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Old films return to local theaters

October revivals of older films in local theaters naturally feature a few offerings appropriate to the Halloween season (no one, alas, seems to be screening “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”). The most unusual – and to my thinking the best of the lot – will be at The Allen Theatre in Annville when it shows the silent “The Man Who Laughs” (1928, NR) on Oct. 30 at 2 p.m. I’d like to term this version of Victor Hugo’s lesser-known novel a classic but the film is equally little known, which is a pity as it’s one of the truly great silent films turned out by Hollywood. It ranks with “Sunrise” and “The Wind” as one of the gems of the late silent era. Despite my having been a contributing author to an encyclopedia of such titles, I have to admit the silent U.S. screen offered little in the way of what came to be known as horror films after the advent of talkies. This film came from Universal (later to be known primarily for genre offerings in the 1930s and into the 50s) and followed the Lon Chaney vehicles “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of the Opera.” Both were essentially historic spectacles, based on the works of French authors and featured a horribly deformed central character realized by Chaney’s makeup box. “The Man Who Laughs” follows suit and would have similarly starred Chaney but for his being locked into an MGM contract and therefore unavailable.

The production looks lavish – Universal was a fairly poor studio but thanks in part to standing sets and its back lot (concepts its founder Carl Laemmle originated) it could give production value to even its most cash-strapped productions. This was one of its super jewels and so received even more than the usual care (not that the Big U stinted on either “Hunchback” or “Phantom,” building replicas of the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Paris Opera House for those respective productions). The cast, too, is superior to its French predecessors. Veidt is more than ably supported by Gravina, Hurst and DeGrass especially but also by Olga Baclanova (who would later appear in Tod Browning’s “Freaks”). Even Mary Philbin is better than in “Phantom” (credit Leni being a better director than Rupert Julian). If you have any love at all for silent film, you must catch this rare appearance on the big screen, accompanied by an original, live score by Tom and Laurie Reese, aka Muzette.

Nothing else comes remotely close, though that of course depends on the type of fare that appeals to you. Lititz’s Penn Cinema begins their Monday Series on Oct. 3 with “Oklahoma!” (1955, PG), the Rogers and Hammerstein musical that’s a perennial in community, regional and dinner theaters. Do I need to recount he plot for you? At the turn of the century two cowboys (Gordon Macrae and Rod Steiger) vie for the affections of a young woman (Shirley Jones). Guess who she’ll pick? There’s lots of songs you already know well enough to hum along with and some spectacular choreography courtesy Agnes DeMille. The most impressive dancing probably comes from Charlotte Greenwood and her trademark high kicks; she and Gloria Grahame (as the “girl who can’t say no”) are the highlights of the film, photographed in glorious Todd-AO and therefore a must for viewing on the big screen.

This is followed on Oct. 10 with something called “The Sandlot” (1993, PG), a movie I’ve never even heard of before, and so I quote from Penn’s website: “Scotty Smalls moves to a new neighborhood with his mom and stepdad, and wants to learn to play baseball. The neighborhood baseball guru Rodriquez takes Smalls under his wing, and soon he’s part of the local baseball buddies. They fall into adventures involving baseball, treehouse sleep-ins, the desirous lifeguard at the local pool, the snooty rival ball team and the travelling fair. Beyond the fence at the back of the sandlot menaces a legendary ball-eating dog called The Beast, and the kids inevitably must deal with him.” It just might be the summertime equivalent of “A Christmas Story” for all I know; Dennis Leary and James Earl Jones were coerced into it and it generated two sequels.

Dustin Hoffman dons a dress – actually several of them – for Sidney Pollack’s “Tootsie” (1982, PG) and becomes daytime TV’s hottest star on Oct. 17. The screenplay by Larry Gelbart and Murray Schisgal subversively buries its message about women’s treatment by society (still nearly as true now as it was then) in a very funny romantic comedy (much the same approach as Phillip Barry took with “Holiday” and “The Philadelphia Story” and George S. Kaufman and his co-writers did with numerous plays during Broadway’s Golden Age). Pollack himself, as “Dorothy Michael’s” agent, and an unbilled Bill Murray as a roommate provide many of the laughs with their nonplussed reactions to the situation. And there is surprising poignancy lent by Charles Durning as the father of Jessica Lange – the woman Hoffman falls for – when he discovers the actress he’s smitten with isn’t a woman after all. (I suppose as Halloween is a time for dress-up this film might qualify as a seasonal offering.)

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s lesser efforts, “Dial M for Murder” (1954, PG) follows on Oct. 24. In this case, lesser means the film is not overstuffed and overlong, unlike most of Hitchcock’s post 1950 productions. Based on Frederick Knott’s successful Broadway play (still frequently revived by community and regional theaters) it has Ray Milland plotting the murder of his wife (Grace Kelley) because he suspects her of being unfaithful with ex-boyfriend Robert Cummings. The assassination attempt goes awry and the victim finds herself accused of the murder of her assailant – something of a win-win for Milland but not so much for Cummings who is determined to suss out the truth. Hitchcock made little effort to “open-up” the play and the action is mostly confined to one apartment and the hall without. The result is a lean and satisfying thriller if not one of the director’s masterpieces.

On Oct. 31, the day itself, Penn Cinema will be screening the film that takes place on and derives its title from the holiday: John Carpenter’s “Halloween” (1978, R). This is the film that, arguably, altered the horror film to an endless procession of efforts revolving around teens being slaughtered by masked serial killers (in this case a William Shatner mask spray-painted white) on various holidays. Aside from its long-lasting influence, the film is not one of the genre’s glorious moments and no better than massively OK. It does, however, have a legion of faithful fans, and it did establish Carpenter as a director to watch – though he has rarely fulfilled his early promise. Note that Penn’s website does not list showtimes for their Monday Series. Call the theater for that information.

It falls to Fathom Events to provide a bevy of holiday entries, beginning with Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein” (1974, PG) on Oct. 5 at 8 pm. This affectionate spoof of the Universal films of the 1930's and 40s (with the bulk of its plot lifted from 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein”) has Gene Wilder as the offspring of the late man who made a monster and trying to distance himself from the old guy (even to the extent of pronouncing his name Fronkensteen). Lured back to the family castle, he also finds himself enticed into resurrecting the monster (Peter Boyle) with the assistance of the hunchbacked Ygor (Marty Feldman). Cloris Leachman as a Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper, Madeline Kahn as Mrs. Frankenstein and Kenneth Mars sending up Lionel Atwill add to the nonsense that builds to a loony rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” It’s possible only died-in-the-wool genre fans will appreciate that the electrical lab equipment is all the same props used in the old films (leading to one of the rare onscreen credits for Kenneth Stickfadden whose creations were rented out to probably hundreds of productions) but even the general public can get most of the jokes. It plays at both the Penn Cinema and Lebanon’s Regal complex.

One of Stanley Kubrick’s most accessible films, “The Shining” (1980, R), is on tap Oct. 23 at 2 and 7 p.m., but only in Lititz. The film is an anomaly in the director’s filmography and just what drew him to Stephen King’s novel for source material is anyone‘s guess. King and his fans have been pretty vocal about disliking the result, mostly because Kubrick makes it a guessing game as to whether the events in the Overlook Hotel are truly supernatural or the result of Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) cracking up after falling off the wagon and becoming homicidally inclined toward his wife (Shelly Duvall) and son (Danny Lloyd). There are hints that the former what is actually transpiring but evidently this was not enough to satisfy the detractors as to what Kubrick omitted (especially topiary animals that come to life) because the director wasn’t certain the special effects of the time would be convincing. For those demanding absolute fidelity to the author (who isn’t Tolstoy for Cthulhu’s sake) there’s always the TV mini-series – and while I like Steven Weber in the role better than Nicholson, that version strikes me as being at least one evening too long for its own good.

For those who appreciate such things (include me out) the RiffTrax Live gang has an outing on Oct. 27 at 8 p.m. in both Lancaster and Lebanon (with a non-live repeat on Oct. 31 at 7:30 p.m.), making snarky comments about “Carnival of Souls” (1962, NR). I am deeply offended by people who make a living ridiculing the efforts, no matter how lacking, of those who have actually created something and deeply puzzled by the popularity of same. It also strikes me as the ultimate in laziness to watch a bad movie and let someone else come up with the wisecracks (a case of uber couch potatoism). Beyond that Herk Harvey’s film, while no milestone in cinema history, is an often effectively creepy exercise regarding a woman (Candace Hilligoss) who seems to survive a car crash but is actually hovering on the borderline between life and death. Some of the acting may well be substandard (Harvey simply hadn’t the budget for a full cast of professionals) –something that curiously adds to the film’s unsettling atmosphere – but this financially challenged production doesn’t deserve the ridicule that the MST3K refugees are going to dish out. See it without the embellishments and if the scene of the dead rising from a lake and waltzing in a pavilion doesn‘t raise the hairs on the back of your neck, you should check to see if you still have a pulse.