Z: Zombie (1979)

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

– Tim Lehnerer, probably

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

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

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

So there. Troll.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy ZOMBIE on Amazon

Y: 30 Days of Night (2007)

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

Shut the hell up, I explain.

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

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

I’LL TAKE THAT.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why don’t I like it?

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

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

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

Buy 30 Days of Night on Amazon

 

X: Xtro 3: Watch the Skies (1995)

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

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

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

images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy Xtro 3 on Amazon

W: The Walking Dead (1936)

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

You have no idea how rare that truly is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy The Walking Dead on Amazon

V: Vampire vs Vampire (1989)

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

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

Except it is.

It’s complicated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U: Under the Skin (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy Under the Skin on Amazon

T: Tourist Trap (1978)

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tumblr_nr1dptWZ0h1ut1d6co1_1280This is one of those movies whose fate leaves you scratching your head, and wondering about the whys and wherefores of culture. There are several things that contribute to Tourist Trap‘s longevity, chief among them a very positive review by Stephen King in Danse Macabre, and a PG rating, insuring it could be run on TV with little or no trimming.

There are two groups of young’uns on the road for mumble mumble something or other. They’re in two cars, so when the lead car has a blow-out, Woody (Keith McDermott) rolls the flat spare to the nearest gas station, leaving Eileen (Robin Sherwood) behind. The second car, driven by Jerry (Jon von Ness) and carrying Molly (Jocelyn Jones) and Becky (Tanya Roberts, very early in her career) catches up to her, she climbs aboard, and they head down the road to look for Woody.

tourist-trap-02-18Woody has found a gas station, but it is deserted. Except for a self-locking back room with cackling mannequins and objects that fling themselves willy-nilly at him. The capper is the pipe that nails him to the door. This is a superb opening sequence, and it scarred a lot of young kids during matinees.

Our surviving youngsters manage to miss that abandoned gas station and instead find themselves at the all-but-abandoned Slausen’s Lost Oasis and Wild West Museum, where their car mysteriously ceases to function. Who should show up but Slausen himself (played by Chuck Connors), who lets the ladies stay in the museum while he and Jerry try to fix the car. Oh, but don’t go out to the house in back – Davey lives there.

tourist_trap5So of course, one by one, they go out to the house in back. Where Davey undeniably is, with a small army of creepy mannequins that Davey can apparently control with some sort of Carrie White telekinesis. Davey (Slausen will explain it’s his brother) also wears a mask that makes him look like one of the mannequins. Or that’s the intent, anyway – I think it makes him look like Jay Leno. Given that the movie is almost 40 years old – and that it really doesn’t conceal the twist all that well – Davey and Slausen are the same person, and he is, to put it bluntly, insane, and our party is going to get whittled down to the Final Girl over the course of the flick.

puteshestvie-v-adWhat Tourist Trap has going for it is some novelty and some of the creepiest damn mannequins ever assembled for a movie. The scenes with them are beautifully realized and nightmarish; when the movie breaks away from them so another of the teenagers can get killed, that stuff – which, admittedly, is the stuff that most of the movie goers paid money to see – seems grafted on, like we dropped in on another movie set. The kills are fairly bloodless, including the most famous one, where Davey murders yet another traveler caught at the gas station (Dawn Jeffory) by layering plaster on her face until she suffocates (though he assures us she dies of fright) still  doesn’t breach the PG limit.

tumblr_nti1ruhrZL1rr8qsxo6_1280So there is the likely basis for Tourist Trap‘s failure at the box office. It was a PG oddity floating in a sea of R-rated dead teenager movies. The setup is strictly Texas Chainsaw Massacre without the Hitchhiker – hell, the kids are driving a Volkswagen Thing instead of a VW van. No gore, no nudity – there are chances for both, but they go unfulfilled. What remains is more dark fable than slasher movie, a tale of obsessive madness that gradually includes the audience (as well as Final Girl) in the delusion. Real people become mixed in with the mannequins, until it is impossible to tell which is which, or who is insane.

This is not what the audiences were looking for at the time.

tumblr_ne0p3bzcgO1tx499to3_1280If you’re only familiar with Chuck Connors from The Rifleman re-runs, and not some of  his other film work, like, say, The Big Country, you might be surprised to find him here (which is why it’s great casting). He finds the top and goes over it several times, but there are also times he is deliciously subtle. There is one scene toward the end when he goes from slobbering madman to sorrowful confession that actually had me thinking holy crap that was some really good acting. The cast is uniformly good, sometimes better than the material actually deserves.

judgementalbitchWriter/director David Schmoeller is better known for the Puppet Master series that arguably kept Full Moon Pictures’ doors open for years. Tourist Trap may not be able to tell if it really wants to be Chainsaw or Carrie or Psycho, but it is a pretty solid piece of Halloween creepiness. Those mannequins, man. Urrrrrrrr

Buy Tourist Trap at Amazon

(Note that I am linking to the DVD, not the blu-ray, which reportedly is missing five minutes and has a dreadful framerate)

S: Seconds (1966)

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Seconds-PosterI am reminded of an old SCTV sketch (so old I believe it dates back to their days as a syndicated show) wherein Joe Flaherty’s Count Floyd introduces that evening’s “Monster Horror Chiller Theater”, The Hour of the Wolf, only to find out it is the Ingmar Bergman movie (or at least, SCTV’s version of it). He is finally reduced, after the movie has played out, to sputtering into the camera, “What? You don’t think being depressed is scary? Wait until you get older! It is! A-WOOOOOOOOOO!”

If you don’t think Seconds is a horror movie, you are too young.

Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) is a career banker in the throes of his mid-life crisis (A phrase I’m not sure had even been invented in 1966). He is wealthy, successful, and terribly unhappy. Then his best friend – who died several years before – starts calling him in the night and directs him to a mysterious company that directs him through several different storefronts, worthy of a spy movie, until he gets the pitch. Like his supposedly deceased friend, this company will fake Hamilton’s death, then provide him with plastic surgery and a new life in a new identity, free of all the loveless relationships that have run their course and the hidebound responsibilities currently smothering his life.

Hamilton agrees (with a ruthless efficiency born of much practice, the company leaves him little choice), and after the surgery and months of grueling exercise to create a new, “younger” body, the bandages are removed to reveal that he has become Rock Hudson. Hamilton, now rechristened “Tony Wilson” initially has trouble adjusting to his new existence as a beach-dwelling artist. Eventually he forms a relationship with Nora (Salome Jens), a neighboring divorcee who finally gets him to loosen up in his new role – perhaps too well, as in the resulting cocktail party with his new neighbors, he makes some very disillusioning discoveries about his new community and his new life.

00001Seconds is very deliberately paced, and some are going to have a problem with that. But the truth is, that pace adds up to the inexorable march of fate as Hamilton/Wilson reaches out to his former wife, masquerading as a chance acquaintance of his former self, and tells his liaison with the company that he wants to try again, a new identity, a third life; he had abandoned a life full of “the things I was told I had to have” for another life made of a similar list. He wants a life where he makes the decisions, and that path leads to disaster.

Seconds is no less deliberately paced than the best of John Frankenheimer’s movies, but there is so much pain, disappointment and ennui in its composition that its audience quickly turned against it. The enmity of the French press at Cannes is the stuff of legend. Frankenheimer reflected that it was the only movie  “that’s ever gone from failure to classic without ever having been a success.”

Seconds12James Wong Howe’s acclaimed cinematography (nominated for an Oscar) is tremendous; enveloping and suitably nightmarish. And special mention must be made of Rock Hudson, whom Frankenheimer considered a light comic actor at best (He wanted Laurence Olivier for the role). Frankenheimer later recanted that position. Watching Hudson in his early scenes, his body language, his replication of John Randolph’s mannerisms, and the rollercoaster of emotions his character rumbles through, all give proof of a serious actor working his craft.

sec31Really, you don’t have to be of a certain age to appreciate Seconds. But it does help.

(Also, you’ll never trust Will Geer again)

R: The Return of Dr. X (1939)

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alt1_return_of_dr_x_bigI watch a lot of oddities in my peregrinations around the world of cinema. Some are weird because of plot devices, effects, accidents. Some are weird because of their casting.  And that is what brings us to The Return of Dr. X, the sole horror movie credit of one Humphrey Bogart.

dx1The plot will be semi-familiar to folks who saw the original 1932 Dr. X. even though it’s not a sequel. A wise-cracking reporter, Garrett (Wayne Morris, trying way too hard) finds a murdered actress in her apartment, but when the cops come, the body is gone. She also shows up at the newspaper the next day, quite alive, and threatening to sue the paper over the story of her death (this is apparently before the days of “no bad publicity”). The reporter teams up with a surgeon pal, Michael (Denis Morgan) to figure out what happened, and both get embroiled in a series of murders of people with a rare blood type. A second blood type is found at a murder scene, which the police cannot identify. The brilliant hematologist Dr. Flegg (John Litel) and his strange, pale assistant Quesne (Bogart) seem to be somehow involved.

Let me save you some trouble (even at 62 minutes, this thing is too long): the reason the blood can’t be typed is it’s synthetic, an invention of Dr. Flegg. Quesne is actually Dr. Xavier, who had been electrocuted several years earlier for ghoulish experiments that resulted in the death of a child. Flegg was able to resurrect “Dr. X” with the hematologist’s own experimental process and synthetic blood. This process is less than entirely successful, though, and Quesne is now a medical vampire, requiring the rare blood type to live.

If you have seen the original Dr. X, you are definitely going to be pining for Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray, though John Litel does sterling work as the conflicted Dr. Flegg. But we’re here to see Bogie, aren’t we? Jack Warner wasn’t above punishing his actors when they acted up, and Bogart had been fomenting for something more than minor gangster roles for some time, and Warner threw him into this “be careful what you wish for” role.

Return-Of-Doctor-XAnd truth be told, Bogart is actually pretty good, though his part is still small for a title character. Pale, with a shock of white hair, he’s quite striking, and you actually wish we had more of the character. Bogart applies just the right amount of creepiness to the character to make him off-putting, but not particularly evil. Given more screen time – and a lack of punitive casting – he might have been able to do more with it. As it is, it’s not a portrayal to be ashamed of. This strange lack of Bogey won’t be the only disappointment in the movie, either, when our medical vampire is dispatched in a shootout with the police, straight out of any of the gangster movies that had caused Bogart to raise a ruckus in the first place.

Two years later would bring They Drive By Night and High Sierra. Three would bring The Maltese Falcon. This was director Vincent Sherman’s first movie, and it rather creaks in all the wrong places; Mr. Skeffington and The Adventures of Don Juan were still in the future. He inherited the project after months of troubled development which went nowhere. At one point it was to be a 19th century period piece, starring Boris Karloff, which would likely have been more interesting.

Get 'im, Huntz.

Get ‘im, Huntz.

And just to be mean, I’ll point out that our comic reporter is easily upstaged in the humor department by Huntz Hall, years before the East Side Kids or The Bowery Boys, as the overburdened copy boy, Pinky.

The oddest thing of all is watching the trailer for the movie after watching the movie itself: it seems to be made entirely of alternate takes and scenes which do not appear in the finished product at all, promising a remarkably different picture.

Buy The Return of Dr. X on Amazon

Q: The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

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The Quatermass Xperiment _aka Shock_ aka The Creeping Unknown_ _1955_ UK_We’ll get a commonly-known piece of trivia out of the way: the missing initial “E” in “Xperiment” was a clever little nod to the British film classification’s “X” rating – no one under 16 allowed. That wouldn’t have flown for us Yanks, though, who needed none of those fancy-pants classifications, we just relied on good ol’ censorship to make our movie-going safe. So over here we called it The Creeping Unknown, which is much more butch.

So a rocketship crash lands just outside a British farmhouse, and among the folks flocking to the crash site are Professor Bernard Quatermass (Brian Donlevy) and Dr. Gordon Briscoe (David King-Wood) of the British-American Rocket Group. Quatermass, ever the pushy American, sent out the rocket and its three-man crew without waiting for official sanction, much to the dismay of the man from the Home Office (the always welcome Lionel Jeffries). And now this! Jeffries sputters. Shut up, Quatermass explains.

3582619_s1_i2It turns out only one crewman is in there – Victor Carroon (Richard Wordsworth). All that remains of the other two are empty pressure suits. Caroon is in shock and can say nothing.

Quatermass has Carroon taken to their base so Briscoe can try to puzzle out the man’s condition while his wife, Judith (Margia Dean) fusses about. Carroon’s body is undergoing strange changes, and he seems to rouse from his catatonic state only when Judith brings flowers into his room…

Cartel+1955+The+Quatermass+Xperiment+7-1024x751Eventually Carroon deteriorates to the point that Briscoe overrules Quatermass and has him taken to a hospital – where Judith, having had enough, hires a detective to smuggle her husband out. During this escape attempt, Carroon can’t hold out anymore and punches a decorative cactus in his room. The investigator notices that Carroon’s hand is now changing into cactus, and Carroon kills him, “absorbing his essence” -ie., sucking all the blood and water out of his body – and escaping into the night.

quatermass-hammer-1955-monsters-armQuatermass, reluctantly joining forces with Inspector Lomax of the London Police (Jack Warner), now must track down the metamorphosing Carroon as he lurches about London, trying not to kill people but failing as the alien thing inside him grows and grows. A piece – or something of a seed pod – falls off, and examining it while it eats mice (offscreen, luckily), Briscoe deduces that once Carroon fully transforms, he will release spores, and then there will be millions of the creatures.

This is, of course, the first of the highly successful Quatermass movies, based on a character created for a popular BBC TV serial, which was, for 1955, “Event TV”. It was written by Nigel Kneale, a name which would become synonymous with intelligent science fiction. Many film companies were interested in turning it into a movie, but they all balked at making something that would surely be rated “X”. Except for this one upstart company, known up to that point for only making “second features” – what we call “B movies” over here. A little studio called Hammer Films.

image4Director Val Guest, heretofore known primarily for comedies, claims that he was the only person in England who didn’t watch “The Quatermass Experiment” when it was first broadcast – he didn’t like science fiction. He intended to put off Producer Anthony Hinds by going on vacation and only grudgingly taking the script with him. His wife, actress Yolande Donlan, teased him about it until he read the script in one afternoon on the beach and fell in love with it.

Kneale’s original serial ran three hours, I believe, and was heavily edited for the movie. What he resented even more, however, was the casting of Donlevy as Quatermass, a necessity for selling the picture to an American market. In the serial, Quatermass is a thoughtful Oxford Don type. It has to be admitted that Donlevy’s brusque, no-nonsense approach to the character propels the movie forward like a barking dog shepherding its flock. Kneale had his contract with the BBC re-negotiated so he would have more control over his intellectual property in the future (though Donlevy is still playing Quatermass in the sequel film Quatermass II – in America, Enemy From Space).

brian-donlevy-bernard-quatermass-hammer-1955Val Guest’s equally no-nonsense direction is what gives Quatermass most of its power – he decided that such a fantastic story – this is still two years before Sputnik, remember – needed a realistic delivery, and tried, as much as possible, to shoot the movie in a documentary fashion, to great effect. And no discussion of Xperiment can be complete without at least a mention of Richard Wordsworth’s performance as the doomed, tortured Carroon. Never speaking, everything the character is experiencing – the horror, the struggle – is delivered only through facial expression and body language. Best known as a theatrical actor with occasional TV roles, this is Wordsworth’s first movie role. Certainly not his last.

2590xper4The Quatermass Xperiment was a tremendous success for Hammer (although the reviews from the local press are amusingly disdainful), and in the next couple of years they would produce Quatermass II and the faux Quatermass movie X the Unknown (Kneale wouldn’t let them use his character), before finally hitting the cash cow they would ride for a decade and more, gothic horror with Dracula. (Horror of Dracula hereabouts, just to distinguish it from all those other Dracula flicks)

This is a ground zero movie, folks. This is the progenitor of its own sub-genre; from this descends First Man Into Space, Monster-A-Go-Go and others. As the first, it demands some respect, and that respect is quite honestly deserved.

And now for a spoiler-iffic trailer!

Buy The Quatermass Xperiment on Amazon