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HITCHCOCK'S 'PSYCHO' LED THE WAY

      

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Oct. 19, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: One of the lesser-known things about Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ is that it ushered in, or at least laid the groundwork for, the era of movies opening all over the country at the same time. There’s no better flick for Halloween, but it actually was released in the summer, as explained by this column, published in the Deseret News on June 10, 2010, under this headline: ‘Psycho’ started the trend of summer blockbusters.

OK, all you movie buffs out there, name the picture that began the trend of blockbusters opening “wide” — in theaters all over the country on the same day — during the summer.

If you said “Jaws,” you get fallback points. That movie really did start the trend that continues today. But there was a forerunner 15 years earlier.

Would you believe “Psycho”?

That’s right, Alfred Hitchcock’s chiller was the first movie to have an early premiere in New York (debuting on June 16, 1960), then in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles — followed by simultaneous openings across the country.

Of course, it didn’t open in all that many theaters by today’s standards but definitely pointed the way for what was to come. (Actually, “Jaws” only opened “wide” in 464 theaters in 1975, which is nothing compared to, say, “Shrek Forever After,” which opened in 4,468 theaters!)

I discovered this tidbit while exploring David Thomson’s book “The Moment of Psycho,” an engrossing 184-page quick-read on the subject, written in Thomson’s chatty style as if he were engaging you in a conversation in your own living room.

Knowing that “Psycho’s” 50th anniversary was at hand, I read it through — and then found myself researching the film further, just because it’s so fascinating on so many levels, and it’s impact on the culture of cinema cannot be overstated.

Not that many films have had such an impact on me that I remember when I saw them for the first time. But “Psycho” is one.

It was summer 1960 in Southern California where I grew up — and at the time one of the major attractions of going to the movies was the air-conditioned auditorium in a single-screen, stand-alone movie house. I can still remember the banner dangling below the marquee: “Cool Air-Conditioning,” with blue letters that looked like icicles.

     

Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) showers in her room at the Bates Motel, unaware of the lethal figure lurking on the other side of the curtain in 'Psycho'; cue the screeching violins.

I was 12 when my parents took me with them to see Alfred Hitchcock’s latest, a black-and-white fright film. And why not? I had seen Hitchcock’s previous film with them — “North By Northwest” — and loved it. And we had all seen Janet Leigh’s two previous movies together, the fluffy comedies “Who Was That Lady?” and “The Perfect Furlough.”

So we went in with certain expectations. It was Hitchcock! It was Janet Leigh! How bad could it be?

Fabulous bad, as it turns out. Not only did it scare the socks off me while I watched it, but I gave up showers and went back to taking baths. And I wasn’t the only one.

So let’s look at some of the things — besides the shower scene being one of the most famous in movie history — that make “Psycho” stand out.

Hitchcock was ensconced at Paramount Pictures with one more film on his contract but the studio balked at “Psycho,” afraid it would bring down the wrath of the industry’s censors. So Hitch financed it himself, filming primarily on the Universal studio backlot and keeping the budget to approximately $800,000.

Studio contracts often allowed a star/director to make a movie “on loan” to another studio, which is what Hitchcock had done with his previous film, “North By Northwest,” giving MGM a hit. Paramount didn’t want that to happen again, so, despite misgivings, the studio agreed to distribute “Psycho” — but only after Hitchcock deferred his contractual directing fee of $250,000 in exchange for 60 percent ownership of the picture. “Psycho” became his biggest hit, and Hitch got rich. (This was his last Paramount film; he finished out his career at Universal, which now also has the rights to “Psycho.”)

“Psycho” was the first American movie to forbid entry after the film began, as indicated by a cardboard standee of Hitch outside theaters. Exhibitors balked because at the time, patrons regularly came in during the middle of a movie, then stayed through the next showing until they caught up. But lines around the block convinced them that Hitchcock was right — and eventually the nation’s moviegoing habits changed.

Hitchcock shot the film quickly using the crew from his half-hour television anthology program, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” He filmed it in black and white for two reasons: It was cheaper than color at the time, and he feared color would make the shower scene too gory and hard to take.

     

The brief but shocking shower sequence was the most difficult aspect to film. It took a full week and used 77 different camera angles. The blood is actually chocolate syrup. A knife plunged into a melon created the stabbing sound.

Hitchcock had planned for the shower scene to run without music, only ambient sound. But composer Bernard Herrmann wrote the famous “screeching violins” piece anyway, and when Hitchcock heard it, he changed his mind. (Along with John Williams’ theme for “Jaws,” it is considered the scariest and most famous movie-music cue of all time.)

The members of the censorship board objected to a toilet being shown and scenes of Janet Leigh in her bra, but they particularly objected to one shot in the shower sequence, demanding that Hitchcock make an edit. Knowing how fast the sequence flies by, Hitch waited a few days and then resubmitted the same print with no changes. The censors watched it again and allowed the film to pass muster.

“Psycho” was the first film to kill off its primary star in the first third of the movie, a real risk at the time.

Anthony Perkins’ first-rate performance as Norman Bates haunted his career thereafter until he embraced it for a string of sequels more than 20 years later.

In 1960, the reviews were almost entirely negative, although by the end of the year even some critics who hated it had changed their minds. Now, of course, it’s considered a classic.

“Psycho” is one of the most imitated films in history, from a string of similar black-and-white B-movies in the 1960s (“Strait-Jacket,” “Maniac,” “Paranoiac,” “Hysteria,” “Fanatic,” “Homicidal,” etc.) to reverential references in movies of the 1970s and ’80s (“Halloween,” “Dressed to Kill,” etc.) to a nearly shot-for-shot remake in 1998 (Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho”) to lampoons in myriad movies and TV shows (“High Anxiety,” “The Simpsons,” etc.).

And there’s much more. But let’s allow Hitchcock the last word, from his famous interviews with critic/filmmaker Francois Truffaut:

“It’s the kind of picture in which the camera takes over. Of course, since critics are more concerned with the scenario, it won’t necessarily get you the best notices, but you have to design your film just as Shakespeare did his plays — for the audience.”


New Movies This Week New Movies This Week

‘HALLOWEEN’ — AGAIN?

 

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Oct. 19, 2018

The “Halloween” movie franchise is now comprised of 11 films dating back to 1978. And in addition to all the sequels with numbers and subtitles, three are simply titled “Halloween” — the 1978 original, the 2007 remake and now the latest entry, opening this weekend. Clear as mud, right?

“Halloween” (R). This one skips over the movie lore developed by the many sequels to establish itself as a direct follow-up to the first film. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis in her fifth “Halloween” appearance) is now a grandmother and still suffers from the PTSD that started on that fateful night 40 years earlier. Naturally, Michael Myers, the original killer-that-won’t-die, escapes from his asylum incarceration and returns to Haddonfield, Illinois, to go after her. With Judy Greer and Will Patton.

“The Hate U Give” (PG-13). Amandia Stenberg (“The Hunger Games,” “Everything Everything”) plays Starr, a black teen attending an upscale prep school that is mostly white, but she lives in a poor, mostly black neighborhood. One evening she is being driven home by her childhood best friend, also black, when they are pulled over, resulting in the boy being shot and killed by a white cop. The event gathers national attention and drives Starr into activism. Based on the popular youth novel. With Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby, Common and Anthony Mackie.

  

“Tea With the Dames” (PG-13). “Dame” is the female equivalent of “Sir,” meaning it’s a title bestowed on British women who have been awarded knighthood. But the four women in this documentary who hold that title — Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins, all now in their 80s — are really the queens of the acting game, and here the longtime friends gather to share stories about their lengthy careers on the theater stage, on cinema screens and on television. (Exclusively at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.)

“Before Your Time” (PG). After the loss of their mother, a family is forced to move back to its small hometown and accept the hospitality of an eccentric aunt, as well as a community full of quirky friends and neighbors. This locally produced comedy-drama (with music) is a community effort filmed in Davis County with an amateur cast and crew, and had its premiere in Kaysville a year ago. (Exclusively at the Megaplex Jordan Commons Theaters.)

“Free Solo” (PG-13). Free solo mountain climber Alex Honnold is the subject of this National Geographic documentary, which follows him as he attempts — without a rope — to climb the face of El Capitan, the 3,000 feet high mountain in Yosemite National Park.


New DVDS/Blu-rays New DVDS/Blu-rays

LOOKER

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Oct. 19, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: In addition to his many popular what-if? novels, Michael Crichton also wrote and directed six feature films, the 1970s hits ‘Westworld,’ ‘Coma’ and ‘The Great Train Robbery,’ followed by the less successful ’80s pictures “Looker,” “Runaway,” and “Physical Evidence.” He had his greatest success, of course, in the 1990s with ‘Jurassic Park,’ first with the novel and then Steven Spielberg’s movie. Among Crichton’s later directing efforts, however, “Looker” apparently has a following large enough for Warner Archive to give it a new Blu-ray upgrade. Here’s my review, published Nov. 4, 1981, in the Deseret News.

“Looker” is a very superficial film with a contrived script that makes little sense, especially when it tries to be a murder mystery — and more especially when it tries to be social satire.

But I have to admit, it does have a certain amiable charm in its own foolishness and a very likable cast. Call “Looker” a guilty pleasure. I liked it more than I should have.

Michael Crichton, who has given us such diverse fare as “Westworld,” “The Great Train Robbery” and “Coma,” returns to medical science fiction, this time with media manipulation, specifically television advertising in “Looker.”

     

Writer-director Michael Crichton, left, and Albert Finney on the set of 'Looker.'

Albert Finney is a high-rolling Beverly Hills plastic surgeon who has four clients he has made perfect, beautiful women with lists of minor flaws that need to be corrected according to computer specifications.

Then the women begin mysteriously dying one by one and Finney turns gumshoe, with the help of one surviving model (Susan Dey), to uncover the mystery.

Slowly he realizes that corporate magnate James Coburn has a sinister plot to use commercials in such a way that audiences will subliminally be forced to buy his products. What Coburn (or Crichton) doesn’t seem to realize is that TV audiences already find themselves doing just that.

Writer-director Crichton gives “Looker” a sleek treatment that is reminiscent of both “Westworld” and “Coma,” but there are too many loopholes left uncovered. Why the women have to be murdered in this plot is never explained, and his ending is a redundant string of silly commercial spoofs done in a black humor mode that seems out of place.

     

Lobby card for 'Looker': James Coburn and Leigh Taylor-Young

On the plus side, however, Albert Finney is always enjoyable to watch, Susan Dey (that former “Partridge Family” girl) is good as a hip, modern model and James Coburn is one of the best big-shot bad guys around. Even Playmate of the Year Terri Welles looks good here … that is, she is an appealing actress.

A friend with whom I saw “Looker” described it as glossy and indeed it is. It wasn’t until we had left the show for a few hours that I began to realize how many loose ends had been left.

Either Crichton is getting lazy or “Looker” was butchered in the editing room (the former seems more likely as the film is briskly paced, the background score — a neat one by Barry DeVorzon — intelligently used and the buildup fairly suspenseful).

On the other hand, it might simply be that such subjects as mind-control and TV advertising have been overused as plot devices.

“Looker” is rated PG for violence, nudity and profanity, and is definitely not for the little ones.


Welcome Welcome

Hi. I'm Chris Hicks.

But if you're looking for Chris Hicks the Australian rugby player or the American recording-industry executive or the Major League Baseball player or the author of "Think" or the singer-songwriter or the former basketball player, you're in the wrong place.

I'm Chris Hicks the movie guy from Salt Lake City. If that's who you're looking for, welcome to my website as I enter the 21st century … a little late (May 2013).

This site is all about movies, well mostly, and it's also about me, I guess, but I'll try to keep my ego in check.

My goal, my hope, is that you will be able to browse the pages here and be alerted to or reminded of some great movie you've never heard of or forgotten about. In other words, something that might enhance your movie-watching experience, whether it's by Alfred Hitchcock or Joss Whedon, or stars Audrey Hepburn or Jennifer Lawrence or someone you never heard of. And I've also tried to make it fun.

The bulk of stories and reviews here are gleaned (with permission) from my 40 years of writing about film for the Deseret News, a daily newspaper in Salt Lake City, with side trips here and there to other entertainment forms.

I'm no longer writing for the D-News so this is mostly archival stuff, primarily from the Deseret News but also from my 13 years with KSL Television and Radio, as well as other sundry freelance things I occasionaly come across in my deteriorating hard-copy files.

Hope you enjoy my little site. If you do, tell your friends. If you don't, just say you couldn't find it.

Cheers,
Chris H.

Shameless Hucksterism Shameless Hucksterism

 

Click here for Deseret News interview.

Click here for Deseret News review.

Click here for Amazon store.

Golden Oldies On the Big Screen Golden Oldies On the Big Screen

THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Oct. 19, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Regal Crossroad 14 in Taylorsville has scheduled Tim Burton’s wacky stop-motion holiday cartoon as the perfect transition from Halloween to the Christmas season. It will be playing daily beginning next Friday, Oct. 26, through Halloween night. Here’s my review, published Oct. 22, 1993.

Tim Burton is warped, there's no getting around it. Who else but twisted Tim would think of blending Christmas and Halloween in one movie?

And though the ad campaign for "The Nightmare Before Christmas" is selling it as a children's picture, this is very much in "Beetlejuice" territory … albeit in a weird, animated way. (Small children, beware.)

The first question you may want to ask after seeing those ads is about the style of the puppet animation here. Yes, initially the set design looks somewhat cluttered, and yes, the characters are very odd and take some getting used to. But it's a surprisingly quick adjustment; you do get used to them and accept this world quite easily.

And what a world it is.

According to Burton's boundless imagination, there are cloistered communities for each holiday — Easter Town, Thanksgiving Town, Christmas Town, Halloween Town, etc.

     

Jack Skellington takes over Santa's duties in 'The Nightmare Before Christmas.'

The film focuses largely on Halloween Town, where spindly Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King, organizes the annual Halloween festivities.

The film opens with a song that pretty much sums up what this Halloween land is all about — creatures under the bed, monsters under the stairs and other ooky, spooky, scary stuff. It is Oct. 31, and Jack and friends put on quite a show, then they congratulate each other on another Halloween night well done.

But Jack feels let down, as if his life is missing something. And as he wanders farther into the forest than he's ever gone before, he stumbles upon doorways that lead to other holiday worlds. The one he opens is to Christmas Town, where he experiences the joy and happiness of Christmas, which is quite different from what he's used to.

Naturally, Jack can't wait to share the experience with his friends and neighbors back home. But they can't quite seem to get the hang of it. And, as the film progresses, we see that Jack doesn't really have the hang of it, either.

So, it is inevitable that when Jack's arrogance gets the better of him and he decides to replace Santa Claus on Christmas Eve, he will be a harbinger of horror instead of a jolly old gift-giving elf. Sure enough, as children get out of bed and open their presents, they are confronted with shrunken heads, slithering snakes and the like.

Meanwhile, Jack's accomplices kidnap poor old Kris Kringle and take him to the town's one truly evil character, Oogie Boogie. And it isn't until Santa is in real jeopardy that Jack sees the error of his ways and attempts to rescue him, to make amends for his misdeeds.

     

However twisted, the basis for all this is one terrific idea, and it's told very well, with sophisticated, computer-enhanced stop-motion animation and 10 delightful songs that drive the story, courtesy of Burton's longtime music collaborator Danny Elfman, who also sings two of the film's roles.

As the warbling voice of Jack, the lead character, Elfman reveals a surprisingly adept acting ability (not to mention a gorgeous voice). (Chris Sarandon provides Jack's speaking voice.) Also very good is Catherine O'Hara, as the rag doll that loves Jack, a sort of Raggedy Ann and "Bride of Frankenstein" blend.

Still, as good as the story is, there is no question that the screenplay, by Caroline Thompson ("Edward Scissorhands," "The Addams Family") and Michael McDowell ("Beetlejuice"), could use a boost. The film sags here and there and the romance barely gets off the ground.

But Burton, Elfman and director Henry Selick, whose camera movements are more inventive than most live-action pictures, have certainly created one of the most surprisingly unique films to come along in many a full moon.

And while parents may want to steer very young children in another direction, everyone else will likely find much to enjoy here.

"The Nightmare Before Christmas" is rated PG for comic violence and scary themes.


Oldies New to DVD/Blu-ray Oldies New to DVD/Blu-ray

PRINCE OF DARKNESS

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Oct. 19, 2018

EDITOR’S NOTE: One of John Carpenter’s weaker fright flicks has been picked up by the Shout! Factory for a Blu-ray upgrade under its Scream Factory label. I wasn’t a fan of this one but it obviously has a following. Here’s my Oct. 28, 1987, Deseret News review.

Director John Carpenter is back in business with “Prince of Darkness,” his first film since “Big Trouble in Little China” and his first horror yarn since “Christine.” But fans are bound to be disappointed with this gussied-up, haunted house/slasher film. Or whatever it is.

“Price of Darkness, of course, refers to you-know-who – but Satan isn’t actually in the movie. And when we see his fingertips in one scene toward the end, he seems to be a rather hamstrung, ineffective fellow.

Actually, the film is about Satan’s son — I think — who is trapped, but evolving, in a bizarre canister of green liquid (which looks like a neon light) in the basement of an abandoned Los Angeles church, where he has been held captive and guarded by a secret order of priests in the Catholic Church.

But with the death of the last priest of this secret order, the evil spirit in the canister is apparently growing and reaching out to take over the world — or at least open a door for Dad to do so.

     

  Victor Wong, left, Donald Pleasence, 'Prince of Darkness'

So an old priest (Donald Pleasence) asks a professor of physics to bring his top grad students to investigate the canister. If they can prove by scientific means that it really is the son of Scratch inside, the world may believe in the terrible power that is about to be unleashed. Mere faith won’t do it these days.

And it isn’t long before the standard slasher motif comes into play as the scientists and students are killed off one by one.

Among the cast are two actors from Carpenter’s “Big Trouble in Little China” — Victor Wong and Dennis Dun. They were both terrific in that film but here they’re both pretty bland. Even more boring, however, are Jameson Parker (late of TV’s “Simon and Simon”), Lisa Blount (“An Officer and a Gentleman”) and just about everyone else.

In fact, when the power of the devil in the canister starts turning people into zombies there’s no noticeable difference.

And just to keep themselves awake, members of the audience will likely begin ticking off titles of other movies that become recognizable here — “The Exorcist,” “Halloween,” “Night of the Living Dead,” “Poltergeist,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Creepshow,” etc.

     

There are some interesting individual scenes, and Carpenter does manage to build some suspense here and there (the special effects are good) but for the most part there is so much psychobabble dialogue and so many inconsistencies that you may completely lose track of what little plot there is. An awful lot of truly amateurish time-lapse transitions don’t help, either. (This may, however, be the first movie to have people turned into zombies by spitting unholy water into each other’s faces.)

I assume Carpenter wrote this film himself (or perhaps with a collaborator or two), since the script is credited to one Martin Quatermass, an in-joke for movie buffs apparently referring to the fictional British scientist of “Five Million Years to Earth” and other films. The press kit says Quatermass went to Kneale University — Nigel Kneale is  the creator of the Quatermass character.

Sadly, nothing in the film approaches that bit of cleverness, and “Prince of Darkness” is miles away from being anywhere near as interesting as any of the Quatermass films. (It is rated R for violence, profanity and implied sex.)

On the other hand, it’s hard to hate a movie that has rocker Alice Cooper playing a zombie transient.