Saturday, October 31, 2020


Happy Halloween!

This year my attire pays tribute... Frankenstein's Bloody Terror, the 1971 American version of the 1968 Spanish horror movie more properly called La Marca del Hombre Lobo (Mark of the Wolfman)...

...the first of the many films written by and starring Jacinto Molina, aka Paul Naschy, as tortured werewolf Waldemar Daninsky. The American title is a notorious cheat; the story includes two werewolves and two vampires but zero Frankenstein monsters. Supposedly the U.S. distributor Sam Sherman had promised somebody a Frankenstein picture, and when that fell through he pasted on an animated prologue explaining that this was what happened when the Frankenstein family was cursed with lycanthropy (as writer Ed Naha put it back in the '70s: "Peeeeeyooooo.").

The poster above claims that it's "ONE OF THE BEST HORROR MOVIES YOU WILL EVER SEE!" Not so much; the story is twisty, not in a good way. Still, it has that luridly creepy yet elegant atmosphere that European horror flicks do so well, and I kind of enjoyed re-watching it this week.

More familiarly, tonight the redoubtable Svengoolie is showing a childhood favorite of Naschy's, Universal's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man...

...with Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr., respectively, in the title roles. It's arguably the first movie to exploit the "shared universe" concept later used by Star Wars, Star Trek, DC, Marvel, etc etc.

Thursday, October 22, 2020


Happy October, everybody! As stressful as things are right now, I hope everyone is able to take pleasure in my favorite month on the calendar.

Obviously, a creature feature is in order for the season, so this year I thought we'd pay tribute to a classic movie monster who, after his initial appearance at least, generally served as a friend to and defender of humanity: Gamera!

But to discuss my feelings about Gamera, harder-trying Avis of Japanese monsters to Godzilla's Hertz, I must go back to Cinema 18, around 1969.

Cinema 18 was, oddly enough, a movie theater located on 18th Street, just east of Sassafras, in my home town of Erie, Pennsylvania. Sometime in my college years, it became a porn theater, and later a restaurant of some sort, but for a good stretch during my high school years it was a purveyor of wonderfully discreditable horror, exploitation and offbeat action flicks; everything from Midnight Cowboy (rated "xxx") to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre to Richard Lester’s Cuba to the Penthouse version of Caligula.

It was a great, screwy place to see them, too. A railroad track ran right behind the theater, so the rumble of trains filled the place a couple of times during most shows. And the floor of the auditorium sloped downward, then, toward the middle of the house, it inclined back upward toward the screen. Somehow, none of this seriously compromised the cinematic experience.

What I remember Cinema 18 for most fondly, however, is playing lots of Japanese kaiju (giant monster) flicks during the ‘60s and ‘70s. It was there, in a packed house, that I saw my first Godzilla picture, 1969’s Destroy All Monsters!, and later War of the Gargantuas; hugely influential, for better or worse, on my lifelong tastes in movies, and art in general.

It was the scene of a bitter early memory, too. According to Erie historical sites, Cinema 18 opened in 1968, so I don’t think it can have been open much longer than a year when it booked Gammera the Invincible, the debut movie of Godzilla’s rival from Daiei Film, the gigantic tusked, twirling, titular turtle. I was taken to see it on a Sunday afternoon, when I was 7 or 8 years old, along with my best friend Mike, only to learn, from a hand-scrawled sign on the door, that the show—the last show of the run—was sold out.

You may well imagine my disappointment at this denial, and the even-tempered maturity with which I expressed it. The walk back to the car, past the tauntingly beautiful poster of the enormous beast trampling Tokyo...

...was one of the more miserable retreats of my life to that point.

This all came back to me this season when I was sent a screener of Gamera: The Complete Collection from Arrow Video. It’s a magisterial box set of all 12 Gamera flicks, starting with the 1966 original, Gamera, the Giant Monster, that made it to the States a few years later, recut for American audiences, as Gammera the Invincible, and sold out Cinema 18 on that fateful Sunday.

Thus I finally got to see the film, the stirring tale of how a legendary prehistoric turtle is freed from arctic ice by a Cold War mishap, how he flies to Japan using jets in the leg apertures of his shell; how he becomes the object of fanatical adoration by a little boy; how he tears up nuclear power plants and rampages in Tokyo; how he does, indeed, seem to be invincible. I watched it in both its original Japanese form and in the American version, with interpolated scenes featuring Brian Donlevy and Albert Dekker and some other American actors all keeping very straight faces.

As silly as it is, it’s a beguiling movie, shot in a gorgeous, charcoal-drawing black and white (the other films in the series are in color). The added material in the American version offers some pretty amusing touches that suggest that the people who made these scenes maybe just weren't taking things all that seriously: The dissenting scientist on a TV discussion show, for instance, is named "Dr. Contrare" (and is played by famed voice actor Alan Oppenheimer, later the voice of Skeletor); they should have given him the first initial "O."

The newspaper headlines we're shown are pungent as well; La Monde promises INSIDE REPORTS OF GIANT TURTLE CONTROVERSY while Corriere Della Sera's front page ungrammatically declares GIANT TURTLE? BALONEY SAYS SCIENTISTS.

The Complete Collection boxed set includes a staggering amount of special features; commentary tracks and trailers and German TV spots are attached to each of the movies. Gammera the Invincible even includes a title song, "Gammera," recorded by "'The Moons'...The Most Exciting Group Since The Beatles!! With the New Out of This World...PSYCHEDELIC SOUND!!" The song's music and lyrics are credited to a certain Wes Farrell, but the only lyric I heard was the repeated word "Gammera," here pronounced "Gam'raaaah!"

In the subsequent films in the series, several of which I had seen on afternoon TV in the intervening years, Gamera shifts from a menace to the defender of Earth and humanity, especially children, against a variety of what Milton would call "complicated monsters, head and taile..." He takes on the lizardy, horn-nosed Barugon (1966); the winged Gyaos (1967), sort of like a pterodactyl with a wedge-shaped head; the tentacled Viras (1968); the blade-headed Guiron (1969); the horned, finned Jiger (1970), known as "Monster X" in America, who disrupts Expo '70 in Osaka; the sharky sea monster Zigra (1971) and a gang of all of the above in 1980's Gamera: Super Monster.

In all of these ludicrous spectacles, the title character has a vivid personality; like his rival Godzilla, the monster turtle has a curiously lovable expression of perpetual, epic irritation on his face. From the first film on, he looks, indeed, like he just woke up after a long sleep.

This trait is continued in the post Daiei Film, '90s-era Gamera flicks, none of which I had seen: Gamera: Guardian of the Universe (1995); Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (1996) and Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (1999).  They're all pretty good, especially Gamera 2, which ends with the plucky heroine (Miki Mozuno) slyly asking into the camera if humans would ever want to get on Gamera's bad side, environmentally speaking.

It's only the single 21st-Century Gamera flick (to date) that strikes a slightly off-key note. In Gamera the Brave (2006), in which the turtle is reborn into the care of yet another little kid, he gets a makeover and is at last made self-consciously cute, with big sappy eyes like a Furby.

Without his grandly irritable expression, the beast loses much of his charm.

Anyway, it was great to get re-acquainted with the big guy. I can only say that had I known, on that unhappy Sunday half a century ago, that I would one day watch Gammera the Invincible and some dozen other Gamera flicks on a big-screen TV in the comfort of my home…it wouldn’t have improved my mood in the least.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020


On VOD today:

J. R. "Bob" Dobbs & the Church of the Subgenius--Yet another in the pandemic-era boom of offbeat documentaries has struck a nostalgic autobiographical chord with me: Sandy K. Boone's behind-the-scenes look at the "parody religion" (or is it?) founded by Fort Worth, Texas weirdo Ivan Stang and his friend "Philo Drummond" in the late '70s. In the mid-'80s, my best friend gave me, one Christmas, The Book of the SubGenius, published by McGraw-Hill no less, a compendium of the Church's exhaustingly dense prophecies, teachings and aphorisms ("You'll pay to know what you really think") mingled with hilarious yet unsettling apocalyptic artwork, much of it clip art collage.

The book, my friend said, was too strange for him, but he thought I'd like it. He was right. I had never heard of the Church, but there was something deeply compelling about its scripture; it was like the Tibetan Book of the Dead crossed with a Chick tract, re-edited by Firesign Theater. And it was hard not to reflect, while reading it, that it contained a high degree of self-deprecating good sense. It's still on my bookshelf.

The impossible-to-summarize theology goes something like this: Social misfits and oddballs are really members of a class of person called a SubGenius, distinct from and superior to the "pinks, glorps and mediocretins" that perpetuate conformist society. The state which SubGenii properly seek is "Slack," an undefinable form of well-being. The Church venerates a figure known as J. R. "Bob" Dobbs, a stereotypically clean-cut midcentury-style clip art white dude with blazing eyes and a pipe clenched in his grinning teeth. The central prophecy was that eventually (well, in 1998) aliens would come to Earth and liberate the faithful.

Now affable old longhairs who look like veteran Deadheads, Stang and "Philo" rather sheepishly tell Boone's camera how their in-joke pamphlets gradually caught on across the country, spawning "Devivals" and radio hours and selling out live shows; other talking heads include Penn Jillette, Mark Mothersbaugh and Richard Linklater. It's to Boone's credit that she doesn't shirk the potentially dark side of the Church's supercilious, misanthropic outlook, or how closely it's flirted, at times, with being a real creepy cult over the years. But overall, this portrait suggests a positive, even comforting religious experience: The meaning of life and the universe, interpreted by a like-minded community.

Friday, October 16, 2020


Opening today at Harkins Shea:

Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something--Sometime in the late '70s, I saw Harry and Tom Chapin perform at the Warner Theatre in Erie, Pa, where I was working as an usher, and got to meet them after the show. I think I still have the souvenir program they autographed somewhere. What I remember most distinctly is that they both gave the two best handshakes I think I've ever received, perfectly firm but not viselike. I also remember it was one of the best concerts I've ever seen; it's stuck in my head far more vividly than many shows I saw decades later.

All this came back to me watching this documentary chronicle of Harry Chapin's hectic, too-short life. Directed by Rick Korn, it's an entirely straightforward account, covering his folkie youth with his brothers, his rise as a purveyor of "story songs," his turn into relentless activism against world hunger, the shock of his untimely death.

There are many tearjerking moments; also a funny centerpiece montage demonstrating the cultural footprint of his signature song "Cat's in the Cradle." The story is inspirational, and as with the Linda Ronstadt documentary, it's told against the background of that peerlessly dramatic and beautiful voice.

Friday, October 9, 2020


Opening today at Harkins Shea (on Amazon Prime October 16):

Time--Garrett Bradley directed this nonfiction portrait of Sibil Fox Richardson, aka "Fox Rich," a Shreveport, Louisiana woman who, desperate for money to keep their clothing store running, tried to rob a credit union branch in Grambling with her husband Rob in 1997. They were caught and went to prison, and while Fox was released after about three years, Rob was sentenced to sixty years, and was still imprisoned two decades later. His wife--and mother of his six children--rebuilt her family's life, but she also worked tirelessly to attempt to shorten this preposterous sentence.

The title has multiple potential meanings. On a social level, it's a reproach against the outrageous "time" for which poor and non-white convicts are disproportionately incarcerated. But it also has a powerful perceptual meaning. Bradley originally intended the film as a short, until she was given hours of Fox's home-video footage covering years of her life, her impressive kids at different stages of their growth, etc.

This material, intermixed with the more current footage Bradley shot, and unified with it in beautiful black and white and with a sprightly, persistent solo piano score, gives the film a powerful sense of refracted time, of access to free-flowing memory, of a whole life seen at once. The feeling, which may sometimes overtake people in middle age, of all the moments of life seeming to constrict into close proximity with each other, is unaccountably captured by this movie.

This trembling, exalted tone-poem quality is worthy of the story's intense central character; with her low, urgent, un-histrionic yet somehow conspiratorial manner of speaking, Fox pulls us into her sense of mission. When she tries to get answers from court officials over the phone, she remains flawlessly courteous, well knowing how counterproductive it would be to lose her patience. But we see the toll it takes on her. We see the quiet worry under the surface of her strong, patient mother. And we see, and feel, her radiant love for her family. This isn't like any documentary you've seen before.

Also at Harkins:

The War with Grandpa--Grandpa being Robert De Niro, as a widower who's become so short-fused and violent that he's a danger to himself and others. He has to move back in with his daughter (Uma Thurman) and her husband (Rob Riggle), thus displacing his snotty grandson (Oakes Fegley) out of his bedroom to the attic. The little crud declares "war" to get his room back, and wacky slapstick ensues.

As cheesy middlebrow family comedies go, this one, directed by Tim Hill from a 1984 children's novel by Robert Kimmel Smith, is by no means the worst you've ever seen,  though the tone is a little artificially lighthearted for the nastiness of some of the pranks. On the shelf since it was completed in 2017, it should wring a few giggles out of your kids or grandkids on a slow afternoon.

But the real interest for an adult moviegoer is, of course, De Niro. How did a guy whose last name has become almost a synonym for "great actor" decide he needed to do this? His costars here include Cheech Marin, Jane Seymour and Christopher Walken--dutifully doing his best "Christopher Walken," of course--and it's fun to see the four of them work together, even in this silly stuff.

But it should be noted that while De Niro maintains a certain dignity, the menace of his Scorsese years has faded, even for comic effect. He comes across like an avuncular pussycat, something like he did in 2015's The Intern. Come to think of it, he came across that way last year in Scorsese's The Irishman, too.

Friday, October 2, 2020


Available for purchase and streaming exclusively on Prime Video:

The Glorias--The title characters are all one person: journalist and feminist icon Gloria Steinem, at different stages of her saga. She's played by a couple of excellent child actresses in scenes from her early life, and as a young woman by Alicia Vikander, and in her prime by Julianne Moore. Sometimes the different Steinem vintages interact with each other on the allegorical bus they're riding through life; the script, by Sarah Ruhl and director Julie Taymor, is based on Steinem's 2015 memoir My Life on the Road.

We're shown episodes of her early days in Toledo, Ohio, with her loving, hustling, eternally optimistic screw-up of a father (Timothy Hutton), from whom she inherited a passion for travel, and her ill, long-suffering mother (Enid Graham), who had written newspaper articles under a male pseudonym. We see her post-graduate adventures in India, and her early days as a journalist, undercover as a Bunny in a Playboy Club, or covering the civil rights marches, where she noted that women weren't represented onstage among the speakers; only singers like Mahalia Jackson.

We see her rise to celebrity and the revolting condescension with which she was treated by male editors and interviewers. We see her friendships with Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monae), Florynce Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero) and Bella Abzug (Bette Midler); we see the founding of Ms.

All of this is interesting and at times touching, and the ensemble acting is terrific, although Vikander's Swedish accent peeks out a bit. But this project got away from the enormously talented Taymor, famed for the Broadway version of The Lion King and movies like Titus and Frida; her artsy, theatrical flourishes are a drag on this two and a half hour movie, and add little depth to our understanding of its story or heroine. The Glorias is worth watching, but it isn't as glorious as it could have been.