Gorgo

Gorgo (1961) movie poster

(1961) director Eugène Lourié
viewed: 10/29/10

Amazingly, I’d never seen Gorgo before.  I remember for years seeing stills of it and reading about it but for whatever reason, I’d just plain never seen it before.  Despite that, it seemed like a good film for me to screen with the kids for our close-to-Halloween night movie.

Directed by Eugène Lourié, whose The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) I had just watched with Felix a week before, Gorgo, unlike The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a giant rubber-suited monster movie monster, like Gojira (1954), not like the stop-motion animated monsters of Ray Harryhausen.  It’s most interesting considering how it’s a non-Japanese production using monster designs and special effects techniques generally associated with Japanese monster movies.  Though, frankly, the special effects are a little more radical and interesting than your average Godzilla movie.

Set in Ireland and England, the story starts with an underwater volcanic eruption which seems to loose several strange species of fish…and a big old dinosaur-like monster.  A money-hungry captain agrees to try to capture the creature and succeeds in doing so, ultimately selling his catch to a circus promoter in Battersea Park in London.  This is what gives the Godzilla-like giant monster a bit more of a King Kong (1933) sort of feel, with modern mad exploiting a strange, great beast for profit…and paying the price.

But what is fun and funny about Gorgo is that Gorgo, which is the name that the promoters of the circus have given the creature, is that Gorgo turns out to be a baby Gorgo.  And Gorgo’s mom is the one that the scientists, military, and the rest of London, England need to worry about.  Because she comes for her baby.  And in doing so she manages to destroy London Bridge, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and Picadilly Circus en route to her rescue.  In this film, the humans are the misguided monsters and the monsters are the “humane” and caring beings.

Apparently, Lourié made Gorgo in response to his daughter, who had seen his previous films of monsters wreaking havoc on civilization and decried him as a “bad daddy” for killing the monster in the end of the film.  So he came up with an unusual monster movie in which the monsters are both sympathetic and also not sacrificed to the ignorance of mankind.

And I have to say, I liked the movie (as did Felix and Clara), but I would perhaps have liked it a lot when I was their age.  It’s kind of a shame it took me so long to finally see it.  But I’m glad we did.

House

Hausu (1977) movie poster

(1977) director Nobuhiko Obayashi
viewed: 10/26/10

Freakishly freaky, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s 1977 horror/comedy is stranger than the sum of its parts.  Or rather maybe the sum of its parts are just stranger than just about anything out there.

It wasn’t until this film played at the Castro Theatre here in San Francisco earlier this year that I’d ever heard of the film.  And quite frankly, this was an unusual case in which what got me so excited to see the film was the movie poster.  Not the one cited above but below here, with a link to its Criterion Collection release.  The design was so cool, I just HAD to see it!

I had no idea about the movie, though I’d read that it was more of a Surrealist oddity than a true horror film.  And unfortunately, I missed the Castro showing and had to wait for the DVD.

It’s something else!  Though it’s really nothing like them, the two films that came to mind for me were Tsui Hark’s Zu Warriors from Magic Mountain (1983) and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II (1987).  I draw that comparison to an extent based on the manic nature of the film’s fantasy sequences and the eclectic film techniques that create the movie’s special effects.  That, and both Zu and Evil Dead II are two of the most innovative, inventive, and strange films that I’ve seen, while essentially being genre films.  They both made a huge impression on me.  And while House took a while to take a hold of me, I can only imagine what I would have thought of it if I’d seen it 20 years ago.

House is ostensibly a haunted house story, wherein seven very pretty Japanese schoolgirls take a holiday in the country at the home of one of the girls’ long lost aunt.  The film foregrounds its artificiality, using all sorts of strange techniques, with luridly-painted sunset backdrops, animations, split-screen shots, and more.   The film also has invasive musical elements and at times seems a bit reminiscent of an episode of The Monkees or something.  As the film gets going, its hyperkinetic editing, cartoonish characters, and ping-pong-ball pacing make you wonder what you’re in for, but when the oddball horror sequences begin and then go crazy, it’s enthralling.

The madness that ensues is almost too ornate to detail, but the best sequence for me is when one of the girls gets “eaten” by the piano she is playing.  It’s just so damn weird and funny and visually inventive.

Like Zu and like Evil Dead II, the film has a manic energy and left field swings that even 30 years later still surprise and confound.  While Evil Dead II is well-renowned and has been hugely influential (and American), House and Zu are probably well under-seen in the United States.  As I’d said, earlier this year, I’d never even heard of the film.  And, a day after having seen it for the first time, I’m still reeling at its wacky innovation, wild designs, and non-stop chaos.

At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul

At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964) movie poster

(1964) director José Mojica Marins
viewed: 10/24/10

Long lingering in my Netflix rental queue, José Mojica Marins’ At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul is a strange and interesting Brazilian horror film, dubbed by some “the first Brazilian horror film”.  And actually, it’s Netflix that had recommended this to me.  If anything, I only had the vaguest notion of José Mojica Marins or the character as it would come to be known in English as “Coffin Joe”.

The character Coffin Joe, Zé do Caixão in the film, is the local undertaker in a small Brazillian village.  He’s a rebellious figure, pooh-poohing the superstitions and religion of the people he serves.  He has an intellectual edge on them and through his malice and self-interest, bullies them brutally as well.  Dressed in a black top hat and a cape, and wearing a sizable black beard, he is hardly a towering figure, but a weird and intimidating one.  Director Marins had trouble casting the role and at the last minute ended up playing it himself.  He wound up with and unlikely cult horror figure who would return in a few different movies and on television and other forms of popular Brazilian culture.

As the story starts out, he’s lusting after his best friend’s girlfriend, disappointed with his own girlfriend’s inability to have a child.  He’s madly focused on carrying on his bloodline, and ultimately, as he winds up killing his girlfriend and his best friend in hopes of extending his chances with the other woman.  He is brutal and ruthless, torturing, maiming, and killing, and justifying it all because of his superior self-knowledge and being.

I guess that’s what makes him interesting.  There is something rebellious and angry about his character’s rejection of Catholic beliefs and cultural mores that make him somewhat heroic.  But he’s heinous by far compared to his qualities.

The film opens with Coffin Joe addressing the camera with some statements about life and death and blood.  This is followed by an address from an old gypsy woman toting a skull about how horrifying the film will be.   For Coffin Joe will get his in the end.  Eating meat on a holy day, raping and killing, daring the devil to come and take him from the world, Joe eventually meets his prophesized doom.

Certainly interesting.  Interesting enough to queue up some of the later Coffin Joe movies.  Not quite as fascinating as I was tempted to hope for, but certainly something worth seeing.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) movie poster

(1953) director Eugène Lourié
viewed: 10/23/10

Rainy Saturday afternoon.  Netflix streaming on Felix’s Nintendo Wii.  Another Ray Harryhausen flick.

As I’ve noted before, I always loved Ray Harryhausen movies since I was a kid.  I guess I also always liked both The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), something about the similarity of the titles, the black and white footage, and the cool monsters.   Of course, I always liked the Ymir from 20 Million Miles to Earth a little better that the Rhedosaurus, but you can’t beat it.

Actually, what’s interesting is that that film from 1953 features nuclear explosions begetting the unleashing of a dinosaur long trapped in arctic ice, one year before Gojira (1954) was birthed in similar circumstances.  Not quite bearing the full looming weight of the nuclear angle, the dinosaur swims to New York City and starts beating the hell out of the city.  You know, as giant dinosaurs on the loose do.

The finale is not as dramatic as 20 Million Miles to Earth‘s ending, but set at Coney Island amid a roller coaster being crunched to bits, it has good style, if not the drama.    But it’s good stuff up and down.

I do have to say that Netflix streaming is something I need to access at my house.

Horror of Dracula

Horror of Dracula (1958) movie poster

(1958) director Terence Fisher
viewed: 10/22/10

A couple years back, I opened the door to revisiting the Hammor horror films that I had watched so much of as a child.  I started with The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), the first of the Terence Fisher directed, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing-starring Frankenstein films. I’m not exactly sure why I haven’t gotten back to the Hammer horror films before this, but this Halloween season seemed like an apt opportunity to do just that.

Horror of Dracula is the first of the several Hammer horror Dracula films involving Fisher, Cushing, and Lee.  It’s little wonder that I would have had a hard time telling how many of these movies were made and that’s because there were an awful lot of them.  Apparently, re-booting the Victorian literary monsters from the Universal Studios stable of 1930’s-1950’s was commercially successful!

Lee is a great Dracula, fierce and menacing, and though tall and handsome, the moment he parts his lips to reveal his fangs, well, it’s pure sneer.  Cushing is great as well as the heroic Van Helsing.  The story follows quite loosely the Bram Stoker novel and the stage play that led to Tod Browning’s 1931 film Dracula which made Bela Lugosi a star.  No matter.  Vampire lore gets its own revisioning too.

Really, the best part of the film is the finale, in which Dracula is killed by sunlight, melting and then burning to ashes is very dramatic fashion.  The bright colors illumante the redness of the blood.  There is another nice shot when Dracula’s wife is staked through the heart that she turns into an old lady corpse (from a comely young lass vampire).

Ah, heck, it’s all good stuff.  Bring ’em on!

Five Million Years to Earth

Five Million Years to Earth (1967) movie poster

(1967) director Roy Ward Baker
viewed: 10/22/10

Oddly enough, this film might signal a major change in my movie viewing life.  I happened to catch this film on Turner Classic Movies, a channel that I’ve long coveted but have never had as part of standard cable in San Francisco.  And oddly enough, I’d read that this film was going to be showing on TCM as part of their Halloween collection and I was excited to see it.  It’s not available at present on DVD.  But things have changed and now I have TCM and I may see many many films on that channel now that I have it, playing great films uninterupted by commercials as they do.

And really, Five Million Years to Earth (or as it was originally titled in the UK , Quatermass and the Pit) was a movie that I recalled fondly from childhood and hadn’t seen in eons.  A somewhat obscure Hammer horror/science fiction film from the 1960’s, it is the third to feature the character of Bernard Quatermass who had come to popularity as a character on British radio in the 1950’s.  But the film isn’t cool and interesting simply for that.

In digging in a London tube station for expansion, workers uncover unusual ape-like skeletons that have enlarged crania.  Further digging uncovers a spaceship with strange locust-like creatures inside.  And as the story unfolds, we come to find that these aliens (Martians supposedly) came to Earth millions of years ago and perhaps intervened in the evolution of apes and humans, implanting them with a deeply hidden knowledge of the perilous end of the aliens’ civilization, which, while advanced, was also one of totalitarianism.  And while these facts themselves aren’t so dangerous, something is triggered in the research in which the alien spacecraft begins projecting visions of the alien world and other paranormal phenomena, nearly destroying London.

When I was a kid, this mixture of weird science, ancient aliens, and evolution was just strange and profound.  And the story and its setting, its visions of the alien world, the surprises of the narrative twists really made an impression.  It was a film that always stuck with me though I’m pretty sure I only saw it once or perhaps twice.  And it really holds up.  What’s interesting is how popular the ideas about ancient aliens and alien intervention on the evolution of humans still is today.  Sometimes it seems like whole television channels are dedicated to these topics.

I am so glad that I got to see it and I’ve got a fairly long list of other films that I want to see that TCM is airing.  So, this category for me, films watched on broadcast television, may become one that grows rapidly after years of being a very unusual way for me to watch films.

Paranormal Activity 2

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Tod Williams
viewed: 10/22/10 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

I had a flash of deja vu as I walked into the Metreon theater to watch Paranormal Activity 2.  It was about a year ago, almost exactly, that I walked into (I think) the very same theater to see Paranormal Activity (2007), the low-budget horror film that became quite a popular sensation.  And like most sensations, a sequel was soon to be an almost assured thing.  In fact, interestingly, the digital sign above the door even read “Sequel to Paranormal Activity” for some reason.

What made Paranormal Activity successful was that it was a sort of “out of nowhere” hit.  Shot on the cheap with video cameras and in the style of a “found footage” “real event”, probably a lot of people took the film to be either really real or more real and scary than so much special effects and spurting blood.  It’s almost impossible not to compare it to The Blair Witch Project (1999) which 10 years earlier did essentially the same thing, coming out of nowhere and pretending that the footage that you see onscreen is footage that was shot by the now missing or dead.  And you’re supposed to surmise for yourself about it.

With Blair Witch, this also included a great deal of shaky, hard to comprehend hand-held camera-work, so much so that half the time you weren’t even sure what was happening.  And to it’s credit, Blair Witch worked pretty well for what it was.  Paranormal Activity had the more banal setting of a suburban home, but in the end, maybe this is what was so successful about it.  Everyone is afraid of the things that go “bump” in the night.  Especially when they turn out to be demons.

Paranormal Activitiy 2 isn’t so much a sequel as it is a prequel or even just an expansion of the story of the original.  The story is set among a small family with a new baby, a teenage daughter from an prior marriage, a Spanish-speaking nanny, and a German Shepherd.  Oh, and the mom is the sister of Katie, the girl from the original film.  And both actors show up in this one as most of it is supposed to take place just prior to the events of the original.

This time, there’s the baby.  And that is perhaps where any added tension arises.  Children, babies in particular, are so vulnerable, one’s sympathy and angst is amped up in fear of what will happen to the little tyke. 

But like the original, Paranormal Activity 2 takes a long time to get itself going.  Initially we are given a good deal of family footage, introducing the characters, shots of the baby, the layout of the house.  And then, after a break-in in which the house is trashed though nothing is stolen, the family installs a series of video cameras to keep an eye on the whole house.  This gives director Tod Williams more leeway in constructing his film.  It’s not just what people have gone through the trouble to record but rather what is recorded by the steady eyes of the surveillance cameras too.

For my money, the film was a little less fresh and surprising that the first, especially as this film had to fit together narratively with the first one, nothing really happens that is new or different.  And we are given more of a backstory to the demon.  I tend to find that in stories in which there is some ambiguity around the events, or things are simply not explained, that sometimes they have a bit more evocative power.  In this case, we don’t get a whole story, but it’s less vague and mysterious.

Things go bump and bang and crash and eventually all hell breaks loose.  And a baby is endangered.

Where as the sequel to The Blair Witch Project, Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2 took a more standard narrative approach, detaching from the style of the first film (and sucking horribly incidentally),  Paranormal Activity 2 stays close the the elements of the first film and doesnt’ suck nearly so horribly, but neither does it manage the effects of either its predecessor nor its progenitor.

Scum of the Earth

Scum of the Earth (1963) movie poster

(1963) director Herschell Gordon Lewis
viewed: 10/17/10

The B-side of The Defilers (1965) DVD, 1963’s Scum of the Earth, is another David F. Friedman “roughie” flick, this time directed by the notable Herschell Gordon Lewis (the “godfather of gore”).  Oddly enough, it’s an exploitation film about exploitation.  The exploitation of women for nudie pics, to be specific.  Ironic perhaps.

The “Scum of the Earth” of the title refers to the sleazy men who trick young girls into posing naked for photos and then blackmail them with the photos to go further and further into the production of sexploitation.  The film centers around the story of one particularly innocent and naive girl who is trying to get enough money to go to college and the photographer and model who connive to trick her in over her head.

The real baddies, though, is the main man behind the scenes, the operator of the whole she-bang, one of his other more unscrupulous photographers, and their he-man hunk who often stars alongside the women in the more outrageous works.  They are all unredeemable and all wind up dead.

The film itself isn’t nearly so racy.  While two years later in The Defilers Friedman has lots of gratuitous nudity, Scum of the Earth has mere glimpses of the women.  I assume this has to do with legal changes between the production of the two films and not so much the pure intentions of the film-makers, but I speculate.  While I seriously doubt that Friedman and co. were anywhere as unscruplulous as the photographers and producers depicted here, they certainly got a lot of flesh on film, from their early “nudie cuties” to the more violent and sexualized later films.

While I’d hardly consider Scum of the Earth a “must see”, it’s not a poorly-made film (obviously made on the cheap).  It lacks the really “out there” components of more satisfying exploitation film but has some pretty good bad acting from a couple of characters (though not half-bad performances from others) and a few moments of more hyped-up over-the-top sequences, namely when the producer berates the teenager for being a priss when it’s her own fault that she modeled and that she’s just a hypocrite.

And, as I said, the lack of ironic awareness of potential self-reflexive components seems a bit like a lost chance.

Werewolf of London

Werewolf of London (1935) movie poster

(1935) director Stuart Walker
viewed: 10/15/10

Often I dedicate my month of October to watching horror films, but for some reason, it’s taken me a while to get going this year despite having queued up quite a few.  I selected Werewolf of London for watching with the kids as part of their experience with this same theme.

Interestingly, I don’t think I’d ever seen Werewolf of London, which, released by Universal in 1935, preceded the far more famous and iconic Lon Chaney, Jr. film, The Wolf Man (1941).  I was familiar with it from still images in books and magazines, as well as from the Warren Zevon song and the An American Werewolf in London (1981) film that at least took its name a little bit from this film.

It’s actually not a bad film, but it’s kind of funny.  This werewolf is a little less wolfy and quite a bit less wild.  He shares more in common with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) than he does with the more traditional werewolf.   In fact, he puts on his coat before he goes outside to marraud, maim and kill.  And at the end, with a normal bullet in him (silver wasn’t necessary), he even speaks to his wife while still a wolf.  One might posit that an English werewolf maintains more of a gentleman’s qualities than that of pure beast.

One of the interesting parts of the film is the way it all starts, with Henry Hull as a botanist in Tibet, seeking a special flower that only grows in one mountainous valley and also only blooms by moonlight.  No gypsies here.  While cultivating his find, he is attacked by a werewolf, who bites him but that he manages to fend off with a knife.

Upon returning to London with his flower, trying to bring it to bloom with artificial moonlight, he is met by Warner Orland (who was most famous for playing Charlie Chan and Fu Manchu and was typcast as Asian characters despite being Sweedish), who tells him that he was the werewolf that bit him and warns him of what he is about to go through.  In the meantime, he shows jealousy at his wife and an old American beau who shows up.

The kids were pretty into it, but Victoria (7 years old) started to find the scary parts too intense, and when an opportunity arose for her to leave, Clara went with her, proclaiming being too scared too.  But I don’t really think she was frightened.  Felix loved it and we watched the little documentary on the DVD too which was by horror film historian David Skal and was pretty good. 

I hope that we can squeeze another couple flicks like this in before Halloween.

The Defilers

The Defilers (1965) movie poster

(1965) directors Lee Frost, David F. Friedman
viewed: 10/12/10

A few years back, I watched a couple of documentaries that dealt with exploitation movies (Mau Mau Sex Sex (2001) and Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies (2001)), and I was inspired to see some of the movies detailed.  Besides a couple of Doris Wishman films (including the brilliant Bad Girls Go to Hell (1965)) and a couple of Dwain Esper films (including the ground-breaking Maniac (1934)), I really didn’t follow up on this all that much.

Nor do I expect them to all be as radical and amazing as those two surprises.

The Defilers is one of the few films to earn a “director” credit for David F. Friedman, though he shares it with Lee Frost for the film.  Friedman was more of a producer, the show man, than the “artist” himself.  But that said, The Defilers, while not achieving the strange surreal or even political slant of Wishman’s Bad Girls Go to Hell, it does have a fairly polished, low-cost aesthetic, telling the tale of a rampage of two young men and their sexual escapades, in particular their kidnapping  and raping of a young woman.

For the most part, the film is a series of make-out scenes, including a fair amount of T & A, but the leads, two young men, bored and yearning for “kicks” portrays a sense of ennui and priveledge, while they booze it up and get high.  The exploitation factor is mostly the nudie cuties, but is also based on the rough and brutal treatment of the women, particularly by the wealthier one, who has a penchant for beating women.  And most disturbingly, one of them in particular is portrayed to like it.

Unlike the Wishman and Esper films, The Defilers isn’t inspiring for artistry or shock, though it’s not uninteresting or poorly made.  Friedman’s biggest successes were with Herschell Gordon Lewis in the directorial chair.  So, I’ll have to get some of those to the top of the queue.