Saturday, July 03, 2010


I won't say much about the Harvard Film Archive's SF-1970 series, because I didn't get to nearly as much of it as I'd like. Last week I had Red Sox tickets, my friend Justin was in town to hang out and play a gig with Girls, Guns, and Glory; this week I had plans to spend a day at NYAFF 2010, and the scant amount of sleep that night combined with a full day of work left me skeptical on my ability to stay awake through Quintet, so I stayed home and crashed.

The 1970s are an interesting decade for sci-fi; much like the rest of Hollywood was doing a lot of experimenting, the people making science fiction during that decade were telling stories with a more adult sensibility. Cronenberg's body horror started in that period, and films became more overtly satirical. And then, just as with the rest of the industry, George Lucas changed everything with Star Wars. I say "changed", while others would say "ruined"; after Star Wars, visual effects started pushing forward by leaps and bounds in a continuous cycle that hasn't stopped yet, but by popularizing fantasy, the studios started pitching it to a more mainstream audience. Filmmakers would become able create anything that they could imagine, but funding was only available for the most conventional fantasies, and the quirky 1970s-style sci-fi stories now looked cheap and tacky in comparison, at least at a superficial glance.

I don't necessarily think of the 1970s as a golden age, although it always gets a strong argument when the folks at the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon are hashing out what's playing this year and what should. I'm wary as a rule about putting golden ages in the past, and I like the visuals and world-building that the technology of today and tomorrow allows. A lot of neat stuff was made, though, and I regret that I didn't even get to see a quarter of what I hoped to during this program.

Death Race 2000

* * * (out of four)
Seen 25 June 2010 at the Harvard Film Archive (SF-1970)

Death Race 2000 was remade a couple years ago, and the end result was slick, but bland, almost completely unmemorable (aside from a line you wouldn't expect to come out of Joan Allen's mouth). The 1975 original, on the other hand, is the exact opposite: Tacky, with production quality straddling the border between B- and C-grade, but so utterly loopy as to be unforgettable.

It is twenty-five years in the future, in the year two thousand. The "United Provinces of America" have a President for Life, who keeps the masses amused with a cross-country road race where the participants not only score points for making it to checkpoints quickly, but for any pedestrians they run down on the way. This year's five participants are wild girl Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov), swastika-sporting Matilda the Hun (Roberta Collins), classically-themed but dumb Nero the Hero (Martin Kove), would-be thirties gangster Machine Gun Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone), and the object of Joe's envy, the cybernetically enhanced and scarred Frankenstein (David Carradine). Of course, some in the land find this spectacle horrifying, and led by Thomasina Paine (Harriet Medin), they have arranged for one of their own, Annie Smith (Simone Griffeth), to be Frankenstein's navigator.

Death Race 2000 is a Roger Corman production, with all that implies. The budget is minuscule. It's filled with automotive mayhem, gratuitous nudity, guys looking for a fresh start - David Carradine had just walked off the set of Kung Fu - and people who would become a big deal later. Not just Sylvester Stallone (in one of his earliest roles), but cinematographer Tak Fujimoto would go on to a steady career shooting some pretty notable movies. You can't necessarily see the talent in a Roger Corman picture as you're watching it, but it's clear that he has always had the knack for putting enough quality people together that his movies are more entertaining than they should be.

And that's the way it is with Death Race 2000. Corman doesn't deserve all the credit/blame for this one - writers Charles Griffith and Robert Thorn give director Paul Bartel some legitimately demented material, and he executes it with panache. This is a movie whose main running joke is vehicular homicide, and the filmmakers make it work in a way that's genuinely funny. And while the satire may at times be ham-fisted (broad Nazi jokes? really?), it is executed with vicious relish, and sharp enough to still feel relevant thirty-five years later.

And the cast can sell it. David Carradine, for instance, is just what a picture like this needs, laid-back enough to flow with the insanity around him but still able to put unexpected nuance into his performance. Simone Griffeth brings more to Annie than just being easy on the eyes; there's enough intelligence to her character that their scenes together are dealings between equals worthy of our attention. Stallone, who would become the most famous later on, is fairly raw, but does show some of the charisma that would make him a major star in a few years. Like him,the rest of the cast does a pretty good job moving between broad stereotypes and intense, fearsome competitors.

They need to, because that's what makes Death Race 2000 work as well as it does: Bartel does an excellent job of maintaining the air of black comedy while often charging the film with legitimate suspense, giving us a stake in these characters even though most are monsters of one sort or another (heck, the notional heroes are pretty hard to like). And while the budget is low, what there is is put to good use, creating a future world that is surreal rather than detailed enough for the audience to find fault.

Just look at the cars and the people who drive them - Death Race 2000 is a live-action cartoon with nasty teeth, the sort that better filmmakers with more resources have great trouble doing well. It's got its flaws - spots where the low budget stops being charming and a bizarre coda - but for the most part, it's B-movie entertainment done unusually well.

(Dead link to) Full review at EFC.

Phase IV

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 25 June 2010 at the Harvard Film Archive (SF-1970)

Here's an interesting question: If Phase IV were not a curiosity for being the only feature-length film directed by someone deservedly renowned for other contributions to the industry (assume that Saul Bass used a pseudonym that nobody caught on to the next thirty-five years, so it was the exact same film), would anybody remember it today? I say yes; it stands on its own as a genuinely creepy bit of sci-fi horror.

There's been a blast of radiation from space. Its effects aren't obvious, but in the Arizona desert, the ants are acting peculiarly - different species are not fighting each other over territory, and their natural predators are disappearing. Dr. Ernest Hubbs (Nigel Davenport) thinks that they are evolving, and he gets his government employers to assign him a mathematician, James Lesko (Michael Murphy), to help decode what appears to be communication among the ants. His suspicions appear to be well-founded - the local ants have developed a much more powerful hive mind than they had before. And they're on the outside of Hubbs's research station, while the scientists and Kendra Eldridge (Lynne Frederick), a local girl whose farm home has been overrun, are trapped within.

Ants can be unnerving enough as it is - they are already more organized than many groups of people, they've got weird angular shapes, and we don't have enough of an instinctive grasp of the square-cube law to look at one carrying a stick many times its size and understand that such strength wouldn't scale up. Bass and writer Mayo Simon are therefore pretty clever in that they don't do a whole lot to exaggerate what these mutant ants are capable of. They don't grow enormous, or suddenly start talking in a language we can easily understand. Bass and Simon refuse to humanize them, which makes them a more implacable foe.

He also does well to bring in a specialist to shoot the ants, much the way other filmmakers would bring Bass in to create a slick set of opening titles. Ken Middleham, a specialist in shooting the very small for the likes of National Geographic, gets us right down at the ants' level, and those sequences are amazing: Excellent documentary footage integrated seamlessly into the narrative, manipulated in a way to advance the plot. The special effects by John Richardson are excellent as well, and its a tribute to both that it's hard to tell where one man's work stops and the other's starts.

As well as the filmmakers present the ants, the human characters might be problematic for some. Traditionally, this sort of movie has a group of ordinary people with whom the audience can easily identify (or at least a reporter whose job it is to translate the scientists' cryptic utterances into something we understand). Phase IV really doesn't have that. Davenport's Hubbs is close to the edge to start with, a sort of mad-scientist in waiting. Kendra spends most of the movie in a state of shock, which Lynne Frederick presents quite believably (though her accent tends to waver between English and American). Lesko is our narrator and the movie's hero, but even he can sometimes seem very detached. Especially in the beginning of the movie, he makes the sort of jokes scientists make, in that the rest of us aren't sure whether or not he's serious.

Put it all together, and it makes for a difficult movie that doesn't necessarily age well. If you're able to get sucked into its world, Phase IV is relentlessly creepy and quite suspenseful; the ants prove quite resourceful in ways that are all the more threatening because they don't have a human face that takes pride in its cleverness. Of course, that concept can sometimes seem close to absurdity, and what looked high-tech and futuristic in 1974 is, well, quaint in the twenty-first century.

For all that, Phase IV holds up, and not just as an interesting footnote. It's definitely a weird movie, but more weird in that it sends shivers up the spine rather than causes one to wonder what this otherwise well-regarded guy was thinking.

Full review at EFC.

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