Author Archives: Alex Good

Tales of Terror (1962)

*. Wherein Vincent Price really finds a home with American International and, more than anything else, with Poe. Because he looks like he belongs in the nineteenth century, and that creepy voice . . .
*. Price is fine here, but I think most of the credit actually should go to Roger Corman. You can argue over whether he was a great director, or could have been a great director had he chosen to go a less commercial route. But the fact is he was always a good director. He wasn’t averse to trying different things and adding a few notes of style, and while these weren’t always successful there’s rarely anything in one of his movies that doesn’t work. He knew how to put a movie together.
*. As examples here I’d note little things like the slight zoom into Peter Lorre’s Montresor as he spies on his wife making love (in the old-fashioned sense) with Fortunato, or the composition of the death-bed formation in the final story, going from a theatrical presentation to a shot through the headboard of the bed.

 *. I also like how the stories are arranged. You usually want to begin and end these omnibus films with your strongest material, but in this case, with only three stories (P.O.E.: Poetry of Eerie would give us 15!) that rule of thumb doesn’t hold. Instead Corman places the strongest, and longest, story in the middle. This is where it belongs because it also has a different tone from the other two stories, being the only one with a clear comic bent.
*. So all-in-all, a solid job of direction by Corman. The only place where I had to cringe a bit was with the shots of M. Valdemar approaching Basil Rathbone appearing totally out of focus. I take it this was to disguise some really lousy make-up effects of the rotting face, which would have made showing the face a loser no matter how Corman chose to do it. Still, I think he should have trusted with whatever effects he had. It would have been better than just blurring the shot.
*. Holy May/December! I thought for sure that Joyce Jameson was playing Peter Lorre’s daughter, not his wife (she was 27 years younger). Ditto for Debra Paget and Vincent Price (she was 22 years younger). Then in the first story, “Morella,” the dead wife literally replaces the daughter. Is this a problem? It’s not unfaithful to Poe, who married his own child bride.
*. I wonder if it’s possible for spider webs to cover as much interior as we see them on in the first story. The dining table looks like it came from Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations. I have some experience with cobwebs, having lived for a long time in an old house that I never cleaned. And, well, I think there are limits to how much webbing you can have.
*. Most accounts of the horror-anthology genre refer back to Dead of Night (1945), which is a great movie but is in many ways atypical. What I mainly mean here is the extent to which it foregrounds the frame narrative that introduces the different stories. That was never done as well, and in many later efforts it was almost entirely disposed of. Here we get Price doing a bit of voiceover and some animation, but there’s no attempt made at providing a framing story. In retrospect, that seems to have been more of a British thing, though it was revived by the V/H/S franchise.
*. It’s a good script by Richard Matheson, interpreting the sources with intelligence and economy. Sure it’s a very free-spirited mangling of Poe. But the cross-hatching of “A Cask of Amontillado” with “The Black Cat” makes sense and is done well. And why not? I’m not one of those people who believe that classic texts have to be religiously adhered to. If the changes work, then filmmakers should feel free to interpret and re-interpret. I might not like what Altman did to Raymond Carver in Short Cuts, but it was an Altman movie. This is an AIP production. It isn’t Poe.
*. I’ve always wondered about the exchange in “The Cask of Amontillado” where Fortunato cries out “For the love of God, Montresor!” and Montresor answers “Yes, for the love of God!” What does this mean? Is it just madness? In the film version, when the police discover the walled-up bodies it’s due to the howling of the entombed cat, which leads one of the cops to say “What in the name of God . . . ?” I wonder if the echo was intentional, and if Matheson was puzzling over the original exchange as well.
*. At the time it was easy to sniff at fare like this. The New York Times review, for example: “a dull, absurd and trashy adaptation of three Edgar Allan Poe stories, broadly draped around the shoulders of such people as Vincent Price, Peter Lorre and Basil Rathbone (who at least bothers to act). Skip it, if possible.” This isn’t even strictly accurate, because it’s actually an adaptation of four stories condensed into three. But while it’s clearly a Corman quickie, I found it to be a good-looking production where everyone seems to have done their part. Price, Corman, and Matheson were nothing if not professionals. Quite a lot of success in art as well as life consists in just doing your job.

Dead of Night (1945)

*. Now this is really something strange. Dead of Night is usually seen as being the first “anthology horror” film, consisting of a bunch of short stories embedded in a frame narrative. Hammer and Amicus would go on to make a lot of these, and in the U.S. there were the Corman-Poe movies in the ’60s and then Creepshow and Tales from the Crypt, with more recently the V/H/S franchise. But I believe Dead of Night was the first, unless you want to go all the way back to Waxworks (1924).
*. What makes Dead of Night strange, however, is the fact that in addition to being the first horror anthology, it is also widely considered to be the best (Kwaidan being perhaps the only other contender). It’s not very often that that happens. You’d think that after inventing the genre somebody else would come along and eventually do it better. But that hasn’t happened.
*. I wonder why. I think in part it’s because nobody wanted to. What I mean by that is that this was a real outlier for Ealing, and even they didn’t do anything by way of a follow up. And when its other imitators arrived on the scene they were more interested in doing something cheaper and more sensational, basically adapting old comic books and pulp fiction rather than more literary sources. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I’m just saying that I think Ealing were actually trying to make something really good (albeit on a very low budget), while later anthology-horror movies were content to aim lower.
*. As for what makes Dead of Night a better movie than Tales from the Crypt or Creepshow, I think you have to begin with the quality of the frame story. Let’s face it, usually these are only throwaways — perhaps nothing more than an introduction by the Creep or the Crypt-Keeper. The film Asylum actually had a good idea for a frame, but it’s an exception to the general rule.
*. The frame here is wonderful. It’s not just a frame but a story with its own building narrative, so that you actually like getting back to it and seeing how the psychiatrist is gradually becoming unsettled and how the architect’s uncanny “dream” is playing out. The climax, with the architect stumbling through all of the film’s collapsing threads only for the film to implode and reset, is brilliantly handled, leaving us with a sense of mundane dread as things start up again.
*. I can’t think of any other movie that has adopted the same perfect circularity. Of course Groundhog Day is about a man reliving the same day over and over, but that’s different. For one thing, his day can change, and he has total recall. Here we really feel like we’re in an Escher-like nightmare from which there’s no escape.

*. The individual stories probably seem a little tame by modern standards. To some degree they’re not even horror stories but more weird tales of the kind later popularized on The Twilight Zone (which is where some of them naturally wound up). I think they’re all well done though, and they build nicely from the initial hearse-driver story (which is really just a quickie with a punchline) to what is generally regarded as the best of the lot, with Michael Redgrave as a ventriloquist possessed by his own dummy.
*. If the final story gets the most love, the penultimate tale about the golfing buddies easily gets the most hate. Basically Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne reprise their Charters and Caldicott roles (introduced in The Lady Vanishes), for which they’d become famous. I actually didn’t mind it at all. It’s silly, but I think the film needed a change of pace after the intense haunted-mirror story, before taking us into the home stretch.
*. Martin Scorsese (placing it on his list of the scariest films of all time): “Like The Uninvited, it’s very playful . . . and then it gets under your skin.” It certainly does. Rather more than The Uninvited does.
*. It gets under your skin and it stays there. I don’t think anyone who has seen this film (and today it isn’t that easy to find) has forgotten it. It has that sort of effect, burrowing down into the mind like a screw, getting deeper with every revolution.

Black Mountain Side (2014)

*. Influence is a tricky business. Done right, it’s an homage or creative re-imagining. Done wrong and it’s a rip-off.
*. Black Mountain Side has several influences, but primarily it’s derived from John Carpenter’s The Thing. An all-male team of scientists stationed in the far north uncover mysterious ancient artifacts. The men seem to be infected in some way by what they have unearthed, leading to an outbreak of paranoia, madness, and murder.
*. Now The Thing is a personal favourite of mine, as I think it is for a lot of horror fans. Black Mountain Side is no Thing, but you can’t hold it to the same standard. It also goes a slightly different route, by choice or by necessity.
*. This makes it, in my opinion, quite an interesting and well managed indie horror. It moves slowly, and quietly, but builds suspense through the gradual ungluing of the team’s mental state. We strain to see what it is they think they’re seeing, we mistrust our own eyes, we are unnerved by absence, suspicious of silence.
*. I’ll add in passing that the DVD has another one of those commentaries (by writer-director Nick Szostakiwkyj and some of the cast and crew) that doesn’t mention the film’s biggest debts. Specifically,I don’t recall anyone referring even in passing to The Thing. I only raise this point because so many commentaries do this. The commentary for Quarantine never once mentions Rec, which it is a remake of. Slither‘s commentary doesn’t mention Night of the Creeps. The commentary for Don’t Breathe doesn’t mention The People Under the Stairs. In at least some of these cases this silence must have been on purpose, but I don’t know what that purpose was. It’s not like the borrowings weren’t obvious.
*. They also don’t say anything on the commentary about the title. The title bugs me. It’s actually the name of a Led Zeppelin song from their first album, but I don’t know if this was a connection anyone had in mind (most of the people involved in the project seem to have been very young, and so might not have even known about it). Is the camp located on a black Mountain? On the side of Black Mountain? I don’t get it.

*. My mouth dropped open when the visiting professor is given the tour of the camp and his cabin is referred to as a cramped “shithole.” They seem like luxury accommodations to me, especially for an archaeological dig out in the middle of nowhere.
*. But then this isn’t the kind of film where you want to examine such matters too closely. I mean, who exactly among all the members of Team Beard are the archaeologists? Seeing as the natives do all the digging, I’m not sure what most of the bros have to do except sit around smoking and drinking. And they smoke and drink a lot. A stronger screenplay gives characters more to do when they’re not actively advancing the plot.

*. That’s enough carping though. As I said, I like Black Mountain Side. It’s a horror film with negative capability, content to leave us in a state of doubt as to what is actually going on. I thought they might all have been hallucinating because of getting into some strange roots. I remember Mark Kermode suggesting the same thing with regard to the supernatural events in The Witch, and it seems even more likely here.
*. In any event, whatever the cause of their madness, because it affects everyone we don’t have anywhere to stand where we can make a clear judgment on it. The actual presence of the Deer Man is left ambiguous. That he looks like a Native deity and speaks lines from the Book of Job suggests some amount of projection is going on, some rising from the depths of the collective unconscious. Beyond that I wouldn’t want to go.

*. The Deer Man is also hard to see. We can see him, but only in the dark or at a distance. Again, this may have been by choice or necessity. The “making of” featurette included in the DVD shows some of the early models for the Deer Man and it was pretty funny. But there’s something truly unsettling about these scary visions that we only see from far away. Distance makes them more disturbing, even though they’re not close enough to be immediately threatening. I was reminded of the vision of Miss Jessel appearing across the lake from the governess in The Innocents. And that was one of the scariest scenes in any movie I’ve seen.

*. Cameron Tremblay, the photographer, has a great eye for darkness. Not painting with shadow so much as digging pits of darkness into the screen. We also get a really impressive long tracking shot with a Steadicam that runs just over two minutes, taking us into and out of a cabin. Setting up the lighting for that must have been a challenge, but it works.
*. Apparently Van Sant’s Elephant was the inspiration for the long take. I told you these were young filmmakers. Tremblay also credits The Social Network for providing a reference for the overall look for the film. That’s one of those links that surprises at first, but when you look into it you see what he means. And seeing is everything.
*. So it’s a film that makes you think of other films, but it’s also quite original both in its subject matter and tone. It doesn’t wrap up neatly but evokes ambiguity, and in doing so it’s genuinely spooky. It’s not The Thing but it borrows the basic premise and takes it in a different direction. Kudos for that.

Stonehearst Asylum (2014)

*. It’s advertised as coming “from the mind of Edgar Allan Poe,” which says less than the title credit, which has it “based on a story by Edgar Allan Poe.” In fact it’s more like one of those cases where a movie is “inspired by” an event or work of fiction. It owes almost nothing to Poe’s 1845 story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether” aside from the conceit of lunatics taking over and running an asylum.
*. That’s a concept that has been recycled a few times on film (The Mansion of Madness, Don’t Look in the Basement) but never (at least in my experience) all that faithfully. I’m not sure if there’s enough matter to it, especially when the audience can be expected to already know the set-up.
*. Stonehearst Asylum does try its best to make the story fresh. The reveal that the patients have taken over occurs before the halfway point, so you know there has to be some new angle to make it work. Or two new angles, as it turns out.
*. The second of these has to do with a new twist they’ve added. I won’t give this away, as it comes quite late and I think it’s pretty good. Really far-fetched, but by that point I didn’t care.
*. The other new angle is the way the “real” authorities are presented, from our contemporary point of view, as sadistic morons, while the crazies are erratic but essentially good-natured and enlightened, at least until triggered or provoked. In as backward a world as nineteenth-century England, medicine was the real horror and crazy people were sane. Or at least they know there’s nothing wrong with masturbation. This alone lets us know they’re with us.
*. That’s a simplistic point to be sure, but it does provide a new entry point into the old story.
*. The casting of the representatives of these two respective positions doesn’t surprise. Michael Caine had already played an authoritarian in charge of an asylum in Quills, while Ben Kingsley had been an odd doctor we were never sure about in Shutter Island.
*. They got some good talent on board for this one, though I don’t think Kingsley, and especially Caine, are particularly exercised by their roles. I would say the same for David Thewlis and Brendan Gleeson. You’d think Kate Beckinsale, whose Eliza Graves was originally going to give the film its name, would have more to work with, but at the end of the day the movie doesn’t seem that interested in her. When she transforms into Underworld‘s Selene at the end it’s all a bit much, as though they just threw their hands in the air not knowing what to do.
*. Well, it’s not a terrible movie. It’s just not very good either. That’s all the faint praise I can muster.

Don’t Look in the Basement (1973)

*. Low budget trash, reportedly shot in twelve days on a budget of under $100,000. So of course it looks like shit, but come on.
*. There are a couple of points worth mentioning. In the first place, it was released as part of a double-bill with Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left. Now I’m not the biggest fan of The Last House on the Left, but it’s instructive to watch this movie alongside it and see what you were being subjected to at the drive-in at the time, if only to get a sense of the broader cultural matrix that Craven came out of.
*. The other point is that it’s a variation on the Poe story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether.” The basic idea is that an innocent visitor arrives at an asylum to find the lunatics in charge. It’s been done several times (for example in The Mansion of Madness, which came out the same year, and more recently in Stonehearst Asylum), but it really needs to be put across with more sophistication than it is here.
*. That’s not to say this is a film without any sophistication. I actually thought the introduction of the character of Dr. Masters was quite well done. After the Judge has just sunk an axe into Dr. Stephens she’s an immediately calming influence, and her white coat invests her with authority. Also, at least compared to the other inmates, she seems to have her act together.
*. I also like the random chaos of the Stephen Sanitarium. There’s no sense that the patients are organized at all, or are working together toward the common goal of deceiving the new nurse. They’re all trapped in their own separate realities, and they clang like cymbals whenever they strike up against one another.

*. But this chaos is also the film’s undoing, as the story just wanders from one room and one patient to the next without tightening the screw of the plot. At the end I wasn’t even sure what was going on, or who had killed who.
*. Of course the one black guy is named Sam. He’s a “loveable child” due to a failed lobotomy. Old stereotypes die hard.
*. The biggest problem though is the basic lack of talent involved. The direction doesn’t even try to build suspense, even when it’s available (I’m thinking in particular of the scene where the Judge gets hold of the telephone repairman’s screwdriver). The acting is dreadful, with the lead, Rosie Holotik, being a pretty Playboy covergirl who was presumably cast for that reason. The gore effects just consist of some blood splashed on people’s faces.
*. There was a bit of talk a few years ago about a remake, and this is a rare case where I think that would actually be a good idea. The basic story and characters aren’t bad, and with better production values and just a bit of talent it has potential. I don’t think this movie is one many people will want to bother with though.

The Mansion of Madness (1973)

*. You may not have heard of this one. I hadn’t before I tripped over it online. But if you haven’t seen it I recommend checking it out, as it’s a real buried treasure.
*. In brief, it’s another adaptation of the Poe story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” and one that actually shows some consideration for the source. It’s still just a riff on the theme of lunatics running the asylum, but some of the names are kept the same and it’s done in period dress. The American release version was even called Dr. Tarr’s Torture Dungeon.

*. You might even think, listening to the opening voiceover, that you’re hearing Poe. You’re not, but it sounds right. And actually it’s quite a bookish script (though a Mexican production it was apparently filmed in English and dubbed into Spanish). The old man chained up in the dungeon is reciting Donne (“I run to death, and death meets me as fast”), and later we hear Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” You see, getting an English degree is useful for something after all.
*. Another, less literary allusion comes at the end when the dying Fragonard asks “Can this be the end of Maillard?” That must be a nod to Rico’s last words in Little Caesar, and it made me laugh to hear it here. What makes it even funnier is the fact that Fragonard isn’t Maillard.

*. If the script is allusive in various ways, the look of the movie is even more so. If you’re reminded of El Topo that shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Juan López Moctezuma (whose first film this was) was a friend of Jodorowsky, and this film was shot by the same cinematographer: Rafiel Corkidi.

*. I think it’s a wonderful movie to look at, from the theatrical staging and costumes to the terrific use of a weird set that looks like an abandoned factory of some sort. There are individual shots that have the painted look of Old Masters. How I wish they’d do a proper job restoring and releasing a cleaned up version. The one I watched was VHS quality.
*. With its patchwork appearance and opening in a misty forest it also reminded me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (which came out a couple of years later). And bringing in Monty Python to the discussion isn’t all that big a stretch. I’ve seen this movie described as a horror-comedy and black comedy, though I find these labels inappropriate.
*. It’s not that it doesn’t try to be funny, at least at times. The character of Couvier is clearly meant as a comic foil, and Fragonard’s over-the-top campy performance would recall Dr. Frank N. Furter but for the fact that The Rocky Horror Picture Show came out two years later. But I don’t think this is enough to make The Mansion of Madness even a hyphenated comedy.
*. Look at the way the comic pratfalls of Couvier, performed to accompanying clown music, lead directly into the most disturbing scene in the movie, which is the rape in the forest. It’s like we’re not meant to take the rape seriously. This is troubling, but then the split between what’s real and what’s make believe or fantasy is something that’s central to our reading of the entire film. Those branches they keep using as clubs, for example, bend like pool noodles.

*. A final film I was reminded of was Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade (1967). Both films are set in asylums and have the same concern with revolution. Mexico, like France, has a tradition of such things. And Fragonard, like Sade, is a director: someone who wants to put on a show. Does this change how we view Fragonard? He does represent a spirit of Satanic energy and the carnivalesque, seemingly more anarchic than cruel. This is a different kind of inversion of values than we get in the more mainstream treatment of the same story in Stonehearst Asylum, and more complex. It’s also more representative of its time. The official authorities aren’t tyrants, they’re squares.
*. I wish there was more information about this title available, but I could find very little even when I went looking online. As I’ve said, this makes it both a buried treasure and a movie in need of a restoration and a critical revisiting. It’s a far from perfect movie — it’s too talky in places and doesn’t handle action well — but for anyone interested in all of the various roads leading in and out of it, it will be worth the time spent tracking it down.

Sausage Party (2016)

*. Wow. I have to begin by saying that I was really looking forward to this one. I have nothing against crude, juvenile humour. That’s what I heard Sausage Party was full of, and it’s what I was in the mood for. I was ready to  laugh.
*. I didn’t find anything offensive about Sausage Party. On the other hand, I didn’t find anything funny about it either. For what it’s worth, the only times I even cracked a smile were in response to a couple of the more crude and tasteless moments: the Douche sucking off the Juice Box and the revelation of Gum as a pink Stephen Hawking blob in a wheelchair. The climactic orgy, which I think was supposed to be offensive, didn’t do anything for me.
*. If a movie like this isn’t offensive or shocking though, it really isn’t working at all. There are no funny jokes, visual or otherwise. There’s a lot of swearing and attempts at ethnic humour, but what’s funny about the jive-talkin’ Mr. Grits? The fact that he doesn’t like Crackers? Or Chief Firewater? The fact that he likes to get baked? Or Teresa del Taco? The fact that she’s a lesbian? Not only is there nothing funny here, I don’t even know what was supposed to be funny.
*. I’d like to leave off saying anything more here, but I think I have to address the film’s critical reception. This was, on average, very positive. More positive, in fact, than audience reviews. What does it mean when a movie of this nature does better with critics than it does with audiences?
*. I think what it means is that critics have just given up on saying anything bad about a movie that they figured was critic-proof anyway. To say it was no good would just be to expose themselves as hopelessly out of touch, humourless prudes. A professional film reviewer could lose his job for something like that.
*. So, according to the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the critical consensus is that “Sausage Party is definitely offensive, but backs up its enthusiastic profanity with an impressively high laugh-to-gag ratio – and a surprisingly thought-provoking storyline.”
*. As I’ve said, I didn’t think there were any laughs, and I’m not even sure what the gags were supposed to be. But just look at that last part. A “surprisingly thought-provoking storyline.”
*. One wonders at just how low the bar has now been set. What did anyone find thought-provoking about this? The idea that God might not exist, or was cruel? That we need to embrace difference? That Jews and Arabs can get along in the Middle East if they just come out as gay? Again, I want to emphasize that I don’t find any of this offensive or shocking. Not a bit. But thought-provoking? I can’t begin to imagine the mental swamp someone must have spent their entire life in to have found Sausage Party thought-provoking. There isn’t even a vegetarian message since all the veggies (and indeed inanimate objects as well) are just as sentient as the wieners. I’m at a total loss to explain this.
*. I don’t think I’ll even try. Or bother saying anything more.

Slither (2006)

*. An asteroid approaches Earth. We know it’s carrying bad news. We may think of the spaceship that appears at the beginning of John Carpenter’s The Thing, or again in Predator. For those with longer memories, the alien spores releasing and then drifting to Earth at the beginning of Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) may come to mind. I wonder what the first movie was to begin with such a shot. Something from the ’50s I suspect.
*. James Gunn, who wrote and directed Slither, might be someone to ask. He conceived of Slithers as a tribute to the horror movies of the ’70s and ’80s, and the featurette on the making of the movie begins with a roll call of various inspirations: The Fly, Tremors, Gremlins, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Brood, An American Werewolf in London, The Evil Dead, Critters, The Toxic Avenger, The Thing, Alien, and Halloween.
*. One title that doesn’t get dropped is Night of the Creeps (1986). This might raise an eyebrow, as Slither‘s debt to Night of the Creeps, which was noticed and remarked upon right away, is pretty pronounced. Both films are about slugs from space that enter their victims’ mouths and turn them into zombies. I’m not saying this film is just a rip-off, but not mentioning Night of the Creeps as a source seems a bit passively defensive.
*. Now here is where all this becomes relevant. Is Slither meant as homage, or parody? It’s obviously a horror-comedy, but that’s what most of the movies Gunn was inspired by were too (including Night of the Creeps). And they were parodies that were in some cases over twenty years old when Gunn made Slither. So I guess it’s an homage-parody of various homage-parodies. Which leads to the question of whether it brings anything new to the table.

*. The answer to that is: not much. Slither is an entertaining little movie, but it doesn’t work very well as a comedy or as a horror film. Being so in debt to so many other pictures, every part of the story is predictable. Indeed, it’s made even more predictable for the way it taps into the then-reigning zombie apocalypse genre.
*. Also, the fact that so many other films are shoehorned into the plot makes the story messy at times. A good example is when Kylie gets throated by one of the slugs and receives some kind of species memory. I take it this is borrowed from a similar scene in Quatermass and the Pit, which is an interesting footnote but doesn’t really provide us with any necessary information here and probably just confuses things.
*. The whole shared consciousness idea (the slugs constituting “a conscious disease”) isn’t made use of in any interesting way, and doesn’t seem to have been adhered to all that closely. Some of the possessed townsfolk become Grant, but others appear to hold on to their own identity.
*. The slugs are CGI when shown moving around in large formations, which actually makes them less threatening. A lot of effects, however, are done in camera with prosthetics, and those are always fun, especially when they’re given such an obvious sexual twist. The phallic innards threatening tentacle sex that come out of Grant’s gut reminded me of the horny hotdogs in Sausage Party, while Kylie is clearly choking on a rubber dildo. As for Gale’s bedroom at the end, it made me think of the diseased imaginings of Serpieri’s Druuna comics, which were kinky enough to begin with.
*. But even here it all looks a little too familiar. The bodies sticking together in a fleshy conglomerate clearly recalls The Thing, while Grant’s face is an almost carbon copy of the melted phiz of Dr. Pretorius in From Beyond. Again, twenty years later shouldn’t Gunn have come up with something just a bit new?
*. Nathan Fillion is very good in this kind of role, and I’d say the same for Michael Rooker, but they both seem wasted. I think the fundamental problem with Slither is that the script just isn’t clever enough to carry things along. There are no memorable moments or lines but just a handful of gory highlights. If you’re a fan of such stuff you will have seen all this before, years ago, and if you’re not a fan I don’t think it’s worth the bother.

Doctor Strange (2016)

*. I know I’m hard on Marvel’s superhero movies, but it’s not because I’m against comic books. I read a lot of comics when I was a kid. I even read Doctor Strange. So I was looking forward to this one, just a little.
*. It’s a disappointment. The interesting thing about Doctor Strange, and what would have been a great angle to pursue on film, is that he was a psychedelic superhero. The Eastern mysticism. That cape (didn’t it have a paisley lining at one point?). Those trips to strange dimensions that looked like the inside of a lava lamp with acid-wash backdrops. And last but far from least let’s not forget that in the original comic books the good doctor sported a ’70s porn-star ‘stache. The demonic goatee came later.
*. This isn’t to say that Doctor Strange should have gone the route of ironic ’70s parody transplanted to the present day, like a reawakened Austin Powers or Starsky and Hutch. Though that might have been interesting given Marvel’s increasing tendency toward self-satire (as in Ant-Man and Deadpool). Nor am I just upset that this isn’t the movie I wanted them to make, which is the most useless form of criticism. I’m just registering my sense that something got lost in translation from page to screen and a real opportunity to do something different was missed.
*. In the event, they don’t do anything interesting with the story at all. This is a pretty big problem, and for the Marvel Universe it’s a problem that’s getting worse. We know the script so well. There’s the origin story where we’re introduced to the protagonist who may be rich or whatever but whose life is going nowhere. There is the triggering event and he becomes the Hero, complete with a menu of unique superpowers. Usually there is a girlfriend he returns to but who has trouble relating to him in his transfigured state. The hero often has a mentor figure who helps bring him along. There is a villain who may share a similar back story to the hero, or be from another dimension. Or both. The conclusion involves a spectacular battle where the hero is called upon to make a Christ-like sacrifice to save the humdrum people of the world.
*. Deadpool avoided the formula, at least a bit, by beginning the story in the middle of things and then filling us in by way of flashbacks. It was the same old story, but at least they jazzed up the delivery a bit. No such luck this time.
*. Here we start off with super-surgeon Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) getting in a car accident and traveling to Nepal to get his mojo back, and more. The mentor is Tilda Swinton, playing The Ancient One. Strange is a (very) quick study and soon finds himself back at his old hospital where he tries to make up with his ex-girlfriend (Rachel McAdams). She doesn’t understand what’s going on. There’s a plot involving an attempt to open a gateway or portal to another dimension, allowing an evil force named Dormammu to take over the planet. I can’t imagine why Dormammu wants to bother, but whatever. The hero enters the dimensional portal (this was very reminiscent of the end of The Avengers) and sacrifices himself in some kind of temporal loop that traps Dormammu, who decides to call off his plans . . . for now. Also as per Marvel standard operating procedure there are some teasers included in post-credit sequences.
*. So it sticks closely to formula and I have to say that by now that formula is getting pretty stale. But there’s an even bigger problem than this.
*. Magic is a different kind of super power. I think we can all relate, imaginatively, to someone who is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Such superheroes are super, but we can still at least understand what they’re doing. They’re running really fast, they’re flying, or they’re hitting things very hard.
*. But a magician is in a different category. Once you begin breaking down the categories of space and time, or the laws of classical physics, then my eyes start to glaze over. Reality becomes plastic, and cities dissolve into Escher-like kaleidoscopes. If our sorcerers can do all this, what can’t they do?

*. It all looks a lot like Inception, which in turn looked like The Matrix. I think The Matrix was the real game-changer here, and not just for its look but for the theory underpinning it. This was that the “reality” experienced by those in the Matrix was really only a bunch of code that an adept like Neo could learn to manipulate, becoming a God in the process.
*. This idea of all reality, or our reality, being only virtual and thus easy to manipulate into novel forms, was also front and center in Transcendence and Lucy (both 2014). Lucy is basically a superhero movie too, with the eponymous character becoming one with the Matrix and thus a God. In Transcendence Johnny Depp experiences the same transfiguration through uploading his consciousness to the cloud.
*. I was reminded of these movies when the Ancient One introduces Strange to the world of magic by telling him that spells can be thought of as “programs” and that they constitute “the source code of reality.” This from the mouth of a supernatural being dispensing wisdom from a martial ashram in Kathmandu. Is nothing sacred?
*. Keeping with this same point, there’s a very odd bit in the script where Strange is taken to task for daring to mess with “the laws of nature.” Huh? Magic is taking the laws of nature and throwing them out of the window. Is his cloak of levitation obeying the laws of nature? The Eye of Agamotto? Are the spectral forms “natural”? Come on.
*. In my notes on Chandu the Magician I made the point that while magic would seem to be a natural fit with film, that’s not how it has ever worked out. Chandu himself was an immensely popular radio hero who, despite great state-of-the-art effects, didn’t translate onto film. Doctor Strange seems to me to be another example of the same thing. Since movies are magic anyway, magic on film is nothing special. It loses its magic.
*. So yes, if you’re into watching various metropoles (New York, London, Hong Kong) getting scrambled like a Rubik’s Cube then you may find this diverting. I didn’t think there was anything interesting in it at all. Dormammu was Sauron from Lord of the Rings, and Kaecilius and his back-up Zealots looked like the three baddies who escape from the Phantom Zone at the beginning of Superman 2. The cast are all pretty good, but they don’t have much to say or do that’s worth attending to. Swinton’s Ancient One actually tells us that “death gives life meaning” before she expires. Somebody got paid to write that.

Chandu the Magician (1932)

*. Despite the fact that a number of early filmmakers used the new medium as a way of (re)creating their own kind of magic tricks or illusions, turning “movie magic” into a term of art, magicians have never been that popular on screen. Even superhero-magician hybrids, from Chandu the Magician to Doctor Strange, while being adapted from their sources into decent flicks, didn’t enjoy great success.
*. Chandu should have been a hit. The character had been introduced to American audiences only a year earlier by way of an incredibly popular radio serial. Gregory Mank, on the DVD commentary, says that 60% of American households tuned in five nights a week to listen to Chandu, “an amazing statistic.” The show was targeted at kids, and the movie delivered with a crazy story of exotic adventure, served up with great special effects. And yet.

*. I had a hard time telling from Mank’s commentary, and the accompanying featurette Masters of Magic: The World of Chandu, just how well the movie did at the box office. Mank doesn’t say much aside from mentioning it was “profitable.” From what I was able to dig up this is correct, but only just. It certainly didn’t provide anything like the return on investment of Frankenstein. Other voices on the documentary say that the box office was disappointing due to Edmund Lowe not having the requisite star power to carry the lead. We’re also told that it didn’t do well in cities but played well in small towns, better in matinees than evening shows (as would be expected given the target audience).
*. I don’t think anyone could have been happy, as the franchise was allowed to lapse. There was a serial a couple of years later (The Return of Chandu) made up of a dozen short films that cast Lugosi as Chandu, but that would be it. Before long the mage had gone the way of the Shadow or Mandrake, radio stars killed by video. There were various rumours of remakes and re-sets all the way into the 1970s, but nothing materialized.

*. Why has this been the fate of so many magicians? Chandu the Magician (along with The Mask of Fu Manchu, starring Boris Karloff) was Fox’s response to the success of Universal’s monster hits of the previous year, and it checks all the right boxes. I don’t think we can blame it all on Lowe, as I don’t think he’s that bad, and the villain of such a piece (Bela Lugosi as Roxor) is always likely to steal the show anyway. Who remembers the handsome leads in Dracula or Frankenstein?
*. Even the credits are fun, with a waving hand making them appear on screen. And they are interesting credits too. Co-director William Cameron Menzies was an accomplished production designer, and gives this film a great look with some really impressive sets. James Wong Howe was behind the camera. Henry B. Walthall had been the star of The Birth of a Nation. Ken Strickfaden apparently designed the lab, as he had done in Frankenstein. Bela Lugosi turns in one of his best performances.
*. It’s a good story too, with all sorts of great adventure elements. There are multiple kidnappings, a plot involving a giant death ray that’s capable of wiping out cities halfway around the world, our hero being bound in chains and locked into a sarcophagus that’s then tossed into a river, a prison cell with a collapsing floor, and all sorts of other pulp goodies. For a children’s film it also pushed the envelope. Censors objected to a scene where a man has his eyes burned out with a branding iron and another where sexy June Lang is put on the auction block. Mank directs us to look at her bosom to see why the censors were so upset, as it’s clear she isn’t wearing anything under her light dress and it rather looks like a cool wind is blowing in from somewhere. Princess Leia’s turn as a slave girl had nothing on this.

*. About the only part that doesn’t work is Herbert Mundin’s turn as Miggles. It’s just a one-note part and gets tiring quickly, especially given how it’s overworked. Not to mention how he seems to be entirely shoehorned into the plot.
*. So it was a hot property and it still disappointed. The Chandu franchise was stillborn. And again I wonder why. Mank finishes up his commentary by saying that we have always been fascinated with the world of magic, which is true, but not in the movies. Why? Perhaps movies raised the bar too high. The movies are magic on steroids, making us less appreciative of the real illusion.