Monthly Archives: January 2017

Shoot (1976)

*. Here’s a little movie that’s a nasty piece of work.
*. The set-up makes us think of Deliverance, or perhaps The Deer Hunter. A group of weekend warriors who like to tell dirty jokes, fart, and call each other fags go on a hunting trip in Canada (just north of Toronto actually, but Canada is all a wilderness to an innocent American eye). There they meet another group of hunters who they stand off against across a river. Someone in the other group opens fire and the local boys fire back. A man is killed.
*. This leads to the clearest borrowing from Deliverance, as the gang start to argue over what they should do next and what the legal repercussions might be. The leader, Cliff Robertson, carries the day, while the group’s conscience, Ernest Borgnine, becomes the odd man out.
*. That matter settled, they decide to wait to see if things will just blow over, but then suspect that the other group are plotting their own extra-legal form of revenge. Thinking to steal a march on them, the gang return to the woods with a bunch of their heavily-armed national guard buddies, only to walk into an ambush.
*. Now if you just heard that plot synopsis you’d probably think this is a pretty silly movie. And it is. There’s nothing realistic about it. Hunters do not go smashing through the woods all packed together in a group and bellowing at each other. What the hell are they hunting? Mushrooms?
*. But it’s probably wrong to view it realistically. The middle-aged boys with their monosyllabic names — Rex (the alpha male, naturally), Lou, Zeke, Pete, Bob, and Jim — are slowly absorbed into their own fantasy, a game without frontiers. The final battle is directly brought about through their gradually rising sense of paranoia. Up until the very end we’re pretty sure the counterplot can’t be real. That mysterious man who seems to be following them around? Surely just a coincidence.
*. Adding to the sense of fantasy are a couple of other elements. First there is the way the women come on to Rex in a couple of scenes that play out in a bizarre, almost pornographic manner. Alas, they are frustrated by Rex’s indifference. We’ve already seen him cleaning his rifle in a manner that suggests auto(matic)erotic tendencies.
*. Then there is the ending, which has a dream quality that makes us wonder about the events we’ve just seen. Rex alone has survived to tell the tale? Or is he just waking up? One imagines that sweeping so many bodies under the rug as another hunting accident will be rather difficult.
*. But leaving the fantasy vs. reality question aside, the nastiness remains. This is, as Kim Newman recognized, a deeply misanthropic film. It is so, I think for two reasons.
*. In the first place there’s the genre, which I would characterize as “hunting humans.” This goes back at least to The Most Dangerous Game, and Rex even quotes some Hemingway to the same effect: “There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter.” This is an inherently misanthropic attitude to take, as it reduces civilization to the law of the jungle and people to mere predators and prey. That such a survival-of-the-nastiest philosophy is so prevalent today is one reason, I have argued, for the popularity of zombie movies, the basic message of which is that other people need to be killed before they kill and eat you. Society has devolved to a war of all against all. And it has so devolved because people like Rex and his buddies (excepting Lou) desire it.
*. This brings me to the second reason Shoot is such a nasty movie, which is the creepy and dislikeable character of Rex. Despite his kingly name and the way women throw themselves at his feet, he is a small man. Like most small men (I mean small in terms of character), he is a bossy, authoritarian martinet (“Men, we’ll keep this meeting brief . . . ” a line he delivers while wearing sunglasses, indoors and at night). He could be a comic figure — and there are moments near the end here where comedy is knocking on the door — but mainly he’s just unpleasant.
*. It’s an interesting question as to how much of this was intentional. Is Rex proven right in the end, or was it all his fault? Why is he the sole survivor? Is that an endorsement of his point of view, or is it meant to be ironic? Does he represent some kind of masculine-militaristic code, or that code’s paranoid perversion?
*. Take, for example, the scene where he visits the victim’s widow. He runs away from her fast enough, with her speech against “junkies, hippies and jigs” as well as “ecology nuts and anti-gun nuts,” but aren’t they two of a kind? She also tells him that she sleeps with a gun in her bedside drawer (which impresses him) and reveals that she isn’t wearing any underwear (which doesn’t).
*. It’s this dark ambiguity that makes Shoot a movie worth tracking down. Much of it is not well done. It’s cheap and suffers from a canned score and flat direction by Harvey Hart. But it has a good cast and a few moments of real fascination (the standoff across the river, in particular, is excellent).
*. The most interesting thing about it though is Cliff Robertson’s Rex, a true antihero figure in that he is someone who is impossible to like or identify with but who nevertheless commands the entire film. Rex drives the movie’s theme, which, as I see it, is about how the imagining of violence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Yeats would say, the bored guardsmen have fed their hearts on fantasies and their hearts have grown brutal on the fare.

Deliverance (1972)

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*. I first read James Dickey’s novel when I was a kid, and I only remember being bored by it. I read it again recently and didn’t have that feeling at all, which makes me hope that maybe my mind hasn’t totally been eroded by television and the Internet.
*. Perhaps what struck me the most reading it again was the similarity to Fight Club. Ed, the narrator (Jon Voight in the film) is someone sick of the routine of his professional and private life. He doesn’t feel deeply or care about anything and is afraid he is just sliding friction-free through life. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) is his Tyler Durden, an alpha male who offers his adoring acolyte a chance to be more.

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*. None of that is there in the movie because the “Before” section, introducing us to pre-expedition Ed, is collapsed into some voiceover banter that plays under the opening credits. I don’t object to Boorman leaving this part of the story out, but it does sort of leave the question of the title’s meaning up for grabs. In the novel, Ed is being delivered from his boring everyday life, achieving a kind of sexual release through violence. In the movie this is almost inverted, with the canoe’s finally docking at the soon-to-be-relocated Church of Christ (which is not in the novel) marking a deliverance from the river. The savage world has no real counterweight, and if anything it seems that at the end Ed hasn’t been made new so much as he’s been left suffering from PTSD. And if that makes you think of The Deer Hunter just a bit, well, it’s not the only correspondence between the two films I’d want to draw.
*. Aside from that, the movie is remarkably faithful to the book. The “squeal like a pig” line was a rare improvisation. Even the two key ambiguities — was Drew shot? did Ed kill the second hillbilly on the cliff, or someone else? — are maintained.

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*. Of course it’s all very archetypal in its undertones — the journey into the wilderness, the values of barbarism vs. civilization, ascent vs. descent, redemption through violence — which means it’s a story that will remind us of a lot of other stories.
*. The first thing we might think of is Heart of Darkness, but I think the connection here is limited. The Cahulawasee River doesn’t representative nature, or even some state of unevolved savagery, so much as a fast-forward to civilization’s future. The trip begins and ends in what look like junkyards or scrap heaps: what Bobby calls “the end of the line,” “where everything finishes up.” The dam might be a flood sent down by an angry god to punish the mountain people for their degeneracy.

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*. In any event, our feelings toward nature are, at least to some extent, fluid and culturally determined. In the days of Beowulf everything outside the mead hall was a dangerous wasteland where monsters like Grendel and his mom roamed. In horror stories told among frontier societies much the same attitude is taken, with a good example being the kind of thing seen in the movie The Witch (based on New England folktales), with its doomed family banished from the walls of their village and sent out into the scary wilderness. Nature in ye olde days was a horror show: the enemy of civilization.

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*. In a more Romantic era, like the nineteenth century, nature became a reviving force for good, an escape from ugly and dangerous urban living. Deliverance reverses polarity again, turning the Romantic myth of nature inside out. The group of buddies are city slickers to the core but they want to experience the majestic river before it is wiped away by the construction of a dam. What they find isn’t a nature that is too much for them, but a fallen world.
*. So instead of Heart of Darkness what Deliverance really recalls, or prefigures, is one of the main streams in American horror: the danger inherent in taking a wrong turn and finding oneself off the main highway, lost in the backwoods. How many times was this story to be re-enacted in the years to come? And yet before Deliverance it was hardly a staple. Now Deliverance may not be what many people would consider a “horror” film, but it only took a very slight tweak to get there.

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*. The film is one of those where the talent just came together. Dickey’s script works, though I think he had to be reined in somewhat and there are still some ghastly bumps (I share Vincent Canby’s morose reaction to “Sometimes you gotta lose yourself to find something.”). Boorman shows himself, again, to be one of the most brilliant painters of a mythic American vernacular. And when I say “mythic” I mean that when David Thomson questions how “accurately imagined” the film is he may be barking up the wrong tree. There’s nothing accurate about Point Blank either. These narratives are as much fantasies as Excalibur or Zardoz.
*. Moving through the rest of the credits, various stars were considered for the cast (Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Lee Marvin) but they went with younger unknowns, and it paid off. The photography by Vilmos Zsigmond is beautiful, not just in the dramatic shots of the wilderness, but even more so in the junkyards and town. The very air seems thick with rust, and indeed the colours were deliberately muddied and muted because the real river was too pretty. (I note in passing that when Thomson complains that Zsigmond “does not fully catch Dickey’s troubled apprehension of nature,” I’d say this is because nature is not the bad guy to be troubled by here). Finally, the music became iconic, as did the banjo-picking native.

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*. Does it still have the power to shock? It’s hard to think of too many male rapes we’ve seen in mainstream movies since. And we may be more comfortable today with the whole homoerotic angle of Ed’s worship of butch Burt in his muscle-top outdoor gear. Confronted by Lewis about this, it’s something Ed just can’t explain. I don’t think anything more needs to be said. Complete with cigar, Lewis is like a gay fetish model drawn by Tom of Finland.
*. Modern audiences might be a little harder on Drew. He seems too noble, and I wonder where his ideals would be more in place. Not in the mountains or in the city. I think he’s the one who belongs to an earlier time.
*. Finally, how do we view what the movie has to say about masculinity? On the one hand it seems pretty obvious. After his own masculinity is threatened (though, unlike poor Bobby, he remains unviolated), Ed must become a man when the father of the tribe is injured. It is Ed who must ascend the mountain and kill his lion, which affirms essential male values as well as a sense of cosmic balance. He can now go home and be comforted by his (pregnant?) wife.
*. We can roll our eyes at all of this, though we should acknowledge too that they were rolling their eyes at it back in 1972 as well. But such a message really is the point of the movie. It’s not complicated. What would later happen is that the horror genre would dumb it down even further, exaggerating the monstrosity and degenerate evil of rural America, replacing faith with fear. Meanwhile, our heroes got wimpier. Brad Pitt is no Burt Reynolds. Burt had hair on his chest.

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Bloodlust! (1961)

*. I understand why Hollywood keeps recycling the same ideas in remakes, resets, sequels, prequels, and franchises. There are only a limited number of essential stories to be told, and if one of them finds expression in a particularly successful movie then imitation is bound to follow.
*. That said, I’m always disappointed when a movie basically returns to the same material and only offers up a rehash without even showing any intention of doing something original or interesting with it. Like when The Most Dangerous Game was remade as A Game of Death, for example. Which brings us to Bloodlust!
*. The exclamation mark is part of the title, as though attempting to give the proceedings an extra shot of adrenaline. The film needs it. It’s basically another run at The Most Dangerous Game, only without any of the eccentric energy of that film.
*. There’s more to the disappointment than just the cast, though Wilton Graff (as Dr. Albert Balleau) is no Leslie Banks, June Kenney is no Fay Wray (not even close), and Robert Reed isn’t Joel McCrae (who wasn’t setting the bar that high in the first place).
*. There’s also no sense of the exotic or dangerous. The gang of fun-loving kids, looking much like the cast of Scooby-Doo, never seem that perturbed by anything that’s going on. The girls in particular go from somnolent to screaming and back again in a mechanical way.
*. The art direction doesn’t help. The creepy hunting chateau of Count Zaroff has been replaced by a surprisingly domestic, bourgeois-looking home in the jungle. Dig those drapes and wallpaper!
*. The upshot of all this is that we never feel threatened by Dr. Balleau. This despite a shocking scene in the trophy preparation room involving a face that has been skinned, or the trophy room itself, where Balleau’s victims are presented in the moment of their deaths. These human waxworks were cut from The Most Dangerous Game in 1932 because they upset audiences so much. They’re back in here, but they’re not disturbing at all. Further proof that it’s rarely shocking content that makes the biggest impact but how it is presented in context. In a movie like this, such moments have no weight.
*. Balleau isn’t very sporting, is he? Taking the firing pin out of the gun is a dirty trick, then shooting poor Tony at point blank range, in the gut, with his crossbow is just cruel. One gets the sense that he really isn’t much of a hunter.
*. It’s one of those movies that can be enjoyed as crap, and it was an obvious choice for receiving the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment. The dialogue is very stupid and easily mocked, and there are a number of incongruous moments that arise from the sheer incompetence of the filmmaking. The shot of the island at the beginning startles us into laughter because it’s suddenly so close, and I love that Betty knows judo and gets to flip one of the sailor flunkies into an acid bath.
*. The ending is very strange, and bad, in a different way. It may seem odd, at least to contemporary eyes, that one of Balleau’s men has to be resurrected to adminster the coup de grâce to his boss, but this is done in order to maintain the gang’s essential innocence. Their hands remain clean of Balleau’s blood and they are left free to register their shock at his murder.
*. Of course the flunky is impervious to mere bullets after all that he’s been through, but what’s really striking to my eyes is Balleau’s crucifixion. As the MST3K commentators put it: “Why this symbolism? Did Christ hunt people on deserted islands?” It is quite jarring.
*. I’m not sure this movie even rises to the level of a curiosity, but it’s short and it has enough camp value to make it worth a single viewing. Still, even among the many inferior descendants of The Most Dangerous Game it’s barely a footnote.

Run for the Sun (1956)

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*. Chances are you’ve heard this film is based on the Richard Connell story “The Most Dangerous Game,” which had already been made into a classic B-picture in 1932. And if you come to it with that knowledge and expectations, expectations triggered by Connell’s name appearing in the credits, it won’t be long before you’re wondering what’s going on.
*. There is a danger that goes along with re-telling any familiar story. Not so much the need to make it new, but to make it interesting. In the case of Run for the Sun they certainly made it new, but they fell down on the interesting part.
*. As far as what’s new is concerned, I don’t see how Connell got a credit, as there’s almost no connection to his story here at all. Or maybe it was based on some other story by Richard Connell, as the story isn’t named. But I doubt it.
*. Instead of a madman on an island hunting humans we have a couple of Nazis hiding out in the jungles of Mexico. When a reclusive writer named Michael Latimer (Richard Widmark) drops in on them, accompanied by a reporter named Katherine Connors (Jane Greer), the Nazis decide they can’t let them go. Our heroes escape from the magnificent jungle estate, are hunted, and then hop on a plane and fly away.
*. That is not the story of “The Most Dangerous Game.” Browne (Trevor Howard) is not a hunter but an ex-diplomat. He doesn’t have a gruesome trophy room full of human heads. He isn’t even that eccentric a figure. He mostly seems bored with life in the jungle, and is more irritated than anything else by Widmark’s sudden appearance.
*. So if you were expecting a rousing adventure story you’re not going to find it here. We’re half an hour into it before we’re even introduced to Howard. Instead the emphasis is all on the budding romance between Widmark and Greer.
*. I mention the time because it’s indicative of a problem. “The Most Dangerous Game” is a very short story. The 1932 film came in at 63 minutes. A Game of Death was 72 minutes. Bloodlust! was 68 minutes. These films kept things moving. Run for the Sun has much higher production values and a bigger cast, but that’s not necessarily a plus. For material like this such an approach is out of place. It’s a trashy little story and needs to be treated as such.
*. In short, there’s too much set-up, and the eccentric figure of Zaroff is marginalized. This means Widmark and Greer have to carry the picture. But while they’re both capable of this — Widmark is well cast as the damaged, edgy hero (in a role that usually calls for a stiff), and Greer — the woman who built Robert Mitchum’s gallows high in Out of the Past — is easy on the eyes, but they are mostly wasted here in parts that are conventional and dull. Trevor Howard is horribly underused playing Browne as just another burned-out case. Latimer is capable but not all that bright (why does he give himself away to Browne?), and Katie is just dead weight (“It’s no use, leave me, go on!”). She even screams when she sees a lizard, which may have been a nod to Fay Wray. Because, you know, it’s just a lizard.
*. I’d want to note though that Greer suffered for her art, contracting a virus during the location shooting that eventually required her to have a heart operation. We often look down on A-list actors as pampered divas, but most of them are real troopers.
*. It’s a shame they couldn’t find a way to play up a triangle with Browne. In other versions of the story the Zaroff figure expects to take the hero’s woman as a (living) trophy or an addition to his harem, but Browne doesn’t seem interested in Katie at all. I wonder if we’re meant to question his sexuality. There’s mention of his having had a wife in Germany who was killed in a British air raid, but nothing much is made of it. Now he lives with his brother-in-law (Peter van Eyck) and they seem rather like a couple. There are no women around.
*. It’s a movie I’d like to like more, as I admire the stars and it looks good. But the story drags. There’s less action than other versions of the story, and what action there is makes little sense (Latimer’s improvised door-gun is highly improbable, and I don’t see how you can run a man down in a plane taxiing for take-off unless they’re very, very stupid). There’s some nice photography and good-looking locations, but I think it’s finally just too conventional a telling of what is essentially a perverse and transgressive tale.

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A Game of Death (1945)

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*. In my notes on The Most Dangerous Game I mentioned the economy of that film being made using the same sets as King Kong. A Game of Death takes that economy a step further. In other words, it’s just cheap.
*. This is less than just a remake. For starters, it uses the same script. After a while I had to wonder what the explanation was for the two movies having different credits for screenplay (James Ashmore Creelman for the first movie, Norman Houston for this one). In Creelman’s hands it’s a script that doesn’t take much from Connell’s story aside from the basic premise, and Houston borrows the same set-up, with the Rainsford figure meeting a woman and her brother already on the island (characters not in the original story).
*. In addition, the structure of the plot and even big chunks of dialogue are lifted wholesale from The Most Dangerous Game. This isn’t an original screenplay at all. Changing the name of the master of the island from Zaroff to Kreiger seems kind of pointless, all things considered.
*. There is, however, a lot more borrowing than this. Even that crazy tapestry of the centaur carrying off the woman reappears (though they’ve at least changed the doorknocker). I wonder if that tapestry is still stored away in some prop department warehouse somewhere.
*. Like Leslie Banks’s Zaroff, Kreiger has a scar on his forehead he can’t stop rubbing, which is another addition Creelman made to the original story. And Noble Johnson is back playing the same role, albeit a different ethnicity (I think).
*. As if all of this wasn’t enough, in several instances footage has been cut-and-paste from the earlier film, like the shots of the ship blowing up and the men falling into the water, and the hounds running through the jungle. Hell, they even stick in some shots of Johnson from the first film, and damn the continuity!
*. Given so much has stayed the same, the question is whether anything has been improved. Put another way: if you’re familiar with the 1932 version, is this a movie worth bothering with?
*. My answer would be No. I can’t think of a single thing about A Game of Death that makes it better or more interesting than The Most Dangerous Game. The cast are just adequate, without anyone standing out. Edgar Barrier doesn’t even do a good Leslie Banks imitation and Audrey Long can’t play Fay Wray. Seeing as it’s 1945 the bad guys are Germans, with Kreiger’s hunting costume, complete with ceremonial dagger, looking rather SS. This would be a standard for villainy that was still being adopted ten years later in Run to the Sun. Unfortunately, it has the effect of making the bad guys seem more officious and subdued than the homicidal Cossacks. Why, there’s even a butler in the house.
*. Yes, they still have a trophy room, and even a head in a tank, but it doesn’t have the same gruesome shock value as it had in the earlier film.
*. “We may as well face the fact we’re dealing with a maniac.” “You mean that scar?” “Yes, a homicidal maniac.” Did I miss something?
*. The second half of the story makes a few cosmetic changes to the script. The brother is kept alive a bit longer, and Rainsford prepares another trap (which is then never used, or even mentioned, again). But mostly it’s the same film, almost shot-for-shot.
*. Obviously I didn’t think much of it. If the main point of interest in a movie is the question of why it was made in the first place you know you’re in trouble. I’d call this a footnote you don’t have to read.

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The Most Dangerous Game (1932)

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*. The story, by Richard Connell, is considered one of the most widely anthologized of all time. It’s an archetypal story — the hunter become the hunted when he meets a hunter of men — that Connell gives its neatest and most rapid expression.
*. When it came to Hollywood it had to be Hollywoodized. What this mainly meant was the addition of a love interest. In fiction we are comfortable being on our own, inside the head of a single protagonist. On screen we want company, or at least some eye candy. So enter the lady Eve (Fay Wray) and her dipso brother (Robert Armstrong).
*. It’s worth flagging these basic differences between the film and its source. In the story, Rainsford falls off the yacht when he drops his pipe. Zaroff does use a trick to wreck ships, but that’s not how he gets Rainsford, who comes to him as windfall. In the story there is no Eve and her brother, and so the whole business of Zaroff’s prehistoric, predatory sexuality is invented. “One passion builds on another — first kill, then love,” Zaroff tells us. For “only after the kill does man know the full ecstasy of love.” Is this Zaroff, or Dracula?
*. Overall, the film is a much, much creepier bit of work than the story, which is an inversion of the usual relationship between page and screen. So Zaroff isn’t just émigré Russian nobility (he escaped the Revolution by investing in American securities), afflicted with ennui and indulging a taste for Pol Roger and Chambertin while humming pieces from Madame Butterfly. Now he is a despotic pervert, with a suggestive habit of rubbing the scar on his forehead. What does he want to do with Eve anyway? Surely it’s no coincidence he looks like the satyr in the wall-hanging carrying off the young lady, a figure also represented in the door knocker (the door knocker in the story is a “leering gargoyle,” and there is no tapestry mentioned at all).

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*. That scar isn’t in the story either, but it adds to the eccentric character of Leslie Banks’s Zaroff. Banks had been injured in the First World War and the left side of his face had been partially paralyzed. He made the most of it. Pauline Kael enjoyed “his twisted schizoid face — one half suave Englishman, the other half twisted and with suggestions of exotic evil.”
*. The script gave him every opportunity to ham the part up, with all kinds of double entendres and ironic drippings (“The count will take care of me all right!” “Indeed I shall.”). The direction does nothing to play this down, lighting him to look like a fanatical imp and even in one incredible shot zooming down the staircase into his face.

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*. All of this does more, much more, than simply suggest exotic evil. That wall hanging is tame by comparison with the horrors of the trophy room. A head mounted on the wall, and then one floating in a tank! This is incredible. Indeed, a trophy room of heads would still have the power to shock in Sin City, 70 years later. And yet the trophy room scene was originally even more graphic and disturbing and was only cut when audiences couldn’t take it. Also note how a group of heads (plural) mounted on a wall are featured in the theatrical release poster!
*. It was a remarkable time, at a remarkable studio. Some scenes shot for King Kong had to be cut for their shocking nature as well. And The Most Dangerous Game was the B-side of King Kong, shot at night using the same sets, cast and crew, much as the Spanish version of Dracula was shot — these guys knew how to economize!
*. Even given how over-the-top a production it is, I still could have lived without Robert Armstrong’s character. I also didn’t see how he would have been much of a challenge for Zaroff. The count explains that he sobered up, but I don’t see where he had much time for that, and even if sober he wouldn’t have been the most difficult game. Zaroff mentions giving his other prey a training regime of good food and exercise to get them in shape, and I don’t know why he didn’t offer Armstrong the same. Unless he just couldn’t stand him any longer, or didn’t want him draining his wine cellar.
*. The leads, however, do well enough. Joel McCrae is just a stud, but he’s likeable. I really enjoyed Fay Wray this time out, and I think she provides more than what Kael calls her “usual charming terrified heroine” routine. She has a knowing look that works well with this material.
*. Banks also seems to be enjoying himself even beyond what might have been called for. Were those lines where he mockingly mimics Rainsford in the script, or were they improvised? Or when he offers Armstrong a cigarette after he’s already taken one? These all seem like happy accidents.
*. The result is a fast-paced film that’s filled with loveable nuttiness, and one which truly belies its age. Connell’s story would go on to be adapted many, many times over the years, and yet despite being constantly updated and reinterpreted I don’t think it’s ever been as fresh as it has stayed here.

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Saturn 3 (1980)

*. The whole project was doomed from the start.
*. It was production designer John Barry’s baby. He wrote the original story and was slated to make his directorial debut with it, but got pulled at the last minute, apparently due to a falling out with Kirk Douglas. Never a good thing.
*. Barry was replaced by Stanley “The King of Hollywood musicals” Donen, who was one of the producers. I’m not sure Donen belonged in space. Actually, after the demise of the big studio musicals, he might not have belonged in Hollywood.
*. The cast didn’t belong in space either. Kirk Douglas does his best, but never seems at home. Farrah Fawcett is strictly eye candy. And Harvey Keitel . . . well, he was so out of place even his voice had to be dubbed.
*. I thought Fawcett’s Alex sounded dubbed as well. And the dog screams like a girl. What’s up with the sound in this film?
*. The script was by Martin Amis, and what Amis knew about screenwriting was nothing. There’s no continuity in the action, or even explanation for anything that’s happening. Roger Ebert: “The level of intelligence of the screenplay of Saturn 3 is shockingly low — the story is so dumb it would be laughed out of any junior high school class in the country.”
*. I mean, who is Benson (Keitel) and what is he up to anyway? Why has he gone to Saturn 3? What does he want to do there? Just hide out? Grow some hydroponic weed and chill with Farrah? Then, when Hector takes over, what is his game? I guess Hector’s brain has been infected with Benson’s obsession with Alex, but what does Hector think he’s going to do with her? Does he want to breed her in some Demon Seed sort of way?
*. Another dig at the script: “Did you know the original Hector came to a tragic end? He was killed by Achilles . . .” Yes, but what of it? What comparison is Amis (or Barry) trying to draw between the robot and Homer’s Hector?
*. Despite Barry being a design man, I thought everything about the look of the film was terrible. The usual endless dark corridors with lots of jetting steam and ductwork. Model spaceships doing slow crawls across the screen. Farrah Fawcett in a parade of sexy outfits, including a different nightie for every day of the week and a jogging ensemble including go-go boots and a blouse that’s only connected at her neck.
*. And then there’s Hector. Despite being the first of the “demigod series” he looks like a pair of Christmas tree lights sticking out of a Terminator chassis, brought to life by a tank of brain matter that circulates through by a network of silly-straws.
*. Douglas is in great shape. He even manages a nude scene, which is impressive for a senior. Fawcett was thirty years younger. One can sympathize with Keitel wanting to “use” her body. The only fun scene in the movie has him upbraiding her for her “penally unsocial” monogamy. It’s a crime that Douglas gets to keep her for his “personal consumption.” Don’t mistake that for a liberated or progressive point of view, by the way. I’d say this vision of the future looks like it’s taking a big step backward for women.
*. In recent years there’s been a slight uptick of interest in this film, in part because of some of the names involved but I think more for its delayed “camp” value. Well, I’m not going to jump on this particular train. It just seems to me to be a really bad movie, and not worth much attention.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

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*. A film buff could really go to town on this one. I mean, the kind of film buff who likes to think of all the other movies the one he’s watching reminds him of. That’s the kind of film buff I am.
*. So, to get started there’s Misery, with Michelle being “saved” from a car crash by a good Samaritan who will have a hard time letting her go. There’s The Collector, just for the basic set-up and Howard’s curiously asexual attachment to Michelle. And there’s Saw, for that feeling you get waking up in a strange, dingy place with a chain attached to your leg. I’ll bet Michelle has seen that one. A movie she probably hadn’t see was Retreat (2010) which had a similar type of story. She may have read Hugh Howey’s novel Wool (2011), the first in a series of books dealing with a post-apocalyptic society living in a silo, with the underground dwellers unsure of exactly what is going on in the word above them.
*. Then there is the way that such confinement stories had suddenly become culturally prominent. The horrific true cases of Joseph Fritzl, Natascha Kampusch, Ariel Castro, and Jaycee Dugard all made headlines around the same time, and the Fritzl case was the inspiration for the novel (later film) Room.
*. All of which suggests that this is a movie of the zeitgeist. What made it so?
*. After the U.S. presidential election in 2016 there was much talk of groups who lived “in a bubble,” and “fake news.” In retrospect, this may have been the fruition of a trend that had been developing over a couple of decades. People, and not just young people, had become increasingly comfortable with living within a digital envelope, of spending more time in virtual space than reality. Reality was unpleasant, even dangerous. I think this is what made all of these stories dealing with silos, bunkers, bubbles, or whatever, resonate so much. The audience could relate to people who were removed — by force or by choice — from the World.

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*. There are other timely themes that the movie effectively mines. Once again, as with so much contemporary horror, there is the ill-disguised hatred of the family unit. Poor Howard. He just “wanted us to be a happy family.” In time, he thinks Michelle will come to be a useful cook. Of course, such a view is of the same age as his fallout shelter, and only registers as perverse.
*. Another theme is that of the tragedy of preparedness. This is a phrase I’m taking from E. M. Forster’s Howards End, and it’s worth quoting the full passage as it does seem to bear on this movie: “Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is no that of a man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken. On a tragedy of that kind our national morality is duly silent. It assumes that preparation against danger is in itself a good, and that men, like nations, are the better for staggering through life fully armed.”
*. I really enjoyed 10 Cloverfield Lane. A lot of people dislike the ending, but I applaud the producers for diving right into the deep end and not going the more art-house route of ambiguity (though that might have been interesting too). I even like the ending despite pretty much despising Cloverfield, so that the hook into the “Cloververse” was no big thrill. But Michelle standing on top of the truck and saying “Come on,” at the end was the best moment in the film for me.

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*. The cast has to carry much of the load, and they do a good job. Mary Elizabeth Winstead has those cartoonish cute eyes that seem to have an unnatural amount of white in the pupil. I could watch her all day. Her character takes resourcefulness to pretty extreme levels, but we shouldn’t underestimate anyone who has actually picked up some practical skills as part of their education.
*. John Goodman is bear-like in his den, but I thought Howard lacked range. He might have at least tried to charm Michelle in a clumsy way, but aside from the ironic hits on the jukebox like “I Think We’re Alone Now” and “Tell Him (That You’re Never Going to Leave Him)” this is a movie barren of comic relief. Maybe it was felt that Goodman and the two cuties were enough on their own.
*. Just to round things out, John Gallagher Jr. is fine as Emmett, but I didn’t understand his character at all. In sum, looking at the three leads together I’d have to say that the cast is better than the script.
*. It’s a curious film, but in a good way: both very serious and very silly. Perhaps more by accident than by design I think it might last.

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The Hunger (1983)

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*. There has long been a critical consensus on The Hunger. In brief, that it is all style and no substance.
*. I don’t see any reason to challenge that view. Tony Scott got a lot of flack for being a director of commercials and music videos who just transferred this sensibility to the big screen. On the DVD commentary he does nothing to shy away from the charge, frankly admitting that the look of the film was very much of a piece with the world he was coming from. “I brought the commercial world to the world of movies,” he says, though he also points out that this was not an original development since his brother Ridley, Alan Parker, and Hugh Hudson had all followed the same career trajectory and been doing work in the same vein.
*. As far as criticism of the look of the film itself went, Scott is equally at ease. He remarks how critics slammed The Hunger as “artsy, esoteric, and self-indulgent,” and that they were right. He only adds in his defence that it is “still an interesting film.”
*. Well. Sort of interesting. But not interesting enough, at least in my book.
*. A couple of shots of drapes blowing slowly in the otherwise still air would not have been too much. Or perhaps even five or six such shots. But once Scott got up to a dozen it was probably time to start cutting back. And after two dozen . . .
*. I can understand the darkness of the Blaylock’s mansion, seeing as they’re vampires. Though they’re never called vampires in the script and I’m not sure if they’re bothered much by sunlight (or crosses, or whatever). It’s also odd that they appear in mirrors when they’re otherwise not visible, which sort of inverts the usual vampire lore. But anyway, to get back to my point, I can understand their mansion being dark. But why does the medical center have the same dismal, bluish lighting as the disco? And why do so many people wear cool sunglasses at night, in dark buildings?
*. Scott said he was inspired by Roeg’s Performance, which was an influence I didn’t pick up on at all. Is it just because both movies had rock stars in them? He also says the style was inspired by Helmut Newton. I guess you could see someone like David Fincher being a modern inheritor to this look. During his commentary, Scott says if he were making The Hunger today he’d do it in a grittier, more realistic and less operatic way. But still somewhat operatic. That sounds like Fincher.

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*. I would have thought a more obvious influence was Daughters of Darkness. The plot has a general resemblance (the decadent vampires who have a falling out, only for the queen to die and be succeeded by her lesbian lover), and I can’t believe they weren’t consciously trying to make Catherine Deneuve look like Delphine Seyrig. But Daughters of Darkness isn’t even mentioned by either Scott or Sarandon on the DVD commentary.
*. I found the editing to be painful. There just isn’t enough time to establish where you are before you’re bounced to somewhere else. And is all the obvious cross-cutting really necessary? I think the sequence where Bowie ages while waiting to see the heartless Dr. Roberts works very well on its own. I didn’t need to see the monkey dying at the same time. Because Bowie doesn’t have progeria, right?
*. Another reason I like that aging sequence is that it’s something we can all relate to. Your doctor doesn’t see you on time very often, does she? But this time she’s sorry!

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*. David Bowie had a number of prominent movie roles, but I don’t think he’s any better than any other rock star has been on screen. Which is to say, he’s a hopeless actor. At least he doesn’t have to do much here but get old. The make-up effects for his aging are great though.
*. I was surprised they showed a large urine stain in the front of John Blaylock’s pants when Miriam crates him up. I guess that’s realistic, but still not something I expected.
*. I wonder when the wedding of alternative music (punk or whatever) with a gothic look and vampirism got started. Long before this. Perhaps it was with those Hammer vampire films set in swinging London. It seems vampires are drawn to clubs, and for a while “vampire sex clubs” were sort of a thing.

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*. Bauhaus were never my thing. But then, neither was Bowie. I don’t care for the score of this film at all. The classical notes sound chintzy. The Lakmé flower duet, later to be used in a famous British Airways commercial (directed by Hugh Hudson, to come full circle) during the love scene between Miriam and Sarah is insipid. And what is that annoying noise being made when Tom discovers Sarah going through her withdrawal symptoms? It made me want to turn the sound off entirely.
*. Eternal life seems kind of dull on these terms, doesn’t it? You get to wear nice clothes, and live in swell digs, and listen to lots of classical music, but aside from that . . . not much. Maybe that’s why they all spend so much time making smoking look sexy.

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*. It was marketed as an erotic horror film, and we all know what that means, don’t we boys? Hot lesbian action! Roger Ebert: “The Hunger is an agonizingly bad vampire movie, circling around an exquisitely effective sex scene.” I wonder what he meant by “effective” in that context. Tumescence?
*. At the end of the day, it’s a movie that just doesn’t add up to much. There’s about enough of a story to fill a half-hour television slot, tricked out with lots of flashy art direction. After a while, a very little while actually, it starts to get annoying. The climactic confrontation in the attic at the end was too much, what with the blowing drapes, flapping pigeons, and crazy camera tilts. (“Crazy” because according to Scott it’s actually supposed to be the attic itself that’s tilting! Ask yourself how that’s possible.) And what were all those damn pigeons doing in the apartment anyway? Did they fly in from Blade Runner? A John Woo picture? Everything in that attic would have been covered in pigeon shit. I know.
*. Then the studio insisted on adding a coda that brought Sarah back to life and stuck Miriam in a box. I don’t think it makes sense (Sarandon: “I was kind of living, she was kind of half-dying, nobody really knew what was going on”), but they wanted to leave the door open for a sequel. They didn’t get one (because, in Scott’s words, “The Hunger didn’t make a bean”), though there was a short-lived TV series based on the premise. Because for a movie that never had a story in the first place, where was there to go?

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The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

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*. All criticism is grounded in the critic’s biography, at least to some extent. I wouldn’t be exaggerating by much to say I started writing these notes forty years ago.
*. I’ll always associate the stop-motion adventure films of Ray Harryhausen with a childhood spent watching such films on TV. I mean, for a seven-year-old kid what could be better than a giant one-eyed centaur carrying off a buxom belly-dancer, or a six-armed Indian goddess in a sword fight with a crew of heroic sailors?
*. Is it because of these fond childhood memories that I still doggedly prefer these effects to today’s CGI? Sure the movement of the monsters here is slow and clumsy in places, and the effects break down in a lot of the scenes (due to the burning around some of the figures, or the difficulty in synchronizing movement with the live actors), but isn’t this stuff a lot more fun than computer animation?
*. As a kid, the toys I played with were often little plastic replicas of fantastic creatures (or dinosaurs) like the ones I saw in films like these. Which means they were effectively the same thing (that is, miniature models) that you were seeing manipulated on screen. Flash forward fifty years and kids today play with images on video screens, so what they see when they go to the movies is much the same as what they play with on their tablets at home. I guess this is progress, but if I wanted to play a video game, I’d play a video game. My models were real!
*. Shot “in the miracle of Dynarama.” That was the trade name of Harryhausen’s stop-motion filming technique.
*. Is there anything to this movie aside from the monsters and Caroline Munro’s sweaty cleavage? Well, not much.
*. “Allah be praised!” The legendary Sinbad was a Muslim hero, a late addition to the One Thousand and One Nights who seems to have originated in the seventeenth century and whose tales are set at some point in the eighth (during the Abbasid caliphate). I wonder what the chances of Hollywood making a big-budget film with a Muslim hero are today. I can’t think of any recent ones. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time takes place around 1,000 years before the birth of the prophet Muhammad. Not that Sinbad is really representing Islam. “Allah” here just registers as some exotic-sounding pagan deity.
*. Of course the actors aren’t Arabs. Apparently they were told to roll their “r”s a lot when they spoke and tried hard to look tan. John Phillip Law is forgettable as Sinbad. Caroline Munro’s Margiana, as noted, has boobs coated in an oily erotic sheen. I was surprised to learn that Koura was played by Tom Baker, just a year before starting his stint as television’s Doctor Who (his performance in this film sold the producers on him). I didn’t even recognize him. For some reason Robert Shaw wanted to play Sinbad but was cast as the Oracle instead, an uncredited role with his face and voice distorted to the point where they didn’t even need to hire a professional. I’ve read that they wanted Orson Welles for the part. The next year Shaw would go on to play a sea captain in a different movie.
*. I still get mad at Koura taking his scimitar to the griffin’s hamstring. Damn, that’s dirty pool. He deserved a more spectacular demise.
*. The contemporary analog is Pirates of the Caribbean, and while those movies are fun in their own way, I wonder if they’ll last as long. On the other hand, does anyone who didn’t grow up on Harryhausen’s monsters love them as much as those of us who did?

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