Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception since 1987

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Monster Capsules: GHIDORAH, PHANTASM II, MANSTER, THE SMILING GHOST, KINGDOM OF THE SPIDERS

GHIDORAH, THE THREE-HEADED MONSTER
1964 - dir. Ishiro Honda
****
I'd seen a lot of Godzilla movies as a kid but I never... until lately. Man, GHIDORAH is the best one! Maybe it's Akira Ifukube's great, blowsy ominous-cool bassoon jazz score, which imbues the heaviness of the monsters with Falstaffian hep grandeur as they stagger around and down volcanoes and bump into matchstick apartment complexes. Ifukube's cues repeat over and over but that's fine, they hold up. So it seems a bunch of scientists have been having nightly meetings with UFOs, so they invite a lady reporter to come check out how cool they are. When the UFOs don't come the night she's there, they accuse her of sending skeptical brainwaves out into the atmosphere and scaring the aliens off! Skeptical brainwaves! When the reporter dismisses the idea that brainwaves even exist, the scientists smile patronizingly. That's cool despite being sexist because it shows the easy way science can flip-flop on issues, condemning non-believers with an array of defense mechanisms, from witch burning to shows like Fact or Faked and Myth-busters. One day they sneer at the 'nuts' who believe UFOs exist; the next day they sneer at the 'cranks' who believe they don't. Look at the scientist's desk above and you see the way science might have matured had not events like Roswell been so effectively hushed up.The dubbing is solid. The framing and colors are comic book perfection. GHIDORAH: Number One!


Anyway, later that bad brainwave night, some hot princess of the mythical kingdom of Sergina (Akiko Wakabayashi) is abducted mid-flight from her private plane by a UFO right the instant before a terrorist bomb blows it to bits. The next day, scientists investigate a meteor that crashed in the mountains and left a huge Ghidorah egg. The princess appears at the dock, now possessed by a Martian (below) for a dockside press conference: "I come from the planet you call Mars! The Earth--your planet-- is on the brink of destruction, and you refuse to take it seriously." They laugh. And the hatching egg is their reward. Look who's come all the way from space to show you that three heads are better than one, and that killing whales, dolphins, and Nanking is wrong! Ghidorah functions here as a kind of anti-global terrorist bomb, sent to wipe out violent civilizations before they can become a threat to the Galactic Federation (which is a real thing, according to my in-the-know informants! Stop sending bad vibes!)

 

Of course, the glee with which Japan is wiped out time and again has become dampened by recent cataclysms, but can we doubt this scrappy dolphin-hating nation won't bounce back? So I got to go with Ghidorah on this one, even if those cute singing Mothra handler sisters are around to sing their little songs to get Godzilla and caterpillar form Mothra to unite against him. Then that Ifukube drunken bassoon score really stumbles into low, low gear, and the rumble atop the volcanic jungle is on, reminding me that as a kid watching Speed Racer I used to root for the bad guys; being a tot and inexperienced, I kept thinking "This time... this time they'll finally win." They never won! Like me, in kickball. Ghidorah, I want to Speed's Mach-5 rushed underfoot!

PHANTASM II 
1988 - dir. Don Coscarelli
***
Who knows where we go after we die? The Shadow and Don Coscarelli know, or at least he dares to look in the same trans-dimensional direction as fringe theorists like David Icke and Nick Redfern. Like its predecessor, PHANTASM II involves the adventures of an unlucky orphan lad (here James Le Gros) with mental problems and an ice cream man (Reggie Bannister) buddy, who comes to his rescue, or rather leads him into more trouble, this time by following the Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) as he loots the graveyards of the western states for his neighboring dimension slave army. What the story really provides though is a very bizarre but consistent mythos that deconstructs down to reveal what it's like to see the warped mysteries of humanity's archaic funeral rituals, seen through the eyes of a young terrified child wandering the mausoleum while his parents cremate grandma and being freaked out by the glint of the fading afternoon sun on the shiny marble walls, imagining a flying metal ball coming around looking for him, to drill out his pineal gland (the home of the soul) for use in bizarre fourth dimensional enslavement rites. Also, there's the ingenious STAR WARS-associative use of Jawa fashions for the tall man's undead ghost-dwarf minions. And lots of bright yellow embalming fluid (which the Tall Man uses for blood). Paula Irvine plays the grown-up love interest granddaughter of the weird old psychic lady in the first film, and even Reggie gets a girl in the form of a groovy young hitchhiker they pick up named Alchemy (Samantha Phillips!). The scene where the two couple link up while crashing in a boarded up house in one of the decimated town is laden with termite psychometric details.


As in the first, the creepy Carpenter-esque music and sense of suburban ghost town desolation and ever-immanent nightfall make up for all slack. And then there's the underlying mythos.... considering all the bizarre accoutrements of the funeral trade, you can really imagine there being a hidden white room in each mortuary where corpses are compacted for rebirth in a dimension where the gravity is much stronger. The dimension itself, with the colors morphed, and the winds relentless, is seen sparingly for max. effect and eerily resembles near-death experiences of the unlucky ones who miss the white light. Such people report their astral body/soul floating up to the white light and then being snatched by hands emerging from the dark shadows along the tunnel's sides, yanked into this prison of Hell as they march along a long trail through a desert-like plain led in front by a flying saucer that seems to be harvesting elements of their souls! Part Moses and Yaweh leading the Israelites through the wasteland, part literal hell.

Whoa, hey! Too much? Then just enjoy this low key TERMINATOR-meets-EVIL DEAD thrill ride movie, with its periodic in-jokes (the name on one bag of cremation ashes is "Sam Raimi") and pretend you're in a car at a crumbling drive-in in the early 1980s, the world alive with youth, health, and bravado... all of which about to shortly crumble down around you, like the drive-in itself, until your ashes are scattered to the wind at a sterile ceremony attended by an evil dwarf in a brown robe, texting furiously. A poor thing but thine own.

Tiffany and friend
KINGDOM THE SPIDERS
1977 - dir. John "Bud" Cardos
***1/2
This loose remake of THE BIRDS, this spawn of the post-JAWS (hell you can't cancel the such-and-such festival --the town needs those tourists!) environ-amok (DDT's the devil!) genre stars the always underrated William Shatner as a small town Arizona veterinarian and the awesome Tiffany Bolling as a big town arachnologist sent in to help when toxicology on a dead calf reveals spider venom. Bolling's the Melanie Daniels (she even has a convertible and driving gloves); Marcy Lafferty (Shatner's real-life wife at the time) the Annie Hayworth; the Bolling-Shatner meet cute is at a gas station instead of a pet store, and the genders are reversed, but there's the holing up at the hotel bar (here a set of cozy rustic cabins), a plane blows up near the gas pumps but they ran out of fireball money because the fire just burns itself out. The big attack with people running around in panic with little creatures on them is adorable, and the Arizona scenery is beautiful with mesas like the ones in STAGECOACH, or rather the same exact ones. The worried black rancher (Woody Strode) fearful of losing his livestock in a quarantine-- "he worked for seven years to get that bull!"--is allowed much dignity and concern, so we're slowly climbing up the stereotypes from Best's cowardly manservant to this over-serious humble sobriety... Still a cliche, though, since he and his wife are the first humans to die; his wife's still dumb enough that she blows holes in her own floor and shoots her own hand rather than just sweeping the spiders out the door. That's some rancher. It's also pretty dumb that the white folks decide to go on a picnic after finding the dead black couple lying in the grass covered with arachnid bites. Dumb... typical.


But hey, when a tarantula--with scary library music cues filling the soundtrack--slowly climbs up onto Bolling's desk and into an open desk drawer while she's in the shower, that's when this comes into a greatness all its own, because she finds it she just smiles like she's found a kitten, strokes its hair, then releases it outside. She's like if Jill Banner in SPIDER BABY didn't die but instead went on to get a doctorate in arachnology. I love the way she towers over Shatner, and gently mocks him when he tries to seduce her, while still letting him continue to try. Her reputation amongst the Psychotronic set is well-deserved. I instantly ordered BONNIE'S KIDS after seeing this, and rented TRIANGLE (1970). Bill Shatner earns his cult, too, especially when he does an awesome high-stepping dance to not step on any of the spiders. He sometimes does, of course.  But no hairpieces were harmed during the making of this movie.

2 comments:

  1. Gihdorah is my favorite Godzilla villain (followed closely by Mechagodzilla) but I've yet to watch this first one...I have it sitting next to me waiting to be watched, I'll be reviewing it soon, but Im sure it will be a blast. Ishiro Honda was the best of Godzilla directors. I just posted a review for Mothra vs. Godzilla if your interested.

    Phantasm II is freaking awesome, and in many ways the best in the series. Mainly because Coscarelli got some money to make it and wasnt working on a shoestring budget. Gotta thank Universal for that. Some of the creepiest moments in the whole series are on this one, and so many different spheres show up. I love this one to death, my favorite in the series.

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  2. They’ve been showing “Kingdom of the Spiders” a lot on… AMC, maybe? My wife is a tarantula nut, so we sat through it.

    Shatner is fantastic, the plot is absurd, and the ending is memorable.

    Guilty, guilty pleasure.

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