manos: the hands of fate (harold p. warren, 1966)

This is the eighteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "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 the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 18 is called "One-and-Done Week":

At least no one can say they didn't try. Though the reason behind some of these single directorial filmographies may be apparent upon viewing, there are certainly a number of filmmakers who left us wanting more after just one outing. A fun, grab-bag experiment.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film by a director who has only directed one film. Here is a smaller list with focus on notable names, and here is a larger compendium.

The story goes that Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway were fishing together, and Hawks told Hemingway he could make a good movie out of Hemingway's worst book, which Hawks said was To Have and Have Not. The resulting film was a hit. Maybe it came from a bad novel, but it had Howard Hawks as a director. It starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, with a supporting cast of everyone from Walter Brennan to Hoagy Carmichael.  At one point, William Faulkner came in to work on the script. Even coming from a poor source, Hawks and Warner Brothers could produce something fun.

Some 20 years later, Sterling Silliphant, who had written mostly for television and who later won an Oscar for Best Screenplay, met a man named Harold P. Warren. Warren, an insurance and fertilizer salesman, bet Silliphant he could make a horror movie all on his own. Silliphant took up the bet. Now, Warren wasn't Howard Hawks. Warner Brothers wasn't bankrolling the affair (Warren got the money together himself, eventually getting $19,000). With such a low budget, he couldn't pay the cast or the crew, so he gave them a cut of the hoped-for profits. Warren also saved money by directing, writing, producing, and starring in the film. With no budget for cast or crew, Warren wasn't going to get Walter Brennan or Hoagy Carmichael, so the rest of the cast was culled from local talent. The result, Manos: The Hands of Fate was no To Have and Have Not ... instead, it regularly makes Worst Movie Ever lists.

It was the only movie Warren ever directed ... I'm pretty sure it was the only movie any of the people associated with it ever made. It is godawful. It's not worth the time to list everything that is wrong with the movie. It's impossible to see any vision that Warren might have had, the way Ed Wood movies, bad as they were, often were recognizably Ed Wood movies. There isn't a single moment worth watching.

The film was mostly forgotten ... heck, it only had a few local screenings in 1966. But then it turned up as an episode on Mystery Science Theater 3000, and it became an "instant" cult classic. Even if you are not a fan of MST3K, you'll probably find their version more watchable than the original, Because the original was just that bad.


the ghost of yotsuya (nobuo nakagawa, 1959)

This is the eighth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "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 the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 8 is called "J-Horror Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Japanese horror (also known as J-horror) is horror fiction arising from popular culture in Japan, generally noted for its unique thematic and conventional treatment of the horror genre differing from the traditional Western representation of horror. Mediums in which Japanese horror fiction is showcased include literature, film, anime, video games, and artwork. Japanese horror tends to focus on psychological horror, tension building (suspense), and supernatural horror, particularly involving ghosts (yūrei) and poltergeists. Other Japanese horror fiction contains themes of folk religion such as possession, exorcism, shamanism, precognition, and yōkai."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen J-Horror film.

Yotsuya Kaidan has been called the most famous Japanese ghost story of all time, dating back to its first appearance as a kabuki play in 1825. It has been made into numerous films, starting in 1912, and Nakagawa's version is often considered the best. Nakagawa directed more than 100 movies in his career, including several horror films in the late-50s/early-60s. I came to The Ghost of Yotsuya as a beginner ... for me, it was just another Japanese horror movie, since I didn't have the cultural context the story carries with Japanese audiences. It was occasionally hard to follow, but in a good way ... it added to the supernatural elements in the film.

There are murders from the start, but the ghosts only emerge gradually. Much of the film is interesting, but without the horror aspect I expected. It's almost a character study for much of its running time. But when the ghosts come out, the supernatural horror moves to the front, building on what has come before. There is a visual splendor whenever the film moves outdoors, but most of the time, we're inside with the characters.

The Ghost of Yotsuya might appeal more to an arthouse audience than to one looking for gore and horror, but it succeeds on either level.

Among the choices of others for the Challenge was Kuroneko.


the raven (lew landers, 1935)

This is the fifth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22", "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 the 7th annual challenge, and my third time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", and last year's at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21"). Week 5 is called "Universal Monster Week":

The originators of the form here in American horror, the Universal Monster series offers up...scares? Well, they used to, anyway. For the most part, they're now fun novelties to look back upon and maybe even poke fun at if you're into that sort of thing.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Universal Monster movie.

There are a couple of Universal Monster films that are legit classics ... for me, the two James Whale/Boris Karloff pictures Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein top the list. There are other good ones, and at the least, Universal provided a base that ensured even the lesser pictures were OK. The Raven is one of those lesser movies, and to be honest, it's only borderline OK.

The plot is silly, designed solely to stuff the name Edgar Allan Poe into the picture. Bela Lugosi plays a deranged doctor with a Poe obsession, and that's pretty much the extent of Poe's influence on the movie.  Lugosi's doctor has recreated some of the torture devices featured in Poe's stories, most notably one from "The Pit and the Pendulum". Boris Karloff plays an escaped murderer who, via silly plot shenanigans, is forced to do Lugosi's billing (the doctor has a name, but face it, the characters are essentially "Lugosi" and "Karloff"). Some of the frights are scary enough, and the movie only lasts a minute longer than one hour, so it's not a burden to watch it. But Lugosi's hammy overacting is worse than usual, overshadowing Karloff's usual touching portrayal of a monstrous person. There is nothing here to excite anyone other than Universal completists.

 Other Challenge choices included The Incredible Shrinking Man.


revisiting the shining (stanley kubrick, 1980)

I've written a lot about Stanley Kubrick over the years, and what I've said can be easily summarized: he was great through Dr. Strangelove, started to fall off with 2001, and was erratic after that, nowhere near as great as his reputation. One thing I hadn't written about was The Shining, so I gave it another look.

I'd say it was better than I remembered, but I don't remember thinking poorly of it in the past. There are iconic moments, and a couple of them still work. It takes a while to get to the horror, but it certainly delivers in the second half. I don't think it's a classic, but it's a good movie.

The score by Wendy Carlos and Rachel Elkind is very effective, and is one of the reasons the movie works as well as it does. Kubrick movies always look good, and The Shining is no exception ... Kubrick and cinematographer John Alcott make The Overlook Hotel ominous in a good, horror movie way. Garrett Brown, inventor of the Steadicam, gets a lot of use out of his invention, most memorably when little Danny is riding his Big Wheel around the hotel.

The acting is variable, as is true too often with Kubrick. Danny Lloyd, who played the kid, was only 6 years old, but his performance is the best in the movie. There are stories told that Kubrick protected the little tyke by never letting him know he was in a horror movie ("it's a drama, kid!"). If that is true, it's one of the few times I can think of where Kubrick looked out for his actors. Jack Nicholson is well-remembered for this film, but I think it's one of his lesser performances. It's true that Jack Torrance is going nutty, so Nicholson's overacting can be explained away. But a key flaw with the movie is that Jack seems a bit off from the first time we meet him, and he's over the top soon afterwards. If we are to accept the malevolence of the Hotel, Jack's descent into madness should be gradual, but watching it this time, I felt like Jack was pretty crazy before he got to the hotel.

And then there is Shelley Duvall. I liked her in many of her roles. I think she's awful in The Shining, but I'm not ready to blame her for that. As the character is conceived, Wendy Torrance, like her husband, is a bit off from the beginning. In Jack's case, it's burgeoning madness, in Wendy's case, it's an extremely neurotic interaction with the world. I'd be scared, too, if my mad husband was chasing me around with an ax, but Wendy is never "normal" ... Kubrick never lets us see what Wendy might have been like before Jack and the Overlook. Add to this the tales of Duvall's traumas making the film, and you have something disturbing in a way that goes beyond horror. (See the Hollywood Reporter article/interview "Searching for Shelley Duvall: The Reclusive Icon on Fleeing Hollywood and the Scars of Making ‘The Shining’".)

I don't know. If The Shining were just another horror film, I'd say it benefits from Lloyd's performance, the atmosphere of the Hotel, the music, and the excitement of the final hour or so. It's a decent horror movie, not as good as more recent efforts like Let the Right One In or The Babadook, to name two examples, but with enough scares and quality to warrant another look if you haven't seen it for a while. But the reputation of The Shining seems to be that it is a great movie by a great director, and I can't agree with either of those opinions. It's #84 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, so I'm clearly in the minority (it is, in fact, only Kubrick's 5th-highest ranking film on that list).


geezer cinema: a quiet place part ii (john krasinski, 2020)

It felt odd, returning to a movie theater after almost 15 months of quarantine. But once the movie started, all was forgotten.

A Quiet Place Part II was a fine way to begin theater-going again. It's made for a big sound system, and the IMAX screen didn't hurt, either, if you like looking at Emily Blunt's pores. On the one hand, it wasn't as scary as the first one because the original had the luxury of surprise ... it seemed to come out of nowhere, and the sequel obviously couldn't pull that off. On the other hand, it was twice as scary as the first one because thanks to the original, we knew there was no time to breathe. I wrote about A Quiet Place:

A Quiet Place is very good at what it tries to do: scare the shit out of you. Oddly, though, this is not only what makes the movie good, it's what makes the movie almost unbearable to watch.

I suppose the same could be said of any good horror movie. It's almost a definition of horror that works. If it didn't scare us, we would laugh at it. But something different is happening with A Quiet Place. There is none of the anticipatory glee when you know another scare is right around the corner. In this film, there is no around the corner ... you are always already there.

The same goes for Part II. It's great fun, but it's hard to watch.

We should be happy that Part II is as good as it is. Krasinski and company gave it their all, and it shows. Millicent Simmonds is even better, and she is given more to do ... she is basically the central character this time. Cillian Murphy is a nice addition. Emily Blunt is strong once again. The monsters are cheesy in a low-budget way, but Krasinski knows how to use them. The basic problem, though, is that Part II doesn't improve on the original. I'm not saying there's no reason for it to exist ... it'll scare the shit out of you once again. But if you only watched one Quiet Place movie, it wouldn't be this one. Some people complained that Mad Max: Fury Road was too derivative of Mad Max 2, which might be true if you ignore the presence of Furiosa. But Fury Road was a better movie than even the earlier classic. The same can't be said for A Quiet Place Part II.


creature feature: the giant claw (fred f. sears, 1957)

As often happens with crappy movies like this, the trivia is more interesting than the movie. So I should mention a couple of things that didn't suck about The Giant Claw. The acting by leads Jeff Morrow and cult fave Mara Corday is decent. Some of the dialogue (writers were Samuel Newman and Paul Gangelin) is OK ... at one point, it sounds like outtakes from To Have and Have Not. Fred F. Sears does what he can with the low budget, which was pretty much his best talent as a director.

But that budget! The title monster is as ludicrous as any seen in 50s sci-fi. The legend is that Ray Harryhausen was intended to do the monster effects, until producer Sam Katzman decided to pay $50 (!) to a Mexican model maker. The resulting marionette elicits laughter every time it appears. (One of the trivia points of the film is that Morrow saw it in his hometown, but left before the movie ended because the crowd kept laughing at the monster and he didn't want to be recognized ... Wikipedia adds that "he allegedly went home and began drinking"). One standard way to save money on these films is to use stock footage, and Katzman certainly does this. But he also uses footage from other movies. The IMDB lists Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe as source material. Not to mention the general similarities to Rodan.

On a personal level, the best thing about The Giant Claw is that my wife picked it. I've been watching crappy Creature Features on Saturday afternoons for 60 years, but she usually rolls her eyes at the idea. So I was happy to watch this one, since I don't get too many opportunities to enjoy a Creature Feature with my wife.


film fatales #113: shadow in the cloud (roseanne liang, 2020)

My friend Steve Fore, who has steered me to so many good movies in the past, tipped me off to this one, writing on Facebook:

Looking for a period war movie with horror elements that's wall-to-wall kineticism for 83 minutes? An homage to "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet," Bugs Bunny, and "Aliens" that transcends all three? That winningly draws on the go-for-broke non-logic and wild narrative implausibility of classic Hong Kong action movies? That has the heroine stuck in the belly turret of a B-17 for half the movie and makes that strategy both claustrophobic and thrillingly dynamic? ... [T]ry watching "Shadow in the Cloud."
Good call, Steve! Shadow in the Cloud is everything he said it was, with an emphasis on kinetic implausibility. This movie is loony from start to finish. Chloë Grace Moretz may seem implausible as the hero, but she makes her abilities seem real amidst all the logic-free plot. It's non-stop action that doesn't overstay its welcome ... Steve was right to mention it's only 83 minutes long. Director/co-writer Roseanne Liang was unknown to me. She's a Chinese New Zealander who delivers an unpretentious popcorn movie. I always have time for those.

geezer cinema: run (aneesh chaganty, 2020)

Let's get the good stuff out of the way first. Run is basically a chamber piece focusing on two characters, a mother and her daughter Chloe, played by Sarah Paulson and newcomer Kiera Allen. Both are great ... Allen is especially noteworthy because she's up against an all-time veteran, and she's in her first movie. Run is a thriller that actually manages to retain its edge-of-your-seat excitement for most of the film. And it's also historic, since Allen's character is in a wheelchair, as is the actress herself in real life. Hulu makes sure to tell us that this marks the first time in a Hollywood movie in more than 70 years where the chair-bound heroine is played by a disabled actress.

This last point is dealt with in a somewhat subtle way. Chloe is tied to her chair, but it doesn't completely define who she is ... she's a real character of some depth and resourcefulness. You don't forget the wheelchair, and some of the thrills are tied to that chair, but what is more important is how inventive and strong Chloe is.

There are shout outs to plenty of movies from the past, and ... well, I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, but it's impossible to do that with 100% efficiency, so you are warned. I was reminded of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and the movie is also in the great Gaslight tradition. Aneesh Chaganty's film belongs in the company of those movies.

And yet ... here I'll admit that I'm not sure how much of what I'm about to say matters. You've got a well-made thriller with top-notch acting ... who could ask for anything more? Well, there's a reason Run is good-not-great: the longer it runs, the stupider it gets. The word "ludicrous" comes to mind. The real achievement for Chaganty is that somehow he keeps us thrilled and entertained, even as one part of our brain is rejecting the damn thing.

The result is a movie I have no problem recommending ... if the above sounds like your cup of tea, you'll like Run. It's just so silly in the end.


geezer cinema: synchronic (aaron moorhead & justin benson, 2019)

A film I'd never heard of, from film makers I didn't know, which means Synchronic was a good Geezer Cinema choice, since one of the best things about that project is I get to see movies I might otherwise have missed. It was written by Benson, with cinematography by Moorhead, and both worked on the editing while directing. The two have done several films together, and have a bit of a following.

On Twitter, Moorhead described the film as "our weird movie about paramedics & designer rugs & the nature of time & dogs & New Orleans & death & cavemen & pirates & how the past sucked & friendship & burnt bodies & sad handshakes". That's actually a very good description, because one, it's accurate, and two, it tells you nothing about the movie. And since Synchronic benefits from spoiler-avoidance, I'm stealing Moorhead's tweet here. It's an atmospheric film, which lends itself to the mysterious unfolding of the plot. And I'm going to say something about that plot in a second here, so spoiler alert and all that.

It co-stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. I've found Mackie to be reliable ... at least, I usually like the films that he is in (The Hurt Locker, Detroit, Half Nelson). He gives Synchronic some life to go with the atmosphere.

Here's where the spoilers come. Synchronic deals with time travel, and it appears that Moorhead and Benson wanted to address the problem of race in America. Mackie (Steve) and Dornan (Dennis) are paramedics, and there are a couple of references to the way Steve is treated as opposed to Dennis that offer a bit of insight. But when Steve starts time traveling, Moorhead and Benson seem a bit too proud of the fact that they are showing how tricky it would be for an African-American to go back in time, considering how Blacks have been mistreated throughout our history. It's not a particularly unique take ... the television series Agents of SHIELD and Timeless both addressed the topic, and were at least as interesting and pointed as is Synchronic.

Synchronic takes place in New Orleans, and it feels real ... it was shot there, and Mackie was born there. It is far from a failure. But it's slow-moving, and not to its advantage. A decent movie, not a great one.


underrated movies from the 21st century

Something to watch in 2021 while you wait for the lockdown to end. One a year:

2000: Ginger Snaps
2001: Time Out
2002: Real Women Have Curves
2003: The Dreamers
2004: Baadasssss!
2005: Dave Chappelle's Block Party
2006: The Host
2007: Chop Shop
2008: The Beaches of Agnès
2009: Vengeance
2010: Mysteries of Lisbon
2011: A Separation
2012: Stories We Tell
2013: Exhibition
2014: The Raid 2
2015: The Lure
2016: Midnight Special
2017: Detroit
2018: Blindspotting
2019: Furie
2020: The Vast of Night