Category Archives: 1970s

Days of Heaven (1978)

*. The rap against Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven has been consistent since its premiere. The photography by Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler is universally praised (Almendros won an Oscar though Wexler apparently shot more than half the picture, following Almendros’s lead). The story, not so much. In short, it’s a movie of beautiful surfaces, with depths that are left largely to the viewer to fill in.
*. I’ve talked before about the two issues I most often have with beautiful photography. In the first place, we shouldn’t mistake great design or art direction, or a beautiful setting, as being synonymous with great photography. If you’re shooting something beautiful, it’s easy to make it look beautiful (I said something about this in my notes on The Revenant). The second point I’d make is that beautiful photography shouldn’t draw attention to itself unless that is the purpose. If it doesn’t serve a purpose it is only a distraction, or something that can undermine the rest of the film.
*. It’s not as though people didn’t think that the beauty of Days of Heaven — and Roger Ebert considered it “above all one of the most beautiful films ever made” — to be a potential problem right from the get-go. On the Criterion commentary track editor Billy Weber says this: “the only thing I remember thinking is that it was too good looking, it was a little bit bothersome, you saw how good looking it was from the beginning, and it felt, I was nervous that it was going to take away from the emotion of it, that people were going to view it as like a coffee-table book . . . they’d leave the theatre saying it was so beautiful, but that’s all they’d say.”

*. When the first reviews came out Weber’s fears were confirmed (Pauline Kael: “The film is an empty Christmas tree: you can hang all your dumb metaphors on it”), which he found upsetting because he felt it really was about something and not just pretty. And I think most critical writing today would have his back on that. Though not all. David Thomson concludes his brief appreciation with the following admonition: “Days of Heaven remains one of the great visual experiences in American film, and a warning that film is more than visual.”
*. Ebert tried to salvage the film a different way. “Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven has been praised for its painterly images and evocative score, but criticized for its muted emotions: Although passions erupt in a deadly love triangle, all the feelings are somehow held at arm’s length. This observation is true enough, if you think only about the actions of the adults in the story. But watching this 1978 film again recently, I was struck more than ever with the conviction that this is the story of a teenage girl, told by her, and its subject is the way that hope and cheer have been beaten down in her heart. We do not feel the full passion of the adults because it is not her passion: It is seen at a distance, as a phenomenon, like the weather, or the plague of grasshoppers that signals the beginning of the end.”
*. I can’t quite agree. For one thing, Linda’s voiceover seems to have been almost an afterthought, and it’s not true that the story is presented as seen from her point of view. Personally, I also find Linda’s New Yawk accent to be a strain, and her homespun philosophy not very deep or affecting. If not for Ennio Morricone’s score I’d be tempted to watch Days of Heaven with the sound off next time. And what of the plot would I miss?

*. This leads to another point. I like the look of Days of Heaven as much as anyone. There are shots here that seem like they must have taken forever to get right, though I don’t think they had that luxury. And many of the interiors are just as gorgeous as the prairie landscapes (that’s Alberta, not Texas). Vermeer seems to have been a major inspiration. Honestly, you could cull at least a dozen pictures from this film to use as your desktop background. And there’s also a more personal connection. My father could remember the days of threshing gangs, which he often described as having a similar sort of romantic glow. And I also remember nearly burning down a wheat field with him one day.

*. That said, is there too much of it? After a while I did get a bit tired of that picturesque house they seem to have borrowed from Giant (or is that the Bates house?). And when there’s a single cut during the scene where Bill and Abby head out for an evening tryst to an abandoned parasol I thought it seemed a bit precious. Also, why insert all those shots of rabbits and pheasants in the wheat field if we’re not going to see what happens to them? They are being herded into the shrinking cover and will end up being massacred by the reaper. Why draw away from showing that? It’s an image that goes back to Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles and would have fit with this movie’s theme just as well.
*. Is it even a criticism of Days of Heaven though to say that it’s a bit thin on everything but the visuals? According to Peter Biskind’s reporting Malick didn’t like the way things were going initially and so made a conscious decision to “toss the script” and go “wide instead of deep.” The Farmer (Sam Shepard) doesn’t even have a name.
*. Script? Much of it was improvised, and much cut. People started thinking they were working on something close to a silent movie, and not just from this paring down. In the excerpt from his autobiography included in the Criterion material Almendros says that the “model was the photography of the silent films” and an homage to their “blessed simplicity.”

*. As for the cast, Sam Shepard wasn’t an actor at the time but at least he had an interesting face. Richard Gere and Brooke Adams do not have interesting faces, though we may be thankful that Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, and John Travolta, the latter being the guy Malick really wanted to play Bill, were unattainable. The mind fairly boggles. Linda Manz, who Thomson thought gave the best performance, is wearing a mask, leaving us to wonder what Linda knew. I started longing for scenes with Robert Wilke just so I could see someone who looked like he was acting.

*. The plague of locusts and the fire are representative to me of the rest of the movie. They are wonderfully realized and have a kind of beauty all their own. And at no point did I feel any engagement with what was going on. Like a sense of creeping dread with the first appearance of the locusts, or hoping that they could put the fire out. I just watched and wondered at how, and how well, it was done. Or take the ending, with Abby and Linda heading off their separate ways like two female Bobby Dupeas. Did I care where they were going? Not really.
*. So sure, one of the most beautiful films ever made. And a personal vision pursued to excessive lengths, including two years of editing. But let’s face it, Giant was a more compelling story, with stronger characters, and it was Old Hollywood trash. New Hollywood broke a lot of ground, but it had some limitations too. I’m still not sure what Malick was even trying to express or do with this movie aside from showing that something like it could be done. In that sense at least it’s a triumph.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

*. I guess I have to start with a prefatory note saying that the version of this movie I just watched is the Special Edition which was released in 1980. I was going to watch the Director’s Cut that came out in 1998 but the disc in the three-disc set I’d borrowed from the library was so damaged I couldn’t play it. Seriously: what do people do with these things? Use them for coasters? But I’ve ranted about this before.
*. Anyway, I think the main difference with the Special Edition is that we get to see inside the mothership. Which is kind of underwhelming anyway. Even Spielberg didn’t like it (he preferred keeping it a mystery) and took that scene back out in his Director’s Cut. So I guess you pick your disc and take your chances.
*. I honestly can’t remember what I thought of this the first time I saw it, so I guess it didn’t have the same impression it had on me that it did on others. It was a big hit though, riding the new youth demographic to blockbuster heaven (it came out the same year as Star Wars). But how good is it?

*. Spielberg got the sole writing credit but apparently it was the work of many hands (Paul Schrader wrote the original draft but then wanted his name taken off the project due to creative differences). It’s all a bit of whimsy. Spaceships cruising all over the world, being seen by millions, and yet they remain the stuff of tabloid headlines? Apparently they hide in clouds! Meanwhile, why does such a high-ranking official as Claude Lacombe (François Truffaut) not have a translator on his staff when in the field? I mean, I can understand having to use Bob Balaban in a pinch, but then after picking him up in the desert they take the erstwhile cartographer on as a full-time member of the team? What?
*. I find the build-up to still be fun, with Roy Neary (Richard Dreyfuss) chasing his dream after getting sunburn on half his face, but the climax is empty and dull. David Thomson: “thirty years ago, when we were just babes, the climactic light show was awesome.” But it’s more than forty years ago now and Star Wars is still a thrilling adventure story and Close Encounters is just a bunch of Christmas lights hung about a rock in Wyoming. Aliens came all this way just to play Simon with us? They must not think we’re very bright.

*. But how could it be otherwise? I find this to be a movie that is in some essential and even deliberate ways soft-headed. So much so that even critical praise of it takes on this same quality.
*. Pauline Kael saw it as a celebration of “the best-humored of all technological-marvel fantasies. It has visionary magic and a childlike comic spirit, along with a love of surprises and a skeptical, let’s-try-it-on spirit. It sends you out in a sate of blissful satisfaction.” In her review of E.T. Kael would be explicit about the feeling such films engender: “Like Close Encounters, E.T. is bathed in warmth, and it seems to clear all the bad thoughts out of your head. It reminds you of the goofiest dreams you had as a kid, and rehabilitates them.”
*. I think if you love Close Encounters it’s for these qualities. After originally pursuing Steve McQueen for the part of Neary Spielberg came to realize that what he really wanted was not a manly man but a man-child, someone who reminded him of his own sense of childhood wonder staring at the stars. That’s the way this movie works, if it works for you at all.
*. I want to stick with the mushiness of the ending because it relates to three critiques that I think can be leveled at the movie.

*. (1) In the first place, the movie is, chronologically and thematically, very much smack in the middle of the great run of paranoid conspiracy thrillers that were so thick on the ground in the late 1970s. Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Parallax View (1976), Marathon Man (1976), All the President’s Men (1976), Coma (1978), Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978). Once again we have the normal Joe determined to find out “the truth” that’s being concealed behind a vast (really vast, in this case) government cover-up.
*. In some ways Close Encounters would be the most influential of all these films, as its tropes would become the guiding mythology of The X-Files and much else. Before this time the whole “alien abduction” theme was pretty marginal to mainstream culture. After this it would take off. But placed alongside those other conspiracy movies I mentioned how tame and inoffensive it seems. Compare Roy and Jillian looking down on the landing site to Beatty in the rafters of the convention hall, Sutherland above the pod facility, or Michael Moriarty discovering the secret lake of alien ooze in The Stuff (1985). Here there is nothing sinister going on, to the point where it’s unclear why they’re bothering to keep it a secret. The conspiracy was well intentioned and there was no need for feeling paranoid about it. The government doesn’t even kill the farm animals it leaves by the side of the road as a warning but only puts them to sleep for a while. This is a conspiracy thriller that makes the paradoxical point that we have nothing to worry about. Or, as Gene Siskel put it on Sneak Previews, it has the “awfully nice message ‘Don’t be afraid of the unknown, seek it out.'”

*. (2) Audiences have always had trouble with the casual way Roy abandons his family. In his defence, it does seem as though Ronnie (Teri Garr) dumps him, in a one-side telephone call that hints at irreconcilable differences. Still, it is abrupt, and as their kiss on the roadway makes clear he’s clearly thinking of moving on. Also, it’s worth noting that he dumps Jillian as well at the end, after the hint that there might be some romantic connection brewing there.
*. This is a point that Spielberg became sensitive to as well, saying that it was a young man’s movie that dated more than any of his others, in that he couldn’t imagine, after having kids of his own, doing what Roy does. Still, he finds it to be a “sweet, idealistic odyssey of a man who gives up everything to follow his dreams.” What it underlines though is Roy’s essential childishness. He even gets to put on red pyjamas at the end to taken by the hand and led aboard the ship by a little girl. An ascension, or reversion to some state of pre-maturity? So good-bye wife, kids, and even puberty with all of its embarrassing body hair and sexual organs.
*. (3) One must become as a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, which is my final point about the ending. Not an original point, but necessary. This is the SF version of the Rapture, with Neary and others being taken up from the mountaintop, all to the sounds of a heavenly chorus. It’s no mistake when one of the scientists looks up to the mothership and says “Oh, my God,” or when the crowd in India chant “He has come” in Hindi.
*. But as with the sugar-coating of the conspiracy angle this clothing of the ending in the borrowed robes of religion strikes me as dangerously anodyne. What I think of more than anything now when I see the line-up of Rapture cadets in their jumpsuits is the uniforms of the tragic “away teams” of the Heaven’s Gate cult. I know they were Trekkies, but were they also fans of this movie?

*. Is the title ever explained? It comes from the writings of ufologist J. Allen Hynek but I don’t recall the different levels ever coming up for discussion. Did I miss it? Probably. Or was it assumed that everyone in 1977 knew Hynek’s work?
*. The players are all good, starting with Dreyfuss as the scruffy and half-sunburned Everyman. There’s one of the great child performances of all time by Cary Guffey as Barry. The casting of Truffaut was inspired. Spielberg just wanted his face, but as Thomson observes, his “lack of fluent English placed him quite nicely somewhere between humans and aliens.”
*. All the iconic scenes involve the light show — I can’t remember any scenes just with people interacting — and the effects are state of the art for 1977. Roger Ebert (in 1977): “the last thirty minutes are among the most marvelous things I’ve ever seen on the screen.” I doubt many people feel the same way today, though I think I’d still take what we get here ahead of the end of The Abyss, which would be state of the art ten years later, or any of today’s CGI gee-whizzery. There’s something about the effects here that are charmingly retro in a way that suits the theme of childish wonder. Spielberg, wary after shooting Jaws on location, wanted to do the whole movie in studio, and a number of the process shots with matte paintings look borrowed from an earlier generation of filmmaking. The scene on the road, for example, might have come from Invaders from Mars (1953). But it works with the little boy out late at night, looking at spaceships.

*. So it’s just what its greatest admirers love about it: a film suffused with the glowing Christmas-tree lights of childhood wonder. I mentioned how Spielberg wanted a child-man as his hero, but as his comments about Roy’s abandonment of his family indicate what he may have been thinking of was something a good deal younger or more infantile than that. Perhaps someone little Barry’s age. That is, around three years old. Or maybe as grown-up as the six-year-old girls who played the aliens.
*. Spielberg would later say that the image of Barry opening the door to all the alien lights outside stood as a good summary of his career up to that point: a child standing at a threshold of great promise and danger. That’s a universally relatable feeling, which is what gives the film its strength and is why it’s so fondly remembered today by people who first saw it when they were kids. As I began by saying, it didn’t have the same impact on me. I feel even more today that there’s something missing from it, even if it still has that childhood glow.

Seven Blood-Stained Orchids (1972)

*. Fans of gialli, and I certainly count myself among them, should admit to their being spoiled. With lots of intelligent if bizarre scripts, flourishes of stylistic gore, and talents like Bava and Argento directing you can’t go wrong. Even a mediocre giallo is usually a good time.
*. Seven Blood-Stained Orchids is a mediocre giallo. The story here comes from the pen of the insanely prolific Edgar Wallace. In fact this was the last of a series of Wallace adaptations by Rialto, and, a German-Italian co-production, is considered by some to mark the transition from the German krimi to the Italian giallo. I can’t say much about this because I don’t know the krimi genre very well, but this is about as yellow as it gets.
*. What does that mean? Well, there’s a serial killer, dubbed by the media the Half-Moon Maniac, stalking beautiful young women. We see a lot of shots from the killer’s point of view, revealing only his black gloves. There are red herrings galore, and a convoluted back story explaining the killer’s motivations. I’ve actually read commentary on this movie where the killer’s identity is said to be obvious but I certainly didn’t find it so. Even at the end I wasn’t entirely sure what had been going on.
*. Umberto Lenzi borrows all the motifs but his heart doesn’t seem to be in it. There are enough pointless zooms to make your head swim and some odd angles that only rarely serve any purpose or score any style points (the overhead shot of the dead cats being one of the few exceptions). There are no good kills, even with the employment of a power drill. One naked corpse has paint dripped over it, turning her into a Pollock. That’s very giallo too.
*. But as I said, even a mediocre giallo is still pretty good. They’re basically slasher films made with a flash of art and intelligence. Or, put another way, slasher films made before art and intelligence went completely out of style.

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

*. A pre-title credit announces “A film by Wes Craven.” And yes, he was the writer-director. But wasn’t “A film by Wes Craven” four-flushing it? All that Craven had previously done was The Last House on the Left.
*. He must have known he was going somewhere. Or else maybe this was a movie that he was particularly proud of (even if he hadn’t been keen on making another horror picture, and only did it for the money). If so, that pride hasn’t taken a check. On the DVD commentary he remarks “I have not watched this for years and years and I’m struck by how strong it is. It’s pretty damn good.”
*. I think the only way it counts as pretty damn good is by taking into account how it was made on a shoestring. Thematically it’s very similar to Last House on the Left: the terribly decent family (they even get together for group-prayer sessions) that has to descend to savagery in order to defend itself. For some reason this idea fascinated Craven, and whatever else you want to say about it, it does register on a primal level. It pushes buttons.
*. Like a lot of very simple and not very original concepts though it allows for a great deal of further interpretation. Tracking its sources, it draws on various folk motifs, with Craven saying that the Sawney Bean story was the main inspiration. More than that though I think it’s basically riding on the coattails of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The group of normal people who, after stopping for gas (this would become an obligatory scene for many imitators, to the point where Roger Ebert would dub a whole sub-genre Wrong Gas Station movies), end up in a bad neck of the woods. The warning “Y’all stay on the main road now, you hear! Stay on the main road!” goes unheeded, as it would in horror films for decades to come. They are then hunted by a cannibalistic family of murderous degenerates.
*. Craven admitted to being influenced by Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and indeed wanted Gunnar Hansen, the actor who played Leatherface in that film, to be in this one. Hansen turned him down. But Robert Burns, production designer of Texas Chain Saw Massacre, signed on and apparently re-used some of the props he’d made for Tobe Hooper’s film. I also think the use of the broom may have been another nod or homage.
*. Aside from these sources of inspiration, near and far, I’m not sure there’s a whole lot more worth flagging. Some critics see the conflict between the two families as representing a kind of class struggle. Well, obviously the Carters are “bourgeois” in the sense that they own a nice trailer, go to school, and have jobs. And the feral family have none of these things. So when Jupiter snarls at the head of Big Bob Carter “You come out here and you stick your life in my face,” it’s a great line, reeking of semi-articulate class resentment. But there’s nothing else in the movie like it. Nor do the Carters seem much like colonial settlers, wiping out Native Americans or the Vietnamese. I’m not opposed to these kinds of readings, but I just don’t feel like there’s much basis for them here.
*. Here’s another critical point of view, from Kim Newman: “Craven’s obsessive theme is the depiction of antagonistic groups, usually parallel families . . . more or less representing the forces of destructive anarchy and normative repression. The only possible contact between the two is psychopathic violence, and Craven wittily has the carnage stem from each group’s desire to emulate its mortal enemy.” This is nicely expressed, but is it true? How are the Carters or the Collingwoods (the family in Last House on the Left) repressed? How does the violence result from the evil families wanting to emulate normal people, rather than just preying on them? Newman is a great critic, but he seems typical here of people wanting to read more into Craven than there is there.

*. The religious angle is also only slightly touched on. The aforementioned family prayer goes unanswered, and Bob ends up being crucified before becoming part of a communion dinner. It’s hard not to read that as some pretty serious sacrilege. But what of it? Craven getting back at his Baptist upbringing?
*. The marketing was effective. Craven didn’t like the title, which I’ll admit is a bit obscure, but out of the hundred possible titles lined up it tested well with audiences. Oddly enough, Craven also thought The Last House on the Left was a terrible title, but it tested well too, despite not having much to do with the movie. And he also preferred Scary Movie to Scream.
*. Sticking with the marketing front, more misleading was the glowering face of actor Michael Berryman (Pluto) on the film poster. Definitely iconic, but Pluto is not the main villain in the movie and indeed is played as a bit of a goofball. But Jupiter and Mars didn’t have such great faces.
*. You have to feel for Berryman. Along with a long list of other health issues he was born without sweat glands, so filming in 49-degree Celsius temperatures was a real trial. But it paid off, as he’s probably the one character in the movie everyone remembers.
*. Who else is here? Dee Wallace is Brenda. At the time she was on her way to becoming a scream queen (she’d go on to appear in The Howling, Critters, and the belated sequel Critters Attack!). Probably best known for her turn in E.T. All I can say is that I’m glad we were spared more screaming. Brenda’s screaming fit at the end of this movie is hard to endure. This was only Wallace’s second movie and I wonder if anyone would have seen her in it and thought she’d go on to have such a long, productive career.
*. I don’t think it’s a good movie at all. It isn’t scary. It has a cheap, made-for-TV look to it that I hated (which is weird given how much I like the work Burns did on Texas Chain Saw Massacre). It’s surprisingly tame when it comes to showing any actual violence. The threatened baby is kind of edgy, but it’s only threatened (Craven had wanted to kill it until the cast rebelled). There’s a basic idiot plot. The dog is actually a lot smarter than the Carters, at least until we get to the ridiculous Wile E. Coyote trick that Brenda and Bobby MacGyver-up to catch Jupiter.
*. That said, looking over the notes I made on this movie a few years ago, I think I liked it a bit better this time. I still find it raw and dumb and not well turned out, though the grounding in primal fears and folktales pays off. But when the great wave of twenty-first century resets or remakes of the horror classics of this period hit, I have to say that Alexandre Aja’s 2006 The Hills Have Eyes (produced by Craven) was one of the few that I found to be an improvement on the original. This movie may be a landmark, but it’s not one that you need to visit very often.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

*. The pods are back, but we’ve moved on as a culture from the cozy white-picket fence community of Santa Mira to the dirty streets of San Francisco. Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen San Francisco, which is a pretty city, ever look this grungy. But then we’re following a Health Inspector (Donald Sutherland) around as he finds rat turds in restaurant kitchens. Hell, not just in the kitchen, but in the food! This San Fran is a creepy, run-down place. When do you think Matthew is going to get that windshield fixed? And sure there are kids picking flowers in the park, but what’s up with that weird priest playing on the swings? And Robert Duvall no less! Immediately we’re on our guard. Things can’t be what they seem.
*. So it’s a pretty place, but run-down and full of weirdos. Like this cast. Brooke Adams is the only conventional-looking movie star. The others appear alien even before the spores land. Donald Sutherland’s hair mimics that hanging moss in the opening shots of the park (even director Philip Kaufman thought it a bit much), and his nose (which Kaufman seems to delight in exaggerating) is definitely out of this world. Leonard Nimoy is wonderfully cast and manages to steal every scene he’s in, but as Gene Siskel remarked, if aliens ever landed “Leonard Nimoy would be the last person I’d go to for advice.” Veronica Cartwright is wonderful, and would have more alien trouble just the next year, as well as a small part in The Invasion in 2007, but is she the one you’d expect to have kept her shit together at the end?

*. And Jeff Goldblum. Pauline Kael, who raved about this movie, crushed on him, commenting of his performance that he “knows enough to disregard his handsomeness.” That struck me as odd, but I guess compared to his castmates he seems the least odd, all 6’4″ and 170 pounds of him (he would bulk up to a very buff 185 for The Fly). In 1978 I might not have suspected his subsequent career appearing in many of the biggest box-office hits of the next several decades. His character is such a perfect antiheroic type. The going gets tough and he (1) gets a bloody nose; (2) starts to cry; (3) falls asleep; and (4) is fascinated by the pretty pink flower. Poets get no respect. Though I guess he redeems himself a bit near the end.
*. Yes, Kael loved this movie. She had days, a lot of days, like that. Here’s how her review begins and ends: “Invasion of the Body Snatchers is more sheer fun than any movie I’ve seen since Carrie and Jaws and maybe parts of The Spy Who Loved Me. . . . it may be the best movie of its kind ever made.”
*. Of what kind would that be? Not thought-provoking social commentary but popcorn thrills like Carrie, Jaws, and James Bond. But is that really the kind of movie this is? I mean, to take the most obvious point, it has that real downer of an ending. They get rid of the upbeat frame story the studio insisted on in 1956 and doubled down with a bitterly ironic twist (albeit giving Matthew a moment of heroism in destroying the grow-op). I love the ending here, even though I’m not sure Kaufman helped things by taking such an iconic shot as Sutherland’s scream and zooming straight into his mouth.

*. It was the ’70s, that great decade of paranoia in American cinema, so we feel right at home when Cartwright starts on about how “It’s a conspiracy, I know it.” And she’s right. But since we’re no longer in the grips of a Red Scare, who or what is the enemy within? The Red Scare hadn’t turned into the Fed Scare yet in America (that would have to wait until 1993’s Body Snatchers, and even more emphatically with 2007’s The Invasion), so what anxiety is being addressed? The counterculture? But surely that spirit of nonconformity and individualism is what the pods are seeking to erase. What are the politics of this movie? Or does it have any?

*. Muddying the waters further is the matter of how we can tell who is and who isn’t “one of them.” Take the question of when Kibner is taken over. The short answer is we don’t know, we’re not told. But when do you think? Was he already one of them at the book signing event? Or is that just the way he is? Cinematographer Michael Chapman remarked in an interview that it’s “hard to tell if someone is a pod or just a ’70s asshole.” So were ’70s assholes the target here? And what kind of assholes? The “cloying sympathetic” (Kaufman) Kibner? On the DVD commentary track Kaufman says that he hasn’t been transformed yet at the book signing (note his one angry outburst after they leave the bookstore), but that Robert Duvall was already a pod priest.
*. Is the point then that we can’t really tell if we’ve lost our humanity, either because we’re not connected well enough anymore to notice or because modern people are less human anyway? There seems to be a connection here, at least in my eyes, to the zombie apocalypse movies that followed. These would ultimately result in movies like Shaun of the Dead and Juan of the Dead, where jokes are made about how you can go outside and walk down the street after the zombie apocalypse and not know if the people you meet are alive or dead. This is another way of thinking about something Kaufman says during the commentary: “I feel like everything that is talked about in Body Snatchers has come to pass, and that we are now living in a world largely controlled by pods.” This is apocalypse in its literal meaning of revelation, not a fantasy but a realistic depiction of the way we live now.

*. Again I wonder what the pod people are up to, what their end game is. To devolve into a lower form of plant life, parked in front of their TVs like Art Hindle, headphones on and listening to music? Plants like music, Cartwright has told us. And why are they still going to work, and keeping their regular hours even after they’ve obviously taken over the city entirely? Are they actually doing anything in the lab, or just instinctively going through the motions, like the zombie mallwalkers in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead? I like how Elizabeth’s husband says, in trying to reassure her about being transformed, that “Nothing changes: you can have the same life, the same clothes, the same car.” These things are important! But does that mean he’s still a dentist? And what if Elizabeth doesn’t want to go back to the lab?

*. There are some new curves thrown in to the mix that are so good they’d be held over for the next instalments. Two stand out. The first is the alien scream and their pointing fingers. The ultimate j’accuse, signaling banishment from the new in-group, and a nice set-up for the flourish at the end. The other new wrinkle is the way the old human bodies are removed by garbage trucks. Proving once again the old adage that one man’s waste is another man.
*. People who talk about this movie inevitably get drawn into arguments over which of the two Invasions is better. I think they’re both great movies, but I’d have to say I enjoy Siegel’s version more. Not just because it’s less gloomy, but for its snappier pace (Kaufman’s movie is nearly 40 minutes longer). But really they’re two very different movies, reflecting entirely different styles and different Americas. Kaufman references Hamlet in his commentary, talking about how that play has been adapted in different productions reflecting new contexts and ways of interpreting and understanding its characters and story. I think that’s what happened here.
*. In itself, it’s good entertainment. The effects have held up very well. Even the dog with the human head still works. I believe Denny Zeitlin’s score was a one-off, but it’s effective. There are lots of cameos, from Kevin McCarthy to Don Siegel as the cab driver and Kaufman himself as the man waiting outside the phone booth. In some ways it feels like a very freestyle production, with Kaufman letting himself go in a way that you wouldn’t be expecting in a big-budget production today. You might think of it as coming at the end of the burst of maverick American filmmaking of the period. After this, the pod people were going to take over and everything was going to look pretty again.

Diamonds are Forever (1971)

*. The seventh “official” (Eon Productions) Bond movie, and as with any long-running franchise they’d reached a point where they had to decide whether they were going to make a break and head in a new direction, or try to turn back the clock. George Lazenby wasn’t interested in returning and while different actors were tried out (including Burt Reynolds, Adam West, and Roger Moore, who had a prior commitment), the studio wanted Connery back and were prepared to pay anything to get him. In this case “anything” being $1.25 million, which set a record at the time.
*. This was a big mistake. Connery looks tired and puffy, and his performance is only a notch above mailing it in. But pretty much everything else about the production seems just as worn out, despite the all-hands-on-deck approach. Guy Hamilton, who’d directed Goldfinger, doesn’t add any energy or sense of style. Just compare the helicopter raid at the end here to that at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Even Shirley Bassey can’t save the worthless theme song. The sets by Ken Adam all seem infected with a tacky spirit of sameness.
*. That tackiness is evident everywhere. Maybe it’s the Las Vegas setting. Maybe it had something to do with the budget having to be scaled back to make up for Connery’s salary. Whatever the reason, the look is just ugly, starting with the opening kill in a giant, colon-cleansing release of muddy slop.

*. In addition to this ugliness and feeling of being tired there was also a somewhat intentional decision made to play more for laughs, moving in a very different direction from the previous film. So we get the gay henchmen Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd, the comedian Leonard Barr as Shady Tree being one of the Vegas gangsters, and a chase through the desert with Bond driving a space buggy. Plus all the usual dry quips. Funny? I didn’t think so when I first saw the movie and I still don’t. So I can’t entirely blame my worsening sense of humour.
*. The script by Tom Mankiewicz (son of Joseph L.) is junk, leaving most of Ian Fleming’s novel behind. Apparently the whole idea of introducing the Willard Whyte/Howard Hughes character came about as the result of a dream Cubby Broccoli had. I can’t think of a worse idea for writing a screenplay than listening to a producer’s dreams. And so what we end up with is a wholly useless character who gets thrown at us late in the day and who takes up far too much time. He’s basically just a repeat of the Draco character from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and he leads the exact same helicopter assault on the villain’s lair at the end. They weren’t thinking outside of the box here.
*. Jill St. John’s Tiffany Case should be a lot more fun, but she goes from being a resourceful criminal mastermind to being a bimbo in a bikini in the final reel. What a waste.

*. I’m sure Charles Gray is a capable actor, but he’s totally miscast as the third different Blofeld (or fourth, depending on how you count these things). Again we go from the threatening Telly Savalas to a fussy Brit who even shows up in one scene in drag. I suppose that was another attempt at humour. How we are supposed to believe that he’s interested in Tiffany is beyond me.
*. The drag Blofeld is one of the reasons Diamonds are Forever is often referred to as camp. I don’t think the label quite fits, and think I’ll stick with tacky. Tacky like the dreadful fake explosions as the diamond-powered satellite takes out subs and missiles. A real low for the series thus far.
*. Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd (Bruce Glover and Putter Smith) are often panned as being among the worst of the Bond villains. I don’t agree. They may be campy too, and the way they keep coming up with the most theatrical ways they can think of to get rid of Bond, just so he can escape, makes you roll your eyes, but I rather like them. I also find them among the most memorable henchmen in the canon. I also like Bambi and Thumper, and think they are sadly underused.
*. That’s about all the good I can say about Diamonds are Forever though. This is not just the first Bond movie that actually seems dated to me, but the first downright bad Bond flick. Bond would indeed prove to be forever and so come back, but at this point you’d be perfectly justified in thinking the franchise was played out.

The Kremlin Letter (1970)

*. A good movie is often a happy accident of art. You can take all the talent in the world and if it doesn’t come together in the right way then you’ve just got a mess. Why, take a look at Beat the Devil . . .
*. The Kremlin Letter is another John Huston mess. Huston thought it “had all the makings of a success,” and seen from one angle I guess it did. But as Arbogast put it, if it doesn’t jell then it isn’t aspic, and this ain’t jellin’.
*. The obvious place to start is with the script. “In retrospect it was perhaps overcomplicated,” Huston had to admit. No kidding. I honestly had no idea what was going on here, even after reading a detailed plot synopsis I found online. But the basic point is that a team of gentlemen spies (part of an old-school, extra-governmental order of such operatives) is assembled to go to Russia and retrieve a compromising letter.
*. The hero, in this film without many, is Charles Roan (Patrick O’Neal), whose super power is an eidetic memory. Also part of the team are Ward (Richard Boone), an avuncular good ol’ boy, Barbara Perkins as the daughter of a break-and-enter specialist now too arthritic to join the old group (the members of the team are all getting on in years), and a pair of fellows known as the Warlock and the Whore (George Sanders and the ubiquitous Nigel Green, respectively) who are chosen simply because they are such colourful types. Sanders in particular is introduced in drag because he’s gay, don’t you know. And we all know gay spies like to dress in drag.
*. Rounding out the cast we have Max von Sydow as a Russian counterintelligence guy, his wife Bibi Andersson, and Orson Welles as a Communist Party boss. That’s quite a cast, and they’re left totally at sea.
*. In addition to the muddle of the plot there is a huge problem with tone. On the one hand this is definitely a film that, to quote Huston biographer Jeffrey Meyers, “followed the bitter, cynical, and disillusioned tradition of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Ipcress File, but lacked their tight plots and convincing characters.” As Huston himself put it, “I was attracted to the story by its depravity . . . I thought the story shocking, immoral, vicious and cynical.” It is all of this. But this does not make it any more believable or authentic, at least in my book. The team of oddball agents, for example, just strike me as a random gang of eccentrics and I had trouble understanding what function any of them really served.
*. Then there is the treatment of sex. This is even uglier and less credible. As for the ugliness, I’m put in mind of the impression David Thomson had that “Huston never quite trusted women as characters.” I wonder if he even liked them. I mentioned this in my notes on The Maltese Falcon and clearly in the following thirty years Huston hadn’t mellowed in his views.
*. And so there is a gratuitous, leering catfight in the early going that plays nothing like the comparatively innocent gypsy camp scene in From Russia With Love, and a really nasty bit at the end where Andersson is roughed up that I had to wonder at the point of.
*. Aside from this crudity, none of the female characters comes across as believable. We go from the bizarre and embarrassing innocence of Barbara Perkins (“My father says that going to bed is an integral part of the job and one must be good at it. So I thought that, uh, I mean I . . .”) to the masochistic lust of Andersson (“Hit me again! kick me! kick me!”), in both cases falling for the distinctly unimpressive O’Neal, who is impersonating, quite improbably, a Russian gigolo part of the time. If you find any of this grittily realistic I’m not sure where your canons of realism were formed.
*. The weird (to give it a neutral adjective) attitude toward sex is also present in the scene where the captured Russian cracks not at the threat of his wife and youngest daughter being tortured, but at video of his older daughter being seduced by another woman. Now that’s going too far!
*. Maybe one of the stars Huston had wanted to play Roan might have saved some of this. Steve McQueen, Warren Beatty, and Robert Redford were all considered for the role. They might at least have projected some sexual heat. But perhaps they read the script and thought better.
*. It’s hard to think of any highlights. Some praise is usually given over to the photography, but I don’t think Finland standing in for Russia looks any different here than it did in Billion Dollar Brain. There’s little action, and that little is not well done. Flourishes like the rolling, unwinding ball of red yarn seem more laboured than stylish. The idea of having scenes begin being spoken in Russian and then switching into English was, at least, a curious innovation. But I can’t say it helps much. The only part of it I found myself enjoying was the confrontation between Von Sydow and Welles, which wraps up by being held by Huston for a long, silent shot that’s quite effective.
*. The film’s end is dark and despairing indeed. Despairing because even if Roan accepts his new mission it doesn’t seem likely that this will be the end of it. But at the same time it’s a punch that fails to fully land, in part because the intercut images are necessary to remind us of who the note is even talking about, and it’s unclear what Ward’s motives are. Perhaps, if I had been paying more attention, all of this would have been clearer, but as I’ve said before the biggest problem with confusing movies is that after a certain point you simply stop caring. So, instead of feeling the horror intended I only registered relief that it was over.

Black Christmas (1974)

*. Without giving it credit for launching the slasher genre I think it’s still fair to say that Black Christmas was the first of its kind. The reason it’s less well known is that it was the unbelievable box office success of Halloween that really launched the genre properly. It is profitability that leads to imitation in the film business, and Black Christmas (released in the U.S. as Silent Night, Evil Night, which I’m sure didn’t help) pretty much sank without a trace when it was released (they had trouble getting the title right: on television it premiered as Stranger in the House). It did turn a profit on its modest budget, but not enough for anyone to notice. Halloween would break the bank four years later. Then we were off to the races.
*. An aside: Director Bob Clark always said that he’d been friends with John Carpenter and had told him about his thoughts for a sequel to Black Christmas, which he didn’t want to do. It was to be called Halloween. He also said that Carpenter was a fan of the movie and had been influenced by it. I understand that Carpenter has said that he hadn’t seen it before making Halloween. Go figure.
*. Many of the separate ingredients we get here had been tasted before, most notably in the Italian gialli, but Black Christmas gave us the whole package of what would become a formula: the POV shots (perhaps first done in The Spiral Staircase), the calls coming from inside the house (actually done a year earlier in The Severed Arm), the threatened young people, the killer with one name (Billy) who strikes on a holiday, the scene where the last girl runs around discovering all the bodies at the end, even the business where she finds out that the front door is locked from the outside! How does that keep happening?
*. There are some variations on what would become the standard script. The last girl is no virgin but is actually thinking of getting an abortion. And in fact the women in this particular sorority-house massacre aren’t sexualized at all. We’re also in a transition zone from the mystery plot of the giallo, with various suspicious types and red herrings thrown in to the mix, to the lone psycho slayer who is basically a killing machine and, what’s more, is still alive at the end. (Kim Newman makes an interesting point: “The most heavily criticized aspect of Black Christmas — the transformation of the unknown psycho villain into a quasi-supernatural presence — would be seen as Halloween‘s strongest suit.”) But I think these just go to show how the genre hadn’t reached its final form yet.
*. Its claim to be the first slasher movie is what most people know about Black Christmas. But I don’t think that would be enough to have kept interest in it going, and even growing, for nearly fifty years. The fact is, this is a pretty good little horror movie. Halloween is scarier, but after that and maybe Nightmare on Elm Street I’d rate Black Christmas ahead of almost any other early slasher I can think of.
*. I realize that such comparisons aren’t saying much, so I’ll drop them now. What else is to like here?

*. Quite a lot. Bob Clark’s direction is solid if not overly stylish. He goes to the well maybe a bit too often in making jarring cutaways from violent action to something else going on at the same time, but not so much as to be annoying. I think what impresses me the most though is the treatment of space, meaning the wonderful interior of the house. The layout, and especially that old horror stand-by the staircase, are put to very good use. Moving up and down, and through the different floors and rooms, is quite effectively handled.
*. The cast is great, belying the low budget. Olivia Hussey is a cool and credible scream queen. Keir Dullea looks properly unbalanced. Maybe it’s his hair. John Saxon is typecast in a role he’d reprise in Nightmare on Elm Street. Andrea Martin, a comedian, is entirely believable in her second Canadian horror vehicle (after Cannibal Girls). But best of all is Margot Kidder. She’s playing an original character and pulls it off. Here’s a talent we never really saw enough of, for different reasons.
*. The script, which spent a lot of time in development, is both very simple (a killer, who remains unseen, is hiding in the attic of a sorority house), and quite complex in the manner of one of those later Hammer psychothrillers. I think this latter point is what Newman is adverting to when he calls the film “over-plotted.” But these two tendencies don’t work against each other.
*. Another disjunction is the absence of gore, while creating shock value out of some very explicit telephone calls. Those are really quite daring by the standards of 1974. As is the matter-of-fact way Jess’s decision to have an abortion is handled. Clark wanted realistic college students and I think he got them. These aren’t stereotypes of nerds or bimbos but seem like real people.
*. Sticking with the telephone messages, they did a lot of work on them, but it results in an odd mix that doesn’t sound like anything a single person’s voice (because it wasn’t).
*. The ending. Yes. Well. No, I don’t know what to make of it. It seems odd to say the least that Jess is left to recover from these traumatic events alone in the house. And did Jess kill Peter? Why was she screaming? Did she just faint? As for who Billy and Agnes are, I have no idea. The 2006 remake presents a grotesque backstory, which I think is irrelevant for appreciating this film. Billy is meant to be an enigma. That’s one reason we never see his face. If you find that frustrating, I understand. But this isn’t a movie that was ever going to tie things up neatly.
*. “If it doesn’t make your skin crawl, it’s on too tight!” One of the great thriller ad lines of the time. Up there with The Last House on the Left (1972): To avoid fainting, keep repeating: “It’s only a movie, only a movie, only a movie . . .” and Phantasm (1979) “If this one doesn’t scare you, you’re already dead!” Are there any great taglines anymore? I can’t think of many.
*. This is one of those rare movies where I can identify with many of the locations. It was shot in Toronto and there’s one scene shot at the foot of Soldiers’ Tower at Hart House. I walked underneath that every day for years. It’s a different kind of movie nostalgia.
*. Not a bad movie at all in absolute terms, and a very good one given the genre it did a lot to define. Why wasn’t it successful at the time? The American marketing didn’t help (it did very well under its original title in Canada). The lack of gore and general sense of restraint probably held it back. Carpenter just needed to tweak things a bit. A catchy jingle. Girls in underwear. And a killer that would be a physical presence (credited as “The Shape”) while at the same time less of this world. A hero, in other words. Not a Billy.

The Wiz (1978)

*. The Wiz is a real headscratcher of a movie: not so bad it’s good but rather full of both very good and very bad parts.
*. Its failure at the box office is often said to mark the end of the blaxploitation era, but I can’t see why, aside from the obvious fact that it has an all Black cast, this qualifies as a blaxploitation film. At the time it was the most expensive movie musical ever made. That’s not exploitation cinema.
*. Instead of blaxploitation what it strikes me as being is a cross between Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Warriors. In other words, a movie very much of its time (all three films were released within the same six-month period). Such a pairing also helps explain some of the good-bad dichotomy in The Wiz, since Sgt. Pepper’s is one of the worst movies ever made and The Warriors is an underground classic.
*. Of course by this time the Hollywood musical was pretty much dead. Why? Rock might have had a hand in it. A great pop song isn’t a great show tune. Sgt. Pepper’s had a lot of great music, but not great musical music. And maybe the whole idea of a musical just seemed silly by the ’70s. Saturday Night Fever worked because the music was part of the story (or diegetic). In The Rocky Horror Music Show the music worked because the whole idea of the characters breaking out in song was part of the camp goofiness. But these are rare exceptions to the rule.
*. I think the music in The Wiz is mostly forgettable. There’s the “Ease on Down the Road” number, played three times, but that’s the only real show-stopper. Most of the rest of the stuff struck me as disposable. “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” isn’t bad, but I didn’t see where it had much to do with the story. There’s a huge production number done at the plaza of the World Trade Center during what seems to be a hurricane (just look at Quincy Jones trying to smile while avoiding being blown off his piano bench). I had no idea what the point of it was. To mock changing fashions? It looks like the halftime show at the Super Bowl or the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. And just as hard to sit through.

*. The production values are also all over the map. I love the Flying Monkeys imagined as a motorcycle gang. They’re great. But then on the subway platform the gang are attacked by garbage receptacles with teeth that wouldn’t look out of place on a high-school musical stage.
*. What can you say about the cast? Diana Ross is just another in a long, long list of pop/rock stars who for whatever reason can’t project charisma on screen. But she’s not bad, given the incongruity of her being older than we imagine Dorothy being while still preserving a childish asexuality. Michael Jackson I lump in the same category, but he’s unrecognizable anyway with a Reese’s cup stuck on his nose. It’s a relief when Richard Pryor shows up.
*. It bombed and was panned when it came out, but as with any movie this big and this strange it’s gone on to enjoy a bit of a cult afterlife. Which is something I can understand. There are certainly parts of it that stick in your head, even as it goes on too long and ends on a really low note with a corny message about believing in yourself and the power of positive thinking. I think The Wizard of Oz had more going on, though I wonder if that’s even a fair comparison. Has The Wiz become something timeless? Oddly enough, it may be getting there.

The Gore Gore Girls (1972)

*. I’ve already commented on the early gore films of Herschell Gordon Lewis, what became later known as the Blood Trilogy: Blood Feast, Two Thousand Maniacs!, and Color Me Blood Red. I’ve said I don’t think much of Lewis’s oeuvre outside of Two Thousand Maniacs! I didn’t want to bother saying anything more about him, but I had a copy of The Gore Gore Girls sitting around so I thought I’d look at it again and see if there was anything to add.
*. There isn’t much. This was basically the end of the line for Lewis, at least until Blood Feast 2: All You Can Eat thirty years later. The intention here was to go in two different directions: more gore, and more humour. The two are not mutually exclusive. So, for example, one victim here has her ass pummeled bloody with a meat tenderizer. Another has her nipples cut off so that her breasts spout milk (regular milk from one breast, chocolate milk from another). This last gag is probably what The Gore Gore Girls is best known for today. In other words, it’s the highlight.
*. I get a sense of tired desperation from the proceedings, nicely captured in the final title card “We announce with pride: this movie is over!” It must have seemed like a relief to everyone involved. The gore and the jokes are just thrown up on the screen as though trying to force some kind of reaction. Lewis was played out, and all he could do was turn the dial up. So there’s blood and a bit of goofiness and lots of strippers.
*. The goofiness mainly comes by way of the dapper detective Abraham Gentry, played by Frank Kress. He’s actually kind of amusing, and even breaks down the fourth wall on a few occasions. For a Lewis movie it’s not a bad performance, though I think it’s the only movie Kress appeared in.
*. I guess I should also add that Henny Youngman also puts in an appearance. He isn’t quite as funny. Apparently they shot his stuff in a day and then he disowned any involvement in the project.
*. Then there are the strippers. There are a lot of stripper acts that I’m guessing were just put in to fill out the running time. They are actually quite sad because the fact is it takes a bit of work, and sometimes a lot of work, to make people (men or women) look sexy or glamorous onscreen. You can’t just throw them out there and tell them to shake their booty and take off their clothes and think it’s going to work. It doesn’t.
*. Having said all this, I’d still rate this as one of Lewis’s better movies, though nowhere Two Thousand Maniacs!, which was his only good one. Here there’s a bit of a giallo vibe what with the mysterious killer and their black gloves. The big reveal at the end might also be an homage to Bava’s Black Sunday but they don’t mention that on the DVD commentary and I wouldn’t want to bank on it. If you’re interested in what trash cinema of this period looked like then check this one out, but otherwise it’s skippable.