Monster on the Campus (1958)

*. Monster on the Campus (I really wonder at that definite article) had barely begun when I was struck by a sense of déjà vu. As we scroll along the plaster reconstructions of the faces of earlier hominids in Professor Donald Blake’s lab we see one labeled Piltdown Man. This immediately made me think of the scene in The Neanderthal Man where Piltdown Man shows up on a chart of our ancestors. The thing is, Piltdown Man was a hoax that was only exposed in 1953, the year The Neanderthal Man was released, so I gave them a pass. Five years later it’s less excusable. Professor Blake should know better.
*. Or is that fleeting reference to Piltdown Man a conscious borrowing? That’s not an incredible suggestion. The thing is, this movie is so similar to The Neanderthal Man you have to think they had it in the back of their heads. Even the cheap mask the monster wears looks like it was borrowed from the earlier film.
*. As I said in my notes on The Neanderthal Man, what we’re dealing with here is the usual Jekyll and Hyde story, with the scientist who is transformed into a bestial, atavistic creature after being infected by the gamma-radiated blood of a coelacanth (honest!). It’s “evolution in reverse,” and there’s even a suggestion of sexual repression right from the opening lines of dialogue, with Dr. Blake standing over his girlfriend Madeline, whose face he is making a cast of: “There she is. Female in the perfect state: defenceless and silent.” She’ll be in that state again at the end.
*. But if Monster on the Campus is mostly stale and unexceptional, it does have a number of moments that make you raise an eyebrow. Like the first murder victim being hanged from a tree by her hair. Or like Madeline lying to the police about Blake’s whereabouts on the night of the murder and trying to get him to do the same, when in fact he is the murderer. Or the way Blake accidentally re-infects himself with the toxic blood by stabbing a giant dragonfly that had bitten the coelacanth and then having the blood from the dragonfly trip down into the bowl of his pipe, which he later smokes. Honest!

*. I love how the straw that breaks the administration’s back with Dr. Blake is when he makes an 88-minute long-distance call to Madagascar. That’s $400! He is told he has to go on leave after pulling a stunt like that.
*. I always enjoy campus movies that take us into the lecture hall. I can’t think of any that have struck me as being even remotely probable. It’s an interesting glimpse into what Hollywood thinks audiences believe university lectures are really like. This goes for both sciences and the humanities. Here’s how Dr. Blake wraps up his biology class: “Man is not only capable of change, but man alone, among all living creatures, can choose the direction in which that change will take place. In other words, man can use his knowledge to reduce all spiritual values and reduce the race to bestiality. Or he can use his knowledge to increase his understanding to a point far beyond anything now imaginable. Think it over. That’s all for today.”
*. Directed by Jack Arnold. Not one of his more celebrated credits, as he would admit. My own feeling is that Arnold could do good work with good material, but he was no magician. Apparently he shot this in twelve days, and from the looks of it that was plenty of time.
*. Well, it was cheap and shot quickly and didn’t have a script that makes much sense, even given its crazy premise. Nevertheless, it does have a weird-looking fish with radioactive blood and a giant dragonfly and a guy in an ape mask. It’s a joke, but at least it’s not dull.

Macbeth (2005)

*. This adaptation of Macbeth is part of the BBC’s ShakespeaRe-Told line-up of four of the bard’s most popular plays. The tetralogy consists of Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Taming of the Shrew.
*. Now which of one of those plays is not like the others? Well, they all have their unique qualities but Macbeth is the only tragedy while the other three are all comedies. And early comedies at that.
*. There’s a bit of a challenge here then, because while Macbeth has been adapted many times in modern settings the spirit of these ShakespeaRe-Told productions is far lighter. Just take the set-up here. Joe Macbeth (James McAvoy) is a chef in an upscale eatery that I believe is supposed to be in Glasgow. The culinary setting recalls the Britcom Chef! from the 1990s, so we’re already primed for some laughs. Ella (Keeley Hawes) is Joe’s wife (she “has massive bollocks” and sings “Lord won’t you buy me a Mercdes Benz”), while Billy Banquo is a fellow chef. Duncan is the owner of the establishment, where his two sons also work.
*. One night Joe and Billy are met by three bin men taking away the garbage in the alley behind the restaurant. They make some enigmatic pronouncements on the future of both chefs and then drive off. Macbeth and his wife decide to kill Duncan and take over the restaurant, and soon find themselves wading into blood so deep there’s no going back. Finally, Macbeth is killed by Macduff when a seemingly impossible prophecy comes true.

*. I think you can tell from this that there was a lot of comic potential. The witches as bin men, for example, with the local landfill standing in for the heath. And the Britcom qualities of some of the kitchen dialogue. At one point someone mentions Gordon Ramsay and they are warned not to mention his name but only refer to him as “the Scottish chef.” Which is a play on the idea that you’re not supposed to say “Macbeth” in a theatre but instead refer to it as “the Scottish play.” So that was cute, and news to me since I didn’t know Gordon Ramsay was Scottish.
*. But then things take a darker turn. This isn’t a comedy. The drunken porter turns into an exterminator, which seemed like a joke that I wasn’t getting. There are are the killers, who have been imported from the 11th century, meaning Yugoslavia. I wasn’t sure what was up with that. Of course people get killed, albeit offstage, and there are bloody visions. Most bizarre of all, we find out that Lady Macbeth did have a child that she lost, which is another down note.
*. Along with the shift in tone there’s a loss of energy. The movie feels like it’s running out of gas in its second half. The ways they update the play don’t work as well. Having Banquo’s “ghost” appear at the feast by way of a video message he recorded on his phone must have seemed like a clever idea at the time, but it doesn’t play well. And the prophecy that comes true is such a stretch I wasn’t even sure what was going on.
*. McAvoy is quite good. In fact, his performance made me think he’d probably do well playing the role straight. He’d look interesting in the part anyway. But the rest of the cast don’t stand out and the production itself feels quite constrained. In the end, I don’t think the kitchen setting was a wise move, as it’s too big a stretch to have key plot points make sense and it’s too limiting in terms of the action. Every modern re-telling of Shakespeare is a roll of the dice, and while there have been many that have turned out worse than this, I don’t think they did anything that stands out as special here either.

Gasoline Alley (2022)

*. In the wake of his aphasia diagnosis and subsequent announcement of his retirement, I think everyone wanted to cut Bruce Willis some slack for what had been a remarkable string of bad performances in worthless films.
*. I’m not as charitable. He still took these roles, and worked at a frantic pace churning out garbage. In 2022 alone I believe he appeared in an even dozen (!) direct-to-video releases, for which he was well paid. I like Willis, as he was an iconic star when I was a young moviegoer, but I don’t feel that sorry for him. Cognitive impairment is a terrible thing to suffer through, but he should have hung it up before it came to this.
*. Which brings us to Gasoline Alley, though I suspect that much of what I’m about to say could be said of the rest of Willis’s 2022 production. Gasoline Alley is a cheap (and worse, cheap-looking) piece of crap, apparently shot in eleven days. I think they might have had a couple of weekends off in there.
*. Devon Sawa plays Jimmy Jayne, a tough ex-con who drives a hot rod and a motorbike and runs a tattoo parlour. It’s a “rock-and-roll life.” A girl he meets at a bar ends up being murdered alongside a bunch of other girls and Jimmy becomes the prime suspect. Two detectives, Freeman (Willis) and Vargas (Luke Wilson) start to lean on him, so Jimmy sets out to solve the case on his own.
*. I guess they were going for some kind of neo-noir vibe, but nothing works. Though I have to throw some praise in Sawa’s direction. He’s really doing his best here and he’s not bad. Given that nobody else even seems to be trying, that’s worthy of respect.
*. Wilson is just picking up a cheque and Willis is noticeably not well. He’s actually only on screen for a few minutes, and his dialogue mainly consists of saying “Yeah” when someone else says something to him. He really looks much worse here than he did in Breach and Cosmic Sin, movies that glow in comparison to this.
*. He dies at the end (I’m not giving you any spoiler alerts), with one of his last lines being “It wasn’t supposed to end like this.” Then Sawa soaks him in gasoline and tosses a flaming $20 in his direction. It’s hard not to read something into that. Sorry Bruce.

Blackenstein (1973)

*. A movie with a title like Blackenstein, with all that it connotes, coming in at only 87 minutes, has no excuse for being this dull and plodding. It could at least have been campy or shlocky fun. Instead it is simply inept and almost impossible to watch.
*. It was obviously made to cash in on the success of Blacula, which had come out the previous year, but it’s actually worse than that because a different producer wanted to beat Blacula‘s Sam Arkoff (who was thinking along similar lines) to the punch so he turned out this piece of shit in great haste and at no expense.
*. Just how cynical a move was this? Almost as cynical as re-releasing Blackenstein as The Return of Blackenstein after its initial run. The same movie. That cynical.
*. It might have been interesting. The basic premise is actually something a bit different. Dr. Stein has developed two new procedures: DNA injections and the use of lasers to fuse new limbs on to amputees. He doesn’t seem to be a bad man, and has a couple of patients he’s treating and keeping comfortable in his mansion. Then an old student of his named Winifred shows up on his doorstep with a problem: the man she was going to marry has been blown up by a mine in Vietnam and lost his arms and legs. Dr. Stein thinks he can help, but his program for Eddie’s treatment is undercut by his other assistant, who has fallen in love with Winifred.
*. So instead of being a corpse (or collage of corpses) brought to life, Eddie is someone who was alive whose brain is killed by the doctor’s treatment so he shambles through the rest of the movie as a powerful, bloodthirsty zombie.
*. That’s not an idea without potential, but it all goes unfulfilled. Even the lab equipment from the 1931 film goes to waste. Nor is it much of a blaxploitation movie as there is no racial angle to it at all. Despite Eddie being a vet, and the doctor being a white man, there’s no attempt to politicize anything. It’s just a dumb movie. So dumb that in the final ten minutes the Monster chases after a woman we haven’t seen before, and is then killed by police dogs, leaving Winifred to wander off with one of the detectives who had been tracking the Monster. It’s a ludicrous attempt at wrapping things up.
*. Before we get to that end the 87 minutes start to feel very well padded. There are lots of shots of the Monster’s shiny shoes. There’s a night club scene. There are several lab scenes when we really only needed one.
*. It’s interesting to note how, in their Golden Turkey Awards volume, the Medved brothers nominate Blackenstein in the Worst Blaxploitation Movie Ever Made category. I would question this just because it only narrowly qualifies as blaxpolitation and, as noted, there is no racial angle at work in the film. But even assuming it fits the bill, what they say about it gives every indication that neither of them had seen the trailer much less the movie.
*. They call it out for “overacting,” for example, despite the fact that it’s woefully underacted by almost everyone. John Hart’s Dr. Stein never becomes the deranged mad doctor, Roosevelt Jackson as Malcolm is a wallflower, Ivory Stone is a physics Ph.D., not a scream queen, and Joe De Sue as Eddie (latterly the Monster), in what I believe was his only movie, seems well aware of his limitations as an actor and so decides to just show no emotion at all.
*. Then — I’m still talking about the Medveds now — Dr. Stein is described as “a young black medic” when he is actually an older white man. Then they talk about how the doctor grafts zebra legs “onto his unsuspecting female victims,” but he only has one female patient and she is receiving the DNA therapy, not one of the grafted limbs. Really, even by the sometimes very shoddy standards of the Medveds this is embarrassing.
*. But I suspect Blackenstein, despite its well-known title, is a movie very few people have actually seen. There’s certainly little to say about it. In Nightmare Movies Kim Newman gives it a single reference where it is written off as “atrocious.” Let’s leave it there.

Quiz the two hundredth: In the line of fire (Parts five, six, seven and eight)

With our 200th quiz we reach another milestone in the history of this site. As a way of celebrating, let’s stare down the barrel of a locked-and-loaded megaquiz!

I’ll be taking a break from quizzes for a while now, but seeing as none of the 200 I’ve posted has been completed, many challenges remain in the archives. Enjoy, and good luck!

See also: Quiz the one hundredth: In the line of fire (Parts one, two, three and four).

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Infinite Storm (2022)

*. Stories of humans battling nature or the elements usually have a deeper, even allegorical meaning or are used to illustrate some moral truth. Since nature itself — a perfect storm, a tidal wave, a giant asteroid, drought, etc. — is indifferent to us, our struggle with it turns into a battle against something in ourselves, or of humanity vs. the forces of uncivilization. Moby-Dick was just a whale, but Ahab had to read something in to him. Santiago was proving something to himself in landing the marlin and fighting off the sharks.
*. Infinite Storm is based on the true story of a search-and-rescue mountaineer named Pam Bales (Naomi Watts) who rescued a man dying on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. He’d gone up there, not dressed for the weather, as a way of attempting suicide. After bringing him down to safety, the man (Pam calls him “John”) just drives away.
*. My understanding is that in real life John wrote a letter to Pam thanking her for saving him and explaining how he’d wanted to kill himself but she’d changed his mind about that. In the movie that wasn’t going to work so they have Pam and John meet up at a diner to have a heart-to-heart, as she shares her own tragic tale of loss.
*. Watts is very good here, and she’s basically on screen the whole time, but the movie itself lacks bite. The survivalist stuff plays out in a realistic way — and I particularly liked the sound effects of the ice pellets — but it’s also very predictable. This compounds a problem with all such movies because it makes the protagonist’s ordeal seem even harder to endure. You see them trying to cross a mountain stream and you’re just waiting for one of them to fall in. Which happens. And Pam’s back story plays out in a similarly conventional way, with flashbacks giving her the strength to carry on when things seem darkest.
*. Directed by Małgorzata Szumowska and co-directed by Michał Englert, who are both Polish. Shot mostly in Slovenia, which was probably cheaper and looks prettier and a little more dangerous than “Live Free or Die” New Hampshire. Mount Washington is 1,917 metres high but these are the Kamnik–Savinja Alps, the highest peaks of which are all much higher (the highest, Grintovec, is 2,558 metres).
*. It’s a nice sentiment about finding meaning in your life, and some measure of redemption, through your connections with others. But at the end it just came off a bit like a Hallmark production, without the romance and with a meet-gritty rather than a meet-cute on the mountain. Authentic and well-meant, but finally nothing special.

Much Ado About Nothing (2005)

*. This BBC adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing was the first instalment of the four-part Shakespeare Retold (or, too clever by half, ShakespeaRe-Told). The idea was to rework the plots of Shakespeare’s most popular plays into modern settings. Something that has been done before many times, but they gave themselves a bit more liberty than usual and were obviously having some fun with it.
*. So the story here has Benedict (Damian Lewis) and Beatrice (Sarah Parish) as bickering co-hosts of the news program Wessex Tonight. They’re obviously meant for each other, but it’s up to their co-workers to bring them together. Meanwhile, the subplot has the dopey sports guy Claude (Tom Ellis) pining after the weather reporter, Hero (Billie Piper). They seem headed for matrimony before a former fling of Hero’s named Don steps in to spoil things.
*. I thought they did a good job with this set-up, striking the right note right from the start with Tom Jones singing “Just Help Yourself.” The idea of having the court transformed into a television set works really well, with the office politics and all the in-fighting/in-fucking going on. And aren’t TV personalities the minor royalty of our own day? Close enough.
*. I also liked Lewis and Parish, though they didn’t have much chemistry with each other. The scene of them reading Shakespeare together was very well imagined. Claude and Hero were both pretty and dim. Don isn’t evil so much as just a loser, but no less dangerous for that. Dogberry is an officious security guard but thankfully speaks in regular English.
*. The plot revolves around the attempts to trick the two couples into falling into and out of love, but the paired gulling scenes, usually the highlight of this play in production, were a bit of a let-down. Those are the scenes that everyone remembers the most from this play, and here Benedict listening in on a conversation that’s taking place in the sound booth with the mic (deliberately) left on seemed awkward, while Beatrice overhearing her girlfriends talking while sneaking a smoke in the washroom was just kind of grim.
*. The wedding train-wreck is always a tough watch, but they get through it quickly. Claude has been fooled by some bogus sexting. But overall I thought there was a credible job done of updating the sexual politics for the twenty-first century. Hero actually did have a relationship with Don in the past, though it took the form of the much despised pity fuck. And after being such a jerk at the wedding it’s not clear if Claude is going to get back in her good graces. He still has some growing up to do.
*. An easy-listening, small-screen entertainment. Which I think makes it pretty close in spirit to what Shakespeare was aiming for. No need to make much more ado than that.

Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

*. I sometimes wonder how people of sincere faith view the products of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (of which Thor: Love and Thunder is the 29th entry). In many ways, these movies take their lead from Hollywood horror franchises dealing with demons and devil-worshippers. As I’ve said before, such movies accept the notion that there are forces of evil walking the earth but on the flipside show priests and angels and even God as either missing in action or totally outgunned.
*. In the MCU something only a bit different is happening. Again we’re supposed to believe in supernatural forces everywhere around us, but anything like we find in traditional monotheistic religions has been erased. Instead, the MCU is wholly pagan. We may have the pantheons of Greek and Norse gods, Lovecraftian Ancient Ones, and alien overlords (or, as with the Eternals, some combination of all of the above), but there’s no Yahweh or God the Father. There may be spears and magic helmets, but no crucifixes; a Necronomicon but no Bible.
*. I bring this point up here because the plot of Thor: Love and Thunder really places deicide in the foreground. We begin with a sad sack named Gorr (Christian Bale) finding out the hard way that his local deity is a callous and not at all impressive hippy. Gorr is then possessed by a typical MCU artefact known as the Necrosword and becomes the God Butcher. So look out, Thor!
*. The thing is, Gorr has a strong case that he gets to make when he captures our heroes and goes into the obligatory supervillain monologue. What use are the gods? Don’t they just use us for their sport, the Valkyrie as toy soldiers? Is prayer going to save Jane Foster/Lady Thor (Natalie Portman) from cancer? Hardly. And just look at the Star Wars-bar gang of oddballs that make up the conclave of immortals in Omnipotence City, headed by the ridiculous figure of Zeus (a hammy and plump Russell Crowe). If Gorr took all of them out, what difference would it make?
*. Isn’t there, as with the horror films I mentioned, a message being slipped in here, and that not too subtly, about religion and faith in general? One thinks of the famous scene in The Avengers when Loki gets smashed by the Hulk, who dismisses his claims to divinity by saying “puny god!” Isn’t that the point being made in all these films? That the whole idea of divinity is to be scorned, and that in its absence might makes right?
*. I don’t think this is a totally obscure theological point, but is illustrative of a broader cultural shift of some significance. But pushing all that aside, let’s look at the rest of the movie and see what we’ve got.
*. In my opinion, not much. Taika Waititi is back helming the project after the (commercial) success of Thor: Ragnarok. This time he’s swapped out Led Zeppelin for Guns N’ Roses, but otherwise it’s all the same CGI and posing. The shot where the hero and villain leap in slow motion at each other to smash together in the centre of the screen, for example, has become such a cliché they might as well start making fun of it. I think it’s repeated two or three times in this movie alone.
*. But then, there may be a limit to how much fun you can poke at what have become superhero clichés before the whole thing ends up being beyond parody. As Zeus complains at the end of this film (technically in one of those mid-credit sequences), “When did we become the joke?” (a line that also ties into the traducing of divinity I started off talking about). Seeing as his son Hercules is Brett Goldstein that may be a sticking point we’re not going to be getting past anytime soon.
*. Gorr has a compelling story, and Bale gives it his all under heavy make-up. Chris Hemsworth is beyond buff, to a point where the size of his arms was really bothering me. Apparently he maxed out at over 230 pounds for the role this time, which looks too heavy. Tessa Thompson remains one of the few bright lights. The rocky Korg (voiced by Waititi) is a bore, and outing him as gay just felt pointless. Portman felt out of place, and her Jane never could come up with any good lines despite all her best efforts. Plus having her wasting away from cancer throughout the film was a real drag.
*. The big problem I had with Love and Thunder though was the ending. It’s terrible. I honestly wasn’t sure what was going on. Gorr has his Necrosword broken, then it starts coming together again, then it’s broken again, then he passes toward the light (to Eternity?) along with Thor and Jane and he meets his daughter and his daughter (Love, played by Hemsworth’s daughter India Rose Hemsworth) comes back to life but Jane doesn’t and so Thor adopts the daughter while Jane goes to Valhalla, which looks like a rather nice resort village in Norway.
*. More adventures are promised. Presumably Thor and Love (Love and Thunder, get it?) will be taking on Hercules. With music by Black Sabbath perhaps. And more gods that can’t be killed but only trashed. Which is a pretty good way of characterizing what’s going on with the MCU now too. Some gods! Some movies!

Zoolander 2 (2016)

 

*. You can’t keep a good (profitable) franchise hero down. Even if the character of Derek Zoolander seemed pretty much played out by the end of his first film, as there wasn’t much there in the first place, that wasn’t going to stop bringing the gang back for another strut down the catwalk.
*. Perhaps being aware of how little they had to work with, it seems as though a conscious decision was made to go big, which is almost always a bad way for comedy to go. So there are even more cameos, more lavish production values, and a way over-the-top plot that throws in late Austin Powers with some nonsense about a secret society of designers coveting the holy blood of “Steve.” Steve, of Adam and Eve and Steve, is the legendary forefather of all supermodels, and his blood is the formula of the Fountain of Youth and it runs in the veins of Derek’s son, Derek Jr. (a.k.a., the Chosen One).
*. If that sounds both really stupid and way too much, it is. I think 2016 was also late in the day for such a lame Da Vinci Code parody, but in their (partial) defence they were apparently working on the script here for nearly ten years. Ten years to come up with this. You really have to wonder how that happens.
*. Another matter relating to timing: when the film came out it attracted controversy for its casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the non-binary model All in a way that was seen as culturally insensitive. There were the usual calls for a boycott, which were probably unnecessary, but I have to say that the exchange of looks between Derek and All is probably my favourite part of the entire movie. There’s a lot going on there. But in an interview done in 2022 Cumberbatch thought that the scene “backfired” and if the movie were to be made today the character would have been played by a trans or non-binary actor instead. I doubt it would have been as funny, but that’s the way things go.
*. Sticking with the matter of the times a-changing, another part of the movie I got a smile out of is the way that Derek and Hansel haven’t smartened up a bit but they seem brighter because the world has grown more stupid. There was a bit of this in Bill & Ted Face the Music but it’s more pronounced here. All (Cumberbatch) is a plank that Derek and Hansel can’t communicate with, while Katinka (Kristen Wiig) and the hot new designer Don Atari (Kyle Mooney) were as incomprehensible to me as they were to our heroes. Nor does Justin Beiber — playing himself! — come off any better.
*. That our world got a whole lot dimmer in just fifteen years is a point that I thought more could have made of. It had real potential. Unfortunately we’re stuck with the aforementioned caravan of cameos and the Austin Powers/Da Vinci Code plot with a bunch of stuff about Derek having to learn to be an understanding father, since Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold) isn’t as really, really, ridiculously good looking like his dad.
*. Critics hated it and it failed at the box office, which left Stiller feeling relieved because he didn’t want to make another sequel. Personally, I thought it was about as entertaining as the first movie. The best stuff was better though the worst stuff was quite a bit worse. The supporting cast, including Will Ferrell coming back as Mugatu, Penélope Cruz as a hot fashion agent, and Kristen Wiig as another evil designer all turn in decent performances with little to work with except excess. Even Sting is endurable. That I rated it just as high as the first film can probably be put down to a recency bias though, and I share Stiller’s relief that this is the end. For now.