Arabian Hellzamaniacs

So I went to Dave’s. So did Rick. We watched some movies.

Hellzapoppin’ (1941)

From the Broadway Revue, not the movie. Do you care?

From the Broadway Revue, not the movie. Do you care?

Now this is what you call your basic bucket list movie. It actually got mentioned in Famous Monsters, once upon a time, and I’ve wanted to see it ever since. The fact that it’s known as a milestone in anarchic filmmaking is also a definite plus. So when Dave managed to conjure up a copy, I was, as they say, there.

The movie opens with an incredible production number in Hell (the reason the movie ever cropped up in Famous Monsters), but the director charged with making the movie version of Olsen & Johnson’s successful New York stage show (in 1941, the longest-running show on Broadway!) wants to make an entirely different sort of movie altogether. Aided by a pre-Gunsel Elisha Cook, Jr. reading and re-working the script, Olsen & Johnson watch the dailies of this new movie, supplying voices for the characters, until one of them asks, “Doesn’t this movie have any sound?” “Sure, listen!” the other replies, and BAM, we are into that movie.

hellzapoppin1These bits leading up to our more normal picture are fast-paced and brilliant, and there was no way Olsen & Johnson could have kept that up – not without their stock-in-trade, interacting with a live audience. Still, you give out a heavy sigh when we slip into the usual screwball romantic comedy that forms the core of Hellzapoppinthe Movie. The romantic lead is staging a charity show at the mansion of his lady love, but he doesn’t want to butt in on his pal, who is at least as wealthy as the girl; he doesn’t want to look like he’s a gold digger. The boys are running tech for the show, and brought along their kid sister to help lug props: an incredibly young Martha Raye (only 25 at the time), playing a man-hungry wench who sets her sights on a fake European Count. There are mistaken identities, crosses and double-crosses, and thank God Olsen & Johnson not only tear down the fourth wall repeatedly, they dance on the rubble of the wall and then sell it for scrap.

HellzapoppinWe had some conversation about what the original stage show must have been like, because Olsen & Johnson use the medium of film for all its worth, having shouted conversations with the projectionist (Shemp Howard, no less), and doing any number of things that would be impossible on stage. One thing that could be done on stage, and is so amazing that we played it twice (and if I’m not mistaken, was excerpted in one of the That’s Entertainments): during a check of the instruments, every black servant on the estate wanders onto the stage conveniently built in the backyard, and they have an impromptu, amazing Lindy Hop number that is physically exhausting just to watch:

“Man, I wish they were in the show!” says one of the boys afterwards. You ain’t the only one, Jackson. The dancers, known as The Harlem Congaroos, are the only personnel from the Broadway show to make the leap to the movie version.

The effort to superimpose a plotline over what was apparently a vaudeville show writ large should have damaged it, but instead Olsen & Johnson grabbed the opportunity and made a movie so profoundly postmodern that every hipster should carry a copy of it in their pocket; yet, for some reason, home video currently eludes it, or vice versa. The best known of Olsen & Johnson’s movies, that’s a shame: it should stand as an example of how studio meddling can’t quite bring the creative spirit down.

Diplomaniacs (1933)

10091Yeah, it was me who wanted to glory in the Old Stuff that night, and that desire was sparked by this movie. The comedy team of Wheeler and Woolsey have, much like Olsen & Johnson, descended into obscurity, but thanks to Warner Archive, have had a bit of a renaissance. Diplomaniacs was an impulse buy – I needed one more disc for one of their “5 for $50″ sales – but oboy, what a stroke of luck.

Wheeler and Woolsey have opened a barber shop on an Indian reservation, figuring there would be no competition – but there’s no custom, either. But hearing Woolsey making barbershop talk about international debts, the oil-rich tribe decides the barbers are their best bet for signing a peace treaty with the rest of the world. So our doofuses – the musically named Willy Nilly and Hercules Glub – are given a million dollars each and sent to Geneva.

maxresdefaultThis opening bit is little more than your typical Three Stooges opening gambit, though the Stooges didn’t have production numbers with scantily-clad pre-Code Indian maidens. But once they get on the ocean liner to Geneva, the movie really takes off, and what I mean by that is writer Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ opium shipment arrived. The remainder of the movie is so fast-paced and anarchic, so downright silly, that it is hard to imagine some manner of narcotic not being involved. Hugh Herbert (who was in Hellzapoppin’ as the detective with a bewildering array of bad disguises) is the villainous Chinaman Chow Chow, who begins every line with “It is written…” He’s the henchman of Louis Calhern, whom Dave immediately recognized as Trentino in Duck Soup. Calhern is, himself. working for a war munitions manufacturing combine run by Schmerzenpuppen, Puppenschmerzen, Schmerzenschmerzen and Puppenpuppen.

As I said, it’s a very silly movie, and I loved it. Sure, the casual racism of Chow Chow can be off-putting, but then Wheeler and Woolsey double down on the racism – hell, triple, quadruple down – with a final production number at the Peace Talks. Tex Avery cartoons had a long tradition of what Dave terms “blackface dynamite”, where characters getting a faceful of TNT were instantly transformed into minstrel show performers. Here is the precursor to that, a surprisingly effective bomb labeled “BOMB – For medicinal purposes only” (I kind of hate that the image is so soft here you can’t read that):

Oh, Holy Mother of God

Oh, Holy Mother of God

Is this offensive? Well, duh. But I also think that extending the bomb’s effect to the observation gallery, and reversing Woolsey’s black glasses frames to white, points to a certain amount of piss-taking going on. It is a silly part of a very silly movie, and I look forward to seeing more of these madmen at work. Pity Mankiewicz isn’t credited as writer on any other Wheeler and Woolsey movies. Hopefully there was more opium floating around Hollywood.

Diplomaniacs on Amazon

Arabian Adventure (1979)

arabianadventureosI had brought the 1937 Sh! The Octopus, which would have provided us with a Hugh Herbert Film Festival, but this was deemed too Mantlerian so we watched Arabian Adventure, which I had never seen. It was a fairly obvious attempt to produce a Star Wars rip-off without being obvious about it, and its success pretty much depends on how you feel about Kevin Connor movies. Connor had previously directed fare like At the Earth’s Core, The Land That Time Forgot and Warlords of Atlantis. Genre adventures made with special effects that were dated, even for their time, also known to me as The Movies You Take A Nap During At B-Fest.

Arabian Adventure isn’t too bad, especially if you approach it as a children’s movie. It has all the standard Arabian Nights claptrap: an evil, wizardly Caliph (Christopher Lee!), a sniveling toadie (Milo O’Shea), a prince in disguise (Oliver Tobias) and a princess to rescue (Emma Samms). Also a plucky young orphan and his trained monkey, and an imprisoned good Vizier (Peter Cushing, who graces the movie far too little).

Can't touch this!

Can’t touch this!

The big scene here for the Star Wars crowd is a climactic dogfight on magical flying carpets, which manages to squeeze out a bit of excitement, but overall could have been much more impressive. Our big moments of groaning horror had to do with the appearance of Mickey Rooney as a clumsy, trollish blacksmith in charge of the giant fire-belching Kevin Connor puppets, and John Ratzenberger as the head of a group of thieves. Many were the Cliff Clavin imitations that punctuated our Arabian Adventure.

Like I said, entertaining enough, but curiously of a piece with how we began our evening: an episode of Space: 1999 that Rick credits with totally destroying his cherished memories of childhood. I’m in no rush to revisit either.

Arabian Adventure on Amazon

 

 

 

Raquel & Some Rats

There’s always a hangover after challenges like Hubrisween, where no matter how much you may like movies, you have to avoid them for a while. Listen to some music, read a book. Clean your bathroom. Then one night you finally watch a movie again, and you discover why you liked them all along.

Let’s see if I can be brief. This is a busy week, and time is at a premium, especially since I’m watching movies again.

The Biggest Bundle of Them All (1968)

biggest-bundle-of-them-all-movie-poster-1968-1020427760I figured to start out with some cinematic comfort food. This one I remembered playing on CBS back in the day, say ’69 or ’70, and though it didn’t introduce me to Raquel Welch (that was probably Fantastic Voyage or Fathom), she was certainly the reason I watched it. Well, it was also a caper comedy, very popular at the time, and I also loved their complex plots.

(Slight digression: when the soundtrack album cropped up in my local Woolworth’s for 99 cents in the early 70s, I grabbed it quickly. Not only did it have a reproduction of that gorgeous poster art, but the score by Riz Ortolani – unknown to me at the time – and songs by Johnny Mathis and Eric Burdon & The Animals was really good)

article-0-016F2E8B000004B0-989_468x504The movie takes place in Italy, opening at the funeral of a respected mafioso. His old compatriot, played by Vittorio De Sica, is kidnapped by a gang headed up by Robert Wagner and including Godfrey Cambridge, Davey Kaye and Francisco Mulé, representing England and Italy, respectively. (Raquel is Wagner’s girlfriend, looking forward to all the dancing she’ll be doing in exotic climes once Wagner’s schemes pay off)

This scheme doesn’t, though: they find out De Sica’s gangland star has diminished so thoroughly that no one will pay his ransom. De Sica has a plan, however: a heist of a platinum ingot shipment plotted out by his old friend, Professor Samuels (Edward G. Robinson). The catch: to buy the equipment necessary to pull it off, they have to raise $3000 within a week, and so begins a twisting tale of amateurs attempting to become master criminals.

The movie definitely has its good points. De Sica, interviewing each member of the gang, is despondent to find out they are just common joes with money problems – a musician, a chef and a mechanic. When he turns to Wagner and asks, “And what do you do for a living?” Wagner’s response is an indignant, “Nothing!” “At last! “says De Sica. “A professional!”

Oddly, most of the photos you find feature Raquel...

Oddly, most of the photos you find feature Raquel…

Where the movie begins to wear on me is the tortured trail of trying to steal the three grand; if you thought cringe comedy was a modern invention, this will disavail you of that notion. The final heist is pretty good, though ($3000 went a long way in late 60s Italy, it seems). The one failing here is common to most, if not all, caper comedies – crime cannot be allowed to pay, and something stupid has to happen so our heroes get away with nothing. Expected, but still…

And what of Raquel, who was so popular at the time that the Spanish title translates to Raquel and Some Knaves? Story-wise, Raquel’s purpose is to vixen out the identity of the mysterious fence in Morocco who will buy all that platinum, to the tune of five million dollars. She will also become the unexpected moral compass at the movie’s climax, when Wagner finally makes good on his long-promised double cross of De Sica.

Who am I kidding? Raquel’s purpose in this movie is to make the El Kabong sound go off in my head whenever she makes an entrance. And since we are led to believe that in her very first scene, she is dancing naked on a rooftop, that sound got deafening.

No trailer, but here’s Raquel in a bikini. KA-BONNNNG!!!

The Biggest Bundle of Them All on Amazon

 Deadly Eyes (1982)

deadly_eyesSometimes the only way to follow up Raquel Welch in a bikini is with dachshunds in rat suits.

I think I caught the very end of Deadly Eyes on HBO back in the day, and that was the end of my involvement with it until Scream Factory put it out on blu-ray recently. Even when it was playing in theaters, it was fairly infamous for that central conceit. The plot involves some rats that have been feasting on poorly-stored grain that’s been treated with steroids, When a health inspector (Sara Botsford) condemns the grain and has it burned, the now king-sized rats have to find a new home and food source, and the city of Toronto is on the menu. The close-ups are of puppets, of course, but group scenes involving big-ass rats running around and chasing people: the aforementioned dachshunds, and an occasional terrier when they needed the rats to jump on something. (Dachshunds are not the greatest leapers of the canine world).

rathunds

“No amount of tasty treats is worth this humiliation.”

Outside of the occasional rat attack, the movie is largely concerned with divorced high school teacher Sam Groom, who meets cute with Botsford and they bond and have R-rated sex. This gets him involved with the whole rat thing, and allows him to play hero when Botsford and his son from the previous marriage wind up in the subways that the rats have decided to make their new burrow (I will give the filmmakers credit for not going for the obvious “We can’t close the subways! It’s the Fourth of July!” route). The balance of the story is rather off, in that respect, taking time to build up the relationship and then put it in jeopardy while the average audience member wistfully recalls when the movie had big-ass rats running around and biting people.

rats15Robert Clouse directs, which explains why the annoying high school students wind up at a Bruce Lee retrospective, where they all die, in a sequence that has some of the most brazen grab-the-monster-and-pull-it-to-you action I have seen since Bride of the Monster. The direction and acting are professional, at least. Though based on a James Herbert novel – well, actually, based on a screenplay that was based on the novel – everybody in the supplemental interviews are pretty upfront about having never read that novel. Writer and co-producer Charles H. Eglee, in fact points out that he based the movie on Joe Dante’s Piranha by and large, and once he makes that admission, everything clicks into place.

deadlyeyes2I’ve read James Herbert. This was probably wise. Fun, but not a milestone or anything. Still, if you only see one movie with dachshunds dressed as rats swarming over Scatman Crothers, it should be this one.

Deadly Eyes on Amazon

Well, I wasn’t brief enough. Time to go to press, and I still have more movies to talk about. Maybe next time.

 

 

The Halloween Crapfest

furniture-fascinating-orange-rubber-halloween-pumpkin-carving-ideas-with-orange-rubber-teeth-and-orange-plastic-tongue-for-dinning-room-halloween-pumpkin-carving-ideas-decor-magnificent-halloween-pumpWhile all that Hubrisween stuff was going on, I suddenly felt the craving for a movie experience much less solitary. A need to inflict suffering on others. I felt the need for an all-horror Crapfest (well, Crapfests are sort of predicated on horror, but that’s a larger issue). By and large, the call was answered.

Except on the day, Paul and the Other David begged off, citing Ebola, because that will never not be hilarious. Alan had a matinee performance  -O, cursed work ethic! – which left it down to me, Dave, Rick, Erik and Mark. We brought enough food for the original horde, so there were plenty of leftovers.

We began with a collection of Halloween cartoons curated by yours truly. I’ll make a perfunctory pass through YouTube, but I don’t hold much hope for finding any of them (and if I did, they’d be taken down within a month), so here’s a list:

  1. Bimbo’s Initiation (1931) – a sort of proto-Betty Boop short
  2. Scaredy Cat (1948) – Porky & Sylvester vs murder mice, and not for the last time
  3. The Mad Doctor (1933) – Mickey Mouse. Disney was scarring young minds way before Snow White
  4. Water Water Every Hare (1952) – Mad doctors again, this time with Bugs Bunny
  5. Snow White (1933) – but this time with Betty Boop and Cab Calloway
  6. Have You Got Any Castles (1938) – Musical earworm involving books, included for an appearance by Mr. Hyde, Fu Manchu, the Phantom of the Opera, and Frankenstein’s Monster. And dammit, because I love this cartoon.
  7. The Haunted House (1929) – Mickey Mouse again, and some skeletons who just want to party.
  8. Broomstick Bunny (1956) – Bugs Bunny, obviously, and the debut of Witch Hazel.

Okay, color me corrected (and hopefully these won’t disappear in a few weeks):

(I think I really love Have You Got Any Castles because it assumes a certain amount of cultural awareness on the part of its audience.)

This was before the switch off Daylight Savings Time, so we were still waiting for the sun to go down that the true horror could begin. It was best to go with something short, I thought, so Dwain Esper’s 1934 Maniac got the nod. Here’s the clip everyone recognizes, quoted in It Came From Hollywood:

Now here is something about Crapfest that really, I get my nose rubbed in repeatedly: subtlety is wasted, and this is the first and last time you are going to hear Maniac accused of subtlety. But so much of its charm and outrageousness is dependent on declamatory acting better suited to an 1890 stage, florid dialogue ditto, and shocking 1934 nudity excused on the flimsiest educational intertitles possible – that gets lost in the raucous atmosphere. This always happens, except for Bugs Bunny, who gets reverent silence.

It was now dark enough for the true nastiness to begin, so I trotted out Night Train to TerrorWe’ve been here before, you and I,  and we know that this movie is a cheapjack Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors made of cut-up versions of two previously released movies and one that was unfinished, so the usual Crapfest cry of “What’s happening?” was totally justified. But outside of the double-casting of Richard Moll giving Rick purchase for a desperate attempt to show Evilspeak again as part of a “Richard Moll Film Festival”, the best part was… well, what I did find on YouTube was an edited version that incorporates all the parts of Night Train to Terror that had Rick shrieking like a little girl:

But God is All-Merciful, except toward haters, so He resurrects the band for one more round of “Dance With Me” for the closing credits. The screams of outrage  in the room were incredible.

Dave then put something up on the screen for “the break”. Speaking of lessons never learned during Crapfests, nobody ever takes a break during “the break”. The psychology of this is beyond me, except in this case: I was held spellbound by this; I had no previous idea it existed, and it is absolutely delightful. It’s Music Box With A Secret, a piece of Soviet animation heavily influenced by Yellow Submarine – itself a heavy influence on yours truly as a child – and…

…well, just hit full screen on this. You will not regret it.

Dave, you never get to look at one of my entries and sneer, “This is quality, it has no place here” again, because this is top-notch stuff.

He followed it up with Prisencolinensinainciusol, which I love. If you’ve been under a rock for the last few years (as were, apparently, many of our attendees) this was a song written by Italian performer Adriano Celentano, to demonstrate what a popular English song would sound like to a non-English speaker.

Didn’t get that? Fine. So we watched it again.

(I was nice and advanced it past the Italian introduction. I assure you Dave was not that merciful.)

Then, since no one took “the break”, Dave unspooled his entry, a movie which has as many names as Legion: Dark Eyes, Fury of the Succubus, Demon Rage, Demon Seed, but in this case, Satan’s Mistress, starring Natalie Wood’s sister, Lana Wood, and her Moonpie-sized areola.

smiss1 smiss2 smiss3

This was a case when I was one of the people yelling “What’s going on?”, and it wasn’t because of the vodka, either. It was mainly because there is no there there. Lana is at her beach house with her husband, who does… something for a living. She moves into her own bedroom because she “needs room” and “needs time”, mainly because a dark figure keeps visiting her in the night for salacious purposes. So you’ve got your Satan, and you’ve got a lot of mistress-ing going on, and some dime store divorce drama. And Britt Ekland as a concerned friend who Satan nearly roasts in a hot tub.

Did I mention the beach house has a basement, which for some reason, contains suits of armor and a guillotine? Do beach houses even have basements? In any case, Britt’s hubby winds up afoul of the guillotine, and at his funeral John Carradine jobs in for a day as a priest who urges Britt and Lana’s husband to fight the evil in the beach house but not to “fall prey to their illusions”. Britt falls prey to their illusions and burns for it, but hubby stands strong, and apparently making your saving roll to disbelieve is all it takes to conquer Old Scratch. That’s worth remembering, write it down.

There’s not much video to be found from this flick (which sort of tells the story, right there), but leave it to Mr. Skin to post a NSFW clip of Ms. Wood in the altogether. It does pretty much sum up the production…

So I didn’t feel at all bad about concluding the evening with a movie that had been asked for ever since its trailer showed up in a compilation: The Super Inframan. Mark complained that I was really stretching the definition of horror here, but dammit, it’s wall-to-wall monsters. What’s more Halloween than that? The fact that the monsters know kung fu just illustrates why this is known as the finest movie ever made.

“Six million light years beyond believability!” also sort of tells the tale, there.

Well. the holidays beckon. Chances that we will get in another Crapfest this year are pretty slim (even if my venerable VHS of The Magic Christmas Tree keeps trying to claw its way out of the storage box), so this may just have to carry us into the New Year. So long, fellow voyagers on the good ship Crap. It’s been fun.

Next time I’ll bring more Bugs Bunny.

Future Freex Weighs In: Turns out it wasn’t in a storage box at all. It was hiding:

magic xmas tree

Z: Zombies on Broadway (1945)

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zombies_on_broadway_poster_03I believe it was Hubrisween Host Tim Lehnerer who pointed out that if you’re doing an A-Z challenge of horror movies, you are inevitably going to end up in zombie territory (especially if you’ve sworn to never watch Zaat! again). So it’s a good thing I recently came off my ten-year moratorium against zombie movies. I guess.

There is no denying there has been an absolute glut of zombie movies over the past decade and more, and though I expected everyone to get sick and tired of them, nooooooooo, they just got more insanely popular. The recent Walking Dead season premiere broke records. We’ve had a $200 million dollar zombie flick starring Brad Pitt, for God’s sake. George Romero had no idea what the hell he was starting when he was prepping a calling card to the motion picture industry back in 1968.

Poster_-_White_Zombie_01_Crisco_restorationBut what all this misses is that there was another zombie craze, back in the 1930s and extending into the 40s. Back before zombies started munching guts. Though nowhere near as prolific as their modern cousins, zombie movies were kicked off by the 1932 White Zombie, which four years later spawned a loose sequel, Revolt of the Zombies. The high point of this cycle is undeniably Jacques Tourneurs I Walked With a Zombie, and by 1945, it was high time for the zombie to be returned to his grave with a comedy, Zombies on Broadway, three years before Abbott & Costello would similarly put paid to the Universal Monsters.

wDPu1

“You do know you guys aren’t funny, don’t ya?”

 Zombies on Broadway introduces us to the comedy team of Wally Brown and Alan Carney, who are pretty much in the mold of Abbott and Costello, though Brown’s Jerry Miles is more sympathetic than most of Bud Abbott’s screen characters (Brown and Carney were, in fact, known as “RKO’s answer to Abbott and Costello”). The two have been hired as press agents for Ace Miller (Sheldon Leonard), a gangster who’s gone semi-legit and is opening a voodoo-themed night club called The Zombie Hut. Brown and Carney have been doing a bang-up job on the PR, but they’ve made two mistakes…

…the first was the brilliant idea to advertise that a “real zombie” would appear at the club’s opening. The second is basing their radio campaign on a broadcaster who turns out to be Ace’s bete noir, Douglas Walker (Louis Jean Heydt) a weisenheimer crusader type who delights in needling the mobster on the air. This is like asking Jon Stewart to publicize Bill O’Reilly’s new country club. And worse yet, Walker knows the washed-up prize-fighter the boys intended to pass off as a zombie.

BELA-ZOMBIESWhen Walker promises to bring some professor types to vet Ace’s zombie, things get heavy for Brown and Carney, who are forced to board a ship bound for the mythical island of Saint Sebastian, to return with a real zombie or face Ace’s rather drastic consequences. You’ll recognize Saint Sebastian from the aforementioned I Walked With a Zombie. Those seem to be the same sets, too, and oh look, there’s Sir Lancelot, King of the Calypso, acting as a Greek chorus when the boys get off the ship.

zombies on broadway (5)That’s not the only holdover from that infinitely superior movie. I’m not talking about Bela Lugosi, who is playing Dr. Paul Renault, mad scientist who is attempting to create a zombie scientifically, I’m talking about the genuine zombie in his employ, Darby Jones, who was the eerie Carrefour in the earlier film. Here, he’s a zombie named Kalaga, and gets lots more screen time, which rather cuts down on the eerieness.

Brown and Carney also pick up a spunky knife-throwing singer (Anne Jeffries) who promises to help them find a zombie if they’ll get her off the island. She’s also going to wind up on Lugosi’s list of potential subjects, but it’s Carney who will wind up with the bulging eyeballs of the zombie, and the boys’ potential savior back in New York, until the sight of a pretty cigarette girl causes him to shake off the effects of Lugosi’s experimental serum, and hilarity supposedly ensues.

zombie

Find the funny guys in this scene. HINT: They’re all on the left.

Zombies on Broadway is reasonably well-made, and took in enough at the box office to ensure a sequel, Genius at Work, once again involving Lugosi. Sadly, Brown and Carney lack the charisma and chemistry of other comedy duos, and have thus faded into obscurity. The voodoo rituals which seemed fairly authentic in I Walked With a Zombie degenerate into a jungle hoodoo hugger-mugger more in keeping with the jungle sets from the Tarzan movies (which were used). It tries earnestly be a horror comedy in the vein of The Ghost Breakers but never manages to hit the heights of the movies it imitates. Brown and Carney simply can’t carry an extended vehicle, and when your two comedy stars are effortlessly upstaged by the then-obligatory Comical Superstitious Negro Janitor (Nick Stewart), you have a definite problem.

It would have been nice to end Hubrisween on a more positive note, but then: there was a reason I swore off zombie movies for a decade. That reason just went back further than I suspected.

Zombies on Broadway on Amazon

Y: The Yellow Sign (2001)

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yellowsign-209x300Making movies from established classic literature is a tricky business. Making one from established classic horror literature even more so. It takes a sure, subtle author’s touch to make you look up from a book and make sure no Damned Thing has slithered into the room while you were absorbed in the story. You’d think that would be easier with a movie, all visuals and sound, but no, it’s harder. Literature has the power to make your mind, your imagination work against your own well-being. Few movies have the art to do that.

To my knowledge, this is the only serious attempt to bring one of  Robert W. Chambers’ seminal horror stories to life, and even so writer/director Aaron Vanek is sure to mention that it is “inspired by”. The Yellow Sign is the fourth story in the book, The King in Yellow, which was spoken of in reverent terms in my youth. There was a resurgence of interest in H.P. Lovecraft in the late 60s and early 70s, and I don’t think his stories have gone out of print since; therefore attention was paid to his influences, and Chambers most definitely is one.

yellowsign1 The movie first: Tess Reardon (Shawna Waldron) is the owner of a near-bankrupt art gallery. She’s having trouble sleeping, plagued by dreams of weird art, a girl sleeping in a chair covered in yellow and purple ribbons who won’t wake up, dreams always ended by a large man with empty eyes asking “Have you found the yellow sign?” Her gallery partner (Andrea Gall) says the art sounds like the work of a surrealist shown at her former gallery years before – Aubrey Scott. That show didn’t end well, she says, and Scott has been a recluse ever since.

Tess tracks Scott (Dale Snowberger) to an old, seemingly empty hotel. His apartments have become a riot of his work, compelling but dark. He agrees to a show, but only if Tess will model for his new painting. She quickly agrees.

yellowsign2While painting, Scott tells Tess a story to stop her from fidgeting. It’s about a tribe where the children seem to go mad for several years, but they are really existing in two worlds simultaneously, and when this period is over, they became the tribe’s shamen. The combination of Scott’s story and a swirling painting before her causes Tess to lapse into a trance, as the Yellow Sign appears on the canvas. In the trance she refers to Scott as “Aldones” – “You know my real name!” he gasps – and informs him the Watchman is coming for him. Panicking, Scott wakes her. She thinks she was asleep.

The tenor of her dreams change. Now the large man is driving a carriage under her window. It’s a hearse, and Scott is in the coffin, screaming to be let out.

yellowsign4The next modeling session, Tess tells the painter about her childhood, and an invisible twin sister she had called Camilla. Not an imaginary friend, a real person, who was queen of a place called Ythll. Tess doesn’t realize that her childhood mirrors the story Scott had told her before. And as she leaves that day, he hands her a copy of a book: The King in Yellow, Though she tries to throw it away when she is halfway through, it comes back to her. She finishes it, and the next day, the signing of the contract with Aubrey Scott takes on a much more unearthly and deadly significance.

This sent me scurrying to my copy of The King in Yellow (the story collection, thankfully not the book in the story) to see exactly how “inspired by” was this version. Vanek’s changes are intriguing. Chambers’ story concerns a painter and his model, and the large man who lurks around the graveyard across the street from his studio, whom he describes as looking “Like a coffin worm”. His model has the dream about the coffin in the hearse, and so it goes. The movie is basically a reverse of the story, which is told from the painter’s point of view. The movie unfolds from the model’s POV, and while the ending differs greatly, well – that’s all the better for people who read the story, I suppose. It does impose a sort of order and reason on the denouement, which was pretty creepy and inexplicable in the original.

yellowsign5It’s Chambers’ refusal to explain the supernatural goings-on that so inspired Lovecraft along with that device, the evil book. The King in Yellow is a play script, a script that, if read, drives people to madness and death. Apparently the first act is quite normal; but the second act reveals several awful truths about life and the universe around us that are better left unknown.

That, of course, is next to impossible to get across in a movie. So Vanek, probably wisely, chose not to, changing The King in Yellow to the key that unlocks the mystery of what Aubrey Scott has been up to with these strange paintings (as only a slight digression, the Art Direction by Lisa Horn and paintings by Jason Voss are truly outstanding). That is concrete enough, that is do-able, it is even satisfying. Chambers did not carry on with horrific literature, his writing went to other genres over his lifetime. He’d probably be satisfied with the result.

yellowsign6At a sleek 50 minutes, The Yellow Sign doesn’t get a chance to wear out its welcome, but that also seems to have worked against it. It’s only available commercially in a somewhat hard-to-find disc called The Weird Tale Collection. That’s a pity, because it manages to get its desired effect without any of what seem to be the staples of modern horror cinema, like gore, nudity or sudden blaring loud sounds.

The Yellow Sign on Amazon

X: Xtro II: The Second Encounter (1990)

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Xtro_2_-_The_Second_EncounterYou know what? We need more movies with titles that begin with “X”.

I keep doing alphabetical movie challenges, and let me tell you, such titles are thin on the ground. Earlier this year I did Xtroand I didn’t care for it. Yet now, here I am, watching Xtro 2. Gavin is also doing Xtro 2, because, like I said, slim pickin’s. Cronenberg should have just lopped off that useless initial e in eXistenz, because it would have made life a lot easier on me.

I’m …going to have to talk about Xtro 2 eventually, aren’t I.

Fine.

So there’s this massive underground scientific complex where they are attempting to project three scientists into a parallel dimension. This seems to have some value to the Department of Defense, who are threatening to shut the whole thing down, “especially in light of what happened in Texas.” What happened in Texas was a guy made the trip to the parallel dimension, came back, and blew up the complex. So our high-strung project head Dr. Summerfield (Paul Koslo) is under a great deal of pressure.

The three scientists make the jump, the weak video signal coming back from the other side shows some sort of spherical construct in the distance. Then they lose contact completely. A rescue team of four professional badasses prepares to go in after them, while the other head of the project, Dr. Julie (Tara Buckman, who you just know is the heroine because she has Linda Hamilton hair) insists on bringing in the guy who blew up the Texas complex – her former lover, Shepherd (Jan-Michael Vincent).

About the time Shepherd arrives and the pissing match between him and Summerfield begins, one of the missing scientists, Marshall (Tracy Westerholm) wanders back into the “transference vector” and is brought back. While the rescue team preps, Shepherd tries to kill the comatose Marshall in the clinic and is put under arrest. Everyone except the audience is surprised when a creature bursts out of Marshall’s chest and slithers into the air ducts.

xtroii6This has the effect of setting off the complex’s biohazard alarm. Most of the personnel leave in an orderly manner through the elevator system to the surface. Remaining are the rescue team, Shepherd, Summerfield, Dr. Julie, and some other cannon fodder  technicians who will attempt to track down and kill the alien invader before the biohazard protocols flush the base with radioactive gas.

I guess we’ll ignore the fact that all this could have been avoided if Shepherd hadn’t clammed up after blowing up Texas. “Would you have believed me?” doesn’t cut it when some preparation would have been much better than none.

A lot of people told me not to bother with Xtro 2. These people do not do movie challenges. But here is the thing: it’s not bad. It’s well made, the actors are all good. it’s got fairly high production values (except for one especially glaring thing we’ll talk about in a bit).  Its major problem: you’ve seen all this before.

I had my problems with Xtro, and I’ve been over those. But it has to be admitted that Xtro was creative in many spots, even unique. Director Harry Bromley Davenport reportedly kept the title rights to Xtro but not the story rights, and so was obligated to go the unconnected sequel route. Xtro 2 winds up being a complete reversal from its predecessor: Xtro wasn’t too well-made, but it had creative energy; Xtro 2 is well made but lifts the templates from several other successful movies, most noticably Alien, Aliens and, of course, The Andromeda Strain.

Don’t want to take my word for it? Hey, look, the leader of the rescue team has a steadicam gun:

xtro2_4

At least they didn’t go so far as to have a fiery Latina on the team.

And then we have our monster, the whole reason we’re watching this. It’s necessary in these low-budget affairs to keep the monster hidden away for most of your running time, saving the full reveal for the end. So we see a lot of monster feet and monster hands, and a monster tail, and a toothy maw, and it all looks so terribly familiar when you can see it:

bscap0009Let’s turn on the lights and get a better look.

xtro2 xtro-2_367327_19453

That is the Xenomorph crossed with the goddam Rancor, so you can add Return of the Jedi to the list of movies being ripped off.

And that is really the worst thing I can say about Xtro 2: it took four writers to come up with this, and I strongly suspect each writer was assigned a different movie to imitate. And this is the result.

Xtro 2 on Amazon

W: We’re Going to Eat You (1980)

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Looking back over the rocky wasteland of Hubrisween, I’m pretty happy that the Asian horror movie has been well represented – Korean, Japanese, Indonesian (twice) and… oops. No Hong Kong horror.

And I really wish we had a better example to show you, but… this is the letter W.

Way back when, in the early 90s, when we just beginning to wake up to the cool stuff that was then happening in Hong Kong cinema, I bought a lot of sketchy, blurry things called VHS tapes through the mail. What had propelled me down this path was The Incredibly Strange Film Show, which devoted half an episode to Tsui Hark (the other half, as I recall, was Stuart Gordon). One movie that was high on my list was Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain, and the other was We’re Going to Eat You. I didn’t care too much for the latter, so it was high time to check it out again, with a better quality picture and improved subtitles.

weregoingtoeatyou2I suppose the movie lets you know where you’re going to stand from the very beginning, which opens with a piss joke. Two travelers have just come to this island and are looking for the town, and one of them has to keep stopping to pee. The one who can hold his water gets killed by a masked gang of knife-wielders, and if you resented the other one for having such a lame running joke, that’s okay, because the masked guys strap him down to a table and bisect his middle with a cross-cut saw. He was probably going to die from dehydration, anyway.

You see, this town is populated by insane cannibals (yes, this is one of the many movies that also carries the title Kung Fu Cannibals), and the cannibals are ruled by the despotic Chief of Police (Eddy Ko). The masked men are his supposed police force, who trap unwary travelers and butcher them for the “cafeteria”. The Chief puts aside way more meat for himself and his men than is fair, and the other cannibals are grumbling about it.

Enter the dapper Secret Agent 999 (Norman Chu), who is hunting the fugitive bandit Rolex (Melvin Wong). Rolex, we’re pretty sure, is the Chief’s right hand man, the one who is actually competent. Rolex’s identity is confirmed when he lets 999 in on the village’s cannibalistic secret – Rolex refuses to become a cannibal himself, and he knows the Chief will never let him leave the village alive. The trouble is, 999 is a bit of a dim bulb himself, and doesn’t realize that the guys who keep trying to kill him are the Chief’s men. Ergo, Rolex, being a bandit and all, must be lying. Complicating matters even more is a traveling thief (Hon Kwok Choi)  who also tries to report the violent gustatory inclinations of the villagers… to the Chief.

NDVD_005You’re going to run into two problems with We’re Going to Eat You. The first is the story, which gets off to a terrific start and then has absolutely no idea what to do with itself. After 999 introduces himself to the Chief, and the Chief tells him that Rolex has been sighted hanging around the town’s slaughterhouse, 999 walks there, gathering quite a crowd as he goes. Before he enters, the village applauds him, which he accepts with a bow. Then he steps into the deathtrap, and there is a tremendous fight. 999 escapes – barely – but that is where the meandering starts, as does the viewer’s irritation.

The other problem is going to be cultural. This is a horror comedy, and comedy changes across cultures. I’m still not sure what to make of the seven-foot tall lovesick drag queen character. I think it is actually supposed to be a tremendously ugly woman (and the guy is playing his role to the hilt), but… well, uncomfortable is the operative word, here.

There are likable bits here and there. The fights – early work by Corey Yuen – are frequent and quite creative. There’s a fair amount of blood, but you kind of wish Stuart Gordon had wandered over from the other half of the The Incredibly Strange Film Show to deliver some pointers on the effective use of gore.

wearegoingDirector Tsui Hark’s output has been fairly uneven; when he’s on, his movies are amazing. When he’s not, though, you start to wonder who sneaked into the director’s chair while you weren’t looking (then again – what director can’t you say that about?). While We’re Going to Eat You  doesn’t quite ever get so bad you’re tempted to turn it off, its inability to tell its own story  - or even decide which character that story belongs to – with any confidence is both irritating and off-putting. This early in his career, though – this is only his second movie, after The Butterfly Murders – it’s more forgivable.

Here, have the original trailer with some purloined Goblin:

We’re Going to Eat You on Amazon

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