Monthly Archives: March 2017

Behind the Green Door (1972)

*. I hope it won’t offend anyone too much if I confess that I have some — not a lot, but some — respect for Gerard Damiano (director of Deep Throat and Devil in Miss Jones) and the Mitchell Brothers (Artie and Jim, the team behind Behind the Green Door).
*. The thing is, they didn’t have to try to make good movies. They could have made a lot of money with no effort at all just shooting stag films. But they didn’t take the easy route. Maybe they didn’t see themselves as creating great art, but they at least thought they were aiming in that general direction. Doesn’t that count for something?
*. Of the Big Three films that defined the era (or was it only a year?) of porno chic, Behind the Green Door may not be the best (I’d give the nod to Devil in Miss Jones), but it is, in my opinion, the most erotic. There are scenes here that are still sexy nearly fifty years later, and Marilyn Chambers looks stunning, even when wearing a toque.
*. Some people complain that they find the proceedings a little dull. Look, all porn films are dull. They aren’t trying to tell a story. They have very little in the way of narrative. And the sex scenes here do tend to go on too long, even when the pay-off is a fantastic slow-motion money shot painted in psychedelic gusts of abstract jizz. Nevertheless, some of it still works, and this despite the alienating air of artiness.
*. My favourite scene is Gloria’s induction, where, after a hypnotic-erotic massage to warm her up, she’s offered like a victim to the brides of Dracula. I think one reason this works so well is because the “female attendants” (as they’re credited) stay fully clothed throughout, making Gloria’s body a spotlight of attention. All things considered (lighting, composition, editing) this is the high point of the film.
*. Just with regard to this same scene, Danny Peary describes the attendants as being dressed as nuns. I don’t think they are, but it’s interesting that he saw them that way.
*. I mentioned the brides of Dracula feasting on Gloria, and if there’s a theme to the sex here it’s in that notion of eating. This is one of the most oral porn films ever, and the fact that it begins in a diner, with its neon EAT sign prominently featured, probably wasn’t an accident.
*. We also have what was possibly the first interracial sex scene in an American hardcore feature (with Chambers and Johnnie Keyes). That’s something else to appreciate, isn’t it? And the thing is, despite being seen as taboo at the time the movie doesn’t play it as anything particularly transgressive.
*. Again we have the emphasis on sex as performance: the porn movie as act of voyeurism. As I said in my notes on Night Trips, porn movies aren’t about people having sex, they’re about watching people having sex. So there’s Marilyn Chambers being “loved as never before” while the audience masturbates and then break into an orgy. Gloria is just there to start the fire. You get the point.
*. After the initiation rite things go downhill. The rest of the sex I do find dull, even with the trapeze, and outside of the sex it seems a very strange movie indeed. Of course the premise of a woman being abducted and then initiated into various public sex acts that she comes to enjoy would not be well received today. For all the talk there was at the time of Gloria being a willing participant in the proceedings, she is presented as largely without agency. Indeed, she seems at times to have been placed on a kind of sexual conveyor belt, and doesn’t even have a voice (Chambers has no lines in the film, even after she’s left the club).
*. Then there is the strange framing narrative. What’s up with that? I’m not sure I understand what is going on even on re-viewings. I imagine audiences seeing it for the first time were totally lost.
*. Jim Mitchell had studied film a bit at university, and at least at one point had ambitions of being a serious filmmaker. But I’m not sure even that explains the odd art-house flavour to the proceedings. Though, as I began by saying, neither does any commercial impulse.
*. I have a hunch that the artistic flourishes were just part of the spirit of the age. Even fringe, exploitation filmmakers wanted to be doing something different, something creative in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Not to make money, but just because they could. Even porn could be art for art’s sake. If they don’t make porn movies like this any more, well, I think we have to add that they no longer make many movies like this in any genre. In the Internet age sex may be more a performance than ever, but is it a cinema of personal expression or just a routine?

Les Mystères du Château de Dé (1929)

*. Experimental art needs wealthy patrons since it is, almost by definition, not going to be aimed at mass tastes.
*. Enter the Vicomte de Noailles, a big supporter of avant-garde and surrealist art who had a fancy new modernist home, the Villa Noailles, that he wanted to show off. Apparently he also wanted to present a film a year as a present to his wife. As a model for the funding of the arts, this is almost medieval. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
*. It may sound a bit churlish starting off in such a way, but at the end of the day I’m not sure this little film is much more than a vanity project. As the camera strolls and pans its way about the villa we start to feel like we’re in one of those virtual-reality real estate tours of fancy homes: wealth porn from the 1920s. Avant-garde it may be, but hardly revolutionary.
*. I do like the approaching dissolves at the beginning, perhaps more than anything that follows. It’s like how we’re drawn into Xanadu at the beginning of Citizen Kane. I wonder if it’s too much of a stretch to think that Welles had seen this film and had it in mind.
*. As with a lot of experimental films, then and now, there are shots included that seem more to have been done just to see what the results would look like rather than for any thematic or narrative purpose. And some of the tricks were already clichéd, like running the film backward and turning the camera upside-down.

*. Man Ray was mainly known as a surrealist, but there’s not much surreal here aside from the mannequins. With the wooden hands, faces wrapped in stockings, uniform-like bathing costumes, and dramatic posing, the humans are made to seem like just another form of statuary, though less abstract.
*. It had its premiere alongside Un Chien Andalou, a far more daring and even poetic film. The poetry in this film is all in the intertitles, most of which struck me as obscure.
*. The house itself is the real star of the show, though I don’t think Ray makes as much out of the architecture as he might have. Nor does he do much with the juxtaposition of ancient and modern, which I thought had a lot of potential.
*. All-in-all, I didn’t find this very interesting. Ideas are hinted at — the villa as a decadent house of games, for example — but they aren’t developed. None of the camerawork or photography stands out. Even as a portrait of a place it doesn’t register as anything special. The patronage model for the arts can produce great results, but here it just leads to something idle and self-indulgent. The thing is, I’m not sure if it was ever meant to be anything more.

The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence)

*. I gave Tom Six credit for going in a new direction in The Human Centipede II, so by rights I should extend the same note of appreciation for what he did with this film. This isn’t more of the same. What it is, is no good at all. But it isn’t more of the same.
*. The idea had potential. The warden of an American prison that is going to hell decides to follow his assistant’s suggestion of keeping the inmates in line by making them into a giant 500-segment “human prison centipede.” That’s an interesting application of the formula.
*. It’s also ridiculous. But then the first movie was the most realistic, while the second definitely moved more in the direction of dark fantasy. Here we just take another step beyond that and end up in the land of slapstick satire.
*. Except it’s not funny. I’ve often said that a horror movie that isn’t scary isn’t the worst thing a moviegoer can be subjected to. A comedy that isn’t funny is an even more painful experience. Well, this movie asks, who says you have to choose? Why not have a horror movie that isn’t scary also be a comedy that isn’t funny?
*. Six literally takes everything from the first two movies that was even moderately well done and wrecks it. Dieter Laser and Laurence Harvey were very good as the leads in The Human Centipede and The Human Centipede II respectively, but they’re both awful here. Laser in particular turns in one of the worst screen performances in film history. He just shouts out all his lines without seeming to have any sense of what he’s saying. Which, if he was lucky, he didn’t. “My leadership balls are atom bombs, 100 megatons each!” is the highest level of wit that’s achieved.
*. The presence of Bree Olson, one of the most accomplished porn actresses of her generation (and “the ultimate American female,” in the words of Tom Six), is easy to make fun of in a “straight” role like this, but in fact she’s the only one in the cast who doesn’t embarrass herself. I think she might have felt more at home working with such wretched material.
*. Eric Roberts at least manages to look amused at the proceedings. He’s really cornered the market on slimy suits lately, hasn’t he?
*. I complimented Six’s eye in the first two films, which I thought made up for the terrible scripts. Which makes it all the more remarkable how this is such an ugly, uninteresting movie to look at. Really, Human Centipede III is so bad, in every way, that I was wondering if Six was even trying.
*. It’s all very knowing, if that’s your thing. Not only does Tom Six appear as himself, but Akihiro Kitamaru (the head of the first human centipede) plays one of the prisoners here, and quotes from Roger Ebert’s review of that film when the prisoners are forced to watch it during their film night. How very meta. I ended my notes on the Full Sequence by saying that this shit was rolling downhill. The warden one-ups this by suggesting that the perfect centipede would be joined in a circle, the shit being endlessly recycled. Which wouldn’t be a bad thing if it meant Six wasn’t going to make any more of these.
*. The proceedings are not so much scary or funny or even gross (though there are a couple of scenes to cringe at) as they are just tasteless. The warden bellows an endless stream of racist rants and eats from a jar of dried clitorises while saying “Thank God for Africa! Thank God for female circumcision!” To be fair he also castrates a male inmate and then eats the severed testicles. That’s gender equality for you.
*. At least there’s less room for sexism in this film, given there’s only one female cast member. But then we do see her getting beaten and then raped while she’s in a coma. So . . .
*. I guess if you’re trying really, really hard you could find something to recommend. Maybe it works on some minimal level as a political satire. It’s the George H. W. Bush Prison and they practice waterboarding. That seems to be a crack at something, especially as Laser is explicitly identified here as a Nazi. When the Governor decides at the end that Boss’s system is “exactly what America needs” a crude and not every original point is made about the carceral state. And I will acknowledge that Six had 100-megaton balls playing the national anthem over the end credits. He’s certainly not afraid of offending anyone.
*. I don’t want to spend any more time on this, as it’s a truly terrible movie. But at the end of my notes on the first Human Centipede I wondered if it might enjoy a rise in critical estimation as its shock value wore off. I wonder too if, twenty years from now, people are going to come to embrace this one. Maybe it will be seen as the grand culmination of the trilogy and one of the most important films of its time. Anything’s possible. Personally I think it’s just too dull and lacking in humour to ever catch on. But in any event, the only thing I can say is that right here, right now, I think it’s downright awful.

The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) (2011)

*. Believe it or not, I was prepared to like this one.
*. Why? I thought The Human Centipede (First Sequence), while heartless, cruel, and grotesque, was a reasonably well made movie with a somewhat original concept behind it. And from the trailers I saw for this one I thought it looked like it was going in an interesting new direction.
*. Well, it did head in an interesting new direction. I give Tom Six full credit for not just following up with more of the same but instead trying to do something very different. I just don’t think it worked.
*. Not all of what is different was the result of creative decisions made by Six. Most significantly, the film wasn’t shot in black-and-white. It was shot in colour and then changed to black-and-white, according to some sources as a way of placating censors. I’m not sure this worked (it had all kind of problems getting rated anyway), and I’m not sure why it would have worked. Are censors that easily fooled?
*. For what it’s worth, I’ve also heard Six say that he wanted to use black-and-white so as to “take off the edges of the gore” and make the movie scarier. I’m not sure what the correct story is.
*. I mentioned in my notes on the first film that I didn’t think Six wrote good dialogue. Maybe he just isn’t comfortable with the language. His English strikes me as passable but not perfectly fluent. In any event he decided to do most of this movie without any dialogue at all and this should have been a plus. Six does have a great eye and sense of space, and in Laurence R. Harvey, who plays Martin Lomax, he had the perfect round mound of putty for his camera to mold into a grotesque, screen-filling presence embodying the nadir of dysfunction and inadequacy. Does Martin really need to say anything? Probably not.

*. In addition to the lack of dialogue, the use of black-and-white, and the unique villain (or anti-hero) of the piece, there are also some other interesting avenues the film could have gone down. The perils of obsessive fandom, for example, or the meta-film angle that brings Ashlynn Yennie back, playing herself. Something could have been done with this. So all-in-all, you can see why I had my hopes up, just a bit.
*. I was let down. Six just doesn’t seem to me to be a filmmaker who is interested in ideas, or telling a story, or people in general. He’s also not interested, at least in this film, in building suspense or trying to scare people. Instead, he’s content to disgust us. This he achieves, but only while boring us at the same time.
*. The first movie, for all its bad reputation, was actually pretty clean, achieving more by way of suggestion. Dr. Heiter, for example, describes the operation in some detail, but we don’t see much of it being performed aside from some surgical lines being drawn and a couple of teeth being pulled. This “full sequence,” however, doubles down on the gross stuff. Apparently Six thought he’d let his fans down by not showing enough blood and shit the first time out so he wanted to make up for it.
*. Speaking of blood and shit, Six has said that showing the explosions of shit in colour, as splashes of brown, was an homage to Schindler’s List. I wonder if anyone’s told Spielberg. Now there’s a reaction video I’d like to see.

*. I didn’t realize (real) centipedes were such nasty creatures. But perhaps they’re being falsely represented here.
*. Again we have the conflation of sex and violence, or torture porn. Martin is shown masturbating while watching the first film, and later rapes the end segment of his centipede (after wrapping his cock in barb wire, in the uncut version). We understand that Martin was sexually abused by his father, and by his psychiatrist, but I’m still not sure what sort of point Six wants to make with this.
*. It’s odd that this movie presents the first film as a fantasy that Martin tries to recreate in reality. I say odd because the effect is exactly the opposite. The Full Sequence is far less realistic: “100% medically inaccurate” and set in a kind of Eraserhead universe. It’s hard to believe for a minute that Martin would be managing to pull all of this off, and perhaps in the end he wasn’t. It may all be his revenge fantasy.
*. Perhaps it’s for this reason I didn’t find it nearly as disturbing as the first movie, despite being far more graphic. I didn’t buy any of it. The Human Centipede had its moments, but was just depressing in the end. The sequel doesn’t even rise to that level.

*. I did like how Martin, who is obviously useless at doing anything, has to fall back on duct tape and a staple gun to make his centipede. These two items are the all-purpose handyman’s tools for people who aren’t handy and don’t know what they’re doing when it comes to fixing things (I speak from experience).
*. In at least one regard, however, Martin’s use of tools led to another failure of my suspension of disbelief. If you keep braining people with a crowbar you’re going to kill them, not knock them out. Here they get a bit of duct tape on their foreheads for a band-aid and they’re good to go.
*. Harvey is great as Lomax, but there’s only so much you can do with such a character and there’s nothing else to the film but him. Things get repetitive early as Martin just keeps beating his victims senseless in the parking garage and then takes them back to his warehouse-cum-abattoir. The final third of the movie is only mindless cruelty and gore, without a hint of suspense, shock, or horror.
*. I mentioned in my notes on the first film that I didn’t think Six did its reputation any favours with the sequels. In at least one sense, however, I guess he did. Watching this movie had the effect of making me like the first movie more. In much the same way, The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence) makes this one look good. It’s like shit rolling downhill . . .

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)

*. Here your commentator takes a deep breath.
*. Yes, you can say a lot of bad things about this movie, all of them true. It’s vile. It’s disgusting. In a perfect world it would never have been made.
*. If it were just a despicable film though I don’t think it would have had the kind of impact it’s had. The worst movies ever made are almost entirely unknown because nobody’s seen them. People did see The Human Centipede, and indeed among a certain segment of the population it became quite popular. So all of the venom directed against it suggests that there was something there, aside from the obvious.
*. Leaving aside the obvious, the premise, for just a moment, I’ll say I thought this was a reasonably well-made movie. It looks good. The house, both interiors and exteriors, is well presented. There are a few style points. Some of the suspense sequences are effective. The scene where Lindsay is trapped in the swimming pool is harrowing. Dieter Laser turns in a memorable camp performance as the Nazi Dr. Heiter. In brief, I don’t think the movie offends to make offence a skill, but it does show evidence of at least some talent at work.
*. On the downside: Tom Six can’t write dialogue. The plot is full of what have become conventions, starting with the flat tire (Kim Newman: “underneath an extremely repulsive concept, this is a relatively conventional horror movie”). The cast outside of Laser, though making sacrifices for their art above and beyond the call of duty, aren’t very good.
*. So, a mix of good and bad. I’d even say that for a film of this kind the good outweighs the bad. Then we have the premise. Which is that the mad doctor performs a reverse-Siamese operation on three young people: crippling them and joining together their gastric system by attaching them mouth-to-anus, thus forming a “human centipede.”
*. It’s an appalling idea, and I suspect much of the film’s notoriety initially arose from it being one of those movies that you watch on a dare, and maybe watch again with someone so you can see their reaction to it. In this way it’s no different than the “2 Girls 1 Cup” video (official name: Hungry Bitches).
*. In fact, I think Hungry Bitches, a porn video where two girls share vomit and excrement, is very much a relevant title in the context of a discussion of The Human Centipede. Obviously both movies feature girls being forced to eat shit, and both are also a kind of porn.
*. You really can’t miss that here. Look at the way Heiter straddles over the one girl (after giving her the date-rape drug Rohypnol) while injecting her with a hypo, and then sighing with what is clearly orgasmic release. And the training scene where he yells at Katsuro (the “head” of the centipede) to “Feed her! Feeeeeeed her! Hard!” and barks at Lindsay to “Swallow it bitch!” needs no further comment.

*. I assume someone has pointed out the sexism of having the male being the head of the centipede, and thus the one who doesn’t have to eat any shit. I wonder if the misogyny (a word that I think Six, an enemy of political correctness, would despise) fails to bother people, given how much else there is to be offended by.
*. The porn angle also suggests we look again at the label of torture porn. The sexual/fetish feel to the proceedings (already discussed) was not lost on the adult industry, which quickly had its own fun with the concept. But what about the torture part?
*. Roger Ebert: “It’s not death itself that’s so bad. It’s what you might have to go through to get there. No horror film I’ve seen inflicts more terrible things on its victims than The Human Centipede.” I think I’d say the same, but in furtherance of what moral point?
*. In his seminal torture-porn essay, which was published a couple of years before this film came out, David Edelstein remarked that “Some of these movies [Hostel and Wolf Creek were his main examples] are so viciously nihilistic that the only point seems to be to force you to suspend moral judgments altogether.”
*. I think that word nihilism is the key. You can’t have moral judgments in a nihilistic universe. And nihilism is clearly where twenty-first century horror has been heading. Think of the explosion in zombie films, the main argument of which is (as I have argued elsewhere) that we should just go out and start shooting other people in the head. “I don’t like human beings,” Dr. Heiter says. This is the philosophy of the zombie apocalypse. As Kim Newman observes, “clearly, misanthropy is in style”: “the message of the twenty-first century is that Other People are Shit.” Or they’re made to eat it.
*. For further evidence, look at the normalization of the dark ending, where movies like the Paranormal Activity films, or Rec, or Eden Lake, or Sinister, or The Witch, have all or most of the good/innocent characters killed at the end and evil triumphant. I guess in this one Heiter dies too, but two of the three centipede segments have preceded him and Lindsay is left suffering an even bleaker fate.
*. What we’re talking about here is something more than just an attempt to up the ante for jaded audiences. It’s an outright rejection of any system of moral values (in particular, those associated with faith and family) and a declaration of war against humanity. I’m not being prudish about this, but I am genuinely curious as to how widely adopted the message of “I don’t like human beings” and “Other People are Shit” has become. We seem to have lost our belief in life being worth anything, and indeed take pleasure (the pornography of torture and cruelty) in rubbing everyone’s nose in it. I think this is what Ebert meant when he refused to give The Human Centipede any stars and said it “occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.” There is no order in its universe, no justice human or divine. And it is not an outlier in this regard.
*. Just on the matter of justice, it may be worth noting that Six’s inspiration for the concept was an idea he came up with for punishing child molesters. How this led to a film where innocent people are tortured in this manner seems like a fair question. Indeed, it’s not just innocence that is destroyed, but it is Lindsay’s return to rescue Jenny that is her downfall. No good deed can go unpunished.
*. One defence of the movie that’s often made is to argue that it’s really a comedy, but if so I can’t see what it’s sending up. Satire is a moral tool, and if The Human Centipede is satirizing the excesses of contemporary horror movies, on what ground is it standing when it does so? I think there may well be comic elements in it, but it seems to me that the laughter is just as heartless as the cruelty, and really part of the same mindset.
*. By the same token, Six’s statement that it’s an anti-fascist film is even thinner. Heiter is just a stock villain. This movie has no politics.
*. So much for general reflections.
*. It was originally marketed as “100% medically accurate.” It isn’t, but then The Texas Chain Saw Massacre wasn’t an account of a true crime either. These are just ad lines. But the appeal to truth works.
*. I know it’s pointless to ask, but still: just what is Heiter up to? I realize he hates human beings, but he seems to have had some genuine attachment to his “beloved 3-dog.” So what was his point with all of this? I suspect he thinks he’s an artist even more than he wants to play God (if there’s a difference). In what may be a relevant bit of trivia, those are Six’s own paintings decorating his house.

*. We’re into the world of medical horror again. I wonder if this counts as a real trend or if it just seems that way. Most horror movies are aimed at young audiences, and most young people have little experience with the authentic horrors of the medical system. Nevertheless, it’s such a real and powerful anxiety it probably still resonates. For what it’s worth, Six claims he has a fear of hospitals and I found the (mercifully brief) operation scene here tough sledding. I really can’t stand this stuff.
*. I feel like Katsuro’s big speech at the end should mean something, relating to or explaining his suicide. But I can’t figure out what it might be. At that point, his situation is the furthest it’s been from hopeless.
*. Our standards for what we find disgusting are fluid. Eighty years ago Dracula and Frankenstein were considered shocking. The Exorcist had people throwing up and running for the exits. In twenty or thirty years will we look back at The Human Centipede as something quaint and humorous? I think it’s at very possible. Just on a second viewing I found it had lost most of its shock value.
*. Will it become a cult film? Maybe (that is, if the label “cult film” still means anything). But I’m not sure Six helped it in this regard with the remakes. Or at least he didn’t with The Human Centipede III (Final Sequence). Some people rate the second entry highly.
*. Newman found it “never quite as outrageous as it threatens to be,” and I think that’s true. At the same time, I think it is pretty explicit. About the only place where they avoid showing us more is in the operation scene. Much is made of the fact that we never actually see shit, but given the premise how could we? Unless it’s coming out of Jenny, and that wouldn’t mean anything. I think Six makes it clear when the “feeding” is taking place.
*. Perhaps after a while we’ll see this as less a game-changer and more of a representative film of its time, along the lines I’ve already mentioned. It’s typical of a generation of horror that no longer tries to do much along the lines of suspense or even shock but instead just presents us with an experience of suffering that we have to endure. Is there a value in that? I endured it but I don’t think it made me a stronger or a better person. And worse was to come.

Prophecy (1979)


*. Prophecy fills almost all the boxes on the checklist of what you want to see in a movie that’s so bad it’s good. It’s a shame it doesn’t manage to pull it off, pace Stephen King, who, in Danse Macabre, uses it as an example of the “really horrible movie” that is nevertheless irresistible.
*. There is only one irresistible moment. This is when the creature swats a little boy swaddled in a ridiculous yellow sleeping bag, sending him flying into a rock. Whereupon the sleeping bag explodes with a sound like popcorn popping, shooting downy feathers all over the campsite.
*. What makes this scene so remarkable is the way it seems clearly designed to be played for laughs (the boy attempts to bounce away from the creature while still wrapped up in his sleeping bag), and yet ends with such a shocking and emphatic way. You don’t often see children being killed, then or now, in horror movies. The result is a true WTF? moment, and I mean that in the best sense. But it’s not enough to save the rest of the film.
*. Things start off on a decent enough note. There’s a chase through some dark woods with a trio of hunters and a pair of hounds. They are attacked by something in the woods. There are roars and screams. So far, so conventional for the intro to a monster movie. But then there’s a nice transition to a tableau where we see the bodies of the hunters decoratively arranged at the foot of a cliff while some classical music plays, music we later see is being performed by Talia Shire.
*. That’s a good intro, but from here things go downhill quickly. We next mee our hero, a public health doctor who is clearly a crusader for whatever cause needs crusading for. He’s played by Robert Foxworth, who might almost be a double for Donald Sutherland in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Ladies and gentlemen, that’s what a leading man looked like in an SF-action/thriller in the late ’70s! Can you dig it?
*. Foxworth and Shire (who, I’m sorry to say, looks as hard done by as always), are sent to the woods of Maine to do some work for the Environmental Protection Agency. This introduces the movie’s main theme, which is eco-horror. There were a lot of movies like this in the 1970s. For some reason they fell out of favour. I’m not sure why. It’s not like the world’s environmental problems went away.


*. I have nothing against eco-horror, but the Message here is so obvious and laid on so thick you just want them to drop it and move things along. The natives (or Original People) are in the right. The white man and his dirty industries are destroying the beautiful Maine wilderness (which is actually British Columbia). Mother Nature will be sure to bite back. So let’s get on with it!
*. The heavy Message is just one way the movie bogs down in self-importance. As Kim Newman puts it: “Prophecy is merely silly, but its throat-clearing, significant title and definitive ad line (‘The Monster Movie’) elevate it to the status of overambitious annoyance.” We’re talking about a mutant killer bear, people. No need to get all fancy about it.
*. Then, after half the movie has been spent setting up the ecological and mythological back stories, we finally get the monster. King thinks it looks “sort of like a skinned pig and sort of like a bear turned inside-out.” Most viewers found it disappointing. What bothered me most was that it walks around upright. That’s quite a bear (or boar) mutation. And it’s not scary because let’s face it: a bear walking on its hind legs just looks silly.
*. As an aside, I have to register a complaint against a horror cliché that I’ve always found particularly annoying. This is the idea that any man or animal poisoned with toxins or radioactivity doesn’t get sick but is instead blessed with supernatural size and strength. I mean, how did those pathetic mutant bear cubs, which look like the baby in Eraserhead, grow up into the fearsome Katahdin?
*. King: “George Romero’s film Dawn of the Dead came out at about the same time as Prophecy (June-July 1979) and I found it remarkable (and amusing) that Romero had made a horror film for about two million dollars that managed to look like six million, while Frankenheimer made a twelve-million-dollar movie that managed to look like about two.”
*. Why does this movie look so bad? One thing I’ll flag is the way the scenes of the great outdoors are only establishing shots for action sequences that in turn often seem to have been filmed on studio sets. At least that’s what a couple of the campfire scenes look like to me. And studio “forest” sets always look cheap.
*. The raccoon attack starts off with a good jump scare, but (as was inevitable, because raccoons) turns into something unintentionally hilarious. Plus Foxworth should know that tossing a dead coon into his fireplace is going to stink up his cottage for weeks.
*. I should add that the raccoon scene got the production into trouble as they were apparently mistreating it very badly. Which is kind of ironic, given the movie’s message about respecting the environment.
*. It’s hard to think of anything this movie does well. Frankenheimer blamed his heavy drinking at the time for the film not realizing its potential, but I think another big problem was that he just wasn’t a natural fit for the material. I hear the novelization is actually quite good, but the script is dreadful, with lines like “You were too busy playing God to be a human being!” and important plot points, such as Shire’s pregnancy, simply forgotten.
*. I’d like to say this one is a guilty pleasure, but the fact is that it’s mostly just stupid and dull. It takes too long to get going, then once it does it forgets all about what came before and just throws a cheesy monster on the screen and calls it a day. At the half-way point there is a little moment of magic, but it’s just a pop of popcorn in the woods.


Curse of the Cat People (1944)

*. I don’t think there’s ever been a sequel like this. We have all of the same leads in the same roles, and the same screenwriter and producer, but in almost every other respect it has nothing to do with Cat People. The scene at the beginning where the two kids spot the black cat in the tree had to be added after principal shooting because the studio realized there were no cats in the final cut of the film at all!
*. In fact, it seems to entirely reject the conclusion of Cat People, which I thought made it clear (though on the DVD commentary Greg Mank says it’s left ambiguous) that Irena did indeed turn into a cat (and hence “she never lied”). In this movie, however, with Oliver and Alice having left the big city for a cozy suburban existence, Irena is just a pitiable head case destroyed by her own fantasies: a cautionary tale for little Amy, who is assumed to be lying about everything, just like Irena.
*. Ann Carter as Amy is the real lead, being in nearly every shot of the film. Apparently she got her break in movies because she looked so much like Veronica Lake. She did some other films in the ’40s but then got polio which derailed her career.
*. Greg Mank considers this to be one of the greatest child performances ever, and praises Carter as “pretty, strange and sad.” I agree . . . sort of. She also seems very stiff to me, and her acting consists mainly of turning on the same two or three expressions. On the other hand, she really works in this part. So I guess I’d call it good casting.
*. This was Robert Wise’s debut as a director, but he actually shares that credit with Gunther von Fritsch, who was fired after he fell behind schedule. From what I can tell, Fritsch directed about half of the movie but I don’t know which half. Mank mentions on the commentary that a full breakdown of who shot what would “require more time than we have,” but he does mention that Fritsch shot all the Simone Simon stuff. In any event, I usually see it referred to as Wise’s movie because he’s the one who went on to have the bigger career and I wanted to be sure to mention Fritsch because I don’t think that’s fair.
*. Stephen King called out the first “Lewton walk” scene in Cat People because Alice was so obviously on a sound stage he couldn’t believe that she was really walking through Central Park. Film’s state of the art didn’t allow for what King refers to as “the set of reality.” Such a scene worked for audiences in the 1940s, but no longer works for us. Much the same could be said for Curse of the Cat People, which is almost wholly studio bound and which ends in perhaps the fakest snowstorm in screen history. But I don’t think you can level the same objection at this film because it’s quite consciously (and literally) a fairy tale. We’re in a world where any distinction between the real world and fantasy has been lost.

*. I love the slow revelation of the good fairy Irena. She arrives gradually: first just a reaction shot from Amy who then plays with her (invisible to us) friend in the garden, then a shadow and musical motif arriving in Amy’s bedroom, then a voice singing, then we see an old photograph of her, and then she finally appears to Amy in all her glory.
*. Some people don’t like Irena’s get-up. I don’t mind it. It seems like the kind of thing a little girl might imagine a fairy princess wearing. Mank, weirdly, thinks her appearance is a bit “kinky” and imagines her wearing fishnets under her gown, or nothing at all. Usually I’m on board for such speculations, but here it seems a stretch. I think Irena looks pretty wholesome.
*. The whole subplot involving the theatrical Mrs. Farren (Julia Dean) and her estranged daughter Barbara (Elizabeth Russell, the Cat Woman from Cat People) is pretty darn depressing. Perhaps not as depressing as it was originally written, which had the story ending with Barbara being dragged off to the looney bin, but still quite a downer. I mean, there’s no reconciliation, and while Amy is happily absorbed back into her family Barbara is left to slink away into the darkness. I wonder if she’ll go on to become the mad lady of that old house, filling it with hundreds of adopted cats.
*. Given how different a movie this is from Cat People I don’t think there’s any way to compare the two. Curse of the Cat People certainly takes the idea of the “imaginary” monster as far as it can go, as I think we’re left to assume that all the Irena stuff we’ve seen was in Amy’s head. When Wise made The Haunting, which also drew into question the source and real presence of the story’s evil, it was intended as an homage to Lewton.
*. As Mank says, the people who like Curse of the Cat People like it a lot. I find it stagey, kitschy, and sentimental, and yet I fall for it every time, finding it a moving film despite how obviously manipulative it is. Like the best fairy tales it’s both darkly realistic and pure fantasy, presenting imagination as both dangerous and a force of grace. It’s accessible to children, but with a quality about it that I think adults respond to as well. Or at least I respond to it. But then, I’m a bit of a sap.

Cat People (1942)

*. Cat People is famous today mainly for two scenes where Irena (Simone Simon) is stalking Alice (Jane Randolph): the first following her through Central Park before Alice catches a bus and the second in a basement swimming pool. It is also a movie that has become a byword for horror that scares us by not revealing its monsters or just relying on jump scares and shock effects.
*. I mention this first just to get it out of the way. Yes those two scenes are good (though I think perhaps a bit overrated), and yes the film gets a lot of mileage out of being suggestive rather than explicit. But on my re-viewings — and I watch this movie a lot — I tend not to notice the building of suspense as much. What interests me are more pedestrian things.

*. For example, I wonder what the “good, plain Americano” boy Ollie sees in Irena anyway. She seems so insipid with her cutie-pie face and lilting little-girl voice that makes even her most dramatic lines sound like baby talk. Was she using some kind of cat magic to seduce him? Or did he just see her as a stray that he wanted to take in? At one point he seems to think he’ll be able to normalize her by marrying her, which is as deluded as those women who think they’ll be able to change a man by getting him to settle down. But I guess we all fool ourselves in the same way when we’re in love.
*. Obviously Alice is the girl for Oliver. They’re made for each other: the all-American couple. She has an outstanding collection of hats but doesn’t have any exotic (read: foreign) vibe going on. Indeed, Jane Randolph wasn’t just made for Kent Smith (his real name!), but made for the part of the good girl playing opposite the vamp. She’d be doing it again in Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein, where she’s the foil to Lenore Aubert.

*. Given the obvious mismatch, it’s hard not to feel sorry for Irena. We get the sense she’s really trying, but this marriage is going nowhere and Ollie is a heel. He betrays her right away when he goes through Alice to find a psychiatrist, and utterly humiliates her at the museum when he sends her off to go look at something modern while he and Alice share their common passion for model ships. The dialogue here is cruel: “Don’t send me away.” “We’re not sending you away. We just don’t want you to be bored.” After a moment like that, it’s hard not to think Ollie gets let off easy at the end.
*. Speaking of the end, that final line is another kick at Irena isn’t it? “She never lied to us.” It was “us” (Ollie and Alice) all along. And not lying? How good and plain Americano is that? As though, in the face of this revelation of authentic supernatural horror, such common decency not only matters, but is the only thing that matters.
*. A final note on our sympathy for Irena: how sad is her little attempt at a wave good-bye to Oliver on the grand staircase after she takes her final leave of him? She’s just killed Dr. Judd, which was a kind of act of loyalty. And she knows now that Alice is taking her place. But I guess she still has feelings for Oliver, even if he has moved on.

*. Cat People came out a year after Citizen Kane, and RKO was looking to recover its fortunes with cheap, commercial, horror movies. It also came out a year after The Wolf Man and it very much plays to the same archetype, and makes a clear nod to the werewolf mythology when Dr. Judd jokes about needing a gun with a silver bullet to face Irena. Irena the werecat even frightens cats in her human form, just as dogs will lunge and bark at Lawrence Talbot.
*. So we go from dogs to cats, men to women. It was actually pretty daring at the time to have a female “monster.” There weren’t many of them in early horror films.

*. I’m not sure where Tom Conway’s Dr. Judd fits in the history of screen psychiatrists. The movies really didn’t know what to make of psychiatry yet, and while later they would become heroic healers able to unlock the secrets of the mind, here we’re presented with someone who is just a seemingly dignified (but secretly lecherous) hypnotist. And yet, he is not without a heroic dimension too, finally being cast in the role of a latter-day King John ridding New York of an Old World evil.
*. The script by DeWitt Bodeen is kind of hammy and obvious, but I think a lot of that came with the territory. Overall, I was impressed at its structure and economy.
*. Animals are notoriously difficult to work with, so let’s give a special wet treat to the hissing kitties in this film and, most of all, the black panther Dynamite. Get a load of that look he gives Irena when he sees her stealing the key to his cage. You (obviously) can’t teach acting chops like that!

*. The scene with Irena and Ollie on either side of the closed door is well known, but I’m not sure how all that plays to a contemporary audience. Of course back in the 1940s you couldn’t show married couples sleeping in the same bed, but the idea that even months after being married Irena and Ollie can’t even sleep in the same room seems ridiculous. Nevertheless, was this scene being slyly parodied in The Wicker Man when Britt Ekland does her mating dance on the other side of the door from the repressed Sgt. Howie? I think it must have been in someone’s mind.

*. What a beautiful looking film, especially with the lighting. I like the use of the light tables in Ollie’s office in particular. You know cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca’s eyes must have widened at the possibilities there. Also terrific is the play of light off the water that makes shifting liquid patterns on the walls of the swimming pool. That’s what makes that scene work.
*. I think this is a truly great B-picture, but I’m not sure it transcends that label. Pauline Kael: “Lewton pictures aren’t really very good, but they’re so much more imaginative than most of the horror films that other producers were grinding out at the time that his ingenuity seemed practically revolutionary.” I think this is maybe a bit harsh. There are real moments of excellence in the production here, and the frank, if allegorized, portrayal of sexual jealousy and betrayal stands up very well. As I’ve said, it’s a movie I find myself re-watching quite a bit, and I’m almost always being struck with something new about it. That’s pretty special for a B.

Gravity (2013)


*. It’s often been said that movies are as much a business as they are an art. This is something no critic should lose sight of. I would, however, make it a triumvirate. Movies are an art, a business, and a technology, in roughly equal measure.
*. It follows that successful filmmakers are either great artists, shrewd businessmen, excellent engineers, or some combination of all of the above.
*. You’ll have guessed where I’m going with this. Gravity was one of the more critically-acclaimed movies of 2013 and went on to win seven Academy Awards. These were mainly for its technical achievements, which were inventive and ground-breaking. Trophies were handed out for Best Director (Alfonso Cuarón), Best Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki), Best Visual Effects, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Original Score (Steven Price). In other words, it looks and sounds great.
*. Alfonso Cuarón is the kind of director I think of as an engineer. Other Oscar-winning engineers include James Cameron and Peter Jackson. Those with longer memories may think back to Victor Fleming. These are the guys you want helming your mega-budget blockbusters because they know how to get all their ducks in a row.
*. I’m not putting these directors down or pigeon-holing them, but just saying that this is the kind of thing they do really well. More to the point here, this is the kind of movie Gravity is. It spent a lot of money on effects, and it spent that money well. As noted, it looks and sounds great. But . . .


*. But that’s it. They spent $100 million on a ten-cent script. Of course this has been a successful formula for Hollywood for years. And Gravity took in over $700 million in box office, so who cared if it was about two of the dullest characters you could imagine floating around in space as one thing after another goes terribly wrong? You weren’t really meant to care about Dr. Stone (Sandra Bullock) or Dr. Smooth (George Clooney).
*. Personally, I think it would have made for a more compelling movie if they hadn’t given the two leads any back story and just made them pure professionals. But in any event, they’re not what the movie’s about. You’re here to gaze in wonder at the magnificent view of the sun rising over the Sinai, and gape at things flying at you in 3-D.
*. I like how it attracted so much intelligent commentary. Critics (amateur and professional) had a field day arguing over how realistic it was. Apparently the whole business of the orbiting space debris is way off. The only part that bothered me was when Clooney let go to save Bullock, since I didn’t see how he would have been dragging her down anyway, but this point has been argued back and forth by people who know a lot more about it than I do.
*. Sure, it’s entertaining in a rollercoaster-ride sort of way. But the best film of the year? I can’t think of any reason I’d watch it again. In the future, I think computers might be able to make movies like this. And I’m afraid they may make them just as well.


Death Line (1972)


*. What makes this movie so interesting, and so good, can be boiled down to its time and place.
*. The time was 1972, which is two years before the release of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This gives it pride of place when discussing a gritty film about a feral “family” of cannibals. The remarkable long camera pan around the meat cellar — seemingly drawn out even more by the drip-drip-drip and heart beat we hear on the soundtrack — reveals a design comparable to the furnishings of the grisly homestead in Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which was in turn one of that film’s most noteworthy elements. So let’s give this film some credit for being ahead of the curve. I mean, the British horror industry at this time still mainly consisted of the neo-gothic and anthology comic books of Hammer and Amicus. Death Line is clearly a very different beast.
*. The place was England. As noted, not a country whose film industry was known for horror. The director, Gary Sherman, was American though, and this was his first dramatic feature, which probably helped in some ways.
*. As we listen to the groovy score playing under the opening credits, which are themselves run over a series of out-of-focus blobs of coloured light that bulge psychedelically, it’s hard not to think of the hard times that “swinging London” had fallen on.
*. The fact that we’re in England is also important for the mythic shape the story takes. In America the cannibals live out on the frontier, off the main highway somewhere. They are rural figures, obviously lower class white trash, but they are mainly divided from the rest of civilization by geography.
*. In England the degenerate subway dwellers are an underclass in the rigid social hierarchy. They have proletarian roots, as the descendants of navvies who were buried alive when excavating the subway and then left to rot. Their undoing is in killing James Manfred, O.B.E. (that means he’s an Officer of the Order of the British Empire). The scruffy detectives will take a lot of pleasure insisting on that O.B.E., and in a final dig it’s still attached to his name in the credits.
*. The class hierarchy is something that informs the entire movie. Donald Pleasence is a rumpled figure who enjoys life’s simpler pleasures (tea during working hours, a pint at the pub later). When he goes to Mr. O.B.E.’s house with his assistant Rogers he tears a strip out of the décor before being humiliated by a toff from MI5: an ultra-posh Christopher Lee with the hyphenated ruling-class moniker of Stratton-Villiers. Pleasence protests that he is the master of his manor and will prosecute any villains (or villeins?), but this is empty bluster and they both know it.
*. Of course underlying all of this is Wells’s The Time Machine, with the underground workers literally feeding on the upper classes. That’s a staple of a lot of science fiction, but it doesn’t crop up quite as often in horror. The Descent is one counter example, but the dominant tradition in American horror anyway is, as I’ve said, to situate such baddies in an anti-Romantic rural ghetto or wilderness. I guess that might have something to do with a more egalitarian society and the myth of the frontier, but I won’t pursue this point here.
*. Another English vs. America divide can be seen in the different titles the movie was released under. Death Line is pretty good, being original and yoking together the idea of the Man representing the end of his family line with the subway stop being a dead end for various passengers. In America, however, it was released as Raw Meat. Just because.
*. It was also released with a poster that is one of the most egregious examples of false advertising you’ll ever see. It looks like it’s going to be about a whole “tribe” of super-sexy zombies. Which it isn’t.
*. As far as the movie itself is concerned, I think it’s very good but not because of anything Sherman does. It seems to me there are a lot of opportunities for suspense wasted. Sherman went on to direct Dead & Buried, another cult horror favourite, as well as other thrillers, but I never get the sense that this is what he wants to be doing.
*. I like watching Donald Pleasence in just about anything, and he seems very at home here. And Hugh Armstrong is excellent as the Man, giving him all the pathos of Karloff’s monster in Frankenstein. And I do think Sherman helps out, for example with the long shot of the Man’s mourning after his wife’s (mate’s?) death in childbirth, which really emphasizes a sense of isolation and loneliness.
*. It’s also a relief to see the Man get taken down so easily in the various fights he gets into. Yes, he’s very big and strong, but he’s also wracked with illness and seems to have a serious head injury. He’s not one of those killer supermen we see in so many, more conventional horror films. In this respect I compare him very favourably to the radiation-sickened powerhouses in The Hills Have Eyes remake.
*. The script also strikes me as very good, balancing the obvious comic elements with the horror. The ending in particular underlines this. What are we to make of Inspector Calhoun going through the Man’s underground home and muttering that it’s no way for someone to live? Understatement yes, but comic? And what about the Man’s chant of “Mind the doors!”? It’s absurd, but also pathetic.
*. There are parts that don’t work as well. The young leads, for example, strike me as uncomfortable and almost unnecessary. But despite any miscues it’s such a well-executed and original little film that it makes a lasting impression. More than enough, I think, to assure it a place in the underground horror hall of fame.