The Seven Samurai (1954)

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1. Opening Shot

Moving from one city to another is never easy for a child, and honestly, I had it better than some. I really only got uprooted three times as my father’s work in the construction trade moved us around the state. The last one really hurt, taking place in my raw adolescence and severing my first love affair in mid-sigh. Things did improve, as they often do; after a year or so we moved into a larger house, where I even got my own room and TV.

While we were at that first house, the PBS station in Houston was showing a series of great silent films, and I watched quite a few of them with my grandfather, who was living with us as he slowly died of cancer. The second TV I would eventually inherit was in his room, and he seemed to enjoy the old stuff with me. This is how I checked off classic horror movies like The Phantom of the Opera and The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Monster movie kid that I was, these were the only ones I deemed important, though I was surprised how much I enjoyed Orphans of the Storm.

PosterThe PBS follow-up in the year we moved to the larger house was Great World Cinema. I admit I intended to tune in only to watch Fritz Lang’s M, but then a funny thing happened. The movie one week was Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and I decided to watch it mainly because samurai were cool, they carried big swords. I vaguely knew this was the basis for The Magnificent Seven, which I had watched on TV in another town years before, but that was about all I knew.

And so I was completely unprepared to have my mind opened that night.

I had some small acquaintance with classic cinema, thanks to my mother, and also thanks to the TV format of my youth, where movies were used as filler, both late at night and in the afternoons, even the mornings on occasion (“Dialing for Dollars”, you are missed). She loved movies, and remarkable among Moms, she liked a good horror movie. So though I had watched some higher-toned fare like Meet John Doe or Here Comes Mr. Jordan, my taste honestly ran to movies with giant insects and men in rubber monster suits.

So I sat in front of that second-hand black-and-white TV for three and a half hours, watching a tale of bravery, deception, fear, love, false identities, social classism, action, camaraderie, sacrifice, joy, victory, defeat, and an overwhelming desire to do what is right.

I knew that movies could be good, but I had no real idea they could be magnificent.

I had been forced to abandon a love affair in South Texas, but that night a new love affair was born, between myself and movies, certainly, but most especially between myself and The Seven Samurai, which that night became My Favorite Movie Ever Made, and has remained so for forty-five years.


2. Shooting Script

If you look at me and ask, “What is The Seven Samurai about?” you will first have to forgive me for taking a moment to try to find your spaceship, because you are obviously an alien. The movie has been remade several times (most famously – and openly – as The Magnificent Seven, Battle Beyond the Stars and A Bug’s Life), has been the basis of an animated series, a (terrible) video game, there are constant talks of a remake… this is a story that should be in the cultural consciousness, and to a degree it is… but a synopsis will only give you an impression of the entire canvas; it will not give you an inkling of the brushstrokes involved, and Seven Samurai is a movie of details.

Nonetheless, I will try, hopefully without doing too much damage.

VillagersDuring the Sengoku, or Warring States period of Japanese history (roughly the entire 16th century), a poor farming village finds out it will once more be raided by a gang of horse-riding bandits after their harvest. Close to panic, they ask their village elder for advice, who recalls a similar village in his youth that was untouched by bandits: they had hired samurai for protection. When it is protested that the village could only offer food as payment, the advice is, “Find hungry samurai.”

A party of four villagers begin searching for these hungry samurai, and after some angry refusals or being fooled by charlatans, they luck onto Kambei (Takashi Shimura), an aging warrior who at first demurs, citing his age, and saying he has survived many battles, but never won a single one. Only when he realizes the sacrifice of the villagers – they are eating millet while feeding him rice – does he accept.

Good group shots are surprisingly hard to find.Kambei – and a young samurai who desperately wants to be his disciple, Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) – begin searching for the seven warriors he estimates will be necessary to protect the village. He finds Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), a scholarly soldier who agrees because he is fascinated by Kambei’s character; the good-natured Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), whose swordplay is only mediocre, but “will be a treasure in hard times”; Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a deadly swordsman interested only in perfecting his technique; Shichiroji (Daisuke Katô), Kambei’s former right-hand man – both had thought the other killed in their last battle together; and finally – and reluctantly, on the part of the others – Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a boistrous drunkard who has been haunting Kambei’s steps, and will eventually be revealed as a farmer’s son trying to pass himself off as a samurai.

"You're 13 years old?"After a rocky reception in the fearful village – during which Kikuchiyo proves his true worth as a sort of missing link between the samurai and villagers – the seven begin to train the villagers to use bamboo spears, in between their farming duties. The village is fortified as well as possible , and then, one day, the scouts arrive after the harvests, and matters turn serious. Kambei’s master strategy is revealed, allowing the village to pick off one and two bandits at a time, and repel nighttime incursions. Eventually, it comes down to the final battle, all the remaining villagers and samurai against all the remaining bandits – a battle in a driving rainstorm that would set the bar extremely high for action scenes in the following years. Of course, the samurai do not win the campaign unscathed – only three of them will still be standing at the end. And as Kambei states, “The farmers have won. Not us.”

Kyuzo and Kikuchiyo in their elementThose four paragraphs do not begin to do the movie justice. It does not mention the remarkably full characterizations of the villagers. Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya), the farmer driven not only by his desire to find the samurai that will defend his village, but also by a dark secret related to the bandit’s last raid that eats at him; Manzo (Kamatari Fujiwara), so possessive of his daughter Shino (Keiko Tsushima), that he forces her to cut her luxuriant hair and dress like a boy, inciting the other villagers to panic; and Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), the long-faced, perpetually fearful old man who will become a comic foil for Kikuchiyo. Manzo’s plan to preserve Shino’s virtue will fail, of course, as Katsushiro will accidentally discover her true identity, but keep her secret even as their love blossoms; eventually they do what desperate young people do on the night before the final battle, consummating a relationship that cannot be at this point in history, between samurai and peasant.

These added details still do not give the full picture; Seven Samurai is the work of a master storyteller at the top of his form. There is not a single shot, not a single scene, not a single line that does not serve a purpose in the furthering of the complete story. People complain about its length, and after I calm myself, I ask what they would cut, and the response would always result in a lesser film. This is one of those three hour movies that doesn’t feel like a three hour movie. Toho reportedly cut 50 minutes from it for the American market, thinking the Yanks wouldn’t want to watch the whole thing. Bitterly, I reflect they were probably right, but that is a version I do not wish to see. It was, in fact, nearly impossible to see the movie in its intended form until the early 70s, so luck was definitely on my side for that first viewing.

If you haven’t seen it, you need to, just to see what my truncated summary left out. No cheating. Go the Criterion route and experience the whole thing.

Heihachi's flag.True to practically every other classic film I’ve examined here, The Seven Samurai was not immediately hailed as a classic, and in fact very nearly did not happen. Kurosawa repeatedly went over budget and schedule, and production was halted many times, prompting showdowns between the director and Toho Studios (which was also dealing with another expensive monster, a little movie called Godzilla). A major part of that expense was the construction of the village, which is very much a character in the story. Toho already had a peasant village set it thought was perfectly good, but Kurosawa disagreed, preferring authenticity and control over convenience. It was the most expensive Japanese movie ever made, costing around 2 million US dollars, a record it held until 1964’s Kwaidan, which weighed in about a little less than 3 million.

Kurosawa’s main ambition had been to make a realistic samurai movie. There had been chanbara, or samurai action movies before, of course, but those were heavily influenced by kabuki theater, and the action scenes tended to be very stylized and not a little fantastic. The original thought was to make a movie about a day in the life of a samurai, ending with the main character committing ritual suicide over some trivial matter. That idea simply didn’t come together, but Kurosawa and his crew had done a tremendous amount of research, and there was one anecdote that stuck with him, of a village hiring ronin, masterless samurai, This photo is 100% pure protect them. The research also allowed him to easily create the six true samurai of the story, each based on historic personages. The one exception, of course, is Kikuchiyo, a character created in the eleventh hour when the screenwriters realized they had six highfalutin’ characters and no everyman, no comic relief to balance them out. Toshiro Mifune was originally supposed to play the Miyamoto Mushashi character, Kyuzo, but was instead (and brilliantly) recast as Kikuchiyo, to his and cinema’s great enduring luck.

Kikuchiyo and KambeiMifune’s Kikuchiyo and Shimura’s Kambei are literally the heart and soul of The Seven Samurai, but in the logline description I give everyone who asks, “The movie gives you twelve major characters and takes each of them through changes.” Going back over my synopsis, above, I keep thinking, “Oh, I didn’t mention this… and this… or this…” So many good moments. So many favorite little scenes.

I really love this movie.


3. Enter the Criterion Collection

criterion-collection-animated-gifMy first encounter with The Seven Samurai was back in the early 70s, so that was the last I would get to see of my great cinematic love for a while. VCRs would be along eventually that decade, but it wasn’t until the mid-80s that I could afford one; even then, the movie was a two-cassette box set, priced beyond my exceedingly modest means. There was a wonderful two week event where the local repertory movie house, The River Oaks Theater, showed a restored print. I was there almost every night, bringing a different person with me each time; none of them regretted it. Yes, perhaps if I had taken all those movie ticket prices and combined them, I might have been able to afford that pricey VHS package, but the chance to see it on the big screen was, to quote an old commercial, priceless.

Yeah, that's big.I eventually left my warehouse job and wound up at a video production company, at a decent rate of pay. Once essentials were taken care of, I took the plunge and invested in that hot new technology, a laserdisc player, the preferred home format of the discerning cinephile. Those of you who grew up on DVD have no real idea of the tremendous step forward laserdisc presented over VHS – the clarity of the picture, the crispness of the audio, the magic of the subwoofer – not to mention something called a secondary audio track. And the picture? Letterboxed! Correct aspect ratios! Chapter settings, allowing you to skip to specific scenes! Sure, a laserdisc was the size of a long-playing vinyl LP and twice as heavy, but who cared? This was the ultimate, it couldn’t possibly get any better than this!

So having bought this magical device and wired it into my system, there was the next step: software. Luckily (for  me, if not for my bank account) I lived a few blocks away from a branch of the biggest video store in Houston at the time, and they had a large laserdisc selection. And what do I find there, in the foreign film section, but The Seven Samurai, from some outfit called The Criterion Collection. That sounded sufficiently elite, and I made my very first laserdisc purchase.

$_12My mania for Seven Samurai was not all-consuming, I must admit – there were two versions, and I got the cheaper one (hey, I had just bought a laserdisc player, no small investment). The more expensive set was encoded in CAV, which meant a flawless still frame every time you hit pause, not the blue screen you got with the more standard CLV format. This also meant more discs, because while CLV could fit close to an hour on one side of a disc, CAV and its density limited you to 20 minutes or so, if memory serves.

Truthfully, the plea of poverty doesn’t hold all that much truth, either, as the very next day I went back and bought the Criterion laserdisc of Ghostbusters.

Yes, Ghostbusters.

I still have all my laserdiscs – I guess I’m still hoping for a vinyl-like resurgence in popularity, though that seems highly unlikely. DVD and Blu-ray simply does everything laserdisc did, and does it effortlessly, at a fraction of the cost. But pawing through my old collection has dredged up a ton of memories, and a number of Criterion titles I keep hoping will make the leap to their blu-ray line. Some, like The Fisher King and The Devil and Daniel Webster (DVD only, at present), did come to pass. But then I look at my Criterion lasers of Citizen Kane, King Kong, Help! (for which I hold out hope, given their lovely blu-ray of A Hard Day’s Night), Lawrence of Arabia, Confidential Report aka Mr. Arkadin, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Dr. Strangelove, Boyz n the Hood, Akira, The Player, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Supercop, and the three lasers I would conquer nations to have on Criterion blu-ray, John Woo’s The Killer and Hard Boiled (both released on DVD, now out of print), and Jason and the Argonauts.

An obsession began there, at the end of a century, and it has continued into this one.

But we were talking about The Seven Samurai, weren’t we? This laserdisc allowed me to once more be evangelical about my favorite movie, this time in the comfort of my own home. The audio commentary track by Michael Jeck helped me tease out stuff I hadn’t noticed before, movie connections that weren’t obvious in my multiple viewings (Then again, I still wasn’t as conversant with film, particularly international film, as I should have been). It also allowed me to begin my practice of watching the movie at least once a year.

Seven Samurai filmWe all know what’s coming, don’t we? Toward the end of the 90s, there was this thing called DVD that started making waves in the video world. I successfully resisted it for a while – not another format! Not something else that will be obsolete in a few years! That’s it! I quit! But, like diets, that sort of thing never lasts. I was writing for StompTokyo  (over here if you like cobweb sites) at the time, and a sister review site – Attack of the 50 Foot DVD -was born, and I received a refurbished player in the mail and a Netflix account. And thus was my doom sealed again.

DVDThe Seven Samurai is spine number 2 in the Criterion DVD Collection, and was actually released before spine number 1,  Grande Illusion (mainly because new film elements cropped up for Renoir’s film). It’s practically a clone of the laserdisc, right down to the Michael Jeck commentary, with the added benefit of not having to walk across the room to flip or change discs (I had bought the fancy laserdisc player that eliminated having to flip the disc, at least). I could now freeze frame whenever I wanted. I hated to admit it, but it seemed to look and sound better than my precious laser.

And I know you’ve been waiting for this. Yes, as I groused and prophesied earlier, HD CAME ALONG. I resisted this trend even longer than I did DVD, and my recalcitrance actually paid off this time (honestly, it usually does with new technology, if only from a cost standpoint). This time, it was our old friend, the Format Wars, in a shiny new battlefield. HD-DVD vs Blu-ray in a fight to the death, and by the time I broke down and bought an HDTV and a Blu-ray player, HD-DVD was only a curiosity, crammed to the side in resale shops, next to VHS and cassette tapes.

Blu-rayAbout a decade after the DVD, Criterion released a newly restored blu of The Seven Samurai. I think we know what one of my first purchases was fated to be. The blu-ray is amazing; there is some sort of digital voodoo involved, resulting in a picture that is sharper and clearer than any print I have ever seen; I doubt the movie looked this good the first time it was run through a projector. There’s an enhanced stereo track and  a mono track for traditionalists. Our old friend Michael Jeck is represented, and even yet another commentary track by David Desser, Joan Mellen, Stephen Prince, Tony Rayns, and Donald Richie. Each of whom take on about 40 minutes of the running time individually, which was a relief to me, as I find audio commentaries with more than two people usually irritating and pointlessly confusing. This is going to be the preferred version across all media, until holographic crystals, or whatever new wizardry is going to be used to pick my pocket next.

The supplements, always a strong point with me, are likewise amazing. A two-hour (!) conversation between Kurosawa and fellow filmmaker Nagisa Oshima; a fifty minute making-of from the Toho Masterworks series, another featurette on samurai history and historical influences, the usual gallery of trailers and posters. And a thick little booklet – another standard feature of the Criterion Collection – with essays by Kenneth Turan, Peter Cowie, Philip Kemp, Peggy Chiao, Alain Silver, Stuart Galbraith, Arthur Penn, and Sidney Lumet. And, oh yeah, an interview with Toshiro Mifune.

masthead_art_seven_samuraiThere are also New and Improved English subtitles supervised by Linda Hoaglund, which represent possibly my only complaint about the package (this is how you know I’m a fanboy – I finally found something to whine about). It is foolish and a bit churlish of me to grumble about these subtitles. They are superb, and reportedly do a better job of translating Japanese idiom into English. If there is anything technically wrong with them, it’s that at one point it subverts one of my favorite moments by erring on the side of readability, truly one of the best reasons to do so.

(It’s one of those small moments that nonetheless speaks volumes about the characters. Kambei, almost immediately after his reunion with Schichiroji, tells him “We’re about to engage in a tough battle, and not for money or rank. Will you join us?” And Schichiroji answers, without a picosecond’s hesitation, “Yes.”)

Where the hell have you been hiding these girls?It is the usual fanboy’s bete noir, misplaced nostalgia, at the base of this. I simply miss my old Janus Films print’s subtitles. In the exchange above on the blu-ray, the subtitles for Kambei’s question and Schichiroji’s reply are shown on the same screen, when the camera is focused on Kambei. In the original version, the subtitles were split up, with the subtitles for each character in his own shot, preserving the rhythm of the scene and the impact of that moment. I’ve always been a fast reader, though, and had no problem following that; someone slower would miss something. But on those magical River Oaks Theater nights, I always enjoyed the admiring laughter that exchange provoked.

The other line I mourn from the old days belongs to Kikuchiyo, in the scene leading up to the final battle, as he sticks one sword after another into the mound at the village’s center. Schichiroji asks him, “What are you up to?” and Kikychiyo now replies, “Can’t kill five with just one sword!” In the old days, Kikuchiyo, who spent the night before mourning the death of a villager he had caused, said, “Today I must kill many.” Yeah, that’s a little too stilted for Kikuchiyo, but it is the last thing we will ever get to hear him say, and it was a fine battlefield elegy.

These are so terribly minor, though. My old friend has changed a little, but is still my old friend. I forgave this old friend all those years for having the subtitles mis-timed during an important sequence, giving lines that made no sense to a character and thus imposing visual silence until the movie caught up; that bobble is forever gone, and good riddance. It’s like my grumbling about a couple of good lines from Peter Beagle’s screenplay adaptation of The Lord of the Rings not making it into Peter Jackson’s version – I should just shut up and stop talking just to hear my head rattle.

So no offense, Ms. Hoaglund, your work is splendid. I just had to say something critical about something, to keep this from being four thousand words of gushing and sweetness and light. That might damage my credibility, doncha know.

The end. SPOILER ALERTBecause as you know by now (though I haven’t mentioned it in a thousand or so words), this is my favorite movie of all time. Akira Kurosawa took a reified social class that was trained for war and sacrifice in the name of a titled lord, and instead showed that class using these tools to protect and aid the weak and suffering, even if it caused their own demise, both immediately and eventually. In that respect, it is a timeless tale of a world the way it should be, and yet so rarely is. In that way, it also represents movies the way they should be – and frequently, incredibly – are.

Buy The Seven Samurai on Amazon, because you really should.


Z: Zombie (1979)

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“When you do an A-Z horror movie challenge, you’re likely going to end up with zombies.”

– Tim Lehnerer, probably

zombie posterWell, this is about the most blatant personification of that statement, isn’t it? No second word, no number, no nothing. Just: ZOMBIE.

Yeah, I’ll stop you right there, because you’re about to inform poor ignorant me that this actually does have a number, it’s really called Zombie 2 because it was a sequel to Dawn of the Dead which was a big hit in Europe but it was called Zombie there and shouldn’t you know more about horror movies before you try writing about them?

Listen, troll (I would have to reply), if you were paying attention you would know that the movie is called Zombi 2 (no final e) and for some reason Zombies 2 in the international trailers and it was never a sequel to Dawn of the Dead and was, in fact, written several months before Dawn‘s European release but that was some nice low-hanging publicity fruit, wasn’t it, especially since this production company had a better lawyer than Dario Argento, and thus was paved the way for Zombie numbers 3-8 and every other crap Italian zombie film throughout eternity.

So there. Troll.

1279240863_Zombie_Flesh_Eaters_1979_1I saw Zombie in probably semi-ideal circumstances for me, which is to say I saw it on a double bill with Blood Beach at a drive-in on a warm Texas night (Zombie kept cropping up at drive-ins with different dance partners for several years). That was 35 years ago, and it was with some interest I put the Blue Underground blu-ray into the player for a return bout. (Movie Challenges like this are largely about making me watch movies I haven’t seen, but I do make an exception for anything I haven’t seen in 20 years, like The Quatermass XperimentZombie definitely qualified.)

So stop me if you’ve heard this one before: an apparently abandoned sailing ship drifts into New York Harbor, causing all sorts of traffic problems until the harbor patrol boards it and finds a) rotting food, b) a chewed-up hand, c) the fattest zombie you have ever seen. (Guillermo del Toro: “You just know he ate everybody else on the boat.”) After biting out one cop’s throat, Tubby is shot several times and falls into the bay.

zombie+flesh+eaters+ss+roomThese are the circumstances that bring together Anne (Tisa Farrow), the daughter of the owner of that boat, and Peter (Ian McCulloch), a reporter. They have a meet cute while searching the boat under the nose of a police guard, during which Peter finds an undelivered letter from Anne’s father, who is dying of some terrible disease on a Caribbean island called Matool.

Flying to St. Thomas, the only boat they can find to take them to Matool – “a cursed island” – are working vacationers Brian and Susan (Al Cliver and Auretta Gay) who are spending two months sailing the islands and doing underwater photography. This will become significant when Susan goes scuba diving to get the day’s pics within sight of Matool and runs into an underwater zombie, who, in one of the movie’s signature scenes, has a fistfight with a shark, and loses that fist.

shark-vs_zombie-1(One of the many interesting factoids on the disc’s extras is the Underwater Zombie and “Shark Trainer” is Ramón Bravo, an underwater photographer of no small repute, best known for Tinterero!)

So our four “Americans” make it to Matool but bend their propeller, meaning Brian and Susan can’t dump Anne and Peter there, as was their original intent. They meet up with the island’s physician, Doctor Menard (Richard Johnson) who is not only fighting some sort of plague, but is also trying to find a scientific explanation for the zombies that have been cropping up lately. One of the few island natives that has stayed faithful to the doctor (Dakar) fills us in that a new witch doctor has been getting everybody worked up, and they all gone to the island’s interior to bang on drums and wake the dead.

zombie3Which is all the explanation you’re going to get, so just ride with it. That’s okay, we came to see a movie whose poster was some rotten corpse with worms in its eyes and the slogan WE ARE GOING TO EAT YOU, and it has to be admitted that the movie in its last half gets down to that business with gusto.

This is generally pointed to as director Lucio Fulci’s first horror movie (if you don’t count some highly-regarded gialli). His output to this point had been all over the genre map, but this one pretty much locked him into the creepshow stuff for the 80s and 90s. Now what surprised me in this re-visit so many years later is how well-made this movie is. That projector trying to cut through the humid Texas night air and subsequent VHS releases in pan-and-scan did Zombie absolutely no favors. Fulci knows where to put his camera and how to get bang for his comparatively few bucks on the screen, and the blu-ray is an absolute revelation in that regard.

The low budget also necessitates a different look to the zombies, which helps the movie achieve its own identity. A reliance on clay instead of latex actually helps these revenants look like they just clawed their way out of the ground.

zombi-2-04I bet you thought I was going to talk about the splinter-through-the-eyeball scene (damage to eyeballs seems a particular motif for Fulci). Everybody talks about the splinter-through-the-eyeball scene. It’s still grueling, even when you know it’s coming, but another factoid dropped was Zombie played in Italy with an intermission, as was the custom, and I had forgotten the splinter-through-the-eyeball happens at the halfway point. Think about that being what you took out into the lobby with you.

They probably didn’t sell much gelato during that intermission.

Another thing which helped immensely with this re-visit: being able to turn on the original Italian language track with English subtitles. Fulci’s movies have had some of the worst English dub tracks I have ever had to endure, and subconsciously that drags down the perceived quality of the movie.

zombi4When I logged my re-watch of Zombie on Letterboxd, I knew that I had entered it earlier in my relationship with the site, but it was amusing to see that when I did so, I had rated the movie four stars out of five; I stand by that rating, but I don’t remember holding it in such high regard (due to washed-out projection and VHS dubs). So it is satisfying in that way that you see an old friend for the first time in years, and you say, “You look great!” and mean it.

Buy ZOMBIE on Amazon

Y: 30 Days of Night (2007)

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30_Days_of_Night-970861490-largeI know what you’re saying. You’re saying “That doesn’t begin with a Y.”

Shut the hell up, I explain.

Do you know how many horror movies start with the letter Y? How many movies, period? Not a whole hell of a lot, that’s how many. I just watched Xtro 3 because the letter X has the same damned problem and I am out for blood. Do not cross me.

The subject was brought up as we were planning this expanded Hubrisween, and the guru Tim Lehnerer came up with the Blank Scrabble Tile rule. There are two possibilities, currently: If you cannot find a movie with a troublesome initial, you can use the letter to either side of it (X and Z, riiiiight); or: you can substitute a title that begins with an actual number.


So here we are in the tiny city of Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost settlement in America. So northern they go through a night thirty days long, just like in the title. Its population dwindles by two-thirds during that month; not everybody can take that much dark.

30-days-of-nightThis time around, there’s a few problems. Sheriff Eben Oleson’s (Josh Hartnett) estranged wife Stella (Melissa George) misses her plane and is stuck there, for instance. There’s trouble with the phones. There’s also a stranger in town, and it turns out he ‘s trashed the local helicopter. And killed all the sled dogs.

Oh, and there’s a pack of vampires following him.

So what we have here, in a way, is yet another zombie siege film, with the added complication that the undead are intelligent, smart and vicious. Not having to worry about sleeping during daylight hours, the vampires massacre most of the remaining town openly, until we are down to a small band of survivors who keep moving from location to location as their numbers dwindle due to one misadventure or another.

30-days-of-night2So right there we have one of the major reasons I put off seeing this; if you’ve been here any length of time you know about my ten-year moratorium on zombie movies. What is not as common knowledge is there was a similar moratorium earlier, on vampire movies. Not all of you may be old enough to remember the glut of bloodsucker flicks in the 90s, but it takes quite a few of any sort of movie for me to say “Alright, jeez, enough” and there were quite. A. Few.

That being said: 30 Days of Night has a good concept, and is well-made. The vampires are cool, animalistic yet speaking their own language. There is a third act twist which is unexpected and welcome.

So why don’t I like it?

070531183ee64462a82c9c7fafcd1b0fThe aforementioned mixture of zombie and vampire movies, I suspect. The lapses in logic that seem almost inevitable in a horror movie, but are they? Really? (These are some pretty wasteful vampires. Horrific as the slaughter is, why so many at one time, when you have a month ahead of you? Then other survivors keep cropping up as the 30 days wear on, just because we need a complication or a reason for our protagonists to endanger themselves) I wasn’t in the mood for a vampire Diary of Anne Frank (the survivors leave that attic hideout before too long, anyway). I kind of like my horror movies to cash in at the hour and a half mark. This one is close to two hours.

413160-30-days-of-night-melissa-george1None of these are, in and of themselves, enough to kill a movie for me, and I suspect that had I not seen 30 Days of Night at the very end of a month of watching horror movies, I might have been a little more kindly disposed toward it – but only a little. As it is, I don’t find it terrible, I just don’t find it exceptional enough to excite me in any way. It did all right without my support, though, spawning at least one sequel, so I’ll leave it here with a sort of a shrug.  This situation reminds me of Stakeland, which is another movie that should be completely in my wheelhouse, and yet I just don’t care for it. Your mileage may vary, this movie may press all the necessary buttons for you, and that’s cool.

But oh my God am I ready to watch something non-horror related.

Buy 30 Days of Night on Amazon


X: Xtro 3: Watch the Skies (1995)

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220px-Xtro3DVDThis is an open call for filmmakers everywhere to make more movies starting with the letter X. The reason why should be clear: here I am watching goddamn Xtro 3.

Back during another A-Z challenge (off-season, as it were), I watched the original Xtro. I didn’t care for it, but it did have some creative ideas that set it apart from other cash-in-on-E.T. movies. Last year I watched Xtro 2, which was remarkable only for the number of movies it managed to rip off. So here we are, this year, with the inevitability of a doomed character trapped in a hidebound franchise, with Xtro 3: Watch the Skies.

The first thing you need to know is that a spaceship crashed on Earth in 1955 in a welter of poor video-generated effects. This was covered up by the government, because that is what they do. This is relayed in a tongue-and-cheek 50s newsreel that wants to be cuter than it is.


“Oh, yeah. These are Marines, all right.”

In the present of 1995, a man meets with a reporter in a low-rent motel, and he tells her the tale that will grind away our next 90 minutes. He is Marine demolitions expert Kirn (Sal Landi), who receives orders from his commander (Robert Culp, who hopefully made his mortgage payment off this) to head up a hand-picked crew that will go to an island 200 miles off the coast to blow up some leftover WWII ordnance so an airfield can be built there. This is fine with Kirn, as he wants to “get out of the classroom”, but he recognizes the “hand-picked crew” from his classes; they are all losers, discipline problems, and “borderline psychos”.

You might immediately suspect that all these soldiers might as well have EXPENDABLE stamped on their dogtags, and you will proven right when the guy in charge of the operations shows up, a beret-bedecked spook named Fetterman (Andrew Divoff), who tells the crew that there was also an internment camp there, so any documents they might find are classified and should be taken directly to him.

"Did the check clear? Okay, you got 30 more minutes."

“Did the check clear? Okay, you got 30 more minutes.”

You are now going Hmmmm enough that you might as well be humming a happy song culled from other movies you have seen. One detonated bomb uncovers a concrete structure. In the course of the movie, we will find out that this is where the gummint brought the spaceship, and the two aliens inside. They vivisected one alien in full view of the other, and the remaining alien got pissed off, broke out, and proceeded to slaughter everybody. The authorities had to wait until it went back into the ship and poured concrete around it to trap it. Or so the one wild man who’s been on the island for 40 years tells in a moment of lucidity.

Well, now that one stoned soldier blew a hole in the structure, the alien is loose again, and quite possibly insane, as it seems to want to constantly re-enact the vivisection of its (presumed) mate on whoever is unlucky enough to be around.

41Once the spook splits with the boat after the spaceship is uncovered, our crew has to survive the alien, then the bombing run that the spook sends to kill them, and then the kill team the spook himself leads to off any survivors. Trouble is, the spook doesn’t really know about the alien…

This all sounds like a pretty good movie, and it’s certainly better than Xtro 2. It almost succeeds in forging its own identity, but then director Harry Bromley Davenport (who directed all three of these) still has to go to the rip-off well again. The Alien can camouflage itself like the Predator. And a healthy dose of exposition is delivered by an Alien Autopsy style film reel kept by that survivor (luckily, he also kept the movie projector in good working order).

"Is the movie over yet?" "No." "Please shoot me."

“Is the movie over yet?” “No.” “Please shoot me.”

So much of Xtro 3 is poorly thought out or executed that you feel bad about it constantly shooting itself in the foot. Was the alien also trapped in the concrete, or just the ship? I can accept the characters being confused on that point, but that concrete structure is large and square – an explosion big enough to uncover it would do more than blow a hole in a corner. And accepting that our two Marines just didn’t notice a square bunker in a bunch of rock outcroppings is a bit much to handle, even if one of them is supposedly stoned to the gills.

Sequences that should be nerve-wracking are hampered by insane logic whose only purpose is to draw out the running time. And yes, this is another instance of my constantly tracking the time remaining as I watched. Even the Alien is given to the same fitful treatment; there are times it looks remarkably alive, and menacing; most of the time however, it looks and moves exactly like the puppet it is.

As I said: it is at least better than Xtro 2, but that was a bar set so low, it was resting on the ground.

Buy Xtro 3 on Amazon

W: The Walking Dead (1936)

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220px-ThewalkingeadposterI have in my possession one of those two-disc, four-movie sets, imaginatively entitled Karloff & Lugosi Horror Classics. The movies are actually anything but, but the set has served me well over the years; last Hubrisween, there was Zombies on Broadway. A mere 17 days ago, Frankenstein 1970. Back in the murkier depths of the archives, there was You’ll Find Out, which in retrospect, though I had problems with it, was the high point of the set thus far. Then I watched The Walking Dead with dreadfully low expectations, and to my surprise found an underappreciated gem.

You have no idea how rare that truly is.

Warner Brothers was having incredible success with their gangster movies at this point, so it’s little surprise that The Walking Dead opens just like one – crusading judge Shaw (Joe King) convicts a racketeer, despite all the anonymous threats he’s been receiving. The other racketeers meet to decide what to do; killing this judicious killjoy is the obvious course of action, but they need a fall guy, and down-on-his-luck ex-con pianist John Elman, convicted (perhaps unjustly) by Shaw years ago for manslaughter, seems ripe for that role.

walking deadThe fact that Elman is played by Boris Karloff means the gangsters have just doomed themselves, of course.

Interspersed with this is the laboratory of Dr Beaumont (future Santa Claus Edmund Gwenn), who has kept a human heart beating in a jar for two weeks. His two lovebird assistants, Nancy and Jimmy (Marguerite Churchill and Warren Hull) head out on a date, which is where our two storylines will intersect.

PHOTO_20869619_66470_34381520_apThe gangster’s plot relies on their house hit man, Trigger (Joe Sawyer) to pose as a detective who hires the desperate Elman to watch Judge Shaw’s house; Nancy and Jimmy see the hoods deposit Shaw’s dead body in Elman’s car, and get threatened with death if they don’t keep their mouths shut.

The head of the racketeers, the crooked lawyer Nolan (Ricardo Cortez) acts as Elman’s defense, insuring his conviction and date with the electric chair. Nancy’s conscience finally wins out over her fear of death, and she tells Beaumont what they saw that fatal night. Nolan manages to draw everything out just long enough that the phone call from the governor arrives too late to save Elman’s life. Beaumont insists on delaying the autopsy and claims Elman’s body,

THE WALKING DEAD, Boris Karloff, Marguerite Churchill, Edmund Gwenn, 1936

This has gone from noirish gangster flick to horror movie with fine efficiency, and here is where The Walking Dead actually begins to distinguish itself. Beaumont will, of course, bring Elman back to life, but the process as shown is fairly unique. There is the usual folderol with electricity, but we’ve already seen (and are now shown again) a pretty accurate model of the Lindbergh Heart Pump, a device that could keep organs functioning apart from the body (Yes, that Lindbergh). Then Karloff is set on a sort of teeterboard, which rocks his body back and forth, and the commentary track by film historian Greg Mank points out this is based on the fairly contemporaneous work by Dr. Robert Cornish, who apparently revived a dog five minutes after its death. Jank goes on to relate that the dog lived for another eight hours, but seemed to suffer a sort of waking nightmare, constantly whining and barking. My research doesn’t support that, but my research was done pretty quickly, and besides – that does support what comes after in the movie.

The post-execution Elman (now with a sinister shock of white hair) shambles about in a near-catatonic state, except when he is near a piano – he remembers how to play one very well. He recognizes the District Attorney (who suspects how Elman was railroaded), but does not regard him as an enemy; on the other hand, he also recognizes Nolan and knows he is an enemy – though he does not remember why. Beaumont chalks this up to an inoperable blood clot in the brain, although, just to help the audience along, he mentions Elman sometimes acts like “the tool of some supernatural force.” (Fine scientist you are, Beaumont!)

Give it up, boysThough he may be right about the supernatural force, as Elman begins improbably tracking down the criminals responsible for his execution, often appearing almost miraculously, when least expected. This is another distinguishing characteristic of the movie: we are primed to expect Elman to exact some sweet, painful justice on these bad guys, but in every case, all he does is slowly advance on them, asking “Why did you kill me?” and it’s their own blind, guilty panic that undoes them. The triggerman trips over a table and shoots himself. One runs in front of a speeding locomotive. One has a heart attack and for good measure, falls out a window.

In each instance, Elman seems shocked and saddened by the outcome. Karloff should have patented his ability to shift from frightening to pathetic to sympathetic in the same scene.

There are other factors that elevate The Walking Dead above the norm. Beaumont’s conquering of death actually makes headlines around the world, counter to every other mad scientist we’ve seen (and provides another reason why the bad guys can’t just kill Elman again). When Nolan manages to get himself named Elman’s legal guardian, Beaumont prepares to operate on the blood clot, which he knows will kill Elman – this time, permanently – but also might finally unlock Elman’s memory so he can tell Beaumont what he really wants to know – what happens at the moment of death? That’s a plot thread I feel could have been given more time (as it was in the much later Brainstorm), but there’s little room for it in this movie’s slim 65 minutes.

012-Walking-DeadSo The Walking Dead was an extremely welcome surprise, subverting damn near all my expectations (well, except for Karloff being excellent. That goes without saying). A clue might have been offered to me when I noticed the director was Michael Curtiz, whose name you might recognize from other little pictures like Casablanca and The Adventures of Robin Hood. He was no stranger to horror movies, either, as he also directed the original, excellent Dr. X. Apparently a stern taskmaster and more than a bit of a dick, his movies are often incredible, solid entertainment, and I’m now more than a little sorry that he and one of my favorite actors didn’t get together more often.

Speaking of Dr. X, it is more than a little telling that The Return of Dr. X, which we covered last week, started as a Karloff period piece but eventually devolved into a far stupider version of this movie, down to the shock of white hair and the weakened arm of the title character. Who would notice? they figured.

No trailer this time, but here’s Beaumont and the DA holding a piano recital to guilt trip the racketeers, which at least proves that somebody had read Hamlet:

Buy The Walking Dead on Amazon

V: Vampire vs Vampire (1989)

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vampirevsvampire_poszterI always like to slip a Hong Kong horror movie into these proceedings, but rarely do they match up with a space in the alphabet that needs filling. But lookie here, there’s a disc I’ve owned for a number of years but never watched, and it starts with a V: Vampire vs Vampire. Don’t bother looking for it on Amazon.

This is not as I expected, the fourth movie in the Mr. Vampire series, though it carries over a ton of characters from the first movie.  If you haven’t seen Mr. Vampire, that is something you need to remedy, and soon. Lam Ching-ying is The One-Eyebrow Priest, a Taoist master who always has to intervene when supernatural creatures start causing trouble. He has two comical apprentices, the elder of which is again the criminally under-rated Chin Siu-ho; the younger (and usually stupider) is played by a variety of actors, this time it’s Liu Fong. The first Mr. Vampire sequel added another character to the household, a Little Vampire who’s not evil like your typical hopping vampire. But like I said, this isn’t a Mr. Vampire movie.

Except it is.

It’s complicated.

imagesAfter taking care of a nasty Palm Tree Spirit, Lam is called upon by the village elders to figure out what’s wrong with their water supply. Turns out there’s too many bats in it (literally) so Lam does a complex fung shui ritual to find a better place to dig a well. All very well (ha!) and good, except a flock of bats moves the marker so the crew will dig in the wrong place.

5_183_f5e501e8fe5daf3There’s also a ruined Catholic church nearby, which a group of sisters is working to re-open. Another stock character in the Mr. Vampire company, the local Captain, wants his men to burn down the place because he thinks the bats are coming from there; Lam intercedes, and he and the Mother Superior (Maria Cordero) find the skeleton of one of the original priests who built the church, supposedly vanishing after sending word that he and his companion were battling demons. As this skeleton apparently died by shoving a cross into its own heart, Lam deduces the demons were defeated, and bravely, too. Unfortunately neither he or the Mother look up, because the ceiling is covered by bats.

The well being dug in the wrong place uncovers a decaying body, also with a cross in its heart, but this cross has a ruby embedded in it, which the Captain must have to satisfy his equally venal fiancée. This causes him to swap bodies on the pyre which Lam insists upon, so he can have time to saw the jewel off. The cross is finally removed, which as we all know, is how vampires come back to life in movies like this.

feat7This is going to set up a mighty pitched battle at the end, as Lam discovers that all his Taoist tricks do not much affect a European vampire, and things become pretty uncertain, but highly kinetic.

This was Lam Ching-ying’s first time as film director (though he had been action director for numerous movies), and he doesn’t try to do anything too extraordinary, but as usual, the action sequences are top-notch. Again, if you’ve seen any of the Mr. Vampire movies, you know what I’m talking about: Lam’s dance-like, confident approach to magic looks real and is quite convincing. The fact that, if magicdoesn’t work, he can kick you seven ways to Sunday is a good back-up plan. There are at least two plot lines that are not resolved when the movie ends, but hey – welcome to Hong Kong cinema. The Big Bad Guy is vanquished, what more do you want?

vvv01Another staple of the Mr. Vampire movies (of which this is not one) involves the old-fashioned priest coming up against modern, Western ideas and failing to understand them to some comic effect. This time out it’s the nuns of the convent trying to save the Priest’s soul when all he’s trying to do is conceal the fact they interrupted his bath and he’s not wearing any pants. In 1993 there would be a much better exploration if this sort of cultural clash with Exorcist Master, which is basically The One-Eyebrow Priest versus Dracula. At the end Lam and the Chinese Catholic priest he’s been knocking heads with the entire picture realize they have to combine the spiritual powers of East and West to defeat the King of the Vampires, and it’s pretty damned cool.

Anyway, I’ve long been a fan of Lam Ching-ying. He probably chafed at being typecast by his most famous movie, but man, was he ever good at playing that role. He elevated several movies simply by his dignified presence, even mean-spirited drivel like Skin Stripperess. He succumbed to liver cancer in 1997, and the world became a much less magical place.

YouTube has not recognized the brilliance of Lam Ching-ying yet, so we’ll just have to be satisfied with this tribute video by Lily Wang:

U: Under the Skin (2013)

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under-the-skinIt’s actually rather rare I get to do a movie so recent for Hubrisween, though that’s likely more a matter of personal taste than actual happenstance. The fact that I’m calling a two year-old movie “recent” is telling, some people are likely thinking.

Then, perhaps Under the Skin isn’t of such recent vintage after all – it’s said it took director Jonathan Glazer ten years to get it made. And then, once it was made, nobody seemed to like it. Dipping a toe into User Reviews and message boards is a whole lot like falling into a Gamer Gate discussion or something equally rancid. There are people who like this movie, but they’re not the ones who are driven to spout off about it; they’re the ones in the corner pondering and staring into space.

Scarlett Johansson is The Female (watch the extras and you’ll find out the crew named her Laura). The Female is some sort of alien being imitating a human woman. Driving about chilly Glasgow in a van, she picks up men, takes them to a deserted house for some sex, but instead they find themselves in some sideways dimension where they are consumed.

Under-The-Skin-trailer-2That is a B-movie concept right there, and you can be sure that Fred Olen Ray has used it at least once or twice; what is different here is the way in which the story is told. Under the Skin has maybe 100 lines of dialogue (if that many) in its hour and forty-eight minutes. This is purely visual storytelling, using some astonishingly sneaky technology. The reason the van the Female uses for stalking is so large is because it has eight cameras concealed in it and a recording studio in the back. The Female’s interactions with men is quite real, many of them not realizing they were in a movie until Glazer told them.

The Female is quite good at mimicry, it seems, but her observation of and traveling among humans begins to wear upon her, to infect her. Upon the seduction of a man afflicted with neurofibromatosis (Adam Pearson, and that ain’t makeup), she has a most un-alien crisis of conscience, frees him from the death dimension, and goes on her own voyage of self-discovery, ditching the van and wandering at random. She will find that humans are capable of great kindness. She will also find that some humans are just as capable of predation as she, perhaps even moreso.

It’s feels hard to judge Johansson’s performance here, which is why I tend to think it’s great. The bits with human interaction stand so starkly against the Alien parts – unreadable, unknowable. The hardest thing for an actor to do is to present a totally blank slate that the audience can pour itself into. She does this, then gives us a conflicted blank slate. It’s at least as tough a nut to crack as the movie that contains it.

Scarlett-Johansson-Under--011What infects The Female is empathy, something neither she nor her handler, The Bad Man (Jeremy McWilliams) possesses. It is something that cannot be afforded in their line of work, whatever the ultimate purpose of that may be. And that will bring us to the probable reason of why so many seem to hate this movie: there is never a breath of explanation in it, anywhere, as to why they are seeking out men who can vanish without a trace (whatever the reason is, their demise is pretty horrific and apparently not very speedy). Under the Skin requires engagement from the viewer, to the level that the viewer has to connect and devote themself to the whys and wherefores of what is happening. The only other movie I can think of to compare it to is Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color, which is similarly divisive to its audience. Under the Skin‘s narrative is much more straightforward, at least.  At its heart, it is what it is like to be human, and that turns out to be complicated. As complicated as the taste of chocolate cake, it turns out.

It’s a puzzler, so I did something I rarely do; I looked at the comments. I would have had better luck asking for the opinion of the local cesspool.

“It’s so long! Nothing happens!” Dude. avoid Tarkovsky. In fact, give up on World Cinema in general.

“I’d rather be watching a wall.” A wall is what you deserve.

“It’s boring!” You’re not paying attention.

“Scarlett Johansson has a fat ass!” That is what you took away from this movie? Go fuck yourself, which is likely the only prospect you have.

under_the_skin_grab02It’s obvious, I guess, that I liked it far more than I originally thought as the final credits roll, that I would be driven to actual anger by Idiots on the Interwebs, Incorporated. I’m still haunted by it days later, that it pricked so many responses deep inside me. It has completely – and you will have to forgive me – gotten under my skin.

Buy Under the Skin on Amazon


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