death bell (hong-seung yoon, 2008)

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.


what i watched

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.


demonicus (jay woelfel, 2001)

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.

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Sword and Sorcery film.

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.


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


scanners (david cronenberg, 1981)

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.


annihilation (alex garland, 2018)

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.


losing it at the movies: re-animator (stuart gordon, 1985)

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.


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.


under the skin (jonathan glazer, 2013)

Occasionally I state upfront that a particular movie was not made for me, which is another way of saying that all else being equal, I won't appreciate some of its qualities, but I can't necessarily dismiss it just because it's not my cup of tea. And so I give you Under the Skin, an arty, fuzzy movie about an alien's visit to earth. At least, I think that's what we're seeing ... nothing is very concrete in Under the Skin, and again, I might wish for more clarity, but Jonathan Glazer was up to something else.

Scarlett Johansson is that alien, and she spends most of the movie driving around Scotland, picking up men. Her purpose seems to be to collect these men for some unstated alien purpose. Thus, Johansson is well-cast ... the alien can apparently take on the form of any human, and since the alien lures men, it makes sense that one of the hottest actresses in Hollywood plays the role. Right from the start, you can assume that whatever man she picks up will offer little resistance to the opportunity to get busy with Scarlett Johansson. Tied to this is the way it was made known that Johansson would be appearing nude in the movie. I imagine more than one person thought this was reason enough to see the film, much as the victims in the movie don't see the peril they are in. And, just as the men in the movie are disappointed (to say the least) when they find they won't be getting any intimate time with Scarlett, those men who bought their tickets because Johansson got naked would be disappointed to learn that the movie is a murky (in more ways than one ... it's often hard to see what is going on) mélange of sci-fi obscurities, purposely slow-moving and unrevealing.

Honestly, I found little to like as I watched Under the Skin, although afterwards, I felt more kindly, blaming myself for not liking it instead of blaming the movie for being bad. I've read some interesting, positive reviews of the film ... Kelsey Ford's piece, "Slashed Beauty: On Female Masks in The Skin I Live In, Eyes Without a Face, and Under the Skin" at the Bright Wall/Dark Room website is especially good, not least because she writes about a favorite of mine, Eyes Without a Face. In my role as a recommendation service, I'd say hunt down Eyes Without a Face before you spent time with Under the Skin, but as usual, your mileage may vary. Meanwhile, Under the Skin is #78 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Top 4 Scarlett Johansson movies, by release date:

  • Ghost World (2001)
  • Lost in Translation (2003)
  • Her (2013)
  • Hail, Caesar! (2016)