Invaders from Mars (1986)

Invaders from Mars (1986) movie poster

director Tobe Hooper
viewed: 02/03/2018

Invaders from Mars, in which Tobe Hooper directs a 1986 B-movie remake of a 1956 B-movie. I give it a B minus.

Invaders from Mars may not be Hooper’s finest moment, though it captures him in a very conscious homage to Atomic Age science fiction. In fact, it draws some visual elements directly from the 1956 flick by William Cameron Menzies. In fact, the whole film is very in keeping with the original’s perspective, a space loving kid (Hunter Carson, here in 1986.)

Carson stars alongside his mother, Karen Black, who in the film is actually his school’s nurse. But when Carson’s parents (Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman) get taken over by aliens, Black surrogates him in what otherwise seems a vaguely odd and cozy fashion.

Even with Stan Winston and John Dykstra designing critters and Dan O’Bannon helping with the script, it’s hard not to feel somewhat cynical as the film devolves into truly child-like (child-ish?) fantasy towards the end.

Best scene: Louise Fletcher swallowing a bullfrog.


The Bat People (1974)

The Bat People (1974) movie poster

director Jerry Jameson
viewed: 08/14/2016

The B-side of the DVD of The Beast Within (1982) turned out to be a very odd pairing.  A movie from 8 years prior, with no recognizable parallels, The Bat People is a creature feature of a very different order.  It’s probably that this MGM DVD release is the only randomized way that these two films would ever share a roster.

But let me tell you something:  The Bat People is a hysterically bad movie, one well-deserving in the pantheon of camp, bad acting, and enjoyable inanity.  Apparently, this is not news, as it has been given the MST3K treatment years ago, but it’s really worth watching if you enjoy bad movies for bad movies’ sake.  Forgo the comic commentary and develop your own.

Dr. John Beck (Stewart Moss) and his wife Cathy (Marianne McAndrew) are attacked by a bat (a regular-sized flying mouse) while on a tour of a cave somewhere in California.  Cathy unthinkingly kicks the bat into a hole before they can discover if it’s rabid or not.  So John has to endure rabies treatments, and worse for him, something else is going on with that bat, something more than rabies.

Moss has the most hysterical flip-outs as he starts to change.  But the funny thing is, he was having weird bat nightmares in the opening credits.  If he was always so freaked out by bats, what the heck is he doing going caverning?

Also truly hilarious are the actions and inactions of his doctor (who gives bad advice, but is easily swayed by the concerned Cathy) and the apparently evil sheriff, who is entirely inappropriate at the best of times.

It’s terrible.  But I really enjoyed it.

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Pumpkinhead (1988) movie poster

director Stan Winston
viewed: 05/25/2016

Hollywood make-up/FX man Stan Winston’s one and only film as director, Pumpkinhead, is notable for being Hollywood make-up/FX man Stan Winston’s one and only film as director.

Coming out in the late 1980’s, it often gets lost on the shuffle of that era’s slasher flicks, which it is decidedly not.  It’s a creature feature and the creature is indeed pretty cool, a giant demon creature summoned from a backwoods graveyard to effect revenge on whomever the summoner has targeted.  This summoning is at the behest of grieving father (a surprisingly hunky Lance Henriksen) whose little boy is run down accidentally by some hooligans.  Only too late does Henriksen realize the true horror of revenge.

The film features some nicely designed and shot sets, and the cast does a pretty decent job.  But the story is underdeveloped and the film’s tone is shifty, from some misty sentimentality to more typical horror scenes, not improved by the winsome soundtrack with harmonicas.  In the end, it’s mediocre at best, really.

That said, it’s easy to imagine having seen this film at the right point in one’s life and having really connected with it.  The scenes between Henriksen and his son (Matthew Hurley) are touching, if overdone.  And the creature and some of the settings are striking.

I will say that I’m pretty sure that I saw this movie back in the day at some point, but at no point was a jogged into a key memory of it, but I’m still not sure if I just don’t recall anything more than the monster.

Predator (1987)

Predator (1987) movie poster

director John McTiernan
viewed: 06/29/2015

As unlikely a movie star as he has been, Arnold Schwarzenegger, with his now iconic lumbering Austrian accent, has a significant cinematic legacy.  Where the original Predator stands in anyone’s estimation of Arnold’s filmography, I suppose that is ultimately a matter of opinion.  But honestly, I think it’s one of his best.

When Predator first came out, it seemed another in a line of flicks like Commando (1985) and Raw Deal (1986), and who knows, maybe I first saw it on cable or something because I think I’d add to that list things like The Running Man (1987) and Red Heat (1988), a litany of movies that I wasn’t too utterly keen on at the time.

In fact, it starts out like some post-Rambo (1985) actioner, with a bunch of beefcake-y military dudes flying into a Central American jungle on a rescue operation, shooting up a guerrilla base and acting tougher than tough.  Only, that is just the prelude to the real film, in which a camouflaged alien turns out to be stalking the most dangerous of dangerous game, the Übermenschen extremis.  The predator is an intergalactic hunter, stalking and killing and taking trophies.

Really, the film is brilliantly realized.  It’s comical appreciation of these human monsters of muscle-laden flesh include Schwarzenegger of course, but also Carl Weathers, Jess “The Body” Ventura, Sonny Landham, and the terrific Bill Duke.  John McTiernan wastes no time sketching out the Special Forces characters, each more manly than the other, with deft moments, classic throwaway lines (“I ain’t got time to bleed.”), and hilarious details.  Add in Stan Winston’s awesome monster design and you’ve got one of the best action films of the 1980’s.

This viewing was with my son, who has little first-hand experience of Arnold Schwarzenegger as a movie star, having grown up in a California where the man was “The Governator” for eight years.  It was actually a quite humorous point of trivia that this film would feature two future state governors (Ventura doing it first).  I still think that the real twist for Arnold as a performer was the brilliant casting of him in Twins (1988) with Danny DeVito and the discover of him as a comic actor and presence.

Really, we live in a post-Arnie world now.  A post-Arnie world in which he’s moved out of Sacramento and back into Hollywood and movies (none of which have I seen yet).  But his legacy in film will stand.  In a post-Arnie world maybe it doesn’t seem as unlikely as it did as he grew into a late-20th Century icon, but having lived through that time, I still recall it as odd as it was.


Batman Returns (1992)

Batman Returns (1992) movie poster

director Tim Burton
viewed: 12/03/2014

Batman indeed returned in 1992, back in the hands of director Tim Burton and in the flesh of Michael Keaton.  Batman (1989) had been a phenomenon, a phenomenon from  whose influence American filmmaking may never shrug off.  It was the first modern superhero movie, and though others since have shifted its direct influence, it is still the site of which the torrent was originally unleashed.  And Batman Returns, by nature of being the first sequel of the original, has symbolic influence as well.

Batman had only one villain, Jack Nicholson’s The Joker, and though other key characters like Harvey Dent were introduced, it was a case of one hero/one villain.  Batman Returns offered both Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer) and The Penguin (Danny DeVito) but also less directly Max Shreck (Christopher Walken).  It’s the issue with which all superhero sequels hence have had to contend: upping the ante on the villains probably at the behest of the merchandising rather than actual need.

But Tim Burton did what was unusual at the time.  He made the sequel almost better than the original.  I say almost because for years I felt that it was actually better.  I liked it better.  But now, I’m not as sure.  I think it’s more aesthetically complete, the designs are nicer, the villains Catwoman and Penguin are interestingly designed and realized, but in many ways it lacks the full perverse humor of the first film and while maybe more aesthetically pleasing, isn’t actually really a better movie.

It’s an interesting question to raise for a Burton film.  He’s often known for lush and vibrant visual design but otherwise rather incomplete movie-making.

It was more than six months ago we watched Batman, but a new condition has arisen: opening streaming avenues for movies has suddenly changed our movie-watching landscape and here, BatmanBatman Returns, and even Batman Forever (1995) are suddenly available on Netflix for the clicking.  With the new television program Gotham teasing on the tube, Felix’s interest in Batman in general has risen.

Batman Returns was not the commercial success of its predecessor, though success it was.  The results wound up with Burton leaving the series as director and Keaton leaving as actor.  Actually, only some of the more general background characters carry on through into the two Joel Schumacher films.

I would go on but I think I’ve hit the nail on the head for this movie for me.  I really do think it’s a more beautifully-rendered Batman movie.  Gotham is more massive and fascist in its design, but the Christmastime setting and muted blues and blacks and whites creates a palette more pleasing to the eye, though it does follow in the footsteps of its predecessor aesthetically.  This whole design aesthetic would reign supreme through the genre for ages to come.  The clowns and the penguins, the cartoonish elements Burton places on the scenes like oversized brightly-wrapped Xmas presents are just all very, very slick and cool art.

But the movie itself lacks in the comedy that actually made Batman pretty good.  Pfeiffer, DeVito, and Walken all add to the pleasures…and it’s still pleasurable.  I mean, I still liked it.  But I don’t know if it’s better or not than Batman.

Felix liked it and is keen to see Batman & Robin (1997), apparently having inherited some component of my appreciation for the bad and ugly in cinema to set off the good.

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.

Galaxy Quest (1999)

Galaxy Quest (1999) movie poster

director Dean Parisot
viewed: 11/15/2014

Galaxy Quest is an example of an utter rarity.  A funny comedy is an odd enough creation, but this is the thing about Galaxy Quest: it turned out far better than it really seemed possible.  The comedy, starring Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Alan Rickman, and Tony Shalhoub about a group of washed-up actors from a cult science fiction television show many years out (which is Star Trek not even thinly veiled) who get mistakenly picked up by some aliens who believe the show to be “historical documents” and not fiction…it’s just way better than seemed possible.

It’s said that parody is the most sincere form of flattery.  Galaxy Quest testifies on that front.

My kids (my daughter in particular) has gotten into watching the original Star Trek show, which is available on Netflix.  And, you know, if you’re going to backfill all of that cultural knowledge about Star Trek, there is a lot to absorb.  80 episodes of the original show, the original crew Star Trek movies (you’ve got to watch the Ricardo Montalban episode of “Space Seed” in order to watch Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), right?), Star Trek: The Next Generation, and these new Star Trek movies.  All to understand the tribble joke in Star Trek Into Darkness (2013).

Okay, I’m veering off here a little.  You see, I did take the kids to see Star Trek Into Darkness and they didn’t get the tribble joke.

But I think the kids have enough orientation to Star Trek and its legacies to understand Galaxy Quest.  I also have been wanting to switch up the types of movies we’ve been watching.  Not many comedies.

I hadn’t re-seen Galaxy Quest for some time.  I had seen it in the theaters on its release in 1999, and I think I may have caught parts of it on television since.  But it’s been a while.

Tim Allen.  That guy.  I really didn’t like him when he first came around.  I didn’t ever like Home Improvement.  But he has always been great as Buzz Lightyear.  And he’s perfect in Galaxy Quest as the Shatnerian Kirk, ham and hero to fans, unbearable boor to colleagues.

Sigourney Weaver.  She’s great here too.  I love how her character’s main role in the show was to repeat everything the computer says and when thrown into a real life version of her role ends up doing the same thing.  She’s really very funny.

Tony Shalhoub.  I don’t recall knowing who he was before this movie.  His character, who I guess is supposed to be stoned all the time (though it seems like specific reference to him “being stoned” is mostly cut out of the film) is hilarious in his easy-going, unflappable acceptance of all things Space.

On top of all that, you’ve got Stan Winston providing make-up designs for the creatures, legitimizing even further the coolness integrity of the film.

I guess that my biggest reaction to the film is the same as it’s always been.  The movie is so much better and more fun, up and down, than it really seemed to have any right to be.  There are so many terrible, terrible comedies, so few truly funny movies.  And it’s not that this film is just pure laugh-riot but it’s got characters that you connect with.  It’s got heart.  Which is even more alchemical than anything in movies.

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 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.

The Terminator (1984)

The Terminator (1984) movie poster

director James Cameron
viewed: 06/27/2014

I personally don’t think of James Cameron as one of the major directors of his era.  God knows he’s made the blockbusters and raked in cash in sums that will have him a Hollywood legend for his success.  It all goes back to The Terminator, though.

You know, it’s a pretty great film.

I hadn’t seen it in a long time.  What stood out for me this time was Michael Biehn, who plays Kyle Reese, the soldier from the future who comes back to stop the relentless killing machine from wiping out the mother of the savior of the human race.  He’s really good, very convincing and dynamic.  It’s kind of surprising that he didn’t manage to go on to a bigger career.

The whole thing is good, concept, execution, writing, acting, even its uber Eightiesness.

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Edward Scissorhands (1990) movie poster

director Tim Burton
viewed: 11/08/2013

It’s kind of funny but I think I hit the nail rather squarely on the head in my last writing about Edward Scissorhands.  The only thing I would add really on this viewing, which was with the kids, is that it’s a bit more disappointing on further review.  The kids weren’t terribly excited about it either.

Striving for movie magic, the ice-sculpting scene is highly contrived and non-magical.  And thus, the ending, playing up this snow in Suburbia eternal fairy tale also is flat.

The biggest problems are that the social critique is both so harsh and so shallow that it doesn’t really impact one the way that it’s intended.  As cartoonish as the suburbanites are in their pastel painted homes, cars, and clothes, their fascination with the strange and unusual that quickly turns to disdain and hatred is all as hollow as it is trite.

Diane Wiest and Alan Arkin add some bland humanity and charm, but I see the film as almost as misguided as the idea of putting a blond wig on Winona Ryder.

It would have been interesting to have toned the story a la the television show Freaks and Geeks, with more retro sentimentality than modern fairy tale.  Oh well.