Brain Damage (1988)

Brain Damage (1988) VHS cover

director Frank Henenlotter
viewed: 10/29/2013

There are great movies and there are great movies.  And there are great moviemakers and there are great moviemakers.

Meaning: there is no one measurement of greatness.

Which is good because Frank Henenlotter might not make many people’s great moviemaker lists and his film Brain Damage might well not make lists of great movies either.  But that doesn’t actually take away from their eminent and endemic greatnesses.

Henenlotter (Basket Case (1984), Frankenhooker (1990)) is kind of his own subgenre, own area of greatness.  I would liken him to Larry Cohen or Jack Hill maybe with a little Don Coscarelli thrown in.  He’s all his own bit of outre weirdness and comic panache.

Let’s put it this way: could anyone else have made Brain Damage?

It’s the story of a parasitic relationship between a man and a turd-like, tumor-like creature that lives on eating brains, preferably human brains.  And the parasite effects symbiosis by delivering a highly addictive, highly hallucinogenic blue fluid into the brain stem of its human partner.  And of course, the creature has eyes and talks with a charming, smarmy intelligence.

The comic gross outs and sexualized innuendo are quite extreme and bizarrely explicit.  And of course, so is the more obvious parallel of drug addiction and its woes.

But mostly it’s just crazy crazy crazy and funny.

Great movie.

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)

Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) movie poster

director Ed Wood
viewed: 1026/2013

I think that watching “the worst film ever made” is a legitimate rite of passage in developing one’s cinematic palate.  The night before, I introduced Felix and Clara to Night of the Living Dead (1968), definitely considered one of the great horror films of all time and I thought it an apt counterpoint to show Plan 9 from Outer Space the following night.  I’d actually tried to tempt the kids with the watching of this bad movie for fun before but initially couldn’t curry interest.  But as time went on, Felix started asking for it specifically.

There is a moderate amount of context that needs to be explained to fully appreciate the film.  For instance the appearance of Bela Lugosi in his final film.  And the appearance of the stand-in the Ed Wood, Jr. employed in scenes that were shot long after Lugosi’s death, in which the taller stand-in keeps his cape above his face to obscure the fact that he looks little if anything like Lugosi.  Clara got quite into this aspect of the film and started announcing “Bela Lugosi” and “not Bela Lugosi” in respective shots.

Laughing at the flying pie plates, the cardboard tombstones, actors reading scripts from their laps, disjointed dialogue is all part of the process.

Felix actually fell asleep and missed out on most of it.

There are definitely some seriously hilarious elements of the film.  It’s deservedly a legend, an archetype of bad movies.  But, as I explained to the kids, part of why it is such a great bad movie is because it was made in all earnestness.  The kids kept asking why Wood didn’t go back and fix things if he was really trying to make a good movie.  Well, I tried to explain it but decided that it might be more appropriate and efficient to show them Tim Burton’s movie Ed Wood (1994), so that is our plan for the next week’s movie night.

It wasn’t just Burton’s film but a lot of elements that came together in the 1990’s that brought Ed Wood, Jr. into a different kind of consideration, an appreciation for the passionate ineptitude, the true joys of the unintentional comedy, some aspects of Wood’s real life and Hollywood dreams all into a much more meta experience of his films.  It is in this way that I think we watched the film together.   Probably more so after watching Ed Wood.

Because in the 1980’s Michael and Harry Medved’s Golden Turkey Awards helped to establish the canon of the worst films ever made and Plan 9‘s and Ed Wood, Jr.’s place in the pantheon of bad.  Perhaps this is just a part of the development of movie-watching culture, cinema studies,  and pop culture.  The movie is pretty funny on its outside.  It’s inept, bad beyond bad in places, hard to fathom anyone not realizing this.  And trying to be objective about the worst B-movies of the all time, you might want to quantify if not qualify for it.

Whether it’s the worst movie ever made, well, I don’t really want to take that away from the film.  It gives it its notoriety.  But I don’t think I’ll file it in my Worst of page.  I think I like it too well for that to be my true attitude.

The Tingler (1959)

The Tingler (1959) movie poster

director William Castle
viewed: 10/25/2013

Our Halloween horror fest got a shot in the arm from TCM’s available On Demand movies.  So many great ones, too many to choose from.  But when one of my all-time favorites was sitting there, just waiting to be watched, I convinced the kids to sit through a second feature. (I had just managed to terrify them with Night of the Living Dead (1968)), I wasn’t too sure how they would feel about another movie that I said was totally awesome.

As I’ve noted before, The Tingler was a personal favorite from childhood.  Exactly the kind of thing I really wanted to share with the kids.

William Castle’s strange and silly approach to horror makes for good fun.  And this film sucked the kids in pretty quickly.

Felix aptly noted that the shot of the red blood coming out of the tap in the bathroom (in an otherwise black-and-white film) was particularly effective.  And afterwards Felix said that he wanted to go as Vincent Price for Halloween.  Though I’m pretty sure he’s not going to pull that off, I do have do note the success that I’ve had in making sure that my kids know who Vincent Price is (something I made a conscious decision to work on a couple of years back.)  Even the idea that Felix would want to go as Vincent Price for Halloween is a particular coup on that front.

I did explain to them about Castle’s employment of electric buzzers in seats at theaters so that the blackout scenes made a bit more sense to them.  They were most amused by this.

It’s a most amusing movie.

Night of the Living Dead (1968)

Night of the Living Dead (1968) movie poster

director George A. Romero
viewed: 10/25/2013

I really am not trying to scare the hell out of my kids.   I have to admit that after watching Poltergeist (1982), that I was highly amused at their reactions.  And I did show them a few films that I thought would be frightening.  Even a few Twilight Zone episodes.  But in the end, I really was just trying to watch movies with them and horror films are a particular interest of mine.  October has become a focal point for me and horror films, so it’s a kind of natural connection.

Night of the Living Dead is indeed a classic by a number of measures.  It’s one of several fascinatingly awesome independently produced horror films, though possibly the most influential of them.  It of course launched George A. Romero’s whole career and redefined the idea of zombies from some Creole legend to the more popular, contemporary dead people seeking brains.

Most significantly, it is a pretty great film.

Shot in black-and-white on a low budget, Romero scored quite a casting coup with his actors.  While none of them became recognizable stars, they all deport themselves finely.  And the simplicity of the situation, holing up in a single house with the lumbering dead outside, the drama stays taut and keen.

The funny part to me was that as the first walking corpse accosts the brother and sister in the cemetery,  Felix said aloud that they weren’t too scary-looking.  There isn’t a great deal of make-up effects throughout.  They are just wan humans, largely,…until they try to eat you.  But it wasn’t more than 15 minutes further into it when the kids were squirming and freaked out.  The menace of the ghouls, as Romero referred to them, evolves subtly from near banality into a much more evocative horror.

Felix eventually abandoned the room.  It was too much for him.  Clara stuck it out.

The film is many things, much written about already.  It’s societal critiques, implicit or explicit.  It’s most shocking imagery, the girl eating her father’s hand.  It’s nihilistic ending:  no protagonists survive.

The consensus was that Night of the Living Dead is one of the scariest films that we’ve watched together.

I posed it as “one of the best horror films of all time” in opposition to our planned film for the next night, Ed Wood, Jr.’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959), as “one of the worst horror films of all time”, perhaps one of the worst films of all time, to which it is popularly referred.  Both films about resurrected dead.  The kids appreciated this idea.  Though Felix I guess knows his limits.

I really am not trying to frighten them or show them stuff that is too explicit.  But again, here, in this grainy black-and-white, the zombies munching on supposed human entrails and such, Felix noted that it was a more graphic horror film than we have perhaps watched before.  And maybe he’s right.

Well, however it goes, our October horror selection is running out and we’ll switch over to other fare for a while.  Hopefully that will allay any guilt feelings that I develop as to whether I was selecting appropriate material of not.

If I measured it by Clara, who is still only 9, I might still think I was doing okay.

L’Inferno (1911)

L'inferno (1911) still

director Giuseppe de Liguoro
viewed: 10/20/2013

Perhaps it’s not at all odd that the first ever feature film produced in Italy was a version of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno.

The film is a pretty literalist translation of the epic poem, one whose truly vivid and amazing sequences develop as Dante and Virgil delve more deeply into the circles of Hell and the film enacts those visions in fantastical special effects and designs.

Given the period of the film, 1911, a lot of the effects evoke those employed in the fantasy shorts of Georges Méliès, but much less fancifully.  The depictions of the various levels of hell also very much evoke another film that I recently watched, Nobuo Nakagawa’s Jigoku (1960), particularly the landscape of limbs, legs, sticking out of the ground, burning their soles.

Really, Jigoku is its own wild world of Inferno.

This amazing 1911 artifact shows up with a very odd soundtrack created by Tangerine Dream in 2004, though it sounds a bit more like 1984.  And evokes a really mixed emotion from me.  L’Inferno is a missive of the past, an artifact, a wild, strange, surreal thing at its most pure.

Really, I find the circles of hell and their various punishments, as I did in Jigoku, weird and arbitrary and so tremendously pedantic that they almost take away from its potential to amaze.  But then you stumble on an image of a man chewing on the head of a man who had starved him and his family to death and you’ve got some Goya-esque nightmare of strange and eternal horror and beauty.

Wild stuff.

Rodan (1956)

Rodan (1956) movie poster

director Ishirō Honda
viewed: 10/19/2013

After kind of freaking out the kids with the eerie ghost story film, The Others (2001), I thought it behooved me to alight upon a different type of horror film for this week’s installment.

Some while ago, we began our march through the Godzilla oeuvre, so lIong ago that the kids probably don’t remember all of the films, but I have had several other classic kaiju films queued over time and thought we’d go for a little Rodan in our movie diet.

As a kid, I always liked Rodan, but it had been many years since I’d seen the film and I couldn’t have told you much about it.  In fact, I barely recalled much accurately.  Like the film is in color, for instance, the first of the kaiju films to have been shot that way, apparently.

Felix ended up with a migraine so it was just Clara and I for Rodan.

I’ll be honest, we watch these films in their original dubbed format.  The irony implied here is clearly that any dubbed version is not the original, but at the same time, it’s certainly the way I would have originally encountered the film and these dubs go back to the time of the films almost.  Bad/hackneyed dubbing has long been a bane of many an Asian genre film from the olden days.  As with anything, some are better than others.  And in this case, Rodan is probably the worst that we’ve seen since I’ve been keeping this diary.

I don’t have any particular “gems” here, but it’s the overall pacing, cutting, things people say in response to action, events.  It’s actually quite highly hilarious.  And perhaps a bit unfair to the movie itself.

The American version starts with an inserted segment about nuclear testing and the wake of the nuclear era.  It then goes into a narrated version of the story, no doubt pared down greatly from whatever original there was.

The story has some interesting beginnings, with mine workers disappearing or being killed by what turn out to be giant prehistoric insects.  And the story builds as that it turns out that the newly hatched pterodactyls (the Rodans) like to snack on these killer creeps.  And, yes, there are two Rodans, not just one, making him/her a little more generic, but potentially a little more interesting being possibly a mating pair.  Who knows?

Ultimately, Rodan’s biggest weapon is flapping its wings and creating wind power that destroys buildings.  Not quite up to Godzilla’s snuff.

Clara even asked me, “Why do the monsters always attack all the human cities?”  to which I could only reply, “They’re monsters, that’s what they do.”

I was tempted to at least give the original version a few minutes of time to feel out the tonality of the difference between the versions, but perhaps another time.


The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

The Return of the Living Dead (1985) movie poster

director Dan O’Bannon
viewed: 10/18/2013

As this is my film diary, I write about every feature film I see but I also allow for the unique personal experience of the films.  Some films I’ve never seen before, some I’ve seen once, twice, several times.  Some I have deep histories with.  It’s not that this is inherently interesting to the casual reader, but it’s the whole point of what I write here.

Case in point, here, The Return of the Living Dead.  I saw this movie back in 1985 when it played at the Plaza Theater in Gainesville, FL, my hometown.  I would have been 16 at the time.  The reason this movie piqued particular interest with us was its focus on “punks” as main characters and perhaps the soundtrack which included The Cramps, The Damned, 45 Grave, The Flesh Eaters and T.S.O.L.  We were teenage punks and there wasn’t much in mainstream culture that really even hinted at punkness.

Of course, being 16, we were actually too young to get into an R-rated movie, and though we had probably no doubt gotten into several at other times, the person at the ticket counter accosted us and was going to disallow our patronage.  Luckily for us, there were other punk/alternative folks in line, college students from the Gainesville punk scene, who offered to act as our “guardians” and thusly we were allowed in.

The novelty of this interaction at the ticket booth was perhaps more notable in my mind for many years than the film itself.

At the time, I was beginning to lose faith in the horror genre.  Most horror films are not good and at that age I was definitely looking for something with more significance.  The punks were very cartoonish.  The film seemed sort of derivative.  We left disdaining it, as I recall and for years I think I thought somewhat negatively of it.  I also have a weird vague recollection that a friend snuck us in to see the sequel some years later, Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988), which was even more of a throw away than the first.

Here, some nearly 30 years later, a lot of film-going, film school, knowledge and perspective later, I came to realize that The Return of the Living Dead was notably written and  directed by Dan O’Bannon, screenwriter for Dark Star (1974), Alien (1979), Dead & Buried (1981), Lifeforce (1985), and Total Recall (1990).  He’s an obscure name I would wager outside of more intensive cult circles, but he’s definitely noteworthy, having worked on such a litany of wonderful cult horror and science fiction stuff.

In truth, the film is a pretty fun comedy of a horror film.  Not so much a parody, but a playful sequel to George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) in that it was adapted from a novel by John Russell that was a sequel on a different direction from the one that Romero took.  Some of the comedy is actually pretty amusing, like the “half dogs” that come to life in the science warehouse.

It also features some fine art design and effects like the “tar man” and the half woman, with some real nice tips of the hat toward EC Comics art.

And beyond that the film features some fine comic performances by some very recognizable if not identifiable character actors.  I recognize Don Calfa, James Karen, and Clu Gulager from tons of things.  These guys are the non punks of the cast, the older fellows, but the ones that really give the movie its pulse and keep it moving.  They are all quite excellent in their own ways.

The film has a great comic ending that is so 1980’s.  The nuclear solution.

It’s funny.  The film is very much of its time and campy, at times quite funny, at times kind of cool, and really has pretty good acting throughout.  I don’t know how I totally missed that as a teenager, but I did. It’s surface is silly and maybe that’s just all I managed to get out of it at the time. I am still grateful to those college punks that got us in to the movies all those years ago.

Wrong (2012)

Wrong (2012) movie poster

director Quentin Dupieux
viewed: 10/17/2013

When your first film is about a serial killer rubber tire (Rubber (2010)), where do you go from there?

When you are Quentin Dupieux, a.k.a. musician Mr. Oizo, you make a movie about a guy who dog disappears and his quest to find the dog.

It’s a similarly absurdist world, however, where said man, actor Jack Plotnick, has been continuing for months of going to a job that he was fired from.  A job in an office where it is constantly raining.

So it’s not too odd when it turns out that his dog was actually kidnapped by a man (William Fichtner) and an organization that seeks to temporarily separate people from their pets so that they appreciate them more.  Only, the kidnapper crashed his van and died and the dog got away.

There is a lot more of off-beat weirdness.  Some of which works better than others.  Sort of like a stand-up routine where half the jokes receive chuckles and half crickets.

One of the funniest, oddest things, is the detective who finds Plotnick’s dog’s poop, and hooks it up to a machine to “get into” the poop’s memories, starting inside the dog’s intestinal track until it is “born” onto the grass.  It then witnesses the dog’s kidnap.

The absurdist comedy has its moments but mostly it’s a dud.  There’s some substance here, I just wish that it was better distilled, developed, perhaps edited down.

Sadly there is also this weird sexist subplot about an obsessed pizza girl that is a bit unpleasant.

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

This Is Spinal Tap (1984) movie poster

director Rob Reiner
viewed: 10/16/2013

You know you’ve created something culturally significant when your creation becomes a ubiquitous exemplar, referenced ad infinitum.  Or even when smaller elements of your creation reach a ubiquity of their own (e.g. “turning an amp up to 11”).

Rob Reiner’s mockumentary/rockumentary, This is Spinal Tap nailed its points of parody,  hard  rock musicians/the music industry/the reverential music documentary, so utterly, so perfectly, that it is still not just hilarious to watch but is hugely prescient and endlessly amusing.

I still recall first seeing the film as a midnight movie not long after it had come out.  It was funny then.  It’s even funnier now.

I was noting to a friend the perplexing directorial career of Rob Reiner.  His first several films were all excellent: This is Spinal Tap (1984), Stand By Me (1986), The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally… (1989), maybe even Misery (1990), the only mediocre film being The Sure Thing (1985) — though I liked it at the time .  All quite unique from one another, though arguably within the overall mainstream.  This is Spinal Tap was the most unusual of the films with its fake documentary style and satire, sort of inventing a genre of its own which co-writer/co-star Christopher Guest has turned into his own mini-empire: Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), and A Mighty Wind (2003).

My overall speculation is that Reiner is indeed a talent, probably surrounded himself with other great talents.  But why his directing career went into the garbage factory afterward…  Well, I’ll be honest, I’ve not even seen any of the films after Misery so perhaps I really should not speculate but I’ll just leave it to say that the films have gotten poor reviews and have lacked anything of interest to me.  I may be talking out of my hat, but I’d dare someone to prove that he’s made anything since the 1980’s that comes close to the quality of those four great films.  And I put it out there more as an oddball question.  In this line of questioning, I usually point to Steve Martin, who was at one time one of the funniest people in the world, who also made a lot of great movies in the 1980’s (Pennies from Heaven (1981), Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), The Man with Two Brains (1983) (the latter two directed by Rob Reiner’s father, Carl Reiner, interestingly enough) and arguably several more at least great comedic roles in mainstream comedies.  I like to cite the more unusual early films.  Martin, too, wandered off into low mediocrity in his film career.

Ramble ramble ramble….I’m sorry.

Anyways, it’s a great film.  Funny as hell.  Pitch-perfect.  Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, and Guest are amazing.

And I will stop writing now rather than address the weird meta-post film life of Spinal Tap.  That’s just too much for one post.

Room 237 (2012)

Room 237 (2012) movie poster

director Rodney Ascher
viewed: 10/14/2013

Cinema obsessions take many forms.  Apparently cinema obsessions about Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film The Shining take many forms themselves.  There were enough of them for director Rodney Ascher to conceive of the documentary Room 237, which explores five different obsessionists’ interpretations of the film.

Ascher doesn’t ever show the faces of the people whose voices who detail their analyses, but illustrates their ideas in elegant detail, providing visual clarity for the points taken.  It’s a clever approach, allowing the theorists’ ideas to play out clearly, without putting too much focus on the individual delivering the particular perspective.

Because these theories range from the relatively rich close reading of the film’s text and strong evidence that support such a theory (such as the idea that the film is really about the genocide of Native Americans) to the highly far-fetched (that the film is an apology for helping the fake the moon landing film).  Some ideas are more grounded in viable evidence than others that feel particularly kooky.

As a result, the film is far more a tribute to close reading and interpretation than it is a total freakshow of obsessive nuts.

Because post-modern or not, close analysis of a film offers opportunity for a lot of interpretations.  The evidence cited to support a theory doesn’t necessarily prove any “intended” meanings, but can certainly support the reading’s viability.

Kubrick is an apt center of focus for such a reading, notably such a perfectionist and obsessively controlling of his work.  Intentionality exists within the work for sure.  But to understand his meaning could only be fully informed by the man himself.  But that is by no means the only set of meanings available, as this film very entertainingly evidences.