All-Night Horror Show

The past weekend witnessed the ninth annual ‘All-Night Horror Show’ at the New Beverly cinema. A twelve hour, six film marathon that promised to bring its audience plentiful exposure to a series of rare and little known horror films. It certainly delivered on its promise, but the unique configuration of the New Beverly is perhaps even more interesting in shaping the evening. The theater has been owned by Quentin Tarantino since 2007 and maintains an otherwise unheard of policy of only screening 35mm and 16mm film prints. This mindset is best described by a quote from Tarantino on the theater’s website stating “As long as I’m alive, and as long as I’m rich, the New Bev will be showing double features in 35MM” and it certainly does on a daily basis. In a very real way, the New Beverly is maintained as a living museum of a long gone mode of commercial film exhibition. This carries over into policies such as low ticket and concession prices as well as the constant stream of original promotional materials including posters and lobby cards displayed for nearly every film.

The event was reportedly sold out in under a minute. A survey of the audience by the night’s announcer just before the first film revealed that the vast majority had attended at least one other All-Night Horror Show and as many as a dozen have been to them all. The process of navigating one’s way through records of years’ past is an act of documenting this community. As the New Beverly does not publicize the night’s schedule before or after, it is left to blogs and social media to document. These, again, focus on the idea of community. There is also a decidedly interactive nature to the screening. Each film is an unknown until projection. But there is a kind of game where the trailers provide a clue to the feature. The most straightforward example includes the trailers for Black Sabbath (1963), Baron Blood (1972), Friday the 13th (1980) and Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981). This gives us a string of Mario Bava Euro horror films mixed with early American slashers. The result is a clue to the 1971 Bava film Bay of Blood (1971) which is generally regarded as the first modern formulaic slasher. Each series of trailers had their own inner logic relating to some theme. Intermissions also included a string of giveaways where lucky members of the audience won vintage issues of Fangoria and films on Blu-ray from prominent genre labels.

As to the film titles, they were nothing if not an eclectic bunch. It began with an absolutely beautiful print of 1975’s Race with the Devil which was provided by Fox. Its slightly absurdist quality was just right for the first film of the night. A combination road movie and secret Satanists moral panic film rolled into one, it sees two couples taking a joint cross country vacation in their new RV and stumbling into a human sacrifice. On the run, they are faced with the realization that there is a Satanist behind just about every white picket fence in the Midwest. Warren Oates and Peter Fonda play the husbands, but ironically we have Lara Parker and Loretta Swift as wives. The former was well known as TV’s second most famous witch and Satanist Angelique in the gothic horror soap opera Dark Shadows 1966-71. The second feature was a particular highlight. The Horror of Party Beach (1964) is a beach/musical/horror tale of a group of teenagers in their mid to late 20’s who must learn the importance of personal responsibility as they are menaced by reanimated fishermen mutated by toxic waste and forced to kill by their vampiric need for blood. The final result is a lively outing that might be one of the best paced of all 1960’s beach films. The first half of the program concluded with Rawhead Rex (1986). This tale of a maladjusted nine-foot-tall pagan god awakening from under a great stone in the Irish countryside is one of the more rarely seen efforts by Clive Barker as writer. In fact, the New Beverly presenter mentioned a common narrative when he spoke about it after the conclusion. To paraphrase, that it might not be a particularly great film, but is worthwhile based solely on its perennial rarity. So ended the first half of the night.

The second half began with an Abbot and Costello short about the duo ‘shanghaiing’ sailors for a depressed sea captain who became violent with any mention of ghosts. The next feature was the aforementioned 1971 film Bay of Blood sometimes known under the title Twitch of the Death Nerve. This early slasher is a mystery tale of murderous land developers and residence of an idyllic Italian bay. Sex and violence is liberally doled out, especially in relation to a group of four young people who wonder around drinking, having sex and breaking into isolated houses until they meet their end one by one. There is a wonderful streak of black comedy that elevates the film, especially relating to the ending. With the Horror Show reaching its final hours (scheduled from 7:30PM to 7:30AM) the next two films would be playing back to back. Slaughter High (1986) is a slightly schizophrenic slasher comedy which seems never to be able to commit to either for more than a few minutes. It centers upon a group of former friends who return to their high school for a reunion only to be trapped and stalked by a masked killer. The somewhat disappointing finished product is also a near remake of rather impressive and little known 1978 proto-slasher The Redeemer. With the urge towards sleep deepening, the last film began. According to accounts, in past years the final film was usually something particularly special as a kind of gift to those who made it through. This tactic was not in evidence this year, although what was offered up certainly had a pleasant nostalgic value for many. The 1993 direct to video film Ticks centers on a group of Los Angeles youths sent to the countryside to learn about inner peace, or ecology, or something along those lines probably. An unscrupulous marijuana grower, in the form of Clint Howard, has been giving his plants a super powered herbal steroid. This obviously creates a new breed of giant, super aggressive ticks. A teenaged Seth Green provides the central protagonist and the entire film is a pleasant reminder of the heyday of direct to video productions in the VHS age. Next came a Popeye short involving ghosts followed by a rousing film clip of the national anthem as might have been seen on television in the early hours of the morning as the networks signed off, to end the night.

Going out into sunlight dawning New Beverly sunglass emblazoned with the words ‘I survived’ does lend itself to a feeling of mellow contentment. The All-Night Horror Show is done and I won’t see it’s like again. At least not until the Aero theater and their six film, twelve hour Horrorthon at months end.

Genre-bending the Jewish Mother in Transparent

Jill Soloway’s Amazon-streaming series Transparent (2014-) has been roundly praised for its bold portrayal of sexuality in all its polymorphous complexity, beginning with its titular trans-parent Mort/Maura (a.k.a “Moppa,” brilliantly played by Jeffrey Tambor). The series can now add to its accolades a bravura Season 3 finale that expands not only this singular dramedy’s progressive parameters but those of Jewish media representation altogether.

An important corollary to the series gender-bending premise, elaborated in a Season 2 flashback strand, is Maura’s side of the family’s Holocaust survival background and intimate connection to Magnus Hirschfeld’s pioneering sexual experimentation in Weimar-era Berlin. Less attention has been paid, in the series and discourse surrounding it, to the straightest, and most Jewish, member of the Pfefferman family, Maura’s ex-wife Shelly (brilliantly played by the non-Jewish Judith Light). Season 3 redresses that elision with a bang.

Few characters in postmodern American culture have been treated with more unmitigated scorn than the Jewish Mother. A product of rampant Jewish assimilation in the post-World War II period and popularized by Jewish male writers, notably Herman Wouk, Philip Roth, and Woody Allen, the Jewish Mother became the prime repository of proverbial Jewish angst and guilt melded with postwar American acquisitiveness. Her character was invariably scapegoated as gratingly loud and obnoxiously clingy, as excessively coddling her sons, and as squelching all her children’s creative aspirations in a relentless push for material success and social status. This coarse construction, however, was a gross transmogrification of the previous generation’s more sympathetic maternal archetype, the Yiddishe Momme: a recent European immigrant whose overbearing concern for her American-born progeny was leavened with Old World warmth and nurturance. The difference between the two types, and paradigm shift from one to the other, is emblematically displayed in the chief matriarchs of two unrelated but like-titled sitcoms, The Goldbergs: the earlier, 1949-56 show (based on a prewar radio series) features a classic Yiddishe Momme, Molly Goldberg (played by the show’s creator, Gertude Berg); the ongoing show (2013-) features a stereotypical Jewish Mother, Beverly Goldberg (played by the non-Jewish Wendi McLendon-Covey).

Transparent’s Shelly Pfefferman, up to the third-season finale, is only a few degrees shy of the standard Jewish Mother caricature: nasal voice, noodgy manner, material concerns, immature adult children (for which hyper-self-obsessed Maura clearly shares the blame). The grist for the miraculous shift in Shelly’s persona achieved in the finale is subtly suggested in an earlier flashback episode, which shows how the performative chops she possessed as a young girl were stunted by her sexual molestation by a school teacher.

In the season finale, after a break-up with her post-Maura partner Buzz (Richard Masur), Shelly takes Maura and the children on a Passover-period ocean cruise. She had hoped the vacation and confined setting might help bring the emotionally and physically fragmented Pfeffermans together, but the Vegas Strip-like ambience of the cruise ship only fissures the family further. Shelly’s uniquely alienated status is emphasized in her being given a room a deck above the others’ cabins, though the separation is cushioned by the luxuriousness of her suite and a personal valet (Tom Lenk)—“the the gay who comes with the room.” With Trevor’s encouragement, and piano accompaniment, Shelly plans a performance in the cruise ship’s night club of the one-woman show, titled “To Shell and Back,” initially inspired and co-produced by Buzz but now revised to reflect something more personal, and profound.

The build-up to the performance is crucial. At a makeshift Pfefferman Seder, a last-ditch effort at family reconciliation that only underscores their dysfunction, Shelly expresses her own special sense of dislocation—one that resonates, as odd woman out, with the series’ history and  the Jewish Mother writ large. “I’m not at home in this family,” she begins her harangue, and ends with a request that they at least try to attend her show that evening: “If you want to hear my story, I want my story to be heard by you.”

And it’s a doozy. A far cry from the soppy, slapdash version of “To Shell and Back” she performed in earlier episodes, this version is poignant, perceptive, and fully realized, giving us an entirely new (and radically improved) impression of Shelly. She begins with a spoken prologue that references her childhood molestation—“Something happened to me that made me forget who I really was; I stopped growing in every sense of the word”—and links her traumatic experience to Maura’s transgender identity—“I have always been drawn to men who wanted to live in the darkness of a secret.”

Then comes the song. Its refrain combines hand gestures with an ambivalent but ultimately triumphant message: “I’ve got one hand in my pocket, and the other one giving . . . a high five!” The upshot, similar to Maura, who was forced to forego sex reassignment surgery because of a heart condition and who exchanged tight-fitting feminine shapewear on the cruise for hang-loose unisex attire, is that Shelly has finally come out of her—and the Jewish Mother’s—shell. Moreover, in the realization that Maura is not the only member of the Pfefferman family to undergo trans-parenting, her coming out enables ours as well, through a keener appreciation of the damage wrought by demeaning stereotypes—to victim and perpetrator alike.


Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA and Cal-State LA and has written or edited eight books, most recently From Shtetl to Stardom: Jews and Hollywood.

Cat’s Paws and Chekhov’s Gun: Feline and Foot Symbolism in “The Night Of”

Deserved praise has been heaped on Steve Zaillian and Richard Price’s just-completed HBO mini-series The Night Of (based on the 2008-09 British series Criminal Justice) for its rich texture, attention to detail and social sensitivity toward New York’s Muslim community (if perhaps less so toward its black community). Two of the series’ prominent supporting players, the male calico cat (played by Bam Bam) found at the murder scene and defense attorney Jack Stone’s (John Turturro) eczema-plagued feet, also have received kudos for their fleshing out character and offering comic relief from the show’s bleak portrayal of inner-city life. Perhaps because they played no obvious role in the main murder mystery plot, however, the cat’s and feet’s contribution to the show’s layered symbolism has slipped under the radar. Continue reading “Cat’s Paws and Chekhov’s Gun: Feline and Foot Symbolism in “The Night Of”” »

Who Says You’re Only Young Once? – Comparing “20 Once Again” and “17 Again”

Both “20 Once Again” (Leste Chen, 2015, Mainland China) and “17 Again” (Burr Steers, 2009, U.S.) follow the formula of someone who was magically turned young and reliving his or her life. However, these films depict different social issues in different cultural contexts. “20 Once Again” was released in 2015 and is a remake of the Korean “Miss Granny” (Hwang Dong-hyuk, 2014).

“20 Once Again” focuses on a seventy-year old widow who magically transforms into her twenty-year-old self. Before this, she had lost her husband during the Cultural Revolution period while in her twenties, and, as a result, needed to raise her son on her own by giving up her career aspirations. When the older version of this character discovers her family’s plan to put her in a senior residence, she goes to a mysterious photo studio to take a portrait as a souvenir for her family to remember her by. After the transformation, she is finally able to pursue her lifelong dream of being a pop singer, with the help of her favorite grandchild. At the end, she transfuses her blood to her heavily injured grandchild, causing her to revert to her normal age and life. Continue reading “Who Says You’re Only Young Once? – Comparing “20 Once Again” and “17 Again”” »

Able Was I Ere I Saw “Fargo”: A Palindromic Reading of Season Two of the FX Series


In a new-millennial era awash in boldly original TV, few shows have been as adventuresome, in style and content, as Noah Hawley’s anthology dramedy Fargo, which just concluded its second semi-autonomous season. “Semi” is key here, for although nominally a 1979-set prequel to Season One’s 2006 progenitor, with the latter’s retired sheriff still battling ultra-violent crime in the same forbidding Minne-kota terrain, Season Two plays by substantially different rules, to astonishingly inventive ends.

Upping the ante on the 1996 Coen brothers film’s “true story” conceit (Joel and Ethan executive produce the TV version), Season Two opens on a movie set of a mock Ronald Reagan cavalry-and-Indian western, with a lone brave standing amid the carnage of a recent battle. The anachronistic reference to the soon-to-be 40th President, while nodding to Ronnie’s Hollywood-to-Washington career leap, also establishes a political backdrop and generic analogue to the show’s kill or be killed, survival of the fittest scenario.

Season Two’s cat-and-mouse game with the audience is reinforced throughout. When the seemingly nondescript sedan that literally sets the story in motion has a hood in front and motor in back, it takes a web search for the non-car buff to determine its make as the once promising, now defunct Tucker. And when a bungling police detective (Keir O’Donnell) disses the good-guy sheriff (Patrick Wilson)—“You started out as Gary Cooper and now you’re Betty LaPlage”—only a web search can disclose that LaPlage was Reagan’s faux co-star in the season-opening mock western. Not even Google can divine the motivation behind Native American Hanzee’s (Zahn McClarnon) seemingly indiscriminate killing spree, which, as a one-off narrator (Martin Freeman) informs us with satirical glee, has befuddled “historians” ever since. What comes to the cinematically informed viewer’s rescue is Hanzee’s kinship with the even more maniacal Indian murderer Anton Chigurth (Javier Bardem) in the Coen brothers’ 2007 neo-western No Country for Old Men, where Chigurth’s only plausible inducement to mass murder, as Season Two’s narrator says is a possible one for Hanzee, is retribution for his people’s genocide.

Esoteric allusions are far from the series’ only allure. Grounded in a late-70s “malaise” that eerily forebodes post-9/11 High Anxiety, Season Two uncannily captures an America coming apart at the seams thematically, and supports the societal implosion stylistically via a wildly innovative split-screen technique and radically eclectic music track that would make la nouvelle vague proud. The splintered aesthetic matches the fractured narrative, which gyrates among a football roster of main characters and a plethora of plot-lines, all emanating from a hit-and-run accident and cross-regional mob warfare and culminating in killing fields redolent of those left behind in Southeast Asia and staged for the Reagan western.

The series ends, as did Season One, on a superficially soft note, with the good sheriff and his family safe and sound (as we knew at least he and his daughter would have to be, per their Season One reincarnation). If the devastation they barely survived weren’t damper enough, however, the sheriff’s wife’s (Cristin Miloti) terminal cancer and one of the warring mobs remaining intact leaves a gaping hole in the happy ending. As does the finale’s title: “Palindrome.”

Referring to words or phrases spelled the same forward and backward, palindromic lore has its own canon, with perhaps the most revered example being: “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” Beyond alluding to Emperor Bonaparte’s island exile, from which he escaped only to be conclusively defeated at Waterloo and terminally exiled at the island of Saint Helena, the Napoleonic palindrome clearly has metaphorical applications, including to a pair of prominent characters in Season Two of Fargo. Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine), who has relished his role in the field as chief enforcer for the Kansas City mob and lived to tell the tale, is “rewarded” for his exploits with an accountant’s job at the gang’s KC headquarters. Although organized crime’s paradigm shift from body counts to numbers-crunching also deliciously doubles as a paean to Reagan era neo-liberalism, for the flamboyant, free-wheeling Milligan, who in a previous scene had deemed himself “King” before offing his latest victim, being stuck behind a desk in a high-rise cubby-hole is indeed tantamount to an emperor’s exile.

Small-time beautician Peggy Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst), who bumbled her way into the mob wars literally by accident (it was her Tucker that abetted the hit-and-run), faces actual court-ordered exile for her crimes at series end. But the kicker is the ditzy wish she blurts on her way into custody: to be sent to Alcatraz Island in her dreamland California, “Where I can look out onto the ocean and maybe see a pelican.”

Whether either Milligan or Blumquist escapes to see the light of day, a la their palindromic ancestor, must await what Fargo fans hope will be several more morbidly beautiful seasons to come.*

* “It’s morbid but beautiful” is a throwaway line in a Season Two episode


Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, Cal-State LA, and Loyola Marymount. His latest book is Silver Lake Chronicles: Exploring an Urban Oasis in Los Angeles, with a second Silver Lake book and an anthology on Jews and Hollywood forthcoming.


Review: Victoria‘s Long Take (and Title) Triumphs on Multiple Levels

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Garnering the most attention and accolades for this extraordinary German film (including the 2015 Deutscher Filmpreis for Best Feature Film) has been the technical and artistic feat of pulling off a compelling, multi-character/location narrative in a single, 138-minute-long  sequence shot, in which the shot’s real-equals-reel-time aspect is more than the stylistic tour de force Alfred Hitchcock (limited by ten-minute film reels) came close to achieving in 1947’s Rope and Alexander Sokulov (thanks to a digital camera) finally accomplished in 2002’s Russian Ark, but adds immeasurably to the film’s cumulative emotional impact, enabling the attentive viewer, prodded by the steadicam’s nonstop stalking of the titular heroine, to experience, far more intensely than in the standard 1000-2000-cut film, the young Spanish immigrant’s late-night Mephisto Waltz (strains of which she herself plays in the film*) through deserted Berlin streets Continue reading “Review: Victoria‘s Long Take (and Title) Triumphs on Multiple Levels” »