Thursday, May 13, 2021

The Hidden

The Hidden Poster

(1987) Directed by Jack Sholder; Written by Jim Kouf (as Bob Hunt); Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Nouri, Claudia Christian, Clu Gulager, Ed Ross and William Boyett; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½ 

“In a span of 12 hours, I’ve got five bodies, not counting Miller, who dies because he runs out of blood. A stripper screws some guy to death, steals his car, and takes off. All of this in 12 hours. I wanna ask you, am I crazy, or does this seem just a little bizarre?” – Tom Beck (Michael Nouri)

Beck and Lloyd

One of the ubiquitous staples of the 1980s was the cop buddy film, featuring two partners who couldn’t be more ill-suited for each other (the more mismatched, the better). In director Jack Sholder’s sci-fi actioner The Hidden, someone decided, why not make one of the cops an extraterrestrial (a mini-trope that would continue with the following year’s Alien Nation)? Sholder’s modestly budgeted film was shot in various locations around Los Angeles – an ideal place for an antagonist that craves excess.

Robber with Ferrari

In the opening scene, we witness a robbery in progress, viewed from the low-res, black-and-white perspective of a bank’s security camera. After departing the bank and fatally shooting a guard, the assailant (Chris Mulkey) promptly hops in a Ferrari 308.* The resulting chase winds through city streets, a park (shot in MacArthur Park), ending in a police blockade and shootout. The captured suspect, now hanging onto life in an intensive care ward, has another trick up his sleeve. We discover that he’s merely a vessel for a creature living inside. Before he expires, the alien being finds another unwilling host, and what should have been the end of the story is only the beginning for Los Angeles police detective Tom Beck (Michael Nouri). The growing string of murders, thefts and assaults prompt FBI intervention, much to Beck’s disdain. The visiting agent (who seems to know more about what they’re dealing with than he’s telling) and irascible cop form an uneasy alliance, in pursuit of the elusive criminal.

* Fun Fact #1: According to Sholder (in his Warner Archive Blu-ray commentary), the producers tried to talk him into using a cheaper car such as a Corvette, but the director insisted on smashing up a Ferrari. Four cars were utilized for the production: an incomplete “shell” the filmmakers could blow up, one in fair shape, and two in good condition.

Lloyd

Kyle MacLachlan stands out, in a purposely restrained performance, as FBI agent Lloyd Gallagher. MacLachlan does a nice job conveying a spacey, almost otherworldly quality, in a role that prefigures his career-defining stint as Special Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks. He’s young and clean cut, with an aww shucks boy scout demeanor, but there’s something a bit off about him. As Beck’s inquiries about his new partner confirm, something doesn’t quite add up. He’s not ready to accept the truth about Lloyd, who’s inextricably linked with the criminal. Lloyd and his slippery (in more ways than one) quarry represent different sides of the same coin. Both inhabit host bodies, and have a fondness for powerful, flashy sports cars (while the criminal alien prefers Ferraris, Lloyd drives a Porsche 928). Why they love such a primitive means of conveyance (how they reached Earth in the first place is never explained) remains a mystery. Maybe an internal combustion vehicle would be considered forbidden fruit on their respective home worlds, or perhaps they secretly envy humans’ propensity for conspicuous consumption. I guess we’ll never know.

Alien in Stripper Form

The film’s premise (a hedonistic creature that jumps from body to body, using and abusing its host bodies until they’re of no further use), necessitates passing the baton from one actor to another. Sholder skillfully manages to keep the performances relatively consistent as the creature jumps from character to character (including a dog). While each actor brings his or her own inflection to the table (a believable byproduct of the host organisms’ residual personality/identity), all of the performances share some common traits: impulsivity, absence of affect, and a devilish flick of the tongue. When the creature jumps to the body of an overweight, middle-aged man (William Boyett), he’s the embodiment of midlife crisis, amplified to extremes. In one comic scene, he sits in a family diner, blasting his boombox, oblivious to the irritated stares of the other patrons. His attention is soon diverted by a flashy red convertible, which he soon obtains through nefarious means. In a later scene, when the alien finds a new host, in the body of a stripper (played by Claudia Christian, several years before she would star in Babylon 5), it uses its newly acquired feminine charms as a weapon.

 

Lloyd and Beck

Outside of the flashy red cars, the color green predominates the urban landscape. Production designers C.J. and Mick Strawn avoided blue, whenever possible, painting the walls a sickly shade of green throughout, to create a slightly unsettling effect (according to Sholder). The filmmakers used the old Lincoln Heights jail building,* incorporating the police office sets into the existing structure. Compared to many other genre films, the effects work is sparse but memorable. The briefly seen creature effects by Kevin Yagher Productions (including future KNB Effects co-founder, Howard Berger) hold up especially well. The effects are suitably nauseating, as the parasitic alien makes its appearance.

* Fun Fact #2: Eagle-eyed viewers will undoubtedly spot Danny Trejo, in a miniscule early role, as one of the jail’s occupants.

Lloyd with Ray Gun

The Hidden follows the conventions of many buddy copy movies, without falling victim to most of the usual clichés. The primary distinction (and it’s a big one), is that Jack Sholder’s film never takes itself too seriously, with moments of humor peppered throughout. It also has heart, best illustrated when Lloyd visits Beck’s family, lamenting the wife and daughter that he lost to the alien criminal. With its body-jumping plot, amidst the L.A. backdrop, the film provides a sly commentary about image, mass-consumerism, and disposable culture. True to its name, The Hidden has slipped through the cracks in recent years, but it deserves to be re-discovered and enjoyed by a new generation of genre fans.   

Saturday, May 1, 2021

Bug Month Quick Picks and Pans

 

The Hellstrom Chronicle Poster

The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971) Dr. Nils Hellstrom (Lawrence Pressman) serves as our guide to the overlooked world of insects and arachnids in this pseudo-documentary, directed by Walon Green and Ed Spiegel. Supposedly shunned by the academic community for his controversial theories, Hellstrom opines that our days on Earth are numbered. In contrast, the insects, which have successfully reigned for 300 million years, continue to thrive. After you’ve watched the scenes depicting the hidden worlds of insects, and their complex organized societies, it might be hard to disagree. The heart of the film is the captivating macro-photography by Ken Middleham, who would go on to shoot the insect sequences for Phase IV (1974). Even after 50 years, and the subsequent advancements in imaging technology, the sequences are nothing short of mesmerizing. Despite some narrative hyperbole, the film provides much to consider, including an environmental message that we’re killing ourselves with pollution and pesticides.

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

The Wasp Woman Poster

The Wasp Woman (1959) This cautionary tale from director Roger Corman explores the hazards of chasing the proverbial fountain of youth. After serving as the CEO and spokesperson for her cosmetics firm for the past 18 years, Janice Starlin (Susan Cabot) is beginning to show her age. She hires a researcher with dubious credentials (Michael Mark) who’s developed an experimental therapy, using royal jelly from wasps. Starlin begins to see dramatic results, but it comes at a cost when she transforms into a hideous wasp-human creature that devours her victims. The film has a bit of a slow start, but hits its stride halfway through. Part of the fun is spotting the Corman regulars, including Barboura Morris as Starlin’s secretary, and Bruno VeSota as an unfortunate night watchman. 

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

The Black Scorpion Poster

The Black Scorpion (1957) Richard Denning stars as Hank Scott, an American geologist studying an erupting volcano in rural Mexico (where for some reason, everyone seems to speak English). When he explores a local village that’s inexplicably deserted, he deduces something deadly has been unleashed. Mara Corday plays Teresa Alvarez, a rancher, who’s affected by the mystery creatures. Hank has about as much charisma as a chunk of obsidian, but somehow Teresa falls for him (If you ask me, she’d be better off with Hank’s colleague, Artur, but no one asked). Unsurprisingly, the real highlights are the creepy giant scorpions, animated by Ray Harryhausen’s mentor, Willis O’Brien. It all leads to a climactic, albeit convenient showdown in a Mexico City stadium. Good fun.  

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

Mr. Bug Goes to Town Poster

Mr. Bug Goes to Town (aka: Bugville, and Hoppity Goes to Town) (1941) This mostly forgotten animated musical from Dave Fleischer has its moments. A group of anthropomorphic bugs flourish in their tiny village, unaware that they’re about to be uprooted by a big skyscraper development project. Hoppity the grasshopper (Stan Freed) is in love with Honey the bee (Pauline Loth), but the wealthy C. Bagley Beetle (Tedd Pierce) tries everything in his power to put a stop to their romance. Most of the plot hinges upon a missing check for their human benefactor, Dick Dickson (Kenny Gardner), who’s provided a safe haven for the bugs in his garden. When Dick loses his house, the fate of the bugs is in question. Most of the songs (except perhaps for Hoagy Carmichael’s “Katie Did, Katie Didn’t”) are forgettable, and some of the throwaway gags (including some unfortunate racial caricatures) haven’t aged well. Most of the character design isn’t particularly distinctive, and the story is similarly unfocused. It might be worth a look, however, to see what other animation studios outside of Disney were up to.

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

The Deadly Bees Poster

The Deadly Bees (1966) After pop singer Vicki Robbins (Suzanna Leigh) suffers a nervous breakdown in a TV studio, her manager sends her someplace peaceful, away from the limelight. She arrives at a secluded island community, where two rival beekeepers (played by Guy Doleman and Frank Finlay) are in the midst of a quiet feud. Meanwhile, a swarm of killer bees (depicted with some dodgy effects) threaten the vicinity. This slow-paced (and I mean slow) movie never quite hits its stride in the excitement department. If you’re looking for a thrill a minute (or even every half-hour), look elsewhere. Despite the usually reliable director Freddie Francis and co-writer Robert Bloch, this slight Amicus horror film is far too tame for its own good. It’s always nice to see Michael Ripper pop up, though, even if it’s the usual barkeep role (at least he gets a few more lines in this one).

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

The Naked Jungle Poster

The Naked Jungle (1954) This adaptation of Carl Stephenson’s short story, “Leiningen Versus the Ants,” by production/direction team of George Pal and Byron Haskin, is a mixed bag. Joanna (Eleanor Parker) arrives from New Orleans to meet her husband, Christopher Leningen (Charlton Heston), sight unseen, to a plantation in the middle of the South American jungle (the country is never specified). She begins to question her choices when Leningen turns out to different from the man she envisioned, and an immense roving colony of army ants 20 miles long and 2 miles wide threatens the plantation. The Naked Jungle takes a while to get going, and the film’s pro-colonialism stance is hard to take. Also, for most of the movie Leningen is an insufferable misogynist, whose abrupt change of heart never quite rings true. There are a few tense moments, once the ants arrive, but most of the movie suffers from too much Hollywood schmaltz (you expect Joanna to break into song any moment) and not enough authenticity.  

Rating: **½. Available on DVD

 

The Deadly Mantis Poster

The Deadly Mantis (1957) It’s never a good sign when a movie starts with a lengthy explanation about the North American early warning system, which simply sets the stage for more exposition to follow. A giant prehistoric praying mantis has been accidentally unleashed in the arctic. The behemoth predatory insect kills everything in its path, while making its way south to a warmer climate. It’s evident that the filmmakers didn’t have enough material for a full-length movie, so the majority of the running time is padded out with stock footage and a dull romantic subplot (between stars Craig Stevens and Alix Talton). Unlike the rest of the film, steeped in Cold War paranoia, the mantis holds up well, thanks to some good effects.

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

Monster from Green Hell Poster

Monster from Green Hell (1957) An experimental rocket lands in Africa (yep, just “Africa”), and a team of researchers travel to the continent to retrieve the craft and its valuable data. The researchers, led by Dr. Quent Brady and Dan Morgan (Jim Davis and Robert Griffin) encounter a region that the natives call “Green Hell,” where giant killer wasps reside. The movie is filled with interminable scenes of the characters walking, insipid narration that adds little to the story, and a bland lead who does nothing. The giant wasps that don’t resemble wasps in the slightest are sort of cool, but they’re only in a few scenes. Unfortunately, you’re forced to sit through the movie to get to any halfway decent parts, and in the end, viewers are rewarded with an anticlimactic ending. If you must watch it, keep your thumb on that fast-forward button.

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

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Mimic

 

Mimic Poster

(1997) Directed by Guillermo del Toro; Written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins; Based on the short story, “Mimic,” by Donald A. Wollheim; Starring: Mira Sorvino, Jeremy Northam, Alexander Goodwin, Giancarlo Giannini, Charles S. Dutton and Josh Brolin; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½ 

“There was something in this movie that forced me, like the Mimics, to evolve into something different. It was perhaps not quite human, if you look at my body proportions, but certainly made me survive, and made me find my own voice and my own personality, visually…” – Guillermo del Toro (from Director’s Cut Blu-ray commentary)

Dr. Tyler with Bug

If there’s one cohesive theme throughout Bug Month, it’s that our days as the Earth’s dominant species might be numbered. Many of us view insects as inferior lifeforms, unworthy of our attention. It could only take a little push to upset the balance, tipping the scales in their favor. Mimic suggests that this day of reckoning, thanks to our hubris, could be much closer than we think.

Mimic in Subway Station

Guillermo del Toro’s second feature film introduced the then 33-year-old writer/director to the rewards and pitfalls of Hollywood filmmaking. While working with Miramax* afforded him the comparatively vast resources of a larger production (with a $30 million budget, compared to around $2 million for his debut feature, Cronos), it created a great deal of friction for the filmmaker and his vision. The director constantly clashed with an endless parade of producers, including Bob and Harvey Weinstein,** resulting in myriad of arguments over virtually every aspect of the production. As a result, the theatrical cut that was released in theaters represented a compromised, watered-down version of del Toro’s original concept.*** For the purposes of this review, I took a look at the so-called “Director’s Cut,”**** which is probably the closest we’ll ever get to what del Toro originally intended.

* Note: Above all, the most disturbing issue behind the scenes was Ms. Sorvino’s ongoing harassment by Miramax head, Harvey Weinstein.   

** Note II: In a 2017 interview, del Toro commented, “My first American experience was almost my last because it was with the Weinsteins and Miramax. I have got to tell you, two horrible things happened in the late nineties, my father was kidnapped and I worked with the Weinsteins. I know which one was worse… the kidnapping made more sense; I knew what they wanted.” (excerpted from IndieWire article by Zack Sharf)

*** Fun Fact #1: At the insistence of Miramax, the original script from del Toro and Matthew Robbins was subjected to numerous re-writes by some of Hollywood’s most prominent figures, including John Sayles, Steven Soderburgh, and Matthew Greenberg.

**** Fun Fact #2: According to del Toro, much of the second-unit work (shot by Robert Rodriguez, among others), which was utilized in the theatrical cut, was removed for the “Director’s Cut.”

Dr. Tyler's Lab

The opening scene establishes that New York City is besieged by Strickler’s disease (not to be confused with Stickler syndrome), a deadly epidemic that strikes children.* Dr. Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino), a brilliant young entomologist, develops a new species of insect,** the “Judas Breed” (incorporating some DNA from cockroaches, termites and mantids), to combat the roaches that carry the contagion. Initial results are promising, but in the researcher’s zeal to solve one problem, she creates a potentially larger one. Dr. Tyler discovers that the new species, left to its own devices in the secluded lower recesses of the New York subway system, is thriving. The bugs were genetically engineered to be sterile, but to borrow a phrase from a certain popular dinosaur movie, “Life, uh…finds a way.” If left unchecked, this new life form could threaten the population of New York City and beyond.

* Fun Fact #3: The stylized opening scene (excised from the theatrical cut) became another bone of contention when the producers asserted the set didn’t resemble a real-life hospital.

** Fun Fact #4: According to del Toro, he originally wanted the Mimics to be based on the White Oak Borer Beetle, but Miramax executives (apparently associating NYC with another common insect) insisted that cockroaches should be the star of the show.

Dr. Tyler and Dr. Mann

Sorvino is likeable in her lead, relaxed performance as intrepid researcher Dr. Tyler. Not quite as convincing is Jeremy Northam as her husband (and CDC official), Dr. Peter Mann, the film’s nominal hero. It’s not terribly surprising that his performance never quite gels, considering Northam wasn’t del Toro’s first choice to play the character (del Toro wanted an African American actor to play Dr. Mann, but the shortsighted producers objected to the inclusion of an interracial couple). Possibly because of the script revisions and cuts, some other characters are reduced to bit roles: F. Murray Abraham as Dr. Tyler’s mentor, Dr. Gates, and Josh Brolin as an unlucky police detective.  

Chuy

The most intriguing supporting character is Chuy (Alexander Goodwin), a young neurodivergent boy with uncanny powers of observation. Chuy possesses an innate talent for determining shoe size on sight and, most importantly, imitating the clicking sounds of the human-sized insects. Rather than feeling revulsion, he seems entranced by the Mimics’ odd appearance, referring to one of them as “Mr. Funny Shoes.” Unlike everyone else who has encountered them, he doesn’t display fear, which proves to be his protection. He forms a special connection with the creatures through communication, clicking spoons to mimic the Mimics.

Leonard

A common theme in del Toro’s films is how he shines the spotlight on marginalized people. In Mimic, he illustrates how individuals can appear to be little more than insects to the upwardly mobile. Manny (Giancarlo Giannini),* runs a humble shoe shine business in a bustling subway station. His grandson Chuy, who possesses unique patterns of cognition and interpreting the world, seemingly exists in a world of his own. The film draws further parallels to our hierarchical society, with a group of sweat shop workers who fall prey to the Mimics. The people behind the garment manufacturer are no less predatory or unfeeling than the Mimics (one shot lingers on a label that reads “Proudly Made in the USA,” reminding us the means don’t necessarily justify the end). One of del Toro’s many talents is featuring characters you might initially write off, infusing them with nuances that make them rise above plot devices. On the surface, beat cop Leonard (Charles S. Dutton) is just another cog feeding into a bureaucracy, but he proves to be much more, versed in the rich, forgotten history of the subway system, and a snarky sense of humor (he also delivers the film’s best line).

* Fun Fact #5: Before Giannini was cast in the role of Manny, the studio considered other actors, including Ian Holm, Max von Sydow, and André Gregory. The director’s initial choice was Federico Luppi (ultimately rejected because his English was a bit shaky), who appeared in del Toro’s previous film, Cronos (1993), and subsequent production, The Devil’s Backbone (2001).

Mimic

The distinctive look of the title creatures is the main attraction. Aiming for something that appeared real, rather than fanciful, del Toro insisted on a “National Geographic” approach, eschewing features that didn’t already exist in the insect world.* Designed by TyRuben Ellingson and refined by effects virtuoso Rob Bottin, the Mimics were brought to life through puppetry effects by Rick Lazzarini.** The creature design accounted for factors that limited the size of insects and other arthropods, incorporating lungs and a modified exoskeleton more suited to a much larger organism. The icing on the creepy cake is a bipedal creature that presents a crude, albeit effective approximation of our appearance. The result is at once mesmerizing and unnerving.    

* Fun Fact #6: In another battle (which del Toro thankfully won), the producers were perturbed that the Mimics looked too much like bugs, as opposed to some alien life form. They suggested adding teeth, gums and hair – none of which are present in insect anatomy.

** Fun Fact #7: Among Lazzarini’s memorable prior contributions were the Budweiser frogs, which appeared in a series of popular commercials in the ‘90s.

Trapped in a Subway Car

As with all of his films, del Toro incorporates layers of substance into his style. Catholic iconography figures prominently throughout, signifying the intersection of the spiritual and concrete (science-minded) worlds. The use of color also presents a stark contrast, with vivid golds and blues, representing the juxtaposition of the human and insect realms. In his commentary, del Toro described another theme throughout the film, as a contrast between fecundity (the Mimics) and infertility (Dr. Tyler’s personal struggles to conceive a child).  

Mimic in Subway Tunnel

Guillermo del Toro referred to his movie as an “imperfect child,” an apt description for the end product of too many chefs meddling with the recipe. In his “Director’s Cut” commentary, he takes a philosophical (and likely diplomatic) outlook to his ordeal grappling with the multiple producers. While his vision was inevitably compromised, the painful process of give and take helped map a future blueprint for his filmmaking methodology. Mimic is a film full of great ideas, memorable imagery, creatures that evoke chills, and a top-notch Marco Beltrami score. It suffers from a few too many loose ends, undeveloped characters, and an ending that’s far too pat (the original, un-filmed, ending envisioned a much darker conclusion which seemed more in line with del Toro’s sensibilities). Even if Mimic falls a bit short at times, it’s well worth a look (especially the Director’s Cut), to spot the elements del Toro would continue to refine and develop, to great effect, in his subsequent films. 

Sources for this article: Director’s Cut Blu-ray commentary; Guillermo del Toro – Cabinet of Curiosities, by Guillermo del Toro and Marc Scott Zicree; “Guillermo del Toro ‘Hated the Experience’ of Working withHarvey Weinstein on ‘Mimic’,” by Zack Sharf, IndieWire  

Sunday, April 18, 2021

Tarantula

Tarantula Poster

(1955) Directed by Jack Arnold; Written by Robert M. Fresco and Martin Berkeley; Story by Jack Arnold and Robert M. Fresco; Starring: John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll, Nestor Paiva and Ross Elliott; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ***½ 

Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar): “But what if circumstances magnified one of them in size and strength, took it out of its primitive world and turned it loose in ours?”

Professor Townsend (Raymond Bailey): “Then expect something that's fiercer, more cruel and deadly than anything that ever walked the earth.”

Tarantula on the Highway

What is it about the Arizona desert* that makes it the ideal setting for a bug movie? Phase IV (1974) and Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) are two notable examples that exploited the arid, unforgiving climate. As these films, and today’s featured title, would have you believe, the vast desert landscape is the perfect place to conceal something terrible under our very noses. Universal International’s** fourth collaboration between producer William Alland and director Jack Arnold (after It Came from Outer Space, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Revenge of the Creature) was based on co-writer Robert M. Fresco’s*** original script for Science Fiction Theater episode, “No Food for Thought.” The most significant tweak to the original story was to add a giant spider. Produced on a modest $334,000 budget, Tarantula utilized real footage of a live spider, in lieu of stop-motion animation or puppetry, (with the exception of a mock-up of the big creature’s face, used for close-ups). 

* Fun Fact #1: Tarantula was actually filmed in the California desert, in the town of Apple Valley, where the cast and crew had to contend with temperatures reaching 120 degrees (Fahrenheit). One scene features a prominent geological formation called Deadman’s Point, which was duplicated in miniature for a rockslide. 

** Fun Fact #2: According to David Schecter, while the music is commonly attributed to Herman Stein and Henry Mancini, much of the score in the film was a hodge-podge of various snippets from the voluminous Universal library. Among the components “borrowed” from other films were cues from This Island Earth (1955) and It Came from Outer Space (1953). 

*** Fun Fact #3: According to an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, Fresco claimed that he was forced to give Arnold co-credit for the story, although Arnold supposedly didn’t write any of it. 

Deemers, Hastings and Sheriff Andrews

Genre movie stalwart John Agar stars as small-town family physician, Dr. Matt Hastings, who suspects something’s rotten in the state of Arizona. He’s called in by the local sheriff to examine the body of Eric Jacobs, a man who collapsed in the desert. The corpse’s distorted features indicate acromegaly (erroneously referred to as “acromegalia” in the film), which usually develops over years instead of days. Signs point to the esteemed Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll), who employed Jacobs in his home-based laboratory.*/** Deemer is tinkering with a hormone, which accelerates aging and results in rapid growth. Although he views his research as a possible solution to world hunger, it’s not so good for Jacobs, or a second lab assistant, Bob Lund,*** both who succumbed to the serum’s deleterious side effects. Lund blames Deemer for his disfigurement, attacking the scientist and throwing the lab equipment into disarray. In the ensuing scuffle, Lund smashes the glass to an enclosure for one of the test subjects, an enlarged tarantula, enabling the critter to escape.**** As a final insult, Lund injects the professor with a dose of his own medicine, ensuring that he’ll meet the same awful fate.  

* Fun Fact #5: Professor Deemers’ home was the “Dabney House,” on Universal’s backlot, built for the 1948 film Tap Roots. It was also featured, with different backdrops, in genre favorites This Island Earth (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956).

** While we’re on the subject of Professor Deemers, what’s the deal about scientists with home labs? As countless movies would lead you to believe, every scientist worth his or her salt is independently wealthy, with their place of research conveniently situated within their own home.* Naturally, it’s all the better to carry out ethically dubious skullduggery on the sly, free from reliance on grants or the prying eyes of pesky university/government officials.

*** Fun Fact #4: If you feel a sense of déjà vu while watching this movie, your perceptions aren’t entirely unfounded. Stuntman Eddie Parker appears three times in the film, as Deemers’ lab partner Eric Jacobs, the sole ground crew who meets Dr. Hastings’ plane, and Paul Lund, his second lab assistant.

**** The mind reels, wondering what would have happened if one of the other lab animals had made their way out instead, such as an oversized guinea pig (nope, they didn’t use a capybara). I’m sure I speak for others when I state that Attack of the Giant Guinea Pig is something I would like to have seen.

Deemers and Tarantula

As with most super-sized creature movies, a healthy suspension of disbelief is required. In the real world, spiders (and other arthropods) are limited in size due to several factors. Chiefly, the gargantuan tarantula depicted in the film* wouldn’t be able to absorb enough oxygen with its current breathing apparatus, and its exoskeleton would be too heavy and unwieldly. And speaking of exoskeletons, considering the spider’s rapid growth, you’d think there would be several molts lying around. In another bit of artistic license, the tarantula roars, but we’ll let this slide.  

* Fun Fact #6: According to Weaver, five tarantulas were cast for the role of the titular creature, although the film’s pressbook apparently claimed a much larger number were used.

Deemers and Steve

Tarantula stays a cut above many of its giant bug contemporaries, because it never forgets that while we’re obviously here for the spider, the human characters* count. Director Arnold and crew takes a moment to get to know the characters as three-dimensional people, not simply props for exposition or a means to move the plot along. Hastings is an affable individual, as friendly as he’s inquisitive. Carroll lends a touch of class to the production, as a man deeply invested in his work. Stephanie “Steve” Clayton (Mara Corday), is pursuing her master’s degree in biology, and knows her stuff but has her work cut out for her, navigating the male-dominated academic and professional landscape depicted in the film. Character actor Nestor Paiva provides a welcome face, and adds some subtle humor to the film, as local sheriff, Jack Andrews. Hank Patterson also provides some levity as Josh, the hotel manager/resident busybody. The movie keeps things interesting, thanks to some snappy dialogue. When the dubious sheriff dismisses Hastings’ professional opinion over elder scientist Deemers, Hastings replies, “There’s nothing like the safety of prestige.”

* Fun Fact: Watch for a young Clint Eastwood, in a small role, as a jet fighter pilot. You almost expect him to ask the giant spider if it feels lucky (spoiler: He doesn’t, and it’s not).

Stephanie "Steve" Clayton

It wouldn’t be 1950s sci-fi without some unfortunate old-fashioned misogyny, lobbed against Steve. When Hastings learns about her professional aspirations the doctor comments, “Give women the vote and what do you get? Lady scientists.” When she finally meets Deemers, her new employer, the professor states that he didn’t expect his new assistant to look like her (not exactly a great beginning to their professional relationship). Even the big spider is part of the boys’ club. In a scene reminiscent of King Kong, the pervy arachnid sneaks a peek into Steve’s bedroom window while she’s in her jammies, just before it demolishes the house.  

Tarantula and the Town

Compared to the titular monster in Jack Arnold’s earlier movie, Creature from the Black Lagoon, the giant arachnid doesn’t have much personality, mindlessly roaming the desert and consuming everything in its path. Unlike King Kong, I don’t suspect many folks would shed a tear for the errant arachnid. What makes the film tower above much of the competition is its three-dimensional characters, dialogue and heart, keeping this from being a by-the-numbers exercise. Perhaps just a shade behind Gojira (1954) and Them! (1954), Tarantula remains one of the best giant critter movies of the ‘50s, or any decade.

Sources for this article: DVD commentary by Tom Weaver, Dr. Robert J Kiss, and David Schecter; Science World article, “Why Aren’t SpidersBigger?” 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Phase IV

 

Phase IV Poster

(1974) Directed by Saul Bass; Written by Mayo Simon; Starring: Nigel Davenport, Michael Murphy and Lynne Frederick; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: **** 

Note: This article is an expanded version of a capsule review, originally posted in November 2014. 

Ant Towers

“They’re not individuals. They’re individual cells. Tiny, functioning parts of the whole. Think of the society, James, with perfect harmony, perfect altruism and self-sacrifice, perfect division of labor organized for preordained roles. Think of the building of elaborate, complex structures according to plans they know nothing of, and execute perfectly. Think of their ability to evolve and adapt in ways that are so beautiful and still so unknown. And all contained in one simple form. So defenseless in the individual, so powerful in the mass.” – Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport)

Dr. Ernest Hubbs & Michael Murphy

For the bulk of recorded history, humankind has been complacent about our position in the grand scheme of things, confident in the assumption that we are the dominant life form on Earth. But what if another creature, unassuming in its diminutive size, was poised to usurp our throne? Saul Bass’ cerebral science fiction film, Phase IV asks us to reconsider how we rate in the universe, compared to the ants.* Bass, best known for creating the memorable title sequences for many classic films (including Psycho and West Side Story), made his one and only outing as a feature film director with this movie.

* Fun Fact #1: Need further proof? The total population of ants is estimated to number 1 quadrillion, and the largest colony (consisting of Argentine ants) occupies a 3,700-mile stretch of land along the Mediterranean.  

Aftermath from Pesticide

The opening narration informs us that unspecified “events in space” have upset the balance of life on Earth, leading to a profound shift in ant behavior. Cut to an abandoned housing project in the arid Arizona desert,* where the resident ants have successfully supplanted the human population. The desolate landscape sets the stage for a research project to observe the insects and their activities. An entomologist and his assistant, a statistician, collaborate to determine what the ants are planning. While the humans scratch their heads, they remain under the ever-watchful eyes of the colonial insects, perched within their unfathomable, monolithic towers.    

* Fun Fact #2: Many of the sequences in the “Arizona” desert were actually filmed in Kenya.

Dr. Hubbs, Kendra and James

The three primary characters represent a rough, albeit imperfect cross-section of society.  Lead researcher Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport)* parallels the ants in his single-minded pursuit of information, suspending emotion and compassion in favor of logic. His callous demeanor provides a stark contrast to the more balanced approach from his younger colleague, James Lesko (Michael Murphy). Lesko regards deciphering the ants’ patterns as a sort of game. Unlike Hubbs, however, he retains perspective about the stakes that are being played, as well as the human cost. In a scene when their compound is under siege, Hubbs resorts to releasing a powerful toxin against the ants. While fleeing their farm, a farmer and his wife (Alan Gifford and Helen Horton)** are caught in the crossfire, succumbing to the poison. Despite the fact that the pesticide caused their deaths, he’s more concerned with the ingenuity of the ants, as opposed to their lifeless bodies outside. After they rescue the couple’s teenage daughter Kendra Eldridge (Lynne Frederick)***, Lesko is ready to pull the plug on the project, but Hubbs is opposed to anything that would compromise his research. Compared to the two scientists, Kendra is an innocent, caught in the middle. Although she seems the most likely target for the ants and their abstruse schemes, all of them are being manipulated in oddly unique ways.

* Fun Fact #3: According to the DVD commentary, Davenport read for the part of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey

** Fun Fact #4: And while we’re on the subject of wayward artificial intelligence, Helen Horton, who appears briefly as Kendra’s grandmother, later provided the voice for the computer, MU-TH-UR 6000 (aka: “Mother”), in Alien (1979). 

*** Fun Fact #5: Per the DVD commentary, Linda Blair was once considered for the part of Kendra.  

Ant

Phase IV effectively depicts the hidden world of the ants and their society, providing a glimpse of an intelligence we can scarcely comprehend. The massive colony operates as a massive solitary organism, singular in its purpose, with every member committed to its goals, unfettered by emotion or mercy. While the pesticide released by Hubbs seemingly stops the colony dead in its tracks, it only proves to be a temporary setback. In one scene, the worker ants slowly and methodically move the deadly yellow congealed poison. They execute their plan little by little, with cold, unrelenting precision and the end goal continually in mind. Individual deaths don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, only the survival of the colony. The design of the desert research facility itself mimics the twisty chambers of the ants’ lair, with the scientists navigating the labyrinthine rows of equipment.

Ant

Few would dispute that Phase IV’s claim to fame is its stunning, immersive macrophotography by Ken Middleham (who previously worked on the 1971 pseudo-documentary, The Hellstrom Chronicle), affording viewers an unprecedented insect’s eye view. The ants scurry about in their tunnels, revealing a place as alien as anything our minds could imagine. The filmmakers never make the claim that no insects (or arachnids) were harmed in the making of this picture, as Phase IV unflinchingly illustrates the often brutal, merciless aspects of the ants’ lives. Dick Bush’s cinematography expertly complements Middleham’s images, with an emphasis on shapes and symmetry. In the film’s opening shot, what appears to be a field of stars pans out to reveal grains of sand. The shot gradually transitions to space, suggesting there are worlds within worlds. In another scene, the camera lingers on the enigmatic towers created by the ants, the angular tops turned toward the sky, in a crude mimicry of human faces. One of the film’s most disturbing images shows ants crawling out of a hand (also used in the film’s poster art) recalling a similar shot from the surrealist film, Un Chien Andalou (1929), by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.

Ants

As a result of studio meddling, Saul Bass’ original, dystopian-flavored ending was scrapped in favor of a shorter, more ambiguous conclusion. The hallucinatory sequence, once thought lost, can now be found on the UK Blu-ray from 101 Films, providing an interesting alternate, if not necessarily better, conclusion to the story. With or without the original ending, Phase IV remains a thoughtful exploration of a mystery. In the best tradition of 1970s cinema, the film raises more questions than it answers, reveling in its ambiguity, and unabashed in its downbeat implications. But what’s pessimistic for humankind is optimistic for ant society (Are the ants ushering in a new stage of human evolution, or are we simply a vehicle for the ants’ evolution?). It’s a science fiction movie that trusts the intelligence of the audience to fill in the blanks. Phase IV suggests that we don’t have all the answers, and success, as well as failure, is a necessary part of science. 

Sources for this article: 101 Films Blu-ray commentary by Allan Bryce and Richard Hollis; Ants.com; BBC Earth News, Ant Mega-Colony Takes Over World,” by Matt Walker 

 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

March Quick Picks and Pans

The Flesh and the Fiends Poster

The Flesh and the Fiends (1960) Director/co-writer John Gilling’s lurid dramatization of Burke and Hare’s real-life exploits is consistently compelling, remaining one of the best versions of the tale. George Rose and Donald Pleasence play the notorious pair of ne'er-do-wells who supply Dr. Robert Knox (Peter Cushing) with a supply of cadavers for his anatomy class. In order to meet demand (and line their pockets), they resort to more unsavory methods to procure the bodies. Cushing is at his icy best, as an amoral physician who believes the shadowy means justify the ends. The filmmakers do a nice job depicting the grimy streets of early 19th century Edinburgh, and balancing the sordid details with the ethical issues. At its heart, the film examines the value of life versus the value of medical breakthroughs. It also raises the age-old concern about class versus conscience, and how money and influence can sway judgment.

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

Butcher Baker Nightmare Maker Poster

Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker (1981) The highlight of this better-than-average psychological thriller is Susan Tyrrell’s off-the-rails performance as an aunt who takes enmeshment to the extreme. Billy (Jimmy McNichol), a 17-year-old high school student, dreams of getting a basketball scholarship, and going off to school in Colorado. It’s too bad his clinging aunt Cheryl (Tyrrell) has other ideas. After she kills a handyman in “self-defense,” Billy becomes prime suspect for the murder, and hounded by a hateful, homophobic police detective (Bo Svenson). The bodies pile up in a spectacularly bloody climax that has to be seen to be believed. It’s a head-scratcher in the best way (Fun Fact: Watch for Bill Paxton as a 26-year-old high school student). 

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray (all-region import), DVD (out of print) and Shudder

Santo and Blue Demon Against the Monsters Poster
 

Santo and Blue Demon Against the Monsters (Santo y Blue Demon Contra los Monstruos) (1969) Santo and Blue Demon may be rivals on the wrestling mat, but outside the ring, they’re an unstoppable crimefighting duo. They might have just met their match when a mad doctor brings his own army, including Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, a trio of vampires, and a bunch of henchmen (with blotchy green face paint). Friends become foes when the twisted genius creates an evil duplicate Blue Demon, for the sole purpose of destroying El Santo. Sure, it’s unabashedly silly and predictable, but who cares when it’s so much giddy fun? Was there ever a doubt that Santo and Blue Demon would prevail? Watch and enjoy.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

The Wagons Roll at Night Poster

The Wagons Roll at Night (1941) Humphrey Bogart stars as Nick Coster, a hard-nosed owner of a traveling circus/carnival who believes that business and family doesn’t mix.  He reaches the end of his rope when his little sister Mary (played by Joan Leslie, who was 16 at the time) falls for earnest young lion tamer Matt Varney (Eddie Albert). At times, The Wagons Roll at Night seems like two different movies, ultimately preferring to focus on a love triangle between Mary, Matt and Nick’s fortune-telling girlfriend Flo (Sylvia Sidney). The mix never quite satisfies, falling short of the gritty depiction of circus life that it wants to be. Albert’s character is too bland, and Bogart does his best with an underwritten, role. It’s a near miss, worth seeing once, if only to ponder what could have been.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Announcing the Christopher Lee Blogathon

 

The Christopher Lee Blogathon

Note: As my friends on Twitter can attest, it’s been a bit of a rough week, with my family’s beloved cat, Buster, missing. Despite this unfortunate setback, I have decided that “the show must go on,” so I can give everyone ample time for the following event…***QUICK UPDATE: Buster has been found, and is alive and well!*** 

Christopher Lee - Dracula

After a year-long blogathon hiatus, Yours Truly and blogging partner extraordinaire, Gill Jacob of Realweegiemidget Reviews, are hosting two (you read it right) blogathons in 2021. Although you’ll have to wait a little longer for the second announcement, today we’re officially unveiling the Christopher Lee Blogathon!

There are few character actors that have garnered the same level of respect and awe as Sir Christopher Frank Carandini Lee. With nearly 300(!) film and television credits to his name, Lee has lent his distinctive gravitas to virtually every genre: horror, science fiction, drama, comedy, musicals (yes, musicals!), you name it, he’s probably done it. Christopher Lee’s life encompassed much, much more than film. Descended from Italian royalty, the multilingual thespian served as a real-life World War II spy with Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) (aka: the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare), and even recorded two heavy metal albums. …And that’s just for starters.

Christopher Lee - Scream of Fear

 Not sure where to start? You can find a list of Mr. Lee’s voluminous filmography HERE

Oh, and don’t let the “blog” in blogathon scare you. We will cheerfully accept submissions from your podcast, YouTube channel, Facebook/Instagram post, bawdy limericks, cave etchings, whatever. Still scratching your head for a topic? Feel free to reach out and bounce your idea off us. We promise not to bite (although I can’t vouch for Count Dracula)!

Christopher Lee - Gremlins 2


What: The Christopher Lee Blogathon 

Who: Hosted by Yours Truly (Barry P.) and Gill Jacob 

Where: Cinematic Catharsis and Realweegiemidget Reviews 

When: May 21-23, 2021 

How: Please read the rules below, and send me your post request (review, podcast, etc…) via email (barry_cinematic@yahoo.com), Twitter (@barry_cinematic), or by commenting below. You may also contact Gill by commenting on her post, or through her blog’s Contact Me page. Be sure to include your preferred name, along with your blog’s title.

Christopher Lee - Sleepy Hollow

The Rules… 

1.     You may review ANY of his film or TV appearances. Or if you want to review books or topics about him that’s fine with us as well.

2.     Because Mr. Lee has such a large number of appearances in his filmography, NO DUPLICATE MOVIE OR TV SHOW TITLES WILL BE ALLOWED. If a specific title has already been claimed, you may only include that title if it’s part of a list or retrospective review. If you choose to write about Christopher Lee, tell us what your topic will be. We won’t accept posts that are uncomplimentary or disrespectful to him.

3.     Review choices may be requested as a comment on this page or you may contact me through the methods listed above.

4.     Add your Twitter username so we can promote your post.

5.     A full list of blogs and review choices will be posted on a separate page and updated regularly.

6.     Only original, never-before-published posts will be accepted.

7.     Limit TWO blog posts per participant, please.

8.     Send a link of your post(s) to me or Gill on one of the days of the blogathon. Note: We will be publishing all links on both blogs.  

9.     Please also note: Gill and I have already claimed the following titles below: 

Barry at Cinematic Catharsis – The Pirates of Blood River (1962) 

Gill at Realweegiemidget Reviews – The Devil Rides Out (1968)

Christopher Lee - The Lord of the Rings

One more thing:

If you plan to participate, or just want to show your support, please grab one of the following banners to display on your blog:

Christopher Lee Blogathon - The Devil Rides Out

 
The Christopher Lee Blogathon - To the Devil a Daughter

                                           

The Christopher Lee Blogathon - Dracula: Prince of Darkness

                                  
The Christopher Lee Blogathon - Dracula

We can’t wait to see your submissions. Put on your thinking caps, be creative, and above all, have fun!

 

Christopher Lee - The Man with the Golden Gun