The Last House on the Left (1972)

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Director/Writer: Wes Craven (Based on Ingmar Bergman’s Virgin Spring)

When a troupe of violent sex criminals cross paths with the parents of their latest victim, a night of gory reprisals is set in motion.  This dark-toned shaggy dog tale is notable for its now infamous scenes of violence and cruelty.  It is also Wes Craven’s feature debut.

In cinema, nihilism is a slippery quality.  When a film evokes it too lucidly, the effect is undercut (sort of a catch-22 scenario).  After all, if your script about meaninglessness hits all of the right notes, you’ve got a problem.  By virtue of having no virtues, it has become meaningful.

This might seem like an insuperable paradox for the nihilistic filmmaker, but Wes Craven finds a way around it.  How?  Truth be told, I’m still not entirely sure how this film works, though I’ll do my best to unpack it.

In the forty-plus years since its release, The Last House on the Left has been described variously as a comedy (yes, there are comic interludes), a gruelling horror (yes, there is gruelling horror), and a sex romp (yes, there are some less than sexy romps), but none of these markers comes close to describing the film’s real MO.  Last House was not designed to make us laugh, or scream, or whoop… but rather, to  deny us these things.  In 2016, it doesn’t take a discerning viewer to see that this intent is hardcoded into the picture.

The best way to describe Last House is to imagine an issue of Seventeen, collaged together with the gnarliest pages of Penthouse Forum.

The film opens to scenes of an idyllic, middle class colonial in upstate New York.  Good time girl Mari Collingwood (Sandra Peabody) is planning a trip into the city for her 17th birthday, and her parents are lightly resisting.  These first scenes are integral to what comes later, establishing the confident performances of Peabody, Richard Towers, and Cynthia Carr (John and Estelle Collingwood respectively), along with the preppy tone.  They also showcase the best aspects of Craven’s script, with witty, confessional dialogue, and lots of vicious foreshadowing.

Last House’s sadism is often flagged up in reviews, but it should be noted that many of the film’s most memorable words and images actually come before the mayhem gets underway.  Take, for example, a sequence in which parents John and Estelle prepare for an evening of gentle intimacy.  As the couple flirt, John playfully invites his wife to “Come into the living room… I want to attack you”.  Later, Craven intercuts these cosy scenes with the literal ‘attack’ and violation of Mari, with David Hess’ score switching from sinister to saccharine on a dime.  Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of Hess’ score lies in how its themes are reversed — whereas at first, the villains are underscored by dread music, and the parents by perky, upbeat muzak, once the daughter has been kidnapped, there is a tradeoff.  Hess’ counterpointing perverts the tone of the film in a way that is both disturbing, and uniquely clever (for a taste of what I mean, listen to the Croce inflected ‘Sadie and Krug’).

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Like his third feature; 1977’s The Hills Have Eyes, Last House’s antagonists are a motley of perverts, psychos, and addicts, held in place by a simple dynamic — one lone, somewhat marginalised female, a brutish leader with his son (or sons) in tow, and a kid with reservations.  In both films, these groups are united through a common interest in violence and depraved sex, although their motives in each case differ somewhat (whereas the cannibal family from Hills were primarily survivalists, Last House’s murderers are pure-and-simple hedonists).

I would favour Last House as the superior film, if only because it doesn’t attempt the spectacle of Hills, and so avoids overreaching its means.  Set pieces like the parents’ revenge plots are realistically unelaborate, and as such, the action remains grounded.

I can think of few pictures, horror or otherwise, which capture the slippery spirit of nihilism so well.  Here, Craven offers no respite from the senseless barbarism of his villains – terror begets terror, as we find ourselves urging the bereaved parents to pay their torment forwards, and cheering when they do so in the worst ways.  It’s easy to see where Hanake picked up the pieces, and indeed, what pieces he picked up.  Like the Funny Games which succeeded it, Last House on the Left is a thoroughly adult meat.  Even a Hannah Barbara subplot, in which the fat, sloppy sherif, and his dim deputy (which seem to come straight out of a Burt Reynolds movie) are comically foiled doesn’t offset the evil — if anything, it makes it emphatic.

S.S.

Hush (2016)

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Director:  Mike Flanagan

Written by: Mike Flanagan, Kate Siegel

A deaf and mute author defends her secluded country home from a murderous intruder.

Hush is brisk.  It clocks in at under ninety minutes, with most of the action taking place in real-time (though liberties are taken), in a single location, and with a cast of no fewer than five people.  It is precisely these constraints which make the film so rewarding.  Its focus is undiluted to a point that, as viewers, we always feel close at hand to the heroine’s plight.

It is no secret that most slasher films work largely by attrition.  The heroine and her stalker take turns in whittling each other down (mainly lacerating and bludgeoning), until a final scuffle — in which the heroine invariably lands the coup de grace — ends the film.  This routine is typically a bit frustrating, as the heroine is always bolting off after every check, rather than sticking around to finish the job.

Hush contains a number of scenes in which its heroine (supplied with humour and verve by Kate Siegel — also the film’s co-writer) is facing her attacker from a position of advantage, and yet, opts to limp away on a trick leg, rather than dispatch him.  Indeed, it often feels as though she could  best him at any moment.

However, the picture’s biggest offence is simply showing too much too soon.  Director Mike Flanagan squanders the opportunity to fully exploit his premise in the front-end, favouring instead a premature lurch into gory horror.

I couldn’t help but think the film might have done something really novel with its first kill.  The thought is undoubtedly there, but in execution, this set piece is somehow lacking.

In any case, these are only minor quibbles.  In the main, Flanagan has crafted an immensely enjoyable thriller, with enough momentum to hold its audience at full attention.  John Gallagher Jr. is especially unnerving as the smug, but gaffe-prone killer.  He plays the role with an inelegance, and a mouth-breathing coarseness, somewhere between Black Christmas’ Billy, and any number of young spree-shooters.  Commendably, he manages to capture the essential narcissism of sadists: a quality that many horror actors seem to overlook.

S.S.

Southbound (2015)

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Directed by: Roxanne Benjamin, David Bruckner, Patrick Horvath, Radio Silence

Writing Credits: Roxanne Benjamin, Matt Bettinelli-Olpin, David Bruckner, Susan Burke, Dallas Richard Hallam, Patrick Horvath

A sand-logged horror anthology in the vein of recent indies like V/H/S 2 and Trick ‘r Treat.  Southbound serves up five equally cryptic tales — all tied together by a shared time and setting — with much of the action taking place along a sinister strait of desert road.

By their very nature, anthology films are inconsistent.  Even the most worthwhile titles (Dead of Night, Creepshow, Wild Tales) are more than a little spotty in places — and those are pictures with solo writers & directors.  Southbound has four directors, and nearly twice as many writers on board.  The opening credits, which play over scenes of a speeding pickup, function almost like road sign, one which seems to read: ‘bumpy terrain ahead’.

As you might have already guessed, Southbound is not entirely successful.  Blending science fiction and horror, its stories and characters follow a kind of dream logic.  In the wraparound portion of the film, two murderers flee from a swarm of vengeful, scythe-wielding skeletons.  Then, after passing the same gas station a number of times, a hard truth dawns on them: this is an infinitely looping purgatory.   It’s an engaging enough setup, however the elementary dialogue in these scenes is so completely at odds with the fantastical situation, that the overall effect is one of discord.  Consider lines like ‘I’m not running.’ and ‘I know we’ve had a pretty fucked up day, but if you could keep it together…!’  These might land well enough in a chase flick, but they’re considerably less at home in a story about swarming skeletal phantoms.

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These concepts might sound fairly novel, but there is precedent here.  For one, there are repeated echoes of the lesser known Quicksilver Highway; a double-bill portmanteau horror from 1997, also set against a backdrop of desert road.  Similarly, Southbound’s fourth segment — which concerns a reconciliation of estranged siblings, one of whom is a actually vampire — calls to mind the first kicker in Amicus’ The Vault of Horror.

This is a film which knocks over as many cliches as it clings to, and although there are enough glints of inspiration, even its most unfamiliar stories eventually collapse onto their hackneyed punchlines.  In the final reel there is a deeply unsurprising home invasion sequence (in which the wile daughter is left to fend off the intruders, following the murder of her parents), which I will credit for its final reveal, but which also falls largely flat.  I neglected to count the number of times a character says to a supposed stranger: ‘How did you know my name?’, after said enigmatic stranger calls them by their full name, although my guess would be: too many times.

Ultimately, Southbound remains watchable for the fragmentary nature of its stories; there is always something withheld, and as such, the viewer never feels completely in the loop.  Still, as the film winds on, it’s difficult not to find yourself growing less and less interested in the idea of a ‘loop’, as the question niggles: are these simply mediocre stories with a sci-fi gloss?

Southbound should be commended for everything that it tries, it’s just a pity these excursions don’t bear a richer fruit.

S.S.

Lake Mungo (2008)

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Director/Writer: Joel Anderson

Polished faux-documentary about a grieving Australian family searching for closure in the wake of a tragic accident.  Director Joel Anderson’s debut effort holds a number of chilling revelations, though it arguably works best as a meditation on the nature of loss.  I’ve yet to see Kôji Shiraishi’s ‘The Curse’, though I am given to understand that both films share fundamental similarities.

This is a low-budget ‘Indie Ozzie’ with none of the usual trimmings (namely: demented sex and gore).  From its mature visual restraint, to its uncanny naturalism, Lake Mungo couldn’t feel further removed from its Ozploitation roots.

In 2005, Alice Palmer’s body was recovered from a weir in her hometown of Ararat, Victoria.  She had disappeared whilst swimming with her brother, during a family picnic.  Three years later, her family and friends participated in a series of interviews, attempting to shed some light on the bizarre events surrounding her death.

So begins the mystery of Alice Palmer, who I should clarify, is no relation to the famous Laura (though they do share some of the same secrets…)

Anderson paints the film’s central tragedy with astute, unsentimental detail (the father recounts how the family car stalled on their journey home from the lake, whilst the mother remembers a preoccupation with her deceased daughter’s mobile phone).  The amount of understatement in these early scenes creates a kind of vacuum, leaving the viewer ever more anxious for an explanation.

Anderson is less interested in this.  And thankfully, the film concedes very little in the way of definite answers.  In fact, the conclusions it does offer are nearly always dismantled with each new development.

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This inconstancy is simultaneously the film’s greatest asset, as well as it’s greatest flaw.  The perpetually shifting blame — it seems that every character, at one point or other, is tapped as a potential suspect — means that we’re never on a sure footing.  However, by the time act three is underway, Anderson has burnt so many of his bridges that it’s difficult not to feel jaded.

Nonetheless, an assured cast of unknowns manage to hold everything in place.  Most convincing of all are the parents, played here by Rosie Traynor and David Pledger, both of whom manage to affect the solemn, faltering speech-patterns of the bereft without ever stumbling into overwrought-ness.

First time director Joel Anderson’s commitment to keeping his audience guessing is commendable, and the film’s final images are guaranteed to linger.  This is Ozploitation of the highest caliber, even without the splatter.  It’s also a first-rate debut.

S.S.

The Parallax View (1974)

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Director: Alan J Pakula

Written by: David Giler, Lorenzo Semple Jr., Robert Towne (uncredited)

Based on the novel by: Loren Singer.

Alan J Pakula’s film stars Warren Beatty as a down-and-out journalist who stumbles into a government-wide conspiracy, three years after the assassination of popular US senator.

The 1970’s might have been a tumultuous decade for American politics, but there can be no argument that it also fostered some of the preeminent talents in American cinema.  When you consider the sheer volume of singularly brilliant filmmakers to arrive on The New Hollywood roster,  it’s almost overwhelming.  Even omitting those who have passed away, or sadder still, chosen to retire, the catalog is rich:

Woody Allen, Steven Spielberg, Roman Polanski, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, George Lucas, Clint Eastwood, William Friedkin… These are all filmmakers who the general public still desire to follow.  Scorsese films are still event films.  Scott films, are still event films.  Spielberg films, are still event films.  It’s a testament to their collective expertise that these directors never fell off the radar, or lost touch with their medium.

You could say The Parallax view arrived at precisely the right time, or if you’d prefer, that historical events arrived at the right time for The Parallax View.  Whatever your view, Pakula’s film is unmistakably the product of a compound neurosis — think JFK, Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Watergate, and Vietnam, all rolled into one.  This might read like the ingredients list of an Oliver Stone film (okay, it is), but The Parallax view is patently another beast.  That’s not to say there aren’t similarities to Stone, but I’ll get around to those later.

I’m a big advocate of Pakula.  I’ve got endless time for his filmography.  Like many of his peers, chiefly Brian DePalma and Bill Friedkin (both of whom I also rate highly), Pakula’s Hitchcock line is generally on the surface.  Tension is crafted daintily, and incredible circumstances are used to endow otherwise innocuous imagery with fresh terror.

There are several moments in the Parallax View which recall Hitchcock in this way, but one of the most memorable involves a stack of napkins.

Warren Beatty, our hero, has just boarded a plane in search of an elusive assassin, only to realise upon takeoff, that the perpetrator has fled — and left a time-activated bomb in the hold.  Beatty is now tasked with alerting the crew, but must do everything in his power to avoid drawing their suspicion.  After frantically scrambling for a way to communicate this warning, he eventually scrawls something onto a napkin, before slipping this missive into a passing stewardess’ trolley.  A tense, unbroken shot of the undisturbed napkin follows; as the stewardess continues down the aisle, offering drinks, oblivious to the note.  The panic bubbles up as we watch and wonder: will she see it, will she disregard it, how will she react, will it be too later?

The film also benefits from an evocative, sinister soundtrack, courtesy of Michael Small, who worked memorably on films like Klute, and Marathon Man.  His music trips all the right emotions, evoking a mixture of dread, dashed hope, paranoia, and cynicism, with its stirring drum cadence, and clashing, dissonant motif.  I was reminded of John William’s JFK score, which for me, remains the heavyweight’s most simultaneously chilling, and rousing theme.

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There comes, at around the film’s mid-way point, a tremendous, blind-sider sequence — in the form of an extended montage.  Beatty has infiltrated the Parallax corporation (an extra-governmental group which moulds psychopaths into assassins, and, just occasionally, patsies) and is being forced to watch five minutes of ‘visual materials’ as part of their testing procedure.  A slideshow of Images, punctuated by title-cards (‘MOTHER’, ‘FATHER’, ‘LOVE’, ‘ME’, ‘COUNTRY’), flickers over the screen at growing speed.  As the presentation wears on, pictures swap into different groupings (sexual imagery appears in the ‘MOTHER’ category, and nazi rallies appear alongside Nixon in ‘COUNTRY’).  The whole five minutes remains daring and electric to this day, captivating the viewer’s gaze like hypnotic propaganda.   Its effect is so potent, that afterwards, audiences may well find themselves asking a difficult question: what does this say about me?  It certainly gave me pause.

I would be remiss not to namecheck Soylent Green (released the same year as Parallax), for its virtuoso scenes of montage, all of which achieve, through comparable techniques and contexts, a similarly downbeat and nasty reaction (to be clear, I think this is a great thing).  Also present are distinct grammatical similarities between this film, and later paranoid Sci-Fi fare like Logan’s Run, and Kaufman’s Body Snatchers remake, to name but a few.

I watched Parallax on Netflix’s streaming service, and spent a good deal of minutes after the fact, poring over the various reviews.  Perhaps this was unwise.  Despite the numerous positive notes, there was a depressing trend of misinformed conjecture.  Cries of ‘hard to follow’, ‘pointless’, and most erroneously of all — ‘dumb’.  This didn’t entirely surprise me, though it did leave me eager to rebut.

The Parallax View does not trace a particularly complex plot.  Beat to beat, the story is brisk and linear, but unlike many contemporary offerings, it is told with a lavish, visually compelling style.  The mis-en-scene, interior and exterior, is always precisely composed in super-wide 2:35:1 (this is illustrated in the pictures accompanying this review), however it’s the little details (napkins and such) that really elevate the piece — and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was precisely this focus on ‘detail’ that threw off the film’s latter-day detractors.  They simply weren’t looking at the napkin, or the sack lunch (containing the poisoned sandwich), or the silver platter of drinks (which concealed the gun).  No, instead they were elsewhere, waiting for the explosion.

It seems that increasingly, modern audiences are getting used to blandness.  In the thriller genre, I believe that modern blandness can be summed up with a few cliches.  Some of these are:

– Overwrought, uninspired, and typically superfluous chases — in which a constantly roaming and swinging camera, coupled with breakneck edits, flattens any spirit of tension.

– Loud pyrotechnics, usually achieved with glossy VFX, thrown in repeatedly and unimaginatively.

– All-too-frequent helicopter establishing shots (in case the audience forgot that cityscapes existed).  These scenes are almost always accompanied by an ominous groan of music.  God forbid one of these forms the film’s opening scene — there might not be a greater red flag…

For a meaningful comparison, take any number of modern paranoid thrillers — the Taylor Lautner Thriller Abduction, or Pierce Brosnan’s recent ‘Survivor’, do feel free to pick freely — and study their methods closely.  There is nothing about these films, speaking particularly about their command of a visual language, which suggests any ability beyond low-functioning competency.   No flair, no invention, no risk.  The images tell a story, but only in the most loose and diluted way you could care to imagine.  Now return to Parallax, and take any one of its frames: they all mean something.

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The worst part about all this, is that undiscerning viewers will often insist that a film like Abduction is the superior product.  After all, it’s newer, there are more explosions, more cuts, and at no point do the filmmakers stop to interrogate the images on screen, or pose any challenging questions.

So, considering all of the aforementioned, it is perhaps understandable that a fair handful of people would miss the net here.  And as I am loath to complain about the viewing habits of others (we’re all hypocrites in that respect, aren’t we?), I’ll curtail this rant for the time being.  Though as a final word, I should express that I do find pleasure in a number of (relatively) new filmmakers in this genre — Denis Villeneuve to name but one.  It’s certainly not all rotten apples.

The Parallax View is comfortably one of the quickest and most daring conspiracy thrillers of the 1970’s.  Daring for its willingness to counter mainline notions about political process, and assert something seedier.  It was controversial enough when Stone took this position in 1991, but he had nearly three decades of clearance — Pakula’s film had only one.

As the film posits: ‘there is a natural bureaucratic tendency to cover up mistakes’.  Pakula is indicting the entire US government, if not for first degree murder, than at the very least for malfeasance.  His statement seems to be, that even if the US government weren’t directly responsible for John and Robert Kennedy’s deaths, it serves that they would favour a conclusion which disavowed them of blame.  It’s all heavy stuff.  Electrifying though.

S.S.

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

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Director: George Clooney

Written by: George Clooney and Grant Heslov

Good Night, and Good Luck is George Clooney’s second film as director, after 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.  An intimate retelling of CBS broadcaster Edward R. Murrow’s televised clash with senator Joseph McCarthy, at the height of the Red Scare.

Good Night, and Good Luck is that rare period film that feels authentic down to its texture.  From the grey flicker of a tube, to the smoggy chatter of a typing pool, this is a closely-observed 1950’s Americana.

Director George Clooney blends extended sequences of raw newsreel into the scripted action, including footage from Annie Lee Moss’ deposition, and Joseph McCarthy’s infamous rebuttal to E.R. Murrow.  It is a testament to the film’s authentic texture, that these segments never jar.

Good Night, and Good Luck is an ensemble film, but I should note, not of the indulgent sort.

It is couched in memorable, unobtrusive performances, none of which overpower the engaging story.  At its core, this is an unembellished, unflashy retelling of events, one that feels very much in keeping with Murrow’s famously sober style of broadcasting.

Frank Langella plays chief executive of CBS, William S. Paley; a formidable performance reminiscent of Christopher Plumber’s turn as Mike Wallace in The Insider (both roles about the discord between corporate and editorial journalism).  However, it is character actor Ray Wise who steals the show here, proving in an understated fashion, that he’s just as consummate out-of-genre, than he is in it.  Clooney, of course, is perfectly at home in the house he built.

Good Night, and Good Luck has something of that Pakula-Lumet quality — we feel like flies on the wall in a smoky, lively, lived-in world.  Another obvious touchstone would be Robert Redford’s Quiz Show; an equally effective expose, centring on the world of commercial broadcast television during the 1950’s.  And just like Clooney’s film, Quiz Show was also a passion project helmed by an established actor turned director.

Slick, but carefully restrained filmmaking.

S.S.

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014), and Being Evel (2015)

Director: Paul Goodwin (Future Shock!…) / Director: Daniel Junge (Being Evel)

An interesting double feature.  Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD (2014) is Paul Goodwin’s documentary about the British comic magazine ‘2000AD’.   Being Evel (2015) is a documentary about American icon Evel Knievel, directed by Daniel Junge.  It was financed in part by Johnny Knoxville’s ‘Dickhouse Productions’, and also features Knoxville as a talking head.

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Topically and geographically, these two documentaries couldn’t be further removed.

One is the chronicle of a firebrand motorcycle daredevil, and the people he hurt — not least himself — over the course of a 15 year stunt career.

The other is the tale of the British comic anthology 2000AD, which originated cult characters like Judge Dredd and Strontium Dog, to name but a few.

One is about a huge cult of personality.  The other is about a niche cult of comics.  And yet, despite these obvious differences, there is plenty of thematic crossover here.

Markedly, they’re both about the myth of superheroes.

In Being Evel, director Daniel Junge gets to have his cake and eat it too.  The film’s portrait of Knievel is at once contentious of his mythologised status (early scenes establish that he was formerly an unscrupulous insurance salesman), whilst also paying homage to the hyperbole (in the same sequence, we are told that Evel sold a staggering number of policies, more than any of his coworkers).

Junge’s cutting style is linear.  He lays out the pertinent beats of Evel’s life from beginning to end, in an uncomplicated fashion.  This linearity serves the film perfectly, and the daredevil’s fascinating trajectory contains more than enough torque and momentum to power it.

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Being Evel is a 99 minute documentary that straps you in early and holds you for its duration.  It also contains some hysterically funny ad-libs (most of which come courtesy of Evel’s old ground crews), and the knackered footage of his various leaps remains worry-making stuff to this day — more than thirty years from the fact, my hands still clammed.  Clearly Junge has a lot of archival material to work with here (the film is bursting with it), but this doesn’t overclutter the story, and the proceedings maintain a tight and fast style throughout.

Future Shock! The Story of 2000AD is markedly less linear.  Sections of the film are organised into titled chapters, dealing variously with the publication’s relationships with violence, UK politics, sexism, editors, Hollywood, and plenty else.  These chapters are chock of great stuff, but the lack of a through-line means the final product lacks something of the bullet-focus so distinct in Junge’s film.

But I digress.  Back to that ‘myth of the superhero’ part.

Like I stated up there, both of these documentaries do something, rather pointedly, to confront the fallacious nature of superheroism.  As writer Neil Gaiman notes: “don’t trust your heroes” was the mantra of 2000AD.  Artists with the magazine wanted to unseat the flawless comicbook hero (see: Clark Kent), in favour of a less splendid, morally grey alternative.  Their mission, as they saw it, was to plant distrust for authority, distrust for broad ideas, in a new generation.  This modus was accomplished with the invention of Judge Dredd — a fascistic, mass-murdering stormtrooper, in the guise of a superhero.

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In Being Evel, Junge seeks to do something similar.  With candid interviews, press recordings, and home video, Junge pares away the stuntman’s heroic facade, the one peddled by Hollywood and Ideal Toys, and reveals the selfish philanderer underneath.

But this isn’t the only way in which these two documentaries intersect.

In Future Shock!, a great deal is said about the efforts of certain writers to elevate the status of the comic books, which had long been relegated to toy racks, disregarded by many as simple juvenilia.  One of the core aims of 2000AD was to upend this notion, and to finally intellectualise the medium.

It is in much this same way that Junge’s film seeks to elevate the stunt performances of Evel Knievel — postulating that the daredevil was a figurehead of truth, in a decade (the 70’s) polluted by lies and uncertainty.  In a particularly memorable segment, actor Guy Hamilton asserts that Evel’s enduring popularity may well be the result of his commitment to an act without artifice.  And he has a point.  With so much popular entertainment that is spurious and bloated, it’s hard not to appreciate Knievel’s feats for their honest simplicity.

S.S.