Thursday, April 13, 2017

King Kong 1933 directed by Merian C. Cooper

The story, which has become the basis of most of the later King Kong remakes, is simple. A down on her luck actress is hired by a somewhat sketchy film producer to star in an adventure film on a mysterious lost island that only he knows how to find. When they get there, they discover a lost world of savage natives and prehistoric animals ruled over by a legendary figure - King Kong. The natives capture the actress in order to sacrifice her to Kong but when he arrives, he is smitten with her and take her into his care, fighting all sort of creatures as her human love interest follows and attempts to free her. When he succeeds, they rush back to the boat with Kong in hot pursuit and the monstrous ape is captured and brought back to New York City to be exhibited as the 8th Wonder of the World. Opening night the beast escapes, gets the girl back and flees to highest structure he can find, in this case the Empire State Building where he is shot down by bi-planes and falls to his death.

Kong’s lasting popularity, I will argue, stems completely from his first film appearance. Not one of the re-boots comes close to the original. The monstrous ape is not so monstrous in the hands of legendary animator Willis O’Brien who infused a small puppet moved one frame at a time with such real emotion and personality that he became not an amazing special effect but as real as any human actor that has graced the silver screen.

The 1933 film started not just the legend of Kong but giant monster movies in general. This film developed a look and style of its own - partly from the limits of the era and partly from the incredible imagination of Willis O’Brien who not only animated Kong and the other creatures but did the matte paintings and overall design. Skull island is at once a real place and a fantasy world. 

On release, this film was a blockbuster. No one had ever seen anything like it and they flocked to theatres for a decade… literally. The film was re-released in 1938, 1942 and again in 1952, a release that out paced not only the previous ones in profits but also most of the new movies released that year. Looking at the movie with modern eyes, it might be hard to imagine, but this was a terrifying  and shocking motion picture, so much so it was censored for violence and sexual content after its debut. My Aunt Helen saw it back then and she often recounted to me how scared she was each time she saw it. It was her favourite film. 

While the film’s effects are legendary, it was also the first film with a totally original music score. The sets of the film were also amazing and were used for another production, The Most Dangerous Game, filmed in tandem and using many of the same actors. 

Is King Kong a perfect film? 

Some might say it’s THE perfect film and it’s hard to argue it isn’t. In its favour is its longevity, the story is still being told and retold as recent as last week. It does have plenty of flaws, but even they are hard to criticize. Kong’s varying size throughout the running length is an often stated problem with the production - but is it? I would say no as the director Cooper deliberately changed the titular character’s height (to the chagrin of Willis O’Brien and the effects team who wanted it to be a real as possible) to match the content of the scene. On the island the great ape is smaller, more human, if that can be said of a monstrous monkey, and in the big city he is 3 times that size to avoid him looking small among the skyscrapers. Kong must look like the king of his surroundings at all times for him to work as a character and frankly, while watching the film you would be hard pressed to notice his leaps in grandeur. The film is just too compelling for the viewer to be distracted by anything but other than what is happening on the screen. The effects are dated, but also they are so stylized looking that Peter Jackson’s 2005 overly long and somewhat over the top remake tried to recreate the look and feel of the 30s version to sell the idea better to modern audiences. Yes, you can see where the animators fingers moved the fur on the puppet as it moves about and the dinosaur designs are out of date by today’s Jurassic Park standards (which are in turn now out of date as well) but it really doesn’t matter one bit. The acting is definitely from it’s time, but it is a style of acting we all accept and in many ways expect see in films. What makes this movie at least seem perfect is how it plays. We buy it all. When Kong breathes is last after falling from the Empire State Building, we feel it in our bones and even though Carl Dedham tells us it was beauty that killed the beast, we know it was us and our pride that brought him to his fate and if he was real today, the same thing would happen. The success of King Kong comes not just from it’s innovation but the universality of it’s story which is just as relatable today as it was almost 85 years ago. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Vandemonium (plus) Ann Magnuson 1987 Cinemax

A lost classic of early cable, this almost impossible to see Cinemax Special is AMAZING. I am a fan of Ann Magnuson, so my enthusiasm is expected and this is the project that endeared me to her early on. I recorded it on VHS and it now resides in a digitized crappy looking file on my computer. 

The story is that of a biker chick (Magnusson) on her way to the red-neck-orama (or something) with her boyfriend (Meatloaf) when she has a terrible accident and flies off the bike and into the world of van art. Trying to find her way home before the show start (Vulcan Death Grip - Also Magnuson) she meets version of Stevie Nicks, Gala Dali, Shirley Maclaine and a televangelist (also all played by Ann). The comedy special also has appearances by Eric Bogosian and Joey Arias as Salvador Dali(!). In the end the good fairy (also Magnuson) appears and tells her she had the power to get home all along. Oh and she has a talking bong throughout. 

So, yes, this 30 minute of WTF, art references and pop culture parody as only Ann can pull off. I, of course, made everyone I ever met watch this so they would understand why I would occasionally scream « ES SURREAL! » and demand to see the « pizza sex machina ». This may not be for everyone, but it’s wildly funny and out there. So why is is impossible to see now?

One reason this has fallen into obscurity might be it’s timing. It wasn’t broadcast at a time where Cinemax could have created a cultural phenomenon out of a 30 minute special from a New York performance artist. Another reason was it might have only been shown once because of some odd controversy from one of the jokes. This is all from my not very strong memory, but there were a lot of AIDS activists upset because the bong tells Ann who has just shook herself out of the televangelist character that they better get out of the TV van quickly « before they find out who we are and sentence us to an AIDS camp ». This was an especially sensitive time for people with AIDS… putting them (and all gay people) into camps was an actual plan the religious right was promoting. However, in another case of humourless and misguided outrage, the fact this was a joke bringing that to light and mocking it - not encouraging it was completely missed. Most of the special still dates well enough but I think this one problem will forever sink the chance of this brilliant special ever getting restored and up for sale again. 

Friday, April 7, 2017



I have been fan of the podcast Welcome to Nightvale for some time and heard about their first show here three years ago the day after it happened. So as you might imagine, I was keen on not missing the show this time. They have had a few and from what I have read all have been very successful - I know the Corona Theatre last night was pretty much full. 

The show is barebones, it's like watching a radio show on stage right down to the cast holding their scripts in their hands and reading directly off the paper. This is in no way a slight to the production, it works really well. You can enjoy the might with no knowledge of the podcast but it helps to be familiar with it as you get much more out of the events that unfold. Cecil Baldwin gives just enough visual performance to keep the live audience laughing and involved but not so much as to alienate those who will listen later when this get puts on iTunes as special audio file. The audience was fairly mixed. Of course the hardcore fans were there - a diverse lot ranging in age and style of dress. It would be easy to be cynical and peg the whole thing as a bunch of pretentious posers putting on a self serving show and I would pity your miserable life. 

The show, like the podcast, is a weird combination of conspiracy theories, Twilight Zone like storylines and truly odd characters who have no idea how odd they are. This is not for everyone, and you aren't a bad person for not liking it but especially live, its hard not to get caught up in the fun everyone is having and how non-judgemental the whole thing is. Be weird - or don't. Participate in worshiping the all power Glow Cloud (ALL HAIL THE GLOW CLOUD) - or don't. The message of the show is one of understanding and how preconceptions and inability to communicate can lead to misperceptions and prejudice. All without being preachy and never straying long from the good natured humour of the cast and writing. 

The musical guest, Erin Mckeown was delightful and in the spirit of the show involved the audience as much as possible.

I don't mean to say the show is perfect, it isn't. I would say it's sort of a "best of" the podcast in some ways, other live shows have had more dense storytelling than this one. I had the impression this might have been rushed into production. Even so, somewhat standard Nightvale is more interesting and funny (and strange) than almost any other live show you might see. The bar is high but it's difficult to feel even slightly disappointed while watching such great troupe of people giving their all and appreciating every minute - as did I. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Gods and Monsters 1998 Directed by Bill Condon

Before Ian McKellen was Magneto and Gandalf and before Brendan Fraser was fighting mummies, they along with Lynn Redgrave, starred in a film about the end of the life of renowned director James Whale who had made many films but was most known for the Karloff Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. The project was based on the book Father of Frankenstein by Christopher Bram. The book was also adapted into a play at one point and it’s easy to see why, it’s a wonder story, not historically accurate or even really a biopic by any means, but a character study of Whale. Fraser play Whales gardener who befriends him, despite Whale’s homosexuality which wasn’t exactly  considered a positive character trait at the time. Redgrave shines as the housekeeper and bears a strong resemblance to Igor in the Frankenstein films, not just by her devotion to the aging director but in some physical traits as well. 

I don’t think anyone would be surprised at how good McKellen and Redgrave are in their roles but Brendon Fraser is really excellent in his part. He looks it, handsome and sexy but not out of place for the epoch in which the film takes place. It’s a shame artistically he didn’t pursue more challenging and interesting parts as time went on. Monetarily it’s pretty obvious he made the right choices but he shows real signs of being able to grow into a great actor in this movie. 

All in all, the story of a gay, almost forgotten filmmaker/artist who is all too aware that his faculties are leaving him and haunted by his fragmented memories not just of his career and youth but of the horrors of World World 1 which he experienced first hand is compelling and touching. While fictitious, the character of the gardener works well as the person who in effect takes us through this story and Fraser does it with charm and real emotion.

The film still evokes an emotional response and if you can find it, read the book as well. The book and film are not completely different, but different enough for one to enhance the appreciation of the other. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Monty Python’s Life of Brian 1979 Directed by Terry Jones

I first saw Life of Brian on opening weekend, in Boston with a small group of friends and a couple hundred nuns and priests trying to see it before the pope banned it. There  were protesters along the line that had formed outside the theatre as people waited to get in to the soon to be sold out showing and the people in line passed the time mocking them. 

The reception to the film by the audience was fantastic, people laughed hysterically and appreciated the style, humour and parody. This is a rare comedy that stands up almost 40 years later. There are some parts here and there that, while still funny, might make some younger, first time viewers cringe as the movie uses some pretty harsh racial slurs at one point. Thing is, it’s obvious to anyone with 2 brain cells that those words are being exposed for how stupid and ridiculous they are. It could be argued that Monty Python had the foresight to inoculate themselves from the sometimes too politically correct present by mocking it in advance and exposing how foolish and self serving some "revolutionists" can be.

Is the film blasphemous?
Nope, it’s not, despite the groaning and moaning from some quarters. In fact, the comedy group could be accused of being overly careful not to offend religious groups. This, as usual, did not stop the film from being banned in many places and - as if often the case - gave the film a publicity boost it might not have had otherwise. The Pythons deeply researched the era and subject of the film while writing it and to be completely honest, it’s many times more historically accurate than ANY of the approved biblical epics produced before it. The film goes out of its way to show that is NOT about Jesus Christ by including him in the film as background and to make the situation of the main character, Brian Cohen, even more funny as he has been mistaken for "the messiah" or "a messiah" on and off since birth - having been born on the manger down the street from Jesus and later when he spouts nonsense pretending to be a street prophet to escape the Roman guards who are chasing him because of some graffiti he wrote. Overall, I would say the film is more political than religious satire.

Is the film funny? 
Oh my god (pardon the pun) is it ever! Its filled with bizarre situations, quotable lines and classic bits. Who doesn’t know the Roman Centurion Bickus Dickus? I don’t know how they accomplish it, but even though all the main actors play multiple parts, you never confuse them and the story moves along quickly - even though by todays standards the editing might be considered less than lightning paced. How many films end with a mass cruxifixction musical number that leaves you singing and whistling?  Only this one! 

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Unholy Films of Dracula

There have been 1000s of films with Dracula as a character in them, maybe 10s of 1000s. The idea of vampires had existed in legends for centuries but the titular character in Bram Stoker’s book created a sensation that continues to this day. With all these interpretations out there, do any honour to the original story? Over the years some do, most do not. Many, though loosely following the plot at best have managed to create something outside Stoker’s original vision. The cinematic impressions have taken over our memories of Dracula and vampires and superseded the novel’s version almost completely. 

So here is a list of some of the major films that in their own way cover the origins of the Transylvanian Count.

La Mort de Dracula (1921)
This film takes place in an insane asylum and involves an inmate that may or may not be  the undead count. So it has nothing to do with the book but it does have the distinction as the first appearance of Dracula on the screen. 

Nosferatu (1922)
Maybe one of the most iconic telling of the tale.The legendary director Murnau has created a tour de force of surreal horror and loosely follows the original story here and there but goes off the track as it approaches the end and takes on a less action oriented finale in lieu of one where Harker’s wife sacrifices herself by tricking the monster to forget the time and be destroyed by the first rays of dawn. 
It’s a miracle we can see this movie at all. The producers did not get the rights from Stoker’s estate and were ordered to destroy every copy. Luckily for humanity, some people managed to hide copies throughout Europe and we are still trying to put together a complete version to this day. The look of the vampire in this film is so iconic and frightening it rivals even the Lugosi idea of the undead.
In the 80s, this was remade with Klaus Kinski by Werner Herzog in both German and English. Well worth seeing. 

Dracula (Todd browning and Spanish version 1931)
Speaking of Lugosi, Universal studio’s entry of the classic tale is likely the most famous and imitated since it’s release. I have to say, and many would disagree I’m sure, that this version is not so great. Lugosi saves the film with his charismatic performance but the often amazing director Todd Browning’s work on the film is terrible. He was apparently drunk or passed out through much of the filming and the Spanish version, lensed at night on the same sets, is a vastly superior film, in my opinion. The actor playing Dracula is fantastic, the editing better and this version even as more effects that Browning never bothered to add into the English version. We never would have been able to see the Spanish take if it wasn’t for a pristine copy being found in Cuba not too many years ago. All other copies had disappeared over the decades. 
Neither version of the film follows the storyline very closely but this version has become the de facto plot most people have come to expect. 

Horror of Dracula (1958)
The first in Hammer’s long series of Dracula films that launched the horror careers of both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Again, the plot of this film cuts and pastes elements from not only the book but from previous films and adds a little more sexiness and blood to the mix. A low budget endeavour, this film benefits from interesting sets and cinematography and the performances of its main actors. It created it’s own look and in a way it’s own horror universe that translated to other Hammer monster films, like Frankenstein and the Mummy

Dracula (BBC 1977)
Louis Jordan plays the count in what is the most faithful of all Dracula films by my estimation. Its overall production value is good and the performances are as well. It’s well worth checking out even though it suffers from some unfortunate effects techniques that take away from the otherwise gothic feel of the project. Specifically, the terrible solarization of Jordan’s face now and then. It seems to be saying, we can do this weird thing with video so why not use it? Because it’s terrible and inappropriate would have my response if I was asked. 

Dracula (Frank Langella - 1979)
In many ways, this production is reminiscent of the Hammer films from a few years earlier in style and substance. The story is a hodgepodge of Dracula lore and mixes and matches from previous efforts. Where the film stands out is in Langela’s take on the count (which he had perfected by playing him for years in the stage production), the music and the set pieces. The film fails in pacing and by not delivering what audiences really wanted at the time, which was a movie version of the hit play. A play, which despite the huge success it was world-wide at the time, has never been revived, at least not so far. I would also say the film is murky in style and lighting - making it difficult to figure out what is happening at points. It sounds a little odd to say, but I think movie lacks a soul - something that would make it relatable and new when it’s a typical gothic horror done in a competent manner that sort of sleep walks its way through the story. One thing it had going for it in spades was the John Williams soundtrack. Haunting, romantic and desperate sounding, it’s worth a listen on it’s own merits. Langella's hair might be a little too feathered....

Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
Francis Ford Coppala’s sumptuous and, face it, batshit crazy adaption of Stoker’s signature novel is visually stunning. Gary Oldman’s over the top performance is worth seeing alone, the rest of the cast seems to sleep walk through their roles and for something called Bram Stoker’s Dracula there is a lot of stuff in it that has absolutely nothing to do with the source material. It adds needless backstory and tries to make the count a victim of his fate, looking for his lost love though the centuries. Oldman has a lot to work with in the role and his vampire walks in the daylight, turns into some sort of bat human thing, has a shadow that (as in Nosferatu) has a life of its own and at one point transforms into some sort of rape-y werewolf - thing. Annie Lennox and Diamanda Galas sing on the sound track which is like a wet dream - for me, anyway. The movie is earnest in its presentation, to say the least, which makes it a little beyond normal criticism. It’s worth checking out but I would have to say, all it’s wonderfully made pieces do not add up to a coherent whole. 

*This film seems to take elements and inspiration in some ways for the 1973 Dan Curtis TV movie of Dracula starring Jack Palance, which is not a bad version of the story but adds in the elements of the historical Dracula and the idea that Lucy is a reincarnation of his lost love. 

Like most film versions of classic tales, Dracula’s legacy is spotty in terms of faithfulness to the author and the original concepts in the book. Also like many adaptions from book to movie, a faithful adaption isn’t always the best one or even possible. I do think the bloodthirsty villain of Stoker’s imagination has fared much better than Shelly’s Frankenstein. Most of those adaption don’t even try to capture the subtle nature of her story and opt for forgetting who the real monster in the story really is. Dracula at least keeps something of his written personality much of the time. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Shout 1978 directed by Jerzy Skolimowski

It seems odd to me that this film never reached cult status considering it’s « cult » bonafides. For example it stars Alan Bates, Susannah York, John Hurt and Tim Curry! The film is certainly weird enough and interesting enough to have gained multiple viewing by motivated audiences.  maybe the recent death of John Hurt will bring it more into the public eye. 

The story is that of a drifter who arrives in a  small seaside town who is taken in by a young couple. Hurt plays a musician experimenting with all sorts of new ways to produce sounds, a profession that the lifter uses to his advantage by telling the musician that he was trained by an Aboriginal shaman to produce a sound, a shout, that will kill any living thing that hears it. 

The mysterious guest, played by Bates, slowly takes over the household including the wife (who has a really bizarre walking on all fours scene) played by York. When the time come to prove his ability… he does, accidentally killing a homeless person sleeping on the beach within range of the terrible shout. 

The film is book ended with shots from inside an asylum where the story is being told as the inmates, all of whom are are featured in the story as Bates narrates while keeping score. This story telling device keeps the viewer off guard as while most of the events are shown as a flashback, there seems to be jumps forward and other directions mixed with the dreamlike imagery of some of the shots.  

The film is not perfect and from a 2017 point of view, there are some problems with the white guy who can learn and master the powers of the aboriginals. Why would they teach him? Why not just hire an aboriginal actor? I wouldn’t accuse anyone involved with racism by any means, but I also had issues with the « Last Wave » (1977)  for similar reasons even though Richard Chamberlain’s roles was better explained than Bates’ was in « The Shout ». I suspect the casting was more a case of who was close and available for this very low budget production.

This film is somewhat hard to see now, no DVD version in North America I can find. Another site stated it was viable in full on YouTube but that seems to have been taken down. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

My Lovecraft films in online festival this week!

All three of my Lovecraft animations are being shown in the CYBERIA VR Film Festival (click for time and instructions on how to see them. Be sure to comment and tell them how cool they!  :)
Tell as many people as you can!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Chinese Ghost Story

Let me start off by saying that I am not, in any way, an expert on Asian Cinema. In the mid to late 80s, as the Laser Disc was becoming a 'thing,' people were more easily able to see foreign movies as regional protection wasn't as big a thing then as it is now. Either that, or it was just easier to buy an Asian Laser Disc Player in the States. In Boston, there was on enterprising young gentleman who nearly single-handedly fanned the flames of interest in Hong Kong cinema. He would wander about in a long, leather trench coat, even in the hottest weather with VHS copies of the latest Chow Yun Fat film, or Tsui Hark masterpiece tucked into pockets like a watch salesman in New York City. At one point, he told me that he had three Laser Disc machines running day and night to keep up with demand for these tapes. When local arthouse theaters, such as the Brattle, would show some of these films, this young gent would wander up and down the line of folks waiting to get inside, offering these movies for sale. He was utterly breaking international copyright law but who was to know? I always thought he'd get caught as he was so brazen but, to the best of my knowledge, he never was.

That brings me to the movie that's the subject of this post, 1987's "A Chinese Ghost Story." My memories tell me that the copy I acquired of this film had no subtitles, though that memory might be wrong. I think, instead, they just weren't very good. The story then seemed muddled and yet I thoroughly enjoyed the goofiness and pathos of this movie. Like many films out of Hong Kong then, and possibly now, it has moments of going over the top. There is quite a bit of wire-fu, spell casting and swordsmanship. This all comes hand in hand with demons of the underworld that make our Western Zombies look pale in comparison. This film manages to tread three narrow lines at the same time; it is equal parts romance, comedy and horror. I recently re-watched this, thanks to YouTube and can say that the film held up quite well.

The plot revolves around a young debt-collector who is rather meek and bad at his job. When he gets to the town that's the focus of his efforts, he can't even collect enough money to put himself up for the night. He's directed to the nearby Orchid Temple, which is known by the locals to be haunted. There he runs into two swordsmen in the midst of a duel. One is driven away, only to be seduced by the lovely ghost of the temple who, in the middle of The Act, calls out to the local ancient evil tree demon/demoness who sucks the life juices from the hapless swordsman. The other leaves the story for now. When the young debt collector sets himself up for sleep, the ghost returns. Her appearance isn't at all ghost-like so the young debt collector mistakes her for a real young woman. Unlike all her other victims, he doesn't look for sex with her and turns aside her advances. When he thinks she might be in danger, he tries to protect her. This causes the ghost to start to fall in love, a condition soon shared by the young debt collector.

From there, the plot generally wanders towards the idea of saving the ghost from her fate while destroying the ancient evil whose major power is her/his amazing extendable tongue. Just when the movie seems to be getting too serious, some form of comedy slides in to bring it around, or we get an exciting fight scene with folks flying all about, tossing off curses and charms, chants that fend of evil powers or a giant tongue that wraps itself around the temple, the fighters or anything it can get itself around.

The ending, too is not the usual Hollywood, happily-ever-after affair though it does seem to be open enough to two sequels. I don't remember them nearly as well, and haven't watched them, partially as this film stands just fine on its own.
The young debt collector
is played by Hong Kong Pop star Leslie Cheung. His was a huge career, being one of the biggest stars of that kind of music in all Asia. Sadly, he died by committing suicide when 46 due to clinical depression. He was also a rarity in that he was a self-declared bi-sexual, something one does not do in that culture.This is the lovely young woman/ghost at the center of the plot:
And this, the male/female tongue-lashing tree demon:
For fans of cinema that wanders outside the usual boundaries, who love to see people flying about unabashedly on wires, latex effects that range from decent to ridiculous, this is a great entry into Hong Kong movies. Luckily, the film is easily available on YouTube. There are surely some cultural bits and pieces that don't translate but I think these obstacles are easily overlooked. This is a film that will make you smile, question and perhaps even tear up a little in equal parts. Enjoy!

Saturday, January 28, 2017

John Hurt (1940-2017)

I first saw John Hurt on TV, in the role of Quentin Crisp in the Naked Civil Servant, on PBS. He played Crisp again decades later in the follow-up film about the last years of Quentin's life called An Englishman in New York. It was a great introduction to an amazing actor. Having met Mr. Crisp a couple times, I can say Hurt's performance was so spot on that if the two of them were in the same room and he was in character, it would be hard to tell them apart. It was a role that could have killed his career. Playing a modern gay dandy as a sympathetic person was not exactly in vogue then, nor is it now - to be truthful.

As Kane in Alien, he gave us one of cinema's most iconic images, but after that film he made The Shout - a weird artsy pseudo-horror film that I was in preparation to write about here when the news of his death reached me. In that role as in  ALL his roles, he shined. His presence in even a terrible film elevate it into something worth seeing for his part in it.

As a genre fan, he has given me plenty to look back on. Winston in the film 1984 (which sadly is becoming the actual world we live in), the leader in V for Vendetta where is plays the opposite of Winston, he was Hell Boy's father, the war Doctor in the series Doctor Who and was the titular character in  the film version of the Elephant Man, maybe his most heart breaking role.

He was a great actor who left us with a lifetime of work to reflect, enjoy and relive as we re-watch his body of work in the coming years. I certainly will be doing just that.