Thursday, May 24, 2018

Gravitational Distortion in 70mm: Hitchcock and Kubrick in VistaVision, Cinerama, on Blu-Ray

Summer means barbecues and blah blah but also giant outdoor screens with buggy picnics; and for the indoor kids: lots of intense air-conditioned journeys into beloved classics via the miracle that saved us all: HD widescreen TV + Blu-ray remastering, and in each case the ultimate choice for repeat big screen pristineria: the 70mm negatives of classic Hitchcock and Kubrick.

But what about the movies themselves? You've seen 'em all before, a thousand times, does all that popping color and definition make a difference worthy of double, triple, quadruple dipping?

Oh, Johnny-Oh. Of course it does.


NORTH BY NORTHWEST, REAR WINDOW, and VERTIGO always held up even on full-screen (though I always had my doubts about the latter), but now with the full brilliant intensity of VistaVision (which was 'taller' 70mm) captured on Blu-ray, the precarious angles and dangling off roofs, the plunging hills of San Francisco, the detail in all the little apartment backyard windows, and the presidential noses all make sense in a whole new way. On a big HD screen we can imagine the plummet straight down through Midge's window in VERTIGO, how it would look (above) on I-Max 3D; we feel the bottom drop out in our spines when looking down at the street or the rocks below Mount Rushmore in NORTH. IF w imagine the original audiences going "whoa" and closing their eyes when beholding these staggering drop offs on a three story 70mm VistaVision screen (but not getting motion sick from too much quick camera movement and rapid cut. The big screen explains the slow glacial lack of edits and close-ups.)

North by Northwest (walls as censor-and-gravity-defying beds.)
Meanwhile smaller spaces and angles take on vast dizzying nonlocality in Hitch's framing: which direction is up vs. down (and how the two get easily confused) factors heavily in NORTH BY NORTHWEST (as the title might indicate). The collapse of the bed in Eva Marie Saint's train compartment, for example, illustrates Hitch's using the power of a giant screen to play with audience's sense of gravity (and thus do a little pirouette around the censors, dreadfully afraid of seeing couples lie down atop each other). Though Grant and Saint are pressed against the train compartment wall during their big clinch, the vertical effect becomes almost horizontal. The way the roll slowly around each other while kissing against the wall feels like they are lying down in bed. It's only that the bed has become the size of the wall. Gravity has shifted. For awhile, the angles of the frame, and the angle of Marie Saint's eyes, are the only things stationary. Her eyes become the center of the spinning compass, as she and Grant twist around, moving down, and then up, the wall; a simple close quarters love scene is turned--through Hitch's savvy anticipation of the effect of VistaVision's giant screen--into a kind of smokin' hot amusement park ride.

North by Northwest (tire = sudden rupture of screen/distance)

The planes dissolve-
(small razor --- big face)
the dwindling safe spaces and the large open field
(no shields or stairs to the sewers).
The immediate kiss-off.
Roger transforms again into regular suited CK Dexter Haven,
shaving with her tiny razor
She makes the call, and it's all arranged, the desolate fields.

Flatness reins - the geometry of the image reduced to a child's conception of the horizon line (sky a blue band at top, ground a brown band at bottom.)

Without corners to hide in, mice feel terribly exposed.

"Big face, small razor" North by Northwest
"That plane's dustin' crops where there ain't no crops," notes the average joe on his way to wherever. He's the harbinger - a sign that from now on things will be done where they are not done. Lying down in the crops becomes like standing and leaning against a protective wall, like lying in bed with Saint, in reverse.

The plane and Cary now mirror again the plunge to the earth;
the plane comes down in triangles. The more triangles are created in this landscape, the more chances to hide. Eventually Cary all but draws his way out with angles, and Hitch makes sure math is obeyed, if not gravity.  The plane eventually has no choice but to collide into a truck. What a plane can do by buzzing down on a guy in a field no one knows, it's a dumb way to do it (when a simple drive-by would have been easier), marking the decline of Mason's villainous upper hand. Only once or twice do we even get a machine gun noise, and then, it's after the fact, as if he just takes some parting shots as he leaves, nothing like the inescapable damage done by an actual strafing WWI biplane.

North by Northwest (directional lines invaded)

But the plane explosion marks the turning point - R.O.T (the "O" stands for "nothing") will play  the peevish lover. And then he'll even play dead (his very next role) from then on, be free of roles (except as 'himself,' since he's agreed to keep up the disguise of the undercover agent. In other words, once he assumes the mistaken identity, he validates the villain's previously wrong presumption). Just as Cary, if he'd been really that drunk and pointed downhill in his car headed towards a cliff SHOULD have gone over the side, and he should have been killed on the road. He's beginning to reverse the polarity. From now on - with the explosion of the plane - he's baptized in disillusionment - he's on the offensive.

North by Northwest (Grant loses equilibrium)
An earlier example of the gravitational distortion was lost for years thanks to the limitations of the small screen. Consider the scene in the precinct when a drunk Cary Grant is being led into night court at the local police station. Staggering around, the cop supporting him and leading him over to the bench. As he staggers to one side he sees another cop bend over to tie his shoe - and so Cary starts leaning over too, as if he presumes the bent over cop is actually standing up and it's Cary who is upside down! He's trying to compensate by turning his perspective upside down, not unlike how one might compensate for double vision by covering one eye. It's the sort of small detail Cary and Hitch just toss away -there's no cutesy musical quotes around it, no close-up of Cary's mugging face, and Bernard Herrmann is no Mickey Mouser --it's just folded in, a gift to notice only on the big VistaVision screen, or in the future, when TVs are wide and image as lustrous as brand new (2). 

Big faces...
By now our Thornhill is a master of corners, and screen traversement (North by Northwest)

I always loved North by Northwest, but some other big screen gems in the Hitch cannon---Vertigo and To Catch a Thief in particular--used to bore me senseless. With analog video's faded colors, the giant 70mm frame was cropped mercilessly, the long shots of San Francisco and the French Riviera seemed far away and dull, like something that might be shown by a grandparent some 7th grade social science teacher.

But then - seeing To Catch a Thief for the first time on Blu-ray, via my big HD 'deep black' home screen via a quality HD TV of decent size, digitally restored from a vivid VistaVision 70mm negative, was literally a revelation, as in a transformative religious experience. It was hardly the same film at all

To Catch a Thief - stills via DVDBeaver and 1000 Frames of Hitchcock
To Catch a Thief on VHS was a bore; on DVD it was okay; but on this remastered Blu-ray, man, it is one of the 'essential' vacation duplication movies in my roster. I watch it every winter on my 60-inch Sony Bravia and every summer on my 60-inch Sonia Bravia, and I feel like I'm there, having taken a running dive through my 60-inch Sony Bravia into the sunny waters of a magical alternate France where everyone speaks English and I can roll with a sunbaked Cary Grant in that crazy gray sweater and red cravat combination as he gingerly avoids Grace Kelly's smoldering but weirdly child-like perversity, as well as that annoying little scamp Brigitte Auber (1). We all know the one he should have hooked up with is Grace's badass mother [Jessie Rose Landis] but such was the way of the world... sigh.

The ending with all the stuffy period costumes and the dissolves through the long, endless dancing, gets a bit draggy even so. Endless lords and ladies all gussied up like you keep hoping for Cary's old gang to stop catering and dress like revolting peasants and guillotine the lot. But the slow leisurely pace is far less grating on a big beautiful Blu-ray where the colors of every flower pops and makes a personal connection so deep you can smell the roses, and taste Grace Kelly's expensive lipstick. All in all, it really gives you the symptoms of what it's like to cater an event like that, or play in the band, or DJ: the endless standing around, waiting to go home, the fantasy of being able to take your shoes off, prop 'em up on the coffee table, and watch old Universal horror movies while drinking til dawn. That fantasy of inevitable delight is here well-visualized by Cary's hair-raising rooftop chase,  bathed in intoxicating greens, making full use of VistaVision's harrowing downward plunges.

To Catch a Thief
Speaking of GraceKelly, I used to have the same problems (faded colors, pan and scan, etc) with Hitch's Rear Window (1954). I used to (i.e. since taping it around age 14) wince at the notion that this elderly anemic hobbled little gray-haired apple-haired gray-cheeked 'decent' all-American schmuck Jimmy Stewart kept trying to talk super rich hottie Grace Kelly out of dating him, ranting about the rough and tumble life a globe-trotting photographer, and that she'd have to tag along with him on his journeys, as if wives accompanied soldiers into battle, like they were handcuffed together. I felt like Grace Kelly was really slumming, dealing with old gramps here, when in other movies she was picking the far more worthy Cary Grant. Why on earth would she be courting this geriatric homebody artiste-type and why would he be insane to try to talk her out of it?

I would watch this film frequently for I had it on the same tape that had Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), Naturally, I'd compare them, and imagine what Bill Fields--who was willing to marry the loaded Mrs. Hemoglobin (the ever-imperious Margaret Dumont) in order to put a nest under his little niece Gloria Jean--would think of Jimmy's reticence. Sir, you impugn this lady's austere character!

But time makes fools of us all, and I ended up feeling semi-trapped too in a similar relationship, from 2003-07--she an uptown successful professional girl who loved make-up and Diana Von Furstenburg dresses and all the finer things, etc. So I 'grew' into understanding LB's reticence and now, on the big screen, or via high quality Blu-ray Sony Bravia or whatever, I can get the effect of uncanny sexual fear generated by Grace's heedless adoration and that it's totally intentional. On the small screen she was beguiling - but on VistaVision, looming over sleepy LB Jeffries, 30 feet tall, looming above the audience she's like a combination Vogue cover and the Angel of Death about to sweep over a battlefield.

any similarity to Raymond Burr is purely subliminal (Rear Window)
 Hitch frames her as a vampire appearing out of the darkness; Stewart below her, shadowed, crippled, shriveled, semi-asleep (symbolically neutered) and somewhat fear-frozen. Her sheer proximity on a 70mm super-tall movie screen, face right up in extreme close-up, like a gigantic devouring vampire giantess beaming down lovingly but hungrily at a child she's about to drain, and us in the audience, and I can relate - a feeling like being tickled or looking down from a very high structure (!)

The Gigantic space-invading Mother Moab (Rear Window)

The best he can do to dissuade her is to rant about elephants and dusty African safaris, as if every wife had to accompany every travel photographer on every sojourn, when in reality, it's clearly the reverse. She's ready for the jungle - it is he who dreads her world. He dreads being trotted out to the opera and being bored at glib advertising parties, charity balls, and who can blame him?)

The other main benefit of the big screen Blu-ray 70mm enhancement of course is the clarity of the window boxes, the other apartments across the courtyard. On the small TV they were visible but unimpressive. But... Imagine you're seeing them on the big VistaVision screen: the figures in the small boxed windows approximately the size of you, in the audience looking up, as if you're snooping on real apartments across from the screen, like if you vaulted out of your chair you could land right in that hottie's window. In the reverse direction, there's Grace Kelly moving out of her moab-size 'immediacy' in LB's apartment, climbing up into the apartment of the suspect, a parallel to your own 'entering' the 3D massiveness of the screen -- like she crept out of the film and into the audience, or the reverse. Suddenly there's no difference, and it's spooky.

Climb on up and rescue the red-headed damsel (even in the 1950s, uptown NYC spinster/divorcees preferred short red hair.)
With this enhanced added effect, the dramas in the windows have a new added sense of lost beauty that is is, when the rain falls or the night is late, clearly indebted to the paintings of Edward Hopper. The above scene of "Miss Lonelyhearts" eating alone, for example, is so sad because she's unaware of our empathy (and is too dumb to just take off her fancy clothes, put her feet up, crack open a bottle of wine and some ice cream, and watch TV all night, like a real American). We can't reach her but she's there, framed expertly in the golden Hopper light against the ominous darkness. In earlier versions, even the older DVD, she was still far away - like a tiny newspaper illustration, with Jeff the life size character.. But now, in glorious deep black HD, we can step into these far away windows as well as Jeff's apartment. We don't see Jeffery as much as see through him - we're as trapped as he is (him by his own leg in a cast; us by the legs of those closer to the aisle in our row) and his gaze is ever shrinking into these far away windows. The more you look at these people in these little dioramas, the more your vision shrinks to tunnel focus, like cell phone addiction - so the larger real world becomes terrifyingly large.

Thorwald exits the frames; enters theater / Stewart's domain (Rear Window) like the truck in North by Northwest
So when the threat--the imposingly Nordic-named Lars Thorwald (Burr)--finally seeks him out and enters Jeff's apartment it's like he's a towering giant, an ogre. He's come out of the frame from the back, and worked his way around behind us in the theater, and he is gigantic. Jeff is like a frightened child menaced by a giant evil thug. He has in a sense now shrunk down to the size of one of his windows. He's become that which he spies on. (He can only pray someone across the way looks through his window). By now Jeff has become the total cinematic viewer stand-in, the type who hides in the dark and prefers to deal with reality through a small window rather than face the giant unruly beings like his girlfriend and this monstrous yet sympathetic figure. As a viewer it's unnerving because we can imagine being Thorwald as well as Jeff. We all hope we aren't being spied on from across the way; Jeff's only saved from being branded a stalker by his relative lack of focus, he's a restless channel flipper, whomever has their curtains open and is home is fair game. He's interested in Miss Torso (an intentionally grisly bit metonym) but not enough to get his blood up to a level that reassures Thelma Ritter.

another steep drop (Vertigo) and one of the first and only shots completely outside the apt
The sudden drop off from inside Jeff's apartment looking out to outside looking in is the next big moment after the sudden lack of window separation when Thorwald finally enters. In trying to throw him out the window, he's outed, literally, regarded by all the neighbors he spied on, rupturing the screen/audience barrier (and another steep drop - not as high but scary due to precarious leg healing (back to the bone mend drawing board and all that motionless for nothing - and again, the honeymoon must wait - isn't that in the end what Jeff was afraid of. Nothing like two broken legs as an excuse to not get bounced around),

Moving ahead --- to 2001 via 1968

This super clear, nearly-3D effect of the super 70mm clarity has other benefits, long forgotten after decades and decades of cropping, consider the wraparound giant screen of "Cinerama" and Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968). With its clarity enhanced, the colors restored via 70mm (or in this case 65) negative, at least Kubrick's stately stereo side framing strategies begin to make more sense, especially as we compare his angles and stillness or slow glacial movement with, say, How the West Was Won and other films shot for 'Cinerama,' and roadshow wrap-around screens, where, as I said, sudden cuts and big close-ups don't work well, just as the long static medium shots never worked well on cropped home screens.

(from top: How the West was Won (x2), 2001 (x3), This is Cinerama)
Consider the way the astronauts flank the porthole of the escape pod during HAL's lip-reading scene.) The 'pure' Cinerama of say This is Cinerama (below) isn't quite the same but as you can see, the 'fisheye' wraparound effect is largely the same in Kubrick's framing (HAL's fisheye lens vision being the perfect analogy to the wraparound effect). As the sides of the wraparound frame are invariably closer to the audience, and--ideally--nearly vanishing into their peripheral vision, it makes sense that they are invariably closer to the camera, larger, and the center of the action always in a kind of middle shot being slowly advanced towards. If you reverse it, and put a close-up in center frame and then distant background on either side, the fishbowl effect gets more pronounced, not unlike the reflections in the space helmet visors.
2001 was shot in Super Panavision 70, a process which involved principal photography on a 65mm wide, 5 sprocket hole high film frame (standard photography is on 35mm wide 4 sprocket hole high frame). This was projected back from a 70mm print, the extra 5mm being two 2.5 mm magnetic soundtrack strips "outboard" of the sprocket holes... In the original Cinerama installations, the film was projected on a deeply curved "louvered" screen which wrapped the image around the audience, sweeping them into the image. The Super Panavision version of Cinerama had an aspect ratio of 2.21:1 (the three-film and "rectified" Ultra Panavision versions of Cinerama were noticeably wider with an aspect ratio of 2.59:1). - Thomas E. Brown
Cinerama screen as background wall for moon shuttle - 2001
We see the Cinerama logo in 2001's end credits over and over, but never could have expected we'd benefit decades later. Could they have known back then we'd be reaping the benefits of that clarity in the 21st century from the comforts of our hovels? I bet Kubrick had an inkling. Certainly he fills the 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY frame with reflections of wide home theater screens (above).

It explains so much about the boredom factor involved with 2001, as well as the travelogue nature of Vertigo and To Catch a Thief as discussed above. Quick edits and jarring close-ups in such gigantic formats would leave audiences dizzy and probably vomiting. Thus, in Kubrick's elegant compositions, we have images of stately wide shots with the focus of the action usually medium center and larger (close-up) images framing the sides and in the lower foreground that our eye can use somewhat like the edges of our peripheral vision. This gives viewers the immersive effect of being about halfway inside the screen, moving ever forward towards whatever is in the background center (the entirety of the film follows outward/upward movement - man's evolution as a steady outward stream of awareness, an ever-forward glacial gliding).

The early "Dawn of Man" scenes carry an--I'm sure intentional--Natural History Museum diorama vibe. Shot mostly on sets with the rocky ground ever on the bottom of the screen - 2001

The subtitle of the film "A Space Odyssey" makes more sense when considering this original wraparound 'event' presentation format. For 2001 is both more (way more) and somewhat less than the average 'thinking man's' sci-fi movie from the 60s (this being the age of Heston, and the Social Message). It's also evocative of one of those forty minute IMAX films shown in museums for a small additional ticket cost, about the history of balloon flight or African geese migration (the 2001 version being at a very forward-thinking planetarium). In other words, it is both a trippy narrative and covertly NASA-driven Cinerama spectacle. Years of seeing it in full frame have left it seeming merely glacial and Surely Important. But now, even if we're not seeing it in Cinerama, just knowing that it was meant to be seen that way helps contextualize the structuring of the frame and the slow, deliberate pacing.

We're not just watching a movie, man, we're on a goddamned ride. 

1. one of the few dislikable 'kid sister' characters in Hitch's ouevre - see Diane Baker in MARNIE 
2. if you noticed it already, on, say, a VHS tape or on normal analog TV, hats off! You're sharp.

Suggested Cont. Acidemic Related Readings:

SHINING Examples: Pupils in the Bathroom Mirror (from 10/11)

Monday, May 07, 2018

Swingin' Monsters of the 70s: an EK-curated Prime "Top" 10 (morality-free capsule reviews)

Allergy season's deft poisoning of the senses undercuts spring's 'missing the orgy' angst-euphoria like honeymoon strychnine. The indoor child wheezing in the dark with comic books and old movies while the tanned kids cavort in the pollen - ask him what having every bad movie ever made at your fingertips means. He'll tell you. He, who spent a week writing about what was wrong with Shape of Water, he knows. Only in the 70s, on Amazon Prime, in a darkened room, with air purify and a de-humidifier and a fan and endless diet coke can escape velocity be reversed.

Thanks to Prime's inexhaustible trove of forgotten gems from time amoral, we can go back to groovy 70s monster movie childhood, before the rise of VHS, spandex-and-butcher knife SOV hair metal despair. The truth is in the 70s and its crazes - especially the 'nature' craze- the return to the hills and mountains popularized by the Waltons, Grizzly Addams, Apple's Way, Little House on the Prairie, (TV); Ranger Rick Magazine; The Wilderness Family, and Bigfoot (movies). He's still out there, in the past (3), and on Prime. And I'm bringing a small coterie of students with me to capture him. Will you be foolish enough to be one of them? Amazon Prime has given us all the fertile muck one might ever wish to trudge through. We could easily get lost in the thicket. Bring your Claritin. 

my bible at nine
More proof? It's there in the campfire, my friend. Horror movies didn't have to show as much as make you think you saw more than you did.  Remembering and relaying the story of the film to the neighborhood was part of the folktale myth process. You had to go probably to the inner city, or go to the drive-in with an adult or hear the story from a cool babysitter. Rites of passage. Part of moseying down here in the Prime basement bins of  time is to look deeper amidst the eddies and levies and find the things inspired by Legend of Boggy Creek as well as the documentary Mysterious Monsters. I had the paperback edition (upper left). Its success led to a slew of bigfoot-themed movies--re-enactment documentaries that flooded drive-ins and matinees- eclipsed only by Jaws and the move from the forest to all things aquatic. Mom wouldn't let me see a damned one in the theater, by TV they were edited.

Another big part of the early 70s monster landscape people have forgotten: Willard (1971 - not on Prime). The saga of a young loner and his rat army, it was a huge hit thanks to an iconic moment--I know it from the constantly playing TV commercial: Bruce Davison running down a tenement stairwell away from an angry landlord Earnest Borgnine, yelling "Tear him UP!" to his rats. It was a catch phrase for us kids for years but you had to get the right note of hysteria in Davison's voice to do it right. My voice is too deep to get there now or I'd do it for you. There was a sequel called Ben and a horde of imitations, which--depending on how you look at it, might well include Carrie and The Exorcist as well as Kiss of the Tarantula and Frogs. So much more odd eddies, but you never know until you wade deep.. so take a deep hit off your inhaler and sink down with me! The boxes all have boxes below them still!

Special Note: As usual, I've provided screenshots and letter grades for image presentability.  Whenever possible I've avoided showing the monsters in these films- the better to enable the Val Lewton unseen factor as long as possible, of course that doesn't apply to our first item. When possible I've also kept to the spirit of the typical drive-in triple feature, breaking this list into three parts, the G or PG-rated feature attraction, the evening teenager make-out R, concluding with the late night grindhouse locally-sourced 'resident' weirdness.

(1977) Dir. James K. Shea
*** / Amazon Image - C

It may not be that good, but everything great about the 70s (spaceships, sexy adults, dinosaurs, analog lasers) and nothing bad (no kids, cops, buzzkill parents, Walter Matthau) is to be found on THE PLANET OF THE DINOSAURS. The plot finds a crashed spaceship discharging a very hairy male and foxy female crew who proceed to climb around a desert hill and valley, bickering, dying and fighting an impressive series of stop motion dinosaurs.

Whether or not you fall under the mellow 70s spell of Planet of the Dinosaurs will depend on your age and taste. The stop motion animation is somewhere between Ray Harryhausen and Land of the Lost. Considering the budget, it's damned impressive. The foxy uniforms make the humans resemble some fusion of Josie and the Pussycats and a spirit-of-76 gymnastic team. The men have open shirted jumpsuits and mustaches; the women rock an array of styles, the most indelible of which is Derna Wylde's sexy yellow midriff and flared orange hiphuggers. They compliment perfectly her willowy, bronzed form and long straight black Cher-style hair. There's also sexy Mary Appelspeth (eaten far too soon during a Jaws-style swim), and fan favorite Pamela Bottaro as co-pilot Nylah, who comes onto nearly every man in the crew sooner or later, sweeping up the devotion of all insecure young male viewers along her way.

As for the men, a real macho boldness vs. cowardly caution dichotomy eventually coheres, reminding us of how the emerging women's lib movement found more affinity with the Burt Reynolds macho men (ala James Whitworth's bearded alpha Jim: "On this world you have two choices - be cruel or die!") than the passive-aggressive liberals (here embodied by Louie Lawless's Capt. Lee "I'm in charge, here!") Planet helps us remember why; the assertive alpha male makes us--children and women--feel safer; the liberals don't take life as it comes. Jim would guard you by fighting - not by pacifying and reasoning. As a kid in the 70s, life was exciting, we had enough freedom to be terrified; it was this theme that made TV series like Danger Island episodes on Banana Splits, and The Land of the Lost so compelling. We needed someone like Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, or Charlie Bronson. Of course this need help the 70s pave the way for the 80s conservative backlash. Luckily, this being the 70s, there's still a chance for male bonding, once Lee proves his mettle.

Alas, the Amazon Prime transfer of Planet of the Dinosaurs is taken from what looks like a public domain dupe. Nonetheless it looks no worse than it would if you caught on UHF TV back some Saturday morning in 1978. An eerie synthesizer score by Lamers and O'Verlin seethes, burbles and groans in a way that merges the music and diegetic  nature sounds to create an almost Forbidden Planet-style sense of eerie sci-fi dislocation. Great use is made of the desert cliff formations in which the group takes shelter (Nylah's hair-raising near fall over a ledge is clearly done without a stunt person). And a fairly frequent ratio of dinosaur attacks vs. in-camp bicker-and-bond stretches makes up for any pictorial inconvenience. As for the latter, Derna Wylde does a lascivious dance during a welcome drinking scene and when it comes to seduction, the girls make all the moves, which is Hawksian, very 70s; and there's a moment of Duel-style savage triumph!

Still terrible? Sure, but good enough I actually tried to find a decent DVD version after seeing it the second time. Retromedia's 20th anniversary release is supposed to be good but is OOP - available for $300. I don't like it that well.  But I'll be seeing it again on Prime, where it's dingy, frayed, but free, like the 70s itself!

(1972) Dir Charles B. Pierce
*** / Amazon Image - D

From its opening montage of woodsy twilight shots set to low-pitched, distorted swamp noises, there's a compelling low-key tick-tock inexorability to this influential mix of local witness interviews, nature-travelogue and (the best part) legitimately re-enactments. It all happened in Fouke, Arkansas in the 1950s-60s when a certain Sasquatch-style monster showed up and began to be smelled, seen, heard, shot at, run from, and most of all talked about around campfires and country stoves at night and in the mornings while looking at damage done to screen doors and big footprints left in the swampy loam under the windows and all along and down the creeks of Fouke, Texarkana. Fouke, where the nearest neighbor was a mile away and you grew up knowing every sound and smell of the swampy land, so that a noise, a cry, comes you can't recognize, it's plenty terrifying. 

Acted out by the actual witnesses themselves in their own homes in the same areas it happened, so it says, there's a real immediacy to it all as if the film itself is some mimetic charm to keep the beast away. Told with a vivid urgency balanced out with a low key modesty natural to the region (but without any excess or labored folksiness, a few original folk ballads about the monster aside), it's a very very 70s naturalist mix of the best elements of documentary and re-enactment that manages to be double scary rather than half and a whole lot of other things besides.

To that end, the old analog fullscreen (cropped) TV VHS dupe quality of the Amazon image I saw may actually make it more effective, adding to the authentic rusticity by evoking old nature shows like they'd have on back in the 70s during the grassroots boom (re: Ranger Rick, Waltons, Little House and Wilderness Family). Director Charles Pierce always keeps one eye on the natural world--the swamps and empty fields, enabling--rare in a semi-documentary-- an eerie sense of ever-mounting twilight and onrushing darkness (2). There's more bucolic, ominously natural magic hour shot heres than in almost the entirety of the decade's horror. The crappy dupe quality enables a Blair Witch sense of helplessness in the face of what the camera can't see. Here's a place where there's no light pollution or street lamps, and if the moon is hidden  under clouds that nights it's so dark that a monster could be five feet from your door and you wouldn't know it unless it hollered. Especially memorable are the scenes of isolation young wives and kids at night, nervously sewing while the hound dog whines and mysterious howls echo outside and the men are all gone on ranching jobs.

The huge success of this still-effective G-rated film led to two sequels, a remake and a mini-genre explosion of bigfoot-themed movies and TV shows, all either fiction with a dash of doc or doc with a dash of fiction, or (the worst of them) just plain fiction. Many of these are on Prime --all but one or two are far too dull to waste time with except as background while you clean your guns or pluck the chickens. Check out another Charles Pierce film that follows the same overall style, The Town that Dreaded Sundown, and a film with much of the same folksy local-color charm also on Prime, Bootleggers, starring Slim Pickens, a riveting James Dean-meets-Bo Hopkins charmer named Paul Koslo and the inescapable Dennis Fimple. Good old Fimple also co-stars in one near-'must' of the post-Boggy slew, and it's next on our list.

(1976) Dir. Joy N Houck (written by Jim McCullough)
** / Amazon Image - B-

The success of Boggy was such that four years later, they were still coming out with these semi-true "expedition / flashback" bigfoot movies, and of all those that followed, this is probably the best, which doesn't say much,. Chicago University anthropology majors Rives (John David Empire of the Ants Carson) and his 'Nam vet buddy Pahoo (Dennis Fimple) head down to the Bayou for spring break on a Sasquatch research project, where they are soon intertwined with various locals, cute girls, a disproving but tolerant sheriff and, of course, the creature itself. There's not much of the creature but the scenery is all actual bayou and the locals are a nice mix, so there's that vibe, so strong in the 70s, that a blue state college boy could go down south and talk to locals and not run into cliche'd hostility and pre-judgment nor instant homespun friendliness, but both, in endless ebb and flow.

DP Dean Cundey utilizes plenty of picaresque magic hour establishing shots that would clean up real nice if the powers that be added some color correction (he'd go on to work at length with John Carpenter). With all the splices and scratches and fades  (blacks washed to a fine greenish fog), emulsion scratches, pocks, etc. it looks like it could be part of Rodriguez and Tarantino's Grindhouse  (Amazon gives us a nice HD transfer, ad odds with the source material is terrible state) but, in the words of Bleeding Skull's Joseph Ziemba, "imperfection only adds to the backwoods whiff. The Black Lake setting wouldn’t feel the same without it. "

And speaking of whiffs, the stole is showlened by ole Jack Elam's local 'edge of town' drunk (he loses his buddy to the creature in the prologue). Everyone who's 'been there' knows how hard it is to describe being attacked a giant hairy monster to the local sheriff whilst so trashed you can barely turn off the ignition and stagger into the holding cell.

Still --the climax with the boys running headlong into the monster, their scattershot response, and the weirdly open ending all add up to something very unique. The strangely intimate bond between Fimple and Carson as they drink around the campfire is truly original. They're not quite at the level of improv drunken bonding that Fonda and Oates had in Race with the Devil, but their heads are in the right low-key place (Carson makes great low-key use of lines like "What's with you and hamburgers, man?"). A refreshing change too is the way the build up involves the meeting and interviewing of so many character actors, The film meanders for little bits of business like a back porch country song between bigfoot witness Dub Taylor on harmonica and the writer of the film Jim McCulloch Jr. on guitar, and a gag with a "Keep off the Grass" sign outside the jail, that any sane editor would have snipped off. That it stays in is typical of the more relaxed pace of 70s nature-set movies and helps to make the sudden violent action more resonant (Tarantino was going for that a bit, I think, with those draggy talking stretches in Death-Proof.)

Other films in this post-Boggy subgenre (like 1976's super-boring Sasquatch, also on Prime) err too much on the side of rusticity, presuming a drawled field journal note-based voiceover and languid shots of bearded guys unpacking sound equipment around the campfire will make up for the lack of actual thrills. Black Lake gets the mixture just right, and I like that the monster is never humanized or earning of sympathy, nor even fully seen. It's simply an unknowable crafty thing that protects its territory in the most direct and brutal ways. So add it up: eerie noises, Fimple (if you're a newly-minted Fimple-holic after this, let me steer you onwards to Truck Stop Women - also on Prime), low-simmering suspense, and a good 'in-the-moment' actorly rapport that gives every moment a chance to land. What's to strongly dislike, asides the library cue-cut score and that it's so boring?

(1977) Dir. William R. Stromberg
** / Amazon Image: A+

The gorgeous HD luster of the Crater Lake print on Amazon makes you wonder - would all these look that good if there was a decent negative and color graded transfer? Is there a good Boggy Creek or Planet of the Dinosaurs I should know about? Look at that shimmery lime green sparkle on the water surface in the top image. It doesn't even matter if the film is bad when you've got that crisp transfer and you know the monster is stop motion, even though it looks like the clay it's made out of is ever in the process of drying up, and when we see it underwater we see what looks like a plastic dragon head floating in a sun-dappled swimming pool.

There's other things to recommend about this homegrown monster film, but not too many. There's too much time spent on the the lame faux-hick antics of a pair boat renting locals who get drink a lot and bicker in a kind Mr. Wind and Mr. Kipp kind of way; some genuinely terrible acting by the local sheriff as he laments honestly not knowing what to do as everyone drops like flies around him. To pad the time, a guy in the city shoots the owner of a liquor store to get a free pint of booze (which makes sense to me, but a real alcoholic would take a bigger bottle!), and winds up being chased through the trees and down to the lake to feed the monster. There's another side story of a stranded magician and his cute assistant on their way to Vegas, who decide to rent one of the boats and, through magic, pretend their middle of the day fishing trip is occurring at night (the post-production team forgot to do day-for-night filtering). There's the usual meetings of the bewildered, incredulous sheriff, the intrigued local doctor and called-in expert, having drinks by the fire, looking at maps, sketches of dinosaurs, and wondering why their small town of all places has their very own plesiosaur. Did the meteor that struck the lake the other week heat up a dormant egg in the silt? We must try to capture it - for science! And money!

Thanks to the color-saturated restoration and HD transfer, the mountain lake location glistens gorgeously, so that all the tired bits of local color melt into the morning mist.  As with the last film, the soundtrack seems lifted straight from the library, but in the end... who cares, that lustrous new HD transfer gets the mist rising off the morning lake so completely you can see the rainbow in the shimmer. 

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

(from: "Leslie of the Heretics") Naturally it's not that wild in reality, but 'naturally' is the key word here, that's what saves it. Animals was filmed as far away from the age of CGI, mentally and spiritually, as film would ever get. Girdler feels his way along in real time, you see, in real nature, with semi-real actors 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 key signifiers of amok nature horror movies, such as animal mauling, really can't be shown unless you're a dickhead whose going to really kill animals. Girdler doesn't do such things, I presume, and that's where the comfortable cult pleasure is for we sensitive types. Quick edits between what is clearly just well staged play wrestling with tame animals, close-ups of baring teeth, pink foamy blood, actors and stunt men yelling and running, an animal's teeth resting on someone's arm, and then the hawk looking down signals an end to the scrimmage with his cry like a gym coach's whistle. You put it together in your mind, Sergei! Girdler's films aren't meant to be great gore pieces, but they are great for sick freaks in search of Cecil B. DeMille-levels of under-direction. Actors stand around in a 'funeral processions and snakes' kind of Cinemascope chorus line and wonder what to do, receive no guidance, and improvise.

It's hard to remember if I had a point to all this or if I even recommend Day of the Animals, though of course I do, if for no other reason than Nielsen and the amazing near-Morricone-level cacophonous percussion score by Lalo Schifrin. There may be nothing else at all to recommend it, scenery and Georges aside, but I love Day of the Animals, because even very young kids can tell when animals aren't being hurt or hurting anyone for real, no matter how many bared fangs, snarls and screams may come. Somehow, that's very reassuring, we can still be scared and intrigued but when we go to bed we don't feel sick to our stomach, we feel alive...(Full)

The Amazon Print is good except the color grading it a little intense - the result being that everyone looks magenta/red. but so what? Maybe that's the Ozone up there! (see also on Prime- Grizzly)
This is the point in the list where the children go to bed. Are they gone? Are you sure? Did you check under the couch? Are they hiding deep within? Get them up to bed, thermodynamically speaking!

The images above are from Island Claws
So let's talk. I know you may think this list has low standards but here's some examples of those that did not make the cut: SASQUATCH, ISLAND CLAWS, BIGFOOT, MONSTER and BOG were all films I wanted to review next, but hell, they were were either too boring (BIGFOOT and its mellow semi-documentary vibe) or murky (ISLAND CLAWS - images above) or just too half-assed (BOG) to finish. Enter their dubious confines at your own risk, or proceed along with me on this safe guided tour, where image is reasonably vivid and crisp or at the very least the content (as with Boggy) suits the form.

Luckily these next two films look and are divino.

(1979) Dir Sergio Martino
*** / Amazon Image: B

Up to now we've been hanging out in the USA, in local areas like Bouke Arkansas or Crater Lake, but we mustn't forget all the imports from Italy that rounded out our 70s drive-in and grindhouse triple bills. Here's one from the always endurable Sergio Martino. An undiscovered gem, Great Alligator blends the tropes of the Jaws ripoff with the then super-popular Italian cannibal genre and the Irwin Allen disaster film, telling the tale of a giant alligator god, long sleeping, on a remote tropical island, who wakes up and starts eating tourists when capitalist Mel Ferrer opens a resort and starts dynamiting trees. Filmed in Sri Lanka but meant to evoke a kind of near-Africa, the locals are notably diverse. Having already sunk a few million into the venture, Mel tries to keep the gator attacks quiet and avoid a panic, but handsome photographer Claudio Cassinelli demands he tell the tourists and local authorities, if there are any. Sexy Barbara Bach--rocking the same wet 70s bathing suit white shirt combination Jacqueline Bissett indelibly sported in The Deep two years earlier--agrees with hunky Claudio but she works for Mel, so is torn. That night, well, hell breaks loose, thanks to both gator and angry natives (the white man woke up their big scaly god with their interloping).

Amazon used to have a much worse print of this streaming - it seems to have been quietly upgraded. It's still not HD, but we can now better appreciate the pretty waterfalls and the well-lit climactic outdoor night scenes of nonstop carnage. Over a dusk-to-dawn massacre, everyone in the hotel either tries to escape the lagoon--since the giant alligator is devouring everyone--and I mean everyone-- or the land, where the natives stabbing and shooting the survivors with flaming arrows (and if they try to go in-between are impaled on the spikes of the gator-proof fence). I love this movie because Martino never resorts to day-for-night, or stock nature footage inserts. The big gator itself might by only marginally convincing (its legs don't move; its eyes don't blink) but the jaws go up and down atop screaming extras splashing gamely, and Martino knows how to film the melee so it's clear to follow and scary-fun crazy rather than traumatic, confusing, shrill and/or dull like... well, most of its ilk.

Rounding things out: well-crafted if obvious miniatures; a sprawling, well-directed cast (including go-to ginger moppet Silvia Collatina, Lory del Santo, Anny Pappa); plenty of stunts; immacultate gator-themed wicker headgear and breast plates for the natives; and a rich sound design which weaves Stevio Cipriani  funky electric guitar and swirling cocktail jazz score gamely into a tapestry of thumping diegetic jungle drums, chanting, birdcalls, screaming that might or might not be human... and then ---suddenly -- a tiny splash along the water surface that quiets humans, birds, drums, on a dime- and sends the audience and natives alike jerking in its direction. Was that something? Or nothing... whatever you want to call The Giant Alligator, it ain't nothing! 

(1980) Dir. Barbara Peeters
*** (Amazon Image - A-)

It's a kind of Jaws from the Black Lagoon as horny mutant salmon men infiltrate a Northwestern salmon fishing town to propagate with human women. It's all the result of a shady corporation's escaped experiment in fish hormones. Resident bigot Vic Morrow blames the local Native American Johnny Eagle (Anthony Pena), who's been trying to prevent the installation of a fish cannery on his native river. "Good" fisherman Doug McLure and his liberal son stick up for Johnny Eagle. Meanwhile, this is New World so chop chop, the monsters keep a-striking (Denise Galick, Cindy Weintraub and Lynn Theel are some of the unfortunate human women) and a cannery-sponsored genetic scientist (Ann Turkel) shows up to investigate (they're her 'children', so to speak). Directed by a woman, the monster rape scenes don't pack any kind of misogynistic undertone, so they don't traumatize innocent me like most such scenes do (they're so pre-cognitive deep id impulse they transcend morality, especially at the beach where feminine curves are so prominently displayed against the surging tides). Here, bathing suit tops may fly off but the girls never lose their dignity or resourcefulness -- even the scantily clad Miss Salmon (Linda Shayne) stops screaming long enough to bash her attacker's brains out with a rock.

To me, the most objectionable thing in the film is that a smirky toe-headed ventriloquist (David Strassman) almost gets it on with a naked fan in a tent, his puppet poking suggestively through the zipper of his bag. Yikes! Objection!

Whatever, a fast hour in, and boom all hell breaks loose in one of the best monster attacks on a local waterfront salmon festival in cinematic history.  The monsters themselves are good enough to not be bad, but not bad enough to be genuinely scary- with their long arm extensions and habit of swaying back and forth like bad Igor impressionists who just fell in a vat of sea weed, their incessant sexual aggression is almost refreshing in its innocence.  James Horner's subtle but familiar score of eerie strings and harp glissando stabs hurries things along and the moody Daniel Lacambra cinematogrpahy captures the Pacific Northwest's swirling mist and the deep reds of Cindy Weintraub's undershirt (above left).

The last two are straight up local-boy Times Square bill-filler grindhouse... 
one flight up from home movies... so it makes sense they're last, and least, 
but in their lousiness... a lumbering lordly luminescence.

(1972) Dir. Eddie Romero
**1/2 - Amazon Image - A-

A Philippines jungle-filmed combination The Most Dangerous Game and Island of Dr. Moreau this is one of the better in a series of John Ashley-starring, Eddie Romero-directed Filipino horror movies from the early 70s (another Beast of the Yellow Night is also on Prime). This time Ashley's a gentleman adventurer abducted off his yacht by the mysterious Dr. Gordon (Charles Macaulay) so he can use transfer parts of Ashely's personality into wild animal people he keeps locked up in an underground cave below his heavily-guarded mansion. His daughter/assistant Neva (Pat Woodell) examines him in several sexy scenes, falls for his weird ersatz Elvis/James Dean/Ricky Nelson hybrid looks, groovy sideburns, and Steve McQueeny coiled cobra stillness; soon he's coming and going as he pleases, following Neva on her chores, looking askance at the poor caged animal creatures, including most famously, Pam Grier as the leggy panther woman (a highlight). The Bat Man, too, is awesome, especially once he gets the hang of flying with so much extra weight. Other animal-hunan hybrids are less successful, especially the unfortunate 'Antelope Man' whose mask paint is still wet.

Soon Neva and our hero are in love, then leading an escape through the caves, animal people armed with M-1 rifles, while Matt takes Dr. Gordon hostage at gunpoint in a separate direction to throw the grinning towheaded homosexual security guard Steinman (Jan Merlin in a great, slithery, teeth-clenched performance) off the scent. The all-night into the next day chase to the coast through the thick green jungle is on, with Grier's panther woman leaping down from trees upon hapless Filipino henchmen and ripping their throats out, and other less amazing but still worthwhile sights. Woodell gets one of her weirdest scenes as she tries to keep order with the animal coterie while alone with them deep in the jungle, trying to teach Grier's panther woman to share lunch with the dog woman, and to stop the monkey man from trying to rape her while she sleeps (all under a yellowish-green day-for-night filter). Meanwhile Ashley putters along in another part of the jungle, watching from behind rocks in a flutter of poor judgement and inactivity.

I admit it, in the past I've found these Filipino movies claustrophobic and oppressive-- I could feel the humidity and bugs, the sheen of moisture on every surface-- but here the colors are all popping and the air is fresh and clean. The image, which is surely from the recent Twilight Time Blu-ray, is delectable: the color correction cranked to eleven so everything glows with a deep ochre patina inside and a deep jade green outside, the overwhelming jungle at dawn. Traversed via cross-island chase, Steinman clearly relishing the chance to stretch his hunter muscles as he lopes off in pursuit and a nicely offbeat score pulses with pizzicato strings, bongos, rolling high-hats and jazz bass. There may be a lot of unanswered questions at the end, but who cares? The sight of sexy Woodell leading her armed animal coterie through the moodily-lit tunnels and out into the lush green jungle evokes both Yeux sans Visage and and--with her gorgeous long legs and game for whatever attitude--the sight of sexy Panther Woman Grier leaping from the guard's throat to the next is most reassuring, as are the startlingly impressive tracking shots of effect of the bat man flying through the trees and around the mansion, striking terror into the hearts of everyone but us, who may be too busy laughing and/or snoring by then. Life isn't always this good - better grab it whilst ye may.

The last two, the real dregs of the marquee, passeth next - beware!
(1974) Dir. Michael Findlay
*1/2 / Amazon Image - B

Terrible pacing, incredible acting, inept framing, confusing reaction shots, and a stop-start classical music library (Berlioz?) score all combine to make a truly Wagnerian chronicle of four dimwitted college students and their professor Dr. Karl (Tawm Ellis) spending a weekend on the hunt for the infamous Yeti at the prof's remote island upstate NY island (don't ask). The "beast" got away from him the last trip (not before killing all but one of his students). This year, Karl is Ahab-level obsessed at getting another shot. The sole survivor of the last expedition raves and rants at a nearby college party attended by cute girl Jennifer Stock [above] while her towheaded idiot boyfriend is being taken by Karl to eat at an "exclusive" restaurant, where he drops some creepy hints. Is Karl a Count Zaroff or just gay and creepy? I won't tell you! It's best you go into it as I did, cluelessly, just agog at the mix of home movie roughness, odd bits of beauty (cheap as the film stock is, the transfer is clearly in HD with deep lovely blacks) and a general level of awfulness that passes the sublime mark and just keeps on going.

Along with wife Roberta (she was the DP, under the nickname 'Wings' in the credits), Shriek's director Mike Findlay is one of those legendary figures of the Times Square triple bill era, straddling the line between underground avant garde and home movie Adults-only (pre-XXX) marquee-fillers.  Times Square denizens would flock to see these because Times Square denizens were in them. Shriek may not have images of the Deuce but it captures an uneasy de ja vu about paranoid nightmares and psychotic breakdowns, moments where you honestly aren't sure if the inconsistencies going on around you are because they're all out to get you, you're just tired and paranoid, or the film you're in is so disjointed it becomes like a nightmare from which you are actually awakening as your character.

In the words of Rosemary Woodhouse, "this is no dream! This is really happening!"

But Rosemary's dreams never had a character like the Tim Carey-esque Ivan Agar as Dr. Karl's mute body building "Indian," Laughing Crow. Chopping wood in the yard, never speaking, he seems like the inspiration for the guy in Jordan Peele's Get Out. As the Marilyn Burns / Rosemary character, Jennifer Stock plays only sane one on the hunt, but Dr. Karl convinces the others to think she's just paranoid and needs to lie down. As for Stock herself, her super long straight auburn hair, black cape, and terrible acting skills combine to startling final girl effect. As the only 'human' in the cast, the only one with any sense of what's happening, the only one with great 70s hair, we're right along with her.

Shoddy as it may be, the film works because when the acting is really bad it brings out a whole extra nightmare level to duplicitous characters: you don't trust them but is it because the actor is inept or the character is genuinely evil? As for the yeti, though it looks like a homeless guy in a sheepdog costume, to see it leaping around the woods is to laugh with delight, and just when you're expecting a Scooby Doo- denouement it goes way darker, and then brings in a HAM radio!

Apparently this is the restored version, so there's finally previously edited out random bits like a dying wife crawling along with a toaster across the bathroom floor to hurl it into her husband's bath, and a head-scratching decapitation prologue that will leave you wondering whether the the coconut with a Halloween mask on falling into the swimming pool was meant to be ceremonial (like some effigy) or a human sacrifice that's just really really badly done? Then it hit me - that's what this kind of shit's all about - film is itself ceremonial. That cocoanut scene looks so familiar I feel like I shot it myself for a super 8mm Conan-inspired film Alan and I did in 1981 (ours just rolled onto the grass - we didn't have a pool). That's 'uncanny' all right. It even looks like the same mask! Maybe it's even the same cocoanut (though our film was made some 8 years later and I don't think they last that long).

As we can never be sure if the movie is intentionally bad--as in things aren't matching up for a reason that will be revealed later, etc.--or just good at depicting the interiority of a woman losing her mind (ala Repulsion), or we're just losing our mind (ala Dementia), the film rests in uneasy limbo rare for even a well-made production. When key things seem to be missing in a scene we can't tell if it's red herring, danger signals, or directorial incompetence --is this not the root of childhood nightmares? Adults can always make us think it's our fault, that we're wrong, when we're kids - that we're just missing a piece of the big picture. It's their reality after all - we're just forced to live in it. That feeling never goes away altogether, even into adulthood, and a really good (or really, really bad) director can tap into it. Nothing is scarier than being dependent on an incompetent adult caregiver. Thus we're squarely with poor Karen, at the mercy of one of the stupidest most passive and gullible boyfriends in the history of stupid gullible boyfriends, a guy who lets the professor convince him that cutting up her friend to use as bait in yeti traps is perfectly natural- that she's hysterical for even complaining.

And the final act, with all the round robin dingus dialogue, and the hilariously chilling round of 'forking', is straight up from the pages of my own childhood nightmares.

Here his timbers shivered, unsoundly!

(1972) Dir. Andy Milligan
* / Amazon Image - A

There's nothing quite as matter-of-taste as Andy Milligan. The off-off Broadway theater geek's Ed Wood, this Long Island misanthropist was a master of conjuring Victorian era mise-en-scene from NYC storefronts and old mansions, then filling the halls with long staid dialogue scenes and sudden punches of unconvincing gore. He had a connection with the Times Square distributors and his rough films went up at back-end fillers on all-night marquees mere minutes after being printed. For this oddly-named 1972 gem, the acting is surprisingly good, or at the very least, spirited, with something of the flavor of Rocky Horror Picture Show if it had no music or sense of spirit (yes - I realize that makes no sense) or if John Waters' company tried to do a straight Dark Shadows soap opera version of House of Usher while coming down off a solvent-huffing bender. Jackie Scarvelis stars, wearing a punishingly un-Victorian amount of white eye shadow and heavy black eyelash mascara as Diana Mooney, a doctor who's returned home to her cursed ancestral estate. (Those eyelashes are the scariest thing in the movie - you keep waiting for them to stick shut ... forever) Her new, urbane British husband Gerald (Ian Innes)--an unemployed 'painter'-- soon learns the family is all afflicted with lycanthropy and Diana is supposed to be busy working on a cure (it's why she was sent to med school on the patriarch's dime). The family is a real mixed bag of decaying nutcases that make the Merryes seem bright: the youngest is kept chained in his room and fed live chickens; the bedridden old father (Douglas Phair) drinks his every line like its Chatet Moulingon Blanc instead of Four Roses; Joan Ogden is the older sister who's sort of stepped in as the mother, and--my new favorite actress-- Hope Stansbury as the homicidal sister, Monica Mooney (below right).

A sexy willowy morass of Virginia Merrye and Mary Woronov (tall, assertive, and unafraid to project badass crazy without quotes), Stansbury's Monica is a homicidally-amped young woman eager to own a horde of man-eating rats so she can name one Ben and later shout "Tear 'em up!" as was the big catch phrase from the year before, in case you forgot (see intro). The rats element (she buys a bunch to eat up her perceived rival Diana) seems like it's coming -- we see some rats at the 'rat store'--but they don't really arrive or 'tear' anyone up - at least not that we see (there's a part where she shouts her version of the line and the screen goes red, but that's it). Anyway, the lack of  rat attacks onscreen is hardly false advertising (the movie title never promises they'd arrive, only that they're coming)Supposedly the producer wanted some rats added in re-shoots to capitalize on Ben, the Willard sequel released the same year, but the rat craze abruptly ended, Ben bombed, and the Exorcist-fueled devil craze began. Oh well, that's show biz! (1) If Rats are Coming! sat on the shelf another year before William Mishkin released it, it would probably be called  The Exorcist vs. the Werewolves or something - and scenes of a priest trying to exorcise Monica would be added and the scenes of her buying rats from a guy with half his face and one arm eaten off would be cut. In other words, this film is versatile!

Getting back to Stansbury, though. With her pale skin, long straight black hair, willowy physique and habit of darting around all amped up and giddy with hammy homicidal rage, teasing her deranged brother, chopping up her neighbor friend after she tries to blackmail her, or lunging out at her sister from the wardrobe closet with  a knife, she's a perfect embodiment of the Victorian era devil girl - moving so fast the camera has a hard time keeping up with her. Does Melora Cregar or Dame Darcy know about this movie? They must. If not, they must be told! Where's my teletype?

Alas, Stansbury's scenes are strictly supporting compared to the 'good' sister Diana and her hunky mellow husband - both of whom do a surprisingly fine job with the material, those lashes aside. Most scenes are single shot set ups between two hammy actors trying to make a short theater piece out of every exchange, no matter how slight to the story or meandering and repetitive the lines (or improv cues). No one can ever just buy silver bullets (a rare glimpse of Milligan as the gunsmith), they have to endure pages of Victorian shopkeep small talk as if Milligan thinks he is going to stumble on becoming Dickens or Todd Browning through sheer disconcerted effort.

When enough of such scenes accrue, there's a rushed, gory, poorly edited (censored, with gore restored?) climax of gore and blood that happens so fast after all the endless two-person talking shots, your head spins. Frankly, it's awesome. Milligan's habit of shooting on 16mm and 35mm as his film stock 'ends' arrive, coupled to his Kuchar-style ability to mask lack of  budget with colored plastic sheets (which also show up as costume accoutrements), the way his whites assume a death green pallor from blowing up 16mm to 35mm, I don't know - it just works. Unlike all the other crap in the crap bins, it's never boring, and you either want to keep hunting more down, or never want to read his name again. Show Rats alongside a typical Derek Jarman from the same period and art critics would have to be awake to tell them apart. Don't even bother wondering why or how this managed to be art, just dig the underground vibe, the way the camera spins and falls over when gore scenes come, as if the only time Milligan's camera can face gore is in passing by as he's running past it in the opposite direction. (except for a gruesome scene of Monica actually killing an innocent little mouse. Unforgivable? Perhaps, but it's the kind of thing underground films had to have, shocks!)

That's the trick maybe to all these films. Imagine seeing Rats on some late afternoon in the old 42nd St. grindhouse district back in 1972, nodding off on cheap smack in the back row and keeping your hand on your switch blade in case someone sits behind you and tries to lift your stash. Floating there in space, the whirr of the projector audible along with the sound of rain coming in from various leaks in the roof, is that not the best seat in the house to watch the worst movie in the world? Watching Werewolves today I keep wondering, why is this not a musical by now? The book writes itself, and having written, runs to America to shoot extra rat footage. Maybe it's because Milligan is already dead of AIDS (would he were alive in the age of director commentaries), a fact that once again makes us all grateful to John Waters for his years of relative monogamy (and/or caution). Milligan is gone but Waters' longevity has led to his deserved status as one of American independent cinema's true national treasures. His Female Trouble is coming soon on Criterion!! Milligan's Werewolves, on the other hand is here! 


Also check out these old Prime Lists, don't miss a one! Some won't be around for long. Some are gone! New ones come!

3/17: International Hallucinosis Pt. 1 - 12 Weird/Cool Italian Films streaming free on Prime
12/16: I never said it wasn't terrible: 10 Sci-Fi Curiosities on Amazon Prime
10/16: 13 Best or Weirdest Occult/Witch movies on the Amazon Prime
10/16: Taste the Blood of Dracula's Prime: 12 Psychotronic Vampire Films on Amazon Prime

1. You can still find rat and vermin (tarantulas) swarms devouring people in an array of post-Willard movies, from Italy (Rats; Night of Terror, Inferno, The Beyond). Italy always held onto trends a bit longer than us.
2. See Halloween, Darkness and Tick-Tockality; Phantasm
3. See my bigfoot time traveller hypothesis posited to Joe Rogan Bigfoot is Real but Isn't Here. 
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