After a two-week break, we return to "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." Week 16 is called "The Future Was Then Week":
To quote the late, great Phillip J. Fry, "time makes fools of us all." And never is that more the case for this set of movies we got here. At once considered futuristic, these films now lie in the odd limbo of being both in the future (from the time of its release) AND the past (as of now). Take a look and see where these filmmakers were spot-on about the future, and where they way, way off.
An awful piece of junk, although I need to cut it a little slack. It was made in 3D, and I was watching it in 2D on my TV. At times, I could see what they were trying to do, not just with the usual stuff jumping at us from the screen, but also by the use of space in ways that likely looked pretty good in 3D. Also, the version on Amazon was reframed from the original 2.35:1, and you could tell. In other words, nothing about how I watched the movie did it any favors.
But still, it sucked, an odd melange of Alien and Road Warrior, which came out not too long before Parasite. There was little attempt to create a world ... just a parasitic being invading people's bodies. It was a post-apocalyptic story, but that fact was rarely mentioned.
Some recognizable names participated. It was the second feature for Demi Moore. It was the third feature directed by Charles Band, who has a bit of a cult following. The cast included Cherie Currie from The Runaways, cheapie legend Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith for the scene of a topless woman, and musical legend Vivian Blaine from Guys and Dolls. Best of all was future four-time Oscar winner Stan Winston creating the effects for the parasites.
Finally, a trivia note: on a "Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts" segment on James Corden's show last October, Demi Moore said this was the worst movie she'd ever been in.
A Hammer film from the mid-60s that has always fascinated me. I know little about Quatermass, who first turned up on TV on the BBC in the 50s and has since featured on television, radio, and movies. Quatermass and the Pit (released in the U.S. as Five Million Years to Earth) is the only one that grabbed my attention.
Much of the film is low-key, and might surprise those who associate Hammer with blood and sex and vampires. The budget was low, the special effects pretty simple by today's standards. But the central idea is so imaginative that many have dismissed it as nonsense. Long ago, Martians came to Earth and affected human evolution. This is a problem, because Martians ... well, let's just say the devil is involved. Kubrick never dared go so far in 2001.
In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus compared the film to seeing the Sex Pistols in concert in 1978:
By the twentieth century, some people are coded for destruction; some carry only a few broken alien messages. Some respond to the Martian image; some do not. For those who do, the ancient codes become language, and memories of the original Martian genocide course to the surface. For those who do not respond, language dissolves. Humanity is split into two species; there is anarchy in London. Men and women surge through the streets smashing all those they recognize as alien: all who carry less of the Martian essence than they do. The Martian image turns red. Hobbes’s state of nature was “the war of all against all”; this is it, and it is lurid beyond belief.
Marcus notes how unsettling the end of the film is. Unsettling, because while the credits roll, the movie continues, as two dazed characters try to figure out what has happened and what is to come. It's as if the movie never ends.
The poor quality of this clip somehow adds to the effect:
This is the latest film I have watched in "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." Week 8 is called "Horrors Crossing Borders Week":
Sometimes, the most horrifying things are those in the unknown. With the added disorientation from a different than usual location and/or language, foreign horror allows us to not only see what other countries and cultures might find horrifying, but to break free of the traditions of our own country's horror spectacles. And, ya know, Halloween.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen horror film from a country other than the one you originate from/live currently.
Not the finest hour for the Challenge. I figured I was safe ... Korean horror, 88 minutes. Comments suggested a blend of Battle Royale, which I liked, and Saw, which I have avoided and thus don't know the connection. Battle Royale was a violent, over-the-top Hunger Games, and not surprisingly was kinda silly. It was good. Death Bell is violent and over-the-top and silly, but it's not good. The basic setup is intriguing: elite students at a Japanese school must correctly answer quiz questions, with one of them dying for each wrong answer. But there is little suspense, the various students aren't individualized enough to care about them, and the "solution" to the crime is anti-climactic. Not the worst film I've watched in the Challenge, but close. Of course, there is a sequel. Bonus points for a novel use of a washing machine.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920). This is the fourth film I have watched in "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." Week 4 is called "Horrors Beyond Words Week":
With this week's challenge, we see how filmmakers were able to terrify audiences with nothing but imagery (and maybe a little score). Be on the lookout for some fascinating early film making techniques present within needed to make a successful horror flick without words.
This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen silent horror film. Paul D's list can help you get started.
Right from the start, there were problems. The print was crappy (I watched on Amazon), the score was crappy. (The movie is in the public domain.) The story still intrigues, but the film didn't linger enough ... you got Jekyll, you got Hyde, you got Jekyll, you got Hyde. The theme of good and bad sides of the same person was always there, but for me, it didn't seem all that powerful.
John Barrymore was excellent, although you have to accept that it requires skilled overacting to portray the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde without trickery. (There is trickery, but the initial scene shows what I mean.)
The cast included a couple of interesting actors. Louis Wolheim was famous for having his face smashed during a college football game, making him unmistakable in his later career as an actor. And Nita Naldi's brief career was kick-started with her role here as the "bad girl". She is very effective. Naldi famously posed nude for pin-up artist Alberto Vargas, and is reported to have introduced herself to her Blood and Sand co-star Rudolph Valentino with "Howdy, Rudy! Wanna feel my tits?"
Barrymore was known as "The Great Profile", and sure enough, we get plenty of profile shots of the master throughout Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This isn't where I'd start if I were introducing Barrymore to newcomers ... I might go with Dinner at Eight, although that is admittedly an ensemble piece.
Asylum of Darkness (Jay Woelfel, 2017). A few weeks ago, I watched an awful movie called Demonicus. Thursday, the director of that movie, Jay Woelfel, left a comment:
Hello, Steven, I am Jay Woelfel, Demonicus was a work for hire that was re-edited before release without my involvement. If you, or anyone else, is interested in me and my films where I really had some control you can find out much about me on www.jaywoelfel.com. My most recent film came out in 2017/2018 and is named ASYLUM OF DARKNESS.
I was delighted to hear from him, and decided to watch Asylum of Darkness, which you can stream on Amazon. Woelfel deserved a chance to show what he could do with his own project.
Asylum of Darkness is a vast improvement on Demonicus. It featured one of the last performances by the late Richard Hatch. The film was shot in 35mm, which gave it not just a professional look, but the look of the kind of pre-digital horror movies it replicates. There are good makeup effects, and plenty of gore ... and by "plenty", I mean plenty.
Woelfel is up to something here ... I have no idea what, but he has a vision, and he pulls it off. It becomes one of those movies that isn't for me, but which probably accomplishes what the film maker set out to do. The plot is completely confusing, and only partly explained by the insanity of the central character. The acting is OK ... in fact, kudos to them, because the need for confusion means they have little to grab onto. It's hard to establish a character when the person you are playing changes every few minutes.
I'm glad I got to see Woelfel's work in a different, non-Demonicus, light. And if you are a fan of gory, good-looking but nonsensical horror, I think you'll like Asylum of Darkness.
This is the second film I have watched in "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." Week 2 is called "Sword and Sorcery Week":
A genre that may seem simplistic and finite, yet is actually filled with unlimited potential for entertainment and allegory. I would suggest trying to stray away from the Lord of the Rings series for this challenge, but really, if you live under a rock and haven't seen them, you probably should use this as an opportunity to do so.
If memory serves, I chose movies for this challenge by looking at suggested possibilities and selecting the shortest movies that were available to me, whether by streaming or my owning the film. Two movies on the Sword and Sorcery list came in at 72 minutes ... Demonicus was on Amazon. Voila!
It was pretty awful. On the one hand, challenges like this offer an opportunity to watch something that might not have otherwise gotten my attention. On the other hand, there's a reason I didn't know Demonicus ... it's a bad movie in a genre I tend to ignore, not because the genre stinks but rather because it's not my cup of tea. (Of the 161 films on the Sword and Sorcery list, I've only seen 8, including Demonicus.)
The plot isn't exactly complicated ... Wikipedia sums it up in two sentences ("A group of young students lost in the Italian Alps become victims of an ancient Gladiator curse. One of the students becomes possessed and hunts down the rest.") It got an R rating for gore. Apparently, there is a director's cut (!). I don't know which version I saw.
The acting is competent, which isn't guaranteed for these kinds of pictures. It cost $40,000, and I guess you could say that every penny is on the screen. Not much is known about the people involved. Director Jay Woelfel co-directed a brief 4-minute proposal for a new Battlestar Galactica put together by Richard Hatch (this was before the Ron Moore breakthrough). Actress Venesa Talor made some soft porn movies and made some records, including the immortal "Who Do I Have to Blow?" (she's a better singer than actor). That's about it. It's "better" than Robot Monster, but I won't ever watch it again, while I catch up with Robot Monster every couple of years.
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).
This cult film is generally considered the first time David Cronenberg connected with a larger audience ... his next film was Videodrome. I'm not a big fan of Cronenberg, although I thought A History of Violence was terrific. So while I can appreciate the importance of Scanners as an early sign from a respected film maker, it didn't do much for me.
The main problem was the acting (in fairness, some people thought the acting was fine). More specifically, the acting when scanners used their powers was ludicrous. The actors were forced to overact with their facial muscles, and it didn't work, at least not for me. The final scene, which featured two scanners in a battle to the death, was the most ridiculous of all ... if one actor overdoing the facial palsy was too much, two actors was over the top.
Patrick McGoohan has shown many times over what a fine actor he is, and he comes across best here, precisely because he is not a scanner, which means he gets to use all of his acting skills rather than just his face. Michael Ironside is another actor who has proven himself over time, and he has some good moments here, but he is also a scanner, which means he is often handicapped by having to rely on his face. Meanwhile, there's Stephen Lack, a painter with little acting experience, which is clear in Scanners, and Jennifer O'Neill, best remembered for her long "Cover Girl" advertising work. No, the acting isn't great in Scanners.
Still, there is the most famous scene, and I'm going to spoil it here, so don't look if you're planning on watching Scanners any time soon.
A few years ago, I wrote about Alex Garland's first film as director that "Ex Machina is a very good movie that suggests Garland will continue to offer intriguing films in the future." Four years later comes Annihilation, which is indeed an intriguing film, albeit one with a troubled history. It was made for Paramount, who got cold feet after a poor preview screening. Netflix ended up distributing the picture outside the U.S. and China (we saw it on Hulu, who as of this writing have the U.S. streaming rights). It bombed at the box office, but has already picked up a cult following.
Annihilation has a good cast, although I don't think they are all used to their best advantage. Jennifer Jason Leigh is always interesting, but here, she seriously underplays her part, which doesn't work as well as I'd like. Natalie Portman is the lead ... she and Leigh lead an expedition into "The Shimmer", an unexplained phenomena that looks gorgeous but is clearly also ominous. In the team are Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, and new-to-me Swede Tuva Novotny. Although nothing is made explicit, the group resembles a typical multi-cultural band of soldiers: the silent leader, the (Jewish) biologist with a military background, the African-American, the Latinx, and the Swede. There's something pleasing about the way Annihilation replaces the usual brotherhood with women, and it is also good that Garland doesn't press the point, allowing us to notice on our own. But between the underplaying and the beautiful Shimmer and the general lack of deep characterization, Annihilation is too slow for its own good. When the gore comes, Garland delivers, and certainly there are those who prefer this kind of intellectual sci-fi thriller to something more crass. But I could have used a little crass.
Oscar Isaac and Benedict Wong also turn up. That Shimmer really is something. It's a movie worth seeing. But it's not up to Ex Machina. #908 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.
The second in a series, "Losing It at the Movies," which is explained here.
In 5001 Nights at the Movies, Kael wrote of Re-Animator:
[T]his horror film about a medical student with a fluorescent greenish-yellow serum that restores the dead to hideous, unpredictable activity is close to being a silly ghoulie classic—the bloodier it gets, the funnier it is. It’s like pop Buñuel; the jokes hit you in a subterranean comic zone that the surrealists’ pranks sometimes reached, but without the surrealists’ self-consciousness (and art-consciousness). This is indigenous American junkiness, like the Mel Brooks–Gene Wilder Young Frankenstein, but looser and more low-down.
The part I agree with most is that "the bloodier it gets, the funnier it is". For one thing, this should warn off anyone who isn't a fan of excessive buckets of gore. I also realized that it's probably best to spread out your viewings of Re-Animator, so that you forget the funny parts. Then you can laugh all over again.
Barbara Crampton is at the center of what is the most outrageous scene. There's a DVD commentary featuring Crampton and several others involved with the film, and Crampton is hilarious. I'll just quote some of the commentary ... if you've seen the movie, you'll know what she's talking about (and keep in mind, she and everyone else is laughing and having a great time during the commentary):
Crampton: This is my mom's favorite scene. Oh, she loves this part.
Other actor: Look at those lights.
BC: Look at those lights? Look at those breasts! They're right there!
[A bit later]
Actor: You know this scene coming up, where he takes his head right into your crotch?
BC: Well, it doesn't quite go into my crotch, okay?
Actor: David felt spiritually bereft, those were the words he used, he said I feel awful doing this.
BC: Well, he should have!
Actor: It starts with the tongue in the ear, that's when it sent his wife over.
Other actor: It did, after that first screening, she split on him. And this is where it ...
BC: Oh, it's only a movie!
You can listen here:
There's also what I assume is a future in-joke. Three years before Die Hard, frequent mention is made of a scientist named Hans Gruber.
Back when I did that 50 Fave Movies thing, Re-Animator was one of my final cuts. And, for those who found the story of my daughter and Thelma & Louise fun, I'll mention her again. In her younger days, she was an aficionado of slasher movies. (One of the people on my dissertation committee was Carol J. Clover. I told her about my daughter, and how I let her watch pretty much anything, but I drew the line on I Spit on Your Grave. Carol said I should let her watch it. Eventually, I did.) She liked to check out the names of the directors on the video boxes ... she got us to watch From Beyond, which was Stuart Gordon's next movie after Re-Animator.
Kael wasn't the only critic who liked Re-Animator. Roger Ebert called it:
[A] frankly gory horror movie that finds a rhythm and a style that make it work in a cockeyed, offbeat sort of way. It's charged up by the tension between the director's desire to make a good movie, and his realization that few movies about mad scientists and dead body parts are ever likely to be very good. The temptation is to take a camp approach to the material, to mock it, as Paul Morrissey did in "Andy Warhol's Frankenstein." Gordon resists that temptation, and creates a livid, bloody, deadpan exercise in the theater of the undead.
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.