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Having A Movie Moment with Jon Longhi: Art & Zombies

Posted by The Bay Area Crew, March 5, 2019 07:30pm | Post a Comment

By Jon Longhi

Welcome to this month’s Having A Movie Moment With Jon Longhi, where I review recent Blu-ray releases. I figured I’d make things a little more highbrow this month, so I’m starting off with a recent Criterion Collection edition of a classic Orson Wells film:

The Magnificent Ambersons, Criterion Collection:
The Magnificent Ambersons is not a magnificent movie; it's a mediocre movie magnificently made. Orson Magnificent AmbersonsWells was such a genius that he could polish a turd even as weak as this script. As a result, we are just carried along from the beginning of the movie by one beautifully filmed and staged deep focus set piece after another. The cinematography is breathtaking and inventive and flawlessly sharp in this new Criterion Collection remaster. The only problem is that if you stop and think about the movie there isn't much "there" there. The whole thing comes off as the best filmed episode of Lifestyles Of The Rich And Famous. Wells was trying to create another definitive American myth of wealth and power but unlike his masterpiece Citizen Kane, the central characters of this film are just not that interesting or likable. The main protagonist George Amberson is especially unlikeable -he's really just a spoiled brat and a jerk. Kane at least had obsessions and demons that drove him to memorable scenes of pathos and drama, George Amberson on the other hand is just kind of a dick. The film follows the ups and downs of the Amberson clan, who were the richest family in Indianapolis, Indiana at the turn of the last century. Some of the most engaging scenes are where Wells examines the changing fashions and technology of those long gone times. After describing the city, the era, and the other family members, Wells focuses his attention on spoiled brat and only child George. Unlike the people around him, George is a hedonist with no goals in life. The only career he aspires to is "yachtsman." George treats everyone around him like shit and views money as an endless resource, but times change and fortunes fall. When things start to go bad, this clan of aristocrats are particularly unprepared for it.

This film is one of the greatest "could have been" stories in the history of cinema. RKO took final editing rights away from Wells and butchered his rough cut. More than an hour of the movie was removed and the footage destroyed, and then the studio shot and substituted a "happier" ending in favor of Wells' original, more tragic climax. The studio's ending is mawkish, ham fisted, and ridiculous, so you can just imagine how furious Wells must have been. Wells meant for his movie to be a tragedy about karma and if you just stop watching the film four minutes before the final credits, you'll see an ending more along the lines of what Wells envisioned. The whole last half hour is kind of choppy because that is where most of the studio's edits occurred. But even the sliced up mess that survives is one of the better motion pictures ever made. The film was nominated for four Academy awards including Best Picture, however Wells pretty much disowned the movie and even soundtrack composer Bernard Herrmann demanded that his name be removed from the credits. Unfortunately, there are not enough original film elements left to create a reconstruction, but some of the supplements on this disc describe the troubled history of the picture and what might have been. If you are a Wells fan you need this Blu-ray because even though it is flawed and butchered, Wells only directed a few full length feature films and some of his best work is in this one. It's ironic, though; the release of this film as a remastered Blu-ray on Criterion Collection should have been a triumphant celebration and instead it is just another sad reminder of what happens when studio bean counters trample an artist's vision.

Plague Of The Zombies, Shout Factory/Scream Factory:
As I said in my last column, there have been some great recent releases of Hammer horror films and Plague of ZombiesShout Factory just provided us with another classic. Plague Of The Zombies is a different kind of zombie movie. To begin with it takes place in Cornwall, England. Also these zombies are created by voodoo rituals instead of a generalized reincarnation that has no detectable cause. As a result this movie has a whole different look and style than the legions of zombie films we've been deluged with over the past few decades. The story is still told in the classic Hammer style though. From the setting to the costumes to the acting it is all a very British affair. In fact, on a cultural level Hammer films are some of the best representations of British culture. The whole rational world view and the long history of formal manners are inherent in every frame of a Hammer film. This movie is no different. When two doctors are puzzled by a wave of mysterious deaths in a Cornish village, they attack the problem with typical English aplomb; they keep a stiff upper lip and use every tool of science and rationality to combat the supernatural threats. No stone is left unturned, even when the problem seems increasingly strange and unreal. John Gilling does a great job directing. The movie is like a slow burn that builds up suspense until the action-filled last half-hour. Brook Williams and Andre Morell are perfect as the two doctors. The zombies themselves look fantastic and the makeup designs are quite different from any other interpretations of the living dead. The restored sound and picture are excellent and there are some great bonus feature documentaries to round out the disc. This release is part of a new series that Shout Factory has been working on where they release one Hammer film a month. The series started back in December with Dracula Prince Of Darkness, which is one of the very best vampire films ever made. Future releases include Vengeance of She, The Witches, and The Legend Of The Seven Golden Vampires. It's a great series so keep an eye out for these.

Relevant Tags

Bernard Hermann (1), Orson Wells (3), Blu-rays (11), Zombies (19), Hammer Horror (3), Horror (212), Film (175), Cult Films (17), Cult Film (16), Movie Moment (11), Jon Longhi (21), John Gilling (1), Brook Williams (1), Andre Morell (1), British Film (2)