On this day, 9 June, in 1971, They Might Be Giants was released. It’s one of my all-time favorite films. But I must admit that the first time I saw it I was bewildered by it. I just didn’t grok it. I guess I was just too young and too sane.
Or maybe it is that the film is all about the nature of reality — something I didn’t connect with much when I was young. Now it’s the main thing I think about. In the film, George C Scott plays Justin Playfair, a retired judge who thinks he is Sherlock Holmes. Or is he Sherlock Holmes? I’d say that you are more likely to enjoy the film if you go along with it.
I highly recommend seeing it if you haven’t. Below, I’ll embed a great print (while it lasts). But you can get it on Blu-ray with a director commentary, a featurette, and the extra scene in the grocery store (sadly not integrated with the film as it has been in other releases).
Next year will be the 50th anniversary of its release. We will have to do something for it. It is a spectacular film!
Things just turned out this way: another Tobe Hooper film was released. This time it is Invaders From Mars on 6 June 1986. I enjoy it a lot but it isn’t one of my favorites.
So why am I talking about it today? Because critics have hated it and continue to do so.
Let me take a review from Time Outthat is actually better than most. It says:
“The effects are magnificent, but whereas the original worked by building up an increasingly black mood, this version relies almost entirely on the special effects; and such limited brooding tension as it has is gratuitously undermined by a string of sequences played purely for laughs.”
So this version of the film works almost entirely by using special effects? I don’t agree with that at all. But if that were the case, why is it a bad thing? Why is building up a black mood the correct way to go? Should this version of the film do that too? I know what the critic would have said if the film had done that, “This version just repeats what was done better in 1953”!
Then we learn that the limited brooding tension that the film managed was destroyed by its comedic elements. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the filmmakers hadn’t actually been going for the “black mood” of the original.
“Not What I Wanted to See!”
This has got to be the single most annoying film criticism: “This film was not at all what I wanted to see!” Feature films generally take years to make. There’s a really good chance that what is up on the screen is what the filmmakers wanted.
I understand: sometimes you just don’t like a film. You wish it had gone in another direction. But I fail to see how this is a criticism of the film. It’s like complaining that you didn’t like Eaten Alivebecause you were really more in a comedy mood.
Even if you think a film critic is just an ombudsman, how is that helpful? The Time Out review ends, “Fun, but very silly.” Okay. That would have made a better complete review. It would have warned potential viewers that this film with its obviously cheeky 1950s science fiction film title will not be like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.
On this day, 5 June, in 1953, It Came From Outer Spacewas released. It’s especially notable because it isn’t a film you can easily reduce to an allegory about communist fears.
Listening to people now days you would think that the only thing on the minds of Americans in the 1950s was the rise of communism. Certainly, people were afraid of that — mostly because they were constantly told to be afraid of it by the media’s easy alliance with the government. But people feared a lot of things. And people really did fear invaders from Mars!
But It Came From Outer Space is a hopeful film with nice aliens who just happened to crash on Earth and are trying to repair their space ship and get back home.
Today, I’m pretty tired of this. I want to bang my head on a wall whenever I hear about Gene Roddenberry “optimistic vision” of the future. What it ended up being was his boring vision of later television drama where everyone is so well-adjusted the plots seem more like clever puzzles than stories about human beings.
It Came From Outer Space isn’t like that at all. That’s mostly because everyone thinks that John, played by Richard Carlson (Creature from the Black Lagoon), is suffering from a concussion. And then when the sheriff does believe him, there’s more conflict.
It Came From Outer Space also features Barbara Rush (When Worlds Collide) and Russell Johnson (This Island Earth). It’s based on a Ray Bradbury story. And made by the same group that would bring us Creature from the Black Lagoon the next year.
You can get a good print of it (MPEG4) for free at Archive.org. Unfortunately, it doesn’t embed correctly. There is a Blu-ray of it available that comes with a commentary by Tom Weaver, for those who are fans.
On this day, 4 June, in 1982, Poltergeistwas released. At the time of its release, it terrified me. And it remains a sold haunted house film with some nice touches like the mother at first finding it kind of delightful.
It also has a wonderfully subversive subtext with people getting rich by literally providing homes on top of the corpses of Native Americans. And I just love that the father is reading Reagan the Man the President.
But it’s hard for me to watch today without seeing its flaws. The lore of the film is that Steven Spielberg is who really directed it. I don’t accept that at all, but as co-writer and producer, his fingers are all over it. Poltergeist only feels like a Tobe Hopper film now and then.
Poltergeist vs The Funhouse
Yesterday, I watched The Funhouse— Hooper’s 1981 film about some kids who spend the night in the funhouse and end up hunted by two carnies — one of whom is literally a monster (sympathetic though he may be).
Instead of the made-for-TV parents in Poltergeist, The Funhouse features an emotionally distant father and an alcoholic mother. And frankly, it’s just more tightly produced. It was created for the ages not a few weeks of major release.
But I don’t want to be unfair. Poltergeist is a very good film. And the plot unravels beautifully. And the swimming pool scene with the skeletons is just fantastic.
Tobe Hooper as Director
I’ve come to the conclusion that Tobe Hooper is the Orson Welles of horror. By that I mean that he wasn’t all that interested in creating finished films. He was interested in experimenting and pushing his craft further.
That’s how you get later films like Crocodile, which many people can’t understand. Yes, overall, it’s a standard teen horror film. But it also has moments that are as good as anything he ever did.
Hooper didn’t talk that much about his work. And when he did, he didn’t say much. He seemed to be an extremely introverted guy. There was clearly a lot going on inside that only came out clearly in his work.
I think he took opportunities like Crocodile to try out new things. And that says a lot about him. Because he could have just ossified. If he had, critics and audiences would have liked him a lot more than they did. But he fought that and ended up always creating interesting films.
Poltergeistis definitely part of that. But I don’t think it needs my voice to add to the chorus of people singing its praise. There are already more than enough people doing that — mostly people who have never watched Eaten Aliveor Djinn.
But let’s face it: most critics resented Hooper for continuing to be a horror director. The director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacrewas supposed to develop past that to start making art films. They never realized that he had already started making art films and never stopped.
It was a big month for new short takes. I can’t really get through a day without watching a film — usually a horror film. But as usual, I’m going to have to look up half the films here. It was only after writing two articles about Monster From The Ocean Floor that I remembered what it was about.
This doesn’t speak to the quality of the films. But it does speak to the quality of the titles. Like The Beast Must Die. That could be about anything!
13 Frightened Girls(1963): probably my least favorite William Castle film. But then, I’m not that target audience of 13-year-old girls. It’s well-made, though.
13 Ghosts(1960): a light horror mystery from our man Castle. This is a good one to get your kids started on horror films.
Asylum(1972): another collection of short horror films from Amicus. I particularly like the one about the chopped-up lady.
The Babysitter(1980): made-for-television film about an unstable nanny who destroys a family. Features William Shatner in a regular-guy role.
Beast From Haunted Cave(1959): a standard low-budget monster movie about a group of criminals on the run. Notable mostly for taking place in the snow.
The Beast Must Die(1974): this is the kind of film that psychotronic fans live for. Who would think to combine a werewolf with an insane big game hunter? You’ve got to see this!
Black Christmas(1974): one of the earliest slasher films and one of the best. It’s really nice to have a story that doesn’t feature any kind of clever back-story. There’s a crazy guy and he’s murdering people. That’s enough.
Blood Ties(1991): a new take on the vampire. Unfortunately, this has been done to death now. But if you can get past that, it’s a solid film.
BMX Bandits(1983): a bike-oriented kids film that made Nicole Kidman a star. If you were into those bikes when you were a kid, you’ll love this film. I, of course, was inside watching horror films.
Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter(1974): if released today, this title would be cheeky. But this film is for real. It’s a wonderful combination of horror and adventure. This is a classic!
Chop(2011): a truly funny horror comedy that surprises right up to its denouement, which is purposefully anti-climatic. I love this film!
Countess Dracula(1971): horror film based on the true-life psychopath Elizabeth Báthory. Other than actually getting younger, this is probably how it was.
Day of Anger(1967): a good Spaghetti Western that maybe tries a bit too hard to be serious.
Day the World Ended(1955): another of those 1950s post-nuclear war films that mostly take place in a single room. This one is pretty good.
Yesterday, 26 May, was Peter Cushing’s birthday. He was born in 1913.
And today, 27 May, is the birthday of Vincent Price (1911) and Christopher Lee (1922).
Three titans of horror. Three excellent actors. Three tall men. All born around the same date.
I guess they were also all friends, although it’s very hard to tell when it comes to actors who are always playing a part when a camera is rolling.
Everyone knows that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing starred in a lot of films together. Watching a collection of Hammer films is a lot like watching “The Cushing and Lee Show. “
I know of only two films that featured Price and Cushing. The first was Dr Phibes Rises Againalthough Cushing is barely in it and probably wasn’t even on set at the same time as Price. Much better is Madhousewhere they work together closely and brilliantly. It’s a great part for Cushing!
And there’s only one film I know of with just Price and Lee: The Oblong Box. It’s a great film but the two men don’t work that much with each other.
All Three Men
There are two films that feature all three men. The first was 1970’s Scream and Scream Again. It’s a good film that has you confused until the very end. The problem with it is that Peter Cushing is hardly in it all.
If you want to celebrate this occasion, you should watch House of the Long Shadows. It’s an ensemble film but the three men are all primary. And as a special extra it also features John Carradine!
And I just happened to have found a wonderful copy of the film on YouTube. So here’s to Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, and Christopher Lee!
I’ll admit, when I first heard of this film, I was skeptical. I like rats and I don’t like to see them as antagonists in films. (They aren’t in Willard. There, they are just meting out justice.)
But at least the rats are presented as smart. And it has a very happy ending!
Rats was co-written and directed by exploitation master Bruno Mattei. He’s mostly known for never doing anything new. If a film was doing well at the box office, he’d make his own version.
Salon Kittywas a big deal in 1976. So in 1977, Mattei brought the world SS Girls. How do you not love that?!
Night of the Living Rats
Rats is more or less Night of the Living Dead— but with rats. Michael Weldon says it has more or less the same plot as Chosen Survivors, but I haven’t seen it so I can’t say for sure. And clearly, I’m sure it’s also ripping off Willard.
The basis of the movie is that there was a nuclear war in 2015. The survivors head underground and live there. After a hundred years, some of them decided to live above ground. Thus humanity was divided into two groups. The film takes place 110 years after that in 2225.
The story centers on a biker gang (with a tank and a truck) living in a barren land, scavenging to survive. They are a stylish bunch with cool names like Chocolate, Lucifer, and Video!
All is going well after they come to an abandoned town. They find a bunch of food that has somehow survived for 210 years. But then they discover various dead bodies. And the rats start to attack. And then they start to die.
Rats Is a Good Time
Rats is filled with great practical effects. And it does a particularly great job of combining real rats with fake ones. Although the river of rats can be a bit much at times. Of course, one of the treats of this film is that it is always at least a little over the top.
What’s most remarkable here, however, is how compelling the story is. The characters are a lot more real than they have any right to be. That’s especially true of Chocolate (Geretta Geretta) and Video (Gianni Franco).
Everything about the film seems better than it should be. The sets are really good. The lighting is always interesting if sometimes a bit too dark. (This may be a video artifact; projected film always has much better contrast.) The camera work is lively without being excessive. And the editing pulls the story along mostly, although there are moments when it seems like there wasn’t transition material.
I highly recommend seeing Rats: Night of Terror if you get the chance. It’s not great. And one of the female characters is too much like Barbra in the original Night of the Living Dead. But it’s quite an enjoyable hour and a half.
(There is so much more to love in Carpenter’s catalog. In addition to all the usual ones that people mention, there’s Vampires, which I really enjoy. And Escape From LAhas really grown on me.)
But if people spoke of John Carpenter as though he was some brilliant art film director, I wouldn’t be able to take it. And I say that knowing that Carpenter is as skilled and creative a director as you will find. If he wanted to make art films, they’d be wonderful.
But he doesn’t make art films. (I wouldn’t love his work as much if he did.) It would be an insult to him to pretend that he does — an insult to him but also an insult to the kinds of films that he makes and that I love.
Hitchcock Was Better Than Vertigo
I wish that I could do something for poor Alfred Hitchcock. He deserves better. Above all, he deserves to have his great films admired. I think Vertigo is a joke.
The contortions I’ve seen critics go through to justify why it is a great film! Oh yes, the boring pastels of the film are so meaningful! And the boring plot? Pure genius!
Vertigo is the Alfred Hitchcock film for people who don’t like Alfred Hitchcock. Almost any other Hitchcock film would be a better symbol of his talent. And it shows that all those critics and film “scholars” who supposedly love his work so much don’t really appreciate it at all.
On this day, 21 May, in 1954, Monster From the Ocean Floor, was released. It is most known for being the first film that Roger Corman produced.
It tells the story of Julie (Anne Kimbell) — a young artist vacationing in Mexico. She hears the story of a sea monster. Then, when a diver is killed, she decides to search for it rather than act like a regular human.
Corman apparently got the idea for the film when he learned about the one-person submarine that is featured in the film. It’s also its worst aspect. Maybe it wasn’t at the time. But now, it just seems like a weird technology and the way it is used at the end of the film is ridiculous.
There’s a subplot about the local people’s belief that if “the fairest” is sacrificed, they will all be safe. And that leads to an old woman forcing a young man to do what must be done. But when it comes to it, he can’t because he’s Mexican, and “some, I assume, are good people.”
The actual monster in the film is unimpressive — even compared to It Conquered the World. And we don’t see much of it. That’s true both because the underwater scenes just don’t look as clear as the scenes in Creature from the Black Lagoon(which I assume was shot in a tank). But also: it just doesn’t get much screen time.
What’s really impressive is the sequence with the shark. Kimbell is in the water with a shark that is about six-feet long. And it clearly swims past her a couple of times — once in quite a menacing way.
I have no idea how they did this. For one thing, the shark makes several passes. These scenes were shot in the ocean. How did they get the shark back? More important: how did they get Kimbell to do these scenes?!
The shark is doubtless not one known to attack humans. But I don’t care! It could be a vegetarian for all I care. There is no way I would get in the ocean with that shark! My hat is off to Anne Kimbell!
On this day, 20 May, in 1936, the actor Anthony Zerbe was born. And he’s still alive. So happy 84th birthday, Anthony!
It’s also James Stewart’s birthday, but I didn’t choose him because I really don’t like him. Even films that I like which feature him are reduced by that fact. The Philadelphia Storyis almost destroyed by him. Really: I don’t understand how he was ever a star. He was a very annoying guy!