Category Archives: 1970s

Westworld (1973)

*. For Michael Crichton, next-generation amusement parks were an abiding source of fascination. One of his early novels, Drug of Choice (written under the pen name John Lange), is about people taking vacations that are really just drug-induced hallucinations. Probably his most famous creation was Jurassic Park, a novel that went on to spawn a blockbuster movie and an entire franchise of dinosaurs-on-the-loose movies. In-between he wrote Westworld, an original screenplay that he also directed. The idea here not being drugs or genetically restored dinosaurs but robots providing the thrills.
*. Of course all of these amusement-park rides go terribly wrong. It’s not quite clear what happens with the robots. One explanation is something like a computer virus, which none of the scientists sitting around the conference room seems able to understand. A “disease of machines”? What the heck is that? It doesn’t make any sense. Innocent days.
*. Speaking of the innocent days of computers, this was the first feature film to use digital image processing. It shows up in the thermal-imaging shots representing the Gunslinger’s point of view. Not very impressive, but you have to cut them slack for being pioneers. The process work has held up better than those cheesy screensavers that are on the control room monitors and which I suppose are meant to represent some kind of complicated work being done.
*. Among the general public at the time I think it was unclear just what computers did. They had lots of flashing lights and banks of reel-to-reel tapes spinning away like a laundromat, but who knew what kind of work all this was meant to represent? One imagines a vault of punchcards filed away somewhere containing the programs used to control the robots. Crude, but where there’s a desire for such an experience as Delos is offering, science will always find a way to make it happen.

*. That notion of desire is key. Westworld (and its neighbouring theme parks set in ancient Rome and Medieval times) are adult fantasies. You don’t take your kids with you on these getaways! As the trailer puts it, this is a place where “frustrations find release, [and] desire ends in satisfaction.” You go there to fuck and kill. It’s not a coincidence that The Stepford Wives is only a year away now too. Both films took their robots from the animatronic models at Disneyland, which is a family park. Crichton and Ira Levin obviously saw more mature possibilities in the technology.
*. And so we get some leering nods and winks as to what’s really going on here. Even the woman interviewed for the Delos promo spot at the beginning of the movie is obviously feeling hot and flustered just thinking about what life was like back in decadent Roman times. When they arrive, guests are told to “please feel free to indulge your every whim.” We might also think of the way sexual fantasies are peddled, to men and women, in Total Recall. Like it or not, libido drives a lot of what we think of as progress. Porn built the Internet, after all.
*. It’s no surprise that such a story has never gone out of style, turning up again as an HBO series in 2016. We’re used to the idea now of robots taking over. There’d been rumours of a remake earlier starring Arnold Schwarzenegger but it had never worked out. I’m guessing Arnold would have been the Gunslinger. Apparently he modeled his portrayal of the Terminator on Yul Brynner’s bad guy (John Carpenter was similarly influenced, basing Michael Myers in Halloween on the same relentless, stalking killer). Such casting would also make sense because Yul Brynner was the only big name in this movie, and got star billing. Richard Benjamin and James Brolin were both unknowns cast at the last minute.
*. I like the role reversal between Peter (Benjamin) and John (Brolin). Peter is the city slicker, a lawyer out of Chicago who has never picked up a gun. John exudes an almost smarmy confidence. But in the end this is Peter’s fantasy, even down to rescuing the princess out of the dungeon. He really has lived the vacation of his dreams. I like to think that’s something he understands at the end. This is Movieworld, after all. As Pauline Kael pointed out, these are “movie-fed fantasies” all the way through, with the Westworld environment being a pastiche of Western clichés only slightly tethered to historical accuracy.
*. As an aside, I wonder why the greeting voice refers to Western World. I feel like that should be an artefact left over from an earlier version of the script, which seems unlikely since I’m pretty sure Westworld was always going to be the name.

*. Another part of the abiding interest in the concept is the political and philosophical meaning. In the former case, the peasants (robots) are revolting! This is what the fall of empire looks like. Our pleasure palaces aren’t built to last.
*. In the latter case (the philosophical interpretation) we have a very early foreshadowing of the simulacrum. This is something I’ve written about before with regard to the Year of the Simulacrum (that would be 1998, and The Truman Show et al). As John says to Pete just before the snake attack, “this is as real as it gets.” And sure that’s ironic, but not as much as you might think. Just a few years later Brolin would be killing that snake and eating it after having escaped the simulacrum of Capricorn One. This is a theme that the movies just love, and that we love them for. Neal Gabler even wrote a book about it (Life: the Movie — How Entertainment Conquered Reality, also 1998).
*. Is it a subtle joke then that Benjamin wakes up along with all the rest of the park when they are activated? Note how his yawn echoes that of the guard at Medieval world. The point being that the guests are just as much automatons as the cyborgs, programmed for sex and violence and then needing to recover after a long night of fucking and fighting before getting up to do it all over again.
*. Well, yes, men did have moustaches like Benjamin’s back in the 1970s. I had a moustache too for a while. One of several regrets. Or too many to mention.
*. I think Crichton had it as a maxim to eschew dialogue at the end of a movie. When the shit hits the fan (the robots or dinosaurs running amok), then there’s no time for chat or exposition. In general, this is a pretty safe principle to adhere to. Crichton’s instincts were gold when it came to popular entertainment.

*. The greatest full-body burn in movie history? It’s certainly spectacular when the Gunslinger goes up like a human torch (not that even that is likely to slow him down much). The only competition I can think of is when the monster gets torched in The Thing from Another World, which I might give the prize to just because it was earlier and was performed with less safety protocols in place.
*. Brynner is cool and iconic, decked out in the same outfit he wore in The Magnificent Seven. And even behind those silver contact lenses I feel a sort of sympathy for his confusion at the end. After all, just like Frankenstein’s monster, he didn’t make himself. He’s akin to an early prototype of Roy Batty in Blade Runner, if less given to poetry. You sense a flicker of independent intelligence at work. Of course, in the HBO series this would be taken a lot further, but this movie was planting seeds.
*. I always marvel at the theatrical trailers from the 1970s where they show you all the highlights of the movie and reveal the entire plot. I wonder why they did that, and when it changed.
*. I think Kael got it right: “The idea is ingenious, and the film might have been marvelous: it isn’t, quite (it has the skimped TV-movie look of a too-tight budget), but it’s reasonably entertaining, and the leads (Richard Benjamin and Yul Brynner) are far superior to the actors in the usual sci-fi films.”
*. Bang-on, but it couldn’t really have been otherwise. This was Crichton’s debut directing a feature, after doing a made-for-TV movie the year before, and MGM really wanted it done on the cheap. So it’s no surprise the production is a bit of a let-down. But I think it succeeds as well as it could have, and the idea was so strong it went on to be a box office smash. Meanwhile, Crichton was so far ahead of his time he could go back to the the amusement park twenty years later with an even bigger hit, and forty years later the idea would still work. It’s good stuff.

Three Days of the Condor (1975)

*. I’ll begin with a confession. Every time I bring this movie up in discussion I have to check somewhere to see just how many Days of the Condor it is. And I don’t think that’s because it’s based on a novel by James Grady called Six Days of the Condor, the plot of which they condensed in going from page to screen. Three Days just doesn’t sound right. I don’t know why. It’s one of those things.
*. A fairly typical entry in the great run of ’70s conspiracy thrillers. And by typical I don’t mean to diminish it. These movies, at least the ones we remember, are all classics and still play well today. The Parallax View (1974) Marathon Man (1976), All the President’s Men (1976), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Capricorn One (1977), Coma (1978), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978).
*. Robert Redford plays Joe Turner, who has a sort of clerical job working at a CIA house. Basically he just reads books and provides executive summaries of them or highlights items of interest. Then one day assassins kill everyone in his office while he’s out getting lunch. What’s going on?
*. The answers to that question remains murky. It has something to do with oil. Or rather “this whole damn thing was about oil.” But I’m not sure how. Nor was I clear on how far up the chain of command the shadow agency went. But then, even the icy Joubert (Max von Sydow) doesn’t know, or concern himself much, with these matters. It’s enough that he gets paid. “I don’t interest myself in ‘why.’ I think more often in terms of ‘when.’ sometimes ‘where’; always ‘how much.'”
*. It’s a low-key film, as Pauline Kael recognized, attributing its being a thriller with few thrills mainly to the hand of Sydney Pollack: “The director, Sydney Pollack, doesn’t have a knack for action pulp; he gets some tension going in this expensive spy thriller (and it was a box-office success), but there’s no real fun in it. It may leave you feeling depressed or angry.”
*. It didn’t leave me feeling depressed or angry, and indeed I’m not even sure who or what Kael thought I was supposed to feel depressed or angry at. But it is a movie that focuses on little things, and these are things I think it does well.

*. Here’s just a few items. I like the way the scratching-and-thumping sound of the printer provides a kind of score throughout the scene where Turner discovers the bodies in the station office. I like the way Turner has to hold something he’s reading at a distance in order to make it out. This is a guy who reads “everything” for a living, after all, and he wears glasses. Of course his eyes are shot! I also like the way his stubble grows over the course of the three days. There aren’t a lot of movies that pay attention to things like that, or they’d probably try to excuse it by saying he might have had a shower at Kathy’s place. But that wouldn’t make sense so he just goes unshaved. And perhaps best of all, I like how Turner goes into the kitchen to turn off the stove when he’s hustling Mae out of her apartment to safety. When she said she was cooking dinner I was thinking the same thing!
*. It’s also nice that Turner is a bookworm and only manages to get by most of the time by luck and his wits. He’s a communications expert before the Internet though and he makes good use of that particular set of skills as well.
*. They get one big item wrong. That’s Faye Dunaway as Kathy. This is a clichéd character who has to be kidnapped and then fall in love with her kidnapper all in an evening. Call it accelerated Stockholm Syndrome. “Have I raped you?” he shouts at her, defensively. “The night is still young!” she retorts. But of course no rape is in the cards, only some mellow jazz sax on the soundtrack and artful cutaways to Kate’s photography as she clutches the bedsheets. Then some minor plot functions to perform before Turner can pack her off to the bus station. The ’70s cinema version of smash and dash.

*. Once again with Dunaway’s slightly stuttering delivery. Her acting really only has one gauge. But she was a star. How do you know? When you get separate credits for Ms. Dunaway’s hair, wardrobe, and make-up.
*. The supporting cast are great players. Von Sydow is an uncanny mix of warm and cold, both delivered in his avuncular manner. Cliff Robertson’s hair, if it is his hair, is almost too unbearable to look at. John Houseman is also on board as the old hand Wabash. When did Houseman stop being an actor and become a cameo? After The Paper Chase? Is he still better known for those Smith Barney commercials than anything else?
*. The mysteries of screenwriting. A lot of the time the big speeches we remember the most are only a couple of lines long. There’s more to them than just the words on the page. Because who can forget this: “It will happen this way. You may be walking. Maybe the first sunny day of the spring. And a car will slow beside you, and a door will open, and someone you know, maybe even trust, will get out of the car. And he will smile, a becoming smile. But he will leave open the door of the car and offer to give you a lift.” Now if you just read those lines in the script they wouldn’t jump out at you as anything special. Context and delivery are everything. A great screenplay sees all of this, something I’ve heard the best screenwriters point out in interviews. I think it was William Goldman who said that a screenwriter’s most essential attribute was their eye.
*. So it’s a lot like its paranoid peers of the time, which is good company to keep. A movie I’ve come back to quite a few times over the years, always seeing something more in it. A little something, but little somethings I enjoy.

Carry On at Your Convenience (1971)

*. Ugh. I’ve said before that the historical Carry On movies tend to be better than those with contemporary settings, and that’s certainly the case here. But by 1971 the series was feeling really played out anyway, and I don’t think they could have visited Cleopatra or gone up the Khyber and had a better movie. The previous film, Carry On Henry VIII, had been a period piece and it was lousy in its own way. Still, this is an especially terrible entry, mainly because of its tone-deaf topicality.
*. Right from the opening credits, which appear on a roll of toilet paper, we lower our expectations. The setting is a toilet manufacturer, so is this just going to be a movie full of bog jokes? Luckily, no. Or maybe they would have been better off if it had been.
*. The owner of the plant is named W. C. Boggs. Other family names include Plummer and Spanner. Despite all the forced larfs, things are not happy at the factory, with the union striking every week or so over some petty grievance. And here we have the place where the movie really goes off the rails.
*. Apparently the idea here was to do a Carry On version of I’m All Right Jack, a movie about similar union shenanigans that came out in 1959. In 1971 labour issues hadn’t reached the level they would during the so-called Winter of Discontent (1978-79) but they were heading in a bad direction. I remarked in my notes on Hoffa how that movie was a real throwback in its depiction of the early Teamster movement as a heroic struggle for workers’ rights. In England things had been going downhill for years before Thatcher took over.
*. As an aside, I’m not sure why this is. I’ve been a member of several unions, and while they certainly have their downside I think it’s better to be in one than not. But for whatever reason, and corporate propaganda would be near the top of the list, people and political parties turned against them in a big way. Today, outside of the public sector, they are vanishingly rare.
*. Carry On at Your Convenience very much picks a side in this struggle, and does so in a ham-handed and unfunny manner (or, in the measured understatement of Richard O’Callaghan on the DVD commentary, “they did seem a little bit biased”). Vic Spanner (Kenneth Cope), the union shop steward, is an arrogant (read: Bolshie) loser who just wants to go on strike so he can watch football. He’s lazy and carries around a little book of union rules that the boss likens to toilet paper and, when followed literally, shut the plant down. Meanwhile, everyone else just “wants to do an honest day’s work”! Sure enough, Spanner will get his comeuppance, losing his girlfriend to the son of the factory owner (O’Callaghan) and getting beaten up multiple times before finally being thrown over his mother’s lap and given a good spanking. Now carry on working! (the film’s original title). Yay!
*. O’Callaghan mentions on the commentary that the Carry On movies he did (I think he was only in two) “lasted longer than anything else I’ve made.” And it’s true that these films have had a cultish afterlife — a cult O’Callaghan attributes not to a specific film but to the series or genre. Still, by this point they were burnt out. I don’t think Carry On at Your Convenience has lasted.
*. This was the first of the Carry On movies to lose money on its theatrical run, only breaking even years later after selling television rights. Some of this was attributed to its being Conservative propaganda when the Carry On audience was predominantly working class and pro-union. Even more of it though can be put down to the fact that it just isn’t funny.
*. Near the beginning there’s a union meeting where Cope, Sid James, and Joan Sims engage in the usual ribald innuendo and everyone else roars with laughter at every line. It’s like a laugh track, which isn’t something they’d relied on a lot in earlier films. Indeed, throughout the movie many lines are delivered with cackles and laughter. Nothing says tired desperation in comedy so much as laughing at your own jokes, and in this movie they do it a lot.
*. So: poor material and bad politics. Crudity that hasn’t aged well (these were the day when slapping a bird on the ass would only get you a playful look and the admonition “Saucy!”). One oddly melancholy scene between James and Sims as they go back to their lives of monogamous suburban misery after an outing at Brighton. Even, or especially, for fans this is one you should miss.

The Stepford Wives (1975)

*. This should have been great. Ira Levin had come up with a nifty little story with the kind of iconic force as social and political commentary that would help make the term “Stepford wife” a part of the language. Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie you know what a Stepford wife is. Then William Goldman did a great job on the screenplay and the players were well cast and all perform well.
*. And yet this is still an unimpressive movie that feels like it left a lot on the table, with only a few hints at what might have been. Where did it go wrong? I can think of two main problems.
*. In the first place there’s the direction by Bryan Forbes. I made a note while watching it that it looked like a made-for-TV movie from back in the day when made-for-TV movies had a distinctive look. And I don’t mean a good look either. I mean cheap and uninteresting. Imagine my surprise on finding out, per his obit in The Guardian, that Forbes had been “one of the most important figures in the British film industry.” I think this is because he wore a number of different hats. I don’t think they meant he was all that great a creative force, especially as this is his best known turn as director. David Thomson: “His films tend to run together, without dominant themes or personal style.” None here, anyway.
*. Forbes thought it odd that they’d ask a British director to handle such “an American subject,” but guessed that it was thought he’d give it a new perspective. Producer Edgar Scherik wanted Brian De Palma originally, and that would have been special but Goldman nixed the idea (I don’t know why). So as a result they got Forbes, who rewrote the script, much to Goldman’s displeasure.
*. The other reason it went wrong has to do with the tricky matter of tone. How do you play such material? Just what sort of approach did they want to take? Was it a horror film? The slow build of suspense and the finale in the gloomy haunted house of the Men’s Association (with a thunderstorm lighting up the windows) would suggest this reading. A social satire? Yes, obviously. Comedy? There are some very funny scenes — I particularly like the doomed first meeting of the women’s group — but there’s nothing like the turn to laughs that the 2004 movie would take. Science fiction? That part is downplayed here, as in the novel, but Frankenstein is always playing in the background.
*. One divergence in tone that set Goldman against Forbes had to do with the sexuality of the wives. Goldman thought, I think reasonably, that they should be more overtly sexy, appearing like Playboy bunnies. Forbes went for a more up-scale domestic look with those long sundresses, hats, and gloves. I can see where both are coming from and just think they needed to give the sexy its due. There is some overheard sex talk, and reference to bigger, firmer boobs, but I think seeing the new Charmaine (Tina Louise) in her rubber outfit was necessary to underline the fact that these upgraded versions didn’t just keep the house clean but also performed as sexbots. Let’s face it, if these wealthy men just wanted cleaner homes they could hire a maid.
*. No, these are horny guys. Making me all the more curious as to what it is they do at the Men’s Association every night. Eat nachos and watch blue movies? And how many members of the Association are there to require a mansion that size to meet in?
*. I mentioned that Goldman did a great job adapting Levin’s book. The addition of the dog works really well. The short-circuiting of Bobbie (Paula Prentiss) is neat. I like the way we feel a bit more of Walter’s corruption, nicely realized by a hang-dog Peter Masterson. The women’s meeting is hilarious. But Forbes just kills whatever potential energy or drama the script gives him. I was particularly puzzled at why they changed it so that we never see Joanna (Katharine Ross) twigging to what’s going on. That’s always a great moment in any movie, when you see a character suddenly becoming aware of something. It’s there clearly in the novel when Joanna realizes the significance of Coba having worked at Disney, where he helped create their robots. In the movie the trigger line is kept, but we never see the penny dropping.
*. Another example is the ending, when Joanna confronts her eyeless but enhanced replacement. I can’t help thinking that this should have been one of the great reveals in film history, up there with Michel rising from the tub at the end of Les Diaboliques. And to be sure it is at least memorable, but it’s not at all as shocking and effective as it should be. It just plays flat.
*. Perhaps the most damning thing to say about all of this is how badly it’s dated. Maybe it’s all the women walking around without bras. Maybe it’s the car of choice for Stepford families: a station wagon with fake wood paneling. But the thing is, the subjects this movie addresses haven’t gone away. If anything the men here with their robot lovers are very much the precursors to the widows of Internet porn. And gender politics is as hot button a topic as ever. But this movie seems rooted in a particular time and it’s not our own. We still talk about Stepford wives, but who are they? The “real” wives of reality TV?

The Food of the Gods (1976)

*. You’re welcome to ask “How did it come to this?”
*. H. G. Wells’ novel The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth had been published in 1904, and while not considered one of his major works it’s nevertheless an entertaining, thoughtful, and provocative book that addresses a number of big social questions in a manner by turns comic and mystical. Earlier film adaptations of Wells had been groundbreaking classics, especially in terms of their effects: Island of Lost Souls (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), Things to Come (1936), The War of the Worlds (1953). So why was The Food of the Gods fated to become a punchline in the annals of cinematic crap and winner of a Golden Turkey Award for Worst Rodent Movie?
*. Ida Lupino is a really interesting figure in the history of Hollywood. Bored with acting, she took up directing in the 1950s (she may have got her start filling in for Nicholas Ray in On Dangerous Ground when he was ill). She’s credited as being the first woman to direct a film noir (The Hitch-Hiker in 1953) and would go on to direct more than 100 television productions. She had her own independent production company — The Filmakers [sic] Inc. — and wrote and produced social-interest films. And here’s where it ended up (this would be her penultimate film role). Being eaten by giant grubs and finally killed by a giant rat that breaks into her kitchen. A mercy given the kind of lines the script had saddled her with.
*. Ralph Meeker wasn’t as big a star, but after Kiss Me Deadly he was at least a name. He’d be getting near the end of the line here too. As for the leading man, I felt sure I’d seen him before but couldn’t place him. The name — Marjoe Gortner — gave it away though. That’s the child evangelist who was the subject of the Academy Award-winning 1972 documentary Marjoe. His first name is a combination of Mary and Joseph. I liked Marjoe (the movie) and always wondered what he’d gone on to do. Well, it came to this.
*. This was actually producer, writer, director Bert I. Gordon’s second kick at the Wells canon, and indeed at The Food of the Gods. He’d also produced (and written, and directed) Village of the Giants, which was just as loosely based on the same story. You’d think that after doing this kind of movie for so long — The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), and Earth vs. the Spider (1958) are among his other credits — he would have maybe gotten better with practice. But . . . it came to this.
*. So to wrap-up, for Wells, Lupino, Meeker, Gortner, and Gordon, it had indeed come to this. What exactly is this? Of course a terrible movie, but, I’m happy to report, one that’s so bad it’s good.

*. The plot has Gortner, a pro football player, going to an island to get in some hunting with a couple of his pals and running into various creatures who have had a freakish growth spurt triggered by some goo that’s come bubbling out of the ground on homesteader Lupino’s farm.
*. Nothing about it adds up. It is, for example, usually considered to be an example of the then-popular genre of eco-horror. Eco-horror was big in the 1970s, but today, when our environmental problems have only compounded, you don’t hear so much about it (Barry Levinson’s The Bay being one exception). So things begin with Gortner’s voiceover: “My father used to say, ‘Morgan, one of these days the Earth will get even with man for messing her up with his garbage. Just let man continue to pollute the Earth the way he is and nature will rebel. It’s gonna be one hell of a rebellion.'”
*. With the filming taking place on B.C.’s picturesque Bowen Island there was plenty of room to make such an argument, but the strange thing here is that the Food appears to be natural, literally a gift from God, as Lupino’s character reckons it. In the novel it is produced in a lab. So what does any of this have to do with nature rebelling against man’s pollution?
*. Leaving the environmental message aside, The Food of the Gods is clearly an effects picture. It’s about supersized critters, after all. And here is where it really earns its “so bad it’s good stripes.” Gordon throws everything at us, from animation to mechanical dummies, to split screen effects, to creatures crawling over model homes and toy vehicles. Almost all of it is hilariously bad. The wasps look like scribbles on the film. The rats look like lab mice or refugees from Tales from the Riverbank. And the chickens! Is there any way giant chickens can be made to look scary? I couldn’t help but think of Woody Allen seeing the giant chicken in Sleeper and saying to himself “That’s a big chicken.” It’s funny because it’s true!
*. The chicken scene is also remarkable because after Gortner fights off the giant chicken (it is bigger than he is!) and kills it, he leaves the island and seems content not to bother thinking about it much anymore. Only his friend was also stung to death by giant wasps on the island too. So maybe he should go back and check things out. I mean, a six-foot chicken. That was weird, no?
*. The effects culminate in the final attack of the rats on Lupino’s farmhouse, where the survivors have barricaded themselves. Things look bleak until Gortner gets the bright idea to blow up a dam (with the gunpowder from a handful of shotgun shells!) and flood everything.
*. A dam? On an island? By that point, who cares? We’ve already had the eligible young lady bacteriologist tell the football-player stud she has just met that “This may sound crazy to you, but I want you to make love to me.” In a house surrounded by giant, man-eating rats? Why the heck not?
*. As with most so-bad-they’re-good movies this one can drag any time it slows down, but luckily that’s not very often. I think if you saw this as a kid it’s the kind of thing that would stay with you, but if you’re watching it today it’s only for its trash value. Now there’s a pollution rebellion to sit up and take notice of!

Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things (1972)

*. I think I’ve said enough over the years about movies that are so bad they’re good but which are really just bad, and also about cult movies underserving of that status. I won’t repeat any of that here. Suffice it to say that Children Shouldn’t Play with Dead Things is now regarded by many as a cult movie, and even a cult classic, and it isn’t any good at all.
*. The basic idea looks back to Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, with a small group of people in an isolated house surrounded by zombies. Star and co-writer Alan Ormsby later joked how they “basically ripped it [Night of the Living Dead] off.” But it’s a movie that also looks forward to Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead, as it’s a cabin-in-the-woods horror flick and the zombies are awakened by a reading from some sort of Necronomicon. A grimoire, to give it its correct name, which is pronounced “grimorey” here.
*. The story is bizarre to the point where it really makes you wonder. The characters are members of an acting troupe who have come to an island off the coast of Florida so that the group’s tyrannical director (Ormsby) can do his raising-the-dead shtick. Why a group of actors? I don’t know. And why is Ormsby such a nut? Again, it’s not clear. Apparently the rest of the troupe are so desperate for work (well, they are actors) that they’re willing to put up with some seriously psychopathic behaviour, including digging up corpses so that Ormsby can drag them around and play with them.

*. This part of the story, and it takes us up to the one-hour mark in an 87-minute movie, is almost unendurable. I’m not sure how much of it was even meant to be taken seriously. The cast are just terrible, and the dialogue and direction the pits. The only thing that holds one’s attention are the fashion statements being made by the troupe, highlighted by Ormsby’s thrilling striped pants. I suppose nothing dates like fashion, and we all know how awful the ’70s were, but still it’s remarkable watching a movie like this and thinking that these people honestly thought they looked good in these clothes. They’re all different shades of dreadful.

*. I’m pretty sure that people who say they do like this movie are only talking about the last twenty minutes. But even this part isn’t great. Basically there are only a couple of good shots. A hand coming out of the ground (look, I didn’t say they were original), and a pan across the graveyard as the zombies assemble. Aside from that . . .
*. Well, aside from that I can say that the zombie make-up (which Ormsby did) is actually pretty darn good. Alas, there’s very little gore. I guess they just hadn’t figured out how to do that yet. Suspense and scary stuff is thin on the ground. You know the drill, and in 1972 you probably knew it just as well. They try to board up the windows and doors. Hands come crashing through. Then there’s a big breakthrough and it’s all over, with Ormsby being fittingly taken down by his pet zombie Orville. That’s something Romero introduced in Night of the Living Dead and would return to many times. People: the dead are not your friends.

*. One of the film’s biggest claims to fame today is that it was one of director Bob Clark’s first movies. He’d go on to have a career filled with odd, and often very successful, titles. Black Christmas. Murder by Decree. Porky’s. A Christmas Story. I think he had real talent. But even in hindsight I can’t see anything here that would make me think he was going to go on to anything of any value. His next movie would be another zombie flick written by Ormsby, Dead of Night (a.k.a. Deathdream), and it would show a marked improvement.
*. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that Ormsby would go on to write and co-direct Deranged, an Ed Gein-inspired exploitation horror flick that is actually quite good, allowing for its obvious budget limitations.
*. All of this, though, is by the way. This is one of those movies that’s fun to read about, but you don’t want to actually sit through it. If you’re a big fan of the zombie genre I’d say you should at least be aware of it, but for anyone else it’s only going to look like a piece of crap. Because that’s what it is.

Doomwatch (1972)

*. As a general rule, British TV has never been very popular in North America. There are still some people who enjoy classic Britcoms and can endure Coronation Street, but they are dying out. Even Doctor Who is a niche taste over here.
*. Doomwatch was a program that ran on the BBC from 1970 to 1972 about a government agency set up to deal with the unanticipated consequences of scientific research. Apparently it was quite popular but I’ve never seen it, and given the BBC’s policy of wiping master tapes after transmission I’m not sure all the episodes even survive. I think it was a bit like the X-Files of its day, and like that show it led to a big-screen spin-off.
*. Anyway, the story here has it that a chemical company dumped a bunch of experimental growth hormone with Food of the Gods properties off the shore of a remote island. The barrels sprang leaks and contaminated the fish, which, when eaten by the local fishermen, led them to develop a form of acromegaly and drove them mad. A doctor from the Doomwatch patrol (Ian Bannen, not a regular on the show) is sent to the island to investigate an unrelated oil spill and slowly twigs to what’s going on.
*. That’s all there is. About as much plot as you’d get in an hour television show. As a timely ecohorror thriller it’s not very scary, especially when you figure out that the “monsters” are only to be pitied. Nor is there anything terribly interesting going on. The only highlights are the locations, with the picturesque town of Polkerris in Cornwall standing in for the island.
*. The lowlights are another matter. I’d list the wardrobe here, though there may be some out there who will groove to Dr. Quist’s odd belted sweater-jacket or Dr. Shaw’s mauve turtleneck. More distressing is the appearance of George Sanders as the Admiral. Doomwatch was one of his last films, with only Endless Night and Psychomania to come, which lets you know that he had a lot to be depressed about on a professional level. On first seeing him my mouth fell open and I had to say to myself “This man is not well.” He wasn’t. He was suffering from dementia as well as depression, had perhaps experienced a stroke, and apparently had very basic mobility issues. His appearance is just sad.
*. So I’d pass on this one. The next year there’d be a much better British horror movie about an authority figure visiting a strange island where the locals guard a deadly secret. But this would be the end of the line for Doomwatch.

Jaws 2 (1978)

*. After Jaws rewrote the rules and the record books for box office a sequel was assured. Producer David Brown admits it’s a cliché, but called it “obligatory.” His co-producer Richard Zanuck, however, says that sequels weren’t yet a thing in Hollywood, with the only example he could think of being the Planet of the Apes movies. So maybe, as they had with Jaws, they were still blazing a trail for everyone else to follow.
*. However obligatory, inevitable, or groundbreaking a sequel was, the fact is it was ordered up as soon as Universal knew they had a hit property. Filming began two years after the release of Jaws, in Florida this time (though the setting is still Amity; in Jaws 3 they would relocate). The initial director didn’t work out and Jeannot Szwarc came in on short notice as a replacement. Roy Scheider was brought back almost literally kicking and screaming, joined by Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, and Jeffrey Kramer (he’s Brody’s deputy). “Bruce” had rotted away in storage so a few new shark models were made that apparently didn’t work much better than the original.
*. I said in my notes on Jaws that evidence of its greatness was how many times I’d seen it. I’m pretty sure I hadn’t gone back to watch Jaws 2 again since I first saw it on TV many years ago. But I can’t be entirely sure because only a week after seeing it and going back to type up my thoughts on it I found I had to refer to my notes to jog my memory as to what it had been about. It’s that forgettable.
*. Probably the best known thing about it is the ad campaign. The poster art (and cover of the paperback novel adaptation, which I actually read as a kid before I first saw the movie) is almost as good as the iconic original, with the same giant shark’s head this time looming behind a waterskier. And of course they knocked it out of the park with the tag line “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” That’s still with us, even if most people today probably don’t know where it comes from.
*. The plot is mainly a rehash of the first film. A new shark has arrived off the shores of Amity. The mayor and his council of local business boosters is still in denial, even as the bodies pile up (or wash ashore). Instead of doing away with the shark by way of an exploding oxygen tank Brody gets it to chomp on an electrical cable.
*. There were some interesting ideas. The waterskiing scene is actually pretty neat, and not badly done. The shark taking out the helicopter was too much, but has a wacky charm to it (it was still pretty silly twenty years later in Deep Blue Sea). And is that Napoleon Dynamite playing Timmy? Surely he was the model for that later character’s appearance anyway.
*. Not terribly suspenseful or scary. Szwarc figured that since the audience had already seen the shark in the first film there was no point keeping it hidden underwater here. Which makes it more of a monster movie. Given how much trouble they were still having with the shark, going a different route might have been easier.
*. Well, they did try. But Scheider was all that was left of the original trio who really made the first movie work, and he wasn’t getting along with Szwarc at all. The script was a mess and was constantly being reworked. The storyboards must have seemed promising, but given the limitations of what they had to work with at the time the big scenes didn’t translate on screen. So I’d just call it forgettable, and well forgotten. Far superior though to what was to come.

Jaws (1975)

*. I’ve mentioned before the difficulty, not to mention the pointlessness, of writing about a movie that has had so much written about it already. Citizen Kane. Psycho. Alien. In cases of movies that have had a huge influence on pop culture the problem is only compounded. You might think of all those names I just mentioned plus Blade Runner, and Star Wars, and Jaws.
*. The place Jaws holds in the history of film is hard to exaggerate. Maybe not as art, but as a blockbuster that in many ways transformed the entire business of movies. It was a gamechanger. On the business side it broke all kinds of new ground. In the first place it showed the importance of “wide breaks”: releasing in as many theatres as possible. Then it surprised everyone by exploiting a summer-youth audience. Summer releases had previously been avoided by studios, and Jaws had been optimistically pegged for Christmas 1974. Post-Jaws summers were seen as the prime calendar real estate. Add to this the extensive television advertising and the creation of a new blockbuster mentality. As Peter Biskind puts it, “Jaws whet corporate appetites for big profits quickly, which is to say, studios wanted every film to be Jaws.”
*. In the summary judgement of Carl Gottlieb (co-screenwriter and author of The Jaws Log, an excellent account of the making of the film): “Jaws became the first ‘summer blockbuster,’ redefined how films would be released thereafter, and established a North American distribution and marketing pattern that remains the model for the industry to the present day” (this was written in 2001).
*. Creatively, the impact of Jaws could be seen as being just as important. Biskind again: “such was Spielberg’s (and Lucas’s) influence, that every studio movie became a B movie.” Roger Ebert said something very similar in saying that Spielberg and Lucas defined the modern blockbuster as a B-movie with an A-movie budget. In his essay on Star Wars he writes of how it “effectively brought to an end the golden age of early-1970s personal filmmaking and focused the industry on big-budget special effects blockbusters, blasting off a trend we are still living through. . . . In one way or another, all the big studios have been trying to make another Star Wars ever since. . . . It located Hollywood’s center of gravity at the intellectual and emotional level of a bright teenager.”
*. Or, rounding up this overview, here’s David Thomson: “it [Jaws] means nothing at all . . . it is zero to the power of ten.” Its “model became the basis for the new cinema of the young . . . The young demographic was in charge. And the bright days of the early 1970s were shutting down.”
*. This is a point that I think is widely accepted in any history of the period now. Jaws and Star Wars marked a real turning point. Biskind even relates a funny story of Spielberg taking his friends Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and John Milius to the studio where the shark (“Bruce”) was being built and Lucas sticking his head in its mouth only to be stuck when Spielberg couldn’t get the mouth to reopen. “A premonition of things to come,” Biskind writes, referring both to the mechanical difficulties they would have with the shark and the fact that this was going to be the fish that swallowed Hollywood.
*. At the same time, we do have to record that these movies wouldn’t have had the effect they did if they hadn’t been first-rate entertainments. As Ebert also says of Star Wars, “you can’t blame it for what it did, you can only observe how well it did it.” And as Thomson says of Jaws, it’s “a comic-book Moby-Dick that could not be bettered.” Yes, they gave young audiences what they wanted, which was fairground thrills, spectacle, cartoon characters, and hokey dialogue. But they did it well.
*. If re-watchability is one of the tests for a great movie, and I think it’s one of the best, then Jaws passes with flying colours. I honestly don’t know how many times I’ve seen it, and I’m proud of the fact that I first saw it in a theatre (not in 1975, but on a later re-release). And though I can’t say I enjoy it more every time, or see more in it, because I don’t, I do still enjoy the experience. It is a great movie, and a personal favourite too.

*. Spielberg’s best movie? Antonia Quirke, in her BFI volume, calls it his “nimblest, crispest and best film.” I’d agree. That it came so early in his career is impressive, but also that, at only 27 years old, he managed such a huge, and difficult, production. But then, as always, we have to think of Orson Welles making Citizen Kane when he was 25. Welles sort of stands outside any rules.
*. It started life as a bestselling book by Peter Benchley. The prehistory here is instructive too about the way the industry was beginning to work, with the film rights being sold before it had even been published. I’ve read it, and it’s a trashy beach read that’s crudely written but with a decent plot. Robert Shaw thought it was shit and I think everyone agreed with Spielberg’s assessment that the movie was better.
*. The biggest change had to do with the character of Hooper. In the book he has an adulterous affair with Ellen Brody, who seems underserviced by her husband. I think I read it first when I was about 8 or 10 years old and her imagining herself with “her dress bunched up around her waist and her vagina yawning open, glistening wet, for the world to see” imprinted on my brain in what was probably a damaging way. In any event, Spielberg didn’t want any sexy business. He wanted the characters to be more likeable. This was part of his being a popular filmmaker. He also wanted the more likeable Hooper to live at the end (in the book he’s killed by the shark). Audiences liked that too. Some people would call this selling out but I think it’s really just a case of Spielberg wanting what everyone he was making the movie for wanted.
*. A digression on women. Ellen is a major character in the book and here she basically disappears (this upset Lorraine Gary, but she would be back with a vengeance, literally, in Jaws: The Revenge). Spielberg is much like his contemporary George Lucas when it comes to women. They remain “girlfriends” for Lucas and moms for Spielberg, never sexual.
*. The problems they had on set are legendary. Shooting on location in open water was a nightmare. The shark didn’t work. They went way over schedule and over budget. And yet when you’re working on a project as blessed as this one even bad luck turns into something good. Because the shark wasn’t available more had to be done keeping it out of sight. Hence the barrels, prefigured in the turning dock in the scene with the two amateur fishermen who stick the roast on a chain. So no shark led to them getting something even better. Sometimes, even when things go wrong they’re right. It’s not surprising at all the most famous line in the film was improvised. It was that kind of a movie.

*. The trio of male leads are perfect, but none were first choices, or big stars at the time. Scheider had mainly been in supporting parts (a slick pimp in Klute, straight man to Gene Hackman in The French Connection) and Dreyfuss had only been noticed in American Graffiti. I’ve said before how much I enjoy Robert Shaw in anything, and he’s perfect here. Sure Lee Marvin or Sterling Hayden would have been great as Quint too, maybe even better, but Shaw needed the money the most and in hindsight could you imagine anyone else in the role?
*. Shaw is very good at something I’ve always thought must be very hard for an actor: playing a character who’s very bright in some ways but very stupid in others (I think of Alex in A Clockwork Orange). Quint knows sharks, but that’s about it. Present him with something he’s not familiar with and he has the look of a stunned ox.
*. Pauline Kael was hard on Quint: “the fool on board isn’t the chief of police, or the bookman, either. It’s Shaw, the obsessively masculine fisherman, who thinks he’s got to prove himself fighting the shark practically single-handed. The high point of the film’s humor is in our seeing Shaw get it; this nut Ahab, with his hypermasculine basso-profundo speeches, stands in for all the men who have to show they’re tougher than anybody.” I’m not sure that’s fair. Quint is the working-man hero and he’s genuine enough. He’s the professional, not the student or the landlubber cop at sea. He knows what he’s doing, and with the Indianapolis speech (that Shaw wrote) we understand what drives him. He may be a fanatic, but he’s not stupid.

*. Quint as Ahab was a connection that was originally made even clearer. In the book he’s dragged down by the shark much like Ahab with Moby-Dick, and in Spielberg’s own draft script he sits in a cinema watching Moby Dick and laughing it. No need to be that obvious though.
*. I mentioned in my notes on the psycho-slasher Maniac (1980) that director William Lustig had wanted to make “Jaws on land,” and that this was the same way Sean Cunningham had conceived of Friday the 13th. So in addition to giving birth to the shark genre, which would take us through several Jaws sequels and on to stuff like Deep Blue Sea, The Shallows, a couple of 47 Meters Down movies, and the whole sorry Sharknado franchise, you can also think of Jaws as being the start of the slasher horror craze of the late-’70s and early-80s.
*. But not really. I think Quirke in her little book is very good on this point. There’s a big difference between the dyspeptic tone of Benchley’s novel, where nobody is likeable, and Spielberg’s movie, where everyone is a hero. The “tone of nastiness” Spielberg wanted to avoid is more appropriate to the slasher genre, where people are chum.
*. In retrospect it seems like they couldn’t have missed. The concept, wedded to the summer release, with this cast, and the score by John Williams, and Spielberg measuring every jump scare. At the time, however, it seemed anything but a sure thing.
*. Of course now it’s recognized as one of the handful of movies that made Hollywood what it is today. For good and ill, and at least partly by accident.

Husbands (1970)

*. Well, this wasn’t a very pleasant experience.
*. In part, and perhaps a large part, that’s by design. Andrew Bujalski: “Husbands is not now, and was not then, an easy movie to watch. Cassavetes was temperamentally incapable of and generally uninterested in making ‘easy’ movies.” The rough cut was four hours long and apparently audiences said they liked it (I find this hard to believe, but it’s what Marshall Fine says on his DVD commentary and I have to take him at his word). Ben Gazzara also said he “selfishly” liked the four-hour version best as well. All of this was a red flag to John Cassavetes, who had no intention of making a movie that people enjoyed so much.
*. And so, in Fine’s account, the more Cassavetes cut “the less audience-friendly it [Husbands] became.” Again I have to express my doubts. Surely less of Husbands could only be a good thing. Which gives you some idea of where I come down on it.
*. I’m not against Cassavetes in general, but Husbands doesn’t work for me at all. The problems I have with it aren’t the fault so much of Cassavetes’ brand of filmmaking, which aims for an unpolished, improvised quality, as they have to do with the movie’s whole concept.

*. Three forty-something friends — Harry (Gazzara), Gus (Cassavetes), and Archie (Peter Falk) — mourn the death of a fourth musketeer named Stuart by getting drunk, acting out, and finally hopping on a jet to London (England) where they pick up some women they don’t have any idea what to do with before Gus and Archie decide to go home and get on with their lives.
*. So what the movie is about, in the first place, is how we deal with loss. It is also a “portrait of masculinity of crisis” (this from the Criterion people), and represents “perhaps the most fearless, harrowingly honest deconstruction of American manhood ever committed to film.”
*. If you combine these two things I think you’d have to think that part of the project here is to have us sympathize, or at least empathize to some degree with Harry, Gus, and Archie. We should feel sorry for their loss, and for their mid-life crisis of masculinity.
*. This appeal to sympathy, however, runs smack up against the rebarbative three pals. Now I want to rush to say that there’s nothing wrong with having unlikeable characters, even as heroes (or anti-heroes). But I had a lot of problems with these guys.

*. Let’s start with a couple of critical observations. Pauline Kael: “Cassavetes is the sort of man who is dedicated to stripping people of their pretenses and laying bare their souls. Inevitably, the results are agonizingly banal.” David Thomson (writing about Cassavetes more generally): “He chooses basic, unenlightened, and unhappily successful people. They are a rarity in American film, rigorously shunned by most directors: they are bores.”
*. So that’s not good. The husbands are banal and bores. But it’s worse because they are also obnoxious jerks. And even worse than that, they’re not believable. The dig that both Kael and Thomson make would be sharper if we felt Harry, Gus, and Archie reflected real boring, middle-class professionals. But for all the grottiness of Husbands — one infamous scene has the boys retching in a public restroom — I don’t find it realistic on a human level at all. To be sure a lot of men are pigs, and they were probably worse in 1969 than they are now, but I can’t imagine many adults behaving in such a reckless and childish manner even then.
*. In short, they’re not good company for five minutes, let alone two-and-a-half hours. But they have an excuse, of sorts. They are in mourning. We need to cut them some slack. A whole lot of slack. They are, as Fine puts it, ” in touch with their mortality for the first time.” In the vomiting scene they aren’t (just) drunk, but rather “vomiting out the pain they’re feeling.” Stuart meant that much to them. At least that’s what we’re meant to assume, since they really don’t spend any time at all taking about Stu and he remains not so much an absent presence as just absent.
*. All three men are examples of a dramatic type that I bristle at: the wounded (physically or emotionally) male who is complicated in some way and needs the love of a good, understanding woman to heal him. But what have these young, professionally successful guys with beautiful families suffered? The death of their friend? This excuses their behaviour?
*. I don’t want to put them on trial, but I don’t get the sense that they’re acting any worse in the wake of Stuart’s funeral than they ever have. Harry seems to have a history of abuse toward his wife, who is afraid of him. Kael thought them bullies and this seems more than justified by the way they serially threaten and physically assault various women throughout the film (they don’t act so pushy with other men).

*. This sense that they aren’t just acting out now is reinforced by the fact that we don’t see them travelling much of a dramatic arc. Nor do I understand any of them any better at the end than I did at the beginning. Let’s face it, by the time you’re forty you are what you are. These guys aren’t going to grow but only be revealed. And that undressing doesn’t take very long.
*. The full title, or subtitle calls it “a comedy about life, death, and freedom.” Apparently one of the reasons Cassavetes wanted to cut it so much is that original audiences found it so funny. I don’t know what they could have been laughing at. There’s no wit in the dialogue, which may or may not have been improvised. Thomson: “The Cassavetes films are far more thoroughly written than was once believed; and they are badly written.” It’s basically the Norman Mailer Hour here. Or Two Hours-plus. Though not having Mailer on screen is at least some positive.
*. Then again, I’m not sure why the characters kept breaking into laughter either. Did they think something was funny, or did they just not know what else to do? Their disastrous promotional appearance on the Dick Cavett show, which is so awful it really has to be seen to be believed, is of a piece. Were they having a good time? Nobody else was.
*. I do like the homecoming at the end, maybe just as a relief, but at the same time it feels more than a little trite. When Cassavetes is on I think he’s great, but there’s almost nothing I enjoyed here at all, aside from maybe Archie getting handled by the Countess at the casino. Roger Ebert: “It has good intentions, I suppose, but it is an artistic disaster and only fitfully interesting on less ambitious levels.” I’m glad Cassavetes made it. I’m glad I watched it even if I didn’t like it. But this isn’t just a movie I couldn’t relate to but one that I found ham-handed and phoney. You can call Last Orders or The Hangover lesser fare dealing with similar subject matter, but I think they’re both better movies, and more honest too.