Bummer Summer for the Movies

I’ve been to screenings of three of the summer’s “big” movies over the past week and I must say I was mostly less than impressed. When I see a film that doesn’t excite me intellectually—or even on a visceral level—it leaves me enervated. And a couple of these films were so cynical and formulaic, it really felt like an insult to audiences that the producers would even try to pass them off as entertainment.

An air of weary déja vu hangs over The Hangover Part II. Jumble the characters around a bit, transplant the action to Thailand, spin some variations on the raunchy jokes, and you have a feeble sequel to the surprise 2009 hit. This time Stu (Ed Helms) is the one getting married, having dumped his shrewish fiance from the original, and his new love is Lauren (Jamie Chung), a Thai-American, and the Wolfpack sets off for her home country for the wedding being held at her father’s palatial estate.

Phil (Bradley Cooper) wants the boys to come out to the beach for a wedding eve toast, joined by Lauren’s genius brother, 16-year-old Teddy (Mason Lee, son of director Ang Lee), whom Alan takes an immediate and inexplicable dislike to. Of course, they wake up in a sleazy hotel room in Bangkok with no memory of what had transpired the night before. Instead of a tiger and a baby in the room, there’s a drug-dealing Capuchin monkey, and Mr. Chow (Ken Jeung) is introduced right away, naked, with another gag about his…er…shortcomings. Teddy is nowhere to be found, but his severed finger (identified by his school ring) is discovered, so the guys hit the mean streets of Bangkok to reconstruct the previous night and locate the kid, leading them to a series of misadventures that are ever-escalating in their awfulness.

If you’ve seen the first film, you pretty much know everything that’s going to happen in this one. The setting is different, but the incidents are the same with—as I said earlier—slight variation. Instead of a missing tooth, Stu now sports a Mike Tyson-style tattoo on his face. Instead of a car trunk, Mr. Chow is thrown into an ice machine after he snorts a bump of cocaine and appears to die of a heart attack. And vicious thugs are coming out of the woodwork to attack them—but no one knows why.

Director Todd Phillips, along with co-scripters Craig Mazin and Scot Armstrong, seem to think that the characters need to be more extreme to be effective. As a result, Stu is an even bigger quivering mess and Phil is an even bigger asshole. Alan (Zack Galifianakis), who was a somewhat psycho but funny child-man in the first film, has become a complete psycho in the sequel, and it’s more disturbing than anything else. Ironically, Jeung’s pansexual, arrogant Chow actually comes off the best, as his character serves as kind of a Greek chorus, chanting “You all suck!” to the other cast members.

I didn’t laugh once during the film…maybe a chuckle. I enjoyed the car chase, but otherwise the filmmakers’ attempts at extreme grossness were just extremely gross without being funny, and some of the gags were pretty offensive. Oh—and the cameo that Mel Gibson was supposed to play was done by Liam Neeson, then reshot with Nick Cassavettes, and that’s the one used in the film. And I guess they’re going to have to digitally erase Helms’ Tyson tattoo when the film comes to cable and DVD.

Today I saw J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, a film I’ve discussed on this blog a couple of times, even speculating if it had the chance to be the summer movie of 2011. Well, the answer is…no!

Super 8 begins as a charming-enough Spielbergian story of a bunch of kids making a zombie movie in a small Ohio town in the summer of 1979. While shooting a scene at a train station in the middle of the night, they hurry to take advantage of an actual oncoming train—”Production values!” cries the director (Riley Griffiths)—but they’re horrified when it suddenly derails, boxcars piling up in fiery heaps.

Strange things start to happen (electrical blackouts, the disappearance of metal objects like car engines and microwaves) and the army invades. Meanwhile, the children, who’ve sworn not to tell anyone that they’d witnessed the wreck, try to figure out what’s going on. But the film lurches abruptly from a Goonies-style adventure into strictly Michael Bay territory, with much headache-inducing slamming and crashing and huge pieces of metal being thrown all over the place. And, yes…you’ve read it other places, I’m sure, but let me also chime in to say that the denouement well and truly sucks.

Abrams’ fawning attempt at a Spielberg film circa the late 1970s didn’t take proper lessons from those films, and that’s why it’s not a success. Now, I confess I’m not a Spielberg fan—I find his films to be too heavy-handed (except Catch Me If You Can, which was a surprise), but if you’ve got fond memories of the movies Abrams is paying tribute to—Close Encounters, E.T., The Goonies (not directed by him but based on a Spielberg story), you’ll find little to charm you here.

Super 8 is too hard-edged and mean to be charming. It’s not really a kids’ film at all, yet it’s too lame for adults. Most all of the characters are one-dimensional and cliches abound. Griffiths, as the budding director, is the prototypical “fat kid” with self-esteem issues and a houseful of obnoxious siblings. Elle Fanning, as Alice, the “girl from the wrong side of the tracks” has a weary mien and dark circles under her eyes that say more about her relationship with her abusive father than even the filmmakers may have intended. Joel Courtney, as Joe Lamb, son of the town’s deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler), who is grieving over his mother’s accidental death, starts out appealingly, especially in his developing relationship with Alice, but he gets saddled with some of the film’s most groan-worthy “twists.”

I should’ve sensed trouble from the very beginning. It’s during the wake at Joel’s house after his mother’s funeral. He’s sitting outside on a swing, despondent, and an actress looking through the kitchen window at him with welling blue eyes and trembling lips is giving a really bad performance as she talks about how worried she is about him and how she’s afraid his father won’t be able to take care of him.

Super 8‘s biggest problem, though, is that unlike the 1970s films that inspired it, this film isn’t necessary to ever see again. Once the ending has been revealed to you, and you’ve booed appropriately, it’s all over. There’s no friendly extraterrestrial to revisit or magic spaceship to watch rise again over the Devil’s Tower. There’s just a really stupid conclusion to two noisy hours that you’ll never get back as Michael Giacchino’s John Williamsy music swells on the soundtrack.

And that’s the big difference between Spielberg’s blockbusters and Super 8. No charm, no repeatability…end of story.

Easily my favorite of the summer movies I saw last week is X-Men: First Class. English director Matthew Vaughn (whose Stardust I liked a lot) takes the reins and gives much-needed, James Bondish boost of energy to the fifth installment in the series. Here we meet Xavier and Erik/Magneto as children and then again as young men, getting the backstory of how they were shaped into the hero/villain they eventually became.

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are terrific as Xavier and Erik, sharing a nice bromance before they become mortal enemies. Kevin Bacon is a fun surprise as Schmidt, the concentration camp doctor who kills Erik’s mother and years later evolves into Sebastian Shaw, plotting to destroy and enslave all the humans on earth so that the mutants can have free reign. At first they work together to assemble a mutant team to battle Shaw, but Xavier realizes that Erik is much too driven by anger and vengeance, and the two friends are driven apart. Shaw wants to make the Cuban missile crisis happen. Xavier wants to stop him and Erik just wants to kill him. All these strands of story converge in a pretty spiffing climax.

The film has its share of snappy dialogue, much of it quite amusing. The action sequences are enjoyably staged and take place all over the world, giving it nice movement and expansiveness. There are a couple of hilarious cameos to watch for: when Xavier and Erik are canvassing for mutants to join their team, they find Wolverine in a bar. Before they can even offer him their proposition, he snarls, “Go fuck yourself.” In another scene, the jailbait Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) sneaks into Erik’s bed to try to seduce him, and he tells her to come back in a few years. “Is this better?” she asks, transforming herself into—Rebecca Romijn!

I always have to mention when I’m writing about superhero movies that I’m not a follower of the comics they’re based on, so when I see one that I find comprehensible and exciting without benefit of the original story, I have to compliment it. X-Men: First Class is one of those films. It’s top-heavy with mutants, some of whom I knew and others I’d never seen before, but they were well-integrated into the story. I especially enjoyed seeing them as kids, learning to manage their powers under Xavier’s tutelage.

Of course, the parallels between the mutants’ longing for acceptance, the struggle for Civil Rights and the battle against homophobia are still there and addressed in sometimes amusing fashion. When government employee Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult) is inadvertently “outed” as a mutant by Xavier, he tells his human employer, “You didn’t ask…and I didn’t tell.”

There’s certainly a sequel coming for this one, and I welcome it. I’ve liked all the X-Men films, even—gasp!—X3 and X-Men Origins, but this arc of the franchise seems like it will have more philosophical and metaphorical subject matter to chew on.

Will "Super 8" Be The Summer Movie?

I commented in an earlier post that, while I’m mildly interested in the J.J. Abrams/Steven Spielberg Super 8, I feared that it was going to be too much like the Spielberg films of the ’70s and’80s—you know, featuring endless shots of people staring in awe at the spaceship/cute alien/ectoplasm, etc. Well, it turns out that’s exactly what it is. Variously described as Abrams’ love letter to Spielberg’s early films and The Goonies meets Cloverfield, Super 8is jumping on the nostalgia bandwagon big-time.

I witnessed the birth of the blockbuster. I saw Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. theatrically when they were originally released. I enjoyed Jaws, with its vicious shark attacks and pop-up scares, but the other two just dripped with too much of that Spielberg “childlike wonder” treacle for me to stomach. That, to me, is Super 8‘s Achilles heel. Some people love that schmaltz, but it makes others gag.

It’s certainly being marketed to bring in the audiences from three important tiers. You’ve got the original Spielberg generation—those who originally saw Jaws, Close Encounters and E.T. in theaters and wax nostalgic about the good old summer days. You’ve got the home video generation—the twenty-to-thirty-somethings who discovered them on cable and VHS, along with other kid favorites like the aforementioned Goonies, Gremlins, Explorers and Poltergeist. Finally, you’ve got today’s generation who learned about those films in utero, andjust to be sureSuper 8‘s trailer seems to have enough contemporary-looking Transformers-style crashing and smashing to get their attention.

To top it all off, it’s really on its own when it opens Friday. You might count Judy Moody and Her Whatever Summer as competition, but I sure wouldn’t, despite the drawing power of Jaleel White.

A major challenge Super 8 faces (besides the schmaltz factor) in becoming the summer’s big blockbuster is staying power. These days, hit movies top the box office for a week…maybe two. The Spielberg smashes of yore had legs that wouldn’t quit and just ran on and on and on. Jaws, widely considered to be the very first summer blockbuster, played for months and enjoyed frequent revivals in the days before pay cable and home video. Super 8 will easily make back its production budget and P&A, but a true summer blockbuster must earn many times its budget to get that crown.

Green Lantern and Mr. Popper’s Penguins are lurking June 17th to knock Super 8 off the top of the charts, but I don’t really think either one has the necessary oomph, although Lantern is much more of a threat than Penguins. Even the middling Thor made $170 million domestically while—well, let’s face it…Jim Carrey’s marquee value is pretty much over. All that remains is for him to do a pathetic sequel to The Mask.

Positive word of mouth is vital to achieving blockbuster status, and early user reviews on IMDB are enthusiastic except for one thing—their reaction to the ending ranged from mild disappointment to outright hostility. It may be pushing the Spielberg warm-and-fuzzy angle a bit too hard, and if viewers hate the ending, they’re not going to see it again…and social media makes it completely impossible for studios to “hide” details of their releases.

In my opinion, the jury is still out. There’s lots of anticipation and it has a fairly solid 84% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, but if the ending is that much a problem, it remains to be seen how long it can stay on top.

Upcoming Horror and Sci-Fi Movies

The coming months are looking kind of so-so in the fantasy film department, but some of them sound relatively interesting.

I’m sure people are expecting J.J. Abrams’ Super 8, produced by Steven Spielberg, to be the breakout hit of the summer in the genre. For me, it could go one of two ways: it’ll either be an exciting nostalgia piece (complete with super 8mm cameras!) or it’ll be an over-the-top, saccharine Spielbergian type of movie where the kids call each other penis breath and everyone stands around staring at the alien creature in wide-eyed, open-mouthed wonder. I really hope it’s the former.

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Cloverfield, which Abrams produced, but I didn’t watch any of the shows he earned his reputation with. Sorry—Lost just seemed like a dull proposition to me. And the photo from the film at the top of this page shows…that’s right, a kid staring in wonder with his mouth open. Sigh. Plus I just know I’ll be watching intently to see that those little bastards use the super 8 equipment correctly!

The website Bloody Disgusting is doing an interesting distribution experiment with AMC Theatres this summer, branded Bloody Disgusting Selects. YellowBrickRoad arrives June 1st, and it’s a Blair Witch-sounding thriller about a 2009 expedition to try to find out why the population of the entire town of Friar, New Hampshire, walked into the wilderness to face certain doom. In July, cult director Sion Soro‘s latest film, Cold Fish, about a serial killer, hits the screens. And August brings Fernando Barreda Luna’s Atrocious, a “found footage” film (a genre that dates all the way back to Cannibal Holocaust!) Good on Bloody Disgusting and AMC for trying this out, especially in the lucrative summer months when the (yawn) blockbusters are battling for screens.

Jeez, I wish I could build an audience big enough for Weird Movie Village Selects. Just think—we could do big-screen re-releases of films like The Terror of Dr. Hichcock, Schizo and—perhaps most terrifying of them all—Roller Boogie.

20th Century-Fox is hoping that the memory of Tim Burton’s awful 2001 Planet of the Apes remake has faded away, so in August they’re offering Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a “prequel” that posits how genetic engineering made the monkeys so smart they were able to take over the world. It’s sure to be CG-licious, and James Franco took time from his busy college schedule to play the lead. I don’t think this is going to do a lot of business. The Boomers were burned by the last sequel of the original series, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, and the younger generation are probably not aware of its historical significance at all. Back in the day, the monkey makeup in the first film was truly innovative.

Also arriving in August is Final Destination 5 3D with a brand-new writer and director. Fine with me…I don’t mind putting my brain to sleep for a while and enjoying some splattery destruction. But I guess The Final Destination (2009) wasn’t the final destination because there’s another destination! I enjoyed the fourth installment in 3D in the theatre, but more impressive for me was my enjoyment level when I watched it flat on cable at home. The scene with the douchebag getting his guts sucked out by the swimming pool pump still packs a punch!

One of the more bizarre entries of the summer is Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, a remake of a 1973 TV movie (!) starring Kim Darby. The original was about a young couple who inherit an old mansion, only to discover that it’s inhabited by tiny demonic creatures. Now, I remember it was a cult favorite back in the day, but where in the hell can you see it now? There are dozens of retro cable channels (and digital channels), but I’ve never seen it on anyone’s playlist. Plus, the remake stars Tom Cruise’s personal robot, Katie Holmes. My prediction—kids won’t know what the hell it is and adults won’t care. Miramax’s best hope is to pump up Guillermo Del Toro as co-scripter.

Another bizarre remake is Straw Dogs, with James Marsden, Kate Bosworth and everyone’s favorite blond vamp, Alexander Skarsgard. Like the original, it’s about a married couple being tormented by the locals when they move to a small Southern town. Hubby is meek and mousy, but when his wife is raped by the thugs, he girds his loins and sets out for revenge.

Unlike the original, it doesn’t have Sam Peckinpah’s eye for violence or Susan George’s enormous teeth. Rod Lurie, a former film critic for Los Angeles Magazine, is the writer-director, and he’s a flaming liberal, so there’ll probably be a lot of messaging going on during the carnage. Dustin Hoffman played the husband in the original, which is the reason for the iconic image to your right.

I’m really interested in Kevin Smith’s Red State, a beatdown of Christian fundamentalism in middle America. Ironically, reviewers have said it’s too “preachy,” but I enjoyed Smith’s anti-organized religion Dogma, and I’m looking forward to seeing him take on the same subject in a horror setting. At least I don’t have to see him try to get on an airplane! HA!

Okay, being a product of the 80s, I have to admit that the remake I’m looking forward to the most (wait a minute—”the remake I’m looking forward to the most”?)—is Fright Night. Seeing a “sneak preview” of the original is one of my happiest memories, and I think the reboot could be worthwhile (unlike Rob Zombie’s ungodly Halloween “revisualizations”).

Things they can improve: Chris Sarandon was fun as Jerry Dandridge, but he’s just not a sexy actor. Farrell, on the other hand, with his bad boy image, just exudes sex, and from what I can tell from the trailer, the filmmakers exploit it. I’m sure Yelchin will be fine as Charlie, but it looks like they already need to torture the kid’s hairline forward. At least he’s not getting ridiculous plugs like Nic Cage. Drive Angry? Me too, if I had to deal with that hair.

Amanda Bearse was too old for her part in the original, although she acquitted herself admirably when she transformed into a bloodsucker. Who can forget the scene where Amy confronts Charley with her vampire version of vagina dentata?

But Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Evil Ed? Jury’s still out on that one. And the 3D is really not necessary unless they do something super amazing with it.

Adventures in Home Entertainment

I’ve always been fascinated by home entertainment media. When I was about six years old, I noticed that the rotating nail buffing wheel on my Mom’s hair dryer could double as a record turntable, so with the aid of a sewing needle and a piece of notebook paper rolled up into the shape of a gramophone horn, I converted it. I taped the needle to the bottom of the cone, centered a record on the wheel and—hey presto—I got sound! Of course, it was playing at the wrong speed, but it worked. Thus began a lifelong fascination with these devices.

My parents indulged my obsession, so my childhood was filled with a variety of entertainment formats—record players, tape recorders, movie projectors—all of which held an endless fascination for me. When my sisters and I would accompany our parents on a visit to their friends’ homes, I’d always make a beeline to whatever type of home entertainment item they might possess. Not a regular old television, of course. It had to be something more exotic—a Gramophone with a horn, for example, a wire recorder or a really tricked-out console stereo (one of those models with a turntable, a radio and a reel-to-reel tape deck built in). One of my Dad’s friends even had a 16mm projector, and he showed us a Boston Blackie movie. And at school there were educational films and filmstrips to examine, although I never became an A/V geek (surprise!).

My best friend Mark got a Show ‘N Tell machine one Christmas. It looked like a TV set with a record player on top. You’d push a cardboard stick containing about 15 slide frames into the viewer and start playing the record, and the filmstrip would advance automatically to keep the visuals going with the story.

My Christmas gift was better—a Kenner Easy Show 8mm projector, which thrilled me to no end. I could go into the bathroom (the darkest room in the house) and hand-crank the little catridges containing two-minute films onto the shower tiles! I loved it—Mighty Mouse flying…Popeye eating Spinach. I especially liked the Popeye film because I could run it in reverse and make it look like he was vomiting. Hey, kids are easily entertained.

Not a real home entertainment format, but fascinating nevertheless was the Gray Audograph dictation machine Dad brought home from work for me. I guess they were phasing them out, because this was a real old-timer even back then. It was a huge metal machine with a giant microphone and flexible blue blank records.

You’d put a record on the turntable and speak into the microphone as the stylus cut a groove into its surface. Then, when you were done, you’d reset the machine and play it back. Man, I wish I’d saved it—or even a cassette from one of my tape recorders. There are plenty of pictures and silent movies of me as a kid, but no recording of my voice. That’d be a trip to hear.

My grandfather (“Boppy“) was big on family photography, so he’d always have a show in his garage at the conclusion of one of our regular cookouts, when it got dark enough. The slide shows weren’t so interesting to me, but then he’d set up the really magical device—the 8mm projector—and run home movies. Again, the footage of the family bored me, but he’d start each show with cartoons and other short films that he’d purchased at Kmart when he picked up his developed reels.

As I discussed in an earlier post, I was dying to get the new automatic version of the Give-A-Show projector and my Dad did it one better. In a true Red Ryder carbine action rifle moment, he gave me a real 8mm projector, complete with films that I could project to my heart’s content.

I even remember the titles—Bride of Frankenstein, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Return of Dracula. Of course, the excitement of watching three or twelve-minute silent, black-and-white movies got boring, and I lost interest in the format for a while until I discovered super 8mm sound. I begged my Dad to get me a sound projector, even though it was pretty pricey.

Sound films were expensive, too—about $30 for an eight-minute 200′ reel and $60 for a 16-minute, 400′ reel. Nevertheless, I scraped together the money I could get to buy the sound version ofBride of Frankenstein; 16-minute condensations of The Omen and The Birds; and public domain Warner Bros. cartoons, to name just a few. Of course, feature-length films were available in the format, too, but they were really expensive—up to $300. Undaunted, I managed to obtain a print of Night of the Living Dead when I was 18 years old. I still have it.

After I moved to Los Angeles (with my super 8mm equipment in tow), the home video revolution began. Shopping for home video formats at the May Company department store in the Sherman Oaks Galleria, I skipped past the VHS and Beta machines and headed straight for the RCA CED videodisc system.

The discs were literally vinyl records encased in caddies that the machine would literally play like a record. And yes, it would skip. Why, you may ask, would I choose a format that couldn’t record, skipped, and had a chintzy loading system? Well, it was cheaper than videotape and some of the discs were available in stereo, and tape was still mono, unless you count the limited-availability VHS linear stereo, which sounded horrible. CEDs also offered a slightly better picture than VHS (but not as good as Beta, which I got into shortly thereafter). 8mm video, laserdisc and—finally—VHS followed.

Now that we’re well and truly in the digital age, I still treasure and watch my super 8mm films. As a matter of fact, my collection has expanded considerably, thanks to eBay and distributors like Derann. I never got into super 8mm widescreen, but I do have a few stereo prints that sound great. I also have a Victrola, an old-school school record player and a laser videodisc player. Obsessed much? Ironically, although I utilize all the new technologies in my work and leisure, they’re just not as interesting to me as the old analogue formats.

I’m not alone. Other Boomers (and their kids) are fascinated, too. You can find everything I’ve described on eBay. Hell, there’s even an Audograph Facebook fan page!

Brain Movies

Let’s face it—of all the weird movie subgenres out there, “brain” movies are among the goofiest. They even fall into sub-subcategories—evil alien brains; flying murderous brains; and, of course, human brains as foodstuffs.

1957′s The Brain from Planet Arous is a good example of the evil alien brain. Starring ex-Mr. Shirley Temple John Agar (who already had a slew of Universal sci-fi features under his belt, including Revenge of the Creature, Tarantula and The Mole People), this film, independently produced and distributed by no-budget Howco International Pictures, makes the others look like A-list spectaculars. Agar plays Steve March, a scientist whose body becomes possessed by the criminal Gor, a malevolent brain from Arous. Gor/March goes wild, assaulting his fiancee, Sally (Joyce Meadows), blowing stuff up and plotting world domination.

Whenever Gor exerts his telepathic abilities, March’s eyes become shiny silver, which is actually pretty creepy looking. Considering Agar had a round, babyish face, the effect is even more bizarre. When I met Agar at a collector’s show in 2000, we talked about the contact lenses he wore for the effect. Not surprisingly, he said they hurt like hell and the flaking of the silver paint caused him permanent vision problems.

Gor must exit March’s body every 24 hours to “re-assimilate oxygen,” and when he (it?) does, he appears as a giant floating brain with glowing eyes (see picture at the top of the post), and March regains control of his faculties. When Sally meets Vol, a law enforcement brain from Arous, shows up and tells Sally that he’s come to earth to take Gor into custody. He looks the same as Gor—a giant, floating brain with glowing eyes. It would have been hilarious if he’d had a big sheriff’s badge pinned to his cerebellum. Oh—and he inhabits Sally’s dog, George, from time to time, to keep his eye on things.

He tells Sally about Gor’s vulnerable spot, and she leaves sleeping Steve a note and a diagram of the brain so that he can kill the alien despot and save the world…when he wakes up. The exciting climax involves Agar attacking a giant, bouncing brain on strings while Sally and George look on.

A happy childhood memory of mine is 1958′s Fiend without a Face. It was a television staple when I was growing up, and I loved its explicit, squishy climax. It’s an English film (with American actors) about a group of scientists at a Canadian military base who’ve been experimenting with nuclear energy to track enemies at long distances. Unfortunately, a nearby mad scientist is tapping into the same energy to create an invisible creature from his own subconscious that sucks out its victims’ brains and spines.

Most of the film is played out as a mystery—who or what is committing these murders? American actor Marshall Thompson plays Major Cummings, the scientist who’s trying to figure it all out. But it’s the last 15 minutes of the film that it seemed to take forever to get to but was always worth waiting for—the attack of the brain monsters. Getting closer to the nuclear source, the invisible monster becomes visible, and soon there are dozens of leaping, flying brains with spinal cords attached, attacking their victims by wrapping said cords around their throats. When the brains are shot, they emit a viscous black fluid as well as an appropriate gurgling sound as they deflate. So effective were these effects that a neighbor friend with whom I was watching it one time ran to the bathroom to vomit.

Fiendis one of those movies that would really have worked as a 400′ (18 minute) super 8mm condensation, and I can’t believe it was never available that way. It’d be so easy to put together—spend three minutes quickly describing the plot, and then include the last 15 minutes of the brain attack unedited.

Another insane entry that bears repeat viewing is the Mexican El Baron del Terror, which was imported into the United States in 1962 by the legendary K. Gordon Murray and given the unforgettable new title The Brainiac.

Abel Salazar, who made a lot of south-of-the-border thrillers, stars as the Baron Vitelius d’Esteria, who, in a 1661 prologue, swears vengeance on the descendants of his accusers when he is sentenced to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. A comet passes overhead (well, actually kind of a sparkler), and I guess his soul “hitchhikes” a ride on it.

300 years later, the sparkler returns, bringing the reincarnation of the Baron back to the village to wreak his revenge. Appearing in human form as Ricky Ricardo—I mean a slick and stylish continental gentleman—he can transform into a batlike creature with a throbbing, hairy face and a long tongue with which to suck out his victims’ brains. And when he gets hungry for a between-meal snack, he has a silver chalice filled with human brains in the living room from which he nibbles.

Fans of this film love the super-cheap sets; the strange, pulsating monster make-up; the wooden dialogue and dubbing; and Salazar himself, playing the suave gentleman bit for all it’s worth as he throws lavish dinner parties for his victims before he changes into the Brainiac and sucks out their brains. Too hilarious—and too bad the MST3K gang never got their hands on it.

A much more contemporary entry into the genre is Frank Henenlotter’s 1988 Brain Damage. It’s a sick one, full of jet-black comedy. Soap opera star Rick Herbst stars as Brian, a twenty-something New Yorker who wakes up one morning to discover that he’s sharing his bed with a parasitic creature—known as an Aylmer—that injects a euphoria-inducing fluid directly into his spinal column.

Brian quickly becomes hooked on Aylmer’s juice,” but the creature expects something in return. He needs Brian to help him acquire human brains on which to feast. Soon Brian’s tripping through the streets of New York, with Aylmer in tow, in search of victims. Sickened by what he’s done, Brian tries to withdraw from Aylmer, and tragedy results, of course.

This is a “drug scare” film as insane as 1972′s Blood Freak—except with intentional humor and a more complicated plot. As written and directed by the individualistic Henenlotter, whose other films include the classic Basket Case and Frankenhooker, it’s a wild trip. And considering its tiny budget, it’s really quite well-made.

Aylmer is voiced by the legendary horror host Zacherly, and it’ a hilarious juxtaposition that such a warm, reassuring voice comes out of this creature. But Aylmer is merciless—while Brian is writhing in full withdrawal on a grubby hotel room floor, he’s bobbing back and forth in a nearby sink, merrily singing Glenn Miller’s “Elmer’s Tune.” And in the film’s most notorious scene, Brian takes a clubgirl into an alley where she kneels to perform oral sex on him, only to find Aylmer waiting behind his zipper!

I first saw this film on a Paramount Home Video release with the oral sex scene cut as well as some other gore. Synapse Video released a nice uncut DVD version of it in 2003, which is still available. I love the scene in which Brian is riding the subway when Basket Case‘s own Kevin Van Hentenryck gets on, still carrying the basket containing his “brother,” sits across the aisle from Brian and stares at him nervously.

The Joy of Super 8mm Cinema

I have been fascinated with the mechanical aspects of motion picture projection since I was a kid. When I was nine years old, I wanted a battery-operated, motorized Kenner Easy Show projector for Christmas (the hand-cranked ones were so unprofessional) and my Dad did it one better by buying me a real 8mm projector purchased at Niles Film Products in Niles, Michigan, just across the border from my hometown of South Bend, Indiana. My first films, given to me that same Christmas, were “Bride of Frankenstein” and “The Return of Dracula.” Both were silent, of course.

“Bride” was a nine-minute condensed version of James Whale’s celebrated classic, and this was before the second wave of Universal monsters were released to television to a whole new generation of monster kids like me, so I had never seen the full-length sound version and thus had no basis for comparison. Nevertheless, the fun of threading film and actually seeing pictures spring to life were thrilling for me. It seemed extra creepy with no sound and intertitles. I loved the ending when Ernest Thesiger said, “You’ll blow us all to atoms!” as Elsa Lanchester hissed and Karloff, with a single tear running down his cheek, pulls the blow-up switch. Why did mad scientists’ laboratories have blow-up switches?

Anyhow, as the miniature castle crumbled into dust and the credits rolled, I was confused. There was the credit “Music by Franz Waxman” followed by one that read “Western Electric Noiseless Recording.” The noiseless recording credit made sense, because it was a silent film, after all (there was no way for me to know that Western Electric noiseless recording was the 1930 version of Dolby noise reduction). But why a music credit?

“The Return of Dracula” was even more telescoped. Imagine taking a black and white, 90-minute movie (with sound) and breaking it down into a three-minute silent reel! As I recall, in my version, some lady in a white robe runs back and forth in front of some mausoleums for a minute, and then we got the coupe de grace: she gets staked. And you actually get to see penetration and gushes of blood!

You couldn’t hope for any kind of continuity in these super-short films, which were known as “headline editions,” but they were only $2.99 at Kmart ($3.99 if they were in color).

I made some movies of my own in the 1970s, using a split-reel 8mm camera. It cost about $2.33 per 50 feet to process at Kmart, plus they’d slit the film and splice it together for you! I remember making and remaking a film called “Hunted,” which involved a murderous psychopath (is there any other kind?) chasing his prey throughout the wilds of South Bend. I’m ashamed to admit they are all gone. I do, however, have my Grandfather’s super 8mm films, which are still holding their brilliant Kodachrome color. I made a DVD for the family one Christmas. I also held movie shows in my garage during the summer, charging the neighborhood kids a quarter admission. And, of course, there was a snack bar.

Then, in 1976, super 8mm sound was introduced. I could scarcely contain my excitement. I begged my dad for one of the new sound projectors (about $250; not cheap) and my lifelong obsession truly began. Now the movies talked as well as moved! And the sound versions were available in 400 foot lengths – 17 minutes! They were still condensations of the features, of course, but some of the editing was quite professional and these “mini-movies” could be really satisfying. I still have some of the ones I bought as a teenager – “The Birds,” “The Omen,” “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Dr. Zhivago,” “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre”…and, of course, the famous nine-minute version of “Jaws”. I’m not kidding. It was acclaimed in film collectors’ circles for its solid continuity even in its brevity! All those prints have turned pink, alas; a result of having been printed on film stock that wasn’t meant to last. Heck, the distributors didn’t know their films would be sought after and screened thirty years later! My home movies began to talk, too; I have about two hours worth of wonderful footage that I’ve recently transferred to DVD.

The condensations can be unintentionally hilarious. I have a 17-minute version of “The Exorcist,” which is really well-done storywise, but telescopes all of the mayhem, head-spinning, projectile vomiting and obscenity spewing into one convenient reel that takes less time to watch than a sitcom. My 17-minute”Taxi Driver” is less ambitious, dealing only with the Jodie Foster rescue portion of the complete feature, but is once again a wall-to-wall assault of profanity, sleaze and violence. These condensations weren’t edited to be “family friendly”…they were edited to give the collectors the scenes they wanted! Sometimes narration was added, and it was always pedantic and cheesy. Some ambitious distribution companies released two- and three-reel versions of their features, which would run anywhere from 34 to 50 minutes, allowing more time to tell the story. I have a three-reel print of “Westworld” which is certainly as satisfying as watching the entire feature.

When I was 18, Niles Film Products moved to Mishawaka Avenue, just north of downtown South Bend, and now I had a “movie store” I could actually go into, shop and trade films with. I was in heaven. There, I was introduced to the holy grail – full length features on super 8! “Night of the Living Dead” was one of my first acquisitions. I think it cost $199. Expensive, I know, but my obsession knew no bounds. I still own it, and it still runs great. See if you’ll be able to say that about a videocassette or DVD after 30 years! Plus I could buy – shock horror! – “R” rated films like “Schizo” (see the Lynne Frederick post). Just before I left for Los Angeles, I saw a display in the store for some newfangled movie delivery system called Betamax. How could that be? No reels? No projector? Couldn”t last. Neither could super 8. In the United States, store-bought films were killed by the video revolution in the early 1980s although people continue to photograph in the format to this day — including professionals.

I can cite two energetic and innovative films shot in super 8mm in the last 20 years: J.R. Bookwalter’s zombiethon “The Dead Next Door” and Leif Jonker’s vampire epic “Darkness,” which display not only facility in the format but solid storytelling as well. Both are available on DVD. Check ‘em out on Amazon. I love the raw, immediate feel and the refreshingly made-at-home special effects.

Today I own at least 25 features on super 8 and over a hundred shorts, condensations and cartoons. I also have four projectors – all Elmos, the Cadillac of super 8. One of them is stereo. Yes, super 8 had stereo playback and recording capabilities long before home video was even available. Also anamorphic widescreen, although surprisingly I haven’t gotten into that – yet. Super 8 is still huge in Europe, and there’s a wonderful company in Dudley, West Midlands, called Derann, which continues to manufacture and distribute brand-new, full-length super 8 features that look and sound absolutely gorgeous. I have “The Lion King,” “Toy Story” and “The Jungle Book” from Derann, all in stereo, with rich color and pin-sharp focus.

But I still love to watch the films I bought when I was a teenager, color fade or not. They transport me back to another time. And the whole ritual of preparing for a super 8mm show is indescribably satisfying — setting up the screen and projector, running the sound through the stereo, doing a system check. Even dealing with problems like uncooperative amplifiers and blown bulbs add a welcome challenge that’s part of the experience. Take a look at the clip below. It’s my stereo Elmo GS-800 running my latest acquisition – a full-length print of “101 Dalmatians” (from Derann, of course). The video I shot doesn’t do it justice. In reality, it doesn’t flicker a bit and the colors are just beautiful.

Over the years, I’ve moved across the country and all around Los Angeles, but my super 8 collection has always gone with me. There’ve been times when I’ve turned down an apartment because the living room didn’t have “adequate throw.” I’ve sold some films on eBay, but I’ve probably bought twice as many to replace what I sold.

I know I’m working with an antique format. The projectors need maintenance and repair; the films need cleaning and lubricating, but it’s all part of the ritual. Super 8 will always be a part of my life, because wherever there’s a white wall for me to project it on, I’m home.

And I have the sound version of the condensed “Bride of Frankenstein.” It looks great!

 

The Tragedy of Lynne Frederick

She only made a handful of films, including 1976’s star-studded “Voyage of the Damned,” Saul Bass’ “Phase IV” (1975) and “Nicholas and Alexandra” (1971). But what I remember her most for are two key films that fit within the Weird Movie Village realm: “Vampire Circus” and ”Schizo.”

It is said she gave up her career for Peter Sellers, who was 30 years her senior when they married in 1977. As has been revealed since his death, Sellers was a troubled – and troublesome – man, difficult to live with under any circumstances but even more so as his health declined toward the end of his short life. She would make only one more film (with him, of course), “The Prisoner of Zenda” in 1979, which flopped. Upon his death in 1980, her battles with studios and Sellers’ own family ensued over the will and rights to his likeness. She won nearly $1.5 million in a lawsuit against the makers of “Trail of the Pink Panther,” which was an opportunistic cut-and-paste job of flashbacks from older films and deleted scenes. Instead of resuming her career, she married David Frost and then had a third husband before becoming an angry, bitter, lonely, substance-abusing recluse. When she died in Los Angeles in 1994, her health and her fortune were gone thanks to alcoholism and drugs, and she weighed 195 pounds. She was only 39 years old.

But Lynne Frederick started out as a beautiful, talented actress with promise. She made the transition from teenager to adult without a hitch, and she projected a sweet innocence in her youthful roles and an attractive naturalness as she matured.

In the rarely-seen (in America, at any rate) but terrific “Vampire Circus,” she plays Dora Miller, a young woman whose village is ravaged by plague and vampirism. John Moulder Brown plays her love interest, Anton, but it’s the kinky, corrupt vampires who come to town with a mysterious traveling circus that really test her purity.

“Vampire Circus” is late Hammer, meaning that there is sex and nudity as well as swinging sixties hairstyles, but that only adds to the fun. The film addresses such taboo topics as incest and pedophilia, and this is as sleazy a bunch of vampires as you’d ever not want to meet. Frederick and Brown make a believably chaste (and ultimately heroic) couple. Hammer regular Thorley Walters is on the scene as the befuddled mayor of the village, and horror regular Adrienne Corri (“Madhouse,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “A Study in Terror”). Dave Prowse, the muscleman in the Darth Vadar costume plays…a muscleman. For once the circus acts are interesting and strange, and the plague backstory enhances the feeling of disease and decay when the nasty band of vampires arrives in the village.

Unfortunately, Frederick’s A-list career was already teetering by 1976. The same year she appeared in the big-budgeter “Voyage of the Damned” she also starred in English trashmeister Pete Walker’s (“House of Whipcord,” “Die Screaming Marianne”) po-faced “Schizo,” which is not without its sleazy charms. The hackneyed plot sees professional figure skater Samantha (Frederick) on the verge of marrying Alan Falconer, a carpeting manufacturer and something of a drip. But a mysterious guy with a big nose (John Fraser) has come to London to ruin her wedding plans. There are flashbacks to Samantha’s mother being murdered violently with a knife from the big-nosed guy’s POV. There’s also a séance, possession, lots of fun bloody killings and a surprise (?) ending. The best murder occurs when their housekeeper gets a knitting needle thrust through the back of her head and out of her eye. That’s one helluva strong killer! You also get to see Lynne topless (as seen in this picture). The best reason to see the film is that it is so-o-o-o English. If you’re an Anglophile you’ll especially love all the location photography, the 70s London fashions (dig the wallpaper!) and the extremely English dialogue. Frederick is attractive and natural in a role that doesn’t give her much to do except be frightened of the big-nosed guy. I own “Schizo” on super 8mm. The color is faded, but it’s still the most fun way to watch it.

Frederick spent her last years essaying the role of “the widow of Peter Sellers,” even after she was remarried to others. She remained fiercely protective of his image and just as fiercely antagonistic to his family. Sometimes she would confide that she wished she had maintained her career, realizing what she had thrown away. “I guess I smashed the vase in which the roses of my life once stood,’ she told friend Peter Evans. “But I can still smell the scent.”