Sunday, July 7, 2024

The Pit

The Pit Poster

(1981) Directed by Lew Lehman; Written by Ian A. Stuart; Starring: Sammy Snyders, Jeannie Elias, Sonja Smits and Laura Hollingsworth; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ***

Jamie Stares Into the Pit

“I look back and I think to myself, there’s always things you can do better… Jamie’s character, even when you watch it today, is gonna freak you out. You can see the eyes on Jamie. There was something there, and I’m proud of that.” – Sammy Snyders

Talking with Teddy

Everyone likely has a story about the weird kid at school other kids seemed to steer clear of, because of their appearance or behavior (Hey, no judgment here! I was probably that weird kid).  By necessity or choice, they become immersed in their own world – someplace they feel accepted. While we wonder what’s his or her deal, our imaginations take flight with idle (and often inaccurate) speculation. In most cases, they’re harmless but lack the social skills to navigate the nuances and pitfalls of social interactions, have interests that no one else cares about, or just behave a little differently from their peers. The Pit (1981)*/** is about a not-so-benign oddball kid, with the repercussions of his social estrangement taken to horrible extremes.    

Fun Fact #1: Although The Pit was another example of a Canadian tax shelter production, filming was predominately in the United States (with a combination of Canadian and American cast and crew), in the small town of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin. 

Fun Fact #2: The film’s original title, Teddy, was also the title of the novelization.

Jamie and Sandy

Jamie Benjamin (Sammy Snyders)*/** is a smart but troubled 12-year-old boy that other kids avoid like a communicable disease. Everyone, including the adults in his life, sense something is “off” about him. Interactions with other kids often end in disaster (such as the opening scene, where he’s punched in the face by a schoolyard bully), so he mostly keeps to himself. His only friends are the critters he keeps in an overcrowded terrarium and his stuffed toy, Teddy, who “tells” him what to do. His frustrated parents (Laura Press and Richard Alden) have gone through several babysitters, but when they need to travel out of town, they hire a new sitter, perky college student Sandy O’Reilly (Jeannie Elias). Sandy views Jamie as an interesting challenge. With a major in psychology, she somehow considers herself qualified to conduct some dime-store analysis on him (which goes about as well as you would imagine). While she gradually earns Jamie’s confidence, she becomes the unwitting object of his infatuation. In an effort to gain her trust, he reveals his secret about a pit hidden in the woods (with some particularly nasty little residents), but things don’t quite end up as planned. 

* Fun Fact #3: Screenwriter Ian A. Stuart was less than enthused about the final results, claiming that his “story was destroyed,” turning it into a pure horror film rather than a psychological drama. The filmmakers omitted the ending as originally written, which suggested that everything was in Jamie’s mind (and depicted Jamie institutionalized). 

** Fun Fact #4: Stuart’s screenplay envisioned Jamie as a pre-pubescent boy, around 8 or 9. Instead, the filmmakers cast 14-year-old Sammy Snyders to play the now12-year-old lead character, significantly changing the dynamics of the movie.

An Inappropriate Moment

We’re never sure how we should feel about Jamie. On the one hand, it’s easy to sympathize with his social and mental isolation as a result of the ostracism he endures. On the other hand, it’s not so easy to excuse his antisocial (not to mention wildly inappropriate) behavior. In one especially uncomfortable scene, when Sandy reluctantly agrees to wash his back, Jamie confesses that his mother still bathes him (“She really tried to make me clean.”), providing some insight into the family’s dysfunctional relationship. He follows up by asking Sandy, “Do you like washing me?”  which predicably sends her running out of the bathroom. In a later scene, he extorts the town librarian (who believes her niece has been kidnapped) into giving him an impromptu striptease (Yes, this scene is about as creepy as you would likely imagine).* In another scene, he professes his love to Sandy by writing on the bathroom mirror while she’s showering. In times of discomfort or indecision, he consults his teddy bear (whose voice sounds suspiciously like him), bringing to the surface his suppressed urges. In the case of Teddy, the conversations are strictly in Jamie’s head. It’s not so easy to explain away the existence of the pit and some troglodytic primordial humanoids (which he calls “Troliwogs”)**/*** that dwell at the bottom. He takes it upon himself to feed the creatures (buying meat with stolen money), but the food supply quickly diminishes, forcing him to take more drastic measures – anyone he deems to be a "bad” person is fair game for the pit. He once again faces a moral dilemma, however, when his supply of enemies runs out. 

* Fun Fact #5: According to Stuart, director Lew Lehman’s wife (who was frequently on the set) didn’t want her husband directing the brief nude scenes. Those sequences, shot later as inserts, were directed by Stuart instead. 

** Fun Fact #6: The troglodytes were initially played by young children, but when the kids started getting sick and passing out from the constrictive costumes, they were replaced by adult little people. 

*** Fun Fact #7: There were two types of costumes used to depict the troglodytes, with the initial crude, makeshift costumes created on location. The filmmakers weren’t impressed with the results, prompting them to fabricate new costumes for close-up shots in a Toronto-based studio.

 

Feeding the Pit Creatures

Considering the scenes that preceded his homicidal conversion, it’s an odd choice of the filmmakers to play Jamie’s murder streak for laughs. The Pit lapses into dark comedy through a montage of scenes (accompanied by wacky musical cues), as he leads his enemies (real or perceived) to their doom. Following an argument with Sandy (who believes the pit creatures should be studied), Jamie allows them to escape to the surface, which in turn condemns them to a harsher fate. At this point, the film’s narrative loses its way, with our central character disappearing for the next few scenes. Left to their own devices, the little subterranean beasties create more murder and mayhem than they might have been capable of otherwise. The local police and townspeople combine forces to hunt down the malevolent troglodytes, but it’s never made clear whether Jamie learned about their eventual fate or if he felt any remorse about them. 

 

The Troglodytes

The distributors should have warned audiences about the risk of whiplash, considering the abrupt mid-film tonal shift, when Jamie starts luring his victims to the pit. In the context of the film, it’s a jarring choice (it’s a credit to composer Victor Davies that he does his best to keep up with the changes). By far, the best part of The Pit is Sammy Snyders’ convincing and creepy performance as the antiheroic main character. Despite the excesses of the rest of the movie, Snyders creates a believable character in Jamie, with a warped sense of justice but recognizable motivations. In Jamie’s defense, the adults he interacts with aren’t much better than his peers, ranging from dismissive to outright hostile, so it’s hard for Jamie to find a moral/ethical compass when no one else does the right thing around him. The Pit is a fascinating mess – a near-miss that almost works, despite its numerous inconsistencies and weird structure. Fans of offbeat low-budget horror may want to give this a try. All others might consider proceeding with caution. 

* Fun Fact #8: Some of The Pit’s disjointed nature could be attributed to the fact that director Lew Lehman was fired before the film’s completion, and wasn’t available to provide input for the subsequent editing. 

 

Sources for this article: Blu-ray commentary by Paul Corupe and Jason Pichonsky; Interview wish Sammy Snyders, “The Babysitter – An Interview with Jeannie Elias,” “Teddy Told Me To – An Interview with Ian A. Stuart.”

 


Sunday, June 30, 2024

Southeast Asian Cinema Month Quick Picks and Pans

The Traveling Circus Poster

The Traveling Circus (1988) In this underseen drama from director Linh Viet, a rag-tag traveling circus visits an impoverished rural Vietnamese village, despite the protests of the village elder. Skeptical of the unwanted outsiders, the starving residents have little need for frivolity or entertainment when they’re trying to survive. A young boy becomes smitten by one of the performers, a woman who performs a magic trick that makes rice appear. He longs to know the secret so he can feed his malnourished younger sister and the rest of the village. Filmed in black and white (which lends to the sense of immediacy), The Traveling Circus is a simply told but devastating tale of desperation and misplaced belief. Largely unknown outside its native country, this film deserves to reach a wider audience 

Rating: ****½. Available on DVD

ROH Poster

ROH (aka: Soul) (2019) Director/co-writer Emir Ezwan’s atmospheric debut feature, set in a Malaysian jungle, creeps under your skin from the first reel and never unleashes its grasp. A single mother (Farah Ahmad) and her two children Along and Angah (Mhia Farhana and Harith Haziq) eke out a meager existence in their isolated hut. Their lives are changed forever when they encounter a young girl wandering the jungle alone. Her presence and subsequent death become a harbinger of terrible things to come for the family. A mysterious old woman (June Lojong) who lives nearby offers her assistance against the evil presence that looms about. Signs point to an enigmatic lone hunter (Pemburu), searching for the missing girl. ROH doesn’t rely on cheap scares or flashy special effects, but relies on light, shadow, and the ambient sounds of the jungle (accompanied by a minimalist score) to create a relentless and overwhelming sense of dread. Bad omens abound, and nothing is quite what it seems. 

Rating: ****. Available on DVD, Tubi and Shudder 

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2017) Set in a remote rural Indonesian town, director/co-writer Mouly Surya’s spaghetti western-inspired story (accompanied by a Ennio-Morricone-influenced score) of revenge is a portrait of quiet courage under extreme adversity. A man appears at the widow Marlina’s (Marsha Timothy) modest farmhouse, calmly proclaiming that he and his men (who are about to arrive) will take her livestock and forcibly have sex with her. This doesn’t sit well with our plucky protagonist, who poisons his men and decapitates their leader. She sets off (carrying the severed head) with an abused pregnant friend to report the incident to the police, who appear less than sympathetic. Mouly Surya’s film provides a matter-of-fact commentary on misogynistic society, where the consequences for the victims are worse than the perpetrators. At its heart is Marsha Timothy’s intense performance as a woman who refuses to passively adhere to social conventions at her expense. 

Rating: ****. Available on DVD 

 

Ode to Nothing Poster

Ode to Nothing (2018) Middle-aged Sonya (Pokwang) leads a dreary day-to-day existence, tending to her failing small-town family business, a funeral home. With too-few customers to keep afloat and a cruel landlord constantly breathing down her neck, she and her estranged father face eviction. Her life unexpectedly changes when an anonymous old lady’s corpse is dropped off by two men. While waiting for someone to claim the body, the corpse becomes Sonya’s surrogate mother and confidant – a temporary salve for her pervasive loneliness. Ode to Nothing is a heartbreaking meditation on quiet despair and invisibility in an uncaring society.    

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray

Alone Poster

Alone (2007) Co-directors Banjong Pisanthanakun and Parkpoom Wongpoom return with the follow-up to their debut film, Shutter (2004), a twisted tale of retribution from beyond the grave. When Pim (Marsha Wattanapanich) learns that her mother has suffered a devastating stroke, she reluctantly returns to Thailand with her boyfriend to settle affairs. As she stays in her childhood home, the past comes back to haunt her in the ghostly form of her once-conjoined twin sister Ploy (who died when they were separated). This unsettling story of survivor’s guilt and unrequited love will keep you in suspense throughout. 

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD (region 3)

 

Silip - Daughters of Eve Poster

Silip: Daughters of Eve (1985) Set in a small, isolated seaside village in the Philippines, director Edward Perez paints a picture of desire, longing and cruelty. When free-spirited Selda (Sarsi Emmanuelle) returns home, it sends the insular community into a tailspin, especially her sexually repressed sister Tonya (Maria Isabel Lopez). A fractured, contentious love triangle brews between Selda, Tonya and Simon (Mark Joseph) a brash hunter, leading to a tragic climax. This example of Filipino “Bold” cinema (roughly analogous to Japanese “Pinky” film) can be difficult to watch at times, with its brutality and frankness, but its exploration of the dark side of human nature will stick with you. 

Warning: The opening scene, featuring the (real) slaughter of a cow is quite disturbing, as well as later scenes of (simulated) sexual assault. 

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

Motel Mist Poster

Motel Mist (2016) Writer/director Prabda Yoon focuses on the bizarre activities surrounding a Bangkok love motel, where anonymous people go to fulfill their wildest desires or simply drop out of society. The patrons include a middle-aged man with an abusive streak and a former child actor who believes he’s being controlled by aliens. Meanwhile, a love-starved motel clerk lives vicariously by spying on the activities of the guests. This quirky, well-acted character study is full of surprises throughout, leading to a fittingly unusual ending.   

Rating: 3 ½ stars. Available on DVD, Midnight Pulp and Tubi

Sunday, June 16, 2024

Mystics in Bali

 

Mystics in Bali Poster

(1981) Directed by H. Tjut Djalil; Written by Jimmy Atmaja; Based on the novel Leak Ngakak by Putra Mada; Starring: Ilona Agathe Bastian, Yos Santo, Sofia W.D., W.D. Mochtar, and Debbie Cinthya Dewi; Available on DVD 

Rating: ***½ 

“Cathy, voodoo or any other black magic is nothing compared to this Leak magic. According to what I’ve heard, the Leak is the most powerful of all magic.” – Mahendra (Yos Santo) 

Shaman

“There are some things people weren’t meant to know” is a popular theme of many horror films, often involving a naïve westerner poking their nose where it doesn’t belong.  Of course, anyone who’s watched more than a few movies of this type knows exactly where it’s going. While its central theme and plot are familiar, director H. Tjut Djalil’s Mystics in Bali takes a decidedly Southeast Asian spin on familiar material, incorporating Indonesian folklore into the mix.* As a pure horror film, it represented a departure for Indonesian cinema, which previously adopted Bollywood’s “kitchen sink” approach (with a mélange of slapstick comedy, drama, and musical numbers). Intended as a breakout film for the export market, Mystics in Bali featured an approach that would appeal to the tastes of Western audiences. 

* Fun Fact #1: Due to the subject matter, which incorporated authentic Balinese beliefs and practices, filming was moved from Bali to nearby Java, to avoid upsetting the locals.

Leak Master

Cathy Kean (Ilona Agathe Bastian)* is an inquisitive young American woman visiting Bali, Indonesia, as research for her book on different forms of black magic. Through her friend Mahendra (Yos Santo), she learns about a powerful form of Indonesian black magic known as Leak (Pronounced “Le-ack”).* Mahendra arranges a meeting with a Leak master (Sofia W.D.) who appears as a hideous crone, but subsequently agrees to take on Cathy as her disciple. Naturally, there is a steep price to acquire this forbidden knowledge, as Cathy unwittingly pays with her body and soul. Employing her mastery of the dark arts, the ever-cackling sorceress (who sounds something like the Cryptkeeper in Tales from the Crypt) borrows Cathy’s head (yep, you read that right) to do her bidding. Cathy’s head detaches (with entrails dangling underneath) and flies around, searching the countryside for the blood of potential victims.** She’s bound by the Leak master to take the lives of three people, so the witch can become all-powerful and immortal. Now it’s up to Mahendra and his uncle Machesse (W.D. Mochtar), a mystic, to set things right, setting the stage for an ultimate battle between good and evil. 

* Fun Fact #2: Ilona Agathe Bastian wasn’t an actress but a German tourist who happened to be at the right place at the right time. A wife of one of the producers convinced Bastian to extend her stay by several weeks so she could appear in the movie. To date, this remains her one and only film role. 

** Fun Fact #3: The Leak (or Kuyang) isn’t strictly confined to Indonesian folklore, but has several counterparts throughout Southeast Asia, including: Thailand (Krasue), Cambodia (Ahp), Vietnam (Ma lai), and others.

Mahendra and Cathy

Cathy and Mahendra are clearly more than just friends, but within the confines of the movie they enjoy a chaste relationship. Considering the gory, anything-goes nature of the film, the conspicuous restraint the filmmakers demonstrated with regard to the two leads suggests it was due more to censorship concerns than anything else. (Mild Spoiler Alert) We only learn toward the end of the film that the young woman stalking Mahendra and Cathy is Mahendra’s jealous ex-girlfriend. When we learn of her connection with Mahendra, it almost seems out of left field. I can only speculate that the original, longer cut of the film fleshed out this character a bit more.

Cathy's Disembodied Head

Compared to American cinematic standards, the special effects are crude, but once we’re in the thick of things, it ceases to matter. The transformation sequences (when Cathy and the Leak master turn into pigs, and later into snakes) have a creepy, otherworldly quality that transcend any technical or budgetary limitations. But the animal transformations are only appetizers for the main course. Arguably, the movie’s raison d'être is revealed when Cathy’s head separates from her body, becoming its own entity. It’s not an especially convincing visual (the video-based effects don’t quite synch up with the film stock, and the flying head just looks like a mannequin head on a wire), but it still creates an uncanny experience, leaving our collective imaginations to fill in the blanks.

The Leak Master Wields Her Power

Initial plans to market Mystics in Bali as a “breakout” Indonesian film geared to Western audiences backfired, when it failed to find adequate international distribution. Outside of its native Indonesia, the film only made it to Japan as a theatrical release. Home video and word of mouth eventually gave the movie a new set of legs, especially with its DVD release in 2007. It’s been unfairly maligned as “cheesy” or goofy by some reviewers, but that overlooks the cultural significance of the film, which reflected the Balinese culture and superstitions. Those spoiled by the technical wizardry of Western cinema, with its emphasis on photorealistic effects and slick production values, might find Mystics in Bali too rough around the edges, but that’s missing the point. Instead, Mystics in Bali asks you to suspend your disbelief and consider there are forces much greater than ourselves in the world – forces that deserve reverence and above all, caution.   


Sources for this article: “Mystics in Bali & the Indonesian Exploitation Movie,” by Pete Tombs (essay from Mondo Macabro DVD); “Krasue,” Wikipedia entry: Krasue 



Friday, May 31, 2024

May Quick Picks and Pans

 

Stone Poster

Stone (1974) For those who weren’t there at the time (and I think that covers most of us), director/co-writer/co-star Sandy Harbutt gives us a taste of the Australian biker culture of the early ‘70s. The title refers to the main character (played by Ken Shorter), an undercover cop, who infiltrates biker gang, “The Gravediggers,” to investigate a series of killings of their members. Harbutt does a nice job depicting their gritty, freewheeling lifestyle. They live by their own rules, preferring to live on the fringes of society, instead of the 9 to 5 world. Stone becomes entranced by their scene, but can never quite be one of them. The film features some very good performances, including Harbutt as Undertaker, the gang’s leader, as well as many real bikers as extras. Hugh Keays-Byrne (Mad Max and Mad Max: Fury Road) steals the show as the hedonistic Toad.   

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

Arena Poster

Arena (1989) This low budget direct-to-video (at least in the U.S.) sci-fi action flick with big ambitions is as superficial as a bowl of sugary kids’ breakfast cereal, but diverting enough. Set on an intergalactic space station, Paul Satterfield stars as Steve Armstrong, a man who aspires to compete in what has become an aliens-only fighting match. Besides the fact that a human hasn’t competed in the ring in 50 years, he must contend with a crime boss and his toadies. Probably the film’s biggest distinction is that it featured three actors who would go on to star in two prominent ‘90s sci-fi series: Claudia Christian (Babylon 5) as Armstrong’s manager Quinn, and Armin Shimmerman and Mark Alaimo (Deep Space Nine) as the antagonists. The not-so-special effects and flimsy sets are nothing to write home about, but the unique creature designs are kind of fun. If nothing else, it’s easy to see the potential for this to be remade with a bigger budget.   

Rating: ***. Available on Prime Video and Tubi  

Ruby Poster

Ruby (1977) Piper Laurie stars as fading has-been Ruby Claire, in director Curtis Harrington’s supernatural drama. When her gangster boyfriend is shot down (shown in the opening flashback scene), he vows revenge against the men who betrayed him. Flash forward 16 years later, with Ruby reminiscing about old times and running a backwoods drive-in theater. Leslie (Janit Baldwin), her special needs daughter, becomes the conduit for her deceased father’s spirit, as he exacts revenge against those who wronged him. The bodies pile up in a hurry, although the authorities never seem to snoop around. Laurie’s slightly unhinged performance is the only reason to see this near miss that never quite coalesces. 

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

 

The Monster of the Opera Poster

he Monster of the Opera (1964) In director/co-writer Renato Polselli’s middling horror movie, a theater troupe is terrorized by a centuries-old vampire and his curse. He’s drawn to Giulia (Barbara Hawards), a dancer whom he believes to be his reincarnated lover (who also damned him to a life of vampirism). There’s some nice black and white cinematography, particularly with an opening dream sequence, but little else to recommend this one. It’s too bad The Monster of the Opera is mostly bark and little bite, filled with boring dance numbers, endless bickering, and more diaphanous negligees than a Jean Rollin film. 

Rating: **. Available on DVD and Midnight Pulp

The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant Poster

The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant (1971) Bruce Dern stars as Roger, an enterprising young doctor experimenting with grafting second heads on animals. He longs to find a human test subject, and sees the perfect opportunity fall in his lap – transplanting the head of an escaped serial killer on the body of a giant mentally challenged man (you can probably guess this isn’t a brilliant idea before the murderous rampage ensues). Pat Priest plays his neglected wife Linda, who passively endures her husband’s shenanigans, and Casey Kasem co-stars as Ken, a colleague who suspects something unsavory is afoot. This movie makes the thematically similar The Thing with Two Heads (1972) look like a classic by comparison. 

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

 

Thursday, May 16, 2024

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen

 

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen Poster

(1962) Directed by Karel Zeman; Written by: Karel Zeman, Jirí Brdecka and Josef Kainar; Adapted from works by Gottfried August Bürger, Rudolph Erich Raspe and Gustave Doré; Starring: Milos Kopecký, Rudolf Jelínek, Jana Brejchová, Karel Höger, Rudolf Hrusínský, Jan Werich, Eduard Kohout and Bohus Záhorský; Available on Blu-ray and DVD 

Rating: ****

 

Baron Munchausen

“My one wish was to get the right idiom for my plan: to capture the surreal world of Baron Munchausen. I wanted this romantic fantasy to be unleashed from mundane reality, so I used imagery resembling prints from the period. At the same time, I decided to treat color like a painter on a canvas. I put it only where it was necessary.” – Karel Zeman (from Blu-ray featurette, “Why Zeman Made the Film”)

A hearty thanks to Rebecca from Taking Up Room and Gill from Realweegiemidget Reviews  for hosting the It’s in the Name of the Title Blogathon, spotlighting movie titles that feature their respective characters’ names. I’m proud to discuss, for your consideration, Karel Zeman’s aptly named The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962).

Baron Munchausen on a Seahorse

Since Rudolf Erich Raspe anonymously published his fictionalized account of Baron Munchausen’s* adventures in 1785, the exploits of the famous spinner of tall tales have enchanted and captivated readers. Raspe’s original work spawned a number of spinoff books, plays, radio shows, and of course, motion pictures. Munchausen became the subject of several silent-era films (including Georges Méliès 1911 short, “The Hallucinations of Baron Munchausen”). Sadly, many of the early short films are presumed lost, but arguably the most noteworthy cinematic examples are three feature-length films, released in 1943, 1962, and 1989, respectively. The infamous 1943 German version, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, was made under the watchful eye of Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (intended as a morale booster). While not overtly pushing a Nazi agenda, for many (including this reviewer) it’s impossible to separate the movie from its notorious origins and the monstrous regime that launched it. Terry Gilliam’s lavish, big-budget 1989 version, also titled The Adventures of Baron Munchausen gained its reputation as a troubled production, riddled with cost-overruns. Bookended between these versions was Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman’s The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, his third feature (after 1955’s Journey to the Beginning of Time and 1958’s The Fabulous World of Jules Verne (aka: Invention for Destruction). As with his previous movies, Baron Munchausen employed his knack for combining live action with animation. 

* Fun Fact #1: Yes, Baron Munchausen was a real person. Munchausen, the character, was based on the real-life Hieronymus Karl Friedrich von Münchhausen, a retired German military officer, who was known for regaling anyone who’d listen with wild stories of his exaggerated and imaginary exploits.

Baron Munchausen, Princess Bianca, and Tonik

The opening scene finds the eponymous Baron (Milos Kopecký) traveling to the moon, where he encounters characters from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, as well as (for some reason) Cyrano de Bergerac. He meets an astronaut named Tonik (Rudolf Jelínek), and believing him to be a resident of the Moon, decides to take him on a tour of Earth. Their first stop is Turkey, where they meet the despotic Sultan (Rudolf Hrusínský).  Much to the Sultan’s chagrin, Munchausen and Tonik are smitten by Princess Bianca (Jana Brejchová),* who’s being held against her will. Thus begins a nominal love triangle, but it’s clear that Bianca only has eyes for Tonik. Although initially peeved at the princess’ preference for Tonik, the Baron’s jealousy doesn’t last long – after all, he only has one true love, himself. They hastily make their escape, with the Sultan’s army nipping at their heels. They’re rescued by a Dutch trading ship, but after they face the wrath of the vengeful Sultan’s navy, they’re cast adrift in the open ocean, where they’re subsequently swallowed by a giant fish. Their quixotic journey continues across the globe guided by the Baron’s indomitable wit and boundless imagination. 

* Fun Fact #2: According to film writer Michael Brooke, at the time the film was released, Brejchová was more popular in her native Czech Republic than her husband, renowned director Milos Forman.

Giant Fish and Pyramids

As a self-taught animator,*/** Karel Zeman honed his techniques with each project, working through the myriad challenges of his films like mathematical equations. Using Gustave Doré’s artwork as a template, his paper cutout animation resembles book illustrations that leapt off the pages. His signature blending of live action and animation creates a fairy tale look. Particularly impressive is a tracking shot through the Sultan’s palace, arranging multiple cardboard planes to create a three-dimensional space. He also frequently used split-screen techniques, combining live actors with paper cutouts in the background or foreground. The effects are delightfully old-fashioned, giving Zeman’s film a charm that can’t be compared to modern efforts. It's not about seamless integration of the imagery, but indicative of a different filmmaking tradition that favors creating fanciful visuals over hyper-realism. While I’m not going to initiate a debate about which approach is “better,” the analog, mostly in-camera effects never fail to entrance. Created by a small team of dedicated craftspeople, The Fabulous Baron Munchausen possesses a handmade quality that can’t be duplicated by a bunch of people clicking away on computers. 

* Fun Fact #3: Zeman learned about the mechanics of animation by studying a “Felix the Cat” cartoon frame by frame. 

** Fun Fact #4: Despite his early artistic predilections, Zeman’s father forced him to attend business school.

 

The Baron Rides a Cannonball

Amidst the high fantasy, Karel Zeman reveals a sense of humor worthy of a Warner Brothers cartoon. In one terrific gag, the Baron and Tonik attempt in vain to break down some double doors in the Sultan’s palace, only to watch Princess Bianca effortlessly open them. When Tonik innocently steps on a rug in the Sultan’s throne room, he unwittingly triggers a swarm of spears. And on the Dutch trading ship even the ship’s figurehead enjoys taking a brief smoke break. Along with these playful flourishes, the film presents a satire on the human condition. While in the presence of the mercurial Sultan, Baron Munchausen speaks the “language of high diplomacy” (consisting of musical harmonica sounds) as a means of communication.

Inside the Belly of the Fish

In The Fabulous Baron Munchausen, Karel Zeman takes you to imaginary places that never existed, but you somehow wish they did. His approach to visuals is distinctly different compared to his contemporary Ray Harryhausen, but the end results are just as mesmerizing. Zeman’s version of Baron Munchausen argues that imagination and fantasy are more powerful than knowledge – and in the context of the distinctly engaging visuals, who could disagree? While Zeman left an indelible impression with his film, there’s something about Munchausen that transcends generations and bears repeating. Who knows when or where the next iteration of the indomitable Baron will take us, but one thing’s for certain: you can’t keep a good fibber down.

 

Sources for this article: “Why Zeman Made the Film” Blu-ray featurette; “Baron Munchausen; Facts and Fibs,” by Michael Brooke; Film Adventurer Karel Zeman (2015 documentary)

 

 

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

Strange Invaders

 

Strange Invaders Poster

(1983) Directed by: Michael Laughlin; Written by Michael Laughlin and Bill Condon; Story by Michael Laughlin, Bill Condon and Walter Halsey Davis; Starring: Paul Le Mat, Nancy Allen, Diana Scarwid, Louise Fletcher, Michael Lerner, Kenneth Tobey, and June Lockhart; Available on Blu ray and DVD 

Rating: ***½

Suspicious Townspeople

“I think my teachers and my friends always struck me as being alien, and of course growing up in the Midwest, I felt that the towns I knew and grew up in were inhabited by aliens.” – Michael Laughlin

“All right, I will tell you one thing. We have an agreement with them. We’ve known about them for a long time. They provide us with certain advantages, and we provide them a place to live. But it hasn’t been easy. We haven’t had much choice at all…” – Mrs. Benjamin (Louise Fletcher)

One of the great mysteries is whether or not we’re alone in the cosmos. Is Earth truly “a grand oasis to the big vastness of space,” as astronaut Jim Lovell once stated, or is it nothing special – just one of many planets in the universe where intelligent life has flourished? Depending on which side of the coin you favor, Drake’s Equation estimates there’s anywhere between one (the Earth) and one million planets capable of supporting intelligent life (quite a substantial range), whereas Fermi’s paradox takes a less optimistic stance about why we haven’t heard from intelligent life. Of course, there could be a third option: maybe they’re really good at hiding. Depending on whom you ask, however, they may already be here. Strange Invaders* was director/co-writer Michael Laughlin’s second collaboration with screenwriter Bill Condon, after Strange Behavior (1981).** Filmed mostly around Toronto and the surrounding suburbs (standing in for Midwestern America), Strange Invaders presents a post-modern spin on the ‘50s alien invasion template. 

* Fun Fact #1: Strange Invaders started off as Cat People (not to be confused with the 1942 original with the same name or the 1982 remake) featuring catlike creatures disguised as humans. By the time the film reached production, the filmmakers replaced cats with aliens. 

** Fun Fact #2: Laughlin and screenwriter Bill Condon planned a series of movies with “Strange” in the title. Sadly, the third film, The Adventures of Phillip Strange (also penned by Condon), never reached production.

Mothership and Flying Saucer

In the prologue, set in 1958, extraterrestrials descend upon the ordinary small town of Centerville, Illinois, replacing the residents with their own. Paul Le Mat plays entomologist Charles Bigelow,* who teaches at Columbia University in New York City.** Things get weird in a hurry after his ex-wife Margaret (Diana Scarwid) drops in unexpectedly with their daughter, Elizabeth,*** leaving him in charge of her care. Margaret declares she must make a trek to her home town of (you guessed it) Centerville, but her solemn demeanor implies it’s more than a short trip. When she seemingly vanishes without a trace, Bigelow decides to investigate for himself. Centerville appears to be isolated in time, with its vintage cars and townspeople who dress as if the ‘50s never ended. If the suspicious town folk weren’t enough, it becomes painfully clear that he’s unwelcome when his dog goes missing and his car suddenly explodes. Upon his return to New York, he tries to convince a skeptical government official Mrs. Benjamin (Louise Fletcher) that aliens have arrived. He teams up with tabloid reporter Betty Walker (Nancy Allen) and an institutionalized former Centerville resident, Willie Collins (Michael Lerner), to uncover the truth about Centerville.   

* Fun Fact #3: The role was originally created for Strange Behavior’s star, Michael Murphy, but when the producers at Orion came onboard, they considered Michael Keaton before finally hiring Le Mat. 

** Fun Fact #4: The campus exteriors were shot at the real Columbia University, which was Condon’s alma mater. 

*** Fun Fact #5: Elizabeth was played by Laughlin’s real-life stepdaughter, Lulu Sylbert.

Betty and Bigelow

Paul Le Mat* is a good choice to play the film’s everyman protagonist. His natural acting style sets the right tone, not showy, but entirely believable – the audience can relate to his growing bafflement over the increasingly odd occurrences. As a scientist, he’s searching for a rational explanation, but as a person, he can’t ignore what he’s witnessed. There’s a nice little endearing moment between father and daughter (with both occupying opposite sides of the frame) in which Elizabeth calls out the scientific names of her father’s specimens, and he identifies them with their common names. It’s a short scene that at once establishes their unique relationship and Bigelow’s passion for his chosen profession. Speaking of relationships, Nancy Allen hits the right notes as much more than the requisite love interest. Smart, charming and cynical, Betty confesses she made up the story for entertainment value, although there’s a figment of intrigue surrounding the photo that accompanied her story. She humors Bigelow, but in the same breath, she’s attracted to him and his sincerity. She’s forced to re-evaluate her grip on reality when she faces the prospect of experiencing first-hand a situation that sprung from one of her headlines. 

 "Inconceivable!"

It's fun to play “spot the character actor” in a cast full of character actors, many from genre favorites. In a direct nod to the film’s ‘50s B-movie heritage Kenneth Tobey co-stars as a boarding house proprietor with a sinister aura. Bobby “Boris” Pickett (of “Monster Mash” fame) appears briefly as Betty’s editor. And Lost in Space fans, rejoice: Strange Invaders features two alumni from Irwin Allen’s landmark, albeit goofy sci-fi series – June Lockhart, as Bigelow’s mother, and Mark Goddard as a police detective. Also watch for actor/playwright/New York fixture Wallace Shawn as Betty’s landlord, an unfortunate victim of the aliens.

Alien Orbs

From her first appearance, it’s apparent that something’s a bit awry with Biglow’s ex-wife, Margaret. Things are made abundantly clear (Minor Spoiler) when we learn that Centerville might be her home town, but her birthplace is somewhere among the stars. Naturally, this begs the question: she must have had a really convincing disguise, considering she and her human husband conceived a child together. Or was this part of their experiment, to determine if humans and the alien species were biologically compatible? Biological suitability issues aside, their dissolved marriage is a fitting metaphor for couples that fail to communicate properly. It sometimes seems that many couples are from different planets (the whole Venus and Mars thing), but in this case it’s quite literal.

Alien Removes Disguise

Despite a budget of only $5 million the filmmakers made the most of it, with practical makeup effects that continue to impress, 40 years later. The aliens’ disguises appear to be an organic extension of their faces, instead of a lifeless mask that falls away. Their stretchy, goopy ersatz visages add an uncanny element to the film. Likewise, the sparingly employed optical effects enhance the story. In the opening scene, a shot of a cigar-shaped alien mothership emerging from the clouds is suitably dreamlike and almost painterly. Some of the budgetary concessions are less effective, requiring an elevated suspension of disbelief. Similar to Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), the labyrinthine assortment of pipes and other industrial equipment in Toronto’s underground waterworks stand in for the aliens’ laboratory complex, and an ordinary observatory serves as the interior of the alien spacecraft.

Newspaper Headline

The aliens’ 25-year mission to evaluate Earth (presumably as a as a base for colonization or worthiness as a fledgling member of some galactic alliance) is decidedly murky. Your guess about their ultimate purpose is as good as mine. (More Spoilers) Their true intentions are never ascertained, since no sequel ever surfaced, leaving us with an open-ended conclusion in which they return to whatever planet they came from (Perhaps Earth wasn’t worth the trouble?). There are so many unanswered questions we’ll never resolve, but a little mystery isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Strange Invaders is a clever film that successfully walks the line between loving tribute to the B-genre films of the ‘50s and a post-modern response to Cold War paranoia. While critical response was generally positive, it didn’t make any waves at the box office, and despite being a staple on cable in the ‘80s, seems to have fallen by the wayside in recent years. What better time then, to rediscover and enjoy another hidden little treasure that takes a novel spin on an old formula?

 

Sources for this article: DVD commentary by Michael Laughlin and Bill Condon; “All of You On the Good Earth,” by Michael Carlowicz, NASA Earth Observatory, “Are We Alone? The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe,” by Laurence Tognetti, Astronomy 

 

 

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Alien Invasion April Quick Picks and Pans

I Come in Peace Poster

I Come in Peace (aka: Dark Angel) (1990) Detective Jack Caine (Dolph Lundgren) is a cop who plays by his own rules (Sound familiar?). When his old partner is killed in a drug bust gone bad, he’s forced to work with a young hotshot FBI agent (Brian Benben) to investigate a mysterious series of murders. The culprit is a seven-foot-tall alien (Matthias Hues) who tells his victims “I come in peace.” He shoots up his victims with heroin and extracts the resulting endorphins from their brains (as a kind of designer drug for the intergalactic set). In addition to the human cops, he’s also being pursued by one of his own (Jay Bilas). There’s nothing new plot-wise or with the characters (simply transplant the usual buddy cop formula), but it’s a nicely paced cinematic equivalent of fast food, chock-full of cheesy synth music and more mullets than you can throw a case of Aqua Net at. 

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

The Golden Bat 

The Golden Bat (aka: Golden Ninja) (1966) When evil aliens divert a planet’s trajectory so it will collide with Earth, it’s up to a top-secret UN-led organization to thwart their plans. All seems lost until the team members revive a 10,000-year-old mummy from Atlantis (Osamu Kobayashi). With his eyeless skull and mouth frozen in a permanent rictus, he looks more like the product of someone’s nightmares than a superhero. On the other hand, the villain resembles a cuddly plush toy, which only goes to show that looks aren’t everything. Good dumb fun. 

Rating: ***. Available on DVD, Plex and Tubi 

 

Seedpeople

Seedpeople (1992) One of the many direct-to-video offerings from Full Moon Pictures (a name not typically associated with quality), Seedpeople is a blatant rip-off of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but a fairly enjoyable one. In the sleepy town of Comet Valley ancient excavated meteorites turn out to be giant seed pods. Malevolent alien creatures emerge, enslaving the town’s residents. A visiting geologist (Sam Hennings) teams up with the local crackpot (Bernard Kates) to battle the alien scourge. The story is relayed in flashback (like Body Snatchers) by the geologist, including the events he wasn’t in (!). In a nice nod to the source material, there’s a scene that features what looks suspiciously like Bronson Cave. 

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

 

Invasion Poster

Invasion (1965) Edward Judd stars as Dr. Mike Vernon, a burnt-out emergency room physician, whose humdrum routine is thrown into disarray when an unusual patient (Ric Young) arrives in his hospital. The strange man is being pursued by two others of his kind, enroute to a prison planet (they were diverted to Earth when their spaceship suffered a malfunction). The alien leader, played by Yôko Tani (from First Spaceship on Venus), leads a search for the missing prisoner, although she doesn’t seem to be very good at her job. Things get tense when the hospital is surrounded by a magnetic shield, raising the temperature and preventing anyone from entering or exiting the area. Invasion’s meager budget belies its title (three extraterrestrials and a puny spacecraft hardly makes for a convincing threat), and it’s more talky than action-packed, but its biggest flaw is the extremely dubious choice of casting Asians as “aliens” among a predominately Caucasian cast. Skip it. 

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

Zontar - The Thing from Venus Poster

Zontar: The Thing from Venus (1967) Director/co-writer Larry Buchanan’s cheapo remake of the cut-rate It Conquered the World (1956) somehow manages to make the original film look like a classic in comparison. Dr. Curt Taylor (John Agar) tries to dissuade his friend Keith Ritchie (Tony Huston) from collaborating with an alien creature with murky intentions. Agar tries his best with what he has to work with, but it’s a lost cause, considering the lackluster performances from everyone else involved (just try enduring the terrible “comic” relief with two soldiers). The briefly seen extraterrestrial Zontar, and its flying creatures, which wouldn’t pass muster for the clearance bin of a Spirit Halloween store, look like they were slapped together from whatever scraps the filmmakers had lying around. Although I can’t recommend this flick in good conscience, it’s good for some unintentional laughs, depending on your level of inebriation. 

Rating: *½. Available on DVD and Tubi 

Invasion of the Girl Snatchers_Poster1a

Invasion of The Girl Snatchers (aka: The Hidan of Maukbeiangjow) (1973) In this alleged sci-fi/ horror/comedy from director Lee S. Jones Jr., a private investigator works with the feds to ascertain the mysterious disappearances of several women. It turns out they’re being abducted by a religious cult, where their minds are taken over by alien beings (which are never shown). Watch and wince as the characters incessantly run around, getting tied up and untied, accompanied by a bunch of irritating folk songs that have nothing to do with the story. According to the Psychotronic Video Guide, this was released only because the producer made a bet that it wouldn’t gross any money. I feel sorry for anyone who might have paid to see this. 

Rating: *½. Available on DVD and Tubi