In 2019 I celebrated “Ninjanuary” with several posts about the ninja in popular culture, particularly in films and books from the 1980s, and I occasionally return to that theme. Past entries can be found by clicking on the Ninjanuary tag.
Ninjas are only a small part of Samurai Marathon (Bernard Rose, 2019), and although some elements are movied up for dramatic effect, the emphasis is on basic spycraft: no magic powers or convoluted mythology here. Based on historical events, Samurai Marathon begins with the arrival of Commodore Perry’s gunboats in Japanese waters in 1855 and his demonstration of the West’s technological superiority to the Shogun and his men. The abrupt intrusion of modernity rocks Itakura (Hiroki Hasegawa), hereditary lord of the Annaka clan, to his core: he knows that the samurai way of life will crumble in the face of inevitable change. (Just so we’re clear on his feelings, he burns a drawing of the American ships and has a nightmare of being killed by Perry’s Colt revolvers for good measure.) Decades of peace have made his men soft, however: many of the samurai in his service are warriors in name only, filling bureaucratic and ceremonial positions, never seeing actual combat or hardship. In order to prepare them for what he sees as an impending American invasion, he calls for a footrace over a grueling 36-mile course, mandatory for all his samurai, foot soldiers, and able-bodied men up to age 50 in his territory. The winner will be granted one wish.
The lead-up to the race brings the several main characters together, illuminating their places and showing what victory means to them. Despite the samurai’s softness, it’s the thing to be in this feudal, insular society. Tsujimura (Mirai Moriyama), the cream of the samurai forces and arranged to marry Itakura’s daughter Princess Yuki (Nana Komatsu), believes the race is his to win, and arranges to do so even if it requires underhanded means. Yuki herself, yearning for the promise of freedom the Americans have brought, runs away and uses the race as a pretext to get to Edo, disguising herself as a man (but being recognized by everyone anyway). Hironoshin (Shota Sometani), a mere foot soldier, lives in poverty with his wife and child; widely acknowledged as the fastest runner, he is targeted by gamblers who bribe him to throw the race, and by Tsujimura, who urges him to stay out of the way for the good of the clan (or else have his legs broken). But victory for him would mean elevation to a samurai and a better life for his family. Mataemon (Naoto Takenaka), the recently retired palace guard, seeks to prove his loyalty and that he is not too old. When he encounters Isuke (Ruka Wakabayashi), the young, orphaned son of a samurai who hopes to become a warrior himself, he takes him under his wing and the two run together as a team.
Jinnai (Takeru Satoh), a samurai accountant (and the narrator of the film through voiceover), is a ninja: like his father before him, he secretly serves the Shogun as his eyes and ears within the Annaka clan. Jinnai sends coded messages to an “apothecary” in Edo, alerting the Shogun to signs of rebellion. At first he takes Itakura’s announcement as a rumbling of war, but when he realizes the race is only a drill, he tries to retrieve the letter he had already sent. Too late! Assassins have already been sent from Edo to take out Itakura. Jinnai, trying to undo the damage, learns that he is not the only ninja hidden in the Annaka clan!
Once all these characters and their motivations have been established, the race begins, the rest of the film taking the form of an elaborate chase sequence. The characters’ personalities are revealed by how they proceed: Mataemon, the old guard, running in the traditional “Namba” style, back erect, while Yuki leans forward in imitation of the Westerners she has observed; Tsujimura, determined to win, takes advantage of short cuts and cheats, while Hironoshin doggedly pushes forward. Meanwhile, the Shogun’s kill squad is on its way, led by the gunslinging assassin Hayabusa (Ryu Kohata), and as everyone crosses and recrosses each other’s paths, the truth slowly dawns on them: this is much bigger than a race for honor. There are bloody betrayals and retribution, and heel and face turns (it happens that the vainglorious Tsujimura does have some heroic qualities after all). The second half of the marathon, returning along the same path as the first, becomes a race against time to rescue Itakura and the Annaka clan, left undefended during the race.
Filmed in scenic Japan with an all-Japanese cast in their own language (the only Western actor I recognized was Danny Huston as Commodore Perry), Samurai Marathon nevertheless has the character of an international production by virtue of its English director Bernard Rose (Candyman) and his American collaborator, composer Philip Glass. It’s Glass’s score, much of it recycled from his own Mishima and full of familiar Glassisms, that really makes the film soar. The motif accompanying the foot race is a reworking of the propulsive funeral music from Akhnaten, but it’s hard to complain when it works so well, and I have to assume Rose heard the original and recognized its potential for scoring action. It’s reminiscent of John Boorman’s use of Carl Orff’s “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana for King Arthur’s triumphant return in Excalibur, and the ending of Samurai Marathon is nearly as ecstatic.
This is a film about bodies in motion, and while there are likeable characters and themes of honor, history, and self-determination, many of the sequences are ultimately as abstract as Koyaanisqatsi. After the climax, Rose indulges in an epilogue that in other films might seem corny, transitioning to the modern day to relate that the Annaka foot race was the beginning of the Japanese Marathon, still going on today. Like Zack Snyder, Rose knows that what we really want out of cinema is a tableau of athletic bodies moving in slow motion, and then ratcheting to even slower motion as the music swells, but Snyder is far too self-serious to superimpose Edo-era runners over modern people running in gym shorts, business suits, and silly costumes, as Rose does here. It should be a moment of deflation, of “Now they call it . . .” bathos, but after running his characters, and us, through the wringer for a hundred and forty minutes of surging adrenaline, the release of tension had the opposite effect on me: it says, you know what? Against all evidence, sometimes the world is pretty fucking fantastic.
This is the latest I have ever posted a year-end roundup for this blog, but life happens, so if you’re still interested in seeing such an article, well, better late than never. Some of the same life events (detailed in previous posts) that kept me busy also cut down on the number of films I watched last year (you can see my complete Letterboxd diary here). On the other hand, I did manage to make it to the movie theater a little more consistently than I did in 2020 and 2021, although still not at the rate I used to attend. Between theatrical showings, streaming, and physical media options, I saw nearly forty movies released in 2022, enough to make a personal Best of 2022 list. Several films I wanted to see evaded me, including Flux Gourmet, Violent Night, and Babylon, and I have yet to see some of the biggest films with colons in their titles: Top Gun: Maverick, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and Avatar: The Way of Water.
Nevertheless! As always, the following list represents my favorites from among those I watched, and is subject to change (at the encouragement of a friend, I started posting more detailed reactions and star ratings to my Letterboxd account, but some of those movies have already changed in my estimation as they linger with me).
10. Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio (Guillermo del Toro and Mark Gustafson) was one of three new adaptations of the familiar story of a wooden puppet who comes to life, but the only one I saw (and, from what I hear, the only one worth watching). Although many details are familiar from other retellings, del Toro has once again put his personal stamp on the material, weaving religious and political struggles into the story and explicitly setting it in Mussolini’s Italy during World War II. This film was co-written by Patrick McHale (Over the Garden Wall), whose brand of fantasy turns out to be very compatible with del Toro’s. All of this is brought to life in gorgeous stop-motion animation (it’s been a boom year for the medium, in fact, with anthology film The House, Henry Selick’s Wendell and Wild, and Phil Tippett’s long-in-production Mad God all released in the last year).
9. A world-renowned chef (Ralph Fiennes) summons a group of rich clients, restaurant critics, and foodies to his island restaurant for an exclusive event, only to turn the tables, with each course revealing the grudges he holds against them. Fiennes’ performance as the chef is the best part of the film, gradually revealing the intense pressure under which he works, the toll it’s taken on his health and private life, and the masterful control necessary to bring a meal (or a revenge) together. I enjoyed The Menu (dir. Mark Mylod) while I was watching it, but in retrospect it has a very similar dynamic to Ready or Not, a film I still prefer. The pretensions of haute cuisine are perhaps too easy of a target, but expanding its scope to call out bloodless, unfeeling art of any kind makes it clear that it’s as much a jab at A24-style “elevated horror” as a call to bring out the guillotines. That Anya Taylor-Joy, who is practically the face of “elevated horror” since breaking out with The VVitch, appears as the audience surrogate among the diners and gets to deliver the third-act thesis statement makes the irony all the more . . . delicious.
8. Winsor McCay’s classic newspaper comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland is in the public domain, so it’s fair game for borrowing and adaptation, but it’s a little strange that as far as I can tell, McCay’s name doesn’t even appear in the credits for Slumberland (dir. Francis Lawrence). But whatever, real heads know. The new film reimagines the protagonist as a young girl (Marlow Barkley), orphaned and sent to live with her emotionally closed-off uncle (Chris O’Dowd). Reliving memories of her imaginative father in dreams, she encounters Flip (Jason Momoa), a rogue who is able to move freely within the dream world—Slumberland—living out whatever fantasy suits him for the moment. McCay’s comic strip was famously episodic, with the tow-headed main character waking up at the end of each installment, but the film borrows liberally from films like Time Bandits (a map of Slumberland figures prominently), Inception, and the Disney+ series Loki (Flip is a fugitive dreamer, pursued by “dream police” whose bureaucratic look and ethos draw heavily on ‘70s cop shows, much like Loki’s Time Variance Authority) to provide structure. On top of that, Momoa plays the satyr-like Flip as an aggressive mix of Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow and wrestler “Macho Man” Randy Savage. But somehow all these diverse elements come satisfyingly together; the dream worlds are dazzling and connect in fun ways (and since these are technically other people’s dreams, their relationship to the dreamers’ waking lives come as an amusing reveal near the end), and at its core there is an emotional arc that balances the power of dreaming with the importance of living your life while you’re awake.
7. I posted a longer review of The Bad Guys (dir. Pierre Perifel) on Letterboxd, but to keep it short, this is an example of the family-friendly animated comedy done right. A band of slick animal outlaws, all scary predators like Wolf, Shark, Snake, et cetera, is provided with a second chance, allowing them to find out whether they’re “bad guys” because they’re born that way or because society treats them as such. Drawing on a vocabulary of heist and con films, The Bad Guys delivers the pleasures of tightly-plotted scams and schemes (complete with double- and triple-crosses), witty banter, and characters who aren’t always what they appear.
6. Another film about the pleasures of behaving badly, Do Revenge (dir. Jennifer Kaytin Robinson) calls its shots early on with prominently placed copies of Strangers on a Train and Dangerous Liaisons, and it’s similarly knowing about the media- (and social media-) soaked lives of the privileged young people at its center. After Drea (Camila Mendes) has her life at an exclusive prep school turned upside down by a leaked explicit video, endangering her planned-out life path, a new acquaintance, Eleanor (Maya Hawke), helps her get payback in exchange for help with her own revenge. Of course, things never work out quite the way we expect, even when they appear to go according to plan. Do Revenge is the Gen-Z successor to Heathers, and I mean that as the highest praise.
5. In Turning Red (dir. Domee Shi), thirteen-year-old Meilin (Rosalie Chiang) has everything under control, from school to friendship to her dutiful place in her family, until puberty comes along and wrecks everything: her sudden, unpredictable transformation into a giant red panda is fraught with metaphor (outside of educational films, this is the first Disney release to explicitly mention menstruation), but it’s also a powerful escapist fantasy. When she learns that her transformation is part of her family’s heritage, and that she is expected to follow her mother’s example of locking away her newfound power, she is forced to make a difficult decision. It sounds heavy, but Turning Red balances its exploration of generational trauma, the immigrant experience, and peer pressure with the goofiness of being in middle school and just wanting to see your favorite boy band in concert and writing merman fanfic about the cute boy you have a crush on.
4. Ten years ago, Funny or Die released a fake trailer for a heavy, dramatic biopic of “Weird Al” Yankovic with Aaron Paul as the novelty singer-songwriter. Amazingly, we now have the actual film promised by that trailer in Weird: The Al Yankovic Story (dir. Eric Appel), starring Daniel Radcliffe (announcing the project, Yankovic asserted that “I have no doubt whatsoever that this is the role future generations will remember him for”). Detailing Yankovic’s incredible rise to the top of 1980s music stardom, his passionate affair with Madonna, having the tables turned on him when his original song “Eat It” was parodied by Michael Jackson, and his battle against a Colombian drug cartel, Weird is in the same vein as comedy “behind the music” films like This Is Spinal Tap and Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, but is even more amazing since, unlike those movies, it all really happened.
3. “You’re capable of anything because you’re so bad at everything,” says a dimension-hopping version of Evelyn’s (Michelle Yeoh) husband, explaining why her every failure and missed opportunity makes her the perfect candidate to save the many branching realities that make up the multiverse. Taught to access versions of herself that made different choices and borrow their skills (everything from kung fu to playing the piano with her feet), Evelyn confronts the nihilistic Jobu Tupaki, a cautionary example of a jumper who’s seen so much that nothing has any meaning, but her real struggle is to avoid the same fate and make the best of the one life that’s really hers. Everything Everywhere All at Once (dir. “The Daniels,” Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) represents the fullest expression of the fascination with multiverses that has gradually gone mainstream in the last decade or so, but while it speaks the language of science fiction and superhero comics, the emotional stakes set it apart from the usual summer blockbuster (note the title: there’s not a colon anywhere to be found). It speaks to the pervasive sense of having taken a wrong turn somewhere, and that acute nostalgia for things that never were that comes from imagining things would be so much better in some other timeline. Ultimately, connection to the multiverse doesn’t mean much if you can’t connect to yourself and the people around you.
2. Earlier this year, X homaged and updated The Texas Chain Saw Massacre for a cinephile generation hungry to see itself in the spotlight: Mia Goth plays an aspiring porn actress, who along with her crew, runs afoul of a murderous old woman (also played by Goth). X was cool, but the prequel Pearl, also released this year (and, like X, directed by Ti West), is on another level entirely: Goth returns to reveal the old woman’s youth in World War I-era Texas, struggling to contain her sociopathic impulses and desire for fame and recognition against the strictness of her German immigrant family, her absent husband fighting the war, and the fears of contamination brought on by the 1918 influenza epidemic (filmmakers have tried with various levels of success to deal with Covid as a plot point, but this is the best I have seen, “pandemic cinema” that succeeds by analogy rather than hitting the subject head-on). Where X borrowed the grimy vocabulary of TCSM and Psycho and calls attention to its cleverness through a nerdy film director character, Pearl mimics Hollywood’s Golden Age through a surging, romantic score and visual references to The Wizard of Oz and the silent films Pearl hopes to star in, and the result is magical. Magical, and terrifying.
1. I’ve enjoyed all of writer-director Jordan Peele’s films so far, but I suspect Nope is the one I’ll revisit the most for its ominous Western/monster movie vibe. Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer play sibling heirs to a ranch that supplies horses to movie and television productions, left to run things on their own after their father’s death. A series of weird events around the isolated ranch and centered on a former child actor’s (Steven Yeun) nearby tourist trap leads the siblings to suspect UFO activity. I don’t want to spoil anything else, but Nope is scary, funny, and awe-inspiring; Peele knows his Fortean lore, the plotting is tight and fast-paced, and the meditations on spectacle and the treatment of animals in show business don’t feel like an afterthought or a heavy-handed message. I’m also fascinated by the observation that Nope is in part an homage to Steven Spielberg’s career, with numerous references in the visuals and names of characters, and that it’s ultimately a study of the “Spielberg face,” the trademark expressive close-up used to project a sense of awe and wonder in so many of the director’s films.
Honorable Mention: Over the years a number of self-distributed films have made their way to YouTube, sometimes for a limited time and sometimes for good. This year, the most interesting YouTube-distributed film I saw was Ambient Trip Commander, a one-man animated production drawn, animated, and scored by Danny Wolfers, who performs under the name Legowelt. The story is simple but not straightforward: an aimless young woman spends her days working in a synthesizer shop until a mysterious summons draws her to a distant town, home to both a Paleolithic cave and a mountain castle. A sinister pink being stalks her as she makes her way to her destination. With a handmade look and a cool electronic soundtrack, Ambient Trip Commander is mostly about vibes, a meditation on expanding consciousness and a love letter to retro synths and computers. It successfully captures the dreamlike feeling of being alone, traveling across an empty landscape at night: it’s both cozy and a little spooky.
Thanks for reading and following, and have a great 2023!
The other night, I was watching the thirty-first and final movie of my month-long Spooktober marathon; I was eating popcorn, as one does, when I felt a harder crunch than usual and realized that one of my teeth had cracked. It was the second time this had happened, so I recognized the sensation immediately. It was one of my back molars, one of the wisdom teeth I was so proud of having held on to; I’d even had a filling on this one just a couple of weeks ago (the other tooth that cracked, now gone, was another of these wisdom teeth). However, I wasn’t mad or distraught; it didn’t even hurt, at least not yet. I fished the wayward chip of tooth out of my mouth, sighed, and shrugged. I’m almost fifty, and after a certain point your body falling apart is just something you accept.
It’s also pretty minor in the scheme of things: most people don’t even have those back teeth, and aside from the inconvenience and expense of dealing with it, I’ll survive. Last month, my wife had surgery to remove her kidney along with a large tumor that had grown on it. Its presence was a shock, discovered at the end of summer, so we didn’t have a lot of time to process it before it was happening. She came out the other side okay, and has been recovering. Compared to what she went through, I’m getting off easy. Still, it was only about halfway through my October marathon, wading through Japanese body horror and American slasher gore, when I thought, “Hey, I wonder if there’s any connection between my current obsession with bloody abdominal wounds and the surgical ordeal I nursed my wife through last month?” Compartmentalization is a hell of a thing.
It is, I suppose, one of the reasons the made-up terrors of the movies don’t work on me like they once did. As I wrote last year, on the heels of broken bones and other mundane disasters, the world has a way of taking its toll even without black-gloved giallo killers or supernatural demons. There is a beach that makes us grow old, and its name is planet Earth; the shore we walk is the one between the unknowable prenatal past and the all-too-certain future: a fragile sandbar bounded on both sides by deep waters. When I was younger, I didn’t like looking too closely at suggestions of mortality. Now, it is simply a fact of life, and while individual films or books might thrill me with suspense or depress me with dark commentary on human nature, shock me with depictions of sudden violence or sicken me with visceral carnage, they are more likely to be momentary escapes from the worries of real life than the source of nightmares.
One theory I’ve encountered to explain the appeal of scary stories is that by experiencing frights vicariously, we gain a sense of control. There are, of course, different kinds of horror, which I’ll go into in more detail below as I expand on my list of movies I viewed this month, but it’s certainly true that the majority of movies and stories take for granted that you’ll exit the theater or close the book none the worse for wear, able to say that you made it through. Take that, Boogeyman! At the worst, maybe you’ll have a bad dream or you’ll jump the next time you hear a creaky door when you’re alone in the house at night, but perhaps you’ll be mentally fortified when something scary actually does happen in real life. I don’t entirely abide by this self-help view of art, but the theory that experiencing art allows us to mentally practice hypothetical situations ahead of time isn’t one I can completely deny, either.
But enough doom and gloom. For the first time in years, I am actually posting this on Halloween instead of the day after, so an evening of trick-or-treating (or, in my case, being on the other end of that transaction) is still ahead of us. The final weekend of October included a Halloween house party, the first we’ve held in ages, and yesterday we carved our Jack o’ lanterns. Even spending time on other seasonal activities, I was able to watch thirty-one horror and fantasy movies this month, and for the first time they were all first-time watches for me. (I saw a few films at the theater, but I skipped out on the retro screenings at the drive-in, cutting down on films I might have seen before.) I was also more consistent in watching only horror or Halloween-specific fare this month than most years, give or take a robotic geisha or children’s magic school. So, as always, here’s the complete list, with a few highlights singled out after:
1. My Best Friend’s Exorcism (Damon Thomas, 2022)
2. The Munsters (Rob Zombie, 2022)
3. DeadTectives (Tony West, 2018)
4. Sister Tempest (Joe Badon, 2020)
5. Attack of the Crab Monsters (Roger Corman, 1957)
6. Tokyo Gore Police (Yoshihiro Nishimura, 2008)
7. Hocus Pocus 2 (Anne Fletcher, 2022)
8. Meatball Machine (Yudai Yamaguchi and Jun’ichi Yamamoto, 2005)
12. Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (Christopher Speeth, 1973)
13. RoboGeisha (Noboru Iguchi, 2009)
14. Suburban Gothic (Richard Bates Jr., 2014)
15. The Disembodied (Walter Grauman, 1957)
16. The Beyond (Lucio Fulci, 1981)
17. Atom Age Vampire (Anton Giulio Majano, 1960)
18. X (Ti West, 2022)
19. The Raven (Roger Corman, 1963)
20. Doll Face (Stuart Paul, 2021)
21. Halloween Kills (David Gordon Green, 2021)
22. Bloody Muscle Body Builder in Hell aka “the Japanese Evil Dead” (Shinichi Fukazawa, 1995)
23. Blood Tea and Red String (Christiane Cegavske, 2006)
24. Aabra Ka Daabra: The School of Magic aka “the Bollywood Harry Potter” (Dheeraj Kumar, 2004)
25. Tenebre (Dario Argento, 1982)*
26. Opera (Dario Argento, 1987)*
27. Pieces (Juan Piquer Simón, 1982)*
28. Halloween Ends (David Gordon Green, 2022)*
29. Motel Hell (Kevin Connor, 1980)
30. Werewolf by Night (Michael Giacchino, 2022)
31. Wendell & Wild (Henry Selick, 2022)
*seen in theater
Best movie: In the past I might not have sought out a movie with a title like Meatball Machine, promising over-the-top gore, but since I was exploring the genre, I gave it a chance. Yoji (Issey Takahashi), a put-upon factory worker, finally makes time with the shy, pretty coworker he’s been flirting with, at the same time that an invasion of strange alien parasites arrives at his doorstep. The parasites turn their human victims into horrifying cyborg gladiators, single-mindedly battling others of their kind while their human consciousness remains helplessly trapped inside their hijacked bodies. (It’s gradually revealed that the parasite pods house tiny aliens engaging in a cosmic game, controlling their human “mounts”—the “meatball machines” of the title—through bio-mechanical linkages.) It’s a relatively somber film for such an outrageous premise, and the key to its success is balancing the bleakness of its outlook—it’s strongly suggested that the main couple have too many personal issues to overcome for a successful relationship, even before the aliens get involved—with the inventive special effects, action sequences, and heady concepts. This has been an educational month for me, as I realized that Sheborg, an Australian film I talked up a few years ago, owes a great deal to this movie; I suspect that they all trace their lineage back to Tetsuo: The Iron Man, but I haven’t gotten to that one yet. (As far as Meatball Machine goes, I also liked the belated sequel, Kodoku, even as it relies more on the absurd humor and T&A that are an element in many of the Japanese shockers I’ve seen.)
Goriest movie: Speaking of absurd humor, there’s a moment early in Tokyo Gore Police in which Ruka (Eihi Shiina), a leading member of the force, ascends to the top floor of a building by firing a rocket launcher into the ground and riding the recoil into the air. That’s as good an indicator as any that we’re not exactly in for realism (later, a character flies around a room, held aloft by geysers of his own blood, so ditto), but something like a live-action anime. Still, Tokyo Gore Police does what it says on the tin: it is super gory. In the near future, tumors turn criminal “engineers” into bizarre living weapons. The police force is dedicated to hunting down these vicious predators, but there is more to their story than simple mad science run amok. I was pleasantly surprised by the dystopian setting woven around the mayhem, with cutting and hara-kiri being so common that commercial products and PSAs acknowledge them, and of course the privatized, heavily propagandized police aren’t the force for good they claim to be. If this wasn’t influenced by Judge Dredd’s take on the police, it has a lot in common with it. Most of the Japanese “super-powered girl takes on monsters” films I‘ve seen don’t really try that hard to fit the pieces together and are just happy to be exploitation shockers, but on the other hand this still makes me suspect that it’s primarily made for export to the West with all the “Isn’t Japan wacky?” material pushed to the forefront. Tokyo Gore Police is just one of several blood-drenched movies I watched this month, so it was hard to pick just one winner in this category: in addition to the other Japanese splatterpunk I saw, there was The Beyond, X, Halloween Kills and Ends, Motel Hell, and Pieces. Really, they’re all winners.
Worst movie: I dislike going after small projects with hammer and tongs; it feels churlish to single out a backyard production when there are more worthy high-profile targets out there. As far as professionally-made films starring people I’d heard of with actual commercial aspirations, the limp Suburban Gothic was my biggest disappointment this month. But beyond that, what can you really say? Sometimes the scrappy can-do passion project doesn’t turn out. Doll Face was, I believe, a web series or something that got compiled into a feature; it’s no-budget and amateurish and is 75 minutes but only has enough good material for a 20-minute short. A timid young woman, Marmalade (Alix Villaret), inherits her grandmother’s condo, with the catch that it comes with her extensive doll collection, whom she must love as if they were her own children. The dolls are, of course, alive in some fashion, and there’s some business with an evil doll maker cursing his creations and a homeless “master doll repairman,” and the girl also sees a terrible therapist. The dolls start committing suicide in ways that are more hilarious than scary, and the line between human and doll begins to collapse for her. The weirdest detail is that Marmalade’s dialogue (in a thick French accent) is all post-recorded, as she never moves her lips. I thought at first we were hearing her thoughts, like Garfield, but no, she holds conversations that way. Nevertheless, despite her limitations, Villaret is quite charming: a living doll, you might say.
Weirdest movie: In Sister Tempest, art teacher Anne (Kali Russell), estranged from her younger sister, takes a student, Ginger (Linnea Gregg), under her wing, perhaps to fill the void in her family life. Soon, Ginger becomes angrily possessive, destroying Anne’s remaining relationships and even holding her hostage in her own home. Through fractured chronological storytelling, Anne is also being held by an alien tribunal, presumably after death, who demand that she describe and explain her actions, and the collapse of real life and fantasy is explored from numerous angles. (The constant presence of “Xiolans,” an alien camera crew who document Anne’s life for dissection by the tribunal, is a highlight.) It doesn’t take long to realize that Anne is one of those “unreliable narrators” we’ve heard about. Writer-director Joe Badon is firmly in the DIY indy camp, combining elements of animation, music video, and homemade special effects with a deliberately confounding and contradictory tale. Dream and religious imagery is where it’s at. Sister Tempest has many of the same idiosyncrasies as Badon’s previous film, The God Inside My Ear, and could even be seen as a continuation of it; it’s much more assured, however, even as it takes bigger swings (for one thing, you’ll probably see the ending coming but I still found it effective, a hurdle TGIME didn’t quite overcome).
Most fun: I like all of Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe films in varying degrees, but The Raven was just flat-out fun. Vincent Price plays Dr. Craven, a sorcerer who has chosen to avoid the internecine struggles of his fellow wizards, sitting at home, mooning over his deceased (or so he thinks!) wife Lenore (Hazel Court). When a raven appears at his window, revealing himself as a fellow wizard (Peter Lorre) and asking for help, claiming to have seen Lenore alive at the castle of Dr. Scarabus, the plot (which, you can tell, has only a nominal relation to Poe’s original poem) gets rolling. I had a big grin when Boris Karloff first appeared as Scarabus, graciously inviting his guests into his castle and shocked—shocked!—that they could believe him capable of any evil deeds. Of course, Karloff could do comedy very well, and it’s just a gas to see him, Price, and Lorre trying to out-ham each other. All that and young Jack Nicholson! (I must confess that I saw Karloff and Nicholson in The Terror when I was in high school and I thought it was the most boring “horror” movie I had ever seen, and since then I’ve kind of scoffed every time I see it in one of those public domain DVD collections, but I should probably check it out again now that I have more appreciation for atmosphere and the “slow burn.”) The final magical duel between Craven and Scarabus is also one for the ages. Finally, the one constant in every phase of Corman’s career is that he absolutely put the most beautiful women he could find in his pictures—did anyone tell Hazel Court this movie was for kids?
Legacies: Many of this year’s new films are parts of long-running franchises: sure, you’ve seen werewolves before, but what about a werewolf who could someday share the screen with Spider-Man? Rob Zombie’s goofy take on The Munsters is true to the TV show, silly sight gags and dad jokes included, and forms a prequel to the series. And I’ll admit to enjoying Hocus Pocus 2 more than I expected to, even acknowledging how unnecessary I thought it was. But the big one is the conclusion of David Gordon Green’s trilogy with Halloween Ends.
I don’t have a huge investment in the Halloween series—aside from the DGG trilogy I’ve only seen the 1978 original and the non-Michael Myers Halloween III. I’m aware of it, of course, and I appreciate the absurdity of needing a timeline map to keep track of how the sequels are (or aren’t) related to one another. Multiverses are all the rage now, though, so perhaps the series was simply ahead of its time. Green’s Halloween, which I saw in the theater in 2018, is a true legacy sequel, building on Halloween (1978) alone and jettisoning everything else (so no, Michael isn’t Laurie’s brother in this version). In Green’s vision, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is an ultimate survivor, training herself for the inevitable moment when Michael returns to finish the job he started forty years earlier, but his real theme (repeatedly and explicitly stated) is how violence, and its attendant grief and anger, can warp a community. I liked the idea of a cohesive trilogy that takes place on one crazy Halloween forty years after the original attacks, so having Halloween Ends swerve into a very different story separated in time from Halloween (2018) and Halloween Kills, and with relatively little screen time for Michael, well, I can see why that left some fans disconcerted.
Having said that, I found the story of Corey Cunningham (Rohan Campbell), a young man marked by a terrible mistake that left a child dead, compelling. After years of being a pariah, Corey finds new power through a chance encounter with Michael Myers (James Jude Courtney), still alive and hiding out in the sewer like an evil spirit. It’s like Christine, but with a nearly-immortal mass murderer instead of a car. Also, the teenagers who push Corey to the edge are all in the marching band, showing that anyone can be a bully; it’s an empowering message, really. The final act and the over-the-top effort to prove that (spoiler!) Michael is really dead this time seem like the collision of real-world thinking with the mythic world of the movies, and I don’t know if it’s going to be as satisfying in the long run as it probably was in the moment. But even a casual fan like me isn’t immune to the weight of forty years of history/histories between Michael and Laurie. RIP, Michael Myers of Earth-G, at least until the next time someone wants to start printing Halloween money.
Well, that’s it for this year. Maybe next year I’ll concentrate on revisiting old favorites or reappraising stuff I need to give another chance. Happy Halloween!
At the end of the Civil War, Secret Service agent Steve Clark is assigned to investigate a series of Confederate raids on gold shipments from the town of Oro Grande, California. Clark is the Service’s most experienced agent, and a target of assassination attempts. Aboard a westbound train under the name “Chuck Mason,” Clark is singled out by Alex Morel, proprietor of the Oro Grande saloon the Golden Eagle, and the singer he is bringing west with him, Trina Dessard (in reality both covert leaders of the gold-raiding operation): Steve Clark must not be allowed to reach Oro Grande! Clark is lured into the rear carriage of the train by one of Morel’s thugs posing as a railroad detective, with the intention of killing him, but the pair are followed by a stranger on the train, a good-natured fighter who takes it upon himself to protect Clark. During the fight that ensues, Morel uncouples the car from the train, sending it careening back down the mountainside to derail and crash! Have Clark and his new ally had it? Is the adventure over before it has even begun? Of course not, but audiences had to return the following week to find out how they escaped in Chapter Two of Raiders of Ghost City!
I wasn’t sure if I was going to write about serials anymore: not that I’ve seen them all, far from it, but over fifty or sixty articles I’ve probably said everything I have to say about them without devoting my life to researching them full-time. And to be honest, I haven’t found the serial community that welcoming. Without naming names, there is a level of gatekeeping within this hobby just as there is in so many, and an orthodoxy that, when combined with the conservatism that often comes with an interest in older film genres, has meant that other fans don’t seem to be looking for the same things in these movies that I am. That’s okay: different strokes, and all that. But it didn’t really encourage me to keep going.
But I still enjoy serials, and Raiders of Ghost City is a good one, fast-moving with likeable characters and a variety of locations and action set-pieces. The wartime espionage theme, combined with the Western setting, has some juice, and although it is a product of its time, it’s nuanced enough to be satisfying to a modern viewer, or at least this modern viewer. (But if I don’t go into as much detail with this one, forgive me; it’s been a busy year.)
Steve Clark, played by Dennis Moore, is a typical stoic, can-do leading man, but the characters around him complement his approach and bring some color to the proceedings: most important is Idaho Jones (Joe Sawyer), the stranger who came to Clark’s rescue on the train. Jones is a detective investigating the murder of Oro Grande’s Wells Fargo agent; he wears a big grin and an even bigger cowboy hat, and he’s the kind of Mark Twain creation that can’t resist a good brawl and leads the bad guys on a chase around the countryside for “a little fun.” He’s basically the co-lead, and while there is never friction between Clark and Jones once they reveal their identities, it does suggest a mismatched buddy cop comedy at times, and following the pattern set by the first chapter, most of the cliffhangers involve one of the pair in deadly peril, only to be saved at the last minute by the other.
There’s also Cathy Haines (Wanda McKay), daughter of the murdered agent and now acting Wells Fargo agent of Oro Grande herself; in her first appearance, she seems to be sweet on Jeff Logan, a cavalryman connected to nearby Fort Loma and its commanding officer, Colonel Sewell. When Logan is caught riding with the gold raiders, Sewell suspects him of being a Confederate spy, but he turns out to be Steve Clark’s brother Jim, working undercover, and upon Steve’s arrival in Oro Grande he’s able to vouch for him. The brothers’ reunion is short-lived, however: Jim promises an explosive revelation, saying “it’s bigger than North and South,” but he is shot to keep him from talking, and is dead by the beginning of Chapter Four.
Many serials have only One Female Character; Cathy is ripe for pairing up with the hero (once the hero’s brother is out of the way, of course), but strictly in a platonic way as Confederate-fighting partners and then as friends, because ew, cooties, but if you’re an older member of the audience and you want to read between the lines, go ahead. As it happens, Raiders of Ghost City isn’t so formulaic that it only has one female character: it has two female characters, so take that, smart guy. The previously-mentioned Trina Dessard (Virginia Christine) is the Bad Girl to Cathy’s Good Girl. In her deep, haughty voice and show-biz worldliness, Trina is implied to be a femme fatale, but in the sexless serial world, implication is as far as it goes.
Trina pairs nicely with Morel, played by sneeringly British Lionel Atwill, and their evil machinations are known to the audience from the beginning, long before Clark and company are able to pin anything on them, as opposed to the common serial formula of unmasking an unknown mastermind at the end, so if you enjoy duplicitous villains, this is a good serial. What is their big secret, and what is the meaning of the various coins dated 1752 that they and others of their ring carry? Despite being played by the Most British Person Alive in 1944, Morel and his gang are actually Prussian! Morel is in reality Erich von Rugen, and Trina is Countess Elsa von Merck (haughtiness factor +10). (The ignominious end of Atwill’s once-stellar career is discussed in my review of Lost City of the Jungle.)
Other operatives are similarly disguised and passing for American, including an unknown traitor in the Wells Fargo office who is shown passing notes to the Prussian spies through a hidden drop in the wall of the Golden Eagle (at least until he is later caught). The coins are a secret means for agents to identify one another, the 1752 stamped on them referring to the year Frederick the Great (supposedly) wrote a detailed set of instructions for political domination for his sons. The Prussian scheme is to raid Union gold shipments, which will be blamed on Confederate forces, but are actually diverted to Prussia, and which will be used to buy Alaska from the Russian Empire before the United States finds out the Czar is entertaining offers. First Alaska, then the world!
In addition to Steve Clark’s investigations, the Prussian scheme is complicated by the end of the Civil War in Chapter Five: Braddock (frequent heavy Jack Ingram), the leader of the outlaws conducting the raids, headquartered at the abandoned Ghost City close to Oro Grande, thinks he’s working for ordinary Confederates, so he and his gang start wondering why they shouldn’t just keep the gold for themselves now that the war is over, or at least get a bigger cut for their trouble. Similarly, Confederate agent Clay Randolph (a former West Point classmate and rival of Steve Clark’s) is ready to surrender to the United States as soon as he hears of the peace, but not until he can confront Morel about the treachery he suspects, a display of loyalty that doesn’t end well for him.
Randolph, played by Regis Toomey, is an interesting character: in addition to being a Southern spy, he’s also blamed for the death of Cathy’s father and a Union agent in Washington. Toomey plays him as a charismatic and even honest figure, however, at odds with the double-dealing he’s accused of. By the time we learn he didn’t kill the victims he’s accused of murdering (Cathy’s father was killed by the traitor in the Oro Grande Wells Fargo office) and he’s telling off Morel and attempting to reveal the truth to Clark with his dying words, it’s clear that we are meant to see him as one of those honorable but misguided individuals who are an essential part of the Lost Cause myth, whose true loyalty is to the spirit of America even if they felt the need to turn against her government. Such portrayals in the name of national healing and unity were, and are, common, and while they were probably seen as a necessary step following the divisions of that war, it’s not hard to see the persistent lionization of Confederates and erasure of the war’s root causes as one of the sources of problems we’re still dealing with. (The lack of any black characters almost goes without saying, as their presence is more exception than rule in the serials, and in any case it was rare to have their viewpoints centered in pre-Civil Rights-era productions.)
Needless to say, however, the serial’s choice of villains is even more telling: Bismarck-idolizing German expansionists would have been a pleasure to root against during the height of World War II. In its way, Raiders of Ghost City engages with the contemporary war as much as Secret Service in Darkest Africa’s Nazi-fighting hero Rex Bennett. The alt-history territorial premise is similar to The Vigilantes Are Coming, although Raiders is far superior as a film. In writing about The Vigilantes, I noted similarities to 1998’s The Mask of Zorro, to which the Prussian scheme in this movie also bears some resemblance. It’s also worth pointing out that between its title, Idaho Jones’ name, and the haughty German Elsa, Raiders of Ghost City was surely one of the serials that had a direct influence on George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in creating their own updated serial hero Indiana Jones. Coincidence? Perhaps, but if the hat fits . . .
What I Watched:Raiders of Ghost City (Universal, 1944)
Where I Watched It: This was on Amazon Prime, but only up until the end of August, sorry! As of this writing, it is on YouTube, however (and the screen caps are from YouTube).
No. of Chapters: 13
Best Chapter Title: “Calling All Buckboards” (Chapter Twelve)
The title refers to a sequence (presumably borrowed from a land rush sequence from some bigger-budget Western feature) in which the gold miners head for Ghost City to take on the outlaw raiders while the cavalry is occupied with an Indian uprising. It leads to a pitched battle between the miners, raiders, cavalry and Indians that ultimately burns down Ghost City.
Best Cliffhanger: At the end of Chapter Eleven, “Trail to Torture,” Idaho has been captured by the restless Modoc Indians. The Modocs have been agitated by renegade Joe Berk, working for the Prussians, and after a telegraph conference between the chief and “Great White Father” Abraham Lincoln falls through due to Lincoln’s assassination, the tribe is convinced that the white man has screwed them over again. (They even turn against the raiders and kill Berk in the next chapter.) In a scene that emphasizes Hollywood’s take on Indian “savagery,” Idaho’s legs are tied to a pair of saplings bent to the ground; when the ropes holding the trees down are cut, Idaho will be ripped apart! It’s one of the more gruesome perils in a serial that includes train derailings, shootouts, stabbing, and drowning as cliffhangers. Fortunately, in the next chapter, Clark arrives at the last moment and shoots through both ropes just at the moment the Indians are about to cut them, an incredible feat of marksmanship that is par for the course for serial heroes.
Randolph: Yes, I understand German, but I speak good old Tennessee English too. I suspected Richmond wasn’t getting all the gold from our raids, but what you’ve stolen for Prussia, Washington is going to get.
Morel: You would help the enemies of your country?
Randolph: No, Morel. You’re my country’s enemy. As of today there is no North and South, only United States!
Chapter Five, “The Fatal Lariat”
What’s Next: I don’t know, nothing? Your guess is as good as mine, but thanks for reading!
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!