Monthly Archives: September 2019

The Killer Shrews (1959)

*. The Killer Shrews is a one of the best-known independently-produced, Grade-Z horror films of the 1950s, largely because of its eponymous pack of killer critters. I mean, they even sound funny. Killer shrews?
*. That these shrews are fanged beasts with poison saliva should make them more threatening, but the fact that they’re just a bunch of coon hounds wearing long-haired coats and toothy masks sort of undercuts the scare factor. Now to be fair, I do get a kick out of their appearance. At least I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything else like them. But they’re not scary.
*. A terrible movie? Sure. But it definitely falls into the so-bad-it’s-good category. Of course the plot is silly and the shrews ridiculous, but there are all sorts of enjoyable moments along the way. A quick list: Captain Sherman (James Best) being offered a martini upon his arrival at the island; Sherman using the barrel of his pistol to tighten a tourniquet around Mario’s leg; Ann looking like she’s trying not to break out laughing when Mario dies; Sherman getting ready to toss Jerry’s unconscious body to the shrews before having second thoughts; the escape plan that has the survivors duck-walking to the boat under a bunch of inverted metal tanks; and finally Sherman’s final line to Ann’s father as he takes Ann in his arms and claims her with a lustful smooch: “I’m not going to worry about overpopulation just yet.”
*. Any movie with so many smile points in just 69 minutes can’t be all bad. And in fact The Killer Shrews is a lot of fun. Some people complain about there being so much talk in the first half of the picture, but I didn’t think the arrival of the shrews (all four or five of them) made that big a difference. It’s never a terribly suspenseful or thrilling movie. But it deserves its reputation as one of the best of the worst of its time.


The Naked Prey (1965)

*. In his entry on Cornel Wilde in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson likens Wilde’s films to the Dordogne cave paintings, saying “there are moments where one has the illusion of watching the first films ever made.”
*. This is a messy judgment, not least because the first films ever made don’t have any of the qualities of Wilde’s work. I also don’t think we can speak of him as a naive or primitive filmmaker, for some reasons I’ll mention in just a bit. What Thomson is getting at, however, is the archetypal nature of Wilde’s storytelling, especially in his films The Naked Prey, Beach Red, and No Blade of Grass.
*. When I say archetypal I mean a couple of things: (1) a story stripped down to its bare essentials, and (2) a story with a large footprint.
*. I don’t think there’s any questioning how stripped down The Naked Prey is. It’s not just that Wilde’s white hunter is run off into the bush without any clothes (though his skin-coloured shorts are pretty obvious). It’s the fact that he has no back story or character or even name. He’s simply credited as “Man.” Not only that, he has scarcely any lines. This is a story of survival that takes everything down to the essentials.
*. While I’m on the point I’ll mention that the screenplay was nominated for an Academy Award. Despite the script being only nine pages long. And let’s face it, they probably could have cut half of that. Dialogue, however, is only part of the screenwriter’s art. A silent movie can have a great script. I do question the quality of the script here, however. Aside from the lack of dialogue, there really isn’t much to it. The concept isn’t terribly original, and it’s basically just a long chase film. I don’t see how this qualifies as a great screenplay.
*. The other archetypal quality the film has can be seen in the way it suggests so many other stories and genres. I guess first among these would be the descendants of The Most Dangerous Game, a movie Wilde said he’d been inspired by that counts as the forefather of the “hunting-humans” genre. It’s also the case that many such films have the prey being a hunter himself, or guide, who experiences the tables being turned. This was the case in The Most Dangerous Game and Run for the Sun, as well as more recent films following the same script such as Beyond the Reach.
*. As well as a hunting-humans story it’s also a Western. The primary source was in fact a (supposedly) true story about a man, John Colter, escaping Blackfoot warriors in 1809 Wyoming. The frontiers have changed here, but it is still a tale of the frontier. It’s just that the nature of the boundary that frontier marks has gotten blurry.
*. Another genre we may think of is the cannibal movies following in the wake of Cannibal Holocaust. Yes, the natives are presented sympathetically for the most part here, but the torture games are shockingly cruel, and even more so given the time. Then there is the nature footage included, which serves some thematic purpose but which mainly just foreshadows the use of similar material in the cannibal films, situating humanity only on a continuum of predatory nature.

*. So it’s a very basic story, presented in its most elemental form. If you want to read more into it, as having something to say about apartheid for example, then that’s fine. But I think you have to work hard to do so. I’ll confess the more I look into it the less I see. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie, but just that I don’t think it’s very deep.
*. It is, however, handled with skill. Wilde isn’t a great director, but he has more than his share of moments. There’s the way the widescreen makes the tilt of his head to show his listening for the sounds of an ambush so expressive. The way the canopy of flowers covers up the murder of the bird man. The way we pan away from Wilde hiding behind a tree to look at his pursuer, only to reveal his disappearance when we pan back. This is all very nice, and it’s complemented with good photography throughout. The only problem being that the borrowed Wild Kingdom footage jars.
*. Wilde’s is a mostly physical performance, not just without words but with little emotion on display. He is not, however, one-dimensional. He can feel respect for his pursuers and become ecstatic at seeing them burn. Also, for a man in his early fifties he really was in remarkable shape. I’m glad Stephen Prince on the Criterion commentary acknowledges that jump he makes down the cliff of the waterfall at the end. How did Wilde’s knees manage that? He was landing on rock!
*. I’m really glad Criterion gave this a release, as I hadn’t seen it before they brought it out. It’s a good movie, and the fact that it has held up as well as it has is impressive. I just don’t think it has another gear to it, like, for example, Walkabout does (Walkabout being a movie I was often reminded of). There’s something archetypal about it, yes, but also something that falls short of great art. It does seem ahead of its time, but it’s very much of its time too. Is it the Technicolor? Wilde’s loincloth? The locations that don’t seem wild enough? It was shot in South African and (what was then) Rhodesia, but there were moments when I didn’t feel that far removed from Gilligan’s Island, which was in the middle of its own initial run when this movie came out. Whether in Africa or a Pacific island, it could still feel like the ’60s.

Suspiria (2018)

*. Suspiria was a movie that deeply divided critics and audiences. Pete Travers in Rolling Stone thought polarizing “too tame a word” to describe the reactions to it. This was primarily, as far as I can determine, for two reasons: (1) its relationship to Dario Argento’s 1977 film, and (2) its 152-minute running time. So let’s start by taking a closer look at both these points of contention.
*. First there is Suspiria then and now. Justin Chang: “[Director Luca] Guadagnino, who has said he wanted to remake Suspiria since he first saw it more than 30 years ago, signals both his reverence and his seriousness by departing from it in every way imaginable — visually, sonically, dramatically, emotionally.”
*. I agree with Chang’s list of ways in which this film departs from the original, which raises the question of why, if Guadagnino was intent on changing the property so completely, he even wanted to do it. Why not just make something entirely new? Given how well Argento’s film has stood the test of time, there were many people who found this remake unnecessary, to say the least. So did I. But I also have to admit that I was really looking forward to it.
*. Well, on to the everything that has changed. Most obviously Argento’s use of Bava-esque colour has been dropped for a dreary grey that Guadagnino describes as “wintry.” I think it looks dull, though I guess it fits the period (Cold War Berlin) and the soundtrack, which is just as muted.
*. I’ve mentioned before how I tend to watch movies these days with subtitles. This isn’t so much because of hearing loss as it’s due to the horrible recording of dialogue, making most of it inaudible. Well, Suspiria is one of the worst offenders yet in this regard. I literally couldn’t make out anything the characters were saying, in English, German, or French. It didn’t even bother me that so much of the film was multilingual since I couldn’t hear a bit of it anyway.
*. What does the dialogue sound like? Like Thom Yorke moaning out his lyrics. We’re a long, long way from the clumsy-but-loveable (and at least intelligible) dubbing in Argento’s film, and the music of Goblin.
*. But are such comparisons fair? Or relevant? Some people think not, and insist that this Suspiria be judged on its own merits. So let’s move along to the question of the film’s length.

*. There aren’t many horror films that go on for two-and-a-half hours. Why is this one so long? The main culprit is the material relating to other events happening in Germany at the time, and in particular the terrorist attacks of the Baader-Meinhof group. Also the character of a psychiatrist who lost his wife in the Holocaust is introduced.
*. There is quite a lot of this stuff and it has almost nothing to do with the main plot. There’s some attempt at making a connection between the coven of witches at the dance school and the revolutionary movement going through its own crisis of leadership, as well as mention of the Nazi party and its cult-like attributes, but I think it would be charitable to call this flimsy. And even if more were done with it I can’t see how it was going anywhere. The terrorist angle is only a red herring which nobody is interested in anyway, while the Nazi stuff is raised only to be chucked into a memory hole at the end. Why even bother?
*. Another odd addition is all of Susie’s back story. Apparently she grew up in a Mennonite family in rural America and her mother died in a manner that associates her with Helena Markos. But so what?
*. That sense I had of missing the point stuck with me throughout most of the movie. Tilda Swinton may not be the hardest actress to make pass for a man, but her transformation into the old psychiatrist here is phenomenal. I honestly didn’t know it was her. But then I had to wonder: why bother? Again: so what? Is there any purpose served in having her play the two roles? Apparently because Guadagnino saw this as a movie centered around women, he thought it made sense that the only male character be played by a woman. Even a woman who was already playing two roles (Swinton also plays Helena Markos). Does that make sense to you?
*. Being such a long movie wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing if it had a snappier pace. But as I remarked in my notes on A Bigger Splash, pacing is not one of Guadagnino’s strengths. Scrawled in my notes made while watching Suspiria I find this: “When is something going to happen?” Argento’s film (yes, I know, I’m comparing again) begins with a spectacular opening kill, while introducing us to Susie Bannion and some key plot points. This movie begins with pretty much nothing (the disappearance of one of the girls after she goes to see the psychiatrist), and we don’t get the first kill until nearly 40 minutes in. This, in turn, is the high point of the entire film. The blood bath at the end is just a performance piece shot (inexplicably) in red light and filled with CGI exploding heads.
*. A lighter touch might have helped, but for some reason Guadagnino is in full epic mode, wanting to bring in history and politics and mythology and everything else to weigh down what was originally a delightfully trashy idea. Just how pretentious it’s going to be is announced with the title card, telling us that this will be a film in six acts with an epilogue. The acts are then announced in intertitles like “Act Five: In the Mutterhaus (All the Floors are Darkness)” Is that a joke? Because if it isn’t a joke . . . please.
*. If pacing isn’t Guadagnino’s strength I don’t think he scores any better with suspense. But then he’s not a horror director. Aside from the one good scene I mentioned (the death of Olga by some kind of voodoo in the mirror room) he muffs every other shot at being scary. To take just two examples: Sarah’s descent into the basement and the abduction of the psychiatrist both had a lot of potential, even if only for jump scares. But they both fall flat.

*. Still, I was sticking with Suspiria until the end. It was, I figured, a slow burn. And there were nice touches along the way. I especially liked the idea of having the coven being a bunch of frowzy, middle-aged women who smoke like chimneys over their coffees in the morning, go out drinking together at night, and who get their kicks out of playing with drugged policemen’s dicks. A lot of fun could have been had with these gals. But instead we waste time with all the historical baggage.
*. And then there is the end. This movie has one of the worst climaxes of any major film I’ve seen in years. As I’ve already said, it’s basically just another performance dance piece shot through a red filter with some exploding heads, then a tacked-on epilogue that ties up the Holocaust story.
*. Malgosia Bela is apparently playing Death at the end. I had to look that up. I looked it up because (1) I didn’t know who it was supposed to be crawling out of the cellar (and what sort of character is “Death” anyway?); and (2) I thought it was probably just Javier Botet again, since I figured he had a trademark on these sorts of figures (that he played in Rec, The Mummy, and Insidious: The Last Key, among other films). Actually Bela also plays Susie’s mother. I’ll bet you didn’t make that connection the first time you saw the movie. I wouldn’t have unless I’d looked it up. Knowing the connection, I can’t say it tells me anything. Again: so what?
*. I wish I could say something nicer about this one. I really did have my hopes up, but came away disappointed. I can’t understand how anybody thought taking Argento’s story in all these new directions made any kind of sense. I could see how they might have thrown out some of the ideas developed at length here, maybe in a pre-production brainstorming session, but to have stuck with them all, at such cost, is baffling. I wonder what Guadagnino thought he was doing. Making a bloated, muted, dreary art-house homage to a psychedelic splatter flick from the 1970s? That would have been bad enough, but I don’t think he even got that much right.

Suspiria (1977)

*. I suspect I was like most other people in being blown away by Suspiria the first time I saw it. I still love it — though I’ll stick with Deep Red as Dario Argento’s masterpiece — but today I find it less raw and more overcooked.
*. I remember how genuinely scary it was the first time. Just the hissing sound of the sliding door as Suzy (Jessica Harper) exits the airport made me jump. Now all of that seems incredibly silly. Loveable, but silly. I mean, I always thought the bat that’s the size of a football was silly, but now everything seems like that.
*. Just by the way: despite being standard props in horror films since forever, probably even before Dracula, has there ever been a scary movie bat? Or even a whole flock of bats, as in Nightwing?

*. It’s very much a picture of its time and place, and I’m not just talking about the snazzy decor. The colour, for example, is straight out of Bava, but takes that master of the primary palette even further. Do the colours in this film make any sense at all? Sometimes whole rooms are alternatively washed in reds and blues and greens without any source for these colours in sight. I mean, it’s one thing to ask “Why is this room all red?” and another to ask “How did this red room turn green all of a sudden?”

*. Then there is the sound, which, as was common for Italian films like this at the time, was mostly done post-production. Along with the dramatic colour shifts, stagey set design, and other random elements (the dog attack clearly done by a puppet dog’s head, for example), this gives the proceedings an extra sense of artificiality.
*. The results are profoundly disorienting. Watching the film again I had completely forgotten that Udo Kier was in it. But appearing in a bit part, wearing a wig and with a dubbed voice, he isn’t as recognizable as he usually is. To be honest, and this is the disorienting part, I thought for a moment that he was playing Ms. Tanner (actually Alida Valli) in drag. She’s one scary instructor, all flashing eyes and grinning teeth, but she doesn’t seem out of place in the School of Freaks. Just look at how spooky the caretaker Lurch and little Albert are, and they don’t even have any lines.

*. It’s not much of a story. Apparently it drew inspiration from Thomas De Quincy, but the connection there may have only existed in Argento’s mind. I think it holds together though as being much more than just a series of scary sequences, as much as these stand out. You can’t look to the plot for coherence, or any explanation of what those glowing eyes are, or why the school has a room full of razor wire. What unites it is that bizarre visual and aural texture. The wallpaper that looks like fabric and the windows that seem to be all stained glass, with the crazy music of Goblin not so much providing cues as just keeping us on our toes throughout. I know some people who don’t like the score, but I have a hard time imagining Suspiria without it.
*. I’ve tried to think of some clever way of describing Goblin’s soundtrack but I couldn’t come up with anything. They’re hard to pin down. I’ve often heard them described as a “prog rock” group, but prog (or progressive) rock is a label I’ve never seen defined in any meaningful way. A lot of different bands have been called prog rock but I’m not sure what it refers to.

*. It’s weird. It’s silly. It’s brilliant. I love it. I don’t know how influential it’s been though. Despite being remade forty years later I don’t see it as having had many imitators. Even the rest of Argento’s work — some of which I like very much and rate even higher than I do Suspiria — pales alongside it. I’ll call it a classic as it fits one of my chief criteria for that label, being a movie I can watch over and over and enjoy every time.

Night Shift (1982)

*. A movie full of not-quite debuts.
*. It wasn’t Ron Howard’s first feature film working behind the camera, but it was his first Hollywood studio film (and he’d done some TV-movies as well). It also wasn’t Michael Keaton’s first film, though it was the part that made him a star. Shelley Long had been on TV a lot. Going down the list of credits, it wasn’t even Kevin Costner’s first movie (he’s Frat Boy #1 here, but had appeared in Malibu Hot Summer the year before), or Shannon Doherty’s (she plays one of the Girl Guides).
*. It wasn’t Henry Winkler’s debut either, though again you’d be forgiven for thinking it was at the time. There can’t be that many people who had seen The Lords of Flatbush. He was, however, the biggest star in the cast because of his role as the Fonz on Happy Days.
*. It’s easy, but nonetheless fair I think, to ascribe the general small-screen feel of Night Shift to the fact that all of this talent was coming from television. This isn’t a big movie, and is content to mainly play within its handful of sets (the morgue, the jail, the different apartments). Sets, I would add, that very much look like sets. How many hallways in apartment buildings have we seen on sitcoms that look like the ones here?
*. Another near first: I remember this as being one of the first movies I watched on video after getting a VHS tape machine in the ’80s. Watching movies at home without commercials seemed almost magical then.
*. What also seems magical: the fact that Chuck (Winkler) is investing his hooker clients’ money in accounts that are returning 17.5% (you can read the numbers on his computer). Oh, those interest rates! I remember them going up even higher than that in the ’80s.
*. There is one first. That’s the first recorded version of “That’s What Friends Are For” being sung by Rod Stewart over the end credits. It seems a bit downbeat, however, to wind the movie down with.
*. As for the film itself, I can’t think of much to say. I think this was the first time I’ve seen it since the days of VHS, which is over thirty years ago now. I guess it’s kind of a sweet in a very conventional way. Winkler is Caspar Milquetoast. Long is the hooker with a heart of gold. Keaton I can still enjoy, but he’s only playing a type as well.
*. What sort of type? The American dreamer with endless entrepreneurial schemes for making it big. Night Shift is a movie dealing with adult subject matter but it doesn’t have much to say about the morality of what’s going on. In so far as it does glance in that direction it only suggests that conventional morals are for squares. Making money has its own, transcendent, morality. Is Belinda going to have to go back to work at the end? She will if Chuck can’t support her. And Billy . . . there’s no saying what depths he was likely to fall to after being fired as a towel boy. I hope his idea for microwaveable clothes took off.

Venom (2018)

*. I wasn’t too far into Venom before I started feeling like this was a movie that I’d seen before.
*. I know what you’re saying. It’s a Marvel movie. Of course I’d seen it before. The origin story. The CGI that scales buildings and goes on crazy car chases. The hero who has to find a balance between saving the world and fixing his relationship with his girlfriend. Aren’t all these movies the same?
*. Well, yes, they are all pretty much the same. But what I’m referring to is the plot. You see, Venom is this alien “symbiote” that has come to Earth, along with a team of fellow symbiotes, basically in order to eat people. He bonds with down-and-out journalist Eddie Brock who then has to fight a super-Venom symbiote called Riot who has taken over the head of a seemingly benign but actually quite evil corporation.
*. Isn’t this the same as a bunch of other Marvel movies where the hero has to fight an evil doppelganger? In Iron Man Tony Stark is supplanted by Obadiah Stane who steals the Iron Monger suit, making him the anti-Iron Man. In Ant-Man, Hank Pym (whose proxy becomes Scott Lang) is supplanted by Darren Cross who becomes Yellowjacket (the anti-Ant-Man). In Black Panther T’Challa is supplanted by Killmonger. In this movie Venom has to take on Riot. Once you know the pattern you’re just staying to watch them tear up buildings and beat each other up.
*. Venom might have been something different. It might have been darker, given Venom’s thing for biting off people’s heads and Riot’s arsenal of weapons. But the violence is edited so quickly you don’t actually see anything.
*. It might also have been funnier. There’s one good line from Venom about piling up bodies and heads as though it’s the most natural thing in the world, but that’s it. Despite the comic potential of having two personalities inhabiting one body it’s not a funny script. Plus I don’t think Tom Hardy plays comedy well. He got a lot of praise from reviewers but I didn’t get the sense he was comfortable in the part and I just couldn’t buy him as Eddie Brock.
*. So it’s not a superhero horror movie and it’s not a superhero comedy. What we’re left with is a really long, boring car chase and a really long, boring fight between the two symbiotes at the end. Maybe I’m just getting jaded (and I know I am getting jaded) but the CGI looked like crap to me. I wasn’t buying Venom’s movements at all. Finally, the relationship between Eddie and his girlfriend is so vague I thought it would have been better if it had been left out entirely. Are they back together at the end? Whatever happened to Dr. Dan?
*. This is all too bad because Venom might have been an interesting character. His personality, however, is hard to get a grip on. He identifies with Eddie because they’re both losers, but what does that mean for a symbiote? How sophisticated is he when he acts like he’s just a walking stomach? I appreciate the henchman Treece’s indefatigable pursuit of such a beast, but at what point should he have figured out what he was up against and come up with some different tactics? I mean, tasers? He thought those were going to work?
*. For some reason Venom was pretty widely panned by critics. I’m not sure why. You’ll have gathered from what I’ve written here that I didn’t like it much, but the thing is, it’s not that different, either for better or worse, than any other Marvel movie. Black Panther got rave reviews and Oscar nominations, but was it that much better? Meanwhile, like the universe itself, the MCU just keeps expanding, it’s only enemy now being entropy.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

*. I was scratching my head as Ant-Man and the Wasp got started. What was with this voiceover, rehashing the story of what happened to Hank Pym’s wife, which was itself a flashback episode in the first film? This is a clunky opening, especially for a Marvel movie, which are usually so deft in such matters. All of the MCU movies are tied together in various way, but they rarely bother entering into time-consuming explanations about what happened in previous movies in order to bring us up to speed. They take a certain amount of familiarity with the rest of the franchise for granted.
*. It’s even stranger given that Michael Douglas had made director Peyton Reed promise him that he (Douglas, playing Pym) wouldn’t be “just a walking exposition machine” in this film. And yet this is how we begin.
*. As things turn out, the background we get is at least somewhat necessary as it provides Ant-Man and the Wasp with its plot, which has to do with rescuing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) from all the pretty lights of the quantum realm. Plus, after a few years it’s not impossible (and perhaps even likely) that the audience would have forgotten the relevant material. But I still think it opens the movie on the wrong foot.
*. Pretty much everything I said about Ant-Man goes for this film as well. There’s a likeable cast being likeable. It’s a superhero comedy but it’s not really jokier or funnier than most of the other Marvel movies. It’s just easy going. Sort of a family-oriented Deadpool.
*. But all the reservations I had with Ant-Man are here too. It’s a poor story that makes little sense and the villains aren’t very good. The Ghost (who has her own dull back story dialed up) isn’t a bad guy but just someone trying to cure herself of quantum phasing by . . . well, I really can’t tell you. That part wasn’t explained very well. But it has something to do with the quantum realm and it will have a negative impact on Janet. As things turn out, Janet will lay her hands on Ava at the end and then Scott will be sent back to the quantum realm to collect “healing particles.” If that makes it any clearer. Ha-ha.
*. We also have Walton Goggins playing a heel named Sonny Burch who wants to get his hands on Pym’s lab because it’s apparently worth a lot of money even though he has no idea what it does or how it works. In other words, he’s just an obstacle thrown up by the plot, the same as the better intentioned but just as bumbling FBI.
*. The whole thing made me think of Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 with its interest in parents and children and the climax set in an alternate reality that is all colours and lights. And I didn’t like Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2. I guess I liked this movie a bit better but it struck me as even more forgettable than Ant-Man.
*. Paul Rudd, I have to say, doesn’t seem as into it this time out, but Evangeline Lilly and Michael Peña stand out. The casting of the Marvel movies may be their strongest suit. And I say casting because little in the way of acting is demanded. Has Marvel ever had a real misfire when it came to casting? I can’t think of one off the top of my head. Yet the actors all seem so replaceable.
*. The production drips millions and millions of dollars from every frame. The action scenes bounce us around a lot. It’s entertaining nonsense, but there are some dull moments and, as with all the Marvel movies, I can only take so much of it. I usually watch one of these flicks every few months and that’s all I can take. Any more and I think I’d be sick with hyperglycemia. There are no healing particles for that in Marvel’s candy land.