Originally published: The Bainbridge Island Review, Oct. 2018
Given the two thumbs up several outspoken readers were kind enough to give my last double feature list (“The double feature is an American summertime screen staple: Review culture writer picks five pairs of movie mates,” Aug. 2018), I thought I’d take a second stab at this twofold topic.
Again, for those just joining our program, the name of the game is two great flicks that go great together. I love a well paired double feature and spend, admittedly, too much time considering and choosing candidates. Here are just a few more movies I think fit the plus-sized bill.
* Mild spoilers ahead
Awesome Animation Double Feature:
‘Perfect Blue’ (1997) and ‘Loving Vincent’ (2017)
If Brian De Palma directed a script by Philip K. Dick, set in 1990s Tokyo, and the resulting film was animated, it would be “Perfect Blue.” I’m not usually an anime fan, but this is a surreal, mind-bending masterpiece.
The film follows Mima, a member of a Japanese idol group, who retires from music to pursue an acting career. As she becomes a victim of stalking, with somebody writing a blog as her, apologizing to her disappointed fans, she starts to lose her perception of reality and fiction. Then, the people “she” writes bad things about end up dead. It’s cool and creepy and interesting and centers on an ambiguous, complicated female character, while simultaneously examining the artifice and rampant misogyny of the entertainment industry.
“Loving Vincent” is the first fully painted animated feature film. It’s beautiful and unique and sad, just like it’s subject: the life and work of Vincent van Gogh. Beginning one year after the artist’s suicide, a postman asks his son to deliver Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. He finds the death suspicious, as merely weeks earlier Van Gogh claimed through letters that his mood was calm and normal.
Each of the film’s 65,000 frames is reportedly an individual oil painting on canvas, using the same technique as Van Gogh, created by a team of 125 painters. It won Best Animated Feature Film Award at the 30th European Film Awards in Berlin, and was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 90th Academy Awards.
Evil Ernie Double Feature:
‘The Devil’s Rain’ (1975) and ‘Deadly Blessing’ (1981)
On paper, Ernest Borgnine should not have been a movie star.
The bulging eyes, the ponderous belly, the gap-toothed grin, and those eyebrows, man — all of it should have condemned the guy to a workaday career as a character actor at best.
But Ernie is mesmerizing. Be it in a true classic like “The Wild Bunch” or “The Poseidon Adventure,” or these two madcap movies, both which see the man who was Quinton McHale lead fiendish clans of ne’er-do-wells in scene-chomping, operatic performances that make Nicolas Cage look subtle, Borgnine brings it every time.
Like its star, the “The Devil’s Rain” is a film that defies logic. Directed by surrealist visionary Robert Fuest (“The Abominable Dr. Phibes”), with a cast includes William Shatner, Tom Skerritt, Eddie Albert, Ida Lupino and John Travolta, it boasts as its technical advisor Anton LaVey himself, founder of the Church of Satan. In it, Borgnine leads a pack of undead Satanists in a crusade to recapture a precious unholy book. The mood is tangible, the effects practical — and gonzo — and all the performances are stellar.
“Deadly Blessing” again sees Ernie in charge of a sinister sect, this time in Amish country. Directed by Wes Craven (father of Freddy Krueger), the movie follows Sharon Stone and Susan Buckner as they visit a friend who recently lost her husband in a farm accident. He was a former member of Borgnine’s simply dressed, technology-averse cult — the man’s own son, in fact — and her frightening father-in-law has made no bones about wanting her off the land and out of town.
Then, a mysterious figure begins killing cultists and city gals alike, and the space between myth and fact gets narrow. Brace yourself for the final five minutes, they’re a doozy.
Truly Strange Double Feature:
‘The Billboard Boys’ (2017) and ‘Demon House’ (2018)
We are living in a golden age of documentary filmmaking, no question. There’s a deluge of stranger-than-fiction features out there begging for your attendant — on screens big and small — but these two, I submit, are especially worthy.
Life in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley circa 1982 was not fun. Economically, things were bad all over, but it was downright ugly in the Rust Belt. Rampant unemployment and general disenfranchisement with the American Dream made the perfect backdrop for one of the weirdest radio contests of all time, recounted perfectly in “The Billboard Boys.”
Three men, competing for a mobile home, lived side-by-side on a roadside billboard — sleeping in tents stocked with a portable toilet, a telephone and other bare necessities — with the last one down being named the winner. Simple enough, right? People expected this thing to last a few months, maybe. But then none of them came down. Time passed, a lot of time. Capturing international press attention, the haggard trio came to symbolize everything wrong with the country’s economic system — with the rigged game of life, even.
Then, things got weirder.
It’s a truly American tale, the kind of quirky real life story begging for a cinematic adaptation (one I’d like to see the Safdie brothers direct).
“Demon House,” directed and starring everybody’s favorite chest-puffing, spirit-abusing TV host Zak Bagans (the shouty one in “Ghost Adventures”), is a highway accident of a documentary you can’t stop watching. In it, Bagans buys a supposedly haunted house in Gary, Indiana, sight unseen (the notorious Ammons home), hoping to stage a thorough on-site investigation, interview people who have been affected by the ghostly goings-on and subject matter experts. What ultimately emerges, though, is much creepier than proof of demonic activity: The portrait of a zealot.
Bagans breezes past obvious possible contributing factors behind the “haunting,” allotting insultingly brief moments to issues like the emotional and psychological effects of systemic poverty, and the social support systems that have clearly failed many in that part of the state (similarities to the famous Enfield haunting are undeniable; why do ghosts hate poor people?). Large portions of the film are (admittedly well done) reenactments, and much of the captured “proof” is crew members acting weird or complaining of strange feelings. Never mind all that, says our host. Ghosts, bro! Bagans is frat boy Ahab in search of his demon whale, a man who (if he ever had any) has long since chest-bumped away his doubts.
Still, when viewed for solely entertainment purposes, the doc is addictively fascinating.
Know Jack Double Feature:
‘Revenge of the Creature’ (1955) and ‘Monster on the Campus’ (1958)
Jack Arnold is an unsung hero of American cinema whose time for reappraisal has come.
Called by the Los Angeles Times, “one of the finest, most resourceful B-picture directors ever,” he helmed more than his share of classics, including “It Came from Outer Space” (1953), “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954), “Tarantula” (1955), and “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957), among others. What might in lesser hands have been just more drive-in fodder is instantly elevated by Arnold’s atmospheric cinematography and a sophisticated handling of story.
Reportedly born on a kitchen table, the son of Russian immigrants, Arnold was at various times a member of the military Signal Corps, a pilot, an actor, a dancer, a documentarian. His movies almost always have a clear moralistic stance and blatant patriotic bent (perhaps the reason he has yet to be taken as seriously as he should), overcoming issues of budget and primitive effects to be inordinately captivating.
Filmmaker and author Jon Baxter said, “No imprint lingers so indelibly on the face of modern fantasy film as that of this obscure yet brilliant artist. All his films, no matter how tawdry, were marked with a brilliant personal vision.”
Good thing too, because for this Arnold-themed double feature I’ve chosen two of his more “tawdry” works.
“Revenge of the Creature” sees the titular scaly resident of the Black Lagoon finally captured and imprisoned in a Florida aquarium, from which he promptly escapes, wreaking the expected havoc. In light of the “Blackfish” controversy, and the ongoing discourse about the ethics of keeping animals in zoos, this unjustly dismissed sequel is worth a watch now more than ever.
“Monster on the Campus” is not a great movie, but it is a mesmerizing snapshot of bygone America and charming in that way only vintage sci-fi can manage. In it, a cardigan-clad professor turns into a killer Neanderthal after injecting himself with the irradiated blood of an ancient fish.
Because science, right?
Cult Love Double Feature:
“Split Image” (1982) and “The Invitation” (2015)
Mix up some Kool-Aid, film fans.
Actually, it was poison-laced Flavor Aid being downed during the tragedy at Jonestown, which occurred exactly 40 years ago this November. Cults are a timely topic these days, with a glut of documentaries, series and feature films making the rounds in pop culture. It’s no wonder. Cults tend to flourish in times of distress, when trust in government is low, reliable information is scarce or often in question, when more mainstream religions have failed to provide comfort and community, and people feel powerless and alone.
I dare say enjoying the future stories of the wackadoo (that’s a technical term, by the way) sects flourishing even now in the American hinterlands is reason enough to persevere through these draining times.
But, while you wait, check out these fine films.
“Split Image” is a playground of performances. Michael O’Keefe plays a clean-cut, all-American college athlete who is lured to a youth-oriented religious commune by the beautiful Karen “Mrs. Indiana Jones” Allen (can’t say I blame him there). He quickly falls under the sway of the uber creepy cult leader, played perfectly by Peter Fonda! His desperate parents turn to a supposedly professional “deprogrammer,” played as sublimely sleazy by James Woods, whose “cure” might be more traumatic than anything Fonda’s followers can dish out.
Also, keep an eye out for Brian Dennehy, because what movie doesn’t need a little of that guy?
“The Invitation” depicts the most tension-filled dinner party of all time, and there may or may not be something malicious at work.
Logan Marshall-Green (the poor man’s Tom Hardy) arrives at his former home at the invitation of his ex-wife, with his new girlfriend in tow, to attend a dinner party, having not been there since the divorce that followed the death of their young son.
Seems the ex and her new beau have just returned from an enlightening trip to Mexico and are eager to tell everybody about this group they joined there which works through grief using spiritual philosophy. Things get heavy quick and Marshall-Green begins to suspect his ex’s new friends are a cult planning a massive murder/suicide at the party. Or maybe it’s his own grief at work?
John Carroll Lynch, easily one of my favorite actors and capable of bone-chilling performances (see “Zodiac” (2007), gives a stellar show here, but it’s just one of the many amazing performances that make this movie exquisitely uncomfortable.