Friday, July 29, 2011

The Curse of Frankenstein

(1957) Directed by Terence Fisher; Written by: Jimmy Sangster; Based on the Novel by Mary Shelley; Starring: Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Hazel Court and Robert Urquhart.
Available on DVD.

Rating: **** ½

Starting with Thomas Edison’s version of Frankenstein in 1910, there have been numerous filmed interpretations of Mary Shelley’s novel about a misguided scientist and his disastrous creation.  1957’s The Curse of Frankenstein was a bold re-telling of Shelley’s seminal story, and represented a major step forward for Hammer horror.  More than 25 years after Universal’s iconic version debuted, Hammer Films decided to produce a Frankenstein film for a new generation.  Far from a copy of the Universal film, and virtually unrecognizable from Mary Shelley’s original story, The Curse of Frankenstein veered off on its own tangent, introducing mainstream audiences to blood and guts in glorious color.  Audiences flocked to see the modestly budgeted film, which eventually grossed $7 million in the U.S. (a tidy sum in the 1950s) and spawned several mostly inferior sequels. 

As The Curse of Frankenstein begins, Baron Frankenstein is a condemned man destined for the gallows.  He requests the company of a priest, not for solace in his final hours, but as an opportunity to tell his story to the only one who will listen.  This early scene reveals Frankenstein’s ulterior motives.  It’s not a confession of his sins, but an attempt to relay the importance of his work.

Peter Cushing plays the singular-minded, almost sociopathic Baron Frankenstein.  His unsympathetic Frankenstein is a profound departure from Colin Clive’s tortured portrayal of a scientist who realizes that he has overstepped nature’s laws.  In the 1931 version, Frankenstein agonized over the ramifications of the walking horror he had unleashed upon the world.  Cushing’s Frankenstein is pure hubris, without any apparent remorse.  He refuses to take any responsibility for his creation or the deaths involved.  Everyone is a help or a hindrance, with most falling into the latter category.   His methodology is completely amoral, blinded by his solitary goal to discover the secrets of creating life, and he’s not above murder in the cause of science.  Cushing’s fascinating interpretation of Frankenstein embodies one of the key differences between the Hammer and Universal versions: It’s Frankenstein, and not his creation, who is the star. 

Robert Urquhart plays Paul Krempe, Frankenstein’s onetime tutor.  Paul serves as the film’s moral center, torn between devotion to his old pupil and revulsion about Frankenstein’s tampering with nature.  His attempts to convince Frankenstein that he’s taking a destructive path are ultimately futile.  In one scene, Paul struggles with Frankenstein to prevent him from using the brain of a recently deceased colleague, resulting in a damaged brain.  Of course, from the Baron’s point of view, it’s Paul’s fault that the brain is ruined.

Hazel Court plays Frankenstein’s cousin and fiancée (yech!) Elizabeth.  She’s single-minded in her devotion to Frankenstein, despite his indifference.  Her character isn’t given much to do, other than hear Paul’s frequent (and condescending) admonitions to leave for her own good.  He doesn’t actually provide any factual basis to get her away from Frankenstein.  It’s as if his sense of moral outrage is enough to convince her.  After all, she’s far too delicate to handle the truth – or so he reasons.  Elizabeth seems content to be the Queen of Denial, ignorant of what’s going on in her future husband’s laboratory, or his nocturnal trysts with his housekeeper Justine (Valerie Gaunt), and happy to maintain her fantasy of future marital bliss.

According to Marcus Hearn and Alan Barnes’ informative book, The Hammer Story, the filmmakers took pains to ensure that their creature did not resemble Jack Pierce’s iconic creation from the Universal Frankenstein films.*  They succeeded, thanks to Philip Leakey’s gruesome makeup work, which went through several iterations before he came up with the final version seen in the film.  It’s certainly more evocative of a corpse brought to life than Universal’s Frankenstein monster. 

* It should be noted that the producers weren’t just trying to be original, but wanted to avoid any potential legal action by Universal.

Christopher Lee has a supporting but significant role as Frankenstein’s creature.  It would be nearly impossible to step into Boris Karloff’s shoes, and Lee doesn’t even try.   He makes the monster his own, creating a silent presence that’s alternately menacing and pathetic.  It’s a credit to Lee’s skilled performance that he manages to evoke sympathy for his character, as a being that’s brought forth into a life that he never asked for.  This would prove to be Lee’s only turn as the creature.  Subsequent sequels used different actors for the role, along with wildly different variants of the creature design.

The Curse of Frankenstein is remarkably well paced, clocking in at a brisk 82 minutes.  Some Hammer films tend to be a bit talky in places, but the story chugs along nicely, providing a nice balance between action and exposition.  It remains one of the most unique interpretations of Frankenstein, and is easily among Hammer’s best films.  It paved the way for the studio’s further explorations of former Universal horror mainstays utilizing their trademark gothic spin with werewolves, mummies, and of course, Dracula. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

July Quick Picks and Pans

The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) This German silent film from Lotte Reiniger represents a landmark in cinema and animation.  It might appear somewhat crude to modern eyes, but this is where animated feature films got their start.  Black silhouetted figures and tinted scenes contribute to the movie’s unique look, which took three years to create.  It possesses a dreamlike quality that’s unlike anything else I’ve seen.  The story is based on One Thousand and One Nights (better known as Arabian Nights), and includes many of the characters we’ve become familiarized with in other movies borrowing from the same source material.  There’s an evil sorcerer, a Caliph (often referred to as the Sultan in other versions), along with his beautiful daughter and her suitor Aladdin.  Many of the story elements that we’ve seen before are here, but rearranged slightly.  This time, the focus is on the Caliph’s son Prince Achmed, with Aladdin taking a supporting role.  Despite the well-worn story components, the presentation is inventive and completely unforgettable.  Highly recommended for fans of animation, silent movies, or anyone with a pulse.

Rating: **** ½ ; Available on DVD.

Let Sleeping Corpses Lie (AKA: The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue) (1974) Just when I thought I’d seen everything that the zombie genre could dish out, along came this surprisingly effective entry.  Instead of voodoo spells, esoteric chemical compounds, or a virus, the cause for the zombie outbreak is attributed to an experimental device that kills pests through sonic radiation.  Unfortunately for the local populace, the device has an unwanted side effect on the developing nervous systems of infants and the recently deceased.  The former become violent, while the latter are suddenly reanimated and have an insatiable hunger for human innards.  Too bad the researchers, as well as local law enforcement personnel are slow to catch on.  Edna and George are the first to discover that something is awry, but they’re unable to convince the hateful police inspector (who apparently thinks all younger people are junkies, hippies, or both) that walking corpses are responsible for the recent mayhem in the countryside. 

There are some genuinely scary moments to help set the mood.  In one notable scene, the main characters are trapped in a crypt with the living dead, with no discernible way out.  The makeup effects are generally well done, providing ample doses of blood and guts to satisfy the most discriminating gore hound.  The only real downside of Let Sleeping Corpses Lie is the assortment of unlikable/uninvolving characters.  Most of them are too mean, underdeveloped or stupid to really generate any feelings of empathy from the viewer.  This isn’t quite the fatal flaw that it might be in other movies, however, since they’re not much more than zombie fodder anyway.  The main attraction is the flesh- eating zombies, and in that regard this film really delivers.

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

Hands of the Ripper (1971) As a toddler, Anna witnesses the murder of her mother by Jack the Ripper, who also happens to be her father.  Needless to say, this early childhood trauma creates some deep emotional scarring.  Flash forward about 15 years or so.  When her exploitive guardian is killed under mysterious circumstances, Dr. Pritchard (Eric Porter) takes the now 17-year-old Anna (played by Angharad Rees) under his wing, determined to get to the root of her alleged latent murderous tendencies.  Dr. Pritchard is convinced that he can tap into these early memories, and apply Sigmund Freud’s newly developed psychoanalytic techniques to cure her of her affliction.  Pritchard casually dismisses the risk he’s taking by exposing a potentially homicidal patient to the outside world, but he seems to subscribe to the school of thought that you can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.  What are a few deaths, after all, in the name of science?  Most of the time, Anna seems perfectly mannered and compliant, as long as you keep her away from shiny objects and don’t try to kiss her.  As the body count begins to rise, it slowly dawns on the good doctor that he might have misjudged things a bit.  It’s all a little silly, with psychological explanations that are far too simplistic.  Although the cause-and-effect relationship between Anna’s past experience and her present-day behavior is dodgy at best, Hands of the Ripper still works for the most part.  You’ll probably have a good time if you bear in mind that director Peter Sasdy likely intended to entertain and not present a serious psychological character study.  It’s not the greatest Hammer production, but still worth a look.

Rating: ***; Available on Netflix Streaming.       

TerrorVision (1986) It’s hard to believe that there are still many movies that haven’t seen the light of day on DVD, even in this information-saturated age.  This is one of them, which might not be such a bad thing.  TerrorVision is mildly amusing at times, but wears out its welcome long before the final scene.  In a far off corner of the galaxy an alien facility disposes of dangerous creatures, transmitting them into space.  Meanwhile back on the planet Earth, a faulty satellite TV dish receives the signal, depositing one of the angry alien beasties into an unsuspecting family’s living room.  Low-budget pandemonium ensues.  Forget about motivation or believability; I think the only guidance that writer/director Ted Nicolaou provided to his actors was to play their parts as broadly as possible.  B-movie stars Mary Woronov and Gerrit Graham seemed to be having fun with their roles as a swinging 80s couple, and there’s a mildly amusing Elvira clone called Medusa (Jennifer Richards), but their moments don’t add up to much.  Most of the scenes in TerrorVision play out like a comedian who laughs at his own jokes -- it’s never as clever or funny as it thinks it is.  After a while, I felt that my brain cells were assaulted.  If an overdose of camp is your thing, then be my guest.  Otherwise, your mid-80s camp quota would be better served by the far superior Night of the Creeps.

Rating: **.  Available on Netflix Streaming.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Picnic at Hanging Rock

(1975) Directed by Peter Weir; Written by Cliff Green; Based on a novel by Joan Lindsay; Starring: Rachel Roberts, Anne-Louise Lambert and Vivean Gray;
Available on DVD

Rating: ****

There’s a special place on my Netflix DVD and instant queues that I like to call Queue Hell.  These are the films that I’ve added over the past several years, but for various reasons couldn’t quite bring myself to watch.  It’s not because they’re necessarily bad films, but some of them have a reputation for being slow or pretentious, or they just don’t match the mood that I’m in at the moment.  Every once in a while, I’ll knuckle down and chip away at Queue Hell, selecting a title at random to inflict on my psyche and stamina.    With the aforementioned reasons in mind, I wasn’t exactly looking forward to watching Picnic at Hanging Rock.  It had all the earmarks of a film that critics adored and average schmoes hated, which made it instantly suspect in my book.  I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I was drawn into this unusual story, despite my initial prejudices.

The setting is Victoria, Australia in 1900.  The prologue would lead you to believe that you’re about to witness events that culminated in a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.  It was kind of a letdown to discover that none of this actually happened, but was purely a work of fiction, based on a novel by Joan Lindsay.  The events are chronicled in a pseudo-historical fashion, maintaining the illusion that this is a factual account.  The students (minus one) from an exclusive girls’ boarding school set off on an afternoon Valentine’s Day outing to the nearby reserve known as Hanging Rock.  Not content to soak in the sun and eat cake, four of the girls decide to wander off and explore the mysterious formation of rocks.  Only one returns, and when their governess attempts to locate the missing girls, she ends up missing as well.  A subsequent exploration of the surrounding area yields few clues to the whereabouts of the lost girls and their ward.  The filmmakers provide no concrete explanation for the mystery, and no resolution is offered.  We are left to speculate on our own about what occurred, based on the few paltry facts that are made available. 

There are probably as many interpretations of Picnic at Hanging Rock as there are reviewers.  Here are a few of my theories:

(1)    The girls met with foul play.  Admittedly, this is the most prosaic explanation, but the motive is there.  In an early scene, two young men ogle the girls as they wander off into the rocks, and presumably into the unknown.  It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to imagine that the students would be easy prey for the local men.  After all, there were probably a million places that the bodies could have been hidden in the remote terrain.

(2)    A paranormal occurrence was responsible for the girls’ disappearance.  The film doesn’t go out of its way to support this assertion, but it doesn’t close the door on this possibility.  On the way to the picnic, one of the students makes the foreboding comment that Hanging Rock has been waiting a million years for them.  Edith (Christine Schuler), the girl who returned from the rocks, recalls that a red cloud was in the sky when her companions disappeared.  The presence of the cloud suggests some otherworldly explanation.  Was it aliens?  Aboriginal spirits? It’s anyone’s guess. 

(3)    The girls’ disappearance is a metaphor for the end of innocence.  They’re dressed in virginal white dresses that cover them from head to toe, contrasting the reddish brown formations of Hanging Rock.  They seem entirely out of place in this harsh environment.  Their escape, if only fleeting, represents a way out of their oppressive surroundings.  When they remove their shoes and stockings (gasp!) to climb upon the rocks, it’s a liberating experience.  Edith, the most inhibited of the lot, does not partake in her companions’ actions, and runs screaming back to the join the others at the picnic.  She failed or passed the test, depending on your point of view.

Picnic at Hanging Rock’s contemplative, measured pace is actually an asset.  So much of what happens is internalized by the characters, leaving their experiences and motives open to speculation.  Nothing is dumbed down for the audience.  Director Peter Weir doesn’t provide answers, only more questions.

Another search for the missing girls ends in the discovery of Irma (Karen Robson), alive and relatively unscathed.  Irma, however, has no memory of what happened to the others.  It’s another part of a jigsaw puzzle that stands alone, without any directly adjoining pieces. 

The primary subplot involves an orphan girl who stayed behind, Sara (Margaret Nelson), and her friendship with one of the missing girls, Miranda (Anne-Louise Lambert).  Sara is portrayed as a quiet loner.  Her only friend at the school appears to be Miranda.  The nature of their relationship is never fully explored, but a brief conversation between them provides one of the only clues to Miranda’s disappearance.  The morning of the picnic, Miranda confided to Sara that she would not be around much longer, ominously foreshadowing the strange course of events that would follow. 

The film’s music does an effective job of underscoring the enigmatic story and images of otherworldly rock formations.  Bruce Smeaton’s score is suitably ethereal, accompanied by haunting flute music by none other than Gheorghe Zamfir (whose name older readers might recognize from the 80s’ commercial for “Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute”). 

The film’s pseudo docu-drama format almost seems to be the spiritual predecessor of the “found footage” sub-genre that would emerge a couple of decades later.  It probably wouldn’t make much of a difference if Picnic at Hanging Rock had been a retelling of a true event, because you become immersed in the reality of the film.  It’s a Rorschach test.  What you see in it has much to do with what you bring to the table.  Your own assumptions will determine the story’s ambiguous conclusion.  What really happened in those rocks is less important than the mystery itself.  If Weir had wrapped up the ending with an explanation in a neat little package at that end it would certainly have been disappointing, compared to what our mind’s eye could concoct. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Classics Revisited: Freaks

(1932) Directed by Tod Browning; Written by Willis Goldbeck and Leon Gordon; Based on the short story “Spurs” by Tod Robbins; Starring: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Rosco Ates and Harry Earles; Available on DVD.

Rating: **** ½

What’s It About?

Freaks is the sort of film that naturally evokes hyperbole such as “one-of-a-kind,” “disturbing” and “controversial,” and for once, lives up to the hype.  Since its release in 1932, Freaks has polarized audiences, with some heralding it as a cult masterpiece and others damning it as a piece of shameless exploitation.  Although no two people will likely have the same reaction to this film, it’s virtually impossible to see Freaks and not have an opinion. 

Freaks is not an easy film to watch, nor is it easy to take your eyes away.  The story behind the scenes is just as interesting.  During the film’s production, MGM Studios didn’t know what to do with it.  The initial screening went poorly, and director Tod Browning made numerous concessions to appease meddling studio officials.  Various cuts were made, including the original ending.  The version that exists today is only a scant 62 minutes.  For some that will probably be more than enough, while for others it barely scratches the surface. 

Critical reception for Freaks was mostly negative, and MGM decided to distance itself from the film for decades after its initial release.  While it was apparently successful in a few markets, other regions never had the chance to see it at all.  In one of the most notorious examples, the film was banned in Great Britain for 30 years.  How did Freaks gain such an infamous reputation?  Is it exploitive, or is it a sensitive portrayal of the mistreatment of people who are different?  It’s a little of both, which is true to Tod Browning’s roots.

One year after the gargantuan hit Dracula, Browning decided to revisit familiar ground.  Before working on motion pictures, he had earned a living in the traveling circus sideshows.  Browning frequently drew upon his experience as a showman and performer when he became a filmmaker, exploring his uniquely dark and bizarre themes in such 1920s silent films as The Unknown and The Unholy Three.  Although Freaks was clearly influenced by these earlier successful efforts, it was not a hit, and would have long-lasting repercussions on Browning’s career.

Freaks utilized real-life sideshow performers with actual physical deformities for the bulk of its cast, providing unprecedented credibility to the story.  In the DVD’s commentary, David Skal noted that there were more performers assembled for this fictional freak show than there ever would have been for one troupe.  The cast list is a veritable who’s who of sideshow performers, including little people Harry and Daisy Earles (who were also real life brother and sister), the Human Skeleton, the Armless Girl, the Bearded Lady, Schlitze the Pinhead, Johnny Eck the Half Boy, Prince Randian the Human Torso, and Siamese twins Daisy and Violet Hilton.  Few performers benefited from the film, with most fading away into obscurity.   One of the few noteworthy exceptions was Angelo Rossitto, who continued to work in movies almost until his death in 1991.

The central story is fairly simplistic, concerning a plot by the glamorous and hateful Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova) to seduce Hans (Harry Earles) and take his money, so she can ultimately run off with the strongman Hercules (Henry Victor).  The acting is a mixed bag, often stilted and bordering on maudlin at times, but the imagery is never short of compelling.  All the other performers can see that Cleopatra is manipulating Hans for her own ends, and that nothing good can come out of this strange relationship.  Her scheming inevitably leads to her downfall.  In a climactic scene that’s still unsettling today, the vengeful performers trudge through the mud to dole out their version of justice.

Why It’s Still Relevant:

Nearly 80 years after its initial release, it’s difficult to imagine how shocking Freaks must have been for audiences of early 30s.  Even through the jaded eyes of the 21st century, it can still surprise.  The unforgettable depictions of real human deformities still create a visceral impact, alternately amazing and horrifying the viewer.  The film is a testament to a time gone by, when people with such unfortunate afflictions were viewed as sub-human things that existed solely for others’ amusement.  Probably the most astonishing thing about Freaks was that it was ever made at all.

Freaks’ most famous scene occurs later in the picture, during Hans and Cleopatra’s wedding feast.  The freaks repeatedly chant, “Gooble-gobble, gooble-gobble, we accept her, one of us…” (*) welcoming Cleopatra into the fold.  She’s disgusted and horrified by the prospect, bringing to mind the Groucho Marx quote that he wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have him as a member.  Her rejection of the group is not simply an isolated reaction from a cold-hearted sociopath, although she would clearly fall into that category.  It’s a metaphor for society’s failure to accept those who fall outside the norm. 

* Random useless trivia: As an interesting side note, this chant inspired the Ramones song “Pinhead,” including the famous “gabba gabba hey” chorus.

Maybe the scariest thing about Freaks is that it isn’t quite the artifact that it appears to be.  In this age of political correctness when we have seemingly evolved beyond such “unenlightened” spectacles as the freak show, we are still triggered by the same impulses that compel us to set ourselves apart from individuals who are deemed strange or less fortunate.  We are entertained by watching others who are perceived as different, as evidenced by the glut of so-called “reality” shows, the internet meme of the week, People of Wal-Mart, and countless other media outlets that have become the modern-day equivalent of the freak shows.  It still amounts to the same thing.  We embrace what is considered normal, and revile what is different.  The curtain has been pulled back to reveal a mirror.  We find that we are merely staring back at ourselves, with the same prejudices intact, but dressed in different clothing. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011


(1963) Directed by Ishirô Honda; Written by: Shinichi Sekizawa; Based on novels by: Shigeru Komatsuzaki and Shunro Oshikawa; Starring: Tadao Takashima, Yôko Fujiyama, Yû Fujiki; Available format: DVD

Rating: ***

Director Ishirô Honda is probably best known for his numerous Shōwa era Godzilla movies, along with several other Japanese sci-fi/horror films of the 50s and 60s (notably, Rodan, Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People, and War of the Gargantuas).  Atragon, however, is one title in Honda’s voluminous resume that often gets overlooked. The focus in this film is not on monsters (although there is one), but on men. 

Perhaps one of the reasons that Atragon isn’t as widely known as some of Honda’s other contributions is that it’s rather tepid in the action department. Not much occurs in the first hour, unless you consider scene after scene of arguing and saber rattling to be riveting drama. What ultimately sets Atragon apart from many of its contemporaries, and ultimately makes it watchable is its socio-political commentary. No, really! Buried within the tiresome character conflicts is a clash between old and new Japan. 

Trouble is brewing underneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean. An ancient civilization called the Mu Empire, presumably lost for thousands of years, suddenly makes its presence known. When the Mu continent sunk into the sea, it vanished from the memories and prying eyes of terrestrial dwellers. Now, the technologically advanced Mu Empire has decided to re-emerge, and assert its dominance over the nations of the surface.  Apparently, their conquest involves scenes of the lost continent’s residents dancing around with togas and brightly colored wigs, but we’ll just let this slide. The Mu Empire wages war on the land, demanding the immediate halt to construction of the top-secret super-submarine Atragon.

So, how does the Mu Empire know about a weapon that most of the Japanese government isn’t aware of?   In the waning days of World War II, Captain Jinguji went into self-imposed exile with a handpicked group of loyalists.  During the next 18 years, they devoted their lives to secretly constructing the massive flying submarine Atragon, which would help return Japan to its former glory days.  Jinguji was instrumental in developing the last few advanced submarine prototypes of the war, one of which fell into the hands of the Mu Empire.  Unfortunately, that model also included the blueprints to the Atragon, a submarine capable of flight, armed with a freeze ray cannon and a drill mechanism for burrowing.

Once the whereabouts of the renegade Japanese captain and his men are discovered, it’s up to Jinguji’s daughter Makoto and former Admiral Kosumi to convince him that the world has changed, and the Atragon is needed for a new role. Jinguji, however, has never conceded defeat, and views the Atragon as a symbol of national pride, not peace keeping. This is probably the most intriguing aspect of Atragon, as it reveals some of the prevailing ambivalence of postwar Japan. This sentiment is embodied by the staunch traditionalist view of Jinguji, Kosumi’s (now the CEO of a shipping company) adaptation to a changed world, and a Japan no longer in touch with its past, as in Makoto. This conflict of perspectives was undoubtedly influenced by the country’s climate in the early 60s, when it was on the cusp of becoming a technological and economic powerhouse.

Alright, that’s just peachy, but what about the flying submarine? Where’s the worldwide devastation promised by the Mu Empire, and the cataclysmic explosions? Most of the action is fairly underwhelming. The Atragon doesn’t actually launch until roughly an hour into the film – a fairly substantial time to wait in a movie that’s barely longer than 90 minutes. I distinctly got the feeling that they spent all the money on the Mu sets, so there wasn’t much left to show the interiors of the Atragon. We get a few short glimpses, but not much more. Despite its giant size, we only see a dozen or so crewmembers. Just before things get a little too dull, we get some kaiju action, thanks to the sea serpent Manda, in a scene reminiscent of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea . 

(SPOILERS AHOY!  Consider skipping to the last paragraph if you want to avoid learning too many details about the thrilling ending.)

 By the time Atragon really gets going, it fizzles to an anti-climactic conclusion. This whole invasion of the land thing wasn’t too well thought out. Throughout the film, we’re led to believe that the all-powerful, super-advanced Mu Empire is unstoppable. It’s sort of a letdown when they’re defeated so easily. After smashing through a not-so-heavily fortified wall, Atragon’s crew easily overpowers the spear-wielding Mu guards with freeze ray guns. The entire Mu navy appears to consist of one sub with a laser cannon, unless you want to count Manda as part of their arsenal. I’m no military tactician, but I think the Mu Empire didn’t exactly consider their advantage. If they had the plans for Atragon, it would seem logical that they could find a way to identify and exploit a weakness (Death Star, anyone?). Of course, they could have just built their own improved version, or a fleet of Atragons for that matter. Maybe when I get to run my own empire, I’ll think of these things.

Disappointments aside, it’s easy to see how Atragon could have been the first in a series of flicks, featuring the further adventures of the flying submarine and its crew. It would have been interesting to see where things went, now that the origin story was out of the way, but this was not to be. Atragon wasn’t exactly Toho Studios or Honda’s finest moment, but it’s still worth a look if you’re an Ishirô Honda completist, or you’re looking for some unexpected commentary about postwar Japanese society. 

Monday, July 4, 2011


(2010) Written and Directed by Quentin Dupieux; Starring: Stephen Spinella, Roxane Mesquida and Wings Hauser; Available formats: DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix Streaming

Rating: ****
Way back, during my video store days when VHS ruled the earth, one of the most common questions I encountered was, “What’s new that’s in, that I haven’t seen before?”  Without possessing any natural clairvoyant skills, I would be forced to make my best guess about what the customer might like.  After I suggested something a little off the beaten path, the next questions would invariably be, “Who’s in it?” and “What’s it about?”

Let’s fast forward an unspecified number of years to the present, and pretend that I just recommended Rubber.  I think the exchange might go something like this:

“Who’s in it?”

“Oh, no one you’ve probably heard of.  Except maybe 80s C-list actor Wings Hauser.”

“So, what’s it about?”

“Well, it’s about this tire that kills people, and--”

“Sounds dumb.  What else have ‘ya got? How about that new Adam Sandler movie?” 

There were times, more often than not, when I felt I would lose all faith with the general movie-going public and humanity in general.  But I digress...

Rubber doesn’t exactly lend itself to simple one-line descriptions.  It’s probably best known as “that killer tire movie,” but that seems to sell things a little short.  It’s really a satirical comedy that employs the trappings of horror.  Writer/director Quentin Dupieux is well aware of the inherent silliness of his film’s premise, and has no trouble pointing this out on multiple occasions.  We’re in on the joke from the start, as Lieutenant Chad, played by Stephen Spinella, breaks the fourth wall to point out to the audience the many times when things occur in movies for no reason.  The movie-within-a-movie motif is employed throughout the film to enable the characters to step outside the action and comment on their surroundings. 

The central story follows the exploits of the sentient tire Robert as he meanders through the desert on his rolling rampage.  How did he become self-aware in the first place?  How does he get up and move around without any outside assistance?  Why does he possess an unquenchable desire to kill?  These questions and many others swirled inside my head as I watched Rubber, but they didn’t really matter.  There was something oddly compelling about watching a tire take on a life of its own, emerging from its junkyard prison like a butterfly from a chrysalis.  As the newly liberated steel-belted radial explored its surroundings, it discovered its latent telekinetic abilities to make random things explode, ultimately moving on to blowing up the heads of any human who stands in its way.  Yes, I realize how weird this sounds; and no, this doesn’t make much sense. 

So, why choose an inanimate object as the film’s antagonist?  To borrow a line from the movie, “No reason.”  It could have been a beach ball, or a pogo stick, or a number of other things.  The tire is simply occupying the role usually held by a serial killer or monster.  We’ve seen similar situations play out hundreds of times before, but this time the villain has been arbitrarily replaced.

All of the usual horror clichés abound: the unstoppable killer stalking his victims, the unwitting object of his lust (including an obligatory shower scene in a seedy motel), the boy who knows who the killer is, and his disbelieving father.  The cops are slow to realize the culprit’s identity, and by the time they catch on, the tire has left the scene.  Of course, this leaves one to wonder why they didn’t just dust for tire prints in the first place (Bad joke, I know.).  Dupieux uses familiar horror movie tropes to toy with the audience’s expectations.  It’s a familiar story of the hunter and the hunted, but twisted around to the point where we cannot accept that we are seeing what we think we saw.  We can’t trust the reality established by the movie when the movie frequently questions its own perceptions of reality.  Even the characters are never sure if they’re participating in a movie or real life.

If there’s fault to be found with Rubber, it’s that the film is a little too self-consciously clever at times.  Maybe there were a few too many moments when I felt that Dupieux was winking at the audience, as characters in the film stopped to consider what just happened.  The satire seemed to be layered a bit thick, as the film frequently lapsed into self-reference, leaving me to question if I just watched an actual movie, or a parody of a movie.  Although I could easily understand how this deliberate self-awareness could be frustrating for some, I found Rubber to be a whole lot of fun.  It’s sort of an art film for those who can’t stand art films.  At the very least, it’s a refreshing departure from the usual mass-marketed rental fodder, and it’s nice to know that a few intrepid filmmakers are still making movies that can’t be explained in one brief sentence.