Burnt Offerings

Burnt Offerings (that stellar title deserves a much better film) doesn’t do much as far as innovation goes in the haunted house genre but it’s serviceable enough as an atmospheric diversion and benefits from a very strong and frequently cuckoo bananas performance from the great Oliver Reed as a family man and writer who moves his wife (Karen Black) and son (Lee Montgomery) into a suspiciously creepy manor in the English countryside in a sort of caretakers capacity. Now we all know from collective cinema experience how ill advised it is for writers to move their families into empty large buildings with threatening auras, but hey that’s half the fun. They should have especially known better here though because they’re hired to house sit the place by the weirdest people imaginable, two creepy old goats played by a half mad Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart, and let me tell you if these two tried to hire me to look after their weird empty English house I’d run the other way, but then we wouldn’t have a story I suppose. The film hinges on a dynamic that consists of Reed trying to be steadfast and responsible but slowly succumbing to some Jack Torrence level madness while Black’s ineffectual wife blathers on in ditzy mania and the poor kid is stuck between them. There’s a highly effective sequence in the manor’s pool where playful, benign roughhousing between father and son turns unexpectedly violent and grim very fast and is a nice example of tension building and infused menace on Reed’s part. Bette Davis shows up in a rather forgettable role and there’s a spooky grinning valet driver who may or may not be a ghost that sows seeds of narrative and tonal unrest too. It’s nothing fancy, nothing new or noteworthy but as far as routine, atmospheric haunted house flicks with esteemed actors go, you could do worse. Streaming now on Shudder.

-Nate Hill


With cinematographer Pierre Mingot’s camera crawling across the dusty and crowded aisles of the shabby Woolworth’s five-and-dime aided by nothing but the sound of the hot Texas wind blowing in the background, the stillness is shocking and the silence is deafening. After the assaultive soundtracks and busy tableaux of Robert Altman’s body of work from 1970 through 1980, this seems downright pastoral; retrograde, in fact. For this quiet solemnity is the brief calm before the kickoff of the 20th anniversary reunion for the Disciples of James Dean, a small gaggle of friends who once wore matching sweaters, dreamed of being in a singing group like the McGuire Sisters, and worshiped at the alter of James Dean while sweating out life in McCarthy, Texas during the early fifties.

Set on September 30th, 1975, the 20th anniversary of the death of James Dean, Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean tracks the sad, lonely, and scarred lives of those for whom the Woolworth was once the nexus of their universe; a place you could get an orange Crush and read Photoplay magazine while waiting for your friends to get off work. And in 1975, time has not been kind to the Woolworth, itself slowly beginning to feel the pressure as regional retailers like TG&Y, Target, and Wal-Mart began to slowly creep across the map all the while watching smaller stores burn out and die as their host towns did the same.

The McCarthy Woolworth is situated not sixty miles from Marfa where, in 1955, director George Stevens and company travelled to film portions of Giant, a film that would prove to be James Dean’s last. This proves to be a crucial point in time in the lives of those at the Woolworth, most especially high-strung Dean fanatic, Mona (Sandy Dennis), and Joe (Mark Patton), her co-worker and friend whose homosexuality is becoming a point of rancorous contention in the conservative town. A day-trip to Marfa in the hopes to be extras in the film leads to a secret that will be revealed twenty years later in the course of the reunion just as everyone else in the store’s purview will see their lives peeled back and exposed.

It’s perhaps no accident that 1982 marked the 25th anniversary of the release of The Delinquents and The James Dean Story, Robert Altman’s first two films that were bathed in the ghost of Dean and his legacy. For 5 & Dime, Altman’s adaptation of Ed Graczyk’s stage play, is a film about, among a lot of things, a gulf of time, starting over, and reassessment; a mirror of disillusionment and reconciling the past with the present. After the death of HealtH and the perceived folly of Popeye, Altman was on the other side of the Hollywood gates, reconfiguring his strategy and finding new energy for the march through the wilderness ahead.

In 5 & Dime, Robert Altman gets to start the 80’s off with a big “fuck you” to the type of salt of the earth community that was so lionized in the ascension of Reagan’s America. Steeped in religious hypocrisy and homophobia, the town of McCarthy deserves to shrivel up and die on the vine. We see that this isn’t a town where the righteous and the upstanding live, but, instead, its a lifeless husk inhabited by the sad denizens of a religious culture that has proved ruinous. We never see anything of McCarthy outside the store but we really don’t need to, mostly because movies like Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show exist and it’s a well-traveled landscape. This is a town in which the skating rink closed in 1965. You really only need to understand that.

Populating this world are only those who work at the Woolworth or those from its past. Randy and foul-mouthed Sissy (Cher, extraordinary in her first serious dramatic role) still works the counter twenty-five years later but now is cemented to Lester T, a husband we never see but about whom we will hear plenty. Juanita (a perfect Sudie Bond) runs the place with the same kind of starchy, unforgiving attitude that was its brand when it was being run by her late husband, Sidney, who, like Lester T, is a man we will not see but about whom we will hear plenty. Coming in from out of town are Stella Mae (Kathy Bates, hurling it to the back row), a wealthy but terminally empty woman whose acrid ribbing of the plain but sweet-natured Edna Louise (Marta Heflin) reveals a deep pain of jealous resentment. Mona still lives in town and arrives a little late from a trip to Marfa, carrying another piece of Reata, the false front from Giant built in the middle of that town’s arid wasteland that slowly became dismantled by the natural elements and tourists who wanted a piece of its memory. Finally, the one stranger to the group arrives in the form of Karen Black’s Joanne, a mysterious woman with bold and striking features who drives a fancy yeller Porsche who… somehow… reminds everyone of someone they once knew.

It should go without saying that there is a feeling by some that this film is poorly representative and isn’t without issues. While I certainly understand and to a certain extent agree with some of those concerns, I do think they miss a wider point of just how rare it was in 1982 to see any film that dealt with LGBTQ issues as openly and with any sympathy for those characters who had been traditionally marginalized. But aside from being a very brave, LGBTQ-positive film, 5 & Dime is pointedly reflective for Altman on a personal level. Along with Popeye, here, too, lies a dark self-assessment regarding the regrets of misspent parenthood as it is revealed that Mona’s child, long-heralded in McCarthy as the illegitimate love child of James Dean, has been smothered and emotionally abused by his mother. And it is again Mona who acts as the vessel in which Altman places some of his wistful nostalgia for his salad days. “I should have kept up with all of them,” she says as the transparent scrim in the mirror gives way to a reminiscence that feels like it’s bathed in CinemaScope, revealing a sadness that independent, cinematic productions of one-set plays was the extent of Altman’s professional reach. In Sandy Dennis, Altman had a rare creature who could be as pitiful in her neurosis as she could be tender and hers is the character who slowly fades away over the course of the film, her life no more than an empty shell of lies disguised as memories.

If Hollywood bet Altman would wilt without his widescreen trickery and ephemeral bullshit, they bet wrong. With nothing but one set and a handful of actors, Altman spans twenty years of hurt and pain that feels epic in scope. Not only is it a roaring success, it’s a remarkable piece of filmmaking and one of Altman’s very best pictures. And even if he would eventually pare his mise-en-scene down even further in 1984’s blistering Secret Honor, the amount of production value Altman gets from just the performances and the theatrical utilization of the mirror as a window into the past reflects just how incredibly gifted he was when it came to brass tacks of visual storytelling. 5 & Dime could obviously be done in a master shot but every cut and camera setup seems considered and, unlike other adaptations of stage plays to the big screen, Altman does absolutely nothing to open the piece up to make it more cinematic, correctly gauging that the claustrophobia would make the microscopic examination all the more riveting.

In adapting the play to the screen, Altman is reporting on an America that is breathing its last breath. It’s a place where the plastic pinwheels refuse to move in its atmosphere. There is a stagnancy and a ripening; rain threatens to roll in but always passes by without showing up. Most everyone in the group promises each to reunite again in the year 1995 but there’s little question that it’s a reunion that won’t occur. As the ending credits roll, the audience is reminded that time will eventually wear everything down into a bittersweet, faded memory. From the structure of Reata in which nobody dwelled to entire towns that once bustled with actual life and energy, absolutely nothing is spared in the end.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain


The Paramount logo appears in black and white and in a state of mismanaged distress. This is quickly followed by a calm pre-title credit countdown; Three, the studio… two, the producers… one, the director. Then, the blast off occurs with a voice that booms “NOW AFTER YEARS IN THE MAKING…” revealing a commercial for the film’s soundtrack album that will also operate as the film’s opening credit sequence. Welcome to Nashville, Tennessee in 1975, a reflection of an America that could be marketed just like a K-Tel record. Years in the making but here for your enjoyment “in stereophonic sound and without commercial interruption.”

Robert Altman’s Nashville is ground zero for reflecting America’s unhealthy appetite for mixing celebrity and politics and it savagely and meticulously lays bare the ugly mechanisms that fuel both enterprises and also our collective and insatiable obsessions with them. It’s about a post-war, post-Eisenhower America being left behind as a perverted geek show of wrong-headed populism, shameless grifters, and shallow entertainment tightens its grip on a nation that has been so beaten down and disillusioned that a earnest yet moronic song like “200 Years,” an anthem that marvels at America’s ability to withstand trials and tribulations long enough to last two whole centuries, can be mistakenly presented as a chest-bursting piece of patriotism instead of the hilariously stupid self-own that it is.

Nashville is the story of a few days in the life of twenty-four people in the titular city in which there are two defining events afoot. One of them is the re-emergence of country artist Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely), the undisputed but fragile queen of Nashville who’s been convalescing after a recent “flaming baton” incident. The other is the organization of a political rally for Hal Phillip Walker, presidential candidate for the populist, third-party “Replacement Party,” and winner of enough recent primaries to make the political establishment sweat. Through these two events, which will eventually thread together, we follow a whole host of country stars, political advance men, groupies, journalists, bored husbands, their even more bored wives, rock stars, hangers-on, has-beens, never-weres, kooks, and earnest fans. There’s a lot of information that floats at the viewer like an unstoppable current but Altman, with the help of a framework screenplay by Joan Tewkesbury, links all of these characters together with an uncanny skill and a uniquely American eye.

Up until 1975, there had not been a film quite like Nashville. Sure, star-studded films in the vein of Grand Hotel had been produced and were crowd-pleasing successes, but even those felt more like omnibus tales and less like a grand tapestry in which there truly is no lead character. Nashville was the first film to spread its giant cast comfortably across the widescreen canvas while also making them feel as they were part of something that was bubbling with vitality and was recognizably and organically alive. And in fact, Nashville exists in a space where real stars such as Elliott Gould and Julie Christie appear alongside characters portrayed by actors with whom they’ve worked before. Additional life is given to the film in the way it integrates likewise authentic locations like the Grand Old Opry (replete with a real GOO audience) being utilized for the actors to authentically perform songs that they wrote and brought to the project themselves. While the greatest example of this form of Altman commitment likely goes to the mock presidential campaign that crossed paths with very real ones in Altman’s Tanner ‘88 (which, not coincidentally, featured Michael Murphy as the central visible political figure), Nashville was the first to truly make an Altman production the kind of all-in communal effort he’d been tinkering with since McCabe & Mrs. Miller.

In the spirit of how our lives actually unfold, Nashville is a big movie built of little things. Broad gags such as the freeway pileup at the beginning and the climactic ending aren’t subtle nor are they hard to forget but the heart of the film is found in its small, fleeting passages such as the moment where Barbara Jean’s manipulative, boorish husband/manager, Barnett (Allen Garfield) blows her a kiss as she hits an emotionally terse high note while struggling to get through a musical set without a meltdown. It’s a film that recognizes the hurt on Mary’s (Cristina Rains) face when the vacuous Opal From the BBC (Geraldine Chaplin) announces that she, too, has slept with Tom (Keith Carradine), Mary’s musical partner to whom she’s truly in love despite being married to Bill (Allan Nicholls), the third in their musical trio. It’s a film that makes no judgements in understanding the delta between the feelings of frustration felt by Delbert Reece (Ned Beatty) and the joy felt by his wife, Linnea (Lilly Tomlin), while listening to their deaf son’s story about swimming class. It’s a film that picks up on the absolute contempt, punctuated by camera-ready smiles, that floods the face of Connie White (Karen Black) as she waits in the wings at the Grand Old Opry to fill in for Barbara Jean, a woman she positively hates. Finally, it’s a film that documents the sometimes ugly birth of stardom as it allows Barbara Harris’s unlikely and wonderfully ragged Albuquerque, a total hot mess of bleached hair, torn stockings, mismatched outfits, and wild dreams of becoming a “country western singer and or a star,” to triumphantly rise above tragedy, fully embodying American’s broken soul.

Nashville is also very good at both covering all of its bases and existing on a wavelength of recognizable ebbs and flows. It’s not satisfied with Gene Triplett’s (Michael Murphy) smug disdain for the people of Nashville as he tries to schmooze each and every star or half star into the Walker rally; it’s satisfied when it gets to show his utter shamelessness, following him into the hotel room of Tom and Mary where he attempts to rook them into the same show by dismissing the appeal of the country music artists he’s worked to put on the bill as being limited to dumb shitkickers. It’s not satisfied by showing us Barbara Jean virtually being draped in an American flag while performing “One, I Love You”; it’s satisfied when, earlier in the film, the tragically untalented Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles) gets booed off the stage at a smoker for performing the same song. It’s not satisfied to show self-absorbed Tom treating every single woman that moves through his hotel room like absolute garbage and with reckless abandon; it’s satisfied when Linnea returns the favor by coldly and wordlessly reminding him that she’s past a point in her life where her feelings can be manipulated by a casual fling, even by him.

Nashville was the last time Altman keenly anticipated the culture and, in fact, the film’s ending became a reference point when Mark David Chapman assassinated John Lennon five years after the film’s release. But created in the haze between Richard Nixon’s resignation and the ascension of Jimmy Carter, Altman found the most fertile possible ground for the ascendancy of the campaign of a sleazy idiot like Hal Phillip Walker. For all the ink spilled on the prophetic nature of Sidney Lumet’s brilliant Network, released the following year, the bone-headed populism at the root of Hal Phillip Walker’s campaign has had longer legs with American culture. After all, not by coincidence, Altman would find the depths of the Reagan years to be the perfect time to recast Hal Phillip Walker as a (still unseen by the audience) right-wing television talking head in his unnecessarily maligned O.C. and Stiggs. The chord of Hal Phillip Walker and how it would likely eat America from the inside out was something that must have troubled and disgusted Altman to such a degree that, after Nashville, Altman ceased reporting on the culture and, in a manner of fashion, tried to do more to influence it (to diminishing returns) with specific elements found in A Perfect Couple, Quintet, and HealtH.

Nashville caused quite stir when it was released and it was uniformly detested by the Nashville community. Of course, this should be expected as, outside the coasts, most every place in America which feels like it’s keeping her memory pure has an almost insatiable desire to appear as unblemished as one of Tom Wolfe’s freshly-pressed suits. But what did Nashville reveal that was so objectionable? That, despite their cornpone humility, folks in the south can be just as petty, uninformed, and judgmental as those in New York or Los Angeles? That reductive, simple-minded country weepies like “For the Sake of the Children” could actually be hits? That there exists a ruthless power structure within the bowels of show business, regardless of what region of the country one finds themselves? That black country entertainers like Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown) have to often grit their teeth and accept the transactional relationship they have with their majority-white milieu? That boredom and infidelity occur in spades, even in places where seemingly everyone goes to church on Sunday morning, even if that house of worship is a hospital chapel? If Nashville, the city, was so bent out of shape at the content explored in Nashville, the film, then they simply revealed that the flame put to their hypocrisy was justified. Just as, in an effort to move forward, Shelley Duvall’s Keechie resigned herself to repeating the untruth that the father of her child died of consumption in Thieves Like Us, perhaps Nashville (and America as a whole) keeps its engine humming along on the fuel of an untenable false narrative about itself that is two parts hubris and one part tomfoolery, lacking any ability or desire to take account of itself.

In 2017, I was asked to list my top ten films of all time and I chose Nashville as number two (for the record, Peter Yates’s Breaking Away will never not be number one). At that time, I talked about how the election of Donald Trump evoked the memories of the end of the film and how America was basically conditioned to just sing and move on after catastrophic events without proper acknowledgment or collective reflection. Since that time, we’ve lived through a pandemic in which the former president couldn’t have cared less that half a million Americans died on his watch. We also saw a deadly insurrection in Washington D.C. at the behest of that same president. With the help of performative politicians who traffic in shallow patriotism with low-rent celebrities, the disreputable, right-wing media has created a cultural situation in which logic is untoward and facts are verboten, preparing us for a future that is as terrifying as it is unpredictable. But in our relative, localized comfort, we still continue to do the same thing as Haven Hamilton does at the end of Nashville; bloodied and bruised, we will call everything to order and give the microphone to someone… anyone… who will hopefully distract us from the pain and the damage. Up until now, this formula has always worked though, as sure as I’m sitting here writing this, one day it won’t. But, until that day, “It Don’t Worry Me” won’t be just a song in this film, it’ll stand as our glib, alternative-national anthem.

America the doomed, the damndest thing you ever saw.

B Movie Glory: Savage Dawn

It’s time for some schlocky 80’s biker trash. Savage Dawn is a cheap, sleazy, exceedingly noisy, obnoxious piece of dustbowl highway exploitation and I love every minute of it. Lance Henriksen is stoic ex green beret Stryker who drifts past a small town to visit his old army buddy (George Kennedy). Also blowing through the area is a pack of evil, vicious bikers led by sadistic Pigiron (William Forsythe, living up to that name and then some). Stryker just wants to chill out and have beers with his ol’ bud but Pigiron & Co. have other plans and the film is basically a loose, untethered series of ultra-violent run-ins with the gang, while other weirdo backwoods locals run in and out of the scenes all silly billy. Henriksen is the only actor here to play it remotely seriously, keeping that stone faced glare stolidly in place and dishing out beatdowns left and right. Forsythe is downright maniacal here, doing one of the best versions of his ‘psycho snarling hick shtick’ and chewing scenery like an evil tornado of redneck rambunctiousness. This was the first time these two tussled in a biker picture and would reunite again for Stone Cold in the 90’s, but that’s another story. The late Richard Lynch shows up as a feeble, horn-dog local preacher who gets in the way and the great Karen Black has a memorable turn as the loopy local slut. This ain’t nothing but bottom of the barrel street grease, there’s no way around it. But the actors sell it and there’s enough of them letting off steam to make this enjoyable, albeit fairly WTF in places. Gotta keep in mind that gnarly little nuggets like this were commonplace back then and sometimes I miss em.

-Nate Hill

B Movie Glory: Soulkeeper

Soulkeeper is a diamond in the rough, in the sense that it has all the trappings of a forgettable trashy B grade flick, and ends up being something way more fun and adventurous than it has any right to be. Dressed up like your average schlocky horror fling, it also carries a cheeky Indiana Jones vibe with it’s two treasure seeking bro-tagonists and all the right character actors showing up in all the right places. The two renegade brothers are after an ancient relic from the age of Simon Magus (he shows up briefly too) and all that hocus pocus, an artifact that is valuable beyond anything but also has the power to bring evil souls and demon spirits back from the underworld, which naturally causes all kinds of gory chaos for everyone later. It’s super duper fun, with evil curses bringing forth all kinds of gooey special effects, in the tradition of everyone from Joe Dante to Sam Raimi. Then there’s the eclectic genre cast: Brad Dourif does a hysterical Vincent Price pastiche as an eccentric archeologist, Robert Davi charms as the ghost of some Italian nobleman who guides our heroes here and there, Michael Ironside literally phones in a cameo a lá Charlie’s Angels as the mysterious employee of their mission, and watch for Tiny Lister as well as the late great Karen Black too. This won’t go down in history as one of the greats, but you can certainly do a lot worse in terms of this genre and budget range, it’s pure horror/fantasy/adventure escapism. Oh and if you can score a DVD somewhere it comes with a wicked cool retro cover slip with an awesome hologram 3D poster where one of the many gruesome monsters leers out at you. Cool stuff.

-Nate Hill

Rob Zombie’s House Of 1000 Corpses

Rob Zombie’s House Of 1000 Corpses is a lot to sit through, and at times is a victim of its own overly zany ambition. Nevertheless, it’s the first stepping stone in the path of one of the most fascinating and talented directorial careers in the industry, and is a completely batshit mental curiosity in its own right. Zombie sprung onto the scene with this one and has since been a controversial, much talked about and frequently hated voice of horror. Let’s get one thing transparently clear: No one can be blamed for not enjoying his films, they’re incredibly niche and not everyone’s thing, but you are simply lying to yourself if you won’t concede what a hugely talented writer, director and all round filmmaker he is. I’ve had to get quite stern in conversations with people whose tunnel vision stubbornness supersedes their ability to logically analyze his work, and I simply won’t put up with it. Alright, scolding done, over to the film. I’ll be the first to admit that House is a splattered mess at times and goes about six light years over the top, but the sheer grungy scope of production design is really something to see. In deepest backwoods Americana, the murderous Firefly clan preys on, terrorizes and murders pretty much anyone who gets in their path. Bill Moseley is a Manson-esque dark angel as Otis Driftwood, renegade bad boy brother, Sheri Moon Zombie is like Harley Quinn on bath salts as Baby, who is definitely the scariest, while gargantuan Matthew McGrory, walking decrepitude grandpa (Dennis Fimple) and giggling slutwhore Mama (Karen Black doing her very best freaky Betty Boop rendition) round out the rest of the brood. They live in some cluttered rural dump right out of Hoarders™, luring unsuspecting travellers off the road and murdering them in really over elaborate, exhaustive looking ways. Oh and we see the birth of one of cinema’s most jovial and sleazy killer clowns, Sid Haig’s motor mouth Captain Spaulding, who bookends the film in uproariously raunchy comic relief. It’s a neon fever nightmare of relentless commotion, visual excess, metal music, retro Americana pop culture bliss and sadistic gore, Zombie going all out to solidify his storytelling aesthetic that would continue, in augmented, evolved ways, over the course of his brilliant career. This is certainly as obnoxious a film as you’ll find in his stable, and while it ranks in the southern end of my Zombie favourites list, there’s just no ignoring the raucous, depraved celebration of all things gross, gooey and grotesque that parades by. Not to mention the whip-smart, trashy and endlessly funny dialogue, writing being skill that the man excels in on another level. 

-Nate Hill

Robert Altman’s Nashville

You wouldn’t think that a disorganized little ensemble piece revolving around a country music festival could go on to become a silver star classic in cinema, but this is Robert Altman’s Nashville we’re talking about, and it’s a stroke of sheer brilliance. Structured with the same haphazard screenplay blueprint (or lack thereof) of Richard Linklater’s Dazed & Confused (which I’m almost positive was hugely influenced by this), it’s a raucous little celebration of music and mayhem without a single lead character or central storyline. Every person is important to the kaleidoscope of a story, from Ronee Blakely’s troubled angel starlet to Jeff Goldblum’s early zany career tricycle riding cameo. It’s less of a narrative with forward surging momentum than it is a big old sequinned wheel of fortune you spent n at your leisure, each stop containing some story or vignette revolving around country music, be it sad, joyous, ironic or just plain peculiar. Henry Gibson, that oddball, plays an Emcee of sorts, Scott Glenn is the mysterious military private, the late Robert Doqui coaches a hapless wanna be songstress (Barbara Harris), Keith Carradine charms all the ladies as a suave guitar playing crooner stud, and the impossibly eclectic cast includes brilliant work from Lily Tomlin, Ned Beatty, Michael Murphy, Elliott Gould, Julie Christie, Keenan Wynn, Allen Garfield, Geraldine Chaplin, Karen Black and an adorable Shelley Duvall. There’s something thoroughly lifelike about a sprawling story like this, as were treated to moments, episodes and unplanned exchanges between people as opposed to a contained, streamlined narrative. Things happen, and before we’ve had a chance to process it, were whisked away to the next page of the book like roulette, and every story in the film is a gem, not too mention the music and sly political facets too. A classic, get the criterion release if you can.  

-Nate Hill