Sunday, March 1, 2020

Way to Shadow Garden, The (1954)

... aka: Road to Shadow Garden, The

Directed by:
Stan Brakhage

Missouri-born filmmaker Brakhage was a college dropout, artiste and professor who was part of the experimental / avant garde communities in San Francisco, New York and various cities in Colorado at various stages of his career. He made nearly 400 (mostly short and mostly not at all concerned with conventional narrative) films, won an American Film Institute Award in 1986 and has had some of his work released to DVD by the highbrow Criterion Collection but may be best known nowadays for damaging, scratching and warping film stock, or painting or drawing directly onto it, to achieve a peculiar look that is said to heighten viewer subjectivity. That technique later carried over to other films, most notably the stylish opening credits of the popular serial killer "thriller" Se7en (1995), which have been aped endlessly since. He always shot on 8mm or 16mm and frequently dipped his hands into the experimental filmmaker grab-bag of trickery, utilizing out of focus / blur shots, collage, superimposition, experimental editing, overexposure, etc.

Brakhage was not someone really on my radar until I was made aware of his The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes (1972), which has turned up on some horror / "most disturbing" film lists in recent years. Act consists of 30+ minutes of silent autopsy footage which some people view as being a film that forces viewers to confront their own mortality while others view as 30 minutes of gross silent autopsy footage. That's not something that appeals to me in the least so I probably won't be viewing it, but when I discovered this guy had made a few other genre shorts, I was interested.

A handheld camera, resembling a floating spirit, travels around a room capturing a light, an open door, a spinning lampshade and other things, then goes up and down the wall, all accompanied by strange, loud and quite frankly annoying distorted sounds that appear to be a human whistling, wheezing and imitating howling wind and thumping sounds. Aside from the audio, this reminded me a lot of Sam Raimi's busy camerawork in his Evil Dead films, just far more primitive. A young man (Walt Newcomb) enters the room, looks around, grabs a timer and alternates looking confused with looking anguished. He then throws water in his face, cries, laughs and dances. His bed sheets move position all on their own. He lights a cigarette and starts reading a book. He then pokes his own eyeballs out with his fingers and wanders outside where the film goes to negative image as the man grasps at flowers and plants and the camera goes in and out of focus. What does it all mean? Well that's for you to decide, dear chum.

This comes off like an amateur student film because, well, it is an amateur student film. Brakhage was attending the California School for the Arts (later the San Francisco Art Academy) at the time and this is him very early in his career trying out a few cool filming techniques. My favorite thing about watching stuff like this is reading viewer comments afterward. You have a mix of people saying "WTF was that supposed to be?" followed by others insisting it's deeply artistic, profound, poetic, etc. and then insulting the confused viewers by calling them stupid. And the world keeps turnin'.

Without Warning! (1952)

... aka: Achtung! Blondinengangster (Caution! Blonde Gangster)
... aka: Le sadique (The Sadist)
... aka: Mord uden varsel (Murder Without Warning)
... aka: Sangue sotto la luna (Blood Under the Moon)
... aka: Story Without a Name, The

Directed by:
Arnold Laven

A woman is found in a hotel room stabbed to death in the back with a twin-bladed object (a pair of scissors). The murder matches the modus operandi of a similar killing of a waitress a month earlier. Both victims were blonde and had alcohol in their system and both were killed at around the same time (3am) at the beginning of the month. The latest one was a married woman who'd signed the register using a fake name. The only physical clues left behind are "some stuff" under her fingernails, fingerprints and a piece of blue suit fabric. Police - led by Lt. Pete Hamilton (Edward Binns) and Detective Sgt. Don Warde (Harlan Warde) - run the fingerprints and come up with no matches, so they round up any man in the area who'd ever been connected to a crime similar to the one at the hotel. They all have their prints run. Still nothing. Whoever's been committing these grisly murders apparently has no criminal record to speak of. They do however discover the patch of torn fabric left at the scene comes from a rather expensive suit and, granted the killer isn't someone wealthy who could easily afford to replace it, the killer may try to get it repaired.

Seeing how this is no mystery, we're introduced to the psycho right away. He's a mild mannered and seemingly-nonthreatening young man by the name of Carl Martin (Adam Williams, who'd go on to bigger things like playing an assassin in Hitchcock's North by Northwest and a sailor in the classic "The Hitch-Hiker" episode of The Twilight Zone). Carl lives in the hills above Los Angeles and works as a landscaper and gardener. And he really, really has a hang-up about blondes since his wife, who we can assume was a blonde floozie, left him. Carl gets his supplies from a local nursery run by Fred Saunders (John Maxwell). Fred's daughter Jane (Meg Randall), whose military husband is currently stationed overseas, has come from Fresno to stay with him and temporarily help out at his business. Upon first seeing Jane, Carl quickly and awkwardly rushes off, as not to let his primal impulses get the better of him. However, he slows starts ingratiating himself into her life and makes frequent trips to the greenhouse just to visit her, which moves her high up on his list of targets.

Detectives canvas every tailor shop in town and tell them to be on the lookout for a man attempting to get a blue suit jack fixed; giving them contact information in case one shows up at their shop. However, their plan to trap the killer doesn't work when Carl overhears a tailor and decides to burn his suit instead. Even though Carl has his issues, he's not stupid and is extremely careful about leaving any evidence behind. That's one thing that ends up saving Jane when he shows up at the greenhouse late one night plotting to kill her before realizing the timestamp on a bill he'd just paid would give him away to police. Instead, Carl has to settle for a sultry blonde pick-up Janet Collier (Angela Stevens) at a sleazy bar. The next morning while he's in his latest victim's car under a bridge with the body, he gets caught up in the sand as two motorcycle cops approach and is barely able to escape. While he flees in a panic, he injures both cop, hops on a truck, ends up at a market and is forced to yield a few cabs, leaving a few more clues behind in the process.

Assorted nuts (called "the creatures" by the narrator!) who show up at the station trying to take credit for the killings "in their desire to bask briefly in the headlines" are but a minor distraction as the focused cops finally manage to get some more important clues from the cab drivers who transported Carl around after his last killing. They get a psychological profile from police consult psychiatrist Dr. Werner (Robert Shayne) and then enlist the aid of all of the force's bottle blonde female detectives, who act as decoys in local bars the psycho is believed to frequent. Virginia (Marilee Phelps) is the lucky one who manages to meet up with the suspect, but when Carl realizes he's being trailed by a cop on their drive, he lets her out of the car unharmed and then finds another victim. Police chemist Charlie Wilkins (Byron Kane) discovers that traces of wood, different soil types and chemicals found in commercial grade fertilizer are also present at all the crimes scene, getting them just one step closer to apprehending the killer. But will they be able to get to Carl before he gets to Jane?

This film noir / police procedural / serial killer psycho-thriller is very much like an extended episode of a popular current TV show like CSI or Law & Order; bouncing back and forth between the activities of the killer and new developments in the investigation as authorities start closing in. Acting and dialogue are decent enough and it looks rather good (cinematographer Joseph F. Biroc later won an Oscar for The Towering Inferno) plus features a variety of shooting locations so it never feels too staid. Seeing forensics and investigators at work during a less 'connected' time with fewer tools at their disposal is fairly interesting. There's some good suspense in here, too, plus some witty lines and black humor. The most amusing bit is when a "happily married" suspect is ensnared by one of the decoys, taken in for questioning, threatens to take them to court and is then reminded they'd have to inform his wife why he was there in the first place before they throw him out!

Roy Engel (as the police captain) and William Boyett (as a motorcycle cop) appear uncredited and the narration (which is rather unnecessary and detracts from the flow of the film) is by Reed Hadley. The story and screenplay were written by William Raynor, who wrote a lot of low budget 50s B films like PHANTOM FROM SPACE (1953), KILLERS FROM SPACE (1954) and Target Earth (1954) before settling into a career as a prolific TV writer. Director Laven also worked mostly on TV, though he directed the fun creature feature The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) and produced the very good THE VAMPIRE (1957).

For a long time this independently-made United Artists release was believed lost (which put it high up on film noir buff's wish lists for a number of years) but was finally given a belated DVD release in 2005 by Dark Sky Films.

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