Today in Movie History: March 13

If we’re talking Westerns, the line forms behind John Ford, who not only made John Wayne a star, but set the visual lexicon for the entire genre. And if you want to see Ford at his best, look no further than The Searchers, a masterpiece in a career full of them and still widely considered the greatest Western of all time. Wayne plays a bigoted Civil War veteran who spends long years on the hunt for his niece (Natalie Wood) captured by Indians. Despite the horrendous Native American stereotyping, it has the courage to examine the bigotry of Wayne’s anti-hero, and to suggest that he might not be on the side of the angels after all. The film opened today in 1956.

If you’re looking for lighter fare, try The Love Bug Disney’s ubiquitous live-action comedy about a sentient Volkswagen Beetle, and the zany mayhem that ensues when he joins the racing circuit. It opened in 1969 (and earned points back in the day for being partially filmed in my hometown of Riverside, CA).

Finally, we have Evil Dead II,  the sequel to Sam Raimi’s cult hit The Evil Dead. Raimi and his team were reluctant to revisit the first movie and did so only after subsequent projects failed to provide the opportunities they’d hoped for. Faced with what he thought was the end of his career as a director, he went absolutely bananas… and allowed the sequel to outstrip its predecessor for sheer Looney Toons dementia. The film now stands as an incontrovertible horror classic, and Raimi? Yeah, he’s done okay for himself. Evil Dead II opened today in 1987.

 

Today in Movie History: February 19

Sometimes, it takes a royal jackass to stare the gibbering maw of evil in the eye and send it back to the howling pit from whence it came… even if said jackass is a barely employable stock boy with a chainsaw for a hand. Sam Raimi’s immortal Army of Darkness opened 25 years ago today in 1993.

Today in Movie History: April 15

When Alfred Hitchcock released Stage Fright in 1950, he was roundly criticized for presenting an unreliable narrator and delivering flashbacks to events that never happened. 45 years later, he looked positively prescient as Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects attempted the same trick and was hailed as a masterpiece. Hitchcock, of course, aged far better than his critics, and Stage Fright now enjoys a solid reputation among the master’s work.

If you want flat-out horror instead of mere suspense, you’ll have to look elsewhere… like director Sam Raimi and his producer Robert Tapert, who spent years hustling up money to make a cheesy little monster movie and then another two years marketing it before finally hitting a genuine release date today in 1983. The movie was the original Evil Dead, and though eclipsed by its sequel, it now stands as a watershed moment in the annals of horror.

Speaking of watershed moments, the same day in 1983 also saw the release of Flashdance, a harmless piece of commercial dross that heralded a more ominous shift in Hollywood sensibilities. Burned by the latter days of the 1970s, when visionary directors began running amuck and producing turkey after turkey, a young executive named Don Simpson circulated a memo at Paramount stating that studios are not obligated to make art. Bums on seats were the name of the game, and Flashdance was his first attempt to demonstrate it. He and his partner Jerry Bruckheimer built an empire on that MTV sizzle, and for better or worse, helped defined cinema in the 1980s as a result.