Monthly Archives: April 2020

Anniversary Post: I Walked with a Zombie

I Walked With a Zombie

On this day, 30 April, in 1943, I Walked With a Zombie was released to the world. It’s one of those great gothic horror films when Hollywood wasn’t quite sure if they weren’t romances.

It tells the story of Betsy, a nurse that moves to the Caribbean where she is to care for a woman suffers from a vague spinal injury that makes her sleepwalk through life. But shockingly it turns out she is really a zombie!

Why It’s Great

Actually, the story doesn’t much matter. The film sets a dark mood and the character interactions are excellent. Jacques Tourneur made it shortly after Cat People, and the film has much in common with it.

It is amazing to see how much is done on a limited budget. Almost everything is shot on small, cheap sets. But with a combination of beautiful shots, clever blocking, and effective camera work along with excellent acting, it never seems limited.

I Walked With a Zombie also clocks in just under 70 minutes. I’ve come to believe that this is the perfect length for a feature film. It allows the stories to be told briskly without pointless complications of an over-long second act.

It also allows you to watch two films a night!

Is It Psychotronic?

I love this film. But whenever I see one like this I question whether we ought to consider it psychotronic. It is true that it is low budget, but it is a Hollywood B-picture. Everyone involved in it is a professional. There’s nothing lurid about it. And it most definitely isn’t going after the teen audience.

The one way that it is psychotronic is that it’s old. And almost any film after a certain point becomes relegated to viewing specialists. And I Walked With a Zombie definitely deserves to be discussed here because that’s ultimately what this site is about: trying to get people to watch films that we like.


I Walked With a Zombie poster by William Rose is in the public domain.

Anniversary Post: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

When I first got into low-budget movies, I figured that despite all their other faults, they would at least have strong screenplays because that’s one thing you could get right without cost. Boy was I naive! Also: on this day, 29 April, in 2005, the big-budget cinematic version of Douglas Adams’ book was released, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

It seems that what it takes to sit in your room for months crafting a screenplay is not what it takes to get a film made. That means that a lot of films go into production with poor scripts. And thank God for that! I’d rather have the films than see young would-be filmmakers die alone in their rooms for lack of Vitamin D.

Why Hitchhiker Is Just Fine

And that brings me to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The screenplay isn’t bad. And the film was fine. It worked well enough. And that seems to be what everyone else thought. No one demanded their money or time back. Most two-hour periods are worse than the two hours I spent with it.

But given all the talent and creativity that went into the film, why was it just fine? I think the answer to this is simple: the source material wasn’t that great.

I’ll admit: I came to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy late — a couple of years after all my nerdy friends were raving about it. And I did not get it. I could see that it was meant to be funny. But it was filled with the kinds of jokes that people with poor senses of humor find hysterical.

My theory is that no one ever found the books funny. Instead, they thought them “clever” and thought they would like to be the kind of people who they suspected would find such things funny.

So 15 years ago today we got this film. And it’s fine. It really is. I wouldn’t mind watching it again.

But you know what I can’t take? Good Omens. I got about five minutes into it and I realized they were doing that same kind of comedy and I stopped. And that seems to be the ultimate legacy of Douglas Adams: that kind of comedy where just in case the jokes don’t work the teller is going to do it really intensely.

But the movie? Fine.


The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy poster via Wikipedia under Fair Use.

Anniversary Post: Carolyn Jones

Carolun Jones and John Astin

On this day, 28 April, back in 1930, the actor Carolyn Jones was born. She will always been remembered as Morticia in the television series The Addams Family.

When I was a kid, I much preferred The Munsters. But as I got older, I turned away from it and toward The Addams Family. The comedy is much more arch.

What seems weird now is that I remember these shows being huge. But they both ended after two seasons. Even in their first seasons, they both were roughly the twentieth most popular shows — good but not astounding. And in their second seasons, The Munsters was destroyed by Batman and The Addams Family by Hogan’s Heroes.

Still, the shows are great. I watched the entire first season a couple of months ago and it holds up really well.

Carolyn Jones had a good career outside The Addams Family. She had notable parts in classics like William Castle’s The Saracen Blade, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive.

Sadly, Jones developed colon cancer and died at the age of 53.

Also Today

A few notable films were released on this date. The Horror Show came out in 1989. The documentary Crumb came out in 1995, the experimental Timecode in 2000, and the surprisingly good comedy The TV Set in 2006.


Carolyn Jones and John Astin by ABC Television via Wikipedia. It is in the Public Domain.

Anniversary Post: Godzilla

Godzilla

On this day, 27 April, in 1956, Godzilla was released to the public.

But before any of you Godzilla subgeniuses complain, let me explain. (The Godzilla geniuses already know what I’m going to say.)

Godzilla was first release to the public on 3 November 1954. Edmund Goldman bought the US rights to the film from Toho Sudios for $25,000 (about a quarter million today). He was planning to just dub it into English and then release it.

But things got a bit out of hand. With the help and encouragement of a whole bunch of people, they told the same story but from the perspective of an American reporter played by Raymond Burr (Perry Mason).

The result isn’t a better film. It does have advantages over the original. And the original has advantages over it. But by using the equivalent of a million dollars, they took a distinctly Japanese film and made an American film.

It’s a remarkable accomplishment. And it is great that we now have both these films to enjoy.

I highly recommend getting the Warner Brothers Godzilla: King of the Monsters Special Edition. It comes with two discs: one for the original Japanese version and one for the American release. Both include commentary tracks by David Kalat, author of A Critical History and Filmography of Toho’s Godzilla Series.

Also Today

A couple more things. Walter Lantz, creator of Woody Woodpecker was born in 1899. Sandy Dennis was born in 1937. She was in a lot of great films but she was amazing in The Out-of-Towners. I still feel bad that she never even got a cup of coffee.


Godzilla poster via Wikipedia under Fair use.

Anniversary Post: The Creature Walks Among Us

The Creature Walks Among Us

I tell ya, they don’t make films the way they used to! Now days, you think the bad guy’s dead at the end of the picture and then there’s a sequel and he’s alive again!

Remember the ending of Creature from the Black Lagoon in 1954? The creature died and that was the end of it! At least it was until 1955’s Revenge of the Creature. But at least he died at the end of that! Until 1956’s The Creature Walks Among Us. But at least the creature doesn’t die at the end of that one! And that sets up the sequel — that was never made.

End of a Trilogy

On this day, 26 April, in 1956, the third and final film of the series, The Creature Walks Among Us, was released. It is arguably the best of the three although I really like all of them. (The only one with that Tor Johnson feel!) They are all competently made, well-acted, and beautifully shot.

The Creature Walks Among Us is certainly better than the second film, which was really just a retelling of the first film in a different location. This one turns things around and shows that the real monsters are humans — at least some humans.

The first two films were directed by Jack Arnold. He directed a lot of great psychotronic films like It Came from Outer Space, Tarantula! and the Richard Matheson classic, The Incredible Shrinking Man. He went on to direct A-features like No Name on the Bullet and The Mouse That Roared before ending his career in television.

By the time of The Creature Walks Among Us, Arnold was too big for the B-features, so veteran assistant director John Sherwood was put in charge. Sherwood had been AD on No Name on the Bullet. After it, he directed The Monolith Monsters. And that was it. He worked on a couple more films as AD and then died at the age of 56. (I haven’t been able to find a cause of death.)

If you are any kind of fan at all, I highly recommend getting the Universal Studios’ Creature From the Black Lagoon: Complete Legacy Collection. It comes on 2 Blu-ray discs. There are commentary tracks for all the films, a 40-minute documentary, and some minor stuff. The first two films come in 3-D versions.


The Creature Walks Among Us poster via Wikipedia under Fair Use.

Anniversary Post: Perfect Date

Miss Congeniality

In 2000, Miss Congeniality was released. It is mostly a love letter to beauty pageants even if it also lampoons them. But it was not, however, released on this date. It was released on 22 December.

But you see, I had a problem. I’ve complained about it before. It’s really hard to do these anniversary posts. And today, I had no films released and the only person who was even close to being worth focusing on was Paul Mazursky (Down and Out in Beverly Hills).

In the film Miss Congeniality, Miss Rhode Island is asked to describe her perfect date. She then says, “That’s a tough one. I’d have to say April 25th because it’s not too hot and not too cold. All you need is a light jacket.”

Sympathy for the Contestant

These kinds of screw-ups are not that uncommon. In fact, this one probably really happened. But I feel sorry for the contestants. It’s all so fake and the questions are out of context. Given that the pageants are all about sex but pretend that it is nothing about sex, it isn’t surprising that a contestant would misinterpret the question.

And it’s not like asking someone their favorite day of the year is any more ridiculous than the rest of the questions they have to answer.

But the line is very funny. And it sets up a great joke later when Rhode Island tells the other contestants what she would have said, “My idea of a perfect date would be a man who takes me to a romantic dinner, and then we walk along the beach barefoot discussing books and music and movies.”

To this, New York says, “No wonder you’re still a virgin.”


Miss Congeniality poster via Wikipedia under Fair use.

Anniversary Post: William Castle

William Castle

On this day, 14 April, in 1914, one of the icons of psychotronic film, William Castle, was born.

He was a prolific director in the studio system — directing dozens of films for Universal and later Columbia. Although he doesn’t have the reputation, he was a lot like Roger Corman: a man who could create competent films on a small budget.

He’s remembered for his later films, after he’d left Columbia and started his own production company. At first, he used Allied Artists to distribute his films — which he had worked for early in his career. But after his initial successes, Columbia took over that job for most of his films.

The Gimmicks

He’s best known for his marketing gimmicks (something he had done since his theater days in the early 1940s). In Macabre, he hired a hearse to park outside the theater, had “nurses” on duty, and gave out $1,000 life insurance policies.

Most famously, he allowed the audience to vote on how Mr Sardonicus ended. According to him there were two versions of the film, but I certainly don’t believe him. The mechanics of projection are complicated. It’s simply not possible to switch reels without a long delay. Anyway, I prefer to think of William Castle as a bit of a conman.

But it’s unfortunate that people remember him because of the gimmicks. It’s not at all true that his success was based on this. I’ve heard anecdotally that audiences at the time found most of them to be silly. But they liked the films!

Castle acquired the rights to Rosemary’s Baby and was planning to direct it. In the end, he produced it with Roman Polanski directing. I love the film but I think it is wrong when people suggest the film wouldn’t have been as good with Castle directing. I think it might have been incredible. One thing Castle was really good at was setting a mood. And that is all the film is.

I’ll put Castle up against just about any filmmaker. Given the resources he had, it’s amazing he made so many entertaining films.


Image cropped from William Castle by Crowell-Collier Publishing Company. Photograph by Ralph Crane. Self scan from The American Magazine for May 1946 (page 135). In the Public Domain.

Anniversary Post: eXistenZ

eXistenZ

On this day, 23 April, in 1999, one of my favorite films was released: eXistenZ.

This was right after The Matrix was released and a lot of people think that if that hadn’t been the case, eXistenZ would have been a hit. The two films have a number of similarities. But people who think this are wrong. eXistenZ was never going to appeal to a wide audience.

eXistenZ is way too Cronenberg. Who thinks, “I’ve got this idea for a film about game realities so obviously we’re going hard into amphibian organs”? Well, David Cronenberg, of course. Even by his standards, this film is pretty weird.

It’s also way too clever for a multiplex audience. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just that it’s hard to really appreciate eXistenZ the first time through. There are so many signs that things are wrong at the beginning of the film. Yet I just went with them, assuming that was the reality of the film. On second viewing, funny things stand out like Gas working at COUNTRY GAS STATION.

Other Cronenberg Classics

There are only a few other Cronenberg films that see him in top form: Videodrome, The Fly, Naked Lunch, and Crash. Who knows how I would rank these films. Any filmmaker should count their blessing that they made one film as good as any one of these in a whole career.

The thing about eXistenZ is that it’s the Cronenberg film I’ve watched the most. So in that way, it could be considered his best (as far as I’m concerned). But that’s not fair given the profound effect the other films have on me — especially Crash.

So is eXistenZ David Cronenberg’s feel-good people pleasing film? Maybe for Cronenberg fans. Most people I’ve introduced to the film hated it. But if you haven’t seen it, and you are reading this, I suspect you’ll love it.


eXistenZ poster via Wikipedia under Fair Use.

Anniversary Post: John Waters

John Waters

Today, 22 April, director and creepy mustache-lover John Waters is 74 years old. It’s kind of hard not to love him because is work is all over the place. Who in the world doesn’t enjoy either Pink Flamingos or Hairspray or both?

And what psychotronic fan can resist Waters’ love letter to all of us, Serial Mom?

But it’s hardly surprising that Waters has given up directing. As he’s shown a number of times, he can competently direct a standard narrative film. But it clearly isn’t what he’s interested in.

In Female Trouble, far more care was taken applying the tread marks to Divine’s underwear than were applied to any shot in the film. What John Waters added to cinema was his unique interests and twisted sense of humor.

This is core to this site. If you have the money, creating a professional film is easy (as long as you are willing to let the professionals do their jobs). But what’s most interesting is when a filmmaker offers something unique. John Waters does that.


Image cropped from John Waters by PEN America, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Anniversary Post: Elaine May

Elaine May

On this day, 21 April, one of the greatest writer-directors ever, Elaine May, is 88 years old. She first came to prominence as part of a comedy duo with Mike Nichols (Catch-22).

May has not done all that much in Hollywood. Part of it is doubtless that she’s a woman and a demanding artist. She made two moderately successful and widely loved films A New Leaf (which she also starred in) and The Heartbreak Kid.

Her next film could well be her masterpiece, Mikey and Nicky. But it went well over budget and was almost a year late so Paramount Pictures did the mature thing and killed the film by basically not releasing it. (It no longer shocks me just how petulant and self-destructive studio executives are.)

Ishtar

Because of this, May didn’t direct anything for another decade and when she did, it went even worse. Warren Beatty put together the funding for Ishtar. And I think we all know how that ended.

Sadly, most people do not know much about the film except that it supposedly sucks. Of course, it doesn’t. It’s hilarious. And looking back, I really think the problem was that the critics found out how much money it cost. That’s never a good sign (eg, Heaven’s Gate).

After that, it was another decade without doing anything in Hollywood. When she returned, she wrote two excellent screenplays for two Mike Nichols films: The Birdcage and Primary Colors.

It’s sad that Elaine May didn’t direct more films, but all four of the ones she did direct were winners.


Image cropped from Nichols and May photo from Rossano aka Bud Care under CC BY 2.0.