Oscar Oddities, Part 1

CON AIR (1997), Oscar nominee for Best Original Song and Best Sound.

Every year in the annual Oscar race there are always a few surprises, head scratchers or genuinely odd contenders that make you wonder how they were ever selected. Was it politics? Was it a fluke? Did good taste or bad taste actually triumph? Here is a list of my favorite oddities, some of which deserved their nomination though I never expected the Academy to acknowledge them because they were either low-budget indies, big budget genre pictures or under the radar movies that were barely noticed by moviegoers. I’m using the 1990s as my starting point and working backwards from there, cherry picking specific Oscar races, since most of the more interesting anomalies occurred prior to the 21st century.

Yes, there have been a few unexpected contenders since then such as 2000’s strange and mesmerizing Shadow of the Vampire (nominated for Best Supporting Actor – Willem Dafoe) and Hustle & Flow featuring the Oscar winning Best Original Song of 2005 – “It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp.” In fact, the Best Original Song Oscar category is usually the place to look for oddball entries such as “Blame Canada” from South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (1999) by the demented director-writer team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone or “How Do I Live,” written by Diane Warren and performed by Trisha Yearwood in Con Air (1997), an outrageous over-the-top action thriller from producer Jerry Bruckheimer. But, in general, the Academy Award nominations from 1999 on back to the beginning were quirkier and more fun.

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Truckers on Speed

“The Pill Dragnet! Blasting the Blackest Market of all…the girl peddlers of the deadliest thrill for sale!” – one of the taglines for Death in Small Doses (1957).    

In the grand tradition of other B-movie crime expose of the fifties such as Kansas City Confidential (1952), The Phenix City Story (1955), and New Orleans Uncensored (1955), this little known 1957 programmer from Allied Artists (formerly known as poverty row studio, Monogram Pictures) has all the earmarks of a routine, low budget exploitation drama aimed at the drive-ins and double bill grindhouses of its era but it also serves up some surprises and memorably wacko moments for those who think they’ve been down this road before.

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Downsizing

Somewhere between William Castle’s rebirth in the late fifties as the genius movie marketeer of such gimmicks as Emergo (House on Haunted Hill), Percepto (The Tingler), Illusion-o (13 Ghosts) or death by fright insurance policies (Macabre) and his prolific stint as a B-unit director at Columbia Pictures and later at Universal-International is the missing link that connects the two. Although it probably qualifies as Castle’s most exploitive film in the true sense of the word, It’s a Small World (1950) is also the director’s most forgotten film. Continue reading

The Secret Cinema Experiment (Feb. 1980 – Dec. 1981, Athens, Ga.)

Secret Cinema program Oct. 1980Have you ever had a fantasy about running and programming your own repertory cinema? Any self-proclaimed film buff probably has and for me it became a slowly emerging fantasy from the time I was seven or older. Unlike those kids who wanted to be firemen, astronauts, professional athletes or other revered professions, I pictured myself as a movie theater owner who could show what I wanted and print availability or attendance was never a concern. While this fantasy faded over the years as I became aware of the realities and headaches of film distribution and theater management, the love of programming movies always stayed with me and for a brief period (Feb. 1980 – Dec. 1981), I ran an invitation only film series out of my home in Athens, Ga. on Pulaski Street that I called Secret Cinema. Continue reading

Double Trouble

Wicked, WickedSometimes a great promotional gimmick is reason enough to make a movie and this certainly proved to be a successful strategy for director William Castle who made box office hits out of low-budget horror thrillers such as Macabre (1958, admission included an insurance policy from Lloyds of London against death by fright), House on Haunted Hill (1959, a glow-in-the-dark skeleton swooped over the audience at a key point in the movie) and The Tingler (1959, selected seats were wired and vibrated when the title creature got loose in a movie theatre). Not all promoters have been as lucky as Castle though and Wicked, Wicked (1973), produced by William T. Orr and writer/director Richard L. Bare, features one of the best movie gimmicks of its era but was poorly distributed and has languished in obscurity for years…until the Warner Archive Collection released it on DVD in November 2014.  Continue reading