creature feature saturday: return of the fly (edward bernds, 1959)

No one expects Return of the Fly to be any good. For one thing, no one expected The Fly to be any good, although it surprised a lot of people. The reason for a sequel was obvious ... The Fly grossed $3 million on a $700k budget. It was clear that there would be no point in making a sequel without Vincent Price, and when he saw the first draft of the script, he was impressed and signed on.

But this wasn't like The Terminator, where James Cameron showed he could make money on a budget of $6.4 million and so spent more than $100 million on the sequel. No, the powers that be at 20th Century Fox decided that Vincent Price should be good enough to make a profit. So the script was revised to make the film cheaper (too late, I guess, for Price to opt out). No one other than Price returned from the first film. The Fly was in color, but Return of the Fly was in black-and-white. And when Return of the Fly was released, it was placed on a double-bill with The Alligator People.

There were the usual "let's laugh at this cheap movie" things. The sequel took place 15-20 years after the first, and it was written so that the sets from The Fly could be used again. There was no real attempt to make the film look like time had passed ... Price didn't look any different, clothes and cars were the same. Brett Halsey, a handsome fellow and not a bad actor, played the boy from the first movie. And most of the plot was just a remake, rather than a sequel, to the first, i.e. man gets caught in transporter with a house fly.

And the Fly Head on top of Halsey (to be more accurate, on top of a stunt man) looked ludicrous, a real problem because we saw much more of the head than we had in the original. Not to mention Halsey had a Fly Head, a Fly Hand, and a Fly Foot, but when we saw the little fly of "Help meeee!" fame, it had Halsey's head but its own claw and foot.

Yet somehow, it works on a basic level. There's an attempt at a plot involving skullduggery, and really, no matter how cheap, there's something icky about becoming part man, part fly.

But I don't want to go too far. It's not very good, and there's no real reason to watch it as long as The Fly is out there. 5/10.

 


by request: final girl (tyler shields, 2015)

This movie is a piece of junk that doesn't deserve much discussion. I was going to add the trailer, but even it is boring. It marks the directorial debut for Tyler Shields, better known for his work as a photographer ... he's the one who took the photo of Kathy Griffin holding up a severed head that looked like Donald Trump. Abigail Breslin stars, trying to show everyone she's grown up now. It cost $8 million to make, and didn't even make that small amount back, although it's hard to be sure, since it was barely released before going to On Demand. It looks evocative, and with that, I've paid it all the compliments I can muster. The title has no real relation to Carol J. Clover's landmark work.

What interests me more is why we watched it in the first place. As noted above, this was a request. I asked my wife if she wanted to watch a movie, and we began the arduous process of picking something to watch. It had to be something we agreed on. Since she knits constantly during the movie, subtitles are out, and in these instances, she prefers something she's either already seen or knows will be relatively mindless, since she won't be paying very close attention. She also does what I assume is pretty normal ... as we scroll through titles, she wants to know who is in the movie. She is unconcerned about critical acclaim or the lack of same.

We were going to end up watching a horror movie, and I guess Final Girl seemed OK, albeit we had low expectations. Of course, even those were not met. At one point, I said maybe she just didn't like good movies. Surprisingly, she agreed with me.

Now, I watch a lot of junk, like 50s monster movies and the like. But most of the time, I'm looking for the critical favorites. It's why I enjoy having a "By Request" on occasion, because it gets me out of my own preferences. And when that request turns into Final Girl, I'll say hey, it's only 84 minutes, how bad could it be? Also, in fairness, I really liked Get Out, which was another "let's watch a movie together" film.

But when I watch something like Final Girl, I worry that two people will never be able to compromise enough to pick a movie both will like. More often than not, you end up with the lowest common denominator. And I end up thinking that, no matter how badly I want to share a favorite like In the Mood for Love with the one I love, my biggest concern is that she won't like it. Better that she never sees it, than that I find out she doesn't love it.

Oh yeah, a rating. Final Girl: 3/10.


get out (jordan peele, 2017)

Prior to this film, Jordan Peele was known mainly for Key & Peele, the skit-comedy he worked on with Keegan-Michael Key. Get Out is only funny on the margins. It is, in fact, a horror film, and is Peele's first time in the director's chair. It tells the story of Chris, a black man with a white girlfriend who is going to her home to meet the family.

The horror mechanics help Get Out achieve a general popularity, and I suppose it could be treated as a simple genre enterprise. But that would be selling the film short. For Peele offers his story from a specific perspective, in this case, that of a black man in America. This adds a layer of satire to the genre conventions. But Peele wants to go deeper. He is using the horror genre to show us what life is like for black men. The horror comes not only from the science-fictiony story, but from the way Get Out exposes the undercurrents within which African-Americans must deal with that most dangerous of enemies, the white liberal.

Peele has said he was worried about the box office potential for Get Out. "I thought, ‘What if white people don’t want to come see the movie because they’re afraid of being villain-ized with black people in the crowd? What if black people don’t want to see the movie because they don’t want to sit next to a white person while a black person is being victimized on-screen?’" His concerns were well-taken, but ultimately, Get Out was too good to be stopped. Made for under $5 million, Get Out grossed more than $250 million worldwide, and inspired countless Internet memes, arguably the primary way today to prove something has entered the public consciousness. 

Get Out also has one of the highest ratings on the critical compilation site, Rotten Tomatoes: 99%. Only two of 289 reviewers gave the movie a negative review, and one of those was still 3 out of 5. (The one truly negative review came from Armond White, whose piece was titled, "Return of the Get-Whitey Movie".)

I'm reminded of what Issa Rae, the creator of the fine series Insecure, said. "In creating and writing the show, this is not for dudes. It's not for white people. It's the show that I imagined for my family and friends. That's what I think of when I'm writing the scenes. ... I want to be a pop culture staple. I want a place in the culture ... I want people to reference this show and identify with the characters for years to come."

I was also struck by something that arrived today in my inbox. In her newsletter, Alyssa Rosenberg wrote:

So often when we talk about diversity, we talk about it in terms of identification. People are starving to see themselves represented on the page and the screen; they’re desperate to hear their stories told. All of this is absolutely true, and it’s inexplicably dumb that the entertainment industry doesn’t seek to capitalize on the obvious market represented by this hunger. And representation can obviously have good, affirming effects on people who feel that their lives and their experiences are affirmed when they’re reflected back at them.

But this isn’t the whole story, nor is it the entire case for telling new and previously marginalized stories in mass culture. People who are already fulsomely represented also have a lot to gain by getting access to new stories. Pop culture is one window into the world around us, to places and to communities that may not be geographically proximate or readily accessible for other reasons. When you’re overwhelmed by your own thoughts or worries, it can be immensely valuable to immerse yourselves in dilemmas or perspectives that have nothing to do with our own, if only as a temporary relief.

There are times that this sort of curiosity can veer over into tourism, or into a pornography of someone else’s suffering. But that’s a case not against cross-cultural and cross-community inquisitiveness, but for more fizzy Asian and Asian American romances like “Crazy Rich Asians,” more epic love stories like “Exit West,” more experimental and deeply felt portraits like “Moonlight.” Pop culture should provide us all with recognition and escape. It can’t do that for everyone if all pop culture is the same.

When Issa Rae says she writes for her friends and family, she isn't saying she wants her audience limited to the people she writes for. She wants a place in the culture, but wants to make that space out of her own experiences, not those of others.

Get Out plays with the usual tropes of horror movies, but the subtext is practically the text. The essential horror of Get Out lies in the dangers for black Americans trying to maneuver their way through the dominant white culture.

Peele has said his title was inspired by an Eddie Murphy routine in Delirious:

The humor in the sketch lies in the ways white people are blind about the signs that a situation is dangerous. As Murphy says, if a house told him to get out, he'd get out. What makes Get Out so effective, though, is that even though Chris is well-aware of the realities in his situation, it takes him forever to get out, because it's hard even for Chris to realize how deep this evil goes. And once he falls into the "Sunken Place", it seems impossible to ever escape. At one point, Peele tweeted, "The Sunken Place means we're marginalized. No matter how hard we scream, the system silences us."

Get Out refuses to be silent. 9/10.


creature feature saturday: bedlam (mark robson, 1946)

Another Val Lewton production, his last for RKO, this one "suggested by" a painting by Hogarth. Lewton and director Mark Robson wrote the screenplay, and Boris Karloff joined Lewton for the third and last time. Anna Lee, who had been in films since 1932, and whose career lasted long enough that she was a featured player for many years on General Hospital, was the female lead. Karloff plays Sims, the head of St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum, known colloquially as "Bedlam", and Lee plays Nell Bowen, a woman upset with the barbaric treatment of the "patients" (i.e. inmates) at the asylum. Sims manages to get Nell committed to his asylum, and ... well, I'll avoid too many spoilers.

Karloff is great in this one, showing glimpses of the human hiding beneath the sadist. There's a sense that the sick people (not just the patients but Sims as well) are formed in part by society, and at the picture's end, we're told that "Reforms were begun in 1773--a new hospital was erected shortly afterward--and since that time Bedlam--once a by-word for terror and mistreatment--has led the way to enlightened and sensible treatment of the mentally ill."

You don't really watch this for the history, of course. There aren't any shock-scares ... the film relies on a general unease, with Karloff ever-present and ever-creepy and Lee trapped in the asylum. There's all the atmosphere you expect from a Val Lewton movie. The supporting cast includes Ian "Hey, It's That Guy" Wolfe and Jason Robards Sr. Everything is done in a tidy 79 minutes. There were some great movies in 1946 (My Darling Clementine, The Big Sleep, Notorious), but Bedlam is a good a horror movie as any other from that year, at least that I've seen. 7/10.

Here, Sims uses his inmates to put on a show for the rich:

 


it's halloween, so go watch the babadook

Looking for a movie to watch on Halloween? I recommend The Babadook. I wrote about it two years ago:

The Babadook is an Australian horror film, the first feature from director/writer Jennifer Kent (an ex-actor). The cast was unknown to me (Essie Davis, the star, seems to be known mostly for her stage work). The film was partly funded via Kickstarter. You could watch it as a standard horror film about a monster that comes from a book, and it definitely works on that level. But it is also ripe for detailed analysis, particularly from a feminist angle. The main character isn’t the titular monster, nor is it the frightened and disturbed young boy who initially seems to be its target. No, this is a movie about a mother’s grief, and Davis plays the entire spectrum from holding-it-together to flat-out-losing-it in a moving and believable way. Kent’s eye is remarkable for a first-time director (with excellent work from Polish cinematographer Radek Ladczuk and book designed Alex Juhasz). She also worked hard to draw a strong performance from young newcomer Noah Wiseman, while also doing her best to avoid exploiting the child during emotionally intense scenes. The Babadook is better than a simple plot description might suggest, and I recommend it to most people (as the IMDB notes, it includes “Definite trigger warnings for anyone who had a violent or abusive relationship with parents”, so I can’t recommend it to everyone).

The Babadook is currently ranked #563 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

 


creature feature saturday: i walked with a zombie (jacques tourneur, 1943)

The writing credits for I Walked with a Zombie on IMDB include the following: "Charlotte Brontë (novel) (uncredited)". The story is that producer Val Lewton didn't like the title, or the story on which the film was to be based, so he instructed his writers to use Jane Eyre as a basis for the story. (Wikipedia lists I Walked with a Zombie on its page dedicated to "Adaptations of Jane Eyre".)

Frances Dee plays a nurse from Canada (she's the Jane Eyre stand-in, I guess) who takes a job caring for a woman (Jessica Holland ... Mr. Rochester's wife?) who lives on a Caribbean island. The woman is a "zombie" due to a fever she acquired ... she has no willpower of her own, so she needs full-time care. There's a romance involved (the nurse falls in love with "Rochester"), and a backstory that explains that the Hollands brought slavery to the island. The treatment of zombies is intriguing. For the natives, voodoo is a part of life, and to some extent, the film adopts this stance. There is a careful refusal to come down on the side of either rationalism or mysticism. The supernatural elements might be "real" ... they might be brought on by the Holland family's connection with slavery. This, combined with the smart use of shadows, make for an atmosphere full of portent, all done on a tiny budget. While the acting is adequate, that atmosphere is what puts I Walked with a Zombie among the classics of horror. And it's all done in 68 minutes.

It should be obvious that this is not a typical zombie movie. It's easy to understand why Lewton didn't like the title. #580 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, 8/10.

 


creature feature saturday: the black cat (edgar g. ulmer, 1934)

Once again, as is often the case with these "Creature Features", the trivia behind the film is as interesting as what is on the screen. The difference here is that The Black Cat is actually a good movie.

I saw it when I was a kid, probably on our own local Creature Features show. All I remembered of it was that someone got skinned alive. Since that didn't happen until the last couple of minutes of the movie, I started wondering if I'd misremembered (I hadn't).

This was the first film to co-star Boris Karloff (here billed simply as "Karloff") and Bela Lugosi (they eventually made eight movies together). They are both good, if you like their acting ... Karloff is ominous but restrained, Lugosi is hammy. Lugosi is nominally the good guy here, as a doctor imprisoned during WWI (or something like that ... the movie isn't clear). Karloff did bad things during that war, and Lugosi has come to make him pay. (The actors' characters have names, but why bother with them? It's Karloff and Lugosi.) David Manners and Julie Bishop (billed as Jacqueline Wells) play American newlyweds, and are properly boring. Both lead actors have odd obsessions with Bishop's wife.

The movie is quite bizarre ... Kael accurately described it as a "nutty, nightmarish mélange of Black Masses and chess games, shadows and dungeons, Satanism and necrophilia." Karloff has a bunch of dead women hanging around in some form of suspended post-lifeness. One of them is Lugosi's former wife. Meanwhile, Karloff has married Bela's daughter.

Lugosi has a deadly fear of cats ... the first time he sees a black cat, he recoils, pulls a knife, and throws it at the cat, killing it instantly. This is about as close as the movie comes to explaining the title, which was used mostly so Universal could say it was "suggested by a story by Edgar Allan Poe" (the film has nothing to do with Poe's story).

It all sounds silly, and it is, but it gets out of the way in 65 minutes, the two leads are good, and everything is atmospheric in that Edgar G. Ulmer way. Ulmer made a gazillion movies, almost all of them Grade-Z pictures, almost all of them with enough recognizable Ulmer touches that he became a favorite of auteurist film critics. The Black Cat is one of his best, but it was also a curse for Ulmer. During the making of the film, he began an affair with a woman whose husband was the nephew of the studio head at Universal. There was a divorce, and a marriage ... Ulmer and his wife, Shirley, remained married until his death. But he was blackballed, and was resigned to miniscule budgets the rest of his career. His best film was Detour, sometimes called the greatest B-movie of all time. The Black Cat doesn't reach those heights, but it is several notches above the average Creature Feature. And the scene where Karloff gets skinned alive is quite remarkable. 7/10.

 


by request: the thing (john carpenter, 1982)

Given that The Thing is an accepted part of the modern horror canon, it's interesting that it wasn't a success when it was released. It did relatively poorly at the box office (blame for this is usually placed at the hands of E.T., the optimistic film that had opened a few weeks earlier). John Carpenter calls The Thing his favorite of his movies, and he says he was hit hard when the movie didn't perform. The critics didn't like it, either, although again, the film's reputation has improved over time. I've usually found Carpenter an oddly overrated director. I like most of his movies I have seen, but "like" is the operative word ... in my mind, none of the ones I've seen approach classic status. I remember liking Big Trouble in Little China quite a bit when it came out, but after I'd seen some of the HK films that influenced it, I felt Carpenter hadn't really met their standards.

The same can be said of The Thing. Carpenter loves the original ... some of this version is a clear homage to the 1951 Nyby/Hawks film. Carpenter is known as a Hawks fanatic. He doesn't let the homage go too far, though, because for the basic plot, Carpenter returns to the original story by John W. Campbell Jr. The thing changes form, so in any particular moment, it might look just like a person you know. Given the setting (men isolated in Antarctica), the paranoia sets in quickly ... as the title of Campbell's work asks, "Who Goes There?" This is an intriguing premise ... I don't blame Carpenter for wanting to explore it, even though it is unrelated to the Hawks' film, where the alien is just a giant carrot played by James Arness.

But, as I recall, when it came out, The Thing was known for its gore and its special effects. You might talk after the movie about the paranoia angle, but what got you into the theater, what impressed while watching, was the "ooooh" that accompanied the "best" scenes. Nothing wrong with that ... but ultimately, that's all The Thing is about. Alien, which had come out in 1979, had some similar shocks, but Ridley Scott built up to them. And while Alien and The Thing both share the "isolated working group" setting, the characters are much better defined in Scott's movie. In fact, this is the biggest reason the Carpenter remake isn't up to the original. I saw that original a few months ago, and thinking back on the cast of "hey it's that guys", I realize I still remember some of the character names, like "Scotty" the journalist. I saw the remake just last night, and I'm not sure I can remember any of the characters' names. Instead, I remember Kurt Russell and Wilford Brimley and T.K. Carter and Richard Masur. The Thing is well cast ... Carpenter can use his actors as archetypes because the actors fit the parts ... but any character development would just get in the way of the next gory FX scene.

The Thing works because Carpenter effectively parcels out the scares. But he never lets the audience get beyond that feeling of dread ... what's next? ... and while that's a fine thing to pull off, it mostly stands on its own. The implications of the paranoia angle are only important in the film as a way of increasing the dread.

None of this means I don't like The Thing. It's one of my favorite John Carpenter movies. But over the years, I've decided that John Carpenter movies are never great movies. If you can make a handful of pretty good movies, you've accomplished something. But you aren't Howard Hawks. #314 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. (The original doesn't even make the list, which tells you what I think about TSPDT in this case.) 7/10.

 


creature feature saturday double bill

The Ghost Galleon (Amando de Ossorio, 1974). AKA Ghost Ships of the Blind Dead, Horror of the Zombies, Ship of Zombies, Zombie Flesh Eater, and The Blind Dead 3 (yes, it's a sequel, sort of). It's amazing to think there is more than one of these. As best as I can figure out, the "blind dead" are Templar knights whose eyes were torn out for their dabblings in the dark arts. They are zombies, the slowest-moving zombies in movie history, with no eyes. The plot doesn't matter, but if you're interested, here is the Amazon description of the film: "A boatload of stranded swimsuit models discover a mysterious ghost ship that carries the coffins of the satanic Templar, eyeless zombies who hunt humans by sound." Nothing is delivered ... the swimsuit models never get out of their clothes, the "boatload" consists of two women, and I'm not sure how we're supposed to figure out the thing about sound. Austrian lead Maria Perschy made movies with Huston and Hawks in the early-60s. Male lead, American Jack Taylor, was in more than a hundred movies, many of them Mexican and Spanish horror films. Bárbara Rey was Miss Madrid 1970. Rey actually has the best scene, when she is taken by the zombies. They are mostly doing their slow-moving arm waving, but Rey exhibits real fear for a couple of minutes before they cut off her head and eat her. The low budget is particularly noteworthy whenever we see the titular ship in long shot ... it looks like something Ernie would play with alongside his rubber ducky. The zombies look scary in a unique way, which lasts until they "move". The inside of the galleon is shot in spooky ways ... this would be the best part of the movie, except the film moves slower than a Templar zombie, so even the good parts are boring. 4/10.

The Corpse Vanishes (Wallace Fox, 1942). With a lot of these crappy B-movies, it's easier to just talk trivia ... there's little to say about the movie itself. Well, there is some classic dialogue, like when Bela Lugosi (who cares what the character's name is) is asked if he makes a habit of collecting coffins. "Why yes," he replies, "in a manner of speaking. I find a coffin much more comfortable than a bed.  Many people do so, my dear." Lugosi, who was 60, made so many bad movies that it's easy to forget they didn't all suck. The same year as this one, he made The Ghost of Frankenstein, which wasn't terrible, and only three years earlier, he had been in Ninotchka. But The Corpse Vanishes was bad. It came from the Poverty Row studio Monogram Pictures, and one of the producers was the legendary "Jungle Sam" Katzman. It was featured in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The characters included another legend, Angelo Rossitto, as a dwarf (Rossitto's long career stretched from Freaks to Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome). The plot involves Lugosi stealing dead brides-to-be (he is the one who kills them ... they die at the altar ... oh yeah, they don't really die, they just exist in some type of coma) so he can extract something from them to inject into his ancient wife, resulting in that wife becoming young again. Oh, why do I bother? The only good thing about The Corpse Vanishes is that it is over in 64 minutes. 3/10.

 

 


train to busan (yeon sang-ho, 2016)

Genre fare often offers implicit commentary on the state of social affairs (sometimes it's explicit). This can be illuminating when you are familiar with the social context, but I feel I am missing something when I watch films from other countries. So I know that Train to Busan is seen by some as an allegory for Korean politics, but I don't know enough about the topic to be able to identify the allegory. It's not that the allegory is missing, it's that I am missing the allegory.

Which thus leaves me to react to Train to Busan on its genre elements. And on that level, this is a terrific movie. Wikipedia calls it a "zombie apocalypse action thriller", and that pretty much gets it. The zombies are of the fast-moving variety. One article by Ezra Klein suggests that such zombies  are "too fast to be truly scary", and a case can be made that the slower version of zombies have a better chance of taking over the world. But the fast ones are indeed scary in the immediate sense, especially when there are lots of them. This was the case in World War Z, but the huge budget for that movie seemed to make it more a special-effects extravaganza than a character-driven thriller.

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. 8/10.