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Wednesday 29 September 2010

King Kong vs Godzilla (1962)

Director: Inoshiro Honda
Stars: Michael Keith, Harry Holcombe, James Yagi, Tadao Takashima, Keji Sahaka and Ichiro Arishima
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

It's Toho. It's Godzilla. It's presented by John Beck. It stars three Americans. Hang on, what? Well, Godzilla has a strange legacy outside his native country. Gojira, the original 1954 film in a series that ran for half a century, was never officially released outside Japan, so the iconic monster with the atomic breath was first introduced to western audiences through the Americanised version, Godzilla, King of the Monsters! in 1956. Jewell Enterprises cut the original film severely, dubbed it into English and spliced in newly shot scenes with Canadian actor Raymond Burr. Even with new footage, this version runs 16 minutes shorter than the original, but if you thought that was drastic, John Beck did more to King Kong vs Godzilla. He didn't merely add new footage but also stock footage from The Mysterians. He changed the comic tone, removed most of the character development and replaced the entire score. His film runs 11 minutes shorter than the original.

None of this helped the picture in the slightest but another factor that helps make this the worst Godzilla film for me is that neither lead character really appears as we expect them to. This was the third film for both of them, the first time either was seen in colour or in widescreen, let alone in the same picture, but this effort sits poorly in both series. While the spark for this film began in a concept for a third Kong movie, developed by Willis O'Brien who had animated the original, it had been 29 years since Son of Kong. This picture is really only related by use of the name of King Kong, who is a giant gorilla living on a remote island. It sparked much legal action, not least from Merian Cooper, who had masterminded the original and believed he still owned the rights. It was also seven years since Godzilla had been seen last and he was brought back by Toho only because they wanted to make a Kong movie and he was the most obvious adversary.

In Gojira and its first sequel, Gigantis, the Fire Monster, Godzilla was a force of nature, a dark and fearsome god. There was no perceived good or evil in his character, he simply was, serving as a metaphor for another atomic force of nature that had so devastated the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki only a decade before. By 1962, special effects director Eiji Tsuburaya wanted to broaden the audience for the character, especially to appeal to children, and from this point on throughout the Showa era of Godzilla films which ran until 1975's Terror of Mechagodzilla, the tone became progressively lighter and the character seen as more and more anthropomorphic. He became an outright hero in the fifth film, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, beginning his service as mascot and saviour of Japan, taking on all comers. This sits uncomfortably between those two ideas, the effects crew shocked at what Tsuburaya wanted, so it becomes neither.

It's hard to imagine exactly what producer John Beck, who drove the development of this picture, truly envisaged. He had bought O'Brien's treatment of King Kong vs Frankenstein, had it turned into a screenplay by George Worthing Yates, now titled King Kong vs Prometheus, then sold it to Toho, who brought in Godzilla and made it as a very Japanese kaiju film framed within a satirical bite at modern commercialism. Yet Beck retained the rights to make his own version of the film, a savvy accomplishment that saw him make some serious money out of the affair. He'd already been paid for the original script but now took the opportunity to spend $15,500 or so to turn the film into a more science fiction oriented affair before selling it to Universal for $200,000. I can only imagine that he aimed to repeat the success of what Jewell Enterprises had done to Gojira with Godzilla, King of the Monsters! However, he had precisely none of their subtlety.

In that film, the reporter played by Raymond Burr appears to interact with the original Japanese cast through clever editing and positioning of body doubles, as if he's right there in the story. It isn't seamless but it's an admirable attempt to extend the picture to include him. In this film, the added actors are spliced in without any real attempt to cover the seams. Michael Keith plays Eric Carter, a United Nations newsman who broadcasts his commentary on unfolding events through the ICS (or International Communications Satellite), external shots of which were taken from The Mysterians. Harry Holcombe, later to become Grandpa in Countrytime Lemonade commercials of the seventies, is Dr Arnold Johnson, an expert from the New York Museum of Natural History. The most amazing thing about this footage is that it didn't seem to annoy anyone the way it annoyed me, this version of the film even making it back to Japan, where these scenes were subtitled.
Surprisingly, the prior history of both creatures is ignored, even though the characters all know their names. How that works, I have no clue, but it's the least of the problems that this film has to deal with. One Japanese character even laughs at the mere idea of a giant monster! Godzilla appears quickly, broken out of a Bering Sea iceberg by a careless UN nuclear sub, the Seahawk. It's there on a scientific mission to check out the ice floes that Japanese fishing fleets report are breaking up, but for some reason it's run by morons. Seeing an iceberg glowing with an atomic light, it dives and promptly sails straight into it, to its doom. 'Oh great!' cries the captain, before ordering a mayday signal to be fired that looks like the contents of the head. A rescue helicopter locates this yellow stain just in time for the iceberg to split open in front of them. On seeing the unknown, unnamed monster that emerges, the cringing Liam Neeson lookalike cries, 'Godzilla!'

'The world is stunned to discover that prehistoric creatures exist in the twentieth century.' says Eric Carter, who also knows that it's called Godzilla, and he introduces Dr Johnson to explain the phenomenon by pointing at pictures in a children's book on dinosaurs. With Godzilla apparently heading straight for the Japanese mainland, we're treated to a rather confusing response from Dr Shigazawa, who has been meeting with the chiefs of staff. 'A national emergency may exist,' he tells the press, but if they don't destroy Godzilla he'll destroy everyone. So is that good or bad? I don't think we really care, because now, fourteen minutes into the film, we're treated to the best scene, exactly what we're here to see. It's an entire Arctic military base built in miniature by Eiji Tsubaraya and his effects crew, full of buildings and defence installations for Godzilla to stomp on and thrash to pieces with his tail and remote control tanks for him to melt. It's over too soon.

It takes a lot longer for us to be introduced to King Kong, though he does get more of a build up, as befits the real intended star of the show. After all, the film's title is King Kong vs Godzilla, not the other way around, though when Toho planned to remake the film in 1992 to commemorate their 60th anniversary, it would have been Godzilla vs King Kong. He's on the island of Faro, in the Solomons, though initially he's just an unnamed mountain tall god whom nobody has seen except the natives. Dr Akira Makino, a Japanese scientist on a field trip to the island, was first to hear about him, but he was more interested with the red berries called soma that he discovered there, berries that provide a non-addictive narcotic effect. It's only when Mr Tako, head of Pacific Pharmaceuticals, wants to boost his TV ratings that the giant god becomes the focus, and he sends a couple of men to catch it. 'Find me a genuine monster, if he exists or not!' he orders.

Unfortunately this otherwise admirable buildup only serves to provide us with a knockoff version of Skull Island. Osamu Sakurai and Kinsaburo Furue, the men Mr Tako sends to Faro, find a scene politically incorrect enough to have fit in thirties Hollywood and promptly make it worse. Having seen far too many white actors from that era in blackface or yellowface, it's surprising to see the opposite: Japanese actors in brownface. They're less overtly wrong and more surreal, ending up of no particular race in particular. Obviously oriental, they dance exotic dances in coconut bras around Tiki statues, as you might expect for the Pacific, but have very African looking spears and shields. The town cryer sounds like Tarzan. Into this bizarre mix walk Tako's men and their wild guide. The chief doesn't want them to stay so they turn on a transistor radio with reception good enough to pick up a Japanese station and hand out cigarettes to everyone including the children!

Well, this was originally a take on commercialism, though the American version cuts most of that out. Most of what's left centres around Mr Tako, who looks more and more like a Japanese Hitler as time goes by. He has no moral compass but has a one track mind that never shifts away from the fortunes of his company. He's sick of Godzilla, not because he's heading inexorably for Tokyo to stomp, maim and destroy, but because he's frustrating his attempts to improve his TV ratings with his own monster, one he hasn't even found yet. His men on the island are far more human, through characters drawn with a little more depth than the cartoonish Mr Tako, but it's still hard to get emotionally behind someone who gives cigarettes to kids. 'It's OK, they're all smoking,' says Sakurai, but then he admits that they're just 'ignorant primitive savages.' It's only when Kong roars in the distance that he begins to take them seriously.
We still don't meet Kong quite yet though because we have a metaphor to see come to life first. This rag on commercialism most obviously plays with an octopus metaphor through the name of Mr Tako, which means 'octopus' in Japanese. It isn't hard to imagine his tentacles reaching out in all directions to become as commonplace as the company names on Tokyo buildings later in the movie. Here on Faro, the first monster we see is a real octopus, one that raids the native village for the barrels of soma that they brew up. In an interesting touch, the octopus we see isn't a man in a rubber suit but a real creature placed onto a miniature set just as we saw in The Giant Gila Monster. Apparently there were four octopi used in these scenes, with octopus wranglers blowing hot air on them to direct their motion, along with two plastic models for fights once Kong finally shows up and saves his village. Three were released and Tsubaraya had the fourth for dinner.

It's also notable that one shot of the octopus was done with stop motion animation, the aim of the project back when it was only a script treatment put together by Willis O'Brien, the original master of that process. The cost of producing all the effects this way is the main reason it wasn't done, but director Ishiro Honda toyed with the idea during pre-production anyway. There are two examples visible in the film: the first when the octopus snatches up a native, the second during the final battle scene between Godzilla and Kong. Neither are particularly well done. Yet in their place, we get a Kong who looks like a retarded children's character. He takes 35 minutes to show up but then all of three to destroy the fence keeping him from the village, defeat the octopus, get high on soma and fall sound asleep. One native dance later and he's on a raft being carried back to Japan. To suggest that this is underwhelming is an understatement. Go! Go! Godzilla!

The scenes on the island do have some charm, partly because I'm always a sucker for exotica, especially when it's led by Akemi Nagishi, a sensual Japanese actress in a conservative era, who may be best known in the west for this role but in the east for serious work for Akira Kurosawa. It never fails to amaze me that Japanese actors could alternate B movie shlock with A list art on a regular basis without it even being notable. Nagishi kicked off her career in Josef von Sternberg's final film, Anatahan, and was memorable for Kurosawa in The Lower Depths and Red Beard, yet also starred in movies like Electric Medusa, Sex and Fury and Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion. There's some insane dialogue to raise the stakes, like this magic exchange that makes the wild utterly routine: 'What's the matter?' 'Giant octopus.' 'What?' 'He's after the berry juice. Hurry!' Mostly they're a few mildly interesting scenes that we look back at wistfully as it all gets worse.

There are subplots but they're mangled by being mostly removed for the American version. We do end up with a beauty for our beast, future Bond girl Mie Hama (though Nagishi outshines her as both a beauty and an actress), but we lose her character development and connection to the rest of the film. We do get scenes with each monster separately, though there's a dearth of the miniature shots that I love so much in kaiju movies. Instead we get lots of electric wires and a pit full of flaming gasoline. We get plenty of Kenji Sahara and Jun Tazaki, future regulars of the series with twelve and five appearances respectively, but not in huge roles this time out. Sahara is mostly cut out of the American version, though he did come up with the magic wire that's both insanely strong and unable to cut through anything. Tazaki is Gen Masami Shinzo, who looks like a Japanese Clark Gable and is tasked with mounting defences against the monsters.
Of course, we really aren't here to see characters build and plots develop. We're here to watch two giant monsters go head to head and whale the crap out of each other, especially in the first Godzilla film to have a title that serves as billing for that fight. Dr Johnson notes early on that it's interesting scientifically that both Kong and Godzilla have reappeared at the same time, though of course it's sheer coincidence. He also explains that they're probably old enemies who can sense each other and are just itching to get back at it, even though one has been enjoying soma on a tropical island and the other has been frozen inside an iceberg since prehistoric times. They get two fights together, the first of which is utterly disappointing, because Kong quickly retreats when the atomic breath of his opponent scorches his fur. It can't smell pleasant when a monster gorilla is set on fire! The second is much more like it but it only goes so far to recover the film.

It starts well enough, with Kong sent to sleep by soma being exploded above his head, attached to helium balloons using Kazuo Fujita's magic wire and then dumped almost on top of Godzilla somewhere out in the wilds. Of course I'm not sure how two guys could get a knocked out Kong off an island and onto a raft back on Faro Island when it takes the whole Japanese army to take care of him in Tokyo but hey, we're heading into the main event so consistency be damned. The two men in the suits, Shoichi Hirose inside Kong and Haruo Nakajima inside Godzilla, were given free rein to handle their choreography. They included moves from professional wrestling as well as judo and more traditional animal actions, and they do a fair job. Unfortunately the script also had inspiration from professional wrestling, effectively introducing an illegal foreign object in the form of a convenient electrical storm to turn the tide of a very one sided bout.

When I first watched this film, years ago as a kid, I always saw it as a Godzilla movie. After all he was the star, right? He certainly appears to be in the film, trouncing Kong as solidly as any of the many other giant monsters he went toe to toe with in other movies. Sure, Kong manages a few good moves but he's quickly down and Godzilla just pounds on him with his tail. It's almost a no contest. Yet this was really a King Kong movie, Kong being far more popular in Japan at the time than Godzilla was, and sure enough he wins in the end, though what we see is less a victory for Kong and more a victory for coincidence, as he apparently gains strength from electricity. Most of the tectonic violence at the end of the film, these two behemoths understandably starting an earthquake, isn't in the original but spliced in from The Mysterians. To me, it's one of the lesser battles in Godzilla's career, certainly not up to the tag teaming in Destroy All Monsters.

The Japanese flocked to this film though, amazingly making it the most successful Godzilla film ever at the box office. Perhaps they went for Kong and came away with Godzilla. Something had to turn the tide, given that they made another 26 Godzilla movies but only one more with Kong, the dire and unrelated King Kong Escapes in 1967. Some of this surely has to do with the rights situation over the character of Kong, which was a soap opera for a couple of decades, but that hasn't stopped the Japanese before. Whatever the reason, this proved to be the real beginning for Godzilla as a personality. The rubber suit was altered from the previous films in a number of ways and was shown in colour for the first time. The roar we all know and love was first heard here, being the previous roar shifted up in pitch. To me, this is my least favourite Godzilla movie but perhaps an important one that sets the stage for all the glory that was to come.

Monday 27 September 2010

Deadfall Trail (2009)

Director: Roze
Stars: Shane Dean, Slade Hall, Cavin Gray Schneider

I've been looking forward to Deadfall Trail for quite some time, even though it appears to be a backup movie, made when director Roze and executive producer Robert Guthrie failed to raise enough funding for the project they really wanted to do. They only had $100,000 to play with, still a decent amount for an indie Arizona picture, but it was a surprise hit at the Phoenix Film Festival earlier this year, enough so that it landed a limited theatrical run at Harkins Theaters. I think I missed it in favour of Lovely, Still, which was such a great film that I never regretted my choice, but I kept hoping I'd be able to catch up with this one anyway. Shot in northern Arizona over three weeks, it's an intelligent piece, supposedly based on a true story about a three week survival trip in the Kaibab National Forest. It follows three men who head out into the wilderness to hunt, to commune with nature and to embark upon a peyote fuelled spirit quest.

Given that almost the entire film unfolds with only three actors, the quality of their work is even more important than it would usually be. In many ways the picture is the acting equivalent of the survivalist trip the characters go on. Just as the three men who journey into the wilderness with only a knife, a bottle of water and a garbage bag each have to rely on their own skills without any obvious support structure to fall back on, so must the three actors who play them. They're all there is, so they can't sit back on their heels and wait for any quirky character turns from the supporting cast to make up for any of their shortcomings. They have to make it work themselves and the key success of the film is that they do, admirably. I've seen two of these three before, in short films and smaller parts in features, but these are the most substantial roles they've been given and all three of them live up to the challenge.

The leader of the three is John, a veteran survivalist who really knows his stuff, and is played by Slade Hall. He's the one I've never seen before, though he has a few years of experience in films for people like Chris LaMont, Stephen C Krystek and the Ronalds Brothers, all recognisable local names. John is at home in the woods and gives the impression that he'd never leave them if he didn't have a family. He's also the common factor between the other two, having taught Julian his expertise on previous journeys and introducing Paul to them this time out. The voicemail he leaves Paul after he leaves for his house to begin this journey bookends the film and provides us with some of its philosophy. It's certainly a thoughtful film, which moves along slowly but surely and fully intends to invoke our brains as much as our guts. While the action is phrased well, it's a character based drama first and foremost.

Paul is Cavin Gray Schneider, credited here without his last name and making a solid impression in his debut film. He's a man attempting to make up for a childhood in which he moved around a lot without much courage to talk to anyone. Now he's living life until he dies. Schneider would go on to do capable work as the lead character's best friend in a Stephen King dollar baby called Everything's Eventual, and finally to a bit part in Piranha which I totally didn't notice. With such promise, he should land substantial roles in substantial pictures. I hope that happens. The third of the three actors is Shane Dean, who is a tour de force as Julian, a man with demons to chase. I've watched Dean grow in artistic stature and he keeps on getting better. He was in Everything's Eventual too, but the biggest role I'd seen him in prior to this was as White Manson in The Death Factory Bloodletting. As much as I love that film as a guilty pleasure, he's far better here.

While John is the leader of this little expedition, it's Julian who drives the plot because he makes it all about him. I couldn't help but see a comparison with John Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, even though it explores very different emotions. In that film three men trek out into the great unknown too and while it's Walter Huston's character who leads the way, the story is all about Humphrey Bogart's and so it's his character who dominates, not just in screen time but through the best material. The same applies here. John is sidelined even from the beginning as it's plain that it's all about Julian. 'The things we fear in life are the things we can't control,' he says early on. He's not afraid of anything in particular, but he's afraid of how he might react to something he can't control. That turns out to be much of the plot because that's precisely what happens, but I'll avoid the details because spoilers would be easy to throw out here.

The film looks pristine and professional even in the many night shots, a testament to the power and quality of Red One cameras which Hollywood producer Dean Devlin has suggested 'marks the tipping point of the democratization of filmmaking.' This picture is precisely what he's talking about, serious filmmaking power put into the hands of people without huge budgets and helping them to create. The cinematographer was Tari Segal, who deserves special mention as she turns the woods into a fourth character, one that changes as the film progresses. There are beautiful shots here but there are also scary ones, especially as the journey out becomes the journey back with a whole new dynamic to flavour everything. While this quest aimed in part to commune with nature, Nature has other ideas. Footage shot for Julian's peyote dream is a glorious example, as the usual dusty and muted browns and greens erupt into violent colour.

Another reason for the success of the film is surely that the crew knew each other well, many of them having worked together since 2002. Working a sixteen day shoot in the wilds of northern Arizona as part of a cast and crew of thirty must be something of a bonding experience. The lack of the comforts of home probably helped a focus on work too, the actors shooting for ten hours a day, then rehearsing for three or four more after dinner. They were rewarded for their efforts not just by the film itself but by the solidarity of the crew. When they were called upon to eat bugs, as their characters didn't take food with them into the wilderness, choosing instead to live off the land and their wits, many of the crew members up to the director himself did likewise. In such a relaxed working environment, it's all the more impressive that they pulled off such a tense and admirably dark story. It isn't what I expected, but that's no bad thing. It'll resonate.

Sunday 26 September 2010

All About Evil (2010)

Director: Joshua Grannell
Stars: Natasha Lyonne, Cassandra Peterson, Mink Stole, Jack Donner, Noah Segan, Jade Ramsey, Nikita Ramsey and Thomas Dekker

I have to admit I was rather intrigued by All About Evil, a horror movie written and directed by a drag queen. On one hand I tried to think of a single instance of a drag queen in a horror movie, let alone behind one, and I came up empty. On the other hand I'm well aware that the campiness inherent in so many horror films originated with filmmakers who were gay men, as far back as James Whale, who directed a number of the classic Universal monster movies, including what is probably the best of them all, Bride of Frankenstein. I have no idea whether the filmmakers who took that campiness through the generations, to the Corman/Price Poe movies or even the slasher movies of the eighties, were gay too. By then it probably didn't matter, camp being just another established tool in the horror genre toolbox. But what would drag queen Peaches Christ, also a midnight movie hostess of long standing, bring to the mix? I was fascinated to find out.

I expected campiness, in spades, and it was there, of course, some parts deliciously overplayed with deliberate intent, most obviously that of Natasha Lyonne as the lead diva, Deborah Tennis. The title, a nod to the Bette Davis classic All About Eve, suggested wordplay, especially as there were many posters in the lobby for fictional Deborah Tennis shorts: MacDeath, The Diary of Anne Frankenstein and I Know Why the Caged Girl Screams being personal favourites. Sure enough, the puns were everywhere, serving as a constant and consistent delight in this picture, lowest form of wit or not, and it'll be no surprise to discover that the follow up is to be titled The Three Faces of Evil. Most of all, I expected drama, bitchy histrionics, real gay stereotype stuff. I was expecting the sort of horror movie I might imagine a pre-Hairspray John Waters might have directed, not least because Mink Stole, a frequent collaborator, had a part. Here I was surprised.

I was surprised in two ways. One was that while there's certainly a huge Waters influence, some scenes shot exactly how he would shoot them, it's far from the only one. After the show, Peaches listed her influences as Ted V Mikels, Doris Wishman and Herschell Gordon Lewis, but I couldn't get Roger Corman out of my mind. To me, this felt far more like a Waters version of A Bucket of Blood than of The Corpse Grinders. The other was that the drama mostly happened before the movie rather than in it, for a while relegating the film itself to something of an afterthought. This was the Peaches Christ Experience in 4D, after all, 4D meaning that she might just sit in your lap during the show and steal your popcorn. Certainly the best words are 'experience' and 'show', as we were treated to musical numbers, video introductions and a whole host of local drag queens as classic movie monsters. In a nod to William Castle, we were also given cups for our poison.

This was a whole new experience for me. Even though All About Evil was a sold out screening at the local movie theatre I frequent, MADCAP Theatres in Tempe, I didn't recognise many of the audience. Beyond the regular folks who were there to present, screen or interview, or perhaps to dress up in drag, there was us and John. He didn't even think we'd show up, as if it wasn't likely to be our scene. I hadn't thought of it as a scene, merely a horror movie with a different angle, but perhaps that's precisely what it was. I didn't even see many Rocky Horror locals, but perhaps they just look different with their clothes on. Regardless, the film itself would play just as well to a straight crowd as a gay one, being real old school horror, though the showmanship beforehand probably wouldn't. Then again, I only felt mildly out of place as one of the few heterosexual men in the audience, albeit one in a kilt. My voice hadn't raised an octave by the time we left.
Somehow we made it through the pre-show entertainment to the actual movie, which is why we were there, of course. Having seen how much effort many members of the audience had put into the pre-show, I wondered if they gave a monkey's about the film itself, but everyone stayed and everyone enjoyed. It's a movie set at a movie house, hardly surprising for Joshua Grannell's first feature, as he ran the Bridge Theater in San Francisco for many years and for twelve of them his drag alter ego, Peaches Christ, hosted a midnight movie series there called Midnight Mass. All set to shoot at the Bridge, which had closed down, he had to shift elsewhere at the last minute, so All About Evil is set at the Victoria Theatre, the oldest operating theatre in the city, a hundred years young in 2008. It was previously seen in the 1973 Walter Matthau thriller, The Laughing Policeman, but that film is now likely to take second place for tourists after this one.

We begin in 1984 as Walter Tennis, the owner of the Victoria, is putting on a kiddie matinee of The Wizard of Oz, hardly an accidental choice for this film. His daughter Debbie comes out on stage to sing, because daddy says she has 'star quality', something she patently doesn't have. The audience remain surprisingly polite, until she pees on the badly earthed microphone cables and electrocutes herself on stage. Walter is horrified but Mommie Dearest, suitably attired as the Wicked Bitch, sorry, Witch of the West, just stands in the wings and laughs her ass off. Yes, the John Waters influence is apparent from moment one, but the credits soon widen the scope, as they unfold as a delightful set of redesigned classic horror posters, all amazing colossal men and wasp women. There are more great posters in this film than any other I can think of, excluding documentaries, and I can only hope that they're reprints as many were pinned onto walls.

Ten years later, Debbie is a dowdy librarian at the San Francisco Public Library when her father dies and she inherits the Victoria Theatre, split fifty/fifty with her mother. She loves the idea of taking over the place and showing all her favourite horror flicks, even though Evelyn, the head librarian, doesn't want to lose her, suggesting, 'They're not real movies!' Debbie shows a hint of that star quality by bursting into tears and sobbing, 'The show must go on!' And it certainly does, even when she's working the snack bar with a Bride of Frankenstein streak in her hair and her mother tries to bully her into selling out to a real estate developer. Debbie may be a mousy little thing but she stabs her mother to death with the very pen she wants her to sign away the place with. They are showing Blood Feast that night, after all. I'm surprised she doesn't rip her tongue out afterwards, but she just heads upstairs in a daze to start the film because Mr Twigs is late.

Mr Twigs has put in forty years as the Victoria's projectionist and he hates Tammy Tennis too, so he's happy when he arrives back to find her bloody corpse in the lobby and Debbie screening the CCTV footage of the murder by mistake. 'Attagirl!' he cries as the audience applaud. He seizes the moment and announces that what they've just seen is a new short film made in honour of Walter Tennis. He also cleans up the mess, dumping Tammy's body in the theatre's attic and we're neatly set for the rest of the script. 'More to come!' explains Debbie after Blood Feast and she isn't kidding. The only question is how she's going to be able to reprise the performance, as her mother can only die once. She needs fresh victims. Fortunately the subtexts of All About Evil speak to how moviegoers want to believe what's on the screen and how 'the audience is always rooting for the killer,' so the audience builds and she gets the victims she needs.
Natasha Lyonne plays the lead, initially as a subdued Debbie Tennis but, once she discovers the limelight and taps into that star quality, as an outrageous diva called Deborah Tennis (to rhyme with 'torah' and 'fleece'). She's no stranger to camp theatrics, having appeared in Die, Mommie, Die!, the screen adaptation of Charles Busch's stage play in which he played the twin leading ladies in drag. Most successful in quirky indie roles, she's perfect for this one. Julie Caitlin Brown, perhaps best known for her recurring role on Babylon 5, is suitably bitchy as her mother Tammy but it's Jack Donner who steals these early scenes as Mr Twigs. Immensely experienced, with roles from Star Trek to General Hospital, from Retro Puppet Master to The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, he starts out very much like Vincent Price but soon starts channelling John Carradine. While Debbie may have lost her mind, Mr Twigs knows exactly what he's doing and he relishes it.

There are many other names here to cherish. Thomas Dekker, who played John Connor in the TV series Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, is Steven, the Victoria's oldest, most devoted fan, even though he's still in school. He loves these new shorts that Deborah makes and, even though just knowing this new local filmmaker makes him suddenly attractive to the cool kids, he finds himself falling in love with her, just something else for his long suffering single mother to fail to understand. 'I think I'm in love with an older woman,' he tells her and she glances up at the Elvira poster hanging above his bed. She's Cassandra Peterson, who may be hot in the Elvira costume but even more so out of it. She's an amazing 59 to Dekker's 22, given that, if anything, she looks too young to be his screen mother. I really liked the relationship between Steven and his mum, broken but caring, a solid counter to the increasing theatrics of Deborah Tennis.

To make a growing number of short films, all with outrageous punning titles like The Maiming of the Shrew, The Scarlet Leper and The Slasher in the Rye, Deborah finds that she needs a crew. She learned that the hard way while enticing a self titled gore gore girl into the basement after a screening so that Mr Twigs can attack her with an axe and a movie camera. Kat Turner makes a fine topless scream queen (and if this isn't a commentary on the inevitability of scream queens getting topless and screaming then it's a plot hole of a scene), but her death by guillotine turns through necessity into A Tale of Two Severed Titties, which is pretty self explanatory. So, back in John Waters territory, she recruits a team. Noah Segan plays Adrian like Crispin Glover would, discovered in an alley beating an old woman with her own cane for her furs. Veda and Vera, deliciously evil twins played by Jade and Nikita Ramsey, are sprung from a lunatic asylum.

That leaves Mink Stole, who plays Evelyn the head librarian, suffering a grisly demise for telling people to shh all the time. She's the first victim of the whole crew and she still causes problems for them. I find it truly amazing that Joshua Grannell pulled off these scenes, which are capably shot, because he was severely limited himself, by both budget and experience. Scenes like the one where Evelyn's lips are sewn shut (it can't be a spoiler if it's on the poster) were shot in one take, with two cameras and effects provided for free by French make up wizard Aurora Bergere. 'Every single department took the little amount of money that they had,' Grannell has said, 'and stretched it to the limit. All of them were looking at us like, 'Are you kidding? We're not miracle workers.' And I was like, 'Yes, you are. You can do it!'' Admittedly expecting an old school John Waters indie flick, I was amazed at the production values here.
I was also amazed at how much depth there was to his debut script. Presumably honing his art on short films that I need to watch like Season of the Troll, A Nightmare on Castro Street and Whatever Happened to Peaches Christ?, not to mention the new one, Children of the Popcorn, Peaches somehow provides us with both surface and depth. There are all the things we expect from a horror movie, not just boobs and gore but many great lines as well, all easy on the eye and ear and setting up All About Evil to be something of a cult hit. Yet behind the fun there are serious comments to be found. What can be done to save these one screen theatres in a world of Netflix and on demand movies? What does rooting for the killer really mean? How much do we want to escape into the worlds filmmakers give us? If audiences bought Avatar, perhaps they would buy into seeing local missing persons murdered on screen and not connect the dots.

It's obvious from moment one who the villain of the piece is because we watch her do the deed, however much we may be on her side. Yet as the bodies mount, she isn't the chief suspect. Poor Steven, horror film nut who wants to go into animation for a living, is continually misunderstood. His teacher catches him drawing outrageous pictures in class, so assumes he's some sort of sick terrorist type to be watched closely before the school turns into another Columbine. When the popular girl he takes to see one of Deborah's new shorts mysteriously vanishes, he's the obvious suspect. What this tells us is that the same questions about audiences buying into the movies they watch are applicable in real life. How much do people want to believe what they believe in any environment? How much does Steven's teacher really want him to be some psycho nutjob? It would get her on the news, right? She could say that she told everyone so...

And so we can watch this on pretty much any level we choose. We can watch it for the delicious and outrageous gore story. We can watch it for the black comedy that pervades the picture from beginning to end. We can watch it for the posters which crop up everywhere and wish we lived close enough to the Victoria Theatre to be able to go see Blood Orgy of the She Devils and The Brain That Wouldn't Die on the big screen. We can watch it for the nuanced acting of Cassandra Peterson, the diva posturing of Natasha Lyonne or the camp theatrics of Jack Donner. We can watch it for the fact that the nerd of the story is the hero and the faux girlfriend who talks bad about him on her cellphone while stood next to him promptly gets murdered. We can even watch it for the social commentary if we want, but that's far more likely to filter through over time. This is definitely a film to come back to and I'd love to see Elvira do it on her new show.

Thursday 23 September 2010

The Keys of the Kingdom (1944)

Director: John M Stahl
Stars: Gregory Peck, Thomas Mitchell, Vincent Price, Rosa Stradner, Roddy McDowall, Edmund Gwenn, Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Peggy Ann Garner, Jane Ball, James Gleason, Anne Revere, Ruth Nelson, Benson Fong and Leonard Strong

I recorded The Keys of the Kingdom because it's one of those intriguing opportunities to watch Vincent Price in something other than a horror movie. One of the icons of the genre who's never less than magnetic, he came to it after a surprising number of other films which are a varied and fascinating bunch to work through. He was an important name at this point, this film released a mere month after his excellent showing in Otto Preminger's Laura and a year after The Song of Bernadette, which may explain why he's third credited amongst a strong cast, even though we don't get to see much of him: one brief early scene and he's gone for over an hour and a half. What I soon found was that he's one of the least reasons to watch this film, as a Roman Catholic bishop called Angus Mealey, who knew Fr Francis Chisholm as a young Scots lad. Fr Chisholm is who the film is all about and while we first meet him as an old man, this is the story of his life.

As the film begins in 1938, Fr Chisholm has recently returned to Tweedside, his home parish in Scotland. The monsignor has been checking him out and decides that he should retire, though the good father has different ideas. He sounds just like Gregory Peck but doesn't look remotely like him because he's plastered with some capable aging make up. I should add that nobody at the time would have recognised him anyway because he was new in Hollywood, with only a single film six months behind him, a Jacques Tourneur war picture called Days of Glory in which he played a Russian fighting the Nazis, hardly how we might imagine the typical Gregory Peck role. He's a little unlike Peck here too, with despair in his voice as he asks the monsignor to talk to Bishop Angus. Of course the monsignor has already made up his mind, at least until he heads up to bed and picks up Fr Chisholm's journal, a huge volume that goes all the way back to 1878.

It really doesn't have a pleasant beginning. The young Francie Chisholm, played by 16 year old Roddy McDowall, already on his 27th picture and riding high after Lassie Come Home and My Friend Flicka the year before, is quickly orphaned. His fisherman father gets mugged for being a dirty papist and when his mother goes looking for him, the pair are washed from a rope bridge to their deaths in a raging torrent. It's enough to test your faith in the Lord, but Roman Catholicism was something of a Hollywood fad in the mid forties, perhaps as a hopeful counter to the horror of war, and so young Francie ends up in the church. Ned's daughter Nora wants him to come home from college to marry her but her mother Polly is all set on him becoming a priest. Nora believes she's going to lose the battle but it's only when she dies just before he graduates, a full year since he's seen her but with a newborn daughter, that he chooses the priesthood.

Thus far it's been all Gregory Peck's show, this being precisely the sort of part we expect him to shine in. Perhaps the most believably sincere of all the classic Hollywood actors, his image was born out of honesty and vulnerability. Never a tough guy in the way that many screen heroes of the time were tough guys, he forged his own brand of toughness by relentlessly standing up for what was right, regardless of the danger it would bring him. We don't believe John Wayne's characters were scared, because he was frickin' John Wayne. Yet we believe Peck's were, all the time, but he did the right thing anyway. That conviction is totally apparent here and the role set his career in motion, earning him an Oscar nod as Best Actor, though Ray Milland deservedly won for The Lost Weekend. The obvious comparison is to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr Chips, but that film flowed more evenly and while Peck is excellent here, Donat was amazing there.
We do get to meet a few key players though, all of whom are capable. Edmund Gwenn is Hamish McNabb, who runs Holywell College and becomes a father figure to Francis. Sir Cedric Hardwicke is the Tweedside monsignor who narrates the story in flashback. Vincent Price is briefly seen on a train, but most obviously there's Thomas Mitchell as Chisholm's oldest friend, a devout atheist called Willie Tulloch. Mitchell never saw a film he couldn't try to steal and he has a good go here only to be forced into accepting defeat to a surprising set of actors. You see, this film is primarily set in China and Twentieth Century Fox chose to cast a selection of ethnic American actors as the Chinese characters. Beyond Peck, who has by far the largest role, the actors who dominate are people like Benson Fong, Leonard Strong, Philip Ahn and Richard Loo, all American born but all of obvious Chinese or Korean heritage. All four are a delight with every scene and every line.

To illustrate how surprising and how welcome a choice that was, I should provide a comparison to another 1944 film in which Hollywood did the precise opposite. This picture is something of an amalgam of two other prominent 1944 pictures, taking the Roman Catholic background and the concept of a priest as the lead character from Paramount's Going My Way, the big Oscar winner of the year, and the poor Chinese setting from MGM's Dragon Seed, one of the most ridiculously cast films of all time. When you think of Katharine Hepburn I'm guessing you don't tend to think 'Chinese peasant', but that's Dragon Seed: Kate and her pristine Bryn Mawr accent as Jade Tan, submissive wife of a poor Chinese farmer. Also in yellowface were Walter Huston, J Carrol Naish, Agnes Moorehead, Henry Travers, Aline MacMahon, even Akim Tamiroff and Turhan Bey. Philip Ahn and Benson Fong were there too but in meaningless parts, not real ones like here.

What's most embarrasing is that that sort of thing was commonplace, capable actors like Anna May Wong ignored in favour of white actors in yellowface, like Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer or Renée Adorée. So it's totally refreshing to see what appears to be all the Chinese characters played by ethnic actors, not just the bad guys but the good guys too and it's truly joyous to see them do such a great job. In their company, Peck looks like the outsider he would have been, a Catholic priest from the States sent to the city of Pai Tan in Chekhow Province as a volunteer minister, perhaps the only white man in town. He finds a wrecked mission and a congregation of two, Hosannah and Philomena Wong, the ones who stayed behind to meet him in the hope that they'll give him money. They're rice Christians, those who convert because they're paid to do so, with rice left in their prayerbooks, only to convert back when the rice runs out.

Fr Chisholm takes lodgings in the city and puts up a sign, the Mission of St Andrew. The locals egg it and, when he goes to swap out the sign, they egg him too. There isn't much hope until Joseph arrives. Born Tao Ming but baptised in Pai Tan by the previous minister, he's played by Benson Fong, which means that Charlie Chan's #3 son becomes Fr Chisholm's #1 assistant. He's a great character, an overzealous converter, multilinguist and a grounding for the father. More arrive when Willie Tulloch sends him medical books, instruments and medicines and so he adds a second sign that he'll treat the sick for free. The big change arrives with Mr Pao who invites Fr Chisholm to the house of his cousin, the mandarin Mr Chia. Mr Chia's son has a serious infection and the constant attendance of three doctors and a Taoist priest aren't helping in the slightest. The good father gives him ether, drains the wound and prays he hasn't signed his death warrant.
While the family initially seem ungrateful, given that he saves the boy's life, Mr Chia soon turns up at the mission offering to become a Christian. He doesn't believe in God, of course. 'In time, no doubt, I will accustom myself to it,' he says with fatalism. He's just returning an honour, but Fr Chisholm turns him down. That just impresses Mr Chia even more so he donates the Hill of the Brilliant Green Jade with water rights, a clay pit and twenty workmen to build whatever he needs. Two years later he has a real mission and Mr Chia is a firm friend. Leonard Strong is wonderful as Mr Chia and Philip Ahn is just as wonderful as his haughty envoy, Mr Pao. Watching them here, I can't help but imagine what the Charlie Chan films would have been like had someone like Philip Ahn been given the role over Warner Oland, a Swede, and Americans Sidney Toler and Roland Winters. Both Strong and Ahn had long Hollywood careers but were consistently marginalised.

Of course the American characters have to show up sooner or later, but they have to come to Fr Chisholm because he stays in China until he retires, through thick and thin, known to one and all as Shen Fu, which I'm presuming is an honorific taken from the poet of that name. Willie Tulloch arrives out of the blue to give Thomas Mitchell more opportunity to steal scenes. An experienced doctor, he gets plenty to do when war comes to Pai Tan, and he gets a memorable death scene thanking his old friend for not trying to bully him into heaven. Monsignor Angus Mealey shows up on an inspection tour for the International Society for the Promulgation of the Faith. He's rather disappointed to find the mission destroyed, less for Fr Chisholm or his people and more because he'd been planning a high mass there and a lecture back in London about the experience. He's a pompous soul, played to great effect by Vincent Price, always great at left handed compliments.

There's also the Reverend Mother Maria-Veronica, another haughty character who was brought up in arrogance by her Viennese baroness mother and who sees, at least initially, her position as duty rather than calling. The relationship between the father and the reverend mother is built as the film runs on and the characters grow, until a touching parting scene towards the end. A long casting process suspiciously ended up with the wife of Joseph L Mankiewicz, the producer and co-writer of the film, but Rosa Stradner does a fine job anyway in her last picture, five years after the previous one. The last two westerners in town are American Methodists who arrive with a new competing mission. They're played by the ever-reliable James Gleason and Anne Revere, who won the Best Supporting Actress award in 1946, not for this film but for National Velvet. They only get a single scene together but it's a good one with a great ice breaker.

You might expect from all these arrivals that we get a solid run through of Fr Chisholm's life in China, but that's not really true. Unlike Goodbye, Mr Chips, which is told in many small segments, Robert Donat's make up being enhanced each time, The Keys of the Kingdom is less ambitious, Gregory Peck only really getting two timeframes to work in at length and a smaller one between them. After a few scenes in with Roddy McDowall, Peck takes over for a long run that takes him from college to China with a couple of failed curacies behind him. I presume this is supposed to be eight or ten years but Peck doesn't really look any different. Eventually we jump a decade and shortly thereafter leap on to retirement and full circle. What we see is well written, emotional and enjoyable, but I couldn't help but wonder about those middle years. Compared to Dragon Seed, this is sheer genius, but compared to Goodbye, Mr Chips it shows its flaws.

Wednesday 22 September 2010

Zaat (1975)

Director: Don Barton
Stars: Marshall Grauer, Wade Popwell, Paul Galloway, Gerald Cruse, Sanna Ringhaver, Dave Dickerson, Archie Valliere and Nancy Lien
I'm driving the highway to Cinematic Hell in 2010 for the awesome folks at Cinema Head Cheese to post a review a week of the very worst films of all time. These are so bad that they make Uwe Boll look good.

I'm fast coming to the conclusion that my favourite bad movies are the ones that provide the sole entry on the filmographies of almost everyone involved. Career filmmakers, especially low budget ones, often have distinct voices discernible across their entire output, but a need to be at least successful enough to finance their next picture has a tendency to adulterate their personal vision. It's usually an artist's first feature that carries the best mark of who they are and what they have to say and it can be fascinating to see the work of those who never went any further. Don Barton and his Florida creature feature, Zaat, are a great example. Barton was an industry professional, whose Barton Films produced documentaries, commercials and training films. Like most professionals, he eventually succumbed to the urge to try a feature but, while it had a good initial run in the southwest, it never made money and he never made another.

Zaat is a fascinating picture that soon becomes a guilty pleasure for many of its viewers. It's also one that becomes more fascinating the more you read up on it, because it's a rare example of an inept film that didn't have an inept production. Barton freely admits that he 'learned a lot about the movie business' by making Zaat, but unlike many one shot wonders it had reasonable funding for a Z grade movie, a full $50,000, and the production finished on schedule and within that budget. That's especially admirable as almost nobody involved had made a film before. This was a debut for every member of the cast, only two of whom chose to follow it up with another one. Paul Galloway, a Jacksonville firefighter who played the movie's sheriff, had a small part in JD's Revenge a year later, and Carol Thompson joined the hospital staff in Silent Night, Deadly Night III: Better Watch Out! eighteen years after shooting this film. All are obviously amateurs.

A few of the crew had some experience but, like Barton, not with features. In particular, George Yarbrough, who handled the sound and editing, was a film professional who wrote a fascinating technical article for American Cinematographer about his experiences on Zaat, perhaps most interesting to the layman while discussing innovative ways of acquiring sounds: Geiger counters, phase shifting on CB radios, underwater sounds provided by the US Navy that are usually used to train sonar operators. Most experienced was cinematographer Jack McGowan, who had shot a number of Bob Clark movies including Children Shouldn't Play with Dead Things, Dead of Night and Deranged. He also shot Stevie, Samson and Delilah for Steve Hawkes of Blood Freak fame, demonstrating a little crossover between Florida filmmakers. And so, with technical knowledge mostly obtained outside of feature production, these folks set about making a monster movie.

My previous review of Zaat talked about how truly inept it was, but the more I watch it the more I realise that its ineptitude has its own peculiar charms, often because it does things in ways that feature filmmakers would never choose. The introduction, for example, is textbook documentary stuff, merely replacing a sedate narration with over the top histrionics from mad scientist Dr Kurt Leopold. He's into fish, and I mean really into fish, not just in some detached ichthyologist sort of way, but in a palpable declaration of kinship well beyond The Incredible Mr Limpet. 'Sargassum, the weed of deceit. Sargassum fish, mighty hunter of the deep,' he rants, as if he were reciting poetry. 'I love you! I hope I'll be a good imitator.' As he gets excited, he reaches the level of, 'They think I'm insane! They're the ones who are insane! Oh, my friends of the deep! This day, this very day, I'll become one of you! My family! And together we'll conquer the universe!'

To look at Dr Leopold you wouldn't think that he'd be able to conquer anything, as he has trouble enough actually walking, shuffling along instead like a talented zombie. He isn't a stereotypical scientist in any way. He has a boring grey shirt instead of a white lab coat, and a regular haircut instead of a shock of white hair, but as he's apparently unable to work out what a comb is for, he looks perpetually like he just got out of bed. Maybe he had. Maybe it isn't really Marshall Grauer at all, it's a seriously hung over Al Pacino. Also unlike regular scientists he plans out his nefarious experiments with some sort of huge astrological wheel, which given the subject matter, couldn't help but remind me of UHF's Wheel of Fish. He did buy a former government research station in Cypress Grove, in reality a part of Marineland that had previously been used in Revenge of the Creature, another monster movie that did at least spawn the career of Clint Eastwood.

Dr Leopold doesn't speak either, letting the narration speak for him. Initially I presumed it was because Barton didn't have the equipment to record sound, like The Beast of Yucca Flats or Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, but as other folks turn up they prove perfectly capable of speech. Yarbrough's article explains that none of the dialogue was dubbed. This substitution of narration for speech is therefore deliberate, perhaps to show Leopold's dedication to his future fish state, given that this is one monster who becomes so entirely voluntarily. We watch it happen too through inevitable scientific gibberish. He does all the requisite random knob turning and switch flicking so that his bulky equipment can generate flashing light bulbs and warbling sounds, before injecting himself with a courageously sized needle, spraying his magic formula of 'Z sub A, A sub T... ZaAt!' into a huge water tank and using a needlessly complicated contraption to haul himself into it.

The suspense is palpable! No, I'm lying. There isn't any because we're too busy working out why this cool pulley contraption is even there and Leopold doesn't just climb into his tank. Certainly he climbs out, having been completely transformed into the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or at least a cut rate version with a snout. The inspiration for this creature feature was a National Geographic article about walking catfish plaguing Florida, but the first thing the creature does is to look into a mirror and confirm that it doesn't look remotely like them. No, it's not being vain, it's checking for success. 'Nothing at all like a catfish,' it thinks, 'but it's beautiful.' I found the transformation particularly notable because it replaces Marshall Grauer with Wade Popwell, who is much taller and who can actually walk. Becoming a walking catfish is a strange way to learn how to walk but then Leopold is supposed to be a mad scientist so we can't dispute his logic.

Unlike most movie monsters, Popwell had a lot of work to do. He'd answered an ad in the local paper that read, 'Wanted: 6'5" or taller male to play the role of monster in horror movie. Must be experienced swimmer, scuba diver. Acting ability not required!' Ed Tucker, a fan of Zaat since he first saw it at the age of six and who wrote an article about the film for Scary Monsters magazine, explained the draw to him. 'For a 1971 film, you got a lot of bang for your buck,' he suggested. 'You got a lot of monster on the screen. I can't think of any film before or after that has as much monster.' While this breaks the cardinal rule of creature features and destroys any semblance of suspense the picture might have generated, by showing us the monster in detail before we see a single other character or hear a single word of dialogue, it meant Popwell was kept very busy. It also means that this giant walking catfish is absolutely the focal point of the film throughout.

So out climbs the monster, wanders over to the nearby mid-Florida lake to take a swim among the octopi and the sea turtles and whatever other critters were in the nature documentary stock footage the filmmakers had to hand or which they shot at Marineland, spraying ZaAt everywhere he goes with his little red spraycan. Even though he's more than obvious, looking like a scaly full size version of ALF, precisely nobody notices him. Maybe they've all forgotten that they're in a movie given that it takes no less than 25 minutes for any of them to even show up. Good old boy Sheriff Krantz and a black marine biologist named Rex don't notice, as they're busy recreating scenes from In the Heat of the Night, the more polite ones. A blonde girl camper painting by her Volkswagen doesn't notice him. Not even Dr Leopold's nemesis and his family notice him, from their conveniently placed fishing boat right in the middle of the river. Until he attacks them!

With one prominent scientist murdered and a second following suit in the privacy of his own home, the Sheriff begins an investigation, but proves to be unable to join any dots at all, though it must have been entirely obvious what's going on. There's precisely one mad scientist in town, one who wanted to attempt bizarre experiments on death row inmates to try to mutate them into fish monsters, and the two men who laughed at him turn up dead on the same day. What sort of law officer could possibly connect these facts? Not Sheriff Lou Krantz, who apparently needs the help of INPIT, the Inter-Nations Phenomena Investigations Team. They're a young couple in red jumpsuits with a big camper van, some sort of a cross between the Scooby gang and Mulder and Scully. Only when they suggest some sort of fish monster created through deliberate mutation of a human being by someone like Dr Leopold does the Sheriff think, hey, Dr Leopold!

Shot in February 1971, Zaat had a limited but successful release that year to southern theatres, even outgrossing films like The Poseidon Adventure in some venues, but didn't spread further until 1975, by which point it must have felt tame by the standards of that decade. Unashamedly a fifties creature feature, there's only a little blood to be found and at one point the monster kills someone by swiping at them in such a lackluster manner that I don't believe he even connects. Nancy Lien, the token female victim, doesn't even get naked to swim around, the year Susan Backlinie became so famous for doing that in Jaws. She does swim around in a bikini so Leopold can capture her and turn her into his mate, but it doesn't work out so he has to carefully select another mate, coincidentally the only other woman in the film who has a name. He even nails up a picture he's drawn of her onto his Wheel of Fish, literally hammering the point home.

So, even had Capitol Films, the national distributor, not inconveniently gone bankrupt and taken most of the fifteen prints of the film with it, Zaat probably didn't have much of a chance in 1975, even under a new and meaningless title of The Blood Waters of Dr Z. It took over three decades of languishing in obscurity, the inevitable fate of most one off exploitation movies with no overt connection to someone or something else of note, before it could be rediscovered. Don Barton had written the whole project off long ago, although he obviously has an abiding affection for his creation given that the creature suit still sits in his garage. It was when fans started to contact him that the picture began to take on a whole new life, most of them people who had seen the movie on its original run, often as kids, rather than fans of MST3K who had lampooned it in 1999. Now Barton has become enthused once more and has even suggested a sequel.

Much of the reason for the film's resurgence has to be that old time feel. Any other films with a similar attraction are generally decades older, thus precluding the possibility for a second shot because anyone involved is less likely to still be around. Yet it definitely benefits from falling on the right side of the so bad it's good paradigm. Some truly awful films are difficult and painful to get through, often the serious ones, but others are simply joys to behold in all the wrong ways and Zaat is certainly one of those. The dialogue is outrageous and there's very little of it. There are almost no people in the film. The monster is omnipresent. I love the sheer concept of a man deliberately turning himself into a monster, even if he's an astrologically aware scientist, but it doesn't exactly make a lot of sense. The plot is threadbare and the suspense is non-existent. It really stands or falls on whether your taste runs to this sort of polite cheesiness.

For many that seems to be the case, and I'd count myself among them. I've seen the film a few times now and it's becoming much more available, fans no longer having to settle for low quality bootleg copies. It's been shown twice on Turner Classic Movies, the MST3K version is available on Netflix and the 30th anniversary tape has become an official DVD release with an introduction by Don Barton himself. He's even appeared at a number of revival showings in the southeastern states to present his film and to enjoy the whole filmmaker experience. The film didn't recoup its costs on its initial run, the $50,000 budget driven up to $75,000 by the cost of striking prints and handling publicity. Perhaps through sales of the DVD and the awesome poster, Barton might one day break even on his film. I'm not so fussed about a potential sequel because it wouldn't be the same, but I'd be happy to know that such a fun bad movie could officially become a success.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

A Throw of Dice (1929)

Director: Franz Osten
Stars: Seeta Devi, Charu Roy and Himansu Rai

Another exotic silent film ignored for decades until its recent restoration and release, A Throw of Dice plays well as a double bill with Legong: Dance of the Virgins and as the second half too. The restoration this time was by the British Film Institute, in honour of the 60th anniversary of India's independence from the British Empire, with an enjoyable new soundtrack by Nitin Sawhney. In some ways the two films are a world apart: the one in late two strip Technicolor, the other in the more expected black and white; the one a simple tale of four players, the other a lavish epic that bears comparison with a Cecil B De Mille production. Yet there's much in common too. Both films were set in the Orient, distant exotic lands in those days, and shot in the countries in which they were set, using native casts. Both were shot primarily using locations rather than sets, so there's plenty of outdoor footage, and both are archetypal love triangles dressed up in poetic clothing.

Having watched Legong: Dance of the Virgins immediately before this film, I missed the two strip Technicolor acutely. A Throw of Dice would have benefitted hugely from a similar use of colour in a black and white age, and I say that as someone with a fondness for black and white. The acting is far better here, these being native actors not simply natives. The story is far more defined and explored, not to mention vastly expanded, courtesy of lavish assistance from the royal houses of Jaipur, Udaipur and Mysore. According to IMDb, the production used 10,000 extras, 1,000 horses and 50 elephants, but there's much more than that. The costumes are truly magnificent, with the boats, palaces and musical instruments not far behind. The extras include fire swallowers, snake charmers and acrobats. The camerawork is capable and the composition good, though not quite up to W Howard Greene's superlative work in Legong, though German direction keeps it solid.

Yes, German direction. While this is Indian through and through, it was directed by a German, Franz Osten by name. Osten arrived in Indian film in 1925 with the first in a thematic trilogy of films that concluded with this one and the names on screen remain remarkably consistent. That first feature was The Light of Asia, a story about the origin of the Buddha, starring Himansu Rai who also co-directed. Playing the Buddha's wife, Gopa, was the luminous Anglo-Indian, Seeta Devi, who was making her film debut. Following The Light of Asia was Shiraz, based around the construction of the Taj Mahal, and starring Devi, Rai and, as Emperor Shah Jehan, Charu Roy. A Throw of Dice reunites all three of these actors in an adaptation of a tale from The Mahabharata. Bizarrely, all three were directed by a German (Osten), written by an Indian (Niranjan Pal) and adapted by Englishmen (Edwin Arnold and William A Burton).

We meet Seeta Devi first here, as a lovely young lady called Sunita. She lives in seclusion in the Indian jungle with Kanwa, her father, who used to be the teacher to King Ranjit but who left his court because the king had become addicted to gambling. Unfortunately the quiet jungle he left for is soon shaken by the arrival of a royal hunting party, Ranjit's of course, a long procession of elephants in search of tiger. As this was actually shot in the Indian jungle, the tigers, snakes and monkeys are all real and running around in the wild instead of on carefully designed sets. Kanwa would obviously rather have wild animals around his daughter than gamblers, but his worst fears are about to come true when this gambling fool falls foul of King Sohat's dastardly schemes and is brought to him to nurse back to health. Of course, once in Kanwa's home, Ranjit catches sight of Sunita and they fall instantly in love with each other, setting the story in motion.

King Ranjit is still a inveterate gambler, not just because he aims to bag a tiger with a bow and arrow but because he keeps breaking off the hunt to roll dice with King Sohat who is as much of a gambler as him. The biggest gamble of all is to even be around Sohat, as Ranjit is perhaps only misguided but Sohat is an evil schemer who plans to bring Ranjit down. I'm not sure if the two are related, or whether the repeated phrase 'royal cousin' is meant to be taken only as a use of royal vernacular, but Ranjit seems to trust Sohat a little more than would be wise for a monarch. And so it all goes down. Sohat's henchman Kirkabar shoots Ranjit rather than a tiger and off he's whisked to Kanwa's care. By the time Ranjit regains consciousness and discovers Sunita, Sohat has already fallen in love with her too, though initially he doesn't believe he has competition that will live. Unlike the simplistic Legong, the equivalent story here is full of intrigue and betrayal.

It's a wonderful film that began for me as a lesser companion to Legong, because of the lack of Technicolor and some camerawork that looks worse for comparison to Greene's work in the later picture. However it soon sucked me into its machinations and I became as hooked on the story as King Ranjit is on his dice games. Seeta Devi is magnificent, ably filling the shoes of a hermit's daughter who two kings fall in love with. Usually actresses thrown into roles like that are merely the first point of failure as they can't make us believe it in the slightest, but Devi is magnetic and she could make us believe anything. Charu Roy is thoroughly believable too, transforming in her presence as the lovestruck King Ranjit. It's easy to believe that he'd do anything for her not just to get her. Wicked King Sohat is far from that sincere and Himansu Rai superbly shows lust not just for the woman but for power. He wants her but plenty more too, like Ranjit's kingdom.

It helps no end to have three talented actors plying their craft, though there are other factors that help almost as much. They're all Indian actors, or at least of obvious Indian heritage as Devi was born Renee Smith, and this initially seems as out of place in a late silent movie as seeing all the black actors in a Oscar Micheaux picture or Lingyu Ruan in a Chinese film. It often seems like most early ethnic pictures are American movies that either cast westerners playing outside their race or natives who can't act. Each discovery that this is far from the whole picture is a treat and I can only hope that I have many more similar discoveries to come. It's also often notable that these actors, perhaps because sound didn't arrive quite so soon in other parts of the world, act more like we might expect a sound actor to act, with less in the way of histrionic exaggerations and more in the way of realism. Again that's initially jarring but still very welcome.

Beyond having talented ethnic actors playing ethnic parts, shooting in India aids the authenticity to no small degree. While Cecil B De Mille had to build his huge temples and palaces on the back lots of Hollywood studios, Franz Osten had the good fortune to be able to shoot his film in real temples and palaces, not to mention jungles. The assistance of three royal houses is not to be sniffed at and it helps to make this feel like a multi-million dollar epic, though I have no idea how much budget they had to play with. Himansu Rai, not just one of the stars but also the producer of this film, came from an affluent Bengali family with a private theatre in their mansion, and he would go on to found Bombay Talkies, a notable early Indian film studio. I presume he had lots of connections and made good use of them for locations, extras and props. Many shots show Indian artisans at their crafts: stringing jewels, fashioning clothes and turbans or decorating elephants.

Perhaps most authentic of all, there's a notably shocking scene when one villain asks King Sohat for the reward he's been promised for all his murderous treachery, namely one of the provinces in his kingdom. Sohat's response, as you might expect for a wicked king who thrives on intrigue, is to have a cobra slipped into his bed. This is a remarkable scene, obviously conducted by a real man and a real cobra, though I'm sure it had to have been doctored in some way. While the man sleeps, the cobra crawls over his face and we can't help but tense up at what might be about to happen. While this movie is certainly based around a love triangle, it's far more than that, as befits its source in one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India. It's a romantic thriller, full of as much suspense as romance, as much guidance as treachery, as much violence as love. If its two thematic companions are remotely as good as this, they're going to be treats to cherish.

Monday 20 September 2010

Legong: Dance of the Virgins (1935)

Director: Henri de la Falaise
Stars: Goesti Poetoe Aloes, Goesti Bagus Mara, Saplak Njoman and Njoman Njong Njong

Henri, Marquis de la Falaise de Coudray, led an interesting life. Born into the French aristocracy, he was awarded a Croix de Guerre for bravery during both the First and Second World Wars and in between he married Hollywood actresses. First came Gloria Swanson, who he met in France on the set of the now lost film, Madame Sans-Gêne, where she was the leading lady and he was a mere translator. With a title but no money, a cynic could call it a win/win situation but Swanson described him much later as the love of her life, though he was only the third of six husbands. To add to her regret, her children were born to the husbands on either side as the child they would have had together was aborted under studio pressure. After Swanson came Constance Bennett, who formed a production company, Bennett Pictures, to finance a couple of exotic docudramas for him to write and direct. This fascinating film was the first of the pair.

According to the recent Milestone DVD release, Legong: Dance of the Virgins was shot in 1933 but released in 1935, while Kliou the Killer (or Kliou the Tiger) was shot in 1934 but released in 1937. IMDb lists 1935 and 1936, but I won't quibble. They were out of time, whatever the details. They were the very last films to be produced in two strip Technicolor, which worked with red and green. They were among the final silent films to be released in that era, at least in the US where the last true Hollywood silent is generally seen as Charlie Chaplin's City Lights in 1931, itself an anachronism that arrived a few years after the big studios had completed their switch to sound (Modern Times, which Chaplin released in 1936, is usually described as a mute sound film). One reason for staying silent here is that both films were shot entirely on location, in Bali (then in the Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia) and Indo-China (now Vietnam) respectively, with native casts.

The subtitle after the subtitle is 'A Story of the South Seas' and the key word comes shortly after: 'romance'. This is a romance in both senses of the word, not just a tragic love triangle story but a rather fanciful and archetypal one set in the 'isle of perpetual summer'. There are only four lead characters and, while we are given names, close to the real names of the actors, it's so generic that de la Falaise could have done away with them entirely and simply referred to them as 'girl', 'boy', 'father' and 'half sister'. Poutou is a chaste maiden and sacred dancer at the Tampaksiring temple who has her eyes on Nyong, a free soul from the countryside who has come to play in one of the temple's gamelan orchestras. Unfortunately Nyong is only interested until he catches sight of Saplak, Poutou's half sister and if you can't picture precisely how the rest of the story is going to unfold from there, then you haven't read anywhere near enough Shakespeare.

What Shakespeare didn't have is the profusion of naked breasts that populate this film. What's surprising is that Legong: Dance of the Virgins, suggestive title notwithstanding, really doesn't play out like many of what were called goona goona epics, after a prior Balinese picture called Goona-Goona, An Authentic Melodrama of the Island of Bali. Such goona goona epics showed as much nakedness as they possibly could, using the excuse that it was all culturally important, like a copy of National Geographic. Not one of those naked breasts ever belonged to a white woman so it was anthropology not exploitation. Yeah right. This film has more flesh than most but it never seems to be exploitative, perhaps because there's so much more than the usual token attempt to show some of the local culture too. This film is full of it, from native dances like the title legong to the religious beliefs and funerary ceremonies. It's all fascinating to watch.

Two things leap out very quickly. The first is how truly incredible these women are, and no, I'm not talking about those consistently naked breasts. I'm talking about the way they carry insane amounts of stuff on their heads, often without the benefit of balancing hands. I've seen this sort of thing many times before, of course, but never to the degree that this film shows, where these ladies don't so much carry bowls or baskets on their heads as they carry enormous, intricately stacked pagodas of offerings to the gods or goods to take to market. I'm talking also about the way Poutou crushes rice by merely bouncing a bamboo pole on it, the pole almost alive as it dances from hand to hand without any apparent effort. To reiterate, these are not actors, they're real Balinese villagers and it's patently obvious that what they're doing on film is precisely what they do in real life. They make it all look scarily easy.

The second thing ties to how morally different these people seem. These Balinese villagers are depicted in a very human light, rather than being looked down upon as savage heathens. There is no moralistic judgement of their actions but so much of what they do is completely alien to us now, perhaps even more today than in the thirties when the film was made. Part of it is the skin, of course, as most people in Bali seem to go topless, whether male or female. This includes all four lead characters, only Poutou ever hidden occasionally under a blouse or sarong. It isn't just walking around topless though, it's in concepts like bathing in public, not only in scenic lagoons but in rivers shared with water buffalo, hardly the most hygienic approach to cleanliness. When not naked, these folks seem to divide their time between the temple and the cockfights, Poutou's father Gousti Bagus being a breeder of fighting roosters.

It's interesting to see the mixed reactions of the world's censors. In the US, the film was shorn of scenes of nudity, though it's hard to imagine how much there could have been left after such an act. In the UK, the nudity was left in but the cockfighting scenes were removed instead. What both countries presumably retained in their respective releases is the footage at Tampaksiring. The suggestive title refers to a dance which really isn't that suggestive and before the legong we see a djanger. Earlier on we see a lion dance, a barong, which is magical. It's a mythical tale of a prince who has been turned into a lion by an evil witch called Rangda who survives an attempt by the prince's followers to slay her and bewitches them into commiting suicide in a dangerous dance that could easily end in tragedy with even the slightest lost footing. We're also treated to a cremation which uses accoutrements every bit as ornate as the dance costumes.

The film is a joy to watch, not only because of the fascinating glimpses into a different culture but because it was shot so well. The cinematographer was William H Greene, better known as W Howard Greene, a three time Oscar winner. Two were honorary awards, for The Garden of Allah and A Star is Born, but the third was a competitive win, for the 1943 Claude Rains version of The Phantom of the Opera. By this time he was well overdue, having racked up seven nominations between 1940 and 1944, all for colour cinematography in an era when most films were shot in black and white. He was a pioneer of the industry, something magnificently highlighted here. He reprised his role in de la Falaise's follow up, Kliou the Tiger, which unfortunately no longer exists in its colour form though a 16mm black and white print was recently discovered and restored for the Milestone DVD release of this film.

The only downside for me was the slight given to the Balinese music. Nyong plays in a gamelan orchestra but while we see him play we never hear him because the score is a typical Hollywood exotica piece, something of an insult given how much culture we're shown. Fortunately the DVD includes a newly commissioned soundtrack that apparently redresses the balance, courtesy of Gamelan Sekar Jaya and Club Foot Orchestra, though, to be fair, I haven't heard it. As much as I love gamelan music, though, it's relatively easy to overlook this and just enjoy a simple but effective slice of life in an utterly different culture, especially in the company of such engaging lead characters. The leading ladies are a delight but Goesti Bagus Mara steals the show as their father and it doesn't take much imagination to see why he was prominently cast. In the company of such charm and character, it's easy to look past a storyline as clichéd as the day is long.

Sunday 19 September 2010

The Return of Captain Invincible (1983)

Director: Philippe Mora
Stars: Alan Arkin, Christopher Lee, Kate Fitzpatrick and Bill Hunter

Everything's superheroes nowadays, it seems, with Marvel finally showing the big studios how to make such movies work on the big screen: Spider-Man and Iron Man and all the rest. Take a look at any Hollywood superhero movie that predates Spider-Man, though, and you'll cringe at how little anyone in film seemed to understand about what made the comics work. This Aussie movie from director Philippe Mora shows that some filmmakers understood all the basic concepts as far back as 1983 but simply chose to take a completely different tack from Hollywood. This is a post-modern superhero spoof, one that was a couple of decades ahead of its time. The approach it takes to its story fits far better with films like Mystery Men, Hancock or Kick-Ass, but its visual aesthetic is old school: part thirties pulp, part seventies futurism and part Rocky Horror, the latter hardly surprising as Richards O'Brien and Hartley wrote some of the songs.

The other thing to look for here is a wealth of political and cinematic references, which begin as the film begins, with newsreel footage from News on the March. Orson Welles invented News on the March as a spoof of The March of Time newsreel series, using it to show the official version of the life and death of Charles Foster Kane at the beginning of Citizen Kane, before proceeding to dig deeper through drama. Mora does the same here, showing the official version of the life and disappearance of Captain Invincible, a vague hybrid of Superman and Captain America, before proceeding to dig deeper through drama, comedy and song. In fact the comedy is there even in the newsreel footage, as Captain Invincible relaxes on the fuselage of German Stukas, smoking cigars in front of the pilots to block their view. Alan Arkin shines from moment one here as the title character, as smugly superior as Superman always should have been but never was.

These newsreels are joyous, ably spoofing the fact that they weren't actual footage of events but later dramatisations of those events, with every liberty taken. So we find ourselves back in the thirties, in the mysterious warehouse of a 'mystery big shot racketeer' who is nameless but looks vaguely like George Raft. He doesn't notice the cameras that are all over his warehouse, which know precisely where to pan to pick up Invincible breaking through the wall. He even picks up a barrel for the gangsters to shoot at, though everyone knows full well that he's bulletproof and the only possible outcome is something that looks cool on film. It's all great pulp fun. Captain Invincible Smashes Gangsters! Captain Invincible Crushes Nazis! Captain Invincible Inspires American Youth! Those are just the intertitles but the man lives up to them and he knows full well just how awesome he is. It oozes out of his every pore.

However, while most superheroes seem to be stuck in the eras they were created to protect, this one is forced to move with the times and the McCarthy era doesn't look kindly on someone in a red cape. HUAC cites him for flying without a license and wearing underwear in public, turning every heroic deed into a suspicious one. Captain Invincible storms out and is gone, dramatised neatly by News on the March with people looking up in vain at the skies of Manhattan. Where could he be? Well given that this is a Philippe Mora movie, it shouldn't be too surprising to find him in Australia, but he's no longer what he was. Now he's an alcoholic bum, a shadow of his former self, sleeping in burned out buildings. Even when he's hit by bits of Skylab falling to earth in the outback, the news takes his comments as drunken ramblings and ignores them. This is a microcosm of the film's central theme, that superheroes can never escape who they are.
It seems strange to think about a central theme here because the film is all over the place, albeit deliberately, so much so that every time we think we know what's happening, the picture veers off in a completely new direction and we find ourselves in a whole new movie. Nothing seems remotely compatible but the result ends up as something of a patchwork quilt, one that tells a story but tells much more in the framework it chooses. That's more of a story than the story itself and really deserves professional annotations that explain just what this stole from other movies and what other movies stole from this. Of course there are Superman jokes, and The Godfather, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Blazing Saddles are ably spoofed, but was that a Basic Instinct shot in 1983? Maybe I'm looking too hard but there are references and memorabilia everywhere, with a Casablanca here and a Dr Strangelove there. Was that a Maltese Falcon or a Nazi eagle?

Every style in the book seems to be touched on at some point. Some of the comedy is subtle and left in the background for us to notice if we can. In the newsreels, the Nazi maps of London have Buckhaus circled. When we meet the Aussie street cop who will become the leading lady, she's reading a book called New South Wales Detective Test: Boost Your Score in 10 Days. The police station fax machine sounds like a game of Pacman. Yet much of it is blatant, the US President being given a song that consists entirely of the word 'bullshit'. There are aliens here, puns too. A fight scene in a New York Jewish deli is straight out of Monty Python and even includes pies. The whole history of film comedy seems to be here in references. Most blatant of all is the character of Captain Invincible's nemesis, the supervillain Mr Midnight, which Christopher Lee took as an opportunity to explore the absurd: part Python, part Dali, part people who hadn't been born yet.

Introduced as an 'industrialist crony' of Hitler, standing next to him at a Nazi rally in newsreel footage, he crops up again and again in the background, even at Captain Invincible's hearings in front of HUAC. In public he looks consistently sinister but in private he's completely batshit crazy. He breaks into opera or Shakespeare at the slightest provocation. He has a swimming pool that contains a 3D reproduction of Manhattan. He has a collection of bizarre pets. His ragtag minions include some guy in drag who looks like an old Bette Davis, a punk with only one side of his head shaved, a midget in a Santa Claus outfit, even a some sort of hybrid man/goat called Julius. He has black Volkswagen Beetles with flamethrowers under their bonnets and personalised number plates. When Captain Invincible calls him 'a sociopath paranoid schizophrenic with delusions of grandeur,' he takes it as a compliment. The world notices him when he uses his giggle gun.

Up to now he's been entirely obscure, only Captain Invincible having heard of him, but after he attacks a US Defense & Space Research Facility with his giggle gun, leaving the entire base in stitches and mostly naked. The attack was to steal the hypno ray, which he uses as an insanely convoluted ethnic cleansing plan. Forget just killing people, why not herd them up and hypnotise them into buying houses on ethnically segregated estates like Sicilian Heights and Afro Acres, then destroy the estates? The US President, played by the very Australian Michael Pate, decides that, 'What the world needs right now is a hero,' and just to emphasise that, backs it up in song. Yes, this is a musical, albeit one that doesn't see a song until almost twenty minutes in. The hero is Captain Invincible, of course, who had once unwittingly promised a young boy that when he became president he could call on him at any time. The boy made good. Now he has to.
I wonder how much of this was improvised. IMDb credits only two writers, plus a third who added dialogue, but it feels like the product of twenty or at least one schizophrenic with twenty distinct personalities. It's almost as if everything was deliberately inconsistent just to keep us guessing. It goes far beyond the confluence of stock footage with flashbacks, gag routines with musical numbers, technical gimmickry with stark realism. One moment there's clever dialogue, the next offensively bad puns; one moment natural acting, the next outrageous slapstick; one moment astute social commentary, the next jiggling aliens. Perhaps the scenes where Captain Invincible fights the DTs through stock footage resonated with the filmmakers and they just decided to pull out all the stops with bleeding hoovers and Jane Fonda reading On Walden Pond. No wonder someone with as delightful a sense of the absurd as Terry Pratchett is a confirmed fan.

The connection between the superhero and supervillain is explored, just like in Brent Triplett's Super Sam, but the two characters are far from two sides of the same coin. Captain Invincible is explained through realism, a man who feels lost in time, yearning for the innocence of 1950, even though 1950 still needed him. As he sobers up he starts realising what has changed while he was curled up inside a bottle. He doesn't understand bottled water, women's lib, the absence of Kate Smith. It's when he explains that the US has 'lost something vital, like honesty, pride, integrity and a sense of the future,' that he finds his place again. Mr Midnight doesn't care about any of these things. Far from being explained through realism, he's explained through insanity, surrealism and absurdity. A real Mr Midnight couldn't exist in society because he's incompatible, a bad guy with no motivation except to be evil. He's even sadder than the alcoholic Captain.

With such inconsistency it's hard to judge anything except the big picture. It can't succeed as a drama, a musical or a comedy because it's never only one of those things. It's too stupid to be a work of substance but it's too intelligent to just be a dumb comedy. It has a sense of children's fun but there are too many naked breasts and dominatrix dancers for it to be a family film. The only way it can work is either as that patchwork quilt with all its diverse pieces, or as individual pieces with their own individual charm, especially to Aussies. I loved Graham Kennedy's turn as the Australian prime minister, for instance. 'I'll concur if you want me to,' he keeps stuttering at the Americans who aim to nuke everything. 'As prime minister of Australia I ought to get back to the caravan.' As Captain Invincible starts to sober up, he discovers why Sydney doesn't look like Wall Street. 'I knew everything looked different,' he comments, 'but I thought it was the booze.'

So what are we supposed to think? I have a feeling that director Philippe Mora and writers Steven E de Souza and Andrew Gaty deliberately crafted an unholy mess that still contained substance for those who lasted past the first song. It's certainly a polarising movie, those who don't like it unable to watch it and those who like it finding new lines to quote to people who have no clue what they're talking about. 'Gefilte fish!' I'm now fascinated to discover just who those fans are, beyond Terry Pratchett. Are they die hard Rocky Horror fans, relishing more songs by Richard O'Brien and Richard Hartley? It's entirely obvious which they wrote. Are they film nuts, who have great fun identifying each cinematic reference, from Anna Christie to A Clockwork Orange? I'm sure I missed plenty and will have to return in a few years to see how many more I catch. Or are they just absurdists? If so this should be an inevitably obscure but much loved underground cult hit.