Spooktober: The Aftermath

It is November first, the day after Halloween. The candy has been handed out, and all that remains is to put away the costumes and take the decorations out of the yard. Elsewhere online, people are already gearing up for Noirvember or NaNoWriMo or “No-Shave November.” As I write this I am watching a compilation of horror movie trailers to keep the mood going, after having hit the Spirit Halloween Store to check out the after-holiday sales.

I usually like to post this October summary on the 31st, but the holiday itself turned out to be busy with work during the day and taking the kids trick-or-treating in the evening (this year I went as my namesake, celebrity chef Guy Fieri), not to mention cramming in a few last-minute horror movies. As always, I kept track of my viewing in the last month: the results are a little less varied than in some years, partly because I watched more series and sequels this time. I had a pile of movies set aside for this month, and watched quite a few of them, but since I bought more movies during the month, the pile I have left is almost as big.

Blade Runner 2049 was the only film I watched that isn’t horror, but in the past I’ve included movies that are better described as fantasy or science fiction or that belong to horror-adjacent genres such as thrillers or kaiju eiga; I’m not much for splitting hairs. (It was good, by the way.)

There were also theatrical screenings at the Warren Oldtown Horrorfest (formerly October at the Oldtown), organized by local filmmaker and presenter Leif Jonker (and shown nationwide by the Regal Cinemas chain, which purchased the Warren theaters earlier this year). The only Horrorfest film I skipped was Jaws, which is great but feels more like a summer movie to me. In addition to the Horrorfest screenings, my viewing included films on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray, YouTube, and cable television (thanks, TCM!). (I’m not really a VHS collector, but I appreciate a bargain, and when I found a copy of Saturday the 14th at a church flea market on Saturday the 14th, how could I not pick it up?)

1. The Awakening (Mike Newell, 1980)
2. Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb (Seth Holt, 1971)
3. Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977)*
4. Fright Night (Tom Holland, 1985)*,**
5. Blade (Stephen Norrington, 1998)
6. Blade II (Guillermo del Toro, 2002)
7. Blade: Trinity (David S. Goyer, 2004)
8. Frankenweenie (Tim Burton, 2012)
9. The Dead Zone (David Cronenberg, 1983)*
10. Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert, 1989)*
11. The Monster Squad (Fred Dekker, 1987)*
12. Slave of the Cannibal God aka Mountain of the Cannibal God (Sergio Martino, 1978)
13. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (José Mojica Marins, 1964)
14. This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse (José Mojica Marins, 1967)
15. Embodiment of Evil (José Mojica Marins, 2008)
16. Saturday the 14th (Howard R. Cohen, 1981)
17. Saturday the 14th Strikes Back (Howard R. Cohen, 1988)
18. Blacula (William Crain, 1972)
19. King Kong (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933)*, **
20. Them! (Gordon Douglas, 1954)*, **
21. A Nightmare on Elm Street (Wes Craven, 1984)*
22. Scream, Blacula, Scream (Bob Kelljan, 1973)
23. Society (Brian Yuzna, 1989)
24. The Mad Executioners (Edwin Zbonek, 1963)
25. Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017)*
26. Vampires (John Carpenter, 1998)
27. Cat People (Paul Schrader, 1982)*
28. Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)*
29. Torture Dungeon (Andy Milligan, 1970)
30. The Phantom Carriage (Victor Sjöström, 1921)
31. Salem’s Lot (Tobe Hooper, 1979)
32. The Ghost of Frankenstein (Erle C. Kenton, 1942)
33. The Vault of Horror (Roy Ward Baker, 1973)
34. The Whip and the Body (Mario Bava, 1963)
35. The Crimson Cult (Vernon Sewell, 1968)
36. House of the Long Shadows (Pete Walker, 1983)
37. The Secret of the Mummy (Ivan Cardoso, 1982)
38. Night of the Living Dead (George Romero, 1968)*, **
39. Theater of Blood (Douglas Hickox, 1973)

* theatrical screening
** rewatch

Best movie: It’s hard to pick a clear-cut winner out of so many films. Aside from rewatches, Suspiria, Theater of Blood, Frankenweenie, and Blacula were all very solid films. I was also very taken by A Nightmare on Elm Street after years of thinking I wouldn’t like it. In fact, I enjoyed most of the movies I watched for the first time this month, with only a few duds.

Ultimately, I think David Cronenberg’s prescient media fantasia Videodrome (which, admittedly, I had seen bits and pieces of previously) is going to stay with me the longest. In addition to its Philip K. Dick-like meditations on perception vs. reality and weird body horror (an element Cronenberg is obviously known for), Videodrome captures and anticipates the reality of lives half lived through screens and the attendant social changes. I hadn’t realized just how much Max Headroom and The Matrix owed to Videodrome, from the analog futurism of hand-delivered videotape messages (maybe we could call it . . . “v-mail”?) to the overwhelming importance of television for people’s spiritual well-being (the “Cathode Ray Mission,” where the homeless could get a meal and some precious screen-time, being an obvious example, and one that Max Headroom borrowed almost verbatim). And, as in They Live (another film that could almost fit in the same universe), the question of who is ultimately behind the signals the TV stations broadcast, and what impact they have, has an answer that is anything but reassuring.

Scariest movie: I had waited to see Dario Argento’s giallo-inflected supernatural mystery Suspiria until I could see it on the big screen, and my patience wasn’t disappointed: the colors were vibrant and the story suitably suspenseful and frightening. And I’ve come to look forward to performances by lead Jessica Harper, who around this time seemed to specialize in movies that made use of her uneasy brittleness. However, the most surprising revelation of all was finding an Italian horror movie with a plot that makes sense!

Goriest movie(s): Two movies are tied for this category. The first, Slave of the Cannibal God, has many of the hallmarks of the Italian cannibal genre, including an emphasis on realism (although unlike many cannibal films, Slave does not pretend to be a documentary) that extends to filming the real deaths of animals in both native rituals and in (staged) fights that purport to show the cruelty of the jungle. No thanks. There is also a tremendous amount of (hopefully simulated!) human gore once the fearsome cannibal tribe is reached, and a third-act sequence of horrors that gets hard to take long before it is over. No wonder it was included on the infamous “video nasties” list by censors in the United Kingdom.

The other contender is Embodiment of Evil by Brazilian writer-director-star José Mojica Marins, who has made an industry of his character Zé do Caixão, better known in English as “Coffin Joe.” The evil undertaker, who began his career in the 1960s with At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul, demonstrates a cruelty and indifference to conventional morality that makes him a unique antihero for a conservative society, with many similarities to the characters of the Marquis de Sade. Embodiment of Evil, Coffin Joe’s 2008 “comeback,” bears that comparison even more than his earlier films, since sophisticated special effects and more relaxed mores make it possible for Joe to terrorize his victims with much more graphic punishments (the cast also appears to include a number of body-modification practitioners, so it’s not even obvious to me that all of the piercings and other mortifications are strictly fake). I found the Coffin Joe movies interesting (and I liked the second one, This Night I’ll Possess Your Corpse, quite a bit), but ultimately Embodiment of Evil was as close to “torture porn” as I care to explore.

Dumbest movie I will probably watch again: Several of the movies I watched were either comedies or included frequent humor. Saturday the 14th was the most obviously jokey, a spoof of all kinds of horror movies thrown into a blender of a story about a book that will release all the evil in the world if read on the titular date. Jeffrey Tambor (in one of his first movie roles) appears as a vampire who appears to be going through a mid-life crisis, and the comedy really takes off when the monster hunter Van Helsing (Severn Darden) shows up as an “exterminator.” Silly stuff, but amusing for what it is and I could see it becoming an every few years tradition.

Worst movie: The first movie spawned a sequel, Saturday the 14th Strikes Back, a few years later, so of course I had to watch it. The good news is that there is no narrative connection or continuity to the first one beyond the simple idea that bad things are going to happen on the date in question. Also, while researching this, I discovered that none other than Gahan Wilson created the poster for the film, so there’s that. The bad news is that the movie is cheaply made and even dopier in its humor than the first one. It’s a candidate for weirdest movie, but the substitution of wackiness and off-the-wall behavior for actual jokes feels desperate. It also doesn’t make much sense: the premise of the film is that an ordinary family starts acting strangely when a crack in the basement begins releasing evil into the world, but they’re pretty nutty to begin with, eating candy for every meal and going through OCD-like precautions to protect themselves from germs. It feels like a movie straight from the imagination of the little boy in “It’s a Good Life.”

Actual Weirdest movie: In addition to the Saturday the 14th movies, there was quite a bit of weirdness in Videodrome and the similarly ooky Society; The Crimson Cult was frankly not weird enough for a film supposedly based on H. P. Lovecraft’s “Dreams in the Witch-House,” and its Scooby-Doo-like ending bummed me out. I have in the past made a distinction between movies that are weird in themselves and movies that appear to have been made by weirdoes: The Secret of the Mummy, by Brazilian provocateur Ivan Cardoso, qualifies as both. Jumping between black and white and color and incorporating stock travelogue and newsreel footage, as well as impressionistic montages and rapid cuts between isolated details, The Secret of the Mummy tells the story of an obsessed scientist who recovers an Egyptian mummy in order to test out his elixir of life and revive it. The fact that the young Pharaoh was a sex-crazed serial killer in life doesn’t faze the scientist, and once the mummy is up and about he resumes his favorite pastime. It feels like a collision of a Universal monster movie (as well as the sexed-up mummy, there are shades of Frankenstein, including a hunchbacked lab assistant) and a Carry On sex comedy. The Secret of the Mummy is unapologetically kinky, but extremely stylish, and Cardoso reminds me (based on this single film–I have three more to watch) of a straight, Brazilian John Waters.

Horror on a Budget: The crudeness of The Secret of the Mummy‘s production also reminds me of another outsider filmmaker I encountered this month, Andy Milligan, who in Torture Dungeon attempts to stage a medieval “epic” with a shoestring budget on Staten Island. One of Milligan’s techniques is to hide the paltriness of his sets by filming in tight close-up–so tight, in fact, that I didn’t realize until halfway through the movie that a main character only has one arm. Torture Dungeon is as raw as I was led to expect–the titular dungeon is onscreen for not more than three or four minutes, and the gore is of the Herschell Gordon Lewis papier-mâché variety–but was mostly enjoyable. It helps that I enjoy movies in which the seams show. By far the worst parts were the walk-on characters who do nothing to advance the story but deliver community theater-style stage business.

Finally, for the first time this year I took part in an October horror movie challenge, watching films to match specific categories. I generally just follow my whims when choosing what to watch, but it was fun expanding my horizons with some of the requirements. The Spooktober Challenge consisted of 31 categories, voted on from a list of nominees by members of The HORRORS . . . of THE DISSOLVE! Facebook group, with one movie counting for each category. Here are the categories and the movies that satisfied each one:

1. A horror movie by a female director: Pet Sematary (Mary Lambert)
2. A black and white horror movie: King Kong
3. A horror movie from a country other than your own: The Mad Executioners (Germany)
4. A horror anthology: The Vault of Horror
5. A horror movie marketed to kids: The Monster Squad
6. A horror-comedy: Saturday the 14th
7. A silent horror movie: The Phantom Carriage
8. An avant-garde or experimental horror movie: Videodrome
9. A horror movie featuring a non-white protagonist: Blade
10. A classic Universal monster movie: The Ghost of Frankenstein
11. A horror movie by an LGBTQ writer or director: Torture Dungeon (Andy Milligan)
12. A Hammer horror movie: Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb
13. A horror movie involving a non-Christian/Satanic religion: Scream, Blacula, Scream (Voodoo)
14. A horror movie from the year you were born: Theater of Blood (1973)
15. An “all-time great” horror movie that you’ve never seen: A Nightmare on Elm Street
16. A giallo: Suspiria
17. A horror movie starring Vincent Price: House of the Long Shadows
18. A horror movie from Latin America: The Secret of the Mummy (Brazil)
19. A Mario Bava movie: The Whip and the Body
20. A made-for-TV horror movie: Salem’s Lot
21. A horror movie that terrified you as a child: Them!
22. A John Carpenter movie: Vampires
23. A Lovecraftian horror movie: The Crimson Cult
24. A horror movie by a non-white director: Blacula (William Crain)
25. A slasher movie that is not part of a franchise: Corruption (Robert Hartford-Davis, 1968)
26. A video nasty: Slave of the Cannibal God
27. A body horror: Society
28. A horror movie featuring a witch or witchcraft: Embodiment of Evil
29. A horror movie where someone turns into an animal – but NOT a werewolf: Cat People
30. An animated horror movie or short: Frankenweenie
31. A horror movie by a typically non-horror director: The Awakening (Mike Newell)

The terms of the challenge allowed for movies viewed in September to count, but I only needed to count one: Corruption is something of a proto-slasher, with Peter Cushing as an increasingly-unhinged surgeon who kills women to supply his disfigured girlfriend with the pituitary gland extract that keeps her beautiful. I’m not a huge fan of slashers, anyway, so this was close enough for me.

In addition, there were three “bonus challenges” that I successfully completed: at least one movie from each decade, 1920s to 2010s; no more than five movies that you have already seen (King Kong and Them! were the only rewatches I counted toward the challenge); and only one movie per director (it was lucky for me that Blacula and its sequel Scream, Blacula, Scream didn’t have the same director!).

I hope you had a happy Halloween and saw something good or at least surprising in the past month. Let me know if you recommend anything else based on what I’ve listed here or if you just have a horror movie you’re enthusiastic about. I’ve already got my list for next year started: after all, it’s only twelve months until next Halloween!

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The Ten Silliest Giant Movie Monsters

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All this month, I’ve been observing “kaiju month” on the blog, writing about giant monsters in various forms, while at the same time catching up on movies I hadn’t seen yet. The movies show varying degrees of seriousness, ranging from the deadly grimness of the original Godzilla (and the dry wit of this year’s Shin Godzilla) to movies that are all about men in rubber suits waling on each other and stomping model cities to bits, with little regard to characterization or story logic. Whatever your view of the genre or which approach you favor, there’s no question that some of these monsters can be downright goofy. To prove it, here are ten movie monsters that inspire more laughter than awe.

A few ground rules: I’m thinking mainly of movies in which the giant monster is either the main character or central to the plot: that includes most Japanese kaiju eiga and their imitators, as well as many of the American monster movies of the 1950s and later. I’m excluding characters that are deliberately humorous or parodies (sorry, Queen Kong); it’s too easy, and anyway there’s nothing sillier than someone trying too hard to be taken seriously (although I’ve included at least one monster that walks the line between serious and parody–it’s a judgment call). Finally, I’m primarily looking at silly monsters: if the movie around the monster is ridiculous, but there’s nothing particularly funny or silly about the creature itself, that doesn’t fit my requirements for this list. (The reverse is also true: plenty of good movies have laughable creatures at their center, and just because I’ve included a movie here doesn’t mean it’s bad or that I don’t enjoy it. Sometimes the tone is clearly light-hearted, and sometimes the laughs stem from a severe miscalculation or a skimpy budget.)

I’m sure that you’ll think of some that I’ve overlooked, or have a different opinion about something I’ve included; please feel free to add your suggestions or counterpoints in the comments. I haven’t seen every monster movie ever made, and I’d be happy to discover something new to me!

Gamera

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Now, don’t get me wrong: Gamera is terrific. I have great affection for Gamera. Years before Mystery Science Theater 3000 presented the terrapin terror to a new generation of fans, I was watching his films on Commander USA’s Groovy Movies (probably because they were cheaper to show than Godzilla movies). But there’s no question that a giant fire-breathing turtle who can turn himself into a flying saucer by shooting flames out of the leg-holes in his shell is, well, not exactly serious. In addition, the kid appeal that eventually overtook Toho’s Godzilla series was baked into rival studio Daiei’s Gamera right from the beginning, with Gamera being a “friend to all children” and an emphasis on comic brawling with a series of mostly interchangeable kaiju opponents. Eventually, the Shusuke Kaneko-led Gamera revival from the 1990s would prove that a goofy leading monster could be put into a serious context and yield good, even great results. However, some have argued that Shusuke and company were given free reign in making their trilogy in part because expectations were so low: who thought a serious Gamera movie would actually be good?

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Giant Killer Rabbits

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Let this stand in for all of the American “giant animals on the loose” movies that invaded screens from the 1950s to the 1970s. 1972’s Night of the Lepus follows the pattern of many other “eco-horror” pictures of the era, as a scientific experiment meant to curb out-of-control rabbit populations in the American West backfires, resulting in a stampede of vicious bunnies the size of trucks. Never mind that the film (and the novel it was based on) was inspired by real-life rabbit plagues, or that rabbits can be mean as hell. The domestic bunnies, filmed bounding across miniature sets, with slow motion and rumbling sound effects to give the impression of massive size, are just too cute to take seriously. If Night of the Lepus ever acknowledged how preposterous it was, it would just be another Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, a spoof about an unlikely part of the environment turning against humanity. But it’s the film’s utter solemnity and desperation to be taken seriously–including an incredible trailer that bends over backwards to avoid revealing what it’s really about–that make it a camp classic.

Gigan and Megalon

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Godzilla fans can be a bit like Batman fans: for years, the public perception of both series was dominated by the corniest iterations: the campy 1966 Batman TV show and the wrestling-influenced Godzilla movies from the 1960s and ’70s. This perception can make fans defensive and apt to reject all but the grimmest, most “adult” portrayals of their heroes. Fortunately, that tide has begun to turn, with greater appreciation of both Batman ’66 and the “fun” Godzilla movies in recent years.

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The Bebop and Rocksteady of the Godzilla canon, Gigan and Megalon were introduced as opponents of the Big G in a pair of films in 1972 and 1973 (both directed by Jun Fukuda, the man most responsible for the turn away from the darker tone favored by original Godzilla director Ishiro Honda). Gigan, as revealed in Godzilla vs. Gigan, is a cyborg from Nebula M Spacehunter; Megalon, in Godzilla vs. Megalon, is the insectoid protector deity of the Seatopians, a long-lost underground civilization. Gigan has curved hooks for hands and matching horns and mandibles, as well as a punk-looking Cyclops visor, and most bizarrely a deadly rotary sawblade embedded in his chest; it’s the definition of trying too hard to be edgy (no pun intended). Megalon has giant drills for hands and a single horn-like antenna, and moves about by burrowing and leaping through the air (like a cricket, I guess?). As mentioned, the Godzilla series had already been kid-friendly for years by the time Gigan and Megalon came along, and the saurian designs of previous kaiju were easily turned into toys, but Gigan and Megalon feel like they were designed as toys first and characters second. (On that note, check out Gigan in Godzilla: Final Wars, where he’s outfitted with interchangeable chainsaw hands.) While Gigan is presented in his movie as a scary threat, the monster who might finally defeat Godzilla (he doesn’t), in Godzilla vs. Megalon both monsters join together in a sort of tag team, giving Godzilla (and the robotic Jet Jaguar) “the business.” All that’s missing is the ropes around the wrestling ring.

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Minilla and Gabara

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Speaking of Godzilla, it’s unlikely that any character in the series has been more divisive than Minilla (sometimes rendered as “Minira” or “Minya”–don’t call him “Godzookie” unless you want some serious side-eye from G-fans). Introduced in 1967’s Son of Godzilla, the diminutive kaiju was the embodiment of the series’ turn to juvenilia. In his first film appearance, newly hatched from a giant egg, Minilla is disturbing rather than cute: “more-fetus-than-infant” in the words of G-scholar William Tsutsui, Minilla is the kaiju version of the Eraserhead baby. In later appearances, Minilla is an obvious stand-in for Godzilla’s child audiences, learning to control his powers and stand up for himself under the grudging guidance of his single father (some versions of Godzilla have suggested the creature reproduces asexually; in any case, the whereabouts of any other parent of Minilla are unknown). In 1969’s much-maligned All Monsters Attack, the metaphor is made literal as Godzilla, Minilla, and the other denizens of “Monster Island” are treated as daydreams of a young boy, Ichiro, who learns to stand up to a bully named Gabara, inspired by Minilla’s fight against a kaiju also named Gabara. The “son of Godzilla” was later revived as the more saurian “Godzilla Junior” in the 1990s, but it’s Minilla, smoke-ring breath and all, who is remembered, fondly or otherwise.

By the way, here’s Gabara, the “kaiju bully” from All Monsters Attack. For the one-off character, special effects wizard Eiji Tsuburaya and his crew came up with a suitably misfit creature, with a reptilian body, feline facial features, and a shock of red hair. No wonder he had such a bad disposition.

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The Yeti

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Specifically, the one in Yeti: Giant of the 20th Century, a 1977 Italian knock-off of King Kong. Frozen in a glacier for thousands of years until his body is discovered and thawed out in the northern tundra of Canada, this Yeti is a hominid covered with brown hair, made gigantic through very primitive special effects. Once thawed, the Yeti follows Kong’s trajectory en manqué, falling for the granddaughter of the tycoon financing the expedition and running amok in Toronto. What makes the Yeti, played by Mimmo Crao, so amusing is the emphasis on his romantic nature: even in scenes that don’t seem to call for it, the camera lingers on the Yeti’s bedroom eyes, luxurious, flowing mane, and erect nipples (yes, really), and the film spends almost as much time on the relationship between beast and beauty as Peter Jackson’s 2003 King Kong, in a much shorter running time.

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Back when Johnny Weissmuller was playing Tarzan, MGM claimed that Tarzan’s iconic call was produced by combining the recorded calls of lions, apes, and elephants. It was pure hooey, of course, but the Italian Yeti appears to have actually done just that, as the Yeti’s sound effects are a mix of animal growls and roars spliced together. Combined with Sante Maria Romitelli’s stately, even majestic score, it makes for an atmospheric soundtrack appropriate for the film’s purely cinematic montages (the sequence of the Yeti carrying Antonella Interlenghi around Toronto, marveling at the skyscrapers, so foreign to his experience, is a favorite). I’m reminded of my friend Craig Stephen Tower’s observation that even the trashiest Italian film is a little bit arty, and even the artiest a little bit trashy. As shameless as this movie is (and it is shameless, hitting the trifecta of putting a woman, a child, and a dog in peril), there’s a lot to like about it, particularly its winning sincerity.

Antimatter Space Buzzard

“It doesn’t make sense. It’s just a bird, a big bird! Guns, cannons, rockets, it’s just a bird!”

“Sure, just a bird. Ten million dollars’ worth of radar can’t track it. Enough fire power to wipe out a regiment can’t even slow it down. Sure . . . just a bird.”

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When I was a kid, The Giant Claw was on TV all the time. I guess the TV station had their own print or something, but along with Them! and The Blob, The Giant Claw was the old monster movie I saw more times than any other during childhood. I didn’t give it a lot of thought until recent years, when I noticed this once-forgotten B movie from 1957 gaining a new cult following. It’s a typical monster mystery film, beginning with sightings of a UFO and the unexplained disappearance of planes in the far North. (The combination of Arctic setting, military-civilian conflict, and aggressively hard-boiled dialogue give the impression of a low-budget reworking of Howard Hawks’ classic The Thing From Another World.) Once revealed, the threat is a giant (possibly extraterrestrial) bird with a long neck and googly eyes, “as big as a battleship” and protected by an “antimatter screen.”

Upon rewatching The Giant Claw, I was surprised to see several names from the serials I’ve watched in my Fates Worse Than Death series, including producer Sam Katzman and musical director Mischa Bakaleinikoff. It’s not hard to imagine this story padded out into serial length with the addition of a spy ring or a mine cave-in. By 1957 the serials were dead, replaced by television, but quickly-made thrillers like The Giant Claw took their place in theaters and drive-ins, providing excitement and spectacle without the entanglements of serialization. (The space buzzard still looks ridiculous, though.)

Daigoro

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In 1972’s Daigoro vs. Goliath, Daigoro combines the childlike qualities of Minilla with the friendliness of Gamera. Resembling a bidepal hippopotamus with feline whiskers, Daigoro is the orphaned child of a Godzilla-like marauder (seen in flashback), raised on an island (complete with a giant outhouse) by a zookeeper and his staff. As the film begins, the Japanese government struggles to find room in its budget to keep feeding the beloved creature, and hoards of schoolchildren attempt to make up the difference by soliciting donations. An attempt is made to slow Daigoro’s growth with “Anti-Grow,” but when the “Great Stellar Monster” Goliath arrives via meteorite and begins a destructive rampage, Daigoro is called upon to defend his adopted home. The scenes of Daigoro’s training, including learning to roar and breathe fire, will look familiar to anyone who’s seen Son of Godzilla or All Monsters Attack (apparently this film began as a Godzilla concept, so perhaps this similarity isn’t so surprising). Daigoro skews toward a younger audience than even Godzilla vs. Megalon: it reminded me most of the live-action Disney films of the 1960s, and anticipates Miyazaki’s films (particularly My Neighbor Totoro) with its environmental message and big, cuddly monster hero. The tone is relentlessly wacky, with broad slapstick comedy leavening the cloying sentimentality (but so help me, I laughed).

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Guilala aka Monster X

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Guilala, star of the 1967 film The X From Outer Space, is perhaps the silliest monster at least ostensibly meant to be taken seriously. The film is a brisk mix of space-age bachelor pad sci-fi and traditional kaiju action, with the title “X” inadvertently brought back to earth as a spore on the tailfins of a rocket expedition. Once on earth, the mysterious substance quickly grows into a living beast, the giant monster named Guilala (or Girara), which goes on the rampage as it draws energy from power lines and reactors. Guilala’s design is a mixture of a reptilian body, a flat, beak-like head, and “deely-bopper” antennae; it’s been described as a “giant space chicken.” Even if the creature itself were more sober, the film that surrounds it is delightfully lightweight. The X From Outer Space was the Japanese studio Shochiku’s only venture into the kaiju genre, but Guilala made a comeback in 2008 as the star of Minoru Kawasaki’s spoof, Monster X Strikes Back: Attack the G8 Summit. In the film, a sort of Japanese version of Team America, Guilala’s return (including quite a bit of reused footage from the original X) is the subject of endless debate at a G8 summit, with satirical versions of each country’s leaders taking turns trying to stop the monster. Ultimately, Guilala faces off against a local protective deity, brought to life by the collective prayers of the people.

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So, what have I missed? Let me know in the comments and I’ll check it out!

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The Secret Life of Sausages

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In The Secret Life of Pets, released last week, rival dogs Max and Duke, on the run after losing their collars and being separated from their owner, sneak into a Brooklyn sausage factory and eat to their hearts’ content. Their binge is interpreted as a dream sequence full of singing and dancing sausage links, set to Grease‘s “We Go Together” in a giant production number. (Co-director Chris Renaud has more to say about it here.) Of course it ends with Max and Duke chomping down on the wieners, even as the musical number continues. Yes, it’s reminiscent of the “Land of Chocolate” sequence from The Simpsons; Secret Life felt like it borrowed quite a few spare parts from other animated films, but that’s beside the point.

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I hadn’t heard about this sequence or seen it in any of the advertising for The Secret Life of Pets, but it’s actually the first of three films scheduled for release this year that feature anthropomorphized hot dogs or sausages. Sausage Party, scheduled for an August 12 release, is an animated feature (story by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) about a hot dog whose idyllic life in the grocery store comes to a horrifying end when he learns that the whole point of his (and his friends’) existence is to be eaten. From the trailer it looks to be a savage, raunchy twist on the Pixar “secret life of _______” formula, but no matter what, it definitely features a crew of talking hot dogs.

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Then there’s Yoga Hosers (September 2), the latest from Clerks mastermind Kevin Smith, and the second installment of his planned “Canadian trilogy” after the gonzo body-horror movie Tusk. Although live action, Yoga Hosers looks to be cartoony in its own way, as it features a pair of convenience store cashiers (Lily-Rose Depp and Harley Quinn Smith) who confront an army of living Nazi bratwursts (“Bratzis,” of course). I’m not gonna lie: as dumb as this looks, it’s the kind of movie I would have loved when I was thirteen, and even now I appreciate a film that takes an absurd-on-its-face premise and runs with it. (At the very least, it’s a suitably weird follow-up to a movie about a mad scientist surgically transforming a man into a walrus.)

So what is the explanation for this coincidence? (Other than sausages being hilarious, I guess.) Paid product placement by Big Sausage (or, more likely, since all of these examples end up making meat-eating look kind of horrible, pro-vegetarian propaganda)? Synchronicity? A message from an alien race of talking wieners? I have no answers. All I know is that these three movies would make for one heck of a triple feature, or at least a very strange montage at the Academy Awards when all three films are inevitably nominated for Best Picture.

My 2015 in Film

This year I saw 17 new releases (US release in 2015), mostly action blockbusters and animated family films, with a few outliers. As always, I didn’t see nearly enough to offer a comprehensive ranking (as subjective as those things are to begin with), but I can at least point to some of my favorites. (Also, I’m terrible at ranking things, so this could easily change tomorrow, and in fact has already undergone changes since I started drafting this.)

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5. The Duke of Burgundy
I loved a lot about this movie, the story of a troubled dominant-submissive lesbian relationship. Director Peter Strickland’s appropriation of a 1970s European soft porn aesthetic, all soft focus and chanteuse-style pop music, is right in my postmodern wheelhouse (one of the opening credits, after “Dress and Lingerie” is for “Perfume by Je suis Gizella“). And there is a surprising streak of dry humor amidst the angst-filled meditations on control and the rigid boundaries we set for ourselves and each other. However, too many of the visual and auditory flourishes were straight out of David Lynch, particularly a sequence that felt uncomfortably indebted to Mulholland Drive, crossing the line beyond “homage.” I still liked the movie, but it may have been a victim of my high expectations.

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4. Crimson Peak
After Guillermo Del Toro’s previous film, Pacific Rim, Crimson Peak was a welcome return to focus on human characters and their problems, while still featuring the director’s trademark grotesque monsters (this time the bloody ghosts that haunt the titular mansion). A gloriously gloomy gothic romance, it starred a perfectly cast Tom Hiddleston and Jessica Chastain as siblings with a dark secret, and Mia Wasikowska as the innocent caught in their web.

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3. Mad Max: Fury Road
I was as surprised as anyone to see the post-apocalyptic Mad Max series come roaring back after a thirty year absence from the screen, but director George Miller had clearly spent the time away thinking about the logistics and meaning of his future-primitive setting. Tom Hardy is fine as the title character, but it’s really Charlize Theron’s show as the bad-ass Furiosa. In addition to updating the setting in light of concerns about environmental collapse and climate change, Fury Road gives a fiercely feminist reading of the traditionally testosterone-filled “road warrior” genre (here’s what I thought immediately after seeing it).

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2. Inside Out
A return to the daring conceptual heights of Ratatouille and Wall-E, Inside Out is simply the best Pixar film in years. Unsurprisingly, Inside Out was written and directed by Pete Docter, who also created Monsters, Inc.: there’s a similar fascination with factory-like spaces and a unique “backstage” interpretation of Pixar’s usual “secret life of ______” formula. Although the focus is on Joy, Sadness, and the other personified emotions inside eleven-year-old Riley’s head, the film benefits from the animation studio’s increasing confidence in creating expressive human characters that don’t resemble creepy dolls. I doubt it would work as well as it does if Riley and her parents didn’t hold up their end of the story in their scenes.

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1. What We Do in the Shadows
I already talked up this one as the funniest movie I had seen all year when I saw it in October, and in the two months since I haven’t seen anything to topple it from my top spot. In addition to its humor, however, What We Do in the Shadows is as tightly-plotted as an Edgar Wright film while appearing as off-the-cuff as a Christopher Guest mockumentary or The Office. It also turns out to have some clever (and often poignant) observations about family, friendship, romance, and ambition (the last represented by Jackie van Beek, a “thrall” who hopes to ascend to vampirehood, a process that resembles an unpaid internship and virtual slavery to her vampire “master”).

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Honorable Mention: Speaking of Edgar Wright, like many I was disappointed when Wright left Marvel’s Ant-Man, citing creative differences. But the movie we got, directed by Peyton Reed, still has Wright’s fingerprints all over it, from the fast cutting and clever narrative tricks to the visuals, which play with scale in a number of humorous and dramatic ways. In general I’ve enjoyed the free-standing Marvel movies more than the big team-ups: as exhilarating as it is as a comic book fan to see stories overlap and interact on screen just as they do in the comics, there’s a limit to how many characters and plot lines can comfortably fit in a feature film before I stop caring about any of them.

Surprisingly Good: Home did very well for itself at the box office and mostly got decent reviews. But unless you saw it you wouldn’t know how visually inventive it is and how its sense of humor is frequently a lot weirder than the clips of Jim Parsons as an overly-literal alien shown in the trailers suggested. (I’m willing to believe that the film’s stranger touches are drawn from the book it was based on, The True Meaning of Smekday by Adam Rex, but I haven’t read it.) I also appreciated the film’s emotional stakes and the revelation that Inside Out wasn’t the only family movie this year to stress the importance of empathy and accepting that sadness and grief have their place as healthy emotions. Finally, props for the good use it made of Steve Martin, who should really be considered more often as a voice actor.

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Best Reboot (non-Mad Max category): I was pretty high on Star Wars: The Force Awakens after I saw it, and even after cooling off there’s still a lot I like about it. Under the new management of corporate owner Disney and director J. J. Abrams, The Force Awakens feels like a Star Wars film, visually and aurally. The return to largely practical effects is appreciated, and the new characters and their stories have some compelling hooks. As a passing of the torch to the new generation, it’s much more successful than, say, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which did little to make me care about Jones’ son Mutt. In fact, I liked just about everything about The Force Awakens except the plot, which is just too much of a rehash of the original 1977 film (especially considering the Death Star had already been redone in 1983’s Return of the Jedi). Considering that The Force Awakens‘ planet-sized Starkiller follows Star Trek Into Darkness, which used the same ploy of “like the Enterprise, but bigger” for its bad guy’s ship, I’m glad Abrams will be stepping aside for the next installment of the Star Wars saga. After the much-maligned prequel trilogy, however, this was probably just what was needed to right the ship and get audiences excited again.

Most Forgettable: Fortunately, this year I haven’t seen any new releases that I really hated, so I don’t have a pick for “the worst.” However, at the bottom of my list is Jurassic World, which delivered the big dinosaur action it promised but was lackluster in all other respects, both derivative and lazy. I also didn’t get much out of Avengers: Age of Ultron (see my above comments about team-ups), but unlike Jurassic World it at least had compelling characters and the advancement of the ongoing Marvel plot going for it.

2015 was also another big year for catching up on movies from the past. In addition to the second summer of exploring serials in my Fates Worse Than Death series and my successful attempt to take in 31 horror films in October, I took advantage of repertory screenings, DVDs, TCM, Netflix, and YouTube to watch a variety of older films throughout the year.

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First-time non-2015 movies that I liked were (in no particular order) El Hombre y el Monstruo (a Mexican riff on Jekyll and Hyde featuring a classical pianist who has sold his soul to the devil: whenever he plays a particular piece he transforms into a murderous wolfman), Polyester, The Man Who Laughed, The Thing, Repo Man, The Wicked Lady (1945), and the double feature Grindhouse (particularly Planet Terror, Robert Rodriguez’s half, but I appreciated the spirit of the whole project). I also caught up with a few movies from 2014 that I had missed the first time around, among them The Babadook, Under the Skin (a film I respected more than loved, but which isn’t looking for my approval anyway), and Edge of Tomorrow (aka Live/Die/Repeat), which did something I wouldn’t have thought possible: delivered a military sci-fi movie that both held my interest and made me care about its characters.

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Worst non-2015 movie: This is easy. After seeing Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead last year, I wasn’t exactly a fan: the movie was pretty hard for me to take, both extremely gory and nerve-wracking in its disregard for conventional plotting. Still, that’s one way to make a memorable horror movie, and although I didn’t love it I was willing to explore Fulci’s filmography further. Unfortunately, the next Fulci movie I watched was 1981’s Conquest, a dismal sword-and-sorcery picture that was clearly made in work-for-hire mode. It has some stylish character designs and graphic fight scenes, and the trailer puts enough cool moments together that I expected a passable Conan the Barbarian rip-off. Alas, those moments are doled out in an extremely stingy manner and the rest is filled with walking and talking scenes that have almost no energy, resulting in a dull, lifeless slog. (As far as Fulci goes, I also ended up seeing The House by the Cemetery recently, and while I didn’t care for it much, it was a lot better than Conquest.)

That’s about it for my look back at 2015. Happy New Year, and see you in 2016!

October 31: Spooky Movie Round-Up

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As I did last year, I kept track of all the movies I watched this October, with the goal of watching at least 31. Unlike last year, I managed to do it: yes, with a little planning and a lot of gumption I was able to sit and stare at various screens for a total of roughly forty-eight hours over the course of a month. No, hold your applause . . . sit down . . . it really makes me uncomfortable to have the word “hero” bandied about so lightly–but between you and me, no wonder I have such a feeling of accomplishment. I probably could have fit a few more in, actually, but after getting to 31 I still had a few days left until Halloween, and I decided to just enjoy the last couple of days with my family (and the World Series).

I’m pleased at the diversity of the films on my list, including several from other countries and examples from each decade since the 1950s, and a few classics I hadn’t gotten to until now. Most of them were first-time viewings for me (but how could I resist a double feature of Alien and Aliens on the big screen?).

So here’s the list in the order I watched, with director and year of release, as well as a helpful key to point out some recurring themes and motifs:

1. The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)** ggg
2. Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979)** g
3. The Hunger (Tony Scott, 1983) m, v
4. House aka Hausu (Nobuhiku Ôbayashi, 1977) m, wx
5. Baba Yaga aka Kiss Me, Kill Me aka The Devil Watch (Corrado Farina, 1973) cam, wx
6. WNUF Halloween Special (Chris LaMartina et al, 2013) cam
7. The Return of the Living Dead (Dan O’Bannon, 1985) z
8. What We Do in the Shadows (Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, 2014)** cam, v, ww, wx, z
9. Frankenhooker (Frank Henenlotter, 1990) md, z
10. Basket Case 2 (Frank Henenlotter, 1990) c, t
11. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)*, ** r
12. Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)*, ** pl, r
13. Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) cam
14. Goke, Body Snatcher From Hell (Hajime Sato, 1968) vs
15. The Living Skeleton (Hiroshi Matsuno, 1968) md
16. Ship of Monsters (Rogelio A. González, 1960) m, r, vsx
17. Planet of the Vampires (Mario Bava, 1965) vs
18. The Spider Labyrinth (Gianfranco Giagni, 1988) ww
19. The Horror of Party Beach (Del Tenney, 1964) m
20. Genocide (Kazui Nihonmatsu, 1968) md
21. Basket Case 3 (Frank Henenlotter, 1991) c, m, pl, t
22. The Howling (Joe Dante, 1981)** cam, ww
23. Attack of the Puppet People (Bert I. Gordon, 1958) m
24. Re-Animator (Stuart Gordon, 1985)* a, hpl, md, z
25. Bride of Re-Animator (Brian Yuzna, 1989) a, md, w, z
26. Crimson Peak (Guillermo del Toro, 2015)** ggg, w
27. Beyond Re-Animator (Brian Yuzna, 2003) a, md, z
28. Dawn of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1978) cam, z
29. Day of the Dead (George A. Romero, 1985)** md, z
30. Zombieland (Ruben Fleischer, 2009) z
31. The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)** md

* rewatch
** seen in theater

a: Arkham setting
c: monstrous or supernatural child
cam: camera/photography
g: gateway or portal to otherworldly realm opened
ggg: g-g-g-ghosts!
hpl: H. P. Lovecraft adaptation
m: musical number
md: mad doctor/scientist
pl: power lifter
r: robot/android
t: twins
v: vampires
vs: space vampires
vsx: sexy space vampires
w: character in wheelchair
ww: werewolf/animal transformation
wx: witch
z: zombies/re-animated/walking dead

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So this list is perhaps more representative of my tastes than last year’s, reflecting my relatively larger interest in sci-fi, gothic, and erotic horror than, say, slashers. What can I say? I like the weird stuff. (On the other hand, I don’t consider myself a huge fan of zombies, but I sure spent a lot of time with them this month; gotta catch up with the classics sooner or later, I guess.)

Yesterday I posted an article over at The Solute on the brief wave of monster solidarity illustrated by Basket Case 2 and 3 and some other movies from the early ’90s, and tied it together with some of the other movies I watched this month. Check it out when you have time for ca. 3000 words about monsters.

In the mean time, here’s my rating of the movies on this list:

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Best Movie: Well, Alien is pretty damn good, as is Re-Animator, but since those were rewatches I’m going to exclude them from consideration. Maybe it’s just fresh on my mind, but John Carpenter’s The Thing, based on the John W. Campbell story “Who Goes There?” (also the source material for 1951’s The Thing From Another World, which I haven’t seen) delivered almost everything you could want in a Halloween movie: suspense, scares, memorable characters, and crazy, inventive special effects in an eerie, claustrophobic setting. I say “almost” because, being about an all-male crew of researchers in an Antarctic base, it’s a complete sausage party (and it’s clear how much it owes to Alien after seeing both movies in close succession). Still, I have no excuse for not having seen this sooner, but it was worth waiting to experience it on the big screen.

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Worst Movie: I’d have to single out The Horror of Party Beach, which Stephen King memorably described as “a wet fart of a movie.” Cynically cashing in on the beach party and horror genres by combining them, it does at least have a good (if slightly silly) monster at its center, and the premise and characters suggest a better movie lurking within. The movie’s biggest problem is its indifference to tone: I don’t object to movies that combine comedy and horror, or switch gears midway through, but it takes some control on the part of the filmmakers, and Party Beach is surprisingly gruesome for a film that also includes one-line cutaway gags and a voodoo-obsessed black housekeeper as comic relief.

Scariest Movie: There have been a lot of discussions in The Dissolve’s Facebook group and elsewhere about how important scares are in horror movies: is a horror movie that doesn’t scare a failure? Is it even necessary to try to be scary if it otherwise falls within the genre? Is Crimson Peak underperforming at the box office because of a perception that it isn’t scary? (For the record, I found Crimson Peak intense enough for me and I enjoyed it very much, but it does build toward its scares gradually.) As I’ve written about before, I didn’t like scary movies as a kid, but now I watch and enjoy them, so if nothing else I’m very aware of how subjective scariness is and how much it depends on the viewer’s state of mind: is it fair to judge a movie that fails to scare a jaded horror movie veteran who sits, arms folded, and dares the movie to throw its worst at him? Or does a movie get credit for being randomly discovered on TV by an impressionable kid at the perfect age to have its images permanently branded on his psyche?

Personally, if a movie scares me now, I’m willing to give it credit, because it must be doing something right, even if all the evidence points to the opposite: if it’s scary, a story that doesn’t make sense follows “nightmare logic;” special effects that are obviously fake can still be creepily suggestive of “wrongness,” etc. If it’s not scary, all those things simply become laughable, and a movie that doesn’t scare had better have something else going in terms of plot, theme, or production.

Ultimately, I think horror movies are scarier when they reveal something dark about human nature (the ghosts in Crimson Peak are good for some tense moments, but the actual scary parts are the moments that focus on its heroine as she becomes aware of the net closing in around her, trapped in a house with murderers and conscious that they know she knows: that is a scary situation!); that may be why I’m less interested in films that are purely about human suffering, and why the films I gravitate to are more about fantastical concepts. Having said that, Day of the Dead is probably the best at combing tension, gore, and a bleak view of humanity that stuck with me, even with an ending that isn’t quite as dark as it could be.

Least Scary Movie: A 1958 film called Attack of the Puppet People from low-budget special-effects impresario Bert I. Gordon doesn’t sound like it would be scary, and it’s not. But it sounds like it would at least try to be scary, and it doesn’t even do that. There is very little “attacking” of any kind in this tale of a sad, lonely old doll-maker who uses a special device to shrink people to doll-size so that they can’t leave him. That said, it’s not a bad film, and there’s something of the Universal monsters’ pathos in the doll-maker’s self-justifying neediness. His wheedling insistence that if his victims would just accept their fate and let him take care of them, everything would be fine is reminiscent of a pedophile or an emotional abuser.

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Goriest Movie: Day of the Dead definitely doesn’t skimp on the blood and guts, something it has in common with all of the zombie/re-animation movies I saw this month. But I’m going to give Bride of Re-Animator the edge for its over-the-top climax.

Funniest Movie: I like my horror on the comic side, whether it’s the gonzo slapstick of Frank Henenlotter’s movies or the hangout vibe of Zombieland, but What We Do in the Shadows, a This is Spinal Tap-style mockumentary that follows a clan of vampires in New Zealand, was not only the funniest movie I saw this month but probably the funniest movie I’ve seen all year.

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Most Delightful Surprise: Ship of Monsters (La Nave de los Monstruos) was just a random YouTube recommendation, but it turned out to be a fun mash-up of sci-fi, monster movie, and musical comedy, just the kind of thing I like. It begins with two explorers, members of the all-female race that populates Venus, collecting male specimens from different planets to take back to their home in hopes of repopulating. Landing on Earth in Mexico, they encounter a singing vaquero who teaches them about love, something known only on Earth. Of course there are twists and turns, and the other specimens (a diverse crew of imaginative, if cheap-looking, space monsters) escape on Earth to wreak havoc. It sounds silly, and it is, very. This is the kind of movie where a robot falls in love with a jukebox: based on that, you should be able to tell whether you want to see it or not.

The One (Actually Two) That Got Away: I took advantage of several screenings that were part of the October at the Oldtown horror series this year, but I was spoiled for choice as the Palace Theatre was also offering special showings. By my count, there were at least twenty films offered at one- or two-day special screenings this month in my area, and I made it to about half of them. So while I didn’t see everything that was on offer, I attended as many shows as I could. The event I really regretted missing was a double feature starring the late Christopher Lee: Horror of Dracula (1958) and The Wicker Man (1973). Unfortunately, my schedule just didn’t allow it. Oh well, there’s always next year.

Until then, Happy Halloween, and DON’T TURN OUT THE LIGHTS!

Cowboys & Aliens: A Reappraisal

Following last week’s look at the odd history of the science-fiction Western, I offer a more detailed defense of 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens (warning: spoilers ahead). Like my article on Addicted to Love, this was written as an entry for Lovefest, an ongoing series organized by commenters on film website The Dissolve. The only requirement for Lovefest is that it is an appreciation of a movie that flopped, was panned by critics, and/or is generally forgotten.

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The title Cowboys & Aliens promises a high-concept romp. In interviews featured on the Blu-ray, writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman and director Jon Favreau mention that the title alone of Scott Mitchell Rosenberg’s comic book series got them excited, and perhaps Universal’s marketers assumed that audiences would be similarly turned on by the prospect of B-movie thrills in a genre mash-up. Further, the involvement of Favreau, known for witty banter and a slyly comic approach (whether directing Will Ferrell in a Christmas comedy or setting the template for Marvel’s superhero franchise with Robert Downey, Jr.), probably fed expectations that this would be more of the same.

Instead of the fun promised by the title, however, audiences got a fairly serious, even grim, drama that was surprisingly gruesome for its PG-13 rating and included moments of outright horror. (In the same featurettes, the filmmakers mention the inspiration they drew from Alien, but I don’t remember that being highlighted in the trailers.) There is some comic relief and plenty of action, but it’s not really a lighthearted movie. One never really knows how a movie will perform, but considering the talent involved and that audiences and critics claim to want original* blockbusters, a less generic title and more accurate marketing might have given the film a better chance. While a viewer might agree with everything I have to say and still not find this movie to their taste, fans of other maligned films like John Carter and The Lone Ranger will probably find something to enjoy in Cowboys & Aliens.

*In this case, “original” is a fuzzy concept: Cowboys & Aliens is original in the sense that it is neither sequel nor remake (even the comic book on which the film is based is hardly a well-known property, and appears to have been optioned solely for the name and concept), but it treads in well-worn pathways, featuring characters who are familiar by type if not by name.

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Set in 1875 New Mexico, Cowboys & Aliens begins with a man (Daniel Craig) waking up in the desert, injured and with no memory of who he is. On his wrist is a strange metal shackle; in his pocket, a picture of a woman (Abigail Spencer). After brutally fending off an assault by three highwaymen, this literal Man With No Name makes his way to a depressed mining town called Absolution. He makes the acquaintance of a pragmatic preacher (Clancy Brown) and a strange woman, Ella (Olivia Wilde), who recognizes the shackle and says she can help him recover his memory. An obvious man of action, the stranger can’t help but insert himself into a scene caused by Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano), a bullying, loudmouthed twerp who takes advantage of the protection of his father (Harrison Ford), the local cattle king whose business keeps the town alive.

Provoked by the take-no-shit stranger, Percy fires his gun carelessly, hitting a nearby deputy in the shoulder. The sheriff (Keith Carradine) has no choice but to lock Percy up, but he quickly realizes that the newcomer is Jake Lonergan, wanted for stealing a shipment of gold that belongs to Colonel Dolarhyde and for the murder of a prostitute; Lonergan gets locked up, too.

As night falls, the sheriff prepares to deliver both Percy and Lonergan to a judge in Santa Fe, and Colonel Dolarhyde and his men show up to stop him. Dolarhyde is first shown torturing a man whom he suspects of killing one of his herds (actually the work of the titular aliens, of course), and he has no qualms about using force to free his son or enacting rough justice on the man who stole from him.

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Just as all of these strands of plot are coming together, the aliens attack from the air, causing explosive mayhem with their lasers and pulling townspeople into the air with lasso-like snares. When the aliens’ ships come in range, the bracelet on Lonergan’s wrist lights up, and he finds that he can use it as a powerful blaster; he shoots down one of the gliders, but it is too late to halt the attack completely. In the chaos, Percy is among those captured, as are the sheriff and the wife of Doc (Sam Rockwell), the town’s meek doctor/barkeep.

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From here, the main plot is set in motion: Dolarhyde takes command of the situation and plans a rescue party, believing that the townspeople were taken alive for a reason. (“If they wanted ‘em dead, they’d be dead,” he says. “This was a round-up.”) Joining the search party are the tenderfoot doctor, who doesn’t even own a gun, and a young boy, Emmett (Noah Ringer), the sheriff’s grandson; Ella also joins for her own reasons, but Lonergan chooses not to go, even as Dolarhyde urges him to add his strange weapon to the search.

Where Cowboys & Aliens is most successful is in taking the premises of classic Westerns and alien-invasion stories seriously. The Western townspeople, while stock character types, are neither fools nor gifted with period-inappropriate knowledge. The film begins with several mundane plots in motion: there are no cardboard slasher victims, standing around waiting for the action to start. Further, they behave as any nineteenth-century person of average education might when faced with something beyond their understanding: when the aliens strike, some wonder if they are being attacked by demons, and they probably wouldn’t seek out trouble if they weren’t trying to retrieve their kidnapped loved ones. The film doesn’t count on the characters to relay exposition about aliens: we see the action through their eyes and fill in the details with our own genre experience.

As Lonergan’s memories gradually return, he visits an abandoned cabin, where he remembers bringing the stolen gold to his lover (the woman whose picture he had, and whom he is accused of killing), with the intention of starting over somewhere far away. In the first of several eerie flashbacks, the gold coins are melted into slag and sucked through the roof of the cabin by a mysterious force, and then one of the aliens’ skyhooks pierces the roof and captures the woman.

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After finding nothing at the cabin, Lonergan joins the search party, which has been tracking an injured alien. The main tracker, a Mexican Indian named Nat (Adam Beach), is Dolarhyde’s hired man and Percy’s companion and protector, but is more importantly everything Percy isn’t: brave, competent, and honorable. To Dolarhyde, however, Nat is just a thick-skulled Indian.

After losing the tracks in a rainstorm, the party comes across an upside-down riverboat, stranded miles from any river. The searchers hole up in the eerie, decaying boat for the night, and several character arcs begin to unfold: the preacher helps Doc practice shooting; Dolarhyde reluctantly takes Emmett under his wing, giving him a knife for protection; Nat inadvertently reveals how much Dolarhyde has been a father figure to him, but is rebuked.

Will Doc learn to shoot in time to help save his wife? Will that knife come in handy just when Emmett needs it? Will Dolarhyde come to appreciate the surrogate son who has been in front of him the whole time? Most importantly, will Lonergan regain his memory and redeem himself after his former life of crime, coming to an understanding with the similarly hardened Civil War veteran Colonel Dolarhyde? If you can’t guess the answers to those questions, then you haven’t seen very many Westerns or sci-fi action movies.

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It is worth emphasizing that Cowboys & Aliens presents a distinctly cinematic version of both the genres it combines: it is primarily an action movie with a secondary focus on character. Neither the history of the West nor a philosophy of science have any particular bearing on events, other than an awareness of the passing of the Indian in the face of white migration (something that is at the heart of many Westerns, but which is also, as we shall see, of thematic importance to Cowboys & Aliens).

As mentioned, the characters are archetypes of Western fiction; their familiarity helps us take sides right away. Also, whether consciously or not, Cowboys & Aliens exploits the fact that early filmed sci-fi took advantage of the rocky, arid terrain of the Southwest to stand in for alien planets. (The association of science fiction with desert landscapes has long literary associations, as well.) The same caves and canyons around Hollywood that were backdrops for Johnny Mack Brown and Tom Mix served just as well for the surface of the moon or the planet Mongo a few years later.

This is more than just convenience or historical association: it contributes vitally to the tone of the film. In an essay entitled “The Alien Landscapes of the Planet Earth: Science Fiction in the Fifties,” Vivian Sobchak points out that lonely, desolate places on earth have more power to awaken terror than visions of advanced technology that inevitably become dated with the passage of time. In Sobchak’s words, “What we wonder at today, we may laugh at tomorrow. But the desert and the beach, the wind and the sea, the black lagoon and the frozen stretches of Arctic ice do not date, and will never lose their power to awe and disturb us.”

The power Sobchak describes is what the romantics called the sublime, the combination of wonder and terror one experiences in the face of the vast works of nature such as the storm, or the sea . . . or the desert. It is what often makes even the lousiest Western worth watching for its panoramic vistas of the great plains, the deserts of the Southwest, or formations such as Monument Valley. Against the grain of much modern filmmaking, Cowboys & Aliens was filmed on location in New Mexico: all of its settings are real, physical places, even the spaceship interior sets; the aliens and their technology are brought to life with a mixture of CG and practical effects; and the daytime scenes are filmed with natural light. (Director of Photography Matthew Libatique is best known as a long-time collaborator with Darren Aronofsky, and had previously worked with Favreau on the first two Iron Man movies.) It is as real as a film about cowboys fighting alien invaders can be, and its sense of place is a powerful asset.**

**It also sounds great: composer Harry Gregson-Williams had the job of effectively scoring two movies, but his score fits together and bridges the gap between genres very effectively.

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In the films Sobchak was writing about (largely low-budget monster and alien-invasion movies such as Them! and It Came From Outer Space), the scope and ruggedness of natural settings are only part of their effectiveness in setting mood: they are also isolated. The tension in these films is in part a product of their settings’ loneliness and distance from help, and the frisson generated when encountering something that doesn’t belong where no one should be: “strange inhuman footprints on an impressionable beach,” to cite one of Sobchak’s examples. Cowboys & Aliens features exactly that trope, with Indian tracker Nat following the trail of footprints left by the alien.

Tracking is an important part of Western lore, and the Indian scout is one of several archetypal characters the movie presents. The anxiety and eeriness of seeing the alien footprints is only slightly greater than that a settler might have experienced upon finding prints in unknown territory: do they belong to friend or foe? In that strange world west of the tree line, the unknown almost always represented danger.

cowboys.riverboat

Another common visual motif of science fiction is the juxtaposition of the natural and the artificial, or the primitive and the high-tech (in his essay “The Science Fiction Film Image,”*** Fred Chappell identifies this as one of five types of incongruity that can make an image recognizably science fictional: “the spaceship in the wilderness” and “the spaceman among alien aborigines” are two examples he gives). The riverboat, already made eerie by its landlocked, overturned state, is half-overgrown with weeds, and rain water filters through its cracked floors and ceilings. It’s an image of nature and technology in collision, and its wrongness foreshadows the searchers’ ultimate destination, a tower-like spaceship hidden among the rock formations of a remote canyon. In Cowboys & Aliens, the aliens are the spacemen, the humans the aborigines, a very effective reversal of common imagery (more about this momentarily).

***Both Vivian Sobchak’s and Fred Chappell’s essays are found in the Monarch Film Studies volume Science Fiction Films, edited by Thomas R. Atkins.

cowboys.ship

Unbeknownst to the group, the injured alien is also hiding in the riverboat, and this sequence of the movie recalls Alien’s “haunted house” formula; the first clear view of the alien reveals it as a tall, vaguely humanoid creature with a mixture of reptilian and insectoid features (including, most disturbingly, a breastplate that opens to reveal a pair of tiny, grasping forelimbs for fine manipulation, a clear nod to the mouth-within-a-mouth of H. R. Giger’s xenomorph). The alien picks off a few members of the party, including the preacher, and escapes.

cowboys.alien2

The next morning, after picking up the alien’s fresh tracks, the party runs afoul of a gang of robbers: some of Lonergan’s old crew, now run by a dufus named Hunt (Walton Goggins). Lonergan, still not completely recovered from his amnesia, plays along and asks Hunt to take him back to the gang’s camp. It’s there that he learns that he had left the gang high and dry, taking their share of the stolen gold in order to run away with his woman. The gang isn’t too willing to have him back, and they threaten the members of the search party. Another aerial attack by the aliens interrupts them.

Ella is taken by one of the aliens’ lassos, and Lonergan manages to jump onto the ship carrying her, blowing it up with the blaster; they both land in the water, but Ella is wounded by the ship’s alien pilot, who also escaped the crash of his craft. Lonergan carries Ella back to the search party, but it’s too late: she is dead.

cowboys.Ella2

The party is surrounded by an Apache tribe on horseback who take them back to their encampment. Dolarhyde’s anti-Indian attitudes come to the fore, but Nat is able to translate and keep the two groups from killing each other. When Ella’s body is thrown onto a funeral pyre, it releases a burst of energy and she comes back to life: she is the last of her kind, one of another race that had already been wiped out by the aliens, and who has been following them to make sure no other world suffers the same fate as her home. Finally we get a little exposition: the aliens are part of a scouting mission, looking for gold (“It’s as rare to them as it is to you,” she explains) and abducting humans to perform tests and analyze their weaknesses in advance of a full invasion force.

Even when it’s clearer what is happening, there is no outpouring of foreign names or history, no grand mythology of which this film is only a single episode; in an era of incessant franchise-building, it’s refreshing to see such a self-contained story. (If the film’s poor performance has one bright side, it’s that we weren’t subjected to a series of increasingly convoluted and unsatisfying sequels.)

Because of its singularity—there is only a single scout ship, destroyed by the humans by the end of the movie—and its remoteness from civilization, this is a story that can take place without rewriting known history. It has a level of plausible deniability: even if the characters were to share their story at some point, who would believe them? (I don’t know if it was intentional, but this alien-invasion story fits neatly with the nineteenth-century “airship mysteries” that are sometimes cited as proto-UFO phenomena, not to mention the various hoaxes that filled newspapers of the time.)

In a sweat lodge ceremony, the Apaches help Lonergan recover the rest of his memories in a deeply unsettling sequence: a hard-to-place memory of his lover lying next to him is revealed to be her vivisection at the hands of an alien scientist, before her disintegration right before Lonergan’s eyes. In the flashback, he is strapped to a table, awaiting his turn to be tested and then exterminated. He remembers how the alien’s carelessness gave him the chance to steal its weapon and use it to escape, his mind still scrambled by a hypnotic light the aliens used to keep their captives docile.

cowboys.penned

At this point, all the threads come together for the big finish: Nat helps Dolarhyde reach an accommodation with the Apaches (who have also lost many of their people to the aliens) by explaining that Dolarhyde raised him like a son, even though they were not blood, and Lonergan rides out to convince his old gang to join the fight. The townspeople, gang members, and Apaches converge on the aliens’ base, a spaceship half buried in the ground in a remote canyon, disguised to look like the rocks around it. (I personally love scenes where erstwhile foes join together to defeat a common foe, like the gangsters and G-men standing up to the Nazis in The Rocketeer. If Cowboys & Aliens could be described as Independence Day in the Old West, at least it has more nuance than that film.)

The images of alien footprints and the alien vessel in the canyon are doorways from which the Western transitions into science fiction in Cowboys & Aliens, but they are also reminders that the Western is already a kind of science fiction, a historically-based example of Isaac Asimov’s definition of science fiction as “that branch of literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.” Although not always the central focus of Western stories, the telegraph, the railroad, the Winchester rifle, and even the horse—introduced by the conquistadors, and which transformed the plains tribes before settlers had even crossed the Mississippi—are clear examples of new technologies affecting entire civilizations. (Technological superiority alone does not account for the relentless expansion of colonists at the expense of Native peoples, but it is surely a significant factor.) Even if white settlers had been wholly benign, Native culture could not have avoided changing through contact and trade with them.

Cowboys & Aliens puts all its human characters, white and Indian alike, in the position of natives faced with conquerors who vastly outgun them (and will also outnumber them in the event of a full-scale invasion). The Apaches and whites, who otherwise would have no cause to trust or associate with each other, have a good reason to work together here. The aliens see humanity as a mere inconvenience, almost beneath notice, fit only to exploit and experiment upon; they sweep in and take what they want, in a pattern of conquest that (according to Ella) has happened again and again. Human beings are even compared explicitly to cattle, first by being roped up and taken, and then by being penned while they await slaughter. The movie doesn’t hit us over the head with it, but it isn’t subtle.

cowboys.watches

The film is at its most horrifying not when the searchers are being picked off by a lone alien in the upside-down riverboat, but in Lonergan’s memories and his return to the spaceship. Watching his lover disposed of as a science experiment; finding piles of pocket watches and glasses from past victims; the prisoners herded together as a nameless mass awaiting their turn—and Lonergan remembering himself as one of them: these are images not just of genocide, but of Holocaust, the scientist-alien (whom the filmmakers in their commentary describe tellingly as the uber-alien) as Dr. Mengele. It is this, more than anything else in the film, that likely made it so hard to swallow for audiences who only wanted a Western lark with a twist, an afternoon with the kids to sit in air conditioning and eat popcorn, and it makes the cannibalism and Indian slaughter of The Lone Ranger seem measured by comparison.

cowboys.uber

Finally, a few words about the cast: it’s loaded with well-known stars and terrific character actors, but as we all know that doesn’t always lead to a good movie. In this case, however, the cast has great chemistry; most of the actors are familiar faces with experience in Westerns and do many of their own stunts, adding to the sense of lived-in reality. Daniel Craig is a natural as a bad man who finds himself capable of heroism, and Olivia Wilde’s otherworldly beauty makes her an excellent choice for her role; the supporting cast is also a pleasure to watch. I’d like to single out Harrison Ford, however, for the best performance he’s given in years. Colonel Dolarhyde is the kind of tight-lipped grouch Ford has been playing for the last decade-plus, but here he doesn’t come off as a pampered, over-the-hill star marking time until he can get back to flying his plane. His anger, his disappointment in his son, and the bitterness that has grown into a thick shell around him feel genuine, and his last scenes with Nat are moving in the best hey-I’m-not-crying-it’s-just-getting-awfully-dusty-in-here guys’-movie tradition. In the interviews on the Blu-ray, Ford mentions that he’s playing the old man role, mostly talking while Craig does all the stunts. It’s an exaggeration, but it points to a relationship that plays out on screen, with the grudging respect that develops between the two men unfolding naturally. Harrison Ford is really acting in this one, guys: see it and believe it.

cowboys.dolarhyde1

Hitch Your Wagon to a Star: The Elusive Hollywood Sci-Fi Western

Despite the title, not a space Western

Despite the title, not a space Western

It seems like it should be easy: “space cowboys” such as Han Solo and Mal Reynolds are essentially Old West gunslingers dropped into the cockpit of a spaceship, so why shouldn’t it work the other way around: a robot on horseback or a space alien on a stagecoach? Despite the longstanding popularity of both Westerns and science fiction, the number of films that successfully bring the two genres together in this way is surprisingly small. To be sure, ghost stories, tall tales, and bloody violence are all established parts of Western lore, and some great movies have been made exploring these themes, but the “weird Western” typically explores the boundaries of fantasy and horror, myth and history, rather than science fiction. It turns out that it’s easier to move the Old West into outer space than vice versa.

Undoubtedly, the cinematic grandfather of all such hybrids is the 1935 serial The Phantom Empire (of which I have written more extensively elsewhere), in which singing cowboy Gene Autry runs up against members of a super-advanced underground civilization. In their book The Great Movie Serials, Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut characterize The Phantom Empire as the beginning of a cycle of “zap-gun Western” serials. However, the other examples they cite, such as Tom Mix’s final film The Miracle Rider, involve super-science of purely human invention, and lack the sense of weird mystery and contact with alien forces that makes The Phantom Empire so distinctive.

PErobot.disguise

Perhaps the reason there have been so few overt fusions of science fiction and the Western in film is that such a hybrid is redundant: once science fiction (especially in the pulpy, action-adventure mode that has dominated popular film-making) took over the Western’s role as the main arena for playing out America’s myths and fears, it borrowed wholesale many of the plots and character types associated with the older genre, effectively replacing it. Good guys (almost exclusively white in the early years of both genres) and bad guys (sometimes literally alien, sometimes white men whose greed had overcome them); a thirst for exploration and conquest, usually in the name of civilization but often identified with commercial interests; and a sense of isolation, of being separated from the routines and mores of the old world (including meditations on the softening, corrupting influences of civilized society), were all notable features of both the Western and early science fiction, to the point that “horse opera” could be updated to “space opera” without any misunderstanding on the part of audiences. The “edge of civilization” was constantly moving outward: Star Trek’s description of space as “the final frontier” is illustrative.

Show creator Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as "Wagon Train to the stars." A few episodes, such as "Spectre of the Gun," made it literal.

Show creator Gene Roddenberry pitched Star Trek as “Wagon Train to the stars.” A few episodes, such as “Spectre of the Gun,” made it literal.

Besides the gunslinger, other characters, such as the alien other, the damsel in distress (or the hooker with a heart of gold in racier manifestations: neither genre had much use for well-developed female characters, as pioneering was considered man’s work), the white man “gone native,” the amoral company man, and the wise tribesman (often the last of his kind, given a tragic nobility once no longer a threat) were translated easily. Science fiction, arriving as it did in a period of both rapid dissemination of ideas and ready access to literature of the past, became a clearinghouse of genre storytelling, absorbing themes and tropes like a sponge. From this point of view, it’s only natural that Terry Gilliam could describe Darth Vader as “the cowboy with the black hat,” that Flash Gordon’s Princess Aura fits the mold of the femme fatale, and that Seven Samurai could be remade as both a Western and as a space adventure. Ultimately, callow, daydreaming farm boys are the same everywhere, whether from Texas or Tatooine.

In that case, the distinction between the two genres is one of iconography, and iconography flourishes in visual media: comic books and cartoons have always been friendly to the robot in a cowboy hat, as have the pop surrealism movement and the artists who contribute to sites like DeviantArt. When it comes to mixing and matching, Western and sci-fi are primary colors that can be laid on in broad strokes.

Bender3

Both literary and cinematic science fiction have had to work to absorb Western motifs, however: all but the most fantastic stories attempt to rationalize the mixture of Old West and New Frontier, and here the difference between the two genres is a clear obstacle.* The Western is rooted in a specific time and place, and once that historical moment was over, the Western became a genre about the past (one reflecting contemporary attitudes, to be sure, but almost always focusing through the lens of history); science fiction, especially in the early Space Age, was about the future, and whether focused on the promise of exploration or the horror of nuclear war, it used speculation about the future to examine the current moment. In short, both forms stood in the present, but the Western looked into the past, either searching for some imperialistic original sin or retreating into comforting nostalgia, while science fiction looked into the future, projecting either our hopes or fears.

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Given that difference in emphasis, science fiction has often chosen to visit the Old West by means of time travel or alternate history. The “steampunk” movement has produced a wide variety of literature, some of it great, but on film it has been too often a faddish visual template that can be applied to the same old pulp storytelling: the result has been ambitious failures like the film version of Wild Wild West or “high concept” dreck like Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. (Complaints about the perceived hackiness of combining the two genres aren’t new: Wikipedia’s “Space Western” entry notes pulp-era efforts to stamp out lazy updates of Western plots in sci-fi garb, including one magazine’s ad campaign claiming “You’ll never see it in Galaxy.”)

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Better are films that find ways to repurpose the trappings of the Western, like Westworld, in which the Western setting is a fiction within the fiction, or Serenity (the belated finale of television series Firefly), which makes explicit both the themes of colonization and post-civil war disillusionment that are a part of the Western. In both cases, the adoption of Western dress and lingo are made to seem not only organic to the setting but essential to the stories being told: both use science fiction to interrogate the Western, and by extension mythmaking in general.

* Even excursions into outright fantasy don’t always pass the laugh test: I invite you to consider the short-lived 1987 cartoon series BraveStarr:

I’ve also just become aware of a 1999 film called Aliens in the Wild, Wild West that doesn’t look too promising; although I haven’t seen it, an imdb reviewer calls it “one of the top ten worst movies I have ever seen.” Tellingly, like The Phantom Empire and like BraveStarr and similar cartoons, Aliens in the Wild, Wild West appears to have been made primarily for children.

BraveStarr

BraveStarr

Next week, I’ll look at a recent example of the genre, 2011’s Cowboys & Aliens.