For decades, the vast and beautiful land of Texas has been used as the backdrop for dozens of feature films, spawning beloved classics from virtually every genre. Yet when it comes to horror, it seems that the one title most associated with the state remains Tobe Hooper's masterful The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). A great film which, without question, will live on, Chainsaw was one of the first instances which successfully portrayed the wide-open spaces of Texas as potential landscape of sheer terror.
In the years following the film's impact, a variety of features -- most notably a number of Chain Saw sequels/remakes -- have continued to paint Texas as a rich setting for some truly inventive and fright-filled tales. In time for Halloween, and in celebration of the Texas-set 2014 remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown (currently in limited release and on VOD), here are a few titles that have, in their own way, given a chilling new face to the Lone Star State. Put together your own Texas-themed horror night sometime soon with these movies.
Shot and released two years after Chain Saw, 1976's The Town That Dreaded Sundown is a retelling of a true story that had plagued a small Texas town in post-war America. In the small community of Texarkana, a hooded killer known as the Phantom stalks and kills various citizens in unpredictable ways while continuously eluding authorities. Shot in the almost documentary-like style common with independent films of the decade, The Town That Dreaded Sundown was one of the first horror films closely based on true events; a fact the film relishes with matter-of-fact narration. That, combined with the film's open ending, a random cast that includes Ben Johnson and Dawn Wells, and a killer whose mere still presence in front of the camera gives off instant chills, made the movie an instant event for horror fans.
I'm writing this on Sunday, August 31. If Molly Ivins were still alive, it would be her 70th birthday. And today is Labor Day, so it seems like a fine time to remember my favorite political columnist through movie and video clips.
Actually, Don writing a TAMI Flashback about John Henry Faulk (go read it when you're done here) inspired me. I had first read about Faulk in Ivins' essay in Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She? If you watch the TAMI video from Faulk's memorial service, right at the end Ivins tells a very funny story from that essay. Here, I'll make it easy on you by embedding the video again. Skip ahead to 1:24:00 for Ivins. (The story might also make you feel nostalgic about Cinema West.)
The names Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andrew Fastow are not as prevalent in the media as they were in the last decade. These men, behind the success (such as it was) and severe failure of Enron, were eventually found guilty of fraud and other charges.
The 2005 documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room is based on the book of the same name. Director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, The Armstrong Lie) interviews the book's authors, journalist Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, along with journalists, political figures and former Enron employees. Peter Coyote (E.T., Erin Brockovich), who could narrate practically anything and lend it a certain credence, talks of the bravado and bluff in the history of the energy-trading company based in Houston.
These interviews and Coyote's narration speak to the shenanigans going down at the once-praised company. The "macho culture" at the business is described, corraborated by video clips from an extreme motocross trip and discussion of one executive's love for strippers (with requisite strip club footage). Audio of male traders making rude and conspiratorial remarks is played over scenes from the 2000-2001 California electricity crisis. In such a case, it's not shocking that a woman, Sherron Watkins, turned whistleblower against Enron.
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room depicts the real-life events as a sort of morality tale, with many of the interviewees speaking about the lousy ethics of the company's business and their "synergistic corruption." The director includes C_SPAN video of Skilling before a Senate committee, lying about his part in the faulty financing Enron was using. Because the company appeared to be doing so well -- they were making loads of money, anyway -- any outside person who tried to ask important questions about the business or look closer at their dealings faced repurcussions.
You never know what you might find when you're browsing Netflix Instant selections on a dull Sunday afternoon, and when my husband (who had the remote, go figure) started to skip past the unknown-to-us movie The Hot Flashes, I did a double-take and said, "Wait, stop -- is that directed by Susan Seidelman?" As in, Susan Seidelman who made Desperately Seeking Susan and Smithereens and I haven't heard about her since that She-Devil adaptation I don't want to think about? My attention was caught.
Then we read the synopsis, which was about middle-age women playing basketball -- okay, that's novel -- and decided to play the "give it 10 minutes and turn it off if it's too dumb" game. We lasted through all 99 minutes with no regrets. (Full disclosure: After 10-ish minutes I exclaimed, "Hey, this movie is set in Texas! I'm gonna write it up," and ran to my office for a notebook and pen. Writers are like this.)
The Hot Flashes is a little bit dumb and a more than a little bit obvious, with a narrative of the utmost predictability. But an excellent cast, working together beautifully, and some clever scripting kept us watching. In addition, how often do you see films that star women about to hit menopause? Wait, it's better than that -- this is a feature film about women over 40 playing competitive sports. I know some of you are intrigued now too.
This month's list of films available online was all over the place. I was watching ridiculous Craig Robinson comedies and intense documentaries about the struggle to make art. "How the hell do I tie these together?" was the question, as my themes usually come to me quite easily. When I thought back about all of these stories, though, I finally found one kernel within each movie that linked them: topics we don't like to talk about.
What does or does not making something "taboo" is different for each of us. Some are universally obvious, but some might not strike us right away. We have to learn more and try to understand a situation before writing it off as totally unthinkable. Several of the films I watched this month explore topics that are hard to talk about, let alone make a movie about. When you get to know these characters though, you start to see where they are coming from.
I'm not saying they're right, or that they're even heroes. But they're people. They're human, just like you and me. Give their stories a shot this month.
I hate jokes and anyone who makes them. Having a sense of humor has always disgusted me, and is one trait in people that I absolutely cannot stand. It's an automatic deal breaker for me when, after just having met someone, they crack a joke or use a bit of sarcasm in an effort to be impressive. If you're one of these people, we probably haven't gotten along very well (and that's probably why I never called or texted you back). It truly is the one thing I can't stand.
... Okay, that was my belated April Fools joke for you all. Who am I kidding? I love joking around with people, and will always be the first to lighten the mood in a room (or at least try to). In keeping with that tone for the month, I found myself watching a lot of films lately that have rather foolish protagonists. Some of them are jerks, some just don't have a clue. Some of them are just too young to know what's right and what's wrong. We've all acted foolishly in our own lives, and sometimes we might not realize it until we see someone acting the same way.
I'm not saying these movies will make you realize you're a fool. But, maybe they'll cause you to reflect on those elements of yourself that you didn't realize you had. Who knows -- you might just make some improvements this month.
The Oscars have always been my family's version of the Superbowl. We always make it a point to watch the ceremony together, sometimes making bets on who will win in each category. And with my recent viewing of the 2014 awards, it only seemed appropriate to make this month all about past Oscar winners.
Film fans are always going to have their opinion on who won, or who was robbed of the golden statue. Although I have not always agreed with the Best Picture winners, it is always intriguing to see what the Academy feels is "the perfect film" each year. I would encourage anyone to make it a point to see all of the Best Picture winners throughout Oscar history; if anything, it certainly makes for a fun challenge. In the meantime, though, here are a few past winners worth checking out.
For being such a short month, February has a lot going on. With Black History Month, Valentine's Day and Groundhog Day, this month seems to encapsulate feelings of reflection, hope and love all in just a few short weeks. I started my film watching for this month in a cheery, romantic comedy mindset. "I'll write about finding love! And happily ever afters!" I thought, focusing on Valentine's Day as my main element.
After a day or two of being on a romcom kick, I finally calmed down, took a breath, and looked at all of the people that I know in my life. I thought of the love of dear friends near and far, of parents, of the people lost over the years. It can be so easy to think that a romantic type of love is all that this month celebrates... but really, it's all of the love you share with others in your life.
Single, in a relationship, married -- whatever your status is, take the time to focus on the different kinds of love you have in your life. Maybe these films will help you to remember some of them. Happy February!
Many of us tend to think the start of the New Year means the start of another year of getting older. Life catches up to us in one way or another, and sometimes we focus on the negative before we can see the positive. This New Year, someone told me they weren't sure they believed that a new year necessarily meant that you could start over. I had to kindly disagree with them.
A New Year might just seem like another notch on the belt, but it really is a chance to set new goals for yourself. Not just the usual "lose weight/exercise every day" sort of goals, but a chance to do something different and new with your year. We never realize how much time we have left until it's too late; why not take advantage of that realization in 2014?
This month's selection of films feature characters and stories about wanting to make a new start for one's self or, if anything, figuring out how to refresh their current situation at hand. Hopefully they will inspire you to take hold of this year and make it your own. After all -- it only happens once a year!
C.O.G. -- As a big David Sedaris and Jonathan Groff fan, there was no way this film was going to get past me. Groff plays David, a cocky twentysomething college graduate who decides to go off the radar for a while by working on an apple orchard in Oregon. Thinking he is the intellectual superior to everyone he meets, he quickly realizes how out of his element he is when he sees that he is in an outcast in this small community of farmers and immigrants. The film itself is full of those typical, Sedaris-esque moments of awkwardness, humor and discomfort all rolled into one. Groff's character is one that you want to hate, but end up rooting for by the end. It's a true example of the discovery that none of us is better than anyone else in this world. Available on Netflix, Amazon Instant and iTunes.
When I think back on 2013, I think of all the times I heard or read about strong, brave women around the world. Wendy Davis, Malala Yousafzai, Gabrielle Giffords and Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis caught my attention, each and every one of their battles epic in their own regard. Several of these ladies fought to protect the rights of women, often getting hurt or knocked down along the way. They didn't take "no" for an answer, and in some cases put their lives on the line for what they believe in. This was a rough year for the girls, but even in spite of all of this, it still made me incredibly proud to be a woman.
I gravitated toward this topic because I feel that lately I have been stumbling upon movies with great female protagonists. Some you side with from the start, while some you feel might just be flat out crazy. Nonetheless you root for them, even if it isn't until the very end. Before the year is over, I hope you take the time to thank and root for all of the amazingly beautiful women in your life. Happy holidays!
Frances Ha -- How lucky I was to stumble upon this gem of a film, especially after all of the discussion I'd heard about it. Frances (Greta Gerwig) is a 27-year-old modern dancer living in New York City. She lives with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner) and has a carefree life, taking each day as it comes. This comes to a halt, though, when she turns down the opportunity to move in with her boyfriend, only to discover that Sophie is moving out to live with someone else. Frances must then figure out how to navigate life solo, taking on odd jobs and having a few too many life lessons all at once. This film is one that I believe many twentysomethings will be able to relate to, particularly those in an artistic field. It gives you hope that friendship will always prevail and, even when life throws you a curveball, you can still find the silver linings in every situation. Jette reviewed the movie when it hit theaters earlier this year. Available on Netflix, Amazon Instant and iTunes.