Valley of the Zombies (1944)

Valley of the Zombies (1944) movie poster

director Philip Ford
viewed: 05/02/2016

To call Valley of the Zombies a horror film is a bit of a stretch. Heck, just because it has “Zombie” in the title and ostensibly features a voodoo style zombie character, I guess. Some have even noted that the “Valley” of the title isn’t even a valley but a metaphor.  It’s more a comedy and pop adventure than a thriller or a horror film.

Valley of the Zombies comes from Republic Studios, a big independent Hollywood studio of Poverty Row, a studio that didn’t do much in the way of horror, more in the way of Westerns.

The film features Robert Livingston and Lorna Gray as a low-rent doctor and nurse Nick and Nora, on the hunt for a crazy killer who embalms all his victims and turns out (pretty early on) to be a once-dead dude who needs fresh blood to stay alive, via some hoodoo.  More importantly it features Ian Keith as a Poverty Row Boris Karloff-ish villain.  It’s straight-up Scooby-Doo style low-brow low-jinks.

It does feature an amusing line or two: “Let’s go over to Dr. Maynard’s office and see if we can pick up a clue that will lead us to this peculiar party that has a passion for pickling.”

Series 7: The Contenders (2001)

Series 7: The Contenders (2001) movie poster

director Daniel Minahan
viewed: 05/01/2016

I joined Netflix in 2002 or so and I think that Series 7: The Contenders has sat in my DVD queue for all these many years.  It had been so long that anything specific about it was long washed from my memory, other than being a satire about reality TV and probably in particular either COPS or Survivor  I guess one of the interesting things about finally getting around to watching it 14 years later is how much the landscape has changed and yet how prescient and relevant it continues to be.

Shot on video and crafted to look like a reality-style program about a group of six “contenders” who are given a handgun and have to survive the game by eliminating their five other players.  The players are a cross section of this suburban Connecticut town, a range of folks from 18 to 72, all white.  The film breaks itself up with the going-to-commercial types of promos, cutting back into the hand-held action.

While the concept is quite akin to The 10th Victim (1965) and to a lesser extent Battle Royale (2000), it’s very much a product of its time.  And a well-made one at that.  For its low budget and rather non-famous cast, writer-director Daniel Minahan crafts a satire probably not too far removed from potential reality (as far as what this kind of show would look like if ever produced.)  It’s interesting that Minahan hasn’t made another film but has a sizable filmography from big name television shows in the intervening years.

There is certainly some clunkiness, especially around some of the more dramatic acting moments, but the movie skips along at a hurried pace and clocks in under 90 minutes.

It’s kind of interesting to think back on the early days of reality television before it became so amazingly ubiquitous and broad-ranging.  I found myself pondering what a version of this movie would look like today, made still on the cheap, what differences would come through, responding to the glut of reality content and its contemporary tone.

PS Though I did recognize the surprising occurrence of Will Arnett toward the end, I just no realized that the 18 year old was a young Merritt Wever!

You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

You Can't Take It with You (1938) movie poster

director Frank Capra
viewed: 04/30/2016

You Can’t Take It with You is by no means a perfect movie, but it is damned entertaining and a lot of fun.  It comes from Frank Capra’s most successful run, weaving stories of hope and humanity for the common American against the backdrop of the Great Depression.  Capra’s real world politics were conservative and his portraiture deeply sentimental, but his artistry was strong and his films could be complex, or at least open to more complex readings.

I’ve stated before that I’m no Capra scholar.  This was my first time with You Can’t Take It with You.  I’ve been working my way through his films and typically find them very enjoyable.  I’ve watched them with my now 12 year old daughter, who also enjoys them.  In fact, she probably enjoyed this film more than any other films we’ve watched in weeks.

It’s got the terrific Lionel Barrymore as the “grampa” of a house of collected eccentrics, family and otherwise, somewhat like a non-Goth Addams Family.  His granddaughter, the fabulous and charming Jean Arthur falls for the always lovable Jimmy Stewart, son of magnate Edward Arnold, capitalist (and firearms manufacturer) about to corner the market, driving his opponent to bankruptcy and destroying a working class neighborhood in the name of the almighty dollar.

Adapted from a Pulitzer-winning play, it’s got the common man and the brutal machinery of capitalism stuff that Capra works into magic.  To be honest, some of the stuff works perfectly while others seem to shrill a little hard.  And as likable as Barrymore is, his speechifying is certainly heavy-handed.

And yet, when the emotional surge at the end comes up, if you don’t feel a tug at those tear ducts.

Was it the Best Picture of 1938?  The Academy deemed it so.  I deem it a fine film.

Chopping Mall (1986)

Chopping Mall (1986) movie poster

director Jim Wynorski
viewed: 04/29/2016

From schlockmeister Jim Wynorski and produced by Julie Corman, Chopping Mall is some seriously Eighties biz.  I mean, it’s set in a mall.  It takes place almost entirely inside a mall (the Sherman Oaks Galleria).  But Eightiesness is just one aspect of charm to this fun thriller about killer robots gone amok.  In fact, it’s packed with charms.

Chopping Mall stars Kelli Maroney, a stand-out from Night of the Comet (1984) and one-time Ryan’s Hope star (my mom loved that show).  Maroney plays Alison, a young mall waitress who meets up with some friends for an after hours party in a mall furniture store, only to become trapped and hunted by those killer robots.  The film also features brief cameos by the always welcome Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, and Mary Woronov and Barbara Crampton in a somewhat “meatier” role.

Interestingly inspired by Gog (1954), the mall’s nouveau electronic security force are set awry not by an alien force but rather by mere lightning!  Beating RoboCop (1987) to the punch by a year, it’s nowhere as ambitious but it is scads of fun, packed with references to Roger Corman movies galore, it’s a lot of low-budget schlocky fun, a classic of its own kind.

“I guess I’m just not used to being chased around the mall in the middle of the night by killer robots!”

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Midnight Cowboy (1969) movie poster

director John Schlesinger
viewed: 04/27/2016

What movie won Best Picture at the Oscars the year you were born?  This bit of random trivia links John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy and I.  And though I had never seen it before, I was well aware of the film, from many points of culture, but notably from issue #134 of Mad Magazine (1970) which featured a parody titled “Midnight Wowboy”.  I wonder how many movies I experience first as a Mad Magazine parody?

The only X-rated film to win Best Picture, it’s an item very much of its changing times, a portrait of America, American dreams, big city blues, somewhat abstract storytelling, and a compelling friendship that may also be a tacit love relationship.  Of course, that latter thing is between Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and Rico “Ratso” Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman), the tubercular, gimpy greaseball.  As Buck’s story unreels in flashbacks, I’m not entirely sure what happened to him, though the image of sexual exploitation is clear enough.

It deals with homosexuality in a way that was no doubt daring for its time, but also probably very emblematic of it.  I think it’s funny that it was the film’s “homosexual frame of reference” that nabbed it its X-rating.  Typical, quite typical.  Buck and Rizzo’s relationship, and the performances by both Voight and Hoffman, cement the film and have made iconic if somewhat cartoonish figures as ultimately iconic as those roles have been taken.

That Harry Nilsson “Everybody’s Talkin'” number nails the vibe at the beginning of the film and then about 15 minutes in starts wearing super thin (before disappearing until the end again).

It’s a well-made film, and entertaining enough.  But I don’t think I totally loved it.  I can say that this is one I can finally check off the lifelong movie bucket list at last.

Woman in the Dunes (1964)

Woman in the Dunes (1964) movie poster

director  Hiroshi Teshigahara
viewed: 04/26/2016

Hiroshi Teshigahara’s Woman in the Dunes has the quality of a parable to it.  Though it is set in what would have been contemporary Japan of 1964, it is also set in a timeless placeless place, a fantasy nightmarish hell of endless sand and endless time.

A teacher and amateur entomologist (Eiji Okada) exploring the seaside dunes for beetles and other insects finds himself stranded when he misses the last bus back to the city.  Seemingly friendly villagers set him up with a place to stay.  Oddly, it’s a house in a hole in the ground where a woman (Kyōko Kishida, our lady of the dunes) lives, digging sand for the villagers and fighting the sand from swallowing her house (it has already claimed her husband and child.)

Like the antlions Okada captures, he too is caught in a sand trap.  Because it is a trap, an unending Sisyphean existence, metaphorical yet oddly vague.  Teshigahara’s camera lingers on the movement of the sand, the grit and shine of each speck as it clings to Kishida’s throat, or as it cascades in sheets tumbling into the hole.  Utterly sensual and sensuous, there is something tender to this trap, but something entirely existential as well.

This was the second of four films that Teshigahara made from the work of Kōbō Abe with Abe’s collaboration.  Of the four the only one I’d seen was the also remarkable The Face of Another (1966).

I have a feeling I’ll be contemplating this film for some time to come.

Curse of the Swamp Creature (1966)

Curse of the Swamp Creature (1966) movie poster

director Larry Buchanan
viewed: 04/25/2016

Some bad movies are just a lot more fun than other bad movies.  For my money, Curse of the Swamp Creature is nigh sublime bad movieness.

It comes from Larry Buchanan, a titan in a cinematic teapot.  Buchanan, a Texan, was hired in the 1960’s to shoot cheap color remakes of American International Pictures originals from the 1950’s.  These included titles like In The Year 2889 (remake of The Day The World Ended), Creature of Destruction (remake of The She Creature), Attack of the Eye Creatures (remake of Invasion of the Saucer Men) and Zontar, the Thing From Venus (remake of It Conquered The World).  Per 1000misspenthours.comCurse of the Swamp Creature is itself a re-make of 1956’s Voodoo Woman.

While the film “stars” John Agar and Francine York, since we’re still working with my money here, I’ll say the real star is Jeff Alexander, who could pass for Hunter S. Thompson’s more svelte younger brother, as Dr. Simond Trent, resident mad scientist, alligator farmer, and amphibio-human enthusiast.  The whole film is shot with post-production sound synching and is a madcap camp comedy at every turn, and yet Dr. Trent is a genuinely interesting screwball scientist and good villain.

And somehow, perhaps due to the color requirements of re-making these B and lower grade pictures, Curse of the Swamp Creature features good-looking and clean photography in full color.  Perhaps best appreciated in the film’s final moments when the creature finally appears in its greenish glory.

Knowing the backstory of Buchanan’s re-making of AIP’s 1950’s fare, it all makes a lot more sense why this looks like an odd color version of a Roger Corman production a decade out of time with no improvements added in at all.  The result is something transcendentally camp, a pure late-night trek into a psychotronic cinema fantasia of badness and weirdness in equal doses.

My other favorite fact I uncovered in reading up on the film is this:

“The movie was filmed in Uncertain, Texas where the Fly-N-Fish Lodge and Airport seen in early scenes still exists.”

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015)

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015) movie poster

director Christopher B. Landon
viewed: 04/22/2016

An almost completely terrible horror-comedy from director/co-writer Christopher B. Landon.  It looks like something that might have been adapted from a comic book or something but oddly enough, this is an original screenplay/idea.

In its favor are a couple of practical effects that wind up to be rather amusing, in particular the zombie cats and their paws beneath the door.  A strip club called “Lawrence of A-Labia” and…well, maybe that’s it.

What’s most perplexing here is how little “scouting” plays into the survival of these teenagers in their own zombie apocalypse.  Three teen scouts do indeed find themselves in a zombie world, one in which zombies change quickly and run fast otherwise somewhat generic.  Their friendship and survival skills empower them to befriend a stripper, oh sorry, “cocktail waitress” with a heart of gold and a real hand with a shotgun.  But really, the whole scouting thing gets such short shrift as skills (outside of escaping a jail cell via tied together condoms — which patch was that?)

Beyond all that I was thinking to myself how little this film felt beholden to creating anything like “reality”.  The characters, tropes, and scenarios are cliché, could have been recut from any number of bad television shows, but don’t reflect any naturalistic reality to which one could relate.  I kind of doubt it’s worth the effort to try to explain that better or to think about this movie any more than has been necessary.

My kids thought it sucked too.

Unfaithfully Yours (1948)

Unfaithfully Yours (1948) movie poster

director Preston Sturges
viewed: 04/19/2016

I’m still working my way through Preston Sturges, and thusly I am still working my way to reckoning my overall feelings about him.  The first of his films I saw was the absolutely terrific Sullivan’s Travels (1941).  The next of his films I saw was The Lady Eve (1941) which had some qualities, but I felt it flopped hard on Henry Fonda, who just didn’t feel right in the comic lead.  More recently, I watched The Palm Beach Story (1942), which was a lot of fun and featured Joel McCrea who had also starred in Sullivan’s Travels.

Why say all this before saying a word about Unfaithfully Yours?  I think because Unfaithfully Yours, while having a lot of interesting things in it, actually being really interesting and clever overall, falls flattest when asking star Rex Harrison to be particularly funny in a physical manner.  It’s been several years since watching Fonda in The Lady Eve but that’s my key memory of the film is him just landing hard and flat.  Maybe Sturges is best when he’s got the right actor in place.  Maybe that’s not always Joel McCrea?

Unfaithfully Yours is a dark screwball comedy about a famous musical conductor (Harrison) who comes to suspect his wife Daphne (Linda Darnell) of cheating on him with his his valet (Kurt Kreuger).  These suspicions are sprung upon him much against his personal belief but eventually take over his mind, which leads him into fantasies of murder and revenge, all set to musical numbers he is conducting at a live concert.

These three fantasies are the film’s most interesting conceit, each coming as the camera zooms into Harrison’s eye as the musical number he is conducting gets underway and then cuts to a scene supposedly post-concert.  The first of these isn’t entirely clearly a fantasy until some ways in as the plot becomes arch and silly, following a convoluted set-up of recording himself with a acetate record machine and then slashing his wife and framing his valet.  The murder itself is kind of shocking and brutal (even if happening out of frame) and this flavors the film with its darkness.

As each sequence starts anew, we come to recognize the fantasy as fantasy, but when the concert ends, Harrison hurries back to his apartment to attempt to live out each of the strange delusions, failing miserably with each and busting up the apartment as he struggles with technology in what could have been funny, but falls, as I’ve said, flat.

It’s weird because Harrison is good in other sequences and scenes, but I the big finale flops for me, lessening the film.  Overall, it’s very interesting, even its dark tenor, which could be ripe for analysis could have worked.

Apparently this was late in Sturges’s career, having switched studios from Paramount to Twentieth Century Fox in a deal while not as disastrous as Buster Keaton’s move, was apparently a death knell for Sturges overall.

Like I said, I’m still trying to get my read on Sturges.  More to come.

Blood and Lace (1971)

Blood and Lace (1971) movie poster

director Philip S. Gilbert
viewed: 04/17/2016

It’s the hard knock life for the kids of the Deere Children’s Home, though these kids aren’t little ones, but oddly “kids” beneath the age of 21, for some reason still “underage” wards of the state.  These orphans aren’t bent on musical numbers and flouting Miss Hannigan’s drunken shenanigans.  No, they’ve got bigger fish by whom to fear being fried.

This is a proto-slasher of unusual derivation, falling aesthetically right between the 1960’s and 1970’s, and rated GP (a short-lived predecessor to PG).  It stars Gloria Grahame (still quite attractive in middle-age despite the styles of the time) as the evil Mrs. Deere, proprietress of the orphanage and Vic Tayback as detective Calvin Carruthers, who seems to care perhaps about the kids of the county who wind up there.  Seems that is.  These kids can really pick their adult poisons, whether it’s Tayback or Grahame or even sleazy handyman Len Lesser, getting a hammer to the head or preserved in the deep freeze, many pitfalls abound.

The film opens with a long first-person sequence that is kind of interesting, eventually first-person with hammer (“hammer-vision”?), an innovation that would be appropriated to greater effect in other films.

While the title seems to echo Mario Bava (Blood and Black Lace (1964)), there is more an air of Hitchcock than Bava about it, or at least a striving for Hitchcock, most notably Psycho (1960) perhaps.  The ending provides for an “out of left field” surprise, a twisty twist that just adds further layers of weird slime to this odd portrait of America’s at risk orphans of 1971.