Monday, October 31, 2022

Cardboard Science: 3 Guys, A Girl, And A Sunken Place

Year: 1959
Director: Henry Levin
Cast: James Mason, Pat Boone, Arlene Dahl
Run Time: 2 hours 9 minutes

An as quickly as it came, another October has gone. Happy Halloween, everybody! Here is the final entry in my annual crossover with Hunter Allen at Kinemalogue, where I assign him 3 Census Bloodbath slasher films from the 1980s and he assigns me 3 Cardboard Science sci-fi B-movies from the 1950s! He promised me he was going to go a little easier on me than last year, and so far he's one for two, considering I didn't really dig Tarantula but thought The Amazing Colossal Man was quite darling. I've heard it said that two out of three ain't bad, so let's see how he did!

So far, so good.

Journey to the Center of the Earth is adapted from the Jules Verne novel of the same name, following the Scottish geologist Sir Oliver Lindenbrook (noted Scotsman James Mason) just after being knighted. His student Alec McEwan (noted Scotsman Pat Boone) celebrates this by giving him a present, which is a rock. Geologists sure know how to party. When Lindenbrook looks closer at the rock, he realizes it is evidence of a scientist who vanished many years ago while searching for an access point to the center of the Earth. 

Mere moments after getting engaged to Lindenbrook's niece Jenny (noted Scotswoman Diane Baker), McEwan is whisked off on an expedition with Lindenbrook to a remote mountain in Iceland. Along with rival scientist's widow Carla Göteborg (Arlene Dahl), local farmer boy Hans (actual Icelandic person Peter Ronson), and his duck Gertrude (Gertrude), they embark on an expedition that will take them deep underground for the better part of a year, in which they will face countless dangers including rock slides, flooding, giant lizards, and the evil Count Saknussemm (Thayer David), who claims this land as his own because his father got there first and then immediately died.

This is just how white people do things.

So, here's the thing about Journey to the Center of the Earth. These fools had money to burn. Rather than being an insignificant little tossed-off B-picture filmed in black-and-white in the scrubland outside Santa Clarita, 20th Century Fox threw a huge budget at Journey and shot it in Carlsbad Caverns in CinemaScope with full color. This film is big, both in the literal and figurative sense. The CinemaScope frame emphasizes the grandeur of the real-life cave settings and the soundstage sets alike, frequently making the characters only minor presences onscreen in order to allow the audience to drink in everything around them. There is also just a generally strong visual sense, even in the pre-journey sequences (in fact, my favorite shot is probably Mason reading a newspaper while walking down the street during a bagpipe parade).

Does this mean it's inherently better than the B-pictures I've covered for this project? Fuck no. It's no Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Fly or even It Conquered the World. Those films are scrappy and force their lack of budget to work for them, as opposed to this one that is just dripping in sheckles and doesn't feel the need to bother with anything so substantial as well-rendered creatures or a thrilling conflict. Although the characters do get in their fair share of scrapes, the film (as necessitated by the source material) is incredibly episodic and doesn't really lead anywhere. It just kinda gets bored of doing stuff and then ends, after two rather long hours.

This is not necessarily a bad thing, though I think you'd be forgiven if you were upset that Journey to the Center of the Earth was more interested in being a shaggy hangout movie rather than a proper swashbuckling adventure. However, here's the thing. It knows its strengths. The adventure portions of the film start just fine and feature some very nice cavern photography goosed up by otherworldly production design, but they get more and more anemic as it goes along (this is especially true when the "Dimetrodons" show up, as played by poorly composited lizards that look palpably bored to be there, but the moment they actually reach the titular center of the Earth is perhaps the flattest in the movie), but the character dynamics hold up throughout, even if twenty minutes easily could have been cut out of the final run time.

Well, from other scenes. Not from this one.

When you boil it all down, Journey to the Center of the Earth is a tremendously goofy movie, affably kidding around with plenty of out-and-out comic moments. Some of them are pretty cartoonish, even, like the scene where the two leads are trapped in a silo and hear Gertrude's beak tapping against the wood, whereupon they assume someone is delivering them a message in Morse code. And some of them are more clever and dialogue driven, including a play on the word "inadvertent" that I rather enjoyed. It is not often that a Cardboard Science features a single joke that lands, let alone a slew of them. While comedy is one of the most subjective mediums there is, this really worked for me personally. But I can't imagine any person with a good heart failing to enjoy a scene that presents, for instance, James Mason sliding down a ramp into a pile of feathers.

This makes its failings as a genre film more forgivable, especially when compounded with the fact that it Journey generally luscious to look at in any scene that doesn't feature giant lizards. I suppose I should mention the actors as well. Dahl and Mason both know exactly what kind of movie they're in and calibrate their performances well, as Boone delivers a charmingly dopey lead performance while drifting in and out of a Scottish brogue as gossamer thin as a cobweb (Mason wisely does not attempt an accent even a little bit). They shoehorned in some songs to keep Boone happy, and those moments are always extremely peculiar, but they do at the very least provide texture to a film whose runtime demands some.

All in all, I had an extremely enjoyable time sitting through Journey to the Center of the Earth. Will you? Fuck if I know. If you're looking for a more action-packed affair, stick with the Brendan Fraser one, but if you're just looking to take a nice warm bath in some late '50's nonsense, you could do a whole hell of a lot worse.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
*The cartoon fwing noise that the magnetic poles make when divesting the characters of their gold is truly adorable.
*I'm sorry, but I fail to see how those backpacks are big enough to carry a supply of salted beef that would last 256 days.

The morality of the past, in the future!:
*Sir Lindenbrook takes every opportunity when talking to Carla to make this film into a terrible sitcom about the battle of the sexes.
*It is heavily implied that the Count is evil because he is (gasp) a socialist.
*You may have already noticed the flavor of the screenshots I have been sharing throughout, but there's a word to describe this film and it's not hetero-erotic.

I can't quite put my finger on it.

*Producer Charles Brackett reportedly said he wanted to make a film this silly and adventure-driven because "I'm tired of all these films based on thoughts at the back of sick minds." He must not have been a fan of Queen of Outer Space, huh?
*There is an incredibly random moment where Count Saknussemm quotes Poe's "little slices of death" line, uncredited. I really don't know what to do with that, so I'm putting it here.

TL;DR: Journey to the Center of the Earth is pretty anticlimactic and certainly too long, but possesses a genial spirit that keeps it buoyant and lively.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1315
Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
2022: Tarantula (1955) The Amazing Colossal Man (1957)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)
2020: Night School (1981) The Fan (1981) Madhouse (1981)

Monday, October 17, 2022

Cardboard Science: My Giant Fiancé, Season 2

Year: 1957
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Cast: Glenn Langan, Cathy Downs, William Hudson
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes

The second entry in our annual Great Switcheroo with Hunter Allen of Kinemalogue (in which I task him with 3 '80s slasher reviews and in exchange he assigns me 3 '50s B-movies) takes us to 1957 and The Amazing Colossal Man. It's this year's entry from notorious director Bert I. Gordon, boasting a screenplay co-written by Gordon (who, at the time of release, was just three months out from having delivered more or less the exact same premise in the abominably stupid The Cyclops) and Mark Hanna (who, at the time of release, was about seven months away from delivering more or less the exact same premise in the minor masterpiece Attack of the 50 Foot Woman).

And you know what? It reads exactly like a movie written by both the Cyclops guy and the 50 Foot Woman guy.

The Amazing Colossal Man opens with the military testing a brand new plutonium bomb in Desert Rock, Nevada (not to be confused with Desert Rock, Arizona from Tarantula, a film that has provided fodder for an incredibly specific double feature this month). After the bomb's chain reaction has been set off, it doesn't detonate properly, and the soldiers who are holed up in a nearby trench for some reason are forced to wait until it either goes off or enough time has passed that it becomes disarmed. Unfortunately, this is the exact moment that a small civilian aircraft crash lands right at the foot of the bomb, so the intrepid Lt. Col. Glenn Manning (Glenn Langan) disobeys orders and rushes to the rescue right when the bomb goes off, exposing him to a whole hell of a lot of radiation. 

For his troubles, all of Manning's skin and hair is scorched off, though doctors are astonished when it grows back within a single day. Unfortunately, the new out-of-control growth of his body's cells is paired with an inability for his old cells to die, causing him to grow at a rate of 8 to 10 feet per day (something that doctors have established after he reaches a total height of 18 feet in 2 days, which - considering the fact that he certainly started at a height of about 6 feet - leads me to suspect that maybe we actually shouldn't take their word for it). While his fiancée Carol (Cathy Downs) attempts to keep him tranquil while doctors seek a cure, he begins to despair that he will never return to the world that is rapidly shrinking away from him.

What a hulk! One might even be tempted to call him incredible!

Any time math or science is touched on, The Amazing Colossal Man accomplishes the amazing feat of making every other '50s sci-fi movie look like a pristine, peer-reviewed thesis. I wouldn't dream of sitting here listing all the ways this movie calls upon square-jawed actors to utter the most garishly stupid thing you've ever heard as if it's a basic fact of the world. Especially because there's already a place for that later on in the review. But trust me, it's outrageous, and really won over my bad movie-loving heart.

In every other respect, The Amazing Colossal Man is actually... kinda good? It's certainly good on the scale of this kind of low budget B-movie, even if it can't achieve the elegant heights of actual great movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Blob. For one thing, it's able to include the title monster a lot more often than a lot of similar projects, because there's no makeup necessary for Langan (nor really a costume - he's in a big 'ol loin cloth for 85% of the movie), and they can make him look big as long as they shove him in a room with some tiny props and keep people from joining him in the frame too often.

For another thing, Langan is delivering a committed and rather unusual performance. Although the character loses his mental faculties at about the point that he goes on a rampage around old-timey Las Vegas, he is otherwise completely coherent while considering his fate. In the hands of any other B-movie actor or screenplay, Manning would probably either face his fate with grit and determination or maniacal panic. Langan finds a completely different route, channeling Manning's rage into the quiet simmer of a man who has already realized his fate is sealed and is only capable of bottling his feelings within gallows humor. This is a much more quiet and contemplative character than a movie like this should even be capable of delivering (see The Cyclops, which handles more or less the exact same character by turning him into a vicious groaning ogre). The last time a movie performance zagged on me so hard from what I would have expected from the character on paper, it was Rebecca Hall in The Night House, and I don't just throw around that comparison lightly.

Although Manning could probably throw ANYTHING around lightly, if he wanted to.

Also, The Amazing Colossal Man is quite capable of drumming up moments of tension, which are generally few and far between in Cardboard Science. While almost every entry we've covered is nominally a horror film, it's not often that the films can reach through the many decades of horror cinema between then and now to really shake up any modern viewer. But it has a little something for both gorehounds (some excellent burn makeup, for one thing, and a war flashback with a gruesome scene shooting an enemy soldier in the face) and people who love simmering tension.

That Schrödinger's Bomb opening is genuinely quite tense, and it's followed by a rather thrilling sequence of "women's picture horror" involving Carol trying desperately to find out what happened to her fiancée and is met with a brick wall everywhere she asks. She gets sidelined pretty quickly after that, but nearly everything in the first act works, and the scenes that follow might be patchier more often, but they always err on the side of enjoyable.

Not everything about the giant special effects has aged particularly well. There are moments of bad compositing that make it possible to see objects through the side of his head, for instance. And for some reason, the sound recording in any scene where Carol and giant Manning share the screen is shit awful. But all in all, The Amazing Colossal Man is both well executed within its limits and entirely entertaining. You certainly won't catch me complaining about that.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
*I've already harped on the delightfully bad science, but this film also doesn't seem to realize that we already did use plutonium in atomic bombs, so it wasn't really necessary to test it out.
*Now that we're talking about it: Holy shit, how glorious is the reveal that his heart is growing slower than the rest of the body because - as everybody knows - the heart only contains one single cell? 
*Another particularly fishy moment comes when Manning reaches 10 times his height and a total of 18,000 pounds because apparently he has the density of a dying star.

The morality of the past, in the future!:
*When the men are waiting to see if a plutonium bomb within a couple hundred yards from them will detonate, one asks if he can smoke. And he's told "yes, of course you can!"
*It was deeply weird to see a Swift delivery truck show up in one scene, being all 1950s. 

*Was naming the news reporter H. Wells stupid or charming? I vote both.

TL;DR: The Amazing Colossal Man is an entertaining lark with just enough bite to propel one through its morass of hilariously awful junk science.
Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1313
Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
2022: Tarantula (1955) The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)
2020: Night School (1981) The Fan (1981) Madhouse (1981)

Monday, October 3, 2022

Cardboard Science: Over A Barrel

Year: 1955
Director: Jack Arnold
Cast: John Agar, Mara Corday, Leo G. Carroll
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes

It's that time of year again! The leaves are turning colors (if you live somewhere other than California, at least) and the weather has cooled (again, if you live elsewhere - it is currently 90 degrees as I'm writing this), and as Halloween approaches, I am once again delivering on my blood pact with Hunter Allen of Kinemalogue. That's right, it's time for the Ninth Annual (that number can't possibly be right) Great Switcheroo, where I give him three of my '80s slasher titles and he generously trades three '50s B-movies. Keep an eye on his blog, where those reviews will be coming a little later in the month. But I like to get a jump on things and start the month big, and what could be bigger than Tarantula?

Tarantula, in addition to being one of the films mentioned in the "Science Fiction, Double Feature" opening number of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is chock full of folks who have cropped up in Cardboard Science entries past. This includes everyone's favorite squarejaw John Agar (the star of none other than The Brain from Planet Arous), Mara Corday (of The Giant Claw), and director Jack Arnold (who brought us both It Came from Outer Space and Creature from the Black Lagoon).

He's so prolific, it's like he's got eight legs or something.

Tarantula follows Dr. Matt Hastings (John Agar) of Desert Rock, Arizona, as he investigates the mysterious death of a man inflicted with an elephantiasis-esque disease. This brings him into the orbit of Professor Gerald Deemer (Leo G. Carroll), who is seeking to discover a nutrient that will feed the Earth's booming population, as well as his beautiful new live-in assistant, Stephanie "Steve" Clayton (Mara Corday). Of course the nutrient causes uncontrolled growth in animals and of course Deemer injects it into a tarantula, because why wouldn't you? There's a fire in the lab and bada bing, bada boom, you've got yourself a giant mutant tarantula taking to the hills.

Pictured: The hills, as played by the same two mile stretch of California scrub where they shot every sci-fi movie for 12 years. And a mutant. We'll put a pin in that for now.

So, I've seen my fair share of giant bug films at this point. We had giant killer ants in Them! and giant killer locusts in Beginning of the End. It would be foolhardy to suggest that I expected the special effects in Tarantula to be any good at all. But I've got say, there's just not a lot of there there, even by the standards of these kinds of movies. 

The shots of the spider roaming through the hillsides are... fine, though they are not numerous. The plate containing the shot of the spider seems a little fuzzy even at the best of times, his feet never really connecting with the ground properly. Now, don't get me wrong, this is all fine. They did what they could with the technology and budget they were working with.

What's most frustrating about the spider - other than the fact that it's kind of a negligible feature of a movie named Tarantula - is that they can think of absolutely nothing to do with it. There sure are a greatdeal of shots of twitching mandibles inching closer to screaming men, but those get old rather quickly, and there just isn't any pizzazz to the sequence where they battle the humongous arachnid. It really makes you miss the dazzling stupidity of something like The Giant Claw's final battle when all you get is three minutes of the military shooting bigger and bigger weapons at the spider until they succeed.

Third time's a charm!

It's not like Them! had a particularly academically rigorous third act, but at least it had folks in the trenches fighting big monsters! Here we are watching people watch a spider get shot three times, and it's a huge radioactive snooze. The movie thrives when it gets smaller, ironically, as there is an incredibly random subplot of human test subjects developing strange mutations. Those effects are solid in exactly the B-movie way you want, and there are also a few shots of caged animals in early stages of growth hormone injection that look quite terrific by any standard.

It's too much to ask that the human plot really carry the weight of a project like this, but the characters here aren't particularly interesting either (with the exception of an extremely minor character - the snooping receptionist Josh). One's knowledge of the genre (as well as the absurdly over-the-top score) might lead one to expect that Agar and Corday are destined to fall in love and at least provide the requisite "they're kissing at the end of the movie even though they've known each other for all of 12 seconds" moment, but that's not in the cards either. Which is transgressive, I suppose, but I rather think it's an accident deriving from the fact that the screenwriters don't seem to care one whit about any of these characters.

Carroll is doing fine work here, providing his scenes with a twinge of menace that the rest of the film is sorely lacking. Otherwise, unfortunately, it's boilerplate all the way down, without enough flavor to make it memorable or even memorably bad.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
*Forget the tarantula, these people need glasses. They drive down the road and then an ominous sting announces the arrival of the tarantula - from the same direction they were driving in. It's physically impossible to not have noticed it. 

The morality of the past, in the future!:
*There's something tremendously 1950s about the opening sequence, where a dying man who is wandering through the desert in his pajamas is still wearing dress shoes and socks.
*John Agar's assertion that being in the desert is so boring it makes couples want to fuck is probably still solid advice. His disgusted comments on giving women the right to vote leading to them becoming scientists less so.
*The worldwide population number that has thrown Leo G. Carroll into such a tizzy is 3 billion. Imagine.

*The most terrifying scene in the movie is an early shot when John Agar enters his office, and an extra on a bench is just watching him with lifeless eyes and the broadest grin on his face, like he's advertising Smile 65 years ahead of schedule.

TL;DR: Tarantula is a boilerplate giant monster attack movie, without too much to recommend it above any of its brethren.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1107
Cardboard Science on Popcorn Culture
2014: Invaders from Mars (1953) The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) Them! (1954)
2015: The Giant Claw (1957) It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) The Brain from Planet Arous (1957)
2016: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) Godzilla (1954) The Beginning of the End (1957)
2017: It Conquered the World (1958) I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) Forbidden Planet (1956)
2018: The Fly (1958) Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman (1958) Fiend without a Face (1958)
2019: Mysterious Island (1961) Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964) Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959)
2022: Tarantula (1955) The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

Census Bloodbath on Kinemalogue
2014: My Bloody Valentine (1981) Pieces (1982) The Burning (1981)
2015: Terror Train (1980) The House on Sorority Row (1983) Killer Party (1986)
2016: The Initiation (1984) Chopping Mall (1986) I, Madman  (1989)
2017: Slumber Party Massacre (1982) Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II (1987) Happy Birthday to Me (1981)
2018: The Prowler (1981) Slumber Party Massacre II (1987) Death Spa (1989)
2019: Phantom of the Mall: Eric's Revenge (1989) Psycho III (1986) StageFright: Aquarius (1987)
2020: Night School (1981) The Fan (1981) Madhouse (1981)

Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Census Bloodbath: It's THE Five

Year: 1985
Director: Richard Casey
Cast: Phil Therrien, Max Manthey, Irene Cagen
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes

Plot: I barely know what Horror House on Highway Five is about, but I'll do my best. Three college students are studying the bizarre experiments of ex-Nazi scientist Frederick Bartholomew, and find themselves in the deadly orbit of the untrustworthy Dr. Mabuse (Phil Therrien), his idiot brother Gary (Max Manthey), and a killer in a Richard Nixon mask, in and around a house that is, if you ask me, rather off Highway 5.

Analysis: Horror House on Highway Five is the reason I don't like to review films by describing the incident of the plot. It's not proper criticism to say "How can you not like a film where a killer in a Nixon mask runs around while college students fight him with rockets and there's a character randomly named after the iconic German expressionist cinema character Dr. Mabuse?" Here's how.

Highway Five is ineptly made to an unbearable degree, presenting dully lit images awash in a reprehensible soundtrack of brain-searing surf rock that doesn't do the least bit to make the film atmospheric or scary. Nearly all of the kills are offscreen or dull, and most of the characters keep refusing to die anyway. 

There are some flashes of good-bad brilliance, especially in the scenes with Gary and his captive Sally (Irene Cagen) refuse to display any level of human brain function; the sequence of him just dropping a full-ass pill into a glass of water, followed by her drinking it and exclaiming that "this beverage is delicious" deeply resonates in my bones. But then there's just a lot of shit that is both nasty and poorly executed, like a scene where a woman is tortured by having a hot iron placed against her breast, a scene that is delivered with absolutely zero foley.

Alas, it's generally a miserable slog that doesn't earn a lot of the praise it might otherwise garner from its tremendous weirdness. 

Killer: Richard M. Nixon AKA Dr. Bartholomew (credited as Ronald W. Reagan)
Final Girl: Louise (Susan Leslie)
Best Kill: If you use a rake in a kill, it's gonna be hard to top it. But Mike falling face first onto a rake is pretty fun, even on the heightened scale of rake kills.
Sign of the Times: The Nixon of it all.
Scariest Moment: The opening pair of kills is kinda OK, if you squint. The part where she is thrown through a glass table is at least squirm-inducing, if not exactly "scary."
Weirdest Moment: Dr. Mabuse suddenly starts exclaiming that there are bugs eating his brain.
Champion Dialogue: “I should be safe with all those little bombs set up around here."
Body Count: 7
    1. Boyfriend is strangled.
    2. Girlfriend is killed out of the frame.
    3. Noo Yawk Guy dies in a car crash.
    4. Noo Yawk Girlfriend dies offscreen.
    5. Mike falls face first onto a rake.
    6. Dr. Mabuse is beaten with a tire iron.
    7. Sally is bludgeoned to death.
TL;DR: Horror House on Highway Five is full of some delirious weirdness, but it's too boring to care all that much about it.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 528

Monday, September 26, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Power Down

Year: 1985
Director: Phil Smoot
Cast: Lash La Rue, Anna Lane Tatum, Cynthia Bailey
Run Time: 1 hour 27 minutes

Plot: The Dark Power, naturally, follows what happens after a Native American mystic dies and his house is sold as dorms to local college girls. The dark forces he was keeping at bay - namely undead evil Toltec sorcerers - emerge one night and wreak havoc, attacking the house, which is now fully inhabited by girls, including Tammie (future Real Housewife Cynthia Bailey), the sole Black resident who is the target of racist ire from one of the other girls.

Analysis: It's really troubling that the Toltec killers, who are depicted almost exclusively using tomahawks and arrows to kill people and being drawn to alcohol in the meantime, is the second most racist thing about The Dark Power. But at least the racism exhibited against Tammie is meant to put us against the white girl perpetrating it. What they're doing with the Native American characters is just crass, but what else can we expect from a decade that also gave us Scalps and The Ghost Dance?

If that kind of screenplay gives you hives, the first hour of The Dark Power isn't going to offer you anything that redeems itself whatsoever. It's a devilishly long and boring setup that introduces as many characters as possible that it can cram into the house to be menaced. So many that it actually forgets to ever kill some of them and lets them wander off with their thumbs up their asses. While the music sporadically farts out 2 to 4 note stings that are then repeated ad nauseam and the camera frequently cuts to exteriors that are blown out by the Southwestern sun, you are treated to reels and reels of absolutely nothing happening, to the point that you almost welcome the racist caricatures when they show up (at the 48 minute mark) because that means something is actually going to happen.

Fortunately or unfortunately, the movie picks up quite a bit in its third act. It's mostly just unfortunate, because it would be convenient to be able to hate every element of this film and dismiss it entirely. But a lot of points in the Final Girl sequence kinda rule, down to the formula-busting fact that there are two main survivors and one of them is a Black woman. But The Dark Power makes a meal out of having two Final Girls, showcasing a siege sequence with both of them fighting off assailants simultaneously in a way I'd never really seen before.

There are also a couple admittedly decent special effects here, especially in the death of one of the boys, who has his face peeled apart by outstretched hands in a tremendously gooey explosion of gore. 

Also, if you didn't know that Lash LaRue was an old Western actor known for his facility with a whip, you sure as fuck are gonna know by the end of the movie. The Dark Power is wall to wall whip stunts, including an absolutely outrageous whip vs. whip showdown at the end. It's not enough to make up for the dismal slog of the bulk of the movie, but it sure is something to behold as long as you're there.

Killer: The Toltecs
Final Girl: Tammie (Cynthia Bailey) and Beth (Anna Lane Tatum)
Best Kill: Let's give Mr. La Rue his due here, because he does pull the head off a Toltec with his whip, which is fucking awesome.
Sign of the Times: When one of the girls is getting gussied up, they joke that she's acting like she's going on a date with Tom Selleck.
Scariest Moment: Holy shit the casual, virulent racism of that character who hates Tammie is bone-chilling.
Weirdest Moment: One girl sneaks downstairs to try to save the silverware.
Champion Dialogue: “As far as I'm concerned, the only gyrating around her is your big mouth."
Body Count: 11
    1. John Cody dies of old age.
    2. Uncle Earl dies offscreen.
    3. Dallas is shot in the chest with an arrow.
    4. Craig is shot in the back of the head with an arrow.
    5. Alan has his face peeled apart.
    6. Lynn is shot in the back with an arrow.
    7. Susan is tomahawked in the throat.
    8. Toltec #1 is stabbed through the back of the head.
    9. Toltec #2 is stabbed through the chest.
    10. Toltec #3 is stabbed in the back.
    11. Toltec #4 has his head ripped off with a whip.
TL;DR: The Dark Power is racist six ways from Sunday, but it does boast a stellar third act showdown.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 766

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Goa Way

Year: 1985
Director: Keshu Ramsay
Cast: Rakesh Roshan, Marc Zuber, Aaloka
Run Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

Plot: Haveli follows an undercover policeman following four suspects of a string of murders to a luxury hotel in Goa, India.

Analysis: A Note: This movie was only available to me in unsubtitled Hindi, so obviously my review is to be taken with a grain of salt, though I have made a point of focusing only on visual styling, music, and slasher structure rather than plot or acting.

So, I haven't really found a place in my heart for the early slashers out of Bollywood, as much as I love Indian cinema in general. However, 1985 seems to be the year that they really pulled out all the stops, between Cheekh and Haveli. This entry hails from another member of the Ramsay family, Keshu, whose brothers Tulsi and Shyam previously collaborated on the largely underwhelming Sannata and Saboot.

He clearly saw what his brothers were doing and felt the same way that I did, because Haveli is the most focused, genuinely slasher-y entry that Bollywood has produced yet. For one thing, the killer is actually delivering kills at a consistent pace and wearing a mask the entire time, which seems like a low bar if you haven't seen as many Bollywood slashers as I have. But also the mask is fucking cool, showing a pale face frozen in a hawklike cry, something like a cross between a Japanese oni and the Bride of Frankenstein.

I wouldn't say there's anything particularly substantial about the kills themselves, but there is always something reasonably exciting happening in Haveli, and for an early '80s low budget slasher that's two hours long, that's no small feat. 

Killer: A Man (shocking)
Final Girl: Not applicable, or at least not really
Best Kill: This one guy is "hanged" for all intents and purposes, but the killer uses their own hands instead of a rope. It's a whole thing!
Sign of the Times: Teased hair on the beach seems like a great idea to me.
Scariest Moment: A man is in his car when the killer smashes the windshield.
Weirdest Moment: The film is randomly set at Christmas, and one musical sequence keeps zooming in on a random giant cutout of Santa Claus.
Champion Dialogue: N/A
Body Count: 8
    1. Woman is drowned in a bathtub.
    2. Car Man is garroted. 
    3. Man is killed offscreen.
    4. Man #2 is hanged with hands.
    5. Man #3 is slashed in an elevator.
    6. Constable is stabbed.
    7. Mustache Guy is shot.
    8. Handcuff Man is defenestrated.
TL;DR: Haveli is another solid slasher out of Bollywood from 1985.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 442

Monday, August 29, 2022

Census Bloodbath: Before You Wreekh Yourself

Year: 1985
Director: Mohan Bhakri
Cast: Javed Khan, Deepika Chikhalia, Birbal
Run Time: 2 hours 11 minutes

Plot: Cheekh opens on the cruel and dictatorial Thakur (Madan Puri) doing cruel and dictatorial things before cutting to many years later. His daughter Deepa (Deepika Chikhalia) falls in love with the sculptor Sunil (Javed Khan of 1989's Khooni Murdaa), but a killer who is clearly seeking revenge for Thakur's past wrongs is lurking around the house. Also, Deepa and Sunil accidentally murder their friend Rohit (Raza Murad), so they must keep anyone from finding the body.

Analysis: A quick note: This film was only available to me in unsubtitled Hindi, so please take my review with a grain of salt. As always, I am focusing on the visual element of the film as well as how well it hews to the slasher formula, which is one that doesn't really require much script retention in the first place.

So it turns out that Bollywood was one of the quickest international cinema spaces to really hop on the slasher trend outside of North America. But after pumping out two films apiece in 1980 (Moodu Pani, Saboot) and 1981 (Sansani: The Sensation, Sannata), India seemed to have tired of the format until 1985 kicked things right back into gear. For my money, I'm glad they did, because Cheekh is the first film out of the five that actually feels like a slasher, which is very exciting.

Mind you, it's not always the best movie qua movies. There is an unfortunate reliance on shakycam when the filmmakers want to drum up some drama, there are a few quite egregious breaks of the 180 degree lines, and the shot of a man's gaze panning back and forth between a jar of poison (labelled, of course, "POISON") and his wife goes on for what feels like minutes too long. Oh, also there's a recurring gag that I believe is meant to be comedic where the punchline is that a woman is repeatedly sexually assaulted. Whee.....

That all definitely takes points off for Cheekh, but believe you me I've sat through much worse for this project. And as far as Bollywood slashers go, this is the cream of the crop. It's got a much better distribution of kills than the previous entries, keeping the pace up throughout, and even including a heaping helping of honest to God chase sequences! There may be a few too many scary moments that turn out to be pranks (including one that, if it happened in real life, would absolutely shatter the friendship between these people), but honestly that's still pretty consistent with the slasher formula. All that's missing is people doing impressions that are 30 years too old for them, and it's entirely possible that they did and I just missed it.

Finally, I'm proud to report, Cheekh is effectively scary more often than not. It's incredibly effective at drumming up nightmare imagery when it wants to, whether it's the material around Sunil hiding Mohit's body by slathering him in plaster and turning him into a sculpture, the scene where a medium accesses the spirit realm with a glowing red crystal ball, or several of the dynamic, quick-cutting sequences that blend chases with other frantic movement (especially dancing, because this is a Bollywood movie, after all). It's true that Cheekh is being graded on a scale that is heavily weighted toward 3/10 to 5/10 movies, but I had a blast with this one and that can't be discounted.

Killer: Deepa's Friend!
Final Girl: Deepa (Deepika Chikhalia)
Best Kill: I'm a sucker for any movie character in a wheelchair being dumped down the stairs, which is a real meat and potatoes murder movie classic.
Sign of the Times: Deepa's friend pranks her by dragging her into the water with her, which is not something you can do lightly in the age of cell phones.
Scariest Moment: The statue that Sunil has made of the corpse seems to come to life and chase Deepa.
Weirdest Moment: A woman takes a bath, wearing a full bra and panty set that is just getting drenched.
Champion Dialogue: N/A
Body Count: 11
    1. Killer's Dad is stabbed in the gut.
    2. Killer's Mom is stabbed in the gut.
    3. Thakur has his wheelchair pushed down the stairs.
    4. Man is burned to death.
    5. Rohit is shot accidentally.
    6. Woman is stabbed.
    7. Bathtub Lady is whipped or something.
    8. Doctor is killed indistinctly.
    9. Karate Man super jumps and falls onto a blade.
    10. Statue Man dies from various injuries sustained during a prolonged chase.
    11. Deepa's Friend is shot.
TL;DR: Cheekh is far from perfect, but it's the best slasher Bollywood has put out in the '80s so far, in terms of both tension building and nightmare imagery.
Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 798