Cinematary Canon #10: One and Done
By Zach Dennis, Lydia Creech, Ash Baker, and Reid Ramsey.
Note: These films are not ranked by quality, but rather in chronological order.
The Night of the Hunter (1955) by Charles Laughton
Not only is The Night of the Hunter enigmatic due to the lack of directorial production from Charles Laughton following its release, but the movie is truly a peculiarity unseen in the rest of cinema.
Indebted to both Southern Gothic literature and the visual sensibilities of the German Expressionists, the film overturns and redefines the concept of movies as a dream factories by playing on that nostalgic, comfortable notion with one of the most horrific and damning condemnations of it; finding nostalgia not as a crutch, but as an infectious leach making you vulnerable to ignorance and harm.
It’s not all too shocking to know that the film was not well-received when it was first released in 1955. It is deeply metaphysical, building its most frightening elements on the fringes of the narrative rather than electing to face them upfront often. Rev. Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum) is scariest when he is on the periphery — forcing you to come up with his next deadly move. Not to say he doesn’t evoke primal fear at all — scenes such as the murder of Willa Harper (Shelley Winters) and the chase of the children hereafter feels pulled from a Grimm tale.
Both of these scenes though lead to one of the most stunning sequences of the film — a lyrical boat ride down the river to safety. This is where Night of the Hunter ditches any convention it may have establishes and soaks itself in a pure visual landscape.
Laughton may not have went to the well again, but he sure struck gold in his one swing. — Zach Dennis
Learn more about The Night of the Hunter in our previous podcast episode with guest Jeffrey Couchman
Carnival of Souls (1962) by Herk Harvey
It’s not quite fair to say Herk Harvey never directed anything else. In fact, he cut his teeth directing (award-winning!) industrial films for the Centron Corporation for over 3 decades--it’s just that industrial films typically tend to have extremely niche audiences and minimal distribution outside that audience. Robert Altman also got his start directing industrial films in Kansas City. It seems to me that industrial filmmaking was just as good a laboratory for aspiring filmmakers as the Roger Corman School, though, in the end, Carnival was Harvey’s only venture into fiction feature film.
All that to say, Carnival of Souls did not spring unbidden from the head of some amateur, which, given how sophisticated and haunting it is, certainly would be something. Harvey does the most with a great location (the abandoned Saltair Pavilion outside Salt Lake City), an organ score, and some white face makeup. Carnival of Souls has a dream-like quality, occasionally tipping into nightmarish but mostly sitting at surreal. I can imagine catching it late one night on television and ruminating for weeks.
The real shameful One and Done here is Candace Hilligoss, the leading lady. She carries the weight of the strangeness, and totally manages to convey the increasing confusion and desperation of a woman dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic accident, being stalked, and maybe caught in between life and death. Though she did have a few more bit parts and television roles, Hilligoss never went on to a sustained acting career.
Since Carnival was Harvey’s one go at a personal project, I’m glad it seems to have struck a nerve with viewers, even if belatedly. He brought all his filmmaking expertise to bear remarkable results. — Lydia Creech
Wanda (1970) by Barbara Loden
One of the most infuriating things about Barbara Loden’s one directorial effort is that her piece of shit husband (not how people typically refer to Kazan, but...) tried to take credit for it after she died prematurely from breast cancer. I don’t believe for a second he had any insight into a pretty, vacant, failed housewife’s subjectivity or the humility to do such a low-budget indie treatment.
Wanda the character (also played by Loden) is kind of infuriating, too, and hard to empathize with, due to how totally not there she is. She floats from one bad situation (and dude) to another, seemingly powerless (or just unwilling) to do anything about it. You want to shake her. And then you feel bad because shaking (and more) is just the kind of abuse piled on her by all the men she meets. Despite her lack of effort, you start hoping she’ll actually turn out ok.
I think therein lies a lot of the power of Wanda. It’s basically the antithesis of Bonnie and Clyde. There’s no romance in an outlaw couple on the run, and the amount of shit projected on Wanda by both the other characters she meets and the audience for failing to be an active participant in a myth we all know is pathetic and ridiculous. Sure, she’s a victim, but we don’t have to blame her. Loden implicates the audience just as much--probably based on how she was really treated in life due to her looks.
The one bit of kindness is shown to her near the end of the film by another woman (another reason I don’t think Kazan could have come up with most of this), and all Wanda can do is clutch her beer and stare into the middle distance. There’s something heartbreaking here, just as it’s heartbreaking we didn’t get more of Loden’s directorial voice. — Lydia Creech
Roar (1981) by Noel Marshall
Every so often there’s a reason a director only makes one film. In the case of Noel Marshall, that reason is because his film, Roar, took 10 years to make and 70 members of the cast and crew suffered some level of injury during the shoot. Roar lies somewhere between a horror movie and adventure/activist propaganda. The film follows one family, played by Marshall’s real-life family Tippi Hedren, Melanie Griffith, John Marshall, and Jerry Marshall, as they visit the patriarch of the family, Hank (Noel Marshall), at his African ranch. When they arrive, they find his house overrun with lions, tigers, leopards, and all sorts of terrifying, large cats. Hank is nowhere in sight. Following this discovery, the family must stay alive while waiting for Hank to venture back home.
The magic of Roar is not in expertly focused direction — although Marshall does share directing credits with his cats — or in gorgeous cinematography by the legendary Jan de Bont. The magic simply lies in the spontaneous ferocity and beauty that the large cats carry with them in every frame. The conceit for making Roar was simple: Marshall and Hedren wanted to show these cats how they truly act, the good, the bad, and the ugly in hopes that people could understand them better and feel led to continue their preservation. So the lions and tigers and leopards were untrained and allowed to do as they pleased, resulting in a wonderfully spontaneous film filled with real danger, real blood, and a real sense of home and family.
Despite this being Marshall’s only film — largely due to the carelessness with which he acted towards his family and crew, and the distributor’s inability to release the film in the U.S. — it stands as a monumental achievement a decade in the making. Roar is a snappy gem of a movie that will bite if you aren’t careful, but isn’t that how all movies should be? — Reid Ramsey
True Stories (1986) by David Byrne
While True Stories seems to be “about” a lot of things, it is ultimately a portrait of modernity in the 1980s. It starts and ends with a young girl walking along a seemingly endless road, on a seemingly endless plain, humming a tune we can never quite catch onto. These shots make it clear to the viewer that Virgil, Texas is far away from everything—not only reality, since it is a fictional town.
In Virgil, we meet all sorts of characters—a lonely man with a panda bear build who is desperate for a wife (played by John Goodman), a woman so rich she never leaves her bed, and a woman so supposedly sexually powerful she knows who killed JFK. True Stories is less a narrative to follow than it is a tour guided by Byrne, which he is also experiencing in real time along with the viewer. He says, “When I see a place for the first time, I notice everything—the color of the paper, the sky, the way people walk, doorknobs, every detail.” He forces the viewer to see these things in a fresh way, as well, and he does an impressive job of making everyday normalities of American life like family dinners, shopping malls, and church services seem strange.
Although Byrne has admitted the stories are made up, they remain all too true. Byrne helps the viewer experience the things that make our society modern in a fresh way as a participating member of the audience. — Ash Baker