Sunday, August 1, 2021

Russia Month Quick Picks and Pans

 

The Cranes are Flying Poster

The Cranes are Flying (1957) Veronika (Tatyana Samoylova) is in love with Boris (Aleksey Batalov), but their romance is interrupted when he enlists in the army. After her family’s home is bombed by the Germans, she’s forced to move in with Boris’ family, and she’s subsequently railroaded into a loveless marriage with his ne’er do well cousin, Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin). This moving film, anchored by Samoylova’s powerful, emotionally complex performance, starts on an ebullient note following two young lovers whose lives are forever changed by the crushing reality of World War II. It’s a touching portrait of one woman’s resolve in the face of adversity, leading to a conclusion that’s at once heartbreaking and hopeful. Sergey Urusevskiy’s inventive camerawork/composition almost becomes a character in itself, providing an intimate view of Veronika’s sad life, and providing scope and poignance to the story. 

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

Moscow-Cassiopea Poster
Teenagers in the Universe Poster

Moscow – Cassiopea (1973); and Teenagers in the Universe (1974) These two energetic sci-fi adventure films from director Richard Viktorov are squarely aimed at kids, but they’re fun for all ages. The first part chronicles the exploits of seven elite teenage cosmonauts as they train and embark on a 27-year voyage to explore another star system, while the second part concerns their escapades on the planet Alpha Kassiopea. Due to a happy accident, the crew of the spaceship Zarya fall into a wormhole, reaching their destination in only year (While they remain kids, their counterparts on Earth are in their 40s). When they reach their destination, they encounter a planet dominated by androids who force people to be happy. 

It’s an inspired mixture of hard science fiction (discussing the perils of relativistic space travel), with a touch of whimsy (Think the original Star Trek series, mixed with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. No, really!). If not for the time and origin, both movies could have been an underground hit, with their trippy visuals, surreal touches and absurdist predilections (hopefully some enterprising programmer can see their potential for midnight screenings). There’s nothing else quite like it. With all due respect to Tarkovsky’s somber classic Solaris, look no further for a more enjoyable (and mind-bending) space odyssey.   

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

 

To the Stars by Hard Ways Poster

To the Stars by Hard Ways (aka: Through the Thorns to the Stars, or Per Aspera ad Astra) (1980) This is another fascinating science fiction film from director Richard Viktorov (completed by his son Nikolay Viktorov). The crew of a 23rd century deep space mission encounters a derelict spacecraft full of corpses. They find one survivor, Niyya (Yelena Metyolkina), an artificial person who was part of an unknown experiment. She’s brought back to Earth, where she befriends a young cadet (Vadim Ledogorov) and learns more about Earthly customs. One of the film’s most interesting conceits is that the featured starship crew’s mission is to help out planets in crisis (sort of the antithesis of Dark Star) to reverse their ecological damage, making them habitable once again. They face their biggest challenge with Niyya’s home planet Dessa, controlled by a despotic businessman, who profits off of the misfortunes of his fellow citizens. Yelena Metyolkina is effective in her role as the enigmatic, childlike Niyya, who only wants to find her place in the cosmos. Although the film’s reach often exceeds its grasp, it has its heart in the right place, depicting an epic scope on what was obviously a meager budget. 

Rating: ***½. Available on Amazon Prime (for rental) and Kanopy

Hipsters Poster

Hipsters (2008) It’s hard not to be swept away by Valeriy Todorovskiy’s infectious musical set in Moscow, circa 1955, depicting counter-culture at the height of the Cold War, when playing a saxophone, wearing colorful clothes, or having big hair made you instantly suspect. Mels (Anton Shagin), an ardent member of the Youth Communist League, meets Polly (Oksana Akinshina) the girl of his dreams. Unfortunately for Mels, she’s from the wrong side of the tracks, ideologically speaking, hanging out with a bunch of freewheeling hipsters. In an attempt to win her over, repressed Mels transforms himself into what he previously hated – discovering in the process that he enjoys the new version of himself. It soon becomes a battle of wills between Mels’ former, purposely square comrades, and his new, uninhibited crowd. Viewers looking for an historically accurate history lesson from Hipsters, should probably search elsewhere. Todorovskiy simply wants us to have a good time, and delivers on that promise.  

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

The Golden Horns Poster

The Golden Horns (aka: Baba Yaga) (1973) You might question your sanity while watching this charming fantasy film, aimed at kids (and kids at heart), but you certainly won’t be bored. The title refers to a magical buck with golden antlers, who serves as the protector for the weak and downtrodden. He comes to the aid of a mother, looking for her lost twins (who were turned into deer by a mischievous Baba Yaga, played by Georgiy Millyar, a witch who travels in a shack that walks on chicken feet). Viktor Makarov and Aleksandr Rou’s cinematic fairy tale is packed with colorful characters, surreal images and goofy songs galore. If you’re looking for something on the sillier side, this might scratch that itch. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime (for rental)

 

The Mermaid - Lake of the Dead Poster

The Mermaid: Lake of the Dead (2018) Roma and Marina (Efim Petrunin and Viktoriya Agalakova) are about to get married. During his bachelor party at a lake house, he meets a strange young woman, and becomes entranced by her hypnotic effect. She repeatedly appears, asking him, “Do you love me?” while becoming entrenched in his dreams and creating a waking nightmare. Mermaid takes its cues from J-horror with its premise, an unshakable curse, and not unlike many of its American contemporaries, relies on a few too many jump scares. I wouldn’t quite describe the antagonist as a mermaid (more like a vengeful spirit), although it’s close enough. It might not provide a lot of surprises, but there are worse ways to spend an evening. 

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

 

Nails Poster

Nails (2003) A hitman (Alexander Shevchenko), haunted by his terrible deeds, tries to find a way to purge the images from his head. His solution: self-trepanation with nails and a power drill (It goes without saying this isn’t for the squeamish). The hallucinatory black-and-white imagery changes to color after his (ahem) personal alterations. This ultra-low-budget production from writer/director Andrey Iskanov (who also handled the decent makeup effects) took Eraserhead, Tetsuo the Iron Man and Brain Damage, swirled them together, you might get something approximating this. Even if it’s more than a bit derivative, this bewildering, occasionally exhilarating mix succeeds more than it fails.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime (for rental) 

Monday, July 26, 2021

Viy

 

Viy Poster

(1967) Directed by: Konstantin Ershov and Georgiy Kropachyov; Written by Konstantin Ershov, Georgiy Kropachyov and Aleksandr Ptushko; Based on the story by Nikolay Gogol; Starring: Leonid Kuravlyov, Natalya Varley, Aleksey Glazyrin, Vadim Zakharchenko and Pyotr Vesklyarov; Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Shudder 

Rating: **** 

“A curse upon you! With the wings of a bat! With the blood of a serpent! I shall curse you!”

 Pannochka (Natalya Varley) 

Note: The following review is an expanded version of a capsule review from December 2016. 

Demons in the chapel

Although fantasy and science fiction films enjoyed their place in the former Soviet Union, the horror genre didn’t fare nearly as well. Viy (aka: Viy or Spirit of Evil) is often touted as the “first” Soviet-era horror film (admittedly, what does and doesn’t constitute horror is up for debate), and in the absence of other salient examples, it’s difficult to dispute this claim. While it’s clear that subjects of a supernatural bias were discouraged, I’m not quite ready to accept that this was the only horror movie to be released between 1922 and 1967. Nevertheless, evidence to the contrary has yet to surface. Viy was based on an 1835 short story by noted Ukrainian author Nikolai Gogol. The original novella professes to be derived from Ukrainian folklore, but whether or not it was entirely concocted by Gogol remains open for debate.

Khoma and the witch

In the opening scene, set in a Kiev-based seminary, the stern rector dismisses his students for a holiday break. Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov) and two of his fellow students promptly take to the countryside for some fun and mischief (much to the chagrin of their schoolmaster). Before long, tired and weary from their travels, they seek shelter at in a farmhouse owned by a withered old woman (Nikolay Kutuzov). She reluctantly puts them up for the night, insisting that Khoma sleep in the stable. Things take a bizarre turn when she singles him out, hopping upon his shoulders and revealing her true nature as a witch. After soaring over the fields, they return to earth. He beats her with a stick, leaving her for dead, but a second glance reveals not an old crone, but a young woman. Puzzled and disturbed, Khoma returns to the rectory, only to learn that the headmaster has received an unusual request – he alone must hold a three-day prayer vigil for a wealthy Cossack’s recently deceased daughter, Pannochka. Now, Khoma and the witch are inextricably entwined.

Khoma and Pannochka

Leonid Kuravlyov is a hoot in his manically comic performance as our perpetually bewildered protagonist, Khoma.* Far from the most diligent student at his rectory, he’s more concerned with food, drink and revelry than spiritual enlightenment. He tries to do everything he can to weasel out of his obligation to the Cossack patriarch, but the promise of a thousand gold pieces or a thousand lashes (if he disobeys) sways his decision. Each successive day of the vigil takes its toll on Khoma, while he’s locked away in the chapel, repeating his mantra, “A Cossack is never afraid of anything.” Meanwhile, his mental and physical state continue to erode as he endeavors to keep the evil spirits at bay and contend with a corpse that refuses to remain still. 

* Khoma’s tentative demeanor reminded me of another literary character, Ichabod Crane. Although I’m not sure if Gogol was aware of Washington Irving’s story (published in 1820), its main character could be a spiritual predecessor.

Pannochka

All eyes are on Natalya Varley as the not-so-deceased, Pannochka. With her long dark hair and pallid complexion, she resembles the Iron Curtain’s answer to Luna (from Mark of the Vampire) or Morticia Addams. She speaks very few lines, but makes them sting, proving, hell hath no fury like a witch scorned. Varley takes charge in every scene she’s in, dominating the scenery with her frenzied, hypnotic stare.

Demons in the chapel

The visuals of Viy benefited greatly through the efforts of fantasy filmmaker Aleksandr Ptushko (Sadko, Ilya Muromets), who provided the art direction and effects. Gogol’s story was vague in the details about Khoma’s climactic confrontation with evil. The filmmakers, however, gleefully fill in the blanks, delivering some genuinely unnerving moments when the forces of darkness are unleashed in the chapel. It’s a dazzling display, brought to life through dynamic, swirling POV shots, as all manner of things that go bump in the night descend upon poor Khoma. Demons scuttle down the walls and skeletons dance about, culminating in the appearance of Viy, a stocky demon with giant eyelids, concealing a gaze that can kill. The final, visually dense sequence, is a treat for the eyes, providing more than can be taken in with one viewing.

Pannochka Riding a Coffin

Viy enchants and entertains, with its tantalizing mixture of comedy and the macabre. This faithful adaptation of Gogol’s story must have been a tough sell for the staid sensibilities of the prevailing regime, but it’s a testament to the persistence of Ptushko and co-directors Konstantin Ershov and Georgiy Kropachyov that their vision made it to Soviet theaters. Whether it was truly the first horror film or not, Viy remains an important landmark in Russian cinematic history, when films of the uncanny were such a scarce commodity. Its robust imagery and themes make it a force to be reckoned with, and no discerning fan of horror should consider his or her education complete without giving this a look. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Short Take: Sadko

 

Sadko Poster

(1953) Directed by Aleksandr Ptushko; Written by Konstantin Isaev; Based on the opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov; Starring: Sergey Stolyarov, Alla Larionova, Ninel Myshkova, B. Surovtsevand, Mikhail Troyanovskiy and Nadir Malishevsky; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“The wise man boasts of his father and mother. The fool boasts of his young wife, the merchant boasts of his fat purse, and the rich man of his gold…” – Sadko (Sergey Stolyarov)

Sadko

Many Westerners were introduced to Sadko in the early ‘60s (a decade after its release in Europe), under the misleading title, The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.* Yet another generation of viewers became aware of the film when it received the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment in the early ‘90s. While elements of the lavish production still managed to shine through, it was easy (for those who only had the chance to watch a distillation of an already compromised film) to get the impression that this wasn’t a quality movie. In fact, the Soviet production had nothing to do with Sinbad or his adventures. Instead, Sadko originated from a Russian folktale (an Onega epic story), as well as the eponymous 1898 opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov.

* Fun Fact #1: When Sadko was adapted for American audiences, it was re-written, re-edited, and dubbed, under the supervision of a young Francis Ford Coppola (working for American International Pictures).

Sadko in Novgorod

The good-natured troubadour Sadko arrives in the walled city of Novgorod,* armed only with his psaltery (a traditional stringed instrument). He barely sets foot off the boat before he’s created trouble for himself with a group of merchants, calling them out for being obsessed with their wealth and possessions. Although he wins his wager with the merchants, his attempt to redistribute the wealth among Novgorod’s impoverished residents backfires. Realizing that good intentions only bring him so far, our idealistic protagonist assembles a crew, setting sail for parts unknown (leaving behind his one true love, Lyubava, played by Alla Larionova), on a quest to find the fabled Bird of Happiness. Along the way, he’ll encounter hostile Vikings, a capricious Indian prince, and the jovial King of the Sea.

* Fun Fact #2: The full-scale walls, which were reportedly “dozens of meters high,” were constructed in Pestovo, outside of Moscow.

Sadko and Gold-Finned Fish

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Sadko (whose name means “sonorous”), played by Sergey Stolyarov,* is that he fails more than he succeeds, making him instantly more relatable than most epic heroes. While his exploits appear larger than life, his fallibility keeps him grounded. He possesses many admirable traits (charismatic, good-hearted), but he’s also headstrong and impulsive. After capturing a valuable golden-finned fish, he squanders his new fortune on a small segment of the poor before discovering he can’t help everyone. Despite this setback, he never loses his resolve to bring happiness to the people. Stolyarov’s performance walks the line between youthful arrogance and uncertainty, ultimately winning us over through his character’s inherent vulnerability.

* Another Fun Fact #3: According to Stolyarov’s son, Kirill, the actor grew up as an orphan, and once worked as a train engineer.  

Vasya

The unsung hero of the film is unquestionably the sea princess Vasya (Ninel Myshkova), who gets Sadko out of a jam on several occasions. If not for her, his head (quite literally) would have been on the chopping block. Despite her efforts to win Sadko’s heart, however, Vasya’s love remains unrequited. As a final selfless gesture, she conspires to whisk him away from her watery home, which rankles the feathers of her parents, the endlessly bickering King of the Sea and his wife (Stepan Kayukov and Olga Viklandt).

The Undersea Kingdom

Anyone acquainted with The Wizard of Oz won’t be surprised by Sadko’s lesson about searching for happiness. Then again, as with many fairytale stories, it’s the journey, not the conclusion that we’ve come to experience and embrace. Among its many charms are the imaginative sets, designed by Evgeniy Svidetelev, and colorful costumes created by Olga Kruchinina of the Bolshoi Opera. Some visual highlights include the Indian city (shot in Calcutta), complete with elephants and a bustling bazaar, along with a suitably cavernous and ornate palace set. The undersea kingdom is a fanciful depiction, worthy of a storybook, and the soft focus in many of the scenes only adds to the dreamlike feel of the film. Director Aleksandr Ptushko and crew’s unabashedly theatrical approach suits the material perfectly, immersing us in an unreal world where illusions of reality need not apply. It’s a timeless, enchanting fairy tale classic that deserves to be re-discovered and re-evaluated on its own terms.

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Cryptid Month Quick Picks and Pans

The Secret of Roan Inish Poster

The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) Writer/director John Sayles brings us this gentle tall tale, steeped in Irish folklore (based on the children’s book, Secret of the Ron Mor Skerry, by Rosalie K. Fry). After losing her mother, Fiona (Jeni Courtney), is sent to live with her grandparents in a quiet fishing village. She soon hears stories from the villagers about the selkie (a creature half seal and half human), and grows determined to find out why they abandoned the nearby isle of Roan Inish. A little boy on the beach may provide the answer she seeks. Sayles’ film takes its time letting the story unfold, depicting a different time and place, not too long ago, where the mythical and concrete worlds meet. Haskell Wexler’s lush cinematography provides scope and immediacy, treating the spectacular scenery and family drama with equal weight.   

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

Frog Dreaming Poster

Frog Dreaming (aka: The Quest) (1986) Henry Thomas stars as Cody, a headstrong, adventurous 14-year-old. Following the untimely death of his parents, he’s under the care of Gaza (Tony Barry) a family friend in Australia. Cody discovers a lake that’s not listed on the map, in a region known for “frog dreaming,” a sacred place for Aboriginal people. Captivated by rumors about a creature known as a Bunyip that lives in its depths, he devises a plan to learn the secret. Brian Trenchard-Smith’s family adventure film is a hit and miss affair, featuring some nice action sequences and art direction (by Paddy Reardon), but the it’s not hard to see the big twist coming a mile away. Also, it’s difficult to sympathize with Gaza’s laissez-faire foster parenting (bordering on gross negligence), in light of Cody’s daredevil antics. On the other hand, it works fairly well as a family adventure flick, reminding us that things aren’t always what they seem. 

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

The Secret of the Loch Poster

The Secret of the Loch (1934) This slight comedy/adventure finds Jimmy (Frederick Peisley), a spunky reporter from London, determined to get a scoop about the fabled creature that allegedly lives in Loch Ness. He travels to Scotland, where he hounds the gruff Professor Heggie (Seymour Hicks), who’s busy mounting his own expedition. If that wasn’t enough reason to fall on Heggie’s bad side he’s smitten by his granddaughter Angela (Nancy O'Neil), who’s indifferent at best to his advances. There are some amusing little moments throughout, but even for a 78-minute movie, the material seems to be stretched fairly thin. (Mild Spoiler Alert) To its credit, you do catch a glimpse of the monster, but you’ll wish you didn’t (I’ll just say that it doesn’t resemble the creature we’ve come to expect). The Secret of the Loch deserves some kudos, however, for likely being the first movie devoted to the aquatic cryptid, and for featuring a young David Lean as editor. 

Rating: ***. Available on DVD

Aswang Poster

Aswang (1994) The title of this independent feature, filmed in Wisconsin by Wrye Martin and Barry Poltermann, refers to a creature from Filipino folklore that feeds on the blood of unborn fetuses. After an unexpected pregnancy, 19-year-old Katrina (Tina Ona Paukstelis) signs her baby over to a wealthy couple, Peter and Claire Null (Norman Moses and Jamie Jacobs Anderson). Things get weird in a hurry, when Peter asks Katrina to pose as his wife in order to earn his inheritance. When family secrets are gradually revealed, she finds herself in a fight for her life. Despite Moses’ cartoonishly over-the-top performance, Aswang boasts some creepy scenes, enhanced by surprisingly good makeup effects. If nothing else, it’s far from the same old thing.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD (Out of Print)

The Mothman Prophecies Poster

The Mothman Prophecies (2002) After the death of his wife, John Klein (Richard Gere), a Washington, D.C. reporter, travels to the small town of Point Pleasant in West Virginia, the epicenter for strange occurrences. What ensues is a quest for meaning, as Klein interviews several residents about their encounters with a strange being, and befriends the local sheriff (Laura Linney). Whether the Mothman (shown briefly in muddy, indistinct CGI) is real or a figment of the townspeople’s imaginations is never resolved. Most of the movie is terribly dull, with poor chemistry between the leads, and a story that refuses to commit one way or the other about the myth. Instead of delving into the folklore aspects, the filmmakers unwisely decided to subject the audience to a tepid story and tedious drama.

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

The Barrens Poster

The Barrens (2012) Richard Vineyard (Stephen Moyer of True Blood fame), a mentally unstable man, takes his reluctant family on a camping vacation to a national park in New Jersey. As they venture deep into the forest, he grapples with his inner demons while contending with the possibility that he’s being stalked by the Jersey Devil. Writer/director Darren Lynn Bousman’s film, filled with plot holes aplenty, borrows from better sources (including The Shining and Mosquito Coast) to depict one man’s eroding cognitive/emotional state. As he becomes increasingly delusional, it seems less believable that the rest of Richard’s family would follow him down his self-destructive path. In the end, The Barrens fails to deliver as a psychological thriller or a compelling exploration of the Jersey Devil myth. 

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

Monday, June 21, 2021

Bigfoot and Friends

 

Bigfoot Statue

Considering the most popular cryptid of them all practically resides in my backyard, here in the Pacific Northwest, it didn’t take long to decide who deserved the spotlight this month. You don’t have to travel very far before you’re surrounded by miles and miles of dense forest (approximately 22 million acres in Washington State alone) – an expanse large enough to credibly hide something that could be our closest relative. Does Bigfoot exist? I don’t profess to know all the answers about the fabled evolutionary throwback, but if the marketing gurus are to be believed, he’s alive and well. Around here, he’s a larger-than-life fixture, with T-shirts, bumper stickers, trinkets in gift shops, and even a local chain of coffee stands dedicated to the big, hairy fella. But as sprawling as the Pacific Northwest might be, Bigfoot’s wanderlust knows no bounds, with a Bigfoot variant for nearly every American state and Canadian province. And that’s not counting his overseas cousins, boasting sightings in nearly every corner of the globe.

A word of caution: This list isn’t intended to be a comprehensive overview of Bigfoot and his kin – the dozen movies covered here are only a small cross-section of the titles that have been filmed over the years.* If you can dream it, Sasquatch has probably been in it (yes, Bigfoot porn is a thing, and you can look for it yourself, if that’s your bag).

One final thing… Bigfoot and his relatives are notoriously difficult to spot, which unfortunately carries over to his many cinematic depictions. In addition to my standard star rating (ranked from one to five stars), I’ve included a “Visibility Rating,” ranging from one to four feet, indicating how much of the creature you can expect to see (i.e., one foot denotes nothing/indistinct, while four feet means you see the hairy hominid in all its glory.).

* Note: I purposely omitted one of the most notable titles, Hammer’s TheAbominable Snowman (1957), previously reviewed here.

Willow Creek Poster

Willow Creek (2013) Ho-hum, another found footage movie? Don’t let that deter you from seeing one of the best Bigfoot movies of the past decade. Jim (Bryce Johnson) plans to shoot a documentary, following in the footsteps of the controversial Patterson-Gimlin film, shot in Northern California, circa 1967 (alleged to show footage of the real Bigfoot). His skeptical girlfriend Kelly (Alexie Gilmore) doesn’t share his enthusiasm for the project, but tries her best to be supportive. The film starts on a light note, featuring some amusing banter between the couple, and conversations with eyewitnesses and self-professed experts. The tone becomes increasingly darker as they head into Bigfoot’s supposed stomping grounds, encountering increasingly belligerent locals who want some secrets (which may or may not have to do with Sasquatch) to stay that way. Although the ambiguous ending might irritate some viewers, I appreciated how writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait decided to let our imaginations run wild, giving us just enough to make us question what we thought we saw or heard. 

1 Foot

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


Letters from the Big Man Poster

Letters from the Big Man (2011) Lily Rabe (American Horror Story) stars as Sarah, a geologist hired to complete a survey for a logging company in the remote Oregon wilderness. In the midst of her travels, she runs into more than the usual flora and fauna. This earnest, reflective tale is as much about the titular creature as it is about a young woman, unlucky in love, running away and finding herself. They cross paths, but never quite seem to connect. Depending on how you look at it, Bigfoot’s presence could be taken literally or metaphorically, signifying her existential awakening.

Considering the film’s modest budget, Letters from the Big Man features some pretty decent makeup, brought to life through Isaac C. Singleton Jr.’s sensitive portrayal. He deserves the most credit for bringing the creature to life with his expressive eyes, conveying quiet intelligence and profound sadness. It’s a Bigfoot movie like no other, favoring introspection over adventure. It’s too bad this isn’t more widely available, because it’s something special.

4 Feet

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (Out of Print) and Amazon Prime (for rental)


Half Human Poster

Half Human (aka: Jû Jin Yuki Otoko) (1955) Ishirô Honda’s Yeti-themed adventure is mostly famous for being unavailable, due to Toho Company’s self-imposed ban for its negative depiction of the Burakumin villagers in the film. That’s unfortunate, since it provides a fascinating alternate take on the legend. A team of college researchers navigate the treacherous Japanese Alps, searching for the Abominable Snowman and one of their lost comrades. They encounter villagers who idolize the creatures and want to keep their ways a secret. Hot on the heels of the college team are a group of entrepreneurs with less than noble intentions (hoping to capture the beast and exploit it in a sideshow). Half Human is atmospheric and filled with dread.    It’s also a thoughtful, often grim examination of humanity’s corruption of the natural world for financial gain. Hopefully, Toho will reverse their decision, and release the film with a disclaimer. Until then, it’s not officially available streaming or in any physical format, but if you really want to see it there are other avenues (rhyming with “Schmeebay”).

4 Feet

Rating: ***½. Not available on home video (see above)


Harry and the Hendersons Poster

Harry and the Hendersons (1987) By far, the most obvious (and biggest-budgeted) title on the list is this kid-friendly movie from writer/director William Dear. While heading home from a family camping trip, George Henderson (John Lithgow) hits a strange animal with his station wagon. The creature that turns out to be – you guessed it. Dear’s amiable comedy essentially relies on one gag (probably 90 percent of the jokes have to do with the creature, whom the Hendersons dub “Harry,” breaking something because of his enormous bulk). Predictably, he’s not a fierce, bloodthirsty beast, but a gentle pescatarian who lives in harmony with nature. A little conflict is thrown into the mix when a big game hunter (David Suchet) who’s been tracking Bigfoot for years vows to kill the peaceful giant. It’s formulaic and often sappy, but diverting enough. If nothing else, it’s worth seeing for the best Sasquatch makeup, hands down (Or should I say, feet down?), courtesy of creature effects maker-extraordinaire, Rick Baker.

Fun bit of trivia: The man behind the makeup, 7-foot-2-inch Kevin Peter Hall also appeared as the eponymous alien in Predator, released the same year. How’s that for range?

4 Feet

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


Snowbeast Poster

Snowbeast (1977) (Cue Ethel Merman’s singing voice) “There’s no beast, like Snowbeast, like Snowbeast, I know…” Okay, perhaps that’s a bit of an exaggeration, since this made-for-TV movie basically lifts the plot from Jaws, transplanting it to the snowy slopes of a Colorado ski resort. Owner/matriarch Carrie Rill (Sylvia Sydney) is about to host her resort’s 50th anniversary celebration. Despite her grandson Tony’s (Robert Logan) protests, she isn’t about to let the disappearance and brutal murder of one of the guests stop her from moving forward with the festivities. Tony teams up with Olympic has-been Gar Seberg (Bo Svenson) and Sheriff Paraday (Clint Walker) to hunt the monster responsible for the rising body count. Oh, and there’s a soap opera-worthy love triangle between Gar’s wife Ellen (Yvette Mimieux) and her old flame Tony, just to complicate things. The creature itself (which the characters speculate to be Bigfoot) is barely seen, with brief glimpses of its arm and face. I suspect the choice to show less rather than more was due to budgetary considerations, however, rather than creative choices. Quibbles aside, it’s all in good fun and rarely dull (with a script by The Outer Limits’ Joseph Stefano). Just don’t expect it to add much to Bigfoot lore.

2 Feet

Rating: ***. Available on Amazon Prime


Yeti - Giant of the 20th Century Poster

Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century (1977) How often have you heard the phrase, “It has to be seen to be believed”? In this instance, it’s not hyperbole, it’s warranted. This Italian production, set in Canada, is a mess from start to finish. A giant Yeti (Mimmo Crao) returns to life after being trapped in Arctic ice for a million-plus years. While a greedy entrepreneur (Edoardo Faieta) ponders all the ways he can exploit the gargantuan throwback, the Yeti is befriended by his grandchildren. In the meantime, his seedy right-hand man Cliff (Tony Kendall) plots to throw a monkey wrench in his plans, with the help of some hired goons. Before you can say “King Kong ripoff,” the confused and pissed off missing link is loose on the streets of Toronto, leaving a trail of destruction. Is it any good? It depends how you define “good.” It might not make many (or any) “Best of 1977” lists, but if you want to have a fun time, this might be the ticket (he even has his own disco theme song). At any rate, it’s a hell of a lot more enjoyable than the aforementioned King Kong remake released the previous year.

4 Feet

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


Sasquatch Poster

Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot (1976) This is another prime example of the pseudo-documentary format that was so popular in the 1970s, featuring dubious science and faked footage. We’re led to believe that that a serious expedition was mounted, to find the Sasquatch on his home turf. The explorers travel deep into uncharted British Columbian wilderness (the movie was actually shot in Oregon), where they experience some contrived run-ins with the wildlife (bears, badgers, and a poor mountain lion). In an effort to spice things up a bit, the many horse riding/camping scenes are intercut with a few dramatic re-enactments of other alleged run-ins with Bigfoot. For all our trouble, we never get a good look at the creature other than some blurry silhouettes.

2 Feet

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


Shriek of the Mutilated Poster

Shriek of the Mutilated (1974) A college professor (Alan Brock) invites a group of his most promising students to his home in upstate New York to search for the Yeti (what the Yeti is doing so far away from the Himalayas is anyone’s guess). For your listening pleasure, the film features the early electronic song “Popcorn” by the group Hot Butter (although the version I watched inexplicably dubbed over the music with some decidedly non-70s riffs). Also, one character sings a little ditty that wouldn’t be out of place in a Las Vegas lounge act (sans the questionable lyrics). Anyone looking for some serious Yeti action will be sorely disappointed. On the other hand, if you’re looking for something so far out of the norm that it creates its own alternate reality, look no further. The climactic twist, followed by an oddly placed joke, is just the cherry on the top of this bizarre sundae from director Michael Findlay.

3 Feet

Rating: **½. Available on DVD


Exists Poster

Exists (2014) In this found footage horror flick from director Eduardo Sánchez (The Blair Witch Project), a bunch of self-absorbed 20-somethings (with a fondness for saying “bro” every few minutes) travel to a cabin in the East Texas thicket for a weekend of drinking and debauchery. After their SUV collides with something, however, their nightmare is just beginning. Soon, the clueless campers find themselves fighting for their lives. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find yourself rooting for the band of angry Sasquatch, instead of the obnoxious, bickering human protagonists. As the characters’ bad choices add up, prepare to check off that Found Footage Cliché bingo card. On the plus side, Exists delivers on its premise with some scary looking ape men that might justify giving this a watch.

4 Feet

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Tubi


In Search of Bigfoot Poster

In Search of Bigfoot (1976) Not to be confused with the Leonard Nimoy-hosted ‘70s TV show, Lawrence Crowley and William F. Miller’s documentary follows Bigfoot enthusiast Robert Morgan and a team of handpicked “experts,” as they embark on a multi-month investigation in Washington State to find the elusive apelike biped. Most of the film relies on speculation from Morgan, and hearsay from local residents’ who supposedly encountered Bigfoot. At the end of the day, the evidence is nothing more substantive than a couple of mystery hairs (determined to be most likely human in origin) and an iffy footprint. The most interesting aspect of In Search of Bigfoot isn’t the quest for the cryptid, but the film’s role as a time capsule, providing a glimpse of the Mount Saint Helens area, only a few years before the volcano blew its top.

1 Foot

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Tubi

The Legend of Boggy Creek Poster

The Legend of Boggy Creek (1972) Charles B. Pierce’s docudrama, featuring re-enactments (starring some of the residents who allegedly experienced the incidents), is set in the small town of Fouke, Arkansas, which gives the “Fouke Monster” its name. If it’s not quite Bigfoot, then it’s a close relative, with three toes instead of five, and a tell-tale mournful howl. Numerous townspeople claim to have seen the Fouke Monster (responsible for stealing livestock and killing pets), but no tangible evidence has been found. The creature itself is barely seen. Expect bad narration (that tells rather than shows), bad acting, and bad folk music. It all adds up to a viewing experience that’s either excruciating or hilarious, depending on your point of view (or state of inebriation).

2 Feet

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

The Capture of Bigfoot Poster

The Capture of Bigfoot (1979) A greedy businessman (Is there any other kind in these movies?) hires some bumbling trappers to capture a Bigfoot-like creature so he can profit from its display. The creature, known as Arak, supposedly originates from Native American legends about a protector. I have my doubts. Filmed in Wisconsin by director Bill Rebane, the general ineptitude of the production is alleviated slightly by the presence of character actor George “Buck” Flower as a town eccentric who spins monster tales that no one believes. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

3 Feet

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