My voracious appetite for 20th-century cinema can be laid at many a door. Watching old VHS tapes of the first six Star Trek films on warm sunny afternoons, the rich collection of films acquired by my late grandfather, my government and civics teacher lending me an insane amount of cult films. But perhaps the A #1 enabler of such an obsession was a certain premium television network: Turner Classic Movies.
Since 1994, TCM has become an international and beloved purveyor of fine classic cinema, reaching back through time to the dawn of the medium itself to the dawn of the 21st Century. Whatever qualms can be had with the network, the fact of the matter is they were the backbone of my education in film. I had seen films on TCM in passing, but I’ll never forget the first time I watched one in all seriousness.
It was 2015 or 2016. I was channel surfing. I stumble onto the end of a ham-beast melodrama called Lightning Strikes Twice, a 1951 King Vidor film whose poster proudly proclaims that “Ruth Roman is all Woman.” In due time, Max Steiner’s thunderous score signaled the end of another Warner Bros. production. It was wild, it was neat, but it did not prepare me for what came next. For the next 101 minutes, I wouldn’t leave the screen for a second. At the end of the next 101 minutes, I knew for certain I wanted to be a filmmaker.
The next film was Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.
That was the power TCM held for me. I watched my first international film on it (Jules et Jim by François Truffaut), I discovered dozens of hidden gems, I DVR’d like a crack addict, scanning the guide for every possible film that sounded awesome. And amongst it all, one block reigned supreme. A haven for the wild and weird, for the honest B-picture, the strangest arthouse film, and the most sensational short. A haven who, sadly, is no longer with us, but whose memory lives on for all who watched and enjoyed. For when the clock struck midnight, the channel became TCM Underground.
These are some of their films.
Some Call It Loving (1973)
We’ll start with a movie that left such a gob-smacking impact, it sent me and that aforementioned civics teacher on a months-long hunt tracking down the out-of-print Etiquette Pictures blu-ray of it. A film whose intoxicating atmosphere, haunting score, and interior logic taught me how, sometimes, plot and direct characterization doesn’t mean a damn. How one must give themselves completely to a film to understand it.
What is bookended by a carnival act based around the tale of Sleeping Beauty, ends up a fascinating exploration of one man’s fantasy world and its drawbacks. Some Call it Loving was a film that I had remembered on account of its sensations. I caught it in the DVR and was at once perplexed, yet engaged. A lot stood out, from Richard Hazard’s heartbreaking musical score, Mario Tosi’s lush and haunting camerawork, a grueling turn from comedian Richard Pryor in a squarely dramatic role, and the strange way it progresses under the guiding hand of the film’s director and writer, James B. Harris. All of this captured my imagination, and years after seeing it, I became obsessed with tracking it down. Once my teacher and I did, I popped it on one sweet June afternoon, and relived something I had truly believed was lost forever.
The film illustrates how jazz musician Robert Troy, portrayed by Zalman King, tries to introduce the center attraction of a carnival act, a “sleeping beauty,” into his strange world of games. Erotic games, games of fantasy. Never of malice, but all of artifice. Nearly everything is artificial, all except the feelings of our sleeping beauty, Jennifer, portrayed by a pre-Zombie Tisa Farrow. It’s this rogue element of purity that ultimately challenges his feelings of the perpetual charade in which he lives. This is not an easy film to comprehend, but once you allow yourself to embrace the aura it exudes, you may find yourself disposed to some of the obscure logic to the film. Elegant, haunting, mesmerizing and even moving at times. One I have never forgotten, and should you find it on an affordable (and likely international) release, you may soon find out for yourself how spellbinding (or confounding) it can be.
Night Train to Terror (1985)
In the spirit of the channel’s week-to-week programming style (I grew up during the Saturday night programming era that lasted from 2013 to 2018), let’s go to the complete opposite end of the spectrum with a madcap midnight favorite.
1985 horror anthology Night Train to Terror was seemingly the end result of a development hell smorgasbord landing in the lap of future Cry Wilderness producer-director Jay Schlossberg-Cohen. Three films; one finished, one unfinished, and one unreleased, all written by Hollywood heavyweight Philip Yordan of The Big Combo fame, with Cohen working to wrap them up into a single film.
The results are scattershot to say the very least.
From the psychotic cruelty of “Harry Billings” (the unfinished ramblings that would become 1992’s Marilyn: Alive and Behind Bars) to the psycho-sexual Russian roulette of “Gretta Connors” (the 1984 direct-to-video flick Death Wish Club), and the Nazisploitation-meets-Omen insanity of “Claire Hansen” (the unreleased 1980 horror Cataclysm), the film frames all as a dialogue between God and Satan themselves, riding incognito on a Las Vegas-bound train packed to the hilt with partying teens, as they discuss humanity’s fate via the three individuals at the center of the stories.
Night Train to Terror tries to unite the disparate films through truncated edits, amusingly rendered stop-motion (and an absolutely ridiculous miniature shot), the infamous never-ending pop tune “Everybody But You,” and a genuinely entertaining set of exchanges between veteran character actors Ferdy Mayne and Tony Giorgio as God and Satan respectively. But the results are so staggeringly slip-shot, half-baked, and outright bizarre that the film never has a clue what it is about. It all cries out as a final desperate attempt to salvage three films whose future was anything but bright, and in the frenzy to make something marketable, winds up a three-lane pileup that would make Hal Needham blush. An unhinged Z-grade gem whose unironic camp value still stands tall nearly 40 years on. If you don’t got anything else to do, take a ride on this steamer, and hang on for dear life.
The House By the Cemetery (1981)
While some films left a lasting impression, others took a while to grow on me. In the case of Italy’s Godfather of Gore, Lucio Fulci, the finale of his infamous “Gates of Hell” trilogy was one of those occasions. The “in-one-ear-out-the-other” tact I took with 1981’s House by the Cemetery was thanks to one of the greatest evils to ever plague cult film-kind: the shit redub.
House by the Cemetery was legendary for its atrocious English-language dub, suffering under the weight of useless additional dialogue, the occasional error in lip sync, and the infamous voice artist who dubbed for poor Giovanni Frezza’s “Bob,” producing perhaps one of the most obnoxious brats in the history of horror.
And then I watched the Italian dub and everything was fine.
No really, right down to Frezza’s shockingly innocent, sweet, and nuanced performance, the entirety of the film benefits from viewing in Italian, and clearly reflects Fulci’s original vision. And once that hurdle was cleared, a better appreciation for the film could be had. And man, did I appreciate the hell out of it.
Fueled by a captivating and strangely cozy gothic atmosphere, House by the Cemetery doesn’t frighten so much as haunt. The tale of a family moving into an old New England manor and forced to contend with both spirits and the undead, Fulci brings forth some of his most brutal and repulsive gore to date in a story fueled by the same surrealist dream logic that coursed through predecessors City of the Living Dead and The Beyond. He and cinematographer Sergio Salvati imbue the film with a chilliness and autumnal beauty, milking the New England location shoot and the phenomenal house itself for all they’re worth, with everything amplified by Walter Rizzati’s beautiful electronica score. And to top it all off: this is my favorite Fulci film.
What began as a grindhouse flick equal parts irritating and entertaining, House by the Cemetery fast became the crown jewel of the surrealist craftsman’s back catalogue for me. Through its lyric charms, stunning atmosphere, and enveloping dreaminess, it managed to leave enough of an impression on me to revisit it, even under the weight of its abhorrent dub. And thanks to the Underground, I was permitted my first taste of the macabre brilliance of Signor Fulci.
Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
Now for another wicked extreme: a film I watched on an almost religious basis after getting my mitts on the DVD, and again on the lovingly made Arrow Video release, all thanks to my first viewing on TCM Underground.
Alice, Sweet Alice lives in that strange period of slasher history, while the massive success of the giallo was drawing to a close, and just two years before the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween. The bloody American whodunit, originally titled Communion, was set in early 60s New Jersey, and centered on the bratty young Alice (Paula Sheppard) who seems to be at the center of a macabre murder plot, the dawn of which comes with the death of her sister (a surprise appearance by a very young Brooke Shields) at a communion ceremony.
One of those deliciously macabre motion pictures that carries itself with a sense of elegance. Gliding camera movements, a spine-chilling yet melancholic score, and an immaculate sense of staging from freshman filmmaker Alfred Sole all prove the foundation for a surprisingly engaging mystery yarn to unfold. No 70s horror twists the knife and unsettles you quite like Alice, Sweet Alice, the film playing with largely Catholic overtones throughout, reflecting Sole’s own upbringing, and with a chilly Northeastern charm and imagery recalling films like Don’t Look Now.
Like any good Hitchcockian thriller, Sole manages to make the film endlessly rewatchable through his tight pacing, taut set pieces, and a never-ending guessing game, with the titular Alice proving a truly outstanding example of a “did-they, don’t-they,” a red herring whose culpability is always in question, even after the killer is unmasked in the film’s finale, the question left dangling in a devastatingly brilliant freeze frame. All is aided by the unrelenting performance of Sheppard who neatly vacillates from devil child to genuine innocence, sometimes at the drop of a hat.
At the end of the day, Alice, Sweet Alice is another one of those great mid-century thrillers that balances the somber with the suspenseful, and holds up to repeat viewings. I should know, I’ve seen it five times since I first discovered it!
The Hunger (1983)
We’ll end on another grower, but a hell of a grower. A film that stands as a powerful reminder of the versatility of one of the greatest action filmmakers in the medium’s history. Such a fact being cemented by a thoroughly gorgeous, erotic, and esoteric work of artful horror. The visionary is Tony Scott, and the vision is The Hunger.
Imagine a Jean Rollin film. France’s finest purveyor of the Fantastique. Legendary for his vampire-centric motion pictures. But instead of being shot on the budget of a bottle of wine and half a baguette, they’re made with an actual budget, and set in a city rather than the countryside. That’s The Hunger.
All the Gothicism, eroticism, & dreaminess inherent in pictures like 1979’s Fascination or 1972’s Requiem for a Vampire is present in Tony Scott’s theatrical debut, but afforded a cold, glassy, overcast look. The Hunger is an intricately crafted meditation on life & death as a vampire’s lover begins to age rapidly, & a new partner is in sight. There is a great richness to the visuals and the mesmerizing soundscape combining classical and ambient music. It’s an elegance almost too good to be true, and topping it off with a cast like David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve, & Susan Sarandon makes it feel even better. A steamy yarn surrounding a vampire’s love life that still proves utterly intoxicating, and a prime example of how often Tony could match the high style work of his brother Ridley, specifically his 80s output.
When I first saw this on TCM Underground, I never quite “got it,” but I remember the visuals being dazzling beyond belief. And when I took another glance, I was blown clear out of the water. It is a classic example of a film operating on instinct and intuition, and the viewer being rewarded for both their observations and for letting themselves be enveloped by the film’s sinfully intoxicating world.
For one special night each week, the TCM that taught me about the many epochs of Hollywood filmmaking and the wider scope of world cinema, taught me how to let loose, go to town, and make off-the-wall magic. Not without screening a dud or two, but for every camp-tastic affair like 1971’s The Zodiac Killer or the terminal snore-fest Clay Pigeon, there was a Some Call it Loving or an Alice, Sweet Alice. A film that would bore deep in your mind and refuse to leave you. And even though the block is gone, it’s impact still remains etched in my work and my enjoyment of the medium.
The Underground is Dead, Long Live the Underground.
One thought on “The Offbeat Marquee #8 – From Out of the Underground”
TCM….a favorite channel of my sister Chris.
LikeLiked by 1 person