In 2019 I celebrated “Ninjanuary” with several posts about the ninja in popular culture, particularly in films and books from the 1980s. I’m bringing it back this year with a few more ninja-themed reviews; past entries can be found by clicking on the Ninjanuary tag.
New York, New York. The time is summer 1984. Uptown, Ghostbusters fever has taken hold: the four intrepid ghost hunters are enjoying a burst of popularity, with crowds of fans wearing tee shirts emblazoned with the iconic “no ghosts” barred circle. But downtown, another folk hero has taken the public and their shirts by storm, a low-tech, singlehanded war on crime, a white-clad master of martial arts who goes only by the moniker “New York Ninja.” The city needs a hero, as New York in 1984 is deep in the “war zone” years, terrorized by outlandish criminal gangs and a wave of abductions in broad daylight. So how come the Ghostbusters got all the publicity and the New York Ninja remained unknown until last year, and how is it that a film as crazy as New York Ninja didn’t have a cult following?
Like Ninja Busters, New York Ninja was a lost film, but while Ninja Busters was completed and then shelved before its rediscovery, New York Ninja was never finished. Budget problems closed down the production, and after its abandonment it would have stayed unknown had the film reels not come into the possession of boutique video label Vinegar Syndrome. Under the guidance of Kurt Spieler, credited as “re-director,” the film was not so much restored as reconstructed: not only was the original shooting script lost, but so were the audio elements. Much could be gleaned from reading the actors’ lips in the surviving footage, but it was impossible to say how much had remained unfilmed or to say with certainty how the scenes were to line up. (Original star/director John Liu, a Taiwanese veteran of the Hong Kong film industry, is still alive, but has left show business and declined to be involved with the reconstruction effort.) Building a story up from the extant footage and guesswork, Spieler and his crew created a new soundtrack with dubbed voices (provided by a number of genre stalwarts including Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Linnea Quigley, and Cynthia Rothrock) and an original ‘80s-style score by the band Voyag3r; there’s even an end-credits rap. You can take it at face value as a martial-arts/exploitation film, of course, but there’s also a fascinating metatextual element that places it somewhere between The Creeping Terror and Shirkers.
So, how is the movie? Well, it’s, uh, really something. After an onscreen text that lays out the dire state of the city, it begins with John (John Liu, voiced by Wilson, playing a character named . . . John Liu) and his wife Nita preparing to celebrate John’s birthday, but Nita can’t wait to tell him the good news: she’s pregnant. In the next scene Nita witnesses a woman being abducted by three gangsters, and in true ‘80s revenge thriller style, she is swiftly and brutally killed so she doesn’t talk (the ubiquitous “I ♥ NY” bumper sticker is placed for maximum irony). After briefly wallowing in grief and getting nowhere with the police, John (whose day job is sound man for a TV news crew) takes it upon himself to clean up the streets. Cue training montage!
Soon, the New York Ninja is a sensation, thanks to video recorded by tourists and the news crew (who, in classic secret identity fashion, don’t suspect John of being the ninja). John beats up a lot of central-casting gang members and tweakers, many of them wearing clear plastic masks (someone had access to a vacuform machine). They’re the kind of multi-ethnic gangs beloved of filmmakers, with costumes somewhere between The Warriors and Mad Max (the masks appear to be a design choice rather than a gang uniform). Liu’s specialty was high kicking, so plenty of these bad guys turn out to be highly kickable. Other stunts include leaping up and down from walls or ledges, and in one scene John allows himself to be pulled behind a moving car and climbs in the trunk while it’s still in motion. In some of these scenes the change of camera speed is obvious, but charmingly so (the climactic scene in which he hangs from a helicopter in the air appears to be real; I’m not sure how else you would accomplish such a shot). All of the outdoor scenes were filmed guerilla-style, with at best the permission of property owners, but this isn’t the kind of production that can close down Times Square to get the perfect shot; the atmosphere is still highly stylized, but at least somewhat grounded.
There’s a subplot with a street kid John takes in, who organizes the other kids into ninja units, and in a couple of scenes the kid gang misdirects the bad guys and the cops. The slapstick elements of the kids’ scenes are at odds with the serious gunplay and violence the bad guys are willing to use in other contexts, but that’s nothing compared to the jarring scenes of the lead villain: the women who are abducted are pressed into a prostitution ring masterminded by a disfigured ex-CIA operative (voiced by Michael Berryman) who wears dark glasses to protect himself from the light. The victims he keeps for himself turn up dead and covered in radiation burns, causing the newspapers to dub him the “Plutonium Killer” (as a fan of newspaper headlines to convey exposition, there are some great ones in this). The scenes of him—communing?—recharging?—with a glowing green box are off-the-charts nuts, with the Plutonium Killer mugging and hooting like Bruce Campbell in a Sam Raimi picture while his skin falls off. (He even uses the Three Stooges eye-poke as a go-to move.) Obviously, this guy and the New York Ninja are on a collision course with a big confrontation at the end, but it’s so out there that it’s hard to believe it occupies the same universe as the scenes where children scare off gun-wielding thugs by throwing eggshells full of powder at them.
But that’s the ‘80s for you. It’s possible that the film, if completed as intended, would have reconciled its tonal contradictions, but I doubt it, and it wouldn’t necessarily be better that way. The plot of New York Ninja most resembles Revenge of the Ninja with a solid helping of Death Wish, but its “you gotta see this” elements may remind viewers of another competing film from the heights (or depths) of the ninja craze. Big banners for Ninja III: The Domination can be seen over a 42nd Street movie theater in one scene; perhaps New York Ninja halted production because they realized they couldn’t match that film’s absurdity. But they sure tried.
In 2019 I celebrated “Ninjanuary” with several posts about the ninja in popular culture, particularly in films and books from the 1980s. I’m bringing it back this year with a few more ninja-themed reviews; past entries can be found by clicking on the Ninjanuary tag.
“What—ninja Batmen!?” Yes, Harley, that’s right. Batman has been part ninja since at least the 1970s and ‘80s, when creators like Denny O’Neill, Neal Adams, and (of course) Frank Miller made explicit the connection between his use of shadows, disguises, and gadgets and the semi-legendary warrior-assassins of Japan. Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins brought it to the big screen, for what is the “League of Shadows” but a fictionalized (more than usual) ninja clan? But 2018’s Batman Ninja, directed by Jumpei Mizusaki, goes even further, thrusting the Caped Crusader (along with a good selection of his allies and enemies from Gotham City) into Warring States-era Japan courtesy of a time-space machine built by the super-intelligent Gorilla Grodd.
Entering the time-warp a few seconds later than the elite of Gotham’s underworld, Batman finds that two years have already passed in Japan before his arrival, enough time for the criminals to ascend to power as daimyos (warlords) and begin altering the timeline. Penguin, Poison Ivy, Death Stroke and Two-Face each rule their own state, jostling for territory and power, but the most powerful of all is Lord Joker, ruling from “Arkham Castle” with his ever-present consort Harley Quinn. With the elements of Grodd’s “quake engine” divided up between the bad guys, they’ve industrialized and raised armies. Grodd himself waits, holed up in the mountains with his monkey troops, playing the supervillains off each other until the time is right for his own plan to unfold. The field is tilted against Batman before he’s even oriented, but luckily for him he also has friends who arrived before him: present and former protegés Nightwing, Red Robin, Red Hood, and Robin, as well as loyal butler Alfred and sometime-ally Catwoman. Another ally is Eian, leader of a ninja clan whose symbol is a bat—those bat-themed ninja who took Harley Quinn by surprise—and who has been awaiting a prophesied leader. Ultimately Batman must defeat all of the villains so he can get them in one place and return them to twenty-first century Gotham City.
Batman’s malleability as a character is one of the key reasons for his longevity: it’s been pointed out that the cheerful straight-arrow played by Adam West; the disillusioned grognard in Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns; and the father figure to multiple Robins, the Outsiders, and even international Bat-franchises of recent years differ in which parts of the core mythos they emphasize, and yet are instantly recognizable as the same guy. Some artists—Darwyn Cooke and Grant Morrison come to mind—are able to synthesize the various portrayals into a cohesive whole, where others choose to focus on one element, using what they need for the particular story they have to tell.
In recent years, a hyper-competent, never-wrong, always-two-steps-ahead Batman has taken hold, at least as the popular view of the character. Batman Ninja begins with this idea, but takes pain to show how dependent Batman has become on his high-tech gadgets: suddenly appearing in the middle of a town in feudal Japan and attacked by Lord Joker’s samurai, Batman sets off a gas grenade and then aims his grappling gun, first in one direction and then another, realizing that there are no tall buildings for him to latch onto. Escaping on foot, he uses the built-in communications tech in his suit to orient himself, to no avail: there are no satellites to feed him GPS or news intel. Later, he recovers the Batmobile (which also came back in time with him), but it is destroyed by Arkham Castle’s defense system, with the car, the flying Batwing, the Batcycle, and even powered Bat-armor proving insufficient. With his toys broken, he doesn’t know who he is and complains that he has “nothing.” Is this really the Batman who usually seems so invincible?
Naturally, this stripping away of externals is only the first step in rebuilding himself, the low point before his ascendant triumph. It’s a classic case of backing the hero into a corner so that they can show what they’re really made of: when Batman realizes what he does have—his body and training, his keen mind, his will to fight, and his allies—then he can adapt to his situation. Marking this turning point with a dramatic monologue, he refers to the ninja’s pragmatism and versatility and declares, “We will master the ways of the ninja, our weapons will be everything that exists, and I will turn [the Bat clan’s] legend into reality.” Deception, disguise, and misdirection are major themes throughout the story, and the climax shows him fully embracing them and turning them to his service, clouding the Joker’s mind to make him see what Batman wants him to see, just like the classic ninja.
Made entirely by a Japanese crew (aside from the executive producers at DC and the Western voice talent for the English-language dub), Batman Ninja is a surprising and frequently exhilarating fusion of American superhero comics and Japanese anime, with young creators bringing their own influences and style to characters that are popular all over the globe but are usually presented from the Western perspective. (Jiro Kuwata’s so-called “Batmanga,” a series of original comics published in Japan in the 1960s and only widely-known in the West in recent years, is another example, but those stories were set in the modern era and spun off from the popular TV series, so cultural differences were more subtly expressed, rather than being the point.) Anime tropes are embraced, with the line between parody and homage lovingly smudged: that Robin suddenly has a monkey sidekick who can understand English (or is it Japanese? the language barrier is no more a problem than the barriers of time or space) surprises Batman upon his arrival, but everyone else has had time to get used to it. Likewise, steampunk “mobile fortresses” that transform into giant robots just come with the territory.
The creators are clearly having a blast finding points of connection between the two sources of inspiration, from the aforementioned similarities between Batman’s methods and those of the ninja to Gorilla Grodd’s control of the monkeys with a special flute. Specialized Eastern weapons like razor-edged fans and man-sized kites make appearances, showing that Batman isn’t the only one who likes clever gadgets. Bane makes an appearance as a super-powered sumo wrestler, an inspired choice, but one that doesn’t really leave anywhere else to go with him, so other than his one scene he doesn’t figure in the action. Character designer Takashi Okazaki has done a fantastic job translating the modern characters’ looks into costumes reflecting traditional and historical Japanese garb, as well as bringing in the ruffled collars and tights of eighteenth-century European visitors. Batman disguised as a missionary with a bat symbol carved into his tonsure is a fun example, as is Red Hood posing as a Buddhist monk with a tengai (head-covering basket). Both Western comics’ and anime’s love of fan service is fully embraced as well: “Time for some girl-on-girl action,” Catwoman says to Harley Quinn at one point, causing me to double-check the rating: PG-13, “some suggestive material,” and—oh, they’re just fighting, okay.
As far-out as some of Batman’s live-action films have gotten, it’s animated films like this that approach the free-wheeling, imaginative mixing and matching that comic books regularly indulge in. Interestingly, Batman Ninja doesn’t have time to make much of Batman’s secret identity as Bruce Wayne or his motives for becoming a vigilante, other than the Joker’s continual taunt that being a hero must be a drag. I could imagine a version of this story in which Wayne must assume the persona of an honorable landowner or samurai, hiding his secret life as a ninja, but this isn’t a full Elseworlds treatment, and in any case it’s nice to know that there’s still ground left uncovered in this premise. It’s admirably thorough in ringing changes on its ideas, though, fully justifying the awestruck Eian’s words upon seeing clouds of bats form a kaiju-sized Batman to fight Lord Joker’s Voltron-like castle on the “Field of Hell”: “Behold the mighty Bat-god before us!”
In 2019 I celebrated “Ninjanuary” with several posts about the ninja in popular culture, particularly in films and books from the 1980s. I’m bringing it back this year with a few more ninja-themed reviews; past entries can be found by clicking on the Ninjanuary tag.
“You should check out Ninja Scroll, it’s awesome.” I don’t recall what led up to that recommendation, whether I had talked about my recent dabbling in Japanese culture or whether it came out of the blue, but it stuck with me. A little over twenty years ago, I had a sudden burst of fascination with all things Japanese, triggered by reading Japanese Aesthetics and Culture: A Reader, edited by Nancy G. Hume. I recall being hit by the sense of a whole new world opening up for me, one that I had known of in a superficial way but which enriched my sense of history and provided a way forward to develop and deepen the aesthetic of my own work. At the same time, Japanese manga and anime were becoming hugely popular, and friends only a couple of years younger than me seemed to connect to it deeply and intuitively, while friends my own age couldn’t get past the big eyes, shrill voices, and memories of cheap imported cartoons like Speed Racer. In my late twenties, I was already aware of a generation gap.
Even then, with much less material available in the West than there is now, it seemed overwhelming: where to even start? Like a lot of those younger viewers, I recall Cartoon Network’s Toonami block being a big deal: I know I watched Cowboy Bebop around that time, and I started picking up translated manga volumes, nearly at random: not everything I read stuck with me, but I encountered Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura (aka Lum) for the first time, as well as reading American treatments of Japanese subjects like Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo. I usually preface discussions of manga and anime with the disclaimer that I’m not an expert, but by now I’ve seen enough to know where my preferences lie and to have a sense of how much I don’t know.*
As it happened, I didn’t get an opportunity to watch Ninja Scroll until last year, and, well, that was probably too late to be truly blown away by it. It does, in retrospect, make sense as a recommendation from that particular friend: he wasn’t a “weeb,” but he was still someone who dove deep into his chosen areas of fandom, a Dungeons & Dragons enthusiast with a big RPG collection and a classics major whose gateway had been the numerous myths and legends of the Greek and Roman worlds. I remember that he took his blood and thunder straight: he didn’t care much for the winking, tongue-in-cheek tone that undercuts the seriousness of so much modern genre fare. I haven’t talked to him in a long time, but I bet the Marvel Cinematic Universe drives him nuts.
Ninja Scroll is, if nothing else, serious: one might go so far as to call it grim, even gritty. Like the samurai manga that so influenced Frank Miller in the 1980s, the medieval fantasy world of Ninja Scroll is a dangerous one, with little room for sentiment. The 1993 animated film, directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri, centers on Jubei Kibagami, a wandering mercenary ninja in Tokugawa-era Japan. Although Jubei minds his own business and (breaking with the usual practice) charges his employers only what they can afford, he becomes involved with a major conflict when he rescues Kagero, a kunoichi (lady ninja) of the Koga school, from a monstrous, rock-skinned attacker. The rest of the Koga ninja were wiped out after falling into a trap, and Kagero, after escaping, must report the attack to her clan patron and then, if possible, avenge her fallen comrades.
Jubei would be happy to move on from that one chivalrous act, but by interfering he has become a target of the rock man, Tessai, who is one of the Eight Demons of Kimon, a band of ninja whose mastery of supernatural forces has rendered them grotesque and inhuman. The manipulation of an impish old monk (and Tokugawa spy), Dakuan, seals Jubei’s involvement: the Demons are working for a shadowy “Dark Shogun” whose goal is the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate (and to guarantee Jubei’s cooperation, Dakuan poisons him and offers the promise of an antidote as bait). Much of Ninja Scroll’s running time is made up of episodes in which individual Demons attack Jubei, Dakuan, or Kagero to prove themselves. Their attacks are coordinated by Yurimaru, a dandy who uses strings to eavesdrop, communicate, and control people from a distance, as well as killing directly by garotte or electrocution. Yurimaru is merely the first of the Demons among equals, reporting to Lord Genma, the real instigator of the plot and, it turns out, a figure from Jubei’s past. As in many martial arts movies and video games, it plays out like a series of boss fights before Jubei can reach the Final Confrontation.
Perhaps because I had an idea of what to expect, I enjoyed rewatching Ninja Scroll more than I did the first time I saw it. There is a great sense of atmosphere, whether in a dark forest or a fogbound marsh: a late scene in which Jubei fights to free a mind-controlled Kagero is strikingly rendered in shades of red against the setting sun. The beauty of nature—a spider’s web, lightning flashes, or glittering stars reflected on the surface of the ocean—is often contrasted with equally loving depictions of spilled blood, raining from the trees or trickling down the eaves of a roof, or spit out in gouts by the brutalized and near-dead. As over-the-top as some of it is, however, the hard-hitting violence is part of the genre’s appeal, and there is a definite “cool factor” to the various Demons and their powers: a snake woman whose tattoos come to life; a ninja who emerges from shadows and sinks back into them, attacking with a prehensile claw; a man in control of a swarm of wasps whose hive is his own body; and more. These enemies are as specialized and cleverly themed as comic book supervillains, and they’d be right at home in fighting games like Mortal Kombat (and I’m sure there was an overlap in fans of the two properties).
But the cynicism and nihilism of the characters and their world are also of their time, and were probably what I found off-putting the first time around. At worst, the bleakness and depravity of the setting comes off as trite, edgy for edginess’s sake. I’ve written before about the exploitative character of many kunoichi films, and Ninja Scroll continues that pattern, with the lady ninja being groped, assaulted and violated in ways that go from graphic to explicit. (I’m willing to accept that foreign standards are different when it comes to depictions of sexuality, but assuming that this wasn’t transgressive or shocking in its home country is equally patronizing: this is the kind of stuff that gave “otaku” a negative connotation in Japan.)
“When you fight monsters, you must become one yourself or you can’t win,” Dakuan warns Jubei. In the scene, Dakuan is referring to the hard, unsentimental choices the ninja must make, but it resonates with what we already know of Kagero, externally beautiful but deadly to embrace. Because of the lady ninja’s duties as a food taster for her patron, the poisons she’s been exposed to have built up in her body; yes, she’s immune to poison, a useful trait, but she is also toxic to any man she sleeps with, forced to live alone or slay her lovers. She is, in Dakuan’s words, “a perfect woman for this hellish world.” It’s hard to say if this is as meant as a commentary on womankind in general—the few (non-Demon) women who appear in the story seem to be present to show how limited Kagero’s choices for her life really are—but the conclusion to Jubei and Kagero’s will-they-won’t-they follows a well-worn pattern: she dies after saving his life, tragic and beautiful, and he moves on, carrying her memory, a more pure spiritual union than any mere physical coupling could accomplish. Perhaps it’s not surprising, considering when Ninja Scroll was made, following the AIDS epidemic and the sex = death ethos of so much 1980s horror, or perhaps it’s simply a case of pet themes and obsessions emerging in an artist’s work (Kawajiri’s 1987 debut, the bizarre Wicked City, was even more explicit in connecting intercourse with body horror).
The poison of forbidden flesh is also implicit in the Demons’ voracious appetites: for power, for status, for money, all of which have undercurrents of libertine self-gratification. The Demons’ cruelty is sensual: “I hope you have an excruciatingly painful death,” Yurimaru tells Jubei when he has him in his power, as if about to savor a delicious meal. Yurimaru isn’t physically a monster like the other Demons, but his explicit homosexuality marks him as one. Even the other Demons mock him to his face for it: at least Lord Genma is bisexual. For his part, Genma is a parody of the macho he-man, hugely muscular with a massive, projecting chin. Kawajiri saves his most brutal fight scene for the confrontation between Jubei and Genma aboard a burning ship: the history between them, with Genma having betrayed Jubei and Jubei killing Genma (he got better), is an intimacy that Kagero can’t hope to compete with.
Ultimately I didn’t have to go all the way to Japan for an explanation of the dynamic between Jubei and Kagero: in The Great Comic Book Heroes, Jules Feiffer uses the divide between Clark Kent and Superman, and their respective relationships to Lois Lane, to illuminate a common dynamic, one that applies equally to Japan’s wandering swordsmen and ninjas like Jubei Kibagami: “Our cultural opposite of the man who didn’t make out with women has never been the man who did—but rather the man who could if he wanted to, but still didn’t. The ideal of masculine strength, whether Gary Cooper’s, Lil Abner’s, or Superman’s, was for one to be so virile and handsome, to be in such a position of strength, that he need never go near girls. Except to help them. And then get the hell out. Real rapport was not for women. It was for villains. That’s why they got hit so hard.”
* Yeah, yeah, anime is a medium, not a genre, and there are movies and series that cover every subject imaginable, from the most mundane to the completely fantastical. But around the turn of the century, when I was just getting into it, the imports available in the US tended to be the latter, and getting into anime meant becoming familiar with a number of distinct narrative conventions, tropes, character types, and, yes, genres.
As 2021 draws to a close, I think it’s fair to say that the reopening of public life following the introduction of vaccines against Covid-19 hasn’t been all it was cracked up to be. With variants continually evolving and hospitalizations rising and falling like the peaks and valleys of a roller coaster, I just haven’t made it a priority to visit indoor movie theaters outside of a few times during the summer. So, while the film schedule cranked back up this year, I didn’t see very many new releases. On the other hand, the normalization of day-and-date streaming and shorter windows for streaming and home video releases meant that I did see more current films than I did in 2020: I just mostly watched them at home. (You can check out my diary on Letterboxd for a full list of films I viewed although I typically don’t rate or review anything.)
As far as the big releases go, I still need to see Dune (I almost went to see it during its IMAX rerelease, but the times didn’t line up for me to see it in the large-screen format, so I thought, why bother?) and Spider-Man: Far From Home. I wasn’t too impressed with Black Widow (too little too late for one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most ill-served characters, plus ick), but Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was a lot of fun. Godzilla vs. Kong was another enjoyable popcornball that I saw at the drive-in.
Smaller releases I enjoyed include The Mitchells vs. The Machines (a little too formulaic to live up to the massive hype, but it had a lot of heart), Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (ditto on the heart, but much less predictable), and Old (I joked about the most recent M. Night Shyamalan feature during my October wrap-up, but when I saw it, it was . . . good).
Still, continuing to explore films at home was as rewarding as ever, and here’s a small sample of the best or most interesting older films I watched for the first time this year:
Traveling Saleslady (Ray Enright, 1935)
This is one of several frothy pre-Code comedies starring Joan Blondell that I’ve watched in the last couple of years. Blondell plays the headstrong daughter of a stuck-in-his-ways toothpaste magnate, full of ideas for the business but always shut down by her father’s sexist conservatism. So, with the help of scientist Hugh Herbert, she takes her ideas (and the scientist’s new invention that makes toothpaste taste like the alcoholic beverage of your choice) to her father’s competitor under an assumed name. Does she cross paths with her father’s chauvinistic head salesman, and do they drive each other crazy until they can’t deny their mutual feelings for one another, and is there an explosive finale in which her true identity comes out? Well, some formulas don’t change.
Nightmare Alley (Edmund Goulding, 1947)
Speaking of Joan Blondell, her world-weary performance as carnival mind reader Zeena is a high point of this adaptation of the same William Lindsay Gresham novel that Guillermo Del Toro remade this year (I haven’t seen the new version yet but I plan to). Tyrone Power stars as Stanton Carlisle, an ambitious, unscrupulous carny who buys the act from Zeena and her washed-up husband, getting into the mentalism racket and taking it as far as it will go, with disastrous results. This may be my favorite new discovery of the year: Power is magnetic, as are the three women (Blondell, Coleen Gray as Stan’s naïve wife, and Helen Walker as a psychiatrist who is every bet the operator Stan is) who mark the stations of his rise and fall. Even the studio-mandated “happy ending” is only mildly hopeful, at best. Nightmare Alley explores the desperate underbelly of the American dream in a manner reminiscent of It’s a Wonderful Life (and was similarly rejected by audiences), but it’s as if the whole movie takes place in the world where George Bailey was never born.
Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (Nathan Juran, 1958)
This is one of those movies everyone thinks they’ve seen, but the famous rampage is only the last ten minutes or so. Before that is a good hour of melodrama about obsession, jealousy, manipulation, and, to a degree, “contactee psychology,” as millionaire heiress Nancy Archer (Allison Hayes) tries to convince anyone who will listen that she really did see a “satellite” and a thirty-foot-tall giant in the desert while her no-good husband Harry (William Hudson) plots to have her institutionalized. A short but sweet classic of ‘50s sci-fi.
The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (Karel Zeman, 1962)
I’ve been a fan of the Baron’s preposterous adventures since seeing Terry Gilliam’s 1988 The Adventures of Baron Munchausen—one of these days I’m going to carry out my threat of writing a series on cinematic Munchausen adaptations—so I was glad to catch up with the Czech version that seems to have been the most direct influence on Gilliam. The flat, cartoon-like compositions and animated interludes already have a lot in common with Gilliam’s early Monty Python animations, for one thing, and Milos Kopecký’s take on the Baron as charismatic and heroic but hilariously vain is also familiar through John Neville’s version of the character. The plot in Zeman’s version involves an astronaut arriving on the moon and finding the Baron dining with several other historical and literary figures there. In a reversal of the expected dynamic, the Baron treats the astronaut’s description of his rocket ship and modern life on earth as utterly ridiculous, and offers to help him find his way home . . . in the Baron’s own unique style, of course, and not without a few digressions along the way. It’s charming throughout, and while it has some of the same element of Munchausen being treated as a man out of step with modernity, Zeman uses a feather duster where Gilliam uses a sledge hammer.
Yokai Monsters trilogy (Kimiyoshi Yasuda and Yoshiyuki Kuroda, 1968-69)
As sometimes happens, I watched the three Yokai Monsters films (subtitled 100 Monsters, Spook Warfare, and Along with Ghosts) on YouTube about a month before Arrow announced a box set collecting them (along with Takashi Miike’s The Great Yokai War, which I haven’t seen). Each film is a standalone story, connected only by the recycling of puppets and props, but they are all fun ghost stories drawing on Japanese folklore (the yokai are something like ghosts or spirits attached to certain places, but by convention there are many discrete types, such as the long-necked lady or the one-eyed umbrella yokai who both make multiple appearances in the series). In a process familiar to fans of monster movies, the yokai who first appear as spooky threats to humans gradually become the heroes, guarding “their” humans from other, more serious supernatural menaces.
The Legend of Frenchie King (Christian-Jaque, 1971)
Comic Westerns are a favorite subgenre of mine, and one without much critical cachet—for every Cat Ballou or Blazing Saddles there are dozens of duds or forgotten obscurities—but every once in a while a surprise turns up. Going by Les Pétroleuses (dubbed in English as The Legend of Frenchie King), the French equivalent of the Italian “spaghetti Western” should be the “Beaujolais Western,” as it centers on a French-settled town in Texas where the saloon taps flow with red wine instead of beer or whiskey. Were it not clear enough that we’re in movieland, this gives us Brigitte Bardot as the leader of an all-girl gang of train robbers and Claudia Cardinale as a rancher battling over a plot of land with oil deposits hidden beneath it. With Bardot’s gang and Cardinale looking after her shiftless, rowdy brothers, there’s a comic-opera symmetry that fits the cartoonish plot (and even a literal cartoon explosion), and the frank but playful sexiness strikes me as very French indeed. Ditch the misogynistic McLintock! and give this one a try instead.
The Astrologer (Craig Denney, 1976)
A self-financed, self-aggrandizing pseudo-biopic about an astrologer who starts out telling fortunes at a carnival and uses his knowledge of the Zodiac to build a financial empire, The Astrologer is a bit like Nightmare Alley if it took for granted that the ambitious mentalist’s powers were genuine. I had wanted to see this for years since I first heard about it, but director-star Denney’s use of unauthorized music from the Moody Blues and others kept it in limbo, viewable only at infrequent public screenings of rare prints. Well, this year some Robin Hood of the internet put a fresh scan of the film on YouTube, and you’d better believe watching it became my top priority. The movie lived up to the hype: lavish and self-indulgent in the way that self-financed art often is, but equally stylish and eccentric, full of location shooting in Africa and Tahiti, slow motion, prismatic colored light effects, and let-it-all-hang-out storytelling. There are comparisons to The Room to be made, but this is a much more accomplished film, making the wtf moments (and there are many) stand out all the more.
Brainstorm (Douglas Trumbull, 1983)
Christopher Walken plays a researcher whose invention lets people share experiences directly, or even record them for later playback; the first half is mostly about the wonderful promise (and a few complications) of the device, but when it becomes clear the military has its own applications in mind it becomes more of a techno-thriller. Brainstorm is an interesting and beautifully-designed film (as one would expect from special effects artist-turned-director Trumbull) that doesn’t quite hang together. It invites comparisons to other movies, like Tron but less purely entertaining or WarGames but more ridiculous, and it seems to have been a major influence on Inception as well. Some of the shagginess is probably due to Natalie Wood’s death during the production but it is also divided between crowd-pleasing special effects showcase in the Spielberg vein and a more cerebral experience following Kubrick’s influence. (The criticism that Walken seems checked out most of the time is also fair.) The best performance and most intense scenes are from Louise Fletcher as the device’s co-inventor, but the plot dictates that she can’t be the center of the film.
The Journey to Melonia (Per Åhlin, 1989)
In this Swedish animated film, loosely based on The Tempest, a kindly wizard protects the last fertile island from an incursion by the residents of Plutonia, a grimy, industrialized island run by rapacious capitalists. The resultant film is not exactly subtle in its environmental and economic themes, but it’s gorgeously animated, reminiscent of Don Bluth and Hayao Miyazaki, and it has many clever touches: there’s a Hensonesque quality to Caliban, Prospero’s grouchy servant and gardener, being literally made of vegetables. This seems like it would have been an easy film to export, so I was surprised I had never heard of it until this year.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The End of Evangelion (Hideaki Anno and Kazuya Tsurumaki, 1997)
The sprawling Evangelion series was a major pop culture blind spot I caught up with this year: the original TV series from 1995-96, the film that originally capped it off, and the twenty-first century “Rebuild” series of four films that ended this year with Evangelion 3.0+1.0 Thrice Upon a Time (how’s that for anime titling conventions, but the suggestion of a software update combined with an ancient myth or fairy tale fits surprisingly well). Years after the “Second Impact” and an attack by “angels” wiped out half of humanity, young Shinji is one of a few teenagers conditioned to pilot the gigantic bio-mechanical “Evas” prepared for the angels’ inevitable return (I had heard that Pacific Rim owed a lot to Evangelion, and boy, that was an understatement). The 1997 feature film reveals both the traumas that shaped the individual characters and how they tie into the ultimate goal of Commander Ikari, leader of the Eva program (and Shinji’s estranged father).
I had already seen series creator Hideaki Anno’s live-action updates of Gamera and Godzilla (not to mention the fan work that led to the formation of Studio Gainax), but this mixture of sci-fi action, mysticism, and psychodrama, exploring depression and the psychological toll of war, is where he made his mark. By turns exhilarating, devastating, baffling, and infuriating, I can’t say I always understood everything that was happening, but I’ve seen enough Anno by now to believe that’s the point: you can’t change the past, you’ll never know everything, and everyone around you is going through experiences you can only imagine, but you can make choices in the here and now. I’m planning a deeper dive into this with a friend of the blog for next year, so keep an eye out for that.
The human body is so fragile: aside from the typical slashings and beheadings that befall horror movie victims, all it takes is an upsetting of our delicate chemical balance to send us spiraling. An overdose of alcohol injected by invading saucer-men or exposure to the radioactive body of an astounding she-monster, and it’s curtains. Even the beach that makes you grow old is but an acceleration of the natural process by which we eventually wither and die (alert readers will notice that I didn’t actually get around to seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s Old this month, but I assume it does what it says on the label—it’s not like Shyamalan is famous for big twists or anything).
Autumn is a natural time to contemplate the fragility of life, of course, surely part of the reason we have such spooky associations with the season to begin with. But this particular October has been a busy one, spent waiting for tow trucks and in doctors’ waiting rooms, so finishing the month with a movie like writer-director Michael Dougherty’s Trick ‘r Treat, so aware of the connections between people and events and the chain reactions that cascade into disaster, seems appropriate. (Everything’s under control here, so don’t be alarmed: I’m developing a theme. I was also at a bunch of high school football games, but that’s less dramatic.)
While I was busy, and for a time thought that this year’s Spooktober crop of films would be the most meager since I began keeping track of them for this blog, I was able to fit in a respectable number of horror and fantasy films representing every decade from the 1930s to the present, all but a few of them first-time viewings. Most of them were on the shorter side, some very short indeed. Did I count a repeat viewing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown just so I could get to the magic number 31? Mmmaybe, but what’re you gonna do, call the Halloween Police?
At least I resisted the urge to log the Korean Netflix hit Squid Game on my Letterboxd account, but watching that nine-hour series is probably the other reason my movie-watching got off to a slow start (for the record, it’s a horror-adjacent thriller, so if it had been a feature film I would have counted it). Squid Game was my son’s first “adult” media aside from Marvel movies or whatever, and we watched it together; it was fun to see him engage with the series’ twists and turns, so reminiscent (to me) of shows like Lost, as he encountered them for the first time (and to be fair, some of the big twists took me by surprise as well). Other uncounted TV watching included multiple episodes of Treehouse of Horror, the Halloween anthology episodes of The Simpsons that I can put on and rewatch with pleasure any time.
Speaking of television, a recent theme in my viewing has been exploring made-for-TV movies, particularly from the 1970s. I “pregamed” a bit in September with some of these movies, so in addition to the TV movies listed below, I enjoyed Are You in the House Alone? (Walter Grauman, 1978), a film about sexual assault with a more serious tone than its title would suggest; The Night They Took Miss Beautiful (Robert Michael Lewis, 1977), a hostage thriller with an all-star cast; and The Darker Side of Terror (Gus Trikonis, 1979), a thoroughly trashy look at the dangers of leaving your clone alone with your sexually unsatisfied wife. Killdozer (Jerry London, 1974), a famous example of the form based on a story by Theodore Sturgeon, turned out to be kind of dull.
Now for the main event! To curtail the risk of running any longer, here’s the complete list:
1. The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1932)
2. A Nightmare on Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge (Jack Sholder, 1985)**
3. Alone in the Dark (Jack Sholder, 1982)**
4. Invasion of the Saucer-Men (Edward L. Cahn, 1957)
5. Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992)
6. Dave Made a Maze (Bill “Not the Calvin and Hobbes guy” Watterson, 2017)
7. Muppets Haunted Mansion (Kirk R. Thatcher, 2021) t
8. Monster Brawl (Jesse Thomas Cook, 2011)
9. The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (Joseph Green, 1962)*
10. The Astounding She-Monster (Ronald V. Ashcroft, 1957)
11. Psycho Goreman (Steven Kostanski, 2020)
12. Incubus (Leslie Stevens, 1966)
13. Frankenstein Island (Jerry Warren, 1981)
14. The Wild World of Batwoman (Jerry Warren, 1966)*
15. Trilogy of Terror (Dan Curtis, 1975) t
16. Linnea Quigley’s Horror Workout (Kenneth J. Hall, 1990)
17. Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama, 2009)
18. Shadow in the Cloud (Roseanne Liang, 2020)
19. The Werewolf of Woodstock (John Moffitt, 1975) t
20. Something Evil (Steven Spielberg, 1972) t
21. The Wicker Man (Robin Hardy, 1973)
22. Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1992)*, **
23. The Funhouse (Tobe Hooper, 1981)**
24. The Horror at 37,000 Feet (David Lowell Rich, 1973) t
25. The Final Girls (Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015)
26. The Black Cat (Luigi Cozzi, 1989)
27. Instruments of Evil (Huw Evans and Curtis Anderson, 2016)
28. Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942)*
29. The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
30. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (Bill Melendez, 1966)* t
31. Trick ‘r Treat (Michael Dougherty, 2007)
** seen at the drive-in
t made for television
Best Movie: At the risk of being basic, the movie that impressed me the most this month is also one of the most revered, Bernard Rose’s Clive Barker adaptation Candyman (from 1992, not to be confused with this year’s reboot/sequel). Virginia Madsen plays an anthropology grad student determined to explain the persistent urban legend of a hook-handed killer haunting the Cabrini-Green housing projects; Tony Todd is the iconic title character. Barker in the early ‘90s was a sophisticated new voice in horror, and Candyman often feels like an arty prestige picture to match his reputation (with a score by Philip Glass that still feels novel, even after Glass has scored many more mainstream films), but the operatic tone just makes the blood and guts more shocking and the commentary on racial violence and gentrification is still relevant.
Worst Movie: I’ve seen enough B-movies from the 1950s to adjust my expectations, but at just over an hour, The Astounding She-Monster is especially flimsy. Gun-toting crooks and the debutante they’ve kidnapped crash the house of a geologist in a remote area; meanwhile, a glowing alien (curvy Shirley Kilpatrick in a skin-tight bodysuit), who is either the survivor of a long-vanished civilization or the emissary of an enlightened council of planets (maybe both—I was a little fuzzy on this point), wanders the woods, killing any human she comes into contact with. It’s not the worst thing ever, and I’m fortunate that I didn’t see anything truly terrible this month, but it’s pretty half-baked and it feels as if there’s a decent crime picture that doesn’t need the sci-fi gloss buried inside it. (It does have a hell of a poster, though.)
Scariest Movie: Now this is a horror movie! In The Funhouse, four teenagers spend the night inside the funhouse at a sleazy traveling carnival, running afoul of the sideshow freak who lives inside it, Phantom of the Opera-style. (That’s the kind of terrible decision you can count on old-school horror movie characters to make, and amusingly it’s just one kid who makes every dumb, short-sighted move in this film, ruining it for everyone. Dammit, Steve!) Tobe Hooper recaptures some of the grotty energy of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre with another grotesque family living on the edges of society and the sly suggestion that “normal” families can be pretty messed up, too.
Weirdest Movie: Dave Made a Maze combines two of my favorite themes: a hand-crafted aesthetic and a superficially silly premise played straight. Dave (Nick Thune), a struggling wannabe artist, has put together a cardboard labyrinth in his living room . . . and gotten lost in it. When his fiancée and friends enter the maze to find him, they discover a sprawling, ever-expanding nightmare factory made of old boxes and other refuse, bigger on the inside than it appears from the outside, and from which there is no apparent escape. The metaphor for feeling trapped by a creative project couldn’t be clearer, and Dave Made a Maze works as a clever exploration of Dave’s relationships and unfocused psyche as well as a continually surprising series of handmade action/horror setpieces. Cheer up: at least your unfinished novel didn’t kill anyone (I hope).
Goriest Movie: A runner-up for Weirdest Movie, The Black Cat (from 1989, one of several movies with this title) is nominally an adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, but is actually a crypto-sequel to Dominic Argento’s classics Suspiria and Inferno, made at a time when it wasn’t clear if Argento would finish his trilogy about the “Three Mothers.” He eventually did with Mother of Tears, a film that is not well-regarded and which represents a very different era of horror filmmaking; I don’t hate Mother of Tears, but I’m also happy to have Cozzi’s take on the material, in which an actress (Florence Guérin) studying to play the witch Levana, the Mater Lachrymarum, loses her grip on reality and comes to believe that Levana is possessing her and driving her to kill. The witch has a face made of worms and drools green slime on her, Fulci-style, and some of the more outré supernatural kills include making an occult expert’s heart explode in her chest. In one scene, the film-within-a-film’s screenwriter, after being attacked, crashes his car through the front wall of the actress’s house; after crawling out of the car, he reveals the knife plunged into his back. Was that there the whole time he was driving? An utterly deranged movie in the best Italian style.
Funniest Movie: Many of the films I watched this month are at least a bit funny. Psycho Goreman features one of my favorite sources of comedy, characters who exist at the center of their own universe, with scant (if any) regard for the feelings or situations of people around them. One such character is Mimi (Nita-Josee Hanna), a domineering young girl who comes into possession of absolute power over the title character, an ancient world-destroying evil monster imprisoned by the victors in a galactic war (think Power Rangers or Masters of the Universe). Mimi immediately uses the power of Psycho Goreman (a name bestowed by her and her brother) to impress her friends, make boys like her, and get out of doing chores, but of course you can’t keep such a thing secret forever. Psycho Goreman doesn’t quite stick the landing, unable to decide if Mimi should learn a lesson or stay true to her own self-regard, but I found it very amusing overall, and the whole cast is committed to a premise that is part ‘80s throwback (I was reminded a lot of Turbo Kid) and ‘00s indie comedy.
Not That Bad: I’ve written before about director Jerry Warren and my bull-headed attempts to plow through his (mostly crappy) filmography, so I was prepared for the worst with Frankenstein Island. Four hot-air balloonists, attempting a record-breaking flight around the world, are forced down on a remote island inhabited by animal-skin-clad Amazons, shipwrecked sailors, and the widow (big question mark) of the original Dr. Frankenstein. While a genial hostess, Sheila (!) Frankenstein is continuing her late husband’s work, and in fact communicating with him through the magic of science (John Carradine appears as Dr. Frankenstein in these interludes, almost certainly repurposing footage in the vein of Bela Lugosi’s appearance in Plan 9 from Outer Space). The whole thing is ridiculous, but in contrast to most of Warren’s movies it is at least fun to watch and features mostly original footage. It impressed me enough to revisit the only other Warren film I’ve even half-liked, The Wild World of Batwoman, to see if I had imagined enjoying it. That’s two films to receive my highest rating for a Jerry Warren picture, “Not Completely Terrible.”
Dumbest Movie I Will Probably Watch Again: I don’t know if I’ll watch Frankenstein Island again, but other contenders for this honor include Monster Brawl (a face-off between classic monsters—or their non-union equivalents—in the form of a pro wrestling pay-per-view event), Linnea Quigley’s Horror Workout (a tribute to an iconic scream queen’s career in the form of a tacky artifact of the video store era), and The Werewolf of Woodstock (which looks cheap even for a TV production but has a surprisingly credible rock soundtrack). After the Woodstock festival is over, a hippie-hating townie gets electrocuted and turns into a werewolf (?!—perhaps his hatred of hippies kept him alive). Cue rampage against cops and hippies alike. Did I mention that the werewolf hates hippies? Plus he gets away in a dune buggy!
Kino en Esperanto: As mentioned at the end of last year, I started studying the constructed language Esperanto during the pandemic. While I have slowed down since earning my atesto (certificate), I knew I wanted to wait to watch Incubus, starring William Shatner and filmed entirely in Esperanto, until I could understand it without relying on subtitles. Ultimately, it probably didn’t matter because as far as I can tell none of the cast are Esperanto speakers: writer-director Leslie Stevens apparently made the decision to film in Esperanto to give it global appeal during an upswing in the language’s popularity, or perhaps as a novelty. Most of the pronunciation isn’t great, although Shatner (pre-Star Trek) comes off the best, actually acting and delivering the unfamiliar words with a cadence that sounds like speech instead of obviously reading syllables off cue cards. (Actually, the title annoys me more than the dialogue: to conform to Esperanto orthography it should be Inkubo.) Apart from the language issues, the film is interesting and atmospheric, however, a sort of allegorical fairy tale reminiscent of The Seventh Seal or Carnival of Souls and filmed in the natural beauty of Big Sur. Shatner plays a wounded soldier, the target of a beautiful succubus (Allyson Ames) who claims the souls of the men she seduces; has she met her match in Shatner?
That brings Spooktober 2021 to a close; thanks for reading and I hope you had a happy Halloween!
It’s been a while since I updated this blog–too long, really, but life isn’t the same as when I started writing this, so I’m not going to beat myself up about it. If, however, you’ve been patiently waiting for new posts, I hope that today’s article will reassure you that I’m in still in business. I will probably get back to writing about serials as I usually do in the summer, even though I blew right past my usual Memorial Day starting date; they’ve just fallen by the same wayside as all of my blogging. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been writing, but I’m waiting to hear back on some things I’ve submitted elsewhere. Obviously, anything that gets published will be linked here, so wish me luck!
Speaking of elsewhere, I posted my first article in about five years at The Solute today. I didn’t mean to take so much time off, but I started a job at the beginning of 2017, and then something happened between 2016 and 2020, so maybe I just wasn’t in the mood to extend myself. Anyway, I am happy to be back on that website with a look at a favorite cartoon from 1935 as part of the ongoing “Year of the Month” series, “The Hot Cha Melody” starring Krazy Kat. This one combines some of my favorite interests, and I’ve wanted to write about it since I first saw it. So I hope you’ll click the link to check it out here. Thanks!
When I was a kid listening to my sister’s record collection with her, I went through a phase where I always requested “Twilight” by Electric Light Orchestra; she had the 45 rpm single, not the 1981 LP Time that it opened. The song is preceded by a short prologue, also included on the single, a hymn-like instrumental over which a robotic voice intones a portentous introduction: “Just on the border of your waking mind/ There lies another time/ Where darkness and light are one/ And as you tread the halls of sanity /You feel so glad to be/ Unable to go beyond.” The music builds like a dam about to burst, swelling in intensity; echoes of laughter and spacey sound effects can be heard layered in (this transition was my favorite part of the record, and I think the sense of expectancy it created was what attracted me to it). After that build-up, “Twilight” proper opens with a soaring, horncall-like synth line and a bombastic drum intro, and then the chugging symphonic rock that is an ELO trademark explodes into action.
The lyrics of “Twilight” (sung by composer/frontman Jeff Lynne sans vocoder) tell the story of a man beguiled by visions and phantasms, caught in the liminal space between night and day: “Am I awake or do I dream/ the strangest pictures I have seen/ night and day and twilight’s gone away.” The chorus continues the theme of being captivated, unable to separate dream from reality: “Twilight/I only meant to stay a while/Twilight/ I gave you time to steal my mind away from me.” But while the words beg for release, the music speaks only of rapture: if this is really a dream, who would want to wake up?
No resource is off the table for Lynne as he demonstrates his studio wizardry: the disco rhythms of earlier ELO productions are replaced by a more contemporary-sounding rock beat, but the strings are still there; Lynne multi-tracks his own voice, the chromatic harmonies and countermelodies building on the legacies of the Beach Boys and the Bee Gees; there’s a burbling background pulse reminiscent of the Who’s “Baba O’Riley” and a Gershwinesque piano solo; it even builds up to a dramatic major-to-minor shift echoing the introduction from Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, aka the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like I said, Lynne doesn’t hold back when he wants to go big.
I don’t know that I would usually list ELO or Jeff Lynne as musical artists who influenced me, but revisiting this song and album makes me think that perhaps I should. I’ve always enjoyed the maximalism of Lynne’s production work as he out-Wall of Sounds Phil Spector and Brian Wilson, bringing their meticulous sense of construction into the disco era and beyond. It’s often cheesy, like selections from a Las Vegas buffet piled too high on a small plate, but I’ve come too far to deny my love for that kind of excess, and at his best Lynne combines his operatic inclinations with a perfectionism that keeps his ideas focused and the various layers clear: under the (sometimes literal) bells and whistles are the most addictive musical hooks he can come up with.
Perhaps even more formative than “Twilight” for me was “Video,” Lynne’s contribution (as a solo artist) to the soundtrack for the 1984 film Electric Dreams. Within the film, “Video” is a poppy love song written by a sentient home computer to impress its owner’s musician neighbor. The computer, tasked with writing an original song, turns on the TV for inspiration, listening to and rejecting several commercial jingles (“too simple . . . too long . . . “) before hitting on “Get that Pepsi Spirit!” and deciding it’s perfect. “Now: backwards,” the computer says, and the reversed sound of the jingle segues into Lynne’s song over a montage of the main character’s first date with his new girlfriend. I was about ten when I saw this film for the first time, old enough to know that computers didn’t work that way, but the song and the scene in the movie still fascinated me. “Now: backwards” is still a useful strategy for getting started.
Later, when I started using computer sequencers for real, I indulged in the usual tricks of playing back florid Switched-on-Bach-style compositions at inhuman tempos; you can bet that I had that Pepsi Spirit. A friend said that I must have been the kid who watched things on fast forward and reverse when I first got a VCR, grooving on the sense of speed, which, yeah, I probably did that, too. But I guess I was as fascinated by technology as Lynne obviously was: he was having fun with this one, channeling Thomas Dolby or the Buggles in addition to his own pop inclinations. “Self-parody” can be hard to identify: sometimes giving free rein to one’s impulses is more authentic than staying cool; it’s “good taste” that is the performance. Full of more samples and sound effects than a morning DJ’s soundboard, “Video” represents the craftsmanship of ELO brought to bear on something as trite as a commercial jingle: but after years of songs and albums on a symphonic scale, Lynne still knew the value of the “silly love songs” that had always been the backbone of pop music and the primary-color emotions that drove them.
II. “I see Daicon’s making its rounds again in everyone’s recommendation feed XD” –YouTube comment
Speaking of letting it all hang out, I hadn’t given “Twilight” much thought at all for years, and had kind of forgotten about it, until I was recently introduced to the short film that preceded Daicon IV, a Japanese sci-fi/anime convention that took place in 1983. One of several fan-made animations that welcomed con attendees at the time, Daicon IV is the mash-up to end all mash-ups. It was put together by a team of artists, including Hideaki Anno, who would go on to form Gainax, an anime powerhouse that put its stamp on the medium (and raised standards across the industry) in such works as Neon Genesis Evangelion. Two years previously, their Daicon III film had depicted a young girl given a task by some friendly visitors from outer space: carry a glass of water while fighting her way past some of pop culture’s most famous monsters and robots, who try to stop her. Although unassuming in appearance, the girl has a few tricks up her sleeve, including a ruler that doubles as a sword and a backpack that hides a jetpack and missile battery. Along the way, recognizable icons like Godzilla and the starship Enterprise blow up. When she reaches her goal, she finds a daikon radish withering in a drought-stricken field. Yes, the whole thing turns on a pun. After she pours the glass of water on it, the revived daikon turns into a giant daikon-shaped spaceship, and she is beamed aboard to be its captain; the ship departs for the stars.
Daicon IV begins with a short recap of the first film’s events, remade with even better quality animation. The screen goes black after the daikon ship has flown away. Then as a flowing starfield fades in, the notes of ELO’s “Prologue” start up. The lyrics appear on the screen over a superimposed silhouette of the daikon ship. At the transition to “Twilight,” the young girl from Daicon III, now grown up, reappears as a sexy young woman in a Playboy bunny costume (why? well, why not?): she has returned to continue the fight, or to take it to whole new worlds. Again, Bunny Girl (as she is usually referred to) battles a range of popular villains and monsters from Japan and the West, ranging from kaiju to Darth Vader, while yet more characters from manga, anime, science fiction, and American superhero comics look on or make cameo appearances.
The fluidity and beauty of the animation and the range and density of references are incredible, and setting the whole thing to ELO’s song gives it a dramatic sweep greater than Daicon III’s similar outline. It functions as a music video for the song and takes advantage of “Twilight”’s sense of tension and release to play with the audience in a similar manner. The action on screen shifts from hand-to-hand combat to Bunny Girl riding a flying sword into an aerial dogfight, and finally the sword divides itself and strikes multiple targets like the air-to-air missiles seen in Daicon III. During a dramatic pause in the song before the final chorus push, the fighting gives way to a supernatural transformation: an explosion, seemingly the nuclear detonation that would be the culmination of all the destruction from before, turns into a whirlwind of cherry blossoms that sweep away the old order, blowing away the cities of the modern world and even emerging from the ground, prying loose the pavement and highways choking the earth and raising mountains in their place; the daikon ship fires a beam that signals a renewal of the natural world, with whole forests springing up instantly; seen from above, the surface of the brown earth is covered by new growth; finally, we zoom out to a glimpse of the entire solar system, which turns into the Daicon IV logo (perhaps suggested by the musical reference to 2001—whatever, it fits together perfectly). Whew!
Daicon IV is a complete sugar rush: “Twilight” already lays it on thick, and the animators pushed themselves to create the visual equivalent (note that their use of the song, like their appropriation of pre-existing characters and visuals, was totally unauthorized: although they sold copies of the film on laserdisc—leading to its appearance on YouTube and elsewhere—it has never been “officially” released due to the legal complexities of “sampling” so many properties). The effect, particularly if you’re already a fan, is the same emotional reaction we get from crossovers—all your favorites, together for the first time!—amped up to kaleidoscopic levels. Looking back at the effervescent Beatles medley that made Stars on 45 a hit in 1981, Tom Breihan points out that “It mashes the ‘Oh shit, I love this song!’ button like a toddler playing Nintendo. . . . The point is to tickle whatever part of your brain holds affection for those songs, and then to keep tickling it. The point is the recognition.” One could certainly say the same thing is happening in Daicon IV. Now, I’m unabashedly a fan of medleys and mash-ups—see the name of this blog, for one example—and there’s no doubt that Daicon and similar projects play with fans’ affection and nostalgia, but I don’t recognize half of the references in them, and the effect still comes through for me. One could argue that the rapid-fire montage is itself stimulating: just the highlights, all killer, no filler. Familiarity with the characters adds to the enjoyment, but it’s not strictly necessary. (Note how the introductory sequences for so many anime series and Western cartoons employ the same quick-cutting devices to get the audience hyped up for what’s to come.)
I wish I had known about the Daicon films before I wrote about Ready Player One: jam-packed with visual references married to a surging pop anthem, they represent exactly the kind of “fangasm” RPO is going for, and were probably an influence on Ernest Cline while writing it. Shots from Daicon IV were iconic enough to be paid homage in subsequent anime, some of which I had seen without realizing the original source. (Another YouTube video I watched, explaining the film’s origins and influence, cites the shot of Bunny Girl flexing her muscles after overthrowing a giant Gundam mech as particularly iconic: “There it is: the first Gainax bounce,” he says as Bunny Girl’s chest jiggles. I didn’t really need that phrase to be stuck in my head, thanks.) Weirdly, I had already seen Otaku no Video (“Fan’s Video”), the fictionalized story of Gainax’s origins, but not having seen the original I didn’t quite put together how foundational Daicon IV was. Rewatching it, Otaku no Video turns out to be full of references that would have been obvious to anyone familiar with the original fan film, and even stops to include a clip of the cherry blossom sequence so the animator’s in-film stand-in can point out how amazing it is!
Both Ready Player One and Otaku no Video depict victories for fandom. RPO is meatheadedly optimistic about the prospect; Otaku no Video is more cynical, parodying moral watchdogs’ concerns about the wasted lives and near-criminal deviancy of the otaku, and bitterly aware of how business conflicts can poison the wells of art and fellowship. Ultimately, it has more insight into the current, often toxic state of modern fandom. But it, too, acknowledges that fandom is a force that can change lives for the better. For the youthful artists who created Daicon IV, those struggles lay in the future, and part of the film’s exuberance is its hopefulness, and yes, naivete. Daicon IV’s sequence of destruction and renewal (a theme present in watering the daikon in Daicon III, but now spread to the entire world) suggests that being a fan is bigger than just following your favorite series and characters: it is transformational, a way to imagine and access a better world by uniting across fandoms and harnessing their combined creativity and enthusiasm.
In the sky, high above the fairgrounds on which Col. Nathan Gregory’s traveling carnival is pitched, a stunt plane writes a message in the clouds: “MAY 23 1918 THE EAGLE.” What could it mean? To Gregory, it’s a reminder of the past: on the date in question, the ace pilot known as “the Eagle” was shot down by members of his own squadron, not recognizing one of their own returning from a mission in a captured enemy plane. For members of the Evans Aero Corporation’s board of directors, it’s a threat: many of them flew with the Eagle and still live with the guilt of that day’s events. Has the Eagle returned for vengeance, or does someone know a secret that they are leveraging for blackmail?
The skywriting pilot doesn’t know: Craig McCoy works for the carnival, and he wrote the message after someone dropped him an envelope with a hundred dollar bill in it. That doesn’t stop the board members from accusing him: it turns out that Gregory was “the Eagle,” long thought dead. In addition to the friendly fire that brought him down, Gregory claims the company’s success is built on an invention stolen from him. It’s only logical to think that he’s using McCoy to execute his long-planned revenge. Soon, however, another plane appears, and it begins writing the names of the board members and crossing them out, making the threat more explicit; not to mention the appearance of two thugs, Moore and Boyle, who claim to be working for the Eagle. It’s up to McCoy (John Wayne), along with Gregory’s daughter Jean (Dorothy Gulliver), to protect Gregory and his carnival from false accusations and the violent repercussions that follow, and ultimately solve the mystery. And it’s not long before they face danger themselves, as the first chapter of The Shadow of the Eagle ends with the unknown plane chasing the two of them across a field at ground level, threatening to run them down!
Despite Craig McCoy’s job as a pilot and the importance of skywriting and aircraft to the plot, The Shadow of the Eagle isn’t totally focused on aviation, and there’s only a little aerial danger in the form of dogfights or crashes. The youthful McCoy is more Tailspin Tommy than Ace Drummond. The carnival setting is much more important, providing a colorful backdrop and cast of supporting characters. In addition to McCoy and Jean, Col. Gregory is supported by little person Billy (billed as “the Midget”), a strongman (Ivan Linow), and a ventriloquist (James Bradbury Jr.), among a few others. As in Daredevils of the Red Circle, they form a team of varied abilities, so there are many fun scenes of Billy fooling the bad guys as a decoy (even disguised as a baby in a basket at one point), the ventriloquist imitating other peoples’ voices to get information or create distractions, and the strongman, well, being strong. The sense of family and camaraderie between them lends itself to banter and kidding (little Billy has a few catchphrases, including bossing the strongman around and calling him a “palooka”); and of course, all of them have the showbiz lifer’s loyalty to their patron and father figure, Gregory. (The dark side of that loyalty is that if you cross one of them, you cross them all: see the cliffhanger at the end of “The Code of the Carnival,” below.)
Dating from 1932, this is actually the earliest sound serial I’ve reviewed for this series so far, and it has many of the dated elements that I’ve seen in other serials from the time period: there is no non-diegetic music at all, other than the theme that opens each chapter, and there are often long stretches of silence without even sound effects. (I do like the voiceover that provides recaps, as the narrator’s creaky voice makes it sound like a storyteller relaying something nearly lost to the mists of time.) The plot has the sense of broad strokes seen in serials like Pirate Treasure, as if the filmmakers said to themselves, “What do kids want to see on screen? Airplanes! Carnivals! Chases! Fights!” and wrote it up accordingly. The and-then-there-were-none plotting of the board of directors being eliminated one by one, while one of them is secretly the Eagle, is not handled as slickly as it would be in later serials, but it’s clear enough. Finally, The Shadow of the Eagle has the casual relationship with cause and effect I’ve noticed in other Mascot serials. Let one example stand in for the whole: at the end of Chapter Nine, “When Thieves Fall Out,” McCoy and Henry drive off, only for the Eagle’s henchmen, Moore and Boyle, to appear on the side of their convertible, demanding they stop and provoking a fight within the moving car. Where did they come from? The implication is that they were on the car’s running board, hidden from sight until the car started moving, but it’s the kind of thing that would be set up much more clearly in later serials.
Having said all that, The Shadow of the Eagle has one virtue that goes far in overcoming those flaws: it moves like a demon, flowing swiftly from one scene to the next, and the lulls are few and far between. It doesn’t always make a lot of sense, and it definitely challenges the kind of close watching I usually try to do with these films, but if you sit back and allow it to wash over you—arguably, the mindset in which it was meant to be seen—it’s a ton of fun, full of the styles, situations, and twists that are really more important to the serial experience than something as skimpy and inconsequential as plot. I’ve argued that the Mascot serials of the 1930s often feel like dreams, and like dreams, they often circle back to moments of crisis, repeated with variation as if fixated.
As is true of many serials, captivity is a recurring theme, with Gregory abducted multiple times, once even being dropped off at a sanitarium along with his daughter (by Moore and Boyle posing as family members concerned about Gregory’s “persecution complex”). Characters hide or are trapped in trunks, bins, and cabinets, including a magician’s vanishing cabinet. Costumes and disguises are likewise employed by both heroes and villains to misdirect their enemies (and the audience). Even these formulaic devices are deployed less consistently than they would be later on: sometimes the Eagle would appear disguised as Gregory, wearing the same slouch hat and coat to impersonate him; sometimes he would be a disembodied voice, proclaiming, “You are under the shadow of the Eagle!” before striking; other times he would be behind a console, controlling the robot plane by remote.
The slipperiness and seeming carelessness with which these plot twists unfold may appear as defects to those who prefer the consistency and craftsmanship of the Republic serials, but I loved the exuberance with which classic set pieces and plot elements were stuck together in ways that could still be fresh and surprising in those days. More than once I’d cackle as a character announced that he knew who the Eagle was and he would remain silent no more, knowing that as soon as he said, “the Eagle is—” the lights would go out and a knife would go in, or a shot would strike him from some offscreen hiding spot, and the Eagle’s secret would be safe for another chapter. Things like that were already clichés in the early 1930s, but the filmmakers are aware of their audience’s familiarity with them, so they look for new ways to ring changes on the old material. As with other serials from these early days, it helps that all of the stunts are original, without the reliance on the backlog of stock footage from which later serials suffer.
The Shadow of the Eagle is most notable for starring John Wayne as Craig McCoy. Before John Ford made Wayne the icon he would become, the young actor spent more than a decade in the trenches making B-movies and serials (The Shadow of the Eagle isn’t even the only serial Wayne headlined in 1932: the same year he would lead another Nat Levine-produced serial, The Hurricane Express), including a stint in the long-running “Three Mesquiteers” series. Many of these films were Westerns, but not all of them. It’s fascinating to see (and hear) a young but recognizable Wayne at about age twenty-five: he’s a capable serial man of action, but it would have been hard to predict how big he would become later as a laconic, weatherbeaten symbol of the West.
Other familiar faces from the serials include famed stuntman and stunt coordinator Yakima Canutt as henchman Boyle and Ernie Adams as Kelly, “The Man Who Knew” (Chapter Ten). “Little Billy” Rhodes was often seen in comic and circus-related roles in the 1930s and would go on to appear in The Terror of Tiny Town and The Wizard of Oz. Finally, Walter Miller appears as Danby, one of the board of directors. Miller appeared in many serials; sometimes he played a good guy, but often he was a slick villain. Miller keeps the audience guessing in this one; familiarity with his other roles doesn’t guarantee that viewers today will guess the Eagle’s true identity. . . .
What I Watched:The Shadow of the Eagle (Mascot, 1932)
Where I Watched It: I found it by chance on the free ad-supported streaming platform Tubi. Tubi is increasingly home to all kinds of genre oddities and interesting programming, despite (or because of) its seemingly casual approach to curating its library; I probably spend us much time watching Tubi as I do Netflix nowadays.
No. of Chapters: 12
Best Chapter Title: “The Man of a Million Faces” (Chapter Four) This chapter introduces Henry the ventriloquist’s talent for imitating other people, so it should really be “The Man of a Million Voices,” but whatever.
Best Cliffhanger: In Chapter Six, “The Code of the Carnival,” Moore and Boyle have successfully framed McCoy, “catching” him after the remote-controlled plane wrote another of the Eagle’s warnings in the sky. Seemingly convinced that McCoy is guilty of betraying her father, Jean refuses to let the police take McCoy, insisting that the carnival has its own punishment for those who break its code. To everyone’s horror (and McCoy’s disbelief), she orders the roustabouts to “peg out” McCoy: a patch of tent canvas is pegged to the ground with McCoy trapped under it, still protesting his innocence. The last we see before a flap of the tent obscures the scene is one of the carnies about to drive a long stake right through the center of the bulge under the canvas.
Billy: “Ain’t he the greatest flyer you ever saw?”
Gregory (once known as the Eagle): “I’ve only known one as good, an Army flyer. They called him the Eagle. He was shot down May 23rd, 1918.”
What Others Have Said: “From the time he exited [Fox] until [director John] Ford called him, [John Wayne’s] career moved up and down. At one point it went so far downhill that Duke called the Westerns ‘Z’ films. But they were actually ‘B’ films. He scraped along, grinding out one after another, until Republic Pictures was born in 1935, and the decision was made to upgrade its star and its Westerns. During this period Wayne was gaining invaluable experience, and one ‘invaluable’ person rode into his life: rodeo rider-stuntman, Yakima Canutt. Wayne learned how to really ride from him, how to fall off of a horse; he copied his gait and his speech; together they worked at perfecting the barroom brawls. . . . Today every battle reflects their years of work.” –Gone But Not Forgotten, Patricia Fox-Sheinwold
What’s Next: As I mentioned, this was a chance discovery and I happened to be in the mood to watch it, so I can’t promise I’ll get to any more serials before this summer. But you never know, so subscribe to this blog to receive updates as they happen!
To say that 2020 has been an unusual year would be an understatement; just as the coronavirus and attendant shutdown measures have affected everything else, my film viewing this year has taken a hit. I’ve hardly seen any of the current year’s releases compared to recent years, or even in comparison to my viewing habits before I started this blog and put more effort into keeping up. Obviously, in the scheme of things that’s not a big deal, but because of it I will not be offering a Top Ten (or even Top Five) of favorite 2020 releases. I liked a few things, like Color Out of Space and Birds of Prey, but I don’t think I can do justice to the breadth of this year’s releases.
I’ve been aware of my tendency to prioritize things and how it affects my viewing for a while, but this year has really crystallized it. From highest to lowest priority, it’s something like this:
1. A movie that is showing in a theater for a limited time in my area: if I can fit it in my schedule, I will be there.
2. A movie that I know is leaving streaming, expiring from my DVR, or that I have to return to the library: better get it turned around if I don’t want to miss it.
3. A movie in regular release in the theater: I’ll get to it if it’s something I really want to see, but I might take the chance that it will be held over another week.
4. A movie I own on disc: well, I’ll get to it someday.
5. A movie that is available on a streaming service: out of sight, out of mind.
6. A movie I own as a digital download: like number 5, but with number 4’s lack of urgency.
Mind, this isn’t a conscious system of prioritizing; it’s just something I’ve noticed in my own habits. There are also wrinkles that can have the result of pushing movies down in priority: What if I’m watching with family? And I might not buy a disc because I’ll think, “I know that’s on Netflix. I can just stream it.” But will I? Probably not until it moves up to number 2.
Since COVID has (mostly) closed down theatrical viewing in my area, it’s removed many of the factors that tend to motivate me to watch new releases. Streaming removes the urgency for me, even as high-profile new releases have skipped the theater entirely, and even when it comes to things my family would probably have gone to see in the theater like new superhero or animated family films. Is it expensive to go to the theater? Yes, especially with a family. But there is also value in having a physical destination and a time set aside exclusively to watch a movie without outside distractions, and that’s a big part of what I get with a theater ticket.
I do use the streaming services we have, but when faced with the choices on offer, I’m just as likely to watch something old as something new, and if we’re all watching together it’s harder to reach a consensus than if we make the decision to go to the theater. I don’t know what the theatrical experience will be like post-pandemic; I think theaters in some form will survive or bounce back, but I hesitate to predict what the business model will be, or whether the chains that have dominated the industry will stick around or sell off their assets to smaller, hungrier players (or if the studios themselves will get back into the exhibition game now that the rules have been loosened). I just don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does, either.
Having said that, I still watched plenty of older movies (you can see my Letterboxd diary for the full list) and I’m happy to share some of my new (to me) discoveries. Here is a sample of my first-time viewing this year (all watched at home, of course):
Skull and Crown (Elmer Clifton, 1935)
I spent a good chunk of the summer watching B-movies from the 1930s and ‘40s: they’re nice and short and most of them are pretty formulaic, making for comfort viewing that goes down easy. Skull and Crown, however, is what parents were afraid would rot their kids’ brains in 1935: violence, a suggestion of pre-code naughtiness, and plotting that prioritizes novelty and excitement over logic and realism. Bob Franklin (Regis Toomey), a Canadian mountie, is expecting his sister’s return home from a girl’s school, when he gets word that the notorious Zorro (not the Zorro, but a ridiculous Mexican bandito) is making a headquarters for his smuggling operation in the area. Bob’s dog Rinty (Rin Tin Tin Jr., as seen in The Adventures of Rex and Rinty) gets in on the action as Bob goes undercover in Zorro’s gang, but this is a bit darker than you’d expect for a heroic animal movie (Rinty lives, but it’s close a few times!).
Sh! The Octopus (William C. McGann, 1937)
A rare example of a spoof of a spoof, Sh! The Octopus is a take-off on the influential (and already comic) play and film The Gorilla. Two police detectives (Hugh Herbert and Allen Jenkins) get drawn into a murky conspiracy in a lighthouse, interacting with a group of characters thrown together by a storm, none of whom are who they seem. The detectives are on the trail of a “crime octopus,” an apparently real octopus that periodically grabs people with its tentacles and pulls them through windows and trap doors. There are some interesting effects (including some famous makeup tricks) and a loopy, nightmarish atmosphere; I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a partial inspiration for Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. I don’t know how I went this long without seeing it, because it seems like it was made for me.
Hellzapoppin’ (H. C. Potter, 1941)
Calling this a musical is bit misleading: there are songs and production numbers, but they are purely generic straight material to be undermined by a barrage of slapstick interruptions. This is anything-goes comedy, anticipating the zany 1960s and ‘70s: the cutaway gags of Laugh-In, Mel Brooks’ fourth-wall breaking, and the throw-it-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks style of Zucker and Abrahams all have their antecedents here. (And hey, Hugh Herbert shows up again in this as a detective!) It’s a busy film that never quite lives up to the incredible opening sequence, in which a bevy of showgirls, playboys, and wise guys are delivered into the literal pits of hell. This plays so much with its cinematic medium, including jokes involving the projectionist, rewinding and speeding up the film, and lots of special effects, that I’m curious what the original Broadway show was like.
Daisies (Vera Chytilová, 1966)
The Czech New Wave of the mid-1960s, brought on by a brief relaxation of government oversight and orthodoxy, led to an outpouring of creative work ranging from honestly-observed slice-of-life vignettes to avant-garde absurdism. In Daisies, a striking example of the latter, two young women leave a trail of destruction behind them in a cracked version of a Joan Blondell screwball comedy, but the juxtaposition of their antics with footage of atomic bombs and fighter jets, as well as dialogue that mocks simplistic Party sloganeering (“The world is spoiled, so we should be spoiled, too!”) puts it into the realm of social commentary. I had seen clips of this, but I don’t think I realized how similar parts of it are to Monty Python’s Flying Circus or Magical Mystery Tour: it seems like an example of youthful rebellion by people who went to art school instead of forming a rock and roll band. (Also, it’s a cliché to refer to an ending as “Brechtian,” but the ending totally made me think of Brecht.)
Harry and Walter Go to New York (Mark Rydell, 1976)
James Caan and Elliott Gould play small-time criminals in the 1890s; after a chance encounter in prison with Adam Worth (the real-life “Napoleon of Crime,” played here with brilliant self-satisfaction by Michael Caine), the two decide to beat Worth to a bank robbery with the assistance of Diane Keaton as a crusading newspaperwoman. What follows is a combination heist picture and fish-out-of-water comedy as the pair try to convince the rest of the underworld that they can hold their own in the big leagues. Presumably made following the success of The Sting, Harry and Walter combines a twisty plot, character-based comedy, and a lavish depiction of the Gilded Age.
The Big Fix (Jeremy Kagan, 1978)
Richard Dreyfuss plays Moses Wine, a former activist turned P.I. who gets drawn back into politics when he’s hired by an old flame to investigate some dirty tricks against a gubernatorial campaign. In addition to the themes of former campus radicals moving on and the passage of their youthful ideals, it’s an interesting take on the ‘70s sad-sack private eye genre. Moses deals with his family as much as his case, bringing his two adorable kids with him on stakeouts and enlisting his mother to create distractions (a subplot in which Moses puts his feminist ex-wife in her place by beating up her controlling New Age boyfriend is a definite marker of time and place). I wasn’t familiar with this at all before I found the DVD, but it’s a good reminder that Dreyfuss made several good films in the ‘70s and early ‘80s that are worth revisiting: his early career was more than just Jaws.
I didn’t realize this was the second movie in this series when I started watching it, but I had read the comics on which it was based years ago, and as it turns out the story is deliberately disorienting at first anyway. Lum is an archetypal “magical girl,” a space alien devoted to the horny teenage boy (Ataru) who defeated her in a game of tag for the fate of the earth (barely referenced in this film). Ataru and his friends are struggling to finish setting up for the school carnival when they start noticing strange details, and the carnival never seems to arrive. Are they caught in a time loop? The world of Lum includes aliens, demons, magic, and time travel, but ultimately the title is the biggest clue as to what’s going on. The animation is a pleasure to watch and the atmosphere is pleasantly strange.
The Peanut Butter Solution (Michael Rubbo, 1985)
In this Canadian family film, a boy (Mathew Mackay) experiences a scare that makes his hair fall out. Then a magical cure for baldness works too well and things get stranger and stranger. I guess this traumatized a lot of kids who saw it in the ‘80s, and while it is tame for adults I can see why it could be upsetting for kids. One of those “adults are out to get you, but children aren’t much better” stories with some amusing touches, and notable for featuring a pre-Titanic Celine Dion on the soundtrack.
Sound of Noise (Ola Simonsson and Johannes Stjärne Nilsson, 2010)
A tone-deaf police officer (Bengt Nilsson), alienated from his own overachieving musical family, faces off against a band of anarchic musical pranksters whose guerilla performances are disrupting the city. This has the energy of a heist film or a cat-and-mouse detective thriller, balancing its Futurist and John Cage-inspired explorations of the boundary between noise and music with a caustic wit. The clash between temperamental artistic personalities is a major source of comedy: as in Whiplash or Nocturne, the suggestion is that musicians are impossible to live with, and frankly, we deserve it.
Sheborg (Daniel Armstrong, 2016)
Sometimes a film really surprises you: I didn’t expect much from the rather generic packaging of this Dollar Tree find, but Sheborg (aka Sheborg Massacre) is a low-budget labor of love from Down Under, full of ingenious practical effects and no-holds-barred fight choreography. Goopy, gory, and goofy, this tale of alien invasion and a bad girl (Whitney Duff) who fights back is reminiscent of the early work of Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi. Recommended for fans of backyard wrestling and Gwar.
Once again, my Halloween-themed blog post is coming out on the day after the holiday, so I hope you have enough leftover candy to snack on while I lay out the State of the ‘Ween for you again. The pandemic didn’t stop trick-or-treaters in my neighborhood: in addition to being on a Saturday with a full moon, we in Kansas were blessed with a perfect not-too-cold evening, a nice change from having snow on the ground earlier in the week. Everyone was doing a good job with social distancing, and to help out I constructed a candy chute out of a ten-foot PVC pipe to deliver candy into trick-or-treaters’ hands. There weren’t as many people out as I would have expected under normal circumstances, but it was a respectable turnout, and combined with the glimpses of other friends’ in-person or online gatherings, I think most people who wanted to were able to find some kind of outlet for their spooky seasonal urges. I won’t pretend that COVID didn’t have an impact, but it was okay.
As far as media consumption this month goes, I decided to take it (relatively) easy. As much as I enjoy indulging in horror movies and ghost stories at this time of year, I don’t like it to feel like homework, and with everything going on in the world and the upcoming election I felt it was just as important to safeguard my mental health and not stress over missing some self-imposed deadline or goal. That gave me more freedom to rewatch familiar classics or follow up on things that might not fit neatly into the Spooktoberween category.
It also meant watching more short films. Before I get on to the main event, I want to highlight a few of the odds and ends I encountered this month. The 1910 Frankenstein produced by Thomas Edison was actually only a little over ten minutes in length, but given the wide variability of film lengths in the silent era, I’m counting it on my main list; I had thought I might revisit other versions of the classic story, but didn’t follow through with it (Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster doesn’t count, as the title creature is a robot only nicknamed “Frankenstein”). For the record, I liked it a lot, and found its suggestion that the monster was only a product of the doctor’s imagination way ahead of its time.
Other shorts included some of The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror” episodes and classic TV specials starring Garfield and Charlie Brown. I also revisited the 1977 special Witch’s Night Out, which I had seen as a very young child but probably not since. Watching it now, I was struck very strongly with the idea that Witch’s Night Out is a good portrayal of what it was like to grow up in a college town during the ‘70s, particularly the notion that an obviously burned-out hippie would make a good babysitter. Other than that, it’s hard to explain. I don’t think my family was too impressed with this one, but it was a blast from the past for me to be sure.
Finally, I had the opportunity (through Gofobo) to view a couple of episodes of 50 States of Fright, a horror anthology program on the short-content (and short-lived) app Quibi. This was after Quibi’s owners had already put the company up for sale, so I’m not sure what the point of the screening was: to drum up interest and spread positive word-of-mouth, perhaps, or maybe to get viewer feedback? I’m not sure. Maybe they were hoping that I would buy Quibi? Anyway, I was thrilled to be able to watch “The Golden Arm,” the only Quibi project that seems to have gotten much attention, even if it’s for how ridiculous it looked. The attempt to make an overt fable into a serious ghost story about a woman (Rachel Brosnahan) so obsessed with gold that she has a prosthetic arm made from the precious metal, even if wearing it kills her, doesn’t quite land, but to be fair it’s not that much sillier than many episodes of Tales From the Crypt or other horror anthology shows. Here’s hoping 50 States of Fright finds a home elsewhere now that Quibi is apparently closing down for good.
This year was a little different, to say the least, so I am making my list a little differently as well. I usually just list every movie I watch during October, whether it’s a rewatch or a first-time viewing, and a good portion of the list is made up of selections from the October at the Oldtown horror series. This year, with indoor theaters mostly closed, the horror series moved to the drive-in, starting in September; I made it to a few, but not all of the shows, but I’m taking their inspiration to count my “Septober” watches from both months. This time I’m leaving out movies that don’t fit the seasonal horror or fantasy mood as well as rewatches of movies I’ve seen before (anyone who wants to see what I left out can consult my Letterboxd Diary). Here’s the official list, all first-time watches (or, in a couple of cases, it’s been so long that they might as well be):
1. The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980)
2. Train to Busan (Yeon Sang-ho, 2016)
3. Creepshow (George A. Romero, 1982)
4. The People Under the Stairs (Wes Craven, 1991)
5. Pledges (DJ Red, 2018)
6. The Jurassic Dead aka Z-Rex (Milko Davis and Thomas Martwick, 2017)
7. Frankenstein (J. Searle Dawley, 1910)
8. Slither (James Gunn, 2006)
9. King Kong (John Guillermin, 1976)
10. They Came From Beyond Space (Freddie Francis, 1967)
11. Tokyo Living Dead Idol (Yuki Kumagai, 2018)
12. Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror (Xavier Burgin, 2019)
13. Ghost Stories (Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, 2017)
14. The Awful Dr. Orlof (Jess Franco, 1962)
15. Nocturne (Zu Quirke, 2020)
16. Dr. Orloff’s Monster aka The Secret of Dr. Orloff aka The Mistresses of Dr. Jekyll (Jess Franco, 1964)
17. Orloff and the Invisible Man aka Dr. Orloff’s Invisible Monster aka The Amorous Life of the Invisible Man (Pierre Chevalier, 1970)
18. Revenge in the House of Usher aka Neurosis aka Zombie 5 (Jess Franco as “J. P. Johnson,” 1982)
19. Hubie Halloween (Steven Brill, 2020)
20. Vibes (Ken Kwapis, 1988)
21. Prom Night (Paul Lynch, 1980)
22. Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (Bruce Pittman, 1987)
23. Prom Night III: The Last Kiss (Peter R. Simpson and Ron Oliver, 1990)
24. Prom Night IV: Deliver Us From Evil (Clay Borris, 1992)
25. Invitation to Hell (Wes Craven, 1984)
26. Robot Monster (Phil Tucker, 1953)
27. Cat-Women of the Moon (Arthur Hilton, 1953)
28. Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (Robert Gaffney, 1965)
29. Snatchers (Stephen Cedars and Benji Kleiman, 2019)
Best Movie: Director Wes Craven’s output is among the most variable of big-name horror directors (the same year he made the classic A Nightmare on Elm Street he directed the goofy TV movie Invitation to Hell, starring Susan Lucci as the head of a sinister country club). The People Under the Stairs successfully brings together a number of his pet themes, with a young black kid (Brandon Adams) facing off against a deranged couple whose rent-seeking predations have drained the ghetto of money and hope for years (and who bear a not-coincidental resemblance to Ronald and Nancy Reagan). If the porous membrane between dreams and reality doesn’t come in for examination here as it does in some of Craven’s other films, perhaps it’s because the reality of the film is already so bonkers: “Daddy” and “Mommy” live in a fortified house, imprisoning foster children and intruders alike in feral conditions in the basement, while covering their cruelty, criminality, and sexual deviancy with a Father Knows Best veneer. This is an angry film that manages to deliver its message while remaining both scary and fun, and the continuing relevance of its plot means that it’s not surprising Jordan Peele is reportedly producing a remake.
Worst Movie: Possibly the worst movie I’ve watched all year, not just this fall, The Jurassic Dead promises hordes of undead dinosaurs, or at least one ferocious zombie tyrannosaur, and gives us instead a nearly incomprehensible plot about a scientist who discovers the secret of re-animation, loses his positions with first the government and then a university, and decides to exact his revenge on the world by releasing a zombie virus at the same time the earth is struck by the asteroid that only he predicted. There’s also a dinosaur in it. The protagonists are a band of mercenaries sent to take out the baddie at his compound and a group of college kids who wind up in the same place after getting lost in the desert. Somehow they have to work together. It’s not boring, I’ll give it that, but other than that it’s awful.
Scariest Movie: “The brain sees what it wants to see” is the tagline (and a key piece of dialogue) in Ghost Stories, in which a professional skeptic and debunker (co-writer/director Andy Nyman) is challenged to examine three seemingly inexplicable cases of the supernatural. As he tracks down the original witnesses and hears their stories, it’s clear that he himself is haunted, but only at the end do the threads come together. Thus Ghost Stories has a favorite form of mine, the anthology of stories-within-a-story, and whether or not you find the ending satisfying, the film has a chilling atmosphere and some hair-raising incidents. Ending a film this bleak with “The Monster Mash” over the end credits feels like a final ironic joke at the audience’s expense.
Least Scary Movie: I didn’t watch a ton of really terrifying films this month, but I’ll highlight Nocturne, part of Amazon’s Welcome to the Blumhouse series, as one that I think was trying to be scary. Nocturne centers on a pair of twin sisters attending a prestigious music prep school: Vivian (Madison Iseman), the prodigy, has been accepted to Juilliard, while Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) remains an underachiever. Until, that is, Juliet recovers a notebook belonging to a former student who had committed suicide, and discovers what seems like a set of occult signs: things start to go well for her, but her successes are accompanied by disturbing visions and fear that she is being taken over by some outside force. The elevator pitch seems to be “Whiplash meets Hereditary,” and I want to be clear that I did enjoy it, but I found its depiction of the high-pressure music world much more compelling than the rote horror elements, which had an ominous, dread-inducing mood, but never really came together and, worse yet, played out almost exactly the way the audience was led to expect.
Funniest Movie:Romancing the Stone and Ghostbusters were two of the biggest hits of the early 1980s, so it’s not surprising that someone thought to combine elements of the two. Vibes isn’t a horror film at all, but rather a supernatural comedy in which Jeff Goldblum and Cyndi Lauper play psychics recruited by sketchy-but-lovable Peter Falk to track down a missing expedition to a lost city in the Andes. The lost city is supposedly full of gold, but it’s actually the home of a powerful artifact full of psychic energy, sought after by other, less scrupulous psychics who hope to use it to conquer the world. Vibes is a lot of fun, but it’s extremely lightweight: there’s never much suspense, even during the big finale, but it’s worth watching for Goldblum and Lauper’s sexy chemistry and for the rest of the cast having a ball. In particular, it makes me wish Lauper had found more vehicles to act in: she nails the kind of streetwise screwball throwback that Madonna was trying to portray in movies at around the same time.
Weirdest Movie:Pledges was a Dollar Tree find, and like many of the movies I find there it’s low-budget and not very high-profile. The premise is one of the oldest in horror: a group of fraternity and sorority pledges go into the woods overnight as part of their initiation, and something bad happens. I was expecting typical teens-in-the-woods slasher hijinks, either from hazing gone wrong or from learning They’re Not Alone, but after an unsurprising setup it goes in much stranger directions, more like The Blair Witch Project or even Annihilation. There’s a hint that the woods are part of an off-limits government site, but whether the occurrences, which include time dilation, weird tumors, and creepy doppelgangers, are part of a mad science experiment, an alien invasion, or something else, is never explained. It’s not a particularly great film, but in a season in which I mostly watched straight-ahead horror, it was one of the oddest.
Most Informative Movie: For the first time, a documentary appears on one of these Halloween lists. Horror Noire investigates cinematic horror by and starring African Americans from the early days (by chance, I had watched Son of Ingagi earlier this summer) up to the current success of Jordan Peele (I’m glad I had already seen Get Out, as Horror Noire’s coverage of it goes into detail explaining why it is so cathartic, including the ending). Black audiences have often been among the biggest fans of horror, even while the film industry was slow to cater to them or even recognize their humanity. On the other hand, the fact that horror is often a low-budget entry point into the film industry has made it more welcoming to minority filmmakers than more high-profile genres, and Horror Noire includes plenty of examples of great, ambitious films from black filmmakers, including some that I intend to add to my watchlist.
Biggest Surprise: A few years ago I read a book that rewired some of my thinking on genre film, Atomic Bomb Cinema by Jerome F. Shapiro. Looking at the range of cautionary films that came out after the detonations that ended World War II and ushered in the Atomic Age, Shapiro is uninterested in purely “political” or “sentimental” films like On the Beach or The Day After, and instead takes notions of the Apocalypse back to their roots in the visionary religious texts of the Torah and the Bible. He points out the way modern apocalyptic films use ancient tropes such as journeys to the heavens, visitation from prophets or historical figures, and communication through dreams; even Godzilla has roots in the fantastic monsters that appear in Japanese fables. I don’t recall if Shapiro discusses Robot Monster in his book, but I didn’t expect it to fit into that context as neatly as it does: I only remembered the easily-mocked Ro-Man costume, a gorilla suit with a space helmet, from It Came From Hollywood and similarly selective looks back at the good-old, bad-old days of cheap B-movies. Make no mistake, Robot Monster is cheap, but it’s much more ambitious than I expected. The heroes, a small family, are the last humans left on earth after Ro-Man, in advance of an invasion of his kind, has wiped out all of humanity with incredible space weapons. Space battles and communication with other planets are part of the story as well, but much of the bigger picture is only alluded to rather than shown, and the scale is very much down-to-earth as the family huddles in a bombed-out house, protected by an electric fence, and Ro-Man sits in a nearby cave, conflicted over whether to carry out his programming or spare Alice, the pretty young daughter of the family. What are these new feelings Ro-Man is experiencing? They are counter to the Program! He is becoming more like a Hu-Man than a Ro-Man! It would be a stretch to call Robot Monster completely successful—as storytelling it is garbled, it attempts a George Pal epic on a Roger Corman budget, and I haven’t even gotten to the bubble machine Ro-Man uses as a computer—but I have to agree with my friend Zack Clopton’s assessment that it has an enjoyable “dream logic,” and there is more in it to chew on than one might expect.
That wraps up Halloween and Septober 2020! How was your Halloween? Did you watch anything exciting or scary this month? Have a great fall, everyone!