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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2961191

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

V: Viy (1967)

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You know, if I can say nothing else about the Hubrisween Challenge, it has given me instance to track down and find some Viy1967movies I read about in the Famous Monsters of Filmland’s “Coming Distractions” articles that I had never seen, had been mentioned once, and then dropped off the radar. Shanks was one of them. Another I remember was – as was the case with FM, spelled out in capital letters: THE VIY – SPIRIT OF EVIL. That was unusual enough that it stuck with me, and likely the reason I referred to it as The Viy all these years. Nope, it’s just Viy.  I can’t find any records of it actually getting a theatrical release in the US, either. AIP’s appropriation and repurposing of several Soviet genre films had been in the early 60s, and Viy didn’t see a release outside the USSR until 1970.

In any case, Viy keeps cropping up in genre books, so it was high time to give it a look. It’s based on a short story by Nikolai Gogol, itself a mixture of several Ukranian folk tales (Mario Bava’s Black Sunday is based on the same story, but far more loosely). A group of young student priests on summer break from a seminary in Kiev find themselves lost on the way to their village. They beg an old woman for shelter for the night, but she tells them they each have to stay in a different part of the house.

PDVD_026That night, in the barn, she visits Khoma (Leonid Kuravlyov). Horrified, the young man thinks she is trying to seduce him, but instead she climbs on his back and starts riding him through the night like a horse. As the two fly up in the sky, he realizes she is a witch (duh) and begins shouting prayers, causing them to fall to earth. Once landed, he grabs a branch and begins beating the old woman. As she nears death, she turns into a beautiful young woman (Natalya Varley). Now sincerely freaked out, Khoma starts running and doesn’t stop until he gets back to Kiev.

Messengers soon arrive from a rich cossack in a remote part of the province; bearing gifts and donations to the monastery, they convey that their masters’ young daughter has been severely beaten, is near death, and has asked specifically for Khoma to come pray over her. The Rector forces the reluctant Khoma to go, though on arrival he finds that the daughter has died, and he is commanded to sit a prayer vigil in an old, ruined church with her coffin for three nights, her final request. The guilt-ridden Khoma has no choice but to comply.

night1Of course, the first night, she rises from her coffin, and Khoma hastily, fearfully draws a circle of protection in chalk around the stand holding his prayer book. While he prays, the corpse lurches around the room, hearing his voice, but unable to see him due to the circle. She presses against the circle like an unseen wall, to no avail. Finally, the cock crows and Khoma’s first night of terror is over.

The second night is no better. That night the witch rides around the church on her coffin like a goth Silver Surfer, using the casket as a battering ram against the circle. Again, the circle and scripture hold, and Khoma has survived again – but his hair has turned snow-white.

viy-1967-2-420x315Khoma tries to refuse to sit the last night, he attempts escape, all to no avail. On the last night, the witch pulls out all the stops, summoning all manner of creatures of the night and outer darkness. They still cannot see Khoma, and finally the witch calls Viy, which seems to surprise and trouble even the creatures of the night. Viy comes, massive and ugly, telling the others to lift his heavy eyelids so he can see Khoma. The young priest knows that if he avoids eye contact, he will be safe – but then he hears the cock-crow, and he turns.

Viy shouts “I CAN SEE HIM!” and the monsters pile on Khoma. But, they were so excited they missed the first cock-crow, and when the second one comes, they try to escape, but are trapped half-in, half-out of the walls of the church like bad statuary, and the beautiful daughter returns to the withered form of the old crone. Khoma is dead, having paid the price for his sins, but the church is forever now a place of horrors, and abandoned.

It’s a good story, and where a typical American viewer might find fault with it is the languid pace – the vigils do not begin until halfway through the running time, and man, are nights ever short in that part of Russia! They’re also going to be confused by the seminarians. The dismissal of the students at the beginning of the movie is treated by the surrounding villagers like the arrival of the Mongol Horde, as the students are a thieving, venal bunch. Khoma himself is not a very upright man at all, and spends most of the three days of the vigil getting progressively drunker. Can’t have a Soviet film endorsing religion, I suppose.

tumblr_lb8pmcRuzr1qz72v7o1_500The vigil scenes are the best part of the movie, and one wishes there were more; but as Samuel Fuller advised Bogdanovich when he was planning Targets, “save the money for the end of the picture”, and it has to be admitted the directors, Konstantin Ershov and Georgi Kropachyov have done just that: the last night is an absolute corker, and a whole lot of credit for that should probably go to Art Director Aleksandr Ptushko.

Ptushko was the director of some incredible and beautiful Russian fairy tale movies, Sadko, Ilya Muromets and Sampo. Or, as they are better known in America, The Magic Voyage of Sinbad, The Sword and the Dragon and The Day the Earth Froze. Yes, these have all been on MST3K, largely because of the ham-fisted attempts to de-Russianize them by AIP, but they are each wonderful movies in their own right and deserve to be sought out on their own merits. Sadly, the original versions are tough to come by, though their bowdlerized versions remain available.

Viy doesn’t have that problem, perhaps because it has remained unhampered by the perceived necessity of pretending it’s not Russian. With no English dub playing to the masses, it remains generally available in its original form, and worth a look.

Oh, alright, I know what you want, here’s the money shot:

Viy on Amazon

U: Undead (2003)

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undeadUndead was getting really good word of mouth back in 2003. Unfortunately, that was also the year I began my ten-year moratorium on zombie movies, engendered by the one-two punch of Resident Evil and House of the Dead. I reluctantly re-entered the zombie movie world last year, so there are a few – and honestly, only a few – I  need to catch up on.

The surprising thing is I managed to go that decade without any spoilers.

Undead starts with some standard horror movie boilerplate set-up: a comet collides with a meteor, and fragments streak toward the Earth, targeting Australia. The meteorites actually hit a few people in the small town of Berkeley, who immediately get back up as gut-munching zombies. If I complimented Return of the Blind Dead for giving us zombies at 16 minutes, I really have to think up new superlatives for  Undead doing the same thing at seven and a half minutes – less than half that time.

2003_undead_1_640That time is used to introduce most of our cast of characters, but the first is obviously the one we’ll be rooting for, local beauty queen Rene Chaplin (Felicity Mason) who is desperately trying to get out of town on what she only thought was the worst day of her life. A zombie-infested three car pile-up on the road out puts an end to that (and almost to her) when she meets Marion (the brilliantly named Mungo McKay), owner of what used to be the town’s gun shop and a man seemingly possessed of the skills and weaponry to survive a zombie apocalypse.

253Trouble is, Marion is also the town pariah, after an incident a while back when he was attacked by zombie fish and then abducted by aliens. His main mistake was telling the townsfolk about that. And given the zombies, the unusual cloud cover, and the shafts of light from that cloud cover lifting animals up into the sky, it looks like Marion is going to have his day in the sun. Four more people escape to Marion’s house, a pilot and his extremely pregnant wife, and a local cop who has seen too many American movies and his timorous partner, on her first day of the job. We quickly settle into zombie siege territory as this band is slowly driven down to Marion’s fallout shelter. Then the pregnant waitress’ contractions start.

SO just when we think we’ve settled into a submarine movie, our cast has to get out of the house and (again) out of town… only to find that the area is surrounded by a tall metal wall festooned with spikes.

undead-005149-501x282Even for a horror comedy, this is pretty out there, and is indicative of the charm of Undead. Just when you think you have the story pegged, it outfoxes you. Though the opening scenes are reminiscent of Brain Dead (or as we Yanks like to call it, Dead Alive) with its splattery comedy and extreme gore, as the story progressed I was reminded more of Dark City, by another Aussie filmmaker, Alex Proyas. That’s high praise, and it’s deserved. If, like me, you’ve managed to avoid spoilers, I am not going to go any further. Most of this movie is about the joy of discovery.

Made by two brothers, Michael and Peter Spierig, this movie defines the term labor of love. The cast was rehearsed for two months, because the budget was so tight, there were only one or two takes per shot. The interiors are all sets, and look incredible, and a movie could probably be made about the scavenging involved. The impressive special effects were done on the brothers’ home computers, over nearly a year of post-production.

undead3The result is professional in the extreme – honestly, this is the sort of thing that really makes you want to spit on stuff clogging the midnight movie circuit, stuff like The Room and Birdemic. Passion and talent together with a bunch of friends and (doubtless) a lot of support, created something that deserves views for its quality, dammit.

The Spierig’s follow-up didn’t happen for another six years, and that was Daybreakers. I was never interested in it… until I saw Undead.

Undead on Amazon

T: Targets (1968)

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MPW-56708Every now and then the pieces just come together, and it is wonderful when that happens.

After shooting The Terror, one of Roger Corman’s more infamous patchwork movies, Boris Karloff owed Corman two more days of work. There was a young feller named Peter Bogdanovich, a writer who had come to California and started working with Corman by accident more than anything. After almost half a year toiling in that fruitful movie factory/film school, Corman felt that Bogdanovich had earned his shot, and offered him his own film. It could be any movie Bogdanovich wanted, with two conditions:

1) He had to use Boris Karloff for the remaining two days on his contract, and

2) He had to use 20 minutes of footage from The Terror.

targets-1968Employing Corman math, this meant 20 minutes of new Karloff (“You can shoot 20 minutes in two days, right? I shot whole movies in two days!”) plus 20 minutes of old footage added up to enough Karloff to ballyhoo it as a new Karloff movie. All Bogdanovich had to do was figure out how.

What began as a joke in his head while desperately trying to put those puzzle pieces together – Karloff watching the end of The Terror  in a screening room, turning to Roger Corman and saying, “That was the worst movie I’ve ever seen.” – eventually became the movie we know as Targets.

The movie does begin with the end of The Terror and the screening room. Karloff is playing Byron Orlock, star of The Terror (and so much more), who has decided this is the perfect time to retire. Entreaties from producers and the young director of The Terror (Bogdanovich himself, playing a character based on uncredited script doctor Samuel Fuller) prove useless. Orlock feels he is an anachronism, his stock in trade fallen to mere camp against headlines of shooting rampages in supermarkets.

vlcsnap-00011What Orlock does not know, as he stands on a sidewalk arguing with the director, is that he is literally in the crosshairs of a hunting rifle across the street.

The rifle is being bought at a gun store by Bobby Thompson (Tim O’Kelley), who gladly purchases the rifle, then puts it into the trunk of his Mustang, where it joins a small arsenal of rifles and pistols.

And so begins the two stories that will alternate throughout the movie, as Bobby exists in his gray suburban tract house with his parents and wife. Bobby’s dad has a lot of guns and a few hunting trophies; we see a picture of Bobby in Army fatigues on the wall. Bobby tries to talk to his wife before she leaves for work, saying he doesn’t know what’s happening to him, he’s having some funny ideas. She’s late, though, and laughs it off.

600px-Targetswoodmaster4Byron, after a sullen night interrupted by a drunken Bogdanovich that ends with both of them waking up with enormous hangovers, decides to do one last personal appearance at a drive-in theater premiering The Terror. In our other story, Bobby waits for his wife to wake up, then shoots her, his mother, and a hapless delivery boy. They will just be the start.

Based on the case of Charles Whitman, Bobby climbs to the top of an oil storage tank and snipes at the cars passing on the highway below. He seems a bit surprised that the police come so quickly, and eventually dodges into a drive-in movie to escape them – as luck would have it, the drive-in where Orlock will be appearing. He manages to climb into the screen and views the killing fields below, rows of unsuspecting cars, He waits only for night, and unwary persons to turn on their interior lights to give him his targets.

It must have been kind of intense seeing this movie at a drive-in, is what I’m saying.

targets_1In a nicely meta bit, Bogdanovich keeps begging Orlock to do his next movie, written especially for him, and that script is obviously Targets (finally the drunken Bogdanovich snatches the script and staggers toward the door, saying. “Fine! I’ll offer it to Vincent Price!”).

Karloff is 80 years old here, still intensely vital and utterly professional. At this point in his life, both legs were in braces, and he was usually in a wheelchair; when we see him walk, it is always with a cane. Emphysema had him down to half a lung, and on constant oxygen support. Tales of his last years had him taking off the oxygen mask, rising from his wheelchair, hitting the damned mark and saying his damned lines, and returning to the chair and his life-giving tank only after “Cut” was called, and never complaining. That is what the word “professional” has always meant to me. Karloff had none of the bitterness or disdain for his work that Orlock has; but other than that, he was pretty much playing himself in this role. Legend has it that Karloff liked the script so much, he gave the tyro director three extra days of shooting for free.

Not all actors are lucky enough to have that one movie that acts as a perfect coda to their career. John Wayne managed it with The Shootist, and Karloff did it with Targets. But Karloff being Karloff, this was not his last movie; that would fall to Curse of the Crimson Altar and a group of low-budget Mexican movies. But I can alter my perception of the world as I see fit, and so Targets, possibly the first and best of the modern horror movies to successfully deal with a uniquely modern monster, remains for me the capper of Karloff’s long and storied career.

This trailer is obviously from after the movie’s troubled first release, and the success of Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show, in 1971, and minimizing Karloff’s involvement is awfully telling. 1968 was a particularly violent year for America, and Paramount was, perhaps understandably, timorous about the movie’s subject matter. But I wonder what those quaking studio heads would have thought of the present day, when mass shootings have become so common they don’t even register on the nightly news anymore.

Targets on Amazon

S: Shanks (1974)

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shanksShanks is an odd, odd movie.

This is the first – and I’m thinking only – starring film role for the famous French mime Marcel Marceau. It seems quaint these days to consider a mime a respected artist, but I had the pleasure of seeing Marceau on one of his American tours, and I can tell you, the reputation was completely justified and wholly earned. Marceau plays the title character, Malcolm Shanks, a deaf-mute puppeteer much beloved in his small town. Marceau also plays Mr. Walker, an elderly, eccentric scientist who owns the gothic mansion up on the hill.

Walker, impressed by Shanks’ skill with marionettes, hires him to help with his experiments, much to the delight of Shanks’ worthless sister and husband, the town drunk (Tsilla Chelton and Philippe Clay, respectively), who seize Malcolm’s pay each week.

download (1)Walker is working on… something. He begins with Shanks manipulating a pickled toad to jump, using electrodes. They progress to a dead rooster, using some manner of wireless devices stuck in the nervous system. They’ve just started to map out where the electrodes go in a human’s nervous system, when the aged Walker dies.

His home life having become unlivable, Shanks moves to the mansion and continues his friend’s work, using Walker as the subject. Marceau’s mime talents come to the fore here, as Shanks learns to manipulate Walker’s body like a marionette, the stiffened joints cracking and popping in protest, . This sequence is, as the poster promises, “deliciously grotesque”.

Soon enough, the drunken lout of a brother-in-law shows up to demand money from Walker’s corpse, then manages to kill himself by falling down some stairs when Shanks attacks him with the zombie rooster. Then the sister, seeing the reanimated drunk nearly hit by a car, runs out in the road and gets creamed herself… well, Shanks soon has a bizarre troupe of zombie marionettes.

shanks05The movie is at its strongest in these sequences, full of whimsical, if extremely dark, humor. Celia, a girl on the cusp of womanhood (Cindy Eilbacher, who would eventually wind up in Slumber Party Massacre II), who dearly loves Shanks, is at first horrified, then amused by these dark antics, finally having her birthday party with Shanks in the gothic mansion, attended by zombie servants.

Which is when the motorcycle gang barges in.

To say that Shanks is uneven in tone is about the biggest truth and the strongest criticism you can unload on it; as the story had progressed, silent movie-style intertitles have popped up occasionally, and for the motorcycle gang it reads, “The Outside World of Evil”. Shanks is overpowered, Celia is raped and killed (offscreen, this is a PG movie), and Walker will dig himself out of the grave to wreak revenge on the thugs.

With our required zombie murders – and Shanks’ final hand-to-hand with Celia’s killer – out of the way, the movie finally returns to its morbidly fascinating tone, with Shanks sadly revivifying Celia’s corpse and having a final dance with her. And then we cut back to Shanks’ puppet show for the town children, Celia looking on with admiration, as this was all apparently happening in Shanks’ mind, the end.

shanks (1)I had honestly hoped (having wanted to see this since 74, but it vanished after dismal box office) that this was some undiscovered gem, but alas, that withdrawal from the public eye is largely deserved. Marceau is wonderful – it’s a sheer joy just to watch the man walk through the frame – but its uneveness sadly detracts from the good. The concept is unique and interesting, but soon finds itself with nowhere to go. The sudden appearance of the motorcycle gang seems a desperate intervention to make the movie marketable as a horror flick.

This is nowhere more obvious than the it-was-all-just-a-dream ending, which also seems tacked on. Here is the thing, though: this is William Castle’s last film as a director, and Castle always made what I refer to as kid-friendly horror movies. House on Haunted Hill, 13 Ghosts, even the twisted The Tingler were all squarely aimed at the Saturday matinée demographic, and even later, afternoon TV and Creature Features. Castle likely felt that the sappier, happy ending wasn’t a bug, it was a feature.

Shanks would have been improved immeasurably if its running time possessed the confidence of its own macabre premise. There are sections of it where you can almost feel a young Tim Burton in the audience, filing away stuff for later use.  As a document of Marceau’s talents away from pantomime make-up, it’s quite valuable. But as a horror movie – or even a coherent whole – it is sadly lacking.

A distinct lack of trailers on the Olive Films blu-ray and the Internet. Here’s a clip, though, that gives you some idea of the beautiful quality of the blu, and a sample of the macabre whimsy we could have used more of:

Shanks on Amazon

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