bloodsucking bastards (brian james o’connell, 2015)

This is the seventh film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "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 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 7 is called Vampires of the New Millennium Week:

These creatures are immortal, both in life and in film. Sure they've been around forever, but what have they been up to lately? Maybe you'd like to find out.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen vampire film released in 2000 or later.

Bloodsucking Bastards has some similarities with Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley's remarkable directing debut from 2018. The comparisons, though, are almost all in favor of the later film.

Both movies show contemporary office work environments that are boring and repetitious. Both feature supernatural angles. And that's where things go downhill for Bloodsucking Bastards.

Riley's fantasy/farce is filled with pointed social commentary that doesn't get in the way of the film. Bloodsucking Bastards has little subtext at all ... it's a vampire movie in an office setting, and that's about it. Which means the vampire story better be good. And, I regret to say, it's not. Sorry to Bother You is also loony, usually in a good way, but in any event, Riley was willing to try anything. Brian James O'Connell's film was much more straightforward. He makes ingenious use of his low budget, and attracts actors who fit their roles and do well by them. But the slow buildup is more slow than buildup, and the revelations of the plot aren't all that unusual for a vampire movie.

Part of me thinks it's unfair to compare the two movies. But as I was watching Bloodsucking Bastards, I kept thinking of Sorry to Bother You, and I never thought I was seeing a better movie. Oh, and it's a comedy. Among the other possible choices for this week's challenge were Let the Right One In, a favorite of mine, and Only Lovers Left Alive, which I also preferred to the one I ended up with.


creature feature: the skull (freddie francis, 1965)

Amicus Productions came out of England in 1962, but it was founded by Americans. Their horror films are a lot like Hammer, probably on purpose. The Skull is directed by Hammer stalwart Freddie Francis and stars Peter Cushing and, in a smaller role, Christopher Lee. It is based on a short story by Psycho novelist Robert Bloch, "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade", and the title of that story pretty much explains the plot. After his death, the Marquis' skull is stolen from his grave, and it carries with it an evil that travels across time to the present day (I was surprised when people in The Skull turned on lights and rode in cars ... I didn't realize we'd moved past the 19th-century prologue).

The whole thing is loony nonsense, but Cushing effectively makes us believers, at least for the 83-minute running time. (Even at 83 minutes, The Skull is stretched thin ... there's a lot of filler.) Francis gives us some ingenious looks, in particular some shots from a point-of-view inside the skull. While the effect of the skull floating ominously in space sounds silly, it's actually effectively scary. The music is by Elisabeth Lutyens, an interesting figure of some note. She was a composer of some repute, and the first woman to score a British film.

None of the above raises The Skull much beyond the norm for 60s horror, but it's reasonably entertaining.


creature feature: strait-jacket (william castle, 1964)

Not all Creature Features are the same. This one stars Joan Crawford, and that right there is a big difference from the norm. It wasn't the only time Crawford worked in the "Psycho-biddy" (aka Hag Horror) genre. In fact, she was there at the beginning, in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? While they weren't psycho-biddy, her last two movies were called Berserk! and Trog. Point being, Crawford gives Strait-Jacket some star power, but the end of her career stuck her in several similar pictures.

The screenplay was by Robert Bloch, who wrote the novel on which Hitchcock's Psycho was based. Beyond Crawford and Bloch, though, the key figure in Strait-Jacket was the legendary producer/director William Castle. Castle was best known for his promotional gimmicks, which he gave names to: "Emergo", "Percepto", "Illusion-O". "Percepto" was used for The Tingler, one of the stupidest movies ever (the title character was a parasite attached to human spines that emerged whenever someone was really scared). Stupid, yes, but the gimmick was classic: at some theaters, a vibrating device was placed under some seats, and when, in the movie, a Tingler escapes in a movie theater, those seats vibrated. The odd thing was, growing up and watching these movies on TV, minus the gimmicks, they were still enjoyable.

Strait-Jacket was relatively low-key in this context: audience members were given cardboard axes as they entered the theater.

As for the movie, Crawford gives her all, even managing on occasion to avoid the kind of hammy overacting you expect from a camp picture like this. She doesn't embarrass herself, and that's probably all we can ask. An uncredited Lee Majors makes his first big-screen appearance. Diane Baker is fine as Crawford's daughter. Crawford had a lot of control over the movie ... she made sure to stick a six-pack of Pepsi in one scene, and the man who plays her doctor in the film was non-actor Mitchell Cox, who was a Vice-President at Pepsi. Other than completists, I don't know that fans of Crawford need to see this, but fans of William Castle will enjoy it, if they haven't already seen it.


creature feature: the curse of the werewolf (terence fisher, 1961)

Decent Hammer film, but no more than that. Oliver Reed plays the title character ... he only got second billing, though, and was paid only £90 a week. Of course, he doesn't even turn up until halfway through the movie, so maybe the billing and the paychecks were appropriate. Probably the most interesting other person in the cast was Anthony Dawson, who was a bad guy in 3 of the first 4 Bonds, twice as Blofeld.

This is the only werewolf film made by Hammer Studios. It was also the first werewolf film to be shot in color. It looks OK, as most Hammer films did. As I said about The Brides of Dracula, "the Hammer films were a step above the usual" for late-night Creature Feature TV shows. But this fact, plus the presence of Oliver Reed (who admittedly makes a good werewolf), don't make The Curse of the Werewolf into a good movie. It drags, especially during the first half, and characters that seem important disappear later in the film. Worst of all, the film takes place in "Spain", so while everyone speaks with a British accent, their names are Don Alfredo and Leon and Christina Fernando. Once in a while, someone calls someone "Señor," and it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.


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.


possession (andrzej zulawski, 1981)

Wow.

That first word isn't meant to imply that Possession is a great movie, or even a good one. But see it once, and you won't forget it.

It's so hard to pigeonhole the movie that the best description I've seen has J. Hoberman of the Village Voice essentially throwing up his hands:

Made with an international cast in still-divided Berlin, the movie starts as an unusually violent breakup film, takes an extremely yucky turn toward Repulsion-style psychological breakdown, escalates into the avant-garde splatterific body horror of the ’70s (Eraserhead or The Brood), and ends in the realm of pulp metaphysics as in I Married a Monster From Outer Space.

The violent breakup all by itself is so intense it is often hard to sit through. Isabelle Adjani plays Anna, an unhappy wife married to Sam Neill's Mark. "Unhappy" doesn't really get it, though ... "possessed" is a better word for what Anna is going through, although it takes a long time for Zulawski to get to what that might actually mean. Adjani is one of France's most honored actresses ... she has won five César Best Actress awards, a record (the Césars are the French equivalent of the Oscars ... she has two Oscar nominations as well). She got her first César for Possession, and it's easy to see why. The part is over the top, and she plays it to the hilt ... you can't take your eyes off of her, for better or worse. She's extreme, which isn't necessarily excessive ... Anna is extreme. Next to Adjani, Sam Neill can only look astonished, which is also appropriate for the part.

I expected an incoherent film, which wasn't the case. Zulawski starts in the middle, and doesn't concern himself much with hand-holding, even when the plot turns fantastical. But mostly he runs right past any notion of coherence, just making sure there is never a dull moment, even if it is occasionally incoherent.

Adjani really is amazing, but at a price ... she has said that playing Anna took a long time to get over, and there are rumors that she tried suicide (rumors encouraged by Zulawski, who almost seems proud of the fact). Your opinion of her performance in Possession will depend in large part on how much you appreciate this kind of acting.

The U.S. release was botched ... it's hard to pin down the facts, but about 40 minutes of the 124-minute film were cut, and other changes were made. This made a film which was already complicated into something incomprehensible, and it was pounded by critics. Time has been kinder ... it is now #611 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

Here is the most famous scene from the film. I'd give a Spoiler Alert, but I'm not sure a movie like this can be hurt by spoilers. (Directing the scene, Zulawski helped told Adjani to "fuck the air".)


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.


geezer cinema/film fatales #86: relic (natalie erika james, 2020)

Natalie Erika James has done a little of everything in the film business, and now with Relic, she has directed a feature, as well. She is new enough that she doesn't have a Wikipedia page as of this writing, and her IMDB bio is equally blank. Relic should change all of that.

Relic is a horror movie, I suppose ... depending on your mood, you might be frightened at times. (At one point, I told my wife that the movie was scary because nothing was happening. She said no, it's simply that nothing is happening. Yes, replied, that's what makes it scary ... you don't know what is coming! I liked it a lot more than she did.) It is a slow movie, but it's also brief (89 minutes) and it picks up in the last half hour, where it most resembles a typical horror film.

There are three generations of women in the family that appears in the film: Edna, her daughter Kay, and Kay's grown-up daughter Sam. While the film doesn't tell us their ages, the ages of the actors suffices, I think: Robyn Nevin (77), Emily Mortimer (48), and Bella Heathcote (33). Edna lives along in a big house in the woods. There are mysteries about that house, but James doesn't get specific, and for most of the film, Kay and Sam just assume Edna is suffering from dementia (which may be true, but which doesn't necessarily explain events).

We in the audience are always disoriented. James and cinematographer Charlie Sarroff accomplish this mostly by using odd angles, with mirrors turning up in unusual places. We don't always realize we are looking at a reflection. And more than once, there is a shift in perspective that throws us off. A person opens a door, and we never know if the next shot will be from their point of view, or from the view on the other side of the door. It's very subtle, but it works, perhaps more so because we don't really recognize it as it's happening.

James draws a parallel between our unease and that of a person with dementia, never sure what is real or what actually happened. But, as with everything in Relic, James isn't about to state anything clearly and obviously. Thus, when the movie was over, my wife still thought nothing happened, and I couldn't really argue with her. It's not that kind of horror movie. But it insinuates itself into the viewer. James is a talent to watch.

(Here is a letterboxd list of Film Fatales movies.)

This marks the 50th movie Robin and I have watched during our We're Retired Geezers, Let's Go to the Movies Once a Week program. We saw 32 in a theater before the quarantine began, 18 at home. Here is a letterboxd list of Geezer Cinema movies.


revisiting train to busan (yeon sang-ho, 2016)

Nothing was going right. I tried to order dinner for delivery and kept failing. We decided to watch a movie, picked Martha Marcy May Marlene, and the Blu-ray didn't work. I threw up my hands and watched Train to Busan again.

I wrote about it three years ago, and I'll cut-and-paste some here:

Train to Busan is constructed like a classic thriller. Right from the start, there are intimations of the horrors to come, but they are only intimations. Still, the suspense is serious (after all, we know the zombies are coming). And once the zombies arrive (fairly quickly), the suspense is replaced with open-jawed thrills.

Two things in particular make Train to Busan impressive. First, there is a dedication to the characters, who are painted in quick scenes but who always feel slightly more than stock from the genre's closet. We care about the characters, which isn't a necessary component to a zombie thriller, but it does lift this movie a bit above the rest. Second, the zombies really are impressive. It's not just that they are fast, it's that they feel real. I don't know how much, if any, CGI Yeon used, but it's very old-school in its presentation, as if instead of going straight to the computer, they actually hired a bunch of extras. Yeon's previous work was in animation, and the zombies have the kind of physics-defying qualities you'll see in cartoons.

The tension is mostly non-stop, with little time to take a breath. I don't suppose Train to Busan will appeal to people who don't like zombie movies, but it certainly ranks high within the genre.

The only thing I'd add is that it fit right in with our times. The zombie breakout is like a virus, and the government pretends everything is OK. It's not. I really like this movie, and enjoyed a second visit.