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One Of Joanne Woodward's Greatest Performances
On the short list of films with the greatest all-time titles, these have long been my top three: "The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?," a wonderfully zany horror musical from 1963; "Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key," a tremendous Italian giallo from 1972; and the Paul Newman-directed "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds," which was first released in December 1972. Of these three, I had not seen that last one...until just last night, that is. "Gamma Rays" is a film that I had long wanted to experience, however, starring as it does one of my favorite actresses, Joanne Woodward, here in her second film directed by her longtime husband, and I had just loved that first one, 1968's "Rachel, Rachel," one of the screen's greatest odes to loneliness. As it turns out, "Gamma Rays" is still another wonderful offering by the great husband-and-wife team; a tremendously affecting film about lost chances, shattered lives and young hopes. Featuring a devastatingly fine performance by its leading lady and sensitive direction by Newman, it is a film that should stay with the viewer long after its initial bombardment and exposure.
The film introduces us to middle-aged widow Beatrice Hunsdorfer (Woodward, 42 here), who lives with her two teenage daughters in a dilapidated house in a lower-middle-class section of what is supposed to be Staten Island, although no mention of a locale is ever mentioned in the film. (The film was actually shot in Bridgeport, CT, and there ARE Connecticut plates on Beatrice's car.) Beatrice has been pretty well beaten up by life since her husband abandoned the family and then dropped dead some years before. Her home is a sty and Beatrice herself is a bit of a mess, a slatternly, chain-smoking, Schlitz-swilling woman who makes a living by doing some kind of telephone soliciting work for a dance studio, and renting out one of the bedrooms in her shabby abode. Her two daughters are interesting characters as well: The oldest, Ruth (Roberta Wallach, the daughter of Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, here in her first appearance before the cameras), is an epileptic, smart-alecky, wanna-be cheerleader with a budding interest in boys and sex; the younger, Matilda (Nell Potts, the daughter of Newman and Woodward, and who had earlier appeared in "Rachel, Rachel" as well), is a shy, introverted science geek who is currently working on the school project that gives this film its name. She also owns a pet rabbit, whose droppings have been causing her mother all manner of grief. Into their lives comes the incredibly ancient-looking crone Annie (Judith Lowry, 82 here but looking around 50 years older, and who had appeared in the Off-Broadway play on which the film is based), whose daughter has dumped her into the Hunsdorfers' spare bedroom. As the film proceeds, we see Beatrice hatch another of her pipe-dream schemes: opening an elegant tearoom, for which she will need at least $5,000 to get things going. We witness her attempt to wheedle the money out of her ex-brother-in-law, get hit on by a horny antiques dealer, sitting on a hillside while feeling miserably depressed and then meeting a cop who she had gone to high school with, and finally being called upon to give a speech when Matilda's project wins an award at the school fair. Throughout, the relationships between the three women are explored in sensitive fashion by the filmmakers.
"Gamma Rays" was scripted by Alvin Sargent (who would later go on to such projects as "Paper Moon," "Julia" and "Ordinary People") from 1965's Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play by Paul Zindel (who himself had been born on Staten Island). It was Newman's third go as a director, following "Rachel, Rachel" and "Sometimes a Great Notion" (1970), and he evinces here a sure hand at eliciting sensitive performances from his players. The film also features a wonderfully dreary score, largely on cello, by the great composer Maurice Jarre (although nowhere near as memorable as his classic scores for such films as 1962's "Lawrence of Arabia" and 1965's "Doctor Zhivago"). The film itself is fairly small in scope, giving us an unglamorized view of three unhappy lives, but is a major accomplishment despite that. And most of the credit for the film's success can be laid squarely at the feet of Woodward, who, her husband would later proclaim, never gave a finer performance. And indeed, the woman really is a wonder here, in a part that requires so much of her. Beatrice is a miserably unhappy woman who is fairly desperate to get out of her life situation, and Woodward really makes us feel that desperation. And we get to learn even more about the character via the reminiscences of that cop friend of hers, as well as through the recollections of a teacher in the girls' high school, who had been a fellow student of Beatrice's back when. We learn that she had been a happy-go-lucky sort as a teenager (Betty the Loon was her nickname, a name that Ruth will later taunt her with), and that she had once worn feathers to class. How sad to think of all that youthful zest turned so sour later in life! The promotional poster for "Gamma Rays" declared "Life's been a real bitch to Beatrice Hunsdorfer. And vice versa," and yes, Beatrice really does get to lash out on any number of occasions here. Her character runs the gamut from exasperated to maudlin to drunken to crass to tender to brutal. But she is also capable of coming out with some wonderfully amusing lines, such as when she tells the old biddy Annie "If anybody'd ever told me when I was younger I'd wind up feeding honey to a zombie I'd have told them they were crazy. I'd be better off driving a cab...." When Matilda tries to tell her of her school project, of her science teacher, and of the half-life of cobalt-60, Beatrice shoots back with "If he wants to find out about half-life he can come ask me. I'm the original half-life. I've got one daughter with half a mind, the other who's half a test tube, a house half full of rabbit crap, and half a corpse. That's a half-life, alright...." So yes, we DO get some chuckles here from Sargent's script to relieve the drama, and Woodward is given all the memorable lines. Amazingly, she was not nominated for an Oscar for her work here, although this is an Oscar-calibre performance if ever there were one. She was, however, recognized at that year's Cannes Film Festival, at which she was awarded the Best Actress prize. And she deserved it. But kudos must also be given to the two younger performers here, both of whom get to shine on any number of occasions. Wallach, who was 17 here, is utterly credible as the adolescent Ruth (her seizure scene is especially convincing), while the 13-year-old Potts does wonders with her quiet portrayal of the withdrawn Matilda, her interior monologue at the film's end providing a memorable conclusion to the proceedings.
As has been noted by others, there is some not-so-subtle symbolism in the film's title, which becomes more apparent when Matilda tells the school audience, in her acceptance speech, that her experiments have revealed the facts that small doses of radiation produced no effects in her growing plants; mild doses, beautiful mutations; but high doses, decay and death. Matilda herself, it would seem, has been given a mild dose of the "poisonous radiation" that prevails in the Hunsdorfer abode, and has herself mutated into something strange and wonderful. Her future, we feel, will be a bright and happy one. How wonderful it is to see Matilda, who has been so shy and undemonstrative throughout the film, carry out to the garden the rabbit that her mother has just slain in a drunken fit, and place it quietly down to rest. We sense that some change is going on inside her, some new way of looking at her surroundings, and that suspicion is verified in the interior monologue just alluded to. She is going to be alright. Her sister and mother...probably not so much. The viewer sincerely hopes that one day Beatrice will get her act together, perhaps remarry (she's really not too bad looking at all, when she doesn't overdo it with the wig and makeup), perhaps move into a decent place, and that Ruth will hopefully get treated for her illness and find some kind of fulfilling life for herself, but given the Hunsdorfer luck, and the Hunsdorfer radioactive bombardment that all have been exposed to, the odds are really not looking to favorable for them. The bottom line here is that "Gamma Rays" really is a wonderful film: an impeccably acted, sensitively shot, intelligently scripted drama. I am so glad that I finally got to see it, especially since it features one of Joanne Woodward's greatest bits of acting before a camera. And now, there still remains the fourth greatest title in film history for me to take in: 1969's "Can Hieronymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness?" Wish me luck as I endeavor to track this one down....
La ciociara (1960)
The Oscar race for Best Actress, 1961 was an especially competitive one. Audrey Hepburn was up for her forever-beloved role of Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's, Geraldine Page had given audiences a touching portrayal in the Tennessee Williams-based "Summer and Smoke," Piper Laurie had been very fine indeed in "The Hustler," Sophia Loren had wowed audiences with her devastating performance in "Two Women," and Natalie Wood had proven something of a revelation with her wonderful thesping in "Splendor in the Grass." This viewer had seen all of those films except for "Two Women" and had long maintained that nobody could have been more deserving that year than Natalie, who was indeed simply wonderful playing the part of young Deanie Loomis in the Kansas of the late 1920s. But now that I have finally gotten a chance to see "Two Women," I am suddenly not all that sure. The Loren film had actually been released in December 1960 in Italy and did not appear here in the States until the following year, which meant that its star would be competing against actresses from those various 1961 films. Directed by the famed neorealist wizard Vittorio de Sica (who had previously given the world such masterpieces as "Shoeshine," "The Bicycle Thief" and "Umberto D"), produced by Carlo Ponti (who, in 1966, after many years of court battles centering around a divorce from his previous wife, would finally become the husband of Sophia), and scripted by Cesare Zavattini (who had either written or co-written all three of those de Sica films just mentioned), "Two Women" provided Loren with a role not only suited to her considerable talents, but one that very justly earned her an Oscar nomination, and then the award itself...the first time an actress ever won an Oscar for a foreign-language film. Simply put, "Two Women," based on Alberto Moravia's 1957 novel "La Ciociara," or "The Woman of Ciociara," is a stunner.
In it, the viewer meets a widowed shopkeeper named Cesira (our Sophia), who lives in the war-battered Rome of the mid-1940s with her 12-year-old daughter, Rosetta (Italian-American actress Eleanora Brown, who actually WAS 12 years old when she essayed this role). Following a particularly nasty bit of aerial bombing to their neighborhood, Cesira decides to take her daughter to the countryside and wait out the rest of the war at the peasant village where she grew up, Sant'Eufemia, in the area known as Ciociara. She leaves her store in the care of a friendly coal merchant named Giovanni (Raf Vallone, who would appear with Sophia in her very next film, "El Cid"), with whom she has a passionate encounter. The mother and daughter's trip to the countryside is interrupted when their train breaks down, forcing the two to hike the rest of the way. They are subjected to aerial strafing and witness the death of an elderly man just scant yards from where they stand. Once arrived in the village, however, all seems to be well, except for the fact that there is very little food, forcing all the villagers to eat grass and scrape by as best they might. Cesira proves utterly irresistible to the son of one of her old village friends, a free-thinking youth named Michele (played by the French actor Jean-Paul Belmondo, who had just enjoyed a breakthrough of sorts nine months earlier in the Jean-Luc Godard film "Breathless"; his lines in "Two Women," by the way, were all dubbed), although nothing really comes of this relationship. After spending some time in this bucolic but starved retreat, and following Michele's forced abduction by a gang of German troops, Cesira and Rosetta decide to return to Rome. The American forces have by now begun to sweep through to liberate the civil war-torn country. En route to the capital city, the two take shelter in an abandoned church, where they are horribly raped by a gang of Moroccan soldiers, resulting in a battered mother and an absolutely traumatized 12-year-old. The emotional aftermath of this devastating incident is one that occupies the remainder of this truly compelling film.
For her performance in "Two Women," Loren would go on to win not only that year's Oscar prize, but also the BAFTA award and the NY Film Critics Award, and was named Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. Hers truly is a bit of thesping for the ages, and so it comes as something of a surprise to learn that in the filmmakers' original conception for this project, Loren was to have played the role of the daughter, while the mother was to have been played by the force of nature known as Anna Magnani! The mind boggles at the prospect of such a film as that! Loren was 26 when she appeared in this picture, and so it might have been more believable for her to have played the younger role, instead of being the mother of a 12-year-old girl. And the interplay between the two legendary Italian actresses really might have been something to see. Sadly, that film was never to be, but what we have right here turns out to be more than acceptable indeed. Sophia is just marvelous as Cesira, as it turns out, a protective tigress of a mother who will do anything for her daughter. Her unbelievable beauty, as compared to the earthy good looks of Magnani, makes it more credible that the men whom she comes in contact with find her utterly captivating, and she manages to completely convince the viewer that she could indeed be the mother of a preteen. She is truly a marvel to watch here, running the gamut from sexy, to scared, to playful, to wretched and finally emotionally spent. She is, happily, present in every single scene in the film. And this film boasts any number of wonderful sequences, such as the lovemaking between Cesira and Giovanni, shot in a coal cellar with a swaying, overhead lightbulb providing the only illumination; that killing of the old man on the country road; the harrowing rape of the two women; and the final scene, in which the aloof Rosetta comes back to her mother's arms once again.
As for that rape scene, surely the most infamous sequence in this film, it is properly shot by de Sica like something out of a horror movie. When Cesira and Rosetta lie down in the abandoned church for a nap, all seems peaceful and serene ... until Cesira notices the face of one of the Moroccans leering at her in the gloom, his visage monstrous and uncanny. The mother nervously hastens her daughter out of the church, but not before a swarm of the soldiers burst in like wild animals, chasing the two around the nave and pinning them to the floor. Cesira's head is repeatedly battered on the ground until she loses consciousness, while poor Rosetta suffers an even worse fate. de Sica's camera spasms into her face as she lays pinned to the floor, with one final close-up as the girl (sorry, but I really cannot think of Rosetta as one of the two "women" of the title) is penetrated for the first time. It is a shocking moment, indeed, brilliantly captured by a master filmmaker. The rapes here are neither eroticized nor lingered upon, but merely shown to be the terrible ordeal that they must be. To their great credit, neither Loren nor Brown overplays the effects of this rape when they awaken; both actresses are wholly realistic and credible here, as captured by de Sica, the master neorealist.
In his wonderful book "Alternate Oscars," Danny Peary tells us, in his defense of Natalie Wood being that year's most deserving Oscar recipient for Best Actress, that he feels Loren won the award because of "...the Academy's desire to honor non-American films in order to give a boost to the Hollywood product abroad; Loren's status as honorary American; and Loren's giving proof, after eleven years, that she was a skilled actress...." And although it is hard to disagree with Peary's assessment, one cannot also help but feel that it downplays the really remarkable bit of work that Loren gave to the world here. I remain torn as to who was more deserving that year, Loren or Wood, and do wish that it would have been possible for the two actresses to have shared the award, as would happen eight years later, when Katharine Hepburn and Barbra Streisand were cowinners, for "The Lion in Winter" and "Funny Girl," respectively. Natalie's Wilma Dean character goes through several emotional upheavals during the course of her film, requiring the actress to play it sexy, desperate, conflicted, and emotionally spent, similar to Loren's character in "Two Women." It really is too close to call. Both actresses would of course continue to offer up stellar performances as the 1960s progressed, Wood being especially fine in "Love With the Proper Stranger" (1963), "Inside Daisy Clover" (1965) and "This Property Is Condemned" (1966), and Loren in "Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" (1963, and a triple role for the great actress), "Marriage Italian Style" (1964) and "Arabesque" (1966), but neither of them was ever better than in the film for which she was Oscar nominated. Bottom line: I do not begrudge Loren her Oscar here one bit, having finally seen the wonderful drama that is "Two Women." Hail Cesira!
Apartment for Peggy (1948)
Tailor/Taylor Made For Ms. Jeanne Crain
As I may have mentioned elsewhere, for my money, the most beautiful actress in Hollywood history was none other than Ms. Jeanne Crain. From her very first film appearance, an uncredited cameo, poolside in a green bathing suit in the 1943 musical "The Gang's All Here," all the way to her final film, 1972's "Skyjacked," Crain never failed to awe the viewer with her remarkable good looks; indeed, in the 1945 film noir "Leave Her to Heaven," she managed the near-impossible feat of looking better than Gene Tierney (my personal choice for the second-most-beautiful actress in Hollywood history) at her most gorgeous. But for this old fan, Jeanne never looked more ravishing than she did in the mid-'40s, and so it has been a goal of mine to experience every single one of her films from that period. One of those pictures that I recently crossed off the list is the film in question, "Apartment for Peggy," which was first released in October 1948, just three months before one of Crain's most accomplished films, the classic piece of Americana "A Letter to Three Wives." Filmed at 20th Century Fox for $2 million, "Peggy" was a barely moderate success at the box office - I believe it was something like the 43rd-highest grosser for that year - but is a film that surely should have done better. Filmed in gorgeous, supersaturated Technicolor, highlighting a warm and moving story, and showcasing Jeanne Crain at her loveliest, the film is one that does deserve to be remembered today, old-fashioned and, admittedly, somewhat dated as it might be.
The film introduces the viewer to Henry Barnes (Edmund Gwenn, who had just made a memorable impression on audiences playing Kris Kringle in "Miracle on 34th Street" the year before, and who, six years later, would wow sci-fi fans by playing Dr. Harold Medford in "Them!"), a widower who has lost his only son in WW2 combat. Barnes is a retired professor of philosophy at a Midwest college, and has come to the calmly deliberated conclusion that on March 1st, right after he has finished writing his book, he will commit suicide, thus ridding the world of his then useless presence. While sitting on a bench near the college's ice-skating rink, Barnes meets a pretty woman named Peggy Taylor (or perhaps I should say mind-bogglingly gorgeous, since she is played by Jeanne Crain), a scatterbrained chatterbox who informs him that she and her newlywed husband are currently looking for a place to live, their tiny trailer not being suitable for the two, as well as the baby that she will soon be having. (Speaking for myself, the thought of living in a tiny space with a woman who looks like Peggy strikes me as being a small slice of heaven, but that's just me!) When Peggy finds out that the professor has an empty attic in his home, she wheedles and charms her way into it, and before long, has turned that dusty attic into a really lovely apartment. Her husband Jason (William Holden, whose film "Rachel and the Stranger" had just come out the month before) is studying to become a chemistry teacher on the GI Bill but is not doing very well at it, and the couple is having serious cash flow problems as well. And yet more problems arise when Jason decides to chuck his teaching aspirations and go to Chicago to become a used-car salesman and thus make more money, when the professor's determination to do himself in intensifies, and when Peggy loses her baby in a miscarriage. Can a happy ending ever be brought about for these three unhappy people? What would you think?
To its great credit, "Apartment for Peggy" resists the temptation to get sappily maudlin and overly sentimental, and while the film surely has its heartwarming moments, it never overwhelms the viewer with overbearing or manipulative emotion. It is reminiscent of, and a more touching rendition of, the great 1943 comedy "The More the Merrier," in which Jean Arthur, Joel McCrea and the much older Charles Coburn are forced to share an apartment, although nowhere near the caliber of greatness of that earlier film. But once again, the three leads are just marvelous, especially Gwenn, who steals the film with his wonderful portrayal; such a shame that he could not have been nominated for a Best Supporting Oscar for his work here, although Walter Huston surely deserved his statue that year for his incredible performance in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." The film looks just gorgeous in high-def Technicolor, and the outdoor scenes, filmed at the University of Nevada at Reno, have a lovely wintery splendor. Director George Seaton (who had also helmed "Miracle on 34th Street") does a fine job at keeping his film intimate and touching, and his script, based on Faith Baldwin's novelette "An Apartment for Jenny" (why the name change?), contains many lines and passages of great wisdom and depth. As for David Raksin's score for the film, it is a nice one, indeed, although nowhere near as memorable as his classic theme for the Gene Tierney film "Laura," four years earlier. "Apartment for Peggy" offers the viewer any number of memorable scenes, including the one in which the professor teaches a class in philosophy to the wives of the GIs, only to be taught a lesson in philosophy himself; the sight of the professor and Jason trying to put together a Tyny Tot Tub, perhaps the funniest scene in the film; the scene is which Barnes goes to Chicago to try to convince Jason to go back to school; Barnes' confession to Peggy while visiting her in the hospital; and Jason's chemistry test, during which he and his stern professor (played by the ubiquitous character actor Charles Lane) come to a sort of understanding with each other.
And then, of course, there is Peggy herself, as played by our Jeanne, who is absolutely wonderful here. She makes Peggy 90% adorable and 10% annoying, personalitywise, and of course 100% delicious in the looks department. Peggy is a nonstop, high-speed talker (the viewer might actually have some initial trouble assimilating all her rapid chatter) who really is a bit of an oddball. No wonder her husband, at one point, tells her, "Come to think of it, you're completely crazy!" Peggy has a knack for thinking up phony statistics to help her win arguments; "alternative facts," as we would call them today. When backed into a corner about this unfortunate habit, she replies "Of course I make them up. Somebody's always making up statistics. It might as well be me. You'd be surprised how many arguments I win with my statistics. If I get in a spot, I just say '36%' or '400 million.' Nobody ever bothers to check up. They just say 'My, I never realized it was that much.' And when I walk away they think I'm very smart...." Peggy is something of a force of life, who tells Jason at one point that she ultimately wants to have nine kids (forcibly reminding the viewer that, in real life, Crain herself would go on to have seven). She is also very sweet at heart, naturally, and turns out to be just what the suicidal professor needs in his life at that moment, although he takes a while before realizing it. Crain is ideally cast here, and her great charm and remarkable looks make Peggy Taylor a creature very hard not to love, despite her annoying ways.
It is difficult to assign "Apartment for Peggy" into any one film category. It is surely not a comedy, although it does have any number of funny lines and amusing situations, and Peggy herself is like a character straight out of a screwball comedy of the 1930s. It is not a drama, although it does have several scenes of emotional weight. It is not a tearjerker, although one surely does initially expect the film to be heading in that direction. And it is certainly not a lightweight, empty-headed film, filled as it is with serious discussions, philosophical ruminations, and moments of great insight about life. I suppose that it is a well-mixed combination of all those elements; a curious stew that might prove very tasty indeed to the modern-day viewer, now almost three-quarters of a century later. Fans of the three leads here will surely eat this film right up, as all three of them are at their appealing best and get many moments in which to shine. This is the kind of film that has seemingly gone out of fashion today; one that depends not on flash and special FX, or action, or raunchy comedy, or even showy performances by lead actors trying to boost their Oscar chances. Rather, it is a small, quiet film, perfect for family viewing; a life-affirming movie that stresses what matters most in this world: helping others. It is kind of a pity that the characters spotlighted here could not have been revisited in a follow-up picture, as it would have been interesting to see what their household might have looked like after the Taylors had their baby (or nine babies), with Prof. Barnes serving as the genial uncle figure over the nest. But at least we have this enduring film, and it is one that most viewers will be very happy to discover. I know I was....
Stolen Hours (1963)
A Solid Remake, Though Not As Good As The Original
As I believe I have mentioned elsewhere, I have never been a big fan of the cinematic remake...especially when it comes to remakes of beloved classics. Those remakes usually strike me as being completely unnecessary, as well as inevitably inferior to the originals. There have been exceptions, of course, such as John Huston's "The Maltese Falcon," and John Carpenter's "The Thing," both of which improved on their forebears and added immeasurably to the original conceptions. And so, it was only reluctantly that I sat down the other night to watch "Stolen Hours," which was indeed a retread of a beloved classic, the great Bette Davis vehicle "Dark Victory" (1939). This Davis film has been one of the crown jewels of the great actress' career ever since its release, and very few things would have induced me to watch a remake of it. However, this remake, which was released in October '63, happens to star Susan Hayward, aka "The Brooklyn Bombshell," aka "my favorite combination of looks and talent," and Hayward completist that I hope to be someday, it behooved me to see it at some point. Thus, on the occasion of what would have been Hayward's 103rd birthday recently, I finally sat down to give it a look, not expecting overly much, although I had never been let down by any of the Hayward films that I had seen in the past. The result? Well, as I expected, the film certainly does not excel its wonderful original, and yet is by itself a very solid entertainment, bolstered by still another compelling performance by Hayward. It updates its story to more modern times and relocates the events from New York's Long Island to the English countryside, although its central story line is much the same as the original's.
The film introduces us to an extremely wealthy American socialite named Laura Pember, the daughter of a Texas oil baron, who is now twice divorced and living in the countryside of England in a palatial estate. How wealthy is Ms. Pember? Well, when we first meet her, she is seen throwing a huge party to celebrate the arrival of her kid sister, Ellen, from America, and jazz great Chet Baker (!) has been hired to play in her living room at the big bash! Excusing herself from the party, Laura drives to the airport to pick her sister up, only to suffer headaches and double-vision symptoms en route, thus almost wrecking her beautiful car (a 1962 Mercedes-Benz 220 SE). Ellen (Diane Baker, here giving still another of the "sweet young thing" portrayals at which she excelled in the early '60s) evinces concern, and becomes even more worried back at the house when Laura's ex-lover, Mike Bannerman (Edward Judd, who many sci-fi fans will recall from such films as "The Day the Earth Caught Fire," "First Men in the Moon" and "Island of Terror"), tells her that she has been displaying worrisome symptoms but has refused to see a doctor. But Bannerman HAS brought a doctor friend of his to the party, John Carmody (Michael Craig), and that physician makes a subtle examination of Laura whilst speaking to her socially. He advises her to go in for tests posthaste, after noting Laura's sensitivity to light and her inability to feel an ice cube placed onto her palm. Laura reacts angrily but does indeed go for those tests, which reveal the horrible truth: She has a glioma, a type of brain tumor, and requires an immediate operation. The operation seems to go successfully, although the surgeon who has performed the procedure, Dr. Eric McKenzie (Paul Rogers), reveals to Carmody that the good effects are only temporary; Laura only has six months to a year to live at most, and her sudden demise will be preceded by rapidly dimming vision. Carmody tells Bannerman and Ellen the terrible facts but decides not to tell Laura herself. He enters into a relationship with her, and all seems to go well until Laura does a bit of snooping into his office files and reads her prognosis therein. Angry at Carmody for keeping the truth from her, she enters into a period of reckless indulgence, followed by a realization that perhaps a meaningful relationship would be best for her in her final days. The two marry and move to a tiny village on the Cornwall coast, where John becomes a country doctor and Laura manages to find some peace...as the end draws rapidly nearer....
Those viewers who tune into "Stolen Hours" expecting a good cry might be a little surprised at how things unreel here. The film is not at all mawkish or sentimentalized, not played for tears, and indeed, even those scenes that one might expect to be highly dramatic - such as when Laura reads her medical files, and when she senses that terminal dimming of vision - are downplayed, the musical background subtly restrained. This is a highly realistic film, and Laura Pember is shown to be scared but ultimately brave, emotionally conflicted yet finally a woman of steely resolve. Even her final moments will probably engender more of a feeling of admiration in the viewer, as opposed to tears. (In truth, the 9/22/61 episode of "Route 66," "A Month of Sundays," in which George Maharis' Buz Murdock falls in love with a dying actress played by Anne Francis, is much more of a tearjerker than this motion picture of two years later.) Hayward, as might be expected, is absolutely aces in this picture, her second in a row to be filmed in England, following 1962's "I Thank a Fool." Her fans will be happy to hear that she appears in no fewer than 181 of the movie's 188 scenes - this is her film all the way - and has been given 32 changes of wardrobe throughout. She had to learn to do the bossa nova for the part, and was taught by Chubby Checker himself to do the twist, although that twist sequence ultimately wound up on the cutting-room floor. (These tidbits from Eduardo Moreno's wonderful book "The Films of Susan Hayward.") Of course, an added and inadvertent subtext crops up in the film as the modern-day viewer watches, knowing full well that less than a decade later, in April '73, Hayward herself would be diagnosed with a brain tumor, ultimately succumbing to the disease in March '75, at the age of 57. Thus, we watch with some discomfort as Laura blithely discusses the imminent shaving of her hair and which wig she will wear. Bette Davis' character, Judith Traherne, in the original film does not engender this same feeling as the viewer watches, of course. It is an unfortunate and unintended attribute of the remake only, due to the unfortunate fate of its lead actress.
"Stolen Hours" has been helmed by Canadian director Daniel Petrie - his fourth film, having been immediately preceded by "A Raisin in the Sun" and "The Main Attraction" - in a fairly straightforward and no-nonsense manner. He manages to elicit solid performances from all his players. The film's script, by author Jessamyn West, alters the original's story a bit (Judith Traherne's closest female friend in the original was her secretary, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald, not her younger sister; Judith's husband, played by George Brent, goes to NYC to make a medical presentation as she lies dying, and not to a nearby house to help deliver a baby, as does Carmody) but in all remains largely faithful to it. And the film itself boasts some lovely scenery of the English countryside, especially when the action moves to that small village in Cornwall; the viewer will surely feel the impulse to move to the town of Fowey, on the Channel coast, where this segment was shot. Cinematographer Harry Waxman ("She," "The Nanny," "The Anniversary," "Wonderwall," "The Wicker Man") manages to capture that scenic glory with great finesse. And Maurice Binder, whose film-title designs for so many of the 007 films have made him a household word, here contributes still another wonderful opening-credits montage, giving us multicolored dandelion spores being blown into the wind ... a symbol of how easily we can all be just puffed away, I suppose.
So how does "Stolen Hours" finally compare to its classic original, "Dark Victory," you will be asking. Well, of course, as I expected, nothing can top the Bette Davis movie, one of the eternally great films of that celebrated year of 1939. Still, "Stolen Hours" is well worth a watch, and that largely because of Susan Hayward, an actress who always gave 100% to whichever film she was working on. She gets to run the gamut here, playing a sexy party girl, a scared patient, a woman in love, a gal who is determined to carouse and make the most of her remaining months, and finally, a contented wife. She is never maudlin here, never over the top, but rather, always hits just the right notes to keep the film well within the bounds of credibility. Hers is a more restrained performance, as compared to Davis', and the 1963 film itself is much less likely to require the use of a hankie or two. I'm glad that I finally caught up with it. "Stolen Hours" may have been an unnecessary remake, but at least it is an entertaining, intelligent and adult one. This was the 36th film of Ms. Hayward's that I have seen, of the actress' 57, and I am happy to report that it is one of her latter-day best. Most definitely recommended....
Interrupted Melody (1955)
In 1951, MGM had something of a megahit with its biopic entitled "The Great Caruso," which depicted the life story of the great Italian operatic tenor. The film was produced for around $2 million and pulled in a whopping $10 million at the box office. The following year, a rival studio, 20th Century Fox, had something of a huge success with its biopic entitled "With a Song in My Heart," which told the story of American singer Jane Froman, and her comeback after being crippled in an airplane disaster. Perhaps heartened by the success of these two recent ventures, MGM, on March 25, 1955, released what it hoped would be another success along those same lines, with its splashy production of "Interrupted Melody." This film told the story of Australian opera singer Marjorie Lawrence, of her swift climb to success beginning in 1932, of the polio that stalled her career, and of her eventual glorious comeback. Based on Lawrence's 1949 autobiography of the same name, the film was given the deluxe treatment, with lavish CinemaScope and Eastman Color. Produced for $2.3 million, it was only a modest box office success, however, eventually garnering $4 million in ticket sales. It is a film that I had been meaning to see for many years, huge fan as I am of its leading lady, Eleanor Parker, and indeed, it was the only major film in Parker's filmography that I had not thus far experienced; a serious omission, especially inasmuch as a framed portrait of Parker from this film hangs in my foyer here at home. Still, I was reluctant to see this picture, and for one reason: I am not a fan of opera at all. As I believe I mentioned in my review of the wonderful Dario Argento horror film "Opera," many folks over the years have tried to turn me on to this musical genre, and all of them have failed. Opera, for me, had always meant a fat lady in a Viking helmet yodeling away at full blast, or a bearded guy or off-putting prima donna shrilling away in a language that I am unfamiliar with and thus could never appreciate. Still, the music in "Opera" had been strangely appealing to me, wonder of wonders, and so, I manfully sat down the other night, on the occasion of what would have been Ms. Parker's 98th birthday, and hoped for the best. And you know what? I wound up quite enjoying the film...long operatic segments and all! Perhaps there is hope for me yet!
"Interrupted Melody" cleaves fairly evenly into two discrete parts. In the first, we learn of how Lawrence won a singing audition in her native Winchelsea, Australia, and got to thus study in Paris under the tutelage of the famed Cecile Gilly. We see how she quickly became a prima donna in the opera houses of various French provinces, eventually performing in Paris. In the south of France, she meets the American doctor of medicine, Thomas King (Glenn Ford, who insisted on top billing for this film, strangely enough--Parker generously assented in the interests of getting the film made--and whose film "The Blackboard Jungle" was also released on 3/25/55!), who would eventually become her husband. After their marriage and Lawrence's relocation to the States, we see the troubles that the two encountered in their marriage, primarily due to their conflicting schedules and Lawrence's extended tours away from home. It is in the film's second half, however, that things really grow interesting, when Marjorie collapses during a 1941 South American tour and is diagnosed with polio. In this grueling segment, we see the diva confined to a wheelchair in Florida, where the two have moved in order to effect a convalescence. Lawrence slowly loses her will to live, even attempting suicide at one point ("You're a doctor...help me to die," she pleads to King), only to find a new meaning in her life when she overcomes her embarrassment of being seen in a wheelchair, and begins to perform for the WW2 troops overseas. Her comeback reaches its culmination at the Met in NYC, with Lawrence performing Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," to the thunderous ovation of its awestruck audience....
Marjorie Lawrence would later tell reporters that she was unhappy with the filmization of her autobiography, and that it was an unfaithful telling of her life story. I cannot answer to that, not being anything like a fan of the singer or knowledgeable about the actual details of her life. I can only tell you my reactions to what we have been given here. And thus, I CAN report that the film will surely prove touching even to those who are not a fan of the diva or the operatic style itself. It is a terrifically acted film, and Parker and Ford work very well together. Parker was deservedly nominated for her third Oscar for her work here, ultimately "losing" to Anna Magnani for her terrific performance in "The Rose Tattoo." (Not for nothing, but I would have given the statue that year to Susan Hayward, for her incredible performance in "I'll Cry Tomorrow," another biopic, this one dealing with actress Lillian Roth.) The two leads are ably abetted by Roger Moore, here in his second film (following his debut in 1954's "The Last Time I Saw Paris"), and playing the part of Marjorie's brother Cyril, who later became her manager. The great character actor Cecil Kellaway, who plays Lawrence's father back in Australia, is essentially wasted in a part that gives him perhaps two minutes of screen time. Director Curtis Bernhardt, who had previously directed Bette Davis in "A Stolen Life," Audrey Totter in "The High Wall," Joan Crawford in "Possessed" and Humphrey Bogart in "Sirocco," here elicits a few more wonderful performances from his players, while the film's script, by Sonya Levien (1939's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," 1945's"State Fair" and that same year's "Oklahoma") and William Ludwig, would go on to cop that year's Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. (Wait...this script was based on Lawrence's autobiography, so shouldn't that have been "Best Adapted Screenplay"?) The picture features any number of touching moments of great dramatic weight, including Marjorie's first attempts to crawl across the floor after her paralysis; Lawrence singing for the first time in public from a wheelchair, when she performed "Over the Rainbow" in a veterans hospital; and, of course, that opening at the Met, singing for the first time in a major production after her polio diagnosis. This is a film, by the way, that would probably work better when experienced on the large screen, rather than watched on a 40" flat-screen TV, as I took it in the other night. Its wide-screen image and lush color would probably look fantastic when seen in a theatrical setting. Still, even when experienced at home, it manages to impress with its sumptuous production detail and extravagant costumes.
And then there are those opera bits themselves, which I had thought would be a stumbling block for me. And this film dishes out any number of them, especially in its first half. Thus, we get to see Lawrence perform selections from Verdi's "Don Carlos" and "Il Trovatore," Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," Bizet's "Carmen" and Wagner's "Gotterdammerung," among others. And please don't ask me which pieces are performed here; I DID mention that I am a complete opera dunce, didn't I? These opera selections are convincingly performed by Parker, who supposedly sang the pieces while performing, being a huge opera buff herself as well as a pretty darn decent singer in her own right, by all reports...although her voice was ultimately dubbed by the America soprano Eileen Farrell. The net result is very convincing, however, and fans of the great actress will love seeing her dressed in gypsy, geisha and Valkyrie attire as she performs these various numbers. Parker, who would go on to be proclaimed "The Woman of a Thousand Faces," for her great facility for portraying many different types of character on screen, fearlessly tackling anything the studio threw at her, was on something of a roll at this point in her career. Later that same year, she would appear in the hugely entertaining Western "Many Rivers to Cross," opposite Robert Taylor, as well as the part of another cripple (or rather, supposed cripple), Zosh Machine, opposite Frank Sinatra, in the hard-hitting film "The Man With the Golden Arm." She was not Lawrence's first choice for the one who would portray her on film (that was Greer Garson), and indeed, the casting process for the picture's lead would turn out to be a lengthy one, with Kathryn Grayson, Lana Turner and Deborah Kerr all being considered at some point. But one cannot help but feel that the filmmakers ultimately made the correct decision with Parker, an actress who was not only stunningly beautiful (her flaming red hair in that Eastman Color really is something to behold), and who could act rings around just about any of her peers, but who, as I mentioned, actually knew quite a bit about opera and could convincingly portray a diva in full-throated mode. She is just terrific here, in a role that required so very much of her thesping abilities. Brava!
The Wild Affair (1965)
Quant Does Kwan
In the October 1963 issue of "Vogue" magazine, both the British and the U.S. editions, there appeared a pictorial that would soon send shock waves around the world. In it, up-and-coming hairdresser Vidal Sassoon was seen giving a radical new cut to Eurasian star Nancy Kwan, snipping off her trademark long locks and giving her what I believe is called a neck-length geometric bob. The occasion for this radical transformation was Kwan's upcoming film, which would be her seventh, and entitled "The Wild Affair." Kwan's career had been jump-started three years earlier when she appeared in her first film, "The World of Suzie Wong," at the tender age of 21. But after her second film, the beloved/disdained musical "Flower Drum Song," her career seemed to flounder a bit. Four middling films would follow: "The Main Attraction," in which she played a circus bareback rider opposite Pat Boone, of all people; "Tamahine," in which she portrayed a Polynesian girl who throws an English boys' school into pandemonium; "Honeymoon Hotel," a silly comedy in which her role is a small one; and "Fate Is the Hunter," a fine drama that again features Kwan in a subsidiary role. All these films, for this viewer anyway, were salvaged by Kwan's great beauty and even greater charm. But in "The Wild Affair," she would finally be given a decent script and the opportunity to appear in every single scene in that film. The result is a picture that all fans of this wonderful actress should just eat up. Filmed in 1963 but not released until December '65, "The Wild Affair" has been very difficult to see ever since, never having been given the DVD treatment until just a few years back. But a recent watch has demonstrated for this viewer how very charming a film it is.
In it, the viewer is introduced to 20-year-old Marjorie Lee (our Nancy), who, when we first meet her, is about to be married to the bumbling Andy (Donald Churchill). Marjorie is thus about to leave her job, at the IT cosmetics company; a thing that apparently all fiancees did right before tying the knot back in the early '60s. Marjorie's last day at work, as fate would have it, is the day of the office's big Christmas party, a bash at which Marjorie intends to sow some first and final wild oats. It seems that Marjorie is what was once called "a good girl" - a virgin, as we would call her today - and, unbeknownst to everyone, has an alter ego named Sandra (also played by Kwan, natch, giving her what is essentially a double role in this film). She sees Sandra in mirrors and any reflective surface that she comes across, even in the bottom of wineglasses, and Sandra has been compelling her lately to go a little wild; to have a fling before she settles down into domesticity. "Get out there and enjoy yourself while you can. It'll give you something to look back on when Andy's at work and you're stuck at home doing the ironing," Sandra counsels her. And, as we soon learn, Marjorie will have any number of chances to lose her virginity at this Christmas bash, as every single male in her office can't seem to keep his lusty hands off of her, including her manager, Hearst (Paul Whitsun-Jones), and her big boss, Godfrey Deane (the great character actor Terry-Thomas, her sans moustache, for a change). Things become even more problematic for Marjorie when the company's chief cosmetics artist, Quentin (Victor Spinetti, who many will recall as the TV director from "A Hard Day's Night"), uses her to demonstrate his upcoming "vampire look," transforming her into a makeup-caked creature who is the spitting image of...Sandra! (And causing the building's doorman, Bletch, to exclaim to himself "If I was your father, I wouldn't let you go in the backyard looking like that!") Marjorie's temptations will soon be put to the real test, when the company's visiting overseas sales manager, Craig (hunky dude Jimmy Logan), whisks her off to lunch in a private suite at a fancy hotel, and when that Christmas party finally gets started...the wildest holiday party shown on screen since the great bash depicted in Billy Wilder's "The Apartment" three years earlier. So, who will win out in this battle of wills...the staid and proper Marjorie, or the devilish and wanton Sandra? As the liquor starts to flow freely at this Yuletide bacchanal, the answer to that one becomes increasingly problematic....
Written and helmed by director John Krish, working from William Sansom's 1961 novel "The Last Hours of Sandra Lee," "The Wild Affair" is a very fast-moving British film that manages to clock in at just under 90 minutes. Krish's script is a winning one, albeit with a predictable ending, that lets us learn a bit about Marjorie's many coworkers: blonde office meanie Monica (Joyce Blair), kindly Mavis (Betty Marsden), charwoman Mrs. Tovey (Welsh comedienne Gladys Morgan), expectant young father Ralph (David Sumner), et al. And as the modern-day viewer watches Marjorie at her job, it will be with an ever-growing sense of astonishment at the amount of sexual harassment that the poor gal has to put up with, be it of the verbal or physical variety. In truth, this is the kind of film that might justly be shown by proponents of today's MeToo movement as an exemplar of what women had to put up with back in the day; indeed, the film's promotional poster asks "Can A Secretary Say No, When Her Boss Says Yes?," as if it were even a legitimate question! By the film's end, just about every male character will have made a sober or drunken pass at her, or uttered some kind of lewd or indecent comment, despite the fact that all the males see her as being a woman with "all in the window, and nothing in the shop." Granted, these were different times, before every large company had an HR Dept. in which one might level a complaint regarding these matters. Fortunately for all, Marjorie manages to put up with it with good grace.
Her character here is an interesting contrast to Suzie Wong, a prostitute who initially pretended to be a virgin; Marjorie, on the other hand, really is a virgin, who pretends to have more knowledge about sex than she actually does. And whereas Suzie's trademark line was the perpetual "For goodness sake," Marjorie's is the exasperated "For Pete's sake!" And both characters even come out with the line "I'm a respectable girl," although in the case of Suzie, it was all for sham. But Nancy, need it even be said, is absolutely adorable in both roles. As I mentioned up top, her fans will be glad to see her in every single scene in this film, and in dual roles, to boot. She looks quite fabulous here, I might add, with her new Vidal Sassoon hairdo, and dressed in some very impressive outfits by the great fashion designer Mary Quant, the (debated) creator of the miniskirt and the hot-pants outfit. (Yes, Quant does Kwan!) Curiously, nothing is made of the fact that Marjorie looks like a Eurasian woman in this film. She is the daughter of properly British parents (her mother, by the way, is played by the great silent-film actress Bessie Love), so I suppose we are to believe that she too is English. Is she adopted? Is she supposed to just look like a half-Chinese woman somehow? Strangely, nothing is made of this.
"The Wild Affair" has been shot in gorgeous B&W by ace cinematographer Arthur Ibbetson and features some fascinating shots of London as it was right before it became known as Swinging London. Its dialogue is fired at the viewer at a lightning clip, and some of the British gibberish might require a second viewing for American ears to decipher; not a problem, really, as a second viewing proved even more rewarding for this viewer. The film's ending, if telegraphed and a bit predictable, is surely in keeping with Marjorie's character, and is assuredly not as disappointing as the cop-out finale to be found in "Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice" ... and that one was made in the Free Love era of 1969! The film offers up some rewarding words of wisdom, courtesy of that charming old biddy Mrs. Tovey, especially when she tells Marjorie that she won't offer the bride-to-be luck, because marriage doesn't require luck, but rather a lot of hard work, and that Marjorie shouldn't wait to have kids until she can afford them, because she never will. It is a sweet and charming film, and a complete success for Nancy Kwan, who demonstrated here what a terrific actress she could be, when given the chance to shine. Her next two films, the silly Disney comedy "Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N." and "Arrivederci, Baby" (in which her role was again a small one), would once more find her in parts unsuited to her talent, but at least we have "The Wild Affair" as a testament to what the actress was capable of when all the right elements came together. Ending on as sweet a note as possible, with Marjorie and Andy lying on the floor and covering each other's face with dozens and dozens of little impassioned kisses, the film serves as a fine time capsule, a winning comedy, and an ample demonstration of the abundant charms of Nancy Kwan....
The Cabin in the Woods (2011)
An Over-The-Top Thrill Ride With Too Few Explanations
When "The Cabin in the Woods" was released in April 2012, it almost immediately became something of a sensation, a hit both with the critics and the public, ultimately going on to gross around $67 million at the box office, after having been produced for $30 million. Despite all that, however, and despite the fact that I am an old fan of a good horror movie, well told, I managed to miss the film when it was first run, and only caught up with it very recently, at home. And now, I am most regretful that I did not run to the theaters back when, as this really is a film that would have benefited from being seen on the big screen. It is an eye-popping film, loaded with suspense, action, scares, laughs, and amazing special FX; one that would have been ideal for seeing with a good audience. Not since 1996's "Scream," perhaps, has a motion picture so knowingly and winkingly toyed with the conventions of the horror film, and to such winning effect, all the while adding something fresh and new to the conversation. As I say, a perfect film for watching with others in a theater, and yet, so good is the film, that even at home it managed to stun and leave this viewer slack jawed, although not entirely satisfied. More on this in a moment.
The film is one that will undoubtedly leave the viewer feeling more and more puzzled as he/she watches. It opens inside what looks to be a highly advanced and scientific installation of some sort, where we see two men, Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), casually joking around while making small talk about how the Swedes have just botched their end of the operation, leaving only the U.S. and Japan in the game. What ARE they talking about? We jump to five attractive college kids who are about to go off for a long weekend in the country. These students are athletic Curt (Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, who had just started playing the role of Thor for Marvel Studios one year earlier), his blonde hottie girlfriend Jules (New Zealander actress Anna Hutchison), the bookish but buff Holden (Jesse Williams), stoner dude Marty (Fran Kranz), and sweet Dana (Kristen Connolly, who many will recognize from television's "House of Cards" and "Zoo"). The five are horror-film archetypes - the athlete, the slutty girl, the scholar, the fool and the virgin, although Dana is admittedly hardly the latter, strangely enough - and before long, we are made witness to any number of other horror film conventions. They encounter a creepy gas station attendant en route to the cabin of Curt's cousin, where they will be staying, while the viewer is made increasingly aware that things just aren't right here. The men in that scientific installation are keeping constant watch on the five, and, even more startling, a bird that flies high over the quintet's van en route to their destination suddenly hits a force field of some kind and is puffed out of existence! Once at the cabin, a party gets started, while we see Sitterson and Hadley manipulate the proceedings from afar, changing the outside ambient air temperature, altering the moonlight (!), even allowing puffs of pheromone vapor to arise from the ground to increase Jules' already primed libido. But matters really start to take off around the film's 30-minute mark, when zombies arise from the earth, in response to some Latin words uttered by Dana from a creepy old diary that she had found in the cabin's cellar. These zombies proceed to butcher several of the teens in a most ghastly manner during the film's central third section, while another is killed during an escape attempt. Finally, in the film's most flabbergasting sequence, the final half hour, the two students who are left (don't ask me which ones, please) manage to discover the secret of just what the hell is going on as they penetrate that mysterious scientific facility, leading to monstrous mayhem the likes of which you have rarely seen on screen....
"The Cabin in the Woods" is the type of film that grows increasingly wacky and more amazing as it proceeds, and indeed, its final half hour really is one for the books, mixing in as it does not just those hideous zombies, but also (take a deep breath) a hideous werewolf, a skull-faced wraith, a girl in a tutu whose face is a gaping cavity of fangs, a dude who might just be Pinhead's cousin from "Hellraiser" (1987), giant snakes straight out of the pages of Robert E. Howard, winged creatures that beggar my poor powers of description, macabre doll people, a killer clown, monstrosities that spout green blood, a homicidal unicorn, a lumbering whatsit that tears its victims apart while spouting their blood out of its blowhole, and more ... so many more. This monster mash in that scientific installation throws so very much at the viewer that it will be a sequence you will want to rewind and rewatch over and over again. And indeed, the entire film is one for which you might find the need to experience again immediately after your first viewing. During that first watch, while you are attempting to figure out what is transpiring, and why these scientists are doing what they're doing, you'll just barely hang on and go along for the ride. A second viewing will allow you to better appreciate how all the pieces kinda sorta fit together and make some kind of sense. And I say "kinda sorta" only because, unfortunately, the film hardly gives away all its secrets, and that is a pity.
"The Cabin in the Woods" has been directed in a very impressive and stylish manner by Drew Goddard, a former writer on television's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Alias" and "Lost," as well as the films "Cloverfield" (2007), "World War Z" (2013) and "The Martian" (2015). As with "Lost" and "Cloverfield," the film astonishes the viewer with its mysterious incidents and set pieces but ultimately fails to answer all our legitimate questions. Goddard, who wrote the film along with Joss Whedon (another "Buffy" screenwriter, as well as the screenwriter for "Toy Story" and the director of two Avengers films), seems to delight in stunning the viewer while withholding all but the sketchiest of rationales as an explanation. Here, that explanation comes from The Director (played by a surprise guest star whose name I should perhaps not reveal, although he/she remains a horror and sci-fi favorite), who fails to explain how these scientists have been operating in secrecy for so long, how these monstrous creatures have come about, why their, er, higher-ups insist on these proceedings, and many other bothersome questions. Thus, this is a film that works best as long as you don't think about it too deeply, but rather, just go along for the undeniable thrill ride that it is. And in truth, the film is well acted by all concerned, and is gripping and altogether dumbfounding. It is also extremely gory and violent, with a very high body count ... actually, with what I should call a practically universal body count, as things turn out. It is thus decidedly not recommended for the squeamish viewer or those who are averse to the red stuff. The film, as mentioned, also contains much in the way of humor, both as far as amusing one-liners are concerned and in the sly acknowledgment of those hallowed horror conventions; thus, the five student archetypes, that gas station dude who serves as a sinister portent, the pot- and booze-fueled party in the cabin, the Latin reading and the rising of the zombies, the clever nods to the Japanese J-horror films of the early 2000s, etc. Interestingly, it is Marty here, the perpetually zonked stoner dude, who is the first to perceive a glimmering of what is going on, and who turns out to be something of a hero by the film's end. And the sight of him fighting off those zombies with a drinking cup that instantly transforms into an oversized bong certainly is one to cheer.
When "The Cabin in the Woods" was initially released, its promotional poster sported the tagline "You Think You Know The Story." It is a clever come-on, indeed, referring both to the fact that the film subverts and has fun with its horror film tropes, and the fact that the film does indeed pull the rug out from under the viewer's expectations. It is a difficult film to write about without giving away any of the picture's manifold secrets, and so I am currently trying to be coy here as I skip around the central conceit and attempt not to reveal any spoilers. Let's just say that this is a film that has never even been considered for a sequel, despite its huge success, and I for one could not even imagine how a sequel would be possible, after the ending that we are given. One and done, but what a "one" this film is! You might walk away from the film scratching your head, but you are surely not likely to forget it....
The Babadook (2014)
The Horror From Down Under
When the Australian horror film "The Babadook" was released here in the U.S. in November 2014, 10 months after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, it was moderately successful at the box office and received almost universal praise from the critics. Somehow, I managed to miss the film back then (I happen to miss most new releases, actually, in my quest to see as many great classic/old films on the big screen as possible at NYC's several revival houses), but have wanted to see it ever since, especially inasmuch as the film holds an almost unprecedented 98% approval rating on the Rotten Tomatoes website! A recent showing on one of the Showtime stations has finally enabled me to catch up with this truly frightening picture, however; one that has grown into something of a cult item and cause celebre since its release six years ago. I knew absolutely nothing about the film when I sat down to watch it the other night, had no idea what a "babadook" was, and felt a bit concerned about possibly not being able to follow those Aussie accents (a stumbling block for me in the past), but you know what? I found myself quite loving this marvelously scary and emotionally moving picture, and can now understand what all the fuss has been about. (And those accents, as it turned out, were not a problem here, either!)
As many others have already discovered, the film introduces us to a lonely widow named Amelia Vanek (remarkably well played by Tasmanian actress Essie Davis), a worker in a nursing home who lives with her 6-year-old son Sam (Noah Wiseman) in a suburb of Adelaide, in South Australia. We learn that on the day Sam was born, Amelia's husband, Oskar (Ben Winspear), had been killed in a car crash while driving her to the hospital. Can you imagine? Now, as Sam's 7th birthday/the anniversary of her husband's death approaches, Amelia finds herself once again trying to subsume the pain. She has pushed away the grief and refused to deal with her loss over the years, we sense, and this state of denial will lead to horrific events as the film proceeds. Sam, we also see, is a child who lives in perpetual fear of monsters, even going so far as to cleverly construct weapons (such as dart throwers and rock catapults) against them. So it is perhaps not the wisest idea for Amelia to be constantly reading him horrific bedtime stories. On this one night, she reads to him from a particularly disturbing pop-up book called "Mister Babadook"; a pop-up book that has popped up in the house from out of nowhere. The Babadook monster in this book is a singularly gruesome creature, a top-hatted figure with talons (supposedly based on the Lon Chaney character in 1927's lost film "London After Midnight") who will come to your house, after making itself known by thumps and knocks, make your life miserable, and eat your insides out! Shortly thereafter, Sam's mania about the creature reaches a fever pitch, to the point where Amelia finds it necessary to sedate him. She tears the pop-up book to shreds and throws it away, only to find it reassembled and sitting on her doorstep one morning! Strange knockings and thumpings are heard in the house, she finds glass in her food, a roach infestation is discovered in her kitchen, and, in perhaps the film's most chilling scene, the Babadook itself is seen at night, hovering on her bedroom ceiling. After many sleepless nights, Amelia begins to crack, and her personality begins to alter, as the audience wonders whether or not she is just irritable and exhausted, or if perhaps she is beginning to undergo a personality change; a possible possession. It is only when she begins to verbally and then physically threaten her son that the viewer understands that she has indeed been taken over by the Babadook, and that Sam's suspicions about the entity have been correct all along....
"The Babadook" was the first full-length film by Australian director Jennifer Kent, based on her own short film of 2005, simply entitled "Monster" (this short film accompanies the longer film in its DVD incarnation, I've heard, and I would love to take a look at it one day), and most viewers, I have a feeling, will find it remarkable that Kent both wrote and directed the 2014 film, so very accomplished an effort is this debut. Kent's script is a wonder, and her direction is very self-assured and stylish. Her film can be seen and understood on several levels, a fact that has apparently been the subject of lively debate during these past six years. On a surface and simpler level, we can see the Babadook as merely a monster that possesses Amelia and causes her to threaten her child. But on a deeper and more plausible level, the Babadook can be understood as the manifestation of Amelia's repressed grief; of all the unresolved feelings that she has refused to deal with over the years. Not for nothing does the Babadook take the form of her deceased husband Oskar at one point; not for nothing is the monster ultimately shown to be impossible to slay, but only amenable to confinement. So yes, the film is much more than just another mindless monster movie. Kent has lots to say here about the mother/child relationship, about grief and its aftermath, and about how we move on in life after a tragedy. "I want to create a myth in a domestic setting," Kent was quoted as saying after the film's release, a statement that one can read as one wishes, regarding the Babadook's being an actual monster or merely a manifestation of Amelia's grief. Fortunately, the film works extremely well on either level.
And Kent is abetted here by a raft of very fine performances, particularly from her two leads. Little Noah Wiseman is very fine and affecting as the disturbed child Sam, and Essie Davis is just amazing as Amelia, giving an Oscar-caliber bit of thesping here in a portrayal that demands much of her. She makes us feel Amelia's grief and loneliness just by the expressions on her face when she sees a happy couple necking in a car, or when she sits in her living room watching television by herself. Her Amelia is a beautiful woman, with a kind of Michelle Pfeiffer quality, but one who is beginning to look decidedly frayed by the cares and woes of her existence. Davis is equally compelling, however, when she starts to become possessed by the Babadook, and her foul-mouthed, threatening and ultimately murderous tantrums are really something to behold. It is a tremendous performance, truly, that runs the gamut of emotion, and Davis is fully invested in it.
"The Babadook" is a film with any number of startling moments that will leave the viewer slack jawed and chilled. Besides the aforementioned one, with the title creature hovering on the bedroom ceiling, we have the one in which Amelia yanks out one of her own teeth that had been paining her (a scene reminiscent of the one in 2006's "Bug," which I had recently watched); the scene in which Amelia loses control of her car, after it has been infested with cockroaches; the one in which she vomits black bile in a copious flood; the one with Oskar's return; and really, the entire final half hour of the film, with Amelia and her son playing a cat-and-mouse game with each other throughout the house. And in a film with so much in the way of shocks and chills, how appropriate is it that Amelia, at one point, is shown to be watching, on her TV, one of the scariest scenes of all time, the one with the hideous hag in Mario Bava's "Black Sabbath" (1963)? William Friedkin, the director of the film that many consider to be the ne plus ultra of horror, 1973's "The Exorcist," has since gone on to declare, regarding "The Babadook," "I've never seen a more terrifying film," and that should tell you something right there. But of all the shocks and scares in the film, none can compare with the sight of Amelia, who we have seen to be a loving and caring mother, as she begins to transform into a hate-filled and homicidal creature, as the Babadook, the essence of her concentrated and undealt-with emotions, begins to overwhelm her. Could anything be more frightening than the sight of a once-loving parent changing into...something else? Fortunately for all concerned, Amelia is able to, uh, work through her issues, and confine the Babadook to a place where it can be controlled.
Kent's film closes on a sweet and hopeful note, leaving the viewer trusting that the Vaneks will go on to enjoy a happy life, and that perhaps Amelia will find herself a boyfriend with her kindly coworker Robbie (Daniel Henshall). The film is surely left wide open enough for a possible sequel, which apparently the author's fans have been clamoring for all these years, to Kent's adamant refusal. And you know what? Perhaps it's just as well to leave things as they are, with the Babadook safely tucked away where it can do no harm....
The Thing (1982)
One Of The Few Remakes That I Prefer Over The Original
It is a debate that my buddy Jack and I have been having for decades now: Which is the better version of "The Thing"? The original classic from 1951, actually entitled "The Thing From Another World" and directed by Christian Nyby (and, it is conjectured, Howard Hawks), OR the 1982 remake directed by John Carpenter? People who know me, and of my love for all things pertaining to 1950s sci-fi, as well as my dislike of unnecessary remakes, will perhaps be surprised to learn that I have always been the champion of the latter film. The original, I have long maintained, is a slow-moving, overly talky affair that is only sporadically punctuated by a few bursts of excitement. Its overlapping dialogue, although realistic, is often incomprehensible, and its central monster something of a letdown, as played by James Arness with clawed hands. But perhaps my central attack on the film is the fact that it is hardly in keeping with John W. Campbell's terrific novella of 1938, "Who Goes There?," on which it is based. Campbell's Thing was a shape-shifter that could assume the identity of any person who it assimilates, and his tale was one of intense paranoia, with none of the men in the Antarctic station near where the Thing had crash-landed sure of any of his fellows' true identity. The original film threw out that shape-shifter angle and instead turned the Thing into a vegetable humanoid; a "walking carrot," as one of the characters calls it, which for me has never been nearly as frightening a proposition. My opinion of the '51 film, to be fair, was ticked up a notch recently, when I got to see it on the big screen in a brand-new print that both heightened the visuals and made those overlapping sentences easier to follow. And to be honest, that original film still does contain two scenes that are amongst the very best of '50s sci-fi: the one in which the scientists form a circle about the perimeter of an alien spaceship buried in the ice, and the closing scene, with one of the characters telling us to "Keep watching the skies." Still, there is that walking carrot. Anyway, my feeling has long been that Carpenter's remake, which does indeed present the Thing as a shape-shifter, is both far more intense and closer to Campbell's vision. I had only seen this remake once before, with my buddy Big Al on a stormy afternoon, at home, back in the late '80s, but had never forgotten its power. And a recent rewatch has only confirmed for me which film is the superior shocker.
Carpenter's film opens with a most memorable sequence, as two men in a Norwegian helicopter pursue a Malamute sled dog across a snowfield in the desolate Antarctic, firing at it with a shotgun all the while. Their pursuit ends in disaster when they finally land at the Americans' National Science Institute, Station 4, with its 12 male occupants. One of the Norwegians is killed when he attempts to chuck an explosive at the fleeing mutt, while the other is shot down by the station's commanding officer, Garry (Donald Moffat), in the belief that the Norwegian has gone mad. The poor mutt is taken in by the Americans and placed in a kennel with other dogs...a big mistake, as it turns out. Before long, that mutt is seen to slowly and horribly change, absorbing its fellow canines and morphing into some kind of alien monstrosity. It is quickly flamed out of existence and later autopsied by the group's biologist, Blair (Wilford Brimley). The station's chopper pilot, MacReady (Kurt Russell, who had already appeared in Carpenter's cult classic Escape From New York and would go on to star in his Big Trouble in Little China and Escape From L.A.), and the station's doctor, Copper (Richard Dysart), fly to the Norwegian base and find it deserted, except for an incredibly yucky-looking humanoid who looks to have been burnt to a cinder. Before long, and after discovering the remains of a crash-landed spaceship that had been buried for 100,000 years in the ice (yes, a scene that rivals the one in the '51 film), the truth becomes apparent: What they are dealing with is an alien shape-shifter who can assimilate any of the men on base and replicate them perfectly. Can any of the men trust any of the others now? Who is a genuine human, and who an alien monster? And there are more dire matters to consider, as Blair discovers. If allowed to reach civilization, this Thing, within 27,000 hours, could conceivably take over all life on Earth....
The promotional poster for the remake of "The Thing" proclaimed it to be "The Ultimate In Alien Terror," and Carpenter & Co. surely do bust a literal gut here to make the film a horror to behold. The special FX by Rob Bottin (who had worked on Carpenter's "The Fog" a few years earlier) are truly remarkable; both disgusting to look at and fascinating to behold. And indeed, this is surely not a film for the squeamish, the viewer being treated to such visuals as an arm being stitched in close-up, a shotgun blast to the face, that horrible-looking corpse at the Norwegian station and the intensely gross autopsy of same, finger slittings, and, most famously, the "chest chomp," in which Copper's arms are bitten off by the alien creature as he performs a defibrillation on what he had believed to be a fellow human. Every manifestation of the Thing is both horrible and hypnotic to behold; you will not believe when the creature's stomach starts to sprout mouths, or when the head of its latest victim sprouts spider legs and begins to crawl away! Carpenter's direction is typically intense; the script by Bill Lancaster (whose only other screen credits are for two of the Bad News Bears movies, of all things!) is taut and no-nonsense; the film's score by the maestro, Ennio Morricone, is atmospheric and memorable; and the cinematography of the picture by Dean Cundey (who had already worked with Carpenter on both "Halloween" and "The Fog") is just gorgeous to look at. Filmed in part in the Tongass National Forest in Juneau, Alaska and in Stewart, British Columbia, this film really does convince the viewer that he/she is in the frozen Antarctic. The film is what the Campbell novella originally set out: a self-contained crucible of intense paranoia and mistrust. And it is never more intense than in the scene in which the men, to ascertain who is what, submit to a blood test; a scene taken straight out of the Campbell work. In the film, as MacReady takes a heated wire and dips it into each blood sample, the viewer waits in tense expectancy. And when MacReady finally does dip that wire into the alien blood sample, the viewer will most assuredly jump out of his or her seat. It is a supremely well-done scene, followed by an appallingly horrific sequence of events, and this segment of the film alone easily excels any single scene in the original film for intensity and scares. The Thing here is a true monstrosity, hardly a walking vegetable, and whereas the 1951 picture would dish out maybe two scenes in which the men confront their alien menace, the 1982 film gives us many, including a socko and explosive conclusion. Kudos to Kurt Russell here, for his terrific portrayal of the icy MacReady, and to the filmmakers who decided, after much back-and-forth deliberation, to end their film on a note of distrust and uncertainty.
"The Thing," after its June 25, 1982 release, proved to be only a fair performer at the box office, pulling in around $20 million after being produced for $15 million, but to be fair, it had a lot of competition in the theaters that summer. "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" had been released the month before, and its cute and cuddly alien would help turn it into a box-office megasmash. On June 4th, "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan" had been released, to the great delight of all Trekkers everywhere. And on that same June 25th, Ridley Scott's future cult item "Blade Runner" was released, as well. Of those four films, "The Thing" would result in the most critical lambasting, both for being an affront to the original and for its yucky visuals. But the years would be kind to it, and the film today is revered as something of a classic in its own right. And to be quite honest, I quite prefer it as a work of cinematic art over both "E.T." and "Blade Runner," although hardly as much as "Trek 2," which I still love to bits. This most recent watch of the remake has only confirmed my long-held belief that while the original film does have much to offer, talky and static as it is, Carpenter's vision is the one that I prefer. It is a film that puts the viewer through the proverbial wringer, and the after effects of watching it will linger for days. Yes, the 1951 picture got there first, and will forever be deemed, justly or not, as a classic (and no, it does not even crack this viewer's Top 10 Greatest Sci-Fi Films of the 1950s list), but the Carpenter film is the one with the power and the scares. It is one of the very few remakes that I find preferable over the original (another remake favorite of mine is the 1941 version of "The Maltese Falcon," by the way), and that should tell you something....
The Beast Within (1982)
Born On The Bayou
In the February 1974 TV movie "A Case of Rape," Ronny Cox portrayed a man whose wife, played by Elizabeth Montgomery, is raped and beaten not once, but twice by the same man. The film was an enormous success, and indeed remains the most-watched TV film in NBC history. But few could have foreseen that almost precisely eight years later, Cox would again play the part of a husband whose wife undergoes a violent rape, but this time with far more dire results. The film in question is "The Beast Within," which was initially released in February 1982. This film, far from being a hit, was something of a flop at the box office, pulling in a mere $8 million, and has gone on to be critically reviled ever since. Thus, it was with a sense of what I like to call "cinematic masochism" that I sat down to watch this film just the other night for the first time. And after all the bad word of mouth, including the esteemed "Leonard Maltin Movie Guide" awarding the film its lowest BOMB rating, how could any viewer expect anything but rotten results? But bad ratings have never bothered me before, who have found that many of my favorite guilty pleasures have been given that BOMB rating; the wet-blanket editors who worked for the Maltin guide were notoriously grumpy when it came to this kind of genre fare. And you know what? As it turns out, "The Beast Within," while undoubtedly nobody's idea of a quality film, sure has turned out to be a memorable experience; a completely over-the-top exercise in modern-day horror.
In the film, newlyweds Eli MacCleary (Cox, perhaps most fondly remembered for his participation in such films as "Deliverance," "RoboCop" and "Total Recall") and his bride, Caroline (Bibi Besch, who would go on to portray Dr. Carol Marcus four months later in "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan"), get stuck on the road, at night, just outside of (the fictitious town of) Nioba, Mississippi, in 1964. While Eli walks to the nearest gas station for a tow, Caroline is attacked and, yes, raped by a shambling whatzit that has emerged from the bayou woods. Seventeen years later, the child born of that rape, Michael (24-year-old actor Paul Clemens), begins to have medical problems; problems that a doctor claims to be pituitary related. The worried parents bring Michael back to that town of Nioba to do some very belated investigating, so as to ascertain just who the maniac father might have been. While they pursue their leads, Michael escapes from his hospital setting and begins to turn violent, going on a killing spree and, for some reason, targeting all the members of the Curwin clan in that small town. He also develops a crush on a pretty girl, Amanda (Kitty Moffat), who helps him after he wakes up, post-spree, in her garden one morning. As it develops, Michael's personality is being taken over by the spirit of his deceased father, who has a very legitimate grudge against all the members of the Curwin clan. And just when the viewer begins to think that things cannot possibly get any wackier, Michael begins to transform physically, eventually turning into a creature resembling something out of a 1950s drive-in movie nightmare. What ARE his poor, befuddled parents to do?
"The Beast Within" is both far more violently explicit and far less coherent a film than I had been expecting. It is surely not an experience for the faint of heart, and dishes out its gory set pieces with abandon and relish. Thus, we get to see Michael bite the throat out of the village newspaper editor (Logan Ramsey, perhaps best known to many as Claudius Marcus on the "Star Trek" episode "Bread and Circuses," and here playing an obscenely disgusting character with a bizarre passion for, of all things, chopped meat), skewer the local mortician while he's at work, electrocute the village drunk, and decapitate the Nioba judge (played by the great character actor Don Gordon). Other grossout sequences include a minor surgical operation on Michael's metamorphosed back in close-up, a peek inside that mortuary, the exhuming of the Nioba graveyard, and, last but certainly not least, that transformation sequence, a marvel of special FX and makeup magic, and brilliantly brought off by Thomas R. Burman. This transformation sequence takes up a good five minutes of screen time and is simply eye boggling to behold, Michael's head and eyes bulging to the point of explosion with each passing moment. All these scenes are abetted by a terrific score from an old pro, Les Baxter, who had created so many terrific film scores for those AIP movies of the 1960s, and here offering to the world his final piece of work. Director Philippe Mora helms his film with tautness and precision, utilizing telling close-up shots and drawing out very fine performances from every one of his performers; surprisingly, this is a very well-acted film, despite what others would have you believe. Besides the three leads, and Gordon and Ramsey, the picture boasts some very decent contributions from L. Q. Jones as the local sheriff, Luke Askew (who many will recall as the hitchhiking hippie from "Easy Rider") as that doomed mortician, and R. G. Armstrong as Michael's doctor. Young Kitty Moffat is surprisingly touching here as Amanda, and the scene in which she is told that she is "beautiful" for the first time in her life, by a tentative Michael, is supremely well played; a shame that Moffat's future career would be limited to TV work. And then there is the film's script, by Tom Holland. And this, for me, was the picture's major sticking point.
This was Holland's very first script for a motion picture, in a career that would go on to include work on such horror fests as "Psycho 2," "Fright Night," "Child's Play" and "Thinner." His script for "The Beast Within" supposedly takes great liberties with the 1981 novel by Edward Levy on which it is based, and turns out to be a bit hard to follow in spots. The film supposedly had several explanatory sequences deleted for its final cut, and those missing segments would undoubtedly have made it a bit easier for the viewer to fully understand what is going on. Personally (and this is just me and my possible preconceptions speaking here), I would have preferred had Caroline been raped by a legitimate monster at the film's beginning; something akin to the Creature From the Black Lagoon. This would have made Michael's conversion into a monster later in the film a bit easier to swallow. Somehow, a nonhuman whatzit of that ilk raping a woman and then having the resultant child transform into a monster himself is a far more credible notion to me than the spirit of a deceased, cannibalistic, human father taking over his son's body 17 years later and then, for reasons unknown, being able to change that kid into a rampaging monstrosity. Like others, I have long wondered just what would have happened had the Creature From the Black Lagoon gotten its lusty way with the lovely Julie Adams in the classic 1954 film, and this 1982 picture might have gone far in showing us what the possible outcome might have been. But no. I was also at a loss to quite understand the link between Billy Connors (Michael's biological father) and all those cicada noises that would become audible whenever Michael goes into violent action. Was this ever explained in the film? If so, I must have missed it. So yes, Holland's script for the movie is something of a head-scratcher, just barely hanging together in noncredible fashion. Still, it manages to entertain, and even work in some sly bits of humor, such as the name of that mortician being Dexter Ward, and the name of the rapidly shrinking Nioba family being Curwin (perhaps only fans of the great H. P. Lovecraft, and his 1941, posthumous novel "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," will appreciate these references). The film practically busts a gut to shock and amaze the viewer, not only with its sanguinary set pieces, but with the outrageousness of its central conceit. Ultimately, the film succeeds, both because we have been stunned and shocked from beginning to end, but also because we have been left throughout with a vast uncertainty as to who will live in the film and who will die; it is the kind of film in which any character might quickly expire at any moment. The picture grows more and more manic and over the top as it proceeds, and manages to leave us with a feeling of unease as to just how neatly things have wrapped up, with Michael's third-act rape of Amanda setting the stage for a possible renewal of the horrible cycle, in a sequel that was never to be. Thus, the bottom line is that while "The Beast Within" is hardly a film to wildly enthuse about, it is one that will provide a memorable and fairly intense viewing experience. I do not regret having spent 100 minutes of my life watching it. And at the very least, it is a triple textbook example of the perils of fooling around with another man's wife
There Goes The Neighborhood
I well remember loving Whitley Strieber's 1978 novel "The Wolfen," back when it was first released. The book was atmospheric as could be and managed to do something that all good horror novels of its ilk should do: make the reader believe in the possibility of the supernatural. The book was most assuredly unsettling, and one that this reader has not forgotten, even 40+ years after experiencing it. But despite my love of that book, somehow, I never got around to seeing the film that was made from it, three years later. Released in July '81, "Wolfen" (why the name was changed is a matter best asked of the Hollywood production team that doubtless spent hours wondering if the dropped "The" would lead to more ticket sales) turned out to be something of a box office flop, pulling in only $10 million after being produced for $17 million. Today, the viewer can only wonder why, as it is most assuredly a class production, featuring wonderful acting turns by its leads, a solid story that admittedly takes liberties with its source material, and excellent special FX. It is a film surely ripe for reappraisal ... or a first-time watch, such as I indulged in just the other night.
In the film, billionaire real-estate developer Christopher Van der Veer, his beautiful blonde wife, and his 300-pound Haitian bodyguard are murdered in NYC's Battery Park early one morning, ripped and mutilated by something unknown. The trio had just been returning from a party following a ground-breaking ceremony in the South Bronx, where the magnate was in the process of tearing down the abandoned tenement buildings there and putting up new ones. Dewey Wilson, a suspended cop (George Wilson in the novel ... again, why the name change?) here played by the late, great English actor Albert Finney, is assigned to the case, and learns from the man in charge of the autopsies, Whittington (tap-dancing/choreographer legend Gregory Hines, here in one of his earliest films), that no traces of metal could be found in any of the wounds; in other words, no knives or other weapons had been used. Wilson is partnered with a woman named Rebecca Neff (Diane Venora), a criminal psychologist and an expert on political and gang violence, and the two of them pursue some leads. A rash of murders has begun in those previously mentioned buildings in the South Bronx, with some of the corpses bearing traces of hair on them that zoologist Ferguson (Tom Noonan, here in one of his earliest films) says belong to a subspecies of wolf. An interview with Native American terrorist Eddie Holt (Mexican-American actor Edward James Olmos, here in one of his earliest films) leads Wilson to believe that what he is dealing with here are possible shape-shifters: men who can possibly turn themselves into animals. But ultimately, the truth comes out: The Wolfen, a 20,000-year-old race of superwolves, has been feeding on the dregs of mankind for millennia, preying on the homeless, the drug addicted, the loners, the abandoned. And now, with their tenement shelters in the South Bronx being slated for destruction, they have become very, very angry. As the film's promotional poster declared, "They can hear a cloud pass overhead, the rhythm of your blood. They can track you by yesterday's shadow. They can tear the scream from your throat. There is no defense."
"Wolfen" withholds any glimpses of the titular creatures until the film's final ½ hour, but the wait turns out to be well worth it. The rampaging beasts are revealed to be both beautiful to look at and remarkably savage to behold as well, their eyes bespeaking both supreme intelligence and invincible power; no wonder that Eddie Holt holds them to be gods. But although we do not get to see the creatures themselves until the final act, we do get to see through their eyes, and the effects used to generate their POVs are quite wonderful indeed. These shots look as if they were created using thermal imaging techniques, and are pretty darn psychedelic to watch; indeed, I could look at these bizarre images of NYC all day. The glimpses of the metropolis that we see through the Wolfen's eyes make my hometown seem both familiar and otherworldly, particularly at nighttime. The South Bronx at night, indeed, seen via these thermal imaging techniques, looks almost like another planet; a blasted and desolate one. So yes, the film is quite visually striking, all the way through. Director Michael Wadleigh, whose only other directorial credit, strangely enough, is the wonderful "Woodstock" documentary of 1970, turns in some pretty impressive work here, keeping his film both suspenseful and stylish; I love his seamless shot in which the camera sweeps over Battery Park and then, somehow, into the sewer depths beneath. His screenplay, cowritten with David M. Eyre, Jr., is fairly no-nonsense, while alternating serious patter with humorous asides. And the film's score, by James Horner, keeps things grim and eerie, although it of course cannot compare with the absolutely magnificent score that he created the following year for "Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan." It should be added that Wolfen does not hold back in the Grossisms Dept., giving us such tasty images as a man's hand being torn off, corpses being analyzed in the morgue, maggots crawling around the head of a homeless man's corpse, a head being ripped from its owner's body, and so on. The gorehounds in the audience should be well satisfied.
Wadleigh's film also boasts some terrific acting turns from all concerned. Finney, here appearing in his second of three action/horror/sci-fi outings in 1981 (the others being "Loophole" and "Looker"), after a four-year acting hiatus, turns out to be particularly well cast as Wilson. He makes the character appealingly cool, so cool that he is able to watch a stomach-churning autopsy in the police morgue while munching on chocolate chip cookies, enter an abandoned and crumbling church alone to search out the murderous marauders, and climb the cable walkways of the Manhattan Bridge in order to have a conversation with construction worker Eddie Holt. Who would have thought that the actor who had been so identified with the British "angry young man" films of the early '60s, the man who played Tom Jones, could be such a cool action character? He is backed up by a raft of excellent supporting players here, Diane Venora being both beautiful and highly convincing, Hines being both likeable and funny (his death scene is one of the film's many highlights), and Olmos being not a little freaky (his naked imitation of a wolf is absolutely chilling). Kudos also to the great character actor Dick O'Neill, playing Wilson's police superior (his death scene is still another film highlight). Also in the film is Reginald VelJohnson, of all people, in his very first film; he would of course later go on to appear in the first two "Die Hard" features, as well as TV's "Family Matters." He supposedly plays a morgue attendant here, although I must confess that I did not spot him initially.
"Wolfen" is hardly a perfect film, and I must confess that I found some of the fast-paced dialogue a little hard to follow. The picture also has a few too many phony jump scares (you know the kind I mean; you think something nasty is about to leap out at one of the characters, and it turns out to be ... a cat); around a half dozen or so too many, actually. And ultimately, I must also confess that I was not entirely clear concerning the powers and abilities of the Wolfen race. Can they actually read minds? Turn invisible? Besides their ability to lope around at 40 mph and tear a person to bits, what precisely are their superhuman abilities? The film does not clearly delineate these matters - certainly not as clearly as that promotional poster - and so we are left to infer what we like. The film surely leaves things open-ended enough so as to provide ample material for a sequel, and if the film had only been more successful with audiences, perhaps that sequel might have been made possible. The idea of a superrace of ancient wolf creatures feeding on mankind, just as mankind feeds on chickens, is a good one, and it might have been nice to see this most-interesting film serve as a springboard for a fascinating little series. Sadly, it was never to be. So we are left with this, a tantalizing glimpse at what might have been. The South Bronx, of course, has been largely renovated from its previous blasted state since this film was made, and it is to be inferred that the Wolfen must needs have found another desolated neighborhood to exist in. Fortunately for them, NYC still has plenty of them. Perhaps a much-belated sequel could be made today, set in the sordid depths of Maspeth, Queens, or in East New York, Brooklyn? The Wolfen may not have made for good neighbors, but they sure are fascinating ones, indeed.
The Amityville Horror (1979)
An Ubercreepy Mixed Bag
I pass through it every time I take the Long Island Railroad to visit friends in Lindenhurst ... the town of Amityville, which lies between the stops for Massapequa Park and Copiague, 66 minutes from Manhattan's Penn Station. It is a charming little suburban town of some 10,000 people, with beautiful private homes and much greenery. But ever since 1974, the word "Amityville" has also been synonymous with one thing: horror. In November of that year, 23-year-old Ronald DeFeo took a rifle and murdered six members of his family. Thirteen months later, the house in which this tragedy occurred was finally resold to George and Kathy Lutz, who moved in with their three kids, fully aware of what had transpired there previously. And then even more horrors began ... supposedly. The Lutzes' story was captured by Jay Anson in his best-selling 1977 novel "The Amityville Horror," and then turned into a film two years later. After its release in July '79, the film adaptation would go on to become a box office sensation, pulling in $86 million after being produced for a mere $5 million; it was the second-highest-earning film of that year, coming in behind "Kramer vs. Kramer." Somehow, I managed to miss the film more than 40 years ago, only catching up with it a few nights back. So, does it hold up, after all these years? Well, yes and no.
The film adheres to the purported facts of the case only so far, admitting in its end credits that events have been dramatized for the sake of theatricality. And for the sake of my own sanity, I should hope so! In the film, George Lutz (James Brolin), his wife Kathy (Margot Kidder, who had, the year before, began portraying Lois Lane, the role for which she is perhaps best remembered, in the Superman films), their two sons and daughter move into the charming, three-story, Dutch Colonial house that had been the scene of a multiple tragedy the previous year. "Houses don't have memories," George tells his wife when she asks whether the house's foul history should be a concern, but boy, does that statement ever prove erroneous! Almost from the first, things begin to go wrong, any one of which might have served as a warning to most. In an upstairs room, a swarm of flies attacks Father Delaney (Rod Steiger, here in full histrionic mode), a local priest and old friend of the religious Kathy, who has come to bless the home. He is later told by a demon voice to "GET OUT," and is sickened by the experience. A rocking chair begins to move by itself. Black sludge begins to come out of a bathroom toilet. A chandelier starts to sway. Kathy's visiting aunt, a nun, is also sickened after stepping foot into the Lutz abode. Kathy begins to have terrible dreams. Delaney's car becomes seemingly possessed, almost killing him in a road accident while he attempts to go back to the house. Kathy's brother has $1,500 stolen from his jacket, which was lying on a living room sofa, on the very day of his wedding. One of the Lutzes' sons has his hand smashed in an upstairs window sill, accompanied to the strains of music straight out of Hitchcock's "Psycho." And then things get even freakier! The house's front door is blasted off its hinges from within; Kathy sees a pair of red, glowing eyes staring at her from a second-floor window; a secret room behind the basement wall is revealed to be a graveyard of sorts, and even what one of the Lutzes' sensitive friends calls "the gateway to Hell"; the ornate crucifix on the Lutzes' living room wall is mysteriously inverted; and the sensation of cold that permeates the house increases. Even worse, perhaps, George starts to change drastically, becoming more and more introverted and violent, to the point that he even slaps his wife around. His obsession with using an ax to chop wood for the fireplace becomes problematic in the extreme when he decides to take that ax and use it on his own family, while Kathy, after a bit of sleuthing, unearths the fact that her husband is the spitting image of the 20-year-old man who had murdered his family in their house 13 months before...
"The Amityville Horror" is a picture that seems to have the critics divided, and even I am torn on the subject of how good a film it really is. I will say that the film is undeniably scary in parts, passing my "shiver test" any number of times by sending that icy-cold feeling down my spine. Director Stuart Rosenberg, who had previously done such marvelous work on 1967's "Cool Hand Luke," helms his film very tautly, and the events keep coming at us furiously; there is little in the way of flab here. Lalo Schifrin, best known for his theme song for TV's "Mission: Impossible," turns in an ubercreepy, children's-lullaby theme song here that is both memorable and eerie - it was even Oscar nominated - and the look of the film, featuring beautiful autumnal scenery, is fairly gorgeous to behold. The performances by Brolin and Kidder are both of a very high order, as is the supporting work by Don Stroud (playing another priest), Murray Hamilton and John Larch (as Delaney's priestly superiors), and Val Avery (as an investigating cop). And then there is that bit of thesping by Rod Steiger, which is so very over the top that it has been derided for decades now. Indeed, Danny Peary, a critic who I greatly esteem, has gone so far as to call it "incredibly awful," and "what may be the worst performance in horror-movie history..." I am guessing that Peary has never seen Zandor Vorkov in 1971's "Dracula vs. Frankenstein," or Steve Hawkes in 1972's "Blood Freak," or Herb Robins in 1977's "The Worm Eaters," etc., etc. As for me, I may be in the minority, but I kind of enjoyed Rod's work here, and found his emoting entirely appropriate for the role and the dire situation that his character finds himself in. The sight of Father Delaney, sitting by a lake in a monk's cowl toward the end of the film, contemplating in the sunlight while evil walks the land, and recently blinded after a long-distance battle with the Amityville demon, is a thing of real beauty. Cinematographer Fred J. Koenekamp, of "Papillon" and "The Towering Inferno" fame, captures this scene wonderfully. So yes, the film is genuinely creepy, well acted, finely directed and beautifully shot. Still, as I say, there are problems.
For one thing, the script by Sandor Stern is a lazy one, as it fails to answer many of the viewer's inevitable questions. For example, is Kathy a widow or was she divorced when she married George with her three kids? As a religious Catholic, it seems unlikely that divorce figured in the picture. What is the significance of George waking up every night at precisely 3:15? In the superior horror outing "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" (2005), it is explained that 3 A.M. is supposedly the Devil's hour, a mockery of sorts of the Holy Trinity, but in "The Amityville Horror," no such explanation is given. What is the significance of that creepy red room behind the basement wall? Is it really the gateway to Hell? The film also goes a bit too far in its efforts to shock the audience. For example, the walls and stairways seeping blood at the film's conclusion is a little hard to swallow, as is the sight of a piglike demon figure in an upstairs window. Also, was there really any need for George to be the spitting image of the killer who had offed his family in the house one year before? Isn't it enough that some spirit in the abode causes insanity and violent urges in the men who reside there? The film also borrows shamelessly from previous horror outings, such as the aforementioned music from "Psycho," but also in parts from the 1976 smash hit "The Omen." To be fair, though, "The Amityville Horror" did beat Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980) to the punch by one year, in showing us a father slowly going insane and being driven to murder his family with a hatchet. Indeed, that infamous scene with Jack Nicholson battering down a door with his ax is almost a blatant rip-off from the Rosenberg film. So yes, the picture winds up being something of a mixed bag, but still, one that had me quite literally on the edge of my seat, and that's surely not a bad thing. "The Amityville Horror," quite unsurprisingly, wound up spawning a whole passel of sequels ... 25 (!) at this writing, although only the first two were released theatrically; most of the others were made for TV or released straight to video. I can't speak about the 25 others, but this first film in the series is a genuine crowd-pleaser, despite its inherent problems. Before the end credits role, an intertitle tells us that the Lutzes never returned to the Amityville home of their dreams/nightmares, but instead left all their possessions there and moved to another state. Had it been me in that house, I would have wanted to move to another planet!
The Entity (1982)
A Nerve-Racking Horror Wringer
According to the Department of Justice's National Crime Victimization Survey of 2016, a full 80 percent of all rapes in the U.S.A. go unreported. When asked to account for this staggering statistic, 20 percent of all victims surveyed said that the reason for this lack of reporting was a fear of retaliation; 13 percent said they felt the police would be ineffective at helping them; another 13 percent said that it was a personal matter that they wished to keep private; 8 percent seemed to feel that it was no big deal (!); and, stunningly, 7 percent did not wish to get their attacker into trouble with the law. The net result is that out of every 1,000 rape attacks in this country, only five of the perpetrators ever wind up going to jail. And these statistics, as I say, are from just four years ago. So one can only imagine the stigma that a rape victim might have endured 40 years ago, and the hesitancy that that victim might have had in reporting the crime back when. But what if - bear with me here - that rape victim of the early '80s just happened to be the prey of an invisible demon, a supernatural whatzit? What chance could that victim possibly have of getting help from the authorities then? Well, that is precisely the conundrum faced by the lead character in Sidney J. Furie's absolutely grueling and horrifying film "The Entity." Released in the U.S. in 1983, this film is based on the real-life story of one Doris Bither, a California woman who, in 1974, claimed to have been sexually molested by the ghosts of three men. Bither's story had been the basis for Frank De Felitta's 1978 novel, also entitled "The Entity" (readers may also know him as the author of 1975's "Audrey Rose"), and his screenplay for the film is a terrific one, indeed.
In the film, the viewer is introduced to Carla Moran (superbly portrayed by Barbara Hershey), a single mother of three who, when we first encounter her, is holding down an office job by day and going to typing school at night. Carla's life is given a completely unexpected jolt one evening when, sitting alone in her bedroom, she is given a resounding slap by an invisible hand; a slap that brings the blood out from her lip. She is then thrown onto her bed, raped and penetrated by this same invisible being. Afterwards, the hysterical Carla bundles her three kids into the car and spends the night at the house of her best friend Cindy (Margaret Blye). The next day, while driving to work, her car is taken over by the being (we see the gas pedal depressed with no foot on it) and Carla is almost killed. Desperate for help, she agrees to see a psychiatrist (curiously enough, the idea of calling in the cops is never even considered; but really, what law officer would believe her?), and thus meets a university intern named Dr. Phil Sneiderman (an excellent Ron Silver). The doctor seems to feel that these happenings are merely Carla's childhood traumas (paternal sexual abuse) and a history of bad relationships manifesting themselves physically somehow, but Carla is unconvinced ... and neither is the viewer. The poor woman is later raped again as she tries to take a relaxing bath, and still again while she sleeps. In what is perhaps the film's most stunning sequence, Carla is attacked in front of her two young daughters, while her teenaged son tries to help her, resulting in a psychedelic display of electrical discharges emitted by the invisible demon, and a broken wrist for the unfortunate lad. At the end of her rope, and despairing of getting any kind of real help from the medical profession, Carla is overjoyed when she bumps into a pair of parapsychologists in a bookstore, who believe her story of an invisible attacker. These two occult researchers bring in an entire team of like-minded folks from the university, and plans are made to photograph, study, and ultimately trap the rampaging monstrosity ... not an easy proposition, as things turn out...
"The Entity," I should say right here, is an absolutely harrowing, nerve-racking film that puts the viewer through the proverbial wringer. It is often quite frightening and always suspenseful, and the main reason for those frights and suspense is that the viewer can never tell when another terrible attack on Carla might commence, to the accompaniment of Charles Bernstein's horrifying (but quite apropos) pile-driver music. The viewer is thus always in a state of edgy readiness, as is poor Carla. This viewer can always tell when a horror film is doing an effective job by the number of times a cold tingle goes down his spine - most horror films, I should add, do not give me a single shiver - and "The Entity" managed to do that job any number of times. The fact that this film is supposedly based on a true story only adds to the frissons to be had. Thus, I was not that surprised to read that no less a film authority as Martin Scorsese has listed "The Entity" as his 4th scariest film of all time. There are numerous factors that combine to make the film the horrifying thrill ride that it is.
First, of course, is the very fine work from Canadian director Furie (I had previously enjoyed two of his other horror outings, both from Britain and from 1961, those being "Doctor Blood's Coffin" and "The Snake Woman"), who keeps the viewer firmly gripped for the entire length of his two-plus-hour film, utilizing off-kilter camera angles and effective close-up shots. Cinematographer Stephen Burum, who had worked on the film "Apocalypse Now" three years earlier, also turns in some very fine work here; his shots of Carla's face as she lies in bed, with the shadows of the trees flickering on her face, are truly artful and beautiful to look upon. And then there is that truly unsettling score by Bernstein, whose pounding, relentless, raucous quality perfectly matches the horrors we witness on screen. Effects in the film are surprisingly successful, especially those involving Carla's body being manipulated and caressed by the entity (Hershey did not appear nude in the film; a body double was used, and images of her nipples being played with by the horror were brought about using a latex dummy). But best of all is Hershey herself, who gives us a tremendous performance here in what must have been a very difficult role. She is fully invested here and thoroughly believable. This is practically an Oscar-caliber performance, and really should have been nominated for that prize; too bad that Academy Awards were never even considered for performances in horror pictures until "The Silence of the Lambs" shattered that convention in 1991. Her fellow actors also turn in fine work here, especially, as I mentioned, Silver, whose doctor character is seen by the viewer as both well-meaning but ultimately wrongheaded; we eagerly await his realization that Carla has been telling the truth about this invisible demon all along. Kudos also to actor Alex Rocco (who most will recall as Moe Greene from 1972's "The Godfather"), who plays Carla's current, older boyfriend, and who is given several very well-done scenes toward the film's end.
The Entity was hardly a box office success when first released here in the States, pulling in $13 million in ticket sales after being produced for $9 million. It was greeted with inevitable protests from various women's groups, which were understandably appalled at the picture's subject matter. In retrospect, however, that outrage seems misplaced. The rape sequences in this film are hardly eroticized, and are all shown to be truly terrifying in nature. Plus, the film features a very strong female lead in Carla Moran, whose grit, smarts and determination are shown in a much better light than the obtuseness of most of the males who surround her. This is hardly an exploitative film - at least, I do not view it as such - but rather, one that is guaranteed to stun and frighten even the most hard-core horror fan. As the film fades out, we are told that Carla, like the real-life Doris Bither, was ultimately forced to leave her home and relocate to another state, where the attacks on her continued, although with diminishing frequency and severity. It is a horrifying thought to wrap up an already horrifying film. Throughout the picture, the viewer is constantly bombarded with the notion that all the terrors we are privy to might just be delusions coming from Carla's mind, with no outside, objective reality. Dr. Sneiderman and others keep telling her that over and over. But we viewers never quite believe it. From that very first slap, to the homicidal car ride, to the repeated attacks and body manipulations, and all the way to the chilling sound of the demon's voice in that very last scene, we know that we are in the bona fide presence of some eldritch evil here, as does Carla. And the knowledge is a chilling one ... as is the sure knowledge that aid from both the law and the medical profession will be unavailing. All horror fans really do need to pounce on this one....
Hard To Swallow
The unvarnished facts regarding the anaconda, the world's largest and heaviest snake, are disconcerting enough ... particularly the one species of the four known as the giant, or green, anaconda, aka Eunectes murinus. These monsters can grow to a length of nearly 30 feet and weigh in excess of over a quarter of a ton. They live for around 10 - 12 years in the wild, mainly in the watery regions near the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers in South America, and subsist on a diet of fish, turtles, pigs, jaguars, deer and other wildlife ... up to 40 lbs. of small wildlife a day, one solid meal satisfying them for weeks. Of course, for most people, the most salient and scarifying feature concerning these beasts is their ability to constrict the life out of their victims, after which they consume their dainties whole. Truly, a creature to be feared and avoided, despite their nonpoisonous nature. And, to be sure, an animal that would make prime fodder for any self-respecting horror movie, sticking to those actual, real-life characteristics. A film that veers wildly into the fantastic as regards these jungle dwellers, however, is the 1997 film called simply "Anaconda," which turns them rather into some impossible and fantastic fantasy creation straight out of the nightmare visions of Robert E. Howard's Hyborian Age. More on this in a moment.
In the film, the viewer encounters the members of an expedition that is currently sailing upriver from Manaus, Brazil, in the hopes of filming a documentary on the elusive, legendary tribe known as the Shirishama. Members of the sailing barge include the project's director, Terri (Jennifer Lopez, whose breakthrough film "Selena" had just been released one month previously, in March, and whose 1998 film "Out of Sight" would really propel her into the public consciousness); cameraman Danny (Ice Cube); anthropologist Dr. Steven Cale (Eric Stoltz); a David Attenborough-type narrator, Warren Westridge, a thoroughly obnoxious jerk who turns out to be rather heroic (Jonathan Hyde); sound engineer Gary Dixon (Owen Wilson); production manager Denise Kalberg (Kari Wuhrer); and skipper/guide Mateo (Vincent Castellanos). Their journey barely gets under way before things start going wrong. Another river craft is encountered with a fouled propeller, and its sole occupant, Paraguayan snake hunter Paul Serone (Jon Voight), is allowed to come aboard. Serone tells the others that he can help them find the mythical land of the Shirishama, but disaster soon strikes when Cale is disabled in an underwater accident (a wasp had somehow become caught in his throat), forcing Serone to perform an impromptu tracheotomy of sorts on him. Cale is now in desperate need of hospitalization, and so Serone shows the others a shortcut back to civilization. But, as things turn out, the wily snake hunter has an agenda of his own, and steers our heroes into a region where resides another legend: an enormous anaconda that Serone wishes to capture and sell for a fortune. But as things soon develop, that enormous snake has decided that it is the one who will be doing the hunting here...
As I said, the anaconda is a fearsome enough critter in its own right, and had the filmmakers decided to stick with the universally dreaded night crawler that the world knows as an actuality, then things might have gone better here. Instead, we are given an animatronically created monster that is never wholly believable ... at least, it wasn't for this viewer. Numerous incidents arise in the film that are, you should pardon the expression, pretty hard to swallow. For instance, whereas the top speed for an actual anaconda is something on the order of 1 mph, the creature here moves at lightning speed, and is capable of grabbing a victim who is free-falling from a great height. (Granted, the suspense quotient to be had with a creature that could be easily outrun by even the most out-of-shape American would be an admittedly low one.) And as I mentioned up top, whereas a normal anaconda should be sluggish for a good couple of weeks after one solid meal, the one on display here is absolutely voracious, feeding on victim after victim after victim. Well, perhaps that is because the snake that we are given here, rather than being 28 feet long (the greatest length ever recorded for an anaconda), is much much longer. The net result, thus, is a creature that feels like one of those in a 1950s sci-fi film; a radiation-mutated horror of some kind hidden out of sight in the jungle depths, a la the giant wasps in 1957's "Monster From Green Hell." Not that there's anything wrong with that kind of conceit; I happen to love those '50s sci-fi creatures. Unfortunately, the monster here just feels patently phony, although not nearly as ersatz as the constrictor that 007 went up against in "Moonraker." Compare it, for example, to the deadly boa in the 1933 pre-Code wonder "Murders in the Zoo," which came off as hyperrealistic and thus twice as terrifying. But "Anaconda" has other problems besides these. Several of the characters do really stoopid things here (I'm thinking of Gary and Denise, who go off into the nighttime jungle for a little makeout session! I mean, really? I wouldn't want to step off of that barge during the daytime!). Even worse, it was just impossible for me to determine whether or not our band of adventurers was fighting one indestructible snake monster or several. Terri seems to effectively kill the creature midway through the film by firing point blank several times into its gaping maw, so perhaps there were two of them? Or more? There really is no way to tell.
Fortunately, the news is not all bad here. "Anaconda," despite the patent implausibility of its central adversary, is undeniably a lot of fun, and the film is nicely compact and moves along briskly. Peruvian director Luis Llosa shoots his picture with style and manages to ratchet up the suspense nicely, withholding our first establishing shot of the monster even though we see something endangering a poacher (future "Machete" star Danny Trejo) and easily dispatching a black panther early on. And Llosa gives us several imaginative shots that really are tours de force. In the first, we see our anaconda swim by underwater, the body and face of its latest victim (yes, Gary) protruding from its swollen belly. And in the second, even more flabbergasting shot - one for the books, really - we the viewers are inside the snake's body, looking outward, as its latest victim is drawn inexorably inward! The film on the whole looks fantastic, with spectacular Amazonian scenery throughout: It was indeed shot in Manaus (which, beautiful enough as it is, is a locale that I hope to avoid at all costs!), as well as in the Arboretum of Los Angeles County, of all places. And it offers up several nicely turned performances. J-Lo, I am happy to report, is surprisingly effective here as the spunky Terri; she is wholly credible and convincing, as well as sexy and appealing. Best of all, though, is Jon Voight as the snaky snake hunter Serone. Love it or hate it (and many people have derided this performance over the years ... a performance that was ultimately nominated for the Golden Raspberry Award, ultimately losing to Kevin Costner in "The Postman," by the way), this bit of thesping will long linger in the viewer's memory. Voight here is completely over the top as the demented anaconda hunter, and it should perhaps be no surprise that the old pro handily steals the film from his less seasoned performers. His Serone, of course, follows very much in the footsteps of Robert Shaw's Quint character in the 1975 blockbuster "Jaws," although Serone is far, far more deranged, dangerous and unpredictable. It is a delicious role for Voight, actually, and he runs with it gleefully.
"Anaconda" was produced on a budget of $45 million and returned almost $140 million at the box office; this monster film was thus a monster smash hit. Thus, it should perhaps be no surprise to learn that the film spawned a belated sequel seven years later, "Anaconda: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid," which features no characters from the original film (small wonder, as most of the original crew members from the first movie wind up in the snake's distended belly by the time the final credits roll!). This second film apparently takes place in Borneo, even though anacondas exist nowhere else on Earth other than South America. Based on my experiences with this first film, in what turned out to be a lengthy series (the third through fifth films being straight-to-video affairs), I am in no great rush to look at that first sequel, although I am curious to see how the filmmakers go about explaining the presence of anacondas in Southeast Asia. Snakes on a plane, perhaps?
Innocent Blood (1992)
Add Marie To The Pantheon
It strikes me that your garden-variety vampires, as depicted on the big screen, usually have very few scruples as regards their diet of necessity, and the victims that they utilize to assuage those nutritional needs. Typically, vampires are shown sucking on the necks of any likely victim to come along ... especially when that victim might be an especially lovely and, um, toothsome female. Ethical considerations and qualms of remorse hardly ever figure with these conscienceless creatures of the night. Thus, offhand, I cannot recall another vampire in cinema history who has chosen his or her prospective victims utilizing such clearly defined moral guidelines, only to regret one of those resultant food choices later on, as Marie, the French vampiress in John Landis' hugely entertaining, very sexy and often remarkably gory "Innocent Blood."
When we first encounter Marie (played by French actress Anne Parillaud, who had just enjoyed a worldwide success playing a female assassin in "La Femme Nikita" two years earlier), whose background we sadly never discover, she is living in a beautiful candlelit apartment in downtown Pittsburgh, PA, starved for both love and nourishment after six days of neither. After seeing the newspaper headlines reporting on the Mob hits by brutal gangster Sal "The Shark" Macelli (a wonderful performance here by Robert Loggia, who will always be Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat, from 1960s TV's "T.H.E. Cat," to me), she decides that what she craves for dinner tonight is a little Italian! The first likely nosh she encounters on the streets, as it turns out, is Joe Gennaro (Anthony LaPaglia, who many will remember from television's recent "Without a Trace"), an undercover cop who has infiltrated Sal's circle. But Marie rejects Joe as a possible dinner source, being both attracted to him and touched by his "sad eyes." In a voice-over, she tells us her cardinal Rule No. 1: Never play with the food. Fortunately for her, she immediately bumps into a much more likely dinner item, mobster Tony Silva (Chazz Palminteri, here in one of his earliest roles), whom she seduces on the street and rides off with, only to "phlebotomize" during a makeout session. As she casually blows Tony's head off with a shotgun, she tells us her second basic tenet of feeding, Rule No. 2: Eliminate the food marks, and central nervous system disconnect. Yes, she is a scrupulous vampiress, only killing members of society whom she deems worthless or evil, and disposing of them after she feeds so they do not become vampires themselves. Her MO seems to be going very smoothly for her until she seduces the big guy himself, and allows Sal to bring her back to his luxurious mansion. Sickened and repelled by Sal's takeout dinner of mussels and garlic, she retreats to the bathroom, only to be intruded on by the gangster, who forcibly tries to have his way with her. Marie successfully drains Sal of his blood, but before she can finish him off properly, is forced to flee. Long story short, Sal eventually recovers in the local morgue, turns into a vampire himself, and decides that with his newfound powers, he will bite and convert all his underlings, turning them into an invincible army of the vampiric undead and thus take over the city! Ultimately, Joe and Marie must unite to fight them off, in Landis' terrific thrill ride.
"Innocent Blood" was reportedly shot on a budget of $20 million and was a box office bomb, returning only $5 million. To this day, almost 30 years later, it does not enjoy a very good reputation, and for the life of me, I cannot understand why. The movie has style to spare; is in turns sexy, funny and scary; features wonderful performances not only from its three leads, but from all the bit players scattered throughout; and boasts a wonderfully witty script from one Michael Wolk (what a pity that he never chose to write another). In that script, humor tends to overwhelm the frights, but pleasingly so. Thus, how funny it is when the Frank Sinatra tunes "That Ol' Black Magic" and "I've Got You Under My Skin" are heard playing while Marie digs into Tony and Sal, and how amusing it is when the worker who carries Sal's shrouded body into the morgue declares "Just another Hefty Bag enchilada like all the rest." Adding to the script's sly wit are shots of classic horror films of yore that many of the film's characters are shown watching on TV; films such as "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms," the Dracula films starring Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee, Hitchcock's "Strangers on a Train" and so on. And just when you might be thinking that things could not get any more amusing, we are given 66-year-old Don Rickles, of all people, playing Sal's attorney Manny Bergman, and the sight of "Mr. Warmth" turned into a vampire is one to savor (his flaming death in a hospital room is surely one of the film's many highlights).
In addition, "Innocent Blood" makes wonderful use of its Pittsburgh locales (the city looks just beautiful here; I really need to visit one day!), features many terrific bit parts from players who would later go on to huge success (such as David Proval as Lenny the chauffeur, later to star in TV's "The Sopranos," and Angela Bassett, here in an early role, as a U.S. attorney), and throws in numerous cameos by various horror directors (such as Sam Raimi, Dario Argento and Tom Savini). In his role of mob boss Sal the Shark, Robert Loggia is just wonderful, both before and after turning into a night creature; ironically enough, in 2015, he would portray the father of an Italian mobster who is transformed into a neck nosher, in a film called "Sicilian Vampire"! John Landis' direction here is spirited and inventive, bringing to the fore the same zest and flair that had previously graced his horror films "An American Werewolf in London" ('81) and "Twilight Zone: The Movie" ('83). But best of all, perhaps, are the vampires in the film themselves. As shown, these creatures have the bloodsuckers' classic strengths (the ability to withstand gunfire, the power to throw people across a room, the ability to turn themselves into some kind of flying critter ... presumably bats, the ability to scale walls, power enough to break free of manacles) and weaknesses (garlic and sunlight; crucifixes, strangely enough, do not figure in this picture).
But perhaps best of all, naturally enough, is Marie herself, as played by Anne Parillaud. Confessing as she does that her two abiding interests in life are food and sex, Marie makes for one overwhelmingly attractive creature of the night. Indeed, she must automatically be placed into the pantheon of Sexiest Vampiresses of All Time, a pantheon that includes such irresistible blood sisters as Alexandra Bastedo in "The Blood-Spattered Bride" ('69), Soledad Miranda in "Vampyros Lesbos" ('70), Ingrid Pitt in "The Vampire Lovers" ('70), Madeleine Collinson in "Twins of Evil" ('71), Delphine Seyrig in "Daughters of Darkness" ('71), Marianne Morris and Anulka Dziubinska in "Vampyres" ('75), and Cristina Ferrare in "Mary, Mary, Bloody Mary" ('75). Is it any wonder that no male in this film seems able to resist her? Parillaud is well cast for this film, her heavy accent (which preview audiences supposedly complained about) giving Marie an exotic cast and otherworldly character. How startling it is to see, thus, while she is feeding, that her eyes begin to glow phosphorescently, and to hear her snarling like a feral animal. Parillaud is also an actress not at all ashamed of revealing her body for the camera, giving us a look at her perfect physique (she had earlier taken training in ballet, and it shows) in several "full-frontal" sequences. The character of Marie is one that the actress reportedly "fell in love with," and she is ideally suited for the role. Such a shame that Marie's past could not have been explored, though, so that viewers might have learned something about how she became a vampiress to begin with, and how she wound up in Pittsburgh, of all places; her back story would be a fascinating one, I'm sure, and the character possibly suitable for a whole series of cinematic adventures. Alas, it was never to be.
"Innocent Blood," it should be added, is most decidedly not a film for YOUR young innocents at home; certainly for no one younger than, say, 15. What with its blood-soaked sequences (the inside of that morgue room is especially gruesome), frequent use of foul language, occasional nudity (from not just Marie, but a whole bevy of topless dancers in one of Sal's clubs), and three sex scenes (between Marie and Tony, Marie and Sal, and Marie and Joe), it is surely not a movie to watch with your favorite 8-year-old, despite the humor and lightness of tone. But for all adults, a great good time is practically guaranteed. Thus, I just cannot understand its bombing at the box office back in '92, and its current middling rep today. It is surely a film that will appeal to most, uh, red-blooded fans of horror, I feel....
Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972)
Psycho Biddy, Qu'est-ce Que Cest?
Ever since the Brothers Grimm recorded the fairy tale forever known afterward as "Hansel and Gretel," way back in 1812, its story has been well known to successive generations. We have heard the story since childhood: how the two poor children are lured into the witch's gingerbread house and trapped therein, only to be fed all kinds of goodies by the evil witch to fatten them up, and of how the two kids ultimately turn the tables on the evil crone, stealing her treasure and burning her alive in her own oven. Flash-forward around 160 years, and the world was given what is in essence a modern-day retelling of this classic tale, in the British film "Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?" A horror story that manages to keep a fairly light tone throughout, never really rising to the level of shocks that one might hope for and expect, the film yet manages to please, largely by dint of its talented players and a compact script. "Whoever Slew Auntie Roo" originally appeared in 1971 and was released by AIP in the U.S. under the shortened title "Who Slew Auntie Roo?," a title that I prefer because it rolls off the tongue a lot more easily. Whatever you choose to call it, though, the film just manages to please.
In it, the viewer is introduced to a very unusual character: Rosie Forrest (the great Shelley Winters), the widow of a famous British magician who now lives in a beautiful, ornate mansion called Forrest Grange with her two servants, Clarine (Judy Cornwell) and Albie (Michael Gothard, whom most will recall as the assassin Locque in the 1981 James Bond outing "For Your Eyes Only"), in what we can only assume to be the 1920s. We see almost immediately that things are not quite right with Mrs. Forrest, as she is crooning a lullaby to a child in a nursery ... a child who we can't help but notice is a desiccated corpse! We also soon learn that Rosie has never gotten over the death of her daughter Katharine several years back, and so keeps her withered remains in the nursery as a dear reminder. Rosie is also fond of holding seances with a phony medium named Mr. Barton (the great British actor Sir Ralph Richardson), in an effort to speak to Katharine; the two servants assist Barton in making it seem that the deceased daughter is actually speaking to her mother from the Great Beyond. To the outside world, though, Rosie is a dear sweet lady, especially since, ever Christmas, she holds a festive sleepover party for the 10 best-behaved children from the local orphanage. (The kids at the orphanage refer to Forrest Grange as "The Gingerbread House," and to Mrs. Forrest as "Auntie Roo.") But this year, there are destined to be 12 children in attendance, as brother and sister Christopher (Mark Lester, whom most will remember best from 1968's "Oliver!") and Katy (Chloe Franks, as adorable a child actor as you've ever seen) Coombs have managed to crash the party, as well. Rosie takes an instant fancy to little Katy, since she not only resembles her deceased, blonde daughter, but shares a similar name with her, as well. Long story short, after all the other children have left, Rosie manages to keep Katy behind, to hold on to her indefinitely. And so Christopher - who already knows that the woman whom the world sees as a benefactress is actually a warped personality, and perhaps even a witch, having spied on her and her mummified daughter earlier on - must return to The Gingerbread House to rescue his younger sister...
"Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?" is one of the final entries in the classic 1960s/early '70s cycle of pictures known as Psycho Biddy Films, also known as Grande Dame Guignol, Hagsploitation, Hag Horror and, as my buddy Rob calls them, Aging Gargoyle Films. In these pictures, formerly glamorous actresses, now a bit up in years, portray women teetering on the brink of insanity ... or, in many cases, way over that edge. The genre was kick-started in 1962 with the seminal "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," featuring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford; later examples include "Strait-Jacket" ('64, with Crawford), "Dead Ringer" ('64, with Davis), "Lady in a Cage" ('64, with Olivia de Havilland), "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte" ('64, obviously a great year for psycho biddies, with Davis, de Havilland and Agnes Moorehead), "The Night Walker" ('65, with Barbara Stanwyck), "Die! Die! My Darling!" ('65, with Tallulah Bankhead), "I Saw What You Did" ('65, with Crawford), "Berserk" ('67, Crawford again), "What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?" ('69, with Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon), and "What's the Matter With Helen?" ('71, with Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters). Of all those films, "...Auntie Roo" is the only one that I had not previously seen, and I was thus very happy to finally catch up with it. Like "...Helen," this film was directed by Curtis Harrington - also previously responsible for such horror thrillers as "Night Tide" ('63) and "Queen of Blood" ('66) - and features Shelley going bonkers in a very entertaining manner. Indeed, Ms. Winters' very entertaining portrayal here of the wackadoodle Mrs. Forrest is pretty much the film's primary selling point, even though one can't help but sense that had she really been allowed to tear into the part, the film could have been a lot scarier than it is. Indeed, there is a definite dearth of shocks and even suspense in the film; one gets the feeling that the filmmakers purposefully kept things light, because had they wanted, this could have been a genuine chiller. Only a handful of scenes manage to chill the (adult) viewer or engender suspense: that initial view of Katharine's corpse; Christopher's ascent by dumbwaiter to spy on the secret nursery where Rosie communes with her dead daughter; the sight of Auntie Roo, arms upraised, standing in the doorway, as the children attempt an escape. Jimmy Sangster, who cowrote the screenplay for the film, keeps matters very much tongue in cheek, and that is a bit surprising, as he had previously been responsible for so many hard-core horror films for Hammer Studios. Thus, this is a film that can very safely be watched with your favorite 8-year-old, the hardest scene to watch, perhaps, being the one in which the skull of Katharine's skeleton crumbles to dust. For the most part, this is very much a fairy tale brought to life and updated by 100-plus years or so.
The proceedings lag a bit in the film's first half, only really coming to life once the two kids begin to explore Forrest Grange and become trapped therein, but even that first half is kept entertaining by dint of some sumptuous period décor and Shelley's always-interesting presence. The great actress was 51 when she essayed this role, a good 20 years beyond her pinup girl years (viewers who have only seen Shelley's later work might be a bit surprised to learn that she was indeed a blonde sexpot in the late '40s and early '50s) but still looking pretty darn good; the character that she is portraying here, it seems to me, might be a good decade older. Winters makes us feel for the pitiful Rosie, whose grief over her daughter's death has driven her to madness, although we never quite feel that sorry for her, even when she meets her Waterloo at the hands of the children. She is abetted here by a terrific roster of acting talent, including not only Richardson and Gothard, but such English mainstays as Lionel Jeffries, playing the kindly Inspector Willoughby, and Hugh Griffith as Mr. Harrison, the butcher. Young Mark Lester manages to deliver another very appealing performance in his central role as Christopher, whose cat-and-mouse game with the demented Roo lies very much at the heart of this film. The 13-year-old actor manages to convey a lot of emotion with just his eyes, and as it turns out, he makes his character more than a match for the wily Roo. And kudos for Chloe Franks, who is not only pretty and cute as a little bug's ear, but very believable as little Katy; many of this kid's facial expressions are just priceless! So yes, the film, overall, is an entertaining one, well mounted and professionally made, but yet, still far short of greatness. It is campy and silly in parts, and never rises to the heights of delirious insanity that one might have hoped for, but still, it manages to bring the curtain down on the era of the Grande Dame Guignol on a pleasingly wacky note.
Oh ... one final word on the curious subgenre known as the Psycho Biddy Film. Of all the bygone movie categories from yesteryear that have faded into oblivion, it seems to me that the Hagsploitation genre would be one of the most interesting to resurrect today. I mean, who wouldn't plop down good money at the box office to see such sex symbols of yesteryear as Raquel Welch, Ann-Margret, Faye Dunaway, Diana Rigg, Pam Grier, Helen Mirren, Michelle Pfeiffer, Isabella Rossellini, Kathleen Turner and even Meryl Streep be driven to the brink and then right over? Hollywood, let's make this happen!
Not A Job For Terminix
As I sat down to watch a movie in my living room last night, my hometown of NYC - not to mention the rest of America and around 180 countries around the globe - was in the middle of the Great COVID-19 Pandemic of 2020. As of yesterday evening, there were around 67,000 cases in my city, over 1 million worldwide, and almost 60,000 deaths internationally. The peak has not yet been reached here, and fear and uncertainty reign, with no end to the scourge in sight. And, of course, the inevitable paranoia and conspiracy theories are beginning to emerge, with all kinds of crackpots coming out and declaring the virus to be some kind of foreign plot, and with NIAID head Dr. Anthony Fauci even requiring a security detail to guard against various wackadoodle threats. This, then, was the backdrop in which I sat down to watch some escapist entertainment last night. And what a film I chose for my evening's leisure: "Bug," in which bizarre theories involving insects and disease and government manipulation are espoused by a pair of characters who are very far gone down the road of insanity. Or ... are they? "Bug" (not to be confused with the mutant cockroach film "Bug" from 1975) was initially given a wide release in May 2007, after a few select showings at venues such as the Cannes Film Festival. Its director, William Friedkin, who had previously helmed such gripping suspense and horror outings as "The French Connection" (1971), "The Exorcist" (1973), "Sorcerer" (1977), "Cruising" (1980), and "To Live and Die in L.A." (1985), would later go on to say that the film was NOT an exercise in horror, although any person who manages to make it through this wringer might feel inclined to disagree.
In the film, the viewer makes the acquaintance of Agnes White (Ashley Judd), a hard-partying woman who works in a honky-tonk (lesbian?) bar and lives in a seedy motel in the middle of Nowheresville, Oklahoma. Indeed, in the film's early aerial zoom shot, we see that this motel really does sit in the middle of an extremely large stretch of empty terrain. We soon learn that Agnes' abusive ex-husband, Jerry (Harry Connick, Jr., here looking more buff, toned and dangerous than you've probably ever seen him), has recently gotten out of jail, after having served a two-year stretch for armed robbery, and that the couple had once suffered the loss of their young son, who had mysteriously disappeared in a supermarket. Agnes' best friend and fellow waitress, R.C. (Lynn Collins), introduces her to a strange, soft-spoken young man one evening, a drifter named Peter Evans (Michael Shannon), who says that he can pick up on things that others can't. Agnes and Peter begin a tentative relationship of sorts, each feeding off the other's loneliness and isolation. But after sleeping together for the first time, things start to get a little strange. Peter begins to see tiny aphids everywhere in Agnes' run-down apartment, and soon confesses the truth to her: He had been the subject of biological experiments at the hands of the U.S. Army after serving in the Gulf War, and now has bugs crawling around inside his body! Eventually, in one of the film's several hard-to-watch sequences, Peter decides that his current toothache is due to these insidious bugs, and thus takes a pair of pliers and pulls the offending teeth out! When a man named Dr. Sweet (Brian F. O'Byrne) arrives at the motel, claiming to be a physician who is only trying to bring Peter back to the asylum (Evans is an escaped mental patient, he maintains), Peter is prepared with a butcher knife straight out of Hitchcock's Psycho, in the film's second hard-to-watch sequence. At this point in the film, Agnes has also begun to descend into paranoia and to buy into Peter's story. The two have converted their little apartment into a tinfoil-wrapped grotto, in the belief that the metal foil will disable the bugs' ability to report back to the government, and flypaper hangs from everywhere. In what is perhaps the film's most flabbergasting sequence, the two begin to concoct amazing theories as to what is happening, involving the government having kidnapped Agnes' child, the use of bugs to conquer the world, the Jim Jones cult and so on. As the viewer watches in increasing astonishment, the realization comes that all of this cannot end well ... and it surely does not...
The screenplay for "Bug" was written by Tracy Letts (who would later be the author of the play "August: Osage County" in 2007, filmed in 2013), based on his stage production of 1996, in which Shannon had also starred. And how any actor could possibly perform a role such as that of Peter Evans night after night is quite beyond me! His character in the film, as well as Agnes' character, eventually rises to such heights of forceful emoting that the viewer simply cannot believe what he/she is watching. No wonder Roger Ebert once wrote that the film's leads "...achieve a kind of manic intensity that's frightening not just in itself but because you fear for the actors..." Evans and Judd both give performances here of Oscar-caliber merit, their thesping really putting over what in lesser hands might be a ridiculous conceit. Judd is completely unglamorized here, appearing with no makeup, her hair often a mess, slatternly, and even seen sitting on the toilet. Even still, her essential gorgeousness manages to shine through. ("You're beautiful," Peter tells her at their initial meeting, to the woman's incredulity.) She makes us sense her character's loneliness and frustration, stuck as she is with a dead-end job and with a dangerous ex returning to her door. No wonder she says to Peter "Guess I'd rather talk with you about bugs than nothing with nobody." Addicted to booze, pot and cocaine, endeavoring to kill the pain of the loss of her son over two years before, she is a most pitiful character indeed, and Judd makes us feel her sorrow without sentimentality.
And speaking of all those drugs and assorted painkillers, one must wonder if the reason why Agnes is so susceptible to Peter's crackpot theories is due to those mind-altering substances, or if there is perhaps another reason. Whether or not Peter is indeed insane or not is a matter left ambiguous by the filmmakers, and indeed, there are several interpretations that might come to mind. I'm not sure if Letts is telling us that drugs make one more likely to buy into crackpot notions, or if perhaps Agnes was a bit far gone even before the events of the film begin. Conversely, is it just possible that Peter is actually correct as regards his theories, and that the aphids in the motel room (insects that we never actually get a glimpse of) are actually sending messages to the U.S. government? It is all very strange and mysterious, to be sure. It strikes me that perhaps I have not given you a sense of how very bizarre and menacing the atmosphere in this film is, an atmosphere that grows increasingly more so as events proceed. Friedkin, as I mentioned, does not consider this a horror film, but there are assuredly at least three sequences in which horrible events do transpire, and the psychological horror is very very real. The film, largely shot (in just three weeks, reportedly) in what is basically one set, Agnes' motel apartment, is intense and claustrophobic, and it must be said that the picture does reveal its stage origin; it often feels like a filmed theatrical performance, which only augments that intensity. "Bug" is surely not a pleasant experience to sit through, and indeed, I cannot recommend it unreservedly for all viewers. The squeamish ones should certainly take a pass here, and those who are put off by unpleasant visuals, gore, nudity, foul language and general strangeness would best be advised to look elsewhere for their evening's entertainment. This movie really is pretty sick stuff, and pretty far out there ... and that's not exactly a bad thing, as far as I've long been concerned. The film has been expertly put together by a team of talented pros both before and behind the cameras, and if you sit tight and brace yourself in for the duration, I think you will find that you are in store for one helluva unforgettable ride. Several questions remain unanswered by the time the end credits roll, such as: Who has been making those constant hang-up phone calls to Agnes in the middle of the night? Whatever DID happen to Agnes' son, who had vanished in that supermarket? What is the significance of that dead body that we see as bookend shots at the film's beginning and end? Why does Friedkin show us a shot of the missing son's toys as the film closes? And, of course, which, if any, of Peter's wild claims is true? A lot of food for thought and debate here, with no clear-cut answers, and similar, in a way, to Darren Aronofsky's 2017 film "Mother!," which also grows increasingly flabbergasting as it proceeds. However you look at "Bug," though, I guarantee that you will not soon be forgetting it. This is one case of insect infestation that is NOT a job for Terminix...
Diez Perfecto On The Fun Scale
It was at NYC's legendary Thalia Theater on W. 95th St. in Manhattan where I first saw the Mexican wonder known as "The Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy" (1964), paired with the Ed Wood-scripted "The Bride and the Beast" (1958) to make for one truly mind-boggling double feature. Ah, what a great theater that was! OK, time for Tales From My Misspent Youth, chapter 135: The Thalia, back when (I'm talking about the late '70s/very early '80s here), was a wonderful place to see a double feature of this sort, its rear section (a "balcony" reached by climbing one or two steps, if memory serves) permitting smoking...of all manner of dry goods. As for the first film on the bill, my main recollection of that showing was the stoned-out audience laughing uproariously every time one of the characters therein mentioned the word "codex," an object that served as the Hitchcockian MacGuffin in that picture; the audience, apparently, thought the actors were saying "Kotex." The picture was a genuine hoot, and I have wanted to see others of its ilk ever since. Flash-forward a good 40 years or so, to just last night, when I sat down to watch a film called "The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy," which I mistakenly took to be a sequel to that first film. But, of course, my homework had been woefully inadequate, and rather than being a sequel to the Thalia film, it turns out that "Wrestling Women..." was not only a much-belated, only tangentially related follow-up to "Robot...", but that "Robot..." itself had been the third film of a very self-contained trilogy. ("The Wrestling Women vs. the Aztec Mummy," by the way, turns out to have been the second in a completely separate series of six films featuring the fighters - or Las Luchadoras - Gloria Venus and Golden Rubi, the first of which was 1963's "Doctor of Doom.") When I learned this, I was on the verge of deleting the film completely from my DVR box, not being the type to watch the third picture in a series without having first watched the previous two. But TCM host Ben Mankiewicz reassured me, in his introduction, with the following words, saying that the film "...while not much longer than an hour, roughly 65 minutes, spends almost half that time recapping the events of the previous two movies, "The Aztec Mummy" (1957) and "The Curse of the Aztec Mummy" (also 1957), so don't worry if you haven't seen the first two; you'll find a way to follow the story..." As it turns out, Mankiewicz was 100% correct, and this viewer had no problem whatsoever in catching up. And "Robot..." (1958), as it turns out, really was quite a hoot!
The film does indeed spend its first half hour informing us of what had transpired before, as the previous two films' leading character, Eduardo Almada (Ramon Gay), tells his colleagues of what had occurred. It seems that Almada, a scientist who was a firm believer in the notion of hypnotic regression, had put his fiancée, Flor (the great Mexican actress Rosita Arenas, who had previously impressed this viewer in two terrific films, 1962's "The Witch's Mirror" and 1963's "The Curse of the Crying Woman," the latter of which I deem to be a horror masterpiece), into a trance and had discovered that she was the reincarnation of an Aztec temple priestess named Xochi. Xochi had become romantically involved with a warrior named Popoca (Angel Di Stefani), and the two had planned on running away together. But after being caught in the act, the priestess had been ritualistically put to death in the pyramid of Teotihuacan and Popoca had been buried alive, his mummified body charged with guarding a hieroglyph-engraved breastplate and bracelet that revealed the precise location of the Aztecs' treasure horde. Upon awakening, Flor had been able to lead her fiancé and his friend, Pinacate (Crox Alvarado), to the tomb wherein lay the bones of Xochi, but Popoca had awakened and frightened them off. In addition, in the first two films, the viewer watched in awe as one of Almada's colleagues, Dr. Krupp (Luis Aceves Castaneda), also known as The Bat (because of the cape he wears?), makes repeated efforts to obtain that breastplate and bracelet, only to be thwarted by Popoca ever and again. And so, as the third film in the trilogy begins, five years after the events of the first two, we learn that Krupp has indeed survived being thrown into a pit of snakes by the mummy at the end of the second film, and is once again planning a means of acquiring his goal. He has obtained a good deal of radium and has stolen a corpse from a nearby Cancer Institute, and utilizing them, has constructed an enormous robot, powered by remote control, with which he plans on fighting the ancient mummy and getting his hands on those ancient relics. To ascertain the current location of Popoca, he himself hypnotizes Flor, now married to Almada, and gets her to set up a mental communication with the slumbering mummy (!). The mummy, Krupp learns, now resides in a nearby cemetery, and so, off he goes, scar-faced minion Tender and mummy in tow, to what promises to be a true battle royale...
"The Robot vs. the Aztec Mummy" (originally released under the title "La Momia Azteca Contra El Robot Humano") was shot and produced at the very same time as the two previous films; they were filmed back to back to back with no break in 1957, and thus make for one very seamless experience. Director Rafael Portillo does quite a fine job at keeping things compact and streamlined, and this little picture really does move! The acting by one and all is uniformly fine, the sets are handsome, the tombs and crypts convincingly moldering and creepy, the atmosphere dark and mysterious. Kudos especially to Castaneda's performance as The Bat, especially in the scene in which his robot creation finally comes to life. Castaneda overacts gloriously, his mania and insanity practically bursting through his bulging eyeballs. It is a delightfully zany performance, and great fun to watch. His nameless robotic creation, by the way, must be placed into the Pantheon of Clunkiest-Looking Robots in Film History, standing in pride next to such lumbering metalmen as the ones in "Devil Girl From Mars" (1954) and "Target Earth" (also 1954). But unlike those other creations, the one here features a man's revivified head behind a glass faceplate, thus justifying Krupp's designation of it as a "human robot." The promotional poster for the film proclaimed that the ending showcased "An Epic Battle To The Death Between Two Titans Of Terror!," and while I'm not exactly sure that the big dukeout that climaxes the picture is deserving of that kind of ballyhoo, it sure is fun to watch, brief as it is. Popoca is quite a formidable entity, a ripper and a choker, but our human robot here is capable of delivering radium-derived burns with its merest touch. So put your bets down and settle in to watch, folks!
OK, I'm not going to lie to you: This film is no great work of art, but you probably expected as much just from the title, right? As Mankiewicz himself tells us, "...This ain't 'Citizen Kane' ... but it's still a blast to watch." And boy, is he ever right! The film really is a lot of fun, in a Saturday afternoon matinee at the movies kind of way. Other viewers have pointed out various historical inaccuracies in the picture, such as the fact that the Aztecs did not mummify their dead and didn't use hieroglyphics. Mexican history dummy that I am, these matters did not concern me one bit. What did bother me a little, however, is the fact that Popoca can be easily deterred by holding up a crucifix in front of its cloth-wrapped face, as if he were some kind of Transylvanian vampire. Since when were the Aztecs, and more particularly the worshippers of the god Tecaztlipoca here, such believers in Christianity and its various symbols? Another head-scratching tidbit in this film: How is Krupp able to hypnotize Flor at a distance, while she sleeps in her bedroom (a separate bedroom from her new husband?) and he sits in the backseat of his car, speaking into some kind of microphone? And while I'm at it, why has Pinacate, who had, it is shown, secretly had a side career as the superhero Angel in the previous two films, stopped his crime-fighting ways as the third film commences? But perhaps I am overthinking things here. The bottom line is that this film is just pure entertainment; a perfect film to sit down and watch with your 8-year-old nephew, perhaps. It is not close to being the work of art that "The Curse of the Crying Woman" would be, five years later (I can't recommend that film highly enough, by the way), but its fun factor surely is a perfect 10 ... or, rather, should I say, a diez perfecto!
The Couch (1962)
A Chip Off The Ol' Bloch
In November 1960, filmgoers were presented with a very unique film, "Girl of the Night." In it, we meet a call girl/prostitute named Bobbie Williams, played by the great Anne Francis in the screen role that she would go on to cite as her personal favorite of all her many performances. We learn about Bobbie via her visits to the psychiatrist (Lloyd Nolan) who is treating her, and these intimate encounters are alternated with glimpses of the young woman's sordid daily life. Flash forward around 15 months, and another film would be released with very much the same modus operandi, but in this later film, the subject was male, and his life is shown to be more disturbing, as well as a lot more dangerous to the populace at large, than Bobbie's ever was. That film was indeed "The Couch," a little-discussed film today (not to be confused with the Andy Warhol film of 1964 that was simply entitled "Couch") that yet proved very entertaining and rewarding for this viewer upon a first watch the other night. Released in February '62, the film boasts some very impressive talents both in front of and behind the cameras, and is surely one ripe for discovery, now some six decades later.
"The Couch" opens with a man, who we viewers are only allowed to see from behind, phoning the LAPD and then speaking to one Lt. Kritzman (Simon Scott). The caller informs the cop that a murder will soon be taking place - at 7 p.m. that evening, to be precise - and that he himself will be the murderer. As good as his word, our unknown "gentleman caller" hangs up the phone, approaches a stranger on the crowded sidewalks of L.A., and sticks an ice pick into the man's back, after which he calmly goes to his 7:00 appointment with his psychiatrist. As we soon learn, the killer is named Charles Campbell, played by none other than Grant Williams, who had previously appeared in three memorable sci-fi films over the course of the previous five years: "The Incredible Shrinking Man," "The Monolith Monsters" and "The Leech Woman." Campbell had just served two years in jail for beating and raping the daughter of his college professor, and is now being analyzed by one Dr. Janz (Onslow Stevens, whose film career stretched all the way back to 1931, and here appearing in his final picture), following his release. Campbell is also secretly dating Janz' young niece and current receptionist, Terry Ames (gorgeous Shirley Knight, who this viewer knew primarily from her appearance in the superlative "Outer Limits" episode "The Man Who Was Never Born," which was released the following year). As in "Girl of the Night," we learn about Campbell's sorry past via his in-office discussions with the doctor; of the love he had for his sister, of his hatred for his widower father, of his current problems with young women, etc. We also see something of his "home life," living in a boardinghouse where his landlady's pretty daughter, Jean Quimby (Anne Helm, primarily known to this viewer via her three exceptionally fine appearances in TV's "Route 66"), teases and banters with him relentlessly. And, finally, we see Campbell kill again, once more alerting Lt. Kritzman of his plans, and then prepare to kill yet one more time. And his third victim, it would appear, will be Dr. Janz himself...
"The Couch" boasts several extremely well-done sequences, including those first two murders, both on the crowded, nighttime streets of Los Angeles, and the third attempt, on Dr. Janz, in a packed football stadium. Other memorable sequences include Campbell's two dates with Terry, one overlooking a crowded freeway and the other at the abandoned estate grounds of the lunatic's grandfather. But best of all, perhaps, is the film's culminating sequence, as Campbell dons a surgical mask and gown to finish off his botched slaying of Dr. Janz, as the shrink lies in a recovery room in hospital. Grant Williams, I should add here, is truly excellent as the homicidal wackadoodle, whose creepiness manages to come through the charm and the good-looking exterior; Lord only knows what Terry ever sees in him. Her judgment in men, it would seem, is truly suspect. Director/producer Owen Crump manages to elicit not only a splendid performance from his leading man here but from all the others in the cast as well. He also brings a noirish feel to the proceedings, never more so than when Campbell walks the streets of L.A. at night, the camera showing us his handsome features in stark close-up. Crump is a director who was entirely new to me - his previous endeavors seem to consist mainly of documentaries and for TV, besides one or two minor films - but his work here indicates that he could have gone on to a fine career as a movie director, had he chosen to. He and one Blake Edwards (yes, that Blake Edwards, who, by the way, had been born William Blake Crump, although I can find nothing on the Interwebs to indicate that the two were related!) came up with the story idea for this film, and fortunately, allowed the great sci-fi and horror author Robert Bloch to come up with a screenplay. And this Bloch did in spades, in his very first bit of writing for the big screen; his 1959 novel "Psycho" had been adapted by Joseph Stefano for the classic Hitchcock film two years earlier, of course. Bloch would go on to create screenplays during the 1960s depicting the shenanigans of several other twisted minds, in films such as "The Cabinet of Caligari," "Strait-Jacket" and "The Night Watcher" - just as Blake Edwards would follow up this one with the terrific "Experiment in Terror," another film about a West Coast serial killer, two months later - and Bloch's screenplay here already evinces the sly wit and mastery of suspense for which the writer was already known on the printed page. I love when a cop tells Kritzman, regarding Campbell's first victim, "He came out here to retire," and Kritzman replies "That he did!" Add in some fine lensing by DOP Harold Stine and a moody and evocative score by Frank Perkins and you have a surprisingly fine entertainment, both moving and nerve racking.
And yet, there are some minor problems to be encountered here. For one thing, this viewer found the psychological explanation for Campbell's homicidal mania to be a bit forced and unconvincing; either that, or the young man was already seriously disturbed, mentally, even as a youth. Throughout the film, the LAPD wonders why the killer insists on killing only at 7 p.m., and why he only uses an ice pick to commit his homicides, and the viewer cannot help wondering the same thing. Unfortunately, we never do learn the answers to those riddles to our satisfaction ... unless it is that 7 p.m. is the time for his nightly psychiatric appointments, providing him with a convenient alibi? But these are minor matters. The film, as a whole, must be deemed some kind of success, in no small part due to Williams' fine performance. Viewers who have only seen the actor perform as the ever-dwindling yet heroic Scott Carey in the wonderful film "The Incredible Shrinking Man" - truly, one of the sci-fi champs of the 1950s - might be a tad surprised at how vastly different a character he essays here. Campbell is never what you would call a likable person, handsome and at times charming as he might be, but Williams does make us feel for him, at least. As was the case with another moodily shot, B&W film that I recently experienced, 1964's "The Strangler," in which Victor Buono portrayed a serial killer who also had his problems with the ladies (to put it mildly), here, our lead actor makes us sympathize for the demented killer, without necessarily liking him. The two films would make for one perfectly paired double feature, come to think of it, both being very finely acted and directed exercises in suspense and mental aberration; no wonder the great cable station TCM showed these two films back to back recently. The films have numerous similarities as well as differences. Buono's maniac character, Leo Kroll, is shown to have mother issues, whereas Campbell most assuredly has had a problem with his father. Kroll, as hinted at by his film's title, prefers to throttle his victims, whereas Campbell goes for the more phallic ice pick. Kroll, being decidedly obese, finds it impossible to pull in the ladies, whereas Campbell is a handsome charmer and seems to attract them wherever he goes. But as is shown in both films, both characters are very seriously unhinged, and completely remorseless after their cold-blooded killings. I do recommend them both to your attention, and preferably watched in the order in which they first appeared. By the end of "The Couch," the viewer will surely come to the conclusion that one couch is not enough for a character such as Charles Campbell; this dude requires an entire psychiatric ward all to himself!
The Strangler (1964)
See It For Victor
I might be giving away my age here, but I am old enough to remember, young although I was at the time, the panic and news stories that were attendant during the scourge of the so-called Boston Strangler. Between June 1962 and January '64, no fewer than 13 women, ages 19 all the way up to 85, were slain and, in some cases, sexually molested by the mad fiend. Finally, in October '64, that fiend was apprehended and later confessed; a 33-year-old named Albert de Salvo. The incidents that shocked Beantown and the rest of the country would later be turned into a film, October 1968's "The Boston Strangler," starring Tony Curtis as de Salvo. But that had not been the only film inspired by the dreadful doings. In April '64, a half year before de Salvo's arrest and at the height of the Boston panic, another film was released that perfectly captured the unease of the period. That film was simply called "The Strangler," and a recent watch has reinforced for this viewer what a marvelous entertainment it remains, now more than a half century after its premiere.
"The Strangler" opens with a scene guaranteed to bring to mind the opening sequence in the great 1946 shocker "The Spiral Staircase," as the viewer looks deep into the eyes of a madman as he is gazing at a lovely young woman. In this case, those eyes belong to obese, 30ish-year-old Leo Kroll (Victor Buono), who, when we first encounter him, not only glares at said lovely, but also leaps from concealment in her apartment and throttles her to death, after which he caresses and undresses a child's toy doll in orgasmic release. Kroll, we later learn, has a desk full of naked dolls in his drawer at home, one for each of his previous killings (sexual transference fetishes, as a police psychiatrist later explains), and the young lady whom he has just murdered had been his eighth recent victim! The cops on the case in this never-identified city are mystified, although Lt. Frank Benson (David McLean) quite correctly calls Kroll in for questioning; the latest victim, it seems, used to work as a nurse at the hospital where Kroll is currently employed as a lab technician. Kroll, we also soon learn, is the only child of an invalid mother (Ellen Corby, who had been appearing in films since the early '30s and who would go on to great fame playing TV's Grandma Walton eight years later), whom he reluctantly visits in hospital whenever he can, although that mother is something of a monster who constantly henpecks, nags, badgers and berates her son. But when all is said and done, Kroll will go on to kill no fewer than four more times, before his reign of terror is brought to an abrupt end....
"The Strangler," finely shot in B&W by DOP Jacques Marquette and directed in a clean, no-nonsense manner by Burt Topper, contains any number of fine sequences, those murder scenes being some of the standouts, of course. Kroll's second victim whose slaying we are privy to is the nurse, Clara Thomas (Jeanne Bates), who had previously saved his mother's life, thus extending Mrs. Kroll's miserable treatment of her pitiful son; the third is an indirect but deliberate murder, as he tells his mother that her beloved nurse has been slain, thus engendering a fatal heart attack; the fourth is of a pretty arcade worker at the Odeon Fun Palace, Barbara (Diane Sayer), who the cops had been interrogating, concerning the dolls that the arcade routinely gives away as prizes; and the fifth murder, which might only be an attempted murder, is that of the blonde arcade worker, Tally (Davey Davison), who Kroll has pitifully fallen in love with. (Unlike de Salvo, Kroll does not sexually molest his victims whatsoever; the mere act of murder seems to satisfy his lusts quite nicely, thank you.) All these scenes are suspensefully captured by director Topper and really are well done. But for this viewer, the picture's absolute standout scene is the one in which Kroll is harangued by his dreadful termagant of a mother. Is it any wonder why Kroll has turned out to be the twisted, sociopathic wreck of a man that he is? Just get a load of what his mother tells him from her hospital bed: "...You're not good-looking, you're fat; you know very well yourself that some people think you're funny ... even as a little boy nobody liked you ... and except for me, nobody's loved you ... and you haven't any money, and women want money and don't you forget it. Why, you barely make enough of a salary to keep a good-looking hussy in stockings...." And on and on and on. Not since Norman Bates, possibly, in Alfred Hitchcock's game changer "Psycho" (1960), had audiences been treated to the spectacle of a man turned into a murderous woman hater due to the abuse of a malignant mother. (A word of advice to all parents out there: Talking this way to your kids may very well result in a truly dangerous and twisted personality disorder!)
And speaking of which, Kroll, as shown in this film, truly is a split-personality schizophrenic of the very highest order. His split is so complete that he easily aces a lie detector test administered at police HQ, and after he is told of his mother's death - a death, again, that he deliberately brought about - he alternately laughs and cries as he trashes his mother's bedroom at home. But somehow, the viewer feels sympathy for this serial killer, especially inasmuch as we sense Kroll's loneliness and frustration. And that sympathy is perhaps never greater as we watch the pitiful scene in which Leo proposes to Tally in the arcade, presenting her with his mother's engagement ring ... Tally, of course, being a woman who he barely knows but has secretly lusted after for many months. Buono is simply outstanding at making us feel sympathy for his poor character; his performance here is simply aces. The San Diego-born actor was just 26 when he made this film, but because of his imposing physique, already seemed decades older. He had recently enjoyed a breakthrough role of sorts, two years earlier, playing pianist Edwin Flagg in the legendary Bette Davis/Joan Crawford horror film "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?," and had even received an Oscar nomination for his work therein; later in '64, he would appear in another Davis horror outing, "Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte," and, starting in '66, would play the role of King Tut in the "Batman" TV show, a role for which he is fondly remembered today by a generation of baby boomers. What a terrible loss when Buono passed away on the first day of 1982, at the age of 43; he might very well have gone on to become the Sydney Greenstreet of his era. Anyway, his performance here really makes this film something to cherish. Add in a fine screenplay by Bill S. Ballinger (who had scripted one of this viewer's favorite episodes of "The Outer Limits," the one entitled "The Mice," which had been released three months earlier), and some impressive art direction by the great Eugene Lourie (who had worked on the film classic "Shock Corridor" the previous year, and who would go on to add his considerable talents to "The Naked Kiss" and "Crack in the World" in the next), and you've got yourself a surprisingly efficient and gripping little suspenser. This film is a much smaller one than "The Boston Strangler" would be - that later picture featured a big-name cast, including Curtis, Henry Fonda, George Kennedy and Sally Kellerman, as well as a much larger budget and a largely fictionalized portrayal of the actual events of the case - but yet still has much to commend of itself to today's viewer. As the film's promotional poster declared, "Each of These Girls Suffer [shouldn't that be "Suffers"?] the Most Frightful Crimes Known to the Human Mind," and as is revealed, the mind of Leo Kroll is a very disturbing one indeed. This is a neo-noir suspenser that will long be remembered by any viewer who sits down in front of it, and is most definitely recommended....
See It For Carol
When I was a wee lad, many decades ago, there were two female images that would inevitably give me the jitters as I lay down to sleep at night. The first was that of Vampira's ghoulish character, advancing toward the camera with arms extended, in a nighttime graveyard, in the film that I much later realized was none other than Ed Wood's notorious "Plan 9 From Outer Space" (1959). (This image was apparently frightening to other viewers besides myself; it was later used in the opening credits of the television program "Chiller Theatre" back in the mid-'60s!) And the other image that used to give the young me the willies was that of Carol Ohmart's recently deceased Annabelle Loren character, noose around her neck and floating at the window, in William Castle's baby-boomer favorite "House on Haunted Hill" (1959 again). Even today, decades later, those two images can manage to give me the creeps. But whereas Vampira's fascination has pretty much faded for me, that of Carol Ohmart abides. Both beautiful and talented, Ohmart's career seemed to be on the rise in the late '50s; a career that sadly petered out around a decade later. If I may quote myself from my review of her film "The Scavengers" (1959 still again), a sleazy B noir in which she easily steals the show, "Ohmart films have not exactly been easy to see. And that's a real shame. Ohmart was a real beauty - Miss Utah in the 1946 Miss America pageant and, Paramount hoped, the new Marilyn Monroe - with a unique presence and style." And indeed, other than "House on Haunted Hill" and "The Scavengers," Ohmart films are practically impossible to track down today. Happily, however, she did appear in any number of 1960s television programs (I almost fell off my couch recently when she popped up in an old "Route 66" episode that I was watching), and also appeared in one film that has become something of a cult item today. And that film is indeed "Spider Baby." Shot in the late summer of 1964 in just 12 days and at a cost of a mere $65,000, but not released until more than three years later due to legal complications following a bankruptcy proceeding of the film's producers, the film was released under a plethora of titles, including "The Liver Eaters," "Cannibal Orgy" and "The Maddest Story Ever Told." It quickly sank into oblivion, but today is highly esteemed by both fans and critics ... and for very good reason.
Spider Baby gives us the story of the Merrye family, the only family known to science to suffer from a malady inevitably known as Merrye Syndrome. In this small clan, children over the age of 10 begin to regress mentally and physically, ultimately reaching a savage, "prenatal stage" (!) in which they become bestial and cannibalistic, a result of many decades of inbreeding. The Merryes just might be the most dangerous and unsettling bunch of family misfits seen on screen up until that time ... until, that is, audiences were introduced to Leatherface and his kin in Tobe Hooper's unforgettable "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" (1974), and, three years later, Jupiter's desert-dwelling cannibal brood in Wes Craven's "The Hills Have Eyes." In "Spider Baby," however, the proceedings are nowhere near as intense as in those later films, and the Merryes remain a wholly likeable family, despite their, uh, unusual tendencies. When we first encounter the latest generation of the Merryes, a mailman (the great Mantan Moreland, whose work I had so hugely enjoyed in 1941's "King of the Zombies") is delivering a package to their crumbling Victorian mansion, set in a secluded area near a highway's side road. This messenger is quickly killed off by young Virginia Merrye (Jill Banner), who imagines herself to be a spider and enjoys killing her human bugs with a pair of butcher knives. Her older sister, Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), chides her for the deed, while their imbecilic, bald-headed, older brother, Ralph (the late great Sid Haig), merely capers about and travels up and down the household dumbwaiter. When the Merrye chauffeur and the children's caretaker, Bruno (Lon Chaney, Jr.), arrives home, he also scolds the children, and then becomes upset when he reads the contents of the mailman's delivery. It seems that some distant cousins of the Merryes, Emily (our Carol) and brother Peter (Quinn Redeker), are about to arrive for a visit, accompanied by their lawyer, Schlocker (Karl Schanzer), and his pretty secretary Ann (Mary Mitchel), preparatory to claiming the house and all its possessions as their own, and putting the children in an institution. And what a visit it turns out to be!
The ability to blend horror and comedy into one seamless entertainment package is a tricky one, but here, director/screenwriter Jack Hill manages the task splendidly. "Spider Baby" can thus be confidently placed in that select pantheon of great horror comedies, a pantheon that includes such splendid entertainments as "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" (1948), "The Little Shop of Horrors" (1960) and "Bubba Ho-Tep" (2002). In retrospect, the film strikes the modern-day viewer as a more gruesome version of TV's "The Addams Family," which would premiere just a few weeks after "Spider Baby" was shot. Both the Addams and the Merryes are comprised of oddball characters living in a creepy old Victorian manse, but of the two, the Merryes house is by far the more disconcerting. A moldering old pile that makes one feel that it is about to collapse due to termite infestation (even Bruno mentions that the wood in the building is rotten), in which spiders large and small appear whenever an object is disturbed, in which rats, other insects and owls abide, and in which stuffed birds that look like they were purchased from the Bates Motel are on display, it really is a home that makes one wonder why anyone would want to sue for its possession. And spiders, rats and owls aren't the only living things that are infesting it. In the cellar, and unseen until the film's bravura finale, live Aunts Clara and Martha, as well as Uncle Ned ... members of the Merryes who are so far gone that they have devolved into shambling mutant monstrosities! "Spider Baby" has its tongue firmly in cheek until it gets going in the second half, where the horrors tend to overwhelm the comedic aspects, but nonetheless, the film remains one that a parent can safely watch with any 10-year-old. The violence is pretty much all suggested, with none of the red stuff on display, although what is suggested surely is pretty darn gruesome.
Terrific scenes in this one-of-a-kind film include the dinner that the Merryes serve their cousins, including as it does a barely cooked cat that Ralph had recently killed, along with some lawn weeds, (possibly poisonous) mushrooms, and some black gunk that only Virginia is seen chowing down; the sight of Elizabeth and Virginia at the top of the cellar stairs, backlit from behind so that their faces are invisible (a terrific B&W visual, and beautifully shot by cinematographer Alfred Taylor), before they attack the snoopy Schlocker; Peter being trussed up in a chair by the playful Virginia, suddenly aware of his dilemma as the girl's two pet tarantulas, Winifred and Barney, along with some of their fellow tarantulas, begin to emerge and advance on him; the mutated uncle and aunts' emergence from that cellar; and, of course, the scene that all fans of Carol Ohmart should just eat up, in which Emily prepares for bed and is shown admiring herself in a mirror, dressed in a black brassiere, garters and negligee (an image so great that it appears on the film's poster). Emily, I should in all honesty say here, is completely unlikeable in this film, but come to think of it, all of Ohmart's characters have been unsympathetic, duplicitous and nasty in the three films that I have seen her in. But how good Ohmart is at depicting them! Truly, a wonderful and gorgeous actress who never quite got her due.
And then there is Lon Chaney, Jr. himself, who is just terrific as the children's caretaker Bruno. This is one of the more sympathetic characters that the great actor gave the world in his later career; a dedicated family servant who had given the children's dying father, many years earlier, his solemn promise to take care of them, and who will move mountains to ensure that that promise is kept. Chaney is fully invested in the role here, even going so far as to sing the film's theme song over the opening credits! And how wonderful he is, after Ann mentions "The Wolfman" movie, when he replies "There's going to be a full moon tonight"! Director Hill manages to elicit a wonderful performance from the Golden Age legend, and his helming of the entire production is to be commended. Hill, who would go on to direct Pam Grier in such cult items as "The Big Doll House," "The Big Bird Cage," "Coffy" and "Foxy Brown," as well as the cult item "Switchblade Sisters," injects genuine suspense into this, one of his earliest efforts, and manages that tricky balancing act between comedy and horror with great skill.
"Spider Baby" is a film that I have seen around a half dozen times now. I used to own a beautifully packaged VHS copy of the film (that I leant to a friend and, understandably, never got back), have seen it on the big screen, and, most recently, have enjoyed via a pristine-looking print shown on TCM. The film always manages to please, and is a surefire crowd-pleaser for all audiences. For this viewer, natch, it is made extra special by the inclusion of the great Carol Ohmart, here in one of her two great horror performances. My one beef with this film: It is a shame that Carol is not given the opportunity to scream here; "House on Haunted Hill" had demonstrated what a world-class screamer she could be! Actually, there is a third horror film of Carol's out there, one that is almost impossible to see today. That film is 1974's "The Spectre of Edgar Allan Poe," and I surely do wish that it could be released one day soon....
White Zombie (1932)
The Original Zombie Picture Still Holds Up Very Nicely
As I mentioned in my recent review of the 1936 nonthriller "Revolt of the Zombies," this film was a belated follow-up of sorts (it is hardly a sequel, as many claim) to 1932's "White Zombie," the original zombie picture, but whereas that original had been an artfully constructed wonder, the latter film was something of a labor to sit through; a movie about the revivified living dead featuring terrible editing, laughable thesping, risible special effects and, worst of all, not a single scary moment to be had. The contrast between the two films, despite the fact that both were products of the Halperin brothers (Arkansas-born director Victor and producer Edward), is a striking one; a contrast that was only strengthened for this viewer yesterday, after watching the 1932 film once again. Released in July of that year, "White Zombie" showcases the talents of the great Bela Lugosi in one of his finest performances. Lugosi, after years of bit parts on stage at the National Theatre of Hungary, was surely on a roll at this point in his career; in February '31, "Dracula" had been released to great popular and critical acclaim, and in February '32, "Murders in the Rue Morgue" had solidified his position as one of the preeminent horror actors of his day. And so, what more appropriate role for Lugosi to essay next, other than the one he had here, as Murder Legendre, the zombie master of a Haitian sugar mill? But I am getting ahead of myself.
"White Zombie" opens most effectively indeed, as we encounter pretty Madeleine Short (Madge Bellamy, who had previously appeared in roughly 50 silent films) and her fiancé, Neil Parker (John Harron), being driven by coach through the nighttime countryside of Haiti. After stopping to witness a funeral taking place in the middle of the road (corpses, it seems, are buried under the main thoroughfare so as to prevent grave robbing!), the two encounter Legendre himself, accompanied by a passel of his walking-dead sugar mill workers. Their coach driver bolts in fright and brings them to their destination, the palatial home of plantation owner Charles Beaumont (Robert W. Frazer), who had met Madeleine on board a ship during her sea voyage to the island, and had immediately fallen in love with her. Distraught at the prospect of Madeleine being engaged to another man, Beaumont pays a visit to Legendre's sugar mill and asks him for assistance. Murder is more than willing to oblige, giving the lovesick wretch a potion of sorts to put into the bride's marriage bouquet. And so, after the ceremony is complete and the marriage feast begins, Madeleine falls into a swoon and then appears to cease breathing. She is entombed in an underground crypt, and later brought back to life at the castle home of Legendre. She is now a blank-eyed zombie who can only tinkle on the piano with vacant eyes, while Beaumont thinks twice about his decision to have a rather soulless girlfriend, and Parker drinks himself into depressed oblivion ... until, that is, a visit to Madeleine's crypt reveals her body to be missing. It is only then that the sodden fiance rallies, seeks the assistance of kindly local missionary Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn; I might add here that Cawthorn and Lugosi are pretty much the only cast members here whose careers did not peter out after the advent of the talkies), and goes to rescue his zombie bride....
By all reports, "White Zombie" was shot in a mere 11 days and at a cost of only $50,000, although the viewer would never know it. This is a beautifully shot, artfully produced film that looks simply sensational. Stealing the show for this viewer are the wonderful lensing of cinematographer Arthur Martinelli (whose work on "Revolt of the Zombies" was not nearly as impressive, but who would continue to work prodigiously all the way to the end of the 1940s) and the sets that were borrowed from "Dracula," 1923's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and 1931's "Frankenstein." The interior of Legendre's castle is truly spectacular to look at, and the exterior, shown as a most impressive painted backdrop against a gloomy seascape, is quite convincing. And thanks to Martinelli's great contribution here, the viewer can freeze just about any moment from this film and marvel at what is in essence a work of B&W art. Garnett Weston's script for the film is concise and streamlined (the entire film runs to a mere 73 minutes), and Halperin's direction really is quite impressive. He manages to almost bring a sense of Germanic Expressionism to certain scenes, such as the one in which Neil is drinking himself into a stupor in a Haitian nightclub, with the shadows of dancers swirling behind him and Madeleine's ghostly image appearing before him. Halperin makes very fine use of his nighttime shooting, of shadows, of scrawny trees, of the eerie Haitian chants, of split screens and impressive "wipe" editing, and, most memorably, of close-up shots. Indeed, the image that most will recall from this film is that of Bela's eyes in concentrated close-up (not until 1946's "The Spiral Staircase," perhaps, would another film make such impressive use of an extreme close-up of a man's concentrated orbs), and of his interlocked fingers as he wills others to do his bidding. (Madeleine's eyes, it might be added, are almost as huge, bulging and glaucomic as Murder's. And personalitywise, the woman is a bit of a zombie herself, it seems to me, even before she arrives in Haiti! What ever does Neil see in her?) The film is loaded with all sorts of neat little touches (I love seeing steam issuing out of Bela's mouth in that sugar mill scene, even though this film IS supposedly set in the tropics), and features any number of exciting sequences. My favorites: that first look inside Murder's sugar mill, as the blank-eyed zombies endlessly rotate around a grinding wheel, one even falling nonchalantly to his doom beneath the grinder; Neil's entering that underground crypt from which Madeleine's body has been abducted, as the viewer waits from outside for his inevitable scream of horror; and that final culminating scene, with Murder and his zombies encountering Neil high atop his castle, on an outdoor terrace above the crashing sea. Others have rightfully commented regarding the fairy talelike nature of this film - of how Madeleine almost comes off as the princess being poisoned and put to sleep, after which her good prince must come to the evil castle to rescue her - and I suppose that these folks surely are correct in pointing this out. For this viewer, however, the entire film is like one extended tropical fever dream, surrealistic in spots, nightmarish in others. However one chooses to look at it, however, it really is some impressive piece of work from Halperin & Co.
"But wait," I can almost hear you asking. "How about those zombies, and how about Bela himself?" Well, the good news is that those zombies are suitably chilling in this, the very first zombie outing. Old men, for the most part, who were Murder's former enemies, these walking-dead wretches are appropriately horrible looking and truly creepy, their shambling gait the prototype exemplar for all future zombies to come. And Bela here is simply marvelous! While the rest of the cast overacts shamelessly (charmingly, perhaps, but still), in that overdone manner of the silents, Lugosi here offers up one of the finest, nonhammy, noncampy performances of his career. How wonderful he is, when Neil first encounters him and asks of his zombies "Who are they?," and Legendre replies "For you, my friend, they are the angels of death!" Legendre is a wonderful character, an imposing one as well, his makeup job here being another creation from the great Jack Pierce, who had done wonders on Boris Karloff's Frankenstein Monster the previous year. Bela would go on to have a terrific 1932, appearing in such films as "Chandu the Magician" and "Island of Lost Souls" later that same year, but his Legendre character here is perhaps one of his most memorable.
So yes, creaky and prehistoric as the film is, as overacted as it is for the most part, and as brief as its running time may be, "White Zombie" still delivers the requisite goods for the modern-day horror buff. Unlike some other zombie films that would come in later years, this one does manage to give the viewer a residual chill. It is infinitely superior to the 1936 film - which, dull and slow moving as it is, really has nothing to commend itself to modern-day attention - although perhaps not quite as literate and artfully done as Val Lewton's remarkable 1943 film "I Walked With a Zombie." (And incidentally, the 1941 zombie comedy "King of the Zombies," featuring the absolutely hilarious Manton Moreland, is entertaining in the extreme, while the 1966 Hammer film "The Plague of the Zombies," which sets its working zombies in a Cornish tin mine in 1860, is also very well done.) Zombie films would of course undergo a sea change after George A. Romero's astonishing "Night of the Living Dead" in 1968, which transformed the living dead into bloodthirsty gut munchers instead of laboring automatons, but there is a certain morbid charm and authenticity (if that's the right word) to those earlier films that for this viewer remain quite irresistible. Today, of course, the zombie movie constitutes an entire film genre unto itself, and thus, it is nice to occasionally go back and take a look at where the whole zombified ball got rolling. And for this genre, that film is "White Zombie," a film that was not well received critically back in the day, although it was popular with audiences. Still, it is a picture that remains a very solid entertainment, at this writing over 88 years since its debut. More than highly recommended!
The Uninvited (1944)
Book vs. Film
Although 1944's "The Uninvited" has long been one of this viewer's favorite spooky movies of that great filmmaking decade, it wasn't until fairly recently that I learned of the special place it holds in cinema history. The film, apparently, was the very first Hollywood product to treat ghosts seriously. Here, at last, the specters on display were not hoaxes, not fakes, and not played for laughs. Rather, they were completely legit; supernatural survivors with unfinished business here on the material plane. Featuring first-rate acting by a cast of pros, impressive direction by Lewis Allen in his first feature-length film, a theme song that would go on to become a classic, remarkable (for its time) special FX, and stunning, noirish and Oscar-nominated cinematography by the great Charles Lang, the picture is a very solid entertainment, indeed, if perhaps a tad tame for today's horror buffs...especially those who require gallons of the red stuff to experience a shiver. Anyway, I had long wanted to check out the currently out-of-print source novel for "The Uninvited," and after some Interwebs searching, was easily able to lay my hands on a copy (a 1969 Bantam paperback). This novel, written by Irish author Dorothy Macardle (1889 - 1958), was initially released in the U.K. in 1941 under the title "Uneasy Freehold"; one year later, it appeared in the U.S. with its more well-known appellation, "The Uninvited." Remarkably, this was Macardle's first novel, after having come out with several books of Irish history previous to this, including her highly esteemed volume "The Irish Republic" (1937). As it turns out, Macardle's novel is easily more nerve wracking than the film it begat several years later; a wonderful exercise in slow-burn suspense. This reader was recently made happy to discover that his other favorite ghost movie of the '40s, 1947's "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," had as its source novel something even richer and deeper (check out R.A. Dick's 1945 novel of the same name for proof), and such is the case here, as well.
In Macardle's book, the reader is introduced to Roderick and Pamela Fitzgerald. Roderick is a 29-year-old book and theater critic, as well as an aspiring playwright; his sister, Pamela, is 23, and at loose ends after having nursed their dying father for six years. While motoring through the northern part of Devonshire, the two fall in love with an abandoned abode, Cliff End, which sits high atop the Bristol Channel. To their great delight, they are able to purchase the place on agreeable terms from the owner, 18-year-old Stella Meredith, whose mother Mary had died tragically after falling off the nearby precipice 15 years earlier, and whose father, a painter, had died at sea three years after that. Stella currently lives with her grandfather, an ex-naval officer named Commander Brooke, who seems decidedly uncomfortable with the sale. But despite that, Roderick and Pamela do indeed move in a few months later, and all seems to go well at first. But before long, the moaning cries of a female are heard at night; Judith, the wife of one of Roderick's best friends, is horrified to see her face in the mirror appear as a leering death's head; their maid, Lizzie, is terrified by the ghostly image of a woman at the upstairs bannister; an overpowering aroma of mimosa and a paralyzing chill are encountered, respectively, in the downstairs nursery and the upstairs studio; the visiting Stella--entering the house for the first time in 15 years--becomes crazed with the belief that her deceased mother is trying to contact her; and the Fitzgeralds' cat and Scottish terrier are reduced to cowering fear. And after a séance is held, the dire truth becomes known, and it is even worse than imagined: Not only is the ghost of Mary Meredith haunting Cliff End for reasons of her own, but there appears to be another ghost present, as well; the ghost of Carmel, a Spanish gypsy who had once served as Mary's husband's model...a woman who, when alive, was reputed to be a very bad sort....
"The Uninvited" starts off slowly, its first 50 or so pages mainly detailing the Fitzgeralds' moving in and getting to know their neighbors and village, the fictional Biddlecombe. Things do pick up in a big way with those initial "occurrences," however, and it must be said that every single manifestation is a frightening one. The characters here react quite convincingly and realistically when faced with the supernatural: Roderick becomes paralyzed and unable to speak; Pamela becomes sick to her stomach; Judith is driven to "weeping helplessly." Macardle holds the reader's interest by having Ingram, a young but passionate "ghost buster" friend of theirs, provide various explanations for the phenomena, as well as give us a scientific discourse on the nature of ectoplasm, and why ghosts engender a feeling of cold. Ultimately, of course, the real explanation for the hauntings is revealed, and it is one that few readers will foresee; a truly fascinating and involved backstory. Macardle's novel builds to a tense, atmospheric, and, indeed, claustrophobic final quarter, only to wind up with a wonderfully touching conclusion. Along the way, the author throws in several well-done and suspenseful scenes--I particularly enjoyed the two séances, including Pamela's possession during the latter--and fleshes out her book with any number of interesting secondary characters. Thus, we are given Judith and Max, the latter being an artist friend of Roderick's; Wendy and Peter, a pair of newlyweds who are also good friends of Roderick's, as well as being very eccentric actors; Dr. Scott, the youngish village physician who seems to be harboring a crush on Pamela; and Father Anson, the local priest who urges the Fitzgeralds to employ the drastic recourse of exorcism, much to Stella's horror. Macardle's novel, to its credit, is nicely detailed--some might say overly detailed--and yet, somehow, this reader could never quite get a proper mental image of the layout of Cliff End's interior, or of the village or surrounding countryside. Although Roderick, toward his narrative's end, describes his story as both "sheer melodrama" and "far-fetched," it is more likely that most readers will rather agree with Ingram when he declares "it is the most enthralling thing of the sort that I have ever encountered. You know, you have a psychic-researcher's paradise here!" Finely written and often fairly scary, "The Uninvited" is surely quality fare for modern-day horror readers.
But getting back to the film, it is essentially a solid and faithful adaptation, with some important differences. Thus, in the cinematic version, many of those secondary characters--such as Father Anson, Max and Judith, Peter and Wendy--are completely eliminated, as well as the scenes that they appear in (such as the book's extended housewarming sequence). Roderick is a music critic and aspiring composer in the film, rather than a drama critic and wannabe playwright, which allows the character to perform, on piano, the haunting "Stella By Starlight" melody (actually written by Victor Young) that would later become an American standard. The name of the creepy abode has been changed from Cliff End to Windward House, while Commander Brooke's name, for some wholly inexplicable reason, has been changed to Commander Beech. Several scenes have been invented whole cloth for the film, such as the one in which Roderick and Stella go sailing, and the one in which we see flowers wilting in the house's ghostly aura. The character of Miss Holloway, who was Mary's best friend and Stella's onetime nurse, has been significantly beefed up for the film, to the point that she becomes an evil plotter on the order of Mrs. Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca" (1940); in the Macardle novel, her presence is confined to a single chapter, in which she gives the Fitzgeralds some background information. The film also makes Stella the victim of that ghostly possession, instead of Pamela, and has the Commander meet his end at Windward House, instead of in a hospital.
But despite all these changes, the film still works marvelously. Ray Milland (here one year away from his Oscar-winning role in 1945's "The Lost Weekend"), Ruth Hussey (four years after being Oscar-nominated for her work in "The Philadelphia Story") and Gail Russell (who many will recall as the Quaker girl from the 1947 John Wayne classic "Angel and the Badman") all turn in terrific performances as Roderick, Pamela and Stella, and the great character actors Donald Crisp (Commander Beech), Alan Napier (Dr. Scott) and Cornelia Otis Skinner (Miss Holloway) are also very fine, if hardly as described in Macardle's book. Lewis Allen's direction is taut, utilizing close-up shots very effectively, and Charles Lang's B&W photography is a thing of genuine beauty; Lang would later bring his considerable talents to such film classics as "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir," "The Big Heat" and "Some Like it Hot." And oh my goodness, aren't those ectoplasmic special FX by Gordon Jennings (who would go on to create more magic in 1953's "The War of the Worlds") truly something special? You'll marvel at how these spectral manifestations swirl and throb, almost but not quite suggesting a malevolent female form. And as for the film's shooting script, which was adapted by Frank Partos and Dodie Smith, because it eliminates quite a bit from the source novel, it makes for a concise and streamlined experience, with zero flab and very little in the way of extraneous detail. The novel and the film, thus, are different but complementary experiences, and both are highly recommended. I'd give the book a ½ star more than the film, however; for me, that's where the true chills reside....
Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro (1968)
How Do You Say "Fun Stuff" In Japanese?
On the first day of August 1968, Toho Studios in Japan released a film that would go on to be embraced by generations of monster-movie lovers around the world. That film was "Destroy All Monsters," and was of particular interest to "kaiju-eiga" fans around the world by dint of the fact that it featured no fewer than 11 famous creatures in one mad monster mash-up, including Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah. "Destroy All Monsters" has today been accorded the Criterion DVD treatment, a recognized imprimatur of quality. But less than two weeks later, on August 14th, 1968, another Japanese film would be released that--despite the fact that it is more serious and more artfully produced than the Toho movie--has seemingly sunk into relative obscurity, even though it, too, has recently been given the Criterion AND Janus Film treatments...a double imprimatur of aesthetic quality! That film is "Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell" (or, as it was originally known, "Kyuketsuki Gokemidoro," or "Vampire Gokemidoro"), itself a crazy mash-up of sorts, combining the vampire, alien invasion, and disaster film into one mind-boggling stew. A recent watch of this truly bizarre horror outing has served to impress upon this viewer how remarkable an experience it is.
In the film, a Japan Airlines flight en route to Osaka is beset by multiple problems. The sky surrounding it has become an intense blood red, birds have begun to smash themselves against the windows in suicide panic, and a message from the control tower has alerted them that there just might be a bomb on board their craft! To make matters worse, a whizzing UFO causes the unfortunate plane to crash-land on what appears to be a deserted island, leaving the 10 survivors to their fate. Those survivors include the copilot (played by Teruo Yoshida), the stewardess (Tomomi Sato), a politician up for reelection (Eizo Kitamura), an arms dealer and his wife (Nobuo Kaneko and Yuko Kusunoki), a psychiatrist (Kazuo Kato), an expert on alien biology (Masaya Takahashi), an American war widow (Kathy Horan), the bomber himself (sorry, I never learned his name) and, as if this flight weren't troubled enough, a hijacker (Hideo Ko). Once on the island, the desperate 10 learn soon enough that they are not quite alone, as that UFO has also landed near them! After doing a little exploring, the hijacker is somehow brought aboard this alien craft and encounters its occupant, an iridescent puddle of gooey slime, which cracks the unfortunate hijacker's forehead wide open, enters inside, and turns him into a blood-seeking vampire! As the rest of the survivors are attacked and drained dry one by one, the alien makes its intentions known, speaking, in one truly creepy scene, from the lips of the arms dealer's wife: It is one of the Gokemidoro, an alien race that has begun its conquest of planet Earth. And as the number of plane survivors continues to fall, it would seem that the Gokemidoro have already gotten well under way....
Halfway through this Japanese outing, the alien biologist (how fortunate to have had one in this group!) proclaims to his fellows "I think we're in for something that will blow our minds," and boy, is that ever a prescient statement! This is a film that grows wilder and loopier and crazier as it proceeds, culminating with one truly unexpected and deliciously downbeat ending. The special effects throughout range from occasionally clever to sometimes lame, but they are always trippy and capable of engendering a truly outre atmosphere. The look of the alien spaceship is particularly effective, a glowing, orange hemisphere that looks like a sunny-side up egg with four rotating smaller balls beneath it, and the alien itself resembles nothing less than a multicolored glob of viscous mercury. The film manages to please with throwaway bits of grossness, such as the sight of Goke's two cat's-paws having their foreheads split open so that it can crawl inside; the scene in which the arms dealer's wife utters Goke's announcement, then falls from a clifftop and turns into a desiccated mummy upon landing; and the manner in which the bodies of those whom Goke inhabits and then leaves turn to crumbling clay afterward. Unsurprisingly, the characters who turn out to be the least savory are the hijacker (Goke's first victim), the would-be bomber, the arms dealer, and, particularly, the politician. Indeed, I cannot imagine any viewer NOT bursting into applause when that character gets his near the film's denouement. The film also tries to throw some social commentary into the mix, telling the viewer that it is the sorry lot of mankind, and our propensity for constant warfare, that make an invasion from the stars so easy and convenient. In an early remark from the politician that could have been written yesterday, and not half a century ago, we are told "The world's a mess. International conflicts escalate while terrorism runs rampant around the world...." Director Hajime Sato, cinematographer Shizuo Hirase, and composer Shunsuke Kikuchi all turn in solid work here, I must also add. (And by the way, I know that these Japanese names will mean little to Western viewers, but the fact remains that all these actors and filmmakers have very extensive filmographies to their credits, as a little bit of research will readily reveal.) Anyway, I don't want to oversell what is in essence a somewhat silly sci-fi/horror outing, but darn it, this one really DOES rise above the usual ilk by dint of its eerie atmosphere and expressionistic effects. It is surely the more adult film, as compared to "Destroy All Monsters." As it turns out, 1968 was a very good year for Japanese sci-fi and horror, especially inasmuch as December of that year would see the release of "The Green Slime," another fan favorite that just might be the most fun of the bunch. Of the three, "Goke" might be the least well known, but hopefully, this Criterion DVD will go far in changing that perception. Does anyone out there know how to say "Fun stuff" in Japanese?
Green Mansions (1959)
Book vs. Film
In my recent review of Frank Aubrey's lost-race novel "The King of the Dead" (1903), which transpires in the jungle depths of Brazil, I mentioned that the author, in an attempt to add realism to his descriptions of the terrain, had quoted liberally from works by the famed Argentinian writer William Henry Hudson. And well he might! Hudson at that point was 62 years old, and well known for being both a naturalist and ornithologist, his specialty being the birds of his native South America; he'd already written any number of books on the subject, as well as his first piece of fiction, a dystopian novel entitled "A Crystal Age" (1887). One could hardly do better than quoting from a W. H. Hudson book, when describing both the flora and fauna of Brazil! But today, of course, Hudson is best known for his second novel, which was released one year after "The King of the Dead." The book was "Green Mansions," which, since its first incarnation as a Gerald Duckworth & Co. hardcover in 1904, has seen dozens of various editions around the world; a perennial favorite that has rarely, if ever, been out of print. This reader had had the 1959 Bantam paperback (cover price: 50 cents) sitting on his shelf, unread, for ages; at this point, I cannot even recall when or where I acquired it. But it is a very nice edition, indeed, the movie tie-in edition, and featuring charming illustrations by Sheilah Beckett throughout. A beautifully written piece of magical realism, as it turns out, Hudson's most famous work has been captivating the hearts and minds of readers for well over a century now...and for very good reason!
The book is narrated by an old man named Abel Guevez de Argensola, in an attempt to explain to an English friend of his how he became the person he is today. It seems that back in the mid-1870s, Abel, a young Venezuelan, had been a member of a faction that was involved in a failed takeover of the government in Caracas. Fleeing for his life, Abel had decided to indulge an urge of his that he'd had for the longest time: an exploration of the largely unmapped region south of the Orinoco. After many wanderings and hardships, he'd tried to locate the gold deposits supposedly residing near the Parahuari tribe, in the largely unexplored area where Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil meet. Failing in this attempt, he'd resided with the Parahuari themselves and made rough friends with their chief, Runi, as well as one of the young warriors, Kua-ko. Abel was given the liberty to come and go as he pleased, only being warned against venturing into the nearby forest on the other side of a desolate savannah. But Abel had gone exploring in that forest anyway, drawn back repeatedly after hearing the call of a bird such as he'd never heard before. He was warned by the Parahuari that the forest was haunted by the "daughter of the Didi," a monstrous spirit of sorts, and ultimately, Abel did indeed encounter the dreaded woman herself, after he'd attempted to kill a poisonous coral snake. The woman turned out to be named Rima, in actuality, a 17-year-old child of nature who talked to the birds and other animals, wore a gown made of spun spider silk, and was wholly averse to the destruction of any living creature. Rima had been living in the forbidden wood with an old man named Nuflo, who claimed to be her grandfather. And soon enough, Abel had fallen in love with the beautiful forest girl, and had helped her and her grandfather search for the land, Riolama, where her mother had come from, thus angering the nearby natives and resulting in tragedy for all concerned....
I mentioned a little earlier that "Green Mansions" is a very fine example of magical realism, and indeed, there is very little in Hudson's book that could not actually transpire in real life. Rima, of course, is the book's foremost element of fascination and wonder, but even this charming creature, who runs along the uppermost branches of the trees, subsists on berries and various gums, and befriends even the lowest and most dangerous forms of wildlife (spiders and snakes, for example), is not necessarily outside the bounds of credibility. To add realism to his conceit, Hudson regales us with his hard-won knowledge of South American wildlife (we get to hear of the camoodi, troupial, accouri, campanero bird, sakawinki, cotinga), the exotic flora (the mora tree, the cecropia, the greenheart), and the native beliefs, dress, weapons and drink (the Curupita monster, the queyou loincloth, the zabatana blowgun, the casserie liquor made of masticated cassava). His book is remarkably well written--the sophomore novel shows every sign of being penned by a master--and much of the book's appeal rests in the lyrically written, poetic passages that Hudson showers upon the reader. When describing the sounds emitted by a passing flock of birds, for example, we're told "...there was something ethereal too in those drops of melodious sound, which fell into my heart like raindrops falling into a pool to mix their fresh heavenly water with the water of earth...."
Although boasting any number of tremendous set pieces--Abel's first glimpse of Rima, the trio's journey to Riolama, the multiple tragic incidents that occur back to back to back near the book's end, Abel's descent into madness and hallucinatory wandering as the story draws to its close--it is Hudson's beautiful verbiage, his engendering of a magical, poetical atmosphere, his quintet of sharply etched characters, his evocative descriptions and, of course, the one-of-a-kind Rima that combine to make "Green Mansions" the classic that it remains today. Hudson makes only one misstep in the course of his tale: when he tells us that Runi's archenemy, Managa, dwells to the southwest; 234 pages later, Managa is said to live to the northwest. But other than this one gaffe, Hudson's novel is sheer perfection; a book that I devoured with relish. Not for nothing does my 1959 Bantam movie tie-in edition call it "pure enchantment...one of the most romantic and enthralling in all literature." I could not agree more.
And, oh...as long as I have broached the subject of that film, which was released in May 1959, a quick word on that topic. It is a perfectly decent little film--one that I watched the day after I finished the Hudson book--that simply pales into insignificance when compared to its classic source. Screenwriter Dorothy Kingsley--who had previously been responsible for the scripts for "Kiss Me Kate," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and "Pal Joey," and who would go on to create the screenplays for "Can-Can" and, uh, "Valley of the Dolls"--adds much incident not present in the Hudson book and, sadly, deletes still more; even the novel's tragic ending has been changed to shoehorn in a patently phony happy ending. The film strips away all the magic and poetry from Hudson's book and leaves us with a typical Hollywood jungle adventure, replete with dancing natives and a chase over a swaying rope bridge. Thus, the movie feels closer in spirit and DNA to something like the great 1954 thriller "The Naked Jungle" than its source novel. Still, neither the film's director, Mel Ferrer, nor its small cast of excellent actors can be blamed; it's just that Kingsley's script, ticking off the bare plot points of Hudson's story as it does, lets them all down.
As for the actors, they are probably all miscast, although I cannot say who I would have replaced them with, in a story that may well be unfilmable. Thus, playing the Venezuelans, we have Belgian Audrey Hepburn as Rima (she'd been married to Ferrer for five years at this point and would remain married to him for nine more); L. A.-born Anthony Perkins as Abel (how odd it is to hear Rima tell him that her dead mother feels "so near that I talk to her," as the very next year, Perkins would gain eternal fame playing a character who does the exact same thing, in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho"); the great, N.Y.C.-born, Jewish character actor Lee J. Cobb, practically unrecognizable here behind a thick white beard, as Nuflo; the terrific, N.Y.C.-born, Sicilian/Portuguese character actor Henry Silva as Kua-ko; and the Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa as Runi. All give it their professional best, but again, can only do so much with that Kingsley script. Perhaps only Jerusalem-born Nehemiah Persoff seems apt here, in his role as a shopkeeper...a character not even present in Hudson's book!
Despite Hepburn's participation--an actress who was riding high after 1957's "Funny Face" and who, two months later, would appear in July 1959's smash hit "The Nun's Story"--"Green Mansions" was a box-office flop and a critical failure. Still, the news is not all bad. The film looks fairly impressive, and many of the picture's outdoor shots were indeed filmed in British Guiana, Venezuela and Colombia, although it is patently obvious that none of the principal actors traveled there. And OMG, that Audrey Hepburn! I don't think I've ever seen her look more beautiful than she does here, and that one shot of her cuddling a baby fawn is one that you'll want to freeze and marvel at. Still, the film and the book are vastly different entities. My friend Debbie tells me that when she had to read the book in high school, she cheated and watched the film instead, and then wrote an essay based on that. Her teacher busted her for it immediately, so different are the two creations! As mentioned, the film is a perfectly decent, romantic action film, but the book is where the magic, poetry and true beauty reside. Three stars for the film, and a perfect five for Hudson's most enduring work....