Wednesday, November 19, 2014

November Quick Picks and Pans

Phase IV (1974) Our days as Earth’s dominant life form may be numbered, according to this cerebral science fiction film from director Saul Bass and writer Mayo Simon. In a secluded patch of Arizona desert, university scientists (Nigel Davenport and Michael Murphy) investigate a sudden incursion of ants that are leaving entire communities uninhabitable. The scientists endeavor to decipher the coordinated behavior of a huge ant colony surrounding their research facility, which suggests a vast underlying intelligence. It’s ants versus humans as the researchers attempt to counteract the ants’ ability to rapidly adapt to changes. Phase IV features spectacular macro-photography by Ken Middleham, affording us an insect’s eye view, and creating an immersive experience for the viewer. Unlike many similar films from the nature-gone-amok genre, the filmmakers take their time thoughtfully setting up the premise and letting the story unfold, as the scientists observe and hypothesize about the ants’ ultimate intent.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Eating Raoul (1982) Paul Bartel, who also directed and co-wrote the screenplay, and Mary Woronov star as Paul and Mary Bland, an ordinary married couple who dream of one day opening a restaurant, but are desperately short of funds. Their dull existence (they even have twin beds) suddenly takes a turn for the exotic when they hatch a scheme to make some quick cash by catering to the whims of sexual fetishists. Instead of following through with their clients’ kinky demands, however, Paul and Mary dispatch their customers. Everything seems to be going well, until scam artist Raoul (played by a pre-Night of the Comet/Star Trek Voyager Robert Beltran) discovers their plans, and wants in on the action. This black comedy seems as timely as ever, with its commentary about what it takes to get ahead in the modern world.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Hulu Plus

The Honeymoon Killers (1969) The low budget aesthetics almost make this film appear like an early John Waters film, but the themes inhabit much darker corners. Shirley Stoler and Tony Lo Bianco star as real life serial killers Martha Beck and Ray Fernandez, who murdered several women in the late 1940s. A lonely nurse and her scam artist boyfriend trick naïve single women into sham marriages so they can take their money. Things get increasingly violent as Shirley and Tony become bolder with their schemes, perpetrating crimes they probably wouldn’t have committed alone. The Honeymoon Killers is difficult to watch at times, but always absorbing. It reminds us that we don’t need to look further than ourselves to find the real monsters. Highly recommended.

Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD and Hulu Plus

Altered States (1980) Director Ken Russell’s hallucinatory odyssey (from a screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky) takes a journey off the deep end with its story about a researcher looking for evolutionary secrets trapped within the inner recesses of his mind. William Hurt stars as neuroscientist Eddie Jessup, who uses himself as an experimental subject to test the effects of prolonged immersion in an isolation chamber. As the experiments continue, and he introduces powerful hallucinogens, he experiences mind and body-altering effects, culminating in a literal transformation. Depending on your point of view, Altered States could be a validation or refutation of the self-help, self-absorbed navel gazing that typified the ‘70s “Me Generation” mindset. Hurt is excellent in his first feature film role as the selfish, self-absorbed Dr. Jessup. Blair Brown is also good as his estranged wife Emily, who attempts to curb his destructive tendencies. The visuals are suitably captivating, although the film and its protagonist remain somewhat distancing.  

Rating: *** ½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Monday, November 10, 2014

Double Take: Fantastic Voyage/Innerspace

Fantastic Voyage (1966) Directed by: Richard Fleischer; Written by Harry Kleiner; Story by Otto Klement and Jerome Bixby; Adapted by David Duncan; Starring: Stephen Boyd, Raquel Welch, Edmond O'Brien and Donald Pleasence

Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming
Rating: ****

Innerspace (1987) Directed by: Joe Dante; Written by Jeffrey Boam and Chip Proser; Story by Chip Proser; Starring: Dennis Quaid, Martin Short, Meg Ryan, Kevin McCarthy, Vernon Wells and Fiona Lewis

Available on DVD and Amazon Instant Video
Rating: ****

“Yet all the suns that light the corridors of the universe shine dim before the blazing of a single thought…” – Dr. Duval (Arthur Kennedy)

“…we actually watched the picture (Fantastic Voyage) and tried to not do some of the things that they had done simply because there were things that worked and things that didn’t work, and we didn’t want to put people on wires…”  – Joe Dante (from DVD commentary for Innerspace)

Despite the fact that the entirety of my post-secondary education was in the liberal arts, I’ve always been a great admirer of the sciences and, by extension, science fiction. During my formative years, I grew up on a steady diet of sci-fi movies and television, and devoured many stories from speculative fiction writers such as Asimov, Clarke and Niven. I always found movies and stories grounded in the real world to be a bit mundane, and was more interested in what could (or couldn’t) be, rather than what was. One such movie that had an indelible effect was Fantastic Voyage, which aired with some regularity on ‘70s TV. I’d catch it whenever it was on, despite my father’s protestations that “that’s a rerun.” It never failed to send my mind reeling, transporting me to another place, a familiar yet alien landscape. Twenty odd years later, Joe Dante revisited that landscape and re-captured my imagination with his comedic take on the source material, Innerspace.

Both films cover a similar conceit, that people could be miniaturized to explore the oceans of the human body, but they represent completely different approaches. In the original film, the sense of urgency is more palpable, because the miniaturization process only lasts 60 minutes. We feel tension as the crew members of the submersible Proteus* race against the clock to perform a surgical procedure from within the human brain. Although no such time limit is expressly stated in Innerspace, we know the protagonist’s time is finite, due to the oxygen reserves in his mini-sub.

* It’s no surprise that Fantastic Voyage’s director Richard Fleischer helmed another childhood favorite, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Both classic flicks featured iconic submarine designs by Harper Goff. 

* Bonus Factoid: The effects for Fantastic Voyage required several models of the Proteus, from 1- ½ inches to full size. The smallest model met an unfortunate end when it was carried off by a bird during an outdoor test shoot.

Both films inspire a sense of wonder, relying on extensive special effects and inspired art direction to drive the story. While Fantastic Voyage shows its age, it featured groundbreaking (for the time) visuals. The Dale Hennesy-designed sets painted a surreal landscape, which afforded ‘60s audiences an unprecedented, albeit fanciful view of the inner workings of the human body.  The special effects in Innerspace still hold up remarkably well, thanks to the gooey, three-dimensional creations of Dennis Muren and his team. Compared to the original film, everything looks more organic, less stylized. On the other hand, he attempted to achieve a balance, to avoid things from getting “too grotesque.”

Aside from Hennesy’s contributions, the distinctive look of Fantastic Voyage’s space-age facilities can also be attributed to Jack Martin Smith, who lent his high tech (at least by ‘60s standards) look to such 20th Century Fox productions as Lost in Space, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Batman. For Innerspace, Dante and his team made a deliberate choice to create a more functional, low-tech appearance, or in Muren’s words (from the DVD commentary), “something that was not quite as Hollywood looking.” To lend a bit more veracity to the slap-dash research facility set, Dante used real-life Jet Propulsion Laboratory scientists as extras. The villains’ laboratory, with its white, sterile look, however, seems more consistent with the facility in the original picture.

Apart from the aesthetic choices, both films were thematically divergent, with each reflecting a different era. Fantastic Voyage is a product of the Cold War era, played straight, with its idealistic view of science, views of right and wrong, and “free world” versus communism. Innerspace takes a more cynical stance, and the story is played for laughs. The enemy isn’t communism, but corporate America and capitalism, where closely guarded secrets are sold out to the highest bidder.

Fantastic Voyage and Innerspace feature impressive casts. In the former film, the characters are designed mainly to drive the plot along. Veteran actors Arthur Kennedy, Arthur O’Connell and Edmond O’Brien lend the film gravitas, while Donald Pleasence is engaging as the shifty Dr. Michaels. Raquel Welch* also appears in an early role as Dr. Duval’s plucky assistant Cora. By contrast, Innerspace is much more character-driven, populated by the usual assortment of oddballs that typify Dante’s movies. Dennis Quaid is amusing as the brash, irreverent Navy pilot Tuck Pendleton and Martin Short** (in one of his best film roles) is afforded a rare opportunity to shine as neurotic hero Jack Putter. Kevin McCarthy plays unscrupulous businessman Victor Scrimshaw, who attempts to possess the key to miniaturization. Innerspace also showcases small but fun roles by Dante regulars Dick Miller as a chatty cabdriver, William Schallert* as Jack’s doctor, and  Robert Picardo as the enigmatic arms dealer, The Cowboy.

* Hennesy’s imaginative sets notwithstanding, I’d wager an entire generation of adolescent males learned about human anatomy from a scene in which the other actors pulled off crystalized antibodies that were affixed to Ms. Welch’s wetsuit.

** Watch for a brief scene where Short is joined by fellow SCTV alumni Joe Flaherty and Andrea Martin.

*** As an inside joke, Dante cast Mr. Schallert, who appeared many years before as the physician in The Incredible Shrinking Man.

Over the past several years various filmmakers, including James Cameron and Roland Emmerich, have been attached to a proposed remake of Fantastic Voyage, but not much has moved forward.  A remake would most likely employ gobs of computer-generated effects in 3D, but the most intriguing aspect would be the opportunity to take the material in an entirely different direction. Perhaps one solution could be to go with a retro,* rather than futuristic setting. Another approach might be to reflect current advances in nanotechnology, which would obviate the necessity to shrink anyone, but where’s the fun in that? It’s certainly not as romantic a notion as shrinking people. Personally, I’d rather stick with Innerspace, which remains a perfect counterpoint to the original film. Both films possess the charm of good, old-fashioned pre-CGI practical effects, and whether you’re looking for post-war optimism or post-modern cynicism, you can’t go wrong.  

* According to Jeff Bond, who provided the Fantastic Voyage DVD commentary, the original film concept involved a Jules Verne-inspired adventure, set in the early 1900s. I must confess, the idea of a steampunk re-imagining has some merit.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

October Quick Picks and Pans – Halloween 2014

Burnt Offerings (1976) Karen Black and Oliver Reed star in this slow burn psychological horror film, based on a novel by Robert Marasco. Marian and Ben, along with their 12-year-old son (Lee Montgomery) and elderly aunt (Bette Davis), find an old mansion in the country for rent (Burgess Meredith and Eileen Heckart are especially memorable as the creepy brother/sister proprietors of the house). The price is great, but there’s a catch. Over the summer, the house begins to take its toll on the family and their collective sanity. Director/co-writer Dan Curtis and writer William F. Nolan do a nice job building suspense about the secret that’s locked away in the attic room upstairs. Burnt Offerings is a product from another era, taking its time to set the mood, and allowing the house to become another character. It doesn’t build to a crescendo of elaborate special effects, but relies on acting, storytelling and a pervasive atmosphere of dread to build tension.

Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD

Sugar Hill (1974) With its proliferation of big afros, polyester galore, wide lapels and dated “hip” expressions, there’s no mistaking what decade this movie came out of. Therein resides the charm of this dated but amusing blaxploitation revenge story with a supernatural twist, directed by Paul Maslansky. When Diana “Sugar” Hill’s (Marki Bey) boyfriend is killed by mobsters, she unleashes her vengeance on them, one at a time. Unlike most titles from this genre, however, her modus operandi isn’t a gun or kung fu, but zombies. She enlists the aid of voodoo deity Baron Samedi (Don Pedro Colley), who possesses the ability to summon the dead for his bidding. I enjoyed this much more than I ever expected, and hopefully you will too. Can you dig it?

Rating: *** ½. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Shivers (aka: They Came from Within) (1975) This ambitious early effort by writer/director David Cronenberg and producer Ivan Reitman (!) is an intriguing mix of high concept and low budget that borrows heavily from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. A high rise apartment complex in Montreal becomes the test bed for a doctor’s experiments with slug-like parasites. The creatures, which possess aphrodisiac properties, invade the residents’ bodies and cause them to go berserk as their libidos run wild. While some of the concepts are clumsily executed, many of the themes that Cronenberg would refine in later films (doctors with a nefarious agenda, body horror, and sexual politics) are on full display. Cronenberg fans and Barbara Steele enthusiasts (watch for her small but memorable role) should take note.     

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Chopping Mall (1986) Don’t expect a lot of surprises from director/co-writer Jim Wynorski’s flick about 30-year-old “teens” trapped in a Southern California mall with homicidal robots (The story’s blatant disregard for the Three Laws of Robotics probably gave Isaac Asimov fits). One of the most novel things is the film’s setting, the Sherman Oaks Galleria, which should be instantly recognizable to ‘80s Valley dudes like me, as well as fans of Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Commando. There are a few fun bits with Roger Corman regulars Paul Bartel, Mary Woronov and Dick Miller, but their brief appearances can’t save this from being more than middling entertainment. Nevertheless, it’s a good candidate for bad movie night, replete with scenes of stupid people doing stupid things. In one key example, one of the principal characters comments, “I guess I’m just not used to being chased around the mall in the middle of the night by killer robots.” Indeed.
Rating: ** ½. Available on DVD

Bug (1975) Writer/producer William Castle’s last film attempted to ride the wave of nature-on-a-rampage movies that dominated the ‘70s landscape. When a powerful quake opens a deep trench, a swarm of fire-spewing insects are unleashed from the bowels of the Earth. A high school science teacher (Bradford Dillman) unwisely decides to cross-breed one with a common cockroach, and creates a deadly new super species in the process. Bug isn’t terrible, just painfully dull. On paper, it sounds like good B-movie fun, but the finished product features uninspired bug attacks and too many long spaces of nothingness. Without the benefit of a brisk pace or interesting gimmick to accompany the film, Castle’s swan song falls woefully short.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

Dracula A.D. 1972 (1972) By the time the folks at Hammer released this lackluster entry, they were scraping the barrel for ideas. Dracula A.D. 1972 has nothing new to add to the vampire mythos or show, unless you count the “contemporary” setting of 1972 London. While the groovy fashions and dated expressions have a modicum of novelty value, the film is neither exciting nor scary. Christopher Lee begrudgingly returns as the eponymous count, brought back to life (in a plot contrivance derivative of the superior Taste the Blood of Dracula) by overaged teens taking part in a satanic ritual, as movie teens tend to do. In another uninspired twist, Peter Cushing plays the grandson of Professor Van Helsing. For Hammer Dracula completists and masochists only.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Double Take: Night of the Living Dead

Available on Blu-ray (Import), DVD and Netflix Streaming
Rating: *****

Night of the Living Dead (1990) Directed by: Tom Savini; Written by George A. Romero; Based on the original 1968 screenplay by George A. Romero and John A. Russo; Starring: Tony Todd, Patricia Tallman and Tom Towles

Available on Blu-ray (Out of print), DVD and Amazon Instant Video
Rating: ****

“The only reason to do the fantasy film or horror film is to upset the order, upset the balance of things… and it seemed to me the formula was always to restore order… which seems counterproductive to what you’re doing initially, which is why it made sense to me to have Night of the Living Dead have this tragic and ironic ending.” – George Romero (from the documentary, Birth of the Living Dead)

“People go to movies to see things happen, not listening to people talk. Unless of course, you’re watching My Dinner with Andre.” – Tom Savini (from DVD commentary for Night of the Living Dead remake)

Ho, hum… another Night of the Living Dead review? How original. Barry must be losing it...Wait! Come back! It’s not what you think. No, really. Yes, we all know how the original Night of the Living Dead was a groundbreaking achievement for its time, which established the rules for subsequent zombie flicks.* Compared to the zombie films of yesteryear, George A. Romero’s re-animated dead were not the product of voodoo or magic, but a man-made disaster (explained as a Venus probe). In the 1990 remake by Romero protégé Tom Savini (from a script by Mr. Romero himself), the cause is never made clear, and left to speculation by the characters (chemical spill, Armageddon, mass insanity). But how does Savini’s version stack up against the 1968 version? Instead of reviewing one or the other, let’s compare them on their relative merits…

* Not counting Dan O’Bannon’s semi-sequel, Return of the Living Dead, which refuted the notion that a re-animated corpse could be dispatched with a shot to the brain.

Social Relevance

The 1968 version of Night of the Living Dead is very much a product of its time, reflecting the prevailing confusion and violence that marked that turbulent era. Romero claimed he and his fellow filmmakers didn’t set out to make a racial statement, or make overt commentary about the socio-political unrest of the ‘60s, but alas, there it is on display. The lead character Ben (Duane Jones) wasn’t expressly written as a black or white man, but nevertheless, the inclusion of a black protagonist was hailed as forward thinking for the time. The zombie-hunting militia members resemble a lynch mob more than an organized group.

In contrast to the original, Savini’s version implied a class differential between the survivors in the house. Harry and Helen Cooper (Tom Towles and McKee Anderson) are dressed as if they had just attended a soiree, while Tom and Judy’s (William Butler and Katie Finneran) appearance reflects their rural, working class origins. These differences are only superficial, however, when society begins to crumble. It’s clear we’re all in it together, as Barbara (Patricia Tallman) utters the chilling line, “They’re us. We’re them, and they’re us.”

Verdict: Original

Strong Female Characters

I think it’s safe to say the original Barbara* (Judith O’Dea) is no one’s favorite. She’s passive at best, and in a semi-catatonic state for most of the film’s duration, lapsing into consciousness only to ramble about her brother Johnny. Admittedly, she wasn’t very lucid to begin with, but she never improves. If Romero didn’t do any favors for female protagonists in the original film, he and Savini (working from Romero’s script) rectified this, with a new improved Barbara, as interpreted by Tallman.** The opening scene implies that she’s in danger of following in the footsteps of her cinematic predecessor as she lapses into a quivering mess. Then something snaps, as Barbara evolves into a badass, taking an active role in fighting off the growing undead horde and refusing to remain a victim. To a lesser extent, Katie Finneran’s version of Judy is an improvement over the co-dependent original, played by Judith Ridley. She screams too much, but at least she’s not dead weight (sorry about the pun), taking time from shrieking to help board the windows and drive the ill-fated pickup.

* Technically, O’Dea’s character is credited as “Barbra,” while her updated counterpart is named “Barbara.”

** Tallman was the first person Savini cast for his film. His decision was likely motivated by his first encounter with Tallman during their college years, when he recalled (in his DVD commentary) she was “kicking the shit out of her boyfriend.” ‘Nuff said.
Verdict: Remake

Makeup Effects

The original gets an A for effort, but you can’t deny the leap forward in practical effects in the remake. Although he’s not credited with the top-notch effects (supervised by Everett Burrell and John Vulich), Savini’s extensive expertise as a makeup artist undoubtedly shaped the look of the film’s gorier moments (one memorable scene involves a zombie with fresh autopsy incisions). Savini’s constant battles with the MPAA over excessive gore resulted in his adoption of a “less is more” approach. On the other hand, you can’t deny the ’68 version’s ingenuity, which had everyone performing double duty. Karl Hardman and Marilyn Eastman, who played the perennially squabbling couple, Harry and Helen, also worked on the makeup. Romero himself pitched in, creating a clay zombie hand. Although he wasn’t too impressed with the results, it works well within the frenzied confines of the scene. And when fake wasn’t good enough for some scenes, it’s hard to top real guts from a butcher shop to elevate the gross-out factor.

Verdict: Remake


The first film gets a lot of unfair criticism for the uneven (some might say amateurish) performances by the actors. Duane Jones’ riveting performance as Ben was the glue that held the first film together. His monologue about his first encounter with a group of the walking corpses, told with icy conviction, really sets the scene for the audience about the extent of the undead invasion. Co-producers Karl Hardman and Russell Streiner are credible as temperamental basement proponent Harry and the Barbara-tormenting Johnny. In the 1990 version, the best performances are shared by the two leads. Tony Todd does a fine job following in Jones’ footsteps as Ben, conveying his role with passion and world weariness. As Barbara, Tallman turns in the most surprising performance, as her character experiences the most growth.  

While the acting is more consistent in the remake, I prefer some of the performers’ choices in the original. Streiner’s version of Johnny was more playful, doing typical older brother stuff, while remake Johnny (Bill Moseley) just seemed like an obnoxious jerk. Tom Towles is a bit over the top with his bug-eyed portrayal of Harry. Ben and Harry’s animosity is firmly established from their first scene together, but the conflict between seems forced at times.

Verdict: Tie

Overall Effectiveness

The black and white cinematography goes a long way toward setting the original’s somber mood. Shot on 35 mm stock and edited on 16 mm, the end result resembles old newsreel footage, adding a layer of authenticity and creating a sense of immediacy. Due to budgetary constraints, the 1968 version benefits from Romero’s “guerrilla” filmmaking, often done on the fly with single takes. Compared to its predecessor’s documentary-style feel, the remake is more polished and professional in appearance. It’s a solid, albeit more calculated effort. Also, what was once so trailblazing could never seem as fresh again. By the time of the remake’s release, audiences were accustomed to Romero’s brand of zombies on screen, and knew what to expect. Compared to the 1968 original, the 1990 version’s ending doesn’t have the same impact. The original’s ironic ending is a punch in the gut; every time I watch it my objective self knows what’s about to happen, but my subjective self always hopes for a different outcome.

Verdict: Original

On the surface the idea of remaking a genre classic seemed to be a risky, if not foolhardy, venture. With legions of built-in fans for the 1968 original, Savini’s version was sure to polarize some individuals, but as it turns out, both versions can peacefully co-exist. You can’t beat the real thing, but Savini does right by Romero’s original, with some clever nods here and there. Savini created a solid horror film that’s quick-paced and scary. It’s an efficient machine, with a healthy dose of social relevance thrown in. Romero’s original, however, is the gold standard by which all other zombie films are judged – not a bad legacy for a low-budget effort by some first-time feature filmmakers from Pittsburgh.  Despite some claims to the contrary, both versions prove the venerable zombie genre is alive and well (groan!). By definition, zombies are a blank slate, where we can impart our fears, suspicions and socio-political agendas. If Night of the Living Dead is any indication, the genre will likely continue to thrive and experience numerous iterations for decades to come.