What’s Screening: October 26 – November 1

The Chinese American Film Festival continues through Sunday, while French Cinema Now finishes on Monday. But Not Necessarily Noir keeps going through Halloween, and the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival keeps going through the week and beyond. Finally, the Italian Film Festival pops up again for Saturday night.

But not everything is about a film festival. With one exception, every film I discuss below is Halloween oriented–or at least Halloween-appropriate. I’ll start with the exception:

A+ Taxi Driver, United Artists Berkeley, Thursday, 9:00. When I think of the 1970s as taxidriver1a golden age of Hollywood-financed serious cinema, I think of Robert De Niro walking the dark, mean streets of New York, slowly turning into a psychopath. Writer Paul Schrader and director Martin Scorsese put together this near-perfect study of loneliness as a disease. It isn’t that Travis Bickle hasn’t found the right companion, or society has failed him, or that he doesn’t want intimacy. His problems stem from the fact that he’s mentally incapable of relating to other human beings. This is a sad and pathetic man, with a rage that will inevitably turn violent. Columbia Pictures has recently restored Taxi Driver, and if the Blu-ray release (see my review) is any indication, a theatrical presentation should look fantastic.

Happy Halloween!

A Young Frankenstein, Kabuki & various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. Once upon a time, Mel Brooks had youngfranktalent. And never more so than in 1974, when he made this sweet-natured parody and tribute to the Universal horror films of the 1930′s (specifically the first three Frankenstein movies). Gene Wilder wrote the screenplay and stars as the latest doctor to be stuck with the famous name (which he insists on pronouncing “Frankenshteen). But blood is fate, and he’s destined to create his own monster. Wilder is supported by some of the funniest actors of the era, including Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Boyle as the lovable but clumsy creature.

B+ Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956 version), Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. The best alien invasion movie of the 1950’s (and no, that’s not quite damning imagewith faint praise), Invasion of the Body Snatchers is noir, sci-fi, and political allegory. Of course, whether this tale of aliens taking over people’s identities is anti-Communist or anti-McCarthy depends more on your politics than on the filmmakers’. Either way, it’s an effective thriller that has been copied many times but not equaled—despite the cuts and annoying narration added by the studio. The closing show in the series An Army of Phantoms: American Cinema and the Cold War.

B+ Halloween, Balboa, Tuesday and Wednesday, 10:00. In 1978, John Carpenter made a very good low-budget thriller that started a very bad genre: the slasher movie–also known as the dead teenager flick. In the original Halloween, an escaped psycho racks up a number of victims on the scariest night of the year. Yes, the story is absurd–the guy seems capable of getting into any place and sneaking up on anyone–but Carpenter and his co-screenwriter Debra Hill take the time to let us know these particular teenagers, and that makes all the difference. By the time he goes after the mature, responsible one (Jamie Lee Curtis), you’re really scared.

B The Cabin in the Woods, Castro, Tuesday, 7:30. And speaking of dead teenager movies…By the 21st century, the only way to approach this sort of story was to make itimage an ironic comment on the genre (like Scream). This time around, a group of corporate white collar workers control, watch, and bet on the fate of four teenagers who leave town for a weekend and find only horror. By showing us the kid’s suffering through the uncaring eyes of the office workers, filmmakers Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon force us to confront the voyeuristic nature of the genre. But the movie’s ending just didn’t do it for me. On a double bill with House of 1,000 Corpses, which I neither have nor want to see.

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Davies Symphony Hall, Tuesday, 7:00. I haven’t seen this seminal piece of German expressionism in a great many years, so I’m not going to give it a grade. The story of a murderous hypnotist and his somnambulist slave would make a fairly conventional horror movie, but three important factors keep Caligari above the conventional. 1) The impressionistic sets and photography make it look like nothing you’ve ever seen in a genre picture. 2) The surprise ending can really throw you for a loop, and is still debated nearly a century after the film’s release. And 3) The horror genre was too new to have any conventions when this film was made. With the early animated short, "The Cameraman’s Revenge." This is a San Francisco Symphony presentation, but the accompaniment will be solo, with Cameron Carpenter on the organ.

B- The Last Man on Earth, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. The first film version imageof Richard Matheson’s novel I am Legend is also, I’ve been told, the closest to the book. But that doesn’t make it as good a movie as the most recent remake. This time around, Vincent Price is the one human being left in a world run over by mutant vampires. A low budget and unimaginative design hurt the thoughtful and moody story. But the wonderfully ironic ending saves the picture.

Creature Features: Target Earth, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 4:00. If you lived in the Bay Area in the ’70s and early ’80s, and liked to stay up late on Friday nights, you remember Channel 2’s Creature Features. Hosted by Bob Wilkins, it weekly presented a science fiction, fantasy, or horror movie of variable quality, along with trivia, interviews, and announcements about what was going on in the world of sci-fi. Here’s your chance to see a an actual 1976 episode, complete with the original commercials. The movie: Target Earth.

A Double Feature: Frankenstein & The Bride of Frankenstein, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. Dr. Frankenstein did more than create a monster. He turned James Whale into a top director and Boris Karloff into a major star (no mean feat since Karloff neither spoke in the first film nor received screen credit). Several individual scenes are masterpieces of mood, horror, and crossed sympathies, but there’s very little story in Frankenstein. On the other hand, the first sequel, Bride of Frankenstein,is a full work of art and the movie that earns this double bill an A. You spend more time scared for the monster than of it in Whales’ masterpiece. Karloff plays the creature as a child in a too-large body, the ultimate outcast torn between his need for love and his anger at the society that’s rejected him.