1984 Blogathon: Devil Fish

Introduction

When deciding what to pick for a 1984-themed blogathon there were many great options. It was a great year. However, many of those were taken so I thought it’d be fun to go off the beaten path. At first I considered something foreign or very obscure. What ended up happening was that it turns out I had written about many of my favorites already. So that introduced a new possibility: something memorably bad; the only debate was “Do I want to write about two bad movies in a row?”

When I decided I did I was instantly surprised. Little did I know that when I chose Devil Fish there would be quite a few things about it to uncover that I had not known prior to starting on this post.

In the beginning, when I first saw it it was just another in the myriad of unfortunate works of cinema that Mystery Science Theatre 3000 introduced me to. Having revisited the film and asking myself questions like “Who wrote this?” and “Who directed this?” I came across some interesting answers that with more experience allowed me to better understand one of the eternal questions about bad films which is “What the hell happened there?”

So the first and most significant discovery I made regarding this film was that the director behind the credit of John Old, Jr. is in fact Lamberto Bava. This being the same Lamberto Bava of Macabre, and a film I have come to love when I just had to see it (as I wrote a short script in the same milieu) Demons. As it turns out he slapped a pseudonymous credit on a few of his works that were in the Italian low-budget rip-off arena. Fashioning this nom de plume after his father’s. Legendary Italian director Mario Bava had many great films but he did the occasional film he felt the need to take a John Old credit for.

Devil Fish is one of countless titles that have sought to cheaply gain an audience by playing off the popularity of Jaws, which will be eternal. I’m not one who tosses about the rip-off phrase about lightly. However, one can scarcely find a shark movie made after 1975 that doesn’t pattern itself after Jaws in some way, shape or form. This doesn’t have the failed tongue-in-cheek homages that say Sharknado has, but it definitely borrows liberally and was produced less than a decade after the original while Universal was still littering the landscape with subpar sequels.

Behind-The-Scenes

Devil Fish (1984, Cinema Shares International)

So that was one thing, but wait there’s more! As it turns out most of the behind-the-scenes talent took on pseudonyms as well. Usually in this case they are somewhat anglicized versions of their given names. For example, cinematographer Giancarlo Ferrando became John McFerrand. Now, one could try to argue that part of the attempt is to make the film seem more genuinely American-made. However, all of the cast doesn’t play ball and one of the go-to jokes for the MST3K crew was “We’re from Europe!” so no one was being fooled.

Beyond the names there are plenty of things to scratch your head about in wonder, or to at least note. Firstly, is that much in the Italian tradition actors came from all over the place and spoke several different languages while the camera rolled and then the dialogue was dubbed to create a uniform soundtrack. That by itself does not guarantee a bad film. I’ve seen well-dubbed works and many of the better low-budget Italian films were made the same way.

Getting back to the Jaws rip-off angle leads to one of the most infuriating parts of this film. There are several underwater shots that are supposed to tease the creature much like Bruce was scarcely seen. The problem here is that it is very difficult to decipher, at times, exactly what you are looking at. Instead of suspense all this builds is confusion, sighs and unintended humor.

The aforementioned John McFerrand’s score is one of the facets that heavily confuses the issue in this film. It sounds like the kind of antithetical music that makes a lot of giallo and Italian horror work but here it just seems to be terribly out of place, drown things out and distract from what the film is trying to accomplish. Just what that is at times is also confused, but you know what I mean.

Dialogue

Devil Fish (1984, Cinema Shares International)

What would a bad movie be without bad dialogue? It’s almost impossible. Much as great movies have memorable lines, bad movies do as well. A few gems that really stand out. Here are a few of those notable exchanges:

“Full of hate?”
“Hate.”
“Yes…That’s it….hate.”

“Do you think it was an accident or that she committed suicide?”
“I don’t know I think that’s for you to decide.”
“Yeah, right on. I think I’ll decide on suicide.”

“Lots of new things in this town lately waitresses, sharks, and ladies who call a taxi and take a bath.”

“A million years of solitude is a long time. I bet it’s just dying to boff something.”

Editing

Devil Fish (1984, Cinema Shares International)

In continuing the laundry list there is also a fair deal of editorial redundancy in this film. The uninspired editing is due to a number of factors namely the script and budget (which influences the tight schedule this film was made on). Aside from the vague shots of the fish that are supposed induce suspense there are also several shots cutting to Peter drinking repeatedly.

Those motifs aside there are mysterious individual cuts like a cutaway to slow-motion pan up phone line to a clock.

Some support for the effects of the schedule and budget can be found in a Michael Skopkiw online interview here:

I would love to know the definition or formula for a “cult classic”. Lamberto was a very nice, gentle guy as most of the Italians are. But you know, the budget on these films would prohibit a Ron Howard from making anything great! These directors are working with a cast from at least three different countries speaking diverse languages and a mixed crew of Italian /American production team on a very tight budget. Lamberto , like most of the foreign crew, loved coming to the States and drinking in as much of our culture as they could get. (The hills of Georgia have a unique personality somewhat portryed [sic] in this film.) We had a crisis one day as a holiday was approaching and the Iataian [sic] film crew wanted to get back to their families. We had been working for 13, I think, long consecutive days in freezing mountain water and adverse conditions and both the cast and Lamberto were wearing thin. The crew wanted to plow right through but I had a good talk with Lamberto and pointed out how the film suffered further if we just continued. He finally went to the producers and they gave us a day off (which they were contractually obliged to anyway). So he did have a heart and tried to do what he could with what he had.

However, the decisions are the decisions regardless of what forced them and many films have succeeded with small budgets and tight schedules, myriad examples of both exist running the gamut of genres.

Even when cuts aren’t technically awkward the narrative makes them aesthetically unintentionally comedic or uncomfortable like a cut from a dolphin to a legless corpse and a cross-cutting sequence between a sex scene (that’s fairly gratuitous) and a murder.

Blame

Devil Fish (1984, Cinema Shares International)

In terms of writing it could be the speed and the number of chefs in the kitchen that lead to a film that referring to as half-baked would be greatly generous.

As I’ve intimated before one cannot blame the inspiration for what the inspired do with it. Meaning that you can’t hold it against Psycho for the rash of slasher films that eventually took their cue from it. Similarly, Jaws cannot be held accountable for the rash of pale imitations telling tales of terrors from the deep.

Characterization

Devil Fish (1984, Cinema Shares International)

In this film the characters don’t really get established, they just are. If you need further evidence of this it gets reinforced later on when there’s a climactic scene, where the stakes should be high and the revelation is large and to an extent you’re confused as to who the parties are; therefore, you haven’t time to care about what they have to hide and what they have to gain.

Part of that has to do with how many characters there are and another part of it has to do with the dubbing. I’ve written on dubbing a few times. In short, my stance is that it can be an artform, there is a technique to it and it can be well done, but all too often it is not. In this film is most definitely a detriment. It’s not just about matching, but about performance, but when the same language is not being spoken on set you have a harder time creating a unified vision on film.

Backfiring

Devil Fish (1984, Cinema Shares International)

It seems almost impossible to say after all of this, however, all is not entirely lost in this film. However, in the true nature of this film that adds to the frustration instead of just imbuing a modicum of appreciation. There are themes that excised from the narratives are fine. There are permutations of the giant, monstrous fish tale that aren’t terrible.The isolated concept of manipulating science, the twists employed, underwater knife fights and not seeing the monster are fine when all has not already been lost. When the movie has already lost hope then these things just make it longer, more boring, unintentionally comedic and worse.

As if you needed further proof that there are things worth working with here this film was remade as Sharktopus on Syfy a few years back. Likely another wasteful effort, but there was something to mine there indeed.

Furthermore, touching on the aforementioned twist again, the mysteries this film plays hurt it. It’s a case where perhaps further, quicker revelation would have elevated it.

Conclusion

Devil Fish (1984, Cinema Shares International)

What is there to conclude about a film such as this? Not much different than other terrible movies that are of the MST3K ilk. I recall reading about The Beast of Yucca Flats and its making, or watching the special features on their take of Manos: Hands of Fate; what I got there was there’s always a story and that was the spirit I undertook this venture in. What was surprising was that I found more of a story than I expected. Having said all this, can I, as I did with Reefer Madness, recommend you watch this anyway? I can’t do so without aid from the Satellite of Love. Your tolerance for cheese has to be really high. If you want to see either Bava at their best I suggest you stray from titles where they were credited as being “Old,” unless you want to end up prematurely in that state yourself.

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61 Days of Halloween: Macabre (1980)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of 61 Days of Halloween, as well as a list of previously featured titles, please go here.

Macabre (1980)

I’m going to warn you right now that this is one of those films that makes me glad I didn’t decide to employ my rating scale and rather talk about narratives, themes, techniques, almost anything above quantifying how much or how little I enjoyed the film. For those of you who have to know (and I admit being in this vein myself) when ultimately deciding if this film sinks or swims I think I have to say sink. However, it’s one of those where there’s plot elements, and portions of it so well-handled that you’d like to see it get remade (that is assuming of course you do dislike it).

One of the things that does work about Macabre is that each of the three main characters is dealing with their own baggage. Jane (Bernice Steggers) is supposedly recovered after she spent time in an asylum following the tragic, nearly simultaneous deaths of her son and lover; Robert (Stanko Molnar) carries a torch for her and Lucy (Veronica Zinny) drowned her little brother and no one knows. Each has a secret, each is a little disturbed. The interplay that eventually comes into the mix is great.

However, and if you check the IMDb synopsis you can kind of fill in this blank. The film, after the teaser sequence, which establishes the affair and two deaths then spends the rest of Act I more or less reassembling the pieces of Jane’s life a year later. In Act II, if you haven’t figured out exactly what she’s hiding, you’re close, and the film plays that game quite a bit, it slows things down greatly. There is also probably a scene too many of Robert feeling rejected and obviously pining. In Act II there is are several bouts of repetition and lack of narrative thrust.

Where it gets frustrating, and here’s where it falls into a re-makable film category, is that there is nary a misstep in Act III; its a climax that (as you’re seeing the pieces fall into place) you want to see occur and most of what goes on there is great and well-handled.

Lamberto Bava has had his moments but this is one I can’t help feeling was maybe better served with another draft (who knows maybe some things hit the cutting room floor that would’ve made the flow feel a bit more natural) or perhaps waiting on this idea. That’s mere speculation on my part because, as I said there were combined elements that made me want to like this one, but in the end, I couldn’t and that was disappointing.

61 Days of Halloween: Graveyard Disturbance (1987)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept behind 61 Days of Halloween and a list of films previously covered please go here.

Graveyard Disturbance

This is a film that was directed by Lamberto Bava, son of Mario and director of such films as Demons, for a televised horror film series called Brivido giallo. The inherent value of horror series in my estimation is challenging the writers and directors to create, be they within a theme or some of constraint to further contribute to the genre and hopefully push it forward. If it breeds experimentation and something new that’s ideal, but the goal ultimately, at least from an analytical viewpoint, is to not allow it to stagnate.

I’ve not seen other films released under Brivido giallo, but, sadly this title has little to offer in the way of either being a piece of quality workmanship or originality. That’s not to say it’s entirely bereft of positives but the film positions itself poorly to attempt to exploit said positives. The location, the atmosphere and overall art design is fairly great. However, it’s bookended by both poor acting and a fairly slapdash story so the atmosphere can only go so far.

As the mystery the characters find themselves in unravels itself, it wants you leaving more, in a bad way. It creates a mythos that is undernourished and it would have done well to exploit the “non-Euclidian nature” of the environs they found themselves within.

The first act offers almost nothing in the way of the incident, however, a title such as this one is not enough to get me to shut the door on Bava or this series of releases. When one watches horror one does so knowing there will be many failed ventures before finding something truly special.

Bad Movies I Love (Part Two of Four)

This is yet another post that has been inspired by Bob Freelander and his wonderful blog Rupert Pupkin Speaks. Check it out, if you haven’t already.

I’ve ruminated on this list long enough I believe. In the spirit of my recent post about lists not really being finished, I’ll just go with what I have at my disposal currently and spitball it. For the mutual convenience of myself and whomever may read this, I will split the list into four posts.

Now, I did, as most who have compiled this list recently, have to examine what makes a movie both bad and one I can enjoy because of that. There were a few different directions I could’ve gone with this list. I could’ve picked some films universally considered to be bad that I like and I don’t care who knows it (A few of those can be found here). I could’ve picked the rare film that’s so bad that it’s good, which in my mind are few and far between, and I won’t argue if you believe there’s no such thing.

What I decided to do instead was to pick movies that I find to be bad, however, that I still enjoy certain things about them (badness included), and in many cases I have given them more than one viewing due to their uniquely awesome awfulness.

Now, without much further ado, my selections:

Demons 2 (1986)

In one a screenwriting course I took, one exercise we did was to read our short scripts aloud, this was done so we could simultaneously share knowledge and offer each other constructive comments. A script I wrote reminded a classmate of mine of Demons. At the time I had not seen Demons, so the only responsible action I could take was to see it ASAP. I loved it. My short and it shared similarities, but were also different enough.

Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I just had to see Demons 2. The film is directed by Lamberto Bava, co-written by Dario Argento, features one of the first screen appearances by Asia Argento and more of the freaky demons. What ends up not working is the film shifts away from the movie theater setting. However, being an Italian horror film, it will be stylish, bloody and at times bizarre and at others nonsensical, which makes it engaging, if not quality.

The Church (1989)

One not-so-good but watchable Italian horror film deserves another. This film has a lot of the same pedigree that Demons 2 has and a lot of the same issues: Argento has a writing credit, Asia makes an appearance, one of its alternate titles is Demons 3, it has a really good idea that doesn’t quite click and I really want it to. I’ve seen this one a few times, I’ve even listened to the score in isolation and I like that. There’s a draw to it that’s brought me back a few times, perhaps with this one more so than the prior choice, it really is the unfulfilled promise that’s been the reason.

Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller (1988)

There will be another film that makes this list based in part on the audaciousness of its conception. However, I do have to admit that this one handles the execution of its outlandish concept better than the one to come.

As the title implies, in the world of this film you can literally travel by stamp. Now, as a concept that’s something you’re going to either buy or you won’t. The film has its heart in the right place through a lot of it (Such that I almost feel bad including it), it’s just really misguided much of the time, and the caper of bringing back someone lost via ‘stamp travel’ takes a bit away from it I feel. The acting’s not great, nor is the writing, but there is a boldness to the concept.

Also, as a bit of trivia, the film also features a cameo by a young Rufus Wainwright who sings a very catchy song, which is one of the redeeming qualities of the film, another one which becomes obvious as you watch the clip is how incredibly ’80s this film is.

Uncle Sam (1996)

Perhaps one of the best ways to determine a bad movie you love is to gauge just how mixed your feelings on the film are. There are films written by Larry Cohen such as It’s Alive, The Stuff, Q: The Winged Serpent that I would say I love. This one I can’t really defend as staunchly but there are things about it that I do appreciate. Namely, it incorporates militaristic zeal in a horror film in a way I’ve rarely seen. Not only that but note the release date, there was no unpopular or costly (in terms of American casualties) war going on at that time, so there’s a certain gutsiness in telling this kind of tale when dissenting opinions are fairly quiet. The film does end up being sloppy and a bit slow, there’s no Michael Moriarty in it to up the caliber of the cast, but the satire is definitely there which makes it worth mentioning.

The Space Children (1958)

This is a case of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in reverse. Here’s one I saw first and then found an MST3K for, which I don’t do often. I was on kind of on the fence after I saw it and while I can’t ultimately say it’s a quality piece of work, as logic and reason vanish somewhere in the middle of act two, there are things about it I do like. As for the MST3K treatment it’s funny, not one of their best and this is nowhere near one of the legendary duds they’ve covered; in many of the films they watch it’s hard to even ferret out what the plot is supposed to be. Here there are issues but the plot is clear. The tropes of a hivemind amongst children, and some form of other-worldy radiation or possession, are not new but they’re also not the biggest problem. The film is actually consistently interesting, it just emotionally flatlines after a while, which is a cardinal sin, especially when any atomic age sci-fi tale is likely to hook me based on its implications. Michel Ray’s turn as the ringleader is also quite effective.

Part three will be up tomorrow!

61 Days of Halloween- Introduction and A Blade in the Dark

Most holidays worth their while encompass entire seasons, such as Christmas, for example. However, as you may have noticed there is a corporate push every year for us to think about the next holiday even sooner. While this has many negative side effects I figure I may as well embrace it.

Since Labor Day is really only good for college football and movie marathons cinematically it is as significant as Arbor Day, which means the next big day on the calendar is Halloween and we can start looking toward it starting now.

Daily I will be viewing films in the horror genre between now and then and sharing the wealth. Many, as is usually the case, will not be worth it so for every disappointment so I will try and suggest something worth while as well.

A Blade in the Dark

A Blade in the Dark is a film by Lamberto Bava (Demons, son of Mario Bava) which fits in perfectly in the Giallo tradition of filmmaking. You have all the necessary components: an unknown killer, a series of unexplained deaths, a theme song anchoring the film and a twist as to who is the culprit. What is most clever is that Bava here makes his protagonist a musician working on a film score so the repetition of the theme is naturalistic most of the time and can’t get annoying.

You may notice a slight similarity to Four Flies on Grey Velvet but there is a decided difference here. In this film you also have a film-within-a-film which doesn’t take up a lot of screen time but plays a significant role. You see one of the pivotal scenes full-frame before the credits roll and only later realize it’s a film-within-a-film. This little vignette also features Giovanni Frezza who was the poster child of the genre in the 1980s appearing in the works of Fulci and the elder Bava as well.

Giovanni Frezza in A Blade in the Dark (Blue Underground)

The twist in this film is one you think you see coming but you truly don’t. The film does a great job of dividing your suspicions in this whodunit and thus misdirecting you completely. While there is one scene in particular, the first kill, that stands out as being awkwardly staged the rest of it is handled masterfully. There are some tooth-clenching sequences and great gore work.

8/10