Category: Cult/Camp

The 2014 Boston Science-Fiction Marathon, Part I

Every year the Somerville Theatre hosts the Boston Science-Fiction marathon: 24 hours of straight sci-fi, including films, shorts, trailers, contests, and tv episodes. It’s one of my favorite times of year (this was my sixth in a row!) and I was happy to not have schoolwork hanging over me this time around. The line-up was about half and half films I’d seen and films I hadn’t, but there were some festival films and shorts concurrently screening in the basement micro-theater, so I had a place to hang out during films I didn’t feel like re-watching. It was a pretty solid selection of movies, some good classics along with lesser-known gems, and I stayed awake through all but one!

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1 First Men in the Moon (1964)

I knew very little about this one, aside from the Ray Harryhausen effects, and expected a passable space adventure with a crappy script but cool effects. Turns out, it’s a pretty fun film all together! Based on a story by HG Wells, it follows the unlikely adventures of a wacky British scientist, Dr Cavor (Lionel Jeffries), his irresponsible business partner (Edward Judd), and the latter’s perky American fiance (Martha Hyer). Dr Cavor has invented an anti-gravity substance that allows him to build a spacecraft and travel to the moon in 1899, with the other two somewhat accidentally in tow. They discover strange creatures living there and in true human fashion wreak havoc on their civilization before returning to earth. It’s a rather silly movie, made sillier by Jeffries’s hilarious and adorable performance, where he is basically his Chitty Chitty Bang Bang character. All in all it was a really pleasant surprise: I loved the weird visuals, the period setting, and the awesome effects, though I felt the frame story set in the 1960s was completely unnecessary. Most significantly for the Thon itself, it launched the most long-running joke for the night, involving CLOSING THE FUCKING DOOR!… which only makes sense in context.

 

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2 Westworld (1973)

They played this at the Terrorthon in October and honestly I was sort of annoyed they would show it again just a few months later, when I assume some of the audience was the same. I like it but did not feel the need to watch it again so soon so I popped out to look at some short films, read some Ray Bradbury, and waltz back in just in time for the final big chase, which is the main reason to watch the movie anyway. The title links to my original review.

 

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3 Coherence (2014)

All I really knew about this movie is it was one of the festival films and it featured Nicholas Brendan (aka Xander on Buffy, who attended the Thon for a Q&A). It starts out as a bunch of thirtysomething white people having a really boring white people party, and I was like ugh whatever, but then it gets so good! It’s about parallel universes and these awful people keep finding alternate versions of themselves and suddenly they don’t know how to handle anything and they start turning on each other and the main lady (Emily Foxler) has to decide how far she’ll go to regain normalcy. Though it was very gradual it turned into a pretty solid psychological thriller and I was very into it by the end. Also Lorene Scafaria, writer/director of Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, was in it! Which is kind of neat since I just watched that movie. And I loved that Nicholas Brendan kind of played a version of himself, an actor known primarily for a lead role on a 90s sci-fi show, though in this he claims to be from Roswell (possibly a dig at similarly-positioned Jason Behr?). Anyway, pretty good movie, with shades of Primer but more romantic melodrama.

 

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4 The Power (1968)

This one sounds better than it actually is, but I can’t say I didn’t find it fairly enjoyable. George Hamilton stars as a scientist who comes to the realization that someone on the board of his organization is a homicidal psychic out to kill him and his coworkers. He and his girlfriend, fellow scientist Margery (Suzanne Pleshette), attempt to outsmart their mystery assailant, narrowly avoiding some telekinetic attacks while their peers are mowed down left and right. And of course the police suspect Hamilton in the whole thing since he always seems to be around their deaths. It’s a sensationalistic thriller with a few hammy performances and a very 60s aesthetic, and I found it interesting enough. It drags at parts but picks up for some exciting and slightly weird sequences, plus George Hamilton is needlessly shirtless a lot. There was a moment towards the end when I thought there’d be an awesome reveal involving Margery, but then it didn’t happen, so I was actually totally disappointed with the actual ending. I need more twisted female villains, please. Also I guess this movie is pretty rare so I’m glad I got to see it at all.

 

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5 Europa Report (2013)

Admittedly we missed the first 10-15 minutes of this to go get dinner but I don’t think I missed anything terribly important. Basically the plot follows an international group of astronaut scientists sent to study Jupiter’s moon Europa, looking for possible signs of life. They discover a lot more than they expected, including weird underwater creatures, but their research comes with the price of several lives. The whole film is patched together from video diaries taken on the ship, so it’s got a found footage horror element to it. I liked that aspect of its storytelling but also saw holes in its construction, which was frustrating. It was also a bit slow for me, with its somewhat clinical approach and “tell, don’t show” kind of style. It had a good cast, though, including two badass lady astronauts played by Anamaria Marinca and Karolina Wydra, and strong tension.

 

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6 Senn (2014)

The main theater actually showed Silent Running during this block, but I decided to check out a screening of independent festival film Senn instead. I like Silent Running a lot, but I’d watched it recently and just felt like watching something new. Plus its co-writer, Britton Watkins, a linguist who consulted on alien dialect in Star Trek: Into Darkness, was there, which was neat. The film is set in a distant future where whole worlds are turned into factories, worked by people sold into indentured servitude, who spend years making knickknacks for the rich, day in, day out. Senn (Zach Eulberg) is just such a worker, but when he begins experiencing strange visions of a complex structure in space, he realizes he is meant for greater things. He and his girlfriend Kana (Lauren Taylor) take an intergalactic journey with a kind but closed-off alien (Wylie Herman) in an effort to unlock the structure’s mysterious phenomena. It’s a pretty good indie: nice production values but middling CG graphics, some good and some not-so-good acting, and an intriguing script. I liked the world-building and the characters, but am just bored of the idea that a generically handsome white dude is the chosen savior or whatever. Also I’m sick of futures with only white people ESPECIALLY since this movie actually takes the time to talk about class- like how the fuck can that discussion not also include race? There’s a cute gay character as Senn’s best friend, though, so at least there’s a little more representation than usual in sci-fi.

Alright, after this I popped out for more food and then moved back into the main theater for the next batch of Thon films. I think the second half was stronger than the first half, but I’ll talk about them in the next post!

Movie Review: Stridulum (The Visitor) (1979)

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Seen: At the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, on 35mm.

Well, when Drafthouse Films digs up a weird forgotten movie and pushes it into the cult film sphere, I do generally take note. The Visitor is certainly ripe for cult stardom, a forgotten bit of 70s ultra-weirdness from Italy that inexplicably stars John Huston. Set primarily in Atlanta, GA, the film follows Barbara Collins (Joanne Nail), a single mother who’s beginning to suspect that her daughter Katy (Paige Conner) might just be completely evil. Also, telekinetic. And psychic? Probably. I KNOW this sounds crazy, and Barbara doesn’t want to believe it, but then Katy “accidentally” shoots her in the spine, paralyzing her. And the little angel is showing an awful lot of ‘tude lately. And magic. Meanwhile, an old dude from space (John Huston) is searching for Katy, presumably to kill her to prevent her from taking over the world or whatever. And Barbara’s boyfriend Lance Henriksen is oddly obsessed with getting her pregnant. It’s gonna be a weird few weeks, THAT’S FOR SURE.

Ok. First of all I have to say: this movie is fucking RAD and not in the “ironically funny” way. It’s just a really awesome, bizarre film. At my screening I sat next to two dudes who were obviously there to have a good time, they were ready to laugh, and they guffawed hysterically throughout the entire movie, even though most of it isn’t actually funny. These guys were literally laughing at scene transitions, like they thought it was hilarious that a scene would end and a new one would begin? At first I thought they had never seen a weird movie before, so they were laughing out of surprise, but then I thought maybe they just had never seen a movie at all before and this was a wonderfully novel experience for them. I have no idea, I did not understand where they were coming from, but it was incredibly distracting and made me really angry for most of the running time, and so I feel like I need to watch this again as soon as possible without any loud, laughing idiots in the room.

Anyway. I really dug The Visitor. It’s a fantastic combination of imaginative storytelling, ostentatious visuals, a strong cast, and a dash of off-kilter camp. It’s a bit dated in some of its more psychedelic elements, but of course I loved that, and the effects are honestly impressive. (And there are so many freaky birds! My god, birds are terrifying!) Its remarkable opening shot depicts a hooded figure in an orange desert expanse, with a liquid-smoke sky, and it is breathtakingly beautiful. Then you have this super-fancy house that most of the action takes place in, with a grand staircase, a biomorphic swimming pool, and super modern decor. And sometimes Shelley Winters is snooping around, singing to herself and ever-prepared to be mean to a little girl, which I kind of loved. The soundtrack is dark but kind of fun and synthy, whic is basically the tone of the whole movie.

There are definitely some silly moments- the melodramatic close-ups, the at-times off dubbing- but I was just really into this movie the whole time. It’s a strange story, fusing demon-child paranoia with outer-space mythology, all wrapped up in a “heaven vs hell”-type narrative. It’s a legitimately interesting story, partly because it’s so weird and party because it’s so scary. I was genuinely worried for Barbara, who not only has to put up with a possibly matricidal daughter but also experiences a serious violation to her own body in the bad guys’ quest to get her pregnant so she can produce more telekinetic spawn. I really liked Joanne Nail in the role, she’s sympathetic and vulnerable without being useless, and she anchors the story as all these larger-than-life figures fight it out around her. Paige Conner is the real star, though, slinging around slurs and tearing up her house and staring coolly at everything, and it’s just great. Definitely up there with my favorite evil-child performances. I mean, did you SEE her take out a bunch of bullies at the ice skating rink?

So there you go, The Visitor is amazing. Weird and wonderful and inventive, and I really want to watch it again. Because, like, wtf was happening in that space nursery? Was that Jesus? And what was up with John Huston’s trippy light show? And how the hell did the gun get into Katy’s gift box? Can she willfully transmute matter? Oh man! The possibilities!

4.5/5

Pair This Movie With: Obviously The Bad Seed comes to mind! And I’ve never seen Rosemary’s Baby but probably that too. Or The Omen?

Movie Review: The Wicker Man (1973)

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Seen: On dvd on my tv, rented from netflix.

It was hard for me to believe that something as ridiculous and terrible as The Wicker Man remake came out of what many considered to be a top-notch horror film, but nevertheless I had high hopes for the original Wicker Man. Set entirely on a remote Scottish island, the film follows police detective Sergeant Howie (Edward Woodward) as he looks into the disappearance of a young girl. He finds the small island community of Summerisle to be a weird, weird place, where everyone is constantly getting naked for no reason and singing all the time and committing blasphemy or whatever, plus they all lie blatantly about the missing girl. Within a few days Sgt Howie is no further along in his investigation and essentially trapped there, gradually becoming convinced the islanders are planning a human sacrifice as part of their May Day pagan rituals.

This film is pretty bizarre, mostly in how it merges various genre elements into a somewhat mis-matched whole, but for the most part it works as an oddball thriller. It is very much a product of its time, a blatant commentary on the danger of cults when they had a much stronger presence in the mainstream consciousness. It is a dark but almost quaint story today, with Howie’s exaggerated morality and blustering religious outrage making him a ridiculous figure, and certainly not a sympathetic one. He’s also not a very good detective, never stopping to ponder why a letter was sent to him about a missing girl whose mother denies her existence. What makes The Wicker Man stand out is its memorably strange imagery and nihilistic plotting, and the charismatic performance of Christopher Lee as the devious Lord Summerisle. Also the music, since this is almost a musical and that was just not expected! Folksy tunes and ancient ballads and such.

This is an example of expectations vs reality, a common problem I experience when viewing acclaimed films. This is billed as a horror movie, and I was excited to see yet another highly-recommended horror film I’d missed, but I honestly don’t see what makes this horror. It’s not just that it’s not scary, but it doesn’t try to be scary. I viewed it as a straight mystery/thriller with some surreal visuals but no supernatural or slasher or other horror-type elements. I kept expecting something scary or truly horrific to happen and so I was kind of underwhelmed, but maybe I’m just not shocked by an asshole being burned alive by hippie pagans. It didn’t bother me. Also I know there are different versions of this movie and I don’t think I saw the full cut, it’s whatever netflix sent me. Anyway I did like The Wicker Man, but I to sort of had to change how I was watching it when I realized it wasn’t what I’d anticipated. It’s a wonderfully eccentric film and I loved how unapologetic it was in its weirdness. Howie has no idea what’s going on, and I didn’t have much of a better idea, but for the most part the movie didn’t really care anyway.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Umm another movie about cults, I guess? I haven’t seen too many, but can recommend Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Master, and Suspiria.

2013 Coolidge Corner Horror Marathon, Part II

Near Dark
Seen: At the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, all on 35mm. But first! Read Part I!

We’re getting into the very wee hours of the morning now, and there’s always this hump I have to climb over where I’ll be drifting off but then I’ll get my second wind. For this line-up I was dozing a bit during the fourth film, but woke up and was fine for the fifth and sixth. The fact that it was FREEZING in the theater probably helped me stay awake, but also made me uncomfortable! The seventh and final film, Brain Damage, was one I really wanted to see and I was totally awake for it, but I started freaking out about homework and a freelance project I had to finish and decided to check out early. But Brain Damage just arrived from netflix so I’ll be watching it soon! Anyway read on for the last films I DID watch at the Horrorthon, it’s an interesting mix.

4 13 Ghosts (1960)
This is a great example of the ridiculous gimmicks William Castle would get up to with his films, introducing “Illusion-O,” a use of 3D that revealed ghostly images when seen through a red lens and hid them when seen through the blue. Instead of the original visor-type of viewer we had red/blue glasses, so it was kind of annoying to look through one eye during all the Illusion-O moments, but I have to say the effect did look really eerie as the three-dimensional red ghosts moved through a 2D black and white space, I dug it. Unfortunately the movie itself is kind of dull, or at least it was for a sleepy audience in the early morning. I definitely nodded off a few times but got the general idea of the story (family inherits a wacky relative’s mansion, discovers he was a weirdo who collected ghosts, are subsequently haunted by them). I appreciated the at-times weird visuals (wtf was with that headless lion tamer? And the mustachioed chef ghost?) and the self-aware characters, but the little boy was irritating and the whole subplot about the hidden money and the duplicitous attorney was just whatever.
3/5

5 Quella villa accanto al cimitero (The House by the Cemetery) (1981)
I woke up for the Fulci, which is good because last time they showed a Fulci at one of these things I slept through most of it. In learning my own horror tastes I’m realizing that I really like the idea of a haunted house movie, so I think that’s why I was more engaged by The House by the Cemetery than The Gates of Hell. Focusing on a family that moves into a creepy New England mansion haunted by the experiments of its previous tenant, “Dr Freudstein,” it’s half a hilariously bad movie, half a creepily good one. So there were a lot of emotions going on between the outrageously-dubbed child, stilted acting, melodramatic zooms, and genuinely spooky ghosts and wonderfully gory kills and freaky monster men and whatnot. Also what the FUCK was up with that doll-face babysitter? I fell asleep for like 5 minutes and maybe I missed her reveal, because she definitely had a mystery but I could not figure out what it was. She was helping Dr Freudstein sort of but then she got killed? And she reminded the mom of a doll? Or something? Maybe it was never explained.
3/5

6 Near Dark (1987)
I saw this years ago at the Somerville Theatre Horror Marathon when they had a “From Dusk to Dawn” vampire night, and I remembered really liking it but wasn’t too clear on the details. Look back on what I wrote then I think my feelings are basically the same- overall I’d say it’s a fun movie but the female lead is weak and the happy ending feels like cheating. That being said, Near Dark is just cool, I mean Bigelow is so good at making characters seem cool, you know? You’ve got an assholey Bill Paxton chewing all the scenery, smoking-hot couple Jenette Goldstein and Lance Henricksen, and a cowboy Adrian Pasdar, and everything’s just so slick and stylish. Also something I don’t think I put together last time: Adrian Pasdar’s character is turned basically as punishment for being pushy and sexually demanding on his date with Jenny Wright (he won’t drive her home until she kisses him, even though she seems anxious to get home), and the rest of the movie is hell for him, so that’s appropriate.
4/5

Movie Review: The Cannonball Run (1981)

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Seen: On dvd on our projector set-up, rented from the Tisch Library at Tufts.

We were pretty down about Hal Needham’s passing. His movies are always lots of fun and I love his respect for and dedication to stuntpeople. I remembered that I’d never actually seen The Cannonball Run so that felt like an ok way to celebrate his career. The film tracks the events surrounding a cross-country road race that attracts all manner of speed demons and goofballs, all with their own ideas about how to evade the police as they speed down numerous interstate highways. Sexy lady friends (and lovers? Probably?) Marcie (Adrienne Barbeau) and Jill (Tara Buckman) use their looks to avoid speeding tickets, bickering racers JJ (Burt Reynolds) and Victor (Dom DeLuise) drive an ambulance complete with a phony doctor (Jack Elam), Seymour (Roger Moore) unleashes strange spy gadgets in the manner of James Bond, and sleazy pals Blake (Dean Martin) and Fenderbaum (Sammy Davis, Jr) disguise themselves as priests to fool any suspicious cops. A lot, and I mean A LOT of hijinks ensue as this huge group of famous people races to the finish.

This is a really very silly movie, like, Mel Brooks level of silly. Appearances from Dom DeLuise and George Furth certainly aid the comparison. As you may know, I’m kind of a Mel Brooks fanatic so I mean this as a high compliment. It’s got outdated jokes, ridiculous sight gags, more wacky characters than you can shake a stick at, and a fair amount of nonsensical activity, all of which I love! I spent most of the movie oscillating between who I wanted to win because I liked almost everyone, but ultimately rooted for the misandrist lady team who took advantage of lascivious cops. I gotta say, I was very taken in by Sammy Davis, Jr and Dean Martin, though, whose rude humor and old man DGAF-ery was oddly charming. DeLuise can be overbearing, but having Reynolds there to balance things out helped ground them as the core racing team. Most of all, THE STUNTS. It’s Hal Needham, I expect high-flying car action and unexpected levels of destruction and boy did I get it. There’s even a fantastic fight scene involving Jackie Chan! Because yes, Jackie Chan is in this movie!

Which brings me to some of the negative aspects of the film. While I appreciated its fairly diverse cast, some of the racial stereotyping is so antiquated it’s just jarring. Jackie Chan plays a Japanese racer who doesn’t speak English (but seems to be speaking Chinese some of the time) whose car has outlandish technology. I love Chan, and it’s awesome he got to show off his martial arts skills in the big fight scene, but the entire comedy of his character is a stereotype and it just doesn’t work. Jamie Farr’s role as a car-obsessed Arab sheik is similar, although his character is so ridiculous it worked a bit better because it didn’t really rely on stereotypes as much (at least not ones I know) but was more of a general caricature of a really rich foreigner. Of course, treatment of women isn’t much better, as Farrah Fawcett’s charcter is kidnapped and drugged by the supposed “good guys,” who are never even punished for it. But honestly, the whole movie (though inspired by a real guy) exists in this completely exaggerated parallel universe where nothing really makes sense and everything is goofy as hell, so it’s not like I was ruminating on the script’s exploration of race and gender. I was mostly just tickled pink by how much FUN I was having. Thanks, Hal Needham, I’ll never forget you.

4/5

Pair This Movie With: Of course my first thought was Death Race 2000, the absolute best road race movie. For other 70’s fast car flicks there’s Smokey and the Bandit (another Needham/Reynolds team-up) and Grand Theft Auto.