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Fear and Desire (1953)
Kubrick's Hidden, Yet Not Quite Forgotten Film
'Fear and Desire' (1953) is noted amongst film enthusiasts as being the first feature length film of legendary director and screenwriter Stanley Kubrick. Adding to this initial infamy is the fact that Kubrick frowned upon the film in his later years, calling it "amateurish" (which in his eyes and when compared to his other masterpieces, it most likely was) as well as refusing to re-release the film. Essentially, Kubrick did everything within his power to keep 'Fear and Desire' from public consumption. In a particular city (the name of which I cannot recall) the film was scheduled to be screened long after its initial release, but prior to the screening the theater management received a call from Kubrick and his associates asking the theater not to show the film. From such evidence one may draw the conclusion that the film is quite dismal and forgettable, but such is not the case. 'Fear and Desire' is a film far ahead of its time, by a director far ahead of his time one which we all may never even catch up to. Even as early as 1951/53 can Stanley Kubrick's genius be seen emerging and brightly at that.
'Fear and Desire' takes the viewer to the forests of a distant land, which is currently warring against (presumably) the United States in a fictitious conflict. In the dense forest the viewer finds four men stranded behind enemy lines as a result of a plane crash. These four military personnel are Sgt. Mac (Frank Silvera), Lt. Corby (Kenneth Harp), Pvt. Sidney (the debut of the wonderful Paul Mazursky), and Pvt. Fletcher (Stephen Coit). The men quickly decide that to return to their camp they must travel by night down a river which runs through enemy territory and down into their own territory. As the men begin to formulate their plans to return to safety, they become aware of enemy forces within the area and the stress, instability, and perhaps futility of war begin to set in around them physically, as well as within their minds.
Over the years, 'Fear and Desire' has strangely enjoyed harsh criticism by even those individuals lucky enough to view it. The picture essentially takes an above average stab at a subject matter which would resurface throughout Kubrick's history. Most notably, the subject matter is revisited more thoroughly in the excellent 'Full Metal Jacket' (1987). The film's main underlying message and social as well as political commentary focuses on the futility, horror, and dehumanizing effects of war and that which it embodies. In 1951 when 'Fear and Desire' was filmed the world was still recovering from WWII, the effects of the cold war were already being seen, and in U.S. affairs, the Korean War was underway. It was at this time many insightful thinkers such as George Orwell (author of 1984) and evidently Stanley Kubrick were recognizing and speaking out against the grim and ever-increasingly violent world in which we were becoming. Kubrick did this through the profound art of film-making. If this alone, during the conforming time period of 1951, does not earn this film and Kubrick a great deal of praise, then perhaps nothing does. Despite this, there are a few minor problems with this production, but none which hold much weight. In the beginning narration, the film is quite prophetic and at times quite philosophical. This works most of the time, but at times it says things blatantly that would perhaps better be left unsaid and left to the viewers' imagination. Essentially, it sometimes overstresses the somewhat obvious. All of the technic al aspects within the film are exquisite and Kubrick's skill is already shining brightly. The photography and the cinematography within the film are brilliant. The scene in which Sgt. Mac's silhouette is seen rafting down the river is breathtaking, as well as the vast shots of the great wilderness of nature's battlefield. Also, Kubrick's trademark facial shot of "insanity" is seen on the face of the soldiers (namely on Pvt. Sidney). Not only is the film daring for its time in the field of social commentary, but also it is quite vulgar by 1950s standards. Kubrick even directs a rape scene, as well as death sequences which are vividly depicted around the sensors of the era. With fitting performances by all of the actors (although Mazursky's over-the-top acting is at times regarded as ridiculous, I find it to be the acting highpoint of the whole film) and a shocking ending quite reminiscent of 'The Twilight Zone', the film proves itself to be an extremely dark, moody, intelligent, and insightful experience.
Why 'Fear and Desire' enjoys such harsh criticism could very well be Kubrick's actions in its destruction, the influence of other critics, or perhaps a subconscious comparison to Kubrick's other works. Regardless, upon my viewing I found it to be an extremely wonderful piece of cinema. One thing I am convinced of which does in fact bog down public opinion of 'Fear and Desire' is the various bootlegged releases of the film on DVD and VHS. Truly to experience the film as it was meant to be experienced one must watch the 35mm cut of the film, it really does add to experience. Although rare, there are a few prints left in existence and those presented with the opportunity to view one would be wise to accept. Given the circumstances and the status which Kubrick enjoys, it is sadly inevitable that this will be compared to Kubrick's other classics and, as many feel, will pale in comparison. Is it truly a poor film in any sense of the word? Most certainly not; the film is atmospheric, insightful, visually breathtaking, bizarre, and vastly ahead of its time. Had 'Fear and Desire' perhaps been directed by another director, well-distributed, and honored today it is quite possible that the film would live on as, if not a classic, a cult classic and highpoint of 1950s cinema.
Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966)
'Manos': An Enigma of Celluloid
When I watch a film for the first time it is generally quite easy for me to establish an initial opinion of the film at hand. At times I will come to this very website and submit a rating of the given film or perhaps I will turn to a friend and give my thoughts of the film (which tend to be quite clear). Well, after reading quite a few extremely hyped reviews and discussions throughout the internet, I decided to try my luck and buy the alleged worst film of all time: ''Manos': The Hands of Fate'. Let it be clear that this review does not pertain to the Mystery Science Theater 3000 version of the film; rather it applies to Hal P. Warren's original, cut-and-dry, El Paso-born version of the film. ''Manos': The Hands of Fate' may very well be, one of the only films of which classification is painstakingly difficult to near-impossible. The film leaves a quaint, surreal, and indecisive effect upon the viewer which is what leads to the formulation of this strange conclusion.
Warren's film opens on a vacationing family traveling through El Paso, Texas. The family consists of little Debbie (Jackey Neyman), Margaret (Diane Mahree), and Mike (played by our very own Hal P. Warren). Surely enough, the travelers are soon found lost on the way to their vacation site. They eventually turn onto a long dirt road marked by a sign promising a "Valley Lodge". After a great deal of aimless meandering throughout the backwoods of El Paso, the vacationers come across a mysterious Lodge run by an awkward and deformed Satyr named Torgo (John Reynolds). Seeing as it is getting late, the visitors ask about staying the night only to be deterred by Torgo's ominous words "The master would not approve." After some pressure from the family, Torgo folds and allows the newcomers to stay. As the visitors enter the lodge they are welcomed by a mantel full of strange hand-like pagan icons and sculptures, accompanied by a strange portrait of presumably The Master and his hound. As Michael and his wife Margaret observe the strangeness of the portrait and their surroundings, a strange howl is heard from outside in the desert. Soon strange happenings begin around this lodge of sins, as Michael and his family's fate is determined by "the hands of fate"
To be blunt, the film is simply quite technically limited. Supposedly the film was shot entirely on one camera which was only capable of shooting 60 seconds of film at a time. To say that this hurt the film would be an untrue, if anything it helped the pacing of this little low-budget flick. Hal P. Warren was a director with literally no experience or conceived directorial abilities; he had no knowledge of pacing or camera work (if he had any it was most likely limited to home videos). The acting for the most part is quite dismal, the only exception being a wonderful character conceived by Warren named Torgo. Reynolds' portrayal of Torgo is supreme; although having no professional training or profession acting experience in cinema he creates a one of-a-kind character, which has been quite unparalleled in cult-cinema. No matter how much one hates this film, they will always remember the timid and tormented Torgo, uttering his infamous line: "The Master would not approve." The music featured in the film is quite repetitive and amateur, although at times it does add to the feel, aid the pacing, and promote the overall camp-factor of the film (which was sometimes delightful). The cinematography is certainly not note-worthy, nor is the lighting. The editing seemed to have been done with haste and is one of the key factors which seems to have earned this film its reputation. One thing however, which is not widely criticized by viewers is the plot. It is a plot with great potential that was realized by Warren; at the time it would have been quite fresh. Interestingly enough, it could vaguely be seen as a blundering, early version of 'The Texas Chain Saw Massacre' (not to say that Tobe Hooper drew any influence from ''Manos': The Hands of Fate').
Well, this is widely considered to be the downright worst of the worst the bottom of the bottom. As stated earlier, I cannot place this film on a scale of one to ten, yet I can argue that this is a false statement. Almost every aspect of the film is done poorly, yet as odd as it sounds, the movie generates a charming and enjoyable little atmosphere; it simply does not feel like the worst one out there. There are plenty of films which are far less enjoyable to watch than Manos. Technically speaking the assumption can be made that it is the worst, but then again there are films with far more dismal lighting, far more sloppy camera work and far worse pacing. One could contend that the acting is downright dismal and corpse-like in every respect, yet there are films with worse acting and absolutely no memorable or quotable (Torgo - whether it be mocking or homage) characters. Hence, in many respects Hal Warren's single 1966 production isn't the worst piece of celluloid out there, yet at the same time it possess many, if not all of the qualities which could be attributed to the worst film of all time. However, the goal of this review was not to debunk the position in cinema history ''Manos': The Hands of Fate' has achieved, but rather to offer a little insight into what this film has to offer. In all fairness, I enjoyed it in a wonderful, campy, and surreal sort of way... after all, what other film is out there like this? What film is there that was made on possibly the lowest budget of all time, featuring the work of the most cinematically inept individuals, yet despite these obvious flaws has kept people talking about it for years to come?
The Much Needed, Return of the Creature Feature
The whole mythos surrounding "Bigfoot", "The Abominable Snowman", or "Sasquatch" is an enthralling one, captivating the general public since the first alleged Bigfoot sightings in the early 1950s. A number of Bigfoot films have been made, capitalizing on the general population's interest in these anomalies. Needless to say, many of these films have gone relatively unnoticed or dismissed as the campiest of B-Movies (excluding Hammer Studios' 1957 classic 'The Abominable Snowman'). This brings us to Ryan Schifrin's feature-length directorial debut 'Abominable'. Not since 1957 has such an enthralling, riveting, yet original picture hit the screens pertaining to this subject matter - a true creature feature with a Hitchcockian twist.
'Abominable' begins with the paraplegic Preston Rogers (Matt McCoy) traveling up to his mountain-home for the first time in six months after recovering from a mountain-climbing accident. Preston is accompanied by Otis (Christien Tinsley), an impatient and condescending physical therapist (The viewer soon learns from a local newspaper that the town has received an alleged "Bigfoot" report from a local resident). Preston soon reaches his cabin. As the evening progresses, he resides on his deck (overlooking the forest and a neighboring house) gazing off into the woods through a pair of binoculars. When Otis steps out to get a carton of soy milk for Preston at the nearest store, a group of girls arrive at the neighboring house. At the same time Preston soon begins to notice strange happenings in the woods surrounding the neighboring house and watches helplessly as the tragic events of the night unfold.
Standing drastically alone from the pseudo-horror produced by major (and minor) studios of this day and age, 'Abominable' is an excellent, extremely original, and extremely unrelenting film. The film accomplishes an atmosphere and storyline unachieved and untouched since the heydays of drive-in horror that were the 1950s through the 1980s. 'Abominable' possesses a certain quality which has been vacant within the horror genre (especially the monster-movie sub-genre) for years and years: it is devoid of CGI. The Monster (Michael Deak) is, in fact, a man in a suit! To some, this conjures up a question; does the suit look excessively "cheesy" and unrealistic? Fortunately it does not; the effects used are executed quite well and The Monster doesn't generate a phony-vibe in the least. Many of the facial movements of The Monster seem to be achieved through robotics (ala 'An American Werewolf in London') and the result looks extremely realistic and life-like. The film's plot is the result of a winning combination; it features the classic creature-feature storyline, coupled with a very Hitchcock-styled, 'Rear Window'-esquire, premise. The screenplay is excellent; practically all of the events within the film are experienced from Preston's helpless perspective. Whether it is at his window or on his balcony, Preston overlooks almost the entire series of events, giving the film an extremely claustrophobic and helpless atmosphere. The cinematography and lighting are also ingenious; the shadowy woods seen from the balcony add depth and an eerie uneasiness to the film. Matt McCoy proves himself to be an excellent actor, as does Christien Tinsley, but the character interactions between McCoy and Haley Joel prove to be the true acting highpoint within the film. A broad range of emotions are showcased between the two, all of which are executed with precision.
'Abominable' achieves a certain charm lacking in practically all horror films of this day and age. It showcases a style of film-making that has been lost, a style of film-making that is the horror genre: the classic monster movie. No, it doesn't have "breathtaking CGI", no the plot is not Steven King-worthy, but it manages to entertain and it manages to illustrate that which is the embodiment of American horror. Schifrin's film stands firmly as an instant cult-classic, on par with great titles and counterparts (dare I say) of the 1980s such as 'Pumpkinhead', 'An American Werewolf in London', and 'Prophecy'. 'Abominable' stands alone in a time when horror has gone to the dogs; it breaks the trend of spineless PG-13 horror films and shatters the standards of pointless special effects showcases such as 'Cursed'. The creature feature is back ladies and gentlemen, and in full force. The way horror should be "Abominable".
The Dawn of a Genre...
Produced by Thomas Edison's very own Edison Studios, J. Searle Dawley's 'Frankenstein' has been widely considered the first American horror film. Thought to be lost up until the 1970s when it was recovered from the infamous Alois Dettlaff's private collection, 'Frankenstein' has slowly established itself as one of the greatest silent shorts within the early horror genre.
The story quickly progresses, beginning with a scene of Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) leaving his fiancée Elizabeth (Mary Fuller) to attend college. Some two years later, Frankenstein learns "the secret of life" whilst working in his study one day. He immediately writes a letter to his fiancée, telling her his intentions of creating the perfect human being. Frankenstein proceeds to perform the now-famous experiment and The Monster (played by the wonderful Charles Ogle) is born. The Monster takes shape in a giant vat, located in a sealed off room which is viewed by Frankenstein through a single viewing window. As the once lifeless monster rises from the vat, Frankenstein becomes terrified of his seemingly ghastly creation. The Monster quickly breaks out of the barricaded room and into the laboratory. After a close encounter with The Monster; Frankenstein makes the decision to return home to Elizabeth. As Frankenstein and Elizabeth's wedding begins, they become aware that The Monster has followed Frankenstein back home and a night of horror ensues.
Our beloved genre's debut is filmed in the non-moving camera fashion typical of early 1900s films, inherently giving the impression of a stage play. The plot of this little short does not closely follow the plot of Shelley's novel, nor does it reflect that of the later Universal version, but none the less a startlingly unique and entertaining outcome it is. The photography is excellent and does well to continuously and tactfully reflect the mood being established. As seen in (most notably) John Barrymore's version of 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1920) many of the laboratory scenes were shot using a brown tint whereas in the later part of the film, when the dark or horrific happenings begin to occur, a blue tint is used. Charles Ogle's take on The Monster is strikingly innovative and original, especially when compared to Boris Karloff's familiar 1931 portrayal. The makeup is excellent and apparently was applied by Charles Ogle himself (Ala Lon Chaney, eh?). The long fingernails, hunched back, and distorted face give Ogle's Monster quite a threatening aura as do his various facial contortions and arm-movements. Ogle's Monster is one fit for the ages and has become something of an icon of early horror cinema. Augustus Phillips does an excellent job portraying Frankenstein, with a broad range of emotions throughout the film and Mary Fuller proves to be a superb actress, playing the "damsel in distress" role superbly. One of the many qualities which stand out in Dawley's take on the tale was not only the innovative portrayal of The Monster, but the ending sequence. The defeat of The Monster is far more psychological and fantastic rather than scientific, which one wouldn't expect of a movie based around scientific advancements. Furthermore, beneath the surface of this incredible little short lies a premeditated philosophical meaning, one that is quite reminiscent of R.L. Stevenson's familiar tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Essentially, the film emphasizes the dual nature of man and his urge to unleash his inner-self. The Monster essentially represents the evil and unforgivable aspects of Frankenstein's persona. The mysterious ending sequence stresses this insightful use of symbolism. The outcome is a beautifully shot film, with convincing actors, innovative effects (for the time), excellent makeup, and a substantially intelligent and charming finale.
The very deepest roots of horror can be found in this little 16 minute gem. From the terrified look on Frankenstein's face when the first monster in U.S. cinema history comes to life, to the last moments of footage, the film leaves one captivated in its grasp. Myself being a long-time fan of the genre, thought it crucial to finally track this window into the past down. It is bewildering to look at this little atmospheric and strikingly intelligent take on Shelley's novel and to then look where the genre has come, with modern classics such as 'The Shining', 'Psycho (1960)', and 'Rosemary's Baby'. Edison Studios produced a true gem of early cinema - and the beginning of an epic genre and what an excellent beginning it is.
Glen or Glenda (1953)
A Classic? Without a Doubt. Don't Believe Me? Look Deeper.
The 1950s: a rigid and conforming time period in American history, a time when homophobia ran rampant and "diverse lifestyles" simply were not tolerated or glorified, came the 1953 transvestite drama 'Glen or Glenda'. 'Glen or Glenda' was Edward D. Wood's feature-length directorial debut and is considered by many to be one of the most obscure films of all time. Ed Wood's first "big picture" was quite a special one for him, the main reason being that it told a story very dear to him. Ed Wood was in many senses, the character of Glen/Glenda. The fact is, Ed Wood did find comfort in women's clothing and he did favor angora sweaters to the traditional shirt and tie which defined the era. These factors contribute to the film making, the effort, and ultimately the passion behind the film. Ed Wood was making a picture with a subject matter very dear to him and it comes through in this fine piece of work. Glen or Glenda is now considered to be a cult classic, but at the time it explored previously uncharted territory (not that this was a "smash-hit" when it came out in 1953 either). However, this is certainly not to say that the film is irrelevant to today's social standards, regulations, and expectations, on the contrary it proves to be quite pertinent to life in the 21st century.
'Glen or Glenda' opens with a character simply cast as 'Scientist' (Bela Lugosi) prophetically speaking of the society in which we live and its and loathing of the seemingly abnormal or unknown. He speaks of society's outcasts, the troubled world in which they live, and the problems they face in their day to day lives. The story ensues as the police arrive at the scene of a recent suicide. The victim was a well-known transvestite, cast out by society and all others around him. Among the police is Inspector Warren (Lyle Talbot). Troubled by this seemingly strange case, he seeks help in Dr. Alton (Timothy Farrell), a respected psychoanalysis who has encountered various transvestites in his line of work. He begins to tell Inspector Warren of a patient he once dealt with named Glen. Glen was engaged to be married to Barbara (Dolores Fuller), but had been hiding a dark secret from his fiancée; Glen (or Glenda?) was secretly a transvestite. Alton continues to tell Inspector Warren of the internal struggle within Glen: whether to tell Barbara of his secret lifestyle or to keep it to himself or to entirely stop wearing the clothes which make him feel so much like himself?
Although the subject matter, upon first glance, may seem to some a tongue in cheek jab at the transvestites and other "oddballs" of the world, it was not intended that way - nor does it come across as such after viewing the film. 'Glen or Glenda' is a startlingly solid effort at a fresh (and controversial) subject of the 1950s. Not only was the film fresh and innovative, but it prospered on a technical level as well. With excellent cinematography and pristine, appropriate lighting, the film is technically quite good. Dolores Fuller's acting is well-below average, but the other characters offer decent performances (Ed Wood's acting is curiously above average (seeing how he had little to no professional acting experience). Bela Lugosi's performance is, as always, a strong one with memorable dialogue. Although Lugosi is technically listed as a 'Scientist' in the film, symbolically he represents God. He is the one who pulls the strings; he is the one who has become filled with contempt for the human race and its judgmental nature. The symbolism within 'Glen or Glenda' is often overlooked and classified as "inept dialogue", but to an acute observer, it is astoundingly developed. The "green-eyed monster", mentioned by Bela Lugosi's character, can be interpreted as Glen's envy of women and their clothing. The seemingly random stock footage of the Buffalo represents the rush that Glen feels when symbolically transformed into Glenda. When realized, 'Glen or Glenda' is full of metaphoric meaning and symbolism, as well as a fresh plot, rife with unique social commentary.
'Glen or Glenda' is a film which does not dance around the subject matter. It recognizes an important (at least to director Ed Wood) and controversial social issue and discusses it in full, leaving nothing left unspoken. The film proves itself to be enjoyable and entertaining to watch throughout, with some memorable performances (for better or for worse...) and an interesting plot. With such originality and such passion, Glen or Glenda is a film which should be respected and treasured, rather than criticized for its below-average acting, seemingly strange dialogue, and obscure premise, for its pure outspoken zealousness in the 1950s, a period when transvestism and homosexuality were blatantly not openly accepted. Is this to say that these lifestyles are accepted today? Shall we consult Pat Robertson or perhaps George W. Bush on this matter? The film is just as relevant today as it was in 1953 when it was first released. Glen or Glenda proves to be entertaining and intriguing, full of obscure characters and a fresh subject matter: a film far ahead of it's time.
An Excellent Zombie Flick... Southern Style
When one sits down to watch a movie with a name such as 'Curse of the Cannibal Confederates', it is quite safe to assume that the film that the viewer is about to watch is not exactly Oscar material. However, it doesn't mean the film cannot be enjoyable and entertaining! 'Curse of the Cannibal Confederates' is the Troma re-release of Tony Malanowski's 'The Curse of the Screaming Dead'. Rumor has it that 'Curse of the Screaming Dead' is actually a sequel/remake to the little-seen 1981 film 'Night of Horror' (also directed by Tony Malanowski). No matter, viewing of the so-called "first film" will have no effect on one's enjoyment or understanding of the film at hand.
'Curse of the Cannibal Confederates' opens with a group of rednecks and their respective girlfriends traveling through the backwoods of Maryland on a hunting trip. Upon arrival, our campers decide to search for a new campsite; a change of pace from the years prior. Whilst in search of this new destination, and in between various squabbles amongst the couples, Kiyomi (Mimi Ishikawa) begins to hear strange bells, undetectable to the rest of the group. Her seemingly "macho" boyfriend Mel (Christopher Gummer) wanders off in search of the source of these noises and in the process he discovers a small Confederate burial ground. In the desolate ruins of a church adjacent to the burial ground he finds a strange diary kept by one of Confederate soldiers. Mel steals the diary and alerts the others of the desolate burial ground. Soon, strange events begin to take place surrounding the campers... and the Confederate burial ground.
'Curse of the Cannibal Confederates' is the sort of film which is just plain enjoyable to watch. The plot was simple, yet quite good and original. Tony Malanowski took a simple zombie film and added a slight twist to it, including an intriguing motive for the rise of the dead. The main characters were wonderful and each possessed their own unique personality. They all interacted excellently with one another - not to mention the dialogue was hilarious! The makeup and gore effects were very well done and at times, quite disturbing (plenty of gratuitous gore). Despite great characters, great makeup, and an interesting plot, one thing did at times come as a minor nuisance: the lighting problems. In many of the scenes (night scenes especially) it was quite difficult to see what was going on, not to mention the fact that the cinematography wasn't exactly excellent. Although the lighting and cinematography problems were present, they seemed, as stated earlier, minor. In fact, in a few scenes the lighting gave it quite a vintage/drive-in vibe, which seemed to add some grainy character to this entertaining zombie-romp.
Troma has yet again unearthed another wonderful B-movie on DVD... and a fine release it is. A well-done zombie movie with an original plot and great characters to boot. If you're looking for a fun time and you're a fan of low-grade zombie movies, then 'Curse of the Cannibal Confederates' is definitely worth your viewing.