Here’s the latest installment of Hidden Treasures.
Black Sabbath (1963)
Mario Bava’s Black Sabbath is a horror trilogy, telling three separate, yet equally effective stories. In “The Telephone”, Rosy (Michèle Mercier), a prostitute, is receiving threatening phone calls from pimp, Frank (Milo Queseda), who’s just escaped from prison. Alone and frightened, she turns to her former lover, Mary (Lidia Alfonsi), for comfort. But as it turns out, Mary is hiding a secret from Rosy, one that could prove quite deadly. “The Wurdulak” is the story of a Russian peasant named Gorka (Boris Karloff) who, after ridding the countryside of a menacing vampire, returns home as little more than a creature himself, a Wurdulak who is damned to drink the blood of those he loves. Vladimir (Mark Damon), a stranger to the area, refuses to believe such stories are true, yet becomes a first-hand witness to the horror when he falls in love with Gorka’s daughter, Sdenka (Susy Anderson). In the third and final tale, “Drops of Water”, Nurse Helen Chester (Jacqueline Pierreux) is preparing the body of a recently deceased fortune teller for burial. Noticing a diamond ring on the dead woman’s finger, Nurse Chester gently slips the ring off and puts it in her pocket, an act that initiates a night of horror when the dead woman returns from the grave looking to reclaim that which was stolen from her.
Before finally taking his seat in the director’s chair, Mario Bava had followed in the footsteps of his father, Eugenia, a well-respected cinematographer in the early days of Italian cinema, by working as a cameraman on several films. Watching Black Sabbath, it becomes obvious that his various experiences looking through the viewfinder served him very well. Aside from his clever use of framing (In “The Telephone”, the various shots of the phone itself, whether in close-up or positioned in the background, add a level of terror to an everyday item), Bava also allows his camera to seemingly glide along, in bold, smooth motions, throughout the film. In the opening sequence of “The Wurdulak”, we follow along with Vladimir as he rides to the house of Gorka’s family, then continue on past him when he stops, realizing someone has been watching his every move. Despite the fact that Black Sabbath tells three very distinctive horror stories, the overall style and composition of each remains somewhat consistent. In presenting the action with such eye-catching flair, Bava ensures that his audience will scream in all the right places.
Silver Lode (1954)
Directed by Allen Dwan in 1954, Silver Lode is a western that has all but slipped into obscurity. Dan Ballard (John Payne), a well-respected citizen of the town of Silver Lode, was in the process of marrying his fiancée, Rose Evans (Lizabeth Scott), when their wedding was interrupted by a U.S. Marshal bearing a warrant for Ballard’s arrest. The Marshal, a shifty character named Ned McCarty (Dan Duryea), personally accuses Ballard of murder and the theft of $20,000. Ballard denies the charges, and is convinced McCarty isn’t who he claims to be. However, with McCarty telling more and more people in town about Ballard’s ‘history’, Dan Ballard soon finds that he’s not only fighting McCarty, but the good citizens of Silver Lode as well.
Aside from being a well-crafted western, Silver Lode is also a thinly-veiled take on the McCarthy blacklist era of the 1950’s, when U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy ruined the careers of many in the Hollywood community for their supposed ‘un-American’ affiliations. When McCarty (a not-so-subtle play on names) arrives in town and publicly charges Ballard, the townsfolk of Silver Lode begin to question whether or not this man they’ve come to admire is, in fact, a wanted murderer. After all, Dan Ballard only arrived in Silver Lode two short years ago. Who really knew anything about his life before then? Before long, as coincidences build and gossip spreads, McCarty has the entire town believing Ballard is a cold-blooded killer. In the span of only a few short hours, Dan Ballard has become an outsider in the community he once called home, an obvious parallel to those in Hollywood who were shunned by former friends and colleagues on account of their ‘questionable‘ political affiliations. Much like Ballard, these entertainers were condemned with rhetoric, with little or no actual proof to back it up.
Allan Dwan directed well over 300 feature-length and short films throughout his career, a career that dated back to the days of the silents. By the time he made Silver Lode, Dwan had already established himself as an extremely gifted filmmaker, one who could tell a great story with very limited resources at his disposal. With Silver Lode, however, Dwan did more than merely tell a story; he held a mirror up to his friends and colleagues, challenging them to take a long, hard look at what it was they had become.
How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass (2003)
Next, we have what is easily director Mario van Peebles’s most personal film, a movie in which his father, noted filmmaker Melvin van Peebles, is the central character.
Melvin Van Peebles was the first African-American filmmaker to take on the system, and his 1971 independent movie, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, literally broke the Hollywood mold. Up to that time, African Americans were depicted in films as little more than background characters, happily existing in an all-white environment. Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song took its audience into the ghetto, focusing on an entirely different black experience. Thanks in part to a mobilization of the Black Panthers, which urged all of its members to get out and support the film, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song went on to become the top grossing independent movie of 1971.
How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass is a dramatized account of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, taking us from the creative beginnings; the writing of the script, up to the film’s historic premiere in a small theater in Detroit. The journey would prove to be a difficult one for Melvin Van Peebles (played here by his son, Mario). To begin with, the studios wouldn’t touch Sweet Sweetback, fearing it was far too radical for a mainstream audience, and even Melvin’s agent, Howie (Saul Rubinek), strongly advised his client to drop the idea of a film about a black revolutionary. Melvin ignores this advice, deciding instead to make the film independently. Yet still more problems would persist. When the original financiers pulled out, Melvin had little choice but to invest his own money to complete the project. Along with the financial burdens, Melvin also had to edit the film himself, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that he was rapidly losing vision in one eye. If all this wasn’t bad enough, Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song was saddled with the dreaded X rating by the ratings board, and as a result, only two theaters in the entire country would display the film. Melvin Van Peebles had invested everything he had in this movie, and its reception would determine whether or not he was now financially bankrupt as a result. The rest, as they say, is history.
In How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass, Mario Van Peebles captures the creative energy and rabid determination of his famous father, and yet, because Mario tells this story from an eyewitness’s point of view (as a child, Mario was on set for much of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song), he avoids the usual biographical pitfalls while doing so. Mario does not paint Melvin as a larger than life individual, allowing instead for his father’s true personality to explode on screen. Melvin Van Peebles, it seems, could be nasty, determined, and overbearing. Yet, despite his shortcomings, we ultimately recognize that Melvin was a true cinematic pioneer. Melvin Van Peebles may have had a short fuse, and perhaps he was not the most loving father in the world, but he did have a vision, and possessed the drive and determination to make that vision a reality.
There was power in Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, and that power is successfully recaptured in How to Get the Man’s Foot Outta Your Ass by his son, Mario. All these years later, the Van Peebles touch is still strong, still powerful…and it didn’t even skip a generation!