In order of when I saw these things, meaning that the best ones are the first and last.
Nights of Cabiria: Giulietta Masina is phenomenal as Cabiria, a hard-luck woman who refuses to become hard-bitten despite years of street sex work in the rougher outskirts of Rome. She yells, she fights, but most of all, she longs. That pixie face is just suffused with helpless hope. The shot of her profile at the extreme right of the screen, staring in open hunger as the Catholic procession winds away from her, is unforgettable. (And the pilgrimage/mission sequence which follows is a perfect collision of spiritual and material wants.) There are great shots of Cabiria’s house, a beaded doorway on a blasted heath, but mostly this is Masina’s movie. She’s like Audrey Hepburn in that you can’t tear your eyes away.
Ganja & Hess: Surreal, collage-like ’70s vampire film, wrapped in the embrace of black Christianity and fighting it. You’ll know if this film is for you very quickly, with the opening theme song (YES), “The blood of the thing/is the life of the thing,” the coming of Christianity as a loss of truth for Africa–but what kind of truth? A (graphic, onscreen) suicide draws the archaeologist Hess into vampirism. The suicidal man’s widow Ganja soon arrives and joins Hess in the hunt for bright red giallo blood. The improvised dialogue wanders without warning from the adolescent marijuana profundities of the era (that “Cut!” anecdote) to clever spookiness (the “Are you always cold?” exchange) to genuinely moving speeches (Ganja’s childhood memory). In the end Ganja and Hess have to choose power or sacrifice, hungry life or the sweet release.
Director Bill Gunn was hired to make a blaxploitation fang flick and ended up with something close to the opposite: an anti-blaxploitation flick, antiluxurious, anti-action, a harder pleasure. It screened under titles like Blood Couple and Black Vampire. If I had to compare it to something, I’d say: The Addiction. You all know what a compliment that is. Streaming on Kanopy.
The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane: An extremely ’70s tale about the kinds of vulnerability inherent to childhood, and also the kinds which are imposed by a protective society. Jodie Foster is the thirteen-year-old Rynn, who lives all by herself in an insular Quebec town where nobody is French. She thinks she’s doing just fine, but her landlady wants to know why she isn’t in school, and local pervert Frank (Martin Sheen! So oily and villainous!) wants to get to know her real good. You know her fragile equilibrium will be destroyed and the only question is who will survive it.
This story has to be taken as a fable; if you try to make it realism, certain events are way too convenient. If you let yourself soak into the autumn colors (the color of childhood’s end, of losses and descents), enjoying all the costumes and the strange character moments, then the movie can cast its spell. Foster is a huge standout, I mean Martin Sheen is not a bad actor but she’s in another dimension. “It’s MY HOUSE!”, “…and you never asked if you might!”, just a ferocious, iconic, convincing portrayal. She makes what could have felt like a mannered film instead feel raw.
Obligatory 1970s Warning: You absolutely will see a character who is supposed to be 13 get naked on screen. Foster was the same age as her character but this scene uses a much older body double; perhaps the need for a double should have prompted the filmmakers to rethink some things. Rynn experiences a certain tender adolescent sexual awakening, although because this movie deeply lacks self-awareness, the character she (presumably) sleeps with is nineteen. (Ever noticed how every single Billboard Top 100 of the ’70s and early ’80s has at least one song with a title like, “She Won’t Be Too Young Too Much Longer”?) Even that, if you felt you needed to do it, could have been depicted without the echt ’70s “what are limits? we just don’t know” exploitation camera. An interesting illustration of the movie’s thesis that adults do not always know what is best for children, she said judiciously.
I watched this streaming on Hulu.
Hell Night: A lot of talent and skill went into this “frat initiation gone wrong” tale, which often shows up on lists of underrated slashers. It has really nothing to say, and I found that I couldn’t quite love it, but it’s much better-crafted than it needed to be. The music is striking (both the theme song and the instrumentals throughout), the conceit of putting all the student characters in elaborate costumes adds a real gothic flair, the spooky mansion location just can’t be beat. The lighting is impeccable. I know I whine about contemporary movies where you can’t tell what is happening because the lighting is so muddy, but for real, movies like this prove that you can set your whole movie at night, in subterranean caves, and still show the audience what we need to see. Tom DeSimone’s direction creates tension so well, with long quiet sequences begging for a violent interruption. The scene with the rising rug is pure popcorn terror. The final shot is perfect: balanced, wiggy, violent and painterly.
Even the characters are more than just kill fodder. Linda Blair is a slightly screechy, but mostly fun, mechanic and final girl, who gets to be both scared in a sort of frilly feminine way and also capable. The slutty ones don’t die first, and get to have a genuinely endearing hookup full of laughter and weirdness. One of them even goes on to perform himbo heroics!
The backstory is super irritating, did you know that birth defects make you “gorked out” (??) and evil, so if you do watch this I suggest muting the explanatory backstory speech at the beginning and just saying, “Zeus slept with a lady and Hera got mad and made the children monsters, now back to our show.” And I ended up feeling like Hell Night was less than the sum of its parts. The story is shopworn and that overfamiliarity makes the whole thing seem sort of pointless. I enjoyed this film and even respected it, but when it was done it felt like empty calories.
The Hole: This 1998 Ming-liang Tsai joint is a weird, extremely low-rent delight, mythical and unsettling, with an edge of punk. We open on complete blackness as various newscasters and grumbling citizens explain that there’s a pandemic, that garbage collection has been suspended in the quarantine zone and water will be shut off on January 1, 2000 (a few days away), and that everyone in the zone should leave now. Then we see the apartment where The Man Upstairs (Kang-sheng Lee) is curled on the couch in his underpants, amid a scattering of beer bottles. This is not a man who’s gonna get it together to leave the quarantine zone. This is not a man, we feel, who is gonna rise to the occasion.
The Hole builds up its story through long takes and slow, small incidents: The Woman Downstairs (Kuei-mei Yang) stares into space as garbage occasionally flies through the air behind her; she throws package after package of what I think was toilet paper and/or baby wipes or Kleenex into her apartment. Slowly we learn that the plague gives people “bug-like behaviors,” making them hide from the light and seek out damp, humid hidey-holes. The Man feeds cats; the cats get fumigated. It’s pouring rain. The physical environment is crumbling and soaked, in a color scheme somewhere between Edward Hopper and Silent Hill. A plumber knocks a hole in the Man’s apartment, and now he can penetrate the Woman’s apartment with his gaze, his vomit, eventually a limb. Maybe more.
And as our numbed, survival-oriented Adam and Eve conduct their forays and aggressions through the hole that connects their lives, we get these glowing sequences of music and dance. Grace Chang did the vocals for these nightclub tunes, performed in stained and corrugated concrete stairwells. (The elevator calypso is the one most reminiscent of our own pandemic, very “bathtub ‘Swan Lake.’“) The musical fantasy numbers have an obvious scent of Brazil; they also help us imagine the romance between the Man and the Woman, the postapocalyptic courtship, the longings and the desperate need which the characters’ defensive actions might seem to deny. Because in the end they do need each other, with the need which is the last resort of love.
You can watch this streaming via Suns Cinema.