what i watched

Quite a mix of things over the last few days, so I'm stuffing them all into one post.

Julius Caesar. We've enjoyed watching our friend Arthur over the years in various plays, but since he moved down south (more jobs!) we only get to see him when he gets a spot on a TV series. So it was fun to watch a production of Julius Caesar by the Evergreen Theatre Collective, which was shown live on Facebook, with Arthur as Marc Antony. The production was quite inventive in using the quarantine effectively, with the cast showing up on the mosaic screen we've all gotten used to in the Zoom-meets-COVID era. Caesar was cut to fit a running time of about 90 minutes, but continuity was always clear. Arthur kicked ass on Antony's famous orations ... as I said, he is the first person I know who played a role previously done by Brando. Caesar was played by an African-American woman, which gave a different spin, more because it was a woman than because she was black. We knew we would like seeing our friend, but the entire production was quite good. [edited to add YouTube video of performance]

Ivan the Terrible, Part II (Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1958). I had watched Part I ten years ago (Ivan the Terrible, Part I), which is to say, I didn't remember much of what happened in that earlier film. I read up a bit and then jumped into Part II. Eisenstein had planned a Part III, but it never happened. He finished Part II in 1946, but the Party didn't like it and it wasn't released. Eisenstein died in 1950, Stalin in 1953, and the film was finally released in 1958. Part II is magnificent to look at, and Prokofiev's score was great, but for me, everything was static. Eisenstein loved his close-ups and his montage, but in this case, I was unimpressed. #228 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

One section of the film is in color, and this dance vibrates with movement. (When you click on the video, you'll be asked to watch on YouTube.)

Creature Feature: The Little Shop of Horrors (Roger Corman, 1960). Has there ever been a more apt example of sublime-to-ridiculous? From Shakespeare and Eisenstein to Roger Corman. This is the original quickie that later spawned the musical. The making of the film has become legendary over time, and who knows what is true and what is exaggeration? The budget was $30,000, give or take a few grand. They shot it in 2 1/2 days, give or take a day. Corman saved money by making full use of Charles B. Griffith, who wrote the screenplay ... Griffith also appeared on screen in two different roles, did the voice for Audrey Jr., and managed to get his grandmother, his father, and other relatives in the picture. Jack Nicholson has a brief role as a pain-loving dental patient. Is it any good? For as cheap as it was to make, sure, it was good. It has become a cult classic, certainly worth a view if you've never seen it and have 72 minutes to spare. But I wouldn't go overboard.

creature feature: curse of the demon (jacques tourneur, 1957)

I'll let the IMDB explain the variations in the versions of this film:

This film exists in three English language versions: (1) The original British release under the title "Night of the Demon," (2) Columbia's edited version for release in the U.S. under the title "Curse of the Demon" and, (3) over 20 years later, Columbia replaced their edited U.S. version with the original British version but with the title also changed to "Curse of the Demon."

I watched the TCM version, and their explanation is more detailed, but ultimately ironic:

One last comment about Curse of the Demon: the film has existed in two versions ever since its release in 1957. The British release, entitled Night of the Demon, had a running time of approximately 95 minutes. The U.S. version, released as Curse of the Demon, was trimmed by some thirteen minutes, reducing its length to 82 minutes, and placed on a double bill with The Revenge of Frankenstein (1958), a Hammer horror production.... The trim 82 version is certainly an entertaining funhouse ride but the "fat" that [American producer Hal E.] Chester pared away makes the original British release a much richer and satisfying experience.

I call this "ironic" because TCM seems to be arguing in favor of the British original, but the version they showed was the U.S. one.

This was nonetheless probably appropriate for the nostalgia angle of watching Curse of the Demon in 2020. I'm sure I saw it more than once as a kid, and the version I saw was certainly the American edit, so TCM did me a favor.

Curse of the Demon is a decent picture with some pedigree. Director Jacques Tourneur had done such pictures as Out of the Past and I Walked with a Zombie. Dana Andrews had appeared in Oscar winners like The Best Years of Our Lives and Laura. Peggy Cummins was great in Gun Crazy. The production design was by Ken Adam, at the beginning of a career that included two films with Kubrick, seven Bond movies, and two Oscars.

All of which helps lift the movie above the usual Creature Feature. It's on a par with The Revenge of Frankenstein. But it is nowhere near the level of an Out of the Past. The demon looks silly, and Tourneur didn't want to show it anyway (he was overruled by the studio). It's a low-key thriller, better than some but not really a classic. #753 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, which is nonsense.

creature feature: the brides of dracula (terence fisher, 1960)

An early horror effort from Hammer, and a sequel to their very popular Dracula (Horror of Dracula in the States). While the Brides are a staple of Dracula movies, Dracula himself does not appear in this one, despite the title. Explanations vary, but the most common one is that Christopher Lee, who made such a great Dracula in the first film, didn't want to be typecast. (He later changed his mind, and eventually played Dracula another six times.) So Hammer trotted out Peter Cushing to repeat his role as Van Helsing, and hired David Peel to play Baron Meinster, who was the primary vampire in the film. There are various Brides, with the female lead played by French actress Yvonne Monlaur.

The nice things about Hammer in those days was that their movies generally didn't suck. Fairly low standards, sure, but compared to some of the schlock coming out of America in the 50s, Hammer were welcome, especially on TV Creature Feature shows ... the Hammer films were a step above the usual for those shows. As if to illustrate this, when The Brides of Dracula was released in the U.S., it was on a double-bill with The Leech Woman, which later became an episode of Mystery Science Theater.

The Brides of Dracula is sluggish at times, but it was nice to look at. The print we saw had been restored, and the difference was noticeable. Cushing is properly serious throughout. There is a special-effects bat that looks crappy ... the IMDB tells us "The prop department put a lot of effort into making a realistic model bat. It got lost and had to be replaced on short notice. This explains the rather unconvincing look of the model that got actually used in the movie." (We also learn that "The ending was to have originally had the vampires destroyed by a swarm of bats. This ending proved too expensive to stage and shoot." Hammer did well with their low budgets, but some things were just beyond their resources.)

I can't remember when we got our first color TV, so I'm not sure if the first times I saw The Brides of Dracula it was in black-and-white. Also, since our local Creature Feature show was on late on Saturday nights, I often fell asleep halfway through the movie. The Brides of Dracula isn't a great movie by any means, but watching it now was a more enjoyable experience than whatever I put it through when I was a kid.

creature feature: godzilla raids again (motoyoshi oda, 1955)

The original Godzilla was a big hit, and Toho Studios wasted little time (less than six months) getting a sequel out. The logic behind bringing Godzilla back from the dead is handled with a reasonable amount of believability, considering we're talking giant monsters here. Turns out the H-bomb tests that awoke the first Godzilla managed to bring more back to life. So in this movie, we get a second Godzilla, along with Anguirus, a quadrupedal monster who gets the privilege of being the first monster to fight Godzilla (in the original film, Godzilla was the only monster). Their battles are OK, given the limitations of having two guys in suits pretending to be monsters. Godzilla dispatches Anguirus, although not before much of Osaka is destroyed. The subtext of Japan being destroyed due to the detritus of nuclear bombs is less clearly a metaphor for Hiroshima and Nagasaki ... there is no explicit anti-American sentiment.

There isn't anything to make Godzilla Raids Again into a classic, but compared to some of the later entries that emphasized kids, it's a tolerable time-waster. There is some silly humorous banter a few times, but mostly, you get two monsters fighting, a city destroyed, and then a novel way to kill off Godzilla once again (this time it involves an avalanche).

The Americanized version was bizarre, as might be expected. It was dubbed instead of subtitled (the version I watched now was subtitled and from the Criterion Collection), with constant narration. For reasons that are not clear, Godzilla is named Gigantis, and the movie is titled Gigantis, the Fire Monster. The American version wasn't released until 1959, on a double bill with Teenagers from Outer Space.

creature feature: the man who could cheat death (terence fisher, 1959)

This is a mediocre Hammer film, directed by Terence Fisher (Horror of Dracula). Christopher Lee is the biggest name in the cast, but he isn't the lead ... he's not even the villain. That job goes to Anton Diffring (Circus of Horrors), who was in everything back in the day. Perhaps the most notable member of the cast is Hazel Court, one of the first Scream Queens, and an early example of the kind of actress Hammer liked to put in their movies (i.e., cleavage). Court says they even filmed a brief nude scene "for the European market" ... she's modeling for a sculptor. No copies of that version exist. All we have is one still of a topless Court, which was a big deal in 1959. (In fairness, Court in the nude is still a big deal.) The censors may have succeeded in burying the nudity, but throughout the movie we see a bust of the sculptor's work, which shows Court's assets off quite clearly.

The movie is almost all talk, and thus, almost entirely dreary. The plot is a mishmash of mad scientist and Dorian Gray. None of it is particularly interesting. Among the films it played with in the theaters: The Evil That Is Eve (aka A Kiss for a Killer) and Dr. Terror's House of Horrors. The Man Who Could Cheat Death will cheat you out of 83 minutes of your life, time that is better spent using Google to find that still of Hazel Court (you'll still have 80 minutes left over to do what you want).

creature feature: rodan (ishirô honda, 1956)

I chose this for the nostalgia factor, as I usually do with these Creature Features. I watched Rodan many times when I was a kid, and while in my memory it was just another crappy Japanese monster movie, that's what I was in the mood for.

But I'm not entirely sure that's what I ended up with. For I noticed the Criterion Channel had Rodan, their version was 10 minutes longer than the one on Amazon I was going to watch, and, well, it was Criterion after all. So I checked them out, and what I saw was not the movie I watched as a kid. This was subtitled, the print had been improved ... in short, it was Rodan the way it was intended. (Afterwards, I peeked at the Amazon version for a few minutes ... the print was crappy, it was dubbed, and the opening was an invention for the American market. In other words, it was the movie I grew up on. I'm glad I chose Criterion.)

Now I don't want to go too far. I've watched a lot of kaiju movies, so I have a tolerance for them, but I don't think of them as great movies. Rodan came from the 50s, when the movies were still taken fairly seriously, so it's a decent film ... this isn't Son of Godzilla. But it's decent, no more. While eventually we get the usual brief explanation of events being related to nuclear bomb testing, there is a moment early on when a scientist suggests maybe climate change is to blame ... which was surprising, to say the least!

It's hard to recommend Rodan. If you're the type who can handle subtitles, you're likely not that interested in Rodan. And if you just want nostalgia, the dubbed version on Amazon is a mess. Still, I enjoyed myself.

One last anecdote. We had a friend who was an artist, and one day we were driving in a car and I was in the backseat with his kids. They had some toys to play with, one of which was a little pterodactyl. I picked it up and said, "Rodan!" Our artist friend in the front seat immediately launched into a discussion of the great sculpture Rodin. It was pretty interesting, too. I didn't have the heart to tell him I was talking about a Japanese monster. Or maybe I just didn't want to expose my love of junk culture.

Here's a trailer for the American version:

the beast of yucca flats (coleman francis, 1961)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is out of order. Week 20 is called "Alternate Oscars Week", but I had seen most of the possible selections, and was unable to find the others. So I substituted Week 32, "366 Weird Movies Week", since I'll be in Spain when that one is on the calendar.

As this year's Season Challenge nears its end, I figured I'd try to leave you all with something...memorable. Let's get weird, folks.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen 366 Weird Movies film.

Well, this certainly was a weird movie. Terrible, but weird. Actually, it's not weird as much as it is incompetent, but at times it's hard to tell the difference. It appears regularly on Worst Movies Ever lists, but for my money, it never makes it to "so bad it's good". It's just simply bad. Against the gold standard (which I continue to believe is Robot Monster, not Plan 9 from Outer Space), The Beast of Yucca Flats is merely unwatchable. There is no use reviewing a movie like this. Best to just resort to a list of, OK, weird things.

1) The biggest name in the cast (no pun intended) was Tor Johnson, an enormous pro rassler from Sweden who in later years became a staple in grade-Z movies, best known for the films he made with Ed Wood (Bride of the Monster, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Night of the Ghouls). In The Beast of Yucca Flats, Johnson plays a noted Soviet scientist (don't worry, he soon turns into the title character).

2) There is a pre-credits scene featuring a woman who has just showered, who is strangled to death by a mysterious bad guy (as we later see, he dresses like The Beast). While many prints are edited, the one I watched on Amazon featured the entire scene, which includes the woman, bare-breasted ... in a 1961 movie! The scene was shot after filming was done, and it appears to have nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Legend is that director Coleman Francis liked nude scenes.

3) The movie was shot without sound. When people speak (which is rare), they are looking away from the camera so we can't see if they are synced. Mostly, all we hear is an incessant musical score, sound effects, and an endless and truly bizarre voice-over narration. Someone did us the favor of making a super-cut of all the narration:

Here's the trailer, so you don't have to watch the actual movie:

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