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Tuesday, October 19, 2021

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MoviesScreen GrabsScreen Grabs: He was much more than Frankenstein's monster

Screen Grabs: He was much more than Frankenstein’s monster

An affecting Boris Karloff doc. Plus: Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema, Drunken Film Fest, 'Old Henry,' more new movies

If you miss the communal experience of moviegoing but are hesitant about going back to theaters, a couple short-term alternatives have appeared on the horizon this week. One is the return of Bernal Heights Outdoor Cinema, whose 18th season opens Friday with a shorts program at Alemany Market Plaza and a Sat/2 screening (in Precita Park) of The Last Black Man in San Francisco, whose preliminary trailer had won a prize at the event in 2014, five years before the completed film’s release. There will be a series of pop-up screenings at various locations leading up to a “Best of Bernal” season finale at South Slope Cinema at Alemany Plaza again. Most of these events are free but require advance registration. For full info, go here.

Across the bridge, you can ingest your film and video art with tasty beverages and eats via the 4th Annual Drunken Film Festival Oakland, running Sun/3-Sat/10 at seven different locations. Encompassing both outdoor venues (where masks are still required) and indoor ones (proof of vaccination required for entry), this eight-day bacchanal encompasses short documentary, animation, music video, comedy, drama, experimental and other works, from around the world as well as around the Bay. Full schedule and other info is available here.

Meanwhile, opening today in regular theaters (as well as home formats in some cases):

Boris Karloff: The Man Behind the Monster 
The month of Halloween is always especially heavy on horror films, so it’s perfect that this October should start with Thomas Hamilton’s documentary about one of the genre’s greatest stars. Youngest of seven children born into difficult circumstances (including mixed-race ancestry), William Henry Pratt left England as a young man, achieving modest success on stage (where he acquired his professional name), then landing in Hollywood around 1919. His “exotic” looks soon raised him above extra status, but it wasn’t until the talkies arrived that he got any real notice: First reprising a stage villain role in 1931 prison drama The Criminal Code, then later that year as the monster in Frankenstein. The latter was a sensation, and despite his heavy “creature” makeup, the pathos Karloff brought to the role was key to the film’s effectiveness. 

He may well have felt somewhat stymied by lifelong genre association it brought him, and the resulting lack of “serious” appreciation, he was not the complaining type. In any case, for some years Universal (and the occasional other studio) afforded him excellent vehicles, including The Old Dark House, The Mummy, The Black Cat opposite fellow horror king Bela Lugosi, and several Val Lewton productions. After WW2, the popularity of horror films declined, perhaps because new realities—concentration camps, Hiroshima, etc.—made their supernatural thrills look silly. But Karloff became an early adopter of live television, and that medium soon paid him back with a career resurgence fueled by broadcast of his old movies. He hosted the omnibus series “Thriller,” and made new movies for younger filmmakers including Roger Corman, Mario Bava, and Peter Bogdanovich. His extensive voice work included memorably incarnating Dr. Seuss’ Grinch.

Karloff was a fine, versatile actor adept at everything from comedy to classical roles, despite his frequent typecasting as a ghoul of one sort or another. Key in the formation of the Screen Actors Guild, he was reputedly one of the nicest men in the industry, even if The Man Behind the Monster doesn’t explain how that dovetails with the fact of his five marriages. In addition to a wealth of clips, the documentary has input from surviving coworkers (Dick Miller, Bogdanovich), historians, and various latterday admirers (including John Landis, Guillermo del Toro, Ron Perlman, and Joe Dante, as well as his only child, Sara Karloff.

While many of the movies highlighted here (just a handful within an enormous filmography) will be familiar to fans, Man whets the appetite for some lesser-known titles, such as 1935’s The Black Room, in which BK played identical twins—one good and one evil, of course. Though his health was frail in later years, Karloff remained such a workaholic that several movies he’d shot hadn’t yet been released when he died in 1969 at age 81. 

The Man Behind the Monster opens Fri/2 at theaters including the Embarcadero and Shattuck Cinemas. It’s also worth noting that the Criterion Channel is programming classic Universal Horrors (including numerous Karloff vehicles) throughout the month. 

Old Henry
Another versatile, hardworking and somewhat underappreciated screen thespian, albeit one still very much with us, is the star of this unusually good new western. There are some character actors everybody loves whenever they notice them, until one day they can’t stop noticing them, making a pop phenomenon of hitherto culty favorites like Jeff Goldblum or Steve Buchemi. Coen Brothers regular Tim Blake Nelson should have had that Big Moment with their Ballad of Buster Scruggs three years ago. His titular singing cowboy started off that episodic film on a note of such giddy inspiration that the rest of it almost inevitably felt like a letdown. 

Nelson is in comparatively serious, restrained form here, as an ornery widower raising a restless adolescent son (Gavin Lewis) on a remote farm in the Oklahoma Territory of 1906. When a wounded stranger (Scott Haze) is found nearby, a satchel of doubtlessly ill-gotten loot by his side, they take him in. But he’s soon followed by a posse of purported lawmen (led by Stephen Dorff), who want the fugitive—and seem quite ready to gravely harm anyone who gets in the way. Old Henry, however, turns out to be a formidable foe, with a lethal backstory he’s kept carefully hidden from the son who’s always figured him for a dullard and a coward.

Though seldom less than excellent in any part, Nelson often seems especially suited to period roles—not the Merchant-Ivory type, but the illiterate-bumpkin or peasant ilk. Writer-director Potsy Ponciroli’s script springs some surprises that might strain credibility for another actor. Yet when when Nelson goes from ornery coot to the kind of man who might reasonably hold his own against a small army of foes, somehow it’s not ridiculous. The entire cast, in fact, has a grizzled authenticity (abetted by that script’s salty retro language), with only Lewis a weak link—too pretty and petulant, he seems like a whiny teenager of 21st-century make.

Almost entirely limited to the farmhouse and yard, Old Henry takes its time getting to the “action,” but it rewards our patience with payoff that raises this taut little movie to the level of 1950s minor western classics by Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, and such. It’s a find—though you’d be advised to hit the exit when the final credits arrive, as they bring a hokey theme song sung by Eddie Montgomery that spells out all the movie’s hitherto tastefully restrained emotions with cringe-inducing, sentimental literal-mindedness. Definitely worth seeing on the big screen for its handsome wide-format photography, Old Henry opens today at the Roxie Theater. 

Wife of a Spy
A more mixed bag is this different kind of period thriller, a chance of pace for director Kiyoshi Kurosawa (no relation to Akira), who remains best known for horror films like Cure and Pulse. It centers on a well-to-do couple in port city Kobe during the early days of World War II. That conflict has suddenly made trade more difficult for import-export businessman Yusaku (Issey Takahashi), heightened strictures against Japan’s perceived foes resulting in the brief arrest of a British merchant he’s long worked with. Such political matters mean nothing to his wife Satoko (Yu Aoi), who is only concerned with their own immediate domestic comfort and safety. 

When Yasaku stumbles upon evidence of Japanese atrocities abroad, Satoko can’t understand his urge to reject nationalism and act on his conscience; she’s far more concerned with fears he may be having an affair. But soon, as the authorities regard them with suspicion, both see fleeing the country as their best option. With international travel already largely banned, that will turn out to be a very risky proposition. 

Originally made for television, Wife of a Spy feels cinematically unexciting and pedestrian in other ways for quite a while. I found it hard to care much about Satoko, who too often seems exasperatingly impulsive, childish, and irrational, a hapless danger to herself and more responsible-acting others. But while it takes a long time getting there, Kurosawa’s drama finally does have an impressively epic arc, with a couple satisfyingly cruel ironies. It opens Fri/2 at Embarcadero and Shattuck Cinemas. 

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