Short Subjects

After rumors that Louis Mall's Vanya on 42nd Street would open in the Valley proved baseless, there seemed little to do but wait for it to arrive on video. But if you'd rather not see the film in your living room, you can at last catch its Valley premire at Mesa Arts Center, 155 North Center, on Thursday at 7 p.m. It's being shown as part of the center's "Movies About Creativity" series.

Malle's film depicts a run-through of David Mamet's adaptation of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (got that?) in the ruin of the New Amsterdam Theatre in Manhattan. The production-within-the-production is directed by Andre Gregory and stars Wallace Shawn as Vanya. The two men are the same avant-garde duo with whom Malle scored another oddball triumph, My Dinner With Andre, back in 1981.

The idea behind Vanya on 42nd Street, presumably, is to blow off a bit of the dust that has gathered on Chekhov (through no fault of his) by framing his work in a modern idiom--actors in their street clothes, no set and a small audience of friends looking on.

The conceit works enchantingly, because Malle is freed from the interpretive questions by which most directors of period movies are burdened. The film becomes, instead, a study in Chekhov's principal theatrical interest--fine ensemble acting.

This cast hums with quiet, authoritative intensity. The members are all in control of their roles, and alert to each other. Shawn is both touching and hilariously querulous as Vanya, and Julianne Moore, as Yelena, generates a sexual heat that her usual sweetie-pie movie roles don't allow her. Larry Pine is excellent as Dr. Astrov, and that archetypal pompous ass George Gaynes, veteran of a half-dozen Police Academy films, has probably the best role of his film career as Serybryakov, the greatest pompous ass of 19th-century world drama.

Halloween, that wonderful pagan observance of sanctioned macabre revelry, is upon us. Those searching for a cinematic way to celebrate it, however, have a bit more work in store this year than usual. Horror films are at a low tide currently--nothing to speak of is on the horizon other than the Eddie Murphy vehicle Vampire in Brooklyn, directed by Freddy Krueger creator Wes Craven. Joe Chappelle's current Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers is slightly preferable to the other tedious and offensive sequels to John Carpenter's seminal 1978 original, but that's a little like saying that drowning in mud is preferable to drowning in excrement.

Homegrown slasher fare is now available on video, in the form of Writer's Block: Truth or Dare II, a locally produced direct-to-video effort directed by Chris Lamont (co-director of last year's The Best Movie Ever Made). Yours truly has a bit in the picture as an ax-wielding maniac on a movie set menacing a trio of unimpressed Hooters waitresses, but the standout performance is by Valley stage actor Jeffrey C. Hawkins, who is truly creepy as the murderous young psycho.

Connoisseurs of vintage video terror may want to check out a recent release from MCA/Universal Home Video's Horror Classics. Of the four newest additions to this line, three are modest chillers featuring either Bela Lugosi (Night Monster) or Boris Karloff (The Black Castle) or both (Black Friday). But the fourth, 1933's Murders in the Zoo, is a real find.

This jolting bit of precode nastiness is about a deranged zookeeper (the urbanely insane Lionel Atwill) so pathologically jealous of his sexy wife that he sics zoo animals on those he perceives as his rivals. Despite a little too much of the comic relief of Charlie Ruggles (who gets top billing!), Murders in the Zoo is a striking artifact.

For the serious student of the creepy cinema, chilly October reading is provided by David J. Skal and Elias Sevada's new tome Dark Carnival: The Secret World of Tod Browning, Hollywood's Master of the Macabre (Anchor Books). This much-awaited bio tells the story of Browning, onetime carny man and protg of D.W. Griffith, who, in films like Dracula, Freaks and the Lon Chaney vehicle London After Midnight, virtually wrote the rules of horror cinema. For lovers of the genre, the chapter on the making of Freaks alone makes this one a must.

The format of most American gangster movies is to depict an ethnic kid rising from petty street crime into the gang's upper echelon of power, followed by the inevitable downfall. But the hero of the black comedy Coldblooded, the feature directorial debut of one M. Wallace Wolodarsky, is an anomic mob bookie played by Jason Priestley who unexpectedly finds himself on the rise in his organization. It's Scarface for nerdy white-breads.

Priestley is Cosmo, a twentysomething who contentedly takes bets over the phone for a West Coast syndicate. He lives in just about the sorriest excuse for a bachelor pad imaginable--the basement of a rest home. His sex life is confined to the companionable hooker (Janeane Garofalo) who services the elderly residents upstairs.

Then one day the old boss dies, and the new boss (Robert Loggia) promotes Cosmo, seemingly arbitrarily, to hit man. He's placed under the tutelage of a more experienced hit man (Peter Riegert), and soon shows a disturbing aptitude for the work. You can guess where this is leading.

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