Today in Movie History: May 11

Dark and gloomy films rule the roost today, with one bright ray of sunshine from Robert Redford. We’ll start with the masterpiece: Fritz Lang’s M, a chilling study in crime, compulsion and human evil that made a star out of Peter Lorre… whose unsettling performance as a child killer captured and tried by the criminal underworld launched an entire career of playing creeps and weirdoes. The film opened in Lang’s native Germany today in 1931.

If you prefer your Gothic crime in a more modern context, there’s Alex Proyas’s The Crow, a supernatural revenge story overshadowed by the tragic death if its star, Brandon Lee, while on set. Lee’s passing gave the film a ghoulish curiosity factor, but 24 years on, its haunting power remains undiminished. The film succeeded not because it relishes revenge, but because it understands that revenge won’t bring back what was lost. It opened today in 1994.

North of the border, a little Canadian crew took a new approach to the age-old horror chestnut of werewolf movies. The result was Ginger Snaps, a darky funny pro-feminist exercise that combines the high school angst of Heathers with some good old-fashioned bloodletting. It opened today in 2001.

Finally, it is spring after all, and with all those shadows on tap, we could use something a little brighter. Enter Barry Levinson’s The Natural, which reinvented a downbeat baseball novel as a sunny affirmation of Reagan’s America… and with Robert Redford in the lead, helped reinvigorate the baseball movie for a new generation. It opened today in 1984.

 

Today in Movie History: January 25

We’re looking at quite a few notable films with release dates today. We’ll start with a triumph from the Silver Age of Walt Disney pictures. 101 Dalmatians remains one of the Mouse’s biggest hits (#2 behind Snow White if you adjust for inflation) and — amid the studio’s bevvy of memorable villains — delivering one Cruella de Vil, who just might take the cake. It opened today in 1961.

Nine years later, Hollywood was attempting to sort out the cultural hash of Vietnam with heavy hitters like Catch-22 and Patton making obliquely comments (both fer and agin) on the conflict. But the one that’s best stood the test of time is Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, an anti-war comedy for the ages and the inspiration for one of the most successful TV shows in history. If your only exposure to it comes from Alan Alda, you owe it to yourself to hunt this one down. It opened today in 1970.

The other releases of the day are given over to horror movies. B-movie maestro Roger Corman found a winning combination by casting Vincent Price in a series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. His first four were as serious as a heart attack, but for his fifth, he decided to have a little fun. The result was The Raven, starring Price, Peter Lorre and Boris Karloff as rival sorcerers in a comic tale based loosely on Poe’s most famous poem. (The film also features an early performance from a very hammy Jack Nicholson.) It opened today in 1963.

On a more recent note… attempting to unravel the convoluted history of the Ju-On franchise can bring one to the brink of madness. Instead, we’re going to make the Japanese release date of the original film — January 25, 2003 — then go hide under the covers until that creepy little kid comes for us. Possibly wearing a coat made out of puppies. Sleep tight everyone!

 

 

Today in Movie History: October 3

The Maltese Falcon belongs in that rarefied air of movies that exist solely to be loved by everyone who sees them. Besides signaling the rise of film noir in the 1940s, it made Humphrey Bogart an icon, launched the brilliant career of director John Huston, and turned its titular “dingus” into one of the most recognizable images in cinema. Small wonder it’s considered  one of the greatest films ever made. It opened today in 1941.

Somewhere in Time, Jeannot Szwarc’s time-traveling romance based on a story by Richard Matheson, was roundly panned upon first release. The intervening years have turned it into a cult hit… to the point where fans gather every year at the hotel on Mackinac Island, MI where it was filmed to get their geek on. While technically science fiction, the romance is what sells it, making the fervor and dedication among its fans fairly unique for movies of this sort. And I confess: the romance works quite well, aided by a gorgeous score from John Barry and stars Christopher Reeve and Jane Seymour, who found the fragility and tragedy in their characters. Somewhere in Time opened today in 1980.

If you just read the basic description of The Trouble With Harry — a black comedy about a corpse that won’t stay buried — then saw director Alfred Hitchcock’s name attached to it, you’d think it was a masterpiece. Sadly, it never plays quite as smartly or as amusingly as it should: a meandering affair the ultimately stands far lower on the canon than one would hope. That said, Hitchcock is Hitchcock, and we’re giving it a shout-out here on those merits alone. It opened today in 1955.