Category Archives: 1970s

Lisa and the Devil (1972)

*. First the back story. Mario Bava was riding (relatively) high after the success of Baron Blood and so was given a green light to basically do whatever he wanted next. Lisa and the Devil was the result, but it wasn’t seen as being commercial enough to find a distributor. So it was recut and some footage was added to make it into a devil-possession film that would cash in on the success of The Exorcist. This movie was called The House of Exorcism. Lisa and the Devil never had a wide release anywhere, and it’s really only been rediscovered recently with a deluxe DVD edition.
*. I don’t want to say anything more about The House of Exorcism here, as it’s really another, later movie and I don’t think seeing it provides any insight into Lisa and the Devil.
*. If you give a director, especially an older, established director, a bit of freedom, does it make sense to expect him to do something radically different than his usual? I don’t think it does. Bava was the filmmaker he was by this time, and while Lisa and the Devil is a little more bizarre than his usual fare we’re still very much in Bavaland. There’s the garish use of colour, the zooms, the mirrors, the mild exploitation in the form of gratuitous skin (Elke Sommer, Sylva Koscina’s bosom yearning to be free), the family psychodrama, and of course the mannequins. I don’t know what Bava’s thing for mannequins was, but he really gets to indulge it here.
*. Even the basic plot, while weird in its uncanny neo-gothic way, isn’t that far afield from Bava’s usual territory. What mixes things up is the odd frame to the story. Is it all a dream? Is Lisa dead at the beginning, making the film an odyssey like that of Canadace Hilligoss in Carnival of Souls? I don’t know if things are worked out enough for us to be able to answer questions like these. I’m still not sure as to whether Lisa is just a random victim, a tourist having a resemblance to Elena, and or if she really is Elena. And I’m not sure if Bava knew either.

*. As the events slowly draw us into more surreal territory the atmosphere takes over. This is a good thing, as Bava’s plots were rarely his strongest suit while atmosphere was something he possessed in spades. After a while, and not a long while at that, I found myself wishing it were a silent film, or at least without any dialogue. I don’t think the dialogue gives us any necessary information, and without it I might have imagined I was lost in Buñuel’s Spain (which is where in fact this film was shot). I can’t think of any Bava film that makes such overt use of symbolism, with recurring elements like the keyhole arch Lisa passes through and the broken pocket watch. Even the mannequins fit with the surreal motif, and I’m only sorry we missed seeing Telly Savalas’s Leandro going full Buñuel and measuring Elke Sommer’s feet.
*. Usually when a director is given creative control over a project we’re encouraged to view the results as being more representative of their most abiding preoccupations and the peculiar bent of their imagination. I’m still not sure what Lisa and the Devil tells us in this regard, as it’s really a farrago of elements that don’t cohere that well thematically or tonally. It’s tempting to see Bava as Leandro: the stage manager of the whole farce, though forced to play the role of underling to the decadent, moneyed family. The actors, meanwhile, are transformed into mere dolls to be arranged into the proper positions. Even Sommer’s big sex scene has her unconscious throughout, only slightly more flexible than the skeleton she’s lying next to.
*. Is this the real Bava then? Well, maybe. It’s certainly a plumbing of someone’s unconscious. And while I wouldn’t rank it among my favourite Bava films, it does have goofy charm (introducing us to Kojak’s lollipops) and unfolds an elliptical dream logic that’s as smooth as a silken dress or tapestry. As with any dream, however, it’s hard to tell how much is surface and how much is depth. I find it weightless and mad, but nevertheless essential.

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Baron Blood (1972)

*. Mario Bava scored a real hit with Baron Blood, which in turn led to producer Alfredo Leone giving him a free hand on his next feature, the ill-fated but intriguing Lisa and the Devil. That’s about everything good I can say about Baron Blood though.
*. The story is uninteresting and tired. Just for kicks, Peter, the descendant of a bloodthirsty German baron (modeled on Vlad the Impaler) decides to read aloud an ancient spell that, legend has it, has the power to resurrect his ancestor. The baron comes back and kills some people before finally being done away with.
*. None of it makes any sense. There’s a sexy witch who says things like “you mortals are such fools!” and a magic amulet thrown in for good measure. The young man pairs off with Eva (Elke Sommer), who runs around and screams a lot. Aside from looking good in a torn-up dress, she’s awful.

*. A couple of silly parts stand out. I liked it when Peter tells Eva that, after raising the Baron from the dead, “if we don’t dig him, we’ll ditch him.” Yeah, man! But even better is when the Baron, after being dead for three hundred years, crawls out of his grave and heads straight to a local doctor for first aid. You have to take care of yourself.
*. The book Peter’s professor uncle is seen holding is Die Kultur der Griechen by Thassilo Von Scheffer. I always notice things like this, and it made me wonder what it is he’s a professor of. When we see him working in his classroom he has mathematical equations and drawings of the brain on his chalkboard. He carries around books on the classical world. He says he studies ESP and the paranormal. I think he’s probably just the stereotype of the brainy Professor of Everything.
*. To be honest, I was mostly just waiting for Joseph Cotten to show up, which he does in a wheelchair at the halfway point. He’s playing Vincent Price (who was the first choice for the part). The fact that he’s disabled is immediately suspicious, since the castle he’s just bought doesn’t look very wheelchair accessible. Are they going to put in elevators while they’re refurbishing the torture chamber in the dungeon?
*. There’s nothing scary going on. The effects are poor. There are no good kills, despite the film’s reputation for gore. And Bava’s usual camera tricks, in particular the use of zooms and shots going in and out of focus, are gratuitous and overused. I know they’re a staple, but they’re so repetitive and pointless here that they become annoying.
*. I like Bava a lot but there’s no denying this is one of his weaker efforts, both uninspired and dull. I would recommend it to fans, but think that it may disappoint them the most. Better to take a pass.

Vengeance is Mine (1979)

*. There’s always a difference between the movie you see and the movie you remember seeing. I first saw Vengeance is Mine at a rep cinema (remember them?) in the early 1980s. I found some of it pretty shocking, though the friend I went with, who was Japanese, said it was nothing out of the ordinary for a Japanese film.
*. I didn’t know (and still don’t know) how true an assessment that was (I’m not expert on Japanese cinema), but there were a couple of images that stuck with me over the years. On returning to the movie more than thirty years later I was surprised to find that I had apparently imagined one of these. Call if false movie memory syndrome. It happens a lot.
*. David Thomson begins his Biographical Dictionary entry on Shôhei Imamura by telling us that “Imamura has never been easy to pin down.” Again, I don’t know how true this is, but Vengeance is Mine certainly strikes me as a movie that’s hard to categorize. It’s not a thriller. There are some bloody murders but they aren’t presented in a suspenseful way. It’s not a psychological study, or at least not a successful one. We get glimpses of various forces that may have shaped Iwao Enokizu (Ken Ogata) and made him into a monster, but nothing that adds up to a convincing portrait (Roger Ebert: “A few scenes from the killer’s boyhood feel almost like satirical demonstrations of how any ‘explanation’ would be impossible.”) There’s some Dragnet music that plays occasionally but it’s not a police procedural.
*. Is it a morality tale? I don’t see it. The title is a Biblical reference, but whose vengeance is it drawing attention to? Personally, I don’t see this as a movie involving a lot of “vengeance” on anyone’s part. And what is the significance of Iwao being raised in a Catholic household? It doesn’t seem to have rubbed off. In one striking scene he attempts to strangle himself and adopts a pose suggestive of crucifixion, and we notice he’s wearing a crucifix too (the only time I remember seeing it in the film). But he’s hardly a Christ figure, and I don’t see anything in his story that suggests he could be seen this way.

*. I just want to dilate on this point about religion for a moment. Iwao is a poor vessel for carrying any religious meaning, but he is hardly unique in this. It is a problem for a lot of serious filmmakers who have taken up the theme of crime and punishment. One thinks, for example, of Bresson’s L’Argent (1983) and Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing (1988), two films that also suggest deeper spiritual or Christian interpretations that might take us beyond their sordid and bloody crimes. But do they work on that level? In Crime and Punishment (I’m speaking of Dostoevsky’s novel here) Raskolnikov has a conversion in prison, he sees the light. That doesn’t happen in any of these films I’ve mentioned, and certainly not in Vengeance is Mine. The modern killer isn’t a tortured soul or even a psychopath but only a blank slate or automaton. He has no spiritual dimension.

*. Moving along, is this a “state of Japan” film, a social documentary? It has a very realistic feel to it, and while the narrative is complexly structured there’s nothing flashy about it visually. I also thought it interesting how there are a lot of awful people in the movie aside from Iwao.
*. It’s interesting we never see Iwao in prison. He seems to think of Japan itself as a kind of prison, and is surprised while on the run to get a sense of how big it is.
*. Is it a love story? I remember finding the bath scene between Iwao’s father and his wife kind of creepy the first time I saw the film. This time I found it erotic. Perhaps that’s just me being older. As for Iwao, he seems to have some kind of genuine feelings for Haru. Like his father, however, he has problems with exercising his libido in conventional ways.
*. I don’t mean to suggest that Vengeance is Mine is a failure at being any of these things. I think it’s a movie that’s meant to suggest all of them.

*. That said, I’m still not sure what the ultimate purpose is. That may be deliberate though. It’s a peripatetic film, and does a great job of capturing the fragmented and random nature of Iwao’s wanderings and the sense of a passionless predator who is just going from one victim to another, taking money or killing and then moving on to the next hit. I doubt even Iwao could find a purpose or meaning in what he’s doing.
*. How sad to have such a good movie end with such a crumby effect. Are we to imagine Iwao’s bones are still floating around somewhere above the city? What sort of supernatural curse would have to be removed in order for gravity to take over?
*. I really like Vengeance is Mine but I do feel like something is missing from it. Not the black hole that is Iwao, that’s a given, but something more about the people around him. His father and wife, and Haru and her mother, all seem so much more interesting. They each seem to understand Iwao, or at least a part of him, but in different ways. In the end, however, they’re all fooling themselves. Self-delusion is, as so often, the real path to destruction.

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?

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.