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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in craigjclark's LiveJournal:

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Saturday, October 22nd, 2016
2:01 pm
This new Godzilla surpasses anything I imagined.
Considering how many people were willing to pony up $15 for a noon showing of Shin Godzilla (the only one this whole weekend at the Keystone Art Cinema in Indianapolis), it's puzzling that the film's distributor didn't opt for a more traditional release of Toho's latest Godzilla film, the studio's first since 2004's gonzo Godzilla: Final Wars. That one was made to mark the lumbering beast's 50th anniversary, so it was reasonable to assume the subtitle could be taken at face value, but as history has shown again and again, you can't keep a giant radioactive lizard down. And as writer/director Hideaki Anno and his co-director Shinji Higuchi have shown the makers of the 2014 snooze, the key to making a good Godzilla movie is actually showing Godzilla (or the Giant Unidentified Creature as it's initially called by those scrambling to get a handle on the situation).

One thing that makes Shin Godzilla stand apart from the 30-odd films that have preceded it is how much it's focused on the paralyzing bureaucracy of the sundry government agencies attempting to identify and then exterminate the monstrous menace that has mysteriously materialized in Tokyo Bay. In fact, hardly a scene goes by without Anno introducing another public official or military officer, and it's usually half a dozen or more in quick succession. All are identified by name and title, which become something of a running joke with ministry underling Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), who rises in the ranks as the crisis continues and the people above him keep getting eliminated. Not even the prime minister (Ren Ohsugi) is safe, as proven when the plan to evacuate him from his residence, which has been found to be in Godzilla's path, goes predictably awry.

In addition to Yaguchi, some of the other characters who manage to stay alive long enough to make an impression are stone-faced conservationist Ogashira (Mikako Ichikawa) and cagey Kayoko (Satomi Ishihara), the American embassy's liaison with the Japanese. The latter provides an opening for Anno to shoehorn in all sorts of digs at the Americans, whose inside information on the origins of the Godzilla problem is suspicious at best, but putting aside the international intrigue, Shin Godzilla is on its surest footing whenever the Big G is allowed to do his thing. Just be warned: in the early going he has a bit of a goofy look, complete with saucer-like eyes, but it isn't long before he evolves before our eyes into a more familiar shape. That this transformation occurs right after he lets loose with a certain roar should be all the incentive any old-school Godzilla fan needs to seek this one out.
Thursday, October 20th, 2016
2:40 pm
I'm who I want to be.
One of the major themes/subplots in Knightriders has to do with the corrosive power of money when a big-shot promoter comes sniffing around and even lures away some of Billy's knights, at least for a short while. When it was brought to my attention how simpatico Clint Eastwood's 1980 film Bronco Billy is with Romero's, I thought there might be a similar dynamic at work since its plot involves a haughty heiress who joins up with the title character's "authentic Wild West show" after she's deserted by her gold-digging husband on their honeymoon. Eastwood (who plays Bronco Billy, of course) and screenwriter Dennis E. Hackin have something else in mind, though, since they're more interested in humbling stranded heiress Antoinette Lily (played by Eastwood's then-partner, Sondra Locke), whose journey is reminiscent of the one taken by Goldie Hawn in 1987's Overboard only without the amnesia angle, and thawing her cold-fish routine.

Just as King William has his knights, jugglers, minstrels, and other assorted entertainers, so too does Bronco Billy have his followers dedicated more to the idea of putting on a show and espousing certain ideals than getting rich off their efforts (although neither group would mind getting a little money to throw around from time to time). True, they may perform for sparse crowds, but Billy's troupe gives it their all, including resident Indian Chief Big Eagle (Dan Vadis), who insists on using real rattlesnakes in his act regardless of how many times he's been bitten by them. And Billy has enough of a good heart to keep the aptly nicknamed Lefty (Bill McKinney) on the payroll in spite of the fact that he has a hook for a hand. That leaves announcer Doc (Scatman Crothers) to keep the crowd's energy up and skillful roper Leonard (Sam Bottoms) to impress them, but everyone knows Billy is the main attraction -- especially his "little pardners." The one variable in the equation is his assistant since he goes through them at the rate Spinal Tap burns through drummers. Naturally, that's the slot that Miss Lily (as Billy chivalrously calls her) fills and eventually comes to enjoy filling.

While all this is going on, her greedy stepmother (Beverlee McKinsey) and crooked family lawyer (William Prince) conspire to get her husband (Geoffrey Lewis) to confess to her murder so she can be declared legally dead and her inheritance claimed by her next of kin. Frankly, less of this subplot would have gone a long way, especially as it has no real bearing on the main story. What matters is that the show goes on, come hell or high water or burned-down tents. In Eastwood's America, a life spent giving back eventually pays off in kind.
Wednesday, October 19th, 2016
2:24 pm
We don't need to make it any rougher than it already is.
For a writer/director who is synonymous with zombie movies, it's a curious thing that, in many ways, 1981's Knightriders is the quintessential George A. Romero film. Made in Dawn of the Dead's wake -- and just before Creepshow, Romero's first joust with Hollywood -- Knightriders is semi-autobiographical in the sense that it's about a community of creative individuals and social misfits that are drawn to a charismatic leader with a vision for how they can all aspire to be the best they can be. In the world of the film, that's Billy, a.k.a. King William (Ed Harris), the uncompromising figurehead of Fight or Yield, a traveling Renaissance fair where the knights do battle mounted on motorcycles, which is precisely as ludicrous as it sounds, but Romero and his cast and crew execute the concept with such sincerity that it's hard not to get swept up in the fantasy along with Billy's followers.

Said followers include his queen, Linet (Amy Ingersoll), and champion, Alan (Gary Lahti), who fills the court's Lancelot role, as well as sexually ambiguous herald Pippin (Warner Shook) and resident mystic Merlin (Brother Blue). Meanwhile, the perpetual challenger to the throne is Morgan, the Black Knight, who's played by makeup maestro Tom Savini in a rare dramatic turn. Other Romero vets in the cast include Christine Forrest, who previously played Savini's girlfriend in Martin, as Angie, a grease monkey who pines for Morgan and wishes he didn't take her for granted, and Dawn cast-mates Ken Foree (as armorer Little John) and Scott Reiniger (as Marhalt, Morgan's right-hand knight). And making an indelible screen debut is Stephen King as a big-mouthed spectator at the troupe's first show who says to his wife, "You know, I don't have the balls to wear anything like that," a line Romero follows with a cut to the spandex-clad package of one of the troupe's jugglers. Thanks for that, George.
Tuesday, October 18th, 2016
11:30 am
I know it's a rotten game. It's the only one The Man left us to play, and that's a stone-cold fact.
This past weekend, the backup feature on TCM Underground was the stone-cold blaxploitation classic Super Fly. Released in 1972 and directed by Gordon Parks, Jr. (son of Shaft director Gordon Parks), Super Fly is so on-point it could poke your eye out if you're not careful. It has to tread a thin line, though, since its ostensible hero is a drug dealer. Screenwriter Phillip Fenty's elegant solution: give him aspirations of leaving the life behind and surround him with dirty cops intent on keeping him in it, thus making sure the audience knows who the real villains were.

Set to Curtis Mayfield's insistent R&B soundtrack, with its odes to the plight of "the pusher man," the film follows Priest (Ron O'Neal) as he attempts to set up a million-dollar score that will allow him to start planning for some kind of future for himself and his lady, Georgia (Sheila Frazier). First he has to get his partner Eddie (Carl Lee) on board with his scheme of buying 30 kilos of cocaine with the $300,000 they've got stashed away and dealing it all in the space of four months. The one he really needs to convince, though, is his mentor and one-time supplier, club owner Scatter (Julius Harris), who warns him that it won't be as easy as he's making it out to be.

While Priest goes about his business, Parks and Felty show how ruthless he can be, forcing one of his dealers, the reluctant Fat Freddie (Charles McGregor), to stick up a made man to make up for a shortfall. Alas, Freddie turns out to be a less than reliable foot soldier when he's arrested and spills the beans about one of Priest's upcoming pickups. After that, not only are Priest and Eddie shaken down by the aforementioned dirty cops, who want a piece of the action, but they're also hit up by black militants who believe the two of them should be contributing to their cause as well. All the while, Priest is seen dipping into his own supply, using a gold cross as a coke spoon, so even if he did manage to make his half a million free and clear, there's no guarantee it wouldn't wind up going straight up his nose.
Monday, October 17th, 2016
12:02 pm
I always thought the forest was peaceful and quiet.
According to the interview included on Home Vision Entertainment's release of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Charisma, the writer/director had been mulling the story for a decade before he was given the go-ahead to make it into a movie in 1999. In that time, Kurosawa's ambitions for it had to be scaled back -- at one point he considered setting it in Australia -- but the fact that he wound up shooting it in the foothills of Mt. Fuji with an all-Japanese cast ultimately served it well. For one thing, it meant he could center it on another soulful performance by Kôji Yakusho following his turn as the frustrated police detective in Cure. Here, Yakusho is Goro Yabuike, an overworked police negotiator who's sent on vacation after his feeble attempt to defuse a hostage situation involving a member of the Diet results in the death of both the hostage-taker and the hostage.

Deposited in an unnamed forest after making a perfunctory call to his family saying they shouldn't expect him home anytime soon, Yabuike becomes a pawn in the struggle between various factions over a single tree that may or may not be killing all the others in the area. Dubbed "Charisma" by its self-proclaimed protector, Kiriyama (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), the tree was another victim of the film's budget limitations since Kurosawa conceived of it as towering over the surrounding greenery. Instead, the Charisma he wound up with was a pathetic, nearly dead thing, which makes the tug of war over it all the more absurd. On one side, there are conservationist Nakasone (Ren Ohsugi) and environmentalist Tsuboi (Akira Otaka), who want to study it, and on the other there's botany professor Mitsuko Jinbo (Jun Fubuki) and her sister Chizuru (Yoriko Dôguchi), who want it destroyed.

Repeatedly told to pick a side, Yabuike eventually comes down on the tree's, presumably because it's the one thing that doesn't browbeat him about it. One thing that's certain, though, and certainly puzzling, is his inability to leave the forest once he's set foot in it. (On two occasions, he literally steps into an animal trap and has to be rescued from it.) Clearly, if there were an easy way out of his predicament, it would have found a means of presenting itself to him.
Saturday, October 15th, 2016
1:26 pm
Puts the creep back in creepy, that's for goddamn sure.
For its first original horror film, produced in association with the Chiller network, Scream Factory is off to the races with Fender Bender, an old-school stalk-and-slash flick that shares with Slasher -- Chiller's first original series, which premiered earlier this year -- a throwback appeal and knowing nods to more modern sensibilities. Written and directed by Mark Pavia, whose last genre effort was the 1997 TV movie The Night Flier, an adaptation of a story by Stephen King, Fender Bender spends its opening sequence laying out its psycho's m.o. Having deliberately rear-ended a female driver (Cassidy Freeman in the Drew-Barrymore-in-Scream role) and exchanged information with her, The Driver (Bill Sage) waits until she gets home and is at her most vulnerable (namely, while she's in the bath) to let her know he hasn't forgotten about her, and Pavia expertly draws out the tension without overextending it.

From there, the actions shifts to New Mexico, where the Driver (echoing the behavior of Stuntman Mike in Death Proof) seeks out his next target. This turns out to be Hilary Diaz (Makenzie Vega), a high school student and aspiring dancer who's upset because she's just caught her jock boyfriend Andy (Harrison Sim) canoodling with a classmate. At that point, the last thing she needs is to get into an accident, no matter how readily the other driver accepts responsibility for it, especially since she borrowed her mother's new car without permission. That's why Hilary winds up getting grounded by her strict parents, who go away for the weekend, leaving her vulnerable to The Driver's machinations. Even the unexpected arrival of her best friend Rachel (Dre Davis) and sassy gay pal Erik (Kelsey Leos Montoya) does little make her safer and only really gives The Driver more potential victims to slice and dice.

While Fender Bender isn't the most original flick around, and Hilary does dumb things that don't even make sense in the moment just to keep the plot from getting too complicated -- like not calling the police as soon as she realizes she's not alone in her house -- Pavia knows enough about pacing and framing to keep his characters in peril and the viewer in suspense. And The Driver's look, with his intimidating mask and all-leather apparel, is literally to die for. (When he's not wearing his mask, he favors a pair of sunglasses reminiscent of the ones worn by the motorcycle cop in Psycho.) Throw in Night Runner's synthtastic score and you've got all the ingredients for a frightful evening's entertainment.
Thursday, October 13th, 2016
8:26 pm
For a merman, he sure takes a fine picture.
The last of the classic Universal Monsters to appear on the scene -- some might even call it the cycle's last gasp -- was the Gill Man, also known as the Creature. Last known address: The Black Lagoon, Somewhere Up the Amazon. While its fellow monsters were playing second fiddle to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, the Gill Man top-lined a self-contained trilogy starting with Jack Arnold's Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954 and ending two years later with The Creature Walks Among Us. Boasting a primal premise, a thoroughly effective use of 3-D technology, and one of the best rubber monster suits ever built, the original Creature introduced the lone holdout from the Devonian Age who makes sport of an expedition of marine biologists that invades its turf in search of the fossilized remains of its relatives. Incidentally, I'm using "it" to refer to the Creature, but it would be equally appropriate to say "he" since the Gill Man's behavior marks it as decidedly male -- especially when the comely Kay (Julie Adams) comes swimming along.

The human story in Creature is infinitely less compelling than the monster's, but conscientious ichthyologist David (Richard Carlson) and mercenary money man Mark (Richard Denning) do their best to play up their rivalry -- both professionally and over Kay. By default, the most colorful character in the cast is Nestor Paiva's Lucas, the local who takes them out on his boat, but Whit Bissell is also along to lend his usual gravitas to the role of Dr. Thompson and even commands the viewer's attention when his head is wrapped in bandages and he's lost the power of speech. These scenes, incidentally, inspired peals of laughter from the audience I saw this with, but I suppose that's because there's very little else about the film that's remotely risible. Almost from the get-go, the Creature starts racking up a body count, and it's doesn't stop until it's been plugged with enough harpoons and bullets.
Wednesday, October 12th, 2016
1:30 pm
I'm not in control.
For a film about an ordinary man who gets kitted out in riot gear to beat the tar out of a gang running amok in his city, 2015's The Demolisher doesn't seem to know what it wants to say about those who are driven to vigilantism. It also doesn't know how to say it, but at least it looks amazing while saying it. Written and directed by Gabriel Carrer, aided by cinematographer Martin Buzora and composer Glen R. Nicholls, The Demolisher looks and sounds the part, but there's more to making an effective vigilante movie than basing it around a cool-looking vigilante.

Make no mistake, with his body armor and helmet on and the visor down, Bruce (Ry Barrett) cuts quite the imposing figure. It's when Carrer explores his allegedly human side that the film falters, much like Bruce himself does when he's sneaking up on a gang member and his watch starts beeping, alerting the hood to his presence, allowing him to escape unharmed, and reminding Bruce he has to head home to give his wife Samantha (Tianna Nori) her painkillers. See, the reason Bruce is on his vigilante kick to begin with is because Samantha, a former police officer, was severely beaten while on duty -- an incident obliquely shown at the top of the picture -- robbing her of the ability to walk. This was presumably done by the gang Bruce singles out for his attention, but Carrer muddies the waters in the early going by including a sequence that shows Samantha arriving without backup on the scene of a human sacrifice being carried by a fellow in a hood -- listed as The Nightmare Overlord in the credits -- who has a couple of acolytes in fox masks who jump her and whale on her in slow motion. (As the rest of the film bears out, Carrer loves his slow motion.)
Running parallel with the saga of Bruce and Samantha (who isn't given much to do apart from be a burden on her husband) is the story of Marie (Jessica Vano), a college student coping with the knowledge that her body is rebelling against her when she's diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy. Their paths cross one night when Marie and a friend go to the movies -- to a screening of Maximum Overdrive of all things if the theater marquee is to be believed -- and she picks up a necklace dropped by Samantha while Bruce is carrying her out. Later on, after he's shown how unstable he's become by beating a client to death while on the job as a cable repairman, Bruce spies Marie trying to pawn the necklace, gets the wrong idea about her when he sees her with a member of the gang, and attacks her at her brother's home while she's babysitting, forcing her to go on the run. (Of course, the right thing for her to do would have been to turn in the necklace to the theater's lost and found instead of keeping it and trying to get some money out of it, so it's not as if Marie is entirely blameless here.)

The chase that ensues finds Bruce pursuing Marie through suspiciously empty streets until they wind up at a shopping center after hours where she takes refuge until he finds her and, in a most upsetting show of violence, pummels her before being stopped in his tracks by a security guard with a Tazer. He doesn't stay down long, though, and it's only through the intervention of a gang member with a motorcycle that Marie is rescued from her unstoppable assailant. Instead of being dropped off at home, though, she's taken to the garage where the gang hangs out -- a real frying-pan/fire situation -- and which Bruce has presumably previously staked out since it's not long before he shows up to finish what he started, both in terms of eliminating the creeps who disabled his wife and getting back her necklace from Marie. And to think, to do the latter, all he has to do is murder the two cops who show up on the roof where he has her cornered. That's totally justifiable, right?
Tuesday, October 11th, 2016
12:06 pm
You know, it sure is creepy that madman isn't caught yet.
The Zodiac's killing spree was still very much in the news when The Zodiac Killer was filmed in the San Francisco area in 1970 and premiered there the following year. Directed by Tom Hanson from a screenplay by Ray Cantrell and Manny Cardoza, which sticks close to some of the details of the case while inventing a slew of ancillary acts of wanton violence for him to commit, the film starts out as a dual portrait of two potential Zodiacs. One is volatile truck driver Grover (Bob Jones), who's sick of the constant grief he gets from his ex-wife over the child support he's behind on, so he dons a wig and poses as a successful businessman while out prowling the bars for sexual conquests. The other is bitter mailman Jerry (Hal Reed), whose problems with women are even more deep-seated, to the point where his only meaningful relationships are with his rabbits. Steeped in misogyny and casual homophobia, the atmosphere in The Zodiac Killer is so toxic, it's a wonder it doesn't spawn a dozen psychopaths instead of just the one.

The first double murder -- of a clean-cut couple parked by a reservoir after attending a concert -- comes after Grover has been humiliated by a potential pick-up at a Christmas party and Jerry has shown just how uncomfortable he is around women. The main cops on the case, Sgt. Pittman and Officer Heller (Ray Lynch and Tom Pittman), enter the picture soon after, but just because they keep popping up doesn't mean they ever get any closer to catching their man. Their man, meanwhile, kills two more people seven months later and, hungry for publicity, mails letters to the newspapers, one of which is read over the phone to Sgt. Pittman by its disbelieving recipient. Shortly thereafter, Cantrell and Cardoza eliminate one of their suspects by having him essentially commit suicide by cop, with Hanson confirming the real killer's identity when he makes an angry phone call to the police to complain about someone else getting credit for his handiwork.

It's at this point that The Zodiac Killer shifts gears and tries to provide a fuller psychological profile of the fiend. A man of many facets, he's shown helping a small boy out of a tree one minute and donning a black hood to menace a couple sunning themselves the next (and by "menace," I mean holding them at gunpoint, tying them up, and stabbing them viciously and repeatedly). And he looks positively elated when he calls the police to brag about his latest crime, but that's where the film diverges from the historical record since many of the Zodiac's subsequent attacks -- braining a lady with a spare tire, cutting off the ear of an old man he corners in an elevator, stomping on the hood of a car after getting the owner to check the engine, sending an old man lounging outside his father's nursing home careening down a city street -- are a bit beyond the pale. And this is not to forget the Zodiac's black-magic rituals before his personal altar and repeated assertions that he's "gathering slaves" to serve him in the afterlife. (Naturally, the number he's shooting for is twelve.) Frankly, that's no less outlandish than the wildly inaccurate claims of the psychic Pittman and Heller consult in a last-ditch attempt to get a bead on the killer, who's given the floor in the film's final moments to taunt the viewer directly ("Well, now you know I exist. What are you going to do about it?") over footage of him helping an old lady across the street. How can say how many more old ladies this menace has helped cross streets in the 45 years since then?
Monday, October 10th, 2016
11:04 pm
How many actors can say they they've got their own action figure?
There's a compelling documentary to be told from the perspective of the faceless extras and bit players who were in the original Star Wars. For roughly 25 minutes, director/co-editor Jon Spira's Elstree 1976 is that documentary, but the problem is that's only a quarter of its running time. First, the viewer is made to sit through 25 minutes of backstory on nine of his interview subjects (the tenth doesn't appear until later and for good reason) before they get to talking about how they were cast in the picture and what roles they played in it. The biggest name, naturally, is David Prowse, whose 6'7" frame made him a natural for the imposing Darth Vader, but Spira also snags Paul Blake, who played Greedo (and does well not to bring up the whole "who shot first" nonsense), and Garrick Hagon, who was Biggs (which was a more prominent role before George Lucas cut out his big scene on Tatooine). The others are assorted Stormtroopers -- one claims to be the one who hits his head, another says he was drafted to play the Sandtrooper who doesn't find the Droids he's looking for -- and Rebels, but only the latter can be readily identified since their faces can be seen in the film. (The lone woman Spira talks to, meanwhile, was an extra in the cantina scene.)

About halfway through, once Spira has exhausted his subjects' stories of being on set and their sometimes humorous interactions with Lucas, he shifts focus to the convention circuit, on which many of them have appeared in recent years. This is how he's able to justify bringing Jeremy Bulloch into the picture, despite Boba Fett not being in Star Wars. Still, his character is a fan favorite for a reason, which is a sore point for some of his fellow performers who weren't given a bad-ass helmet to wear in their scenes. There's also some business about the hierarchy of credited actors vs. uncredited extras which comes off as a little petty, but hey, they're all trying to squeeze more money out of a few weeks' work they did four decades ago.
Sunday, October 9th, 2016
8:41 pm
You must watch their shadows, not the puppets.
When director Peter Weir came to Indiana University last year, one film of his that the IU Cinema didn't screen was 1982's The Year of Living Dangerously. Happily, university president Michael McRobbie -- an Australian himself -- picked it to lead off his "President's Choice" series this fall. (The other two films, which I'm equally looking forward to seeing on the big screen, are the politically charged The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and Z.)

The year in question is 1965 and the place is Indonesia. It is a time of great tumult as the communists are gearing up for their attempted overthrow of the repressive government on President Sukarno. Into this maelstrom waltzes Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson, fresh off Weir's Gallipoli), a green foreign correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Service who is immediately befriended by freelance cameraman Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt, who won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance), who gets him access to avenues that would otherwise be closed to him. Billy also introduces Guy to Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), his "special friend" and assistant to the British embassy's military attaché (Bill Kerr). It's as plain as day that Billy is carrying a torch for her, but Guy presses his advantage enough times that Jill finally acquiesces to him. Meanwhile, Guy is also in direct competition with other foreign journalists -- whose ranks include American horndog Michael Murphy and closet case Noel Ferrier -- for sources and scoops, but when the biggest story of his career lands in his lap he has to decide where his loyalties lie.

As this was Weir's first film to be co-produced by an American studio (in this case, MGM/UA), it served as the stepping stone to the Hollywood phase of his career, which began in earnest with 1985's Witness. What that film shares with his Australian work is an acute sense of place, which was achieved in The Year of Living Dangerously by extensive location shooting in the Philippines, as there was no way in hell Weir was going to be allowed to shoot in Indonesia itself. Anybody who's seen Joshua Oppenheimer's The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence knows why that is.
Saturday, October 8th, 2016
2:32 pm
Sorry, there's no time to explain. We've got to get away from this dreadful place.
Even if the world didn't feel as if it were going to hell in a hand-basket right now, it would still be comforting to pull a horror movie down off the shelf to watch. It's easier to process the horrific when it's been contained within a fictional, finite narrative. Such constraints don't make something like 1973's Horror Hospital any easier to grapple with, though, since its plot is borderline nonsensical, which isn't terribly surprising considering co-writer/director Antony Balch spent the decade leading up to it collaborating with William S. Burroughs on a number of experimental shorts, as well as the sound version of 1922's Häxan with Burroughs doing the narration. Two years later he made the leap to features with the Richard Gordon-produced horror anthology Bizarre, setting the stage for this similarly offbeat effort.
It starts off mysteriously enough, with a shot of a car parked in a glade, followed by a cut to one of its occupants, or rather to his black leather gloves, which he flexes, cracking the knuckles. This is the viewer's introduction of Michael Gough's Dr. Storm, whose first line of dialogue establishes the ironic tone the balance of the film will take. "Now, make a clean job of it," he tells his eccentric dwarf assistant, Frederick (Skip Martin). "The car was washed this morning." The reason for this admonishment becomes clear when the car races after two bloodied and bandaged young people who are trying to make a run for it and are beheaded before even two minutes have elapsed. "That'll teach 'em to try and run away from us," Frederick quips, heroically resisting the urge to make a crack about two heads being better than one.
After the titles, there's a shock cut -- the first of many -- to a man in drag (played by Balch's co-writer, Alan Watson) who is the spitting image of Beef from Phantom of the Paradise. The front man for a rock band performing at a hot London club, he gets into a scuffle with the film's pouty protagonist, Jason Jones (Robin Askwith), a songwriter who starts some shit because he believes he's being shafted by the group and has his ass handed to him by a dude in a dress. (That's got to do wonders for his feelings of masculinity.) In need of some rest and relaxation, Jason is hipped to Hairy Holidays and isn't overly put out when the solicitous travel agent (guest star Dennis Price, appearing in his final film for Gordon) comes on to him. He still opts for the week in the country at Brittlehouse Manor, though, and chats up Judy Peters (Vanessa Shaw), the bird he meets on the train who's also headed there to see her Aunt Harris (Ellen Pollock), who used to run a brothel in Hamburg before the war. (My, the things one is willing to share with a total stranger in the interest of delivering a wad of exposition...) There's no car to meet them at the station, but after being thoroughly drenched in a sudden downpour they're picked up by a pair of motorcyclists in black leather and white helmets. These are the Bike Boys, as they're called in the credits, and they are Dr. Storm's anonymous enforcers -- and some of the best henchmen in horror movie history, if I do say so.
Anyway, upon their arrival at the manor, Jason and Judy are greeted by Frederick, who skeeves them out from the word go, Judy meets her aunt, who's none too pleased to see her, and Jason gets a little fresh before dinner before getting rebuffed. Judy comes to regret putting him off, though, because neither of them has much of an appetite for food or sex after they dine with the other guests, all of whom are pale as a sheet and have a scar on the forehead as if they've been lobotomized. This actually turns out to be the case since Dr. Storm's that kind of mad scientist, but there's much more madness to come, including the full reveal of what he's up to. Most upsetting of all, though, may be the brown patch in the seat of Jason's blue jeans that makes it appear as it he shat himself he makes a break for it himself and is chased on foot by the Bike Boys, who beat the tar out of him when they catch him. Actually, that's not so much upsetting as it's hysterically funny. This is upsetting:
I don't even want to try explaining that.
Friday, October 7th, 2016
11:33 pm
This is not the luckiest island in the world, is it?
Four years before Peter Cushing led a minotaur-worshiping cult in Land of the Minotaur, Bryant Haliday joined an archaeological expedition to a tiny island off the English coast in search of an underground temple dedicated to Baal in Tower of Evil. Written and directed by Jim O'Connolly, who previously made Berserk and The Valley of Gwangi, Tower of Evil -- alternately known as Horror on Snape Island -- is primarily set on the eponymous rock, which is home to an abandoned lighthouse and precious little else. Released in 1972, it features a guest appearance by Dennis Price (like Haliday, late of Curse of the Voodoo) as the museum curator who organizes the trip, but doesn't go on it because otherwise producer Richard Gordon wouldn't have been able to afford his fee.

The film opens with fisherman Hamp (Jack Watson) and his father (George Coulouris) braving heavy fog to poke around the island, where they're unperturbed to find three dead Americans -- one naked young man, a decapitated woman, and another man who's been run through with a Phoenician spear -- and one live one (the naked man's naked female companion) who proceeds to stab the old man and make a run for it. She gets conked on the noggin by Hamp and remanded to a psychiatric hospital on the mainland where her condition is diagnosed as a catatonic stupor, but she's able to be brought out of it temporarily by means of hypnosis and flashing lights that allow her to remember what happened on the island and how her friends all wound up dead. Meanwhile, the girl's parents hire private investigator Reg Brent (Haliday) to do some digging and clear her of the murders.

Normally, the presence of someone like Brent would be considered a distraction, but the rest of the museum's expedition is made up of two couples whose relationships are so messily intertwined it would take a flowchart to keep them straight. First there's husband and wife Dan and Nora Winthrop (Derek Fowlds and Anna Palk), who are on the verge of splitting up due to their mutual infidelities. One of Dan's, in fact, was with Rose Mason (Jill Haworth), who's dismayed that her own ex, Adam Masters (Mark Edwards) is along for the trip, and Nora seems perfectly willing to go to bed with any available man, as evidenced by the way she engineers it so she can be alone with Hamp's strapping young nephew Brom (Gary Hamilton). No one's ever as alone as they think they are on Snape Island, though, as O'Connolly -- working from a story by The City of the Dead screenwriter George Baxt -- eventually makes plain.

In addition to the sometimes-creepy atmosphere, O'Connolly makes sure the film gets in a few good jolts like its Mrs. Bates-type reveal, which he ups the ante on by substituting a corpse that has been left to rot for six months. One thing he doesn't make good on, though, is the Baal-worshiping angle. Seems like much more could have been done with that. Also, the tower built on top of Baal's temple isn't really evil, per se. It's simply a place where some unfortunate things have happened. Regardless, you can't introduce a character who has a crate of dynamite and not let him blow up the joint at the end. That's practically a law.
Thursday, October 6th, 2016
3:06 pm
For any man who dares to kill a lion, the penalty is death.
Over the course of his three-decade career, Richard Gordon produced a respectable number of low-budget science fiction and horror films, some more reputable than others. Of the two dozen features he had a hand in -- sometimes in an uncredited capacity -- two were spoofed on MST3K, four were put out by the Criterion Collection, and a further four were collated by Elite Entertainment into its "British Horror Collection." The earliest of the films in that set, which I recently picked up at Half Price Books for a song, is 1965's Curse of the Voodoo, which will win no plaudits from the PC police, nor will it receive many from any other quarters.

Directed by Lindsay Shonteff, fresh off the previous year's Devil Doll, which Gordon also produced, and written by Brian Clemens (credited as Tony O'Grady), then in the midst of his run on TV's The Avengers, with additional scenes and dialogue by Leigh Vance, Curse of the Voodoo gets off on the wrong foot since the first thing out of its stentorian narrator's mouth is "Africa: A country that for centuries was hidden from civilized man." And it's on scarcely less shaky grounds when it introduces its prickly protagonist, big game hunter Mike Stacey (Bryant Haliday from Devil Doll and soon to play the title character in The Projected Man, also produced by Gordon), who takes it upon himself to venture into the territory of the feared Simbaza tribe to kill a lion wounded by a member of the safari he's leading. In the process of bagging the cat he gets mauled in the shoulder and is subsequently marked for death by the Simbaza chief, prompting Major Lomas (second-billed Dennis Price) to bring the hunting party to a premature end and return to Johannesburg, where Mike crawls into a liquor bottle. It's not long, though, before he jets off to London to try to reconcile with his estranged wife Janet (Lisa Daniely), but the curse dogs him every step of the way.

No matter how you slice it, there's just no way for a story like this not to come off as inherently racist. It's like the voodoo segment of Dr. Terror's House of Horrors -- by far the weakest part of that film -- stretched out to feature length and done even more on the cheap. And what else can be made of the fact that the film ends with Mike returning to Africa so he can murder the tribesmen who cursed him? That he shoots one of them is bad enough. That he runs the other one down with his jeep -- at which point the narrator declares "The curse is broken" -- is something else entirely.
Wednesday, October 5th, 2016
3:21 pm
Looks to me like the work of some inhuman beast.
It's doubtful that anybody at Olive Films believes The Monster of Piedras Blancas was an unsung masterpiece ripe for rediscovery, but I thank them for spiffing it up all the same. Released in 1959, this close cousin of Creature from the Black Lagoon (which I'll be getting to see in 3-D next week) is set in a small seaside town where the cranky lighthouse keeper (John Harmon) has been keeping the local legend at bay by feeding it meat scraps every day, something he doesn't admit to his college-age daughter (Jeanne Carmen) until well into the film, by which time the scaly creature has claimed six victims in the space of a few days. That's not a bad body count for a monster movie of this vintage, and the descriptions of its handiwork are the icing on the cake.
"Never saw anything like it in my life. Head ripped clean off." That's how the scene of the first double murder -- of two understandably unseen fishermen -- is relayed to the audience, along with the fact that the victims' throats were "cut clean" and there was no blood left in their bodies. These gruesome details are bandied back and forth by the town doctor (Les Tremayne) and constable (Forrest Lewis), who collectively poo-poo the rumormonger storekeeper (Frank Arvidson) who's the first to name-check the Monster. (If MST3K had gotten hold of this movie, they would have only had to wait about four minutes for one of the Bots to exclaim, "We have a title!" One of them may have also recognized Don Sullivan, who plays the lighthouse keeper's daughter's boyfriend, since he starred in The Giant Gila Monster the same year.) True, neophyte director Irvin Berwick makes the viewer wait an unconscionably long time -- 63 minutes out of the film's already scant 71-minute running time -- before giving his rubber-suited monster (designed by producer Jack Kevan) a full-on close-up, but when it finally does appear after being glimpsed piecemeal (a claw here, a crotch there) it is assuredly worth the wait.
Tuesday, October 4th, 2016
11:54 pm
This is not the kind of shit I want on my transcript.
While shooting 1981's Roar, cinematographer Jan de Bont had a near-death experience when he was mauled and scalped by one of the lions in the film. At the other end of the decade, he shot Joel Schumacher's Flatliners, which is about a group of enterprising medical students who take turns crossing over into the afterlife and getting yanked back by their compatriots before anything untoward happens. (That these clinical deaths and resurrections occur in a church that's undergoing renovations is a fanciful touch on the part of screenwriter Peter Filardi, but it's effective nonetheless.)

The one whose bright idea this is is Lost Boys star Keifer Sutherland's Nelson, whose initial experience on the other side seems benign, but the after-effects are definitely not. The same goes for those who follow him: Rachel (Julia Roberts, who re-upped for Schumacher's follow-up, Dying Young), whose obsession with death borders on the unhealthy; Joe (William Baldwin), whose greatest sins are cheating on his fiancée and videotaping the women he sleeps with without their consent; Randy (Oliver Platt, later called up by Schumacher to be in A Time to Kill along with Sutherland), who spends a lot of time dictating his memoir for someone who isn't a famous surgeon yet; and David (Kevin Bacon), whose overzealousness in the ER gets him kicked out of school, but he's the one Nelson counts on to bring him back. The trouble is, each time someone crosses over, they bring someone from their troubled past back with them, and in Nelson's case it's a vengeful little boy who repeatedly beats the crap out of him.

As one would expect from a film shot by de Bont when he's not fearing for his life at all times, Flatliners looks terrific, laying on the neon aesthetic real thick. (For a film released in 1990, it's about as '80s as you can get.) It also serves notice that Schumacher could have been an interesting experimental filmmaker had he chosen to go down that path. Each participant's flatlining session is handled differently, from the swooping camera in Nelson's vision to the black-and-white perfume commercial vibe of Joe's to the faded home-movie quality of Rachel's. Shumacher and de Bont pull out all the stops for David, though, as he experiences a mix of them all. And as the group's self-declared atheist, it's telling that he's the one who figures out what has to be done to put things right once they've upset the delicate balance of their lives.
Monday, October 3rd, 2016
12:02 pm
What do you think you're running, a country club for lions?
In the realm of motion picture entertainment, just about the greatest disparity between nobility of intent and efficacy of the final product can be found in 1981's Roar. Produced by then-husband-and-wife Noel Marshall and Tippi Hedren to bring attention to the plight of big cats in Africa and the unrestrained hunting that threatened their populations, the film wound up highlighting how much of a threat the lions, tigers, leopards, and other wild animals posed to the actors and crew members who worked on it. (Check out its trivia page on the IMDb if you don't believe me.)

Re-released last year by Drafthouse Films (joining the off-center likes of The Visitor and Miami Connection, both of which have also popped up on TCM Underground), Roar opens with with the American Humane Association seal, which is displayed with "great pride." "Although some scenes appear to show animals being injured," the viewer is assured, "they were never actually hurt." I guess it never occurred to writer/director/straight-up-legit-lunatic Marshall, who also stars as Hank, an animal lover who has lived among them for three years, and Hedren, who plays his estranged wife Madelaine, that human beings are also animals.

Joining them in front of the cameras -- and literally in harm's way -- are Hedren's daughter Melanie Griffith and Marshall's sons John and Jerry. The member of the cast who consistently acts as the voice of reason is Kyalo Mativo as Hank's friend Mativo, who ain't whistling "Dixie" when he pulls up to the compound in his boat, sees the sharp-toothed welcoming committee, and quips, "Today doesn't seem like a good day to come in." Hedren's the only one who gets a good laugh, though, when the family shows up at Hank's (while he and Mativo are out, naturally) and she goes into a room where she's startled by a bird. The rest of the time, it's simply too nerve-wracking.
Sunday, October 2nd, 2016
11:39 am
When a stranger shows up here, he declares himself.
In 1937 alone, director Sam Newfield cranked out 16 B westerns for Republic, only one of which -- the Bob Steele vehicle Doomed at Sundown -- is of any interest to me. This is because the film opens with Steele's character, rambunctious sheriff's son Dave Austin, being forcibly inducted into the Ancient Order of Mavericks, a secret society that wears black-hooded cloaks when they hold their initiation rites. Alas, right after he's been given the ceremonial paddling, and before the Order can think of anything else to do with their newest member, Dave is called away to his father's side just as the sheriff succumbs to a knife wound. Armed with his badge and the knowledge that the killer is a lefty who hangs out at an infamous outlaw bar, Dave plants himself there in the hopes of overhearing something that will tip him off to the guilty party's identity.
It's at this point that the story becomes a lot more rote, especially as the various suspects -- boss man Hatfield (Warner Richmond), cattle rustler Butch (Earle Dwire), surly tavern owner's son Dante (Harold Daniels) -- are paraded before Dave. He also gets himself mixed up in the problems of siblings Jean and Don Williams (Lorraine Hayes and David Sharpe), who picked the wrong cantina to stop at with $12,000 in traveler's checks on them. Over and above that, there's a heck of a lot of padding -- mostly riding shots, but also two solid minutes of people chasing a pig -- for a film that only runs 53 minutes. Saddest of all, when the Order comes riding to the rescue at the end, they leave their hoods at home. Boo.
Saturday, October 1st, 2016
11:45 pm
I didn't want whatever happened to me. I didn't ask for this.
I'm going to state two contradictory things about the 1989 film Communion. First, director Philippe Mora shows the aliens altogether too much. Early on, he gets a lot of mileage out of only letting the viewer catch the briefest of glimpses of them, but once the film's rattled protagonist tries hypnotherapy and begins remembering more details about his encounters with the strange beings (including the infamous probing), Mora lingers on them long enough that it's impossible to be spooked by them. Rooms being flooded with bright lights and shadowy figures scurrying around in the dark? That's creepy. Little people in largely immobile rubber masks? Not so much.

Second, for all their artificiality, the scenes with the aliens are the only compelling parts of the film. Christopher Walken does his best to imbue Whitley Strieber -- also the author of the screenplay and the book it's based on, as well as the source novels for Wolfen and The Hunger -- with some personality quirks, but his repetitive arguments with his wife Anne (Lindsay Crouse) don't contribute much to the proceedings and there are a hell of a lot of them. (Just because you claim your film is "Based on the true experiences of one American family," that doesn't mean you're allowed to bore us with them.) And child actor Joel Carlson, who plays their son Andrew, swings back and forth between being unforced and naturalistic one minute and delivering flat line readings the next.

About the only major character who seems completely grounded is Dr. Janet Duffy (Frances Sternhagen), the psychiatrist Strieber is referred to whose offer to hypnotize him is initially rebuffed. As with many things in the film, though, he comes to accept that it's the only way to move forward. Until he comes to grips with what happened to him on those fateful nights in the fall and winter of 1985 at his isolated cabin -- and realizes he can use it as fodder for his next bestseller -- he's not going to be a very productive member of society.
Friday, September 30th, 2016
8:44 pm
Don't you want to lighten your conscience now?
In between acting gigs for F.W. Murnau, Emil Jannings starred in 1925's Varieté for director E.A. Dupont, who adapted the novel by Felix Hollaender. Recently restored by the Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Foundation, which did its usual impeccable job, and screened at the IU Cinema with a new score performed live by Alloy Orchestra, Varieté cast Jannings as Boss Huller, a grounded trapeze artist reduced to running a girlie show at a carnival in Hamburg with his wife (Maly Delschaft). She's apparently not too put out by the fact that he has to spend all day talking up the attributes of their scantily clad performers, but she does object when he takes in an orphan girl named Berta-Marie (Lya De Putti) -- after the cargo ship she came in on -- and adds her to the program as an exotic dancer. She's too exotic for at least one audience member, though, and after Boss has to step in and stop the show he decamps with Berta-Marie to Berlin where they work up a trapeze act, leaving Frau Huller and their baby out in the cold. It's there that they come to the attention of world-renowned acrobat Mr. Artinelli (Warwick Ward), who's in need of a new partner and gets two for the price of one when he adds them to his act at the upscale Berlin Wintergarten. They're billed as the Three Artinellis, but that doesn't prevent Mr. A from developing a crush on the alluring Berta-Marie and eventually acting on it.

All this, incidentally, is part of a story told by an unseen prisoner who's been summoned to the warden's office ten years into his murder sentence. In light of that, it's not difficult to guess where things are going once Boss gets a whiff of the affair happening right under his nose. (How can he not when Mr. A and Berta-Marie are far from discreet?) The suspense comes from whether he'll eliminate his romantic rival by "accidentally" failing to catch him during one of their shows -- a genuine risk since they perform without a net, coupled with the fact that part of the act involves Mr. A placing a sack over his head and having to blindly trust that Boss will catch him. With a motive that strong and opportunity so perfect, how can he resist?
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