Rancho Notorious (1952)

Rancho Notorious (1952) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 06/19/2017

Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious starts out with a rape and murder of a pretty shop owner by a vicious outlaw. For 1952, this suggestion is hardly detailed and yet more explicit than implicit. This is the event that spurs Vern (Arthur Kennedy) on a long, lonesome road to revenge, tracking through Indian territory on the trail of an outlaw, and finding himself at a secretive ranch run by a former showgirl Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich), who now harbors criminals for 10% of their loot.

The bandits that meet up there range broadly in the crimes and characters, and Vern comes to hide among them but also to identify with some of them, most significantly Frenchy Fairmont (Mel Ferrer), Keane’s long-time semi-beau. This is familiar territory for Lang, a criminal underworld, but one with its own ethics, honesty, and sense of fair play.

Really, it’s Vern who is the deceiver, playing a wanted outlaw to get close to the criminals who killed his girl. Though he joins them on a bank robbery, tying himself to the criminals, it’s his betrayal of Keane’s rules that allow him to eke out his revenge.

This is late Lang, a period somewhat disdained by his fans and critics. Produced and re-named by Howard Hughes, this is a cheapie by Hollywood standards. But Rancho Notorious was a film that Lang developed more fully than most, from conception to completion, and it bears the qualities of the work of one of the true auteurs in Hollywood.

It’s also got Dietrich, right at the top, a meta-legend in the story, and an aging movie star still relatively youthful at her age of 51.

I always seem to find Lang’s films sit with me, develop more and more in retrospect, and I sense that Rancho Notorious will as well.

From Hell It Came (1957)

From Hell It Came (1957) movie poster

director Dan Milner
viewed: 06/18/2017

If they made Moana in 1957, it might have come out as From Hell It Came. It’s a time when depicting stories from the South Seas had nothing to do with broadening inclusiveness. Rather these islands were exotica and the primitive all rolled into one, and the depictions herein are as mangled and weird as any rendering Polynesia on film.

But goddam! The “Tobanga”, tree zombie, resurrected for revenge. Made by Paul Blaisdell, he might not exactly get around all that easily, but he can carry a swooning beauty with any monster from the 1950’s. Add that together with the pretty awesome poster and the title, From Hell It Came, and you’ve got a pretty compelling potash no matter what actually happens in the movie.

Me, I love this kind of stuff. So much so, I don’t really know exactly how to rate it.

It features a slew of really funny lines, whose intentionality ranges broadly. The monster tree has a heartbeat (apparently exterior) that looks quite like a swollen sphincter as much like a knurl. Wonderful crackpot pseudoscience too.

Sublime junk.

Terror-Creatures from the Grave (1965)

Terror-Creatures from the Grave (1965) movie poster

director  Domenico Massimo Pupillo
viewed: 06/16/2017

Terror-Creatures from the Grave is the most Ed Wood-ian non-Ed Wood, Jr. horror title I can think of. It’s original Italian 5 tombe per un medium (or Five Graves for a Medium), while more accurate, I guess wasn’t an American marketing person’s idea of a seat-filler.

This was the final film in my mini-Barbara Steele marathon, but not necessarily the best to end on. A Barbara Steele film isn’t JUST measured by the amount of Barbara Steele in it, but it is indeed an impactful scale for assessment nonetheless.

Here, the disembodied hands of plague victims long-dead come to life in one of the film’s more vivid moments. Outside of this, the anniversary of the death of Steele’s character’s husband brings about a mysterious call to a notary/attorney from beyond the grave to pay witness to the deaths of all present at the husband’s demise.

Though I’m far from having completed the Barbara Steele 1960’s Italian horror cycle, I’ll stop here at present and catch my breath a bit.

The Ghost (1963)

The Ghost (1963) movie poster

director Riccardo Freda
viewed: 06/14/2017

I’ve already noted the Giallo bent of some of these 1960’s Italian Barbara Steele horror vehicles, flitting between the inexplicable and the evil’s more man-made. I’ve also noted the Hitchcockian qualities therein, especially on the more human-wrought horrors. Director Riccardo Freda apparently like to pay his homage quite clearly. The characters of The Ghost, like his earlier Steele picture The Horrible Dr. Hichcock (1962) are homonyms of the “master of suspense.”

Interestingly, per WikipediaThe Ghost channels a different suspense master, Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques (1955). I guess that is a semi-spoiler if you’re waiting to find out whether or not the doings are spiritual or more of this earthly plane.

The story has a somewhat convoluted scenario with an ailing Dr. Hichcock, swinging between suicide and a will to live, while rescued and followed by attempted murder by his wife (Steele) and his physician.

Maybe the least interesting of my Barbara Steele mini-marathon, though fitting so well within this continuum, wives and husbands and murder and ghosts, and that damn solarium, I don’t know what else to say.

Nightmare Castle (1965)

Nightmare Castle (1965) movie poster

director Mario Caiano
viewed: 06/13/2017

When you’ve seen one 1960’s Italian Barbara Steele horror picture…you’ve seen a glimpse upon a continuum. Themes, ideas, locations, so many things recur in ways rewoven into new cloth though certainly not whole cloth. And yet the power of Barbara compels you!

Nightmare Castle has a lot of that, but features nasty sadistic torture, doppelgangers (in brunette and blonde), psychological torture and ghosts! The Steele 1960’s Italian horror line interweaves with notions of the growing giallo genre, zipping in and out of man-made mystery and the supernatural. Though it’s more Gothic than anything Hitchcock did, the murder of your wife and her lover, followed by the marriage to her insane younger sister who you attempt to drive completely over the edge…is quite something that the Master of Suspense would have approved.

It’s easy to see how these movies could get conflated in one’s mind, even watching them relatively back-to-back, the films are so littered with similar tropes that it’s kind of easy to get lost between them.

And yet this is only the mid-point in my little Barbara Steele mini-marathon.

Castle of Blood (1964)

Castle of Blood (1964) movie poster

directors  Antonio Margheriti, Sergio Corbucci
viewed: 06/12/2017

After watching The She Beast, I found myself falling headlong into a mini-Barbara Steele marathon. That face. Those eyes.

I really liked Castle of Blood. The version I watched on Fandor switched at brief times from English to French, which added a hint of surreal to this tale of a castle haunted by the ghosts of those murdered there, reenacting their demises and seeking fresh blood to carry on.

Black and white Italian 1960’s horror never looked so good outside of Mario Bava.

Castle of Blood tips its hat to Edgar Allan Poe, but pipes in its own gothic airs of eerie merriment. It is infused with that nightmarish sensibility, in which glimpses of things appear and disappear, happen out of nowhere. Really quite good.

The She Beast (1966)

The She Beast (1966) movie poster

director  Michael Reeves
viewed: 06/11/2017

Known mostly for his last finished film, Witchfinder General (1968), Michael Reeves didn’t live long enough to build much of filmography. But it is the quality of Witchfinder General that has endured and thus made Reeves’s tragically short life one of those obscure tidbits of horror film history.

It’s also what led me to dig up The She Beast.

Actually I started to watch an incredibly beat-up version of the film on a DVD, only to really bethink myself that I was willing to bet a better version was out there on YouTube. And indeed there was. If anything, it’s underscored the importance of making sure that any worthwhile film is seen in its best available context and further reason that film restoration is so important.

Because The She Beast, even restored, isn’t a great film. But it’s interesting, slightly weird, and vaguely comic. And the restoration done makes a world of difference.

It stars the magnificently gorgeous Barbara Steele though there is all too little of her in it. It’s about a hideously ugly witch who was drowned in a lake (somewhere in Transylvania?), brought back to life by a doddering Van Helsing, and possessing a young newlywed (Steele).

I have no idea if it was seen by Roman Polanski, but it seems quite the template for his The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), strange semi-gothic horror comedy that it is.

Surely, no one would be remembering Reeves if this was his only film, but as part of what might have been, not the worst starting point for a directorial career.

Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk (2017)

 Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk (2017) movie poster

director Corbett Redford
viewed: 06/10/2017 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – New Mission, SF, CA

I went to Gilman Street in spring of 1987, only a couple of months after it had opened. The show I caught was typically eclectic and in retrospect pretty awesome (Frightwig, the Didjits, the Dwarves, & Primus), though none of the bands that would become known as Gilman bands. I was 17.

My scene was in Gainesville, FL and my tangential link to Gilman and the East Bay was inspired by Gilman and its scene and led me to booking Operation Ivy and Crimpshrine when they toured in 1988. Eventually I moved permanently to California and Gilman was a continual pull, one of the only all ages venues of its day, plus its great price and atmosphere. I also eventually moved to San Francisco, and for the first year I lived in the city, I worked for MaximumRocknRoll and could call Tim Yohannon a friend.

So, Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk is populated by a number of people that I’ve known, some I still know, and tells a story from the inside of the Bay Area punk scene with which I have a lot of personal connection and familiarity and is also why I dragged my kids to sit through a 2 1/2 hour documentary on a Saturday afternoon.

Produced by Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day, it’s a long-winded love letter to the heart of his punk birthing (and many others). The film is without a doubt overlong, but really tries to tell as full a story as possible, starting with Berkeley in the 1960’s, tracing the first waves of punk in San Francisco and the world, second waves of punk and all the early East Bay bands all before it gets to the founding of Gilman Street and all the bands and stories that emanated from it.

Since Billie Joe produced it, it’s got good production values and features Iggy Pop as narrator (though has Iggy ever been to Gilman?) Aaron Cometbus lurks around the film, silently lettering the chapter titles.

Some notables are notable in their absence. Controversies around the commercialization of punk and what happened to the Gilman scene in the 1990’s are addressed. It’s always seemed to me that Jesse Michaels caught a real sense of what was coming when he and Tim broke up Operation Ivy, the band that almost broke punk into the mainstream (their inherent popularity outgrew their comfort level before that chance ever reared its head.)

I actually took my son to Gilman for his first concert about a year and half ago, the first time I’d been there in 20 years. Physically it’s still the same, and it’s still populated by a lot of teenagers and young people (there were a couple old fogies like myself there). It is a cool place, and it’s truly amazing that it’s survived as long as it has in its being.

Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)

Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973) movie poster

director Jun Fukuda
viewed: 06/09/2017

I have vivid memories of Godzilla vs. Megalon from 1976. I was 6 or 7 when it came to town and I totally remember the excitement of going to see a Godzilla movie in the theater. I loved monsters and Godzilla was my favorite. I also recall being somewhat disappointed with the movie. I always thought that Megalon was pretty cool, but it seemed like forever waiting for Godzilla. I think I liked Gigan and Jet Jaguar, more or less. Probably before Star Wars, this was my biggest movie thrill.

Over the years, the kids and I have worked our way through the Shōwa period Godzilla movies, but at that point I couldn’t get my hands on Megalon. The kids both fell asleep though this one.

It’s super-silly, even by super-silly standards. That a lost Atlantis-like world called Seatopia is disturbed by underground nuclear testing and sends Megalon and eventually Gigan to attack the surface-dwellers. They put a lot of focus on a robot developer, his pal, and kid brother, roping them into the hijinks. There is a lot of really bizarre stuff in here like the dolphin paddle boat thing the kid rides (which looks pretty cool despite also looking totally non-functional).

But really the weirdest leaps in logic are related to would-be kaiju king Jet Jaguar, who was apparently designed by a kid in a contest and originally planned to be the star of the thing. First, he develops his own will and cognizance, to only a mild surprise of his creator. Then, he magically wills himself from human-size to Godzilla size, which is explained as something he just decided to do.

Really, you should just embrace the whole thing and not really question it.

The fight sequences are indeed reminiscent of professional wrestling, more than most kaiju flicks I can think of. And, you know, as dumb as it is, it’s still moderately entertaining.

The Devil (1981)

The Devil (1980) VHS box cover

director Jen-Chieh Chang
viewed: 06/08/2017

As obscure as The Devil is, the internet has more than beat me at summing up with 1980’s HK/Taiwanese horror picture: “A hideously ugly witch casts spells on her victims which turns their insides into snakes and worms.” – IMDb.com

This was the B-side to The Rapist (1994) on a cheap dvd from Videoasia. A weird pairing other than from obscurity.

Not without its charms, The Devil has some gruesomeness and worms and snakes and effluvia. And a kid named Ding Dong who wears some strange outfits and would make this movie quite the fish in the barrel for MST3K or whomever.