Category Archives: 1970s

Heaven Can Wait (1978)

*. I began my notes on Here Comes Mr. Jordan by talking about how it was a movie that fit its time. What was it about 1978 that made people so eager to embrace a remake? In itself this is a modest little film, but it got a raft of Oscar nominations and did big box office. I remember when it came out and I can attest that people loved it.
*. Vincent Canby, writing in the New York Times, began his review with the same sense of confusion: “There is something eerily disconnected about Heaven Can Wait. It may be because in a time of comparative peace, immortality — at least in its life-after- death form — doesn’t hold the fascination for us that it does when there’s war going on, as there was in 1941 when Here Comes Mr. Jordan was released and became such a hit. Or perhaps we are somewhat more sophisticated today (though I doubt it) and comedies about heavenly messengers and what is, in effect, a very casual kind of transubstantiation seem essentially silly.”
*. Comparisons to the 1941 version are inevitable and don’t come out in this film’s favour. Beatty and Mason are basically trying to get by on charm, and heaven knows they both have plenty. Mason’s Mr. Jordan, however, is a much reduced part, to the point where he almost seems irrelevant.
*. The love interest is an interesting case study in that most difficult of qualities to capture and define: on-screen chemistry. In the original, Robert Montgomery and Evelyn Keyes apparently didn’t care for each other much but they really clicked. Here Beatty and Julie Christie had been a couple, and had starred together previously in McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Shampoo, but I don’t sense any spark between them.
*. Here Comes Mr. Jordan had a lot going on, and almost all of it worked. In this movie there’s a lot going on but much of it just seems like a distraction. As noted, Mr. Jordan goes from being a co-start to almost disappearing. The Escort (co-director Buck Henry) is undistinguished. The police investigation gets short shrift, spending most of its allotted time dragging us through some really unfunny business about Farnsworth’s dislike of hats. Hey, if you had Warren Beatty’s hair you wouldn’t want to wear a hat either!
*. What’s up with Farnsworth’s uniform fetish? Was it supposed to be funny?
*. I did like Charles Grodin and Dyan Cannon as the scheming couple. They were interesting and fun to watch. “Pick up The Fountainhead, pretend you’re reading.” That’s a good line.
*. But really, if you want to see the difference between the two movies just compare the final scene in the tunnel between Joe and Betty Logan. In the original the lights go out and they’re exposed as reverse silhouettes, outlined in light. It’s a beautiful shot, perfectly framed, and it has a glimmer of that old-school moonshine about it. You can feel magic in the air. In the remake the lights go out and . . . you can’t see anything! Then they come back on. How magical is that? How romantic? I don’t mean to sound like some crotchety lover of Hollywood’s golden age — because I’m not — but how could Beatty have messed up something so simple?

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Black Magic (1975)

*. I don’t think I’ve seen another movie shot in Kuala Lumpur, so in that respect at least Black Magic was, for me, a unique experience.
*. Aside from the handful of location shots I didn’t find much else interesting about Black Magic. That feels like a weird thing to say, since it’s a zany movie. But it’s not zany enough.
*. The actual story is just an updated folktale involving a bad rich girl who wants a love potion to make a decent working fellow leave his fiance and become her toy boy. She gets said potion from a wicked wizard who carries a skull around. But the young man’s fiance and friends fight back by enlisting the aid of a good wizard.
*. That’s the outline, and you’d think it would be hard to screw up. But Black Magic is a total mess. It’s basically a sort of exploitation horror flick, but it isn’t scary or erotic in the slightest. The subdermal worms are the only creepy part (aside, that is, from the ghastly wallpaper), and the way the women have to be milked by hand to make the love potions will only appeal to the (hopefully) small percentage of the population with a lactation fetish.

*. The effects are laughable, but they make for the few enjoyable moments. The final battle is like something out of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, but a lot cheaper. This cheapness has some unfortunate results elsewhere in the film. The severed finger, for example, has an uncomfortable similarity to a dog turd.
*. Speaking of dogs, the one we see here has to be the most unthreatening guard dog in film history. It’s so obvious he just wants to play.
*. I can’t think of much to recommend this one. It’s basically a bunch of bits and pieces thrown together without any strong connecting thread. We spend far too long, effectively the entire first half of the movie, dealing with extraneous plot elements. Then we’re left wondering if the evil magician was in love with the rich girl himself or if he was just interested in a one-night stand. If the latter, why does he keep hanging around? By the end I didn’t care, and all the Italian-style zooms and campy special effects didn’t make much of a difference to me.

The Comeback (1978)

*. I wonder how bad a director of horror films has to be, to ever be truly forgotten. In 2014 exploitation director Pete Walker was given a retrospective at London’s prestigious Barbican Centre where five of his movies (including The Comeback) were screened. In 2012 Kino bundled together five films (not the same five, but also including The Comeback) as a “Pete Walker Collection” DVD box set. So I guess this means that he’s been accepted as an auteur of sorts. But let’s be honest: these movies are terrible.
*. You can give Walker credit for being independent and even, in some respects, ahead of his time with his grimy proto-slasher flicks, but how independent is any exploitation filmmaker, really? I mean, they’re nakedly just in it for the money. They’re not pursuing any kind of original or personal artistic vision.
*. Yes, there are some consistent themes that inform most of Walker’s work, but it would be hard to avoid all fingerprints. Meanwhile, stylistically he is very dull and his plots are so silly they actually make one yearn for the modern “American” version of the psycho killer. That is to say, a predator with little if any motivation.
*. In short, I found The Comeback to be boring and stupid and silly. The silliness is the only fun to be had. Apparently Walker’s idea of a pop singer in the late ’70s was a lounge-act fellow who takes girls out on dates wearing three-piece pin-stripe suits. The whole feel of the movie is off. I had the feeling that Walker really wanted to do a Hammer film set in an old mansion or country estate, but was stuck making a nod toward swinging London with a pop-music storyline that he had no interest in or affinity for.
*. Also silly is the transvestite angle, which I suppose is meant to operate as a red herring but which in the end turns out to be otherwise gratuitous. Why does the killer get all dressed up anyway?
*. Finally, the motivation behind the murders is priceless. It seems all of Nick Cooper’s “foul contortions” and “lewd, suggestive songs” were receiving their comeuppance. A lot of horror movies from this period were actually quite conservative, or at least had a conservative strain to them. In some respects they’re like the English village mysteries, where murder disrupts a natural, peaceful, aristocratic order that is ultimately reasserted. But The Comeback dials this up to a whole new level.
*. Of course it’s a bit more complicated than that, but like I say, we do often find a conservative, moralistic strain at work in the Brit horror of this time. Think of the cop’s speech against hippies in The Living Dead at Manchester Morgue: “You’re all the same, the lot of you with your long hair and your faggot clothes, drugs, sex, and every sort of filth.” It’s very similar to what the killer says here. The longhaired young man in Manchester Morgue was the hero and the cop a jerk, but the point of view expressed is not discredited in the film. This then led to all those American slasher films in the ’80s where promiscuity would be made a capital crime.
*. Aside from this I don’t think there’s much to comment on here. It’s not a well made movie, and even the gore is pretty dull. As an interesting footnote, the blood doesn’t have that almost acrylic orange look that a lot of horror movie blood had at the time because apparently it was real (outdated donated blood from a hospital). That couldn’t have been fun to work with. It’s also kind of weird that we keep cutting back to Gail’s rotting corpse in lieu of anything else going on. But even the maggots and rats and real blood didn’t do much to change the impression I had that I was, basically, watching paint dry.

Schizo (1976)

*. “When the left hand doesn’t know who the right hand is killing!!” That’s a great ad line.
*. As far as the film goes, I can’t be quite as complimentary. But I think the time and place matter.
*. The year is 1976, which is a couple of years before the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween officially launched the slasher film genre. Horror aficionadoes may point further back, to Black Christmas or even Psycho, but I think it was the success of Carpenter’s film that really established the formula. In any event, all I want to say here is that Schizo wasn’t just a rip-off of Carpenter. It’s not a dead teenager movie, for one thing.
*. The place is England, which might also come as a surprise. The grimy urban texture looks like the New York City of Abel Ferrara in such films as The Driller Killer and Ms. 45, and shares the same interest as those films in tortured psyches gone murderous. But again, Schizo was several years earlier.
*. All of which is to say that, despite being a crude exploitation flick, Schizo was actually somewhat ahead of the curve. Something we might have guessed from director Pete Walker, a cult figure who independently financed his movies and tended to use them to pursue his own idiosyncratic vision of terror.
*. Schizo isn’t what I would call a typical Walker movie, as it doesn’t work any of his core themes, like the tyranny of corrupt authority figures. Which I guess makes it even more of a curiosity. Not a very good movie, but an odd one.
*. It’s a decent script that keeps you guessing, at least for the first half. After that it starts to get pretty clear as to what’s going on. Still, the various alternative possibilities are kept open as long as possible.
*. I don’t know if it was a conscious connection, but Schizo also reminds me of Cat People. There’s the newlywed couple, with the neurotic wife pursued by shadows and troubled by fears of going crazy. In distress she turns to a friendly (nudge, nudge) shrink, while becoming jealous of her husband’s old gal pal. Does that seem too big a stretch? I really do sense a resemblance.
*. I wouldn’t want to make Schizo into something more than it is. Walker was an interesting albeit minor director who says he mainly just wanted to “create a bit of mischief” (and, of course, make some money). I believe he stopped making movies entirely at the age of 41 and turned to the business of buying and restoring cinemas.
*. The suspense is handled reasonably well, and there are a few nice flourishes, like the scribbles on the newspaper turning into the circles Samantha’s skates cut into the ice, but aside from the dark ending (one of Walker’s trademarks) there’s not much to recommend.

The Asphyx (1972)

*. I have to admit, I went in to this with one question paramount in my mind: How do you pronounce “Asphyx”? The answer? “Ass-fix.” I probably should have guessed.
*. That matter settled, what we have here is a surprisingly off-beat British horror flick. The premise is demented. Apparently each of us has a personal demon known as an asphyx that comes to take away our soul after death. This is not a comforting thought, or one that fits very well with any religious tradition I’m aware of.
*. As researcher Sir Hugo Cunnigham (Robert Stephens) discovers, however, the asphyx can be seen hovering around a person who is approaching death, and by use of a phosphorus lamp can be trapped in a case. This means that the person whose asphyx is so contained is now effectively immortal. I’m not sure why this should be so, but it is.
*. Being a good man of science, Sir Hugo experiments first on a white lab rat, making it immortal by capturing its asphyx in a special cabinet. Note that animals have souls too. Might we do the same with plants as well, or anything organic? The question is left open. In any event, satisfied with the results Sir Hugo goes on to immortalize himself, and plans to do the same with the rest of his family. Alas, as errors compound he learns that “providence is not to be tampered with.”
*. The Asphyx was directed by Peter Newbrook, and I believe it was his last film (he later went on to work a lot in television). His previous movie had been Crucible of Terror, another real oddity that I enjoyed. He obviously had a thing for making movies outside of the box. It’s too bad he didn’t have a chance to do more, but the British film industry was contracting in the 1970s.
*. The story came from Christina and Laurence Beers, who I don’t know anything about and didn’t find any other credits for. The script was written by Brian Comport, who did a couple of other obscure (and weird) horror titles and that’s it. The nearest analog I can think of is The Picture of Dorian Gray, but even that’s little more than an echo, with the asphyx in the basement the guarantor of Hugo’s immortality. But Hugo does age, even if his lab rat, his “companion for all eternity,” doesn’t.
*. Of course this part of the story doesn’t make sense. Why should it only be Sir Hugo’s face that ages? How is he still ambulatory? And how is he maintaining that asphyx casket after all these years, since he can’t get into the basement?
*. Using a guillotine as a near-death experience was perhaps not the wisest move. I’m just saying.
*. But then the death traps the characters use are all kind of fun in a Dr. Phibes sort of way. An electric chair. A guillotine. A gas chamber. The Jigsaw killer might have been taking notes.
*. It’s all very silly. If Giles just wants to kill himself at the end, for example, and that clearly is all that he wants to do, why bother going through that rigamarole about replacing the crystals and pumping his chamber full of oxygen so he can blow himself up? Why not just take some poison and call it a day?
*. So now I’ve called it demented, silly, and fun. I enjoyed it. The frame narrative is a nice gag, and watching them play around with all the Victorian technology is a treat. I don’t think there’s anything very profound about The Asphyx, but there is melodrama if not tragedy in its story of a man who basically annihilates his entire family and then, faced with a choice between grief and nothing, chooses grief.

Lucifer Rising (1972)

*. Sometimes obscurity can be a good thing. Ambiguity can be fertile, allowing for multiple interpretations of a movie’s meaning, which then draws us back to the same film again and again, finding something new or previously hidden every time.
*. A lot of experimental film is like this, where things are left deliberately vague and open-ended. This is particularly the case in short films that are image-driven. A movie without dialogue is, perforce, going to show and not tell.
*. This should be a credible defence of Lucifer Rising, a short film with no dialogue. We should feel at liberty to interpret it however we wish. But I don’t think that was Kenneth Anger’s plan.
*. Instead, I think the obscurity here is part and parcel of the film’s meaning. That is to say, it’s supposed to mean something. It’s just that what it’s supposed to mean remains obscure.
*. This isn’t all Anger’s fault. What the film consists of is a pastiche of scraps taken from various occult rituals. In order to make any sense out of it you’d have to know about Aleister Crowley (that’s his picture hanging on the wall) and his philosophy or religion of Thelema. Today, Thelema is even more obscure than it was at the time, and I’m not sure it’s worth boning up on for the help it’s going to be here.

*. The sense of the film being a kind of scrapbook is made even more pronounced by the way it was made. It was shot over a period of around four years, using talent that came and went, and then came again. Bobby Beausoleil, for example, was originally going to star, then fell out with Anger and got involved in the Manson cult. His footage still appears in the film though, and he also did the soundtrack when he re-connected with Anger after his (Beausoleil’s) conviction for the murder of Gary Hinman (he wrote the score in jail). Meanwhile, Jimmy Page, who was supposed to do the soundtrack, only appears in a brief cameo.
*. Are any of the cast meant to be “characters”? There aren’t a lot of credits. The way the roles are usually described don’t make much sense to me. How is Marianne Faithfull Lilith? Is the guy in the Lucifer jacket Lucifer? There’s actually a character named Chaos?
*. As with the cast, so with the locations. We start off in Egypt and the pyramids, then travel to the Externsteine in Germany. Then back to Egypt for the finale at the Temple of Karnak. All to illustrate . . . what? The coming of the Age of Aquarius? The Aeon of Horus? Is Horus going to come to Earth in a spaceship?
*. Well, this is obscure to be sure, but personally I don’t find it evocative of much of anything. In short, I don’t understand what’s going on. The opening scene has male and female priest figures (or perhaps they are Isis and Osiris) lifting their staffs of power in gestures that made me think of masturbation.
*. This leaves us with the most basic elements of colour, editing, and sound floating in a vacuum. The music isn’t my thing at all, but I did sort of like the overture to the volcano. There’s a garish use of colour but I didn’t find it that significant aside from the scene with the woman in grey rising from her riverside crypt, which is really very pretty. As for including so much nature footage, I again have to throw up my hands at what the point of it was. The elephant stepping on a cobra was cool, but was it meant to relate to God cursing the serpent (“And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”)? Maybe. But . . . an elephant?
*. Anger is a highly individual taste. Lucifer Rising is generally considered one of his more accessible works, but it doesn’t do much for me. I don’t have that feeling of a work that’s opening up in front of me, revealing strange new seas of thought and feeling. Instead, it feels like a closed book in a made-up language. It’s very personal and even enjoyable at times, and I give it credit for this. But then so is a wank.

The Andromeda Strain (1971)

*. This is a strange movie, and maybe the strangest thing about it is that you wouldn’t expect it to be strange at all.
*. First, the premise was nothing new. After an opening that recalls Village of the Damned it follows a basic outline akin to other genre films like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955). The idea of a deadly microbe or disease from space endangering the Earth is just The War of the Worlds in reverse. In other words, pretty standard SF fare.
*. Second, Michael Crichton, whatever else you might think of him, was hardly an eccentric talent. The Andromeda Strain was his breakthrough novel and gave a good indication of what was to come. He would, throughout his career, remain very much a popular writer of a traditional sort, an old-school storyteller of fantastic tales without much interest in character or literary effects. In hindsight, you would expect any film with his name attached to it to be a hit, but you wouldn’t expect it to be experimental or groundbreaking in any way.
*. Third, I don’t think Robert Wise ranks very high on anyone’s list of maverick directors. By this point he’d shown an ability to work in virtually any genre without any distinctive or trademark style carrying over from one project to the next.
*. Given all of the above, you’d be justified in thinking that The Andromeda Strain would be a conventional SF adventure. But it isn’t. It’s actually quite unusual.
*. In the first place there is the use of the split-screen effect. This is most dramatic in the scene where the doctors investigate the dead town, going from door to window to door on one side of the screen with what they’re looking at appearing in a “window” frame on the other side of the screen. But the use of a split-focus diopter is almost as striking an effect, and it’s used here a lot. Now I’m not sure either of these techniques works all that well, but they do give the proceedings an eerie feeling.

*. Then there is the emphasis on tech, and the slow pace, especially in the middle part of the film. It’s a detective story where the detection is the result of employing the painstaking, trial-and-error scientific method. Fancy machines and computers are more important than brains in solving the mystery of the alien strain.
*. The characters then recede in importance, except in so far as they are betrayed by human frailties and weaknesses. Indeed, at the end I couldn’t remember the name of a single one of the doctors.
*. Roger Ebert: “The human characters almost seem an embarrassment to the Wildfire Project, a hermetically sealed laboratory on five levels below ground. . . . What’s fascinating is the way the humans pick up the computer state of mind. They occasionally lapse into humanity (particularly in the case of Kate Reid, as a crusty lady biologist of a certain age). But when the going gets tough, they become abstract and machine-like even toward each other.” When Dr. Stone leads Dr. Hall up the central core, telling him when to duck to avoid the lasers, it’s like he’s playing a video game.
*. Wise was afraid that making one of the doctors a woman (none are in the novel) would be like adding Raquel Welch to Fantastic Voyage. No chance of that here! They went the other way, with Kate Reid appearing as the anti-Welch in her baggy coveralls and unsexy specs. That’s progress, of a kind.
*. The look of the film, from the curving, colour-coded hallways to the special effects were, I’m sure, a lot more interesting in 1971 than they are now. Aside from the stuff that seems downright funny today, like the disco helmet worn during the xenon-flash decontamination, this is really the future that wasn’t, a future that is now a relic of our (fictional) past.
*. Pauline Kael: “The suspense is strong, but not pleasurable.” Hm. I can’t make out what this means. Suspense is always a nervous thrill that we enjoy or find pleasurable in the same way we enjoy being scared. If it’s strong that usually means it’s working. If it’s not pleasurable then it’s not working. So what is Kael’s point?
*. Personally, I don’t find it very suspenseful. As I’ve been saying, I think it’s a strange movie, and I appreciate how different it is from the usual formula. However I’m not sure how well any of it works in the end. On the one hand, it probably deserves to be better known. On the other, I can understand why it has been largely forgotten.

Willard (1971)

*. Willard is a movie that I suspect most people (among those who care about such things) will have heard of but not seen. This is mainly because it has never (as of this writing) been released on DVD. It is, however, easy enough to find online
*. Its relative obscurity may also be because it’s not very good. If you’re expecting fireworks you’ll probably give up after a while, as it’s a slow build and nothing really happens, horror-wise, until the final ten minutes.
*. It’s often referred to as an early example of the “revolt of nature” genre, though that’s a label that I find misleading. Yes, the birds in The Birds are in revolt. Same with the various swamp critters who take over in Frogs. But the rats here don’t really suggest “nature” to me. And what with Willard’s telepathic link to Ben what I think we’re getting is more a sort of Jekyll-Hyde story, with the repressed and dutiful young man wreaking a terrible vengeance by way of a furry alter ego. A distaff version had already appeared as Cat People, and it’s the same story Romero would revisit in Monkey Shines.
*. The real evil in these films is not something in nature but is instead a human evil, an evil within. Ben and his extended family are just tools, acting out Willard’s psychopathic urges.
*. As I’ve said, I don’t think it’s a very good movie. It has, however, grown a cult following, in large part for being  weird. Willard isn’t just a misfit, but a true eccentric. How could he not be with Elsa Lanchester as his mom, and the two of them living together in that decaying palace?
*. Roger Ebert thought the box office success was based on the number of people who wanted to see Ernest Borgnine eaten by rats. If so, they must have left disappointed. And is Borgnine (playing Martin, Willard’s boss) really that bad a guy? Willard deserves to be fired. He’s totally useless at his job and probably should have been canned years ago. Willard blames Martin for making him hate himself, but I’d wager his mother had more to do with that. And when Martin kills the rat Socrates in the store room, do we think he’s a heavy, or just taking charge and doing what has to be done?
*. No, the weirdo here is Willard, the mama’s boy who is “basically an extrovert, except it’s all inside.” I mentioned Cat People earlier, and Simone Simon’s likeness to a cat has often been referred to as part of the uncanny quality of that movie. Can we say that Bruce Davison, long-haired and chinless, has a bit of the rat about him? And if our animal familiars in some way represent those abnormal elements of our own personalities, what does that say about Willard? That he’s a sneaky little bastard?
*. Perhaps people paid to see Borgnine being eaten, but by the end I think we’re looking forward to Willard getting his. Which he does in what I think is the only truly unnerving scene in the film, just for the sound effects of the rats nibbling away at his corpse. A pity it comes so late. Up till then, the rats really aren’t that scary. Borgnine has to work hard to sell their attack on him, and finally just has to jump out the window to save himself further embarrassment.
*. I wonder how much of this film’s continuing cachet is in fact the result of its being largely unseen. For those who have made the effort, I think it must be a let down. The only thing to commend it is the interesting cast, with everybody playing some kind of a caricature. Even the doe-eyed Sondra Locke is hardly more than a plot device. Still, I’m relieved she got out of the house alive. I think Willard genuinely did want to get rid of Ben and live with her. But she would only have been his new mother.

Alien (1979)

*. Well, this is another one of those movies that is so well known, has had so much written about it, and has become such a cultural touchstone that there’s really not a lot of point in my trying to add anything to it. I don’t think I can say anything new or offer much in the way of fresh thinking.
*. Now, with that out of the way . . .
*. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it, and I can’t remember when the first time was, but my most viewing came after just having watched AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004). (This was an accident. AVP happened to be on at the gym so I got on a machine and plugged myself in for the duration. I don’t always recommend this as the best way to watch a movie, but AVP is good workout fare.)
*. Seeing the two films so close together really brought home the matter of how much faster everything moves in the twenty-first century. The action in AVP never stops, and we keep skipping around different arenas to watch the franchise-monster deathmatch playing out. Alien was made at a very different time, though it’s worth noting that even in 1979 the studio suits were concerned that the film got off to much too slow a start.
*. In any event, I think the effect of hindsight, looking back on Alien from our own accelerated culture (and subsequent entries in the franchise), makes the sedate pace stand out even more. Here is Erik Lundegaard, writing in 2003: “The most startling thing watching Alien again is its pacing. For the first 45 minutes, little happens. It’s all slow, exquisite build-up, which makes the second half seem all the more horrific.” And here is Roger Ebert, who was cool toward Alien when it first came out (“basically just an intergalactic haunted house thriller set inside a spaceship”), but considerably more appreciative a couple of decades later, when he included it among his list of Great Movies: “One of the great strengths of Alien is its pacing. It takes its time.”

*. Usually the matter of pacing is related to the idea of a slowly developing sense of dread, and it’s interesting to compare Alien to Psycho in this regard, where we also sit through half a movie before something happens. And in both cases the bomb that goes off is a seminal moment of film horror, not to mention the most explicitly violent scene in the movie. (As with a lot of notoriously extreme horror films, we don’t actually see much gore or violence in Alien. As Ridley Scott says, “The most important thing in a film of this type is not what you see, but the effect of what you think you saw.”). After seeing Janet Leigh getting carved up in the shower, and John Hurt giving birth, we are on edge for the rest of the film because we know a certain line has already been crossed and now we’re on the other side.
*. There’s another point I want to make here with regard to this median climax. In most of Alien the violence is edited out. We never do see what happens to Dallas, for example (unless you watch the deleted scene of him being cocooned). But the creature bursting out of Hurt’s gut is different. As Jason Zinoman in Shock Value puts it, “When the alien bursts out, something strange happens; the camera stops. The bright lighting does not darken. The audience gets a straight-on look at the monster. It is grotesque: bloody, slippery, and obscene. Once it appears, the monster looms in the center of the frame, while the crew freezes, gaping at this bizarre, freakish creature, unable to turn away. They don’t run or hide. They are fascinated. Like us, they are an audience, helpless, frightened, and too curious to realize they are in danger. For the first time in history, revealing the creature is not an anticlimax.”

*. But I think the pacing serves another purpose too. This is to ground us in the reality of the environment. Much has been made of the dirty realism of the Nostromo: its cramped cabins and quarters and especially all those dark corridors with their exposed tubes, ducts and wiring, with water dripping from the walls and jets of steam going off for no reason at all. This isn’t the gleaming future of 2001 or Star Trek, with shiny hallways and doors that whisper open automatically. Instead it’s a blue-collar grease trap that doesn’t look remotely aerodynamic, held together with elastic bands and chewing gum.
*. That part of the realism is just design, but there’s a realism too in the dialogue, which is often just technical “gobbledegook” (Scott), but which sounds good. Grimiest of all are the untermenschen Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton, who are only worried about getting paid.
*. The pacing contributes to this sense of realism because space is a place where nothing happens. The crew might as well be in their cryo pods asleep on such a long voyage because what is there to do? They don’t even seem to be having sex. Some romance was originally hinted at between Dallas and Ripley, but that scene was cut, along with a number of other action scenes. Scott seems to have wanted less going on. Why? Because real life is dull. I mean, the life of a long-haul trucker is boring enough, but long-haul intergalactic miners? It’s just days of tedium followed by a few minutes of blind panic.
*. People complain that the crew doesn’t respond to the creature in a very professional or sensible way, but in their defence they’re really out of their league, don’t know what they’re up against, and have probably never had company of any kind on board before. All things considered, I think a group of anti-social loners come together reasonably well.
*. Does that seem like I’m being harsh on the crew? Not as harsh as Kim Newman, who calls them “bitching incompetents who’ve obviously signed up for the trip because no one on Earth can stand them.”

*. The theatrical poster has always bugged me. The alien eggs don’t split apart at the bottom, light doesn’t spill out, and what is that grid-like structure? It doesn’t correspond to anything on the alien ship does it? And while it’s true that in space nobody can hear you scream, when is that ever put to the test here? As Scott points out during his commentary, even the ship makes a roar going through space, which he realized wasn’t accurate but was just something he wanted on the soundtrack.
*. The room that houses the ship’s computer, “Mother,” is pretty funny. What do you think all those lights actually do?
*. Why does Ripley include Ash in her roll call of the dead crew at the end? I don’t think robots die, at least in the sense in which she’s using the word.
*. It’s a movie that has been likened to a slasher flick in space, and in at least one respect there is a connection there. That connection is the ’80s linkage of horror and sex.
*. The first alien critter, dubbed the “facehugger” by fans, looks a bit like a crab with a snakey tail. I choose the word “crab” deliberately, as it could also be an overgrown pubic louse. It face-fucks John Hurt in the film’s most disturbing scenes, with its tail providing a bit of erotic asphyxiation.

*. Dead and turned over, it turns into one of the place settings at Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, all juicy oysters and clams when it’s opened up. That this creepy pussy-creature sits on Hurt’s face, gripping his head with its legs, is bad enough, but it then really turns the gender tables by impregnating him (Parker makes jokes about eating pussy while not knowing that pussy has been eating the man sitting next to him). Reproductive horror reaches its climax here, though the inspiration for it seems to have been Dan O’Bannon’s Crohn’s disease.
*. On reproductive horror, it’s worth quoting from David J. Skal’s The Monster Show: “The culture’s growing but guilty hostility toward birth is transformed into a monstrous fetal parasite hostile to the culture itself. Alien was a validation of something already suspected: that reproduction was a kind of death, a devastating insult to the body and personal autonomy; that sex and technology had come together in a weird and ugly way. Relief came only when the beast was aborted from the mother-ship’s body, sucked away by the vacuum of space.”
*. The mature alien creature, or xenomorph, is more masculine. It’s a bloody penis, though there is some confusion here as well. Ebert sees it as “unmistakably phallic in shape” but then cites the critic Tim Dirks’s description of its “open, dripping vaginal mouth.” Personally, I don’t think it has a vaginal mouth (dentata or otherwise). I think its head shooting out from its other head is an erection analogy: a toothy exposed glans dripping with pre-ejaculate. Fun fact: its jaws were made of shredded condoms.

*. This may seem a bit over-the-top, but (a) it’s actually less blatantly sexual than Giger’s artwork, and (b) I don’t think there’s any getting around all the sublimated sex in this film. Veronica Cartwright’s death presumably involves some kind of quasi-sexual impalement (the alien’s tongue reaching up between her legs). Even the scene where Ash, for whatever obscure reason, tries to kill Ripley by rolling up a magazine and stuffing it in her mouth, is pornographic. Presumably that’s a skin mag (nice to know those are still around a few hundred years from now), as there are various centerfolds stuck to the walls. Scott says of the scene that it’s “the closest thing to seeing a robot have sex.”
*. And again all of this merging of horror and sex is reminiscent of ’80s slasher horror, with Ripley, improbably dressed in skimpy underwear, appearing as the virginal last girl. She’s the one who doesn’t want to invite the stranger in. She’s the Goody Two-Shoes who has to do everything by the book.
*. A big difference, however, is that the Nostromo is not a campus sorority. The characters aren’t oversexed teenagers but middle-aged men (most of the actors were in their 40s, and looked it) and a couple of younger women (Weaver was 30). Hormones have cooled, and all that’s left is the aforementioned loneliness of the long-distance hauler. Could we imagine any of these guys having family? In the director’s cut of Aliens we learn that Ripley has a little girl back home, but that wasn’t in the theatrical release and I think it was wise to leave out, just as it was wise to leave out her romance with Dallas in this film. Meanwhile, Ash refers to the xenomorph here as “Kane’s son” (or son of Cain?), which turns it into a parricide.

*. David Thomson: “Alien is not just a monster movie, or science fiction, or horror even. It is a study of the loneliness of the human species, dismaying and moving because of unknowns it is on the point of disclosing.” I’m not sure what the last part of this means or is referring to, but I like the way Thomson highlights the theme of loneliness.
*. Is this another version of Solaris then? Do the crew dream the alien into existence? It seems fitting that it first intrudes on to Mother’s consciousness (or radar) as they sleep. The xenomorph then is the embodiment of their collective fear not just of sex but of relationships in general, of the other. The loneliness of the human species.

*. Newman thought it was a stupid story saved by its design and other disparate elements coming together. I actually think the story is decent, and has a great hook. The cast are all solid too, but I agree that the design takes it to another level. Giger’s organic technology works on so many levels, and the way the ship is a kind of gothic cathedral with the xenomorph as its resident gargoyle adds to the blending of ancient and futuristic visual cues introduced with the slowly revealed hieroglyph title. I particularly like how the corridors seem to pass seamlessly from the industrial to the biological, as though the crew are always just a doorway away from being stuck in a giant digestive track (Thomson calls the corridors “intestinal,” which I think is a good word).
*. I remember being less impressed when I was a kid. I wanted to see more of the monster. Now I’m glad we don’t. I also thought it pretty dull in places when I was younger, but not the usual places. I didn’t mind the slow start, but I thought it dragged a bit at the end. Now I see it as having a pace that I enjoy more. But then, I’m older now.

*. One thing I’ve always disliked is the strobe light effects at the end. Those are really too much. And why do they start to go off in the shuttle? That really bugs me. Everything is fine and then Ripley sees the alien and all of a sudden she’s in a disco. I get that Scott wanted to conceal the monster as much as possible, and crazy light effects are traditional in horror climaxes (the swinging lightbulb in Psycho has been endlessly repeated), but it just strikes me silly.
*. It went on to become a franchise, spawning an increasingly improbable series of sequels and prequels. Today we speak of an entire Alien mythology, as though that’s a good thing. But recently going through all of them again, I have to say that Alien remains the one that stands up the best. Success in the film biz has a long tail.

Death Bed: The Bed That Eats (1977)

*. When watching grade-Z horror films from the 1960s and ’70s it’s pretty obvious that the directors didn’t think very much of what they were doing. This is made even clearer when you listen to the DVD commentaries by schlock auteurs like Herschell Gordon Lewis or William Grefe, which are funnier than any comic send-ups of their films. You can’t mock their work more than they mock it themselves.
*. I haven’t listened to the commentary for Death Bed so I don’t know how seriously writer-director George Barry took it. I believe it was the only movie he ever made, and he produced it himself as well, so you’d think it meant something to him. It even took him five years, working off and on. But apparently he mostly forgot about it, and indeed seems to have thought it was never released, before finding out otherwise many years later.
*. So I don’t know to what extent Barry thought this whole film was a joke. Clearly there are parts of it that aren’t meant to be taken seriously. The hungry bed drinking a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, for example, to help soothe its upset tummy (or bleeding ulcer). Right from the opening, as we hear the sound of the bed munching away, we know we’re in a silly place.
*. That may not bother you at all. I’m not sure it bothers me much. But it is something I wonder about.

*. I’ve often heard Death Bed described as surrealism, and there may be something in this. We speak of falling into our beds and then falling asleep or falling into a dream. The idea being that in sleep we descend into a subconscious state. What Barry does is he extends the metaphor and has the sleepers being devoured by the bed, by sleep, and by their dreams. Is the bed all just a bad dream? Or is the bed dreaming its victims? You decide.
*. Apparently the concept came to Barry in a dream and he wanted it to play like a fairy tale. I think he succeeded in this, with the girls bringing their picnic basket o the odd building in the woods that houses the magical bed. There is also an Artist imprisoned behind one of his own paintings, a back story involving a demon and his sleeping princess bride, and a curse that needs to be lifted. It’s very much fairy tale stuff.
*. Or you could call it art house stuff. I got a real Jean Rollin vibe off of Death Bed. I imagine if Barry had kept going he would have gone further in this direction, as interested in campy sex as in horror.
*. I consider it more erotic-comedy-horror than horror comedy. The bed is as horny as it is hungry, with the “eating” of its victims being obviously sexual: the ejaculating wine bottle beneath a couple making out, the orgy massacre, all the hubba-hubba heavy breathing. You could even see it as a movie about the dangers of sex, which was becoming a major horror theme at the time.
*. The Artist (that is, Aubrey Beardsley) is an interesting narrator, and he’s necessary because we need to know the bed’s history and the bed (obviously) isn’t talking. Usually such a character has a privileged role: the author of the film, directing the action as well as commenting on it. But here he’s more a marginal figure, not in control of the events until the very end, when the bed falls asleep.

*. Aside from the caged Artist the only other aspect of the film that’s noteworthy is the digestive system of the bed itself. This begins with a bubbling up of foamy bile followed by a descent into a yellow acidic liquid. It looks quite bizarre, but has an unfortunate similarity in appearance to the artist Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.” The connection is made even stronger by the appearance of a cross on a chain suspended in the solution. I doubt this movie was any influence on Serrano, but . . .
*. You’d think a movie this campy, with such a zany premise, would be a lot more fun. But the fact is it’s really very dull. Once we get used to the way the bed operates it’s just a process repeated over and over, and there’s hardly any suspense. Meanwhile, the plot is so bizarre that even after turning to several online synopses for help I still wasn’t entirely sure what had happened. That sort of confusion is ultimately self-defeating, as it’s hard to stay interested in the story when you don’t understand what’s going on. Death Bed is a curiosity to be sure, but I don’t think it’s an enjoyable enough experience for anyone to want to see it more than once.