Saturday, August 19, 2017

Arachnophobia




(1990) Directed by Frank Marshall; Written by Don Jakoby and Wesley Strick; Based on a story by Don Jakoby and Al Williams; Starring: Jeff Daniels, Harley Jane Kozak, John Goodman, Julian Sands, Henry Jones, Stuart Pankin and Roy Brocksmith; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ****

“What we’re trying to do in this picture is really give you a funhouse, where you’re scared but you’re having fun, almost like a rollercoaster ride...” – Frank Marshall (from DVD featurette)

A colossal thanks to Debbie Vega from Moon in Gemini for hosting the Workplace in Film & TV Bogathon, honoring the many cinematic depictions of the workers and the workplace. Be sure to check out the other entries in this spectacular three-day blogging event. My film du jour focuses on the vaunted profession of family doctor, as portrayed by Jeff Daniels in Arachnophobia – more on his character in a moment.


Disney’s fledgling Hollywood Pictures division stirred up much ballyhoo, touting Arachnophobia as a “thrill-omedy,” which I presume was their code for a broadly acceptable horror film with light moments. It walks the line well between preying on the audience’s innate fears, while understanding that most of us need a release valve to laugh off our terror. I’m reminded of an incident several years ago, on a nature hike with Kid Number One, as I absentmindedly walked through a spider web. The sensation of the sticky threads on my face was enough to unnerve me, but that was nothing compared to the stark realization its occupant was crawling on my head. When I think about it now, it only evokes laughter – there was no harm done (to me at least), but the perception of danger was quite palpable for a few very long moments. Because life is a cruel trickster, I re-experienced the incident on a recent walk with Kid Number Two a couple of weeks ago, as I stumbled through another web, with similar results. Arachnophobia evokes a similar reaction, with the initial jolt followed by a well-earned release.


The film opens in the Venezuelan jungle, a vast and remote tropical oasis, unspoiled for millions of years. Headstrong arachnologist Dr. James Atherton (Julian Sands) targets one particular tepui (plateau) region for his studies, feared by the locals (and as we’ll soon discover, with good reason), but a boon for scientists. He discovers a new, aggressive species of spider, which proves to be deadly venomous (as his photographer learns too late).  

 
Jump to the sleepy central Californian town of Canaima (actually shot in Cambria, California) where Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) has recently relocated with his family, to escape the rat race of the big city. His plans to take over the reins from Dr. Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones), an elderly family practitioner, and establish his own practice. Much to the younger doctor’s chagrin, Dr. Metcalf has a change of heart, deciding not to retire. Suddenly, Dr. Jennings and his ex-stockbroker wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak) are faced with the prospect of no income. Things go from bad to worse when Jennings’ first and only patient dies under mysterious circumstances. A series of odd deaths follow, and Jennings begins to suspect a spider is the culprit. Suddenly, he’s faced with the prospect of saving his professional reputation, while convincing the authorities that an epidemic is at hand. Daniels does a great job as Jennings, finding just the right tone to make his character believable, with his down-to-earth, deadpan delivery. We feel his terror, rooting from a deep-seated childhood trauma, as he must confront his greatest adversary.


One of the things that makes Arachnophobia so special is that it takes the time to get to know the minor characters, building a history around them. In many other genre movies, the peripheral characters could have been disposable and two-dimensional, but here, each takes on life and purpose. Speaking of professions, Roy Brocksmith is a hoot as the local mortician Irv Kendall, who takes a rather glib attitude to his work. Stuart Pankin is also amusing as the dimwitted, self-important sheriff Lloyd Parsons, as well as Peter Jason as a gung ho high school football coach. One disappointment is the usually reliable John Goodman as ace exterminator Delbert McClintock. Compared to his fellow performers, he plays his character too broad and unsubtle. He’s funny in small doses, but wears out his welcome before long.


 A discussion of Arachnophobia wouldn’t be complete without giving due credit to the eight-legged beasties that appear in the film. In order to depict the colonial behavior of the cinematic spiders,* the filmmakers employed two different species: Delena spiders from New Zealand (much milder in temperament than the film would suggest) for the soldiers, and significantly larger bird eating spiders as the “general,” which directs their activities. Of course, when using live spiders was deemed too impractical or unethical (i.e., death scenes), a team of special effects wizards created animatronic arachnids. Of course, none of the featurettes or publicity surrounding the film mention how many real spiders died in the name of cinema.

* Fun, Creepy Fact: Thankfully, there’s nothing yet discovered to quite match the ferocity or lethal capabilities of the creatures in the film, but if you’re thinking this sort of thing is merely the domain of Hollywood nightmare-spinners, colonial spiders are really a thing

 
Arachnophobia occupies a sweet spot, appealing to a broad audience with a nice mix of fright and comedy, but doesn’t alienate hardcore horror fans or casual genre filmgoers. It compares favorably to other films, such as Jaws, Tremors (released the same year as Arachnophobia), and Piranha, which remind us good stories and performances go hand in hand with the shocks. It’s effective because it amplifies our basic fears. Most of us have little to be concerned about our arachnid friends – they do much more good than harm, keeping a vast population of pests in check. But most of us probably would prefer if they stay outside, where they belong. As tolerant as I am regarding spiders, everything breaks down when my world collides with theirs. Even if you don’t have arachnophobic tendencies, you’ll likely check inside your shoes, clothing and other potential hiding places after giving this movie a watch. Is that prickling sensation on your skin nothing but an itch, or something else? Arachnophobia is a machine that exploits our innate disdain (at least most of us) for creepy crawlies, and does it very well.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (aka: Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster)




(1971) Directed by Yoshimitsu Banno; Written by Yoshimitsu Banno and Takeshi Kimura; Starring: Akira Yamauchi, Toshie Kimura, Hiroyuki Kawase, Toshio Shiba and Keiko Mari; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***

“I just planned a regular movie, but when I look on the internet some people seem to evaluate it like a pop art or surrealist film.” – Yoshimitsu Banno (from 2014 interview for SciFi Japan TV Extra)

“Why complain about it? Green pastures exist only in our hearts now. Let’s sing. Let’s dance! Let’s at least use our energy to make a stand!” – Yukio Keuchi (Toshio Shiba)


After his auspicious debut in 1954’s Gojira (or Godzilla, King of the Monsters on these shores), the big gray reptile enjoyed a rocky career against many worthy and not-so-worthy opponents, vacillating between villain and hero. The strangest was yet to come, however, with 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Gojira tai Hedora in Japan, or alternatively, Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster),* filled with non-sequitur psychedelic dance sequences, trippy music and animated portions. For this entry, director/co-writer Yoshimitsu Banno took the already time-worn elements of what we’ve come to expect from a Godzilla film, dumped them on the floor, and rearranged the pieces in his own mosaic. The results created a rift between Godzilla fans, who felt it trashed the series or brought life into it.  

* Fun Fact: Godzilla vs. Hedorah featured one of the final appearances of the late Haruo Nakajima, who portrayed the title kaiju since Gojira in 1954.  


From the movie’s opening title sequence, we can tell this isn’t going to be the same old, same old. A factory belches smoke in front of Mt. Fuji, followed by shots of garbage floating in the sea. This pastiche of pollution’s greatest hits is juxtaposed with James Bond-esque shots of a singer wiggling to the title song. In a final shot, a broken clock (Signifying time’s up?) floats among other ocean-borne detritus. Only a few minutes into this, I’m wondering if someone slipped something extra in my coffee. I don’t have much time to process what I just watched, because it gets weirder. Hedorah rises from the ocean, the product toxic sludge, garbage and sewage (Yep folks, Hedorah is essentially a poop monster). After years of abuse to Mother Earth, it’s time to pay the piper. The monster feeds off of industrial smoke, leaving a cloud of caustic fumes in its wake, and a trail of death and destruction. Godzilla makes his appearance, accompanied by some oddly comical music (Akira Ifukube’s signature theme is nowhere to be found), and he’s not pleased with the state of things.


Tokyo gets a well-deserved respite from destruction this time around, with most of the action occurring in Suruga Bay* and the surrounding locale. Our grade-school protagonist Ken (Hiroyuki Kawase) and his father Dr. Yano (Akira Yamauchi) try to uncover Hedorah’s secrets, discovering four stages for the shape-shifting kaiju: aquatic, terrestrial, airborne, followed by an unknown phase. Although Earth-bound pollutants brought Hedorah to life, Dr. Yano speculates a meteor brought Hedorah to Earth from “a sticky, dark planet,” but aside from a few pictures of celestial objects, there’s not much to support this theory. Meanwhile, Ken’s uncle Yukio (Toshio Shiba) and his girlfriend Keiko (Miki Fujiyama) combat the toxic menace with music and dancing (I’m not really sure how this is supposed to help).

* Not so Fun Fact: The heavily polluted region set a real-life precedent for the movie, as described in this vintage New York Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/1970/08/17/archives/japan-urged-to-save-polluted-harbor.html.


Amidst all the unconventional stuff, Godzilla vs. Hedorah follows the usual formula:  Godzilla tangles with the bad guy, and the bad guy prevails, but only for the moment – we know our favorite mutant dinosaur isn’t down for the count. Alas, that’s where convention ends and Banno’s vision begins. One of the advantages of being a casual kaiju film fan is that I don’t have a fit over what’s supposedly canon, which is a good thing when trying to make sense of this movie. When Banno came onboard, he threw a lot out the window. In one sequence, when Hedorah attempts to escape, Godzilla pursues him by taking flight,* using his atomic breath as propulsion (He does what? In this movie he does.). Banno’s film is full of so many crazy moments, it’s difficult to pin down only one or two things. There’s a Lovecraftian vibe running through the movie, starting with Hedorah’s design, with its tendril-laden face, which has more than a passing resemblance to Cthulhu. In one scene, dancers in a club suddenly transform into fish-headed monstrosities that could have sprung from Dagon.

* Fun Fact: According to Banno, he created Godzilla’s flying scene so it could be easily edited out if Toho disapproved.


It’s not too surprising this was the first and last Godzilla film that Banno directed, but it’s one of cinema’s tragedies that he never directed anything else (producer Tomoyuki Tanaka reportedly wasn’t pleased with the results). It’s also not much of a revelation the big guy will ultimately prevail, but this one ends on a tentative note. We know it’s only a matter of time before another Hedorah surfaces. Humanity has only gained a brief reprieve by tackling the symptoms but not the cause. We haven’t learned much in the ensuing decades since Godzilla vs. Hedorah. Considering the poor state of the planet these days, it’s about time for Hedorah to re-surface. Unfairly maligned for many years, this Godzilla film like no other deserves re-evaluation on its own terms, as a silly movie about a serious topic.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

July Quick Picks and Pans – Hammer Month II




The Snorkel (1958) After her mother’s supposed suicide, Candy (Mandy Miller) suspects her stepfather is the real cause for the unexpected death. Candy also accuses him of killing her father, years earlier. Unfortunately, no one believes Candy, writing it off as mere flights of fancy. The suspense mounts as Candy attempts to gather evidence, fearing she’ll be next on his hit list. Peter van Eyck is chilling as Paul Decker, Candy’s sociopathic stepfather, who wants his hands on a lucrative inheritance, and wears everyone’s doubt like a protective shroud. As the audience we’re a mute witness to Candy’s plight, as she tries in vain to reveal Paul’s scheme. Thanks to Kerry from Prowler Needs a Jump for suggesting this little overlooked gem.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD


Cash on Demand (1961) Peter Cushing and André Morrell star as a banker and extortionist, respectively, in this taut thriller from director Quentin Lawrence. Cushing displays great range in his role as Harry Fordyce, a fastidious man, forced into a situation that will test his values to the limit. Morrell is also excellent as the ruthless but charming criminal master mind Colonel Gore Hepburn, who holds Fordyce’s wife and son as collateral for the 93,000 pounds resting in the bank safe. You can practically see the wheels turning inside Cushing’s head as his character looks for a way to save his family and his reputation. The tension is palpable as the two match wits. Most of the film works so well that it’s easy to forgive Cash on Demand’s hasty ending, which wraps things up too neatly. Otherwise, it’s a solid effort by all involved.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD


Paranoiac (1963) Director Freddie Francis and writer Jimmy Sangster’s Hitchcock-flavored suspense film is a disturbing portrait of a family caught in the grip of mental illness. Alcoholic playboy Simon (Oliver Reed) lives with his mentally unstable sister Eleanor (Janette Scott) in their deceased parents’ mansion. Meanwhile, their domineering aunt (Sheila Burrell) keeps a watchful eye on the family fortune. Things take an odd turn when their long-dead (or is he?) brother Tony (Alexander Davion) returns, laying claim to their sizable inheritance. It’s not about the myriad plot twists and turns, but the performances by Reed and Scott which make this film particularly memorable, along with one of the creepiest masks in Hammer history.
   
Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD


The Phantom of the Opera (1962) This classy adaptation of the venerable Gaston Leroux story by director Terence Fisher and writer Anthony Hinds (under the pseudonym John Elder) is watchable, but takes an otherwise by-the-numbers approach to the material. Herbert Lom is fine as the brooding title character, but the real standout is Michael Gough as the duplicitous and lecherous composer Lord Ambrose d'Arcy.  The atmosphere is suitably effective, and the sets reflect Hammer’s knack for doing a lot with relatively little, but the romance between Christine (Heather Sears) and Harry Hunter (Edward de Souza) fails to ignite many sparks.
  
Rating: ***. Available on Blu-ray (Region B) and DVD


 Stolen Face (1952) Paul Henreid stars in this well-acted and capably directed (by Terence Fisher) Hammer noir. Gifted plastic surgeon (Is there any other kind in this type of film?) Dr. Philip Ritter goes on holiday and falls in love with a beautiful concert pianist (Lizabeth Scott). Trouble is, she’s already engaged to another man. He returns to his work, a broken man, and concocts a plan to reconstruct the face of a scarred felon. He reshapes her visage to match his unrequited love, and marries the ex-con, in a misguided effort to mend her wayward lifestyle. Things go about as well as you would expect, as she reverts to her old ways of petty thievery and hanging with an unsavory crowd. But it gets weirder, when Dr. Ritter’s old flame enters the picture again, and wants to pick up where they left off. Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with her doppelganger. It’s an interesting, albeit off-putting premise, with an ending that’s a bit too convenient, and better than Dr. Ritter deserves.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD


One Million Years B.C. (1966) The film’s trailer touted, “Not since time began, has the primitive scene been captured for the screen with such imaginative realism.” Uh… right. Anyone seeking scientific accuracy should probably look elsewhere, but One Million Years B.C. deserves credit where it’s due. There are some nice stop-motion effects by Ray Harryhausen, along with some not-so-special effects featuring a giant projected iguana and tarantula. Of course, the film’s raison d'être, Raquel Welch (But why is Martine Beswick always overlooked?) supplies some special effects of her own, which should be reason enough for some folks to check this out. Sure, it’s silly and inconsequential, but not bad as brainless fun for a lazy Saturday morning.

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