Saturday, January 18, 2020

Dark August (1976)

          Clumsily rendered and woefully deficient in terms of actual thrills, rural horror picture Dark August nonetheless has primitive magnetism. Even as the juxtaposition of amateurish and professional performances generates weird tension, the interplay between restrained dramaturgy and sketchy technical execution lends Dark August a handmade quality. Every so often, a scene vibrates with persuasive naturalism, as when an encounter in the center of a small town gets captured by a meandering camera during a long take. Yet just as frequently, something misses the mark so badly as to approach camp, as when a witch recites line after laughable line of an interminable incantation. Even when it’s dull and/or silly, however, Dark August retains a consistently ominous vibe, because in lieu of big shocks, the picture submerges viewers into the troubled emotional state of the leading character. For that reason alone, Dark August withstands scrutiny better than most low-budget regional frightfests—whatever its shortcomings, the movie has thoughtful aspirations.
          J.J. Barry, a doughy character actor who slogged out a minor Hollywood career from 1969 to 1990, stars as Sal Devito, a big-city transplant trying to make a new life as an artist in tiny Stowe, Vermont. He has a loving girlfriend and some friends, but Sal is haunted because soon after his arrival in Stowe, he accidentally struck and killed a little girl with his car. Beset by nightmares, seizures, and visions, Sal becomes convinced that the little girl’s grandfather is bedeviling him, so Sal seeks help from a local mystic, Adrianna (Kim Hunter). Her quasi-Wiccan endeavors to aid Sal inadvertently make the situation worse. There are long stretches of inactivity in Dark August, and Barry is not an arresting presence, so the picture requires more patience than it should. Yet the use of real locations, the avoidance of obvious shock tactics, and the focus on Sal’s unraveling combines to create something like sincerity. Barry cowrote the script with his wife, Carolyne Barry (who costars under the pseudonym Carole Shelyne), and with Martin Goldman (who directs), so one gets the impression of filmmakers with limited talent putting forth their best efforts to make something worthwhile. They don’t get there, but they deserve praise for trying. An anxious score by William S. Fischer helps make the picture palatable, as does the professionalism of veteran performer Hunter, who has the thankless chore of reciting that lengthy incantation.

Dark August: FUNKY

1 comment:

Mike Doran said...

I think I want to tell you something about J.J. Barry, who long before he did this, was a brief major figure at Second City here in Chicago.
J.J. was famed at Second City in the late '60s for being the only cast member who could really 'do' then-Mayor Richard J. Daley.
You have to be a '50s/'60s Chicago kid like me to remember Da Mare ("a'da grate city'a Chicaga"), with his heavy features and guttural voice, as well as his sensitivity to whatever was said about him: "Dey have demonized me, dey have crucified me, yes dey have even criticized me!"
Like many Second Citizens, J.J. Barry also did a lot of local commercials: he had a good run as "Waldo the National Butcher", telling us all of the wonderful (and affordable) cuts of meat available at your local National Food Store (local grocery chain, since defunct).
Then J.J. went West to do Laugh-In, then some sitcom spots here and there; last I'd heard of him was when he died, sometime in the '90s.
I never saw this movie, which probably wasn't given a release of any kind here; I had no idea he had even married - certainly not to Shindig's "Girl In The Horn-Rimmed Glasses", which only goes to show, I guess …