Friday, October 29, 2021

Cardboard Science: My Giant Fiancé, Coming Soon To TLC

Year: 1957
Director: Bert I. Gordon
Cast: James Craig, Gloria Talbott, Lon Chaney Jr.
Run Time: 1 hour 6 minutes

The time has come to turn our eye to the final film in the 8th Annual Great Switcheroo with Hunter Allen of Kinemalogue. The final 50's sci-fi movie he assigned this year is 1957's The Cyclops, from B-movie maven Bert I. Gordon, who we've previously covered in the "giant locust" picture The Beginning of the End, which also came out in 1957. As did his film The Amazing Colossal Man

You can really taste how much care he took with his films, can't you?

The Cyclops is a film set in Mexico, which is a great idea for a white cast and crew who've seen a couple Spanish words and are pretty sure they've got it figured out, no need to check with anyone. Apropos of nothing, this film is set in the fictional town of Guayjorm. 

G U A Y J O R M

If you know the first thing about Spanish, roll that one around in your mouth for a bit. Then spit it into the garbage where it belongs. 

Anyway, the desert outside of *ahem* Guayjorm is the last known location of Bruce, the fiancé of Susan Winter (Gloria Talbott, who would go on to appear in I Married a Monster from Outer Space) who disappeared three years ago when his plane crashed. She has gathered a team of men to bankroll and execute her search mission, though everybody has their own motives for being there. Russ (James Craig) is Bruce's best friend and clearly wants to discover that Bruce is dead so he can have Susan for himself. Marty Melville (the Lon Chaney Jr.) is intent on finding a huge uranium deposit he suspects is located under the mountains. And Lee Brand (Tom Drake) is the pilot. Frankly, I can't remember what he wants. He's just another squarejaw to have on hand to gawp at things.

Pretty quickly, but not quickly enough for a 66 minute film, they discover that the desert is irradiated and all the creatures that one might find at one's local pet store have grown to enormous size. They also discover a save where a giant cyclops mutant resides, just a stone's throw away from the wreckage of Bruce's plane. The idea that the irradiated monster might be what has become of Bruce is floated exactly eight minutes before the end of the movie.

Y'all. Get with the program. I haven't even met Bruce, and I know this is him.

I think I'll start with what I like about this film. Don't worry, this won't take long. I do enjoy that this film has plenty of interpersonal conflict with which to fill its monster-less first act, even if it's fucking stupid (Marty knocks out the pilot in a frenzy of what can only be described as uranium horniness, nearly killing them all, and is forgiven within five seconds). And although the film is very much in the "nuclear monsters" vein that so many 50's films are, it takes on a more modern horror film structure where the conflict arises from the transgressions of the protagonists rather than humanity's hubris in pushing science forward. If the crew had simply not broken the explicit rules of the... Guayjormians(?), they wouldn't be in this mess at all.

Well, I hope you liked all that positivity! 

Yikes, The Cyclops is pretty bad, innit? It's a taut film without any fat but it also doesn't have any meat to speak of. For one thing, Susan and Russ's incipient romance is wan and narratively broken, not helped by the fact that they are styled to look like the two least appealing people in the world. Craig just looks like one's worst nightmare of a boring white man, but Talbott has her hair dressed in this combination of a Goody Proctor bonnet and Handmaid's Tale bangs that is positively eye-blistering. And Lon Chaney seems to be competing in a private competition for the title of World's Sweatiest Man. All of these people have looked like totally normal human beings in other works, but somebody on the hair and makeup department needs a quick blast with a fire hose.

The way they look is bad enough, but the way they behave is befuddling at best, and downright sociopathic at worst. I would like you to practice the most bored monotone in which you could deliver the line "Now I know I wasn't imagining things when I saw that giant lizard yesterday," and know that Russ's delivery is still eight times worse than that. I'll take the studied flatness at least, considering that it's preferable for the callous disregard with which they treat other human beings. Russ' introductory scene is him mocking a shopkeeper for not speaking English in a village in Mexico that is her hometown, and the way they end up handling the monster once they realize it's Bruce is cruel beyond all measure. It's positively mind-boggling.

Luckily, there are other monsters in this movie, right?

Right??

Typically all sins can be forgiven when the giant monsters are fun to behold, even if they're terrible-looking composites as they usually are. Unfortunately, the laziness of the effects here knows no bounds. They reek of "let me raid my nephew's terrarium" and only meaningfully seem to exist within the same plane as the actors in one single shot of a big lizard licking Russ's arm. Chilling stuff! But stuff like the Cyclops' grasping hand waving in front of Lon Chaney's face by a margin of about 8,000 miles isn't bad in a cute way. It's just insulting. At least the Cyclops looks decent. I dig the exposed teeth design around the mouth, and while the way its forehead wrinkles and pulsates is clearly just wrong, it does at least look uncanny. The closest the film gets to a spark of bad-good joy is the iguana that roars like a lion, which I must confess I enjoy very much. 

I have seen and enjoyed a great many bad monster films with bad effects, but there's something just so putrid about this one. It's not like anyone needed me to warn them away from seeing The Cyclops, but in case you're curious how about you check out *checks notes* literally anything else instead.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • Obviously the uranium is what's making these creatures grow to incredible size, but the thing that inhibits their pituitary glands to allow infinite growth is, as Russ explains, "something."
  • I also fail to understand why Lon Chaney thinks they'll be able to wander into a restricted area in Mexico and just like... open a uranium mine? Because they're white people who "discovered" something that the Mexican officials clearly already knew about? The true white man's burden is being such an enormous jagweed.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • When attempting to communicate with the big monster, Susan insists, "Try to understand, please!" Yeah, that'll work. It's something she probably said to everyone she encountered who only spoke Spanish.
  • There's a running gag where Russ keeps inflating the proportion of how much "Indian blood" he has any time he successfully executes an outdoorsy activity. Jeepers.
Sensawunda:
  • "That giant monster you saw is probably just the plane's shadow," is my new "it's an old house" or "maybe it was just the wind."
  • I should have known what I was in for when the opening credits were just unembellished white text on a black background. So really, this is my fault.
TL;DR: The Cyclops is a B-movie with bad effects that are so lazy they doesn't even rise to the level of charming.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1290
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)
2021: Robot Monster (1953) Queen of Outer Space (1958) The Cyclops (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)

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Cardboard Science: Women Are From Venus

Year: 1958
Director: Edward Bernds
Cast: Zsa Zsa Gabor, Eric Fleming, Dave Willock
Run Time: 1 hour 20 minutes

So, now we sally forth into phase 2 of the Great Switcheroo, where Hunter Allen of Kinemalogue has assigned me three 50's science fiction B-pictures to examine for your spooky season pleasure, in exchange for three of my 80's slashers. He has already apologized to me for the trashiness of this particular slate, but I agree with him that the movies are short enough that it's hard to complain about literally anything they do. Also, today's subject, which is 1958's Queen of Outer Space, is another film with an incredibly misleading title but a not altogether dishonest poster design. If your pleasure lies in the form of watching scantily clad space ladies, look no further. 

This project also has a connection with previous years, coming from the director of 1959's Return of the Fly and starring Hungarian-American ultra-celebrity Zsa Zsa Gabour, who appeared in the Census Bloodbath entry A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors a scant 30 years or so later.

It's probably not a good sign that Elm Street 3 is listed higher than Queen of Outer Space on her "known for" page on IMDb, considering she's in that movie for about 12 seconds. Although, it's probably not a good sign that Queen of Outer Space is on her "known for" page in the first place.

So, I suppose there's a plot lying around somewhere. Interchangeable white squarejaws Capt. Neal Patterson (Eric Fleming), Lt. Mike Cruze (Dave Willock), and Lt. Larry Turner (Patrick Waltz) live in a not-too-distant future where space travel is still pretty exclusive, but people are out there doing it. They're charged with the inauspicious task of bussing the scientist Professor Konrad (Paul Birch) to the space station he created along with some supplies. However, somebody drew on the film reel with a marker they are attacked by a super deadly space laser that destroys the space station and sends them rocketing off into parts unknown.

After an undetermined amount of time (they've been knocked unconscious), they crash land on the surface of a planet, an idyllic indoor forest land with obvious blue wall backdrops. It turns out that they are on Venus, and they soon find themselves captives of the Venusians, which are a tribe of sexy minidress-clad women who have banished all the men they haven't slaughtered onto an orbiting moon. They are led by the masked Queen Yllana (Laurie Mitchell). Soon the men discover that not all the women are happy living under her iron thumb, because well... they're horny, mostly. And they have all these pickle jars that nobody can open. Talleah (Zsa Zsa Gabour) attempts to help the men escape, leading a vague sort of revolution in the process. It turns out that most of the women on the planet aren't too keen on the Queen's plan of destroying Earth with a big evil nuclear space laser, because they aren't shrill man-hating harpies like somebody we know.

Her motivation for being evil is literally that she's ugly, because the 50's.

To be completely honest, I like almost nothing about Queen of Outer Space. At least in the previous trashy Cardboard Science entry, Robot Monster, there was a shirtless man wandering around for the entire run time. Obviously, I understand that for many straight people at the time, Zsa Zsa Gabour in a minidress was to this film what "the leading man is getting married with his nipples showing" was for me in that one. But I'm a gay. I need some great outfits to go on the pretty ladies in order to get me through, and only the Queen's jewel-encrusted cricket masquerade ensemble really delivers in that respect.

Obviously, this film wasn't ever going to depict an Amazonian feminist utopia, but it really is a shame that the humor is couched in such egregious sexism. It's so bad it does occasionally circle back around the horn to be ironically amusing for how unabashedly terrible it is ("how'd you like to drag THAT to the senior prom?"), but generally the jokes are the same basic-ass, stale "take my wife... please!" gags that cis male comic have leaned on for decades before and after this. As delivered by a bunch of wooden performers who cackle and smirk at one another incessantly. And this is a movie that really relies on its comedy, because it's too low budget to really do almost anything exciting visually.

The entirety of their effects budget is spent on a short clip of the space station and shuttle being attacked, a spaceship interior with a tiny little window through which a colorful light is shone, a big spider puppet that takes up about five seconds of screen time but still lands itself prominently on some posters, and burn makeup for Queen Yllana that looks like Mary Lou Maloney's burned face from Prom Night II. Oh, and they clearly got some actual footage of a spaceship blasting off, because they use every. second. of. it. in a hideously prolonged sequence.

They're living by the classic dictum that women are the cheapest special effect.

Let me root around a little more. Is there anything good in here? It's certainly not Zsa Zsa, who absently delivers her dialogue while squinting at cue cards that seem to be a couple yards farther away than they should be. It's also not the camera work, where the lenses warp and distort the edge of the frame every time they pan. Or the production design, which at least has the good sense to make things bright and candy colored, but only delivers a series of identical pink and blue hallways.

Oh hey, I found something! The music might be generic, but it's delivering on the electronic oogly-woogly score I need for a 50's movie set on another planet. And honestly, for all it's a boring slog that doesn't have anything remarkable to break up the monotony, I didn't actively despise Queen of Outer Space, so that's nice I guess. It's a warm bath of enough B-movie tropes that it goes down easy enough, even though I have at least a dozen films I would point you to before this one, thanks to being under Hunter's tutelage for almost a decade at this point.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • The comms systems in the futuristic space station look like nothing other than vibrators on their charging docks.
  • There is one scene where the Queen vaporizes a traitor with a ray gun and she vanishes in a puff of smoke, so that was pretty cool. Although it's an awkwardly blocked and orchestrated sequence, where the Queen pretends to pardon her before immediately shooting her in the back. It's clearly supposed to show how deliciously evil she is, but it's just confusing and muddled.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • Hilariously, Professor Konrad tries to smoke on a rocket that's about to lift off, before being reminded that the spark could kill them all.
  • The men joke around about how it would be totally impossible for women to invent things, let alone aim them (because they're such bad drivers and what if they get their period, think about it fellas), but then of course it's revealed that the Queen does keep some men alive for the purposes of inventing murder death rays.
  • My favorite caricature of Evil Feminism is the random extra who teleports from out of nowhere to throw herself at the captives, beat her fists against their heads, and scream, "I HATE THEM!"
Sensawunda:
  • The end credits describe the cast using outsized titles like "The Leaders," "The Lovers" and "The Lovelorn," really delivering the pomposity that the opening credits of The Rocky Horror Picture Show have always promised me.
  • My favorite scene is probably the moment where Zsa Zsa puts on the Queen's mask to impersonate her, a trick that works for exactly two and a half seconds.
TL;DR: Queen of Outer Space is a bland, generic, sexist film that just spits out low budget sci-fi tropes hoping you'll be too distracted by beautiful women to notice.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1368

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)
2021: Robot Monster (1953) Queen of Outer Space (1958) The Cyclops (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)

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Bent Out Of Shape

Year: 2021
Director: David Gordon Green
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Wow. It's been a while since I've had reason to review a current movie on the blog proper (I do still do that occasionally over at Alternate Ending, when I watch bullshit that Tim doesn't want to cover). But we can't just sit with our thumbs up our asses when there's a new Halloween movie out in theaters and also everybody's favorite streaming service Peacock! The film's release (and the subsequent release of the trilogy capper Halloween Ends) was delayed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so let's see if time has muted by ambivalence toward 2018's Halloween.

Spoiler alert: It hasn't.

Halloween Ends picks up on the same night as Halloween 2018. Well, it spends about eight seconds there before launching into a wholly unnecessary flashback to the events of Halloween night 1978 which both serve as a revision to Halloween II which was erased out of continuity and delivers absolutely no material that is interesting in the slightest, though where would we be if we didn't have a dead-eyed doppelgänger of Donald Pleasence's Dr. Sam Loomis (Tom Jones Jr. in creepily accurate prosthetic makeup, with a spectacularly unconvincing vocal imitation by Colin Mahan)? Talk about a Halloween: Resurrection!

After that flashback gives us insight into two characters who have no major bearing on the plot, we again pick up in 2018. Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) is being rushed to the hospital by her daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak). Having smugly and gleefully erased Halloween II from the continuity, the screenwriters can now recreate it themselves by sidelining Laurie into a hospital bed for literally the entire film.

The killer Michael Myers (Nick Castle for the legacy value, but James Jude Courtney for anything that requires physical effort that they can't ask of a 74-year-old man, which is almost everything Michael does in the movie) was left for dead in Laurie's burning basement. Guess how that goes? He emerges and begins his rampage through Haddonfield anew. A mob gathers to take him down once and for all, led by survivors of his original 1978 rampage: babysittees Tommy Doyle (Anthony Michael Hall, taking over from Brian Andrews and Paul Rudd) and Lindsey Wallace (Kyle Richards), pisspants coward Lonnie Elam (Robert Longstreet, taking over for whoever the hell played that kid who Donald Pleasence hilariously scares away from entering the Myers house by shouting "Get your ass away from there!"), nurse and "Dr. Loomis' best friend even though I'm pretty sure they met for the first time that night in 1978" Marion Chambers (Nancy Stephens), and former sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers), whose daughter Annie was killed by Michael 40 years ago.

I know filming was wrapped before the pandemic shut down productions, but Dylan Arnolds cheekbones seem three years more prominent, so I'm not sure what happened.

Can you tell I hated the screenplay for Halloween Kills? I cannot stress enough how richly hypocritical it is that the 2018 film drooled all over itself for retconning the Michael Myers-Laurie Strode sibling relationship that many fans disliked and then proceeded to repeat the much worse mistakes of many other films in the franchise, almost beat for beat. I've already mentioned Laurie getting Halloween II-ed (this is also a result of this being the middle film in a trilogy, but could we not have gotten Laurie and Michael together in one shot, even?), but this film also emulates Rob Zombie's Halloween in presenting Haddonfield as a low rent white trash haven where every word out of a body count character's mouth is shrill and vexing. And no specific spoilers on this, but it has a Myers backstory that's nearly as bad as Halloween 6, to boot.

There is not a single returning character who is treated with anything resembling respect. Not that I necessarily need the film to respect Lonnie Fucking Elam, but this reboot series has consistently failed to recognize any of the actual ways human beings react to trauma or even remember things from 40 years ago. Laurie has always born the brunt of this instinct, being twisted into an unrecognizable gremlin of a woman, but Tommy Doyle doesn't so much go from 0 to 60 as start as 60 and rampage through every scene like Michael Chiklis playing a rabid caveman. It doesn't even do justice to the characters we just met, running Allyson through an absolutely inscrutable arc that doesn't square with anything we know of her from the 2018 film. And dear lord, at one point, Charles Cyphers even gets to trot out his classic "one good scare" line even though he has no reason to recall something he said offhand to a teen girl 40 years ago 12 hours before anything memorable happened that day - honestly it would have had more creative integrity if he had said "It's Halloween. Everyone is entitled to one good scare... motherfucker."

Now don't misunderstand me. I don't mind that some of these characters become bad people or have bad things happen to them. I'm not particularly devoted to the lady who drove Dr. Loomis to Smith's Grove 40 years ago. It's just that every line of dialogue is stiff and unnatural, every action is ill-motivated, and while every character is packed with personality traits rather than being one-note body count fodder, none of these traits resemble anything a person would actually do or say, dunking the audience into a surreal morass of nonsense that's impossible to claw your way out of. There's a gay couple in the film that I have heard criticized for being offensive stereotypes, but I take umbrage with that interpretation considering that you can't be a stereotype if you're not performing a recognizable human behavior.

Also these films have an asshole problem. In that every character is one. 

But here's the thing. I don't hate this movie. I would, I really would, if it weren't for two things. First, the kills are generally pretty damn solid. They're a little too brutal to call "fun," but in terms of squeamish slasher movie joy, they deliver on all fronts, more than a typical Halloween outing. The creative weaponry is more Jason's milieu, but in this film, any object in Michael Myers' hands can become a deadly weapon, whether it's a light bulb, a car door, a stairwell, or his own thumbs. There are also some unique angles to the proceedings (when's the last time you saw someone get stabbed in the armpit?). The effects are terrific, the sequences are visceral and gut-jangling, and while they fail to capture the elegance of the violence of the Carpenter original, that is something I am fully willing to forgive for the 12th movie in a slasher franchise. I'm not a monster.

Also, the score is straight-up terrific. John Carpenter, his son Cody, and his godson Daniel Davies have assembled a superb collection of variations on the original electronic score. They have let themselves off the leash this time, no longer tying themselves to amplified versions of the classic Halloween themes, but really creating a minor key fantasia on what Halloween might have sounded like with several more million dollars and the piano was on fucking fire. Nothing reaches the heights of "The Shape Hunts Allyson," which was the standout track of the 2018 film (and is brought back in such a way that the filmmakers clearly figured out what they had after tossing it off in a 50-second scene the first time around). However, this score would have a much harder time giving us a standout, because every new composition is a bone-vibrating success.

Good music and good kills really do elevate a slasher movie. Hell, those two things are the only reasons Friday the 13th is remembered fondly. It doesn't make the horrible script that actively avoids having a plot or accomplishing anything satisfying with even a single character any less crushing. But it is somewhat of a balm for the pain of sitting through the worst scenes of the film, which are largely relegated to anything in the hospital or involving Tommy Doyle (AKA most of the scenes).

TL;DR: Halloween Kills is a sequel that learns all the wrong lessons from the franchise it's attempting to resurrect.
Rating: 4/10
Word Count: 1401
Reviews In This Series
Halloween (Carpenter, 1978)
Halloween II (Rosenthal, 1981)
Halloween: Resurrection (Rosenthal, 2002)
Halloween (Zombie, 2007)
Halloween II (Zombie, 2009)
Halloween (Green, 2018)
Halloween Kills (Green, 2021)

Friday, October 1, 2021

Cardboard Science: Gorilla Warfare

Year: 1953
Director: Phil Tucker
Cast: George Nader, Gregory Moffett, Claudia Barrett
Run Time: 1 hour 6 minutes

It's October, which means it's time for the 8th Annual Great Switcheroo with Hunter Allen of Kinemalogue. Holy shit, we're old! As you assuredly know, Hunter runs a series of reviews of 50's sci-fi B-movies, and every year in this spookiest of seasons, he shows me his and I show him mine. Mine being 80's slasher films. He has given me three shiny new sci-fi flicks to inspect. Keep an eye out on his page, because those three slasher reviews will be coming from Hunter a little later this month.

We're starting off the festivities with the reasonably infamous Robot Monster, an independent film from 1953. It doesn't have the cultural prominence of your Plan 9 from Outer Spaces or your Trolls 2, but for those maniacs who want to dig deeper, this film is right under the silt that you first brush off of bad-good cinema history. It's an entry I've always been curious to check out, and once again Hunter has given me an excuse to educate myself.

Say it with me now. Thank you, Hunter!

Predictably, the title is a huge lie. However, in a break from convention, the poster itself is actually pretty accurate. We're not dealing with a robot monster, but in fact an extraterrestrial gorilla with a space helmet (George Barrows). He is at the center of a story so incoherent it demands years of intense examination and study like a holy text. Although the timeline of events and the relationships at the core of the film are formed according to a brain-melting form of non-Euclidian geometry, I'll do my best to assemble some kind of plot synopsis.

In a rocky gorge that's different from the typical California scrub seen in sci-fi B-pictures because it has even fewer plants, young boy Johnny (Gregory Moffett) encounters what is either a stranger or his father (even though age-wise it makes way more sense for him to be a grandfather), a man known only as The Professor (John Mylong). Rather than trying to rob the Royal Mint of Spain, he's studying... archaeology? Chemistry? Space travel? Telecommunications? Let's just say Science. He has a hot assistant named Roy (George Nader), who has a strained relationship with the sexy scientist Alice (Claudia Barrett), who is so obviously Johnny's mother that of course the script makes it abundantly clear that they are siblings. The bulk of the confusing relationships in the film are somewhat cleared up by a stupid twist ending, and this is the only one the film stays constant on.

We learn that this film is set in a post-human apocalypse, where the space gorilla née robot monster has conquered the human race, destroying everyone but the aforementioned characters (plus an elderly mother and a little girl who have very little to do with the plot) with his cosmic ray. The family and Roy are immune to this ray because of an antibiotic (pronounce this word however you want, because the cast sure does) invented by the Professor to cure all diseases. With their resources dwindling, they realize they must either defeat or appease the space gorilla, who by the way is called Ro-Man (or "Roman," according to the Professor, who has an inexplicable German accent I neglected to mention earlier, because I was just too distracted by everything else).

Also, it's hard to see what I'm typing through the TV antenna space diver helmet I'm wearing in an attempt to do as the Ro-Mans do.

Robot Monster is objectively bad. It just is. Exhibit A: It's a film that follows the grand B-movie tradition of shoehorning in footage from other movies, only this time around it's a loop of about six seconds of dinosaur fighting that might as well be proceeded by the Monty Python "And now for something completely different" tag. Exhibit B is everything else I've already said and am going to say about Robot Monster.

The acting, for one thing, is terrible. It's a fool's errand to expect quality from child actors ever, but it's "poke a sleeping tiger" inadvisable to expect it from a 50's B-movie. So it's perhaps not shocking that Moffett and Pamela Paulson as his little sister Carla shriek like ungreased wagon wheels for the entirety of the film. The rest of the adult cast acquits themselves poorly in the typical overacting 50's way, except for Mylong, who is on some Dr. Scott from Rocky Horror shit. Unfortunately, not even George Barrows can pull off a good performance as the titular monster. His absurdly over-exaggerated silent movie gestures bely the fact that they dubbed in his dialogue later because they match absolutely nothing the character is actually saying. When he's rampaging through the small sliver of gorge they were allowed to shoot in, he looks less like an intimidating apocalyptic threat than a petulant child throwing a tantrum.

I've hopefully already expressed how flawed the screenplay is, but wait! There's more! Every character knows that if they leave the bounds of the something something electricity field that's preventing the monster from learning their location, they keep just wandering over to Ro-Man's cave, rooting around for a satisfactory motivation and coming up empty every time. In fact, Roy and Alice have sex in the bushes about ten feet from the monster who they know is there and has a deep fundamental desire to destroy them.

Get it where you can though, Alice. When the only human man in existence who isn't related to you looks like that and is so allergic to shirts that this is a shot from their WEDDING, repopulating the Earth suddenly doesn't feel like so much of a burden.

Robot Monster isn't a bad-good masterpiece in the way of something like The Room, but it's utterly endearing and enjoyable in the way of a cousin who's a total dipshit but you love them anyway. You can tell that it's trying, and you just want to give it a hug and tell it everything will be OK. Plus, it really does deliver on just acres of footage of a man wandering around in a gorilla suit with a ray gun, and if that doesn't appeal to at least some small part of you, I don't think we can be friends.

Also, while this movie being totally unrelated to any sort of Hollywood guidance is certainly to its detriment in some ways, it does take swings that most movies of this era would have been afraid to risk. For one thing, it's horny as hell. The raw sexual nature of George and Alice's relationship is as clear and legible as the opening credits. There's a cut to black right after Alice lies back on the dirt preparing to be raw-dogged. And then Alice literally lets Carla die because they're so eager to get railed on her wedding night. A train going into a tunnel, this ain't. Also, a dash of child murder is a thing you don't get in too many of these films either.

Robot Monster is a little too boring in the middle to be a romp all the way through, but it's barely over an hour long, and so much of it is so delightful to engage with. During the tedious bits you can focus on trying to piece together the Christopher Nolan-esque puzzle box of what the fuck is going on with this family, and then you're back to something truly wild about using wrenches to contact a space station or whatever. It's a movie that's truly impossible to rate, so feel free to ignore my score. If this sounds up your alley, go see it without hesitation. That's all I can say.

That which is indistinguishable from magic:
  • I have no idea what the bubbles made by Ro-Man's machine are supposed to do, but I hope they're very important and all future technology is forced to use them.
  • Behold! The chilling footage of humanity's destruction! A bunch of explosions layered over buildings that don't seem to be particularly destroyed afterward.
The morality of the past, in the future!:
  • The Professor just offers a strange child a seat on his knee and nobody is bothered by this.
  • Being described as being "too smart to be so beautiful and too beautiful to be so smart" really gets Alice's engine revving.
  • Also, Roy will pick up Alice and carry her around at the drop of the hat. When the monster shows up out of nowhere, he just grabs her and runs even though it would be a much faster egress if they both just ran with their own two human legs.
Sensawunda:
  • I wasn't gonna say anything, but I'm not gonna pretend it's not lost on me that this film is about the power of being vaccinated in an apocalyptic society.
  • Ro-Man describes an hour as being part of "your human clock time," and I just think that's sweet.
TL;DR: Robot Monster is a charming epic disaster.
Rating: 3/10
Word Counter: 1510
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)
2021: Robot Monster (1953) Queen of Outer Space (1958) The Cyclops (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)

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Census Bloodbath: Xenophobia

Year: 1980
Director: Greyson Clark
Cast: Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Tarah Nutter
Run Time: 1 hour 29 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Part of the reason we're going back to 1980 to scoop up extra movies is that some films slipped through my net before I refined my criteria for what does or doesn't qualify as a slasher film. Without Warning, which is about an alien invasion (well, kinda), just didn't seem to fit the bill at first. But the more I looked at it, the more I realized how uncannily it does follow the slasher formula, even considering that this should be pretty well impossible for a film that came out just three months after Friday the 13th

We've got a Crazy Ralph and everything!

Without Warning has a lot of slasher royalty behind it, as well. Generally the doddering, inbred kind of royalty, but it was shot by Dean Cundey, so that's nice. At the helm here is Greyson Clark, the director behind my fourth least favorite slasher of 1982, Wacko! There's also an Alone in the Dark pre-reunion going on here, teaming Jack Palance with Martin Landau because apparently they were just doing whatever script scribbled on a napkin was shoved in front of them in the early 80's. Anyway, I digress. Let's cover the plot, insofar as there is one (Another slasher trope! I've said this exact sentence dozens of times!).

A hunter (Cameron Mitchell of The DemonBlood LinkTrapped AliveTerror NightDeadly Prey, and Memorial Valley Massacre) and his son Randy (Darby Hinton of Wacko) are killed out in the woods (as played by California dry brush) by what can only be described as extraterrestrial ninja stars. They're basically little frisbees that look like sand dollars with little fanged sucker mouths that attach themselves to your skin via little tubes and start sucking out your insides. They also take down a comic relief Scoutmaster (Larry Storch of Sweet 16) before four horny teens come careening in with their camper van. Now that's more like it!

These teens are the Horny Sex Couple Beth (Lynn The) and Tom (David Caruso, who I certainly didn't expect to see mucking about in the slasher trenches, and boy what a twink he was 41 years ago) and the Sweet Couple Sandy (Tarah Nutter) and Greg (Christopher S. Nelson). The horny teens are dispatched almost instantly and Greg and Sandy are sent running through the woods and into town, where they encounter the Man Who Cried Alien, Sarge (Landau) and reunite with their harbinger, creepy gas station attendant Joe Taylor (Palance). They do eventually discover that there is a humanoid alien  (Kevin Peter Hall, who would go on to greater glory playing an alien in a little film called Predator) throwing these sand dollars around to murder people for.... reasons, and he's hiding the bodies in... a shed. Spooky!

It really sends a shiver down the spine, dunnit?

If there's one thing I've learned from a long and intensive study of slasher movie posters, it's that if the cool-looking monster or alien is shown in detail, then you're only gonna get to see it onscreen for twenty seconds max. I'm looking at you, The Slayer and The Incubus. If a film has enough of the monster that it wants to keep it a secret to surprise the audience, then that's when you end up with a subtle poster like Alien. So at least I didn't come into Without Warning with any illusions about this alien menace.

Ultimately, the design of the alien once we see it (once in a flash under a swinging lamp, the remaining 1 and a half scenes largely in shadow) is a pretty good, if uninspired variation on the Greys. The sucker discs look a little shoddier (when they're sucking their victims dry they're covered in what is unmistakably ketchup and mustard), but they're at least fun B-movie images if you suspend your disbelief off a cliff. Unfortunately, this hot-dog-esque M.O. is the only way people are killed in the movie, so it wears thin long before the gags peter out. 

But isn't it nice that at one frame of the movie looks like this?

Although the effects bringing the sci-fi elements to life are very 80's, the rest is an extremely effective pastiche of an average 50's B-picture. In that nothing happens for 80 minutes. Greg and Sandy run through empty woods interminably, then sit in a bar during a power outage that I'm pretty sure was engineered because they didn't budget for that many lights. The filmmakers seem to have come to the conclusion that the cheapest special effect is human beings grousing at each other in the dark. And the pacing of the kills is terribly poor (another slasher trope executed with aplomb), with most of the kills happening in the first two reels to leave plenty of time for wandering past some scrub. 

Palance and Landau don't liven up the proceedings, barely showing a shadow of even the screen presence they display in Alone in the Dark. But then again it's hard to breathe life into a character when you're asked to spout dialogue like "Alien! Alieeeeen! ALIEN!" The only performer who is doing anything remotely interesting is Larry Storch, in an unfathomable turn as a Scoutmaster who warns the boys against picking up rattlesnakes because they "carry germs" and tries to light his cigarette by holding it against a rock and striking it with flint. He is carted in from a completely different movie and carted back out more or less immediately. 

All in all, despite its mild B-science fiction charms, Without Warning presents us with almost nothing to recommend itself. It's a dreadfully tedious motion picture experience that wastes every ounce of talent spent on it (and once you get past those two veteran actors and Dean Cundey, that well is already shallow as hell). This kind of film is why I'm glad to mostly be free of 1980. It doesn't have the vigorous excesses of the later 80's, but it's not sober or serious like the late 70's, so it's really just a waste of time all around.

Killer: Alien (Kevin Peter Hall)
Final Girl: Sandy (Tarah Nutter)
Best Kill: They're legitimately all the same, but the death of the Scoutmaster has the ooziest gooiest blood splatter, so I'll pick that one.
Sign of the Times: Greg has to use a dial to turn on his windshield wipers.
Scariest Moment: Martin Landau points his fun at Greg and starts yammering about how the aliens are all his fault.
Weirdest Moment: In the spooky gas station, the gang discovers an upside-down baseball cap in which a rat is snuggled with its litter of babies.
Champion Dialogue: "I saw something outside that bar I've never seen before, and I have no desire to see it again."
Body Count: 9
  1. Hunter gets suckered.
  2. Randy gets suckered.
  3. Scoutmaster gets suckered.
  4. Beth gets suckered offscreen.
  5. Tom gets suckered offscreen.
  6. Greg gets suckered.
  7. Sarge gets suckered.
  8. Joe Taylor and
  9. Alien die in an explosion.
TL;DR: Without Warning is a dire sci-fi B-movie that wandered its way out of the 50's and got itself some decent special effects that are hardly used.
Rating: 3/10
Word Count: 1211

Monday, September 13, 2021

Census Bloodbath: No, This Is Patrick

Year: 1980
Director: Mario Landi
Cast: Sacha Pitoëff, Sacha Pitoëff, Mariangela Giordano
Run Time: 1 hour 32 minutes

Oh, Italian horror rip-offs. The fun never ends with you. Remember back in the day when Bay of Blood was advertised as a sequel to The Last House on the Left, a movie that didn't exist when Bay originally came out? Or how Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 is a "sequel" to Dawn of the Dead that doesn't even spare a thought to the fact that a sequel to that film couldn't possibly depict the beginning of a zombie apocalypse?  Among such storied company, Patrick Still Lives is actually a venerable pillar of honesty in advertising.

Allegedly a sequel to the 1978 Ozploitation classic Patrick, this film is more of a remake, but at least it has the decency to be about a telekinetic boy named Patrick. 

By the standards of Italian horror "sequel" continuity, Patrick Still Lives might as well be The Avengers.

So let's get ourselves acquainted with Patrick (Gianni Dei, who we'll meet again in 1987's Delitti). The film's abrupt beginning shows Patrick on a roadside with a man who is presumably his father, Dr. Herschel (Sacha Pitoëff). A bottle gets thrown from a car and smacks him on the head, sending him into a coma. Cut to years later, and Dr. Herschel has assembled a ragtag group of people at a health spa in a remote Italian villa. We don't find this out till later, but the plot is obvious from the beginning so I'll spoil it: everyone has been brought here under threat of blackmail, and they are all suspected of being the bottle-thrower. Patrick may be in a coma still, but he's hooked up to the brains of three other coma patients and his telekinetic wrath causes the guests to perish one by one in spooky supernatural ways.

The guests in question are Davis (Paolo Giusti), a Tig Notaro lookalike and the son of an important banker who was involved in an accident that killed several people; Peter Suniak (John Benedy), who is a drug addict; minister Lyndon Cough (Franco Silva), who is a corrupt parliamentary minister; and Peter and Lyndon's partners Stella Randolph (Mariangela Giordano) and Sheril Cough (Carmen Russo), whose crimes would seem to be that they like to have sex.

Women, am I right?

I don't know what circle of hell I've stumbled into where all the slashers I encounter are basically just softcore pornos now, but Patrick Still Lives at least lies much more staunchly on the "slasher" side of the line than either Killing of the Flesh or Momentos de Prazer e Agonia. And curiously, though the film is obsessed with showing naked flesh (this is the type of movie where people might casually just pop a boob out at dinner, and all the women sleep naked, putting on robes when they get up - robes that do nothing to cover their nipples or vaginas), there isn't actually any sex, unless you count Patrick's bizarre telekinetic tryst with sexy blonde staff member Lidya Grant (Andrea Belfiore).

The first half of Patrick Still Lives - where the characters wander around either being naked, engaging in sub-giallo nonsense drama with lots of slapping, or both - is beyond repair. If you really want to see boobs that bad in 2021, there are much easier ways to do that than bootlegging a stupid Italian slasher from 40 years ago. It's only once the killings begin in earnest that things get interesting. 

"Interesting" unfortunately isn't synonymous with "good." The murder setpieces in Patrick Still Lives are a challenging lot to grapple with. I will lead with the fact that the special effects bringing them to life are uniformly superb for the time, and the movie's endless variations on gruesome kills are shockingly ahead of their time for a pre-Friday the 13th motion picture (technically it debuted in Italy a week after Friday, but they were produced contemporaneously is what I'm saying).

I know you actually don't care about the specifics, but I do. You don't watch slashers almost exclusively for eight years and not get a little in your head about it.

Every kill in Patrick Still Lives is brutal, but there are only two that perfectly ride the line between intense and entertaining: a man who gets a wicked metal hook jammed through his lower jaw, and a woman who is slowly, methodically, decapitated by a car window. Then there's the medium level: the first and final body count kills (where a man dies in a pool of boiling water and a woman is mauled by dogs) aren't particularly visually dynamic, even if the effects for both are above par for similar scenes in other movies of the time. The absolute lowest tier is the pair of kills that just involve poison, which don't require interesting special effects.

OK, enough beating around the bush. There's one kill here that is... challenging. Typically what I look for in a slasher movie kill is a unique premise and convincing, over-the-top special effects. This kill certainly has that, but it takes the sexual violence that simmers beneath the entire motion picture and pitches it right the hell up to 11. For the un-squeamish, here's what happens: A woman is skewered with a spit, which enters through her vagina and comes out through her mouth. It's certainly well-realized, probably the most impressive effect in the entire film. But coming at the end of a dozen scenes of cavalier exploitation and objectification, it's impossible to not feel icky about it. I'm not one for the censorship of art, especially exploitation and pornography (assuming they were created with properly consenting performers), but a conscientious viewer must come to this scene with a very particular mindset that I don't find myself capable of.

Even setting aside that particular scene, the impressive effects don't quite make up for the hour and change spent wandering around the villa with its desperately uninteresting characters while listening to a score that sounds like a Goblin tribute band covering the Exorcist theme. It's not an altogether unwatchable slice of giallo sexploitation, and it has some amusing campy moments (ie. Dr. Herschel tries to write off Lyndon's clearly boiled skin as a side effect of alcoholism), but at the end of the day I'd just rather watch Patrick, you know?

Killer: Patrick (Sacha Pitoëff)
Final Girl: Lidya Grant (Andrea Belfiore)
Best Kill: I'd have to say the car window to the neck, which is brutal in its ceaseless repetitive slamming and convincing geysers of blood.
Sign of the Times: Well, there really was only a tiny window of time in which anyone could have made a sequel to Patrick.
Scariest Moment: A hypnotically hornified Lidya licks the metal post of Patrick's bed. Think of the germs!
Weirdest Moment: Stella discovers Davis' mutilated body and to calm herself down, she wets her breasts at a nearby fountain.
Champion Dialogue: "I usually bang women, not whisky bottles."
Body Count: 8; not including the 3 unnamed host bodies fueling Patrick's telekinesis, who presumably die during the third act when he drains their energy.
  1. Lyndon Cough is boiled in a swimming pool.
  2. Davis is hung from a hook by the bottom of his chin.
  3. Stella Cough is skewered on a spit via the vagina.
  4. Sheril Randolph is decapitated by a car window.
  5. Peter Suniak is poisoned with carbon monoxide.
  6. Brad is electrocuted.
  7. Meg is mauled by German shepherds.
  8. Dr. Herschel is stabbed in the heart with a hypodermic needle.
TL;DR: Patrick Still Lives is a rather rote erotic giallo until it briefly becomes a very good gore picture.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 1278