52 Films by Women: October Progress 

Only managed to work in 6 films made by women in October, but they were generally really good ones.  I’m still not a fan of of Pet Sematary, but sequel (by the same director) is terrific fun. Raw and Evolution are more artistic, although in different ways — Evolution being a beautiful allegorical film and Raw being a gorey cannibal movie. 88 is a solid actioner, occasionally surreal, with great performances by Katherine Isabelle and Christopher Lloyd. And finally, The Voices is a loopy Ryan Reynolds comedy about a serial killer and his pets.

  • 88 (2015)
  • Evolution (2015)
  • Pet Sematary (1989)
  • Pet Sematary II (1992)
  • Raw (2016)
  • The Voices (2014)

This brings me to 41 for the year. Out of 388. 10.6%. This is unreal.


Film Diary: May

Looks like the final count for May was 42, which puts me well ahead of schedule. Guess I should spend more time writing.

I’ve been on a Godzilla kick, thanks to reissues on bluray from Kraken. That’s unlikely to change in June as more keep coming out. We’ve also re-started the Harry Potter series, since I picked up the last two movies while in Vandergrift for the drive-in festival.

“The Bamboo Saucer” was a neat take on the espionage thriller, with the reliable Dan Duryea as the military commander of a small American force sent into China to investigate a flying saucer before the Chinese government discovers it. An uncomfortable alliance with a Russian expedition ratchets the tension, and it’s honestly a miracle that any named characters survive.

The two biggest surprises were “The House on Sorority Row” and “The Black Pit of Dr. M”. The first is an early 80s slasher that’s competently made and utterly ruthless. It’s a reminder of how ferocious the genre was before it became safe and smirking with endless sequels in a small handful of franchises. The second is an effective bit of religious horror from Mexico. The theme of scientific inquiry into forbidden areas is familiar, but the plot plays out like an intricate trap instead of the usual quick road to irony. The ending is still very much what any EC reader might expect, but the path to it is what’s marvelous here.

The Bamboo Saucer (1968)
Best Friends Forever (2013)
The Black Pit of Dr. M (1959)
Case of the Bloody Iris (1972)
Catch-22 (1970)
Cremaster 3 (2002)
The Curse of the Crying Woman (1961)
Cutie Honey (2004)
Dracula III: Legacy (2005)
End of the Century (2003)
The Flight That Disappeared (1961)
Gargoyles (1972)
Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)
Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S (2003)
Godzilla vs Destroyah (1995)
Godzilla vs Gigan (1972)
Godzilla vs Hedorah (1971)
Godzilla vs King Ghidorah (1991)
Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla (1993)
Godzilla vs Megaguirus (2000)
Godzilla vs Mothra (1992)
Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla (1994)
Godzilla vs the Sea Monster (1966)
Gog (1954)
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001)
Harry potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
House of the Long Shadows (1983)
The House on Sorority Row (1983)
The Jungle (1952)
King Kong Escapes (1967)
Monsoon Wedding (2001)
Moon Zero Two (1969)
My Bloody Valentine (1981)
Pick-Up (1975)
Pontypool (2008)
Red Planet Mars (1952)
The Teacher (1974)
Terror is a Man (1959)
Transatlantic Tunnel aka The Tunnel (1935)
12 to the Moon (1960)

Film Diary: April

April was a “slow” movie month. Despite a trip to watch movies at a drive-in near Pittsburgh (more about that soon) I only saw 31 movies! That makes 4 months straight that I’ve seen more than necessary to stay on schedule, so I’m feeling pretty confident about project Waste My Life A Film For Every Day.

I tried another film from the Criterion set of Czech New Wave. Last month’s “Daisies” was so radical that it defied viewing. “A Report on the Party and the Guests”, on the other hand, subverted from within conventional structure, making it easier for me to access and appreciate. It was still very much an art film, but it was one that I enjoyed and would recommend as an example of film as political rebellion.

At the polar opposite of the spectrum I watched Wakefield Poole’s “Bible!”, which presented a few scenes from the Old and New Testaments with, ahem, very little demands on the wardrobe department. The best thing I can say about it is that the Bathsheba segment was genuinely funny. Second best is that Poole comes off as a bargain basement Pasolini. There are worse things to be, I suppose.

For instance, one could be Dario Argento still leeringly filming his naked daughter. It’s always been a bit creepy to see Asia Argento unclad in her dad’s films, but at least there used to be some effort put into the movies. Argento’s 2012 production of “Dracula” was so indifferent and sloppy that it made his execrable “Phantom of the Opera” look like “Deep Red”! Okay, maybe more like “Two Evil Eyes”, but still…

My favorite new-to-me movies of the month were “Steamboy” and “A Shock to the System”. The first is a magnificently animated story of the conflict between invention for furthering humankind and for dominating it. It’s a grand and delightful adventure, and I wish it had led to a series chronicling the further adventures of Steam (hinted at by stills during the end credits). The second follows Michael Caine as a businessman whose prospects rise as he becomes more horrible. As social satire it’s ponderous and obvious, but it’s such a joy to watch Caine transform into a monster that I have to love it.

Anyway, here’s the list.

Apollo 18 (2011)
The Asphyx (1973)
The Beast Within (1982)
Bible! (1974)
Carrie (1976)
Cheerleader Massacre 2 (2011)
Crossworlds (1997)
Dario Argento’s Dracula (2012)
Daughters of Satan (1972)
Episode 50 (2011)
Frankenstein Created Woman (1967)
Grave Secrets, aka Secret Screams (1989)
Halloween (1978)
The Hills Have Eyes (1977)
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
Insidious: Chapter 2 (2013)
King Dinosaur (1955)
The Last Days on Mars (2013)
Mean Girls (2004)
La Nave de los Monstruos (1960)
Phantasm (1979)
A Report on the Party and the Guests (1966)
Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964)
A Shock to the System (1990)
Solomon Kane (2009)
Steamboy (2004)
Suspiria (1977)
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976)
Twixt (2011)
The Void (2001)

Film Diary: March

I’m now at 130 movies for the year. If I keep up this pace I’ll wind up seeing 520, well above my goal of a one per day average. Looks like I can cut back and spend more time writing!

Lots of horror, as usual. Ghosts, werewolves, werespiders, giant radioactive bugs, zombies, bats, and golems. “The Man Who Laughs” and “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” were made in the silent era, although “The Man Who Laughs” was released with an optional soundtrack of incidental music and crowd sounds. They’re impressively made. John Barrymore is simply astounding as Hyde, and despite some peculiar changes from the source it was a good flick. “The Man Who Laughs” was a bit of a mess, I thought, but the dental prosthetic was an astounding effect. Not only did the film inspire the look of Batman’s iconic foe The Joker, but the more expressionist sets established the eerie fable look Universal horror for the next few decades.

I saw a number of movies to further my research for The Web of the Big Damn Spider. Some of these were harder to get ahold of, so it was a thrill to set my greedy eyes on them. “Lunatics: A Love Story” had my favorite giant spider — a fairly good stop-motion effect — as well as scenes of Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi attacking each other. “The Cosmic Monsters” was just a super-imposed close-up, which was frankly disappointing. Hammer’s “The Devil Rides Out” at least had the decency to use a tarantula in its super-imposed effect. It also had the audacity to fix everything with time travel, which was so insulting I had to applaud it for its disdain.

The biggest let-down of the month was “Daisies”, a Czech film from the 60s. I’d seen lots of images from it, and it looked absolutely nuts. It was. It was also determinedly off-putting and amounted to pretty much nothing. The visuals are striking, though. I’m left with a small handful of unmatched movies in the Criterion set that contained it. Like my BBS set I got for “Head”, it might just languish for a while more.

To wrap up on a happier note, I saw all three Shaft movies. “Shaft” was good stuff, and I could see why it made a splash. It’s immediate cash-in “Shaft’s Big Score” was okay but felt very much like a rushed cash-in. The following years “Shaft in Africa” was a goddamn hoot and should earn an honorary Oscar for Badassery. Not only was it a perfect blend of ridiculous fun and action, but it had the political awareness to address topics like female circumcision in the early 70s. Granted it was a set up for Shaft’s offer to show the woman what she’ll be missing, but still…

Anyway, here’s everything I watched. Yes, Lilo & Stitch is a repeat. It’s just a great movie!

Bad Milo! (2013)
Beast Beneath (2011)
Beyond the Time Barrier (1960)
Black Narcissus (1947)
The Blade Master (1984)
Brain Dead (1990)
Buried Alive (2007)
Contracted (2013)
The Cosmic Monsters, aka The Strange World of Planet X (1958)
Crawlspace (2012)
Curse of the Black Widow (1977)
Daisies (1966)
Dark Wolf (2003)
A Dead Calling (2006)
The Devil Rides Out (1968)
Do or Die (1991)
Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975)
Doghouse (2009)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Evil Remains, aka Trespassing (2004)
Fear Island (2009)
Fingerprints (2006)
Forget Me Not (2009)
The Frankenstein Theory (2013)
Gamera vs. Gyaos, aka Return of the Monsters (1967)
Guns (1990)
Hard Hunted (1992)
Haunter (2013)
House (2008)
In the Electric Mist (2009)
Intruders (2011)
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Lovely Molly (2012)
Lunatics: A Love Story (1991)
The Man Who Laughs (1928)
Munger Road (2011)
Nomads (1986)
The Quatermass Conclusion (1979)
Screamtime (1983)
Shaft (1971)
Shaft’s Big Score (1972)
Shaft in Africa (1973)
Singin’ in the Rain (1952)
Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
Starship Troopers: Invasion (2012)
Times Square (1980)
Vampire Bats (2005)
The Weight of Water (2000)

Film Diary: February

February brought my movie total for the year up to 82, which is about 11 movies over where I need to be for reaching my ridiculous goal for the year. This despite taking several days off from watching anything. Even if you discount my first re-viewing of the year (I had to subject friends to the anti-wonders of “Contamination .7”) I have a comfortable buffer built up.

This month’s films tended heavily toward horror, although thematically they were all over. My slow re-watching of the Star Trek films took a detour to cover the most recent series. I’ll get back to “Star Trek 6” in March and start the Next Generation series.

I’d seen “Zardoz” at B-Fest, and it had impressed me as being deeply incoherent. I gave it a go while wide awake, and I’m pleased to report that it’s completely nuts. Sean Connery, dressed in a red battle diaper, has to put immortals out of their misery by jumping into a crystalline computer and… well, it’s not very clear.

The find of the month was “Lilo & Stitch”, which turned out to be one of the best movies to ever come out of Disney. Maybe I’m just a sucker for “found family” stories, but it’s really just warm and funny. Plus Stitch plays ukulele, which makes it all the better. Hell, Bogie simply having a uke in his closet was enough to make me adore “Sabrina”.

Lots of zombies, a rape trial, radical surgery, killer wheels, werewolves, crime rings, radioactive trees, axes, ghosts, demons, Nazis, wormholes, tyrannical logic — it was heady stuff!

Here’s to 10 more months of overdosing on the good, the bad, and the wtf!

Absentia (2011)
The Accused (1988)
American Mary (2012)
Arson Inc. (1949)
Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan (2013)
Battledogs (2013)
Black Forest (2010)
Christine (1983)
Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)
Contamination .7 (1993)
Damnation Alley (1977)
Dark Touch (2013)
The Devil’s Carnival (2012)
Devil’s Pass (2013)
Extinction: The G.M.O. Chronicles (2011)
A Haunting at Silver Falls (2013)
The Haunting of Whaley House (2012)
Lilo & Stitch (2002)
Loan Shark (1952)
Love and a .45 (1994)
The Magic Serpent (1966)
Miami Connection (1987)
The Monolith Monsters (1957)
Portland Exposé (1957)
The Reeds (2010)
Rites of Spring (2011)
Rubber (2010)
A Safe Place (1971)
Salvage (2010)
Scourge (2008)
Shadow Man, aka Street of Shadows (1951)
Shoot to Kill/Police Reporter (1947)
Silent Hill: Revelation (2012)
Sling Blade (1996)
Star Trek (2009)
Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
They Were So Young (1954)
Uninhibited (2010)
War of the Dead (2011)
World War Z (2013)
Zardoz (1974)

I Suspend Disbelief, Not Common Sense

Happy endings are the mainstay of Hollywood, and when one is called for we get one whether it makes any sense or not. Miracle resurrections, limited shelf-life clones, spirits that smile as they depart — we’ve been handed the biggest loads of crap in the name of good cheer.

For the most part we nod and go along with it. It may not be believable, but the uplifting feeling is what we expect so we go along with it.

Unless it goes too far.

“Oh Heavenly Dog” sticks in my mind for one reason only: at the age of 9 it was the first happy ending I called bullshit on.

For you lucky souls unfamiliar with it, this film was a vehicle for the comedic duo of Chevy Chase and Benji. As most of us over 30 remember, Benji was a small dog who starred in several movies. Actually, a series of small dogs. Chevy Chase was played by an alien comedy troupe in a suit.

The premise of “Oh Heavenly Dog” is that a low-rent detective (Chase) is killed before his appointed time. As a consolation, he gets to return to Earth as an adult dog (Benji). He then spends the rest of the film failing to protect a young woman (Jane Seymour) from being killed.

Spoiler alert: she’s killed. Her consolation prize? She gets to be an adult cat! Dog and cat saunter down the street together. The end.

This is not a happy ending! Even coming back as babies would have been better. But no, being dropped into the bodies of street animals is what we get. They don’t even know how to hunt, fer crissakes! They’re in for a short, brutal life of hunger and disease. Thanks, movie!

Incidentally, I want to come back as a pampered house cat — well-fed, with lots of warm laps. And maybe a small dog to kick around.

Film Diary: January

With January nearly over, I thought I’d post my progress on the Mad Movie Challenge (to log 365 movies viewed this year). To be brief, it’s going well. I’ve already seen 37 films, which gives me a 6 movie buffer with 2 nights left in the first month of the Challenge. So yay! I’m working hard at sitting on the couch!

I’ve listed the movies below for the curious. They range all over in tone, genre, decade, and (oh yes) quality. Masterpieces like the British war comedy The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp share the list with inept films like the ecological horror Contamination .7. Some were so bad they were truly great like Escape from L.A. but many were just indefensibly awful (I’m looking at you Sharknado). Old favorites made up a minor portion of the list (the three Star Trek films and Truck Turner, which all have Nichelle Nichols in major roles) with most being new to me. Some were pleasant surprises (Gremlins 2: The New Batch was unexpectedly fun), and some were even worse than feared (Female Vampire, which is meandering and plotless even for Jess Franco).

I have no regrets. I got to see ancient forces destroy Nazis and Humphrey Bogart command a tank. Peter Cushing killed both Dracula and a mummy. Horror comics came to life and strangers died in an elevator. Ghosts and trees walked. A blind swordsman and a female sushi platter took out mobs. Christopher Lee was very naughty. And that’s only about a third of what I saw.

I’d pace myself, but I’m having too much fun!

Beau Geste (1939)
Bloodfist (1989)
Catacombs (1988)
Cellar Dweller (1988)
Contamination .7 (1993)
Creature (1985)
Devil (2010)
Escape from L.A. (1996)
Eugenie… the Story of Her Journey Into Perversion (1970)
Europa Report (2013)
Female Vampire (1973)
The Final (2010)
Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)
Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters (2013)
The Haunting in Connecticut (2009)
The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia (2013)
Horror of Dracula (1958)
House Hunting (2013)
The Keep (1983)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
The Mummy (1959)
Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
Planet Earth (1974)
Proteus (1995)
Ragewar (1984)
Sahara (1943)
Sharknado (2013)
Shrooms (2007)
Skyfall (2012)
Spiders (2013)
Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
Stolen (2009)
Sushi Girl (2012)
The Tale of Zatoichi Continues (1962)
Truck Turner (1974)

The View from a Cabinet

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been reading Euro Horror by Ian Olney. I’m more of a cinephile than a student of film, so I don’t always comprehend the language of film theory. Still, Olney’s book is reasonably approachable, and it’s gotten me to re-examine my fondness for the largely disposable genre films of the 1950s-1980s.

To do great disservice to his thesis through half-informed summary, Olney observes that many of these films invite viewers to invert cultural norms and expectations, sometimes through plot (cannibal films that show Westerners as prideful encroachers) but often through performative spectatorship (simplistically, the use of POV shots to experience alternative perspectives). In other words, as the films provide ample titillation, gore, and thrills, they also allow an escape from our everyday points of view.

Euro Horror is absolutely worth a read, if you’re interested in critical analysis of how we interact with film. I really can’t do Olney’s observations justice with my rambling, so please check out the book for yourself.

As I thought over all of this in the shower (where else would one think about horror?) I recalled sequences from a creaky old house mystery I’d recently seen. “House of the Damned” (1963) was described to me as a cross between “The House on Haunted Hill” (1959) and “Freaks” (1932). That may not seem like a glowing recommendation to you, but to me it sounded like a curiosity that simply had to be seen. Ultimately, I believe we may both be correct.

Spoilers are about to be dropped like so many phat beats, but honestly if you have ever seen an episode of “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” you already know the entire plot.

The basic premise of “House of the Damned” is that the long-term lease on a secluded mansion has expired, and the owners want an architect to determine what should be done with the place. The final tenant was a retired carnival owner who was a bit of a recluse. In fact, he hasn’t been seen since he paid the remainder of his rent a few months ago. Enter desperate architect Scott Campbell and his wife Nancy, who assists in taking measurements.

I mentioned spoilers, yes?

The majority of the film consists of carnival folk trying to scare the Campbells away so they can continue to stay in the house. One of these characters is played by Frieda Pushnik1, a woman born without arms or legs. She is featured in some of the more effective scenes of the movie, which just happen to involve examples of performative spectatorship via POV shots. Pushnik’s scenes revolve around a cabinet in the large room that the Campbells use as their bedroom and base of operations. The cabinet has a fine mesh front, through which Pushnik watches everything they do.

In the first of these scenes, the camera watches Nancy Campbell undress through a sort of screen2. In a reverse shot, this screen is revealed to be the mesh facing of the cabinet, and we briefly see Pushnik’s impassive face. It’s a startling transition, forcing the viewer to reinterpret the leering, male gaze just shared. Is Pushnik disapproving? Attracted? A threat, or a victim? We don’t have enough context, and so the mystery lingers as the movie continues.

The second sequence involves a guest — Loy Schiller, whose husband brought the job to Scott Campbell. Once again, we look through the eyes of Frieda Pushnik as a woman changes clothes. At least we can assume it is Pushkin observing again, as no evidence is presented to the contrary. It’s essentially the same shot as before, except for the lack of reveal. Again the viewer shares in the voyeurism but is left with unresolved tension.

The final version of the scene at last resolves the tension in a way that inverts the situation completely. The audience looks once more through the mesh of the cabinet, but this time it’s no peep show. Instead Joseph Schiller enters the room, looking for clues to his wife’s disappearance. He notices the cabinet, and as he approaches to investigate, we can’t help but feel trapped behind the door. When Frieda Pushkin is finally revealed, everything falls into place.

The spectator was powerless all along. Pushkin (and the viewer) may have been spying, but she is a passive force — completely at the mercy of the observed should they turn on her. By sharing her viewpoint, we’re put in that same position of helpless observer. In the end we are meant to empathize with the carnies, and by exposing the surveillance in which we’ve participated as the vantage of weakness the film prepares us to wish them well.

I have no idea whether the filmmakers intended this cumulative effect when those scenes were filmed. Certainly there are other — directly commercial — reasons to put in two sequences of women undressing, and having them being watched adds some much-needed danger (as well as a flimsy excuse for the titillation). Just as certainly the inversion of power in the third sequence is deliberate, taking good advantage of the pattern established by the earlier scenes. The revelation of Frieda Pushkin’s vulnerability I can believe was an intentional deflation of the accumulated tension, but was it meant to literally put us in her place?

I don’t know. The effect is there though, and it’s nicely accomplished at that.

1. Frieda Pushnik’s character is not given a name, so I will refer to her by the actress’s name.

2. The tastefulness of these scenes is almost shocking for modern viewers.

¿Hablas tarantula?

The IMDb allows users to tag movies for content, which results in handy but utterly untrustworthy information. Handy, because I merely have to type in “giant spider” to get a list of movies, but untrustworthy because some of the listed movies have only normally sized spiders, some have spider-like creature, and many movies are listed under different tags like “large spider” instead. But at least it provides a set of candidates from which to start.

One of the movies that popped up from such a search was “Las Tarantulas”, about which the IMDb only had that it was a Spanish-language film from 1973 and a cast list, which included a chimpanzee. I figured that it was unlikely to contain any giant spiders, but I’m always up for a tarantula swarm. Amazon actually had a listing for a cheap DVD print so I placed my order and waited.

When the DVD of “Las Tarantulas” came in, I noticed that the packaging was entirely in Spanish. This wasn’t completely a surprise, but I strained my high-school Spanish comprehension to find any mention of an English dub or subtitles. No such luck. The packaging had very little information, although the tarantulas in the artwork were somewhat reassuring. As was the chimp. Can’t go wrong with a chimp!1

The packaging for my copy of “Viy” (a Russian movie based on the story by Gogol) had been similarly mum in regards to language support. With some half-remembered college Russian and a lot of blind luck, I had managed to find a setting for English subtitles. (I have no good answer for why I didn’t simply try the “subtitles” button on my remote.) It was possible that “Las Tarantulas” might have unadvertised subtitles. If I didn’t actually check, I could believe that I hadn’t bought a movie I couldn’t actually understand.

When I explained this to my brother, he was dismissive of my reluctance. It was just a horror movie; how complex could it be? “Exposition, exposition, screaming,” he predicted. Put that way, it did seem pretty straightforward. I could figure out enough context from visual cues and settle in for the inevitable carnage.

I put in the movie.

Within five minutes I was hopelessly confused. People came on-screen, gesticulated wildly, wrestled animals, and left. After about an hour, two guys were tied to ground so a couple of tarantulas could crawl on them. Then, more running about. Throughout all of this, the chimpanzee jumped around excitedly.

I honestly think I’m better off not knowing what anyone said. If I understood the dialog, it might make sense — and that wouldn’t be fun at all!


1. You’ve probably gone horribly wrong if there’s a chimp in your movie.

Adapting to Changes

With Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of The Great Gatsby looming over us like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, the matter of film adaptations is once again a topic of unhappy internet chatter. As usual, it’s largely breaking along the views that a classic is being ruined and that the book remains intact. (Although this time a number of people are hoping that the film is a masterpiece of ill-conceived excess.)

For my own part, while I have always been fine with the glorious misfire that was the 1960s release of “Casino Royale”, the recent version incensed me. Given the opportunity to restart the Bond film franchise, the decision was made to start with him as a violent thug. To me, the core of the book was that he had been more or less playing at espionage until the events surrounding this job hardened him and gave him focus. So to throw that aside seemed to miss an opportunity as well as the point.

It’s not on a level with the attack by natives in “The Scarlet Letter”, but it’s a cinematic grudge I’ve held on to with all the strength that nerdrage allows. I still haven’t gotten over “Congo”, and to be honest the book wasn’t even especially good.

I do agree that the source is still there, and I’ve even clung to the thought that even a bad adaptation could get new readers for the book. I think it’s more likely that viewers unfamiliar with the work will simply move on.

I’d like to be able to move on, myself. I only have so much energy for outrage, and I need to save it in case Tom Hanks gets another Oscar.