Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge: Character Actors in Horror and Science Fiction Films, 1930-1960 by Laurence Raw

I originally got this book as a research volume, as such, I only read the entries that were strictly pertinent to the precise time I needed information on. The scope of this book was a bit larger, so I always knew I was likely to want to come back to it and finish it. Reading it as part of the 2016 Summer Reading Classic Film Book was a no-brainer.

The first few items of note are how handy it is and how it is organized. It is, as described on the back cover, “a biographical dictionary,” so actors that fit the bill are indexed alphabetically and their films are discussed on an individual basis. In discussing films in the same genre there are many instances of repeated filmmakers (Roger Corman and Bert I. Gordon to name to). However, actors listed frequently cross paths as well and if they are discussed in someone else’s entry and have one of their own it is denoted with capital letters. You can come back to it and have fun cross-referencing actors and titles with the help of the index. The filmography is also handy if you want to create a checklist of titles to see (like on Letterboxd for example).

Dracula's Daughter (1936, Universal)

Some of the most important aspects to note, without giving too much away, is that Raw thankfully takes all film seriously in his analysis and astutely encapsulates a performer’s type so they become more familiar sight unseen, and conversely, ring true for actors you know well. When some films discussed are B-Grade or lower you don’t want the film browbeaten on an academic level. Ideally in reading a film insights and information you may not have known should be disseminated in and interesting way – and it is.

Readers should be forewarned that the film is presented using two-column pages. Depending on proclivity this may slow the pace down some but isn’t much of an encumbrance since the book can be read straight through or piecemeal.

It! The Terror From Beyond Space (1958, MGM)

While the eras encompassed in this book are a few, the presence of horror and sci-fi and its persistence in reflecting changing norms and mores and reflecting the times closely is a constant that allows for some persistent theming even if there isn’t a narrative per se. Fans of the genres, film history, and acting should look into picking up this book.

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Mini-Review: Europa Report

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Europa Report

Found footage as a technique is one that has been talked about ad nauseum, by myself included. Usually, it is the shortcomings that make us take more notice. However, we should not turn a blind eye to those films that do implement the technique well. This is one of those films. This is a film that has minimalist chills and scares that isn’t the slickest space-bound story this year, but has its strong points, moments of terror, moments of character, and a very good ensemble at its disposal. It also takes a sci-fi tale just slightly beyond the current limits of science, but not that far into the distant future.

8/10

Mini-Review: Storage 24

Introduction

This is a post that is a repurposing of an old-school Mini-Review Round-Up post. As stated here I am essentially done with running multi-film review posts. Each film deserves its own review. Therefore I will repost, and at times add to, old reviews periodically. Enjoy!

Storage 24

One certainly cannot complain that Storage 24 doesn’t try to develop its characters. However, it does so to such an extent that it very nearly turns the plot detailed in the synopsis into a MacGuffin. The tale is essentially a couple that recently broke up and their friends meet by chance in a storage facility. They make it there despite a suspected plane crash that shut down most of central London. The cargo was an alien creature that’s not trapped in there with them during a power outage. It’s a good set-up.

The sound design, however, isn’t always great and makes the characters seem more oblivious than they are to what is going on. The effects work is pretty good, as is the design of the creature. The alien does end up being a dominant story force you expect it to, but in a film that runs under 90 minutes about half the time is spent mostly in repetitive discussions that are cited as such, and don’t move things along quickly enough. When things do happen it gets better.

Another failing is that the film tries to have character-based connections to the creature à la Super 8, and to be not about the creature, but is more blunt about it, and far less successful for as much time is spent in development, there aren’t many facets to the characters created. They’re fairly basic.

The scenario doesn’t end up being a MacGuffin, but the narrative pendulum swings very wildly and ineffectively in the film. Lastly, the pace, which isn’t bad overall, takes a hit from one too many tracking establishing shots down the corridor, which are void of significance save to try and build suspense, but it doesn’t. Storage 24 tries its hand at a few things, but is too uneven and unsuccessful with regards to most in order to work.

4/10

61 Days of Halloween – Tremors II: Aftershocks (1996)

Introduction

For an introduction to the concept of 61 Days of Halloween please go here.

Tremors II: Aftershocks (1996)

In the interest of full disclosure, I believe I watched this for last year’s theme, maybe even for the year before, but it was such a demoralizing viewing that I left my notes aside figuring I wouldn’t bother to feature it. A few things come to mind because of it: one, I tend to try and focus on a long-running series (or more) per year and this sequel squashed the possibility of me moving past it any time soon. Two, as opposed to a zeitgeist reaction of “it took too long for this sequel to come around” I saw this many years later and it still felt a disjointed unnecessary edition that takes a leap too many and forgets part of its tonal formula for success in the original.

There is to this film a terribly slow, mercenary start. Most of what it forgets is to incorporate humor. It’s not that it doesn’t try, but it does not try enough and does not succeed. The efforts are far more fruitful and concerted on the horror end, but still a bit misguided. There is a quantum leap in the evolution of these creatures in a short period of time and suddenly there is metamorphosis, asexual reproduction, infrared senses and biped offspring. That’s a lot to absorb especially when you consider that the creatures are MIA for a large portion of the beginning. Therefore, these changes are more jarring, there’s minimal explanation.

Clearly when you go a long time between editions in a series you’ll lose cast members. Michael Gross’ character was perfect as secondary, pivotal nutjob but hardly leading man material.

As the film progresses it does get a little better, but it never rights itself. I’ve been through many long series and slogged through them. In many cases, the badness almost became a sort of morbid addiction. This one is such a soul-crushing departure from the first it compelled me to quit at least for the time being.

Short Film Saturday: The Phantom Empire, Chapters 7-9

The Phantom Empire may be the most unique movie serial ever created. I was told of its existence by my favorite film professor in college and I was fortunate enough to have found it on VHS shortly thereafter. After having viewed it I was glad to have given it to him. Now I have since reacquired it on DVD. It stars Gene Autry in his usual singing cowboy persona, but there’s also science fiction mixed in and quite a few other things along the way.

Through Poverty Row April I will likely watch a composite version of this film, but I am glad to be able to present to you the serial version of the the film thanks to The Internet Archive. To view please visit the links below.

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

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!

Nominate Films for the 2012 National Film Registry

Recently, while scrolling through Twitter I noticed quite a few people posting that the National Film Preservation Board is allowing the general public to suggest titles to be entered to the National Film Registry for the first time. You can read the pertinent details here. The only thing I found a bit confusing was whether an individual can select 50 titles from a calendar year (e.g. 1933) or if and individual may only suggest 50 per year. I erred toward the latter option. My choices feature many Hitchcock, Disney, horror, Looney Tunes; a few silents, docs, and the occasional footnote. What’s great is that since 575 films have been picked in 23 years they provide a list of significant films not yet selected for you to peruse. Of course, you can submit whatever you like if it fits their criteria. I made all my selections 25 years or older, however, the official cut-off is 10 years.

The National Film Registry was instituted after a bill was passed “Congress first established the National Film Registry in the 1988 National Film Preservation Act, and most recently extended the Registry with passage of the Library of Congress Sound Recording and Film Preservation Programs Reauthorization Act of 2008 (PL110-336).” So, essentially these are your tax dollars at work, America, so make some suggestions. If you’re curious you can read mine below:

1. Suspense (1913)
2. The Perils of Pauline (1914)
3. Charlie the Champion (1915)
4. Mickey’s Orphan’s (1931)
5. Skippy (1931)
6. Island of Lost Souls (1931)
7. Wild Boys of the Road (1931)
8. Babes in Toyland (1934)
9. Manhattan Melodrama (1934)
10. A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)
11. Son of Frankenstein (1939)
12. Rebecca (1940)
13. Dumbo (1941)
14. The Little Foxes (1941)
15. The Wolf Man (1941)
16. Gaslight (1944)
17. Mrs. Parkington (1944)
18. Three Caballeros (1945)
19. The Yearling (1946)
20. Panic in the Streets (1950)
21. Strangers on a Train (1951)
22. Limelight (1952)
23. House of Wax (1953)
24. It Came from Outer Space (1953)
25. Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)
26. Them! (1954)
27.Lady and the Tramp (1955)
28. The Trouble with Harry (1955)
29. Forbidden Planet (1956)
30. Ali Baba Bunny (1957)
31. Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
32. The Children’s Hour (1961)
33. The Pit and the Pendulum (1961)
34. Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)
35. The Birds (1963)
36. Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964)
37. Wait Until Dark (1967)
38. Rosemary’s Baby (1968)
39. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
40. Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
41. Carrie (1976)
42. Burden of Dreams (1982)
43. The Big Chill (1983)
44. A Christmas Story (1983)
45. National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
46. Terms of Endearment (1983)
47. Amadeus (1984)
48. The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
49. The Breakfast Club (1985)
50. Stand by Me (1986)

61 Days of Halloween- The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

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.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (Warner Bros.)

The Beast from 20,0000 Fathoms has many things going for it: First, it’s adapted from a short story by Ray Bradbury. Second, it’s very much a classic ’50s Sci-Fi film replete with a title that doesn’t necessarily make sense. Third, the creature is created by Ray Harryhausen, a cinematic legend. Fourth, rarely if ever will you see rear projection work as well in this era. Lastly, keep your eyes peeled for a young Lee Van Cleef, who would go on to parttake in the Man Without a Name Trilogy and other western classics.

However, there’s more to it than that. This film impressively builds the scale of events up. it begins with a seemingly isolated incident near the arctic circle and then our lead played by Paul Haubschmid (credited as Christian) seeks the paleontological community’s support and doesn’t initially find it. However, sightings are on the rise but still isolated and he is believed by the Doctor’s assistant and eventually others.

The climax explodes in scale as pretty much all of New York City is under siege when the dinosaur comes ashore. What makes it even more impressive is not only is there a drastic increase in the scale of sighting and destruction but it also slowly but surely ratchets up the sense of impending doom.

This film also like It! The Terror from Beyond Space does not overstay its welcome and this film clocks in at a brisk 80 minutes.

You also factor in two other aspects that sets this film apart just a little bit. First, near the end the danger of the beast is increased by the fact that it is now a plague-bearer so its destruction is two-fold. Secondly, while it’s never confirmed one of the theories about how it may have been jolted back to life is being frozen and then atomic radiation revived it, which brings in radioactivity to this tale as well. It was such an omnipresent factor in 50s cinema it was essentially a character and to add that to the rest just makes this a truly special film.

8/10

61 Days of Halloween- It! The Terror from Beyond Space

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.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like if the film Alien was made in the 1950s well then It! The Terror from Beyond Space is for you. When you boil it down the premise is the same: an alien being is on a spacecraft and is attacking the crew. The treatment is different, however, but no less compelling.

Firstly, it bears mentioning that being made in the 1950s all the sci-fi trappings of the age are there to an extent but it is all very well done. Most of the would-be effects are shot practically and look pretty darn impressive from the planet to the launch to the spacewalk. The creature is also another great example of filmmaking at the time and is a really effective suit.

The claustrophobic environment of the tale is really what makes it excel. What kicks it off though is that this is a rescue mission and one man is being transported back to Washington to a face a court martial as he is suspected of murder and the stories of a monster are dismissed. This is a great dramatic device to kickstart the tale.

It also introduces a frame to the tale as the film starts and ends with a press conference first stating the mission of the newly launched ship and then announcing the findings the crew reported and placing an appropriate coda on the film.

Another interesting technique is that like in Jaws there are sparing glimpses of the creature at first. Only seeing its feet or the damage it left behind or hearing it down below the main level. It allows for the imagination to actively engage in the tale.

Once all the crew members believe there is a creature you almost always hear it or know where it is giving this creature near omnipresence in the tale which is rare.

The conclusion of this tale is also very satisfying not only in the clever manner in which the creature is defeated but also with the news conference coda which allows for one last scare in the film as only could be done in the 1950s. It is definitely worth viewing.

8/10

Review- Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Andy Serkis as Caesar and James Fanco in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (20th Century Fox)

So here we are again it’s time for another prequel, however, unlike most that have come along since it became a popular trend this one is quite good and valid at the same time. However, this is not one where I’d suggest you watch the prequel first. Therefore, if you, like many of those I watched this film with apparently, have not seen the original Planet of the Apes please do so before venturing to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes. As good as it is and it is pretty good it will ruin the experience of the first film for you because it is a classic that is spoiled entirely by the conception of this film.

Having said that if one has the knowledge of what occurs in the first series of films it is fascinating to watch this film and see how the blanks get filled in and they’re not done so in a thoughtless haphazard way but rather intelligently and interestingly as well.

What is also good to see is that the scope of the film is not too large. It is a rather focused story that seeks to tell only the very beginning, the rise as it were. Therefore, it’s not too sweeping and that focusing of the narrative allows for a greater identification with the plight of the characters involved and for us to watch in close quarters the world-changing events that will take place.

This is the kind of plot that is intriguing and detailed enough such that it doesn’t really hinge on the performances of its cast. Film is a strange medium in as much as a well-crafted, well told story need not have the most powerful acting to succeed whereas in a play that’s next to impossible. A prime example would be James Franco’s character, he’s not given much in the way of a character and doesn’t add a tremendous amount to it either. Where he brings me into the story is in the moral/ethical dilemmas of the testing in the lab and the moments with his father, played by John Lithgow. His interaction in scenes opposite motion-capture creations are less compelling. Freida Pinto similarly just seems to be there as a plot device and of significance to the protagonist but not truly present in the tale. Tom Felton’s first post-Harry Potter performance is a bit inconsistent and uncomfortable sadly, though it is a perfectly despicable villain hearkening back to the beginning of Malfoy’s arc where he was more vile and less ambivalent.

Then, of course, there’s the performance all are talking about which is that of Andy Serkis as Caesar. Having seen Serkis recently in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll I was most impressed with his performance there. Here I was impressed by the combination of factors: how he in turn aided the CG artists to render a humanoid ape. I appreciate and admire the contribution he makes to this film and consider a success but any Oscar talk pre-Fall is always premature and for the time being any and all motion capture discussions of that nature are far-fetched.

As intimated prior the effects work is rather impressive throughout, however, as is the case in most films that use them so regularly some sequences are far stronger than others and the rendition is by no means perfect.

The climax of the film is truly great stuff and is the kind of sequence you head out to the movies for but don’t find nearly often enough. It’s a pretty huge and well-choreographed battle that the whole movie has been working towards.

While Rise of the Planet of the Apes does have a few failings it is a very solid piece of entertainment. Those who were, or still are, skeptical can rest easy: it’s a well done and worthy installment in the series.

8/10