Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told

(1967) Written and directed by: Jack Hill; Starring: Lon Chaney Jr., Carol Ohmart, Quinn K. Redeker, Beverly Washburn, Jill Banner, Sid Haig, Mary Mitchell and Karl Schanzer; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Rating: ****

“One thing that has come to my attention over the years about this film is that young girls of the age they’re supposed to be here find this movie so touching and so warm, and they have become really big fans, and I think it has to do with the unconditional love within the family, that no matter how naughty you are, you’re still loved. And I think that’s one of the things about the movie that makes it perennially popular.” – Jack Hill (from Arrow DVD commentary)

Some movies slip through the cracks, as lost relics from another time. Others crawl out of the cracks, only to find a second life years later. Spider Baby, or the Maddest Story Ever Told (originally titled Cannibal Orgy), continues the tradition of eccentric families in gothic houses,* such as The Cat and the Canary, The Old Dark House and The Addams Family. Take elements from each, adding a homicidal twist, and this only begins to scratch the surface of this macabre comedy. Writer/director Jack Hill, a disciple of Roger Corman, shot the film in 1964 on a budget of roughly $60,000. Sadly, Hill’s movie was locked up in litigation several years before it finally saw a nominal release. The film eventually resurfaced on home video, and as these things sometimes go, has steadily built a small but dedicated following.

* Fun Fact #1: The house in the film is located in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Through careful framing and editing (intercut with shots from the Paramount Ranch in Agoura Hills, California), the filmmakers created the illusion that it was tucked away in the middle of nowhere. The once dilapidated house, built in 1899, has since been restored.

From the opening credits sequence, song spoken/sung by star Lon Chaney Jr,* you can tell this isn’t going to be your usual genre flick. The goofy/creepy lyrics serve as a fitting introduction to the tone of the story that’s about to unfold. The film begins with a brief explanation of (the fictitious) Merrye Syndrome, a degenerative neurological disorder causing sufferers to regress to an earlier stage of life. Cut to an unassuming courier (Mantan Moreland), as he locates the secluded Merrye estate, only to subsequently meet his demise when one of the occupants, Virginia (Jill Banners), partakes in a friendly game of “spider.” The family caretaker Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.), arrives home, to find the courier’s body and his undelivered letter (informing them of an impending visit by a lawyer). Enter gold-digging relative Aunt Emily (Carol Ohmart), with her mild-mannered brother Paul (Quinn Redeker) in tow, who meet up with her aptly named attorney Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) to assess the Merrye children’s living conditions. Things go from weird to weirder when situations force them to spend the night in the house.

* Fun Fact #2: According to director Jack Hill, Chaney was his first choice for the role of Bruno, but the actor’s agent wanted too much money. Hill subsequently decided to pursue John Carradine, but when he discovered Carradine had the same agent, Hill fell back to his initial pick. Chaney settled on a smaller paycheck because he was eager to play the role.


At the core of Spider Baby is Chaney’s terrific, underappreciated performance. He seems to be enjoying himself, in one of his juicier late-life roles, which exploits his full range as an actor. The family finds safe harbor in Bruno, entrusted with the care of the children. He’s the glue that keeps the family together, as their surrogate father, chauffeur,* disciplinarian (which amounts to mild rebukes), and moral compass (“Elizabeth, how many times have I told you it’s not nice to hate?”). In their own dysfunctional way, it’s a system that works, only thrown into disarray when someone infringes on their family unit. Bruno inhabits a difficult place, straddling both worlds – trying to preserve the insane ecosystem within the house while serving as a buffer to the outside world. His role also provides some droll comic moments. In one scene, where the guests discuss old horror movies, inevitably mentioning The Wolf Man (1941), Bruno remarks in his deadpan Larry Talbot voice, “There’s going to be a full moon tonight.” Chaney displays the more emotional side of his character in another scene, when he comes to the tearful realization that people are going to follow in the lawyer’s footsteps to break the family apart. He tries in vain to keep a brave face for the sisters, but he knows it’s a lost cause.

* Fun Fact #3: The classic Duesenberg featured in the film cost $100 a day to rent, which was coincidentally the same rate for the actors.

The three “children,” (all young adults) live in a state of arrested development, caused by their inherited condition (a byproduct of inbreeding). Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn),* who’s nominally more responsible than her siblings, is left in charge. She appears to be more in control of her impulses, but appearances are deceiving. As her arachnid-obsessed sister Virginia, Jill Banner steals the show whenever she’s on screen, conveying a combustible mixture of innocence and naïve malevolence. It’s a remarkable, fearless performance, considering it’s her first (she didn’t tell her family she was working on the movie). Elizabeth and Virginia’s brother Ralph (Sid Haig) is the most devolved of the three, with his feral behavior** and the intellect of a mischievous toddler. While Emily and Schlocker are repulsed by the kids, Peter seems to take everything in stride, commenting about Ralph’s childlike exuberance and cheerfully accepting a helping of rabbit that’s served on his plate (Spoiler: It’s not rabbit). In one of the squirmiest scenes, Virginia seduces Paul, much to his chagrin, sitting in his lap and teasing him as a prelude to her “spider” game.  

* Fun Fact #4: According to Washburn, she and her co-star, Banner were bestowed with affectionate, if less than flattering, nicknames by Chaney, who respectively called them “Cracker Ass” and “Bubble Butt.”

** Fun Fact #5: In preparation for his role Sid Haig observed primates at the zoo and children cavorting on a playground. Haig observed in the DVD commentary that both groups displayed similar behaviors.

Spider Baby is a spirited mixture of dark comedy and horror that rewards on repeat viewings. It engages the eyes and ears with moody cinematography by Alfred Taylor, spooky set designs by Ray Storey, and an energetic score by Ronald Stein. In spite of the family’s strange, sometimes reprehensible actions, when filtered through the sympathetic lens of Bruno, we can’t help but like them. Perhaps the assortment of oddball characters and moral ambiguity was too eccentric for the tastes of mainstream audiences at the time (even now it would probably be a tough sell). But if you’re looking for something that’s not the same old thing made by committee, this might be well worth your time. Who knows? In spite of yourself, you might just find yourself falling in love with the Merrye family.

 * Fun Fact #6: Hill wrote an (as of this date) unfilmed sequel, Vampire Orgy, which would have followed the continuing exploits of Ann and Peter. 

Saturday, October 3, 2020

The Boys from Brazil

(1978) Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner; Written by Heywood Gould; Based on the novel by Ira Levin; Starring: Gregory Peck, Laurence Olivier; James Mason, Lilli Palmer, Uta Hagen, Steve Guttenberg, Denholm Elliott, Rosemary Harris, Bruno Ganz and Michael Gough; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating ***½ 

“In that particular role, the appearance helped a great deal. I had a nasty little mustache and my hair was blackened. The exterior and the accent helped a lot… Then, of course, there was the idea of working with Sir Laurence Olivier. He was just about ‘it’ in my opinion.” – Gregory Peck (excerpted from 2000 Los Angeles Times interview with Steve Proffitt)

I’d like to extend a big thanks to Rebecca Deniston from Taking Up Room for hosting The Atticus and Boo Blogathon, focusing on the film achievements of esteemed actors Gregory Peck and Robert Duvall. Today’s selection is perhaps one of the more dubious roles of Peck’s career, but a suitably ghoulish one for the month of October.

 

At first glance, The Boys from Brazil might seem to be a curious choice for Horror Month. Technically, it’s not a horror movie, but a science-fiction/thriller. Considering, however, that the main character is one of the most contemptible figures from history, Dr. Joesef Mengele, labeling this as horror seems appropriate. Mengele was responsible for numerous atrocities in Auschwitz, using prisoners as guinea pigs, the details of which I won’t delve into here. Of special note were his experiments with twins, which for the purposes of this story, led him to cloning. They might not have saved Hitler’s brain, but Mengele managed to collect some of his DNA so neo-Nazis could carry on the dictator’s twisted legacy. The Hitler clones were then placed in homes throughout the world by a shadowy adoption agency, with strict fathers and doting mothers. Mengele’s endeavors to strike the proper nature/nurture balance, all in the hopes of producing at least one viable ruler to build a future Fourth Reich. If this sounds bonkers, you’re not wrong.


Peck plays Dr. Mengele with conviction and intensity, as a man so deluded by the righteousness of his cause, he thinks he’s doing humanity a service. He’s bereft of conscience or compassion, with the solitary goal of supporting a diseased ideology.  Mengele carries on his unethical research in Paraguay* using the indigenous population as test subjects, far away from the prying eyes of society. One of the hallmarks of playing a credible villain is that he doesn’t see himself as evil. There’s no sneering delivery of monologues, or grandiose cackles. Mengele, as portrayed by Peck, doesn’t see himself as a bad person; he’s simply performing a task no one else can or would do. James Mason is also good in a supporting role as his right-hand man, Eduard Seibert. When push comes to shove, Seibert doesn’t share Mengele’s zeal for the cause, favoring self-preservation over duty.

* Fun Fact: Instead of shooting in South America, the filmmakers chose to film the Paraguay scenes in Portugal, creating a simulated jungle, replete with the requisite flora and fauna.

 

It must have been a relief for Laurence Olivier, who played a sadistic Nazi dentist in Marathon Man (1976), to play his former character’s opposite (and Mengele’s nemesis), Nazi-hunter Ezra Lieberman. Compared to Mengele, who has secured the funds of wealthy benefactors, Lieberman works on a shoestring budget. His European base of operations has a leaky roof, and he has trouble paying the rent on time. Ignoring these setbacks, he’s resolute in his dogged quest to bring escaped war criminals to justice.

Considering the subject matter, which intermittently lapses into exploitive territory, the film introduces some thoughtful elements. In one scene, Lieberman discusses the possibilities and implications of human cloning with a geneticist, played by Bruno Ganz (who, incidentally, portrayed Hitler in the grim 2004 historical drama, Downfall). On the plus side (if there could be such a thing), it could be a means of bringing back people who have made significant contributions to society (such as scientists and artists). On the other hand, as illustrated in the film, it could be a Pandora’s box that could bring back history’s worst examples of humanity. A key theme, which serves as a counterpoint, is that one is more than the end result of his or her genetic makeup. It’s impossible for Mengele and his cronies to control all of the environmental factors. It’s a foregone conclusion that many of the clones he’s created are bound for different destinies. Despite the unsavory ramifications of cloning, Liebeman understands that you can’t answer immorality with immorality. When pressed by a fellow Nazi hunter, he adamantly refuses to be party to killing the now 14-year-old children (played by Jeremy Black in a quadruple role).


The filmmakers make things ambiguous with regard to the clones. Due to their privileged upbringing, they seem to have a sense of entitlement, but on the other hand, the film never paints them as particularly bad or good. (SPOILER ALERT) In the final, over the top confrontation between Lieberman and Mengele, Bobby Wheelock, a Hitler clone, decides to help Lieberman at the end.* He doesn’t do it out of a sense of right and wrong, but out of mutual benefit. His enigmatic response provides, perhaps, a glimpse of the adult he will be become. He’s not exactly on the path to becoming a good Samaritan, but falls far short of becoming another architect of mass genocide.

* Another Fun Fact: MST 3K fans take note, this film is source of the line “You freaked-out maniac!” exclaimed by Bobby Wheelock (Jeremy Black). 

The Boys from Brazil is an A-list film with a B-movie premise. While it’s hard to imagine how the filmmakers managed to coerce such a pedigreed cast of actors to sign on to this production, their presence lends a needed dose of veracity to the proceedings. The film uses a tricky recipe, which takes a touchy subject, throws in a dash of exploitation, and mixes in a dose of intrigue to create a potent, if slightly uneven brew. Peck deserves special mention for his performance, as one of the most beloved actors of his generation playing a character with no redeeming qualities. The Boys from Brazil is an effective enough thriller, as long as you can appreciate its unabashed pulp sensibilities.  

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Space Month Quick Picks and Pans

 

Aniara (2018) In the near(ish) future, Earth has suffered one ecological disaster after another, prompting a mass exodus to Mars. A massive luxury spaceship (with an interior that seems to have been designed by Ikea) ferrying a group of would-be colonists embarks on its three-week journey to Mars. Disaster strikes, however, when an emergency course correction results in a breach in the ship’s reactor, forcing the craft to dump its nuclear fuel to prevent another catastrophe. The change in direction sends the giant spacecraft hurtling in the wrong direction, without the means to turn around. The rest of the film follows the passengers and crew over the next several years, as they vacillate between hope and despair, attempting to comprehend their new reality on a voyage without end. This thoughtful Swedish science fiction film from writer/directors Pella Kågerman and Hugo Lilja is a darkly existential science fiction with a fatalistic streak (Director Claire Denis explored similar themes in High Life, released the same year). It’s thought-provoking stuff, but undeniably bleak. Warning: you might need a hug after watching this.

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

Cosmic Voyage (aka: Cosmic Journey) (1936) This fun silent Soviet film from director Vasily Zhuravlyov balances hard science with whimsical adventures. Set in the near future of 1946, a determined inventor (Sergey Komarov) plans a journey to Earth’s satellite in his giant rocket. Despite efforts from his detractors to derail the mission, he travels to the moon with his assistant (Ksenia Moskalenko) and an eager boy scout (or the Russian equivalent) in tow. They encounter weightlessness along the way, and explore the rocky lunar surface. Cosmic Voyage features some impressive visuals (including stop-motion animation to depict their lunar adventures), which rival the imagery in Things to Come (also from 1936). It’s a thoroughly charming excursion, which never takes itself too seriously. Good fun.  

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and YouTube


Prospect (2018) Writer/directors Christopher Caldwell and Zeek Earl’s space western starts as a tale of survival and greed, but morphs into something more. Damon and Cee (Jay Duplass and Sophie Thatcher), a father and daughter prospector team, land on a forest moon, and must contend with toxic dust and hostile competitors, also looking to strike it rich. When he meets his untimely demise, Cee must survive on her own, forming an uneasy alliance with Ezra (Pedro Pascal of The Mandalorian fame) an enigmatic, soft-spoken prospector. Prospect does a lot on a small budget (reportedly in the neighborhood of $3 million), with good use of location shots (filmed in in Washington State’s Hoh rainforest) and some decent CGI (used sparingly). The performances, especially by Thatcher and Pascal, are uniformly solid. At its heart, it’s a simple tale that reminds us that people are not always who they seem to be, and companionship can come from the unlikeliest of places.

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


In the Dust of the Stars (aka: Im Staub der Sterne) (1976) This groovy offering from East Germany’s DEFA Studios needs to be seen to be believed. Cosmonauts respond to a distress signal, but when they arrive on the planet TEM 4, their host denies anything’s wrong. He does his best to distract the puzzled space travelers (with funky, drug-filled parties and interpretive dancing) to hasten their departure, although one crewmember suspects their minds have been tampered with. This would be a great midnight movie candidate thanks to the plethora of weird hairstyles and bizarre costumes, some (ahem) interesting dance moves, and a cartoonishly evil leader (who looks like a dead ringer for Airplane’s Stephen Stucker). Pacing issues bog the movie down a bit, but it’s worth a look just to see how wacky movies could get behind the Iron Curtain.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (Out of print) and Kanopy

 

Supernova (2000) This space obtusity suffers from an identity crisis. Is it an action thriller, a space-based romance, a brooding character study, or a cerebral science fiction tale? The infamously troubled production (director Walter Hill was fired, and credited as Thomas Lee) juggles all of these elements, but handles none of them well. A sociopathic survivor from a mining outpost brings a glowing whatsit that might be the end to humanity onboard a deep-space rescue ship. The movie never fully explores the ramifications of the alien artifact. Instead, it spends most of its time with a predictable cat and mouse plot and trying to make us believe that James Spader and Angela Bassett (both dependable actors) are attracted to each other. The lack of chemistry between the leads is just endemic of the rest of the cast and filmmakers, who just seem to be going through the motions.

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

Queen of Outer Space (1958) A rocket ship’s planned rendezvous with a space station is thwarted when the station is annihilated by a death ray. To avoid certain destruction, the crew (clad in costumes pilfered from Forbidden Planet) divert their rocket ship and crash land on Venus, where they encounter a civilization ruled by women. Based on the sexist attitudes and behavior of the astronauts, it’s easy to see why Venusian society shunned men. Inexplicably, many of the Venusians find them irresistible. There’s kitsch appeal, thanks to the goofy plot and the casting of Zsa Zsa Gabor as the leader of a revolt, but that only takes you so far. Technicolor and Cinemascope can’t save this one from being a groan-worth bore. You’re better off watching one of the many genuine genre classics from the era (take your pick).

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

 

 

War Between the Planets (aka: Il Pianeta Errante) (1966) Catastrophes on Earth are linked to a rogue planet that’s flying through the solar system, creating a destructive “wind” in the vacuum of space (don’t break your brain trying to make sense of it). The insipid narration doesn’t do this movie any favors, and far too much celluloid is wasted on a dull love triangle with an uncharismatic lead, played by Giacomo Rossi Stuart (although his hair is quite a special effect). At virtually the last minute, when a team of astronauts attempt to destroy the alien planet, they discover that it’s a vast living thing. Sadly, this admittedly intriguing concept is never fully explored. Instead, we’re tormented by more drama between characters we don’t care about.

Rating: **. Available on Amazon Prime and Tubi

 

Cat-Women of the Moon (1953) Here’s another entry in the curious lost-civilization-of-outer-space-Amazons sub-genre. This time four men and a woman embark on a perilous voyage to the moon. Once they’re in space, navigator Helen Salinger (Marie Windsor) somehow finds time to pull out her hairbrush and a compact. She’s stuck in the middle of a love triangle between the gruff commander and a trigger-happy astronaut, who believes in shooting first (with a revolver that has unlimited ammunition) and forgetting to ask questions later. Meanwhile, her mind is controlled by a society of moon women in black leotards. They exert their feminine whiles to influence the other crew members so they can steal the Earth ship and take over the planet. It’s one small step for space movies, one giant leap backward for positive women’s roles. Don’t bother.

Rating: *½. Available on DVD and Tubi

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Lifeforce

 

(1985) Directed by Tobe Hooper; Written by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby; Based on the novel Space Vampires by Colin Wilson; Starring: Steve Railsback, Mathilda May, Peter Firth, Frank Finlay and Patrick Stewart; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½ 

 “…It’s about relationships. About the relationship between men and women, and how that can turn. It can be about how there can be a dominance in a relationship, how it can flip-flop back and forth, and it had all of those incredible things that I grew up wanting to see…” – Tobe Hooper (from 2013 DVD commentary)

“…as I was a dancer, I was used to have (sic) a special relationship with the body – it was a work instrument, I was not into anything provocative. I was just a dancer. So that maybe is the reason they chose me, because I was not using the body in terms of seduction.” – Mathilda May (from 2013 interview, “Dangerous Beauty”)

Note: This review refers to the longer “International Cut,” which includes additional footage, expands on the story, and restores Henry Mancini’s original score.

Mention Lifeforce, and the first thing that likely springs to mind for most folks are the scenes depicting a certain young French actress walking around au naturel. While those sequences certainly leave an (Ahem!) lasting impression, there’s much more to the film than that. Look beneath the surface trappings of gratuitous nudity, gory makeup and glowy special effects, and you’ll find a movie that isn’t afraid to ask the big questions. Director Tobe Hooper was approached by Cannon Films’ Menahem Golan to adapt Collin Wilson’s 1976 novel Space Vampires* into a big budget (for Cannon, at least) film. The British-based, 120-day shoot required the use of EMI-Elstree studios Stage 6 (referred to as the Star Wars stage), and utilized some of the top effects people of the day, notably, John Dykstra of Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture fame.

* Fun Fact #1: The film originally shared the same title as the novel, but Hooper recalled “there was an allergic reaction to what was considered a B-title.”


 During a joint NASA/ESA mission to intercept Halley’s comet, Col Tom Carlsen (Steve Railsback) of the spaceship Churchill and his crew pick up something extraordinary: a massive alien ship in the tail of the comet. The commander decides to divert the mission to the mysterious spacecraft, which upon closer inspection has an organic appearance. As Carlsen and his fellow astronauts make their brief foray* into the ship’s cavernous hulk, they encounter the desiccated floating bodies of large bat-like creatures. Another chamber yields a more surprising discovery, with what appear to be three humans (one woman and two men)** entombed in crystalline sarcophagi. The ship returns to Earth, with the three bodies and alien remains in tow, but meets with calamity along the way. A rescue crew reaches the Churchill in Earth orbit, only to find the interior and astronauts charred beyond recognition. Somehow, the residents of the clear coffins appear to be unscathed from the fiery accident, and are brought to terra firma for further scrutiny. Before you can say “bringing them back to Earth was a terrible idea,” the humanoids escape their containers, and proceed to feast on the life energy of every hapless person they encounter. We soon learn, however, that Carlsen also avoided destruction on the Churchill, utilizing the ship’s escape capsule*** in the nick of time. British authorities take Carlsen into custody, as he harbors the secret about what occurred on the doomed mission, and may possess the key to stopping the rampage of the space vampires.

* Fun Fact #2: To simulate the astronauts floating in space, Hooper and company utilized the same team responsible for the flying rig used in Superman: The Movie (1978).

 ** Fun Fact #3: Billy Idol was originally approached to play one of the male space vampires, but when casting plans fell through, the filmmakers brought in Chris Jagger (Mick’s younger brother) for the part. 

 *** Side Note: Considering the crew’s size, the escape pod (which conjured images of the tiny space capsule from the 1965 schlock-fest Monster a Go-Go), seems ridiculously small. Apparently designed for one lucky astronaut, it begs the question: How would they decide who lived and who died?


 If there’s a solitary raison d'être for Lifeforce, it’s French actress Mathilda May, who commands attention whenever she’s on screen. May was cast after an exhaustive worldwide search (Hooper claimed approximately 50 actresses auditioned for the part)* for someone who would play a role that demanded excessive nudity.** May’s background as a professional dancer proved especially invaluable in her depiction of an alien presence, with her precisely controlled movement. She mesmerizes whenever she’s on the screen, conveying the right balance of otherworldly beauty and subtle menace. To the men who encounter her, she’s a siren – they’re powerless to resist her charms, even though meeting her won’t end well. She establishes an inextricable bond with Carlsen, which horrifies and tantalizes him in equal parts. She’s an ideal construct culled from his vision of an ideal woman, illusory and unobtainable (“I am the feminine in your mind.”).

 * Fun Fact #4: According to Hooper, Olivia Hussey was among the actresses considered for the role. Some male actors that were considered for various other characters included Klaus Kinski, Terrence Stamp, and John Gielgud.

** In his DVD commentary, Hooper glibly stated, “It was like her costume.” 


Instead of focusing on Col. Carlsen’s obsession, I wish it had spent more time with Dr. Hans Fallada (Frank Finlay), a clear nod to Professor Quatermass in the Hammer films and BBC adaptations. Fallada is fascinated by the alien visitors and their implications. He opines that the creatures visited Earth long ago, giving rise to the vampire folklore and legends. It’s an intriguing story element that could have been developed further, rather than concentrating on tracking down the rogue vampires. The clunky middle act gets bogged down with Carlsen assisting British agents led by SAS agent Colin Caine (Peter Firth). No one questions his histrionics in his zeal to find the female space vampire, who’s jumped to a new body. Inexplicably, he’s given free rein to slap around a woman (Nancy Paul) suspected of harboring the malevolent vampire’s spirit and abuse sanitarium director Dr. Armstrong (Patrick Stewart), who has also been afflicted.


Unlike some traditional vampire films, the vampire rules are inconsistent. It’s unclear whether direct contact or mere proximity are necessary for a spirit to jump from body to body. The original three vampires, while insatiable, don’t appear to weaken rapidly, whereas the infected humans wither away at an accelerated rate, becoming the “walking shriveled” (Hooper’s term). Also, why does the female vampire possess a sexual magnetism toward men, but the male vampires don’t seem to have a similar effect on women? Taking this a step further, why couldn’t the vampires have had a similar mesmeric effect towards people of the same sex? With the exception of a brief kiss between two men (which is a bit of cheat, since one is inhabited by the female vampire’s spirit), the film restricts itself to heterosexual attraction, and overwhelmingly appeals to the male gaze. This limits the myriad possibilities of sex as lure, restricting the implicit theme to a superficial “women are scary”


The $25 million Cannon production was met with mostly mixed to negative reviews when it was first released, no thanks in part to the butchered U.S. version (at distributor Tri-Star’s insistence). Lifeforce has since gained a loyal following, not simply because of Mathilda May’s inimitable presence, but its wildly ambitious story. It boldly suggests something extraterrestrial in origin influenced human history and folklore, inhabiting our myths and fears. The climactic scene of mass pandemonium on the streets of London is reminiscent of the dénouement to Quatermass and the Pit (1967), which shares similar themes. At the same time, the story isn’t nearly as focused as Quatermass, but it’s a noble effort nevertheless. Lifeforce manages to balance some heady ideas with some good old-fashioned exploitation, creating an entertaining mix. It didn’t play it safe. If only more genre films would follow its lead. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Space Truckers

(1996) Directed by Stuart Gordon; Written by Ted Mann and Stuart Gordon; Starring: Dennis Hopper, Stephen Dorff, Debi Mazar, Charles Dance, George Wendt and Vernon Wells; Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD (Out of Print)

Rating: ***

“I had this idea that had been kicking around for years about truck drivers in space, and had gotten to be friendly with Ted Mann (co-writer), and it turns out that both of us were frustrated astronauts, and when we were kids, that’s what we both had dreamed about, going into space… And when I told him the idea of blue-collar people in space, just doing their jobs, he really responded, and we started just throwing together a treatment.” – Stuart Gordon (excerpt from 2018 featurette, “Space Trucking with Stuart Gordon”) 

The late, great Stuart Gordon will forever be associated with his H.P. Lovecraft adaptations, particularly Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986). A deeper dive into his filmography, however, yields some surprising titles, spanning multiple genres. Produced on a budget of $27 million,* the sci-fi/comedy Space Truckers** was his largest-budgeted film to date. It was filmed on a sound stage at Ardmore Studios in Ireland,*** where a nearby beach served as a desert. While the film saw some overseas distribution, it wasn’t released theatrically in the U.S., instead debuting on HBO.

* Fun Fact #1: The filmmakers were approached by Universal, which would have added more money into the film’s production and distribution, but one of the film’s producers turned the studio down. 

** Fun Fact #2: According to Stuart Gordon, Stephen Dorff’s agent wasn’t enamored with “Space Truckers,” so the actor’s contract included a clause that gave him a final say on the title.

*** Fun Fact #3: Gordon remarked that while the movie’s final title was in limbo, Variety listed the film as “Untitled Irish Space Movie.”


If you took the space diner scene from Spaceballs (1987), minus the chestburster, and turned it into its own movie, you might get something like this. Set within our solar system circa 2196 (or 2145, depending on which of the film’s trailers you believe), Space Truckers depicts the blue-collar side of space colonization, with people performing the intensive manual labor required to keep things going. The space truckers are the life blood of the colonies, shipping goods throughout the solar system. After veteran trucker John Canyon (Dennis Hopper)* has a falling out with his boss Keller (George Keller), he accepts a lucrative but risky assignment, hauling an illegal payload to Earth with no questions asked. He has a thing for Cindy (Debi Mazar), a waitress at the truck stop’s greasy spoon, and finds the perfect way to win her hand (if not her heart). Canyon agrees to take her with him to Earth, where she can be reunited with her mother, if she agrees to marry him. Enter plucky but inexperienced novice trucker Mike Pucci (Stephen Dorff), who connives his way into tagging along. The mismatched trio soon learn that they’re in for much more than anyone had anticipated when they tangle with a cargo of biomechanical battle drones, and encounter ruthless space pirates, led by Macanudo (Charles Dance).

* Fun Fact #4: According to Gordon, the mercurial Hopper commented that he was the “worst” director he’d ever worked with.

Despite any disagreements Dennis Hopper might have had with Gordon, he does a fine job portraying the irascible trucker Canyon. He doesn’t take any crap from anyone, and is prepared to fight for what he believes in. Beneath his crusty exterior, though, it’s easy to see he has a soft spot for hard luck cases like Cindy and Mike. Debi Mazar is good as flighty, New York-accented Cindy. Unlike Canyon, she’s more than willing to compromise her ideals if she can get ahead. Stephen Dorff, especially as Cindy’s object of affection, is significantly less convincing. Their romance seems perfunctory at best, with little on-screen chemistry. Considering her character’s choices throughout the film, it’s a safe bet that she’d sell him out if she found a better opportunity. Charles Dance threatens to steal the show from everyone else as the cybernetic space pirate Macanudo. It’s obvious he enjoyed playing the sneering villain (apparently, he was encouraged by his daughter to play the part). Also, be sure to watch for fun cameos from Stuart Gordon regulars Barbara Crampton and Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (the director’s wife).

Space Truckers keeps its metaphorical tongue firmly planted in its cheek, which carries through to the whimsical flourishes of the space designs. Gordon stated that he made a conscious effort to include color in the typically colorless environment of space, including garish floating billboards and custom paint jobs on the truckers’ ships. The living spaces/interiors have a lived-in look (based on concepts by Ron Cobb), similar to Outland (1981), but the truck stop diner’s curved floor owes a debt of gratitude to the design of the spacecraft Discovery’s main interior in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). In contrast to Cobb’s nuts and bolts approach, Hajime Sorayama designed the appearance of the sleek cybernetic warriors.* Gordon commented that, in retrospect, he wished all the effects were CGI. Personally, I’m glad this wasn’t the case. The practical, model-based effects hold up the best, while the early CGI effects show their limitations. In a scene where Canyon punches one of Keller’s thugs, there’s an unconvincing spray of computer-animated blood and a floating tooth that resembles a popcorn kernel. Likewise, the computer-rendered pirate ship resembles video game graphics (Yes, I know they’ve gotten much better in 20+ years). Comparatively, the practical effects are much more compelling, if not exactly realistic (e.g., Canyon’s rig, The Pachyderm 2000, and various makeup effects and prosthetics). Among the most memorable creations are the “square pigs” that fit neatly in their cubical pens.

* Fun Fact #5: In order to match the decidedly feminine body contours in Sorayama’s concept artwork, the robots were all played by female models.

Considering Gordon was working with a larger budget, Space Truckers doesn’t look like an expensive production, which works to its advantage. It’s a B picture through and through, more interested in off-kilter ideas (whether they work or not) than surface gloss. Space Truckers doesn’t have a big message (other than greed, corruption and the lust for power will always be around), and never takes itself too seriously. It’s just trying to have a good time, inviting us along for the ride. So, grab a cold one (or two), sit back, and take in the view.

Monday, August 31, 2020

August Quick Picks and Pans

 

The Oily Maniac (1976) Eight years before Troma’s The Toxic Avenger, the Shaw Brothers unleashed their own grimy champion of justice. This entertaining hybrid horror/action film, directed by Meng-Hua Ho (Black Magic), is allegedly based on Malaysian folklore. Danny Lee stars as Shen Yuan, a disabled man who discovers the secret (from his death-row uncle) to transforming into a virtually unstoppable supernatural creature. Using his newly discovered superpowers, he exacts vengeance against all who have wronged him. In order to become the greasy creature, he has to periodically re-charge (in one scene, he covers himself in tar from a bubbling oil drum, and in another, he plunges into a vat of hot coconut oil). Although some of his choices leave something to be desired, it’s undeniably fun to watch him beat up the bad guys. It’s too bad this unconventional monster movie never spawned a series.

Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray, DVD (Region 2) and Amazon Prime

Cold Eyes of Fear (1971) This would-be thriller from director Enzo G. Castellari (1990: The Bronx Warriors), set in swinging London, is all talk and little action. An ex-con and his lackey invade a judge’s house looking for the files of the court case that sent him to prison. The judge’s nephew (who’s also a judge) and his lady companion are caught in the middle, and must gather their wits to survive the night. Outside of a hallucinatory courtroom scene and a gallery of questionable hair styles, there’s not much reason to recommend this snoozer.

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


Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966) Prolific director William Beaudine’s follow-up to Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter proves to be just as baffling as its predecessor. After deciding to end his thieving ways and settle down, Billy the Kid (Chuck Courtney) goes to work as a ranch hand, where he falls in love with the rancher’s daughter Betty (Melinda Casey). But fate throws a monkey wrench into his plans when Dracula (John Carradine) rolls into town, posing as Betty’s long-lost uncle. If this sounds more like the synopsis for a bad sitcom than a horror/western movie, you’re not alone. The leads are miscast (Carradine plays an anemic-looking, perpetually bewildered count, and the actor playing Billy the Kid is about 15 years too old for the part), and the story is bereft of action or chills. Throw in some bad Native American stereotypes, generic “Old World” European characters, and one of the least convincing bats you’ve ever seen, and you’ve got the makings of an evening of so bad-it’s-good entertainment. It’s unfortunate that the end result is so dull.

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


The Lost Continent (1968) This Hammer production, directed by Michael Carreras, bears no connection to the 1951 Cesar Romero film with the same name, although it covers some similar ground. The story is a confusing jumble, with lots of ideas thrown into the mix, but nothing really gels. A merchant ship carrying a small group of passengers and a cargo of illegal explosives meets rough seas. The passengers and crew endlessly bicker for an hour before we finally get to anything remotely interesting. They eventually wind up on a fog-shrouded island in the middle of the ocean, although calling it a “continent” is a bit magnanimous. The inhabitants are a mixture of Spanish conquistadors and British shipwreck survivors, who must contend with an assortment of prehistoric creatures, man-eating plants, and a kid who’s established himself as a demigod. It might be worth a look as a curiosity or if you’re a Hammer completist; otherwise, don’t bother.

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

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Just Don’t Do It

It seems as if independent filmmakers/distributors of the 1970s and early ‘80s were obsessed with including “Don’t” in their movie titles. But wait a minute… This wasn’t simply a cheap way of riding the exploitation bandwagon, but a public service to warn us about the dangers of seemingly mundane actions. We’re reminded that the simple act of going outside and mingling with fellow humans could be a potentially life-threatening proposition. Perhaps we could learn a few timeless lessons from these films from the not too distant past, instructing us about the perils of not maintaining social distancing.


I think it’s only fair to warn you, dear reader, this isn’t a comprehensive list of every movie ever made with “Don’t” in the title.* Instead, for the purposes of this article, I confined my survey to theatrical horror/thrillers from the aforementioned era. I suffered (Ahem! I meant watched) through seven examples, to separate the proverbial wheat from the chaff so you don’t have to.  

* Note: I previously reviewed Don’t Look Now (1973), which doesn’t quite fit thematically with the other films listed here. I excluded Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (1973), because A), It was produced for television; and B), I’ve previously seen this title, and wanted everything to be a first-time watch. And before anyone says, “But you didn’t cover Don’t Go Near the Park (1979),” this wasn’t streaming anywhere, and I wasn’t about to plunk down a $300 deposit at my local video store to rent their out-of-print copy.

Don’t Look in the Basement (1973) Charlotte Beale (Rosie Holotik), a naïve young nurse, accepts a position working at a private sanitarium run by staunch Doctor Geraldine Masters (Annabelle Weenick). Nurse Beale eventually discovers that everything isn’t as it seems in the asylum populated by colorful patients, including an elderly lady with a secret, a homicidal would-be judge, a nymphomaniac, and a man in a state of arrested development. It’s best not to ask why she’s so slow to catch on to the doctor’s secret, or why she didn’t leave early on. While short on logic, or a grasp of ethical mental health practices, S.F. Brownrigg’s low-budget, filmed-in Texas wonder features some interesting performances, and seldom fails to entertain.  

Rating: ***. Available on DVD, Blu-ray (on combo disc w/Chaos), Amazon Prime and Tubi

Don’t Go in the House (1979) After his domineering mother dies, Dan Grimaldi (Donny Kohler) a mentally disturbed man, hears voices telling him to cleanse the evil lurking inside people of the opposite sex. He lures women into his house and incinerates them in a fireproof room, and has conversations with their charred corpses. Kohler is effective as the delusional, socially awkward lead character. Director/co-writer Joseph Ellison does a good job of building tension, and depicting the main character’s psychological disintegration, which leads to an unnerving climactic scene. The film is somewhat undermined by its dubious explanation for Grimaldi’s motivation, reinforced in the final scene, suggesting a cause and effect relationship between parental abuse and homicidal behavior. Warning: prepare yourself for a gratuitous disco scene, bad polyester fashions, and the non-hit song “Boogie Lightning,” which plays twice.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Tubi

Don’t Open the Door (aka: Don’t Hang Up) (1974) S.F. Brownrigg strikes again! This one’s a step down from his previous effort, Don’t Look in the Basement, lacking the same level of uniquely eccentric characters and  demented sense of fun. A young woman (Susan Bracken) returns to her childhood home to care for her ailing grandmother. She squabbles with a judge about her inheritance, and argues with a doctor about her grandmother’s care. Meanwhile, she’s harassed by a perverted museum curator. Don’t Open the Door shamelessly steals from Psycho and Repulsion in equal measures, but somehow manages to fall short of generating any real suspense.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

Don’t Answer the Phone! (1980) Writer/director Robert Hammer’s sleazy effort (based on a novel by Michael Curtis) stars Nicholas Worth as crazed Vietnam vet/photographer Kirk Smith, who stalks and strangles women in Los Angeles. He makes anonymous calls to a psychologist’s (Flo Lawrence) radio show, which become increasingly disturbing as he acts out his fantasies. The psychologist’s efforts are undermined by smug, mansplaining police lieutenant McCabe (James Westmoreland), who inexplicably becomes her lover. Don’t bother trying to link the misleading title to the story, since answering the phone isn’t really part of the killer’s modus operandi. Worth is appropriately creepy as the killer, who photographs his victims in their final moments, but there’s not much else to justify sitting through this film, featuring a protagonist just as misogynistic as the bad guy.   

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

 


Don’t Open Till Christmas (1984) A serial killer targets men dressed as Santa Claus, while inept Scotland Yard detectives scramble to find him. In one scene, the killer strolls into the police station and visits the lead detective, but he somehow manages to elude capture. If you’re looking for a slasher movie with a high body count, you’ve come to the right place. If you’re looking for a coherent story, competent lead characters, or a compelling plot, you should probably steer clear.

Rating: **. Available on DVD

Don’t Look in the Attic (1982) A cursed Italian villa brings death and calamity to several generations of a family in Turin, Italy. The current heirs to the property bicker and scheme, providing lots of opportunities for talky scenes that pad out writer/director Carlo Ausino’s supernatural mystery film. The 77-minute running time is mercifully short, but seems much longer, thanks to the film’s sluggish pace and loathsome characters. It’s such a confusing, boring mess that you probably won’t care what’s in the attic or likely be awake for the conclusion.

Rating: **. Available on DVD, Amazon Prime and Tubi

Don’t Go in the Woods (1981) Campers are dispatched one-by-one by a deranged mountain man (the film never delves into where he came from or why he kills everyone that crosses his path). The film is a showpiece for bad acting, bad dialogue, and terrible makeup effects. It’s also dreadfully short on scares, tension or nocturnal amorous activities typically associated with most movies of this ilk. And just when you think the film has reached new lows, there’s a scene with a man in a wheelchair struggling to navigate a dirt trail (accompanied by goofy music). A better title would have been Don’t Watch this Movie. On a side note: There’s a disproportionately inordinate amount of cast members wearing bright pink ensembles, leading me to wonder if the costume designer had a surplus of the cloth lying around.

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