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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Best of 2017: The Phoenix Scorches the Snake (Year of the Woman)

The age of the Woman has begun and there's no going back. Have they ever? The big Halloween costume pick of 2017 was a true WONDER, directed by a woman, and the best-reviewed film ever on RT is written and directed by a real LADY, and the coolest retro-feminist counter-intuitive mindbender since swingin' 71 was about a WITCH, and produced-wrote-directed-and costume-designed by a woman. Sure, there's been some newly iconic masterpieces made by men this year, but this list will focus on woman-helmed films, or movies with badass chicks in them, and comedy shows (cuz drama's too much a bummer in this unendurably bummer year, so don't wait for me to follow you deep into dystopian oppression. You heard me, MAIDS!) Rejoice, I, a SWM, have affirmed your right to shine. Let the bitter misogynists jeer in frustration from the belly of their mom's basement, blind to the pathetic irony. Ladies, it's your year, and if you find yourself sliding backwards, just ask a man to explain what you should do next, then sacrifice him to Kali.

PS - I finally made it to Judy Chicago's "The Dinner Party" on permanent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Here it was, a mere ten minute walk from my current apartment, and I haven't been... ever. It was a moving, spiritual experience, and clearly the right year for it, as the above rant makes clear. If you're in town, go, man, go... Kali gets a plate. Emily Dickinson gets a plate. Virginia Woolf gets a plate. Gets ain't the right word. They take the plates. This is the year they take all the plates

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig

Neither shying away from the romantic faux pas nor the cool little moments of triumph that come with growing up artsy but confident, here's a Catholic school girl movie that avoids all the tired (albeit necessary) sexual endangerment/obsession we get with all the 'women's coming-of-age' stories (the ones written by dudes). Gerwig allows us clearly autobiographical triumphant sing-outs like the take down of the visiting anti-abortion rally speaker, the brilliant and ridiculous aspects of an after-school drama club, the disillusionment and joy of teen sex. As someone who went to public school and lost my virginity at 17 to a drama club Catholic chorine who insisted on using both a condom and vaginal foam from Planned Parenthood but who is now an anti-abortion zealot, I can vouch that this is right up there with Superstar and at any rate way better than Little Sister or one of those things that seems cobbled together from contemporary lit adult education workshops more than actual life. This feels real, and tells the story, not of some 'average' girl buffeted by the winds of change in her rocky search for the right guy to surrender her freedom to, but of a specific strong-willed young woman, not quite as mature as she acts but totally free of anything resembling a cliche'd trait, a girl for whom the most important thing is not any one boy, but her own dream of going to New York to college instead of one of her local (state-subsidized) California options, despite her domineering-but-loving mother's protests. Lovingly filmed and acted, especially by star Saoirse Ronan, with brilliant vignettes and tiny moments zipping by too fast to stop and praise in any single viewing, its keenly observed connections between family members feels both well rehearsed and totally spontaneous, lived-in, and there's some dynamite sweaters and autumnal colors. It's an amazing achievement that fulfills the halo of stoner grace I saw over Great Gerwig as far back as 2009's Baghead, where she was unfortunately burdened by her inescapable mumblecore cronies, the various Duplasses, Partridges and Swanbergs, and later the self-indulgent and myopic (lately) Noah Baumbach (much as I love Bird I can't stand five minutes of his Gerwig-starred Frances Ha). Sure, Baumbach's ghost influence is to be felt here, but this is Gerwig's Live through This, her Exile in Guyville. It's the writing on the wall outside the gates of Eden, written in the blood of uncored apples.

Written and directed by Anna Biller

The drugs in this amber brew are potent, vibrant and rich, infused with an ingeniously stilted ceremonial acting style; thou cannot help but succumb to the film's cohesive look and sound, its adept deconstruction and Pagan rearrangement of the kind of pre-Quixote romantic Thoth Tarot blueprint for mythologizing reality into delirious love overload. Teen girls smitten with Disney and afternoon soap operas might imagine Love Witch while taking a mid-afternoon nap but never dream it could be a movie. Brechtian dissolution of the 'western eye' and a cohesive, eerily familiar beauty... Wait, is that even a sentence? Why am I getting so relaxed? What's in this flax, flaks... flask? I know now what love is, and it's fucking terrifying, but colorful, and Ennio is there. (See Bell, Book, and Hallucinogenic Tampon)

Directed by Kitty Green

Directed by young Australian auteur Kitty Green, CASTING JONBENET is a true story, on both levels, both the making of a movie about a real-life unsolved murder, and the meta making-of the recreation. Green kept the interviews and screen tests from the auditions by local actors culled from the Ramsey family's Colorado hometown, all with their own tangential connections to the events. The details of story unfold and the sidebars become the main content. Green's not after the truth but the elusive way truth vanishes in telephone game clouds on the horizon. Green trusts us to unpack the massive electric charge inherent in watching an actress audition by performing the mother's real life unconvincing (but possibly real) phone call to 911. Seeing more than one actress try to nail this weird ouroboros strip paradox is to realize an even broader canvas, the mutability of the truth along a mythological axis. Even if we've never heard the actual Ramsey phone call (and we don't within the film, nor do we see any actual images of the actual participants) we know the 'type,' and the child kidnapping/murder is a tabloid boilerplate fastened with adamantine bolts to the mediated public consciousness. Like jazz, the variations are endless but all recognizable as the same tune. (more)

Directed by Patty Jenkins

There's an ingenious long forward momentum sequence about halfway through this film --the camera trailing after Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) and her male escorts as they weave through the empty wastelands of WWI France to the front line trenches, past starving desperate civilians, wounded men, and beaten horses, the filthy trenches, across no-man's land, and into the hail of gunfire from an occupied enemy town. Diana's never really let loose before this moment with all her goddess strength until now when adrenalin and anger triple her capabilities. Flipping over a tank, leaping from roof to roof, she's someone we both identify with and admire through Chris Pine's haunting blue eyes. Her determination to find the literal Aires, God of War, seems at first naive; she presumes he's presiding over the launch of a German poison gas factory (presided over by a disfigured/masked female gas chemist, based on the [maybe] real-life French lesbian chemist who had her formula stolen by Fraulein Doktor) and her man presumes he doesn't exist, but he sure needs her help. And there's a valid point behind her singular focus, coming from a paradise free of men and machinery, the horrifying atrocities we've gone blind to in the interest of disaster triage. While the look, time, and feel indicate that perhaps the CGI crew were borrowing steampunk hard drives from Captain America the First Avenger, this is a whole other thing, gender reversed (with the man here the insider spy and the woman the innocent superbeing). It's worth noting that this is directed by a woman, and as such it avoids countless invisible gender-based subtextual faux pas. And Gadot is gorgeous all get-out, when she smiles which is rarely she lights up the world, but her intelligence and ferocity come first and Pine never dares condescend. We're so used to seeing the old devil sexism come creeping back in the subtext or in the performance (we know from The Mummy how passive-aggressive Tom Cruise would be in that role) but as Pine proved in last year's Hell or High Water, he's a superb actor--even when rocking a masterful German accent-- who knows how to step back and support other actors' big moments and here lets Gadot blazes luminous and unrestrained. With massively large and diverse London crowd and Belgian front crowd scene chaos, cathartic action and character growth, and a score that includes a mix of ripping electric guitars and bottom-dropped-out brass, it's bound for glory - not just a superhero film but a legitimate road marker on both a social and mythopoetic level, and not a single glimpse of our bloated new Bruce Wayne. Praise Athena!

Dir. Agnieszka Smoczynska 

It's a few years old but never released widely here, and so 2017 is its real debut, the year its Criterion Blu-ray released, showing it to everyday America for the first time, and what a gem it is, mostly. With a great look, an elaborately realized nightclub full of green and blue lighting, wove through with tracking shots dazzling enough to evoke Magnolia, Polish provac-auteur Agnieszka Smocynska delivers a knockout feature film debut. In fact, I was going to put it at #1 except for the bummer ending, which--though true to the myth on which its based (a variation of the same source material that gave us The Little Mermaid) leaves a bad feeling in the air. Considering the more progressive resolutions of Frozen and the under-appreciated Maleficent, it feels needlessly punitive, like Stalin kettubg the Warsaw uprising partisans get slaughtered near the end of WW2. Either way, it's got some great songs and a special shout out to Aqua-Man, in an early film appearance!

Dir. Sofia Coppola

An endearingly-awkward mix of stiff period finery, natural/candle light photography,  wildly disparate performance styles, lack of effective musical score (oh for some eerie drones ala There will be Blood), and sloppy editing, Sofia Coppola's Beguiled is reminiscent of late 60s-70s period pieces by Francois Truffaut, where the costumes never quite seem fitted or natural - more like a dress-up masquerade shot off the cuff with no sense of art direction or framing. But hey that's all OK, Coppola has always conjured feelings of being stuck in the 60s nouvelle vague in her Merchant-Ivory-Hal Ashby hybrid style, coaxing a female-perspective novel adaptation from the raw materials of the boy's club around her, not well but wisely. Luckily, here, adapting the source novel more than the Eastwood-Siegel original film, it has what Smoczynska's Lure lacks, a strongly pro-feminist Dogville-style ending, rather than some dumb 'throw your sisterhood under the bus for patriarchally-manipulated love' sacrifice of the sort censors would have demanded in the 50s, or some 'maybe next season' promise of blood-soaked Atwoodian vengeance - it delivers the knockout blow in high time. At 90 minutes, it doesn't linger much longer than the average Corman horror movie. The moral, like some bizarro mirror to Picnic at Hanging Rock: love and sex may soothe the savage beast, but he's still plated on the ladies' table before he gets a second chance to roar. 

6. 68 KILL 
Written and Directed by Trent Haaga

The title is the only bad part of this wild midnight road odyssey of amok feminine carnality, this explores a terrain similar to Scorsese's After Hours or Demme's Something Wild but with far darker streaks of high-octane black humor, tactile druggy trailer park Spring Breakers wild women and Devil's Rejects-style methed-up sidebar freaks, as passive but sweet Chip (Mathew Gray Gubler) is roped by crazy hottie girlfriend Liza (AnnaLynne McCord) into robbing one of her sleazy clients (of $68,000) and going on the lam. It's never that easy of course, turns out she really exults in his death rattles, and soon Chip's on the run with a different girl, his first in hot pursuit, and it just gets darker and more darkly hilarious from there. I can't reveal any of the strangeness in advance as it's better to just roll with its crazy punches, reversals, and vividly etched sex-hungry madwomen - it's got the fuel of a dozen Faster Pussycat Kill Kill and Last Seduction viewings in its system, and evokes Tarantino when he still had darker shoot-from-the-hip noir edges. Haaga got his start writing stuff like Citizen Toxie so you know he knows how to deliver thrills far outside the morality-taste spectrum that so ensnares his fellows and despite its filthy darkness, 68 Kill keeps a fun summery feel (it's shot on 35mm or has a great cinematographer, or both) and a bravura turn by  Sheila Vand (the lead in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) as the psychotic gravel-voiced emo bitch Monica, and Alisha Boe as the sweet but equally psychotic Violet.

Dir Rupert Sanders

Too often these days 'flash mob opinion' seems to so warp the actual film we can no longer see said film as itself, it's tainted. Hopefully not forever. In this case it's the damning label of whitewashing in the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major, a character who started life as a Japanese anime. Too bad the admittedly-valid cause picked this one to make a stand in, as it's the most underrated and appreciated film of the year, and way shorter than Blade Runner 2050. To avoid any residual guilt over this issue while watching, see it on a Blu-ray with a Japanese dub language track and English subtitles. Hearing a Japanese actress speaking from inside ScarJo's shell will likely make all the difference, and fit the thematic subtextuality with a poetic eloquence unnoticed otherwise. At any rate, it shouldn't be such a pariah for doing what every other mainstream Hollywood film has ever done, cuz it's fuckin' amazing. And there's the best nurturing friend relationship between a hotshot hottie detective and her coterie of tough men cops since Stendahl fucking Syndrome! (full)
OK - Women Section over, with a vengeance - come down in the basement to hang with the boys and the mounted deer antlers.

Dir. Christopher Nolan

The fusion of Christopher Nolan's three-tier approach (sky - three Spitfire Hurricanes shooting down the Luftwaffe), the boys trying to get back to Britain, and the captain of the small boat on his way to pick up some lads while Hans Zimmer's propulsive minimalist drum and eerie industrial drone score is like one long slow build up to mounting dread that compiles disaster upon disaster. Zimmer's score especially makes the movie cohesive, foregoing all the usual pitfalls (one shudders to think the pompous, anthemic drivel John Williams would have brought), going for a thumping relentless heartbeat industrial drones that seem to fuse with the rivets of the boat hulls and the terrible thuds of bombs and torpedoes. In a weirdly elliptical time unit around a single day-night period - the momentum is relentless tick-tocking forward with wild sights and sounds -- the thickening metallic thud of bullets and torpedoes against steel hulls, camera bobbing in the flaming oil-slicked waves while troopers swim desperately towards one torpedoed ship only to find it's already capsized from an arial bomb before they're all the way there. Nolan's eye for putting us deep in the thick of the action makes it a triumphant love for big rippling sound you can feel in your belly and above all the idea that--even in the throngs of desperate men, in hundreds of thousands of evacuees--the beach still dwarfs them all, the way flying the channel in a Sptifire is just like fishing in a vast blue mostly empty ocean, with all the few other fish shooting guns at you, and every encounter likely to be either your or someone else's very last, and the way life-or-death choices have to be made in the moment- a pilot dooming himself to capture by choosing to run out of gas on the French side in order to save a barge loaded with British and French wounded, or the way the best and worst in each of us can be brought out, organically, in the same hour, kinetically, right on top of the other--using a stretcher as an excuse to force your way through the crowded dock to get on a red cross ship, sneaking under the dock and crawling onto the hull and in on a lower level when that plan doesn't work, and then the ship is torpedoed a mile or two out from shore, and back you go, if you're lucky. All set to the tribal but austere, relentless percussion and droned of the score of the year. Nolan edits on the military ratatatat beat so well you wonder what regiment he served in. And of course, you realize something about your own self in wartime, and the way heroes are not made, or born, but shot.

Dir. Jordan Peele

When white writers and filmmakers try to voice the African-American experience we run into one of two thorny morasses at the end of two distinct paths, in the first we fantasize--seeing being black as a kind of freedom and increase in soul power, cool, confidence, and badass gravitas (ala Tarantino) and wind up in the morass of black intellectual backlash; in the other we solemnly celebrate some idealized portrait of the noble, spiritual blackness triumphing over racism and sashaying forth into a sunnier tomorrow (ala Stanley Kramer) and wind up in the morass of boredom (via Oscar). In each we're objectifying and simplifying our perceptions in ways that make us feel freer or self-congratulatory, positing our own sense of superiority in each instance in ways we're mostly blind to. In Get Out, Jordan Peele shows us how liberal whites look to a black eye when trying either of these strategies and in the process we're compelled to admire the way the black spirit endures even being expected to seem grateful for white attention to white racism. You can feel this movie coming together years ago during some similar weekends Jordan Peele spent meeting his Italian-American girlfriend's parents for the first time, and dealing with a kind of smiling oblique racism, where his blackness is as a flag no liberal can allow to pass unsaluted while at the same time leading to undoubted tension along the old school Spike Lee pizza parlor lines.

So it's keenly observed, and relatively new territory, for in Get Out racial identification erupts as a side effect, not as a direct focus. The conceivably objectionable idea of garden variety racism (i.e. a black man is sleeping with your hot young white daughters, doesn't that bother you?) is hardly broached at all here. We begin the film well past that, and before us loom a whole new set of hurtles. This isn't a movie about the white experience of blackness but a movie about the black experience of the white experience of blackness being experienced by affluent, liberal white people. It's that double meta-shift that makes the difference. Here the lead's blackness is not seen as some abomination or litmus test for white liberal acceptance but something far less obvious and more relatable and sympathetic. Not unlike Ray Milland grafted to Rosie Grier in The Thing with Two Heads, the overall message is that we can't ever possibly separate, we're merged and the only way to keep our heads on our own bodies is to gang up on terrorists, or North Korea, or in my personal Maryland camping experience from the early 80s, the Goatman.

As with his Comedy Central show, Key and Peele, the insight stems having a white mom and seeing the black-white divide from a perspective that's not quite all the way either one, coupled to a horror fan's familiarity with the way paranoia erupts from small, every day social occurrences and the way canny groups can obscure their evil actions by conforming them to the phantasmic outlines of everyday social paranoia. With Allison Williams (light years cooler than her character on Girls) rocking what are easily the sexiest bangs since Eleanor Friedberger or Chrissie Hynde and this is first time ever where a TSA agent named Rod (Lil Rel Howery) gets to be the good guy/cavalry --a tougher, more paranoid Arbogast / Dick Hallorann buddy initially assigned to just dog sit and provide phone call reassurance, he becomes the lifeline of all time, making us re-evaluate the TSA and our perceived indignities going though their airport checkpoints (where white people get a taste of what life as a black man is like).

Dir G.J. Echternkamp

This movie saved my life back in January when I was in the midst of a Trump-fueled alcoholic relapse. I came to it in despair, and in my despair it found fuel for a catharsis, and lo, I was reborn in the bloody joy that's always there at the core of our fucked-up nation. No matter if it's the food co-op co-op board protesting the political affiliations of their soy distributor, or the NASCAR beer-necks running up the sails, our great American craft of madness will find some fertile breeze to blow it. And then we'll set in on fire.

Evoking the great edgy fun pro-feminist approach of Corman slap-dash jobs of the past, this puts the man back into in the big leagues of the emerging realms of low-budget green-screen hipster sci-fi genre pastiche, ala John Dies at the End, Bounty Killer and Iron Sky. Don't even try to question why this kind of crunch car smash surreal green screen zip feels more real than most of Hollywood's gritty busters, that's just 'the future' talking and you're already in it. I bet even now, there's a difference between how you see yourself in your mind's eye (and the mirror with good lighting), and in a selfie. Don't listen to that selfie, son or daughter. Know that you look like everyone else in the rooms of your nearest beginner AA group, not some spectacular bleary-eyed butterfly. Floor it on through the illusions, jump that uncanny valley and fear no hard landing future, left or right, of the dial. Even if the next crunch you hear is your own hard candy coat cracking, thou wert only ever pixels. (full)



Everything from

You can argue all you want, superhero movies are the shit right now. You can't compare them even to the original comics, or any other adaptations --Marvel, especially, in particular the MCU (which is all of a piece and different than the universe occupied by the X-Men or the one with the apes). They are the truly enduring myths of our meta moment, especially for the alienated boys of the world, and the cooler women. Soaring with high concept wit but lacking the self-serious posturing of DC, Marvel hits every base required of great Jungian myth and do so with quips and succinct no-BS dialogue that make all competitors melt away. This year saw, finally, a good Spiderman movie, a hilarious Thor movie and a damn solid Guardians of the Galaxy. Marvel is so hot right now they could even do a woman-helmed movie with someone other than ScarJo or the Scarlet Witch. What about She Hulk!??? Take a chance Marvel, give the Scarlets a rest and go green...

There's a moment in WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES where the main gorilla guy looks down at the captured human prisoners and his face has such an exact and miraculous mix of gorilla expressions met with human inquisitiveness, malice, curiosity, fear, and anger, it's like we're seeing the next stage in human evolution, the Uncanny Valley crossed, via a hidden rope bridge, via Darwin, with the profound bizarro force equivalent to when the first ape touched that black monolith all those years ago. Mark my words, history was made in that gorilla glance. The valley bridge shall soon be opened.


Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino
Amazon Prime

The quality of this eight part series is so high, the tracking shots and crowd scenes so sublime and intricate that the whole thing swirls with a high mix of Coen Bros Inside Llewyn Davis, and AMC's Mad Men, and all the loving recreations of the late 50s-early 60s era, when Lenny Bruce was getting arrested for using charged language. Every last dust speck of the Bleeker Street record stores and clubs are lovingly recreated, but unlike similar fetishist art director-cum-auteurs like Todd Haynes, Maisel's narrative line is never inert but instead flows like beautiful river. The violence is nil, the Big Life Lessons non, the laughs earned, the trauma naught, the charm high, the wit razor-sharp, the clothes heavenly, the lead actress Rachel Brosnahan staggeringly beautiful and talented. In her flawless dark red outfits, eyes alight with that distinctly NYC woman character that overflows the borders of gender prescription in such a way there's no stopping her, and though it's all very theatrical there's no musical numbers, unless you count classic period songs set to tracking shots so well choreographed they create something like a joyous earthy version of Kubrick. Even the pisher husband is sympathetic--to an extent-- and looks good without a shirt. The problems are all humorous without being overly-simplified yet it's not so subtle you struggle for meaning. It's so tight, from the interweaving camera that glides along through elaborate but seemingly breezy crowd scenes with the grace and panache of Midge herself, there's not a moment of dead space in the entirety of its season. Whatever all that other shit was trying to do, it's done right here.

BROAD CITY (season 4)
Created by Abby Jacobson and Ilana Glazer 
Comedy Central

Yo, these girls have electric comedic crackerjack chemistry, timing, and wit they crack open the borders of women in comedy and jab a giant stick through the eye of the basement trolls tweeting that women aren't funny. They may sometimes get roped into falling into some familiar sitcom-ish barrels, but overall they're the only ones to nail what so many 'young single ladies living just enough for the city'-shows try for - the type of girls who bite the big apple with the force of a steel trap, right through the core and out the other side, free of all liens, materialism and encumbrances. Whether howling with the witches in central park (including Diane Keaton) or shrooming through the West Village (some hilarious wiggling pop art animation), this was their year. They mostly got rid of one unbearably hammy roommate, now there's just one more who overplays and sends it all into a spiral only Billy Eichner could undo, but he was on Difficult People, so you'd need Hulu.

BIG MOUTH - episode 2 "Everybody Bleeds"

One of the genius touches of this animated Netflix series is to have the emerging male libido appear to young puberty-stricken Westchester Jewish boys as a furry but friendly monster, a mix of Looney Tunes lion, Will Arnett, and one of Sendak's wild thing.  Episode 2 goes one better: the girl version, voiced by Maya Rudolph, suddenly erupts with the first menstrual blood of the lead girl, and it's a truly thunderous and terrific moment. We can feel this smart young girl's sense of self, her power and pain widening to encompass her sudden mix of pain, shame, confusion, anger, and then flow past her own bedroom in a primal cry that mom heeds on instinct only to be shut down brutally. Rudolph invests the voice with such from-the-hips force as she sweeps through her charge's bedroom, throwing out the tomboy baseball glove and declaring that now is the time to "listen to Lana del Rey on repeat while you cut up your T-shirts!" You feel the parameters of social acceptance for frank discussion of menstruation and bodily female changes erupt into public acceptance with a devastating primal scream that shatters and widens social reality itself. The feminine use of temporary raging insanity as a defense against the mood-crushing inescapability of menstruation is made tangible to even the most cliched macho dumbass. What's done cannot be undone. Also, Jordan Peele plays the ghost of Duke Ellington, counseling a possibly gay kid on the pansexual liberation in the jazz age; I forget if he mentions Billy Strayhorn, but does he really have to for this to get eighty stars?

Cartoon Network

In a way I guess I'm lucky that my relative age-related social marginalization led me to not learning about RICK AND MORTY until the third season as I would have gone crazy waiting over two years for a new one to happen, with the first two seasons being only 10 or 11 eps each. Now it's all over and I have no choice but to deep freeze myself until season four finally arrives, presumably in 2020 or later. I'm already scratching my arms and wild-eyed grasping. I can't go on. I can only endeavor to forget. Isn't that, really, what 2017 was all about? The remorse of knowing our sci-fi ecstasy may well be behind us, thanks to a news channel more cruelly insidious than Goebbels and Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines combined?

The world is two separate paradigms now, depending on whether you watch Fox or MSNBC, or CNN or whatever else. One side still valiantly labors to keep facts straight and raise the alarm, the other preys upon the fault lines of paranoid white male consciousness until fissures erupt. When the president gets his briefings from the latter, we're truly in trouble. We may soon have no choice, change the channel and bask in the warm allure of denial, or go mad from the sluggish pace of clarity. Luckily, there's no hiding place better than the screen, and its accessible to all. God bless and deliver Robert Osborne to the heaven he so deserves, for he led us to ours.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Angels of Death V: Girl Mummies

Sitting here in the tomb that is my office building on the day before Thanksgiving (luckily we're getting out early), I'm reminded of mummy bitches... in tombs... and how excited I was to see the new MUMMY was going to be a girl, i.e. maybe another semi-adaptation of Bram Stoker's 1903 novella JEWEL OF THE SEVEN STARS. Adapted several times to less or more effect by everyone from Hammer to downtown NYC hipster Michael Almereyda, it's a ripping, cozy little Victorian bit of proto-feminist spiritualism, postulating an ancient evil priestess whose soul travels the cosmos and is planning to return in a new body when the 'seven stars' of the Big Dipper align in accordance with a mystic jewel on a ring on her severed mummified yet perfectly preserved hand. Though the new movie isn't really based on it, there's some carryover in the crypto-Egyptian spiritualist reincarnation/speculation, and of course the idea of a girl mummy high priestess coming back from her astral travels to destroy the world in her own immortal, ancient-but-forever young-looking image. 

Too bad they had to shoehorn in a certain aging male.

A major flop, this MUMMY will surely cast the blame for its failure on the idea of a girl mummy villain, rather than on its rightful target, Tom Cruise's wearying vanity, but I hope not. And I hope in general for more badass ancient sexy goddesses who are beyond good and evil due to their vast expanse travels and epoch-spanning existence, who view mortal life the way we might view dandelions or insects. They may fall into 'villain' categories, but you can't call them evil. They're just themselves. They're of their time. Their life force, being eternal, transcends our ordinary concepts of time, space, and duality. We cannot judge them anymore than a turkey can judge us for not honoring its sacrifice as we sit down to devour it on Thanksgiving; or anymore than the ghosts of the long-slain Native Americans who once kept our ancestors from winter starvation by bringing them corn judge us in our blind adherence to our 'family' tradition. Soon we'll all be in the same place anyway, we'll all return to ashes and become as the stardust in the wind, but these mummy broads will still be around, a coherence of energy no epoch's tedium can diminish. 

 Sofia Boutella as Ahmanet
(2017) Dir Alex Kurtzman
**  / **1/2

If you look past the rubble of collective abuse heaped on this year's MUMMY and see it with your expectations lowered and your buzz nice, therein you may find a true treasure in the form of lithe Algerian dancer/actress Sofia Boutella. As the title role, Ahmanet, she's a warrior mummy priestess assassin who (in the prologue), kills the pharaoh's wife's baby (as was the style of the time), and is mummified alive in an unmarked tomb for daring to love too much. Thousands of odd years later, Ahmanet's still far from down and out, tracing the seams in the fabric of time and space she's got just the right sky cult-brainwashed figurehead A-lister to exhume her and see her safely ferried across the channel to jolly England. Along the way all sorts of 3-D ready excitement materializes, the best of which are a vast murder of CGI crow ripping through the plane windshield and a great sandstorm made of crushed London window glass whooshing down the city streets, bouncing off the buildings like the sides of a giant whooshing bong. Required to convey great reams of unholy ancient power with little more than an arched back and determined half-smile, Boutella's Ahmanet is so cool even Russell Crowe as a burly Jekyll-Hyde-cum-Allan Quatermass seems rawther anemic and tediously patriarchal by contrast. 
There's never a doubt in our minds who amongst the whole dreary lot is the most sympathetic, no matter how many innocent people she kills. 

And if Crowe's coming off bad, you can only imagine how Cruise--ever determined to appear waggish--fares. Endangering his friends via unsanctioned tomb plundering while essentially working for the US Army (or Halliburton, or whatever), there's a certain amount of heroism inherent in plundering ancient sites for posterity and sales to museums minutes ahead of idol-smashing ISIS, or that strange and all-powerful conglomerate Russell is heading. 

Yeah, Russell is the head of an MI6 archeologist division who keeps all the fun stuff from the public, and as a result there's a lot of serious overestimating audience patience with being insulted: are we really supposed to root for an organization who keeps the truth about monsters from the monster-starved public? At a certain point avoiding panic becomes choking off the true wonder of the world at its root --keeping us in a monsterless dark ages. With a decent rewrite, this aspect could be explored in counterweight to the ISIS relic smashing frenzy --each determined to prune off any evidence of a world outside their own narrow definition of reality--and maybe it was there once, but it's long subsumed under the massive weight of Cruise's white dwarf-dense ego. His clear uneasiness in playing 'light' action comedy makes it all kind of seasick in its moral swaying. Tom's overwhelming narcissism tempered to the right role (as in MAGNOLIA, TROPIC THUNDER) can be magnificent but how often are his diamond characters flawed to the point of cracking apart rather than merely bedecked with some slight scratch of 'cockiness' some poorly-written female is sure she can buff to a like-new sparkle?  

I'm no fan of the 90s MUMMY films (the 1999 'remake' and its sequels), but I respect their good-natured goofiness, their complicated, romantically-bereft villain, and that Rock Hudson-meets-Jim Belushi of the Middle East, Brendan Frazier. A big lovable slobbery sheep dog, Frazier doesn't need to be adored in the compulsive insecure perennially self-flagellating way of Napoleonic terriers. Cruise needs to see women wanting him more than he wants women themselves, and we can sense that shit a mile off by now. 

In this MUMMY there's actually two women hungering for Tom, one (Annabelle Wallis) is the requisite Michael Bay-style 'cool' working woman, an archeologist in tight fetishized 'safari gear' who wishes he'd take things seriously (Wally Ford in THE MUMMMY'S HAND seem stoic in contrast to Cruise's stilted ambivalence), and the other is Boutella's Ahmanet, who has can create sandstorms out of broken glass and murders of crows to fly into plane windshields from the safety of her sarcophagus. Also, uh, she can re-animate the dead and keep Tom young for all eternity--if he's not already--and what's more she's well acted--not hammily--by the Algerian-born dancer/actress Sofia Boutella.

There's no comparison, Boutella wins every contest except for the the 'swallowing colonialist patriarchal morality dogma' challenge, but from a mile off it's easy to guess who Tom ends up with. Since chunks in the middle were good enough that it wouldn't receive such a razzing if not for leaving audiences really irritated by a protracted stilted awful final act, I knew to stop watching right after the part of the climax wherein it looks like Tom's going to willingly die on the altar of his beloved's ceremonial dagger and then reincarnate as his ageless, deathless, immortal self in order to 'live' cosmically ever after. The scene where he's trying to decide which girl to go with takes forever, so there's plenty of time to get up and press stop or to FF and scroll up to the credits and pretend it ends with the destruction of the world. Do that and it's **1/2 rather than **. And really, two stars are only because of the way Boutella arches her back and works that Mona Lisa smile while she generates her plagues and murderous magic.

One day, please lord, let a lady mummy win a hand!

And lastly, Tom, if you're so desperate to appear an 'ageless male' that you need to be seen saying no to immortal beings who want to grant you eternal youth, and who control the weather, may I suggest you say it to your 'handler' next time? I'm sure the ghost of Captain Ron will be most amused at your independence, considering how you're so stuck on the hamster wheel of male vanity. Can't you hear the cruel echo of Satanic laughter accompanying the film's 'bomb' stature?

But I didn't write all this to bash Tom. I wrote it to praise Boutella, who wins our loyalty almost as fervently as when she played Jaylah in STAR TREK BEYOND (left). An alien with white skin and black tribal cat markings, scrabbling for survival in a world occupied by the ISIS-ishmaniac Krall (Idris Elba) and his vast marauding army, she's made a home in an invisibility shield-protected ancient starship, into which she welcomes the hearty Enterprise crew, forming a nicely platonic bond with Mr. Scott, and proudly blasting her "loud beats and screaming" from an old boom box. The imperious way she kicks back in the captain's chair, and doesn't surrender it to Kirk until she has some other mission to perform gives us a chance to see the way a real man handles a potentially emasculating moment (Cruise would have demanded such a moment be edited out). That this is all kept in BEYOND makes Jaylah, in my book, the saving grace of the film, which suffers from a number of bad cosmetic choices, such as Spock's terrible Beatles' wig, the CGI-bearing make-up washed-out HD video look, the tacky pink alien heads, and an overt similarity in villain and in 'good' city to GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

Boutella is a dancer who doesn't move like most dancers who act in movies --she's weaned herself off that exaggerated way some dancers move, with their head moving first and the rest of their body following in a kind of exaggerated serpentine sway, ending with pendulum hips the bob up and down to some unseen sound wave. She moves instead with an extraordinary blend of carnal rock swagger, gravitational grace, and disarming earnestness. She acts not just with her whole body  (over overact, as most dancers do) but with everything else as well --she's fully present. There's no impression of her attempting to move how dancers are supposed to (in the way there's an impression of a 'leading man' from Tom -a sign of sociopathy that made him perfect in MISSION IMPOSSIBLE series) and as such makes an ideal incarnate of ultimate evil or scraapy good. The MUMMY people call her ultimate evil but I prefer what Corbeck (James Villers) says of the Ahmanet-like Tara in Hammer's BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY'S TOMB: Tera is far beyond the laws and dogma of her time -- and of ours!”  In the words of the brazen Mr. Subtlety,
Writer Christopher Wicking somewhat craftily universalizes the lingering doubts Stoker’s characters had in the absolute correctness of their beliefs, to go beyond the cultural into the philosophical. “ the villainous Corbeck says. “Beyond good and evil?” asks Margaret. “Love, hate. She’s a law beyond good and evil, and if we could find out how far beyond… how much we can learn.” There’s a certain moral horror there, a sudden, gut-wrenching shift that occurs when the stable ground suddenly and jarringly moves beneath you, destroying your illusions of a constant, comforting reality. The characters can hardly deny that maybe this five-thousand-year-old magical spirit might know better than they do. Who are they to call her “evil” when her understanding of the universe is clearly so much more profound than theirs? 

Valerie Leon as Margaret/Tera
(1971) ***1/2

The first time I saw this I fell madly in love with Valerie Leon. It also helped that I'd just read Bram Stoker's novella--The Jewel of the Seven Stars-- not knowing the film was actually based on said novella until about half-way through, and since the story is all deja vu and murderous spirits embodying beautiful women rising from the ashes to kill those who dared desecrate her tomb, et al, it was a perfect meta moment for me - what are the odds after all, that I'd read a super obscure Stoker story right before seeing this relatively obscure Hammer film? Just as it appears that Queen Tera 'chose' archeologist Andrew Keir to discover her tomb since his then-unborn daughter Leon is her reincarnated self, thus ensuring her tomb accoutrements be at hand when the 'seven stars' are aligned as depicted in her magic ring, so I was predestined to read Stoker's Jewel and then turn on TCM and there's some mummy movie with a story that seems awfully familiar. What are the odds, especially when the story itself is about such carefully wrought cosmic coincidences?  Just as Margaret happens to  have been given the Jewel of the Seven Stars on the proper birthday for her to be inhabited by the ancient mummy who just happens to look identical to her, so too do I just to see bask in her rock and roll-meets-Emma Peel swagger, the way her presence so intimidates and terrorizes a legion of British character actors fumbling through old age. "It was her--as large as life," with the ring "she who has no name." And that she has a cool gay evil bestie in the form of James Villers, a swaggering aesthete who'd be right at home blackmailing Oscar Wilde after hooking him up with fancy boys at tea parties where the porcelain cups are just right.

If all that 'you have to die to live forever' jazz seems confusing it's likely the result of the Egyptology's widespread study in Victorian England, a craze climaxing with the King Tut's tomb discovery in 1922.

In ancient Egyptian belief, according to the Smithsonian:
The idea of "spirit" was complex involving really three spirits: the ka, ba, and akh. The ka, a "double" of the person, would remain in the tomb and needed the offerings and objects there. The ba, or "soul", was free to fly out of the tomb and return to it. And it was the akh, perhaps translated as "spirit", which had to travel through the Underworld to the Final Judgment and entrance to the Afterlife. To the Egyptian, all three were essential
So in this case, Tera wants to clear out the previous ba (Margaret's body) and akh of their new ka and move their own akh, and ba into it. Margaret would simply disappear, kicked to the ka curb. To achieve this goal, Tera needs her tomb objects (which Keir deliberately gave to various expedition members to keep separate, much like Set hiding the body parts of Osiris from Isis). The possessed Leon visits each expedition member and kills them in a flurry of close-ups and wind effects to gradually get it all together. It's pretty grand watching Tera/Margaret sweep through the Hammer sets, her long fashionable nightgown or purple overcoat billowing out of the broken windows with the curtains and glass shards, her black choker over alabaster neck, and gorgeous un-augmented, womanly body (the type of sex symbol all but gone from today's marquee). Her assured gutsy diction and voice (1) and the sly way she underplays recklessly in a double role, with that sexy imperiousness when she pretends to be or is Queen Tera, and those sleepy, drowsy bedroom eyes. Just look at that awesomely haughty ambivalence in her eyes above! She could be watching us slowly drown, disrobe, or plead for mercy, it's all the same. As Margaret later notes, to Tera they're all just dust in the wind.

It all fits, like Leon's insanely perfect black nightgown (and a later pink one); it fits that hers is the only woman role in the cast (aside from a museum assistant and an older woman psychic) and the rest are all terrified middle aged British actors of no small talent or stature, ripping into the material that's still as ageless and only slightly moldy as it was a century ago, all cowed by this young beauty and the ancient beautiful 'beyond good and evil' force swelling within her. Only Villers' swaggering Corbeck, Tera/Margert's gay best friend right hand aesthete (of the Rupert Everett in MY BEST FRIEND'S WEDDING variety). As important in the badass femme posse as a cat, he
'gets' her needs, and the way she oscillates between Tera and Margaret which is far more complexly cross-hatched than merely an either/or - it's gradual, sometimes she can't tell which is which, as when she plays at being Tera to get the snake statue in the asylum, but is she just playing or not? We can never tell, until the moment when Tera leaves her as she is about to reincarnate and Corbeck is reading the scroll of the dead and suddenly Margaret realizes she and her father are destined for the dust bin and then it becomes a battle between the Leons, what was a strong guiding force in Margaret is now leaving to inhabit Tera, whose ba and ka are sucking the akh (previously belonging to Tera) out of Margaret and leaving her, in a sense, akhless.

Allison Elliott as Nora/Niamh
(1998) Dir. Michael Amereyda
Blood from the Mummy's Tomb offers a more faithful interpretation to Stoker's novel, i.e. the Egyptian version of the ancient magical super woman who looks just like some innocent young daughter of the man who discovered her tomb (and surely was 'guided' from beyond by her spirit). Super sexy in pale skin and black velvet choker, Valerie Leon remains the primary reason to see it (I've seen it at least ten times). Visiting all the exhuming archeologists one-by-one to kill them for their pieces of the reincarnate puzzle, Leon gets to play three types: archeologist's timid daughter, homicidal swinging mod with telekinetic skills, and ruthless Egyptian queen. But in all other points, The Eternal is the Stoker mummy movie to beat and sadly Almereyda's last horror feature, so far.

The 1990s had already seen one trippy European bog mummy film, this with a male shaman with some still active 'flybane' mushrooms in his pocket reincarnated as a rabid nymphomaniacal Communist with one spoon in her lover's brain (See The Ancient She-Shaman and her Shrooming Exhumer). But the frothing at the mouth stylizations of Zulawski are hard to sink into as a genre horror film and the rote 'innocent girl possessed by an executed, entombed or defiled soul for its methodic revenge' thing of Hammer a hard rut to get out of. Almereyda mixes the two just right: there's enough druggie downtown acumen to make it decent company next to Jarmusch and Abel Ferrara, and enough wry nods to the classics to fit next to Freund, Hammer, and Lewton. I don't have to read a Wiki to know Almereyda is a true blue classic horror film lover, for The Eternal pulses with the found value rhythms of Ulmer, the town-and-country seethings of Hammer, and the murk of the moody Browning. Even the deadpan macabre wit of Whale flows through in a steady bucket trickle. If you know these names, Almeyreda's Eternal is the film for you, Johnny-O. Ignore the bad RT and imdb scores. What do they know about the ancient gems, severed hands, or Iron Age moral compromises? 

In my old review, looking it over (here), I realize how off-track I got bemoaning its lack of exposure/distribution due to, in my opinion, a terribly bland overused title and shabby cover art that makes it look like a washed-out softcore J-horror SOV waste of time. I only found it through researching Almereyda's imdb page  after basking in the glory of Nadja, rather belatedly. But after another recent viewing I feel ready to get into the amazing qualities of Alison Elliot's low-key double performance - coming out of the long sleep as as Niamh the bog mummy she's both cruelly homicidal and sexually starved. She stabs Walken while making out with him, eyeing his death throes with the dispassion of someone watching TV. Clad in a beguiling dark red robe, her hair flowing wet and wild, she's quite a vision and her carnal open-mouthed wordless needy eyes towards her counterpart's husband Jim (Jared Harris), who bounces around the place like a cool hipster. Even realizing his son might not be his can't keep the bounce out of his step (we learn too he has no job, living off Nora's inheritance, so of course he's fancy free, but at any rate seems a good father and the new of the son not being his doesn't translate to less affection to the owlish ginger he calls sonny boy. It's natural then that the climax involves Niamh grabbing the son and holding him hostage in the basement. How does Jared try to free him, of course by being friendly and offering her the whiskey bottle. Soon they're dancing together and we start to like her more than we like either Nora nor Jim, so that his betrayal really stings. 

After all, it's not her fault - except for that Uncle Billl (Walken) found her body down in the basement, and Nora's increasing headaches are the cause of Niamh either becoming her or sucking up her akh. We don't blame Niamh though. When discussing--as Corbeck and Margaret did in Blood from the Mummy's Tomb--whether Niamh was good or evil, Bill notes:  "She was uncontrollably herself."It was the Iron Age -- you had to a do lot of nasty things to get by." Even after all the death and chaos she wreaks we realize this is excusable because of this 'beyond good and evil' truth. Though as a druid her ways and traditions are far less chronicled (2), the power is undeniable and though we may fall under the bedroom eyed sway of dreamy Niamh, we have to ultimately side with the generic composition of the nuclear family. Right or wrong, it's modern linear time, and whoever its real father might be, we're stuck in it.  (full review here)

Meredith Baxter as Rena / Bast
(1974-TVM) Dir. Curtis Harington 
Similar in some respects, CAT CREATURE divides the line between Lewton and Stoker's source text in telling the tale of a mummy chick brought to life when an imprisoning amulet is removed. Classic horror godsend Curtis Harington populates the cast with enough familiar faces that you know he's referencing this stuff deliberately. Though just a short, cheap little shocker it flows with a special Lewton-esque sensitivity, especially when dealing with Baxter as the 'new girl' at the spooky Satanic bookshop. The film picks up on her subdued low-key vibe, the innocent girl at her small time job not knowing anyone in the city, making her first friend in an archeologist helping the cops, she makes you want to put a shawl over her and take her walking in the park as the magic hour fades to night. Like all the mummy women, she's beyond good and evil, but like them as well, it's inevitable that her love cannot stand in a  world void of tolerance for senseless killing (full review: here)

1. Virginia Christine - as Ananka / Amina
(1944) ***
Accessing some pulpy core of dream poetry almost like striking a secret pocket of oil, the film manages to evoke nocturnal contrasts between cheery warmth (the opening scene in Tante Berthe's homey little tavern) and darkness (the ruined abbey climax), not unlike the mix of Dante's, the Italian restaurant vs. the chilly Satanist salon in Val Lewton's Seventh Victim. The acting isn't great, except by a weird few, again almost by accident: as Kharis, Lon Chaney, who gives a small master class in how to act a role with just your eyes and one bandaged arm; Peter Coe's weirdly silken vacuousness as the requisite fez wearing high priest would be bad in a normal film but here serves the hypnotic spells fairly well (all great hypnotists must be able to be very, very, boring); and best of all, Virginia Christine in a dual role/kinda of mummified Princess Ananka and her own (later?) reincarnation, Amina. I love her. Rise, Amina, I mean Ananka, rise!

Her acting is understandably uneven as the role is impossible --a hybrid of so many script glitches there's no way to play it except as hot amnesiac. For you following along at home: Amina was a current time period archeological assistant from the previous film in the series, The Mummy's Ghost. In that film's climax, Kharis carried Amina into the swamp as he recognized her as the reincarnation of his lost Ananka, but rather than be rescued last minute (and staying young and mortal) she's 'turned' somehow by his touch and begins to age into a mummy herself, all without explanation, which seems rather unfair. Why reincarnate at all if an old flame can just yank you back into your old mummy form the minute he decides to shamble into town?

The last in the series, CURSE is different. This is her story more than Kharis's. We see her first as a figure emerging from the dried mud at the bottom of a claw loader scoop hole during a swamp drainage project: it's as if she's coming out of a claay mould, her face almost like a half-formed clay sculpture come to life. She arises, caked in dirt but clearly loving feel the touch of the sun, like a flower rising from the soil. The sun high in the sky beams down at her, Ra-like and she staggers along looking for some water to wash the crap off. We've been there, we city-folk, pulling ourselves off the floor after what seems like a 25 year black-out, weaving home from the party of the night before, warmed by the afternoon sun, still in our filth-encrusted party clothes, walking through the morning commuters like a phantom. And wait, weren't we in the New England bog last night? How did we wake up down in Louisiana, 25 years later? And why are the workmen saying it's time to quit for the day and go home when the blazing sun is still high in the noonday sky? No wonder the foreman is stressed.

Then begins Amina/Ananka's odyssey of somnambulistic drifting. Cajun Joe, who just left his bulldozer back where she came out of the mud, now spots her while walking home (he must have got lost - again it makes no sense as he should be home by now, considering how clean she's made herself via a small puddle) and takes her to Tante Berthe's cafe as she will know what to do (she's probably a midwife as well as saloonkeeper). Sweet Berthe puts this amnesiac hottie (with very modern Bettie Page bangs) to bed but almost immediately the mummy bursts in and kills poor Berthe like some slow-mo one-armed strangler ex-husband, jealous even of the older woman caregiver. Terrified. Ananka runs off into the swamps again, and the killing and stalking goes on. In the best section she's rescued by the archeologists in the area and we see her basking in the sun doing research via microscope looking at old recovered artifacts from her previous epoch, her first hand memories wowing the men in her group. She could find a nice niche (even though the men would probably get all the credit for her finds) but the mummy always shows up like that abusive stalker ex, killing anyone who tries to protect her or impede his progress. It's sad but one can hardly feel too sorry for a person who can't escape a one-armed shambling strangler. It's just Darwin at work, baby.

On the surface, there doesn't seem to be much thought put into Curse at all, yet it manages to use its limitations and stupidity to craft uncanny dream-logic that puts it in the same twilight realms occupied by Carnival of Souls and Dementia. It's unusual to see people basically killed for being good samaritans, something that makes us feel the murders more than usual for these sorts of films (ala Lewton's Leopard Man from the previous year). The first female victim, Berthe, is loved by everyone in her corner of the bayou, so when she's killed for trying to protect Ananka, that really kicks in a sense of tragedy to this saga, with the foreigner Egyptian conspirators giving off an air of domestic terrorism. Why command Kharis to kill indiscriminately if not for some ancient cult zealotry and impersonal hatred against first world capitalism and Christian decency?

What gives the film it its real alchemical magic are the weirdly modern bangs, posh accent, confidence and cat woman litheness of Virginia Christine as Ananka. A colorful Italian local in the bayou notes "it's been-a 25 years since a mummy drag a girl in the swamp." But what girl? The last film was only made the year before where she was just an archeologist named Amina and played by a different actress. This time we're compelled to gaze deep onto those modern bangs and wonder: is Amina the reincarnated mummy expert or a mummy herself? Or can she be both?

There is no real answer so we're better off trusting that it 'feels right' and that's what dream logic is all about. And Christine is great at splitting the difference ("its like I was two different people... two different worlds.").

Bearing out the split/subject aspect is the similarly coiffed and tempered Kay Linaker as the drainage project foreman's understanding assistant. 100% 20th century, she's the 'lucky' girl who winds up with the leaden lead, Dennis Moore. Amina meanwhile reverts to the bandaged dead Ananka as soon as her head hits the sarcophagus pillow. Why she rapidly ages back into mummy bandages at the end (just as she did in the previous film) is never explained, but by then, like a psychoanalyst session, the hour is up.

The brief tragedy of her plight luckily is offset by her fashion-forward bangs and use of a night dress as evening swamp-wear. I don't generally like those Betty Page bangs --you have to be damn hot, willowy and with the right mix of bad girl, demure kitten, and assertive intellect to pull them off.  You also need the right dress. Since her character is neither here nor there as far as soul-body-mind-incarnation-century cohesion, her dress is neither nightgown nor formal evening dress but a sublime hybrid. She could either be lost on her way home after an all-night party or sleepwalking. Christine pulls both options off at once, and looks damned great being carried around by Lon. I love her, so leggy. When Kharis is carrying her uphill, her feet almost touch the ground.

Naturally the more I see this film the more I forget its weaknesses, but amnesia has always been the B-movie lovers' friend. Is that why 'forgettable' and 'dreamlike' go so hand in hand? I forget, but it seems like I wrote this all before... 


1. Knowing Hammer, she's maybe dubbed - but don't spoil it for me by confirming

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Spooky Behaviors: 15 Wild Horror/Sci-Fi Films Gallantly Streaming on Amazon Prime

It's that time of year, a curated list of bizarro cage-free horror films casual classic horror fans may not know of, by me, Erich - and where to find them (they're all currently streaming free on Amazon Prime... for now). Sure it might be harder to get on your Fire stick or Apple TV or whatever, but if you love horror, the classic kind, ya gotta git Prime, man. While Netflix sheds almost all its older movies Amazon Prime has been, year after year, amassing a giant catalogue of weird old shit fin to make Kim's Video rise from its grave. Sure, come Halloween we'll all be watching STRANGER THINGS 2 on Netflix. But until then... am I right?

(Post Script 11/17- We watched it already, and here we still are - am I right?)

If the boxes of strange old crap look even fuller lately, it's because some rerelease outfit called 'Sprockets' has added countless lurid, cheaply made 50s-70s softcore sleaze-o-thons, usually barely an hour long, the type that probably packed onto marquees back in the days before hardcore but would barely get a PG-13 nowadays.  They all suck but in the process can help show why Joe Sarno, John Waters, and Russ Meyer are such comparative genius poets. Check a few out and wonder just how girls ever blinked with all that eyelash mascara back in the day. Then promptly exit that theater and come into mine, choose from this weird curated collection and be assured good times. To get the grindhouse effect (the 'three movies in continual rotation, open 24 hours'  malaise) I suggest slotting out three of these films in advance and then starting the first one in the middle, because--if you're old enough to remember--grindhouse marquees seldom had feature 'start' times. They just played continuously, so you'd walk into the theater in pitch dark, feeling your way to a seat, and never knowing which movie was playing when you came in, until the end (which is why so many horror films of the era end with the title, i.e. "You have been watching SUSPIRIA!"). Not knowing what film you were seeing, or what was happening onscreen, allowed for a sense of anything-can-happen danger that's missing when you know what film it is, and what it's about, and what it's rated, in advance. After one film is done, start the next right away, before you can second guess yourself or read what it's about.

Then, when you finish your third movie of the night, start the first one up from the beginning, and when you get to where you 'came in,' you whisper to your asleep viewing partner (or cat): "this is where we came in" and turn the TV off and sashay away (i.e. pass out). Lo! A longstanding grindhouse tradition!

As always with Prime, the image quality ranges from sublime to fourth generation VHS messed, so I rate both the film and the quality of Amazon's streaming print. Some of these reviews have been posted before on this site, they're presented here re-edited (and with new thoughts) but since some of the films discussed on older posts aren't always still avail. I wanted to regroup those that are, all the better to ensnare you. I'm not being lazy, just obsessive! And lazy!

1.  TORSO 
(1973) Dir. Sergio Martino 
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A

Looking at this now it's hard to believe just how thoroughly the commercial for Torso--which popped up a few times on local afternoon TV in 1973--chilled my six year-old blood. Its key image--of a girl, crawling pathetically through the mud in the woods while a figure in a ski mask slowly approached, relentlessly, her legs twisting in the undergrowth like she was grinding up against the mud in pathetic but aroused abandon, the killer's immobile face behind the orange ski mask approaching, pulling out (as I remember, incorrectly) a chainsaw--opened up my six year-old psyche like a razor through a Mad gatefold. It was probably the dawning of my nascent feminism (forced to contemplate the rancid idea that adults somehow found this all 'entertaining'), a 'locking the barn door after the horse ran off' kind of approach to my sensitive prepubescent psyche.

Since growing up, and finally getting over my preformed prejudice, I found to some shock that Torso plays more like a giallo whodunnit with: hacksaw dismembership (off-camera), suspicious male suspects staring at each other staring; a gang of snickering locals who seem like they could need someone to spit on their grave very soon; beautiful coeds posing on tractors and piazzas; disposable Italian boys zipping around on scooters; pot parties when no filmmaker smoked pot so they all gave it this weird sleazy cachet, etc. Still, once it gets down to the final girl hiding in a bedroom, Torso gets pretty intense and it looks good, with lots of old Rome architecture, and the lovely lips of Tina Aumont (above). Look at that deep burnished wood stain and deep red, her lipstick corresponding to the wall color, her haunted heavy lidded eyes and rich auburn hair, the elephant statue trying vainly to trumpet of impending danger. The music gets schmaltzy and there's some terrible wallpaper and you have to imagine a world where everyone agrees not to lift even one hand to defend themselves against scarf strangulation, or why someone with a huge knife would waste time strangling at all, but I digress. No chainsaws but a thin line between outright leering objectification (lots of exposed breasts, lesbian posturing, short skirts) and a concurrent critique of said objectification, as rural Italian males all gather in the street and stare openly, hostilely, as if any minute a gang rape might break out --in the light of Harvey Weinstein, this shit's got a whole new level of repugnancy about it: chainsaws don't even have to factor to get the blood up, this time boiling over.

(1982) Dir. Amy Holden Jones
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B
If this flows better than most crap in its genre, it's because it's actually directed by a woman, Amy Holden Jones, for distribution via Corman's New World (though even by his standards, it's a mighty low budget affair). The seams of the frame are fraying at the edges but if you ride out the adjustment the stripped-down narrative turns out to be solidly constructed, with some of Halloween boiler plate elements stripped away (backstory, character development Donald Pleasance) but enough of the 'right' parts kept (the single night time frame, the mute killer, the gradual self-reliance and savagery of the plucky female survivor/s) that it remains a model of its budget class. There are far too many fake-out jump scares, and while some of the acting is pretty bad, but in the end there's several final girls stabbing in unison and the killer doesn't have a chance, and I like that. The lurid poster offers the suggestive shots of the drill dangling between the killers legs while girls scream in negligees and there's not much of that kind of thing; locker room puerility is kept to a (relative) minimum (all three of the snickering horny boys who drop by are with due haste dispatched) and the murders are never sadistic or overly deviant-- rather the focus is on the girl's reactions and resolve, the way they tangle with not just fear but paranoia, and the terrible cost wrought by Boy Who Cried Wolf-ish pranks. Thanks to clever framing and Slumber Party delivers all that may be expected from the title, has a real young Brinke Stevens early on, and an effective (if not quite Carpenter-carpet cool) old radio show-style organ score. Next to the legions of terrible late night DTV wastes of time that polluted the VHS rental racks around it, Slumber endures a goddamned miracle: a movie that delivers on exactly what you expect or want out of such a film, and not a penny more.  And not all the hairdos are totally 80s awful.

Like the film, the Amazon print is just about serviceable.

(1982) Dir Tom McLoughlin
*** / Amazon Image - B-

Meg Tilly is a somewhat naive high school student spending the night alone at a spooky mausoleum for initiation into a pretty lame girl gang. A Russian psychic's newly interred corpse is there too, and when the folding chairs from his eulogy aren't put away respectfully he commences to raise the surrounding dead. Made right at the dawn of the slasher era (and incorrectly marketed as such), One Dark compares more to Phantasm or Carpenter's The Fog than Halloween or Friday the 13th which is why it rocks. The way it builds up from the sorority prank scares to the actual ones is pretty seamless, there's no sex or snickering, the dialogue is surprisingly adept, the characters thoughtful, for the most part. The bitchy gang leader (Robin Evans) is grating but her long dirty blonde hair's terrific; too bad her sidekick (Leslie Speights) has the unsightly habit of keeping a yellow toothbrush in her mouth at all times. Whose gross idea was that? Demerit!

As the night plays on, the psychic's estranged daughter, Melissa Evans listens to a tape left by a psychic researcher who lays out the her later father's evil telekinetic talents (which we see manifest at the mausoleum in tandem). Husband Adam West  doesn't do much except poo-poo her own psychic flashes (the men in this film are little more than eye candy) but the effects are cool, plentiful, imaginative and refreshingly over-the-top. The sourced print is fairly washed out but in HD, the vibe is creepy, and young ethereal Meg Tilly is as ethereal as Helen Chandler was in 1931. A whole step above the rest of the cast, you'll understand why everyone who saw this had to cast her, leading to significant roles in The Big Chill and Psycho 2 the following year.

(1987) Dir. Michele Soavi
**** / Amazon Image - A

It's a terrible shame that the great Michele Soavi made so few horror films while working with Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava in the 80s-90s, for he brought out the metatextual in-joke deadpan of their combined style to the point his work compares favorably with that of Antonioni and Godard, layering termite in-jokes so subtly maybe even he didn't know they were there. Even more of a shame is that of his three best films, Cemetery Man, The Devil's Daughter (see Shrouds of Soavi), and Stagefright, only the latter is readily available. I mention this all as it fits - in grand meta style -for this is the behind the scenes tale of a tawdry sex and violence theatrical performance, something clearly meant for off Broadway at the height of the mayor Koch 80s, when sex and sleaze and dance were all of a piece (Bob Fosse meets Abel Ferrara); it's a dark and stormy night, the show opens in a week, an insane killer broke out of the institution down the road, and hid in the back of the lead ingenue's car when she stopped by there to get a sprained ankle mended. She had to sneak out with the caretaker's key, which factors in later. But hey, they can tie in the murder of their wardrobe mistress with the show content and get a million in free publicity. The show must go on! The killer agrees ans is soon offing the cast, who make all the right moves (they stick together, stock up on the set designer's power tools for defense) but still can't compete with this kind of owl-headed madnman. Soon it's down to the cat and mouse between him (still in the owl head) and Barbra Cuspiti, who missed the main slaughter by being conked on the head on the way up to the rafter. Outside in the rain, the cops wait inside their squad car, presuming they can somehow help, but they can't even get inside. So the meta and Hitchockian elements beswirl: the only door key out begins to loom like a giant sculpture mirage, planted between the stage floor boards below the (now napping) killer's feet; weird mannequins gawk idly in the foreground stage right; we see the sax-playing Marilyn load a cassette with her solo into the bowl; the ingenue takes off giant fake bubble breasts; the killer plays his own leitmotif and works the effects (he's a former actor); the idea of being locked in all night with the killer has a goofball old school charm; the male leads follow a ogical course of self-defense; the fat guy tries to buy the killer off with a wad of cash; and you don't put it past Soavi to substitute real actresses in mannequin poses in some shots and not even call attention to it, or having someone below camera level slowly moving them side to side, too slow for the human eye to register; when Barbara Cuispi's shirt is the exact same light green as the backstage dressing room hallway, like; a big no-no in non-camouflage wardrobe that its broken rule aspect is both funny, reassuring and gently tension alleviating, maybe in ways I can't explain; Peter--the Byronic director-- toots blow but does it on the sly so we barely notice.

Soavi buries gems all over; a reel-to-reel tape of the Wagnerian musical score blasted (by the killer) at inopportune times makes Peter's determined vengeance seem like a Roman opera; a broken bottle of stage blood crashes to the ground right when a guy gets drilled through the door, so the two red run together. We don't just see the cops oblivious in the rain but Soavi plays with trying to get us to care or be scared for them as they delve merrily into cop cliche. Wry shit like that just piles up and though plenty tense and scary, the laughs are earned, the acting sublimely exaggerated (except for Cuspiti, who zombies out for the last 1/4, which is preferable anyway as it's suspenseful enough without hammy histrionics), and the layers of meta so interwoven that even after death the killer might manage one last smile at the camera. Amazon image, in full rich HD has such lush rich Italian blue-red palette color it's to swoon for, to the point most of the other films on this list are unbearable by contrast afterwards. (full)

(1982) Dir. Lucio Fulci
***/ Amazon Image - B

Fulci fans come in all shapes and sizes Some love the attention to gore and gross-outs but some of us fancy folks like the discordant dream logic, the way it only makes sense if you let go of all your usual narrative expectations and just admire the framing and raucously ironic Fabio Frizzi synths. For them, us, me, we love the abstract the way Fulci plays on the rhythm of other movies as if a jazz counterpoint (in this case, that would be both the original Exorcist and the sequel). Franco and Rollin make films that flow like idylls dipped in the brush of nightmare, but Fulci does the reverse, he's the quicksand that lets you appreciate the beauty of the flowers even as a shambling corpse filled with maggots pulls your eyes out of their sockets. That's why firm supporters of his House by the Cemetery (see 'Nightmare Logic') should seek out Manhattan Baby, for the cast is largely the same and--hey--it's even less coherent! The plot involves a mysterious amulet given by a mysterious old lady to a girl visiting Egypt with her parents and brother. At night it opens up a stargate between some lost Pharaoh tomb and her and her brother's bedroom in the family's uptown Manhattan apartment. The dad meanwhile was temporarily blinded by the gem's twin that shot him with blue lasers. A psychic tossing them a note from a window lets them know the truth - the amulet is a gateway to evil, possessing children and trapping their souls within its sinister facets. Anyone who gets in the way, including the psychic, a taxidermist, and a louche family friend, all wind up either attacked by stuffed birds, real cats, or an interdimensional doorway that dumps them in Egypt and leaves lots of sand on the carpet after it closes again.

The parents' initial skepticism soon gives way to concern and once the amulet is found - well, it becomes harder and harder to tell what's real, what's a dream (the kids call it 'voyaging') and what's supposed to be happening in real time. If it doesn't bother you that when the wife sees the sand on the floor of the bedroom we can't tell if she's in Egypt looking down from a mountain or New York looking down at the carpet, then this is your movie. Maybe you 'get' Antonioni and the rise of psychedelic post-structuralism in Italian cinema or maybe you can just shrug and think, hey 'dream logic, bitches' - as long as you're open to surreal 'you are there/not there' duality, as long as you stop trying to understand and just think, hey  - the taxidermist psychic is named Adrian Mercata, a reference to ROSEMARY'S BABY (Adrian Marcata), the weird title makes sense at last. (Pair w/ Argento's Inferno for an Italian film shot-in-NYC nightmare logic not-that-great-but-still-OK extravaganza)

(2013) Dir. John V. Knowles
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A

This low budget attempt at a candy-colored smart girl Scream meets Heathers / Mean Girls divided by The Faculty horror comedy suggests any suspiciously well-preserved woman who drifts into your small upscale American town advocating celibacy and 'promise rings' may in fact be the ever-young Countess Elizabeth Bathory, organizing groups of girls to drop by her place and become 'part' of her beauty treatment. Under the alias, 'Liz Batho,' Louise Griffiths has a field day as the gorgeous, poised blood bather, effortlessly seducing insecure female students, vain parents, and wide-eyed audience alike with her mix of smart Brit poise, seductive coded-lesbian magnetism, and cheerful disregard for her screaming victims. Sorting it all out are two smart, intimate qua-lesbian best buddies played Alison Scaglioti and Francesca Raisa, one of whom has her eyes on a college journalism scholarship so is always pitching to "HuffPo" and the other is ready for love, but draws flowers on her face to co-opt her terrible acne and, well, is easy prey for Liz, who soon lures her away from her bestie and into the promise ring circle. Meanwhile, all the 'Hiltons' (the popular girls) are planning to lose their virginity in one fell swoop before prom. They better hurry. And our intrepid reporter better sort out whether she's being jealous or legitimately concerned as she snoops out the shocking truth.

As a film it does suffer from low budget relative to its ambitions, and a look and style that dares compare with more big studio fare, so if the excessively 'smart' dialogue doesn't quite seem natural, just remember it's no less mannered than, say, a Diablo Cody-scripted quirkfest like Jennifer's Body and is actually more disturbingly violent and far less coy, especially once the girls start being bled over the sacrificial blood bird bath altar (and there's no guys in tacky eyeliner). Plus gotta love when the imdb cast list is 90% female and the best thing a boy can do is be patient, and follow their orders. The final showdown is all women, with men barely an afterthought. Sure it never seems like there's more than six kids in the whole school, and the contingent of desperate housewife-ish botox-ed up moms are ten shades over-the-top, but taken with a half-asleep grain of salt (or morphine) it's a lovely, surprisingly dark little grrl romp, stolen by Louise Griffiths with a nurturing, sapphic wink that makes her casual bloodletting all the darker.

(1986) Dir. Jim Wynorski
**1/2 / Amazon Image - A

Big Jim took some time to deliver a film that was--unfortunately--changed in title from Killbots, to make it seem like a gory depressing slasher movie to cash in on the slasher era instead of the post-Terminator amok robot genre.  The film itself spares us limbs being packed in shopping bags (as in the poster) to instead tell the story of after-hours mall security robots accidentally imbued with lasers and malice due to a freak lightning storm. Complicating things: six teenagers --- three dudes who work at the mattress store and their dates (who include Barbara Crampton!)-- decide to spend the night in the store - which if you remember the 1980s makes perfect sense. (Getting away from parents to a place with a bed is priority number one for any self-respecting high-school senior). Interrupticus! The robots decide they're intruders, and a night-long stand-off ensues making this a bit like the original Dawn of the Dead meets Terminator meets Night of the Comet - there's some irritating snarkiness from the dudes early on but at least they can quote the 1951 Thing and the nerd shows Attack of the Crab Monster to his blind date. I've done both those things! Even the designated strapping jock alpha of the group, Mike (John Terlesky of Deathstalker 2) radiates good-natured charisma; the nerdy blind date's a crack shot (Kelli Maroney, who was in Night of the Comet -which I did see in the theater); and the sexy older girl (Karrie Emerson) is an ace mechanic. Rather than sobbing and whining, the girls make bombs with gear looted from the hardware store, crawl through the vents, raid the gun store (named Peckinpah's!) and protect each other. Only sultry scream queen Barbara Crampton whines, but she's pretty great in the earlier set-ups doing the bubbly PJ Soles sex bunny role. The robots are real remote controlled full scale maniacs on tank treads, GOG-esque, with Gort laser eyes, Robocop-style platitudes--all in all way cooler than you'd expect for such a low budge endeavor with such an ROTM poster. The sight of them zipping down the real carpeted mall promenade in real time-space chasing a fleeing Crampton - is this not straight from the unconscious of any flyover state depressed Space Port-addicted 80s mall rat? The Amazon Image--taken from the recent Vestron HD upgrade--is killer, and theree's also cameos and bits from Mary Woronov and Paul Bartel, and--of course--Dick Miller as--what else?--hipster janitor Walter Paisley. George Romero eat your heart out, and save some for the the dog. (See also: The New Triple Long Pig Dare Ya).

(1986) Dir. Ted Nicolau
*** / Amazon Image - A

Good natured mid-80s MTV/New Wave/mall culture/punk horror/sci-fi comedy in the vein of EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY, NIGHT OF THE COMET, REPO MAN, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, and BUCKAROO BANZAI, this Charles Band joint is the story of an ugly but hilarious blob-crab-style alien materializing via the newly installed satellite TV of a looney upscale Malibu family. Mary Woronov and Gerritt Graham are the swinger parents; Diane Franklin is their Cyndi Lauper-ish teen daughter; Chad Allen a tow-head young gun nut under the tutelage of his crackpot survivalist war vet grandfather (Bert Remsen) --who lives in the adjacent bomb shelter. TV horror hostess Madame Medusa (Jennifer Richards) shows up expecting a party, as do a swinger couple (Alejandro Rey and Randi Brooks [above]). Jonathan Gries is great as the daughter's metalhead boyfriend ("too rude!"). They're all on the same page, sitcom-from-Hell overacting-wise, a style that perfectly matches its loud 80s colors and bizarro decor (it's all filmed on indoor sets with psychedelic skies outside the windows). The huge ugly space monster is grotesque but there's also a 'good' alien dispatched to retrieve him trying to convince the family he's talking to them directly through the screen rather than just helming some old monster movie.

This all might be unpleasant on the eyes were you to see it on a faded, streaky VHS, but with the Prime HD image the vibrant lighting makes the colors sing and it's a total rush perfect for Halloween. Underneath the gross-outs and decadence lurks a loving spirit that triangulates its genial signal somewhere between 60s John Waters, 80s Tim Burton, and 50s Roger Corman. Too rude! Or rather, just rude enough. (Full)

(2016) Dir. Anna Biller
***1/2 / Amazon Image - B+

Anna Biller's fond ode to the early-70s (women's lib-inspired) 'suburban housewife joins witch coven' American cinematic subgenre (and its Eurosleaze erotic black widow variation) is ripe with a pagan Thoth Tarot Deck-inspired color palette and a sense of real danger, diligently spinnereted to Jacques Demy fairy tale romance with a 'Satan's School for Gifted Youngsters' annual solstice pageant primitivism that keeps it from being either too campy or realistic. Comfortably ensconced in the middle ground between power of suggestion paranoia (as in Polanski) and fantasy, we can't really tell for sure where real magic, power of suggestion, and delusional madness divide within the psyche of our beautiful but clearly cracked lead/narrator, which is how it should be if you want your movie to resonate with uncanny frisson, as this does. As the vintage Morricone patches the disparate pastiche elements into a coherent whole, Biller ointments up her broomstick and flies herself up ahead to act as point guard for this whole new flock of new filmmakers, I've written lovingly about, who use the 60s-70s 'Euro-artsleaze' genre as a palette from which to paint uncanny new vistas, and in some cases--such as Billers'--bringing in a whole other level of filmmaking cohesion. Any separation between art /experimental, film, narrative, genre, retro-pastiche, present and past --all gone in the capable hands of this quintuple threat. Even the terrible hyper-mannered acting is so uncanny it resonates in the mind long after viewing is done. (full)

(PS, if you dare, pair w/ Blood Orgy of the She-Devils)

(1971) Dir. Harry Kümel
*** 1/2 / Amazon Image - A-

If the Countess Bathory themes from Chastity Bites still got you fidgeting under the collar then you may want to cool down with this slice of elegant perversion, a real benchmark favorite with the ivory-handled lesbian contingent of feminist horror film school lovers, perhaps the most sophisticated and poetic of the deluge of lesbian vampire movies that flooded screens in 1971, easily the best acted thanks to a first-rate Dietrich-esque performance from Delphine Seyrig. This takes themes from the Fanu's Carmilla source text (a bewitching woman seduces young innocent away from her straight lover, or father, or something), with Last Year at Marienbad enigma-xotica (see: Last Year at Marien... something something) with latter Dietrich Fassbinder drag and off-season old world Belgian hotel class belying real forceful menace. The story follows a naive young beauty (Danielle Ouimet) on her European honeymoon with Stefan (John Karlen) who even an American tourist could probably tell is a gay hustler on walkabout. Bathory (Seyrig) and her young full-lipped consort (Andrea Rau) spot the lovers (no one else is at the hotel) and before you can say 'the doorman who remembers her from before the war is beginning to be suspicious that she's never aged,' the countess is luring Stefan into orgiastic discussions of sadistic cruelty in order to drive his bewildered bride to her arms. The enigmatic ending and celebratory murder are both pretty cool and the whole thing has a washed-in-the-tide kind of ambience that does what Marienbad was trying to do with way more charm, old world ennui-soaked sophisticated menage-a-whatever decadence and dry wit. Seyrig imbues her role with such heavy-duty old world menacing charm she could scare Bela Lugosi. There's no escaping her, like death itself and when she wears that spangly disco ball Ziggy Stardust sheathe gown you're powerless to escape her teutonic glam rock gravitas.

ASIDE: Standing tall with Dracula's Daughter and Xena in the annals of beloved lesbian fantasy texts, there's an interesting gay-sploitation moment or two in Daughters of Darkness when Stefan calls his gay sugar daddy, who we see wearing garish make-up while lounging by his indoor pool. Though freakishly presented, we identify with his heartbreak when he learns Stefan is married, the way he tries to keep a stoic face even over the phone, and we're left to imagine the fight between them that led to current state of events, all while the bride playfully unwittingly tries to get at the phone thinking he's trying to talk to his mom and making plans to come visit at the family estate. When you consider the way gay directors could express their own lifestyle only under the promise that they, in a sense, camp it up and mince around, make a freak show out of it, one gets at a terrible truth in the core of the post-vs.-pre-Stonewall struggle: the gay lifestyle can be shown in high camp provided it undercuts with tragic self-loathing. At the same time we're encouraged to fall under Countess's sway and to see Stefan's sense of what's right (the man gives the orders and instigates the sex - the wife submits) as a bullying child's feeble attempt to counter the subtler sapphic machinations of the Countess and her invigorating 'sickness'. Hot stuff, served cold as Belgian fog. Kümel made Malpertius the same year.  

(1977) Dir. William Girdler
**1/2 / Amazon Image - B-

From a different time, when 70s America was at the height of its post-Jaws eco-horror and ensemble cast disaster movie fever, this has a big camping tour group who find themselves adrift in the High Sierras when the hole in the ozone layer causes all animals to go insane and start attacking humans, sometimes in teams. Everything from hordes of mice to carloads of snakes show up and the big climax involves the survivors taking shelter against a pack of wild dogs. Leslie Nielsen is the guy who snaps his animal brain and tries to rape a young girl, rants about Melville's god, makes some old Bronx character actress cry with the realization she shouldn't have followed him when the gang split up, and fights a grizzly, all bare-chested like a white-haired Putin. Director Girdler has no gift for momentum or suspense, but he feels his way along in real time, in real mountain mannish boy's life nature, with semi-real actors (including an adult but very small male stuntman posing trying to pass as a child -- a very grotesque effect) and real animals--especially vultures, hawks, a cougar, a crazy dog pack, and a tarantula--the scene where the hawks and vultures maul the bitchy girl is terrifying because those birds are real, and they're right there in the shot, and her unease is palpable. The amazing near-Morricone-level cacophonous percussion score by Lalo Schifrin.  (Full

(1953) Dir. Ron Ormond 
**** / Amazon Image - C
(see: "So Close to Heaven")
I'm mighty glad that Prime has so many of my favorite late night spider woman films, the ones that get me through everything from panic attacks to the DTs to boredom to not being able to choose anything else to watch and too lazy to rummage. A PD title for decades, quality's always been poor on the Mesa but thats part of its dog-eared charm. I used to have this on a 6-hour tape with Mesa of Lost Women (which I think uses the same giant spider puppet) and Spider Baby,bro, how cool is that? Can you see me now, watching that tape over and over, pounding cheap whiskey under the relentless rain on the flat roof of our Seattle bungalow circa 1990, while my lovely soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend galavanted around with garlic-eating hippie freak contingents, ushered along by some smitten open mike guy who laughed like startled mare? Dude, I know! Great films for it. The whiskey's long gone, so is the girl, so is Seattle (down the rearview mirror hatch), but that 6-hour spider girl tape, well, I still keep 'er around, in case. All the other tapes are long gone but that that one's still on the shelf- just because, because spider women on a mesa. Just knowing they're there, is what's important. Out there, up on that mesa, playing the climax of Freaks with the whole mesa as the underneath of the Emerald City circus wagon? And crazy what's his name, packing a gun and hijacking a flight out of there after shooting a cantina dancer. And that music, that clanging cacophony of piano mashes and flamenco guitar. Ooh ooh! Can I see it again... right now?

(1953) Dir. Al Zimbalist
**** / Amazon Image - A

Al Zimbalist's 'finest' hour is a moody trash heap that manages to create a strangely poetic vibe thanks to the cool beatnik coffee house improv dance troupe vibe of the cat women aliens (who live in a telepathic all-female clique on the moon) and a beguilingly low-key score by the then-just-starting out Elmer Bernstein. The moon seems very groovy indeed - but the astronaut's ship is bolted together sides of sheet metal, sort of halfway between a quonset hut and a trash can, but hey, the cots and hammocks all look relaxing. NASA doesn't yet seem to exist, so one of the astronauts throws in plugs for various products when he gets some radio time, hoping they send him a couple of bucks. He wants hard to make you aware his character only cares about money, baby. Sonny Tufts is the dimwit leader who's dating Marie Windsor, instead of Victor Jory, the seether of the group, who's too busy fuming like a little bitch cuz the cat women stole their space suits to have fun (he packs a 45 automatic, just in case).  The young human radio operator and the young innocent Lambda fall in love (she wants to go to America and have, what you call it, 'a Coke.') And there's a giant spider. No, TWO giant spiders. The kind of film that, once seen, must be immediately forgotten, and/or followed up with Mesa of Lost Women, Spider Baby and/or Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! I had them all on a 6-hour tape compiled from video rentals from a nearby Kim-ish record store near my chosen Seattle state store and watched it over and over in an amniotic blissful bourbon fog (more) all through 1989-90. I still can't move on, mentally, from that (feel like I just talked about that, 'hiccup') and now, thanks to Prime, I don't have to. As for you, your mileage may vary but you'll still find this Moon trip with plenty of goose left, whatever that means, baby. Whatever that means... (I mention it as they've uploaded a really nice print of this film to the Prime site, it looks better than e'er I've seen it. Don't miss it - whatever the damage).

"Wui wan yeh" (1995) 
Dir. Stephen Chow
*** / Amazon Image - A

A huge star in HK and Mainland China, Stephen Chow is mostly unknown in the west, partly because he's not Jackie Chan or Jet Li and his satire skewers a pop culture partially different than ours but if you've seen any Asian horror movies in the last 25 years -- Ringu, Ju-On, Pulse, Dark Water, Suicide Club, Tale of Two Sisters, Audition, A Chinese Ghost Story, etc. or classics beloved of Hong Kong, like The Evil Dead and The Professional, you should get at least 80% of the jokes, and they fly by so fast it won't matter about the others. Chow stars as a crazy ghost hunter Leo, called to a towering HK apartment complex to exorcise the vengeful spirit of a squabbling couple's recently deceased mother. Their cute neighbor (Karen Mok) finds Chow's ghost chaser--with his long black coat, sunglasses and mysterious Chow Yun Fatty ways--intriguing. Soon she's showing up where he lives (a lunatic asylum) and following him around. He lets her carry his houseplant (its stamen acts as a spirit diving rod) and faces off against an evil mom spirit living in the TV who can possess anyone at any time (and the subsequent husband and wife die and become evil ghosts too) and trains her and the guards in ghost detection via a hilarious sequence of tests to remove their fear, as in lit dynamite hot potato. He does hilarious things like performing CPR with a hammer and catching ghosts with saran wrap and a bullhorn.

The overall impression is fairly grimy but the laughs are served with a genuine relentless chill in ways Sam Raimi or Stuart Gordon would approve. It's raucous, witty and moves so fast you're afraid to laugh lest you miss something. It's also relentlessly intense, especially the prolonged climax where the spirits keep possessing random members of the party, including even Leo himself, and coming at them with a chainsaw even while they're flying with paper hats. (In Cantonese w/ burnt-in English subtitles)

(1975) Dir. Shan Hua
**** / Amazon Image - A++

If you were a young kid in the early 70s, you might remember loving the live action Japanese kid/monster shows like Ultraman, Space Giants, Johnny Socko and his Flying Robot, but I bet you never saw this - and it would have changed your life. A baller balls-out super-strange, chop-hoppy Hong Kong Shaw Brothers bananas variation of the theme, 1977's Infra-Man makes up for in creativity in exuberance what it lacks in budgetBest of all, the villain is a sexy woman with an evil, pitiless laugh named Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu). With her crazy horned gold helmet, thigh-high boots, whip, and ability to morph at will into a flying reptile, she's the coolest supervillain since Julie Newmar's Cat-Woman. Ruling an assortment of goofball evil underlings, including another cute girl --Demon Witch Eye (who has eyes in the palms of her monster hands that shoot lasers); a monster with drill hands and a memorably sinister laugh who looks like he's made out of black modeling clay; a Banana Splits-style 6-armed bug monster who can--like Infra-Man--swell to gigantic size if the mood strikes him; an army of guys in skull motorcycle helmets, and an array of other beasts at her command. The good guys are good, as you might imagine, and the fights include lots of jumping around and spinning and falling into lakes. No one just falls down the leap into the air like crazy modern dancer martial artists; wire-work wuxia, crazy spinning high kicks; foam rocks flying, laser beams, motorcycle stunts, and professional wrestling. When something's this good it can access my inner child all over and this had me literally rolling on the floor in paroxysms of jubilation. A few years ago Prime had a shitty cropped dupe up, now this in HD anamorphic widescreen with brilliant colors... Paroxysms I say! Miss it and I will send  Demon Witch Eye to destroy your world!


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