Movie Reviews 460 – Innocent Blood (1992)

December 3, 2020

Comedies often resort to mixing elements that are immiscible, like oil and water, and having them collide to generate laughs.  Director John Landis was well versed and successful with the formula for such films as Trading Places (rich vs. poor) and Animal House (nobility vs. plebeians).  For Innocent Blood he cast a wider net and made a horror comedy in which a vampire accidentally transmogrifies a mobster kingpin to join the undead, and consequently raises the prospect of him passing on the superpowers that go along with being a bloodsucker onto his underlings and henchmen.

Marie (Anne Parillaud of La Femme Nikita fame) is a conscientious and benevolent vampire roaming the streets of Pittsburgh who carefully chooses her victims, sparing good souls and feasting only ‘less admirable’ human specimens. Venturing out onto the streets for new blood only when absolutely needed, she also makes sure her victims do not fully transform into vampires themselves and end up cursed as she is and creating more victims in their wake.

It is on such a feeding-time night stroll that she bumps into ‘wiseguy’ Gennaro (Anthony LaPaglia) as a group of mafiosi leave a restaurant. But sensing Gennaro’s inner righteousness she spares him, instead ending up getting a Limo ride from the don himself, “Sal the Shark” Macelli (Robert Loggia). She has no qualms taking a bite out of him when given the opportunity, but is interrupted before she can deliver a permanent death. Whisked to a mortuary and awaiting an official autopsy, Sal awakens and soon realizes that he no longer has to worry about hindrances like knives or bullets. He then latches onto the idea of turning his own men into vampires eventually creating an unstoppable ‘famiglia’.

Gennaro it turns out, is not a hood at all but an undercover cop who had been working for years to take down Sal’s operation. But recent events have exposed his infiltration and he now intends to fulfill his quest despite being thrown off the case. He finds a surprise helping hand from Maria trying to undo the damage her own actions have unleashed.

Interestingly this comedy sports an R rating, a rarity for that genre, due to scenes of Maria prancing totally nude. But if there were any doubts about it being a comedy the casting of Don Rickles as Sal’s legal beagle should put those thoughts to rest. Other offbeat casting choices that mirror the content include everyone’s favorite Muppetteer Frank Oz (with the unmistakable voice of Bert, Fozzie Bear and Yoda), a cameos by horror stars Dario Argento, Tom Savini, Linnea Quigley, Sam Raimi and even Forrest J. AckermanAngela Bassett plays Gennaro’s boss and you can also check out Tony Siroco, David Proval and Anthony Sisto as goombas long before they were reunited in similar roles in The Sopranos.

The casting is evidence of Landis’ reverence for horror cinema classics and those homages are also seen on the various background television sets playing horror classics throughout the film that you can enjoy as an added drinking game. There is plenty of carnage among the chuckles if any of the aforementioned weren’t enough to warrant a view.

Vampires can also learn a lesson or two such as if you’re going to eat “Italian”, watch out for that garlic.

Movie Reviews 459 – Samurai Fiction (1998)

November 27, 2020

Nobody will ever accuse Japanese filmmakers of not pushing boundaries and trying new things and Samurai Fiction is another fine example of that. The similarity in title to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction is no coincidence although it has more in common with the maverick director’s Kill Bill duology. The primary homage of this black comedy however is for that country’s celebrated samurai films of old going back to the Akira Kurusawa classics, even going so far as to be filmed in black and white. With a bit of a twist of course.

The tale begins when a rogue samurai named Kazamatsuri (Tomoyasu Hotei) kills a fellow clan member and runs off with a coveted sword given to the clan by a shogun. The clan’s chief councilor is hesitant to send a recovery squad but his son Heishiro (Mitsuru Fukikoshi) and his two best friends decide to retrieve the sword themselves. The self proclaimed ‘Three Stooges’ catch up with Kazamatsuri and promptly get their collective asses whooped before a stranger can put a halt to the fight. The wounded Heishiro is taken in by the interloper Hanbei (Morio Kazama) and his daughter Koharu (Tamaki Ogawa) but only after one of Heishiro’s friends dies at the hand of Kazamatsuri. As Heishiro recuperates Kazamatsuri takes up with a den of gamblers run by Lady Okatsu (Mari Natsuki) who tries to lure him as a business partner. When word gets back to Heishiro’s father of Kazamuri’s whereabouts he sends two ninja assassins to try to get Okatsu to poison Kazamuri.

As you can see the plot is quite convoluted but the one outstanding question that never gets answered is why did Kazamatsuri steal the sword in the first place and why won’t he just give it back? The stark contrasts between the solemn Kazamatsuri persona and the flighty Heishiro is just a sample of what makes this film so odd and hard to peg. More interesting is the background of the noble Hanbei and his ‘daughter’ (note the quotes) which does get addressed. Fans in Japan would have instantly recognized the casting of Hotei, a celebrated rock star there, and unsurprisingly the musical soundtrack reflects that with rollicking guitar riffs overlaying the traditional taiko drums. Despite the Tarantino influence there is not a lot going on from a martial arts action point of view, what little fighting shown being almost slapstick in nature.

The opening credits include a ‘part 1’ subtitle which may have been another nod to Tarantino’s Kill Bill ‘parts’ but a ‘part 2’, Stereo Future was supposedly filmed a few years later although there doesn’t seem to be much information regarding its content, at least none that I could find and director Hiroyuki Nakano has since gone on to directing documentaries

One thing that had me stumped with a Matrix Red Pill, Blue Pill like choice was when I first opened my dual DVD case. The DVD sleeve, sparse to begin with, makes no mention of it at all but there staring me in the face were two discs exactly like one another except one with a red label and the other a white label. Even a quick online search eluded me as to what was the difference so I had to plop it into my player to confirm that it was just a bunch of extra features (“Making of”, trailers, etc) along with the colorized versions of some select scenes.

This was clearly a work of passion for the director, however I would say a tad overambitious. It’s not bad but not as polished as I was hoping.

 

Movie Reviews 458 – Avanti! (1972)

November 19, 2020

Director Billy Wilder knew a good thing when he saw one and after having a huge hit with Some Like it Hot he made six more movies with star Jack Lemmon. Being a fan of both I really thought I knew all their collaborative films, but it seems one fell through the cracks. Aside from the aforementioned, their films include The Apartment, Irma La Douce, and The Front Page, which are all great films. So how come I’ve never even heard about Avanti!? I did not pay much attention to the cover of my DVD when I sat down for a recent viewing so was tickled to see Wilder in the opening credits and hoped that their synergies would be as successful here as in those others.

The story is about jet setting industrialist Wendell Armbruster, Jr. (Lemmon) having to make a dash to Italy after receiving the news that his father had passed away in a car accident. Once there he is shocked to learn that he died while having a lifelong illicit affair with a woman and that they met there once every year like clockwork . As he makes his way by plane, boat and train Wendell repeatedly crosses paths with Pamela (Juliet Mills of Nanny and the Professor fame) who happens to be the daughter of his father’s mistress and whose mother also perished in the same accident as Wendell’s dad.

The polar opposites clash at every turn as Wendell tries to have his father’s body transported back home to have a proper burial while keeping the affair hushed. The pair have to deal with clergy, attorney’s, a family of mobster’s whose property was damaged during the accident, a representative of the State Department and various hotel staff with a few secrets of their own.

The title is in reference to a recurring gag in the film in that in Italian one asks “Permesso?” to enter an occupied room and “Avanti!” being the affirmative response. This is one of those wily films in which nefarious deeds and people are caught in compromising positions and constantly being interrupted by door knocks. This film has a lot of surprises to be sure but at the top of that list has to be the number of nudity scenes with both stars. In line with the more liberal Italian setting you not only see Jack’s jiggly butt, but Juliet’s jubblies aplenty.

I’m sure I don’t have to paint a picture as to how the relationship ends up.I did find that one of the standout dated misogynist concepts was that it was fine for a man to have an affair while married while the unwed mistress is expected to stick around and be second fiddle for years on end. That aside, the film is funny and the chemistry works. The Italian setting, while making use of some clichés, is delightful.

A bit of a square peg in a round hole, I suspect the nudity may have hampered it’s distribution and television broadcasts and hence the reason for me not knowing about this film earlier. This may also explain why the film was lauded by plenty of Golden Globe nods, but totally ignored by the Academy Awards. While not in the same league as their other classics I would say that you will not be disappointed by this one, and the disparity to those other films does have a charm of its own.

Should you watch this one? I say “Avanti!”

Drawn & Quarterly 25th Anniversary – various artists (2015)

November 13, 2020

Although they have existed in some form or another almost as long as there have been comics, the non-formulaic format had been a rare breed that emerged only in the last few decades or so. In the age before comic shops were even around the ‘spinner racks’ were exclusively composed of genre specific titles falling into either the superhero, horror, western, funnies or romance categories.

One of the publishing driving forces that changed all of that was Drawn & Quarterly, a Montreal institution that paved the way for many Canadian and later international independent comic artists and writers. To celebrate their silver anniversary Drawn and Quarterly published a massive tome – over 775 pages if you count all the fiddly bits – Drawn & Quarterly: Twenty-five Years of Contemporary Cartooning, Comics and Graphic Novels.

Like many comic fans (and many of the D&Q creators themselves) my introduction to comics was paved with Batman, Superman and other caped heroes. The hand-me-down stack I inherited from cousins even before I could read them (and helped me learn to read) were from DC, Marvel, Harvey, Gold Key, and the odd Archie. They were created by artists and writers hired to stream a repetitive monthly title within the boundaries of characters that delivered either action, jokes or scares. First and foremost, they were commercial properties and driven by profits. They followed a staid blueprint with the exception of trying out the occasional new character in the hopes of having another popular title. They catered to a pulp reading audience, mostly juvenile mirroring their patrons.

While there are earlier examples of what can be described as ‘indie comics’, the modern form sprung from the counterculture of the 60’s which broke with tradition by publishing ‘underground comix’ that catered to the rebellious liberal youth. Suddenly artists like Robert Crumb  were releasing small press runs of hallucinogenic, sex and drug oriented content. But the whimsy of those ‘comix’ also began to elicit intellectual ramblings, although mostly targeting authoritarian society.

Those libertine ‘hippie’ comix soon gave way to the modern ‘indie’ comic and graphic novels. They are introspective, often non-sequential and non- linear, at times autobiographical, but always thought provoking. They often canvass adult matter and tap into taboo territory. They employ drawing styles that range from minimalist to densely packed panels using fine lines, jagged edges and anything in between.

Beginning with their humble beginnings in founder Chris Oliveros’ kitchen the Drawn & Quarterly anniversary collection is a montage of articles, often creator specific, interspersed with just the right minute dose of comic samples from each to get a feel of their work. Written by both industry insiders and D&Q staff over the years, it emphasizes their early years featuring the legendary triumvirate of Canadian indy comic colleagues Seth, Chester Brown and my personal favourite (American but former longtime Canadian resident) Joe Matt. Other luminaries include Julie Doucet, Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, Joe Sacco and many, many others. Other articles are dedicated to notable staff that have been essential to the production and success of D&Q, accented by tons of photos of both crew and contributing artists throughout the years.

Book with inserts

I found this treasure trove to not only be a great read from a historical point of view but as an introduction to a number of artists I was not familiar with and will be seeking out in my future shopping. If this book alone was not good enough it comes with some replica D&Q correspondence, envelopes and even a post-it note from a few select artists over the years as inserts.

I have to add one last tidbit about this volume that I basically consumed over the period of a few days. I borrowed this book from a friend whose husband found it rummaging a second hand store where it was not only priced at a paltry $3.99 but was further discounted another 20%. Talk about a ‘score’.

Movie Reviews 457 – The Thin Man (1934)

November 6, 2020

Novelist Dashiell Hammett will forever be identified by his signature hard-boiled detective Sam Spade and The Maltese Falcon but just as much a treasure is his novel The Thin Man. That acclaim is largely due to the film adaptation and the stellar performances by William Powell and Myrna Loy in the roles of Nick and Nora Charles, the tippling erstwhile detective and his equally imbibing socialite wife.

The ‘thin man’ in the title refers to an inventor who suddenly goes missing when his secretary/mistress is found dead, making him the prime suspect. Nick and Nora are in town celebrating a Christmas holiday and Nick is reluctantly drawn into the mystery as more bodies pile up lending credence to the notion of the inventor being responsible. Nick emphatically refuses to work the case, preferring to work on dry martinis instead, while everyone including the police seem to rely on his renown mystery solving abilities. In the end Nick has established who is the murderer and holds a large dinner party with everyone linked to the case invited (or coerced) to attend where he finally reveals the culprit.

While the comedy takes center stage, the clues and scenarios are intricate with lots of surprises providing an entertaining whodunnit on it’s own merits. Among the many roles we have the usual motley of family members, indiscreet liaisons and mobsters to name just to name a few of the suspects. Even the clues that are unearthed (literally) are not always what they seem.

No matter how wrapped up you get in the case however, all the guesswork falls to the side whenever Powell and Loy and their snowy white dog Asta are onscreen. The couple, ever sparring with one another and yet unmistakable an inseparable pair, are simply mesmerizing. Their smoothly delivered banter is hilarious and surprisingly was often filmed while the two were merely rehearsing and using unscripted dialog. To say that they had onscreen chemistry is an understatement.  Even shots of Powell just fooling around on the set were so fun and in character they made it into the film.

Sadly, Hammett was one of the many writers who would be unfairly blacklisted by Hollywood’s infamous Red Scare under the auspices of HUAC McCarthy witch hunt hearings. While this was in the latter period of his life one can only wonder if that deprived us of other fine characters.

The Thin Man was an immediate hit and while Hammett never wrote any more books featuring the dynamic couple Hollywood plodded on with several sequels. I ended up picking up the Silver Screen Icons DVD set that has the first four films; The Thin Man, After the Thin Man, Another Thin Man, and The Shadow of the Thin Man. There are two additional movies that I have yet to track down, The Thin Man Goes Home and finally A Song for the Thin Man. Not bad for what was originally considered a B movie.

Movie Reviews 456 – The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)

October 29, 2020

While it is no secret that I’m a huge fan of the horror films produced by Hammer studios from their golden age of Gothic classics, when it comes to naming my favorite films produced by them the selection becomes murkier. While one can easily name any of their Frankenstein or Dracula films starring Peter Cushing or Christoher Lee (or even better, both of them together) as great films, I find myself repeatedly going back to other movies that have neither of their marquee stars. I’ve discussed my fondness for The Reptile, but that was mostly from a sentimental perspective as is the case for other favourites like Quatermass and the Pit or The Mutations.

I realized that one reason so many of those are appealing to me is because they all present stories that are unique and original. The Curse of the Werewolf is something in between in that it is a rethread of a common mythological creature and yet the narrative is far from your typical furry werewolf tale, so you get the best of both worlds.

From the very beginning of the film we get a very different ‘origin’ story from the typical bite of a wolf, the definitive genesis of all other werewolf stories I’ve ever seen or read. The film proffers a rather convoluted but intriguing introduction, set in 18th century Spain, that has a dimwitted beggar interrupt a marquis’ wedding ceremony. The outraged marquis has the beggar thrown into the castle dungeon, to be tended to by the dungeon master and his mute daughter. There the beggar is soon forgotten and over the years degenerates into a ragged, raving lunatic, to be cared for by the daughter, now a voluptuous young woman, until she herself is cast into the cell and raped by him. She manages to escape and gain refuge in the home of an academic and his servant where she gives birth to a boy, Leon, only to die moments later to the sounds of a distant howling wolf.

As a young lad Leon experiences nightmarish episodes especially after odd incidents such as when he tasted the blood of an animal after a hunt. Now a young man, Leon (Oliver Reed) endeavours to seek his fortune and find a job. He soon lands a position in a small winery and immediately falls for the owner’s daughter Cristina (Catherine Feller) despite the fact that she is engaged to an aristocrat. Around this time some of the shepherds in the area have had their flock attacked at night, but the attacks are attributed to a shepherd’s dog. Leon’s seizures which had ceased by then return with a vengeance, and now with deadly consequences. Even while not being able to recall his actions, Leon knows all too well that he is responsible. He basically begs that he be locked up, which the authorities only agree to after finding evidence of his involvement in the most recent attack. Leon discovers that there is one thing that will soothe his inner beast and the answer lies with Cristina. But that remedy is now out of his reach as he awaits the next full moon in his cell.

The non traditional lycanthropy story presented rejects a number of other conventions and horror tropes which make this film particularly satisfying viewing. Werewolf staples that we are familiar with such as the deadly silver bullet are preserved but presented in a novel manner, likewise the ‘forbidden love’ aspect that has a surprise twist here. Reed makes the most of his starring role, his very first, and would go on to have a stellar career including many other classic horror films, These are the Damned, The Shuttered Room, and Burnt Offerings to name a few.

Aside from a few crude special effects, the wolf transformation to the fully altered creature is not only realistic but the end result look is exceptional. Viewers are treated with Hammer’s usual resplendent Gothic imagery as well other scenes set in squalid accommodations. The finale takes a page from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame accentuated by a thrilling, teetering rooftop chase with a howling, torch wielding vengeful mob below.

While the film is available in several editions I would heartily recommend getting the Hammer Horror 8-Film Collection that contains seven other equally entertaining Hammer films. Included are Brides of Dracula, The Phantom of the Opera, The Kiss of the Vampire, Paranoiac, Nightmare, Night Creatures and The Evil of Dr. Frankenstein. The one drawback to the set is that it is totally bereft of any special features that I would have loved to view, but the price of this edition really can’t be beat, being available in the $20 range. Make it a weeklong Hammer film binge. I did.

 

Movie Reviews 455 – The Lost Boys (1987)

October 23, 2020

 

 

Up until the 70’s any depiction of vampires in films were almost uniquely those in Victorian Gothic settings, the classical representation true to the mythological origins of the creature. The 70’s did give us a few counter-culture ‘modern’ vampires living in contemporary times, but even those were not the typical next door neighbours so much as ‘groovy’, hyped up caricatures of the beast. At least they were no longer confirmed to stormy castles and melodramatic “Good evening!” marble stairway entrées.

It wasn’t until the 80’s and the release of The Lost Boys that we not only got a heavily updated and modern take on the vampire, but a great story and dynamic casting to match for what is now considered a cult classic.

Diane Wiest plays a recently divorced single mother who hauls her two boys, comic book aficionado Sam (Corey Haim) and the older laconic Michael (Jason Patric), from cozy urban Phoenix to the boardwalk seaside community to Santa Carla California to live with her geriatric, hippy taxidermist father (Barnard Hughes).

Cruising the amusement park one evening Michael is awestruck by a beautiful young girl who just goes by the name ‘Star’ (Jami Gertz), but his attempt to get friendlier is interrupted by a quartet of motorcycle hooligans. Their leader (Kiefer Sutherland) entices Michael to join and play along with their daring wild rides. Eventually settling into their cliffside cave abode, a remnant fissure from a long forgotten earthquake, Michael is tricked into drinking blood. This begins a cat-and-mouse game of Michael trying to deal with and concealing his slow transformation into a fully fledged neck bitter from mom while enlisting the help of Sam who in turn engages his new vampire savvy friends from the comic shop, the inimitable Frog brothers; Edgar and Alan [get it?] (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander).

This is a perfect showpiece of 80’s horror that delivers on the creepy elements while keeping a foot in the tamer, flashy aspects of high school comedies of the era, a blend of The Goonies and John Hughes films. It’s macho punks on motorcycles with long flowing hair wearing more earrings and stuffing more shoulder pads any of the girls. While the depiction is ephemeral 80’s, the harrowing score borrows from the past with a cover of The Doors’ People Are Strange, but is indelibly associated with the even chillier theme song Cry Little Sister.

One of the more remarkable aspects of the film is what turned out to be perfect casting from both veterans and newcomers alike. Sutherland had just come off Stand by Me and the two back-to-back films cemented him as the villainous archetype that serves him to this day.  The mousy Wiest and Edward Herrmann who plays her boss and romantic interest seem odd choices at first for a horror movie and yet they both took advantage of the opportunity and managed to fit their square blocks into round hole roles seamlessly. Grandpa Hughes not only steals every scene he’s in, but delivers the surprising memorable last line of the film. The film also marks the humble beginnings of the phenomenon that was thereafter known as “The Two Coreys”, Haim and Feldman becoming teen idols and starring in a string of films together. Sadly, that relationship would eventually succumb to drug fueled lifestyles and darker claims of sexual abuse in the industry that would ultimately claim Haim’s life. Ironically that tumultuous onscreen collaboration would end with Lost Boys: The Tribe, one of a number of sequels, but one in which Haim was so far gone that only a cameo in the end credits could be salvaged from what was already intended just to be a minor role.

Carrie – Stephen King (1974)

October 19, 2020

Stephen King is easily one of the most successful contemporary writers whose success not only lies within the prolific publishing of his works but the remarkable string of movie adaptations that inevitably follow. That long line of best selling accomplishments began with his very first published novel Carrie, and continues to this very day.

While I recall having the paperback way back in the seventies, for some reason it was either given away or misplaced at some point so I actually had to get another copy to reread it, which is itself something I rarely do. Of course I had already seen the original Brian De Palma film which has become its own cinematic classic. While I’m sure some would benefit from the review of the book alone, it is nearly impossible for me to not make at least some comparisons to Carrie the film.

For those unfamiliar with the story it is about a young girl with telekinetic powers growing up in a highly sheltered, almost captive, strict religious environment by her single parent, fanatical mother. While she has displayed some limited powers even as a young child, the onset of puberty, a biological transformation she never even knew about and that shocks her, brings about an increase to her powers and along with it a rebellious attitude.

A shy, introverted outcast at school, Carrie White has forever been the butt of jokes, or almost just as bad, being totally ignored as if not there at all. After experiencing her first menstrual period in the school shower room, an event that had all the other girls traumatized her, she gains the sympathy of Sue Snell, one of the most popular girls, who then convinces her boyfriend Tommy to ask Carrie to the upcoming prom. Unfortunately, the episode in the shower also landed a bunch of girls in trouble because or their shamefully treatment of Carrie. As a result the spoiled agitator Chris, who refuses to obey the punishment meted out to those involved, finds herself barred from attending the prom. She, with the help of her boyfriend Billy, plan and executes a blood drenching revenge for Carrie at what was to be her shining moment at the gala affair.

Instead of making inroads to social normality she has yearned for so long, the ordeal sees Carrie unleash her now full and unrestrained powers on the entire gymnasium full of guests and thereafter goes on a telekinetic rampage that decimates a swatch of the town. But Carrie’s near trancelike escapade ends with a confrontation with the real source of her isolation and social captivity, her mother.

The narrative in the novel alternates between contemporary prose and interspersed media and academic writings on the climactic event and studies of Carrie’s life prior to the final juncture. It consists of interviews with former neighbours, newspaper articles, excerpts of books, one in particular written by Sue. We learn there was a “White Commission” that investigated the affair leading up to the prom and the immediate events that further engulfed the town. These revelations and discussions argue Telekinesis as a scientific fact as they try to document the historical circumstances. The excerpts are used both as a form of presenting the story itself and as foreshadowing to events that we later read as prose from the point of view of the characters as they are enacted. It does take a little getting used to but it is also quite effective as a form of storytelling here.

The format also allows the reader to get many other points of view compared to the film, especially what happened in the immediate aftermath of the school fire from varying perspectives around town and even abroad. As for Carrie herself, the only momentary noticeable difference is her being described as a chubby child compared to the then toothpick thin Sissy Spacek in the film.

The area that we get a much appreciated insight that I always felt was lacking in the film is a deeper background on her mother, the one character who is as interesting as Carrie herself,  and how she became such an obsessive zealot. There are a few scant references to her father, who does figure into all this in a manner, but the mother is deserving of a prequel novel and I hope that King does get around to it someday given his recent penchant for revisiting older works.

I know that there have been other cinematic adaptations that followed including an early sequel, The Rage: Carrie 2, a 2002 TV film, and more recently, a 2013 remake. I have not seen any of those but may indulge at some point. I only mention this in the interest that some of the things in this novel may in fact be present in those.

Those fans of King’s other works will be glad to hear that some of those later books have seeds, albeit mere thread’s, planted here in this book. Teddy Duchamp from King’s novella The Body (later filmed as Stand by Me) is one such character here.

I guess the biggest question is whether fans of the film have enough extra fodder here to warrant a read of material they will already be infinitely familiar with. I would say they should even if only to enjoy King’s facility with creating great characters and pacing. After all, he was, and remains, the King in that respect.

Movie Reviews 454 – Hatari (1962)

October 16, 2020

The name John Wayne is practically synonymous with the Western film genre, The Duke as he was known, having starred in 75 oaters over his career, from his first credited starring role to his very last film. But even The Duke strayed from the tumbleweed trails on occasion, and playing a wildlife catcher in the deepest plains of East Africa in director Howard HawksHatari is easily the oddest of his portrayals.

The irregular choice of casting for the film is echoed by the onscreen content which presents a paradox of scenes that cater to one of two almost diametrically opposed mindsets presented by the plot, or whatever is supposed to one. While the character interactions are all in the realm of corny romantic comedy it is clear that the main attraction of the film was to present sensational  actual live footage of animal captures.

Shot on-site in the plains of the east Africa Serengeti adjoining Lake Tanganyika, the cast are a team of hired catchers who supply zoos worldwide with wild and oversized wildlife. Without getting into the ethics of having zoos with caged animals, this footage is nothing short of breathtaking. There is no CGI of course but no special effects or faked animals either in any way. These captures, caught up close, are rounded between jeeps and trucks with lassos and snares, often from someone sitting on a hood mounted seat inches away from running prey, corralled running full speed. While some of the footage may have been speeded up for drama and I have to assume that professional stand-ins were used for the more dangerous scenes, it is nonetheless exhilarating to experience and worth watching the film for this alone.

Throughout the film we witness, almost in documentary style, the live captures of a giraffe, zebra, gazelle, leopard, water buffalo, wildebeest and even that of five hundred monkeys for one particular ongoing comedy routine. Some of the non-capture sequences also have animals such as ostriches, a crocodile, and hyenas. But the bookends of the film are clearly the most exciting in which they try to capture very much live, rampaging rhinos. The fierceness is undeniable and thrilling.

When the dust settles between chases this group of hunters suddenly transform into the most improbable of band romantic eyed gals and guys that tarnish the realism of the animal sequences. A trio of young men, comic Red Buttons among them, vie for the heart of a barely of-age young woman while we are led to believe that a European photographer catapulted onto the scene has the hots for non other than the reticent Duke himself in what must be the most

dubious May-December romance in cinematic history. The battle of the sexes interludes do have a few fun bits though, so they are bearable to watch until we return to beastly action scenes in short measure.

I would be remiss in not mentioning that this screenplay was yet another from the multi-talented Leigh Brackett. A prolific writer for the movies going back to Film Noir classics, other John Wayne westerns and even Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (arguably the best in the series), she was also a renown Science Fiction writer who was equally if not even more active in that genre.

If nothing else, this is the film that gave us the Baby Elephant Walk song by Henry Mancini even before he was penning The Pink Panther theme.

 

Movie Reviews 453 – The Monolith Monsters (1957)

October 9, 2020

King Kong started the trend and by the 1950s giant monsters were rampant on movie screens everywhere. But once the lion’s share of the zoological checklist had been covered (ants, leeches, spiders, crabs, praying mantis, colossal man, 50 foot woman, apes, serpents, and gila monsters to name a few favourites) movie studios needed something new. Thus was spawned one of the oddest of the jumbo sized objects to terrorize mankind: rocks!

As crazy as the title sounds The Monolith Monsters is actually a fairly good movie when compared to many of its oversized brethren mentioned above.

A geologist working for the Department of Interior in a remote town situated within the Southern California desert comes across a strange looking rock which he brings back to his lab. While confounded as to its classification, he stows it on his bench before retiring for the night. As he sleeps a windstorm causes a flask of water to douse the rock and before our very eyes it slowly begins to grow and form a miniature mounting tower. Come the following morning the geologists his colleague arrives to find the office in shambles and the geologist turned to stone!

The rock, a fragment of a meteorite that recently crashed nearby, has two perilous properties, each with devastating fatal consequences if left unchecked. While handling of the material initiates a process in which body matter solidifies to rocklike material it is the second attribute that is the more terrifying. As water makes the rocks grow into towering structures that crash under their own weight, the broken shards are also propelled which distribute the rocks into an every larger area. Given this growth pattern a rainstorm threatens to have the monoliths, so far contained within a narrow mountain range, break out unimpeded and unleash an unstoppable continental cataclysm (contrary to the suggestion in the film that it would be worldwide).

Between all the scientific jargon among those trying to understand what is going on, Dave Miller (Grant Williams) the head of the office enlists the aid of the local country doctor and the town authorities. The urgency is heightened by a young catatonic girl, the sole survivor who witnessed the destruction of her farm, now showing signs of stiffening like the initial geologist. To spice things up we have the local school teacher (Lola Albright), Dave’s love interest,  who joins in on the race for answers.

As surprising as it sounds, some of the best parts in the film are the ones featuring the rocks. While the special effects used for both the miniature variants showing the growth spurts and the later majestic mountain sized crystalline structures that shoot out of the Earth use obvious filming techniques, they are quite realistic and fun to watch. As is almost always the case in these B movies, a solution will be found in the end (and a huge hint is provided right at the beginning of the film) but the sleuthing process is still fun to watch. Less convincing or credible are the suggestions of people slowly stiffening up as they turn to stone, but the plot does not focus on that so much as to take away from the menace of the spreading. Viewers will also get to see an archaic Iron Lung machine, what was then the height of medical marvels, a device all too prevalent due to the polio outbreak at the time and hopefully something we can avoid despite anti-vaxxers blight ignorance of the past.

An undeniably solid film with a chemical reaction climax, this film rocks!