Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Schlock Around the Clock: Carnival of Souls, Spider Baby, Phantasm 2, Dr. Who and the Daleks, and Dredd

I'm sure that the Orson Welles Theater in Cambridge wasn't the only independent theater that had B-movie marathons under the name of "Schlock Around the Clock", but there are apparently still some fond memories of that even though the place burned down decades ago. The Brattle revived the tradition last year in something close to its original form - more an overnight than a 24-hour marathon, and I'm guessing folks liked the idea more than the execution, since it mutated into a weekend film series for 2013.

That's cool with me; I think I realized a few months ago that the definition of middle-age is still wanting to see the midnight movie but really wishing it started at 8:30pm or so. This was a pretty easy set of movies to catch, even around baseball returning and other things I wanted to see. I didn't catch all of it - I'd seen the Sunday matinees at sci-fi marathons in the past and hadn't particularly liked them, so decided to watch some baseball after Renoir, and opted for the new Evil Dead instead of the one-off showing of Drafthouse Films's "Trailer War" compilation on Saturday. I wanted to see Evil Dead with a crowd and, besides, two hours of trailers is a lot and I think it was the only digital thing on the schedule.

The big chunks of 35mm on the schedule, at least, was awesome. Carnival of Souls and Spider Baby were both new restorations from the UCLA archive and looked gorgeous. According to Brattle creative director Ned Hinkle's introduction, director Jack Hill was apparently tickled to hear that someone was showing the movie and emailed to thank the theater, which is pretty cool. The Phantasm II print was also a lot better than they were expecting - if it's the one used for the new Blu-ray, that's going to look pretty sweet.

The Dr. Who print wasn't the greatest, but it was a good-looking original IB Technicolor print, complete with British Board of Film Censors approval on the front, that the Brattle now owns themselves. That means they'll certainly be pulling it out for a 50th-Anniversery-of-Doctor Who event this fall, and the sci-fi festival will probably try to get their hands on it soon enough (wait until 2015, guys; too soon otherwise). Fun to see after spotting this while I was on vacation in London last year. I forget whether that one or the Dredd print was the one where whoever had projected it last forgot to label the reels, so they had to guess the order between the first and last. Got it right, at least.

In short, it was a pretty enjoyable weekend, even if it was a lot of nuts coming right after BUFF.

Carnival of Souls

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 April 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Schlock Around the Clock, 35mm)

A lot of time when writing about horror movies, I lament that there's not necessarily any underlying logic to their mythologies, even in strictly metaphorical terms - it's just scenes that are creepy stitched together in a way to keep the audience off-balance. That is 1962's Carnival of Souls in a nutshell - a bunch of random spooky scenes that somehow become a movie out of director Herk Harvey's sheer force of will.

It starts with some boys-versus-girls drag racing which ends with the ladies' car being forced of a bridge into a river. One of its occupants, Mary Henry (Candace Hillgoss), makes it back to land. Six months later, with no memory of the incident, she's taken a job as a church organist off in Utah. It's strictly a job to her, to the consternation of the minister (Art Ellison). She initially rebuffs the maternal nosiness of her landlady (Frances Feist) and the more intimate interest of her neighbor (Sidney Berger). She's drawn to the shuttered fairgrounds just outside the city, and soon starts to see visions of the dead even as people seem to act as if she's not there.

Herk Harvey and writer John Clifford make some choices with Carnival of Souls that seem quite peculiar to the audience that has seen a lot of movies - especially genre films - and knows what makes them tick, either instinctively or analytically. Right away, we see the boys who ran the car in which Mary was a passenger off the road lying to the cops about how the incident went down, which seems to set up a revenge scenario - but, no, Mary just leaves town and neither she nor the film looks back. Maybe this connection she has with the dead will help solve the mystery of this haunted place? No, not so much. For better or for worse, these threads only the slimmest of connections.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Spider Baby

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 April 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Schlock Around the Clock, 35mm)

Spider Baby is subtitled "or, the Maddest Story Ever Told", and while that probably wasn't necessarily the case even when it was filmed or released (three and a half years later)... It is a weird one, no question, still able to raise some eyebrows forty or fifty years later with its particular madness that leaps between daffy and downright disgusting.

Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.) has been taking care of the residents of Merrye House for generations now, a kindly caretaker of a family whose particular condition has them start a horrible mental regression as they enter their teens. Not knowing this, distant cousins Peter (Quinn Redeker) and Emily Howe (Carol Ohmart) come to collect the building as an inheritance only to discover that there are still Merryes there - spider-obsessed Virginia (Jill Banner), slightly more responsible Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), and hulking brother Ralph (Sid Haig). Staying overnight may not be the best idea.

For all the nasty things that go on in Spider Baby, it's actually disarmingly sweet much of the time. Lon Chaney Jr., who spent much of his career portraying hulking, intimidating monsters, plays Bruno more as a fussy, loving caregiver than anything else, patient with his charges even if he is exasperated, awkwardly trying to shield them and their cousins from each other. Polite but vaguely threatening would be the usual way to play it, but having Chaney of all people play uncomfortable but kind of funny is doubly odd.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Phantasm II

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 April 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Schlock Around the Clock, 35mm)

In general, it's probably not a great idea to settle in for a sequel without having seen the predecessor, especially when dealing with a filmmaker with as peculiar a vision as Don Coscarelli. But, hey, the Brattle didn't book the original Phantasm before this twenty-fifth anniversary screening of Phantasm II, did they? So, sure, maybe this thing makes sense with a bit of context, but I'm guessing it's still downright weird.

There is a helpful recap, showing how nine years ago, only two people survived when The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm) - an extradimensional alien disguised as an undertaker - came to their town. Now Mike (James Le Gros), who was just a kid at the time, is being released from an asylum to hook up with Reggie (Reggie Bannister) to follow the Tall Man's trail. He's got a psychic connection to a girl in Oregon, Liz (Paula Irvine), where the Tall Man seems to be setting up shop Add one hitchhiker by the name of Alchemy (Samantha Phillips) and a bunch of flying balls armed with knives and lasers, and you've got yourself a fight.

Give Don Coscarelli credit - he does not stint on the strange. Casting Angus Scrimm as a murderous undertaker is something anybody might do, and taking the next step to reanimating corpses isn't that far out. Coscarelli, on the other hand, adds premonitions, portals, and more to the hovering Sentinel Spheres and shrunken dwarf minions inherited from the first movie. As Mike and Reggie follow the Tall Man's trail, it leads through a series of destroyed towns, giving an apocalyptic feel that horror sequels with their boosted power levels and accumulating mythology should have more often, but seldom do.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

Dr. Who and the Daleks

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 April 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Schlock Around the Clock, 35mm)

Alternate realities are a staple of science fiction, and this movie (along with its sequel) are an interesting example of the idea - not so much because its characters explore parallel universes, but because they're a strangely skewed version of a sci-fi favorite themselves. The first movie based upon the TV series Doctor Who changes almost every detail in ways that the fans will likely have trouble looking past, but is kind of fun if they do.

Here, Dr. Who (Peter Cushing) is an elderly, eccentric inventor who has built a machine that can transport people anywhere in space and time with the help of his granddaughters Barbara (Jennie Linden) and Susan (Roberta Tovey), a child genius. Not quite so bright is Ian (Roy Castle), Barbara's new boyfriend, who accidentally activates it, sending them to another planet. They opt to explore a little bit, finding a strange city populated by the Daleks - warlike creatures who travel within personal armored vehicles to protect against radiation.

I know, fans, believe me, I know - that's not the way the characters were portrayed in the series at all! But put fifty years of surprisingly consistent continuity out of your head, and it's not really a bad set-up: The precocious/curious kid with an indulgent, kind of doddering grandfather who nevertheless makes the suitor for his quite capable adult grandchild nervous and accident prone dynamic is arguably a more cohesive, entertaining unit than that presented on the show in its early years.

Full review on eFilmCritic.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 April 2013 in the Brattle Theatre (Schlock Around the Clock, 35mm)

I don't really need to restate what I said when I saw it last fall, other than to point out that I'm going to be asking people to produce their ticket stubs for this when they complain about Hollywood putting out brainless, boring action pap for the next couple of years (stubs for The Raid will also be accepted). It's good stuff that did everything right but which nobody went to see.

And it's still pretty good. The action was just as hard-core as I remembered, and everything still looks good in 2D 35mm, even if some of the effects were better in 3D. It's a crying shame that we almost certainly won't get a sequel on film (movie-continuity stories apparentlly are planned for the pages of Judge Dredd Megazine), because I kind of wanted to see what these guys would do with the Dark Judges and other more broadly sci-fi concepts.

Full review on eFilmCritic.

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