Just read an article about Impossible Burgers (disclosure: I haven't eaten one yet). In "Impossible Foods’ rising empire of almost-meat", Chris Ip tells the story of Impossible Foods, which among other things will be making an "Impossible Whopper" for a Burger King in St. Louis:
Something in the story took me back to this one time when I dropped acid ... would have been early-70s, I guess. It starts with this video:
At one point, the Director of Research for Impossible Foods explains that flavor comes to us in part via our nose ... the nose "tells you what you're eating". It was that point which led to my "acid flashback". As is often the case with seemingly mundane events that happened when I was tripping, I can remember this as if it were yesterday.
I was sitting at the dinner table at home ... I was living there, as were my three youngest siblings. We were eating hot dogs, and I had done some psychedelics. I was holding a hot dog with no condiments, staring into space, trying to act "normal" so Mom and Dad wouldn't suspect anything. One sibling passed the mustard across the table to another sibling. I could smell mustard as it crossed my line of sight. And then, suddenly, I could also taste the mustard, just as I would have if I'd put it on my hot dog in the first place. I smelled it ... I tasted it.
Now I know that was science at work. Or nature, not sure what to call it, exactly.
Last week, in what wasn't intended as an Oscar post, I commented on two films, The Blob from 1958, and The Favourite, which at the time was known for getting 10 Oscar nominations. Well, the Oscars are over, and The Favourite went 1-for-10. Only Olivia Colman went home a winner (which was fine with me ... as I said last week, "I'm always glad to see Olivia Colman get attention, and I think it would be great if she won an Oscar", plus she had a wonderful acceptance speech). People may think I was slumming, but I preferred The Blob to The Favourite. Among other things, The Blob was an example of how to do a good job with lesser material ... if you could get past the part where it was a movie about a murderous blob of gunk, you would enjoy it. The Favourite wanted in part to be All About Eve, and it didn't reach those heights.
I have a higher tolerance than most for crappy sci-fi and horror from the 50s and 60s. I can only go so far ... whenever I get on a run, I can only watch a few of them before I'm satiated. But I was in the mood, so while everyone else was watching the Oscars, I watched the 1964 "classic", The Creeping Terror. It was as bad as I remembered.
The Creeping Terror turns up on a lot of lists ... "The Worst Movies Ever Made", "Leonard Maltin's BOMBs", "The Official Razzie Movie Guide", "Horrorpedia's Worst Horror Films of All-Time", you get the idea. Naturally, it was featured in an episode of Mystery Science Theater. But even those lists don't really express just how terrible this movie is. There have been near-amateur movies forever, movies made with no money, even with no talent. But there is usually something to catch the eye, something that suggests an artistic mind hiding behind the crappiness. George A. Romero made an entire career out of such movies ... of course, he did have talent, which places him above most of the filmmakers we're talking about here. Or take the patron saint of crap movies, Ed Wood ... his movies stunk, but, as the Tim Burton film argued, there was a sensibility behind Wood's work. They weren't anonymous, they were just bad. (He was the Michael Bay of his day.) The Creeping Terror has none of the positives we hope for in junk films. All it needed was Arch Hall Jr.
And so it became a classic, for all the wrong reasons. My memory is it was a standard on the Creature Feature shows of the time, although there is some evidence that it didn't hit television until the mid-70s. Whatever ... we all knew it for its infamous "monster". Ask anyone of a certain age who indulged in these movies in their youth, and the title might not ring a bell, but if you saw "the carpet with the tennis shoes", the light goes on instantly. For yes, the monster in The Creeping Terror was clearly created out of carpets, with people under the carpet as the propulsion for its walking around. There were plenty of other low points ... the acting sucks, almost the entire movie is told via narration rather than dialogue, and the monster is less frightening than my beloved Ro-Man from Robot Monster, moving so slowly that it takes real effort from its victims to get snared by its evil intentions.
One reason I keep returning to these bad movies is that I respect anyone who can produce an actual feature film, no matter how bad. I made a few cheap short film in my film major days, with no money and not much equipment, and one thing I can say is that it takes a real talent to make the best out of a bad situation. If you couldn't afford sync sound, then just pile narration atop your silent footage. No professional actors? Use your friends and work around their limitations. You might say the results speak for themselves, that these movies are still junk, but to that I would ask, how many feature films have you made? I'm not arguing for artistic merit, but at least tip your cap to those who managed to create features against all odds.
And so I thought I would use that approach to looking at The Creeping Terror, which is abysmal by any reasonable standards. Until I looked into the story of the movie's making, which is so noteworthy someone later made a documentary, The Creep Behind the Camera. It turns out "A.J. Nelson", who is credited as the director, producer, and editor of the film, was actually Vic Savage, who played the lead role (Savage wasn't his real name, either). The Creeping Terror is very much a Vic Savage movie ... he is the auteur. But apparently, Savage was barely a filmmaker at all. He was a violent conman who disappeared near the end of production ... he died in 1975, and that seems to be all we know of him. His wife later wrote a book detailing his abusive behavior (I'm going by what the Internet tells me, who knows what's true). Yes, I should tip my cap to Savage for getting the movie done, but it would never have been finished without the work of others.
Among the things that went wrong: the famous carpet-with-sneakers monster was created after the man who originally created the monster stole the thing after he wasn't paid, leaving Savage to concoct a last-minute monster for the film. The almost dialogue-free angle came either because Savage shot it silent to save money, or the soundtrack was lost, or it was of such poor quality that it couldn't be used. Savage apparently financed the film in part by giving local amateurs bit parts in exchange for money.
Hell, I've said more than enough. I don't think I need to tell you that you are better off watching The Favourite than checking out The Creeping Terror. But I still have to own the fact that I watched The Creeping Terror while the Oscars were taking place.
The Blob (Irvin S. Yeaworth, 1958). Better than you might remember, if you remember it at all ... it may have turned up on Creature Features when I was a kid, but I'm an old man now. The actors are sincere ... no one plays it for laughs, and that works, with Steve McQueen being only the best example. It's a bit like Rebel Without a Cause, only with a monster from outer space. Anita Corsaut, who later gained fame as Helen Crump on The Andy Griffith Show, is Steve's girl. The title song (yes, there is one) is co-written by Burt Bacharach. Excellent use is made of color, which was lost on my black-and-white TV when I was growing up. The color makes The Blob look better than the usual 50s monster movie. There is a dark void at the center of the movie ... The Blob is like the shark in Jaws, it has no ulterior motive, it just gobbles people up, growing larger with each victim (yep, it's another Red Scare movie!). And there's an irony in the ending that can only be appreciated, if that's the word, nowadays.
The Favourite (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018). Rachel Weisz said this is "Like a funnier and sex-driven All About Eve". She's right about the sex, but The Favourite does not come close to All About Eve on the wit scale. Nominated for ten Oscars, including nods for all three stars (Olivia Colman for Best Actress, Weisz and Emma Stone for Supporting), along with Best Picture, Best Director, and more. That's overkill. It's not as weird as The Lobster, also directed by Lanthimos, and maybe it could have used some weird. It earns its R rating ... the IMDB informs us, for instance, that "The film has 9 uses of 'fuck' and multiple uses of 'cunt'". So it's not as bland as it could be, and there is some good work here. I'm always glad to see Olivia Colman get attention, and I think it would be great if she won an Oscar. But, to quote the movie, I just didn't give a fuck. Already #296 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. I'll add that when the following scene appeared, most of the audience thought it was hilarious. My wife and I, at 65, were also among the younger people in the crowd.
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 14. So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.” (Movies in bold in the 9-10 range are ones I was seeing for the first time.)
8: American Honey The Babadook Before Sunrise Day for Night Dressed to Kill First Reformed Gaslight Gertrud The Guilty Gun Crazy The Incredible Shrinking Man India's Daughter Listen to Me Marlon Local Hero Logan The Look of Silence A Matter of Life and Death Memories of Underdevelopment Private Life Sorry to Bother You The Spirit of the Beehive Springsteen on Broadway Supercop The Thin Man Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Widows Yellow Submarine
7: Avengers: Infinity War The Big Sick Black Mirror: Bandersnatch Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story The Brink Cat People Crazy Rich Asians Creed Darkest Hour Divines El Topo Flying Down to Rio Grand Hotel Hell Is for Heroes Hereditary Hidden Figures Horror of Dracula Icarus If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast Lost City of Z The Magnificent Seven (1960) Man on the Moon The Man Who Fell to Earth The Man Who Knew Infinity The Man Who Knew Too Much Morvern Callar Ms .45 Nothing Sacred On Body and Soul Personal Shopper Set It Off Seven Days in May The Square Syndromes and a Century Tarzan and His Mate The Time Machine Tropical Malady Venom Watchmen Zombieland
6: Atomic Blonde Bo Burnham: what. The Circle Colossal Diamonds Are Forever Dogville The Dressmaker The Equalizer The Equalizer 2 A Girl Like Her Glastonbury Fayre Holiday Inn Hostiles The Lion in Winter Miami Vice Murder on the Orient Express Spring Breakers The Spy Who Dumped Me Star Wars: The Last Jedi Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael
5: Behave Yourself! The Black Scorpion The Day of the Triffids Dishonored Lady Enemy Margot at the Wedding
This one was originally called Dracula, but the title was changed for the U.S. market to avoid confusion with the Bela Lugosi version. (It was also released here on a double feature with The Thing That Couldn't Die.) It was Hammer Films' first of several Dracula movies, and an early example of Hammer Horror, coming a year after The Curse of Frankenstein.
Hammer was a staple of Creature Feature shows when I was growing up. You looked forward to them, because even the worst of them didn't suck the way something like The Corpse Vanishes did. Their Dracula had a lot going for it. Christopher Lee seemed born to play the title role ... eventually he played the Count ten times, seven of those for Hammer. Peter Cushing, another Hammer warhorse, played Van Helsing. The two had also starred in the Frankenstein movie, with Cushing as the Doctor and Lee as the Monster.
Hammer added decent production values to the horror genre, albeit with low budgets. They looked good, especially once we got a color TV. The best ones are the earliest, which were taken seriously both by the filmmakers and critics, at least as far as critics could go with the genre. (Dracula is #896 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.) Eventually, the budgets seemed to be smaller, and a certain camp quality crept in. (I remember watching Dracula Has Risen from the Grave once in a theater where the audience laughed throughout the picture, prompting the man in charge to stop the film and come out to berate the audience.)
Dracula isn't nearly as gory as you might expect. Hammer is known for adding more overt sex to their movies, and while censors in 1958 weren't going to allow much, Lee was clearly a much sexier vampire than Lugosi, and the scenes where he bit buxom women were sexy in ways you didn't see in 1931. There's a story about director Terence Fisher telling one of those actresses, Melissa Stribling, "Just imagine you've had the best sex of your life, all night long!"
The picture is rather slow, to be honest. Lee only appears on the screen for seven minutes. The atmosphere is appropriately unsettling, and Lee and Cushing are great. It's far from the worst Dracula movie you'll ever see. But neither is it a classic.
I'll mention a couple of other Hammer pictures. Quatermass and the Pit (released in the States as Five Million Years to Earth) may be my favorite, and I'm surprised I've never written about it. And there is no better example of how loosening censorship gave Hammer space for more sex than 1970's The Vampire Lovers, which did get a blog post after I bought it on Blu-ray.
A scene from Dracula:
And, for comparison, a chunk of the middle of The Vampire Lovers:
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.