Track of the Moon Beast (1976)

Track of the Moon Beast (1976) VHS cover

director  Richard Ashe
viewed: 10/30/2016

You look at the title and the image on the VHS cover of Track of the Moon Beast and tell me that you don’t think “werewolf”.  On closer observation, you might suspect it’s maybe slightly not a werewolf, but jeesus you weren’t thinking it was going to be a komodo dragon man monster.

Actually, the monster is kind of cool, and seeing that Rick Baker worked on this, well, heck, you kind of wish you could see it a little better.  The lizard man is nearly black and shot in the darkness of night rarely gets his real close-up.

He comes about when a minerologist is hit by a meteorite that fell from the moon.  His pet komodo dragon disappears and then he starts taking on the transformation and lizard-like qualities as depicted in ancient Native American drawings (which look like they were drawn by ancient Native American children).

Somehow, despite a lack of gore or gratuitous nudity or that much of a monster, this really pretty bad movie is actually kind of fun.  But I like bad movies, so you’ll have to take that into consideration regarding my esteem.  It has the feel of a bad movie made a decade or two before 1976, with its bad science and hokey nigh hilarious ending.

The Sci-Fi Boys (2006)

The Sci-Fi Boys (2006) movie poster

director Paul Davids
viewed: 11/27/2014

Director Paul Davids’ The Sci-Fi Boys is a paean to Forrest J. Ackerman and Ray Harryhausen and is endorsed and features many of the special effects and art design mavens who were deeply influenced by those two pioneers in their respective trailblazing.

Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland is one of those things that I sure wished I could have gotten my hands on more often as a kid.  I read the hell out of the two issues that I ever owned, pored over the images, received contact highs.  Ackerman is described as “The First Fanboy” but maybe it’s better to see him as the first sci-fi nerd.  Actually, his obsessive interest in the writers, directors, effects people and the monsters is what opened the eyes of his readers to aspects of film-making that other people turned a blind eye towards.  And his collection of memorabilia reminded me of Henri Langlois, just with a sci-fi bent and a cape.

As for Ray Harryhausen, I’ve written about him here many times before.  He was always a favorite of mine, but truth be told, I may well have learned his name from those two issues of Ackerman’s Famous Monsters that I had.  I also got to see him in person, receiving much of the same type of love an kudos heaped upon him here by many of the techie gurus who were also inspired by him.

We’ve got Peter Jackson, John Landis, Dennis Muren, Rick Baker, Stan Winston, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Frank Darabont.  But we’ve also got some more obscure guys like Donald F. Glut and Paul Davids himself.  Apparently, like Dennis Muren, whose own teen film Equinox (1970) was a testament to hands-on approaches of home-made movies that Harryhausen inspired, Davids and Glut made some pretty awesome Super 8 movies, though maybe they didn’t go on to win Academy Awards for their effects.

You know, this movie made me realize how much I wish I had access to a Super 8 camera when I was a kid.  We had only one cheap, very poor camera in our household and so I didn’t grow up with any of that technology anywhere in any real vicinity.  I can only imagine what I might have done with one in my hands.  I do indeed have a distinct memory from probably around 11-12 of wishing I had a camera to shoot movies.  It makes me appreciate all the more the technology and tools readily available in our present day and age.

I was inspired enough to try to get my kids to watch this movie or the other documentary about Ray Harryhausen.  I’ve even encouraged other friends to check it out.  Not so much because it’s so excellent or compelling in and of itself, but these are indeed guys who deserve the recognition and knowledge, not just of their first generation fans, but of fans generations to come.

Harryhausen died last year.  Bradbury the year before that.  Forrest J. Ackerman (“Uncle Forrey”) died in 2008.  Ackerman’s legacy will doubtlessly be the more obscure among the three men.  Fanzines were very 20th century, even though Famous Monsters has its web analogue now.  Bradbury and Harryhausen’s works in literature and movies are, on the other hand, much more for the ages.

The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977)

The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) movie poster

director John Landis
viewed: 11/07/2014

1977’s The Kentucky Fried Movie broke director John Landis and writers Jim Abrahams, and David and Larry Zucker into Hollywood’s relative “big time”.  An anthology of unrelated sketches semi-sewn together with joke news reports, it plays like your favorite local 1970’s television channel was just taken over by a manic lampoon fest.

I’ve seen lots of clips from this film over the years, but I had never actually seen the movie itself.  While it seems such an oddity, the bigger oddity is that there were a number of unusual films that hewed to a similar structure and strategy from the time, such as Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972) The Groove Tube (1974) and The Kentucky Fried Movie‘s official/unofficial sequel, Amazon Women on the Moon (1987).

Like any such compilation of comic weirdness, some gags are better than others.  Unlike anything else that I can think of, the manic punning and visual comedy that the Zuckers and Abrahams would go on to define as their house style in Airplane! (1980), Top Secret! (1984), Police Squad! and their Naked Gun movies, is just as madcap, nonsense, and out of left field as ever.  Eventually their humor style would become as ingrained and standardized as any American style of humor, but here it plays at a heightened nearly surreal blare.

Funny, abstract, weird, quite-unPC stuff.

Gargoyles (1972)

Gargoyles (1972) movie poster

director Bill L. Norton
viewed: 11/01/2014

November 21, 1972, Gainesville, Florida.  I was 3 years old.  Some of my earliest memories are from this time.  And strangely enough, Gargoyles is absolutely one of them.

I guess that this makes Gargoyles officially the first movie that I remember seeing.  I’m sure that I’d already seen a number of others because the only reason that my mother would have allowed me to watch this movie was that I was already into monster movies.

Interestingly, skimming imdb.com commentaries on the film, I was not alone in how much of an impact this movie made on my psyche.  It seems that lots of people remember it vividly and that it freaked them out.  For me, I was 3!  That kind of boggles my mind in a lot of ways.  My memory is quite strong and clear.  Lots of people don’t have memories of that age at all.

A scientist/researcher (Cornell Wilde) and his daughter/assistant (Jennifer Salt) journey to the Southwest in search of a wily old man and his mystery shack of artifacts, only to uncover an ancient race of demonic gargoyles living in the rocks and caves.  This was a made-for-tv movie.

Three things about it that struck me:

1. The attack on the father and daughter’s car as they drive down the darkened road with a gargoyle on their roof, ripping it up.  This truly frightened me.  This is a pure memory for me.

2. The nobility of the monsters.  Actually, after watching the film again just now with my daughter, I realize that the gargoyles aren’t just a noble race of creatures just trying to exist.  They actually do want to destroy mankind if they can but their life cycles are super slow (it’s been like 300 years or something since the last eggs hatched?)  For some reason I always thought that the gargoyles were kind of not exactly bad guys, but really, it’s the humans who end up being kind of noble.  Wilde and the humans destroy most of the gargoyle eggs but allow the mating pair of monsters to escape to have a chance to breed and keep on living.  It’s a kind of progressive attitude toward the monsters.  Almost conservationist.

And the gargoyles are kind of noble, intelligent.  I always remembered them that way and I think that was another notable aspect of the movie.  The idea of the “good” monster.  I liked monsters.  I liked monsters that were noble, if doomed, tragic and cool.

Which brings me to:

3. Rick Baker and Stan Winston.  Stan Winston is credited with the gargoyle make-up.  But listening to the director commentary (which I did a bit — it was kind of boring), Bill L. Norton mentions that Rick Baker was also on set, working with the designs.  The make-up for the monsters is pretty cool.  As Norton mentions, the heads of the monsters were very good.  Their shoulders were pretty good, torsos okay, and rest of the body costumes quite bad.  I only paraphrase Norton’s comment to say that the gargoyle designs are very cool.  I don’t know how many there are but there are several different masks that all look quite different from one another.  And yet it’s true that maybe if you analyze the whole costume you’d say that they weren’t spectacular.  I would say that the fact that the gargoyles look cool and actually get a lot of screen time as a result is another testament to why this movie made such an impact on me.

Clocking in at 74 minutes, I’ll be honest, it’s not by any means a great movie.  It has definite charms and qualities.  Some good character actor performances enhance this relatively low-budget shoot.  But it’s got some chintzyness to it too.  The slo-mo effects of the gargoyles’ movements was probably lame even in 1972.  And the weird “snare drum” (as Clara described it) vocal effect on the head gargoyle’s voice is nothing but cheap.

But this movie is pretty much the origin of all my movie-watching.  The very first film I remember watching at the time, in the back room den on a huge box black-and-white television (I remember fantasizing about seeing color occasionally on the old B&W).  And I remember really, really loving this movie, and it stuck with me, here even 42 years later, watching it with my daughter, who at 10 is already three times older than I was when I first saw it.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)

An American Werewolf in London (1981) movie poster

director John Landis
viewed: 10/31/2014

John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London was a pretty big movie for me in my young movie-going life.  It was the 2nd R-rated horror film that I managed to get my mom to take me to (The first being Alien (1979)), which unfortunately for my sister three and a half years younger, was also the case for her.  Childhood traumas are made of this stuff…but not for me.  Rather, this was a pretty formative movie in my day.

As I’ve often noted here, I was a dyed in the wool or maybe even dyed in the womb monster movie lover.  Though I heavily enthused on movies from Universal Pictures classic horror films and the likes of old Godzilla, I was growing up in an era when horror films were far more bloody and filled with a lot more sex.  In fact, in the 1980’s most new horror films were rated R.

And that’s just the thing.  I don’t remember the third R-rated movie I saw in the theaters with my mom or otherwise (most likely there was a lot of pay cable movies in that time), but these first two made life-long impressions on me.  And frankly, of all the horror films to have gone to, Ridley Scott’s Alien and John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London?  Two pretty spectacular films.

I can’t tell you the last time I’d seen it or how many times I saw the movie.  I feel like I know it in and out in pretty solid detail, rightly or wrongly.  And for a big portion, it’s true, I do know the film in good detail.

A couple of odd notes.  I had been thinking of watching it with my kids, now 13 and 10, which would be older than the 9 and 12 that my sister and I would have been in 1981, but I had two qualms.  Strangely, the film’s sexuality made a huge impression on me when I saw it.  There is some sex talk, a big sex scene with the beautiful nurse Jenny Agutter, and then there is the scene in the porno theater.  Somehow that all seemed very intense to me, though I’ll tell you that the sex scene is nowhere as suggestive or revealing as I had recalled it, nor is it very long.

And then there is the violence and gore effects.  It’s a pretty scary movie, though full of comedy, too.  The English setting and some of the black humor I thought would really appeal to my kids, but for some reason…I was like “Wasn’t there like TONS of SEX in the movie?  And was it gory?  Was it scary?”  Like I’ve suggested, I think it’s more a testament to how the film impressed upon my 12 year old self as to why I thought I’d give it a viewing before watching it with the kids.

The biggest thing is that the movie is pretty damn great.

David Naughton, he of those Dr. Pepper commercials of the day, is a good lead in this comic horror/love story.  And his buddy Griffin Dunne, he who gets killed in the movie early on but comes back as a progressively rotting corpse trying to convince Naughton to kill himself to lift the werewolf’s curse…he’s fantastic.  I always liked him and his scenes.

And those werewolf effects by Rick Baker.  1981 was the year of the werewolf effect film, An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, and Wolfen.  What a year for werewolves!  Baker’s effects are definitive genre examples of the best transformation sequences set to film.  I’d be willing to bet/argue that they’ve never yet been topped.  They are iconic.  They are gruesome.

But Landis pulls out not just a scary thriller, but a very funny comic film.  And somehow, the love story between Naughton and Agutter also makes this movie sad and tragic, too.

Sorry to harp so much upon it, but if you had asked me, I would have sworn that you see Agutter in her altogether in rather copious ways.  Nope.  It’s moderately discreet for the time.  But Griffin Dunne’s gruesome post-life bloodiness?  Really pretty gross and beautifully executed.  Why did I not dwell on the gore?  I guess my 12 year old self dwelt on the flash of a breast more than an eviscerated corpse.

Bottom line on this rather rambling spiel:  John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London is an excellent, funny, gory, great horror film.  Excellent.

The Incredible Melting Man (1977)

The Incredible Melting Man (1977) movie poster

director William Sachs
viewed: 07/26/2014

Ah, The Incredible Melting Man.  Another film that has flitted in my consciousness for untold years.

Reading up on it, the fact that it was in my consciousness makes some sense.  It was featured in the movie It Came from Hollywood (1982), which I am positive that I saw, though I don’t remember a lot very specific.  But I am almost entirely certain that I saw It Came from Hollywood in the theater, Oaks Mall, Gainesville, FL.

Other aspects of the film, who knows?  I’m sure it’s lingered here and there in various books and magazines.  How much did I really know about it before I sat down to watch it?  Not really a lot.

Turns out, it’s a vague re-make of The First Man in Space (1959), which I have not seen but have had on queue for some time, as it got the Criterion treatment.  It’s the story of an astronaut who gets exposed to some nasty radiation in space and then comes back to Earth just a melting all over the place and deranged so’s that he kills people.

The only real reason that this film should have much note is the amazing special effects designed by wizard Rick Baker.  The melting man himself is better than anything else in the movie by a long, long shot.  He’s gruesome and gooey and wonderfully designed.  He’s almost worth the price of admission, which at this point is just those 84 minutes of your life that you might dedicate to watching this flick.

My exploration of “bad movies” of late has made some bad movies only bad in levels of relativity.  This film does broach the worst crime that a film can broach in my mind, good or bad, which is that it gets a bit boring and tedious despite its short run-time.  And some of the so-bad-that-it’s-good moments and aspects do make up for it.  Really, though, it’s the creature design and oozy, dripping, putrescence that you come for, not the drama.

The Frighteners (1996)

The Frighteners (1996) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 07/18/2014 

When Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners came out in 1996, I remembered thinking it was pretty good stuff.  Starring Michael J. Fox as a man who can see ghosts and who uses that ability to employ ghosts to haunt and be exorcised by him fraudulently, it’s a paranormal thriller/comedy cut from a cloth laid out in part by Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (1988).  It seemed an apt project for Jackson (before he started making hobbit movies) and was produced by Robert Zemeckis a la his own Death Becomes Her (1992).

I’d had it in my Netflix streaming queue in part just because it was available, not something that I was in particular looking for to watch with the kids.  But as we kept skimming over the image, I kept thinking it might be something that they would like, though I did recall it had its scary elements too.

Because along with Fox’s friendly ghosts, there is also the murderous baddie of Jake Busey (what the heck happened to that guy?), a serial killer turned ghost serial killer, inspired by Charlie Starkweather to build a body count to top all body counts.

The effects are early digital effects.  1996 seems to be a typical point in the line for the growth and efficacy of digital effects.  The primary effect is the ghost of Busey, either as a grim reaper figure, or more typically, sliding under the wallpaper at a house.  I recalled this effect seeming cool back in the day, but now it looks, if you pardon the expression, hella cheap.

When Wes Craven used an analog effect to have Freddy Kreuger push through a rubber wall in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), you’ve got a cool effect that transcends time.  When re-created digitally for its re-make in 2010, the even more advanced digital effect still was less powerful and interesting.  Back in 1996, with a much more elaborate and heavily leaned-on digital effect, who can say?  I tell you that today, it looks crappy.  And yes, hella cheap.

The best effect in the film is John Astin as “the judge”, a rotting corpse with digital and analog effects, but more well-designed than the others.

On the whole, the film is affable enough.  The kids were a bit confused by the story, which shifted in time between the teenage rampage of the killer and the present-day ghost rampage.  And then the film also relies on a stairway to heaven, with a one year limit in opportunity that leaves some ghosts on earth.  This is basically a not very well thought out aspect of the film’s universe.

Neither of the kids loved it nor hated it.  Though as the film wore on, they realized that it was more comic than scary.  It’s funny how the things I think will freak them out are the things that don’t bother them a lick.

Ed Wood (1994)

Ed Wood (1994) movie poster

director Tim Burton

viewed: 11/01/2013

After watching the legendary Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) with the kids the weekend before, it seemed an apt way to delve into the backstory of Edward Wood, Jr. by visiting .Tim Burton’s affectionate biopic of the man. I’ve long cited Ed Wood as Burton’s best film.  I’ve thought so since 1994 when I first saw it (the only time I had seen it).  And I think I still stand by that statement.

It’s anomalous in Burton’s oeuvre for although it’s a comedy, it’s the most realistic, least fantastic of all of his films.  No magic, no monsters, but also quite a significant emotional center that while extremely positive and upbeat seems more honest than any of his other films.  It’s a paean, a non-critical one largely, to film-making, old Hollywood, the creative drive and cinematic artistry.  Couched in goofy good humor about a cross-dressing oddball and his extended, inclusive world of misfit friends and partners, I really think it’s the most emotionally true film in Burton’s career.

And it’s also very good.  Johnny Depp is charming and lovable as the ever-positive hack artist Wood.  The heart of the film is the relationship between Ed Wood, Jr. and Bela Lugosi, who was played by an Oscar-winning Martin Landau.  His portrayal of the aging, drug-addicted movie star is a fine one.  But it’s the relationship that Wood shares with Lugosi that gives the film its heart.  It’s about friendship, but more so it’s about acceptance of the social outsider: the drug addict, the cross-dresser, the transsexual, the oddballs, the passionate hack artists.

Burton kept the film inherently positive, picking to portray the lives of these people in a sweetened light because there was a lot of darkness in the reality of their lives.  It’s part of the reassessment of Wood, saving him from history’s derisive trash heap of laughing stocks in the world of bad cinema.

And of course it’s ironic that your best film is about the worst film-maker of all time, isn’t it?

The kids enjoyed the film.  Really appreciating the scenes of the making of Plan 9 from Outer Space, getting how someone (even if not historically accurate) managed to make such a bad film while having the best of intentions.

Two odd upshots of watching Ed Wood.  One is that the kids didn’t really know who Johnny Depp was.  I guess we’d never watched a film in which he appeared in the flesh (they didn’t recall having watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)).  Though we’ve watched a number of other Tim Burton films, we hadn’t watched any of the several films that Depp and Burton did together.  So next week, we’re planning on watching Edward Scissorhands (1990).

The other odd upshot was explaining the difference between transsexuals and transvestites.  One of those conversations every parent should have with their children.

The Howling (1981)

The Howling (1981) movie poster

director Joe Dante
viewed: 07/13/2013

Back in 1981, the werewolf movie underwent radical transformation.  Transformation being one of the key qualities of a werewolf movie, dating back no doubt to Werewolf of London (1935) and The Wolf Man (1941), perhaps arguably back to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) (not a werewolf movie but it does feature an excellent transformation).  Back in those days and for many years onward, transformation effects were generally created via a series of fade-in shots, blurring the images together to show growth of hair, fangs, and claws.

But by 1981 (and perhaps earlier — please let me know), a breaking point was achieved in werewolf movies that transformed the genre.  It was the special effects, make-up and prosthetics, analog constructions that evolved right in front of the camera.  The series of these latex and what-have-you enhanced sequences tapped into new levels of gross-out cinema that would come to be the standard borne by horror films throughout the 1980’s all up until the digital age.

Nowhere were these effects more prominent than in Joe Dante’s The Howling and John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London (1981).  Rick Baker worked on both films, though he left The Howling to Rob Bottin and moved over  to the Landis’s production.  The Howling came out a few months prior, and while fans and aesthetes can argue which is better, they both individually and together utterly redefined and re-enlivened the werewolf film.  Bottin would go on to do the effects in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), a much more free-form gross-out transformation design.

The rest of The Howling is a reasonably entertaining werewolf movie, peppered with Dante’s Hollywood references and loony humor, especially with the aid of the script by John Sayles, who had worked with him on Piranha (1978).  It features Dee Wallace as a news anchor trailing a serial killer to a porn shop in LA.  After a freaky meeting, in which the killer is killed, she suffers psychological trauma and is sent to “The Colony”, a retreat on the California coast that turns out to be inhabited by a coven of werewolves.

It’s all pretty weird, really.

The star of the film is the effects largely, but it’s an entertaining, oddball, goof-fest featuring cameos from the likes of Roger Corman, Forrest Ackerman, John Sayles, and Dick Miller.  It even features a meatier cameo by John Carradine.  It’s all part of Dante’s collective homage to the genre plus as many silly gags as he can pack in.

It’s been eons since I’ve seen An American Werewolf in London, but I’m guessing that I ought to queue that up right soon for sharper contrast.  1981 also featured another notable killer wolf film, Wolfen, which isn’t actually a werewolf movie, though you kind of have to work your way through it to find that out.  I always actually considered it the best of the three.  Though oddly enough, no werewolves mean no transformation scenes.

Today, digital effects make the “anything” possible.  I think that werewolves, in movies in which the transformation is still the key element of the narrative, still take their direction from these 1981 films.  Though more and more digitized werewolves seem to forgo the gory detail of transformation, instead morphing in split seconds in the no-nonsense immediacy of “Zap! Now I’m a werewolf!”  Where’s the fun in that?

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) movie poster

director Joe Dante
viewed: 05/10/2013

Clara and I did a Gremlins (1984) double feature, starting with the original and right after with the much later Gremlins 2: The New Batch which I am pretty sure that I never saw before.

I did have a friend who considered Gremlins 2 one of his favorite all-time movies.  He had a goofy, perverse sense of humor that, now that I have seen it, seems quite well attuned to director Joe Dante’s manic, chaotic meta sequel.  Where the original Gremlins felt a bit at odds with itself over its personality and identity, Gremlins 2 seems much the more pure Dante product, raging around pop culture like an incessant demon, beyond self-referential, just further and further into comic permutations.

Clara told me afterwards that she agreed with my friend and thought that the second film was funnier and slightly better because of it.

Me, I think it’s a hot mess of sorts, but one that seems to have strove for such a state of affairs.  It certainly takes that tack from the very outset, featuring a Warner Bros. logo with Bugs Bunny atop that breaks the narrative of movie language much like Chuck Jones’ great Duck Amuck (1953).  And this is just the opening sequence with characters who aren’t even in the movie the rest of the way.  Dante breaks the “fourth wall” again, if you will, when the gremlins take over the movie projection and the film dissolves onscreen.  They then start making shadow puppets and are finally yelled down by Hulk Hogan himself getting the movie back on track.

Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates are back on board, in New York now, in the employ of a Donald Trump type in a “smart” building.  Gizmo gets picked up by a genetic engineer for the company, but of course all the rules get broken again and the gremlins come out and multiply, evolve, do a little of this, a little of that, a little of anything they can think of.  It seems that the puppeteers and creative crew had a blast going off on every little thing they could.

It’s even more of a mess of a movie, but it’s chock full of film and cultural references, many right back to Gremlins itself.  It’s a chaotic ride and a sort of ridiculous one too.  It is kind of funny and pretty amusing.  It’s even got a rather comic performance from Christopher Lee.

I’d say that the end result is about as good as the original film.  It’s a more pure expression of the comic Id of Joe Dante, channeling his Tex Avery and Looney Tunes aesthetics ripping and riffing hardcore on the pop culture of the time.