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A surprise: I discovered this incredible 20-minute short tucked away in the special features section of the Criterion DVD of GEORGE WASHINGTON (2000), where it was included as an inspiration to that film’s makers. Made back in 1969 by the veteran character actor Clu Gulager and photographed by Laszlo Kovacs, A DAY WITH THE BOYS packs a punch that time has NOT diluted; it is, quite simply, one of the most powerful horror films I’ve seen in some time.

The Package
     GEORGE WASHINGTON’S makers David Gordon Green and James Orr deserve credit for bringing A DAY WITH THE BOYS to light (they discovered it in the archives of a film warehouse where they worked), and even more for allowing it to be released on DVD with their film (particularly since it’s far more powerful than anything in GEORGE WASHINGTON!). Backed by Universal Pictures and boasting a slick, professional sheen, this film is leagues ahead of most short films, and clearly had a much greater budget than is average for such fare (and furthermore was invited to compete for the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palm D’Or award). The filmmaking is so assured it seems surprising that this was the only directorial effort by Gulager, who you may have seen in supporting roles in films as varied as THE KILLERS and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD.

The Story
     No mere plot transcription could possibly do justice to this film’s astonishing play with cinematic narrative techniques-like all truly great films, A DAY WITH THE BOYS doesn’t impart a “story” so much as an all-encompassing experience.
     A group of grade school boys converge in a mountainous region on the outskirts of a big city. An edgy, ominous atmosphere is introduced by a haunting musical refrain and frequent onscreen title cards that record the passage of time, as if counting down to some cataclysmic event. The boys indulge in several hours of seemingly innocent frolic (hide n’ seek, sliding down hills on pieces of cardboard, endless role playing games) before venturing into the city, where they convince a businessman to join them. ***SPOILER ALERT!!!*** They lead the unsuspecting man far away from the city and into a forest where the suspense builds, reaching its apex when the boys line him up against a deserted shack and point toy guns at him, any sense of “fun” having long since evaporated (all Vietnam references, I assume, are strictly intentional). The businessman is pushed, cluelessly laughing, into a hole and buried alive. The boys fill in the grave and mark it with the man’s briefcase, and then, in one of the most ingenious and innovative meldings of image and music I’ve encountered in any movie, a pan reveals three similar graves marked with their own deceased occupants’ emblems: an umbrella, a basket and a child’s doll.

The Direction
     In his bold, poetic approach, Clu Gulager manages to pack a decade’s worth of experimentation into a fast, economical 20 minutes. Images dissolve and bleed into one another, freeze-frame and turn into paintings. Gulager also utilizes different camera speeds and even (and this is something I haven’t seen before) the grain of the film to achieve his effects. Laszlo Kovacs’ sun bleached photography helps immeasurably in streamlining such techniques into a powerfully eccentric, disturbingly compelling narrative. Far from pretentious (the word I’d use to describe most “experimental” films from the late sixties), this film comes off both as a celebration of childhood innocence and an uncompromising examination of its darkest extremes. And furthermore, Gulager and Kovacs achieve what may be the most unsettling final freeze frame ever.

Vital Statistics

Universal Pictures

Director/Producer/Screenwriter: Clu Gulager
Cinematography: Laszlo Kovacs
Cast: Ricky Bender, Artie Conkling, William Elliott, Jack Grindle, John Gulager, Mike Hertel, James Kearce, John McCaffrey, Mark Spirtos, Craig Williams

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