(On TV, December 2017) It’s hard to watch Stalag 17 and not think about the fetishization of history. Like it or not, World War II drama has grown more and more ponderous over the past decades, to the point where a World War II movie is presumed to be all about gravitas and serious considerations of the terrible cost of war. It wasn’t always so, though, whether we’re talking about the blockbuster WW2-themed action adventures from the seventies (The Great Escape, Where Eagles Dare) or, even closer to the war itself, a film like Stalag 17 that spends a lot of time in silly comedy before getting down to the thriller business. Early parts of the film, such as the white-line painting sequence, really wouldn’t feel out of place in an Adam Sandler movie. Keep in mind that Stalag 17 is based on the real-life experiences of its writers (filtered through a Broadway play adapted on-screen) and so presents the full range of humour and horror of German POW camps—not the almost idealized portrayal of later writers with an indirect knowledge of events. As such, Stalag 17 uniquely captures in time a historical truth of sorts, then wraps it up in entertaining thriller mechanics about uncovering an informant and helping a marked prisoner escape. William Holden is quite good as the resourceful but unjustly accused protagonist, while Don Taylor plays the other lead engagingly. Writer/director Billy Wilder has a long and varied filmography, and his Stalag 17 is still quite entertaining to watch, even as its closeness to the subject does give it a now-unusual quality.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) Laughing at deaths in horror movies isn’t necessarily a sign of psychopathy. As Damien: Omen II shows, it can be a perfectly valid reaction to over-the-top filmmaking. Let’s not pretend that this sequel is a vast step down for the series: The original The Omen certainly had its share of overdone moments and aggressive cues: its decapitation sequence remains a case study in how nominally terrifying material can become risible through pathos overload. Damien seems to have retained most of the wrong lessons from its predecessor in a very loose follow-up: Its death scenes are just as ridiculous, and its structure boils down to a series of loops in which secondary characters try to warn the protagonist about the evil of Damien, only to die horribly. It gets amusing, then ridiculous, then tiresome, then annoying. While I still like some elements of the film (giving the lead role to William Holden as a visibly elderly man, for instance, or the final twist in which the true allegiance of the wife is revealed), much of it is sensationalistic tripe with a blaring soundtrack that will tell you when you should be scared. The late-seventies atmosphere makes Damien slightly more interesting now than it was upon release, but that’s not quite enough to make it an essential viewing other than following up on the original.