Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Riddle of Steel

The summer of 1982 was the first season my movie habit really took off. It was the first time I had money and mobility enough to go to the theater on a regular basis and I abused it like you wouldn't believe. I was still too young to get into R-rated movies, but that didn't stop me. I was adept at sneaking into these by paying for PG movies and sneaking into the others. It was also really the first year that genre pictures--particularly fantasies--began to dominate the market. What a summer that was! You had Poltergeist, E. T., Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Blade Runner, The Thing, Cat People, The Dark Crystal, The Beastmaster, Friday the 13th Part III in 3-D, Quest for Fire, The Secret of N.I.H.M., and Tron. Some of these remain favorites. The movie I remember looking forward to the most in the spring of 1982 was Conan the Barbarian (directed by John Milius). It was rated R, too, but I didn't have to sneak into it. My dad took my brothers and I to a Saturday evening showing. It was a "dad" kind of movie.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The October Challenge is Nigh!

The Seventh Annual October Horror Movie Challenge begins next week. This year, I'll be doing something a bit differently. I'm going to run it like a blogathon. So, in addition to making (theoretically) daily posts about my own horror movie viewings, I'll be posting links to other bloggers who have taken up the challenge. If you want to participate, let me know in the comments or email me at archaeopteryx_wtw at yahoo dot com and I'll add you to my spreadsheet and RSS reader.

Some history: The October Challenge started on the IMDB's horror message board. The rules are simple: Watch 31 horror movies over the 31 days of October. At least 16 of these movies must be movies you've never seen before. You are, of course welcome to watch as many horror movies as you like beyond the basics, so don't let me stop you. Within the basic challenge, many participants undertake additional challenges. For instance: last year, I challenged myself to watch 31 movies that I hadn't seen before allowing myself to watch any old favorites. Some other suggestions: 31 Asian horror movies, 31 horror movie sequels, 31 European horror movies, 31 horror movies from a specific decade, etc. These obviously require some planning and certainly added spice. You can watch them all in any configuration you like. All in one go or rationed out over the month. The only thing that matters at the end is the final number, not how you got there.

Finally: last year, I undertook the October Challenge for charity. Last year, my charity was the National MS Society. I pledged fifty cents for every movie I watched and at the end of the challenge cut them a check for $20. This year, I plan to do the same and invite others to pledge against my viewings as well (or to pledge against their own viewings). I also pledged some amount on my friend, Aaron Christensen's challenge. Aaron was my editor for Horror 101 and he is an all-around fantastic guy. His charity last year was an AIDS charity in Chicago. This year, he's supporting AmeriCares disaster relief. He has the same deal. Pledge x-amount per movie--last year he only asked for a dime or a quarter--and settle up in November. He raised over a thousand bucks last year.

Finally, here are some banners you can use (Herbert West is new for 2011):

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Root of All Evil

Before last Thursday evening, I had never seen a movie from the Congo. Oh, I had seen movies that were set there--When We Were Kings is a good example--but never a feature film produced and financed by the Congolese. There's a good reason for this, actually. There hasn't been a feature film from the Congo in a quarter of a century. Viva Riva! (2010, directed by Djo Munga) breaks this silence, while demonstrating the structural barriers to a national Conglolese cinema at the same time. It's also a brutal exploitation thriller. If you're going to found a national cinema, there are worse ways to go about it.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Flashion Statements

This is my entry into the Fashion in Film blogathon over at The Hollywood Revue. This is actually something I wrote quite some time ago, reworked a bit for the blogathon. Enjoy.

My long-suffering girlfriend is convinced that I’ve lost my mind. First, there was the Robby the Robot incident, in which I hurried her to the computer to show her a web site ( that sells seven foot-tall FUNCTIONING replicas of Robby and implored her to consider getting me one next Christmas (in truth, I would prefer to have either Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still or Maria from Metropolis, but this guy doesn’t sell those.

Then there was the Elvis lunacy. I was watching the end of a movie on the Fox Movie Channel (which mysteriously became available to us recently in spite of us making no effort to acquire the channel through our cable company). The movie was Battle for the Planet of the Apes, a palpably awful movie for which I never the less have a great deal of affection. Immediately following the final roll of the credits, this....advertisement...for something called “King-tinued” comes on, featuring a credible Elvis impersonator draped in an American flag singing Eric Clapton’s Tears in Heaven. “Today’s hits, sung Elvis-style!” the announcer blared, and sure enough, some the worst pap of AOR pop music, including BOTH versions of Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind,” “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” the aforementioned “Tears in Heaven,” et al. scrolled up the screen. But WAIT! There’s MORE! You ALSO get “King-Country!” As if the other disc WASN’T enough, you can ALSO hear the King singing the latest country hits (and some not so latest ones, like “The Gambler”). What music collection is complete without The King of Rock and Roll doing HIS take on Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA?” After my brain recovered from this, I was gripped by a divine madness: I WANTED this disc. Bad. It would go into my music collection alongside “The Ethel Merman Disco Album.“

My girlfriend wouldn’t permit it, bless her heart. That mania passed eventually, but sometimes, I still feel it seething just under my conscious thoughts.

Which brings me to the last bit of mania: There is no earthly reason I should derive as much enjoyment out of Mike Hodges’s update of Flash Gordon as I do, but I’ll be damned if I didn’t grin all the way through it the last time I saw it. The film is a travesty: it has a thinly disguised contempt for its source material and the audience for the source material, much as the Batman TV show had contempt for its source--interesting that both flow from the pen of one Lorenzo Semple, eh? It has a producer in Dino De Laurentiis who seems intent on duplicating his early Barbarella with the primary source instead of at second hand. And it has a lead couple in Sam Jones and Melody Anderson who deliver two of the worst performances in big budget film (and that’s saying something). The sneering attitude the film takes to sex and innuendo seems drawn more from Flesh Gordon than the comics or old movie serials, the production design of this film is really cool: a loving recreation of the day-glo look of the comics combined with William Cameron-Menzies-style grandiosity. The skies of Mongo, a multi-colored profusion of elaborate cloud-tank special effects are like no other science-fiction setting in film. The costumes are agreeably ornate and unbelievably tacky as only disco-era costumes can be. Max Von Sydow has taken a lot of heat for the roles he was taking during this period (many for De Laurentiis), but I can’t imagine a better actor as Ming the Merciless. You can see a barely controlled glee beneath the surface of his performance. Bergman never permitted him anything this broadly outlandish. The Queen soundtrack has kept this movie in the circle of "cult" movies for quite some time now.

I could just leave the justifications at that, but that doesn’t really explain the mania that gripped me during this film. The elements that really seal the deal are of a more personal nature.

When I first saw this film in 1980, the adolescent me developed an unhealthy obsession with Ornela Muti as Princess Aura. This wasn’t an innocent adolescent crush, but a full blown fetish. Her Princess Aura--a better predatory sex kitten pulp sci-fi has never seen--featured prominently in many a nocturnal fantasy. It was never Muti herself, mind you. I’ve seen her in a number of other films and her presence in these never really fired such a glandular reaction. It was Muti as Aura, the nymphomaniac daughter of Ming the Merciless, a character who promises unspeakable pleasures and torments....The only thing in movies, for me anyway, that rivals Princess Aura is Jane Greer in the first scenes of Out of the Past.

The other personal appeal is also probably fetishistic. The drag queen in me has been fixated for a long time on the gown Dale Arden wears for her wedding to Ming in this film. As I said, all of the costumes are ornate and unbelievably tacky, whether it's Princess Aura's skin-tight spandex or General Kala's dominatrix drag by way of Christopher Strong. And so it is for this gown, a creation in beaded black scales that flow like liquid over the curves of Melody Anderson’s body, with threatening winged epaulets and matching headdress. I mean, just LOOK at this thing:

This sucker is the soul of a drag gown. Truth to tell, like Robby the Robot and “King-tinued,” I want one. Bad.

And so I watched Flash Gordon unfold with mounting anticipation, occasionally diverted by the performances (Brian Blessed’s performance as Prince Vultan is particularly ripe), until the segments with Princess Aura would have my unwavering attention and until the film culminates with that glorious gown. Somehow, I doubt that this is a healthy approach to movies...

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Heart of Cinema

This is part of the Guy Maddin blogathon over at Fandor's Keyframe blog. Thanks to Kevin Lee for inviting me to participate.

Back when I was in the video business, we got a steady stream of requests for Guy Maddin movies. I think we eventually got Tales of the Gimli Hospital and The Twilight of the Ice Nymphs before we closed up shop. There was a constant and surprising demand for these movies, given that this was the pre-Internet era and given that we were not doing business in a major city. I have to admit that I didn't "get" either of those movies when I initially saw them. Which is to say, I understood what Maddin was up to, but they seemed like intellectual exercises to me. They didn't grab me by the short hairs and drag me into their delirium. I didn't come around to Maddin until sometime later.

"The Heart of the World," Maddin's 2000 short film for the Toronto Film Festival, turned out to be the Rosetta stone for me regarding Maddin's aesthetic.

"The Heart of the World," like most of Maddin's films, looks back at disused cinematic traditions that the director rescues from the dustbin of history. It's mainly inspired by Russian silent films, with an emphasis on rapid montage. It's what you might get if Eisenstein had got it on with Vertov and been unleashed on the scene dock at UFA. A staccato score that emphasizes its forward motion accompanies the rapid flow of images. The score sends an affectionate elbow into the ribs of contemporary scores for silent movies.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Magic and Loss

Lee Chang-dong's new film, Poetry (2010), is the kind of film I would have squirmed my way through had I been forced to watch it when I was younger. It's a slow film, filled with quotidian details that summarize the life of a 66 year old woman in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Its main plotline, summarized in its title, follows her changing perceptions once she starts taking a class in writing poetry at her local community center. The movie is a good deal darker than that might suggest, because in learning to see with language--particularly with language that she's losing--she begins to see some very dark things around her. I'll come back to that in a bit, though. First, I need to point out that my younger self was an idiot. She wouldn't have responded to the gentle, but implacable insistence of this movie because she was impatient. She wanted things to happen in a hurry. It would have been her loss. As with the protagonist of Poetry, spending a lifetime with movies eventually does teach one to see, if you're up to it.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Bad Netflix Tonight!

Tonight is another round of Bad Netflix. Follow me on Twitter, or follow the hashtag #badnetflix. This round is being wrangled by Guts and Grog Reviews. Tonight's crimes against humanity include Asylum's Sherlock Holmes rip-off, a mathom from the late eighties called "Ninja Vengeance," and a recent offering called Dance of the Dead. Join in and follow along, if you like! We'll be starting at 8:30e/7:30c/6:30m/5:30p

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Once Too Often to the Weller

This is my entry into the Juxtaposition Blogathon. The folks over at Pussy Goes Grrr are running this show. It's their first blogathon.

I got it into my head this week to watch RoboCop 3 (1993, directed by Fred Dekker), a film I barely remember seeing when it first came out. To say that it was a troubled production is putting it mildly. Peter Weller, iconic as the title character, refused to reprise the role. Nancy Allen only agreed to do it if her character were killed off. And to top it all off, Orion Pictures went bankrupt at the time of its production, causing it to sit on a shelf for two years. The movie isn't well liked by audiences, either, perhaps because of the casting, but also, perhaps, because it tones down the violence of the previous entries to gain that PG-13 rating that many genre fans hate. The film currently rates a 3.5 out of ten among the users of the IMDB. I feel kind of bad for Fred Dekker, a director I'm fond of. A lot of this was out of his control.

But the film itself? Y'know, it's not bad. It's like reading one of screenwriter Frank Miller's comics from the same period. Certainly, the film reflects Miller's preoccupation with all things Japanese, while indulging in the dystopia of The Dark Knight Returns and Give Me Liberty. It even has a character named Bertha Washington (very close to Give Me Liberty's Martha Washington). And for all the changes that occurred during its production, it feels like a RoboCop movie. The importance of Phil Tippett, Rob Bottin, and Basil Poledouris to the feel of these films shouldn't be understated, and all three of them return for this installment. Hell, Poledouris's score for RoboCop is almost as iconic as his score for Conan. Also, the movie retains the comedy value of the ED-209 robots, which I love.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Time Out of Mind

I started reading science fiction just as the New Wave of the sixties and seventies was beginning to ebb and just before the cyberpunks showed up to trash the joint. The hot name in the genre at the time was John Varley, who was being hailed as the second coming of Robert Heinlein. It's easy to see why. Varley wrote a so-called future history, in which many of his short stories were interrelated, and he had a similar penchant for alternate sexual configurations (particularly the routine availability of sex changes). He had Heinlein's gift for extrapolating minutiae, too. And then something curious happened to him. Hollywood came a-calling and it broke him.

Varley's short story, "Air Raid," is a clever piece of time travel fiction, in which a future society of time travelers plucks the victims of airplane crashes out of their planes right before they crash in order to repopulate the world. The world of the time travelers is pretty dire, so polluted that every member of the dwindling human race is a mass of cancers and deformities. The snatch teams are the least mutated and they get the best medical care. Unfortunately for time travelers, if you're not careful with your gear, you can cause paradoxes. It's a nimble short story. It was optioned for films almost immediately. According to the author, this is what happened next:

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

What Rough Beast?

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

--William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming (1919)

I think John Carpenter may have been broken on the wheel during his sojourn through studio filmmaking. Certainly, he was never the same filmmaker after the major studios spit him out at the end of the 1980s. Too much of a maverick, I presume. He couldn't help but chafe at the bit. And it's a shame, too, because early Carpenter was one of the most exciting filmmakers of the 1970s. In any event, after about 1986, Carpenter ceased being an interesting filmmaker. But the decline was slow.

I thought about all of this as I watched Prince of Darkness (1987) the director's first indie film following the financial debacle of Big Trouble in Little China. It's a strange film. On the face of it, it's not really very good. It cobbles together a bunch of sci fi horror ideas that are each suggestive in themselves, then resolutely fails to examine them. Instead, the film devolves into another variation on Night of the Living Dead, by way of Carpenter's own Assault on Precinct 13. It's an exercise in confinement and zombies. Most great films that utilize the ideas of confinement use their settings as a microcosm that lays bare the characters trapped within it. Prince of Darkness barely registers as having characters at all. It has types to feed to the meat grinder.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Learning Experiences

Well, my fundraiser ended yesterday. The good news? I raised $105. That's fabulous given the circumstances. The bad news? It's not enough by a long shot. So I'm calling it. No Fantastic Fest for Krell Labs this year. I've learned a few things from the experience, though.

First and foremost: timing is everything. The next time I run a fundraiser, I need to plan it for a time period when I don't have multiple deadlines looming for various freelance jobs. I should also avoid scheduling it for periods when I'm sick, but there's no avoiding that. I haven't been able to promote it the way I would have liked. But there's no guarantee that I would have promoted it anyway because...

Second: fund raising is not for the shy. I'm a lousy self-promoter because, well, I'm pretty shy. I don't want to be intrusive. I don't really want to bother people, and, frankly, that's poison for this kind of enterprise. I needed to be hitting this a couple of times a day every day.

Third: I need to use social media better. At least one of my real world friends told me last night that he had no idea that I was running a fundraiser, even though he'd seen me posting the sketch cards as I finished them on my Facebook account. On the other hand, Facebook doesn't allow me to post 70 point headlines, so be that as it may...

So here's what's going to happen. The folks who donated below the threshold to get a sketch or DVD-R are going to get a refund. I don't feel comfortable taking it if I'm not using it. Everyone else will get their sketch 0r DVD as promised.

The long term fallout of this project is a little bit less grim. First, I've actually managed to sell art over the internet. This is something I've never done before, and it suggests to me that I might be able to make a business of it. I'll probably be opening an Etsy shop in the very near future. More than that, though, people have wanted my art. As someone who has suffered from crippling self-doubt about my art, this is enormously gratifying. Thank you to everyone who asked for a sketch. It means so much.

With all that out of the way, the next installment of Bad Netflix is coming up in a couple of weeks. If you want to join in the fun, it'll take place on September 17. Guts and Grog Reviews has the details. I'll also be participating in the Juxtaposition Blogathon being run by Pussy Goes Grrr, and the Fashion in Film Blogathon being run by Hollywood Revue.