Back in the day, Saturday TV programming was a reward for us kids. After soaking up countless, badly animated Hanna-Barbera cartoons, metro Detroit kiddies (and many adults) were treated to Sir Graves Ghastly. Locally produced, this children's show was hosted by a friendly vampire whose grave-digging bud would unearth a scary flick for him to show. But the fun didn't stop there. Other channels had similar programs with more obvious names like Creature Feature, Scream Theatre and The Channel 20 Thriller Movie. This is where some of us learned to love cheapie B-movie monsters and the gothic trappings of Hammer horror. Another mainstay of such shows were flicks by Amicus Studios, whose output was often mistaken for the better-known Hammer Films. 1965's The Skull is one such example. It stars Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars) as a wealthy doctor with an interest in the occult. He leaps at the chance to purchase the skull of the Marquis de Sade from a shady antiques dealer. He learns that his friend and fellow occult enthusiast — played by Christopher Lee (Dracula, 1958) — previously owned the skull and was quite content to be rid of it; in fact, he warns his buddy that when he owned it he had hallucinations and thoughts of murder. Cushing's a skeptic but quickly discovers that his newest tchotchke is going to take control of his mind and life. The Skull is based on a short story by Robert Bloch, the dude who penned Psycho. It's nowhere near as original or creepy as said flick but nostalgia freaks are going to enjoy seeing class acts Cushing and Lee at the top of their games — even when feigning terror over a skull flying through the air on visible strings. Modern horror fans — especially of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento — should take note of the garish set design and murders in The Skull which are eerily identical to those in Suspiria. Coincidence? Coming from an Italian director ... doubt it. —Paul Knoll
Nouri Bouzid's 2006 film Making Of took home two awards from the Tribeca Film Festival; one for Best Actor, and the other a special mention for Best Screenplay. Though the winning performance by young Lofti Abdelli as Bahta, the carefree-kid-turned-dazed-terrorist is doubtlessly noteworthy, it's Bouzid's nuanced script that goes the furthest to give this Tunisian film its undeniable impact. Opening with a group of lively and typical teenage boys — talking trash, flirting with delinquency via graffiti — it's hard to imagine that Making Of will devolve into a harrowing look at the mind of a young man who will soon strap sticks of dynamite to his chest. Yet, as beautifully as Bouzid and cinematographer Michel Baudour present the landscape of seaside Tunis, they paint in equally vivid strokes the hardscrabble poverty that affects so many families in the north Africa. As Bahta's run-ins with the law escalate in intensity, his relationship with his father disintegrates and his options dwindle (the kid just wants to be a break dancer, which isn't an admired, or particularly lucrative, occupation in Tunisia), it still seems extraordinarily unlikely that he's destined to become a deluded pawn in an extremist game. But Bouzid delicately and empathetically puts him there in a way that's as emotionally deflating for the viewer as it is haunting. —Jason Ferguson
It descends upon us yearly like clockwork. Nothing ruins a movie buzz faster than long lines, jam-packed stadium seating and 4-year-olds left to run wild up and down the aisles during summer blockbuster madness.
Add to that the glow of dumb-fucks texting on cell phones and it's no surprise some would rather just wait for September before venturing back to a movie theater. Fortunately Shotgun Stories has landed on DVD and those seeking multiplex refuge will find it a breath of fresh air. It's not based on a comic book. It's not a sequel. Nor is there any CGI. Whew. What it does have is winning direction and story by first-timer Jeff Nichols. His flick follows two sets of half brothers living in a one-stoplight town in Arkansas. The first set of Hayes boys were abandoned by their abusive, alcoholic pop who cared so little he named them Son, Kid and Boy. Their mother fueled their hatred for Dad mostly out of spite because he remarried, sobered up, found God and started a new life with a second family. When the first sons crash his funeral, a feud escalates quickly and violently. Nichols' flick is a frighteningly real take on how damaged parents' make damaged kids who become damaged adults. It's not a preachy film but an observant one. And rather than rely on shrink-ready histrionics, Shotgun Stories unspools naturally, which gives a real sadness to the series of the events. It's a small gem like Shotgun Stories that makes skipping the 2008 summer blockbusters season appealing. —Paul Knoll