Monthly Archives: February 2020

The Woman in Black (2012)

*. I’m a fan of Susan Hill’s novella The Woman in Black. It deliberately sets out to tell an old-fashioned, gothic ghost story and succeeds wonderfully. I don’t usually find horror fiction scary, but Hill’s book, despite being so formulaic, was an exception.
*. This film adaptation doesn’t quite measure up. It starts out sticking to the strict simplicity of Hill’s story. There’s a haunted house. A vengeful ghost. A town with a dark secret. And all the trappings are just as familiar to genre fans: glimpses of mysterious figures in the distance, typically through windows. A rocking chair that rocks by itself. Music boxes that play by themselves. Long, dark corridors. On the DVD commentary director James Watkins says there’s “nothing as scary as a dark corridor.”
*. All of this works pretty well, as there’s some truth to the old adage that you can’t go wrong with the classics. The problem is that there’s not enough that’s new here, and what is new isn’t all that good.
*. It’s a great looking movie. I loved the design of the old house, both interiors and exteriors, but can we imagine some old lady living out on that island in such a mansion alone? Who’s bringing her groceries?
*. Some of the genre elements I mentioned get leaned on a bit too heavily. While it’s fine to see Daniel Radcliffe slowly stalking down one of those scary dark hallways with a candle once, its not as much fun the second and third time around. And are mechanical toys really all that frightening? They just made me think I was back in Andrew Wyke’s house in Sleuth.
*. Meanwhile, what is new here misfires. This is especially the case in the film’s final act. For some reason Kipps (Radcliffe) gets it in his head that the way to placate the ghost is to dig up the body of her son and do some sort of ritual reburial with it, first in the house and then out in the cemetery. There’s nothing at all like this in Hill’s book and I can’t imagine where Kipps got this idea from unless he’d been watching Ringu/The Ring recently.
*. That’s not actually too big a stretch either, as Watkins mentions on the commentary that he thought of the film as “morphing” gothic with J-horror. And to be fair there is an obvious connection between Hill’s story and J-horror’s drowned kids and grieving moms.

*. Then there is the happy ending, about which the less said the better. Apparently it was a late addition because test audiences found the original ending a downer. What a disastrous cave. I can’t imagine Watkins, whose previous film was the utterly heartless Eden Lake, liked the idea. In any event, and whatever the business rationale, the resulting mush is awful.
*. Daniel Radcliffe. I haven’t seen any of the Harry Potter movies and never will (I haven’t read the books either), so he doesn’t carry any of that baggage with me. I think he does well here, though he appears to be rather strung out even before he gets to Eel Marsh House so we don’t really see him falling apart. And seeing normal people fall apart, coming unwound and cracking under the pressure, is what most haunted house stories are all about.
*. James Watkins. He talks a lot on the commentary about less being more, and I think that may have been what he wanted, but it doesn’t strike me as the kind of filmmaker he is. His constant peering into the dark isn’t very effective, which is surprising seeing as the book was basically being rewritten on how to do this kind of thing at the time. Just look at David Sandberg’s short film Lights Out for how a dark corridor can be made threatening.
*. Instead of building suspense the film falls back on jump scares. But these also fall short. Is it that Jennet stays too distant from us? I don’t think that’s it. One can compare her role here to the horrifying appearances of Miss Jessel, who also often appears at some distance, in The Innocents and get some sense of what I think is missing.
*. But we don’t have to go as far back as The Innocents. In 1989 there was a British television adaptation of The Woman in Black directed by Herbert Wise and written by Nigel Kneale. It sticks much closer to Hill’s story and I find it a lot scarier. In particular it makes an interesting contrast with this film for the number of scenes where Jennet appears in broad daylight, which is also very like the appearances of Miss Jessel in The Innocents. These scenes are truly unnerving. Instead of using darkness and concealment to frighten us, Wise uses distance and, in one memorable scene, sudden foreshortening (similar to what is done here, but more effective). I’m always surprised horror filmmakers don’t exploit this technique more.
*. This is a traditional ghost story that might have been better if it had been even more traditional. Which would have been dancing with the girl that brought it. If they’d stuck with Hill’s novella, and taken inspiration from Wise’s adaptation, I think they would have had a better movie. As it is, I imagine most people who haven’t read the book will be lost. Is there any explanation here of the circumstances surrounding the death of Nathaniel aside from there having been some kind of accident on the causeway? Meanwhile, the new stuff seems anachronistic in a bad way. At some point I think you have to choose what kind of a horror movie you’re making and stick with it. And whatever you do, don’t listen to test audiences.

I, Tonya (2017)

*. At the end of the 2010s, with the cresting of the #MeToo movement, a couple of famous names from the 1990s resurfaced, apparently seeking some kind of retroactive absolution or apology. One was Monica Lewinsky and the other Tonya Harding.
*. I could have happily lived without hearing anything more about either woman. Neither struck me, then or now, as being victims, except perhaps for the media piling on. But here we are with Tonya (Margot Robbie) looking into the camera and blaming us for her downfall and abuse: “It was like being abused all over again. Only this time it was by you. All of you. You’re all my attackers too.”
*. It’s a false note. This is the problem with the victim narrative: however honestly it may be held, it’s never long before the victim wants something from us. Sympathy. Exoneration. Restitution. Something.

*. As critics pointed out, this was not the real Tonya Harding story. Which is fine. Every biopic shades the truth somewhat. What’s interesting is the way they shape the story here. The script sets out to present Harding as being a pure American. “Tonya was totally American,” her coach tells us at the beginning, setting the tone. She may be white trash, but she’s the real deal. What the judges want, however, is something phoney. Hence the scenes, all of them apparently fictional, where Tonya upbraids them for their snootiness and hypocrisy. Such scenes get us on her side. She may not be truthful, but she’s authentic. Which counts. Also being a scrapper counts. Audiences had cheered for Rocky, and hadn’t he gone around breaking people’s thumbs?
*. Now if we can put all that (meaning the real Tonya Harding story) aside, what can we say about I, Tonya? In the first place, it’s a movie that lets you know it’s a movie. Characters talk to the camera, and you almost have the sense that they’d be doing so even if they weren’t being filmed. They like playing roles. It’s just that they’ve mistaken the genre. The heavies here are all leftover rubes and morons from a Coen Brothers movie, with Paul Walter Hauser as Harding’s “bodyguard” Shawn Eckardt stealing the show as the main comic relief.
*. Allison Janney got heaps of praise for her turn as Tonya’s mom LaVona, but it seems a totally one-dimensional role to me, not much more than what Hauser is called to do as Eckardt. I don’t see where Janney ever has to present any kind of nuance or shading to the character. She’s a tough woman who wants to raise her daughter to be a fighter. The rest is just comedy.
*. Sebastian Stan as Jeff Gillooly barely registers, either as a bad, violent man or as a sad sack “gardener” who nurtures Tonya’s flower. This leads to one of the more frustrating things about I, Tonya. In brief: what does Tonya see in such a guy? Is she just using him? For what? The very thinnest veneer of respectability perhaps. But then does Tonya want the very all-American bourgeois family life that she also despises? What’s behind the mask of her face, whether it’s the rigid smile of her performance or the mugshot-like makeup sequence before her final skate?

*. Something more might have been done to develop this paradox. But despite a fine performance from Margot Robbie (who is fashioning a career out of being very good in bad movies) I thought the film settled for a Tonya Harding that was something less than the sum of all the forces acting on her. Despite flashes of self-awareness one gets the sense that she’s really not that different from the people she’s surrounded by. She’s greedy, violent, and not very bright. “You fuck dumb,” her mother explains to her at one point. “You don’t marry dumb.” But dumb is as dumb does, and it can’t be redeemed.
*. There’s a lot of music, and music supervisor Susan Jacobs chose tracks that were “warm,” and “powerful and full,” figuring that “classic rock songs filled the picture without getting in the way of the story.” Fair enough, I suppose, but why are so few of the tunes from the actual period? Almost all the music we hear is from the 1970s. Were tracks from the ’90s not distant enough to be treated with the requisite irony?
*. I’ve mentioned the Coen Brothers and the abiding problem with I, Tonya is one that it shares with some of their work. Aren’t we really laughing at a class of people here? As much as Tonya might want to turn things around at the end, she remains the butt of the joke. Seeing the actual footage of her dancing over the end credits is the only really sad moment, which makes you wonder if there wasn’t a more meaningful story to tell. If not tragic then at least something to regret.

The Ice Storm (1997)

*. Though it only came out in 1997, I think The Ice Storm is representative of what people have in mind when they talk about the kind of movie that doesn’t get made anymore. Meaning an adult drama. Not a genre picture or comedy, and certainly not a comic book fantasy.
*. You could see it as standing at a sort of watershed. It may be significant in this regard that we begin with Paul Hood reading a Fantastic Four comic book. Because in the new millennium Tobey Maguire would be franchised as Spider-Man, starting in 2002. Ang Lee would direct Hulk (2003), Katie Holmes would be Bruce Wayne’s girlfriend (sort of) in Batman Begins (2005), and Elija Wood would be Frodo. So long, New Canaan.
*. Another watershed it marks is in how young people come to learn about sex. I’m not talking about 1973 here, the year the film is set in. I’m talking about 1997 vs. today. The effects of getting all of their sex education from Internet porn is often condemned in our own time, but are today’s kids any worse off than the ones we see fumbling toward ecstasy in this movie?

*. This is all, however, looking back at The Ice Storm in hindsight, post-Internet and post-MCU. At the time the movie was very well received critically, though it tanked at the box office. Critics did, however, register some reservations. One in particular has to do with the lack of depth given the main characters. What do we know about Mr. and Mrs. Hood, beyond the fact that their marriage is dead? Just what is Mrs. Carver playing at?
*. The complaint made was that for all its moral probing, The Ice Storm was a movie of surfaces, evoking a time but not a spirit of that time. Brian D. Johnson in Maclean’s: “While The Ice Storm charts the slippery slope of moral misadventure in the Seventies with meticulous care, it still just skids along the surface.” David Ansen in Newsweek: “In the novel [by Rick Moody] — which is in many ways harsher than the film — you get a sense of [the characters’] histories and inner lives. [Director Ang] Lee and [screenwriter James] Schamus grant them a certain pathos, but for a movie that wants to encapsulate an era, these are slender shoulders upon which to rest so large a metaphor.”
*. Why, Ansen concludes his review, “if the characters are stick figures, does this movie have such lingering weight? Lee has caught the surface of an era so indelibly it feels as if he’s sounded the depths.”

*. Maybe. And maybe the era itself was on the way to becoming all surface. Personally, I don’t find this movie a particularly telling indictment or even evocation of the 1970s. Instead, for all that has changed it seems contemporary to me. All the characters we meet, adults and children, seem drifting into a nearly autistic state. They barely communicate with one another, and “nothing” seems to be the answer to almost any question that is asked. They’re bored, with nothing to do but the usual round of drugs: sex, booze, pills, and pot. Again, this is before the Internet. Before cell phones.
*. I think Roger Ebert saw this, and expressed it nicely: “What we sense after the film is that the natural sources of pleasure have been replaced with higher-octane substitutes, which have burnt out the ability to feel joy. Going through the motions of what once gave them escape, they feel curiously trapped.”
*. There’s nothing terribly profound in this. Indeed, the denial of profundity is a large part of what The Ice Storm is about. It’s easy to say the adults are behaving worse than their kids (and it’s telling that the kids show more genuine concern over their parents well-being than their parents do about them), but such an observation underlines how insulated New Canaan society is. No one here has grown up. No one is an adult.

*. Given this theme it’s hard to gauge the acting. As noted, none of the characters has any great depth, and that is the point. Young Paul is a sort of Holden Caulfield figure, but with even less on the ball. Wendy (Christina Ricci, who was actually 17 but is totally believable as 14) is politically hip but sexually naive. Or just naive about people. She cares more about what’s on TV than what’s going on around her. A personality type that was going to inherit the world.
*. Otherwise Janey (Sigourney Weaver) and Ben (Kevin Kline) are Scarlett and Rhett, while Elena (Joan Allen) and George (Henry Czerny) are Melanie and Ashley. Meaning the bad people are the only interesting ones. Elena can’t even shoplift a lipstick from her local drug store, while poor George is just a piece of furniture, albeit with a hair trigger.
*. The only character I feel the script cheats is Janey. She still has a spark inside her, and when she grabs that whip it’s a moment that threatens to tear the lid off everything. Play with that, young man! But she too remains a wall. Obviously the men of New Canaan can’t satisfy her, and one imagines her soon traveling further afield. By the end of the movie she’s all but disappeared anyway.

*. I’ve driven in ice storms. To drive in an ice storm while drunk is beyond merely moronic. And I’m sure it was in 1973 too. But here everyone seems to take it for granted that they’re going to drive home.
*. I think key parties have been pretty much exploded as a myth as well. Whose 1973 is this anyway?

*. The politics — basically some snatches of Nixon playing on TV in the background, and the appearance of a Nixon mask that Wendy finds — plays as little more than period decor. It reminded me a bit of the presence of politics in Shampoo, which Warren Beatty thought was used to make a connection between political hypocrisy and sexual hypocrisy. Is that what’s going on here?
*. Bill Krohn, in his Criterion essay: “Ten years after it was made, The Ice Storm looks like the best American film of the nineties.” Hm. No, but I could see someone trying to make the argument. The ’90s were awful, weren’t they? I just looked at a list of the 50 highest grossing films from that decade and I could count the ones I might consider great on the fingers of one hand. I still like The Matrix. Of the ten movies to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards the only one I really liked was The Silence of the Lambs. Other names that were nominated that I’d rate as above average include Goodfellas and Fargo. Out of a whole decade? Thin pickings.

*. I like The Ice Storm but I don’t care for the ending. It might be melodramatic or ironic, depending on whether we’re meant to take it more seriously than the characters do. Put another way, is Paul someone we’re meant to identify with? Do we share his point of view? Was I Paul in 1973? I don’t think so. Even more, I’m pretty sure I’m not what he would have turned into. But then the world changed more in 1997 than it did in the ’70s. The Ice Storm looks back at that period as the aftermath; it was more of a foreshadowing.

The Unseen (1980)

*. The Unseen. They didn’t spend a lot of time coming up with a title for this one, did they? I guess Junior is unseen for most of the movie because he’s locked up in the basement, and indeed Stephen Furst is credited as playing “The Unseen,” but . . . that’s about it.
*. But then, let’s face it: they didn’t put a lot of work into this one period. Basically there’s this weird couple keeping Junior in the basement and when a trio of young women spend the night at their house Junior, who can travel through the building’s vents, gets out and kills a couple of them.
*. The movie is a bit of an oddity. Junior apparently kills the women by accident, since he’s not really a bad guy. And it’s never clear why he’s being kept in the basement. It’s a big enough house, in a remote location, so you’d think they’d let him out every now and then.
*. Maybe it’s all because Junior’s dad is crazy (and Sydney Lassick, I want to say, is actually pretty good in the part). At least there’s a wild American gothic back story inolving incest and patricide that would suggest as much.

*. The girls are all winsome and disposable, but at least not as hateful as the usual crop of bodies in a dead teenager movie. Why is it raining out at the end? To get Barbara Bach’s blouse wet. But she’s in the basement! No problem. Where there’s a will, and a leering audience, there will be a way. In the event, she’ll be degraded even further when she escapes, having to drag herself through a field of mud.
*. Written and directed by Danny Steinmann, who didn’t want his name on it so he’s credited as Peter Foleg. His previous movie had been a hardcore porno called High Rise, where he used the alias Danny Stone. Apparently he was upset about cuts that were made to this film that took out a lot of the scares. I doubt anything of value was lost. But the MPAA also did a job on his Friday the Thirteenth: A New Beginning, and he kept his name on that one. So go figure.
*. Aficionados of Grade Z chum may find something in this. I thought it was very dull as well as nonsensical. Lassick copes manfully with a ridiculous script but everyone else appears to be struggling. I’d advise taking a pass unless this is your kind of thing.

Super Troopers 2 (2018)

*. Seventeen years later, the boys are back. And perhaps the most remarkable thing is that they don’t look any different. It’s like time stood still.
*. Critics piled on because it’s clear that one thing Broken Lizard weren’t doing in those seventeen years was writing jokes for Super Troopers 2. But given the whimsy of crowdfunding here we were.
*. If you liked Super Troopers you’ll probably like Super Troopers 2. I think I actually enjoyed it a bit more. There were a couple of near laughs and a few smiles, mainly having to do with the gang mangling French. The material, however, mostly just plays on the usual Canada vs. the United States lines. Remember Canadian Bacon? Or South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut? Mix those with some Police Academy shenanigans and there you have it.
*. If you are laughing at a movie like this it’s because of how obviously stupid and bad it is. If you’re in the mood for that kind of thing (or, even better, drunk and/or stoned) then I can see it being a good time. I can’t help thinking that I’ve laughed more at even stupider movies, which tells me that something else is missing here. It’s not like these guys are totally without talent, but I wonder to what extent they’re even trying.

Super Troopers (2001)

*. There’s a scene that occurs around halfway through Super Troopers that is obviously meant to tell us something about the kind of movie it is. As part of their investigation into a marijuana smuggling operation, the state police (or troopers) have to do some research into a cartoon monkey character that is being used as a brand for the illegal drugs. When one of them asks the senior trooper if he’s watched any of the monkey cartoons he says that he has but that “there’s nothing there.” Maybe, it is suggested, he should take another look.
*. What this means is that he should watch the monkey cartoon while stoned. This the troopers all do, and they laugh hysterically at it while picking up some important clues. You get the point. All you need to do in order to have a good time watching a silly cartoon in a language you don’t even understand is to light up beforehand. If you don’t, “there’s nothing there.”
*. This is a not-so-subtle defence of Super Troopers. It’s “stoner comedy,” which means not only that it’s about people who get drunk and take drugs but that if you’re not stoned or drunk yourself you’re not going to be able to fully appreciate it. This also goes some way to explaining the enormous gap on the various review aggregator sites between critical scores and audience rankings. One assumes the people who call Super Troopers the “best movie EVER!!!” are on drugs.
*. I did not laugh at Super Troopers. In fact, I don’t think I even smiled at it much. This surprised me, as I was in the mood and really looking forward to it. But I was not high. So I came away thinking there was nothing there.
*. That’s not to say I hated it. There’s nothing much to hate. In fact, I was surprised at how little reaction I had to Super Troopers. The Broken Lizard group started off as a band of college comedians and they perform the kind of dopey humour that I didn’t enjoy much even when I was in school. It’s fitting that the film ends up at a frat party, because in a way that’s where it started, and indeed where it was all along. Frat parties were something I tried to avoid when I was in university, and which I only have painful memories of today.
*. So the question then becomes why I didn’t hate it. Here I have to confess to a very odd response. I felt sorry for this movie. It seems so obviously the work of a bunch of guys who really don’t know what they’re doing. I was watching people who aren’t very funny trying to be funny, and that’s just sad. The smiles Super Troopers did raise were smiles of pity at the overall incompetence on display. This is my only way of understanding the oft-cited “likeability” of the cast. I didn’t want to laugh at them so I tried to laugh with them. But even that didn’t really work.

Phantom Thread (2017)

*. A good movie. But did there need to be this much of it?
*. A couturier goes through women like the bolts of cloth he makes into high fashion. Obsessed with order, he is a control freak. One day, in-between lovers/muses/hired help, he finds a new girl who will, as the saying goes, do. She, however, turns out to be more than he bargained for, being every bit as much of a controlling personality. Though she upsets him at first, in the end he not only accepts her but learns to enjoy being dominated. No longer his muse or lover she has become his mother and he her hungry boy.
*. There’s something asexual about such relationships, and that’s lightly touched upon here. When asked why he isn’t married Reynolds replies only that “I make dresses.” This could mean that his profession/calling comes first, or it could be hinting at something else. Not so much that he’s possibly homosexual (there’s no evidence for this) but that he has no sexuality, or that he’s pre- or postsexual. It can only be deliberate that we never see him kiss Alma until the very end, when he has become a patient/child to be nursed, without any virility.
*. As a psychological portrait of a certain kind of relationship it’s entirely convincing. The bond that Reynolds and Alma share is one that’s far more common than perhaps many people allow. Alma is alert to Reynolds’s real needs: she learns on a first date of his mother fixation and can hardly miss the role played by Cyril, the live-in sister. He just has to be made to accept what he is and she’ll take care of him. I can say I’ve known many such couples, and Reynolds and Alma, if they were real, would be far from the most extreme example of the type I’ve seen.
*. It’s not surprising that the movies Phantom Thread most reminded me of were horror films or thrillers that took similar ideas of toxic codependency to their nightmarish conclusions. Think Fatal Attraction, or Misery, or Bitter Moon. They’ve really just taken a similar situation to those psychological thrillers and glamorized it.
*. Speaking of other movies that might have provided inspiration, am I wrong in seeing Women in Love lurking somewhere behind the alpine skiing holiday? I can’t think of any other reason why that brief scene would be in here. Surely the struggle for mastery between Reynolds and Alma draws something from that between Gerald and Gudrun in that film.
*. I think it’s a good script, introducing leitmotifs that stitch together the main themes. Hunger, for example. Or the question of sincerity, which everyone pays lip service to even as they admit they’re all playing games. That is, not quite behaving in a grown-up way.
*. On the negative side of the ledger, it does go on a bit long for what is a very simple tale. It’s nicely done, in a pretty way that I suspect was being arch some of the time. Even the designer’s name, Woodcock, seems to have been a joke. The triumvirate cast — Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville — are all very good at working with their eyes, since there’s always more going on than they are expressing verbally. I find Paul Thomas Anderson can be given to meticulous doodling and shapelessness, but here he seems mostly on point. I liked the film.
*. Do I want to see it again though? Not anytime soon. For all its evident craftsmanship I didn’t get the sense that there was anything deeper going on or more to uncover. It’s both subtle and superficial at the same time. Well done, but even though it cultivates restraint I felt it needed more bite to go with its evocation of haute perversity and emotional hunger.

Tragedy Girls (2017)

*. I get it. At least I think I do. It’s a satire on the blood and guts of high school, with a pair of teenage girls who are aspiring serial killers. The only new wrinkle to this old story being that we’re in the age of social media so they’re murdering people as a way to drive traffic to their blog.
*. Yes, blog. Remember those? Well, I’m still here anyway.
*. Right away Tragedy Girls runs into all kinds of problems. First: while satire isn’t always about knee-slapping laughs, it usually works on some level as comedy. This movie doesn’t. I want to say right away that I wasn’t offended by its nihilism or bleakness. That gets a pass from me. But it’s just nihilistic. It’s not shocking or insightful. And it’s never funny.
*. On the DVD commentary track director Tyler McIntyre and co-writer Chris Lee Hill mention how “super funny” and “hilarious” some scenes are, but I didn’t get a smile out of any of them. Apparently the biggest laugh line was the when the girls reunite at the end, saying “I missed you so much.” That’s a laugh line? I must be out of touch.
*. Second: there’s nothing new here. Like a lot of self-aware horror-comedies from this period it’s full of in-jokes that reference other horror movies. The business of naming characters after famous horror directors, for example, has by now almost become a cliché (on the commentary track it’s said that this began with Prom Night 2). But all the winks and nods (there’s even a preposterous reference to Cannibal Holocaust!) only underline how old it all is. And I’m not just talking about the horror stuff. The satire is old too. It’s Heathers and Mean Girls, and pretty much any essay by John Waters on our fascination with killers as celebrities (from Female Trouble to Serial Mom). The only thing somewhat new here is that the girls have cellphones.
*. Third: sticking with the social media angle, I don’t think any kind of point is being made about teens and how their use of the Internet is affecting them. The teacher here gives a brief lecture on the rise of narcissism and psychopathic behaviour and how it may be related to the selfie generation, but in the first place that’s not saying anything we don’t already know and in the second it doesn’t seem to apply to these particular girls. Are Sadie and McKayla just trying to get attention? It’s revealed at the end that they were both killers at a very young age, well before they would have had a blog or an Instagram account. The Internet didn’t make them murderers.

*. Does the movie fudge the romantic connection between Sadie and McKayla? Nothing of this nature is even suggested, but they are surely more than BFFs in their folie à deux. Boys are either dull or unnecessary, while they are, as they admit, meant for each other. But maybe they’re so into themselves that any deeper attachment is impossible. When they’re together it’s like looking in a mirror. You can’t even tell who is the instigator.
*. This is all too bad. Marvel teens Brianna Hildebrand and Alexandra Shipp are capable of more than they’re asked to do here. Audiences found their shallowness and cruelty to be off-putting, but as I’ve said I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with the film’s insouciant amorality. The problem isn’t that I find the girls appalling, it’s that the movie doesn’t give me any reason to care about them.
*. There are a couple of good, if brief, kills. But there’s nothing spooky or suspenseful going on. Which leaves us with a comedy that isn’t funny, a horror movie that isn’t scary, and a satire with no real target. In all honesty, I have a hard time understanding what it is they were aiming for here. But whatever it was, I’m pretty sure they missed.

Night of the Big Heat (1967)

*. The gang’s all here. Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing (the latter credited as only “guest starring,” whatever that means). Directed by Terence Fisher. With a story by the staggeringly prolific (and now largely forgotten) John Lymington about an alien life form that burns people to a crisp. Sure it was put out by a small studio (Planet Film Productions, who had just done the very similar Island of Terror the year previously), and obviously it had no budget to work with, but really: how bad could it be?
*. Night of the Big Heat answers that question.
*. Since they didn’t have any money to spend on the monsters they ditched the idea in the novel of fire spiders from Mars (or wherever) and went with a glowing blob that makes a high-pitched, cicada-like whine. This blob was, however, so disappointing that they decided to conceal the alien’s appearance until the very end. This has two unfortunate consequences: (1) for most of the movie we only see actors reacting to the monster by screaming at the camera and then flaring out in white light; (2) when the big reveal finally does come it’s an even bigger letdown.
*. It’s not just the monster. Night of the Big Heat can’t even sell its basic premise, which is that a small island off the English coast is experiencing an extreme heat wave in the middle of winter. Unfortunately, the only way they had to represent this was to douse the (male) cast with glycerin that is supposed to look like sweat. Except it doesn’t. The shirts are stained in ways that don’t follow any familiar sweat pattern. Meanwhile, Cushing never takes his jacket off (despite it appearing to be soaked as well) and Jane Merrow looks like she’s freezing in her bikini. Which she probably was. The film was shot in February and March! In England!
*. The script was apparently a work in progress that nobody was satisfied with. It’s a talky film and all of the talk is bad. I guess the sexual angle was thought to be a way of turning up the heat further, but it’s just dull. The explanation for the aliens is dumb even by 1967 standards. The characters behave like idiots. Right after warning Cushing not to go near the pit, in which he will be killed, Lee sees something glowing in the pit, complains about how hot it’s getting and decides . . . to go into the pit to check it out. Makes sense. I mean, he’s a scientist. As for Merrow’s character, she’s much too dumb to live but somehow does.
*. Relased in the U.S. as Island of the Burning Damned. I wonder which title is worse. I honestly feel like it’s a toss-up.
*. If you have a sweet tooth for this sort of fare then you’ll get a smile out of some of the terrible dialogue (“I wanted her! I wanted her body!”) and the general air of silliness. But in answer to the question of how bad it could be the only answer is Plenty.

Island of Terror (1966)

*. I wonder how many actors there have been who had careers like that of Peter Cushing. He’s still very well known today, and I think widely admired, but he made a living out of appearing in scores of undistinguished and now quite obscure movies basically playing variations on the same character. Just look over his filmography. What stands out? Turns as Sherlock Holmes and Van Helsing. Of course Grand Moff Tarkin (though that was a bit part). Aside from that it’s mostly a blur. I was surprised to find that he doesn’t even have an entry in David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film.
*. Well, here he is again, performing above his pay grade in a cheap slice of Brit horror from the ’60s. As usual he is an eminent man of science fighting the forces of evil. Island of Terror wasn’t a Hammer production, but it might as well have been. Terence Fisher was behind the camera. The big house isn’t Oakley Court but St. Hubert’s. Cushing’s character exclaims that it looks like Wuthering Heights, but I don’t think Emily Brontë imagined anything half so grand.
*. I thought the plot felt very much like a Doctor Who episode, which seems fitting since Cushing played the Doctor this same year in the feature Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. To recap: A bunch of scientists have set up a research station on a remote island off the east coast of Ireland. While trying to discover a cure for cancer they accidentally create a species of fast-breeding creatures that sort of look like giant turtles with long, tentacle-like necks. Anyway, once one of these “silicates” grabs hold of you they dissolve every bone in your body and then start to duplicate. Given enough of a food supply they’ll soon take over the world.
*. The silicates do not impress. Since they move very slowly and the only way they can attack is by way of their single appendage (or, even more improbably, by falling on people from out of trees) they really aren’t all that threatening. At best they can be disgusting, as when they go through some kind of mitosis and spill out pools of greenish spaghetti. But give credit to the producers for going ahead and showing them in all their low-budget glory early on, in full view and good lighting. Laugh or shake your head if you want, but this is the best they could do and you’re welcome to it.
*. If the silicates underwhelm, they do at least provide the film with its one signature element. The rubberized corpses of the people they have de-boned are actually pretty creepy. I only wish we had seen more of them. But I don’t think Fisher’s heart was in it.
*. Carole Gray plays the scared, helpless, and stupid female who is even more scared, helpless, and stupid than usual. She needs to be held, a lot, and is so lacking in agency she’s nearly euthanized at the end.
*. The idea of injecting strontium-90 into a herd of dairy cattle that the silicates then eat and are poisoned by isn’t bad. But aside from being excessively nerdy it’s also a drawn-out and boring solution. While dynamite and “petrol bombs” (Molotov cocktails) are attempted but found wanting, I think we still want to see the silicates getting destroyed in some more spectacular way than just dying from food poisoning.
*. Well, don’t expect too much. Island of Terror is a bit of fun for fans of British horror from this period. There are a couple of decent jump scares, and some memorably odd shots of herds of silicates wandering through forests and fields. It’s certainly miles ahead of the next production to come from Planet Film Productions, Night of the Big Heat. Which only goes to show that things here could have been a lot worse, even without the contagion spreading to Japan.