Cult of the Cobra (1955)


Cult of the Cobra (1955) movie poster

director Francis D. Lyon
viewed: 10/19/2014

The DVD format might have been short-lived in its marketplace, usurping VHS, then usurped by BluRay and slowly eradicated by non-physical formats, I am possibly of a minority that appreciated aspects of the form.  The best DVD’s have typically come from Criterion, not just new prints and repaired versions of films, but with really valuable additions like commentaries by scholars with solid historical or critical value or mini-documentaries to accompany films with valuable information.

But there have also been these odd box sets and double features, which sometimes make for some solid companionship.  More recently I watched The Monster that Challenged the World (1957) and It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958), which was a sweet little double feature.

Now, Cult of the Cobra would actually probably make a better double feature with something different than Dr. Cyclops (1940), but it’s still kind of cool to get two for one.  The old fashioned double feature, put together by someone.  Really, these films have little in common, but I still enjoyed getting to see them both.

Cult of the Cobra, the B-side, is a sample of Universal Horror, though perhaps a more obscure and lesser pic than many.  It stars an array of actors who would go on to star in televisions shows in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as a group of army dudes in post-war “Asia” (it’s actually amusing how nonspecific the film is about where this all apparently happens.)  Intrigued by stories of a cult that believes that they can turn people into snakes, they bribe a member to take them to a ritual, though they promise to go incognito and not take any pictures.

Well, one yahoo does snap some pictures, outing them and getting their guide killed and the whole gang cursed (by a very non-Asian Edward Platt).  The same yahoo tries to steal a basket from the ceremony and gets bitten by a cobra.  They are then all hunted down one by one upon their return to New York by a mysterious lady who turns into a snake.

There are some relevant comparisons to Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942), which also involves a mysterious woman and animal transformations, but Curse of the Cobra is no Cat People.  Now that might be a good double feature still.

The fact of the matter is that there is a kind of nonchalant portrayal of American GI’s behaving badly and insensitively in a foreign country.  This really isn’t explicit nor is the punishment explicitly a critique of the insensitivity (the yahoo notes that he must have had a few too many to act the way he did as if chagrin is enough for insulting the religious practices of the foreign country).  I was actually thinking that this could be re-made today with a more biting (ha!) cultural critique if someone dared.

It’s a B-minus B-picture, but has a good cast and is certainly none too shabby.

Dr. Cyclops

Dr. Cyclops (1940) movie poster

director Ernest B. Schoedsack
viewed: 10/19/2014

From the great Ernest B. Schoedsack (The Most Dangerous Game (1932), King Kong (1933), Song of Kong (1933), Mighty Joe Young (1949)), Dr. Cyclops is a sci-fi thriller about a mad scientist who has developed a ray to shrink living creatures.  Albert Dekker in one of his most notable roles plays the myopic villain, lurking in the jungle, with his nutty plans.

The first sci-fi flick shot in 3-color Technicolor, it’s visually sumptuous.  Particularly if you are like me and have such a penchant for Technicolor’s wondrous lurid lustre.

Really, what is Dr. Thorkel up to in the jungle?  He invites some experts to come and help him confirm some of his research, but then quickly dismisses them.  It turns out that he found a rich cache of pitchblende, an ore that contains high levels of uranium and radium.  Rather than sharing this with the world and making lots of money from it, he has found a way to tap the resource to work on his mad plans.   His plan to shrink living things!  To what end?  Got me.

But he ends up shrinking his guests when they discover a bit of his schemes.  He then goes on to torment and kill them until they finally get a shot at overthrowing their Cyclopean antagonist.  The reference is to The Odyssey, trapping Ulysses/Odysseus in the Cyclops’ cave.  Apropos and interesting.

Really a sharp film, another great one from Schoedsack, a director who deserves better recognition  for more  than his masterpiece King Kong.

Berberian Sound Studio (2012)

Berberian Sound Studio (2012) movie poster

director Peter Strickland
viewed: 10/18/2014

Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio is a sort of meta-horror film, more interested in the meta than the horror but none the less interesting for that.

Set in the 1970’s, it features Toby Jones as Gilderoy, a mild-mannered English sound engineer brought into an Italian film production that he doesn’t know much about.  Lured by the job opportunity and thinking the film was somehow about an equestrian theme, it turns out to be a pretty lurid giallo picture whose title is The Equestrian Vortex, but is really about witches, the Inquisition, torture and lots of screaming.  Not at all his cup of tea, Gilderoy keeps his upper lip stiff as he suffers through rudeness and indignities, rescuing long-legged spiders while having to mimic sound effects like sizzling blood, splattering bodies, and crunching bones.

As much as the film is about Gilderoy’s descent into vague madness, it’s about the analog glory days of practical sound effects and the magnetic tape manipulations in old school technologies.  Strickland lingers on the vegetables that are the cores of many of the effects, the two foley guys, Massimo & Massimo, who perform their work with professional detachment but with professional perfection.

The only part of the film within a film that we really see is the title sequence, which replaces Berberian Sound Studio‘s own sequence and is executed in a throwback style of the Italian giallo films of the 1960’s and 1970’s.  The actors, director, producer and other hangers-on suggest a variety of aspects of the post-production process and the levels of focus and creative investment therein.

If anything, there is more homage in the details than in the film’s narrative.  It’s not by any means typical itself of the giallos that I’ve seen which were all more pulpy even when surreal.  The film does stretch itself into a more surrealist strategy toward the end, as while the film within the film disappears, the filmmakers, or at least Gilderoy finds himself in his own version of a film within itself.

Interesting if not brilliantly compelling.

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981)

Dark Night of the Scarecrow (1981) video poster

director Frank De Felitta
viewed: 10/18/2014

Not sure where or what I’d read about it to give me this notion, but somehow I gathered that The Dark Night of the Scarecrow was a good one to watch with my kids.  I think it has been remembered as one of the more eerie made-for-tv movies from the heyday of such things.  I’m pretty sure that I’d seen it but it didn’t jog my memory for much.

It’s a revenge from beyond the grave kind of thriller.  When Bubba (Larry Drake), a mentally deficient adult, is suspected of harming his child playmate, he is hunted down by a quartet of vengeful, bloodthirsty locals and shot to death while hiding as a scarecrow.  It doesn’t take long for the error to be realized.  Not only was the girl not killed but Bubba was the one who saved her.  These upright citizens, led by the inimitable Charles Durning, of course, don’t own up to their error but say that Bubba was killed in self-defense.  And they get away with it.

For a time.

The vengeance type or thriller is a different kind of horror film.  The only ones in real danger are the bad guys.  Except of course all the other folks that Durning takes down in trying to cover up his initial crime.  But it’s not the same kind of vicarious fear you have for a character that doesn’t necessarily get their own comeuppance.

Felix thought the film not really scary at all, which it’s not really.  It does have a sort of curious ending that suggests something.  Is Bubba really come from beyond the grave?  Is he a scarecrow figure or some invisible operator?  What is the little girl’s role in the murders?  The ending is just that nuance of unclear suggestiveness that could get under one’s skin in the 1970’s/1980’s.

Is it one of the better horror films made-for-tv?  I don’t know.  It’s not a bad film.  I don’t know why I couldn’t remember it better.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project (1999) movie poster

directors Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sánchez
viewed: 10/18/2014

So, with my 13 year old son suddenly deciding that he is really into horror films, I offered him the pick of the film channels of what movie he wanted to see.  Between Netflix, Hulu, and Fandor, we had a lot from which to choose, and he went with my notes on The Blair Witch Project.

The film that didn’t invent the “faux found footage” genre but did spark it into overdrive, The Blair Witch Project was one of those things that I saw back in the day, appreciated for what it was, but had never revisited in all the years.  I had seen its remarkably bad sequel, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 (2000), and I think for all its badness had appreciated that it hadn’t tried to go all “faux found footage” 2 on us.

To be fair, in 1999, “faux found footage” was novel enough to enliven a movie.  And The Blair Witch Project took that concept, that the movie is utterly comprised of footage that was found when its filmmakers disappeared that it earned its added thrills of fake verity.  It’s very dedicated to the whole concept that this footage is all we have.  And the crappy camerawork, the ellipses in knowledge, all the shaking darkness, and mumbled nonsense…it’s because the film was all that was left.  This is no polished work of film art, but the opposite, an artifact.

The story of a trio of filmmakers hunting on a legend of the Blair Witch in the Maryland woods only to become utterly lost and tormented by unknown forces…it taps into a pretty primal fear.  Lost in the woods.  Don’t know what is out there, what is scaring you.

For all the credit that I’ll give it, and it does deserve it, largely on innovation and casting and improvisation (the film was executed interestingly, as well as marketed in novel fashion), I would say what it winds up lacking is the power of images.  And unless you are really plugged into the narrative, the diagetic universe of the characters, all that shaky camerawork and black screen, breathing and cursing, terrors are not all that well evoked.

The actors actually did film the whole thing.  And the lead, Heather Donahue, who is the director within the film, hadn’t actually operated a camera much prior to being the lead camera operator on the film.  What I’m getting at is that I don’t think that the film itself holds up all that well.  It’s not bad by any means, but it’s not as iconic as one might try to recall.  The efficacy of the images of the bound sticks and hanging objects, it could be freaky…the teeth when uncovered are actually creepy.  The final image, with one character standing in a corner before the camera slaps down and the film runs out…it works to an extent.  You don’t really have time to read it.  It’s freaky because it doesn’t make sense, but that’s all you’re left with in the end.

Now I say this because this is my takeaway from this viewing of The Blair Witch Project.  And again, I didn’t think it was awful by any means.  I think there is an honesty and a commitment to the narrative and idea to which most “faux found footage” films since have often paid poor lip service.  But I also don’t think it stands up as a “great” horror film, even of its time.  I think it’s influence and innovation stand strong.

That said, Felix was pretty freaked out by the end of the film while most of the film he was almost kind of bored.  The ending is the film’s best sequence.

In the end, the film is more iconic for its influence and sadly that influence is a litany of much crappier and cheaper horror films on the whole.  I look forward to a gap in the production of “faux found footage” films.  Maybe after some long break from them, someone will innovate again.

Annabelle (2014)

Annabelle (2014) movie poster

director John R. Leonetti
viewed: 10/18/2014

Annabelle, the haunted doll movie, a prequel/spin-off of James Wan’s The Conjuring (2013), didn’t call out to me (in a creepy voice) that it was something that I needed to see, much less see in the theater.  However, my 13 year old son, who has up until recently stated that he didn’t like horror films has suddenly decided that he does like them and wants to watch ones that look particularly scary to him.  The film did call out to him, apparently.

That said, it doesn’t take a lot of arm-twisting to get me into seeing a horror film.  But as I bought tickets and we headed up the escalator to the theater, I realized to him that I don’t think I’ve ever taken him to a horror film in the cinema, much less an R-rated one.  At home, he cowers behind pillows or grabs my arm when things get intense.  In the theater, things tend to be more intense due to the size, volume, and darkness.  He assured me that he’d be fine.

The Conjuring was supposed to be based on the “real life” experiences of supernaturalists, Ed and Lorraine Warren, “their freakiest case” or some such thing.  And it featured a room of their house that was filled with evil or possessed objects, of which, supposedly, Annabelle the amazingly creepy-looking doll, was the most evil of all.  Annabelle the movie is supposedly about the real-life(?) doll, the first in a potential series of films about the objects of this creepy room.  I have to  give them credit, that’s a pretty sweet and pretty wide-open franchise of things scary.

The film begins with a group of nurses telling the off-screen Warrens about their experiences with the creepy doll, and then the film flashes back another year to a young married couple in Santa Monica, expecting their first child, and decorating its nursery with antique dolls.  But then all hell breaks loose in the form of a murderous cult couple, the young adult drug-addled daughter of their next door neighbors who, much like the Manson family, have come to wreak murder and havoc in middle class California.  They kill the neighbor family and stab the pregnant woman in her abdomen before getting shot down by police and/or committing suicide.  The daughter, Annabelle, bleeds into the creepy doll’s eye as she dies.

This is actually quite shocking and terrifying in itself.  Whether devil-worshipers or drug-induced cult nutsos, this random act of violent chaos bears of the reality of the time of the late 1960’s/early 1970’s when this stuff was relevant and a true fear.

Of course, that blood infects the doll and evil things happen in the house.  Evil things even follow the couple from the house to Pasadena, to an older apartment building to which they relocate.  That’s because this is one of those dolls you can’t get rid of…and is being used as a conduit by a demon seeking a soul.

Frankly, I was really surprised how good Annabelle was.  It hadn’t received very good reviews.  I had thought The Conjuring to be pretty good, but not overly great, so I didn’t have particularly heightened expectations.  But the film relies on some more practical visual effects for much of its creepy imagery.  And while there certainly are a lot of loud music jumps, eerie movements in a frame’s background, techniques you’ve seen many times before, the film does build on a solid framework of narrative, has some genuinely creepy qualities, and is pretty darn effective.

It played Felix like a Stradivarius.  Actually, he was so primed that he even jumped during the trailer for Ouija (2014).  He was so freaked during some of it I thought he was going to hyperventilate.  I really questioned if bringing him was the right thing.  He grabbed my arm throughout, and whether it was through some contact vicariousness, or even enhanced by other gasping and laughing members of the audience, I found myself enjoying the film much more than I expected.

In then end, Felix said that it was definitely among his most scariest films.  I’ll settle for saying that it was very good, much better than anticipated, and that I was impressed, which believe me, is a compliment, even if it sounds a little backhanded.

It’s true that the two genres of movie that are the most fun to see with an audience are horror films and comedies.  Whatever your response is, it’s easily influenced for the better hearing those around you gasping or laughing or shouting or screaming.  It does actually make the whole thing more fun.

Surprisingly fun, in fact.

The Midnight Meat Train (2008)

The Midnight Meat Train (2008) movie poster

director Ryuhei Kitamura
viewed: 10/17/2014

Any movie with obviously digitally-rendered blood splatter automatically loses 25 points.

I’m not sure in what city this Bradley Cooper movie is supposed to be set (it seems like it must be New York), but I would dare you to find any part of that city (or any other city of size) in this day and age and find as much isolation and emptiness.  Maybe you could find a guy who hijacks the last subway train of the night and harvests humans for meat-packing, but I don’t think you’ll find such empty subway cars.

Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973)

Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973) movie poster

director Denis Sanders
viewed: 10/17/2014

I’ll tell you something.  I don’t really understand how Impact – Action On Demand, a channel from Comcast/Xfinity cable works exactly.  From what poking around I’ve done, they have a Twitter feed and a Facebook page, but I couldn’t find a site that shows what they’ve got scheduled or planned.  Even on the xfinity website, you can winnow down the available movies by that channel, but other information is kind of hard to come by.

What they do seem to do pretty well is come up with some nice cheesy obscure gems of 1960’s-1990’s cinema in cutely-packaged groups.  Case in point, right now “Sci Fly Girls” features Queen of Blood (1966), Vicious Lips (1986), and 1973’s Invasion of the Bee Girls, along with Species (1995) and Cyclone (1987).  This is pretty decent and interesting curation.  Why they fail to show most films in letterbox format, I also have no idea and is the reason that I would balk at talking them up more.

Also, their English-accented intro style thing is on the cheesy side of cheesy that I could do without, perhaps.

They do manage to land films unavailable on my other content suppliers and the combination of discovery and obscurity make for opportunistic viewing on my part.

Invasion of the Bee Girls is another excellent case in point.  It is the first foray into screenwriting for oddball cult filmmaker Nicholas Meyer.  Apparently, this experience was so bad that he tried to get his name removed from the film.  He’d go on to make his directorial debut in 1979 with Time After Time before writing/directing Star Trek movies 2 and 6, as well as scripting #4.  Seriously, if you don’t know about this guy, you should check him out.

It’s easy enough to see why he’d like to have forgotten about Invasion of the Bee Girls.  It’s a strange sci-fi film about a female scientist who is somehow crossbreeding women with bees, turning them into sexual black widows, killing men through sexual intercourse.  Lots of extraneous nudity abounds (people got a lot more naked in 1970’s movies).  One also has to wonder if Neil Labute saw this movie before making his atrocious The Wicker Man remake with all it’s female bee hive-minded politics.

So, I don’t know who curates Impact Action on Demand or to what end.  They do select some good flicks.  I just wish they’d show them in letterbox format.

Vicious Lips (1986)

Vicious Lips (1986) movie poster

director Albert Pyun
viewed: 10/16/2014

First of all, just look at this poster.  It’s pretty awesome.

Then read this little synopsis: “A band finally gets the opportunity for that breakthrough gig if they can make it to an “in” club on another planet in time…”

And then if you caught the first confusing five minutes of this film, you might think you’ve found the most amazing 1980’s movie of all time.  It’s got the hair for it.

This comes from low-budget auteur Albert Pyun, another apparent king of bad movies.  And sadly, truly, this movie is a super-bad movie.  It certainly has sections where it shows the potential of epic badness, beyond the beyond of fun and camp.  But actually, the long center of the film is the only true crime in bad movies: it gets boring.

There are lots of weird shots of the all-girl band members having blase conversations.  And really, it drags like nobody’s business through that long segment.  Much of the story seems held together with Aqua Net.

But a movie about an all-girl band, getting a new lead singer, and then flying into outer space to play the club for the chance at the big time…  This is 1986, after all.  It’s like a live-action Jem and the Holograms … knock-off.  Oh yeah, and they are making that movie right now.

I’ve had this idea for “the most 1980’s movie of all time”.  I don’t think this would win, but it has a right to be in the contest.

Serial Killer Culture (2014)

Serial Killer Culture (2014) movie poster

director John Borowski
viewed: 10/17/2014

Though the etymology of the term “serial killer” goes back to the 1970’s, it was the late 1980’s but specifically the by the early 1990’s that these eerie horrible characters moved from cultural obscurity into mainstream obsession.  And then into cult celebrities.

I recall when first living in San Francisco, probably 1991, that I first heard of serial killer collectibles, from trading cards to purchasing artwork by some of the most notorious death row inmates, like John Wayne Gacy.

John Borowski’s documentary, Serial Killer Culture, kind of misses the mark of actually looking into this evolution or what it signifies, but rather interviews some of the collectors and artists who have obsessed over the effluvia and artifacts of serial killers.  A couple of the interviewees here are among the original group that reached out to people like Gacy or Richard Ramirez seeking their artwork, letters, or signatures.

The collectors acknowledge the morbidity of their interests and state rather ironically that they are not trying to glorify or justify their subjects.  There certainly is history here and there certainly is value in understanding these people, who they were, what shaped them into what they became.  What can we learn from it.  But the collectors tend toward creepy obsessiveness and enjoy blurring the lines between themselves and the people that they obsess over.

The artists tend to be less creepy, though some of them are collectors, too.  They certainly do tend to at least seek to transform the subject matter into something.  And some of them are very talented.

Borowski’s approach includes interviewing himself.  He’s made three documentaries about serial killers, one of which even inspired one of his other interview subjects, a death metal band, to sing about serial killers.  While Borowski does seem to have to more grounded approach to the material (I have some of his other films queued to watch), I think including himself as one of his interviews is a forfeiture of sorts.  And while his discussion of approach to the material and why it’s important gives some grounding to the overall interest, it also underscores how the film doesn’t do much else besides highlighting collectors and artists obsessed with the material rather than an actual discourse on the “culture” of “serial killers”.

So, it’s not bad and kind of interesting, but far from being compelling on its own.