Saturday, August 5, 2017

Remembering Martin Landau and....Alone in the Dark

DISCLAIMER - My blog is an attempt to show respect to films some small minded, intellectually dishonest hipsters automatically label "bad". There is no film I discuss here that I believe to be bad at all.  The title of the blog comes from a discussion that took place some years ago when I was trying to explain the appeal of these films. The title is not meant to suggest I think these films are bad in the least.  Remember - ART IS ART!

I'm not ecstatic to be growing old.  Intellectually I understood it was likely, but, I generally discounted it as something far off and remote.

And then I got old.

I've certainly been terribly fortunate to see a great many changes in my 50 years.  I have vague recollections of moon landings and presidential resignations (and watching my parents cheer and my grandparents cry..and wondering how people could feel completely different about the same event).  I lived under the threats of the Cold War...and then watched it all dissolve (although, as a species we've grown attached to adding numbers to the ends of wars and so I imagine Cold War II is just around the corner).

Not only have I had the chance to observe history, I've been alive long enough to watch George Lucas create a brilliant space opera, then generally piss on it with the prequels (three films I will not defend).  I'm old enough to have seen Tron, Blade Runner, and The Thing during their original theatrical runs - and I'm very thankful for that.  I even paid cash money to see films like Invaders From Mars, Blue City and Howard the Duck...and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Sadly, however, it means I've also watched much of my youth die away lately.  Certainly the last year and a half has been an seemingly ceaseless reminder of my mortality.  When I was quite young I recall the deaths of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, and was partly affected by their passing because members of my family were affected; although my mother appeared pleased about it.  I recall saying to my mother about John Wayne "But Mom, he helped makes America what it is" and she shot me a nasty glance and said "Exactly".

But, then the writers, actors and directors who had affected me grew old and died and I began to understand how my parents and grandparents felt when they watched their youth fade away.

Last month, Martin Landau passed away.  And I was reminded once again how fast everyone's time is ticking away.  Although Landau began working some years before I was even born, between Mission: Impossible and Space: 1999 he was a fixture in my pre-teen and teen years of fandom with films I would watch on cable or later rent like Metor, Without Warning, The Return, The Being (also starring Ruth Buzzi, Murray Langston, Jose Ferrer AND Kinky Friedman!) and one of my favorites Alone in the Dark.

If you look at Landau's IMDB page, Landau worked steadily.  A solid working actor, with two Oscar noms to his credit but no wins - until Tim Burton.

I think every lover of under appreciated films was over joyed when it was announced Tim Burton would be making a film about Ed Wood.  I had recently finished reading Nightmare of Ecstasy- The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. by Rudolph Grey (a brilliant book - track down a copy and enjoy.  My copy is a prize possession) and couldn't wait to see how Burton would translate the ultimately tragic life of Edward D. Wood, Jr. to film. 

And, in the end, I was so excited about the film I generally didn't care who Burton cast...and then I found Martin Landau was going to portray Bela Lugosi himself.  There was a smile on my face that required a sand blaster and surgery to remove.  I don't recall where I heard the quote, but it goes like this "Martin Landau did a better job of playing Bela Lugosi than Bela Lugosi played Bela Lugosi". Now, of course, the quote isn't meant to malign Bela or his talent, but, to praise Landau's performance in Burton's Ed Wood.

I doubt it will surprise many reading this, but, I don't watch the Oscars any longer (or award shows in general).  Many great writers, actors and directors are shown the respected they deserve at the Academy Awards....and yet, many many more do not.  So, I'll leave the back slapping self aggrandizing to the Academy and local theater groups.  But, I certainly did watch the night Landau won.  It pleased me greatly to see him finally take home the prize.

But, I want to write a few words about one of my favorite Landau pictures, Jack Sholder's 1982 Freshman effort called Alone in the Dark.  This film is what happens when you take what might be little more than your average slasher film and add not only Martin Landau, but Jack Palance and Donald Pleasence.  Now - I'm going to summarize the plot of the film in a single sentence, and you may roll your eyes and think "Oh brother".  Four murderous mental patients escape their facility during a blackout and proceed to terrorize their psychiatrist and his family.  Sounds a bit pedestrian - like a tale told around a camp fire.  Maybe even mundane.

Pedestrian and mundane it is not.

From the very opening sequence of this film, the tension, on a scale from 1 to 10, is 11. Pleasence portrays Dr. Leo Bain who says things like "he's really into his own space right now."  A doctor who believes his patients are the lucky ones because they are no longer living in a "mad world" and that their behavior is, in fact, simply a reaction to the madness of the world.  Landau portrays a former Minister named Bryon; Palance a former POW named Frank Hawkes; the late Erland van Lidth portrays "Fatty" (and a movie should be made about Erland van Lidth - what an amazing man he was in his short life).  Finally, Phillip Clark who plays "Bleeder" Skaggs.

These four are kept on the third floor with special security.  The underappreciated Brent Jennings portrays hospital employee Ray Curtis whose primary and nerve wracking duty is to keep an eye on the band of four killers.  He tells Dwight Schultz' character Dr.  Dan Potter, "Electricity, that is all that keeps me separated from them....electricity."  Curtis tries to warn Potter that Hawkes has convinced his mental friends that Potter had their previous doctor killed...and he's here to kill them.

Then comes the blackout...and what Curtis should have said is "Electricity....all that separates us from them is electricity."

This film went unnoticed for some time. As I was wont to do, I saw this film in 1982 at the local drive-in, but, I'm sure it appeared in some cinemas and then faded away.  But, over time it has received a certain respect as well as a cult following.  The special edition DVD is certainly worth tracking down.  I'll admit, it is not the best work of anyone in the cast - but, the performances are solid all around.  Actors like Palance, Landau and Pleasence never "phoned it in".  True actors and professionals from an era where there were no small roles or small movies.  Every show deserved all their hard work.  Perhaps there are actors like that still today - Reggie Bannister comes to mind.  But, I'm certain they are not as common as they once were.

By the way, this film premiered in 1982, and I'm certain the Hockey mask wearing "Bleeder" predates Hockey mask wearing Jason.  Just an aside.

And Godspeed Mr. Landau...

Miss you pops