Slugs (1988)

In a dramatic departure for covers, this is actually pretty darned close to what happens in the movie

In a dramatic departure for covers, this is actually pretty close to what happens in the movie

Next month, in our annual Hubrisween marathon, I’ll be revisiting the very first movie I ever reviewed. In my usual demented brain-damaged crab fashion, I will now re-visit the second movie I ever reviewed, which is Slugs, a 1988 horror movie directed by Spanish director Juan Piquer Simón, whose biggest hit stateside was probably 1982’s Pieces (“It’s Exactly What You Think It Is”).

I didn’t care for Slugs back in ’88 or ’89, whenever it was. My entire review consisted of a list of each and every horror movie cliche which you will encounter during its runtime, up to and including, “Hey (Hero), if anything happens to me, take care of my wife.” The only one I couldn’t complain about was the alcoholic hermit saying, “Whut’s thet dawg a-barkin’ at?” and that’s only because the dog doesn’t bark, it just refuses to go into the abandoned house infested with killer slugs.

Killer. Slugs.

You two are so frickin' doomed, i didn't even look up your character names.

You two are so frickin’ doomed, I didn’t even look up your character names.

And that’s not one of the reasons I hated the movie (it is right there in the title, after all); I have watched movies about giant mollusks, murderous tires, bloodthirsty pianos and meteorological events made of man-eating fish; I am not going to balk at a movie about killer slugs, even if as a predator, they only slightly more mobile than the monster in Death Bed: The Bed That Eats. It was the rote nature of the thriller that grated on me.

So here I am, 27 years later, and Arrow Video has put Slugs out on blu-ray. A number of my friends are very excited about this. I’m talking about being as excited as me hearing a pristine 35mm print of Chimes at Midnight had been found. So here is another chance for an older, wiser version of myself to give a movie another chance.



As you know (or could have surmised by my above rambling), this movie is about a small town being invaded by a horde of large, carnivorous black slugs (in the most famous shot, we find that the slugs have a toothy maw) traveling through the sewer system, having been spawned by some toxic waste dump in the town’s past. Their mucus is toxic, and can paralyze their victims. Also, as we find out in a particularly Cronenbergian sequence, if your alcoholic wife cuts one up in a salad and you eat it, blood flukes will proliferate in your body and make your head explode. Oops!

Pretty impressive in 1080p.

Pretty impressive in 1080p.

So it’s up to a heroic Health Inspector (Michael Garfield) a doesn’t-want-to-be-a-hero sanitation engineer (Philip MacHale) and a dubbed high school biology teacher (Santiago Alvarez) to combat the menace. There is a lot of time spent trying to get the local bureaucrats to do something about the bloody bodies piling up, but they can’t close the beaches on the 4th of July  jeopardize a sweet business deal already in trouble because the guy negotiating it had his head explode at a ritzy restaurant. So our heroes come up with a formula that makes the slugs explode instead (I guess they were immune to salt), and dump it in the slugs’ breeding ground, which also blows up half the damn town, and serves them right.

The problems with the movie are largely structural: it never really allows itself to build any momentum to its final scene. Two men in hazmat suits blundering around a sewer system with outdated maps, trying not to get eaten should be claustrophobic and terrifying. Instead we’re told to be afraid of motionless rubber slugs and flowing water and I’m constantly checking to see how much time is left. There are times I admit I’m distracted by wondering how slugs can pull people off boats or drag dead bodies along the ground…

"We hate each other a lot, right?" "Right."

“We hate each other a lot, right?” “Right.”

As to the much-reviled cliches: They’re there, but I’ve mellowed about them. These are what Simón thought would make for a commercially successful movie (along with some unrepentant 1980s gore), and apparently, he was right. The special effects are quite good; the exteriors were all shot in New York, while the interiors and almost all the effects were filmed in Madrid, Simón’s home turf. This means there is an awful lot of dubbing in evidence, some of it lamentable, but really that’s part of the charm for its fans.

Those fans are going to be ecstatic about this blu-ray, too. Arrow Video are the guys who brought us a flawless Blood and Black Lace and the quality on Slugs is equally breathtaking. A 1080p presentation from the original film elements, and those elements must have been blessed by the Pope because they are amazing and show not the slightest wear.

slugs5Arrow also has their usual bonanza of supplements, but the best for my money is an audio commentary track with Shaun Hutson, who wrote the original novel. Hutson is refreshingly level-headed and entertaining about what became of this, his first book; he speaks disarmingly about his first viewing at a film festival, and the differences between the two (mainly, his book takes place in London, not small town America).  The conversation, having 92 minutes to breathe, ranges over horror movies in general and Hutson’s hatred for Stephanie Meyers in specific: “You ruined vampires!”

like Shaun Hutson.

This is an amazing time to be a genre fan with an HDTV. Are there movies I wished Arrow Video had concentrated on other than Slugs? Of course I do. But I still have to admit this is a wonderful package, beautifully presented, and I commend Arrow for taking such care with a long-neglected stepchild of the horror movie world.

Keep it up, folks. Please.

“DON’T make out when your parents aren’t home!”

Buy Slugs on Amazon. The movie, not the flesh-eating beastie.

Satanic Panic: Pop Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s

Hey, remember when Satanists nearly took over the US back in the 80s? I sure do.

satanicIf you’ve ever read Charles Mackay’s seminal work on societal mania, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, you know mankind is prone to fads and hysteria, and sometimes you wonder what it was like to live during the events he outlines, including Crusades, witch hunts, animal magnetism crazes. Wonder no more (I find myself living through one right now, but let’s leave politics out of it for the moment), because even if you weren’t around during the 80s, you still feel the echoes of this strange, strange fixation.

FAB Press has released the Second Edition of  Satanic Panic: Pop Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, a heavily illustrated book edited by Kier-La Jannisse and Paul Corupe. It has twenty chapters by twenty-one contributors, each examining a facet of that phenomenon; we’re not talking facile remembrances, either, these are well-researched articles, frequently with lengthy bibliographies.

Don't forget: Proctor & Gamble? Total Satanists.

Don’t forget: Proctor & Gamble? Total Satanists.

Satanic Panic kicks off with an examination of the book that almost inarguably started the Panic, Michelle Remembers, which introduced the world at large to – and began the destruction of – Recovered Memory Therapy. Michelle Smith, under hypnosis, began recalling repressed “memories” of what would soon be known as Satanic Ritual Abuse when she was a child in the 1950s. I’ve never cared to track down this long-debunked book, but it is reported to have a pulp-novel ghoulishness in its descriptions of the horrors supposedly visited upon the young girl: murder, cannibalism, necrophilia, baby crucifixion. My favorite remains that at one point, a tail and horns were surgically attached to her body, which is something you’d suspect a routine medical examination could prove or disprove.

7020790From this one case comes an extraordinary cottage industry that would tell America it was under attack by an astoundingly well-organized and powerful Satanic Underground. Numerous people began making serious coin by not only telling their disgusting and horrifying tales of debauchment while in the ranks of these nefarious ne’er-do-wells, but also training police departments about the modus operandi of these cults. Training films on the subject are still circulated on YouTube, mainly for the lulz.

Satanic Panic examines the subjects you’d expect, like backmasking in heavy metal music, that training ground for demonology – Dungeons & Dragons (and Jack Chick’s Christian comic industry going all-in on RPG’s dangers), and that hotbed of Satanic thought, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Horror movies, of course, like Evilspeak and 976-EVIL, which also spoke to misgivings about the new technologies ruining our lives. Let’s not even get into MTV.

Don't do it, Elfstar!

Don’t do it, Elfstar!

But the search for knowledge goes to strange places, too. There’s a chapter on Playboy Press’ mass paperbacks (which I had totally forgotten about), which included a popular series by Russ Martin whose major underpinning was “The Organization”, a far-reaching network of devil worshippers which enslaved women to birth babies for sacrifice. This tasteless bit of grand guignol plotting would be reported as fact in a 1988 book, Satan’s Underground.

America doesn’t get to hog all the blame either. The book has chapters on the spread of the Panic to Quebec, Britain and Australia. A special scathing chapter is reserved for Geraldo Rivera, in this period on the cusp between “controversial” investigative journalist and national embarrassment. His two-hour TV special, Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground (hm, that title sounds familiar) earned him a cover of Newsweek entitled Trash TV.

"Yes, only Satanists can use chalk like this."

“Yes, only a Satanist could possibly use chalk like this.”

The book maintains a rough timeline of 1980 through 1990, when the infamous McMartin Pre-School trial served to wind down the hysteria somewhat, and makes a fairly good case for Joe Dante’s underrated movie The ‘Burbs providing a catharsis through comedy, lancing the nation’s moral boil with satire.

That’s also indicative of the book’s welcome willingness to point out a bit of levity here and there, because the history of this thing is actually pretty brutal: there are a lot of lives absolutely destroyed by the most vicious – and often in hindsight ludicrous – of accusations. The Afterword by John Schooley points out a case where people convicted on a bad diagnosis and testimony from children coached by unscrupulous police and therapists were finally acquitted – after 23 years in prison, in 2015.

This is a heavy read, not only in page count, but in the weight it puts on your soul. You have to pause after every chapter, just to give yourself time to process what you’ve just uncovered. This was a period I lived through; there is enough that is familiar that it allows me to think, “Oh, yes, I remember this”, but there is so much more that makes me follow that up with, “Oh hell, I had no idea it got that bad.”

You can also buy Satanic Panic though Amazon, but I admit it’s cheaper from FAB.


Agoniya (Agony) (1975)

2jyvk9joIt was about a year ago that I viewed Elem Klimov’s two hour gutpunch of a movie, Come and See, based on his own experiences in World War II (and he claimed he soft-pedaled it, good lord). I was stunned in more ways than one, and even more surprised that Klimov had only made six feature-length movies (and seven shorts). Alas, more than par for the course when we talking directors under the Soviet regime, and we’ll get back to that in a bit. But I was especially intrigued that one of those six movies was a film about Rasputin.

Most of my experience with Rasputin dates back to an article I read in my grandparents’ Readers Digest back in the 60s, which was about his assassination at the hands of desperate Russian aristocrats and military officers. The reason it stuck with me was the sheer amount of damage it was reported required to put the man down: poisoned food, gunshots, stabbing, beating and finally drowning. Rasputin was Michael Myers long before Halloween was ever made. It is generally agreed that he was turned into an unstoppable demonic force after the fact to justify the murder. This bit of history-as-horror-movie was probably reinforced by Hammer’s movie Rasputin starring Christopher Lee, which I must confess I still haven’t seen, so I should probably shut up about it.

For contrast, here's the real guy.

For contrast, here’s the real guy.

If you’re any sort of film fan, by now you’ve likely read the Salon article about the legal battles engendered by the 1932 Rasputin and the Empress, which led to your favorite “This is a work of fiction” legal disclaimer at the end of all movies. So I was looking forward to an actual Russian version of the story.

Agoniya takes place in 1916, which is a section of Russian history so chaotic even professional historians have a difficult time hashing out what was actually transpiring. Klimov does an effective job of boiling down the big stories at time, helpful not only to the movie’s intended audience, I’m sure, but essential for those of us on the outside. He makes canny use of actual archival movie footage, and as the movie progresses, also seems to use new footage made to match the look of older film. World War I rages, and Czar Nicholas II has taken control of the Russian military, and he is famously bad at it. Rasputin has already insinuated himself into the royal family, as a mystic holy man who is credited (by the devoted Czarina Alexandra) with alleviating the young Czar Alexei’s medical problems (Alexei, as it turns out, was a hemophiliac, and Rasputin’s insistence that he stop taking the recent miracle drug Aspirin was more or less accidentally the right choice).

agonyRasputin (Alexei Petrenko) is shown to be all sorts of things: intelligent, charismatic, but driven by his emotions and passions. Petrenko manages a neat trick I had previously only seen in Bruno Ganz’ truly praiseworthy portrayal of Hitler in the oft-memed Downfall: he takes a man who has become an icon of unrepentant evil and manages to humanize him without stirring undeserved sympathy. There are times, when Rasputin is stressed and angry (and such times are plentiful), that he reminds you of Dennis Hopper at his most powerful. Hopper would have played an incredible Rasputin, it occurs to me, but that is so not here or there.

157932445_17ae6aWe follow Rasputin’s machinations,  his ups and downs, eventually coming to the assassination by Prince Felix Yusupov and his co-conspirators, but we find that the poisoned food and multiple gunshot wounds were eventually enough (the movie also shows how the clumsiness of the murder is in direct contrast to the early bravado of the group; most are ready to cut and run after they find out the poison wasn’t enough).

Rasputin’s legendary debauchery is shown, but it’s never something to wallow in, it’s just another fact laid out before us. It was that more-or-less factual approach that worked against the movie; it was finished in 1975, and then vanished without a trace for ten years, until it re-surfaced in the age of glasnost.

6-1Rasputin is not presented as a force of pure evil, but of venal opportunism, in cahoots with a corrupt banker and an ambitious lady-in-waiting. That was likely bad enough for the leaders of the Supreme Soviet, but it was compounded by the nuanced performance of Anatoliy Romashin as Nicholas II – again, not the cruel despot that Official History required, but weak, more than willing to defer to Alexandra (Velta Line) and be swayed by Rasputin’s visions. He is a man who in way over his head, but cannot admit it, because he is the Czar, dammit. As with Rasputin’s portrayal, it doesn’t excuse the horrid bloodbaths under his rule, but it does aid immeasurably in the verisimilitude of what we are watching.

Also missing would be the beloved Bolsheviks, but this is historically accurate: they were all fighting the War, or exiled, and had been ejected from the Imperial Duma, a governing body which was a hotbed of anti-Rasputin sentiment, but only because these aristocrats and merchants were desperate to shore up the ruling family and preserve the status quo, and therefore their own power. There is increasing chaos as the day of Rasputin’s death approaches, a chaos which is nowhere evident as the dead mystic is lowered into a grave in his native village; Klimov doesn’t have to tell us this is the death knell of the Czarist government – the very stillness and grimness of the landscape lets us know an age has ended. The Age just doesn’t know it yet.

vlcsnap-2016-09-11-01h11m00s578Agony is a complex story of a complex time, ultimately as confusing morally as its central character. It is a story usually presented as devilish holy faker against two pretty young lovers; here the holy man is far too human, as are the appropriately middle-aged royal couple. It’s a portrait of fucked-up people in a fucked-up time – it’s no wonder it ends in blood, even after the movie wraps up, less than year before the October Revolution. Well-made and compelling, it deserves to be much better known… much like its director.

Buy Agony on Amazon

Life Changes and Emotional Miscues

Something we’re all aware of, no matter how disconnected you are from the Webosphere or the current electoral freakshow: Gene Wilder passed away last Sunday. That is a terrible, terrible loss, but as it came out, he had suffered from Alzheimer’s the last three years, so, sad as you are, you can say, “Well, at least his struggle is over,” and mean it.

Like a lot of people, my first reaction was, “Aw, he’s reunited with Gilda.” Then I read the family’s statement about his passing, and found out he was happily married for 25 years to a lady named Karen Boyer. A lady who stayed by his side all through those declining three years. I was surprised, but then, I don’t obsessively follow the lives of artists I enjoy, and Wilder was a quiet man, unshowy outside of his performances.

So I felt somewhat bad about defaulting to a memory of a relationship decades old – I felt bad for diminishing Karen’s role in his life, however unintentionally. The “reuniting with Gilda” feeling was so strong and widespread, though, I felt even worse every time it cropped up. I didn’t want to correct those folks – we all mourn in our own way, and it’s a real asshole who tells people they’re not mourning the right way. There have been more and more posts gently pointing out Karen’s importance in Wilder’s life, which is good.

My amended romantic fantasy is that Gene was greeted at the Pearly Gates by Gilda – and Marty, and Madeline and Zero, with a tray of cocktails, and they spent some time catching up before going off to join the most insanely hilarious comedy troupe in all eternity.

That momentary emotional confusion – that my perception of reality was not so clean-cut as I had presumed – is a piece with the rest of my life right now. Three weeks ago I moved my only son into his college dorm, which was an experience even more emotional than you might suppose. I was surprised that there were two days of activities and meeting following that, but I soon found it was a well-practiced process to wean parents and child away from each other. Sure enough, weepy as his parents were, The Boy was ready for us to leave, as he had more activities to get to, and a fair number of new friends.

I always said that when my wife and son went on trips without me, work expanded to fill the void, and that has been truer than ever in the beginning of this empty nest phase of my life. My wife is laboring long hours to get her school ready for the new year, and I have had no lack of City Meetings and Events Which Need To Be Documented. It took two weeks for the two of us to have time to go out for dinner, just the two of us, to mark this new beginning.

None of this addresses the strange malaise that has gripped me. I’ve had the occasional night off, and time was those would be spent watching movies, and eventually I would wind up here talking about them. This hasn’t happened lately. I’m reading a fascinating book (which you will hear about soon), and I’ve been exploring a bewildering variety of solitaire games, but I only recently forced myself to start watching movies again, mainly for the upcoming Halloween marathon.

That was a lamentable way to try to kickstart an old habit, and I was punished in short order when I tried to watch the movie I wanted to write about this week, Elem Klimov’s Agoniya, only to find that my bootleg disc wouldn’t play.  I dug out my old DVD player, a robust monster I had repaired by hand several times, and now I may finally get to see it.

But I took the liberty of radio silence last week, and didn’t want to let another week go without some sign of my existence. I had tried to write about this last week, and it turned very maudlin; I hadn’t expected that, because I don’t feel maudlin. Life is different now, but not excessively so. I buy fewer groceries each week, cook smaller portions. I’m the one taking out the trash again. This isn’t a life change so much as a life adjustment.

Next week, perhaps, the adjustment will be over. We’ll have all settled in, and routine will return. I am not a terribly adventurous person, in that respect. I prefer the safety of excitement presented to me on the screen or the page, and the sooner I return to that, the better.

Woman in the Moon (1929)

Fritz Lang wasn’t interested in making short movies.

Woman in the Moon was his follow-up to the tremendously successful (and comparatively low-budget) Spies. It finds Lang back to his UFA studio-bankrupting ways; it’s considered one of the first truly serious science-fiction movies I guess Metropolis wasn’t?), and that don’t come cheap.

Industrialist engineer Wolf Helius (Willy Fritsch, the star of Spies) visits his old friend Professor Manfeldt (Klaus Pohl) an astronomer who was disgraced thirty years earlier when he announced that there was gold on the Moon to a roomful of serious men with eccentric facial hair. Helius feels he is right, and is, in fact, about to embark on a voyage to the Moon to prove that point. Manfeldt excitedly insists that he must come with, but also warns his young friend that shadowy figures have been trying to acquire his research papers.

600_444828611Helius is also in a funk because his best friend Windegger (Gustav von Wangenheim) was faster on the draw to proposing marriage to the forewoman of the factory, Friede (Gerda Maurus, also from Spies – Lang was no fool). That personal problem recedes into the background when Helius is waylaid by an attractive woman (she had Louise Brooks hair, and was obviously trouble, but he ignored my shouted warnings), who steals Manfeldt’s papers; he returns to his apartment to find his safe cracked, and all his blueprints, files, even the scale model of the rocket he is building, have been purloined.

Turner (Fritz Rasp) is a representative of the Five Richest People in the World, and they want to control the gold on the Moon. Unless Helius allows Turner to accompany him, Turner’s minions will destroy the nearly-complete rocket. Helius eventually gives in, after reconciling somewhat with Windegger and Friede, who will join him, Turner and Manfeldt for the trip.

1929_frau_im_019It isn’t until almost halfway through the movie that we finally get our rocket launch, but it’s time pretty well spent. Based on the work of  Hermann Oberth, who literally wrote the book on rocket travel while he was working as a high school teacher, much of the launch sequence is prescient, and familiar to anybody who’s followed NASA through the years: the rocket drawn by tractors from its enormous hangar, the countdown (invented for this movie as a dramatic device, but oh so practical!), a multi-stage propulsion system. Lang had cut his teeth on miniature work with Metropolis, and that pays dividends here – those are astounding shots.

Lang also deals with the concept of zero-gravity – presented as a very short period of time on the trip – pragmatically, with straps hanging from the ceiling and leather loops on the floor for feet. It’s all very well-thought out and satisfying.

Then we actually land, and you can forget about all that science nonsense.

"What idiot designed this? Was it you?"

“What idiot designed this? Was it you?”

I can forgive the rocket cockpit, which has instrumentation that was not designed for ease of use during the crush of G’s Helius knows will happen during the first minutes of launch – that’s for dramatic effect. “That’s for dramatic effect” will cover the remainder of the movie.

Earlier, while the Five Rich People are going over Helius’ stolen files, they watch a film made by an earlier rocket that circled the Moon with robot cameras (good work again, Herr Oberth), and mention that on the Far Side of the Moon, there appears to be atmosphere, and possibly swarms of insects. There is definitely atmosphere, our astronauts find.

I moan and groan, and then remember being thrilled by tales of the Blue Area of the Moon, which is where The Watcher lives, you know. So I can’t kvell too much about that.

screen shot 2013-10-04 at 2.37.32 pmOh, the fact that Manfeldt then pulls out a divining rod to find water, that I’m going to moan about plenty. Instead he finds gold, and falls into a ravine when he tries to hide it from Turner. Turner goes off the rails and tries to hijack the ship, though to what freaking purpose because he has no idea how it works. This results in the shortest gunfight in history, and Turner’s errant bullet hits the oxygen tanks, resulting in there only being enough oxygen for the return trip if somebody stays behind – even if two of the crew are now dead.

This leads to a drawing-the-short-straw scene worthy of a movie almost three hours long, as the cowardly, brittle Windegger overacts mightily and thereby convinces Friede she picked the wrong guy. Then again, Helius is being a dick about the whole thing because he knows and we know that he is going to be the one to stay behind in any case, after drugging Windegger and Friede and letting Gustav launch the ship.

Woman-1Oh, did I not mention Gustav? He’s a science-fiction reading kid who stowed away on the ship (apparently one of the SF stories he read was not “The Cold Equations” by Tom Godwin, where an astronaut’s girlfriend stows away and she has to be jettisoned because there isn’t enough fuel for her added weight). Gustav also does all the heavy lifting getting the supplies and a tent out of the ship for a base camp to accommodate whoever stays behind. In this case Helius and Friede, awwwwww.

There was a ton of supplies in that ship, too, against all rationale. Good thing, too, because the flight only took 36 hours – that’s half the time Apollo 11 took to get to the Moon – but they’re going to have to build a new ship to rescue our lunar lovebirds.

Willy Fritsch said in a recent interview that everybody knew there was no air on the Moon, and the sole nod to lighter gravity is everybody wearing platform shoes that were supposed to be lead, but were actually cork, but as I say: dramatic license. The Moon set is pretty impressive otherwise, with over forty truckloads of sand brought in from the Baltic.

5024topFrauIf Lang could have kept up the dedication to actual science, this movie might have supplanted Metropolis in my rankings of his movies, but the third act becomes wearisome with melodrama and nonsensical plot machinations. Really, the stuff preceding that is so technically competent that the Nazis took it out of circulation in the 30s through the 40s because the rocket was too similar to the V-2 missile… made by men building upon the refinements to rocketry designed by Oberth… and paid for by the advertising budget of Woman in the Moon.

Let’s watch that launch (the ship is being lowered into water because “it is too light to stand by itself.”):

Buy Woman in the Moon on Amazon



The Wind in the Willows (1996)

PosterYears ago my friend and fellow actor Jeff Lane, while we talking about the pitfalls of children’s theatre, told me about a movie he had seen almost by accident, a movie of which I had never heard: a live-action version of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows directed by Monty Python alumnus Terry Jones, full of sly details for the older members of the audience. That was my modus operandi in the days when I was directing, and I put that in my To Be Tracked Down folder. It took me damned near 20 years to do it, and the reasons why are almost as obscure as the movie’s existence has become.

I’m going to assume a bit of familiarity with Grahame’s novel to move things along. If you’re not, well… reading is good for you.

MSDWIIN EC007The first notice that you’re watching an adaptation geared toward the kids of the 90s is immediate as Mole (Steve Coogan) – who in the book leaves his underground home because he is bored with spring cleaning – is instead rousted from his burrow when a bunch of heavy machinery (operated by literal weasels) destroys the meadow where it is located. Mole goes to his friend Ratty (Eric Idle), and they travel via boat to Toad Hall, because the meadow was owned by the extremely wealthy and extremely feckless Toad (Terry Jones). This is time-saving compression – in the book, Mole has to meet Rat, then Toad.

The_Wind_in_the_WillowsToad is famously obsessed with the latest fads, monomaniacally embracing one for a few days, then discarding it for the next. The most famous of these – leading to Toad’s downfall – is the motorcar, a hot property in the novel’s 1906 setting. Toad’s constant crashes leads to several unnerving encounters with the weasels of the Wild Wood, and an intervention by an old friend of the Toad family, the stern Badger (Nicol Williamson), who places Toad under house arrest and cancels his order for six new motorcars. But the wily Toad will escape, steal a motorcar, crash it immediately, and go to prison for that crime. This is what the Weasels were waiting for, and they take over Toad Hall.

This brief synopsis covers what happens in most of the adaptations of Willows, ending with Toad’s escape from prison and he and his friends re-taking Toad Hall. What I haven’t gone into yet is Jones’ additions, playing off that initial change to the opening scene: the Weasels bought the meadow to build an enormous Dog Food Factory, and they intend to blow up Toad Hall just because they’re weasels. And say what you will about Kenneth Grahame and his novel, I somehow feel that the weasels preparing to drop Toad, Mole, Ratty and Badger into an enormous meat grinder wasn’t even in the preliminary notes for the first draft.

WeaselsI don’t know what this says about Jones, or his view of what would appeal to the kids in the 90s; I will say that I (though as far from a kid in the 90s as you can get) found it tremendously entertaining. This strain of enthusiastic cartoon murder that runs throughout the third act, though, is likely what got the movie a PG rating from the MPAA. There are already tons of much more faithful adaptations in the world; it’s refreshing to find one that is quite its own creature.

The details that so impressed Jeff are about as subtle as one would expect from Jones’ oeuvre, which is to say that they are only subtle insomuch as nobody on screen stops and points at them exclaiming “Cor! Lookit that!” Whenever the ever-present rabbits are used as background characters, they are almost always making out. Similarly for weasels, they are almost always robbing rabbits in the background.

Overall, The Wind in the Willows feels like it’s a production by a well-funded children’s theatre. There is not much done to make the actors look like the animals they portray; Idle has whiskers and a tail, Jones is painted green. Most of the look is instead created by wigs and perfectly lovely costumes, especially Toad’s overly large Edwardian suits and the uniform frockcoats and wigs worn by the Weasels.

Toad, Mole, RatSteve Coogan is properly endearing and pathetic as Mole (even if he does have to follow a truncated Hero’s Journey), and Eric Idle channels a steady British Decency as the boat and picnic-loving Rat. Jones has a tightrope to walk as Toad, making the supercilious ego-maniac with ADHD somehow likeable, and manage it he does. Nicol Williamson is not allowed to have much fun as Badger, but then, that’s the character, innit? (Yes, that was my role in my actor days) Anthony Sher is another standout as the gleefully malevolent Chief Weasel, Stephen Fry has fun as the Judge, and John Cleese jobs in as Toad’s defense attorney, who is so overwhelmed by his client’s guilt that he does a far better job at convicting him than the prosecutor.

Is it Monty Python’s Wind in the Willows? Oh no no no, heavens no. Though I am quite surprised that it wasn’t marketed as such. Ah yes, marketing – you remember I mentioned Jeff’s seeing it almost by accident, and my subsequent inability to find it? There was some sort of shooting war going on between distributors, though I’ve only got hearsay as to causes and whys and wherefores, not much in the way of hard evidence. The Wind in the Willows wasn’t the cause but it was definitely a casualty, as Columbia wound up with the theatrical distribution rights, but Disney the home video rights. Theatrical distribution is vital to home video, and in what I can only interpret as spite, Columbia buried the movie.

Jones and the distribution arm of Columbia

Jones and the distribution arm of Columbia

Jeff’s viewing was one of the cursory screenings in America. There is an infamous tale of Jones in New York City, shooting a documentary, learning that the movie was playing in Times Square. One cab ride later, he found it playing “in a seedy little porno house”.

Disney nonetheless put it out on video in 2004. Ah, there’s the end of your journey, then, you may think. But no, I was still trying to find a copy to watch. My problem was I was looking for The Wind in the Willows. Disney, in order to have yet another movie based on one of their theme park rides, like The Haunted Mansion, had re-titled it Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride (some junior marketing executive got lots of three-martini lunches out of that one). I remained unaware of this fact until, I believe, it was mentioned in Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film around 2012 or so. And then I could search for and buy the ancient, non-anamorphic DVD – which is now out of print. You can still buy it crammed onto a single DVD with three other Disney ride movies, and that’s it.

Which is a shame. This marked the end of Jones’ feature direction for almost ten years, and I generally enjoy his work (yes, I’m one of six people who will admit liking Erik the Viking). It kept me entertained for its length, and that can often be dicey for an adult watching children’s fare. The one false note struck is an ancient complaint for me: I regularly curse whoever it was who decided in antiquity that children’s entetainment must always be a musical. I despised these saccharine interruptions as a child, and I regard them no more kindly as an adult. The songs in Willows seem tacked on, with only the Weasel number having any of the wit or creativity of the surrounding material. But they do provide a good-looking sampler which will cue you in to whether or not this is a movie you’ll find worth seeking out (which you should, it’s pretty delightful, and deserving of better treatment):

Buy The Wind in the Willows Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride and three other movies on Amazon


The Case for Outlawing August

Sorry, folks. No movie pontificating this week, either. I just came off two weeks of wall-to-wall work, and entered this week with free evenings – well, Sunday through Thursday, anyway. Work reared its head Wednesday night, Monday and Tuesday was spent dealing with financial aid for my son’s imminent college career, then waiting for the results of a meeting involving my wife’s school… my imagined week of movie-watching went up up in smoke. I did get one movie in on Sunday, but you won’t hear about it until October.

I won’t watch a movie when I know it’s going to be interrupted. I prefer not to approach things in a piecemeal fashion. It’s just the way I am. I’ve been told I should just let the movie run in the background while I’m doing something else, and I am aghast. That’s not watching a movie. Movies aren’t wallpaper. Not to me, anyway.

This week on "Supposedly Uplifting Quotations That Are Actually Distressing As Hell"

This week on “Supposedly Uplifting Quotations That Are Actually Grim As Hell”

Looking at my calendar for the approaching month ain’t doing me any favors, either. There are end-of-fiscal-year budget meetings that must be televised, and I’m also taking up the slack for some departments that have run out of budget as September approaches. Lacking some credentials, I job in at a lower rate than others. Moving my son into college will, for some reason, take five days. I’m going to try to pretend that is a vacation, which would be nice, I haven’t had one in years.

All this extra work is necessary, of course, because July and August are not satisfied with merely trying to kill you in Texas, they also have to ruin you financially. I challenge any climate denier to live in Houston in the Summer on a part-timer’s salary. They will have as much success as those people who periodically try to eat healthy on food stamps. Unless they’re iguanas and would thrive in an unairconditioned apartment, then the bet’s off.

The “Dog Days” of Summer supposedly go from July 3- August 11, as Sirius, the Dog Star, rises at the same time as the Sun. August is traditionally the Silly Season in the newspaper trade, when off-the-wall stories proliferate. Add to this one of the most bizarre Presidential campaigns in… well, ever. It’s out of either a well-written Stephen King novel or a poorly written comic book. Yet there is a surprisingly wide variety of Kool-Aid out there and an unbelievable number of people willingly drinking it. There are 10-15 things on my social media feeds that make me prematurely tired every morning, and trust me – I don’t need help to be tired.

I realize there’s no way to get rid of an entire month, but I really wish there was a way for us to just all go somewhere else and let the damn month just do its thing, and we can all come back in September, when things are a little cooler, sweep up the debris, and get back to trying to live our lives as anguish-free as possible. August is a horrible, ugly imposition on us all (My apologies to anyone who was born during this month, like my mother and my brother).

There’s a lot more I want to complain about, but who cares, really? Thanks for reading even this far. Next week begins the meeting schedule anew – I’ll have exactly one evening free next week – but who knows? Maybe I’ll be able to return to a bit of what is, for me, normal. I doubt it, but strange things happen in August. Hope to see you here with better, less bitter, results.