Nostalgia Check: Tim Curry is Clue (1985)’s Overworked, Undervalued MVP

Rian Johnson’s crowd-pleasing ensemble cast whodunnit Knives Out is proving to have a surprisingly substantial box office presence. The murder mystery Old Dark House throwback with a large cast of celebrity players is a time-honored Hollywood tradition, but it’s not one that always translates to commercial success. Consider, for instance, the 1985 John Landis-penned whodunit spoof Clue, a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the eponymous board game. While Clue has gradually earned cult classic status over decades of television broadcasts, it first arrived in American theaters as a financial flop. That’s difficult to fathom in retrospect, as its TV broadcast familiarity throughout my life has always framed it in my mind as a beloved, popular classic. It turns out its financial & cultural impact aren’t the only aspects of Clue that had been altered through the faulty lens of my own memory either. Through time, I’ve lost track of exactly how funny this film is and who in the cast is responsible for its biggest laughs.

Given the presence of comedic heavyweights like Landis, Michael McKean, Madeline Kahn, Christopher Lloyd, and Tim Curry, it’s easy to misremember Clue as a nonstop laugh riot. The collective charms of its cast does make the film eternally pleasant to revisit, but its laugh-to-joke ratio is disappointingly low. In recent years, I’ve come to think of Clue as a less-funny Murder By Death (which admittedly does have its own problems, mostly due to Peter Sellers’s yellowface performance as a Charlie Chan archetype), just with an updated-for-the-80s cast. Clue‘s sense of humor is a paradoxically low-energy offshoot of ZAZ spoofery, in which the genre-homage slapstick is plentiful but arrives at an unrushed pace. The biggest knee-slapper laugh lines come from mainstay Mel Brooks collaborator Madeline Kahn, whose “flames on the side of my face” & “It’s a matter of life after death; now that he’s dead I have a life” zingers have transformed the murderous widow character into a hall-of-fame meme. However, her presence is too sparsely doled out to carry the film on its own. To match the ZAZ-level energy needed to keep this genre spoof lively, Clue needed a much louder, more frantic MVP.

As the deceptive butler of the Old Dark House who gathers a group of high-profile strangers as dinner party guests to reveal that they’re all being blackmailed by the same soon-to-die rapscallion (the amusingly named Mr. Body), Curry has the fairly thankless role of constantly explaining the situation at hand. While the rest of the cast can rest on the charm of their personalities & Old Hollywood noir costuming, Curry is constantly doing the labor of providing direction & purpose for the proceedings. The true comic genius of Clue is in watching how that role escalates into total delirium as the bodies pile up and the party descends into chaos. By the final half hour of the film, Curry is soaked in flop sweat as he frantically runs around the house, dragging the rest of the cast behind him and explaining at length What’s Really Going On Here. In bewildering rapid-fire line deliveries & breathless monologue, Curry re-explains the entire plot of the film from the very first scene to the revelation of who among the suspects killed Mr. Body. It’s an absurd spectacle of physical comedic acting, one that only becomes funnier the longer it stretches on — driving Curry into a blissful mania that hasn’t been given nearly as much credit for its accomplishments as Kahn’s laidback zingers.

I don’t mean to downplay the pure pleasure of Madeline Kahn’s magnificent presence in Clue. I just find it bizarre that her cultural impact has been outshining what Tim Curry acheives in the film, when he does so much more heavy-lifting in keeping the film memorably funny. For instance, Kahn’s .gif-famous “flames on the side of my face” zinger is only included in one of the film’s three alternate endings, which you might not even see if you allow your DVD player to choose an ending at random. Meanwhile, Curry’s deranged flop sweat explanation of What’s Really Going On here is a substantial anchor in all three alternate endings, so that he’s literally doing triple the work of the rest of the cast. As so much of Clue’s legacy is built on nostalgia—both in its 1950s Agatha Christie throwback aesthetic and its 1990s television broadcast repetition—the frantic spectacle of this performance is just yet another element at play that deserves re-evaluation in a nostalgia check. The movie may not be as energetically silly, commercially successful, or Madeline Kahn-heavy as it’s misremembered to be, but Tim Curry sure does his damnedest to make up for any & all of its shortcomings all on his own, practically turning an ensemble-cast comedy into a one-man show.

-Brandon Ledet

Knives Out (2019)

“Physical evidence can tell a clear story with a forked tongue,” Daniel Craig’s Knives Out character Benoit Blanc, “last of the gentleman sleuths,” says to Lieutenant Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) upon being told that all the physical evidence surrounding the death of publishing magnate Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) points to suicide. This is not the first or last of a series of surprisingly well delivered bon mots from Blanc as he doggedly pursues the truth of what happened the night of Thrombey’s 85th birthday.

All the family gathered that night: Thrombey’s eldest daughter Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), who describes her real estate business as “self-made,” in spite of actually starting out with a million dollar loan from the family patriarch; widowed daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Colette), a self-described lifestyle guru/entrepreneur and would-be influencer whose knowledge of current events comes from reading tweets about New Yorker articles; and, finally, son Walt (Michael Shannon), who runs Blood Like Wine Publishing, his father’s business. Each has their own family and hangers-on, as well; Linda is married to the largely useless and unfaithful Richard (Don Johnson), and their son Ransom (Chris Evans) is likewise a rootless gadabout and playboy of the Tom Buchanan mold; the delightful Riki Lindhome is given little to do other than spout Trump-era rhetoric about “good immigrants” and “bad immigrants” in her role as Walt’s wife Donna, and their son Jacob (Jaeden Lieberher) is a smartphone-addicted teen described as a “literal Nazi” who allegedly masturbates to images of dead deer; Joni is accompanied by daughter Meg (Katherine Langford), who is attending a prestigious liberal arts college and serves as the closest thing to a good person this family has, although she is not without her flaws. There’s also Greatnana, Thrombey’s elderly mother of unknown age, played by onetime Martha Kent K Callan, who I was surprised to learn was still alive. Also in the house that night are Thrombey’s nurse, Marta (Ana de Armas), and pothead housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson, taking a break from killing it on The Righteous Gemstones). When Ransom storms out early after a heated discussion, suspicion initially falls on him, but every member of the family has a motive, as Thrombey had announced to each of them that very night that he was cutting off their individual paths of access to his wealth. And then, 33 minutes into the film’s 130 minute runtime, writer-director Rian Johnson tells you who did it. And then things get interesting.

I’ve long been a fan of comedy pastiches and homages of genres that function perfectly as examples of those genres despite humorous overtones; my go-to example is Hot Fuzz, which I always tout as having a more sophisticated murder mystery plot than most films than most straightforward criminal investigation media (our lead comes to a logical conclusion that fits all of the clues, but still turns out to be wrong). Knives Out is another rare gem of this type, a whodunnit comedy in the mold of Clue that has a sophisticated and winding plot. Despite the big names in that cast list above, Marta is our real hero here, although to say more than that would be to give away too much of the plot–both the film’s and Harlan’s. I’m not generally a fan of Daniel Craig, but in this opportunity to play against type, his turn as a kind of Southern Hercule Poirot here is surprisingly charming, first appearing to be somewhat bumbling and ignorant in his pursuit of the truth but ultimately proving to have a sharp deductive mind. His affected drawl also helps take many of Blanc’s lines, some of the best one-liners ever committed to a movie script, and elevates them into true comedic art. From the quote at the top of the review to his description of a will reading (“You think it’ll be like a game show. No. Imagine a community theater performance of a tax return.”) to his reference to Jacob in his Sherlockian summation of the evidence near the film’s end (“What were the overheard words by the Nazi child masturbating in the bathroom?”), all are rendered hilarious in their Southern gentility. It’s a sight to behold.

The film is surprisingly political, as well, and not just in a “Communism was a red herring” way. Like Get Out before it, Knives Out mocks the occasional ignorance of the political left vis-a-vis latent and uninspected racism on the part of Joni and Meg, who profess progressive values while being, respectively, a largely uninformed buffoon and an easily corrupted intellectual. On the other side of the aisle, the fact that all of the Thrombey children and grandchildren consider themselves to be “self-made” despite succeeding only due to the generosity of their wealthy patriarch calls to mind certain statements about a “small loan” of a million dollars that a certain political figure has made. Likewise, Rian Johnson has claimed that Jacob’s character is based on blowback he received from some of the darker corners of the internet following (what some would consider to be) the mismanagement of the Star Wars franchise while helming The Last Jedi. In particular, the entirety of the wealthy white family seems completely ignorant of Marta’s country of origin, with each of them calling her a different nationality; after a few glasses of champagne, they devolve into an ugly debate about the current supposed immigration “crisis,” citing well-worn neocon talking points about “America [being] for Americans” and “millions of Mexicans” undermining American culture, as well as the purported illegality of seeking asylum. All of this is done in front of Marta, who is specifically called out as an model member of a minority group and then asked to speak to this experience, exotifying her and speaking over her (that the most useless member of this crew, Richard, does so while absentmindedly handing her his dessert plate—like one would with a server or a domestic servant—is a particularly nice detail). It comes across as rather toothless in the moment, especially given that Jacob is largely held unaccountable for his political ideology (other than Richard’s accusation that the boy spent Harlan’s party in the bathroom “Joylessly masturbating to pictures of dead deer”), but the white New England family’s desperation to hold onto property that they consider rightfully theirs despite having had no hand in building the family’s financial success is ultimately revealed to be a core part of the film’s thesis, as evinced in the film’s final frame. That having been said, there are moments when I wish that the family was a little less charming and a little more clearly depicted as being in the wrong; at one point at the screening I attended, there was a rather loud laugh when Jacob called Marta an “anchor baby,” and the effusive reaction to that line in particular chilled my blood a bit.

The first time I saw the trailer for this film was before The Farewell, and the friend with whom I saw that flick had no interest in Knives Out, asking only that I text him after I left the theater and tell him who the killer was. I initially assented, but after my screening, I texted him and told him that the movie was too clever to be spoiled that way, and I meant it. This is a movie that should be seen without as little foreknowledge as possible, and as soon as you can.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Death Kiss (1932)

Like many horror nerds out there, I’m a huge fan of Bela Lugosi. That’s an exhausting thing to be sometimes, as so much of Lugosi’s career was relegated to hitting the same notes over & over again. Whether working for a major studio or slumming it on poverty row, Lugosi’s icon status as the definitive Dracula typecast him only as villainous monsters for the majority of his career. No matter how much you love his screen presence, it can be tiring to see Lugosi appear over & over again as vampires, mad scientists, and mad-scientist vampires in the only roles he could land post-Dracula. The problem only got worse as time went on and traditional Famous Monsters work dried up like a temporary fad. Lugosi suffered long periods of working only in dirt-cheap indie productions far below his punching weight and, worse yet, periods of not working at all. That’s what makes 1933’s The Death Kiss such a welcome deviation from the usual public-domain Lugosi cheapies I’ll pick up on a whim whenever I run across them. Reuniting the three main leads of Universal’s Dracula a year after that film’s massive success, The Death Kiss invites the expectation of being yet another Lugosi vampire pic (which can be fun for its own sake), but instead delivers something entirely different. Lugosi somehow doesn’t play a vampire or a mad scientist or a mutant ape man or an eccentric millionaire sadist or anything. No, he plays something much scarier: a movie studio executive.

Instead of relying on Lugosi’s notoriously ghoulish presence for its thrills, The Death Kiss instead reaches for a more novel conceit. Set during the production of a fictional film also titled The Death Kiss, it’s a playfully meta murder mystery that veers away from Lugosi’s usual realm of horror to pursue something resembling a police procedural. As a result, Lugosi himself isn’t often onscreen, as he’s cast as a potential suspect in the case – a studio executive – instead of one of the investigators. The murder in question takes place during a film shoot where an actor is struck down by a gun that was supposed to fire blanks for effect but fired a real bullet instead. The actor died seemingly well-beloved, but homicide detectives soon find plenty of costars & studio employees who quietly hated his guts behind the scenes (including saboteurs who continually undermine & muddle their evidence as they investigate). From there, The Death Kiss delivers exactly what you’d expect from a murder mystery thriller of its era: stark noir lighting, superfluous romance, wisecracking one-liners delivered at a machine gun pace, etc. The novelty of the studio lot setting is its most exciting attribute, especially in scenes where clues are derived from stage makeup or police gather in a screening room to look for evidence in the dailies or the killer is framed in the reflective surface of a stage light. There’s also novelty to seeing Lugosi fade into the background a little bit as just another human subject, as opposed to a bloodthirsty ghoul who’s obviously guilty of murder from frame one.

Despite the overlaps in casting, I’m not sure that superfans of Lugosi or Dracula would be the immediate audience I would think to recommend The Death Kiss to. The film is much more satisfying as a meta movie-industry murder mystery than a rearrangement of that horror classic’s essential pieces. There’s lot of the care & craft that went into its staging that you don’t always get with these early minor-studio Lugosi thrillers, as evidenced by the cleverness of its premise and the few major scenes of action featuring hand-tinted film cells from master colorist Gustav Brock. Seeing Lugosi act out of archetype in a well-crafted non-horror is only lagniappe to the film’s other accomplishments, and something you can only truly appreciate if you’ve already suffered through titles like The Ape Man, Zombies on Broadway, and Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla.

-Brandon Ledet

When Faye Dunaway Fought Couture

If there’s anything in particular that the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child excels at, it’s in offering Oscar Winner & all-around Hollywood legged Faye Dunaway a free-range actor’s showcase. Resembling neither the restrained thrill-seeking-beauty of Bonnie & Clyde nor the detached-from-good-taste camp of Mommie Dearest, Dunaway’s lead role in Puzzle of a Downfall Child reaches for a more disorienting, heart-breaking knockout of performance. Much like Gena Rowland’s similar onscreen breakdown in A Woman Under the Influence, Dunaway’s mental unraveling in our Movie of the Month is purely a one-woman-show, fully immersing the audience in the heightened emotions & distorted perceptions of her character’s troubled psyche. One of the major factors in her mental decline are the Patriarchal pressures & abuses that arise naturally in the industry of high fashion, where she works as a model. Inspired by recorded oral history interviews with the mentally unwell fashion model Anne St. Marie (after she was used up & discarded by the fashion industry in real life), Puzzle of a Downfall Child is a scathing view of couture’s effect on the women who model its wares – especially once they need personal help or simply age out of their perceived usefulness. Dunaway’s heartbreaking performance at the center of the film would be a damning portrait of what the Patriarchy does to women’s psyches in any context, but the fashion industry setting in particular has a way of amplifying that effect to thunderous proportions.

When Dunaway returned to portraying a fashion industry artist later in the decade, her role was seemingly poised to exude more professional power & control over their own well-being. That sense of agency & solid mental health does not last long. In 1978’s The Eyes of Laura Mars, Faye Dunaway jumps the chain of command in the world of haute couture from fashion model to fashion photographer. There’s much more creative control & professional clout to be enjoyed on that side of the camera, especially in the fictional Laura Mars’s case, since she happens to be a very famous celebrity photographer at the start of promoting her first book of collected stills. In that position of power, it’s arguable that Dunaway’s protagonist even perpetuates some of the social ills that torment her character in Puzzle of a Downfall Child. Laura Mars is famous in her fictional art world for portraying misogynistic violence & extreme sexual kink in her photographs. Worse yet, a deranged serial killer has started to recreate the sordid displays in her work when killing her own fashion models, putting people like Dunaway’s Puzzle of a Downfall Child character in direct physical danger. Whereas the abuse & mania at the center of that earlier work was anchored to the recollections of a real-life artist & public figure, however, the crisis in The Eyes of Laura Mars is more of a supernatural fantasy. Dunaway’s tormented fashion photographer sees through the eyes of the killer during their slayings in uncontrollable psychic visions, directly linking the eyes of her camera to visions of real-life violence. This unreal occurrence shakes her belief that her photographs are enacting the social good of showing the world as it truly is for women by having her work directly inspire violence against women while she helplessly observes from the killer’s POV.

When initially discussing Puzzle of a Downfall Child, I mentioned that ”Between its thematic discomforts, its deliberately disorienting relationship with logic, and its gorgeous visual palette, it’s practically a couple brutal stabbings short of being a giallo film.” The Eyes of Laura Mars follows through on that train of thought, almost explicitly functioning as an American studio attempt at producing a Hollywood giallo picture. Boomer has even written about the film for this site before in reference to former Movie of the Month The Psychic, a Fulci-directed giallo thriller it shares so much DNA with they’re often accused of ripping each other off (depending on which one the audience happens to catch first). Director Irvin Kershner (of The Empire Strikes Back & RoboCop 2 notoriety) bolsters this supernatural murder mystery (originally penned by a young John Carpenter in its earliest drafts) with plenty familiar giallo touches – complete with a gloved hand protruding from offscreen to dispose of victims in Mars’s psychic visions. The fashion industry setting is a major factor in that aesthetic, as it was a world familiar to gialli at least as far back as Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace. What’s interesting here is the way these stylistic & hyperviolent giallo indulgences even the playing field between Dunaway’s two fashion-world archetypes. In The Eyes of Laura Mars she starts from a position of creative power far above her less protected status in Puzzle of a Downfall Child, but the violent & carelessly sexualized way women are framed (if not outright abused) in the industry eventually makes her just as vulnerable. Her own mental breakdown is more of the calm-surface panic of Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom than it is akin to Dunaway’s genuine soul-crushing illness in Puzzle of a Downfall Child (or her screeching madness in Mommie Dearest), but the misogynist ills of the couture industry had a way of breaking her protagonist down into a powerless distress in either case.

Almost inconceivably, The Eyes of Laura Mars was originally pitched as a starring vehicle for Barbara Streisand, who reportedly turned it down for the concept being “too kinky.” Having seen Babs pose in leather fetish gear for a Euro biker mag in her younger days, I’m a little baffled by that claim, but it’s probably for the best that she turned it down all the same. We still have evidence of Streisand’s involvement through the torch ballad “Prisoner” on the Laura Mars soundtrack, while also enjoying the fascinating double bill of these two Faye-Dunaway-loses-her-mind-in-giallo-adjacent-fashion-industry-narratives. Of the two pictures that cast her as a victim of fashion-industry misogyny’s strain on women’s mental health, Puzzle of a Downfall Child is both the better film and the better performance. Both titles are worthy of Dunaway’s time and energy, though, and together they conjure an imaginary crossover sequel where she plays both mad model & unhinged photographer – taking pictures of herself in an eternal loop of giallo-flavored mania.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, the 1970 mental breakdown drama Puzzle of a Downfall Child, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our exploration of The Neon Demon‘s subversion of its traditional power dynamics, and last week’s look at director Jerry Schatzberg’s relationship with reality in his early work.

-Brandon Ledet

Bruce Greenwood is (One of Many) Batman(s)

There has only been a handful of actors who’ve played Batman on the big screen over the decades (unless you want to be a stickler and include the 1940s serials), a role that seems like it’s been passed around more from actor to actor than it has. Within that elite club of cinematic Caped Crusaders, there’s a lot of wiggle room in how to interpret the character. Ben Affleck & Christian Bale play him as a gloomy Gus; Adam West & George Clooney lean into his Saturday morning cartoon camp potential; Michael Keaton turned the Bat into a Horned-up weirdo; Val Kilmer played him comatose. It’s a range of variation that’s befitting of Batman’s journey in the comic books, which has taken many different tonal directions over a near-century of different writers & illustrators tasked to continue his legacy as The World’s Greatest Detective. Oddly, that freedom of interpretation is largely missing from the animated versions of Batman, despite their proximity in medium to his comic book form. Kevin Conroy, who voiced the titular vigilante through 85 episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, has become the defining standard of what Batman sounds like as an animated cartoon character. He’s a universally beloved fan-favorite, a status any one of the more divisive live-action performers have yet to achieve. As a result, almost all subsequent interpretations of animated Batmen, no matter who’s writing the text, have felt like faithful imitations of Conroy’s voice work for the character, leaving little room for creative variation. Bruce Greenwood, who voiced Batman in our current Movie of the Month, is just one of these many dutiful imitators, even if a competent one.

Less than halfway into 2018, there have already been three entirely new animated Batman films released, each with a wildly different tone and a different actor voicing the Caped Crusader. As there are now dozens of animated DC movies exploring the usual dynamics of the comic book brand’s more well-known characters, this year’s offerings each rely heavily on a high-concept gimmick to keep their interpretations of Batman relatively fresh. One film explores the possibilities of Batman’s ninja training by translating the character through the anime medium. Another teams up the fearless goth detective with Scooby-Doo in the classic Hanna-Berbera crossover tradition. The gimmick in Bruce Greenwood’s latest Batman project isn’t nearly as interesting as either of those movies sound; it sticks much closer to the Kevin Conroy template than the deviations in either premise. Greenwood reprises his role as Batman for the first time since he played the character in 2010’s Under the Red Hood, our current Movie of the Month, in an animated feature titled Batman: Gotham by Gaslight. Like Batman Ninja and Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold, Gotham by Gaslight attempts to keep Batman fresh by viewing him though a gimmicky contextual lens, this time a Gothic murder mystery. The problem is that the gimmick isn’t exactly a deviation at all, but rather a reinforcement of what was already in the forefront in the Kevin Conroy era. Much of the appeal of Batman: The Animated Series was its Gothic literature overtones, which created nice tension with the show’s modern urban crime thriller narratives (borrowing a page from Tim Burton’s book). DC’s animated movies have been chasing that creative high ever since, but Gotham by Gaslight takes the faithful diligence even further than most projects by transporting its narrative to an actual Gothic literature setting, robbing it of all its aesthetic tension.

19th Century Batman is the same philanthropist sleuth as he is in any other timeline, this time dedicated to solving the case of Jack the Ripper. Familiar faces like Harvey Dent, “Constable” Gordon, Selina Kyle, and Poison Ivy (an erotic dancer stage name in this context) populate a From Hell -style story about a mysterious serial killer who targets female sex workers in dank London alleyways. In a way, Batman’s crimefighting presence makes more sense in this world than it does in a modern one. It’s almost expected that a local wealthy eccentric would have the bizarre nighttime hobby of dressing up like a humanoid bat to beat up the local peasants for petty crimes. Many people even suspect him of being Jack the Ripper, recalling the same parallels between masked criminal & masked vigilante that drove Under the Red Hood. Even Batman’s cape & utility belt make more sense in this context, though he is outfitted with a more traditional trench coat collar for flair. The problem is that Batman makes too much sense in this context, especially after the Gothic literature foundation laid about by The Animated Series. Outside a few strong details like a zeppelin-set knife fight and a steampunk motorcycle, Gotham by Gaslight does little to exploit the possibilities of its gimmick and instead plays its material straight. The film occasionally pretends it has larger gender equality issues on its mind (mostly through the crossdressing, sex work-championing exploits of Selina Kyle), but it’s mostly a straightforward murder mystery styled after the literary trappings that define its setting. Batman: The Animated Series made that aesthetic interesting by clashing it against a modern(ish) urban setting. Gotham by Gaslight isn’t sure what to do without their central juxtaposition. Once the enticing gimmick of its Batman vs Jack the Ripper premise settles into a comfortable narrative groove, the film leaves very little room for novelty or surprise.

Batman: Gotham by Gaslight is billed as the 30th film of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies brand, which I don’t think even covers films like the recent animated Adam West campy reboots. That’s a whole lotta Batman content, with only two titles under Bruce Greenwood’s belt as the vigilante weirdo. Much like how Gotham by Gaslight does not do much to separate itself from the previous achievements of The Animated Series, Greenwood mostly serves as an echo of the excellent work Kevin Conroy has achieved in the vocal booth. Being that kind of placeholder in the brand can fulfill a lofty purpose, though, particularly when it anchors a well-written story. The dozens of animated DC movies have filtered through writing teams as frequently as any comic book writing stable would, so a consistency in different actors’ vocal performances as the same character is beneficial to maintaining a calm surface that covers up the movement underneath. Bruce Greenwood has voiced Batman in two animated movies, one great (Under the Red Hood) and one dull (Gotham by Gaslight). The quality disparity between these two pictures is entirely on the writers’ shoulders, as Greenwood’s performance changed very little, if at all, between them. Under the Red Hood is a self-contained narrative that brings a comic book storyline to the screen that Batman fans rarely to get to see in motion. Gotham by Gaslight, by contrast, turned the subtext of an animated show with nearly a hundred episodes into up-front text, making its aesthetic less interesting in the process. Bruce Greenwood was present for both, but had very little effect on their outcomes even as the voice of their shared central character. Live-action Batmen have found plenty of room to leave their marks on their respective franchises over the years, but the animated ones mostly come across as a copy of a copy of a copy of a . . . Bruce Greenwood is just one of many.

For more on May’s Movie of the Month, the animated superhero thriller Batman: Under the Red Hood, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Stage Fright (1950)

The opening credits of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1950s thriller Stage Fright begin with a theatrical “safety curtain” lifting to reveal the city of London instead of a stage. This is not only a winking foreshadowing of that safety curtain’s central role in the film’s conclusion, but also immediately opens the film to a Shakespearean “All the world’s a stage” mindset, deliberately so. Stage Fright gleefully traffics in the meta commentary inherent to all movies & plays about stage actors, setting its murder mystery thriller plot in the posh world London theatre. Instead of bringing real world conflict to the artificial environments of a playhouse, however, Hitchcock brings character study stage acting to real life city streets, teasing out information on a first act murder through a series of false identities & well-formed lies. It isn’t until the film’s conclusion that most of the action is confined to an actual theatre and by then that interior space just feels like an extension of the larger city that houses it. It’s a brilliant inversion of what was already well-established trope over half a century ago.

Jane Wyman (of All That Heaven Allows fame) stars as a young character actor in training who’s stuck on a puppy love crush with a boy who’s in big trouble over his actual lover, a famous actress of high society prestige played by Marlene Dietrich. Through an early flashback, we see the young fugitive fleeing a murder charge for the death of Dietrich’s wealthy husband, clutching a bloody dress that would link his lover to the crime. Wyman’s aspiring young actor stashes the fugitive away at her low level smuggler’s home and decides to clear his name herself while the police hunt him down. Her smartass father (a scene-stealing Alastair Sim, who resembles a hybrid between Alec Guinness & John Lithgow) worries that using her stage acting skills to create false identities as a means to gather information is “transmuting melodrama into real life.” He jokes that she’s gathered up a plot, an “interesting” cast, and even a costume (the bloody dress), but is forgetting the real world dangers her “performance” is flirting with. He’s, of course, exactly correct. The actor’s web of lies only lead her further into danger, lust, and mystery as her real world stage play spirals out of her control and one of the great Hitchcock twists entirely disrupts the narrative she had been constructing to absolve her beloved.

Besides the film’s genuinely surprising twist, there are plenty of Hitchcock charms that help distinguish Stage Fright as a notable title among the director’s lesser works. The meta settings of an acting class and a cramped props closet leave plenty of room for Hitchcock’s usual sly, winking-at-the-audience humor. An umbrella-obscured sequence set at a rained-out garden party allows for the director’s mechanically precise craft of set piece staging to come to the forefront. He finds room to play with his usual visual trickery elsewhere as well: a character’s POV fuzzing with prescription glasses, imagined bloodstains on various dresses, a faked split diopter shot (that honestly resembles bad Photoshop in a modern context), etc. These are all minor Hitchcock pleasures, however. For all of Stage Fright‘s small scale successes in meta theatricality & Jane Wyman sleuthing, its biggest draw is the gleeful way Hitchcock shoots & highlights Marlene Dietrich. She doesn’t get nearly as much screentime as Wyman, as she must remain a mysterious figure for the film’s “All the world’s a stage” plot to work, but she still commands the film’s spotlight. Shots of Dietrich smoking under a veil or singing a lengthy Cole Porter number about how she’s too lazy to fuck are what elevates Stage Fright above meta-theatrical murder mystery to something slightly more distinct. Hitchcock did an excellent job of exploring her presence without overplaying her schtick and I’d much more readily recommend the film for someone looking for Top Shelf Dietrich instead of the director’s best. In the end, Dietrich is the star attraction her pompous character believes herself to be and the movie’s meta stage play theatrics are more or less lagniappe.

-Brandon Ledet

The Psychic (1977) Goes Southern Gothic in Raimi’s The Gift (2000)

Boomer recently wrote about how August’s Movie of the Month, Lucio Fulci’s paranormal horror The Psychic, was initially confused by audiences to be a rip-off of its contemporary, Eyes of Laura Mars, despite being released in Europe before that American work. Constructing a paranormal murder mystery around a fashion photographer’s visions of crimes from the killer’s POV, Eyes of Laura Mars is widely cited as the only successful attempt to make an American giallo picture (although it’s arguable that the entire slasher genre is built on that same foundation). Eyes of Laura Mars held on tightly to European art horror aesthetics in its own version of a clairvoyance murder mystery, only serving as an American version of The Psychic in the means through which it was produced, not necessarily in its tone or aesthetic. The most fiercely American version of The Psychic wouldn’t come for another couple decades, when Sam Raimi would set a psychic visions murder mystery in the Georgian swamps of the American South. Raimi (working with a script penned by Billy Bob Thornton) would translate The Psychic‘s basic DNA from European art horror to Southern Gothic melodrama. The results aren’t necessarily a clear improvement, but they were undeniably more American.

The Gift (2000) features Cate Blanchett as a Georgian clairvoyant much more genteel in her demeanor than we’re used to from her steeled roles in works like Carol. Unlike in The Psychic (and most other media featuring a woman with psychic abilities), The Gift‘s clairvoyant protagonist is widely respected & believed within her local community, perhaps as a comment on the superstitions of American Southerners. Only a tough as nails sheriff (JK Simmons) & an incredulous lawyer (Michael Jeter) are skeptical of the psychic’s titular “gift” as she attempts to solve the mystery of a murdered local woman. Some even come to her for medical advice instead of consulting with a doctor. This psychic senses violence long before the central murder occurs, focusing on the intense energy of a pencil rolling off a table when she first meets the future-victim (Katie Holmes), much like how the protagonist of The Psychic has visions of the objects that populate a future murder scene: a lamp, an ashtray, a mirror, etc. Unlike with The Psychic, however, the visions frequently occur throughout the picture as she pieces together the image of Katie Holmes being choked to death in a nearby swamp with the other flashes of murder scene details that intrude her idle thoughts. The Gift doesn’t echo The Psychic‘s exact plot or tone, but the similarities are close enough to suggest what a Southern Gothic version of that giallo work might look like.

Something The Gift does share with The Psychic thematically, at least, is the tyranny of men. Like how the protagonist of The Psychic is isolated and made to feel insane by the skeptical men in her life, Cate Blanchett’s similar clairvoyant is surrounded by dangerous men who make her feel vulnerable for a “gift” she did not ask for. The Southern men who surround her are conspicuously abusive, threatening rape & other forms of violence in a way that extends far beyond the mystery of a single murder into a routinely monstrous way of life. This dynamic leaves plenty of suspects for the central murder: an abusive husband (Keanu Reeves) who regularly beats his mousy wife (Hillary Swank) for visiting the psychic, an on-edge mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi) with a deeply fucked up familial past, the victim’s straight-laced husband (Greg Kinnear), her wealthy father, and the various men who participated in her extramarital affairs. Much like with all giallo pictures (and, I suppose, murder mysteries at large), the answer to this question is hinged on a last minute twist (or two) that disrupts the accusation of the most obvious suspect the movie sets up early on. The way The Gift manages to make the images in its protagonist’s psychic visions actually mean something in the film’s final reveal is a narrative feat, however. That’s more than you can say for Eyes of Laura Mars or Fulci‘s other clairvoyance horror, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, which use psychic visions mostly for stylistic flourish and a device that obscures the give-away details of the murder.

The Gift is an excellent little thriller, worth seeing for Raimi’s unusual displays of restraint, (not unlike Fulci’s atypically mild-mannered The Psychic) and for novel performances from actors like the surprisingly genteel Cate Blanchett or Keanu Reeves’s Southern fried preview of the monster he would later play in The Neon Demon. Some of the Southern Gothic touches to its paranormal mystery can be A Bit Much (Reeves’s threats to retaliate with Voodoo & witness stand accusations that Blanchett is a witch both border on being outright silly), but the film gets by just fine as a deadly melodrama even with those impulses. I especially believe The Gift is worth viewing as a wholly American contrast to the similar plot filtered through giallo aesthetics in The Psychic. The Gift opens with slow pans of Georgian swamp waters and incorporates lightning storms & visits from the dead into its murder-solving psychic visions in a way that feels distinctly more Southern Gothic than its European counterpart. I’d contend that The Psychic is the better film of the pair, but The Gift is very much worthwhile viewing as as an American counterpoint, maybe even moreso than the directly-linked Eyes of Laura Mars.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, the Lucio Fulci giallo picture The Psychic, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, this look at its American counterpart, Eyes of Laura Mars (1978), and last week’s comparison with its hornier Fucli predecessor, A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971).

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: The Psychic (1977)

Every month one of us makes the rest of the crew watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Boomer made BritneeBrandon, and Alli watch The Psychic (1977).

Boomer:  Sette note in nero (literally Seven Notes in Black), marketed as The Psychic in the United States (among other missteps in the American marketing, including essentially spoiling the film with the English tag line) is a Lucio Fulci film about a woman who has a psychic vision. Jennifer O’Neill plays Virginia Ducci, a woman who has recently married a rich Italian (Francesco, played by Gianni Garko). When he leaves to go on a business trip, she decides to visit one of his unoccupied properties, intending to renovate. On her way to this farmhouse, she experiences a psychic vision detailing a red room, a tipped-over bust, a point of view of a wall being constructed “A Cask of Amontillado” style, and various other blinking lights and and images. Recognizing one of the rooms in the farmhouse from her vision, she tears down a section of the wall and discovers that there is a dead body behind it. Her husband is, naturally, arrested, but Virginia seeks to clear her husband’s name with the help of her sister-in-law Gloria (Ida Galli) and her parapsychologist friend, Luca (Marc Porel).

Unlike a great deal of Fulci’s ouevre, The Psychic is not a particularly gory or bloody film. Compare this, for instance, to The Beyond, The House by the Cemetery, and the greater part of his body of work, which feature lots of gore in the Romero vein. The film’s bloodiest moment comes at the very beginning, and in fact seems like part of another Fulci film that has been grafted on to the beginning of this one, and serves only to establish that our main character has experienced a psychic vision before. The rest of the deaths that are depicted, while perhaps not bloodless, are fairly restrained in comparison to the rest of the director’s body of work. Instead, Fulci focuses on the anxiety and the terror of the drama that unfolds onscreen. There are a lot of beautiful shots, like the overhead crane shot of our protagonist and her husband riding horses, the blinking red light of a taxicab’s radio, and various shots of the Italian countryside. All of this contributes to a film that is a very different animal from most of Fulci’s work, but is nonetheless my favorite of his films.

Brandon, one of my favorite things about The Psychic it is its score. Unlike the heavily synthesized scores of Argento’s work or the tense scores of other giallo films, this film features a simple seven note leit motif (the titular seven notes in black, or, as in my preferred translation, seven notes in the dark) that is not only haunting, but integral to the narrative as well. How did you feel about this musical arrangement? Do you think that the film would work as well if the score was not so innately tied to the plot?

Brandon: The most immediately noticeable aspect of the music in The Psychic is that it often isn’t noticeable at all. The central seven note theme that intrudes whenever Virginia picks apart the crime scene from her visions is certainly memorable and helps to shape the film’s tone. Otherwise, like Boomer says, the score is not nearly as conspicuous as the aggressively proggy sounds we’re used to hearing in our giallo fare, especially in Argento’s work. Instead, there’s a softness to The Psychic‘s music that often allows it to fade into the background until the central motif, the titular seven notes, presents itself again. This softness reminds me of the swanky opening credits sequence for the last giallo picture we covered as a Movie of the Month selection, Mario Bava’s Blood & Black Lace. This isn’t necessarily because they sound at all similar, but because they’re more tonally at odds with a traditional horror aesthetic than, say, Goblin’s infamous (an oddly spoiler-filled) score for SuspiriaThe Psychic’s score is distinctly feminine to me in a way that matches the film’s overriding Agatha Christie soap opera tone. Blood & Black Lace deviates from giallo’s usual rock n’ roll psychedelia sounds to mirror the high class cocktail party soirees of its fashion world setting; the feminine energy of The Psychic‘s score is closely tied to Virginia’s inner life in a similar way as she mentally unravels the mystery of her visions. It presents a headspace that gets distinctly more haunting in its central motif whenever her mind returns to the details of the room where she discovers the body. It’s difficult to imagine bursts of synthy prog disrupting that insular tone in any way that wouldn’t be annoying, despite that being the traditional mode of the genre.

Speaking of giallo as a genre, it’s something we usually discuss in terms of stylized horror filmmaking, despite it earning its name from pulpy mystery novels. More often than not, the extreme violence & flashy style-over-substance filmmaking craft of giallo pictures outshine any narrative concerns with their central murder mysteries. I didn’t find that to be the case with The Psychic. Instead of flooding the screen with constant murders & psychedelic montages, The Psychic spills all of its (red acrylic) blood & incomprehensible imagery upfront in the form of Virginia’s visions. It then spends the rest of the runtime piecing them out one by one: a magazine, a lamp, a lit cigarette, a mirror, etc. This makes for a much more interesting mystery than a typical whodunnit for me, because it doesn’t only ask the identity of the killer. It also asks who is the victim, whether the crime has even happened yet, and whether it will happen at all. In a broad sense, The Psychic follows a very common horror trope of a woman sensing evil in the world and being told she’s crazy or irrational by the men around her. The structure Fulci uses to tell that story is anything but conventional, however, and I very much appreciated his patience in parsing out the details of how all the individual puzzle pieces fit snuggly together and in what order they did or will arrive.

Britnee, did you also appreciate that the psychedelic flashes of imagery slowed down after Virginia’s initial visions or would you rather that the whole movie had stuck to that exciting style-over-substance energy? Did the film’s unconventional structure & psychic visions conceit make you care about the answers to its central mystery more than you typically would with other giallo films?

Britnee: I haven’t seen many psychic movies, and I’m not even sure that there are many out there, but of those I’ve have watched (mainly The Gift), there’s usually a buttload of psychic visions from beginning to end. By keeping the psychic visions at a minimum, The Psychic really allows viewers to focus on every little detail in Virginia’s few visions. As Brandon stated earlier, the majority of the film is spent examining all these little details from Virginia’s visions and showing their connection to the murder that has yet to happen. I have a pretty short attention span, so being able to see the same visions over and over again without any change helped me really enjoy this movie, because I could keep up with piecing all the clues together. I was able to play detective, even though I completely sucked at it. I thought that her husband was a sex trafficker that would kill young women and hide them in the walls of his huge abandoned mansion. Little did I know the mystery was centered around a stolen painting. So yes, I definitely cared about piecing the puzzle together more than most other giallo films I’ve seen. Giallo films mostly deal with straight up murders, so it’s obvious that the killer will eventually surface, but with The Psychic, not only was I trying to figure out who the killer was, but I was also trying to figure out where the murder took place, if it really took place, and most importantly, what all that sludgy goo in the darkness was (it ended up being cement and bricks).

There’s no doubt that this film is a giallo, but there’s not a whole lot of bloody, slashed-up bodies like in most giallo films. Interestingly enough, the film starts out with a very violent and disturbing scene. Virginia is a schoolgirl and she has a vision of her mother committing suicide by jumping off a cliff; and when I say violent, I mean violent. Usually when someone jumps off a cliff in a movie, it’s understood that that person will die. Sometimes there’s even a shot of the body all smashed up at the bottom. The jumping-off-a-cliff scene in The Psychic was definitely one of a kind. The camera follows her mother’s body as her face chips away against the cliff’s rough, rocky edges. There’s even a fun little crunchy sound that’s made after each hit. For such an intense opening, I thought this was going to be one sick and bloody flick. To my surprise, there would only be a few other bloody scenes (the murder in the vision and the fall in the church).

While I truly enjoyed this film and can’t wait to watch it again, the ending really got under my skin. I usually like movie endings that leave unanswered questions, but I really wanted to know if Virginia would make it out of the wall alive. One would assume that her body would be found since the music of her watch could be heard, but as to whether or not she’ll be found alive or dead is really unclear.

Alli, were you disappointed with the way the movie ended? Would you have liked to see Virginia survive? Or would you rather see Virginia fulfill the prophecy in her visions?

Alli: I really liked the gradual, grim realization that she was the intended victim and watching her slow acceptance of the truth. I wouldn’t say I was disappointed when the movie ended, but I was certainly taken aback. I expected them to dig her out or for Francesco to fight his way through Luca and the ineffectual cops. I guess I was just expecting the typical giallo bloodbath to occur right there at the end, while the rest of the police force and detectives are racing to get out to the palazzo. Ending it right there was a refreshing level of restraint. Boomer already mentioned “A Cask of Amontillado”, but the end had a very “The Tell-Tale Heart” feel with the soft chimes ringing out Francesco’s guilt through the wall. Personally, I’m pro her being found too late. It adds a sense of symmetry, ending the film where it began.

That being said, for once in a giallo movie, except for Phenomena (big soft spot for Jennifer Connelly) or Suspiria, I actually really liked the main character. I feel like she wasn’t the typical blank slate female or wannabe detective male. Yes, she still turns into a bit of a damsel at the end, but she doesn’t let the other people’s skepticism invalidate her hunches. She knocks through a wall. She’s not just out to prove her husband’s innocence; she’s searching for answers. I feel like The Psychic gave its female characters more agency than other movies in this genre do in general. For instance, Bruna, Luca’s secretary, is a research beast, not Luca’s love interest. She is never put through the typical trials giallo movies throw at independent women, nor is she stalked down and killed. She gets respect and credit for her clever work and skills, and has a big part in the investigation.

Boomer, what did you think of the female characters in this movie? Would you agree that they don’t get the usual vaguely/overtly misogynistic treatment giallo movies inflict on them?

Boomer: I’m so glad you mentioned Bruna, who is a delight in this movie. She reminded me a great deal of Gianna, Daria Nicolodi’s character in Profundo Rosso. They have the same bubbly effusiveness, same insightful and inquisitive personality, and even the same haircut and fashion sense. That film is notable in Argento’s canon in that it, too, is more progressive than the usual giallo crop: one scene shows the male protagonist declaring to Gianna that men are more intelligent than women, only for her to correctly point out that she had put together the same conclusion that he had from available clues, and faster; he retorts that men are at least physically stronger. Later in the film, he is knocked unconscious and left in a burning house, only to be rescued and dragged to safety by the diminutive Gianna, showing that she possesses more strength than he credited her as well. Bruna is usually two steps ahead of Luca, who’s surprisingly disinterested in Virginia’s visions until she’s in demonstrable danger, and she has intuitive thought processes (like when she independently researched the history of radio taxis in the area) without which the plot would grind to a halt. Unlike Gianna, Bruna isn’t belittled by her male counterpart.

This unusual-for-the-genre feminism (understated and mild though it may be) is definitely one of the things that most impressed me when I first saw this film. My love for Argento is, I am sure, common knowledge to regular readers of our site; when I think of giallo, Argento’s is the work that first comes to mind. It’s interesting that you and I both went for references to Edgar Allan Poe and to Argento with our analysis of this film, as Poe was widely known influence on Argento and his work, as evidenced by his segment of Two Evil Eyes (you even mentioned Phenomena, my personal favorite!). There’s a connection there that shouldn’t be overlooked, especially with regards to certain misogynistic myths and devices that we see over over again both in Poe’s work and Argento’s work, and the larger society-enshrining machine that we call narrative, like the Madonna/Whore Complex, the sexualization of violence against women, and the infantilization of female intelligence.

Virginia’s role is unusual in that we rarely see women getting to play the everyman role in this genre, either. Genre fiction is overflowing with Neos and Harry Potters and Luke Skywalker: neutral masks unto whom the (presumed male by default) audience can project themselves with no difficulty. We usually only get to see this type of characterization for women in romance novels and rom-coms, usually to the point of insult. In horror, female protagonists are usually unique in characterization, like your Ellen Ripleys, Sidney Prescotts, and Nancy Thompsons. When the two ideals intersect, you usually end up with a Bella Swann. The Psychic is different: despite her fabulous sense of personal dress, Virginia is a bit of a blank slate. She’s recently married to a man she doesn’t know very well, meaning that all of her relationships (save her friendship with Luca) are new and thus still forming; she has no family to speak of. She’s adventurous and engaging, but she’s also generic enough that the viewer slips into the mental space of her character with great ease. It’s definitely not a standard giallo.

Also redefining what it means to be a woman in giallo is Ida Galli’s Gloria, Virginia’s sister in law. Gloria is idly rich, but her haughtiness is more detached than indifferent, and she drops her cold facade when the severity of the danger to her brother’s future becomes clear. She also genuinely cares about Virginia, and is taken aback when Virginia snaps at her and calls her a brat; I almost get the feeling that she was trying to treat this newest member of the family like one of her girlfriends, and Virginia’s interpretation was informed by some culture clash. I also appreciate the fact that Gloria’s promiscuouness is present but never commented upon; she has a lot of “friends” who give her expensive gifts, but she’s never demonized for or endangered by her lifestyle. In a way, she serves to be a mirror of Virginia. So often, when we seek a definition of what makes a Strong Female Character, we find a great deal of discussion about characterization and motivation, with the end goal being to make women on the page as well-defined as their male counterparts; rarely do we see the also important need for ladies as Tabula Rasa, embodied in Virginia here. Gloria is her opposite, a woman with clearly defined attributes and character traits, to balance Virginia onscreen.

In the same vein of unexpected progressivism, something occurred to me on this watch that hadn’t before. I was always struck by how casually Gloria mentions Luca to Francesco. Francesco himself harbors no jealousy for Luca, as if having his wife spend time with her (devilishly handsome) friend is no cause for alarm. Although he should have no compulsions about Virginia’s platonic relationship with Luca, it would be more aligned with his character as betrayed, unless he had reason to assume that Luca is completely harmless. What I’m getting at is that Luca can be read as homosexual, despite their being no confirmation of that textually. Do you think I’m grasping at straws here, Brandon, or did you get that feeling as well? Do you have any of your own extratextual character interpretations you’d like to share?

Brandon: To be honest, that reading of Luca’s sexuality never occurred to me on the first watch, but that might just have been another result of the film’s notably progressive, empathetic character work. I am so used to men who are coded as gay in giallo films (among other vintage exploitation genres) to be such over the top, cartoonish caricatures that their sexual orientation is unignorable, often to the point of being a homophobic joke. Speaking of Argento, I remember Four Flies on Grey Velvet being especially egregious on thaat front. I had interpreted Francesco’s conspicuous disinterest in Luca as an extension of his general self-absorption. This might count as an extratextual character interpretation on my part, but to me Francesco doesn’t seem at all that interested in anything his wife is up to, her friends included. That only changes when her snooping leads to him being suspected for murder. I totally buy that interpretation of Luca as a legitimate possibility, though. It would at the very least fit in with the film’s overall egalitarian, empathetic approach to characters like Gloria & Virginia. It’ll certainly be something I keep in mind in future revisits of The Psychic, as it would be a welcome variation on typical giallo homophobia, but I honestly didn’t pay that much attention to Luca as a character on the first run through. Women like the clairvoyant Virginia & the Cruella de Ville-ish Gloria were much stronger standouts than any of the men in the film, including the one who ended up being the killer.

Besides its refreshing shift away from giallo’s typically macho genre trappings, The Psychic is also notable for the way it plays with time. Virginia’s visions have an A Christmas Carol way of touching on all three sectors of time: past, present, and future. Virginia’s vision of her mother’s suicide as a child was a clairvoyant glimpse of the present (besides being an absurdly grotesque opening to a fairly muted murder mystery). Her visions of the objects in the Murder Room end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy of a future crime that hasn’t even unfolded. At the same time, the curiosity her vision sparks uncovers a victim from a past murder that had somehow gone by uninvestigated. This temporal experimentation follows a much less conventional narrative structure than what I’m used to seeing in most giallo films, which typically function as proto-slasher, body count-focused exploitation pieces, as beautiful as they are to the eye.

Britnee, how did the relationship between Time & Virginia’s visions affect your own experience with The Psychic? What do the inclusion of the opening present-tense suicide & the discovery of the past murder victim add to Virginia’s visions of her future fate?

Britnee: The way Virginia’s visions relate to the past, present, and future caused me to go a little cross-eyed from having my mind blown. Her visions initially leading her to the skeleton in the mansion walls tricked me into truly believing that those violent visions were clues that would lead to solving that poor woman’s murder. Once realizing that the visions were actually intended for Virginia’s own future demise, I began to think of what was the point of having a young woman’s skeleton stuck in wall and how it contributed to completing the puzzle. My light bulb moment in the midst of all this mystery went off at this point; Virginia was intended to find the body because it helped her come to the realization that her visions were of the future and not the past. Her fixation on determining the reason for this young woman’s brutal death led her to one of the most riveting moments in the movie: the discovery of the true date on the magazine that contained a cover photo of the woman in the wall. Poor Virginia was teased by her own visions, thinking she was solving a crime of the past, only to find herself being buried alive in the wall in the end. Having that initial vision of seeing her mother committing suicide at the film’s beginning really leads the audience to assume what Virginia sees is happening in the moment, but I guess that’s not how psychic visions work. Although I have an interest in supernatural phenomena, I don’t know much about psychic visions. How do those with psychic abilities know if they are seeing the past, present, or future? Perhaps if Virginia sought out training for her ability, she would have been able to be more in tune with her gift.

When it comes to figuring out how her vision of her mother’s suicide contributes to her visions of her own death, I’m not exactly sure how that vision contributes to her fate, but it does contribute to the fact that all her visions deal with death. There’s never any indication that she’s had a vision that led to something more positive, like a marriage, birth, etc. Maybe her gift only allowed her to see visions of deaths for those in her bloodline? I think knowing a little more about her mother’s background would have added more to the story. We’re sort of just hit with this intense death/psychic vision with little explanation right at the beginning. Just a little dialogue from the mother as she drove to the cliff would have been great.

Other than the film’s unforgettable plot, I really enjoyed all its artistic aspects, especially the psychedelic close ups of Virginia’s eyes before she has a vision. It’s almost cartoonish, but in the most tasteful way possible. Alli, what are some visuals in the film that you particularly enjoyed?

Alli: I, too, really liked the scenes where she’s about to have a vision. In fact, one of my favorite scenes is in the very beginning when she’s going through the tunnel. There’s all these quick cuts and flashes of light. It builds so much tension. After the gruesome opening suicide, it lured me into thinking her husbands plane was about to crash and that she was going to see visions of that. It wasn’t a let down for there to be an unsolved murder, though. The quick moments when the murder cryptically unfolds are really effective: the blinking red light, the mortar oozing out of the bricks, the dead woman, and the overturned bust.’

In the tunnel, she’s just plunged into darkness with a little spot of glaring light on the other side. There’s also the scene where they’re unveiling the palazzo where everything is dark until the blinding light as the shades are being lifted. The use of that contrast is really great, and maybe a not too subtle metaphor about the world being illuminated and the truth coming to light. Both sort of feel like they’re gradually revealing a new world to her, the tunnel being one where she’s seen a dark secret and the palazzo where she’s introduced to the crime scene.

One of my favorite things about any giallo is the iconic use of red. It’s a standard across the genre, but I love it every time; be it used as a warning symbol, to make it seem like the set is tinted with blood, or just because. I’m just into it. This movie is definitely no exception, and uses it in conjunction with the clues in both rooms where murders happen. The first glimpse of this all red room was gorgeous. The wall paper and chairs and drapery are just spooky and eerie enough for a dead body to fit in there, but there’s also a sense of class. I disagree with Virginia when she says, “Only an old person would live in a room like that.” There’s also the red lamp in the palazzo ex-bedroom. It casts a bit of half light on her face, and I thought that was a great shot.

Lagniappe

Boomer: For what it’s worth, I’ve always read the final scene as ambiguous, but leaned on the side of Virginia being rescued from the wall. Admittedly, I never considered the possibility that she might be discovered too late . . .

Brandon: It makes me somewhat of an asshole, but I have to admit I got a little bit of a laugh out of this film’s opening suicide. It can’t be understated how bizarre of an introduction it is to see that mannequin-esque body double Superman its way down the side of the cliff and smash its bloody face against every rock on the way down. I don’t think I was necessarily laughing at The Psychic for beginning that way, but it was such a bold, unexpected opener that my first reaction was to guffaw at its audacity. Whether or not any humor was intended in that moment, it was certainly an effective way to grab my attention as an audience. I had no idea what was coming next, but that mannequin’s bloodied face promised it would be something memorable.

If I may also briefly weigh in on Virginia’s ultimate fate at the opposite end of the film, I believed her to clearly be dead by the credits, an assumption the tagline on the film’s absurdly spoilery poster seems to support. I do love that its ambiguity has left enough room for that conclusion to be debatable, though.

Alli: I love this movie’s attention to detail. There’s just such a consistency and nothing feels ignored. Like any good murder movie or show, we the audience are expected to pick up on the clues to put things together: the red room, the broken mirror, the changed furniture, the same kind of bricks that were used in the walling, the magazine, the cigarettes, and last but not least the alarm on the watch. Those twelve revealing notes.

Britnee: Almost each time Virginia’s name was stated throughout The Psychic, that horrible yet extremely catchy radio hit, “Meet Virginia” by Train would play in my head. I think it would be so cool if one of those fake music videos on YouTube was made for that song using scenes from this film. Imagine those bloody visions flashing on the screen when the chorus hits. I completely suck at doing anything that tech-heavy, so I’m just putting the request out there hoping that someone has enough free time and talent to make this a reality.

Upcoming Movies of the Month
September: Alli presents Schizopolis (1996)
October: Brandon presents Unfriended (2015)
November: Britnee presents Hearts of Fire (1987)

-The Swampflix Crew

Dig Two Graves (2017)

It’s both fascinating and depressing how many minor indie films can slip through the cracks of theatrical distribution after first appearing for a festival run. The digitization of the film industry has democratized production to the point where almost anyone can make a movie, but opening the floodgates that way has meant that it’s much more difficult for a feature to stand out & be seen. The Gothic mystery thriller Dig Two Graves, for instance, premiered at the New Orleans Film Fest in 2014, but didn’t earn a “select theaters” release until nearly just three years later. The modestly budgeted film is now lurking, just a few months later, in the massive heap of under-publicized indies that eventually all find their way to Netflix. In some ways it’s easier to watch than ever before, but it’s also a victim of a distribution method that does it no favors in terms of visibility. It’s a shame too, because it’s actually a fairly engaging work that could be commercially viable with the right push.

There are two dueling timelines in Dig Two Graves. The film opens with 1940s cops dumping two bodies off a cliff into a backwoods river. It then jumps to two teen siblings standing at the same cliff in the 1970s. Unable to convince his sister to plunge with him, the older brother leaps to the water below on his own, never to resurface. The sister obsesses over this disappearance and is hurt that her family and community is able to move on. Her story starts to converge with the opening 1940s timeline from there, as she’s offered a proposition from old-timey gypsy vagabonds who promise to bring her brother back to life through black magic in exchange for the life of her schoolyard friend. The division between the 40s and 70s timelines loses its rigidity as she struggles with the implications of the magic that could bring her brother back. It’s a classic Southern Gothic tale of supernatural revenge that just happens to be set in the Midwest.

The pitfalls of revenge and the cycles of history repeating itself aren’t exactly novel territory for a mystery thriller to explore, but Dig Two Graves does a great job of visually distinguishing itself while remaining narratively familiar. Snakes, carnivals, magic tricks, the eeriness of the woods, and the hallmarks of hillbilly occultism all afford the film the feel of a strange bedtime story that resurfaces in your nightmares through half-remembered images. Jars of homemade moonshine and the field dressing of deer ground its supernatural story in a sense of real world brutality, while the lead vagabond’s battered top hat gives him a kind of Babadook quality. This is the exact kind of film I would have loved to have caught at a young enough age so that its specific images haunted me more than the mechanics if its central mystery; I’m thinking specifically of my relationship with The Lady in White. Still, even for an adult audience Dig Two Graves packs plenty of visually-triggered chills and can be technically impressive in its confident drifts between its two disparate temporal settings.

One of the biggest questions Dig Two Graves raises for me is just how many of these well-made indies are slipping through the distribution cracks and not even reaching Netflix. I even attended the 2014 NOFF where this film premiered (it’s where I saw Wetlands) and I’ve never heard of this film. I’ve had movies from subsequent NOFF screenings crack my Top Films of the Year lists, never to be heard of again in wide distribution. This is a strange time we’re living in for pop culture media, but I’m glad films like Dig Two Graves can at least find a way to get made even if they have to later struggle to be seen.

-Brandon Ledet

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 29: The Third Man (1949)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where The Third Man (1949) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 157 of the first edition hardback, Ebert explains his general taste in cinema. He writes, “What kinds of movies do I like best? If I had to make a generalization, I would say that many of my favorite movies are about Good People. It doesn’t matter if the ending is happy or sad. It doesn’t matter if the characters win or lose. […] The Third Man is about two people who do the right thing and can never speak to each other as a result.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “The Third Man reflects the optimism of Americans and the bone-weariness of Europe after the war. It’s a story about grownups and children: Adults like Calloway, who has seen at first hand the results of Lime’s crimes, and children like the trusting Holly, who believes in the simplified good and evil of his Western novels. The Third Man is like the exhausted aftermath of Casablanca. Both have heroes who are American exiles, awash in a world of treachery and black market intrigue. Both heroes love a woman battered by the war. But Casablanca is bathed in the hope of victory, while The Third Man already reflects the Cold War years of paranoia, betrayal and the Bomb.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series.

I was hoping to redeem myself after my relatively muted response to Casablanca by falling head over heels for its British mystery thriller descendant The Third Man, which seems equally lauded as One of the Greatest Films of All Time. The Third Man boasts the same fast talking, hard drinking, manly noir efficiency of Casablanca, although its depressive post-war exhaustion is tonally different from the Humphrey Bogart classic’s wartime unease. I found myself technically impressed, but emotionally disengaged by both works, unable to echo their set-in-stone praise as the best of what cinema has to offer. I suppose the film’s dizzying Dutch angles and classic noir attention to lighting are largely what elevate it above most pulpy mysteries that were being produced in its era, but that visual flair only took me so far as a modern audience. The Third Man is undeniably a well-made film in terms of craft, but I’m failing to connect with it as an essential, rewarding cinematic experience.

An American pulp novelist arrives in a post-war Austria looking to meet with a dear old friend, Harry Lime. He discovers that Harry Lime has died in a suspicious car accident, where everyone at the scene knew the man personally in some way. Especially disturbed by the report of an unidentified “third man” present at the scene, the American novelist embarks on a vigilante mission that mirrors the kind of genre fluff he writes for a living. In the process he learns some shocking, damning things about Harry Lime’s post-war racketeering and makes the mistake of falling in love with Lime’s girlfriend, who remains true to him even in death & among accusations of his unscrupulous racketeering (which lead to many more deaths). Harry Lime becomes a sort of mythic legend during this investigation, both in the exposure of his crimes & in the endless repetition of his name. The mystery of how he died is gradually swapped out for the mystery of who he was as a person, a question that only can be answered in the grimmest of terms.

Besides its forward-thinking (and sideways-leaning) cinematography, I suspect The Third Man is a movie remembered mostly as a collection of iconic moments, the same way Casablanca plays like a greatest hits collection of Old Hollywood dialogue. Some of these moments worked especially well for me, including a movie-stealing speech from a maniacal Orson Welles in the third act and a couple chase scenes that lead to unexpected hideouts like a Ferris wheel or a movie theater or an applauding literary audience. Occasionally, though, I’d have to scratch my head over the movie’s reputation, like when the most shrill, annoying child actor in the history of shrill, annoying child actors accuses our American makeshift gumshoe of murder in a piercing whine. I was also confused by the praise of the film’s zither soundtrack, which gives it the comedic shrug of a Curb Your Enthusiasm episode, completely cutting the tension of watching our protagonist get in major trouble by asking too many questions. Ebert went out of his way to praise the zither’s influence on the film, writing “Has there ever been a film where the music more perfectly suited the action than in Carol Reed’s The Third Man? […] The sound is jaunty but without joy, like whistling in the dark. It sets the tone; the action begins like an undergraduate lark and then reveals vicious undertones.” I don’t understand at all where he’s coming from, but I doubt he’s alone in believing that.

There’s a really interesting post-war tone that commands a lot of The Third Man (when it isn’t being disrupted by children & zithers). Piles of rubble and greedy profits made from people’s suffering in a time of crisis lurk in the movie’s fringes, rarely directly playing into the plot the way it does in Casablanca, but often overpowering the impact of the central murder mystery. Major twists in that central mystery never meant more to me than that post-war gloom, but the two narratives do compliment each other nicely. Like with Casablanca, I’m willing to accept that a few rewatches might be necessary to fully appreciate The Third Man as an all-time classic, but the film’s murder mystery reveals will likely only dull in those revisits. It’s the post-war exhaustion that’s going to matter more in the long run (along with the film’s bold visual aesthetic). The doomed romance at the heart of Casablanca sounds a lot more pleasant to experience on loop, though, so for now I’ll just have to continue to damn this film by calling it merely very good.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating: (3/5, 70%)

Next Lesson: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

-Brandon Ledet