February 2nd, 2016
|01:06 pm - B-Fest 2016 Recap|
As has been documented many times in the past, I go every January to a film festival called B-Fest which is held on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. B-Fest runs for 24 hours straight, during which attendees are subjected to some of the best of the worst films ever made. It's not everybody's cup of tea, but it's fun if you like that sort of thing--which I do.
So, this year I was picked up by my friends Jim and Staci, and we returned to Jim's house where we met up with our driver, Sarah, who took us down to the Chicago area. There, we stopped for lunch at Mitsuwa Marketplace, a Japanese mall in Arlington Heights, Illinois. Mitsuwa has changed quite a bit in the twelve years that I've been attending B-Fest, and since I only make it down there once a year it's not unusual for the offerings in the food court to change substantially between my visits. One of our favorite eateries had been replaced, but we all managed to find something to eat. I had katsudon, which is a bowl of rice topped with onions, eggs, and pork. After the meal, we visited the grocery store to stock up on provisions (i.e., weird Pocky and Asian candies) before the final leg of the trip to the university.
4:00 pm Doors open
B-Fest is held at the in the McCormick Auditorium in the Norris Center on the campus of Northwestern University. Parking rules are enforced until 4:00pm, so we try not to arrive early enough to be ticketed. The walk to and from the auditorium always seems unreasonably long, but of course, it isn't. A line into the auditorium had formed by the time we arrived, but we went in the back door to drop off our stuff first. That seems like the sort of thing they'd want to prevent people from doing but it's fine--nobody attends without a ticket. Sometimes they make us stand for a long time, but this year they began taking tickets almost immediately after we got back in line. We staked out three rows of seats but ultimately allowed one of them to be filled out by strangers. The downside of this is that I was largely sequestered from my friends, but it was fine. Maybe it's just as well; I thought I was getting over a cold when B-Fest began, but I'm still suffering from it more than a week later.
Norris Center houses the campus food court which has changed drastically in the years I've attended B-Fest, but there's usually some place to get a sandwich to save for late night, and I ran downstairs to purchase a sub before the show started. When Telstar showed up with his annual B-Fest mix CD, I snagged one of the first copies he handed out. Apparently he set up a crowdfunding campaign to cover the cost of burning a stack of CDs, but I was unaware of it. I gave him a couple of bucks (literally, the only two small bills I had on me), but if he does it again I should probably kick him a bit more dough.
5:50 pm Introduction
This was on the schedule, but it didn't take ten minutes. It was just a "hello and welcome, we're going to get started in a couple of minutes. Please be courteous and the exits are over there and in the back" sort of thing.
6:00 pm The Adventures of Hercules (1985)
I don't think anyone had any idea what was going on in this movie.
Well, that's not entirely true. The second-tier gods have stolen Zeus's seven
horcruxes lightning bolts and hidden them inside monsters scattered around creation. Without his lightning bolts, Zeus is powerless to stop the moon from crashing into the earth. Who can save us? Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, and Ian Holm Lou Ferrigno reprising his role as Hercules. Also appearing is the previously-defeated King Minos, Hercules' arch-enemy, who has just been resurrected by the second-tier gods. Yes, this apparently is a sequel, but I'm not sure that matters unless the details of the plot are important to you.
Unfortunately, the plot details of the first movie at B-Fest are drowned out by the rowdy crowd who are still full of energy and spend the entire movie shouting at the screen. Sometimes I bring earplugs to B-Fest, and that helps; you can hear the movie over the people shouting.
Anyway, I'm not sure the plot matters. The Adventures of Hercules was a good start to the festival, in that it was full of cheap spectacle--visually interesting, but also ridiculous. Lots of monsters, slime people, and a forest filled with hanged statues. This is definitely not a good film, but they were clearly aiming to make a Ray Harryhausen-style mythology epic. It's an Italian production from a time when Italian studios were making a lot of Conan the Barbarian knockoffs (which we call "spaghetti barbarian" movies, incidentally). Cannon Film Group made and distributed a lot of these, and I've always had an indefensible soft spot for them. I'd like to watch this one again.
7:35 pm Caltiki, The Immortal Monster (1959)
Caltiki is another Italian production, this time from Mario Bava, the king of mid-20th century, Italian horror films. I'd actually seen this one before, so I ducked out toward the end to call my wife and stock up on Starbucks for the long haul through the early morning hours. I also decided to watch the film standing up, since I wouldn't be doing much standing for the rest of the festival. I headed to the back of the auditorium and discovered that in fact, there were quite a few people standing up. Some were simply watching the movie, others were having conversations. Space is at a premium once the auditorium begins to fill, so a lot of people had claimed chairs but found it more comfortable to sit against the wall in the back or lean Kilroy was here-style against the partial wall in the back.
Caltiki follows a team of archaeologists who are studying the Mayan civilization. Deep underground, they discover a pool of water beside an idol of the goddess Caltiki. The bottom of the pool is littered with the skeletons of ancient human sacrifices, and since these are movie archeologists rather than real ones, they decide to retrieve the jewelry from the bodies. The diver's cable starts moving erratically, so the team on the surface pulls him up, but by the time he reaches the surface he is dead, and his body strangely decayed. A moment later a giant blob emerges from the pool and attacks the group who flee. As it emerges from the cave, they destroy it by setting fire to it.
Back in the city, small remnants of the blob are studied and it is discovered to be a single-celled organism that grows when exposed to radiation, which would be fine if not for the fact that we're due for a flyby by a radioactive comet which last visited earth 850 years ago--which is about when the Mayan civilization died out. Coincidence?
I can't remember how the movie ends, and I missed it because I was on the phone, but I remember multiple blobs and a lot of fire. Honestly, I tend to confuse this movie with From Hell It Came, which is about a tree monster, and that's the movie I was expecting to watch. Doesn't matter though--Caltiki's kind of fun.
9:00 pm Americathon (1979)
Americathon was the first disappointment of B-Fest '16, though honestly, I'm not sure why I'd have expected it to be any good.
The year is 1998 and the United States is out of money. Really, we're broke and have thirty days to pay off a loan to NIKE (that's the National Indian Knitting Enterprise, not the shoe company). People are living out of their cars which never move because we're out of oil. The office of the president has been relocated to a condo in southern California, and President Chet Roosevelt (John Ritter) has come up with the brilliant idea of running a month-long telethon hosted by Monty Rushmore (Harvey Corman), who in the movie's 1998 is basically what Regis Philbin was in the real 1998. Meanwhile, the an advisor played by Fred Willard is plotting with foreign interests to sell off the U.S. when we default on the loan.
From the movie poster, I was expecting Americathon to be closer to an Airplane!-style screwball comedy, but it moved much more slowly than that and wasn't as densely packed with jokes. The other problem with a movie like this is that its best political jokes are so dated that they don't register as jokes to me; I don't know the people and events they're referencing. Still, it's interesting to see an early performance from Fred Willard, and it's interesting to reflect that a lot of the movie's "jokes" about capitalism and the privatization of government functions have become unfunny realities in the last couple of decades. I can't recommend it, though.
10:30 pm Calling Dr. Death (1943)
I was wide awake for this one but (embarrassingly) my recollection is foggy; from Wikipedia's summary I can see that I remember it, but it didn't make much of an impression.
Calling Dr. Death is a thriller that probably came across as more thrilling and less lukewarm when it was made in 1943. Lon Chaney, Jr. plays a neurologist whose cheating wife refuses to give him a divorce. One Monday morning he awakens with no memory of the weekend and learns that she has been murdered. The police become involved and are reasonably suspicious, so the doctor decides to undergo hypnosis to see if any facts about the weekend can be brought to light.
Calling Dr. Death was tied in with the Inner Sanctum radio show, and Wikipedia tells me that it's the first of six low-budget Inner Sanctum movies, all starring Lon Chaney, Jr. (who I happen to like, in spite of his reputation as an alcoholic who couldn't act). It's fairly representative of the sort of stories that squeezed into 24-minute episodes of the radio show, and at 63 minutes I found it to be pleasant if unremarkable. There's an undefinable threshold between "pleasant diversion" and "annoying waste of time" which has to do with budget and duration, and I tend to be much more forgiving of short, cheap films than I am of lackluster studio productions.
11:45 pm The Wizard of Speed and Time (1979)
What more can be said about The Wizard of Speed and Time? Short, stop-motion animated film about a green-robed wizard who runs around and sings a song. It plays every B-Fest at 11:45, and people crowd up to the front to lay down on the stage and drum their feet along with the running wizard. I tried it once, didn't see the appeal. There is a certain novelty to projecting a film these days, so I'm sure they won't stop playing their original, celluloid copy until it wears out. I do wish, though, that they'd start using a digital copy because there are nicer, cleaner copies available online.
In fact, what I'd really like is for B-Fest to show the feature-length version of The Wizard of Speed and Time which was made about five years later. Sure, it's a self-indulgent, right-wing, anti-union screed, but it's just so darn much fun! I'm sure they'll never be able to secure the rights to show it.
12:00 am Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959)
...and following WoSaT, the always play Plan 9 From Outer Space at midnight. Widely considered to be the worst film ever made, Plan 9 is only the worst film most people have the patience to sit through. It's an alien/zombie movie which is considerably more watchable than, say, Teenage Zombies (which is also not the worst movie ever--but close). At B-Fest, people bring paper plates to throw at the screen whenever the UFOs are onscreen, and I like to catch as many as I can, take them home, and scan them. Unfortunately, I've discovered that I *really* like sitting next to the wall because you can sleep on the floor and probably not get stepped on by people climbing over the seats. The way most people throw their plates sends them toward the front, stage right and I was on stage left, so I didn't catch very many. All in all, I think I value the wall seat more than I value the paper plates, no matter how clever they are.
I did return a couple of plates into circulation that I've been holding on to. One had a glow-in-the-dark stencil of Ed Wood's face, and the other had a nicely done stencil of GlaDOS as a potato from the video game Portal 2. Somebody else deserves to enjoy them. I also returned one that said "Put your penis in my butt, now you're eating a coconut." I couldn't find an actual joke on that plate, so I assume it's just too droll for me.
1:35 am The Human Tornado (1976)
This one was my second favorite movie of the festival, which is kind of what I expected. Apparently it's a sequel to Dolemite, a classic blaxploitation film which, embarrassingly, I have not seen.
Prior knowledge of Dolemite is not necessary, though, and The Human Tornado is pretty much exactly what I was hoping it would be. Rudy Ray Moore plays a pimp/standup comedian who throws a party to unwind after returning home from a tour. Unfortunately, a hillbilly and his elderly mother happen to notice Folks With Darker Skin Than Their Own (that's not the nomenclature they use) and make a call to the local sheriff who shows up with a posse of gun-totin' good ol' boys. The sheriff's wife, unbeknownst to him, has been paying Dolemite for uh, Things Her Husband Won't Do, and when the sheriff discovers this he attempts to shoot Dolemite but kills his wife instead. It is time to get out of town, and Dolemite wastes no time in doing so.
He goes west to see Queen Bee, the proprietor of a brothel and costar of the first movie, but learns that she's being forced out of business by the local mob boss. Dolemite pledges his Sweet Nunchuck Skills against the mobster.
Look, I like blaxploitation movies. They're modern enough not to get boring (unlike, say, the "suspenseful thriller" Calling Dr. Death which plods along like a dirge), and they revel in a certain amount of excess because they were made on the cheap to provide a good time. In fact, I think these movies work largely because they deliberately traded plausibility and respectability for crowd-pleasing scenes.
3:20 am The Garbage Pail Kids Movie (1987)
Considered by many to be one of the worst films ever made, I was very upset when it came out that my parents wouldn't let me watch it. Like many parents in the late '80s, mine wouldn't let me have Garbage Pail Kids trading cards, which made them seem so much more attractive. At time time, I imagined an adulthood where I lived in something along the lines of Pee-Wee's playhouse, and had regular, private screenings of The Garbage Pail Kids Movie and Ghoulies, which is the first horror movie for which I recall seeing a preview on TV.
Years later in my early 20s, I was hanging out with some friends, one of whom brought over The Garbage Pail Kids Movie after his shift at Movie Gallery. He put it on, and in fewer than five minutes everyone else had forced him to turn it off. Nothing offensive happens in those first five minutes. I shrugged and figured I'd rent it myself sometime. I did download the movie in 2003 or so, but I never actually got around to watching it, so I was excited when it showed up on the B-Fest 2016 lineup. The rest of the group planned on sleeping through it.
The film opens as a rocket-powered garbage can propels itself toward the planet earth. Cut to the same can in an antique shop owned by Captain Manzini. It is never clear where Manzini comes from or what he is the captain of, but he is clearly a man of the world full of wise proverbs which are mostly ignored by Dodger, a young boy in his employ. Dodger is routinely menaced by a group of 20ish-looking high school dropouts who apparently have nothing better to do than pick on a kid who looks to be nearly a decade their junior. Dodger has a crush on a girl named Tangerine who hangs out with the thugs and is sympathetic to him, but does little to prevent her friends from beating him up. After the bullies leave, Dodger sees that they've knocked over the garbage can and released The Garbage Pail Kids--a group of diminutive adults with disgusting habits and weird deformities. There's Greaser Greg, Valerie Vomit, Ali Gator, and Messy Tessie, who all look and act pretty much as you'd expect from their names. They are joined by Foul Phil (a baby with halitosis), Nat Nerd (an acne-blasted comic book geek), and the flatulent Windy Winston. Manzini sadly laments that it'll take magic to get them back into the can, and warns them not to go out in public because Normal People Just Wouldn't Understand. There's a badly executed message about not judging a book by its cover in there somewhere.
The next night, the GPKs get out, steal a truck, and go on a small rampage which ends the next morning in a hangover. They make a jacket for Dodger as an apology, and the jacket impresses Tangerine who is a budding fashion designer. Thinking not-quite-quickly enough on his feet, Dodger claims to have made the jacket himself, and Tangerine orders more. Dodger sets up a sweatshop in the basement of the Captain Manzini's antique shop and forces the GPKs to produce clothes.
I'm not sure what anybody expected from The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, but nobody expected it to climax with a daring escape from the State Home for the Ugly in order to attend a fashion show.
The general consensus after the The Garbage Pail Kids Movie ended was that it was much better than anticipated, but still is not a good movie. I can't say that I was disappointed, but that's only because my expectations were so low; as much as I wanted to watch it when I was a kid, I remember being annoyed that they'd picked the least visually interesting characters to carry the story. In retrospect, I can see that those characters were probably chosen in order to keep the budget low and to steer clear of a parental boycott (which happened anyway). I'm glad to scratch a 29-year-old item off my to-do list, but this is a movie that--in spite of being better than expected--had zero real entertainment value. Apparently Michael Eisner's studio obtained the film rights to GPK in 2012 and scrapped their plans to make a new movie a year later. I doubt anyone is upset about that, but somewhere in the back of my mind I'm still hoping for a GPK movie that fulfills the promise of underground cartoonist John Pound's original artwork (which, once you get past the snot and the gore, was really excellent). I have no idea how all of those characters could be wedged into a story that would be any good.
5:05 am Blood Mania (1970)
Early reports online called Blood Mania "this year's porno movie", and while it is not literally pornography, that's a pretty apt description. I tried to stay awake, but I couldn't. What I do remember is that it involves wealthy doctors having affairs and blackmailing each other. I actually watched about 2/3 of this one before giving up on it, and none of it stuck with me. I can tell you that I witnessed no blood or mania or any kind. People tell me that someone eventually got murdered. I won't bother hunting this one down.
6:40 am Moon Zero Two (1969)
I also slept through 2/3 of Moon Zero Two, and cannot accurately describe the plot. I had assumed that this would be a tedious eastern-European space exploration movie, but it turned out a British production by Hammer Studios and was roundly enjoyed by people who were awake for it. I'd been sleeping on the floor of the auditorium, and when I was conscious enough to peer over the seat in front of me I didn't understand what was going on, so lay back down until it was over. During that time, I heard two shouted comments which stuck with me: "Man, the sequel to Ocean's Eleven took a really weird direction!" and "I'm going to shoot you, but I want you to hold really still because I only have four bullets left." My friends liked it and Mystery Science Theater 3000 tackled this one in its first season, so I think I'll track that version down.
8:25 am Low Blow (1986)
I did not dislike Low Blow, but I wasn't really awake enough for it, and I think it would have been a fine film to sleep through.
Leo Fong plays Joe Wong, a down-on-his-luck private investigator who occasionally leaves his pig sty office to dispense vigilante justice to strangers. He drives a ridiculously broken-down car which won't start unless he opens it up and fiddles around under the hood. It also appears not to have working breaks. One assumes that he likes it that way because he eats a lot of meals out, which (presumably) he wouldn't do if he were actively trying to replace the car.
One day he is hired by a member of the 1% whose daughter has joined a Jonestown-esque new-age cult. Wong sneaks around the compound where the cult conducts its business and finds that it is being run by Cameron Mitchel under a long, black robe, various pieces of religious jewelry, and dark sunglasses. The compound is ostensibly a farm, but it's the brownest farm I've ever seen; they don't even seem to have grass.
Anyway, Wong's investigation eventually leads him to recruit an unlikely team to infiltrate the compound and liberate the cultists. There's kung fu and musclebound blondes and a pre-Tae Bo Billy Blanks. In the end Joe Wong stomps on somebody's head which pops like a balloon filled with oatmeal and hamburger, because the prop happens to be a balloon filled with oatmeal and hamburger.
Low Blow is the kind of movie that's hilariously bad when you're alert, and annoyingly bad when you're not, but I remember it being enjoyably stupid. It reminded me a little of the Death Wish movies, but a little less racist. Only a little, though.
10:05 am Breakfast Break
During the breakfast break, I got another latte and talked to Mitch O'Connell who sat in the same row as I did. Mitch designs the annual B-Fest poster, and a few years ago he released a coffee table book called Mitch O'Connell, the World's Best Artist. My wife got me a copy for my birthday almost immediately after its release, and I have consistently forgotten for the last few years to bring it to B-Fest to get it signed--but this time I managed to remember. Mitch was pretty cool about it--I always worry about approaching people for autographs, but he was gracious and even gave me a custom sketch.
Another guy sat between Mitch and me--I can't remember his name, but apparently he's a fixture of B-Fest. He talked at length about his own movies and told me that he's been featured on The Jon Stewart Show (the one from the mid-'90s, not The Daily Show) and appears regularly on WGN on Halloween. He heavily implied that his films are available on his YouTube channel, but it appears that his YouTube channel features (literally) 3,000 short clips about his movies, not the movies themselves. The big one, apparently, is called Devil Ant, and costs $22 on DVD. I'm not sure that I feel like taking a $22 gamble on someone who describes himself as the next Ed Wood. Anyway, I don't remember his name, but if you're actually interested I've given you enough information to look him up yourself. I suspect that you are not.
10:30 am The Fifth Musketeer (1979)
Nobody could figure out why The Fifth Musketeer was included in the lineup. It's an adaptation of The Man in the Iron Mask. It's a popcorn historical drama like the Antonio Banderas Zorro movies, and while it isn't a classic, it hasn't aged into so-bad-it's-good territory, either. If anything, it's remarkable for its cast, which includes Beau Bridges as in the dual role of Louis XIV and Philippe of Gascony, José Ferrer, Lloyd Bridges(!), and Alan Hale, Jr.(!) as Athos, Aramis, and Porthos (respectively), Rex Harrison, Ursula Andress and Olivia De Havilland in her last role before retirement. None of these people bothers to affect a French accent, but it's not the trainwreck you'd expect at B-Fest. The Fifth Musketeer is the kind of movie you would have watched in the days before Netflix when it was Sunday afternoon and there was nothing else on TV.
12:30 pm Lunch break
During the lunch break, I called my wife again and bought another latte. After lunch was over they held the annual drawing for door prizes. Over the years, I've donated at least a couple of dozen DVDs to B-Fest as door prizes, and it's always an annoyance that I've never won anything when everyone else in my group seems to have been won multiple times. I can stop complaining now because this year I walked off with three DVDs of movies you've never heard of and a copy of Lifeforce on VHS. Dreams really do come true, guys.
1:05 pm Roar (1981)
Roar is amazing. I don't even know where to start with Roar.
For a fee, B-Fest attendees can sponsor a film. Sponsorship gets you a ticket, a PowerPoint slide projected before your film, and the chance to make a spoken introduction beforehand. Last year, my group sponsored Village People's Can't Stop the Music under the name Drive-In Doghouse, which I disliked at the time but which has grown on me since. This year, we were a little late in applying for sponsorship, but we sent the organizers a list of possibilities anyway (they ask for a list of titles in case your ideal choice isn't available), and they enthusiastically greenlighted Roar.
Roar was not my first choice, but when it came up in our discussions a few months ago, I watched the trailer on YouTube and realized that I'd heard of it before. Initially unreleased, it was recently rediscovered and given a proper theatrical and home video release which quickly made it notorious. It has come up several times on the podcasts I listen to, and I didn't pay it much mind at the time. I wasn't very excited about Roar when the festival organizers selected it, but I'm glad I didn't put up a fight.
So, Roar is a film made by the actress Tippi Hedren and her former husband Noel Marshall. In real life, the two lived with their children in a home adjacent to the Shambala Nature Preserve in southern California. The Preserve is home to hundreds of imported animals including big cats and elephants. The movie, shot in the preserve, takes place in Africa and centers around a family living with these animals. Mom and kids are on their way home from a trip abroad, and Dad goes out to pick them up. A perfect storm of problems conspires to make him late, and Mom and kids arrive home without him. They've been living with these animals for years, but today for whatever reason, the animals attack, and the movie is mostly a series of action sequences wherein Mom, kids, and eventually Dad try to evade lions, tigers, and other undomesticated beasts.
My description does nothing to tell you why this movie is such a big deal. Over the course of production, 78 cast and crew sustained injuries inflicted by the animals which were untrained. The animal-on-animal violence is real, as are a couple of onscreen maulings of humans. Nobody died but frankly, everybody involved is lucky that this didn't turn into a snuff film; as it is, an actor injures his hand at one point, and it stays injured because it is real. Between the animal rights activism and the innate human sense of self-preservation, there's no way this movie could ever be made in 2016, and it drew the only two instances of profanity that I've ever heard from my friend Sarah.
Roar was very well received by the crowd. Somebody a few rows behind me got bored toward the end and started complaining, but he was in the minority; Roar is the movie everybody was still talking about after the festival. I've been campaigning for a "batshit musical" for two years now, and I think that's what we're going to do next year, but I don't see how we can possibly top Roar.
2:55 pm Kansas City Bomber (1972)
Kansas City Bomber stars Raquel Welch as a single mother and roller derby player who has just moved across the country to Portland, Oregon to start a new life. She joins the local team which is called the Loggers, and catches the eye of their manager who is played smarmily by Kevin McCarthy. The two get into a relationship, and McCarthy reveals himself to be a manipulative jerk as he trumps up the rivalry between Welch and the team's captain, trades Welch's best friend to another team, and turns the crowd against a nice guy who's been flirting with her. At the end, McCarthy tells her to take a dive which they will then parlay into the start of a new franchise in Chicago, and she betrays him by spoiling his plans.
So, 10/10 for Girl Power, but 5/10 for Entertainment Value. 5/10 Entertainment Value anywhere else is 2/10 Entertainment Value during the final hours of B-Fest. I don't have a great deal to say about Kansas City Bomber, but see if you can spot a 9-year-old Jodie Foster on the off chance that you watch it. You won't. Watch it, I mean.
4:40 pm The Super Inframan (1975)
B-Fest has an on-again-off-again tradition of ending with a kaiju (giant monster) movie. I don't usually care for them because I'm so restless by the end of the festival. I also sort of feel like "if you've seen one, you've seen 'em all", and that makes me feel vaguely like a bigot (which is silly). Nevertheless, The Super Inframan was a good end to this year's fest, and maybe a good choice for me because it was positively dripping with weird, interesting monsters.
The film takes place in The Futuristic Year of 2015. The Demon Princess who lives deep under China has amassed an army of ghosts and monsters and launches an attack on the surface of the planet. Luckily, a team of scientists is just finishing their top-secret project, Inframan: a bionic superhero outfitted with more gizmos than Inspector Gadget, and capable of astonishing feats of strength and kung fu.
Basically, this film is China's answer to Superman, and it's insane. There are so many monsters and so much action, and I assume there's probably a well-defined plot in there but I missed it because I was going stir-crazy by that point. Still, The Super Inframan held my attention better than most kaiju films. Between plant monsters and death rays and skeletons and rib-mounted missiles and Big Red Buttons and so on, the proceedings are amazingly bizarre, and that was a good thing.
After the festival, we packed up the area around where we'd been sitting. The Devil Ant guy left a bunch of garbage in his seat, which I had to pick up and then complain about passive aggressively in a livejournal post. Otherwise, though, it was the usual pack-up-and-head-out routine that we always go through, including a long trudge out into the lobby, downstairs, through another lobby, and then out to the hill up to the parking ramp. It's a short walk that seems so much longer when you're fatigued, and the proximity of Lake Michigan in January makes the wind bitingly cold, but this year wasn't too bad we made it to the car without too many complaints.
After a quick ride, we checked in to the Morton Grove Best Western and were dismayed to learn that the Mediterranean restaurant we've been patronizing for the last few years has closed. Luckily, we were staying at the same hotel as a number of other B-Fest attendees (including the aforementioned Telstar), and they were all going to Portillo's, so we decided to tag along.
Portillo's is a Chicago-area fast-food chain that serves all kinds of sandwiches, but the hot dogs are the reason to eat there. It's not the first time I've been. Anyway, the food is good and quick, and I ordered a lot of it because I was really, really hungry. Unfortunately, it was difficult to sit with the other group from the hotel because it's a busy place on a Saturday night, and doesn't exactly accommodate giant groups. No matter; it was what we needed.
Back at the hotel, we showered and tried to find Svengoolie on the TV in the hotel room, but no luck. I took some cold meds, zonked out around 10:30, and slept more or less like a baby. I have vague memories of stumbling around in the small hours of the morning for a drink of water, but I woke up refreshed and we got on the road around 9:00am. We stopped for breakfast at the Omega Restaurant in Niles, IL, where we got complimentary pieces of coffee cake, and I had a breakfast that initially looked too expensive on the menu, but turned out to be more food than I could handle. I did not save the pancakes. Finally, we headed back to Wisconsin and I was back home in time for a leisurely afternoon of unpacking. I used to engage in an annual post-B-Fest tradition of doing my taxes, but I no longer get all of my forms before B-Fest, so I did laundry instead.
I'm so exciting.
October 31st, 2015
|11:57 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: Fright Night|
The pumpkins are carved and the candy has been distributed and I've come to the end of another October. I like to cap the month off with something fun--usually something I've seen before, often a comedy. I was considering Transylvania 6-5000 or Dracula: Dead and Loving It which were suggested by a friend, but both of those are pretty damned terrible (yes, the friend knows this, and yes, I was considering it anyway) and I'd rather not leave a bad taste in my mouth at the end of the night. Maybe I'll discuss them as a double feature one day, but I make no promises. Instead, I chose 1985's Fright Night which I havent seen in years.
Charley Brewster is an average high school kid. He likes horror movies, isn't getting anywhere with his girlfriend, and only barely appreciates the efforts of his hardworking, put-upon mother. Oh, and his neighbor is Chris Sarandon.
His neighbor is also a vampire, which I maybe should have mentioned first. Charley is the only person who has noticed this, which is amazing since the neighbor (whose name is Jerry Dandridge) disposes of his victims in garbage bags, has no qualms about using his supernatural powers in a very public nightclub brawl, and transforms into a bat and back with no regard to who might see him. Charley tells everyone--whether they're interested or not. He sees a woman enter Dandridge's house and later sees a newscast which identifies her as a prostitute and murder victim, so he brings in the police who give Dandridge a token sniff test before pronouncing him clean. Charley's friend Ed and girlfriend Amy decide that he needs professional help. No, we're not talking about a psychologist--we're talking about an actor.
Ed and Amy go to enlist the help of Peter Vincent (Roddy McDowall), a washed-up actor who used to headline Vampire movies but now works as a TV horror host in the same vein as Svengoolie or Elvira. Vincent (when he was getting more regular work) usually played the Van Helsing roles in vampire movies, and he's one of Charley's heroes. Initially he refuses to help, but he's just been fired from his hosting gig, and when Amy offers him her $500 savings bond he agrees to take it.
Vincent calls Dandridge to set up a meeting with Charley, and at the appointed hour, everybody meets at Dandridge's house. Dandridge downs a shot of "holy" water supplied by Vincent and everyone is satisfied except (of course) for Charley. On their way out, Vincent is fiddling with a pocket mirror and sees that Dandridge casts no reflection. Peter Vincent cannot handle vampires (which, as far as he was concerned, didn't exist), so he steps on the gas and gets the hell out of there. After wrestling with his conscience, Peter Vincent finally accepts that he will have to get involved, and maybe stake Ed, who by this point has been attacked and bitten by Dandridge.
This, more or less, is the first half of the movie. During the second half, our characters take decisive action agaist Dandrige, but he's always a few steps ahead of them thanks to the fact that Charley has made no secret to anyone of his suspicions.
The components are familiar, and indeed this could be described as "Galaxy Quest (or Three Amigos) as a vampire story". One of the common ideas of those movies is that the main characters don't know until it's too late that they're in a dire situation, but Fright Night gets that out of the way immediately; there's never any question that Dandridge is the villain and a vampire. Dandridge knows very well that Charley is onto him, and though he could dispatch Charley at any moment, he'd prefer to play with his food first.
I liked Fright Night very much, largely because it's a kind of love letter to the horror movies of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, and of course, Peter Vincent's name obviously a portmanteau of Peter Cushing and Vincent Price. Roddy McDowall is a good enough actor that he could play this role without chewing the scenery, but he does it anyway. Most people know Chris Sarandon only as Prince Humperdinck from The Princess Bride but he's really very good as a horror movie villain (see: The Resurrected) .
McDowall and Sarandon really do the lion's share of the cast's heavy lifting. I don't have a strong opinion of any of the teens, but I did want to mention that Amanda Bearse, who plays Amy has a remarkable, classic Hollywood style of speaking; she sounds to me like Judy Garland.
I'm pretentious, but even other, less-snobby people get annoyed by movies with too many effects. Fright Night's special effects are almost entirely crammed into the second half of the film, and there are so many of them, but thankfully they all serve the plot and they're gorgeous. I was especially impressed by the way the vampires' jaws open impossibly wide, and I can see how it's done, but it looks neat. I also like Jerry Dandridge's death scene (that's hardly a spoiler--this movie is too lighthearted for Charley to die at the end). I won't tell you how it happens.
Anyway, here's the trailer, if you want it:
And now, as the British say, I'm for bed. I'd love to say something clever and quippy here, but this October (and this last week in particular) has really been draining. Where does all my free time go? If I were more awake, I could turn that sentiment into something scary about mortality, but alas, I am not.
Lock the door and blow out the candles on your way up, please.
October 30th, 2015
|11:07 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: The Keep|
The walls of the Keep, we are told, are embedded with 136 nickel crosses. Nobody knows why built it, or why, but he largest stones are on the inside and the small ones are on the outer walls, which suggests that it's purpose is to contain something, rather than protect it.
These facts are discussed by W. Morgan Sheppard as Alexandru, the custodian of the keep, and by Capt. Klaus Woermann <Jürgen /Prochnow, a German officer in the second world war whose company has been posted here, very much against his wishes. The Keep is an ancient stone structure in the mountains of Romania, and Alexandru tells Woermann that he receives no direction or compensation, he simply does What Needs to Be Done.
During the night watch, two of the Germans discover a single cross made of pure silver, so they attempt to remove it, reasoning that the single silver cross may mark the hiding place of more treasure. A vacuum is opened, and they find themselves beset by invisible forces, and one of the soldiers literally loses his head (to what? We never see.). Both men die and no one is around to witness the event.
Berlin sends in more troops, because Nazis and horror go together like peanut butter and chocolate. Sturmbannführer Erich Kaempffer (Gabriel Byrne, a ruthless, ambitious sociopath comes in and decides that the deaths are the work of the local communists. He threatens to execute the five townspeople for every German death at the Keep, but the mysterious deaths do not stop. A message appears on one of the walls in a language that no one can read, and one of the locals convinces the Germans to bring in the wheelchair-bound Professor Theodore Cuza (Ian McCellan, looking like he'd rather be appearing in a better movie), a Jewish historian who has dedicated a significant portion of his career to the study of the Keep, and who is being kept in a concentration camp. Cuza comes and translates the message as "I will be free" written in a 500-year-old language, but can shed no further light on the subject.
Cuza's daughter, Magda, is assaulted by two of the Germans, but her attackers are consumed--quite literally--by an entity which appears to be made of smoke and fire and stone. The entity is an immortal being called Molasar which needs Cuza's assistance to escape its prison, and as a show of good faith it restores some of the man's youth. A young man called Glaeken shows up, and actively urges Cuza to stop helping Molasar. Cuza is does not know who to trust, and Glaeken exhibits supernatural powers indicating that he is not who he claims to be.
The Keep is a little-seen movie from 1983, written and directed by Michael Mann, and based on the novel of the same title by F. Paul Wilson. I read the novel several years ago after trying unsuccessfully to find the movie, which was basically abandoned by Paramount while they were making it. The production was notoriously troubled, and the film was cut from 210 minutes to 96. The shortened cut received a limited release which made back about two thirds of the film's budget, and was then dumped unceremoniously onto a laser-disc and VHS release and never made it onto DVD. Now Amazon Prime offers that version free to members.
The Keep really is not a good movie, but it could have been because the book is pretty good. It was a bestseller and spawned five sequels in the era before self-published ebooks. It's this long, intricate, slow burn that takes a long time to reach a spectacular payoff, and it's never totally clear who is good and who is evil (well, other than the Nazis). Unfortunately, the 96-minute movie handles everything badly, and there are obviously missing scenes (consider that the foreplay which immediately precedes the explicit sex scene between Magda and Glaeken is their chaste and terse first meeting). This must be my third viewing, and I find that I remember very little of the film after it's over because it's disjointed and choppy, and the story doesn't flow logically. We can assume, I think, that it's because more than half of the film is missing.
I think that's the biggest problem, but F. Paul Wilson has expressed his disapproval of the film, and he may know things about the original version that I don't. Another issue is that The Keep was intended to be a masterpiece of special effects, and while I can see what they're going for, the unfortunate fact is that the effects designer, Wally Veevers (better known for his work on 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (during which we all shout, "Hey Wally, where's the Veev?" when his name appears onscreen)) died during the production with the effects substantially unfinished. The climax on the film was drastically reworked to remove Veevers' unfinished effects because nobody really new what his intentions were, and there was simply not enough time to design impressive new ones. Other effects were also scaled down or cheapened. Poor Molasar has to settle for merely looking weird instead of being truly terrifying.
So, there are two versions of the keep, and neither one is anywhere as good as the version we might have gotten, had Wally Veevers lived and Paramount not pulled the plug. I do like the soundtrack by Tangerine Dream which is substantially responsible for The Keep's cult following, but I have my doubts as to whether Wilson would have approved. I can see the potential this had to be a great horror film, but unrealized potential is not enough to recommend a film, even if it has a good soundtrack
Here's the trailer:
October 29th, 2015
|06:29 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: Motel Hell|
Well, this is more like it!
I've heard for years that I should see Motel Hell from 1980, but I didn't really trust the recommendations. This is, after all, a movie about a farmer who makes sausage out of people. It's a common enough premise, and it's usually pretty boring. All of these movies climax with an attractive girl in dirty, ripped clothing cowering against a wall in the background while the Bad Guy holds some kind of sharp implement which is shown in the foreground, dripping something red. The cannibalism genre has a few good entries, I guess, but Delicatessen and Eating Raoul aren't even horror movies, and Ravenous is just ridiculous.
So I wasn't very optimistic about Motel Hell, but when it came up on Amazon Prime tonight, I thought I'd give it a shot, and I'm pleased to announce that it was a good decision, as far as idle decisions go.
Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun) is a farmer who owns the run-down Motel Hello which doesn't look like a place you'd stay if you had a choice. He also produces a line of smoked meats (creatively named Farmer Vincent's Smoked Meats) whose slogan is, "it takes all kinds o' critters to make Farmer Vincent's fritters!" He's friendly and affable and it's hard to picture him taking part in the sort of activities you already know he's going to be engaging in by the end of the movie.
Vincent lives with his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons), and his brother is the local sherrif, Bruce Smith (). Ida is complicit in Vincent's activities, but Bruce thinks he's just a good cook, which is a surprise since Vincent obtains his meat by setting traps on the highway. Vincent is careful, though, and has never been caught or even suspected. Our first glimpse into his process occurs when the local health inspector comes poking around. The two men seem to have a good rapport, but when the inspector gets a little too close to Vicent's secret, Vincent decides to whap him on the head with a shovel, cut his vocal cords, and bury him up to the neck in a secret garden where he fattens his victims to prepare them for slaughter. Why do they have to be neck-deep in dirt? No special reason; it just keeps them from escaping.
Vincent causes a young couple to have a motorcycle accident, buries the boyfriend, and rescued the girl whose name is Terry. Bruce stops in while Vincent is nursing her back to health, and the two of them hit it off pretty well (as far as he's concerned, anyway). They start hanging out, but the romance never really gets off the ground because Terry is actually developing feelings for Vincent. Bruce is upset and Ida is beginning to feel neglected, and it only gets worse when Vincent and Terry announce their engagement. Things are going so well that Vincent decides to teach Terry some of his tricks of the trade, which is probably, all things considered, not a good idea.
A movie like this could be gruesome and depressing, but Motel Hell is really a satire on nerve-jangling suspense movies like Psycho and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and it works. I don't think I could get my parents to sit through it, but it's nowhere near as horrific as its premise suggests. You can tell that the filmmakers and actors are having a good time, and hoping that the mood rubs off on the audience, which, of course, it does. This is part of the grand tradition of fun horror movies like Slither, Gremlins, Fright Night and (appropriately) Bad Taste. Vincent Price might have starred in something like this. Christopher Lee might have, too, but he'd have tried to make it far too serious.
Rory Calhoun--who mostly played cowboys during his mid-20th century heyday--doesn't quite have the gravitas of Lee or the charm of Price, but he makes Farmer Vincent into such a good natured, "aww, shucks" sort of guy that it's hard to see him as the villain of the picture, and you're still rooting for him when he (SPOILER ALERT THAT YOU'RE GOING TO READ THROUGH ANYWAY) loses to Bruce in a chainsaw fencing match at the end of the movie.
Here's the trailer:
October 28th, 2015
|11:20 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: The Conjuring|
Common sense tells me that Ed and Lorraine Warren were manipulative charlatans at best, and bona fide crackpots at worst, but their exploits do make pretty excellent horror films.
The Warrens were self-styled paranormal investigators who got a lot of mileage out of New England's witch-haunted past. They performed exorcisms and wrote bestselling books, inspired movies like The Amityville Horror, and Lorraine still pops up from time to time on the kind of reality shows that use a questionable definition of the word reality. The Conjuring tells is that Ed Warren is the only non-Catholic exorcist recognized by the Catholic Church, and I don't know if that's true, but it would have looked good on his business cards.
2013's The Conjuring was a Movie Night selection, decided upon by committee, which I mention because it's not the sort of thing I would have chosen. This is not a snobbery thing--I just generally shy away from newer fare, and poster doesn't look particularly promisi--you know what? It is a snobbery thing, sorry, but I'm not calling it a bad movie, I'm just saying it would not have occurred to me to choose it.
The Conjuring takes place in 1971. Roger and Carolyn Perron and their five daughters have just moved into a farmhouse which is a real fixer-upper; maybe the walls are just dirty, but it sure looked like mold to me. Either way, between the quality of the house and its location in the middle of a horror movie, it may not have been a wise purchase. They're all pretty delighted with it, except for the dog, Sadie, who really, really doesn't want to come inside.
This family plays a weird variant on hide-and-seek which involves clapping, and it is during one of these games that the family discovers a boarded up cellar. Downstairs, they find an out-of-tune piano, some ancient furniture, and enough spiderwebs to shoot a remake of Arachnophobia. Roger Perron is pleased at the additional square footage he didn't know he'd purchased, and tells the kids not to go downstairs until they've had a chance to clean it up a bit.
Something escapes from the unboarded cellar, and it begins to manifest itself as the odor of flatulence and occasional taps and tugs on the girls' feet as they sleep. Sadie the dog is found dead in the yard. Nobody connects these events until one night when clapping sounds lure Carolyn into the dark basement, and she finds herself locked down there for a few minutes with a scary voice, while the kids are attacked by an old crone who has materialized out of nowhere.
Ed and Lorraine Warren are called in, and immediately set to work monitoring the house and researching its history. What they find is not pretty: a hundred years ago the house belonged to a witch who cursed the property before committing suicide. In the years that followed, there have been an alarming number of murders and suicides, and it would have been nice if someone had mentioned that to the Perrons before they moved in. One of the daughters is psychically sensitive and can see the malevolent force as it moves about the family, and Lorraine has visions of the various victims of the curse. Things get worse, and Ed petitions the Vatican for an exorcism, which the Vatican is reluctant to grant since the Perrons aren't Catholic, and their children are not baptized. Somewhere in here, I think there's a parable about privatizing the police force and fire department.
Ultimately, as always happens in these movies, all Hell breaks loose (that's not actually true--it's more like a very small amount of Hell leaks out; let's say like, 0.2 ppm). Ed decides to do the exorcism anyway, and uh, it's not fun for anyone.
Haunted house movies don't really appeal to me, but there's a lot to like in this one, and I found myself enjoying it in spite of my usual preferences. Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga play the Warrens well, if blandly. They might have been my least favorite part of the movie, and I think it's because their methods remind me a lot of the first third (or so) of Ghostbusters which had the benefit of being a much funnier. Ron Livingston (Peter from Office Space) does a nice job playing Roger Perron as a working class dad, but the movie goes to such great lengths to portray the family as struggling with its finances that it's hard to accept that they want to hang onto this enormous estate that is trying to kill them--I'd just move out. Carolyn Perron is played by Lili Taylor who is really too good to keep appearing in dumb horror movies--but I'm glad that she does.
After the movie was over, my friends and I all agreed that the special effects are the real standout feature of The Conjuring. There's a fair amount of CGI--because there always is these days--but all of the cool foreground effects are practical, which I appreciate. Not far into the movie we were squirming around in our chairs wondering if this was going to be one of those Blair Witch experiences where nothing is overtly shown onscreen, but thankfully it doesn't take long for the evil to manifest and it does so spectacularly.
Interestingly, nothing is actually conjured in The Conjuring, but then, there's no actual poltergeist in Poltergeist. Oh, well. Here's the trailer:
October 27th, 2015
|09:53 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: Black Sabbath|
On the subject of gialli I decided to watch Black Sabbath, which is an Italian/French anthology film from 1963 directed by Mario Bava and vaguely starring Boris Karloff who provides a monologue before each of the film's three segments.
The first segment, "The Drop of Water", concerns the funeral preparations for a spiritual medium. The woman preparing the body for burial notices a striking sapphire ring on the finger of the deceased, and she decides to steal it. She spends the rest of the movie being terrified by the sound of dripping water and the buzzing of a fly, and also by the sudden and frequent appearance of the corpse in places it isn't supposed to be. I probably make this all sound very silly, but that's only because I find Revenge from Beyond the Grave stories to be tiresome. Also, because the deceased woman looks like this:
Look at that face. She looks like she's watching political debates. I'm not sure where I've seen it before, but that still image has been used elsewhere and I can't place it.
In the second segment, "The Telephone", a woman receives a series of increasingly violent and sexual* phone calls from an unknown male caller. Eventually she realizes that the calls are coming from a man who was sent to prison by her testimony. She calls an estranged friend for assistance, and the friend feels pretty confident about things because she's actually behind the phone calls, and is trying to in a very ill-advised way to reconcile the friendship. Things go south when the jailbird actually shows up and breaks into the house.
The final segment, "The Wurdalak", begins when a Russian nobleman out for a ride on horseback discovers a beheaded body with a knife sticking in the back. Modern policework not having been invented yet, he removes the knife and takes it to the nearest village where it is recognized as belonging to Gorca, a missing man who left some days ago to slay the local wurdalak (a vampire from Russian folklore which feeds on the blood of its own family--I looked it up). An unkempt Gorca (Boris Karloff) eventually shows up and begins behaving in the sort of ways that look suspicious in a vampire movie.
I liked Black Sabbath, but it feels completely lopsided by "The Wurdalak", which is by far the longest of the three stories. It was wise to put the short segments in front, like cartoons and newsreels before a feature, but eventually I found myself getting bored playing with my phone. It's a poor tonal fit, and while Bava's direction is unmistakable during the first two segments, "The Wurdalak" feels like it could have been directed by anybody (well, other a little bit of dramatic lighting). I think the film could have been paced better by adding another short segment to the front and shortening the last one. This is nitpicking, though. It's fun in the way that giallo films are: it's overwrought (in a good way) and the lighting and colors are garish and extreme.
The Internet tells me that I watched the worst version of Black Sabbath, and that the version that played to international audiences was better. We can mostly blame American International Pictures for this, since they largely paid for the production. AIP, as I have said before, was a powerhouse that churned out cheap, fun horror and sci-fi pictures (and some of everything else too, but we really only remember the horror and sci-fi) during the third quarter of the twentieth century. Apparently the Steve Reeves version of Hercules did quite well for them, so they were shopping around for other Italian productions and eventually struck a deal with Bava. AIP still had Karloff under contract, having just finished up production on The Raven and (to Karloff's annoyance) The Terror. Karloff's monologues between the segments are reminiscent of his host segments on the anthology TV series Thriller; they're not actually comedy, but they're full of spooky puns.
Bava was right, I think, to put Karloff in only one of the segments, and AIP was right to shuffle the segments around. Internationally, "The Telephone" came first, followed by "The Wurdalak" and then "The Drop of Water", which seems to me like it would feel even more poorly paced. AIP also cut out a lot of adult material--in its original state, the female characters in "The Telephone" are lesbians, and one of them is a prostitute. A lot of the violence has also been cut, apparently. One of the things I like about these old movies is that they have to find a way to imply all this stuff without showing it, but I don't really approve of cutting material out, and I wonder if it would be a better movie with these scenes intact.
Two little bits of trivia, neither of which has anything to do with anything: This film is the source of the name of the heavy metal band Black Sabbath. Also, when I selected this one, I thought I was selecting Black Sunday, which is another classic Mario Bava film from 1960. I watched it years ago when I was not in the mood for a movie, and didn't like it. I owe it another chance, but not tonight, apparently.
Here's the trailer:
* Not very sexual, mind you--we're talking about 1963, and the film, as I said, was heavily cut for its American release. The guy uses the word "body" a couple of times; that's it.
October 26th, 2015
|10:33 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: Demons|
Nobody has been recommending Demons to me, but I've been seeing references to it since it started showing up at video rentals when I was a kid. I've always found the poster to be a striking image, though I can't say why. After a few decades, it might just be that I remember remembering how I used to remember it.
I can't decide how I want to tackle Demons. Did I like it? Absolutely. Is it a good movie? Um... Hard to say. What I can tell you is that it's an Italian film from 1985, directed by Lamberto Bava (son of the classic horror filmmaker, Mario Bava), and written and produced by Dario Argento, who is (probably recognized by most people as) the best giallo filmmaker of all time. Another thing I can tell you is that it's absolutely incomprehensibly insane, and that it's like that on purpose.
The film opens on Cheryl, a student riding the subway at night. In the station, she realizes that she is being pursued by a masked stranger. She does her best to lose him, only to literally bump into him. She cowers in fear as he explains that he is passing out free passes to the premier of a new film. She accepts them, and the stranger goes off to unnecessarily frighten someone else.
At the theater, Cheryl meets up with a friend and some boys. "I hope it's not a horror movie," one of them says. No such luck. Also in attendence: a blind man who expects his date to narrate the action, and a pimp who has set up an outing with two of his favorite employees. In the lobby, one of the prostitutes tries on a mask which is part of the marketing for the movie, and it scratches her face. The movie begins, and it's about a bunch of teenagers who discover an old tomb and decide to exhume the body interred within. Somebody mentions Nostradamus, and moments later, they unearth the inscription: this is the final resting place of Nostradamus. The grave turns out to be unoccupied, except for a mask which one of the characters puts on. It scratches his face, and a few moments later he turns into a monster.
The prostitute gets up and leaves her seat, heads for the bathroom, and notices that the scratch has become a pulsing, infected sore, which explodes. Then she turns into a monster. The other prostitute comes in looking for her, and a chase ensues, ending with prostitute #1 attacking prostitute #2, who crashes through the movie screen, turns into a demon, and starts attacking moviegoers, causing pandemonium. Up in the balcony, the blind guy's date is making out with somebody else, but apparently he hasn't noticed.
At this point, things begin to get weird. The theater is invaded by Coke-snorting punks (this is the '80s, after all). I don't mean that they're cocaine addicts--I mean that they're literally using a straw to inhale Coca-Cola through their noses. Everybody turns into monsters. Everybody dies, including the characters you expect to make it. Eventually, a helicopter crashes into the theater.
This is the most coherent plot summary I could come up with. Demons plays like a nightmare in that it doesn't seem to play by any sort of rules, it just throws one strange event at the audience after another. There's no logic to it, just adrenaline, mucus, and blood presented in candy colors, because that's the way Argento does things. I'm not complaining--this is mindless entertainment whose sole purpose is to be mindlessly entertaining. There are some genuinely good horror movie moments here (consider the terrified characters trying to move away from the scraping sound of claws as they crawl their way through the ventilation system), but for the most part it's just deliberately crazy and strange in a way that makes it hard discuss. All of the cinematic excesses of the '80s (big hair, hard rock, dripping slime, rubber monsters and unrealistic ultraviolence) are present here in such thick layers that Demons looks like a parody. Weirdly, some of the actors are obviously speaking English while others are dubbed (though I can't tell if they've been dubbed to obscure thick accents, or straight Italian dialogue). It's almost like this movie was aimed squarely at the sort of people who ten years later would be renting it just to laugh at it. The critics were not kind to Demons, but it's almost as though this movie was created on a spectrum where the extremes are something other than "good" and "bad". I can almost imagine Bava and Argento shrugging and saying, "You had a good time? Then whatsamatta?"
The whole movie is on YouTube right now, but I doubt it'll stay up for long:
October 25th, 2015
|10:46 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: House of the Long Shadows|
1983’s House of the Long Shadows contains no shadows to speak of, long or otherwise. Maybe it’s supposed to, but the print on Amazon Prime is so dark that it’s often very difficult to tell what’s going on. Most of the time the audio is sufficient to let you know what’s going on, but it’s difficult to take seriously the climactic moment where one of the characters reacts in abject terror to what appears to be empty darkness.
I try not to be hard on movies when they are presented poorly by a third party, but this is really difficult because after watching that scene twice, I still can’t figure out what’s going on. Wikipedia says it’s a murder (which, to be honest, I could have guessed from the rest of the precedings), but I want to know the details.
I believe I started to watch House of the Long Shadows once a few years ago, and gave up. I can’t remember why, but I think I just decided I wasn’t in the mood. Returning to it tonight, I managed to finish it. In spite of a poor reputation, it’s not a bad flick--to a point, anyway. We’ll get to that in due time.
Desi Arnaz, Jr. plays Kenneth Magee, a successful novelist whose agent is lamenting that the era of Great Books is over; the Wind has Gone, we’re all out of Mohicans, the 22s and the Rye have all been caught, and every last Height has been Wuthered. "Pfft, whateva," says Magee, "Wuthering Heights is just overwritten nonsense. Anybody can do that." They make a bet: If Magee can produce a Wuthering Heights-calibre novel, he wins $20,000. If not, he must forfeit the funds to his agent. He has 24 hours to complete the task, and his agent packs him off to the old Bylldpaetwr, a Welsh manor whose name no one can pronounce. They all call it "Baldpate", and I’m probably misspelling it.
Baldpate is supposed to be deserted, but Magee is first interrupted by the elderly caretakers, and then by a an attractive young woman who turns out to be his agent’s secretary, sent to the manor to act as an obstacle to Magee. Three more people show up separately and apparently by happenstance. Just around the time Magee decides that someone is putting him on, he stumbles upon a wall of family portraits. One is missing, but the others clearly depict the travelers and caretakers downstairs. All have the last name Grisbane, and upon confronting them with this information, Magee learns the truth: the missing portrait belongs to Roderick Grisbane who would have become a father at the tender age of fourteen, had he not murdered the pregnant mother first. Fearing disgrace and scandal, the Grisbanes locked Roderick in an upstairs room and have been keeping him there ever since. Tonight is the night they will let him out.
Things do not go as planned. The upstairs room where Roderick has been held is discovered to be empty, and his escape seems to be recent. One by one, Roderick begins murdering his family members.
I went into House of the Long Shadows expecting it to be a horror movie, and that classification is appropriate, but you’ll find a lot of websites only describe it as a mystery. Horror or mystery, the major selling point of the film is its cast which includes John Carradine, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Sheila Keith, and would have featured the Bride of Frankenstein herself, Elsa Lanchester, had she not had to decline for health reasons. If you have heard of all of these actors but not of this movie, then you have probably inferred that it’s not very good.
The performances are great, as you would expect them to be. Carradine is strong and forceful as ever, Lee is detached and menacing, Cushing does a lot of nervous quaking, and Price cool and debonair. Unfortunately, the Old Dark House story they populate is so clichéd and worn-out that they only just barely manage to save it. The ending is so painfully stupid that when you watch it, you’ll think you recognize what I’m referring to, and then it’ll become stupider.
I am of two minds about this. On one hand, House of the Long Shadows is disappointing in that it assembles all of this great talent in one place, and then fails to do anything good with it. On the other, I can concede that the same movie would be considered a classic if it had been made twenty years earlier by, say, William Castle, who would have insulted your intelligence by adding slide whistle and boi-oi-oi-oi-oing! sound effects. One of the problems with movie nostalgia is that we’re very forgiving of old garbage, but we think new garbage made in a more enlightened time should know better. I am very guilty of this.
The film was directed by Pete Walker who is mostly known for adult films with really silly names like For Men Only and School for Sex, and he’s the director who almost made the ill-fated Sex Pistols movie. Shelia Keith worked with him frequently, and I have a difficult time imagining her in any sort of porn film; she comes off here as matronly and respectable. Desi Arnaz, Jr. is a milquetoast leading man, and apparently everyone else thinks so, too--he hasn’t worked since playing his father in 1992. It’s a Golan-Globus film. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, in case you’re unfamiliar, are cousins who spent the ‘80s producing a ridiculous series of action movies, ninja movies, breakdancing films… Basically, if you associate it with the ‘80s and you can’t take it seriously, Golan-Globus had something to do with it. House of the Long Shadows feels like their unsuccessful attempt to break into Serious Drama. Apparently it’s based on a novel from 1913, and I doubt very much that the novel is any better--although it’s probably missing the stupid ending and the wraparound story involving Magee’s bet with his agent.
Here’s the trailer:
October 24th, 2015
|10:34 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: The Midnight Hour|
I think people my age mostly know Kevin McCarthy as the villainous network executive R.J. Fletcher from “Weird Al” Yankovic’s movie UHF, but in fact he had a long and very successful career as a character actor spanning more than 70 years--nice work if you can get it, I guess. In his latter years, McCarthy traded a lot on the classic sci-fi cred he’d earned in the original 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (which admittedly I still haven’t seen), and when he was strangled to death in silhouette by a reanimated corpse at the end of the first third of The Midnight Hour, I knew I should sit up and start paying real attention.
The Midnight Hour surprised me. I’ve been seeing its name for years, but I was never excited enough to watch it because 1) it’s a TV movie, and 2) I think I’ve been confusing it with Midnight Madness, which is an early Michael J. Fox vehicle that is fondly remembered by people about eight years older than me, and largely forgotten by everyone else. The Midnight Hour is also largely forgotten, but I can see why it shows up on so many lists of “Top 10 Halloween Movies”.
So, the setting of The Midnight Hour is a small New England town called Pitchford Cove, where 300 years ago on Halloween, a witch named Lucinda Cavender unleashed a curse which loosed all the demons of Hell. Luckily, Nathaniel Grenville, the local Witchfinder General was able to seal the breach or read the sacred words or whatever (nobody really knows) and the world was saved at midnight. Lucinda was hung the next morning and the town was freed from the evil curse.
The is all explained to us in a slideshow put together by Phil, a high school-aged nerd who is presenting it to his history(?) class. All the other kids snicker through the whole thing, but in general everybody treats Phil pretty nicely; this is the weakest depiction of bullying that I’ve ever seen. They also give Melissa a hard time. Melissa is Lucinda Cavender’s great-great-great-great granddaughter, and Phil is Grenville’s great-great-great-great grandson, and there don’t appear to be any hard feelings.
The ancient Grenville and Cavender are the subjects of an exhibit in the local museum, and that night, the jocks from school break in and steal the costumes and some props to wear to a halloween party, and for reasons that are still unclear to me, Melissa ends up reading Lucinda’s curse in the local graveyard. Melissa is not an active practitioner of the Black Arts, but the dormant powers are awakened in her, and Lucinda is resurrected.
The kids go to the party, and Phil, who has a crush on an unavailable cheerleader, puts on a frizzy silver wig and makeup that looks like the people behind the musical Cats tried to do a bird in the same style and joins them. While all this is going on, Lucinda Cavender is creating an army of vampire/zombies who begin wreaking havoc on Pitchford Cove Kevin McCarthy, (playing a foul-mouthed alcoholic judge) gets throttled, as I mentioned earlier, and the police notice that something is up, but are not quite astute to recognize all the shambling, putrescent corpses crowding the streets.
Meanwhile at the party, nobody wants to hang out with Phil, so he leaves and meets a girl named Sandy who used to live in Pitchford Cove, but is totally disoriented. The malt shop is gone and things that she expected to be hep and keen are suddenly radical and tubular.
I try not to spoil things but you can probably guess that Lucinda and her minions converge on the party, and the vampires drink some new recruits. The song “How Soon is Now?” by The Smiths gets overused, and there’s a dance number later for no reason at all. Phil and Sandy have to work together to thwart the evil, and things tie up unrealistically neatly at the end. Also, Phil takes an embarrassingly long time to realize that Sandy would be old enough to be his mom’s older sister--if she hadn’t died in the ‘50s.
Like a lot of things made in the ‘80s (junk food, especially), the plot of The Midnight Hour is better if you don’t examine it too much, but there’s a lot here to like. I was impressed by the level of adult content, given that this was a made-for-TV production which ran on ABC in 1985. Director Jack Bender (who has made episodes of everything from Beverly Hills 90210 to Game of Thrones) does a nice job of keeping things interesting without drawing attention to himself. The cast includes a lot of familiar faces including Dick Van Patten as Phil’s dentist dad, Kurtwood Smith (Red from That ‘70s Show) as a police officer, and a young LeVar Burton(!) looking too old to be a high school student. Shari Belafonte plays Melissa Cavender, and Macaulay Culkin plays a little kid (obviously). A longer review would probably dance uncomfortably around the subject of race (the Cavenders have dark skin, and the Grenvilles are former slave owners (so says Wikipedia--it probably came up but I don’t remember it)), but let’s keep everything simple and acknowledge it with tight lips and furrowed brows. With the exception of that issue, I liked The Midnight Hour. It’s like frosting--too much of this sort of thing is boring and not good for you, but it’s fun while you’re consuming it.
The whole movie is on YouTube, at least until somebody takes it down:
October 23rd, 2015
|09:55 pm - 31 Days of Halloween: Frankenstein's Army|
I wish I could say that Frankenstein's Army surprised me, but no, it's exactly what I expected it to be. And that's fine--I watched it with my friend Gemma based solely on the fact that Netflix keeps telling both of us to watch it. You can already tell that this movie isn't going to get a positive review, but I'm not panning it either--it's hard for a film to be a letdown when you expect it to suck in the first place.
Frankenstein's Army opens in rural Germany during World War 2. Russian soldiers receive a distress call from one of their own, and they follow it to a small, deserted town. On the way, they encounter the aftermath of a small massacre and discover a dead German soldier with--well, they don't know what to make of it, but we would call them "cybernetic augmentations". The corpse lunges at them before lapsing back into death. We recognize this as foreshadowing, but they recognize it as another symptom of a long, long war.
As I said, the town is deserted, but they find a small handful of people who are hiding from the Nazis--or from the Doctor. We don't know much about the Doctor, but he has stocked this place with reanimated corpses with mechanical enhancements: buzzsaws for hands, neck-mounted machine guns... gruesome stuff.
Frankenstein's Army is a found footage movie, meaning that it's shot on a handheld camera, as if one of the members of the cast were making a film, and this is in fact the case: Young Dmitri has been sent with the group by their government to shoot footage for propaganda. Everyone is miserable as the movie starts, and nobody's very pleased to have Dimitri there; he's slow and weak and a liability, and not much help when the soldiers start being chased through dark hallways and eviscerated by the zombots. Eventually they discover that Dmitri has lied to them, and that there are no Russian soldiers in distress. Dmitri is on a secret mission to find the Doctor and bring him back alive if possible. The other soldiers respond by dumping him down a bloody chute which apparently leads to the Doctor's workshop.
The workshop is swarming with zombots performing mundane tasks with mutilated human bodies. This one separates the limbs, that one drills holes in skulls, the one over there removes the squishy bits that might otherwise get in the way. The Doctor is present as well, and is excited to have Dmitri documenting his work. He explains that he is Dr. Viktor Frankenstein, the great grandson of Victor Frankenstein, and that he has been creating these war machines for the glory of Germany, though like most insane Nazi movie doctors, he's in it for the science.
Frankenstein's Army is not a bad movie, but I did have some problems with it which boil down to personal taste, I guess. First, there's no one to root for in this film. All of the soldiers are war/zombie movie stereotypes (the tough guy, the loose cannon, the obsequious worm, etc.), and none of them is likable. A movie can get away with an unlikable cast if it provides an entertaining villain (Dr. Phibes, Freddy Kreuger, etc.), but there's just nobody here to rally around. Second, the found footage style is completely unnecessary here, and it's constraining because it prevents certain types of narrative development if the entire movie is presented from one person's perspective. On top of that, the found footage presentation strains credulity because the movie takes place at a time when the technology didn't exist to make the film we're watching. In fact, a conversation at one point addresses this: "I've never seen a camera like that before. Is that a microphone? Are you recording audio?" Nobody mentions that the use of color film is extremely unlikely...
There's no reason for the film to be shot in this style, other than to present action scenes that look like they belong in a video game. There are numerous shots of the camera barreling down a hallway, only to have something horrific pop out from around a corner. The minutes leading up to Dimitri's encounter with Dr. Frankenstein look exactly like something out of one of the latter Wolfenstein games, complete with the camera sneaking around at knee level on the gory factory floor as Dmitri hides behind crates and wheeled carts.
The video game comparison is pretty apt, I guess. There are so many zombots in so many varieties, and they're damned impressive--consider the spider-looking guy who stalks around on stilts while wearing a holocaust cloak and gas mask with a six-foot long drill bit where the mouth ought to be. This isn't the stuff of nightmares--nightmares happen on a lower budget with less dramatic sound cues. Unfortunately, the carnage is mindless and excessive, and there are no good characters and not enough story to drape it over. That's okay in a game, because a game is an active experience. A movie needs to hook its audience's attention. Frankenstein's Army might have been a good short film, but as a feature it's just a jumble of impressive practical effects. I like practical effects, but they should serve a story, you know?
Thank goodness Gemma was there to make fun of the movie with me. Here's the trailer: