creature feature saturday

The Fly (Kurt Neumann, 1958). Long ago (the 70s?), we saw comedian Bobby Slayton open in a club for two different rock acts. The shows were close enough that Bobby's sets mostly contained the same material. One quickie joke was to open his jacket, revealing a big plastic fly on the inside, at which point, he would squeak, "Help me help me" and close the jacket. He was referring, of course, to this, the original Fly movie. Vincent Price tells a story about the filming of the iconic "Help me, help me" scene. "[E]very time that little voice [of the fly] would say ‘Help me! Help me!’ we would just scream with laughter. It was terrible. It took us about 20 takes to finally get it." The thing is, no matter how much humor can be extracted from the sound of a tiny fly with a man's head begging "help me!" as it is caught in a spider's web while the spider closes in for a meal, everyone who sees The Fly remembers that scene, not just as a joke, but as something truly unsettling. Well, everyone perhaps except David Hedison, who played the man/fly: "[P]eople do an imitation of it all the time: 'Help me!' They had me in the net, and they pasted me white. In the dailies, when I saw that scene it was horrific — the sound of a man who’s gonna be eaten by a spider — I mean, it’s terrible! But they chose to go with that effect — heighten my voice to make it sound like a chipmunk or something — which to me made no sense at all." It takes a special movie to still have a hold on viewers 60 years after it was made, especially when that movie is of the B-variety. There are things that lift The Fly a bit above the competition. Vincent Price helps a lot. Actually, all of the cast are good, consistently treating the material with a straightforward honesty that belies the outrageous plot. While you're watching, it's easy to ignore the multiple implausibilities. Toss in the color Cinemascope picture, and the stereo sound, and The Fly looks and sounds more expensive than the average cheapie. And, for folks who need trivia with their creature features, the script was the first effort by James Clavell, who went on to co-write The Great Escape and to write several novels, including Shogun. 7/10.

 


by request: the thing (john carpenter, 1982)

Given that The Thing is an accepted part of the modern horror canon, it's interesting that it wasn't a success when it was released. It did relatively poorly at the box office (blame for this is usually placed at the hands of E.T., the optimistic film that had opened a few weeks earlier). John Carpenter calls The Thing his favorite of his movies, and he says he was hit hard when the movie didn't perform. The critics didn't like it, either, although again, the film's reputation has improved over time. I've usually found Carpenter an oddly overrated director. I like most of his movies I have seen, but "like" is the operative word ... in my mind, none of the ones I've seen approach classic status. I remember liking Big Trouble in Little China quite a bit when it came out, but after I'd seen some of the HK films that influenced it, I felt Carpenter hadn't really met their standards.

The same can be said of The Thing. Carpenter loves the original ... some of this version is a clear homage to the 1951 Nyby/Hawks film. Carpenter is known as a Hawks fanatic. He doesn't let the homage go too far, though, because for the basic plot, Carpenter returns to the original story by John W. Campbell Jr. The thing changes form, so in any particular moment, it might look just like a person you know. Given the setting (men isolated in Antarctica), the paranoia sets in quickly ... as the title of Campbell's work asks, "Who Goes There?" This is an intriguing premise ... I don't blame Carpenter for wanting to explore it, even though it is unrelated to the Hawks' film, where the alien is just a giant carrot played by James Arness.

But, as I recall, when it came out, The Thing was known for its gore and its special effects. You might talk after the movie about the paranoia angle, but what got you into the theater, what impressed while watching, was the "ooooh" that accompanied the "best" scenes. Nothing wrong with that ... but ultimately, that's all The Thing is about. Alien, which had come out in 1979, had some similar shocks, but Ridley Scott built up to them. And while Alien and The Thing both share the "isolated working group" setting, the characters are much better defined in Scott's movie. In fact, this is the biggest reason the Carpenter remake isn't up to the original. I saw that original a few months ago, and thinking back on the cast of "hey it's that guys", I realize I still remember some of the character names, like "Scotty" the journalist. I saw the remake just last night, and I'm not sure I can remember any of the characters' names. Instead, I remember Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley and T.K. Carter and Richard Masur. The Thing is well cast ... Carpenter can use his actors as archetypes because the actors fit the parts ... but any character development would just get in the way of the next gory FX scene.

The Thing works because Carpenter effectively parcels out the scares. But he never lets the audience get beyond that feeling of dread ... what's next? ... and while that's a fine thing to pull off, it mostly stands on its own. The implications of the paranoia angle are only important in the film as a way of increasing the dread.

None of this means I don't like The Thing. It's one of my favorite John Carpenter movies. But over the years, I've decided that John Carpenter movies are never great movies. If you can make a handful of pretty good movies, you've accomplished something. But you aren't Howard Hawks. #314 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. (The original doesn't even make the list, which tells you what I think about TSPDT in this case.) 7/10.

 


creature feature saturday double bill

The Unknown (Tod Browning, 1927). This would never have actually turned up on a 60s Creature Feature show. It's a silent movie, and you didn't see those. Tod Browning was a Creature Feature type of director though ... among others, he did the Bela Lugosi Dracula and Freaks. And this movie stars Lon Chaney, the king of silent horror. It also stars a 21-year-old Joan Crawford, who is almost unrecognizable. The story, which features a "Gift of the Magi" angle", is about an armless circus performer (played by guess who) who lusts after Nanon (Crawford). Nanon has a phobia about being touched by men, so when the circus strongman tries to put the moves on her, she recoils. I won't give away more of the plot, except to note that the armless guy is faking his disability. Chaney is very good, and it's nice to put a movie under the Creature Features label that is actually a decent film. There are various versions of The Unknown, and the version I saw ran 49 minutes, with subtitles that were clearly added more recently than 1927. The Unknown was thought missing for many decades, until a copy was found in the Cinémathèque Française. Turns out their archive included hundreds of movies marked "l'inconnu" ("unknown"). Those movies were indeed unidentifiable, and so it was apparently assumed that The Unknown was just another of those films. The subsequent restoration was not complete, but the version that remains is good. 7/10.

The Time Travelers (Ib Melchior, 1964). I want to say "from the sublime to the ridiculous", but in fact The Time Travelers is a decent little movie that takes a low budget and a silly plot and turns it into something watchable. Scientists from the present invent a time machine that takes them far into the future, and, well, what more do you need to know? It has Philip Carey, known to soap opera fans for his decades on One Life to Live and to Baby Boomers for playing Granny Goose in potato chip commercials. There's Preston Foster and the ever-present John Hoyt, and cheesecake from Merry Anders and ex-Playmate Delores Wells. Steve "Chatsworth Osborne, Jr." Franken even has a substantial part. The special effects are pretty bad, although these androids created in the future do have a rather disturbing look to their faces/heads. The cinematography is by future Oscar-winner Vilmos Zsigmond (credited as "William"), and the movie is better-looking that similar affairs. There's nothing great here, but neither does it stink. 6/10.

I can't stop without another mention of those Granny Goose commercials. Here's one:

Now, as I remember, this was a revision of the original Granny Goose commercial. (All of this is dependent on my faulty memory, of course.) In the first commercial, when he tore off the top of the bag with his teeth and spit it out, it just fell to the ground. Again, as I recall, conservationists complained that Granny Goose was littering. So for this version, they added the shot of the paper landing in the litter basket.

Which is all well and good. But in the meantime, you've got these gross stereotypes of Mexican bandidos. That's OK, at least Goose wasn't littering.

Those of us of a certain age (and location ... I believe Granny Goose was out of Oakland and the commercials were run locally) can quote lines from this commercial to this day. "You may not believe this, but my name is Granny Goose." "What's in the bag, Goose? Money, hey?" "Interesting. Well-seasoned. Provocative." "Are you grown up enough for Granny Goose?"


creature feature saturday double bill

Electronic Lover (Jesse Berger, 1966). Why do I bother? Every once in awhile I get the idea of watching some of the movies I'd seen on Creature Features on Saturday night when I was a kid. The problem is, I don't always pick the good movies from the array of choices (and they do exist). Electronic Lover is a sexploitation "nudie". but when I watched it for free on Amazon Prime, all of the nudity was edited out. (As a sign of how much nudity is in the movie, it runs 79 minutes but the Amazon version only lasts 60 minutes.) A sexploitation movie without the nudity pretty much has no reason for being, and I suppose I shouldn't rate this one too low since I saw an expurgated version. But trust me, it is so abysmal I'm positive the nudity wouldn't have helped. A crazed voyeur sends "Brother" out in the world with a hidden camera and watches the results from home. It is so cheap, it almost feels like an avant-garde film. Purely dreadful. 1/10.

Spies-a-Go-Go (aka The Nasty Rabbit) (James Landis, 1964). Another in the long line of Arch Hall movies. Arch Hall Sr. wanted to make movies, and after a couple of decades on the margins of the industry, in the 1960s Hall started cranking out what Wikipedia gently refers to as "some of the worst films ever made". The peak of his filmmaking was Eegah, in which he also starred alongside his son, Arch Hall Jr., and Richard "Jaws" Kiel in the title role. Junior appeared in many of his dad's movies ... he wanted to be a musician, so he'd play several songs, rather like Ricky Nelson in his family's TV show, except Junior didn't have much talent. Spies-a-Go-Go (titled Nasty Rabbit in the copy I saw) tells of a Soviet plot to release rabbits in the U.S. that have been infected with deadly bacteria. I think. The whole thing is played as a slapstick comedy ... bad slapstick comedy, although that probably wasn't intentional. Junior is a teen-idol rocker who is also an undercover spy. Oh, did I mention the rabbit occasionally talks to the audience ... he even gets the best lines (the IMDB only lists one "Memorable Quote", when the rabbit asks us, "I wonder if John Wayne had to go through this to get his start."). It's nowhere as good as it sounds. Richard Kiel pops in again for a cameo. Award-winning cinematographer László Kovács (Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, Ghostbusters) turns up as "The Idiot", while his longtime friend Vilmos Zsigmond takes on the cinematography. (They teamed up more than once in the early days of their career, most "notably" when they were both behind the camera for The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies.) Finally, the legendary Liz Renay, who played Muffy St. Jacques in John Waters' Desperate Living, has a substantial role. I really wanted this to be "so bad it's good", but instead it's "so bad it's bad". Still, it's better than Electronic Lover, so 2/10.

But stop ... there's more trivia! In this clip from Spies-a-Go-Go, Junior sings a song accompanied by his band, which included Pat and Lolly Vegas, who later formed Redbone.

Here is Redbone's biggest hit:

And finally, for you youngsters who actually made it this far, a brief reminder of where you've heard that song before:

So there you have it: the connection between Spies-a-Go-Go and Guardians of the Galaxy is exposed!


creature feature saturday double bill

The Ghost Galleon (Amando de Ossorio, 1974). AKA Ghost Ships of the Blind Dead, Horror of the Zombies, Ship of Zombies, Zombie Flesh Eater, and The Blind Dead 3 (yes, it's a sequel, sort of). It's amazing to think there is more than one of these. As best as I can figure out, the "blind dead" are Templar knights whose eyes were torn out for their dabblings in the dark arts. They are zombies, the slowest-moving zombies in movie history, with no eyes. The plot doesn't matter, but if you're interested, here is the Amazon description of the film: "A boatload of stranded swimsuit models discover a mysterious ghost ship that carries the coffins of the satanic Templar, eyeless zombies who hunt humans by sound." Nothing is delivered ... the swimsuit models never get out of their clothes, the "boatload" consists of two women, and I'm not sure how we're supposed to figure out the thing about sound. Austrian lead Maria Perschy made movies with Huston and Hawks in the early-60s. Male lead, American Jack Taylor, was in more than a hundred movies, many of them Mexican and Spanish horror films. Bárbara Rey was Miss Madrid 1970. Rey actually has the best scene, when she is taken by the zombies. They are mostly doing their slow-moving arm waving, but Rey exhibits real fear for a couple of minutes before they cut off her head and eat her. The low budget is particularly noteworthy whenever we see the titular ship in long shot ... it looks like something Ernie would play with alongside his rubber ducky. The zombies look scary in a unique way, which lasts until they "move". The inside of the galleon is shot in spooky ways ... this would be the best part of the movie, except the film moves slower than a Templar zombie, so even the good parts are boring. 4/10.

The Corpse Vanishes (Wallace Fox, 1942). With a lot of these crappy B-movies, it's easier to just talk trivia ... there's little to say about the movie itself. Well, there is some classic dialogue, like when Bela Lugosi (who cares what the character's name is) is asked if he makes a habit of collecting coffins. "Why yes," he replies, "in a manner of speaking. I find a coffin much more comfortable than a bed.  Many people do so, my dear." Lugosi, who was 60, made so many bad movies that it's easy to forget they didn't all suck. The same year as this one, he made The Ghost of Frankenstein, which wasn't terrible, and only three years earlier, he had been in Ninotchka. But The Corpse Vanishes was bad. It came from the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures, and one of the producers was the legendary "Jungle Sam" Katzman. It was featured in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The characters included another legend, Angelo Rossitto, as a dwarf (Rossitto's long career stretched from Freaks to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). The plot involves Lugosi stealing dead brides-to-be (he is the one who kills them ... they die at the altar ... oh yeah, they don't really die, they just exist in some type of coma) so he can extract something from them to inject into his ancient wife, resulting in that wife becoming young again. Oh, why do I bother? The only good thing about The Corpse Vanishes is that it is over in 64 minutes. 3/10.

 

 


what i watched last week

By request: I Am Not Your Negro (Raoul Peck, 2016).

Nominated for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar (it lost to O.J.: Made in America), I Am Not Your Negro reminds those of us who remember James Baldwin how important he was (and hopefully introduces him to younger viewers). I remember reading The Fire Next Time when I was 10 or 11, and it turned on many lights for me, growing up as I did in a town with no black people. I don’t know that Baldwin’s fame has had the staying power of King, or Malcolm, or the Panthers, perhaps because while he was a vocal advocate, he was primarily a writer, not a speech giver. His autobiographical novel Go Tell It on the Mountain was still being taught when I was in college. Perhaps I’m wrong, and Baldwin is still remembered as an important figure. In any event, I Am Not Your Negro does a solid job of bringing Baldwin to our attention, using film clips and voice-over narration of his words read by Samuel L. Jackson, who effectively buries himself in the role (it took me awhile to realize it was an actor reading those lines). This is an efficient documentary that speaks to us today, as well as serving as a history lesson. #723 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 9/10.

Film Fatales #28: Jesus’ Son (Alison Maclean, 1999). Billy Crudup heads an impressive cast in a film based on a series of short stories by Denis Johnson. There is a casual realism to the tale of junkies and lo-fi criminals, partly due to the presence of so many characters who are neither junkies nor criminals. It’s a slice-of-life with no apparent agenda. It could use a little more spice ... this isn’t Sid and Nancy. Crudup’s character is named “Fuckhead”, and by his actions and his voice-over narration, I thought “FH” was a bit slow, which I don’t think was the intention. Among the supporting cast, many in what amounts to cameos, are Samantha Morton, “Mike” Shannon, Denis Leary (not as obnoxious as usual), Jack Black, Will Patton, Miranda July, Dennis Hopper, Kevin Carroll from The Leftovers, and Holly Hunter. Maclean deserves credit for a production that clearly had appeal to a lot of actors (this was only her second feature ... she has done a lot of work in television). I wanted to like this one more than I actually did. 6/10. (Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)

The Thing from Another World (Christian Nyby, 1951). Revisiting a favorite. There is a long-standing discussion about whether Nyby actually directed The Thing (an editor, this was his first credited director’s job). Howard Hawks produced ... Nyby had worked with Hawks many times, and when people pointed out how Hawksian The Thing was, Nyby reportedly said that of course Hawks rubbed off on him from all their work together. The film makes an impressive example of the auteur theory as it applied to the studio system ... everyone thinks Hawks directed it because it’s recognizably a lot like many other movies he directed. You can enjoy The Thing without knowing this stuff ... it’s compact, manages to make individual characters out of the stock cast, and is more horror than sci-fi. It’s hardly worth comparing it to the John Carpenter remake ... they are quite different. 9/10.

As we watched it, my wife said the following has always been one of her favorite movie scenes:


don't breathe (fede alvarez, 2016)

Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez and his team, working on a budget of $10 million, turn out a picture that grossed more than $150 million. Don’t Breathe does such a good job of using atmosphere to deliver thrills that you don’t mind that the story is nothing new.

Three young burglars try to rob the house of a blind Army vet with money. It doesn’t go as planned. The blind man is very resourceful when it comes to dealing with intruders. He also has a few secrets. Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues do a good job of parceling out information, so that we know the blind man suffered greatly from the loss of his daughter, but the ramifications of this are held back until just the right moment. This is standard stuff for horror films, but the movie is almost done before the predictability takes over.

Stephen Lang as the blind man is the best thing about Don’t Breathe. He is both frightening and sympathetic, at least at first, and he convinces us that he can do the physical acts he performs despite being blind. The three robbers aren’t the usual klutzy doofuses ... they just overreach, and aren’t expecting that blind man to be such a powerful opponent. It’s fun to see Dylan Minnette a year before 13 Reasons Why, and Jane Levy plays ... well, if you don’t know who she plays, you haven’t read much theory about modern horror. (Hint: think Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween.)

Everything is compact and efficient. Alvarez and cinematographer Pedro Luque offer some elegant visuals in the early going, taking full advantage of what amounts to an old-dark-house setting. And it doesn’t exactly peter out at the end. It’s just that the “surprises” come more and more quickly, so that you begin to expect them, which takes away the scariness. If Don’t Breathe sounds good to you, chances are you’ll like it. But it doesn’t transcend its genre, so it’s not a must-see if you aren’t a fan to begin with. 7/10.


the screaming skull (alex nicol, 1958)

I should create a new category for movies like this. Call it “Creature Features”. There are no actual creatures in The Screaming Skull, but it’s the kind of movie that turned up on late-night Creature Features TV shows. It was done by the MST3000 guys. That kind of movie.

Often, the trivia is more interesting than the actual movie, so here goes. Director Alex Nicol also appears as a mentally challenged gardener, which makes sense, as Nicol had been acting throughout the 50s (The Screaming Skull was his first directorial effort). Female lead Peggy Webber is still with us (91 years old) ... she is a big figure in radio and appeared in Welles’ Macbeth. She is nicely summarized in the title of an article about her from 2015, “Radio Theater's Peggy Webber Is 90 — and Cooler Than You”. The producers used their tiny budget well, as there are only five characters, and all of the action takes place in the same place. It’s not the kind of cheapo movie where no one knows what they are doing ... the camera is always where it belongs, the acting is acceptable, and the music is helpful. That music is by Ernest Gold, who won an Oscar two years later for Exodus. The cinematography is by Floyd Crosby, who had himself won an Oscar all the way back in 1931 for Murnau’s Tabu. (And he’s the father of rocker David Crosby.)

And with that, I’ve dispensed with most of the trivia. Well, I could mention that this American International Picture was released as part of a double bill with Terror from the Year 5000.

And the movie? As I mentioned, it’s competent. It doesn’t suck. It’s over in 68 minutes. But it’s also clichéd, obvious, and boring. It’s Gaslight without the entertainment, and if that’s a spoiler, well, this is a B-movie from almost 60 years ago, I think the spoiler time period has elapsed on this one. 4/10.


the host (bong joon-ho, 2006)

I wrote about The Host almost ten years ago, and I guess you could it was a case of damning with faint praise, when I devoted a mere one sentence to what I thought was a 7/10 movie: “Korean monster movie, a few dozen rungs above what you'd see on any random Saturday on the Sci-Fi Channel, if not quite the 5-star masterpiece some critics call it.” Having just watched it again, I have to say, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking back in 2008. At the least, I should have realized that “a few dozen rungs” is a lot.

Partly, I have context now, having seen a lot of Korean horror since 2008. Just to take Bong’s movies, there are Memories of Murder, Mother, and Snowpiercer (the latter actually being his American sci-fi-action flick). In other words, I’m a fan of Bong and Korean movies in ways I wasn’t when I first saw The Host, so I’m more predisposed to like it.

There are other little things ... Scott Wilson, who’s had a long career in everything from In Cold Blood and The Great Gatsby to The Walking Dead, has a cameo at the beginning of the movie. And Doona Bae, who I hadn’t noticed before in several movies, but who is a fave of mine on Sense8, so now when I re-watch The Host, there’s Bae as the archer. These are the kinds of things that bring a familiarity to The Host that wasn’t there before.

But enough explaining. I still missed the boat, because The Host isn’t just a few dozen rungs better than Sharknado, it’s in another league. The monster is cheesy but intriguing. The political undercurrents are there without taking over the movies. And the core characters, from a dysfunctional family that responds in various ways to the monster’s appearance, are finely-drawn and interesting in their own right. The Host works as a family drama, even without the monster.

Plus, the comedy isn’t stupid, and like the politics, it never overtakes the movie.

I still think I’d start with Mother if I wanted to introduce someone to the work of Bong Joon-Ho. But The Host is getting closer. #104 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st cenury. 8/10. (At this rate, if I watch it again in 2026 and 2035, I’ll give it a 10/10.) (Trying to imagine me watching a Korean monster movie when I’m 82 years old.)


godzilla’s revenge (ishirô honda, 1969)

The title has nothing to do with the movie, and it would probably be better to use an alternate English title, All Monsters Attack, which is at least closer to what we see on the screen.

I’m sure many people think all of those old Japanese Godzilla movies are equally bad, with perhaps a nod to the original, which is actually a fine movie. Well, even fans of the movies tend to agree that Godzilla’s Revenge is the worst Japanese-made Godzilla movie of all time. Just think of how bad some of those movies are, and then try to imagine the depths to which Godzilla’s Revenge must go to take the title of Worst Ever.

For instance:

The fight scenes among the monsters are footage from earlier Godzilla movies (and not necessarily the best ones). Godzilla does not go on a rampage in a city with a large population. He lives on something called “Monster Island”.

“Monster Island” doesn’t actually exist ... it’s a place the hero, Ichirô, dreams about when he sleeps.

Thus, none of the monsters, including Godzilla, are “real” within the context of the film’s universe.

Ichirô is a latchkey kid who lacks parental advice because they are always working, and who is regularly bullied by the other kids.

When Ichirô dreams of Monster Island, he hangs out with Godzilla’s son, who speaks, thus allowing them to have conversations where Son of Godzilla explains that his dad is trying to teach him not to be a coward.

When Ichirô is awake, he uses his dream memories to emulate Little Godzilla, finally getting the courage to fight back against the bullies.

Oh, there’s also a plot about two bank robbers that are captured thanks to Ichirô.

Seriously, this is one awful movie. And I confess, I watched it on our DVD copy. Yes, I own Godzilla’s Revenge. 2/10.