Sunday, November 08, 2015

Somerville Theatre Horror Marathon 2015: West of Zanzibar, Dracula (1931), The Monster That Challenged the World, Seconds, Aliens, and The Lost Boys

Since I had done the Freaks of Nature/Scouts Guide double feature the night before and then spent the wee hours getting a review of the first up, I was kind of fuzzy on the morning of Halloween, the sort of "I'm going to have to drag myself through the day" sensation that really does not bode well for a day of sitting in the dark watching movies. Our at least, it seems like it shouldn't, but it doesn't always work that way for me. Instead, if I can get through that initial lethargy, there's a chance I'll be good for the day, while days where I feel ready to go drop me hard.

Fortunately, I was in good shape for the first movie, West of Zanzibar, which was the one I really wanted to see. "Silent" is a bigger draw than "horror" for me, especially when it means fine lurid pulp that can serve as a legitimate guilty pleasure. After that, I could treat up satisfied that I had seen the thing I would have paid $15 for as part of the Sunday silents series, so another $15 for five more movies on 35mm was a pretty good deal.

Very nice prints, too. Had protectionist David Kornfeld gives a print report before events like this, and is seldom less than candid about anything, which meant that a couple of times during this introduction, theater manager Ian Judge was probably willing him not to tell the audience that one or two of the movies they had paid money for was crap, even if the print was nice.

Of course, Ian also mentioned wishing a few hundred more people had come - who knows if the theater would have done better screening Crimson Peak all day? - but I suspect this year was a tougher draw than usual. Even though you probably could do both this and the Coolidge Corner Theatre's twelve-hour marathon without missing much of each, that would be a stretch (I believe they were on separate weekends the last few years), the lineup was heavy on things that might be considered more sci-fi than horror by many, and noon to midnight on the 31st blocks out a lot of other activities.

I mean, heck, I was kind of surprised to see people running around Davis Square in costume when we took a longer between-films break to get some dinner at around 7pm, and Halloween was the excuse to do this thing, right? It's a weird disconnection. I didn't even bother to buy way more peanut butter cups than I could possibly give out because I knew I wouldn't be around during trick-our-trading hours.

Although, now that I think about it, the peanut butter pumpkins should be dirt-cheap while stores try to clear shelf space for peanut butter trees, so maybe I should hit the supermarket...

West of Zanzibar

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 October 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (horror marathon, 35mm)

I would normally start a review of a movie like this with "I don't believe in guilty pleasures, this is just entertaining", but this one lends itself more to "pulp fiction can sometimes reflect the less pleasant values of its time." The dirty little secret of movies like that, though, is that they can be nasty, melodramatic, and entertaining with an efficient ruthlessness that modern films would have to really work for.

Still, the owning act doesn't require any political incorrectness to blitz through a lot of setup. In almost no time, stage magician Phroso (Lon Chaney) has not only seen an adventurer by the name of Crane (Lionel Barrymore) steal his wife Anna (Jacqueline Gadsden) away and push Phroso himself off a ledge while crowing about how he's taking Anna to Africa, but he's been present, paralyzed from the waist down and reduced to begging in the streets, a year later when Asma returns with an infant daughter, expiring just in time for the former magician to see the leading evidence of Anna's adultery and vow revenge. It probably takes up a greater percentage of the film than it might in a contemporary thriller - about fifteen of the movie's sixty-five minutes - but it's admirably relentless in how it starts in a nice place but soon literally brings Phroso's life crashing down before giving it a good, hard twist.

Both as soon as that's done and eighteen years later, it's time for the really nasty stuff to start as a sleeker, meaner Phroso - now called "Dead-Legs" - tricks a primitive tribe of cannibals in the Congo into doing his bidding while blackmailing an alcoholic doctor (Warner Baxter) into looking after his health. While the Africans are stealing ivory from Crane's parties, Dead-Legs sends for Maizie (Mary Nolan), sweet and pure despite being raised in a hotel that is half brothel, so that the final stage of his revenge on them can be put into action.

Full review on EFC.

Dracula (1931)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 October 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (horror marathon, 35mm)

The classic, most-recognized film version of Dracula - and I think that, despite Hammer fans' enthusiasm, the 1931 version with Bela Lugosi as the Count is that - is one of a number of films (including several in this marathon) that I have no trouble watching, enjoying, and appreciating but fall short of genuinely loving. It's part and parcel of being first - Tod Browning's version has the right idea in so many places but still has room for refinement, and every fault is something that most viewers have seen refined.

The filmmakers get a heck of a lot right in their 75 minutes, though. The story is told with precision and clarity, from the economical script to the sets that exemplify what each location is for and what sort of atmosphere it's supposed to have. There are goofy bits like a bat that is obviously on strings and some very broadly-accented working-class characters, and some of the performances can get lumped in there unfairly. For all Lugosi's grand dramatics, they eventually work as sheer confidence, and Dwight Frye's unblinking, utterly insane Renfield is a scenery-chewing treasure.

As much as I don't love this the way I feel like I should, the only better version I've seen is the original Nosferatu, intentionally different enough to get a pass.

The Monster That Challenged the World

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 31 October 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (horror marathon, 35mm)

There's a tendency in 1950s monster movies toward trust in military and police authority, and while The Monster That Challenged the World is not exactly the most extreme case, it's one of the more anonymous. It's capable in most areas where these movies need to be, and the places where it stumbles are the ones where its best characters' charm can make up some ground. It's no classic, but deserves lighter mockery than many of ours genre and era.

In this film, the monster comes not from outer space but from under the water after an earthquake unseals a cave beneath California's Salton Sea. There's a Navy bar researching new parachute designs (among other things) nearby, and when both a paratrooper and the two-man retrieval team fail to check in, the base's chief investigator, John Twillinger (Tim Holt) goes looking. Finding bodies and a strange goop on the boat, he visits the lab, and the evidence suggests some sort of giant, semi-amphibious mollusk. Bad news, especially with it laying eggs and an underground river offering it a path to the canal system.

Fortunately, they are on a Navy research base, and between the sailors, scientists, and local constabulary, there are plenty of clean-shaven white men to get to the bottom of this. Okay, maybe broader representation would have made this movie about a prehistoric monster feel a bit less authentic in 1957, but it illustrates what kind of a bland cast of characters the film features. "Twill" is initially characterized as kind of impatient and implied to be more of a stickler than the previous officer to hold his position, but that doesn't really sick beyond Tim Holt giving him a crisp efficiency as the film goes on (not a complaint; even if this movie were inclined to have an official bottleneck character, Holt does a good guy who knows what he's doing). It's a film where the supporting cast is not actually interchangeable but can feel that way, with the exception of comic relief characters and people who just don't listen to the people in charge and this potentially screw things up.

Full review on EFC.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 October 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (horror marathon, 35mm)

I've seen Seconds once before, under similar circumstances - the sci-fi marathon, maybe even in the same theater - and had about the same reaction: It's a well-made film that must have seemed exceptionally strange when it first came out, but which seems a little less so after a few decades of science fiction where malleable identities are a big thing. It's very much a first go, where the basic idea the filmmakers want to get across is new enough is so relatively new that there's not a lot of time to flesh it out.

It's still a good movie, though. Screenwriter Lewis John Carlino and director John Frankenheimer work hard to build their shadow world in a way that makes it seem like it could plausibly exist alongside the actual 1966, but which also gives Frankenheimer the chance to spotlight angles that highlight the strangeness of the situation, albeit in a very clinical manner. They also come up with a few nifty images beyond the obvious, especially as Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) walks through a butcherie well before the procedures which make him into "Antiochus Wilson" (Rock Hudson), surrounded by animal corpses to be processed.

Rock Hudson is also pretty darn great in this. I may, sometimes, doubt the machinations that get Wilson to wherever he is at a given point, but Hudson's being invested in this role despite movie stars just not doing this sort of weird fantasy in 1966 is obvious. He gives the film a soul even if, by doing so, he's exposing how rickety its bones are, and that's impressive.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 31 October 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (horror marathon, 35mm)

What do Aliens and Terminator 2 have in common? Well, besides great female leads and writer/director James Cameron, they're both clear examples of sequels going bigger than their predecessors, and doing well in the execution, but also losing track of crucial elements that made the movies which originated their series so great.

For T2, it's the tight plotting and story that balances destiny and self-determination better than almost any other time-travel movie; for Aliens, it's a monster that not only had a genuinely alien biology and reproductive cycle, but was so dangerous that just one seemed unstoppable. Cameron reduces them to hive insects and gives humans the firepower to wipe them out with efficiency given a clear line of sight, at least until the boss-villain-sized Queen is brought in.

It's still a fair amount of fun, of course; Cameron knows how to grab an audience and hold it, and whatever we may decide we think later is not important at all while we're actually watching the movie. And while this is the movie that one might most easily say doesn't fit into a horror movie marathon, seeing it in this context makes the terraforming station feel like an enormous haunted house, even if filling it with Marines and a corporate weasel in addition to Ellen Ripley (still easy for the audience to connect to despite surviving the first encounter) and Newt does push that back a little.

The less charitable parts of this assessment didn't necessarily go through my head the first time I saw Aliens, although here at #5 or so, they're tough for me to miss. It's still never a bad watch.

The Lost Boys

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 31 October 2015 in Somerville Theatre #1 (horror marathon, 35mm)

Here's one I've somehow missed seeing until now, which is both kind of a bummer - I've probably specifically passed on what turns out to be a fun movie - but also cool, because the trail end of a six-movie marathon seems to be the ideal conditions for it. At that moment, I was in just about the perfect state of mind for something just precisely this straight-facedly goofy, especially since I didn't know that was what was coming.

After all, I don't think that's ever what had been played up about this movie; it was always advertised and given home video packaging featuring red-tinted photos of Jason patric, Kiefer Sutherland and other Brat Pack types in sunglasses as the vampires, and given that this is a Joel Schumacher film, that isn't far off the slick, glossy style to be found in the movie. And the "Lost Boys" parts of the movie deliver that, with a trashy-bit-cool vibe to the vampires' hideout in particular and the town of Santa Carla as a whole, a permanent seaside carnival that shows root and violence as soon as you look closely.

The thing that makes it genuinely entertaining, though, is that right next to that, it also plays like a romantic comedy with Dianne Wiest and Edward Herrmann, with her newly moved to the area, him her boss, and her weird son throwing up a bunch of obstacles, and then when you rotate it a little more, it's a weird story of misfit kids at the comic shop discovering that, in fact, their neighbors are the monsters they seem to be. Heck, the obvious vampire stuff is actually the messiest, least well-define bit of the movie even if it drives the rest. If it were just any one of those things, it's not that memorable, but by managing to pivot between them without really winking at the audience that much, it actually becomes something surprisingly entertaining. Today, it seems, a ton of horror-comedies try to hit this target and it seldom works, probably because the filmmakers are too much with the Sam and the Frog Brothers and too ready to mock David's gang. This movie lets hip be hip and geeks be geeks, and in doing so doesn't pander the way today's self-aware movies that are totally with the nerds do.

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