creature feature: the day of the triffids (steve sekely and freddie francis, 1963)

This would be a case of a classic mess, if it was a classic. Instead, it's just a mess, one of those movies where the story of its making is far more interesting than what ends up on the screen.

It's based on a popular book by John Wyndham (who also wrote the book on which Village of the Damned is based ... that movie is far better than this one). I have memories of reading this as a kid, and then seeing the movie on TV, back when I'd watch anything Creature Featurish. The plot features monster trees that eat people (the Venus flytrap is trotted out as scientific evidence such a thing is possible), and it turns out it wasn't easy making monster trees very scary. They move slowly, and, well, they're trees. The basic concept, of a world on the verge of apocalypse, can be intriguing, as we have seen from dozens of movies over the years. This particular execution of the concept, though, is anything but intriguing. It looks cheap (especially on the washed-out print I saw), and there's not much effort to crank out a low-budget classic ... nope, it's just cheap. While I don't really remember the book, the movie is apparently a dumber, more monster-oriented version of the original story, which doesn't help. Howard Keel is the lead ... Keel made his name in 1950s musicals like Show Boat, Calamity Jane, Kiss Me Kate, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He doesn't get to sing here. In fairness, he isn't bad in Triffids, it's just hard to care. There's no one else of note in the cast, although my wife thought the female lead, French actress Nicole Maurey, looked familiar (a perusal of her filmography gave no indication of why this would be, unless my wife spent a lot of time in her childhood watching Secret of the Incas).

Whatever budget existed apparently ran out before they had finished the film, although "finished" may be an exaggeration ... when they were done, they had a movie that was less than an hour long. So back they went, with a different director (Francis), two new actors (Janette Scott and Keiron Moore, listed in the credits as appearing "By Special Arrangement", whatever that means), and a new subplot taking place in a lighthouse that, other than being a place where the triffids are attacking, is completely unconnected to the rest of the movie. The result was a movie that lasted 93 minutes, which was long enough to be released.

I admit I found unfortunate humor in a few scenes where people, blinded by the arrival of the triffids (don't ask), wander around tripping over things. Mostly I just kept wishing I was watching Quatermass and the Pit (aka Five Million Years to Earth) ... there is no connection beyond being English sci-fi from the 1960s, but I love the Quatermass film ... I often wish I was watching it.

There are stories about a possible restoration of the movie, which would make it look better but which would still be stupid. There was a BBC TV adaptation in the early 80s that is supposed to be better, and another TV version a few years ago, neither of which I've seen. One thing I can say with authority is that the 1963 film version isn't worth your time.




creature features: the incredible shrinking man and zombieland

The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957). An acknowledged classic of 50s sci-fi. My memory was that the special effects were weak, and the philosophical conclusion silly. But I'm glad I gave it another watch, because I was wrong. Sure, the effects are not up to the standards of today, but they work in the context of the movie. We are regularly surprised by the gradual shrinkage of the man, and while his battles with cat and spider might be done better today, I don't think we'd do any more to improve the excitement. As for that "I still exist!" ending, it's not nearly as dumb as I remembered. Grant Williams does a fine job in the title role. The Thing from Another World and Invasion of the Body Snatchers are my two favorite 50s sci-fi movies, but The Incredible Shrinking Man isn't far behind. It's Jack Arnold's best film.  #874 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 movies of all time.

Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009). This is an enjoyable zombie movie, with some of the feel of Edgar Wright's films. The zombies are MacGuffins ... this is actually a road movie, with Woody Harrelson playing the grownup. All four of the main cast are good (including Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, and Abigail Breslin), but it's Harrelson who walks away with the film as a badass with a Twinkie obsession. There's also a great cameo ... most reviews I've read tell you who the person is, but that seems wrong in a spoiler-ish way, so on the off chance you haven't seen this nine-year-old movie, trust me, you'll like the cameo.

 


creature features: cat people (jacques tourneur, 1942)

Many years ago, when we would have a party at our house, I got the idea of replacing all the light bulbs with colored, low-wattage bulbs. The idea, I would say, was to make the party more festive by adding color. The real reason, I wouldn't say, was that the low watts made it hard to see clearly, which meant I didn't have to be so careful about cleaning the house.

Val Lewton is a legendary film producer. Some years ago, Barry Gifford wrote an appreciation of Lewton that was given the title "The prince of Poverty Row", and that just about gets it. The story has been told enough times that it might actually be true, rather than apocryphal, that Lewton saved RKO in 1942 when he was put in charge of the studio's horror films. RKO, which had lost money on the Orson Welles classics Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons, hoped to emulate the success of Universal horror pictures, like the franchises for Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolfman. The story goes that RKO gave Lewton $150,000 and the title Cat People, and told him to bring in a short picture that might make a little money. The subsequent film was RKO's biggest box office success for the year, which meant Lewton was given many more chances to work his magic, although as far as I can tell, he was still held to the $150k budget, and still had to work with the titles the studio gave him. (They never forced a plot on him, just a title.)

Lewton is admired for his ability to crank out artful films on a low budget within the studio system. Cat People is an excellent example of this. Ironically, the lack of money meant the movie was filmed in part on leftover sets from Ambersons. Many of Lewton's film are similar visually, and that similarity means Lewton is seen as at least partly the guiding force behind the films, rather than the directors, many of whom worked with him multiple times. I think the power of Cat People comes almost entirely from its use of light and shadow, which grew out of the low budget, so I would be remiss if I didn't mention the name Nicholas Musuraca, an amazingly prolific cinematographer who worked on several of Lewton's classic movies.

The swimming pool scene is often cited as the peak of the imaginative, inexpensive power of Cat People.

The scene was so effective that it was copied quite closely in the 1982 remake, although changing times meant that in the later version, Annette O'Toole managed to get her top off before she dove into the pool.

Cat People is a marvel to look at it, and its ability to frighten through suggestion was trendsetting. But I find myself agreeing with Kael, who wrote, "Lewton pictures aren't really very good, but they're so much more imaginative than most of the horror films that other producers were grinding out at the time that his ingenuity seemed practically revolutionary." I wouldn't go that far ... I think I Walked with a Zombie is very good, indeed. But for all its imagination, Cat People still suffers from things like weak casting (Kent Smith as the male lead,  Tom Conway as always seeming not quite as good as his brother George Sanders, and Simone Simon, who admittedly works OK because she comes across as just odd enough to be an actual cat person). I do have a soft spot in my heart for Jane Randolph, whose last credited appearance came in a favorite of mine, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Director Jacques Tourneur helmed other pictures I prefer to Cat People, especially Out of the Past. Cat People is striking and important for film historians. But I don't think it's a classic.


what i watched last year

To copy what I said at this time in 2015: “A summary, sorted by my ratings. I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Anything I give at least a 9 rating is something I recommend ... might sound obvious, but if someone is actually looking to me for suggestions, that limits the list to 15.  So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.”

10:
The Killer
Jules and Jim
Mad Max: Fury Road: Black & Chrome Edition
The Maltese Falcon (1941)

9:
Don't Look Now
Get Out
I Am Not Your Negro
Le Samouraï
The Magnificent Ambersons
My Neighbor Totoro
O.J: Made in America
Stories We Tell
The Straight Story
Sunset Blvd.
The Thing from Another World

8:
13th
20th Century Women
Andrei Rublev
The Dreamers
Fat Girl
Girlfriends
Hail, Caesar!
The Handmaiden
Hell or High Water
The Host
I Walked with a Zombie
Journey to Italy
Klute
Lady Bird
Melancholia
Okja
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Persepolis
Real Women Have Curves
The Southerner
Terminator 2
Them!
Three
To Walk Invisible
Train to Busan
Vengeance

7:
10 Cloverfield Lane
2 Days in Paris
The Amazing Mr. X
Bad Kids
The Bare-Footed Kid
Bedlam
The Black Cat
Blade Runner
Doctor Strange
Don't Breathe
Drug War
The Fly
The Happiness of the Katakuris
Gimme Shelter
High Noon
Ip Man 2
Jesse James
Johnny Guitar
Lifeline
The Lobster
Love Actually
Marshall
My Night at Maud's
The Panic in Needle Park
A Place in the Sun
Punch-Drunk Love
Road to Morocco
The Set-Up
Some Came Running
Spielberg
Stalag 17
Stalker
The Thing
To Catch a Thief
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
The Unknown
Village of the Damned
Wanda
Wonder Woman

6:
The Best Offer
Biker Boyz
Colossal Youth
Cop Car
Genocide
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
The Haunted Strangler
In the Heart of the Sea
The Intervention
Jesus' Son
The Mad Monk
The Maltese Falcon (1931)
The Mirror
Rudderless
Shoot 'Em Up
The Time Travelers
The Vampire Lovers

5:
Return of the Fly
A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop
Zabriskie Point

4:
Anything Goes
The Ghost Galleon
The Screaming Skull

3:
The Corpse Vanishes
Final Girl

2:
Godzilla's Revenge
Spies-a-Go-Go

1:
Electronic Lover

Totals over the years:

2010: 86 seen (7.2 average rating)
2011: 125 (7.3)
2012: 113 (7.1)
2013: 110 (7.5)
2014: 127 (7.4)
2015: 136 (7.1)
2016: 82 (7.4)
2017: 109 (7.0)


by request: bad kids

Two films, one a horror film from 1960, the other a recent documentary called The Bad Kids (Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, 2016). This was recommended by a friend who lives about five miles from the high school where the movie was filmed. Black Rock High School is a continuation school for troubled kids ... it's clear from the start that "Bad Kids" is meant ironically, they aren't actually bad. The style is a hybrid of cinéma vérité and more artsy documentary techniques. The star is the school's principal, Vonda Viland, who has a seemingly bottomless fund of caring that has only a little tough love. While the film looks at several students, a few get extra focus ... you might say they are the co-stars. You can't help but be affected by the lives of these kids, trying to improve their lives, lives that are impossibly hard. But despite the many scenes of the kids exposing their most raw emotions, we never really get to know them beyond the basics: he's the junkie musician, they're the teenage parents, she's the abused daughter. There is something universal about them ... I never came close to their level of suffering, yet I found myself thinking back to my own high school days and sympathizing with their plight. But the problems that landed these kids at Black Rock (poverty, family situations, drugs) are mostly just mentioned, as if the individual struggles are more important than the social milieu that fosters those struggles. And Viland is simply presented as a force for good in the lives of the students ... there are hints at what drives her, but they are never more than hints. I also wonder just how happy the kids were to be in the film in the first place. Does Joey, the talented musician who likes Voltaire but has a meth-head mother who drives her son into the same drug pit, enjoy having his personal troubles presented on film, as something to illuminate Black Rock for the viewers? The Bad Kids is effective as far as it goes, but it might have benefitted from a longer running time, perhaps even a multi-part television series. 7/10.

The other request was Village of the Damned (Wolf Rilla, 1960). This was an adaptation of The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, starring George Sanders as Professor Zellaby. The Damned of the title are Bad Kids, born after an unexplained event causes several women to become pregnant at the same time. The children are born premature, grow at an alarming rate, and develop extrasensory mind techniques. They work as a group, they have creepy-looking eyes, and they are up to no good. Zellaby, who is the "father" of one of the kids, wants to learn more about their extraordinary abilities. There is little attempt to make the kids serve as stand-ins for regular troubled youth. Instead, we see them get inside the mind of a grownup to make him kill himself with a rifle. The solution is a bit more extreme than that practiced by Vonda Viland ... hearing that the Soviets have solved a similar problem by nuking the kids, Zellaby duplicates their "success" by blowing up all of the kids in his village (and sacrificing himself in the process). The kids leave quite an impression on the audience ... 50+ years later, my wife and I still remembered those creepy eyes. And Barbara Shelley, the immortal scream queen of Hammer Studios, is Mrs. Zellaby ... she doesn't have much to do, but it's always nice to see her. Finally, a special shoutout to Martin Stephens, who plays the creepiest of the kids. 7/10.

 


creature feature saturday: return of the fly (edward bernds, 1959)

No one expects Return of the Fly to be any good. For one thing, no one expected The Fly to be any good, although it surprised a lot of people. The reason for a sequel was obvious ... The Fly grossed $3 million on a $700k budget. It was clear that there would be no point in making a sequel without Vincent Price, and when he saw the first draft of the script, he was impressed and signed on.

But this wasn't like The Terminator, where James Cameron showed he could make money on a budget of $6.4 million and so spent more than $100 million on the sequel. No, the powers that be at 20th Century Fox decided that Vincent Price should be good enough to make a profit. So the script was revised to make the film cheaper (too late, I guess, for Price to opt out). No one other than Price returned from the first film. The Fly was in color, but Return of the Fly was in black-and-white. And when Return of the Fly was released, it was placed on a double-bill with The Alligator People.

There were the usual "let's laugh at this cheap movie" things. The sequel took place 15-20 years after the first, and it was written so that the sets from The Fly could be used again. There was no real attempt to make the film look like time had passed ... Price didn't look any different, clothes and cars were the same. Brett Halsey, a handsome fellow and not a bad actor, played the boy from the first movie. And most of the plot was just a remake, rather than a sequel, to the first, i.e. man gets caught in transporter with a house fly.

And the Fly Head on top of Halsey (to be more accurate, on top of a stunt man) looked ludicrous, a real problem because we saw much more of the head than we had in the original. Not to mention Halsey had a Fly Head, a Fly Hand, and a Fly Foot, but when we saw the little fly of "Help meeee!" fame, it had Halsey's head but its own claw and foot.

Yet somehow, it works on a basic level. There's an attempt at a plot involving skullduggery, and really, no matter how cheap, there's something icky about becoming part man, part fly.

But I don't want to go too far. It's not very good, and there's no real reason to watch it as long as The Fly is out there. 5/10.

 


creature feature saturday: the haunted strangler (robert day, 1958)

Some years ago, Criterion put out a box set titled "Monsters and Madmen" that included four late-50s B-movies of no particular merit: The Atomic SubmarineFirst Man into SpaceCorridors of Blood, and The Haunted Strangler. While none of these movies are stinkers, neither do any of them rise above the level of Saturday afternoon watchability.

The latter two films on the above list star Boris Karloff, who was in his early-70s. He gives an excellent performance in The Haunted Strangler ... he is easily the best thing about the movie, as a kind of Jekyll and Hyde character. It's fun to see the "Jekyll" side ... you realize it's a rare thing to see Boris Karloff smiling and kindly. He pulls off both sides of his character, and shows a spry physicality that is impressive.

The movie also benefits from solid black-and-white cinematography and the usual B-movie short running time (in this case, 78 minutes). Even at that length, though, The Haunted Strangler is stretched out with mostly unnecessary footage of dance-hall girls doing their routines. The first half of the movie is a bit of a detective story a la Sherlock Holmes, before it moves into horror. It's never scary, but it is a bit gruesome at times.

I only bought this box set because it was a chance to revisit The Atomic Submarine, a favorite from my youth. And I'm glad I got that chance. But other than that nostalgic trip, there is no clear reason why these movies ended up on Criterion. Still, they released a couple of Michael Bay movies, so I suppose anything is possible. 6/10.

 


creature feature saturday: bedlam (mark robson, 1946)

Another Val Lewton production, his last for RKO, this one "suggested by" a painting by Hogarth. Lewton and director Mark Robson wrote the screenplay, and Boris Karloff joined Lewton for the third and last time. Anna Lee, who had been in films since 1932, and whose career lasted long enough that she was a featured player for many years on General Hospital, was the female lead. Karloff plays Sims, the head of St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum, known colloquially as "Bedlam", and Lee plays Nell Bowen, a woman upset with the barbaric treatment of the "patients" (i.e. inmates) at the asylum. Sims manages to get Nell committed to his asylum, and ... well, I'll avoid too many spoilers.

Karloff is great in this one, showing glimpses of the human hiding beneath the sadist. There's a sense that the sick people (not just the patients but Sims as well) are formed in part by society, and at the picture's end, we're told that "Reforms were begun in 1773--a new hospital was erected shortly afterward--and since that time Bedlam--once a by-word for terror and mistreatment--has led the way to enlightened and sensible treatment of the mentally ill."

You don't really watch this for the history, of course. There aren't any shock-scares ... the film relies on a general unease, with Karloff ever-present and ever-creepy and Lee trapped in the asylum. There's all the atmosphere you expect from a Val Lewton movie. The supporting cast includes Ian "Hey, It's That Guy" Wolfe and Jason Robards Sr. Everything is done in a tidy 79 minutes. There were some great movies in 1946 (My Darling Clementine, The Big Sleep, Notorious), but Bedlam is a good a horror movie as any other from that year, at least that I've seen. 7/10.

Here, Sims uses his inmates to put on a show for the rich:

 


creature feature saturday: the amazing mr. x (bernard vorhaus, 1948)

There was a great SCTV sketch featuring Count Floyd and Monster Chiller Horror Theatre. The movie was one Count Floyd hadn't seen before, Whispers of the Wolf, but he can just tell by the title that we're going to be "scared right out of our pants". It turns out the film is directed by "Ingmar Burgman" and if there's any horror in it, it's of an existential nature.

I can imagine a Creature Features program back in the day running The Amazing Mr. X based solely on the title. Mr. X is Alexis, a psychic who can communicate with dead people. The movie is a hybrid horror/noir, and it seems like the noir aficionados like it more than the horror fans. In truth, there isn't a lot of horror in The Amazing Mr. X, and it is also true that most of its effectiveness comes from the atmospheric setting, which may make it seem more noirish. But other than the look of the film, there isn't much noir in this movie. It's mostly just a well-made B-picture that surprises with decent performances and a plot twist or two. If you caught it late on a Saturday night, you might struggle to stay awake, but if you watch it at a reasonable hour, you'll find a solid little film that gets its work done in 78 minutes.

The excellent cinematography is by John Alton, who won an Oscar a few years later for An American in Paris. Sadly, the movie fell into the public domain, meaning there are a lot of bad prints out there (including the one I watched on Amazon), which does a great disservice to Alton's work.

The cast includes Turhan Bey, once known as "The Turkish Delight", as Alexis, and Lynn Bari, a former WWII pinup girl known as "The Woo Woo Girl", as Christine, the woman he tries to sucker. Cathy O'Donnell, who made They Live by Night the same year, turns up as Christine's younger sister. Toss in 50s sci-fi regulars Richard Carlson and Donald Curtis, and Virginia Gregg, one the great voices of old-time radio who also did the voice of the mother in Psycho, and you have a better-than-average group for a B-movie. 7/10

 


creature feature saturday: i walked with a zombie (jacques tourneur, 1943)

The writing credits for I Walked with a Zombie on IMDB include the following: "Charlotte Brontë (novel) (uncredited)". The story is that producer Val Lewton didn't like the title, or the story on which the film was to be based, so he instructed his writers to use Jane Eyre as a basis for the story. (Wikipedia lists I Walked with a Zombie on its page dedicated to "Adaptations of Jane Eyre".)

Frances Dee plays a nurse from Canada (she's the Jane Eyre stand-in, I guess) who takes a job caring for a woman (Jessica Holland ... Mr. Rochester's wife?) who lives on a Caribbean island. The woman is a "zombie" due to a fever she acquired ... she has no willpower of her own, so she needs full-time care. There's a romance involved (the nurse falls in love with "Rochester"), and a backstory that explains that the Hollands brought slavery to the island. The treatment of zombies is intriguing. For the natives, voodoo is a part of life, and to some extent, the film adopts this stance. There is a careful refusal to come down on the side of either rationalism or mysticism. The supernatural elements might be "real" ... they might be brought on by the Holland family's connection with slavery. This, combined with the smart use of shadows, make for an atmosphere full of portent, all done on a tiny budget. While the acting is adequate, that atmosphere is what puts I Walked with a Zombie among the classics of horror. And it's all done in 68 minutes.

It should be obvious that this is not a typical zombie movie. It's easy to understand why Lewton didn't like the title. #580 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, 8/10.