screen, I jump at it. Haven't seen DRACULA that way, but FRANKENSTEIN and the original KING KONG were awesome!

  11. Hi Vicar! Good to see you! I love seeing the old stuff on the big screen. We saw SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT back at Christmas, and it was truly an experience. That was due in part to it being screened 'MST' style, with commentators and then audience members getting pissed about said commentary because it was unbeknownst to them before setting down the five bucks for the experience.

    Film events are very cool, indeed.