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Ten Underrated Movies From Acclaimed Directors

Every acclaimed filmmaker has certain bodies of work that have long been revered by fans and critics, analysed by film scholars and, in some cases, preserved selected for preservation for being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.’

Yet each of these will also have movies that for various reasons were either overlooked upon release or in the years since have become under-appreciated due to the director’s more respected works.

For every award winning work of art, the filmmaker in question may have produced a feature that lacked the cultural relevance or artistic flair of their so-called masterpieces, yet these pictures that are often dismissed may still boast enough of the director’s trademark intelligence of sophistication that they warrant a reappraisal.

Other times these films may fail to reach their audience due to poor distribution or marketing, were too removed from the director’s distinctive style or were merely made for the wrong era and were unable to capture the imagination of the public. Even the most respected or successful of directors have their own share of box office bombs or critical disasters, some of which may even bring an end to an otherwise acclaimed career, such as with Michael Powell’s notoriously deviant serial killer drama Peeping Tom. But thanks to home video and the internet many of these pictures can be viewed with ease, allowing fans to revisit feature films that they may have once dismissed to re-evaluate and appreciate.

FRENZY (1972; Alfred Hitchcock)
Even while developing the critically mauled Topaz, Alfred Hitchcock had intended to return once again to the world of serial killers, where he had previously enjoyed acclaim with his silent classic The Lodger and his seminal masterpiece Psycho. Frenzy, originally developed as Kaleidoscope, was intended to be a low budget exploration of the evil mind of a demented maniac, but the director’s insistence on graphic nudity and violence had left Universal with a bad taste in their mouth. Finally returning to England for the first time since Stage Fright in 1950, Frenzy followed Hitchcock’s proven template of the ‘wrong man accused,’ with Jon Finch as the prime suspect in a recent spree of Jack the Ripper-style murders. With many critics considering Hitchcock’s career now in a decline, expectations for Frenzy were low and thus allowed the filmmaker a considerable amount of creative freedom, resulting in a dark and often unpleasant hybrid of horror and drama that still boasted his trademark black humour.

KILLER’S KISS (1955; Stanley Kubrick)
While Stanley Kubrick had been a little too critical of his debut feature, the low budget war drama Fear and Desire, his second picture Killer’s Kiss has since been dismissed by many critics as merely an example of a young filmmaking struggling to find his feet. Returning to the theme of boxing, a sport he had previously explored both as a photographer for Look in 1949 and his first documentary Day of the Fight, Kubrick’s sophomore effort shared many similarities with the film noir movies of the previous decade. Beautifully shot by Kubrick in black-and-white, Killer’s Kiss told of Davy Gordon, a once-successful boxer struggling to regain his former glory, while his attractive young neighbour, Gloria Price, is trapped an a relationship with dangerous club owner Vincent Rapallo. Financed with the participation of family and acquaintances, Killer’s Kiss was produced for $75,000 and allowed the director the chance to further develop his style, including a stylish showdown in a mannequin factory.

THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999; David Lynch)
Ever since his debut Eraserhead gained a cult following on the midnight movie circuit in the late 1970s, David Lynch has provoked and fascinated viewers with an array of surreal and disturbing movies, with nightmarish offerings such as Blue Velvet and the acclaimed TV series Twin Peaks shocking audiences with their menacing portrayals of otherworldly menace. The Straight Story, released in 1999, told the simple tale of Alvin Straight, a seventy-four-year-old man who travelled over two hundred miles on a lawnmower to visit his sick brother. Portrayed with sincerity by Richard Farnsworth, who received an Academy Award nomination for his role, Lynch avoided the trademarks of his earlier pictures in order to focus on the relationship between Straight and the characters he met on his long journey. Despite its fantastic premise, Lynch’s bittersweet drama was based on a true story, with the real Straight having passed away in 1996.

Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Four Flies on Grey Velvet

FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (aka 4 mosche di velluto grigio) (1971; Dario Argento)
Having worked as a writer-for-hire for Sergio Leone, Italian filmmaker Dario Argento made the reluctant decision to direct his next script The Bird with the Crystal Plumage. With Mario Bava having laid out the groundwork for the giallo several years earlier, Argento chose to refine this formula with his next two pictures, The Cat o’ Nine Tails and Four Flies on Grey Velvet, both released in 1971. Starring American-born Michael Brandon as the drummer of a rock group who accidentally stabs a man who has been stalking him, only to discover his crime was captured by a photographer, Four Flies on Grey Velvet has suffered at the hands of distributors over the years and would remain unavailable outside of cheap bootlegs for many years. The closing chapter of what some fans refer to as the ‘Animal Trilogy,’ Argento had intended for the picture to be his last giallo thriller, a genre he felt had become over-saturated and formulaic.

MAN HUNT (1941; Fritz Lang)
Along with F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang had been one of the leading figures of the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s, directing such silent classics as Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler and Metropolis. While he would later find success with the 1953 crime drama The Big Heat, Lang’s relocation to the United States in the had proved to be something of a disappointment, resulting in such mediocre offerings as You Only Live Once. But in the summer of 1941, six months before the United States declared war on Japan, Twentieth Century-Fox released Lang’s Second World War spy thriller Man Hunt, in which hunter Captain Thorndike (Walter Pidgeon) is mistaken for an assassin by Germans and is forced to escape from custody, making his way to London where he crosses paths with a streetwise young woman (Joan Bennett) who reluctantly agrees to help. Less a political statement and more an adventure film, Man Hunt demonstrated Lang’s talent for lighthearted thrillers, a far cry from the epics he had produced in Germany.

eXistenZ (1999; David Cronenberg)
Following the controversy of his auto-erotic drama Crash, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg returned to the world of body horror that he had developed with his earlier projects for eXistenZ. Embodying the same fascination with flesh and technology that had driven his 1983 classic Videodrome, Cronenberg turned his attention to virtual reality computer games, a concept previously explored in the Stephen King adaptation The Lawnmower Man. Designer Allegra Geller (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is targeted by an assassin during a demonstration of her laest game she is taken to safety by her security guard (Jude Law). Fearing that the only existing copy of the game may have been damaged in the attack, they are forced to enter the game but soon discover that separating reality from the computer world may be harder than they think. While less focused than Videodrome, to date eXistenZ remains Cronenberg’s last venture into body horror.

THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS (1974; Steven Spielberg)
Having made a name for himself at Universal directing episodes of Night Gallery and Columbo, Steven Spielberg’s made-for-TV movie Duel gained considerable acclaim when broadcast in November 1971, even enjoying a brief theatrical run in Europe. His first feature came with the $3 million road movie The Sugarland Express, in which a convicted mother, portrayed by twenty-eight-year-old Goldie Hawn, escapes from prison with the help of her husband and collects their child from foster care before going on the run as dozens of police cars pursue them across the state. Taking its cue from Bonnie and Clyde and Badlands, Spielberg’s first theatrical feature remains his most simplistic, focusing on three principal characters (Hawn, her husband and a patrolman they had taken hostage) and their attempt to evade capture. The success of both Duel and The Sugarland Express would lead Spielberg to his breakthrough picture Jaws.

WAKING LIFE (2001; Richard Linklater)
Slacker, shot in his hometown of Austin in 1989 for a mere $23,000. A little over a decade later, Linklater would return to the same format of interlinked characters sharing every-day anecdotes with Waking Life, an experimental project in which actors such as Ethan Hawke were shot traditionally and then converted to animation in post-production using a process called rotoscoping, a method he would return to a few years later with his science fiction drama A Scanner Darkly. While there was little in the way of plot, Linklater once again demonstrated his talent for writing thought-provoking dialogue, something he had proved with both Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise.

THE SILENCE OF THE SEA (aka Le Silence de la mer) (1949; Jean-Pierre Melville)
While later finding acclaim for a series of complex crime dramas, French director Jean-Pierre Melville’s debut The Silence of the Sea was a taut character piece in which a man and his niece are forced to allow a German lieutenant into their home during the occupation. The stranger, however, acts respectful to his reluctant hosts but any attempt to engage in conversation with them is met with silence. Set in 1941 and published as a novel the following year, Melville’s adaptation was released four years after the Second World War had come to an end and would be the first of two movies from the director that explored Germany’s occupation of France in the 1940s and how the country coped with the invasion. Author Vercors had based his story on his own experiences during the war when a German officer had taken residence in his home, while Melville’s decision to keep the film based in one house allowed him to fully develop the characters.

In the Mouth of Madness

In the Mouth of Madness

IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS (1994; John Carpenter)
Despite having created an array of B-movie classics during the 1980s, the following decade had seen John Carpenter enter something of a commercial and creative decline, commencing in 1992 with the Chevy Chase comedy Memoirs of an Invisible Man. In the Mouth of Madness, released three years later by New Line Cinema, had been adapted from a screenplay by the studio’s President of Production Michael De Luca and told of a Stephen King-style writer Sutter Cane whose work had a strong influence on its readers. But when the author mysteriously disappears, insurance investigator John Trent (Sam Neill) is hired by the publishers to track down his whereabouts, leading Trent to the town of Hobb’s End, an imaginary place created by the missing writer. While the popularity of Cane may echo that of King, the weird and frightening creatures conjured up in his stories owe more of a debt to H.P. Lovecraft, allowing Carpenter to indulge in the surreal and the grotesque, something his other pictures of the era lacked.


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