#627) Titanic (1997)

#627) Titanic (1997)

OR “The Looooooove Booooooat”

Directed & Written by James Cameron

Class of 2017

As always, a reminder that this post is about the film “Titanic”, and not the historical event depicted. There’s a ton of information out there for the curious, with its Britannica entry being a good place to start.

The Plot: In 1996, an expedition team surveys the remains of the passenger liner RMS Titanic, which sank after hitting an iceberg in April 1912. After an unsuccessful attempt to recover the valuable “Heart of the Ocean” diamond necklace, researcher Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) comes into contact with Titanic survivor Rose Calvert (Gloria Stuart), who recounts her experience aboard the ship. In 1912, Rose (Kate Winslet) boards the ship with her socialite family and wealthy yet obnoxious fiancé Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). Disappointed with the direction her life is going, Rose meets Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio), a starving artist and third-class passenger. The two are attracted to each other, but are aware of the class difference that separates them. Over the course of two days, Jack and Rose fall in love, and Rose decides to start a new life with Jack once the ship arrives in New York. When the ship is struck by an iceberg, Jack and Rose’s newfound love is put to the ultimate test.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “a cultural touchstone of the era” with “spectacular sweeping scenes”. They also quote David Ansen’s Newsweek write-up in which he called the film “big, bold, touchingly uncynical filmmaking.”

But Does It Really?:  Somehow in this film’s quarter-century existence, I have managed to not see “Titanic” in full until this viewing (Though I’ve seen bits and pieces over the years). All I could think while I was watching was “James Cameron you bastard, you did it.” All filmmaking is alchemy, and while no one film has the perfect recipe, “Titanic” is pretty damn close. Cameron somehow managed to have his cake and eat it too; combining a historical epic with a disaster action movie, a deep-sea documentary, and a star-crossed romance, and making it all work spectacularly. “Titanic” has been parodied to death, and has now endured multiple generations of backlash (both historical and critical), but the film continues to be an impressive feat of moviemaking, and possibly the last classic Hollywood epic.

Everybody Gets One: Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were young actors starting to get noticed when “Titanic” came their way. Although both had recently received their first Oscar nods (DiCaprio for “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?”, Winslet for “Sense and Sensibility”), neither was the first choice for Jack and Rose (names such as Chris O’Donnell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Billy Crudup and Claire Danes were suggested). While DiCaprio had to be persuaded to even audition for Jack, Winslet lobbied aggressively for Rose, and the pair’s instant chemistry sealed the deal. The two actors formed a strong bond during the intensely exhausting shoot, and have stayed close friends ever since.

Wow, That’s Dated: The 1996 prelude dates itself with its giant camcorders and a reference to the Geraldo Rivera/Al Capone TV special. And while Cameron’s depiction of the Titanic sinking was accurate with the information he had at the time, new details have emerged in the ensuing years that have inexplicably enabled critics to declare the film retroactively inaccurate, whatever that means.

Seriously, Oscars?: It wasn’t enough for “Titanic” to make all the money and receive all the acclaim, it had to win all the Oscars too. At the 70th Academy Awards in 1998, “Titanic” lead the pack with 14 nominations (tying “All About Eve” for the most nominations ever), and took home 11 (tying “Ben-Hur” for the most wins ever). The film won Picture, Director, Song for “My Heart Will Go On”, and seven technical categories (also a record for a single film). The “Titanic” steamroll was inevitable, but left little room for other well-received contenders like “Good Will Hunting” and “L.A. Confidential“.

Other notes 

  • James Cameron was inspired to write a movie about the Titanic based on his fascination with the actual shipwreck, as well as a 1992 IMAX movie that featured high-def footage of the wreck. Cameron pitched the film as “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic”, and a skeptical 20th Century Fox okayed the film in the hopes of maintaining a good business relationship with Cameron. The underwater sequences of the actual wreck were filmed first (Cameron admits these scenes were the reason he wanted to make the film) while Cameron was concurrently immersing himself in research and scriptwriting.
  • Production on “Titanic” ran from July 1996 to March 1997, and is generally agreed upon to have been an unpleasant experience for everyone. Most of the cast experienced illness from hours in cold water, three stunt performers broke bones, and James Cameron’s dictatorial directing style earned him the moniker “the scariest man in Hollywood”. The film went 30 days over schedule, and when Fox refused to give Cameron more money, Paramount agreed to co-finance the film, ballooning the budget to $200 million (the most expensive movie ever up to that point). With the special effects needing more time to be completed, “Titanic” had its release date pushed from July 1997 to December, prompting speculation that the film would be a disaster.
  • The opening prologue helps a modern, more cynical audience permit itself to enter the romantic world of 1912. Of course it’s lovely to see the late Bill Paxton represented on this list outside of his brief role in “The Terminator“, but the MVP is Gloria Stuart. Long past her heyday in 1930s Hollywood, the 86-year-old Stuart was aged up to play 101, and is an overall gem as older Rose. Also in these bookend scenes is Suzy Amis as Rose’s granddaughter. Amis and James Cameron met during filming, and they’re still married over 20 years later.
  • Dialogue has never been Cameron’s strongest suit as a writer, and the opening of the film is a massive offering of Exposition 101. Cameron, however, more than makes up for this with his visual storytelling, particularly the scale and build up to the Titanic’s launch. You truly get the sense of awe needed to convey the ship’s mightiness, making its demise all the more devastating.
  • Wow, this movie is a murderer’s row of great actors. Among the supporting cast aboard the ship: Frances Fisher, Kathy Bates (as Molly Brown), David Warner, Victor Garber, Jonathan Hyde, and Bernard Fox (aka Dr. Bombay from “Bewitched”). There really isn’t a weak link in this chain.
  • Poor Billy Zane. Cal is a short-sighted, one dimensional asshole, and Zane is doing the best with what he’s given. Fun Fact: I met him once. Nice guy.
  • The sparks between Leo and Kate are palpable, and it really does help keep the movie (forgive me) afloat. They’re so good in this I’m even willing to ignore Kate’s not-quite-there American accent and Leo’s ’90s Tiger Beat haircut.
  • The “I’m flying” scene on the ship’s bow is a romantic highpoint (filmed with an actual sunset, no CG or lighting tricks). Although I was well aware of all of this movie’s iconic sequences before this viewing, I had zero knowledge of the earlier scene where Jack teaches Rose how to spit, which is super gross but – thanks to Kate Winslet – actually serves as a set-up to a later payoff.
  • Full disclosure: I was 11 years old when “Titanic” was released on VHS in September 1998, and the parents of a neighborhood friend of mine had a copy. We never got past the first cassette, but we definitely saw the drawing scene and, let’s just say Kate Winslet is an important player in my formative years. On a similar note: I found out years later that Kate Winslet was subjected to a lot of fat-shaming by critics and late night comedians at the time, and all I can say is “How dare you!” Winslet is a stunningly beautiful human, and the skinny model standard of the late ’90s is an impossible (not to mention unhealthy and unnatural) measure for anyone to meet, so everyone lay off!
  • It’s hard not to research a post on “Titanic” the film without slipping into research on Titanic the actual ship. I’ve never been much of a non-pop culture history buff, so all the details about the real Titanic were new to me. The one bit of real Titanic trivia that I found worth noting here: When “Titanic” premiered, seven of the ship’s survivors were still alive. Millvina Dean was the youngest Titanic passenger (2 months old), and the last survivor to pass (May 2009 at age 97). Dean declined an invitation to attend the premiere of “Titanic” which – you know what? Fair.
  • Shoutout to actor Scott G. Anderson, playing Titanic’s real-life lookout Frederick Fleet, who I assume gets a few free drinks whenever anyone recognizes him as the guy who yells “Iceberg right ahead!”
  • Part of my amazement with the film is how much of it is real. Computer effects and detailed models were obviously used for the most epic shots, but there’s a good chunk of this movie that is real people on real sets surrounded by real water. Even more amazing is how many of these scenes are clearly DiCaprio and Winslet doing their own stunt work. Where’s Shelley Winters when you need her?
  • [Spoilers] I remember about 10 years ago when “Titanic” was re-released there was a brouhaha in social media about the floating door Jack and Rose swim to for safety. The theory was that there was enough room for both Jack and Rose on the door, and Jack did not need to sacrifice himself. There was even a whole “Mythbusters” about it. Honestly, the film made it clear to me from the get-go that the door could not support both of them and still float, so I don’t know what everyone got so worked up about. Was there nothing else going on that week?
  • The film’s other most dated aspect: ’90s power ballad “My Heart Will Go On“. James Cameron was initially against having any song in the movie for fear of becoming outdated, so composers James Horner and Will Jennings wrote the song in secret, had Céline Dion record a demo, and waited for Cameron to be in an approachable mood before pitching the idea. Cameron finally relented upon realizing that studio execs – already upset with him for going over-budget – would be pacified at the prospect of the movie spawning a hit song.


  • “Titanic” opened in December 1997, and quickly became a blockbuster hit, staying in theaters for 10 months (!) and surpassing “Jurassic Park” as the highest grossing movie of all time. Everything around the film was also a success: the VHS release was the best selling home video of all time, the soundtrack album reached number one on over two dozen charts around the world, and the companion “Making Of” book was #1 on the New York Times Best Seller list for several weeks.
  • For my younger readers, I am here to tell you: If you were alive in 1998 you could not escape “Titanic”. It was everywhere. People loved shouting “I’m flying, Jack!” and “I’m the king of the world!” (even James Cameron said the latter in his Oscar speech), and cruise ships had to take extra safety measures to prevent passengers from recreating these moments on their bow (not to mention reiterating the emergency safety measures already in place). There were the obvious parodies (my favorite is the hard-to-find Letterman sketch “Death Boat ’98”), and while they have subsided over the years, “Titanic” has remained a cultural touchstone, especially for those of us with a severe case of ’90s nostalgia.
  • Following the mega-hit sensation of “Titanic”, both its stars and director kept a low-profile. DiCaprio and Winslet opted for independent productions, eventually pivoting to bigger movies (and Oscar wins for, respectively, “The Revenant” and “The Reader”). Cameron’s next projects were deep sea documentaries (including the Titanic wreckage film “Ghosts of the Abyss”) before returning to narrative features with “Avatar”, which – like “Titanic” before it – defied its predicted failure to become the highest grossing film of all time.
  • “Titanic” continued its box office success in 2012, when the film was re-released in 3D for the 100th anniversary of the original sinking. A young naive Twitter was not only unaware that it was a re-release, but also unaware that it was based on a historical event.
  • And finally: “I’m going to sink this bitch.”

Further Viewing: The other countless Titanic movies. Among them: 1953’s “Titanic”, 1958’s “A Night to Remember”, and 1964’s “The Unsinkable Molly Brown”, to name just a few.

#626) Halloween (1978)

#626) Halloween (1978)

OR “Life with Mikey”

Directed by John Carpenter

Written by Carpenter & Debra Hill

Class of 2006 

The Plot: On Halloween 1963, Michael Myers (Nick Castle, among others) murders his sister Judith (Sandy Johnson) and is immediately institutionalized. 15 years later, his psychiatrist Dr. Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) – planning to petition that Michael receive a lifetime sentence – discovers that Michael has escaped. Michael returns to his hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, and begins stalking high schooler Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) and her friends Annie and Lynda (Nancy Kyes and P. J. Soles). Laurie and Annie spend Halloween babysitting two neighborhood kids (Kyle Richards and Brian Andrews), giving Michael the perfect opportunity to continue his killing spree. And from these humble beginnings comes one of the longest running and most lucrative horror franchises of all time.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “uniquely artistic, frightening and a horror film keystone”, praising the film’s “chilling tension” and “haunting piano score”. There’s also an all-encompassing essay by John Carpenter expert Murray Leeder.

But Does It Really?: As I’ve previously stated on this blog, I don’t do horror movies, mainly due to the excessive violence (also because I’m big ol’ scaredy cat). “Halloween” – however – is an exception, keeping the gore to a minimum while still producing an effectively scary movie. John Carpenter creates a straight-forward horror movie that proves low-budget doesn’t have to mean low-quality, with Jamie Lee Curtis delivering an unexpected star-making performance. Even after countless imitators, “Halloween” remains a fresh 90-minute adrenaline rush, with a legacy that ensures its standing as a Halloween standard for years to come.

Shout Outs: The characters Sam Loomis and Marion Chambers derive their names from characters in “Psycho“. Lindsey and Tommy are seen watching “Forbidden Planet” and “The Thing from Another World“, the latter being a bit of foreshadowing to Carpenter’s filmography.

Everybody Gets One: A movie lover since childhood, John Carpenter dropped out of USC after one semester to start making his own films. His second feature, the action thriller “Assault on Precinct 13, caught the attention of producers Irwin Yablans and Moustapha Akkad, who commissioned Carpenter and his collaborative partner/then-girlfriend Debra Hill to make a movie based on the concept of a man who stalks and kills babysitters. Carpenter agreed on the condition of creative control and a cut of the profits. Elaborating on an idea from a proposed “Black Christmas” sequel, Carpenter and Hill wrote the screenplay for “Halloween” in 10 days.

Wow, That’s Dated: An unfortunate sign of the world I grew up in: It always surprises me in movies when neighborhoods have unlocked doors and no security systems. I suspect if Nextdoor had existed in 1978, this movie would have been over in five minutes.

Other notes 

  • “Halloween” was filmed in four weeks in May 1978 on a budget of $300,000 (most of which went to the cameras). Fake leaves were used to make southern California look like Illinois, and cast members often helped the crew haul equipment. Easily the film’s most iconic cost-cutting, the famous Michael Myers mask was a Captain Kirk mask purchased at a costume shop for $1.98; spray-painted white, with alterations made to its hairline and eye holes.
  • The opening prologue is scary, especially because the continuous POV shot forces us to see the viewpoint of – and potentially empathize with – the killer. That being said, the whole sequence is filmed essentially in the style of one of those old SNL “Continental” sketches, and now I just want a glass of cham-pon-ya.
  • This is Jamie Lee Curtis’ film debut! Unsurprising for the child of two movie stars, Curtis is giving a very confident performance, and already has her indefinable star quality fully intact. Fun Fact: At age 19, Curtis was the only actual teenager in the cast; PJ Soles and Nancy Kyes were, respectively, 28 and 29!
  • At this point in his career Donald Pleasence had already been making movies for 25 years, including “The Great Escape” and “You Only Live Twice”. Pleasence agreed to appear in the low-budget “Halloween” because his daughter Lucy was a fan of “Assault on Precinct 13” (that and, by his own admission, he had alimony to pay). To Pleasence’s credit, he does not phone this movie in, adding a bit of humanity and credibility to the proceedings. You can also sense that Pleasence wasn’t around for a long time, filming his entire role in five days.
  • True to Carpenter’s low-budget beginnings, several of the shorter scenes (especially the ones involving Pleasence) are in one uncut take. He even manages to time one to coincide with a passing train! Well done.
  • Carpenter et al do an excellent job of setting up the mystery of Michael Myers. With his chronic disappearing/reappearing in shots and Carpenter’s strong piano score, you become conditioned to expect Michael to show up at any moment, keeping you alert the entire runtime.
  • This movie is doing something right, because throughout I caught myself yelling back at it such horror movie standbys as “Don’t go in there!” and “He’s right behind you!”
  • In addition to her star quality, Jamie Lee Curtis is also great with kids. Always a good skill to have when endearing yourself to an audience.
  • One of my biggest problems with “Halloween” is potentially not its fault. I spent a lot of time grousing that no one in the movie thinks to turn on a light when Michael is around, with characters constantly stumbling around in the dark for no good reason. Apparently, the production’s tight budget didn’t allow for additional lighting, hence the constant darkness. I say apparently because the only source I could find this information on was the IMDb trivia page, and several clickbaity “Top ‘Halloween’ Trivia You Didn’t Know That We Definitely Didn’t Just Copy From the IMDb Trivia Page” articles.
  • Also dated: Laurie calling her friends “meatheads” when she thinks they are pranking her. Somewhere Carroll O’Connor is smiling.
  • The other great thing about this movie: nothing is explained. We never learn why Michael Myers is the way he is or why he is targeting these specific teens, nor do we ever learn what makes him seemingly indestructible or how he managed to escape. This mystery of course would be inevitably diluted in the sequels, but if you’re like me and haven’t seen any of the other “Halloween” movies, the vagary is wonderful.


  • “Halloween” opened October 1978 in four theaters in Kansas City before getting wider distribution in time for Halloween. Although critics were initially dismissive, positive audience word of mouth kept the film going. “Halloween” ultimately earned 70 million dollars, making it the most successful independent film up to that time.
  • Of course, “Halloween” is responsible for the “slasher film” subgenre that permeated the 1980s, amplifying this movie’s scariness, violence and overall horniness, ultimately devolving into pure misogyny. Among the tropes popularized by “Halloween” is the “Final girl” cliché, in which the female lead is the lone survivor and must face the killer alone in the climax. The “slasher film” subgenre includes “Friday the 13th“, “Final Destination” and fellow NFR entry “A Nightmare on Elm Street”.
  • John Carpenter’s career kicked into high gear thanks to “Halloween”. His immediate follow-ups included “The Fog”, “Escape from New York”, and the previously-alluded to “The Thing”.
  • Jamie Lee Curtis continued her film career with a series of horror movies, earning her the moniker “The Scream Queen”. Thankfully, Curtis has stuck around long enough to show off her talents in such varied films as “A Fish Called Wanda”, “Freaky Friday”, “Knives Out”, and “Everything Everywhere All at Once”.
  • The “Halloween” franchise currently has 13 films in it, and has more reboots and retconning than any other major franchise. Stay with me: “Halloween II” is an immediate follow-up, “III” is an anthology film with no connection to any of the other movies, 4, 5 & 6 (“Return” “Revenge” and “Curse of Michael Myers”) follow the first two films and feature Donald Pleasence in his final film roles. “H2O” and “Resurrection” negate everything except 1 & 2, and saw Jamie Lee Curtis reprise Laurie for the first time in 17 years. “Halloween” (2007) and “Halloween II” (2009) are remakes of the originals with their own continuity. And finally: the latest trilogy – “Halloween” (2018), “Kills” and “Ends” are direct sequels to the first movie, disregarding everything else.
  • In addition to the films, the aforementioned Leeder essay mentions its countless other spinoffs including “novels and comic books and masks and memorabilia, plus a legendarily terrible 1983 video game.”
  • And finally: [Insert your own “Michael Myers/Mike Myers” joke here. Something something “Yeah, baby!” something.]

#625) The Shining (1980)

#625) The Shining (1980)

OR “We’ll Leave the Fright On For You”

Directed by Stanley Kubrick

Written by Kubrick & Diane Johnson. Based on the novel by Stephen King.

Class of 2018

The Plot: Writer Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) takes a job as the winter caretaker of Colorado’s Overlook Hotel. With his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) in tow, Jack and his family relocate to the empty hotel for its five-month offseason. Upon arriving, Danny confides in hotel chef Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) of his “shining”, a telepathic power that Dick also possesses. Throughout the ensuing months, the isolation starts making Jack highly irritable, and the family encounter various ghosts and apparitions within the hotel. Jack’s writer’s block and alcoholic relapse lead to a mental breakdown, and he is encouraged by the ghost of the former caretaker (Philip Stone) to murder Wendy and Danny. One of the most celebrated film directors of all time takes a stab (forgive me) at the horror genre, creating an alienating masterpiece that definitely takes some liberties with its source material.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “inventive in visual style, symbolism, and narrative as only a Kubrick film can be”, praising the film’s “stunning visuals” and “iconic performances”.

But Does It Really?: I have seen “The Shining” a few times over the years, and every time I come to the same consensus: It’s equal parts scary and boring. When Kubrick hits, he really connects with this film’s genuinely frightening imagery, but this is mixed with long stretches of the movie that not only slow the pacing considerably, but also manage to deflate any previous tension. Perhaps this was intentional to highlight the characters’ isolation, but it has never been effective in my viewings. Still, I cannot deny the film its NFR status (I submitted the film for consideration the year it was ultimately inducted). Despite its glacier pacing and misguided diversion from the novel, there is no other movie that looks or sounds like “The Shining”. With its abundance of iconic moments and generation-spanning devotion from cinephiles and horror buffs alike, “The Shining” more than earns its spot on the NFR.

Title Track: Stephen King named the novel “The Shining” after John Lennon’s song “Instant Karma! (We All Shine On)”. I would have given this movie an immediate 4 stars if that song played over the end credits.

Seriously, Oscars/Razzies?: Following a divisive critical reaction (though a respectable box office run), “The Shining” became the first Kubrick film in over 20 years to not receive an Oscar nomination. Adding insult to injury, “The Shining” is one of two NFR films to have been nominated for the Razzies (the other is “Purple Rain”) with two nods: Worst Director and Worst Actress. Shelley Duvall’s Razzie nomination was officially rescinded in March 2022 in response to Kubrick’s behavior towards Duvall on set (more on that later).

Other notes 

  • Based on Stephen King’s experience staying at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, “The Shining” was published in January 1977, with its film rights being purchased two months prior. Kubrick was interested in making a “commercially viable” horror film following the lackluster box office of “Barry Lyndon”, and “The Shining” piqued his interest out of countless rejected horror novels he read. Filming was scheduled for 16 weeks at England’s famous Elstree Studios, but ended up going for a full year; going over schedule in part to Kubrick’s penchant for retakes, and partly due to a fire that burnt most of the massive Overlook set.
  • My biggest complaint about this movie is the same for a lot of people: Jack Nicholson should not be playing Jack Torrance. This of course has nothing to do Nicholson’s unmistakable talent as an actor, but rather the quality his star persona brings to the character. Jack Torrance is an average Joe who slowly descends into madness while at the Overlook. Jack Nicholson already looks unhinged before he gets to the hotel. I’ll argue the true culprits are his perpetually arched eyebrows; typically a boon to his acting “instrument”, but distracting and foretelling here. Still, if the old adage is true, Nicholson is cast for the third act, having a ball overplaying the character’s intense psychosis.
  • The other element of “The Shining” I have a complaint about is Kubrick’s mistreatment of Shelley Duvall. During filming, Kubrick purposefully and consistently berated Duvall in front of crew members in order to get a more unstable, emotional performance out of her. This is corroborated by on-set footage shown in a behind-the-scenes documentary of the film (shot by Stanley’s daughter Vivian) featuring several instances of the director loudly chastising Duvall and urging the crew not to sympathize with her. Later in that same documentary, Duvall discloses her awareness of Kubrick’s psychological games, and she subsequently expressed her pride in the final product. Maybe it’s my 2022 sensibility talking, but this is definitely a case where the ends do not justify the means. Encouraging your actors to dig deeper is one thing, but doing so as a detriment to their mental health is quite another.
  • Okay, let’s see what I actually like about this movie. Um…well the kid’s good. It helps that Danny Lloyd was unaware he was making a horror film. At least Kubrick protected someone in this cast from potential trauma. While we’re on the subject, I cannot entirely endorse a movie in which a character named Tony possesses a child.
  • The long traveling shots throughout the film are incredible, helping give a sense of the dizzying scope and geography of the Overlook (although the shot of Halloran touring the kitchen looks like the Copa shot in “Goodfellas“). Shoutout to cinematographer John Alcott, as well as Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown, who created a modified version especially for “The Shining” that travelled low to the ground. The effect is impressive, especially those shots of Danny riding through the hallways on his Big Wheel tricycle. Brown would eventually receive a technical Oscar in 2006 for another Steadicam variation: the Skycam.
  • Oh my god this movie is so slow. It’s to the point that I actually start getting antagonistic towards the film. Take your time, movie; I can wait as long as you can.
  • Probably the creepiest scene in the movie is Jack entering Room 237, mainly because of the weird turn it takes. If only he had gone to Room 222 or 227 instead.
  • The phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” first appeared in print 1659’s “Proverbs” by James Howell (though the phrase’s definitive origin remains undetermined). The rarely-mentioned second half is “All play and no work makes Jack a mere toy.” According to Vivian Kubrick, Stanley’s secretary spent weeks – if not months – typing out the “All work” pages that appear in the final film for mere seconds.
  • A reminder that Benjamin “Scatman” Crothers, the voice of Scat Cat and Hong Kong Phooey, has three movies on the National Film Registry.
  • A few takeaways from the finale: Danny sounds a lot like E.T. when he starts shouting “Redrum!”, no one has ever been able to explain the significance of the bear costume (or its compromising position) to me, and the final chase is why people don’t like hedge mazes.
  • When I picked “The Shining” to watch for this blog, I vowed I would not fall down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories regarding this movie’s alleged symbolism, but rather peer down said rabbit hole from a safe distance. As evident from the documentary “Room 237”, there are countless interpretations of this film, ranging from commentary on Indigenous genocide to an analogy of the Holocaust to a confession that Kubrick staged the moon landing! Kubrick lived long enough to dismiss all of these (with his survivors and colleagues continuing the debunking to this day). I suspect the reason this film in particular has so many intense theses is two-fold: 1) Like “2001” before it, Kubrick has delivered a movie that leaves so many of its elements up to interpretation and 2) Given Kubrick’s reputation for his meticulous perfectionism, it is easy to assume that Kubrick devised every detail within the film to correspond with whatever message he was trying to make. Funnily enough, as someone who has never read the book, my own theory is close to Stephen King’s original intention: the hotel itself is an evil entity that, in its attempt to consume Danny, ends up consuming his father instead. That reading is still in the film, albeit watered down by Kubrick’s artistic flourishes.


  • “The Shining” was released in May 1980, becoming one of that summer’s biggest hits, and is currently the third highest-grossing Kubrick film behind “2001” and “Spartacus“. By the time Kubrick’s next film – his long gestating Vietnam War drama “Full Metal Jacket” – was released in June 1987, “The Shining” had already started receiving a critical reappraisal and earning its current status as a horror classic.
  • Stephen King has made it no secret that he was disappointed with Kubrick’s film version of his book, citing Kubrick’s misinterpretation of the supernatural elements and the miscasting of Jack Nicholson. The 1997 TV miniseries (somewhat emphatically titled “Stephen King’s The Shining”) is a more faithful adaptation of the source material, but still manages to live in the movie’s shadow. Hey, isn’t that the guy from “Wings”?
  • IMDb lists over 2,000 movies that have referenced or parodied “The Shining” over the years, but all you really need is “The Simpsons” and my vote for their best “Treehouse of Horror” segment.
  • More recent references to “The Shining” come from the films “Ready Player One” and – in what seems to be a recurring segment on this blog – “Space Jam: A New Legacy”.
  • Several of the film’s most iconic moments were created specifically for the film, including the Grady twins in the hallway, blood flowing out of the elevator, and an axe-wielding Jack announcing “Here’s Johnny!”. The latter – a reference to “Tonight Show” host Johnny Carson – went over well enough with Carson that he used the clip to open his 1980 anniversary special, causing a brief uptick in the film’s box office.
  • Stephen King finally wrote a sequel to “The Shining” in 2013: “Doctor Sleep”, which dealt with Danny as an adult coming to terms with his long suppressed powers to save a similarly gifted young girl. The inevitable film adaptation came in 2019, and somehow managed to be a sequel to the film’s continuity while also receiving Stephen King’s blessing.
  • Oh, and apparently we might be getting a spin-off/prequel series called “Overlook Hotel”? I guess HBO Max dropped it from development (but hey, what haven’t they dropped?), and the production company is shopping the show around. My question as always about these origin/reboot things: Does anyone actually want this?

Further Viewing: Another favorite of mine from the recut trailer trend of the mid-2000s, “The Shining” recut as a heartwarming family drama. Another reason to love Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill”.

#26) Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

#26) Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

OR “Only Demons in the Building”

Directed & Written by Roman Polanski. Based on the novel by Ira Levin.

Class of 2014 

This is the revised and expanded post of my original “Rosemary’s Baby” post, which you can read here.

The Plot: Rosemary Woodhouse and her stage actor husband Guy (Mia Farrow & John Cassavetes) move into the Bramford, a large Manhattan apartment building with a haunted history. After settling in, Rosemary discovers she is pregnant, and becomes increasingly annoyed when their elderly neighbors Roman and Minnie Castevet (Sidney Blackmer & Ruth Gordon) keep interfering with her plans, including making her see another doctor (Ralph Bellamy). As the months past, Guy becomes more distant and irritable, and Rosemary becomes more paranoid about the Castevets’ true intentions. No spoilers but – oh screw it, it’s been 50 years if you haven’t seen it by now you’re not going to – they’re witches who arranged for Rosemary to birth the Devil’s son. How’s that for a twist?

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film no less than “a masterpiece of the horror-film genre”, praising Farrow, the supporting cast, and Polanski’s “expressive European style of psychological filmmaking”.

But Does It Really?: I had never seen “Rosemary’s Baby” before my first viewing for the blog five years ago, and it turns out this movie is somehow even scarier the second time around. Even knowing what the big reveals were, I still got the heebie-jeebies from watching this movie, thanks in no small part to Mia Farrow’s flawless performance, and Polanski’s excellent protracted suspense (and that’s as much as I’m willing to compliment Polanski). Over 50 years later, “Rosemary’s Baby” remains a hallmark of the horror genre, a landmark in pop culture, and a no-brainer for NFR inclusion.

Everybody Gets One: The daughter of director John Farrow and actress Maureen O’Sullivan, Mia Farrow came to prominence in the mid 1960s; on screen for the popular primetime soap opera “Peyton Place”, and off-screen for her marriage to Frank Sinatra, a man 29 years her senior. Sinatra wanted Farrow to give up her career to focus on their marriage, and while Farrow initially agreed, within a year she had signed on to play Rosemary. When filming delays created a scheduling conflict between “Rosemary” and “The Detective” (a Sinatra film Farrow had been cast in), Farrow was convinced by “Rosemary” producer Robert Evans to stay with the film after showing her a rough cut of her work. Sinatra’s lawyer presented Mia Farrow with the divorce papers on the set of “Rosemary’s Baby”.

Wow, That’s Dated: Rosemary mentions several times that Guy appeared in the plays “Luther” and “Nobody Loves an Albatross”, two real plays that ran on Broadway in winter 1963/spring 1964. Also dated: the idea that a working actor and his unemployed housewife can afford a spacious New York apartment.

Seriously, Oscars?:  “Rosemary’s Baby” was one of the highest grossing films of 1968, but the still very “Old Hollywood” Academy was slow to embrace New Hollywood, and “Rosemary” received only two nominations. Polanski lost Adapted Screenplay to James Goldman for “The Lion in Winter”, but longtime showbiz veteran Ruth Gordon prevailed as that year’s Best Supporting Actress, giving one of the all-time best acceptance speeches.

Other notes 

  • In addition to the lead cast, the supporting cast is a murderer’s row of longtime film and stage actors. Among them, Maurice Evans (aka Dr. Zaius), Ralph Bellamy, the instantly recognizable Elisha Cook, Patsy Kelly, D’Urville Martin (later played by Wesley Snipes in “Dolemite is My Name”) and a young Charles Grodin!
  • As a longtime scaredy cat, watching horror movies on this list is easier because – true to films of the time – nothing scary happens in the first 45 minutes. It’s the slowest burn of atmosphere and setup. With this second viewing of “Rosemary’s Baby”, I picked up on some of the subtleties that Cassavetes, Gordon, and Blackmer are playing early on. Though with the advent of hindsight, everyone is giving Rosemary plenty of red flags right from the get-go. Come on, the Castavets are pretty unfazed by Terry’s death.
  • The best executed, and therefore most terrifying scene in the movie is Rosemary’s “dream”. The editing perfectly conveys the sense of drifting in and out of sleep, and the cinematography gives a wonderfully disorienting feeling as Rosemary realizes that this is no dream. Just brilliant. 5/5, no notes.
  • Ruth Gordon & Sidney Blackmer are both outstanding. Sure, Gordon’s Oscar win was as much a lifetime consolation prize as anything else, but this is inspired casting, with her quirky persona helping disguise the character’s evil intentions. Blackmer correctly balances out Gordon by playing it straight, letting his piercing, probing eyes do most of the work instilling terror.
  • I somehow missed “Rosemary’s Baby” on my Die Hard Not-Xmas list. I must rectify that immediately.
  • Also date: Rosemary’s “just friends” party that is a swinging ’60s shindig. It definitely stands out, but I suspect that’s the point. Guy and the Castevets have dominated and controlled Rosemary’s life so thoroughly, she’s missing out on the ’60s culture the rest of her generation is participating in.
  • This occult reveal brought to you by Scrabble: America’s Good Time Game!
  • If the voice of Donald Baumgart sounds familiar, it’s Tony Curtis in an uncredited cameo! Polanski wanted a voice that was familiar enough that Rosemary/Mia would feel thrown trying to place the voice while asking about her husband. Coincidentally, Curtis would go on to present Ruth Gordon with her Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
  • Behind-the-scene controversies aside, Mia Farrow is pitch-perfect in this movie. Because the movie is solely from Rosemary’s perspective, we truly empathize with her journey, going through our own anxiety and madness as her world is turned upside down. Farrow’s tour-de-force is the phone booth conversation, captured in one uncut four-minute take as Rosemary struggles to reach out to Dr. Hill, her last lifesaver. Side note: the man who enters the booth after her is William Castle, the film’s producer, best remembered for his gimmicky horror B-movies of the 1950s.
  • The finale is surprisingly low-key, yet still manages to be disturbing and unsettling. Rosemary’s outburst of “What have you done to his eyes, you maniacs!” is justifiably iconic (as is Roman’s response), and the final moments also manage to be heartbreaking. Another reason I can stomach this more than later horror movies is because there’s a restraint in the horror. We never see Rosemary’s baby, but our imagination of what he could look like is far scarier, as is our speculation of what happens next.


  • Despite mixed critical reception, “Rosemary’s Baby” was a smash hit with moviegoers. Perhaps the film’s most important impact on pop culture is the rise of films involving the devil in the ensuing decades. Without “Rosemary”, there’s no “The Exorcist“, “The Omen”, “Devil in a Blue Dress” and countless others.
  • This is one of those movies where the poster is just as iconic as the movie itself. A creation by legendary graphic designer Philip Gips, the “Rosemary’s Baby” poster has turned up throughout pop culture, including being replicated for Darren Aronofsky’s 2017 film “Mother!”. God, remember that movie?
  • Both the film and the original novel of “Rosemary’s Baby” have sequels. 1976’s “Look What’s Happened to Rosemary’s Baby” was a poorly received TV movie with only Ruth Gordon reprising her role (Rosemary was played by Patty Duke). Ira Levin finally wrote a follow-up novel in 1997 called “Son of Rosemary”, which disregards the TV movie entirely, and was dedicated to Mia Farrow.
  • “Rosemary’s Baby” was remade in 2014 as a two-part miniseries starring Zoe Saldana. Transplanting the action to modern day Paris, the new “Rosemary” was not well received. For crying out loud, they aged down the Castevets!
  • Ruth Gordon’s long showbiz career was rejuvenated thanks to “Rosemary”, pivoting from screenwriter/character actor to quirky old leading lady, most notably in “Harold and Maude“.
  • Mia Farrow’s film career took off after “Rosemary’s Baby”, though in later years she opted to focus more on her family and humanitarian efforts. And the less said about her partnership with a certain problematic writer/director, the better. On a similar note…
  • As for Roman Polanski, suffice it to say that he made one more really good film in America (Fellow NFR entry “Chinatown“) before fleeing the US to escape criminal charges, and remains a fugitive to this day (albeit a continually employed, Oscar-winning fugitive).

Further Viewing: This film is as good an excuse as any to bring up “The Kid Stays in the Picture”, a Robert Evans documentary narrated by the man himself (using the audiobook from his memoir of the same name). Is it an intriguing look at one of Hollywood’s most influential producers? You bet your ass it is.

#624) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

#624) What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

OR “Twisted Sister”

Directed by Robert Aldrich

Written by Lukas Heller. Based on the novel by Henry Farrell.

Class of 2021

The Plot: Blanche Hudson (Joan Crawford) was a glamorous movie star in the 1930s before a car accident left her confined to a wheelchair. 30 years later, she lives reclusively in her old Hollywood mansion with her sister Jane (Bette Davis), a former child star in vaudeville (“Baby Jane”) who was quickly overshadowed by Blanche’s fame. Jane still resents Blanche and while ostensibly her sister’s caretaker, takes pleasure in tormenting and gaslighting Blanche. When Jane learns that Blanche plans on selling their house and sending her to a psychiatric institution, Jane continues to lose her grip on reality, further cutting Blanche off from the outside world and planning a revival of her vaudeville routine with her pianist Edwin Flagg (Victor Buono). The emotional and physical battle between the two sisters is only rivaled by the alleged off-screen battle between this film’s two stars.

Why It Matters: The NFR hails the film as “vivid and often uncomfortably terrifying” and its significance for highlighting Crawford and Davis’ “memorable, long-running feud” as well as its creation of the Hagsploitation subgenre (more on that later).

But Does It Really?: I have pushed for this movie to make the NFR for five years, so no complaint from me that “Baby Jane” finally made the cut. In addition to being a late-career highlight for both leads (Davis in particular is underrepresented in the NFR), “Baby Jane” is an iconic film that, for better or worse, has added to and helped shaped the legacy of its two stars. The film’s melodrama still plays surprisingly well 60 years later, mixed with some genuinely scary tension and note-perfect performances from Davis and Crawford. “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” is a unique bit of film history and its addition to the NFR is long overdue.

Everybody Gets One: Victor Buono was primarily a stage and TV actor before landing “Baby Jane”. After first choice Peter Lawford backed out right before filming (he worried the film would ruin his reputation), Robert Aldrich spotted Buono on an episode of “The Untouchables” and cast him as Edwin Flagg. “Jane” was Buono’s first credited film appearance (he gets an “Introducing” credit), and earned him an Oscar nomination. Buono worked in film and TV for the rest of his career, his most famous post-“Jane” role being as the villainous King Tut on “Batman”.

Wow, That’s Dated: A major plot point of “Baby Jane” is the then-current resurgence of Classic Hollywood via TV reruns. Also dated, Blanche’s reliance on a landline. Would she have been able to escape if she had a cell phone?

Title Track: In the studio era of unnecessary title songs, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” has an unnecessary title song! While the lyrics are never sung in the film proper, an instrumental version can be heard twice in the film, and Bette Davis sang the lyrics during a promotional appearance on “The Andy Williams Show”.

Seriously, Oscars?: A box office hit, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” was nominated for five Oscars, winning one for Norma Koch’s Black-and-White Costume Design. Most famous among its losses, Bette Davis (on her record-breaking 10th nomination) losing Best Actress to Anne Bancroft in “The Miracle Worker”. Adding insult to injury, Joan Crawford – missing out on a Best Actress nomination herself – arranged to accept the Oscar on behalf of the absent Anne Bancroft.

Other notes 

  • Alright, let’s get this out of the way: the Joan Crawford/Bette Davis feud. While there are numerous articles chronicling the two actresses and their decades-long squabble, very little of it can be reliably substantiated. There are a few common threads: a potential affair in the ’30s between Davis and Crawford’s then-husband Franchot Tone, the two actresses competing against each other for roles when they were both at Warner Bros. in the mid-’40s, and the aforementioned Oscar incident (all of this exacerbated by both actresses telling exaggerated tales about each other in their later years). Only Crawford and Davis will ever know for sure what their feelings were towards each other, and while I suspect there was some level of animosity between them, I also believe that much of what we consider “the feud” is subsequent generations taking the actresses’ later tales as scripture and playing an internet trivia game of Telephone. Also adding fuel to the fire are the tell-all books “Mommie Dearest” and “My Mother’s Keeper”, as well as the former’s film adaptation. Speaking of books…
  • Henry Farrell’s novel “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” was published in March 1960 and its film rights were immediately snatched up. The film’s production didn’t pick up steam until a year and a half later, when Robert Aldrich signed on to direct. Aldrich recruited Joan Crawford (star of his previous film “Autumn Leaves”), and Crawford, ever the shrewd business professional, knew this was the right script to bring her and Bette Davis together for the first time. As their “feud” was well-known by 1962, the press leapt at the chance to speculate how the two actors got along (or didn’t) during production. All accounts point to the two being courteous and professional to each other during filming (though not necessarily going out of their way to be friends). Aldrich, however, was encouraged by Warner Bros. to maintain the notion of a feud to drum up free publicity. Most famously, it was Aldrich – not Davis as later purported – who placed a few Coca-Cola bottles on set to prank Crawford, a Pepsi-Cola board member.
  • Okay, all of this historical context out of the way, how are these two in the actual film? Unsurprisingly, they’re both very good as two women trapped in their own little world (Blanche literally, Jane emotionally). Davis of course has the far meatier role, leaving no scenery left un-chewed, but still finding room to develop Jane’s descent into madness. Crawford has the quieter role, but plays it with the right amount of terror and strength. The two balance each other perfectly, you can’t have one performance without the other.
  • Having a pre-credits scene in your movie was still a novelty in 1962, but having it take a full 12 minutes before the first credit appears is excruciating. And it’s another 8 minutes before Davis and Crawford finally show up! That being said, the actors playing young Jane and Blanche are well-cast (Davis’s counterpart in particular has her exaggerated articulation down pat). Side note: The films used for young Jane’s early movies are real-life Bette Davis flicks “Parachute Jumper” and “Ex-Lady”, while Blanche’s film shown on TV is Crawford’s “Sadie McKee”.
  • The Hudson’s nosy neighbor Mrs. Bates is played by Anna Lee, a longtime film actor best remembered today as the nun who steals the car parts in “The Sound of Music“. Her daughter Liza is played by Bette Davis’ real-life daughter B.D. Merrill, future author of “My Mother’s Keeper”. Whoops.
  • There’s a lot of racy (by 1962 standards) dialogue in this movie. Jane calls Blanche’s movie “crap”, Edwin insinuates that his mother was promiscuous, and Jane’s muttering of “bitch” is drowned out by Blanche’s buzzer. Was the Production Code on vacation that week?
  • Shoutout to Maidie Norman as the Hudson’s housekeeper Elvira. Aware of her limited roles in film and TV due to her race, Norman always played her roles of maids and servants with dignity, to the point of re-writing her “Baby Jane” dialogue to remove – as she put it – “old slavery-time talk”.
  • It amuses me that no one in the “real world” seems phased by Jane’s haggard appearance. But then again, she is a woman over 40 in Hollywood: she might as well be invisible.
  • As far as gigolos to aging movie stars go, Buono is good, but he’s no Bill Holden. Points, however, deducted from this movie for going out of its way to make a fat joke at Edwin/Buono’s expense.
  • Also dated: people memorizing phone numbers. When Blanche finally gets downstairs to call her doctor, I assumed she wouldn’t be able to call because she left the number upstairs. Turns out people used to just know important phone numbers off-hand. What a skill.
  • Say what you will about Jane, she’s an excellent mimic. Her Blanche is uncanny; it’s like Joan Crawford is dubbing it in for her (wink wink).
  • Even with Davis’ advantage, I can see how Crawford missed out on an Oscar nomination. In addition to being the more passive lead role, Blanche is literally sidelined for most of the film’s second half. There’s not a lot you can do acting-wise when you’re tied up with tape on your mouth.
  • The movie’s beach finale is heartbreaking, as the final reveal is made and both women finally recognize the Hell they have created for themselves. Fun Fact: The beach used in this scene is at Malibu, the same stretch of beach Aldrich used to film the final scene in “Kiss Me Deadly“.
  • The moral of this movie: For the love of god, work out your childhood trauma, I am begging you!


  • “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” premiered on Halloween 1962, and while receiving mixed reviews from critics was an immediate hit with audiences. As previously mentioned, “Baby Jane” spawned the Hagsploitation (aka “psycho-biddy”) subgenre; low-budget thrillers in which Classic Hollywood stars of a certain age (Olivia de Havilland, Barbara Stanwyck, Shelley Winters, etc.) are either the tormenter or tormented.
  • Aldrich, Davis and Crawford all reunited for an immediate follow-up/spiritual sequel “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte”. As with their previous interactions, stories of Crawford and Davis’s on-set issues are tough to nail down precisely. What we do know is that Joan Crawford left the film one week into the shoot (Crawford cited an illness, Aldrich disputed this) with Davis’ longtime friend Olivia de Havilland coming in as Crawford’s replacement.
  • Among Robert Aldrich’s post-“Jane” filmography are action movies “The Flight of the Phoenix”, “The Dirty Dozen”, and “The Longest Yard”. Looks like I have a few more Aldrich pictures to replace “Jane” on my NFR nomination list.
  • “Baby Jane” has also remained popular as a cult classic with queer audiences, especially the drag community. Given both stars’ larger than life personas and Davis’ ghoulish makeup, I’m not surprised.
  • Perhaps the film’s most parodied moment: Davis’ line reading of “But’cha ARE, Blanche! Ya ARE in that chair!” It’s spoofed by George Costanza of all people!
  • “Baby Jane” has received the remake treatment once, as a 1991 TV movie starring real-life sisters Lynn and Vanessa Redgrave. It’s updated for the ’90s, and seems like one of those movies that should work in theory, but somehow doesn’t.
  • A reminder that the character of Baby Jane Hudson appears as a background extra in the climactic game of 2021’s “Space Jam: A New Legacy”. I’m sure that went over as well with the kids as Big Chungus.
You know, just because you own an IP doesn’t mean you have to use it.
  • But of course, the film’s true legacy is its place as the epicenter of the Davis/Crawford feud. Whatever the truth is, this film will always serve as a fantasy embellishment of what might have transpired between these two titans. The feud was further immortalized in Shaun Considine’s 1989 book “Bette and Joan: The Divine Feud”, which was eventually adapted into the 2017 miniseries “Bette and Joan” with Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange.

Further Viewing/Listening: The history of the Crawford/Davis is well covered, and while there’s plenty of speculation out there, the two dissections that seem to hue closest to the facts are the “Be Kind Rewind” video embedded below, as well as this episode of the podcast “You Must Remember This”.