revisiting the beast from 20,000 fathoms (eugène lourié, 1953)

I have a phrase I use to describe movies, often from my youth, that are better than you might think: An All-Time Classic. It gets confusing, though, because often I use the phrase ironically: "Robot Monster is an all-time classic!" Lately, I've brought up The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms a few times, eliciting eye rolls from my wife, who can't always tell if I'm serious. But in this case, I mean it. I'll just cut-and-paste from what I wrote back in 2010:

This was a favorite of mine when I was a kid, and the surprise is that it doesn’t suck. The effects by Ray Harryhausen are fine, and the script is functional. Of course, it’s harder to appreciate this movie than it used to be, because it spawned so many similar (and worse) ones. But this was the first: the first movie where atomic testing unleashed a monster from the deep, even predating Godzilla. Besides the bomb and the monster, there’s the dedicated professor, the kindly scientist, and the scientist’s assistant who happens to be a woman (and who happens to like the professor). There’s the no-nonsense military man … there’s the monster rampaging through a big city … and then, to top it off, there’s Lee Van Cleef, only a year into his movie career, showing up in the last scene as the sharpshooter who saves the day and kills the monster. I’m sure I had no idea who Lee Van Cleef was when I was a kid, so that’s a nice added touch beyond the nostalgia factor.

Director Eugène Lourié got his start working with Jean Renoir, which is irrelevant but Renoir is always good when you're trying to promote an all-time classic. The movie was as good today as it was in 2010, and as it was all the other times I saw it back to when I was a kid.


revisiting attack of the crab monsters (roger corman, 1957)

Watched this for the gazillionth time. Might as well just cut-and-paste from the last time:

Nothing in the movie makes sense, although you can probably guess that from the title. Giant crabs eat humans and absorb their brains, after which they retain the memories and can speak in the humans’ voices, telepathically. Virtually every scene has something completely unbelievable, even without considering the premise. Compared to various other cheapo 1950s monster movies, Attack of the Crab Monsters ranks reasonably well. Every scene has action, an order Corman gave to screenwriter Charles B. Griffith. So the picture moves quickly, and it’s over in 62 minutes, so you don’t really have time while you are watching to consider how dumb it all is. On the other hand, the need to make something happen in every scene is one reason the movie is such a mess: there is no time for logic when each conversation must be quickly interrupted by a rampaging crab monster. Inspirational quote: asked why the brains inside the crabs have turned against their former friends and colleagues, Richard Garland explains, “Preservation of the species. Once they were men. Now they are land crabs.”


top three of each year

I've been spending a little time at the Letterboxd website ... this is what happens when you're retired, I guess. A couple of fellows from Germany uploaded a list of their top three films of each year, and I got inspired enough to create my own list. It starts in 1924 and goes through 2018. Two years (1926 and 1929) only got two movies, so the entire list is comprised of 283 movies. The thing that interested me the most was the recent films, because when I make Top 50 lists or whatever, I always end up with lots of old movies and not enough new ones. By forcing myself to pick three from each year, I was able to give recent years some space. So, to take a couple of years at random, from 2018, Black Panther, Roma, and Springsteen on Broadway made the list, while 2005 offered A History of Violence, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Top three from 1924? Sherlock, Jr., Greed, and The Navigator (lots of Buster Keaton in the silent years).

You can check out the list here:

Top 3 of each year, 1924-2018


impossible burgers

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.


creature feature: the creeping terror (a.j. nelson, 1964)

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.

 


what i watched

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.


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 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.)

10:
In the Mood for Love
Performance

9:
The Ascent
Black Panther
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Dunkirk
Faces Places
First They Killed My Father
Five Easy Pieces
Moonlight
Mudbound
My Neighbor Totoro
Pickpocket
Strong Island

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

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)
2018: 109 (7.2)


horror of dracula (terence fisher, 1958)

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:


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.