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Deep Space of the Mind

The third fantasy, horror festival presents some unusual and provocative specimens

August 15, 2002|MARK OLSEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Don't let the titles fool you. Full of movies with such seemingly random and slightly ridiculous monikers as "The Blood on Satan's Claw," "The Last Man on Earth," and "Fiend Without a Face" the American Cinematheque's 3rd Festival of Fantasy, Horror and Science-Fiction could easily be mistaken as a funhouse junkyard of sorcery, mayhem and low-rent special effects.

That would be only partially right. The series is shrewdly timed at the height of summer movie mania, when demographically dumbed-down marketing assaults often make going to the movies about as much fun as two hours of being punched in the head. Though the three featured genres cover a lot of ground, they are united by a subversive sensibility one might define as "pure film"--utilizing the medium's dreamlike dislocations to examine the psyche and the soul, to create far-reaching metaphors for human existence. With aliens, monsters and tales of possession, the films may look to shock and provoke, but mostly just to entertain.

Having opened with such relatively polished films as "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan" and "Jaws," the series moves into different territory starting tonight with a screening of the first new 35-millimeter print in over 30 years of "Blood on Satan's Claw." Produced in 1970 by Tigon British Films, a company a step below the famously tight-budgeted Hammer Films, it is an astoundingly effective and suspenseful piece of genre filmmaking, rising above its meager means to become something quite more than expected.

Set in rural 17th century England, the film opens with a farmer discovering strange remains while plowing his fields. Not quite human, not exactly animal, the specimen quickly disappears, and just as fast, the lives of the townspeople are turned upside down. A man chops off his own hand, the children of the village all go mad, and a bizarre ritual seems to summon up the devil himself. Though the special-effects (particularly the papier-mache costume of the Beast) are sometimes laugh-out-loud bad, the film has a chilling power that makes it more than worthwhile. Fans of the stagy strangeness of Tim Burton's "Sleepy Hollow" should not miss this.

Also showing tonight is "The Last Man on Earth," a 1964 Italian production (in English) starring the great Vincent Price. Based on the Richard Matheson novel "I Am Legend," the film is a more modest affair than the long-percolating modern remake (which big names such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ridley Scott and Will Smith have flirted with over the last few years) as it follows the lone survivor of a vampire plague struggling to continue in the face of desperate peril.

Among the most pensive zombie movies ever made--think Dostoevsky directed by George Romero--the film is a moving meditation on the importance of family and the isolation of everyday life.

A different but no less compelling film is 1977's "The Car," screening Saturday. Starring James Brolin as a small-town lawman who must battle a mysterious and murderous automobile that inexplicably terrorizes the population, the film was directed by Elliot Silverstein, better known for such westerns as "Cat Ballou" and "A Man Called Horse." Surprisingly matter-of-fact about the notion that the car, which has no driver, seems to be a tool of the devil, it's a gritty, no-nonsense action-shocker with a supernatural twist.

Also on Saturday is "Silent Running," a 1971 combination morality tale and ecology fable that is among the most finely crafted and high-minded films in the series. After a nuclear war, space-freighters carrying the remaining flora and fauna of Earth are launched into deep space. When they are suddenly ordered to abort their mission, one of the ship's crew (played by a scraggly Bruce Dern) takes it upon himself to continue. Sabotaging his shipmates, and ultimately even sacrificing himself, he does whatever it takes to see that the beauty of nature, in at least some form, survives.

The directing debut of Douglas Trumbull, best known as the effects supervisor on "2001: A Space Odyssey" responsible for creating that film's mind-bending climactic Stargate sequence, the back-to-nature politics of "Silent Running" may seem innocently naive from our modern perspective, but overall the film remains astonishing.

It was made in the aftermath of "Easy Rider," when the Hollywood studios were scrambling to create youth-oriented product. Looking to cut costs wherever they could, Trumbull and his team shot much of the film on a decommissioned U.S. Navy aircraft carrier rather than building their own sets. The miniature work used to create the look of oversized starships, still impressive today, would go on to influence the look of "Star Wars."

It's hard to believe it was made for barely $1 million.

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