Midnite Movies Marathonby Jonathan Doyle and Neil Karassik
(with special guest Kiva Reardon)
As some of you may recall, we combatted the harsh winter conditions last February by devoting two memorable weekends to Blaxploitation Marathon, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. Rather than marathon another specific genre, we've decided to try a slightly more diverse topic this time around: the Midnite Movies DVD series. For the most part, this was simply the branding MGM -- and later Fox -- used to release films from the raucous American International Pictures catalogue on DVD (and VHS). However, the films of many other B-movie entities, both big (Amicus) and small (Centaur), were also included.
To keep things interesting (for us anyway), most of the films we cover will be new to both of us, but we may throw in a few classics just to mix it up. When we tried to get this marathon underway back in July, it fell apart due to scheduling conflicts. One review from that false start survived, so I'm flying solo with that review to get things started. -- JD
The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant(MGM Home Entertainment, 2.22.2005)
JD: Released a year before Lee Frost's hugely entertaining The Thing With Two Heads, this is a trashier take on the two-headed-multi-racial-convict sub-genre. Unlike Two Heads, 2-Headed Transplant doesn't do much with the odd-couple-on-the-run premise both borrow from The Defiant Ones. Given the absurdity of the premise, it's also surprising how serious and cruel much of the film is (women are brutalized repeatedly). On the plus side, the cast features some likeable cult icons (Bruce Dern, Casey Kasem) and there's an intriguing, if somewhat amateurish, psychedelic soundtrack comprised of flutes, aimless guitar noodling and jazzy cymbals. But for the most part, this is just an exercise in watching all the different ways you can photograph a two-headed dude aimlessly walking through a field.
Man in the Attic(Fox Home Entertainment, 9.11.2007)
NK: Upon watching this film, I was immediately struck by its familiar plot -- and not just because it involves iconic serial killer Jack the Ripper. This was the third re-telling of Marie Belloc Lowndes' 1913 novel, The Lodger, which was at one point adapted by Hitchcock in the late twenties. This film does a fine job keeping the suspense at a boil. Until the conclusion, we're never quite sure if the mysterious pathologist (admirably played by a young, relatively unknown Jack Palance) is the culprit behind the murders, or if he's just a red herring. For it's time and budget, Man in the Attic sports an impressive gothic mise-en-scene, though it also contains one too many protracted musical numbers. For better or worse, this is not your typical midnight movie.
JD: It's true, Man in the Attic is far classier than any other film I've seen in the Midnite Movies series. In spite of a somewhat by-the-numbers plot, the film is surprisingly enthralling thanks to suggestive, expressionist visuals and a number of strong performances, particularly the endlessly watchable Palance, who plays ambiguous guilt better than just about anyone. How they managed to capture nineteenth century London with this level of credibility is beyond me. It's also worth noting that the film is more mischievous and playful than the subject matter might lead you to believe. Overall, this is definitely an above average -- and uncharacteristically tasteful -- Midnite Movie.
It! The Terror From Beyond Space(MGM Home Entertainment, 8.28.2001)
JD: This is the prototypical wooden sci-fi B-movie, a (very) poor man's The Thing From Another World. If you just listen to It!, you'll get completely lost because these personality-free characters are indistinguishable from one another (their uniformly blank responses to the film's space monster are priceless). In fact, this film is so free of character, nuance and detail (in short, content) that it manages to clock in at a barely-feature-length 69 minutes. That said, it gets better as it goes along and the film's uncluttered simplicity gives the shocks more impact. A case could even be made that the characters' weirdly laid back reactions to impending death suggest intriguing, unintentional complexity. Above average for its period and genre, but still a bit dull.
NK: While the crew's blase reaction to being murdered by a space creature is utterly unconvincing, it somehow compliments the film's slow-burning fear and trippy compositions, best exemplified by a 2001-esque exterior shot of two men scaling the ship as it floats in orbit. Sure, this is camp in the purest form -- as the creature's ghastly rubber suit and the blatantly displayed zipper confirms -- but the economic running time means dry spots are few and far between. Clearly an early influence on Alien, fans of that film should definitely take this out for a spin, preferably at midnight.
Invasion of the Bee Girls(MGM Home Entertainment, 2.22.2005)
NK: If the only redeeming quality of Invasion of the Bee Girls was its amazing title, it would still be a winner. Part sci-fi, part soft-core erotica, this film's outrageous plot involves a bunch of bee women who kill men by fucking them to death. Full of seventies babes, psychedelic sets and genuinely engaging thrills, this is one of the most stylish B movies I've ever seen. Dig those groovy bee POV shots.
JD: In every one of these marathons, we un-earth three or four genuinely unforgettable cult gems, films like Amazing Grace, Trick Baby and Black Samson. Invasion of the Bee Girls is just this kind of happy surprise. Making discoveries like this is the reason we have these marathons. Full of wild visual flourishes, eccentric behaviour and unexpected insight (about sex, gender relations, etc.), Bee Girls is fascinating from beginning to end. In one of his first scripts, cult writer-director Nicholas Meyer (Time After Time, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn) stumbled upon a genuinely fascinating, suggestive premise and took it to some genuinely crazy places. If that's not enough, just wait for the insane end credits.
The Oblong Box(MGM Home Entertainment, 8.27.2002)
JD: Directed by prolific American International regular Gordon Hessler, this Edgar Allen Poe adaptation has far too many scenes of bland period exposition, but it's redeemed by moments of visual invention (Hessler uses camera movement quite distinctively) and the interesting use of a masked protagonist. In one particularly memorable scene, the masked killer dispatches of a victim at a party then exits through a crowded room of partygoers, who jokingly grab at him, oblivious to what he's just done. Admittedly, it's hard not to chuckle at the numerous throat slashings, as the blade actually appears to be spraying blood at the victims, but this gives the film a messy vitality it might otherwise lack.
NK: I was stoked to see one of Hessler's AIP films, but soon after the film’s impressive opening credits sequence (featuring terrific gothic artwork), tedium began to surface. Once I got over my initial delight in seeing another Vincent Price and Christopher Lee collaboration, dialogue-heavy sequences started to overstay their welcome, affecting the pacing of the film and killing the mood. Elaborate sets, solid acting, a spooky payoff and Lee’s dorky haircut made this a somewhat worthy alternative to Corman’s Poe films, but I’m not sure if this even qualifies as a Poe adaptation. Apparently, the only thing this film has in common with its alleged source material is the title. Good to know.
The Vampire(MGM Home Entertainment, 11.6.2007)
NK: The second shortest movie we've spun thus far just so happens to be the most tedious slog yet. The fact that even a 75-minute feature can't keep me mildly engaged is pretty disgraceful. In it, a small-town doctor grows addicted to an experimental drug that causes him to transform -- Lon Chaney-style -- into a grotesque creature resembling anything but a bloodthirsty vampire. Definitely a reflection of fifties America's newfound paranoia about pharmaceutical drugs, this film's social message is essentially the only thing that makes it remotely unique. Otherwise, it's a major snoozer that I'm grateful to not actually be watching at midnight.
JD: In spite of its many weaknesses, this film never drops to the level of an inept Ed Wood embarrassment -- and that's a bad thing. Full of horribly lifeless fifties conformists, this is like a lost bodysnatcher film, in which the actual actors and filmmakers get bodysnatched instead of the characters. Other than yesterday's similarly dead-eyed cast in It!, I can't remember the last time I saw actors so clearly phoning-it-in. On the (microscopic) plus side, fake Lon Chaney's giant monster eyebrows never fail to delight.
Tales From the Crypt(Fox Home Entertainment, 9.11.2007)
JD: Directed by legendary cinematographer and veteran horror director Freddie Francis, this is a pretty flawless, vintage horror anthology film. Like several of the other films we've watched so far, the performances are a bit stiff and humorless, but Francis breathes new life into all kinds of tired horror conventions. Most intriguingly, he stretches out many strange physical actions to absurdist effect, echoing the alienated, paranoid sensations of Roman Polanski's early films.
NK: After our first misfire, this failsafe selection definitely puts things back on track. Any fan of horror or cult cinema as a whole should obviously check out this sweet, stylish anthology. Compared to the classic tryptic formula, five stories feels overly ambitious, but for the most part every story holds its own. Heck, Bob Zemeckis even recycled the killer Santa instalment for the HBO series.
Planet of the Vampires(MGM Home Entertainment, 8.28.2001)
JD: This is my first repeat viewing of the marathon so far. More than my previous viewing of this film, I was really amazed by the oddly stylized costumes and sets this time. In some ways, Planet of the Vampires is not that different from yesterday's It! -- and it went on to influence both Alien and Lifeforce -- but Mario Bava's flamboyant, colourful visual style makes all the difference. An awkwardly eye-popping experience.
NK: Horror-wise, this is minor Bava. The Italian auteur has always been credited for his expressionistic use of color, stylish babes and outlandish set pieces. In that sense, Planet of the Vampires is perhaps his most memorably odd misfire. A few more thrills could've made this one a real doozy, but at least it ends on a high note, with an eerie twist ending and an ominous closing credits score.
Konga(MGM Home Entertainment, 9.11.2007)
JD: Currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, Konga (read the 2005 DiscLand review here) seemed like an obvious crowd pleaser... but it's not. First the good: Konga's transformations -- from chimpanzee to ape to giant, man-killing gorilla -- are appealingly low tech. His unnerving man-in-a-gorilla-suit facial expressions also offer much-needed comic relief and it's always nice to see a "giant" ape wreak havoc on miniature houses. Unfortunately, Konga wreaks far too little havoc. About ninety percent of the movie is Michael Gough (Alfred in the Tim Burton/Joel Schumacher Batman movies; believe it or not, I vaguely remember Tim Burton praising Konga) arguing with his long suffering girlfriend about his sinister science experiments. A movie with a poster this great has no right to be so dull.
NK: For a giant ape movie, Konga is a giant letdown. I mean, why would anyone want to watch a King Kong knock-off set in London that doesn't make the most of those virtues (no trashing of British landmarks, etc.). Instead of a non-stop city rampage, we have to sit through eighty minutes of tedious exposition to finally see Konga throw a couple people around like rag dolls (literally, they are ludicrous, discount store rag dolls that make zero sense in proportion to the space they're in). Like JD mentioned, this film has two things going for it: the fake gorilla's amusingly goofy expressions and those lo-fi water dissolves where Konga morphs from a cute chimpanzee… into a dude in a cheap gorilla costume. Oh yeah, there's also the doctor's mutated plants that resemble large, inflatable alien penises.
The Land That Time Forgot(MGM Home Entertainment, 2.22.2005)
NK: After suffering through more than a few duds, what a pleasure it is to kick-start our third day with such crowd-pleasing schlock. Not a far cry from the classic King Kong formula -- mores than the utter dreck that was Konga -- the story follows a group of warring Brits and Germans who wind up on an island crawling with sea creatures, neanderthals, pterodactyls (on strings) and other adorable-scary dinos. The sub-Harryhausen effects are understandably crude, but that just adds to the charm of this terrific, unintentionally artful, B-movie adventure.
JD: I'm not even sure that artfulness is unintentional. There are countless shots in this film that I marvelled at due to their Malick-esque beauty. Okay, maybe only three or four shots fit that description, but there's an impressive sense of visual invention throughout. This is an extremely well-crafted adventure movie that is jam-packed full of characters, action, creatures and environmental calamities. There are some sequences where five different things are happening simultaneously -- a neanderthal fistfight, a volcano exploding, a dinosaur attack -- and they're all surprisingly well-executed. It takes some time to get going, but the payoff is definitely worth the wait.
Empire of the Ants(MGM Home Entertainment, 2.22.2005)
JD: Judging from its reputation, you'd think Empire of the Ants would be one of the most unwatchable movies of the marathon, but this is actually an incredibly lively, anything goes exercise in giant ant brutality. As in The Land That Time Forgot, an ensemble cast is put through living hell, with three or four life-threatening dilemmas ongoing at any given time. Constantly in motion, these characters stroll through about fifteen different sub-genres and there's never any doubt that a horrible fate awaits them all. Quite possibly the best giant insect movie I've ever seen.
KR: Empire of the Ants might be one of the most complex movies I've seen in a long time. Or at least this week. It covers almost every genre, which is reflected in the sound. Starting off with an homage (rip-off?) to Jaws's throbbing ionic score, then there's the naturalistic screeches of the ants that recalls the horror of The Birds. The movie shifts gears half-way through when they make it to the city and the sound changes tone too, evolving into a classic horror piano rift (seventies and eighties horror fans will recognize this from composer Dana Kaproff's later work in When a Stranger Calls). The ants might be cheeseball, but the soundscape is top notch.
NK: Matinee's "Mant" notwithstanding, it's unanimous (among us contrarians) that this is the reigning champ of mutant ant movies. Every twenty minutes or so, Empire of the Ants manages to re-invent itself: from lurid melodrama and survivalist horror to eco sci-fi and conspiracy thriller. Kudos to the effects team for their brilliantly shitty (in the best sense, honest) use of magnified insects and scrappy rubber puppets to deliver a perfect dose of schlocky shocks. Also, once again we're treated to psychedelic bug POV shots, a la Invasion of the Bee Girls. Score!
Village of the Giants(MGM Home Entertainment, 6.5.2001)
NK: Our first entry that's actually intentionally silly, Village of the Giants is another jumbo-sploitation winner from Bert I. Gordon, a.k.a. the dude who just gave us Empire of the Ants. (His Initials are BIG!) To wit, when a pair of ginormous ducks invade a dance club, nobody seems to mind -- the only thing they acknowledge are the creatures' funky dance moves. The plot involves a potion that causes instantaneous growth to whomever ingests it. Thankfully, a group of delinquents (led by a tour de force Beau Bridges) have some, terrorize the city, dance to the opening song from Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof and eat a lot of chicken. It's basically perfect.
KR: No characters seem to mind when giant ducks invade the dance floor or when Genius (mini Ron Howard!) turns the family dog into Clifford. But none of us watching really mind either. The first part of the movie is delightfully lacking in plot and you can just enjoy the larger-than-life trippy ride. As you would expect when teenagers turn into giants, there are token big boob and penis jokes -- though ingeniously subtle enough to circumvent the Hays Code. It's worth noting that B.I.G. takes the time to not only shrink the sets, but also the non-giants' voices. Attention to detail -- it's what makes this a masterpiece.
JD: By conventional standards, this movie is a bit of a failure: it has no narrative tension whatsoever and, for most of the film's running time, its raison d'etre is a total mystery. And yet this is one of the greatest sixties genre joyrides I've ever experienced. Featuring squeaky clean family hijinks, seemingly drug-induced hippy hysteria, Beach Party-style musical numbers and playful size mutations on par with anything from that popular sci-fi sub-genre. At only 11-years-old, "Ronny" Howard has more wisdom and authority than anyone else onscreen, while giant Beau Bridges consistently impresses with his slowmo acting flourishes (and grunting). An unforgettable and semi-incomprehensible party movie.
Tentacles(MGM Home Entertainment, 2.22.2005)
KR: Tentacles had the chutzpah to go where many before have not: in its opening sequence, a baby gets killed. Complete with tentacle POV shots and intense shot-reverse-shot dialogue, Tentacles seems to be trying for an art house feel in a sci-fi triller world. Sadly, the first half struggles to establish why we should care that random characters keep getting tentacled. The horrific synthesizer soundtrack is more terrifying than any tentacle attack, assaulting your ears at sporadic moments. That being said, there is a wonderful ten-minute sequence half-way through as director Assonitis cross-cuts between a children's sailing race being attacked by "Tentaclus" and a happy group of locales being amused by an Uncle Sam busker. Added bonus: For those who are nautically inclined, there is great boat porn throughout.
JD: At the 41:30 mark in Tentacles, you will experience one of the most rewindable line readings ever spoken in the English and/or Italian language. Seriously, we revisited this moment no fewer than five times. The words "I don't feel like it" will never be the same after you see them delivered by this mondo chubby piece of tentacle bait. It's just one perplexing moment in a film overloaded with perplexing moments. The impressive to embarrassing to head-scratching hilarity ratio is roughly 10/45/45, but there is one bravura, 3-minute shot that drifts into uncharacteristically dreamy territory to genuinely impressive effect (see below). But yeah, this is one deeply confused, schizophrenic movie. Did I mention that John Huston and Shelley Winters both have substantial roles?
NK: The last few films have enjoyed a fair share of misguided artistic indulgence, but Tentacles takes the cake. After surviving forty-five minutes of merciless monotony (having something to with Henry Fonda accidentally mutating an octopus and Bo Hopkins training a posse of killer whales to take them out), the flick takes a radical turn for the weird, plunging into newer, far more incoherent depths. As if the premise isn't outlandish enough, the latter half of the film is rife with experimental montages, ambitious long takes, awkward freeze frames and atonal music cues. To whoever highjacked this film and turned into shitty gold, we salute you.
Attack of the Puppet People(MGM Home Entertainment, 2.20.2001)
NK: Bert I. Gordon (Mr. Big, if you will) returns with another cheesy size-sploitation charmer. The film's fantastic predicament involves a group of people who are shrunk, but if you take into account the fact that everyone and everything around them is significantly larger, Attack of the Puppet People features even more oversized action than his previous contributions to this marathon, Village of the Giants and Empire of the Ants. Made several years before either of those, this is also the least subversive, though it delivers big on crafty props like mini champagne bottles and coffee cans used as bathtubs. There's no actual "attack" to be seen, but this still makes for an oddly amusing afternoon delight.
JD: Everything about this film's title is misleading and/or completely inaccurate. It's actually sort of insensitive to those poor puppet people to imply that they're somehow a threat to anyone. They're just regular people who crossed paths with a mad -- yet very cheerful -- scientist, who shrunk them way down, in order to cope with loneliness issues. Is fighting for your freedom and/or correct proportions really an "attack"? In any case, this is a very laid back, easygoing early effort from B.I.G. that manages to avoid the wooden humorlessness that has plagued so many of the other fifties films in the Midnite Movies series. Gordon is often mocked for his klutzy effects work, but I'll gladly take his high concept visual conceits over the blandly realistic CGI of so many modern blockbusters. B.I.G. is better -- and smaller.
Cry of the Banshee(MGM Home Entertainment, 4.15.2005)
JD: In his followup to The Oblong Box, Gordon Hessler re-teams with Vincent Price for a tale of witchcraft and persecution in Elizabethan England. Infused with the kind of violent religious hysteria that Ken Russell took to outrageous new heights the following year in The Devils, Cry of the Banshee also features an Oliver Reed clone in a key role. Like The Oblong Box, Banshee gets off to a good start with a memorable opening credits sequence -- designed by Terry Gilliam this time, in a style instantly recognizable from his animation work with Monty Python -- but the film's stomach-turning preoccupation with rape and other violent attacks on women/"witches" is a bit hard to take. Far more frank and disturbing than Price's Poe pictures of the sixties.
NK: Made in 1970, Cry of the Banshee signified the end AIP's Poe-daptation heyday. As JD mentioned, this film is brimming with brutal rapes and other nasty violations against women, which certainly brings down the light-hearted fun factor that was commonly associated with the Poe cycle from the previous decade. The film's gritty screenplay leaves little room for camp and, as a result, Vincent Price is given few opportunities to offer amusing line readings. One final gripe with the script: until the film's surprising conclusion, there are very few twists. Still, Hessler provides plenty of stylish direction and a deep sense of atmosphere, by way of crypts, castles, forests and other gothic locales.
Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow(MGM Home Entertainment, 2.22.2005)
JD: At least partly the model for the square (but very entertaining) Beach Party series, Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow is a somewhat disorienting fusion of creaky old school comedy and the more reckless behaviour of the sixties. Historically situated at a strange moment before the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and widespread drug experimentation by teens, this movie makes it clear that those influences -- and other cultural turning points of the sixties -- were vital in shaping a more interesting, unpredictable culture. Like many youth culture movies of this period, Dragstrip reflects the values that parents wanted their kids to embrace. As a result, most of the teenagers in the film are weirdly submissive to their parents -- and think just like them. It's an intriguing time capsule, reflecting both the period it was made in and that period's deluded sense of itself.
NK: It would be unfair to give this vintage slice of American cheese a harsh critique. It's actually pretty astonishing how much the movie manages to cram into its ultra-lean running time. Clocking at just over an hour, it never settles on one coherent plot-line or even genre. A typical drive-in dud about a group of squeaky-clean youths who just want to race cars and dance, the film also incorporates a host of parental fuddy-duddies, twangy rock tunes, haunted house follies and whodunnit hijinx straight out of Scooby Doo. More or less to its benefit, Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow's schizophrenic, lazy narrative often adds to its charm, but the confusion undermines some of the more amusing elements that made AFI's beach films so memorable. Then again, it has probably the most stupid-amazing end credit I've ever seen.
Witchfinder General(MGM Home Entertainment, 9.11.2007)
NK: Our go-to villain Vincent Price returns in one of the most sinister roles he ever embodied, a self-appointed (as in phoney) witchfinder who tortures, kills and robs citizens whom he deems supernatural. What's worse, he convinces women to sleep with him in exchange for their relatives' safety, a promise he never fulfills. If all this sounds incredibly grim, that's because it is. Like Cry of the Banshee, Witchfinder General (read the 2007 DiscLand review here) is bleak and entirely straight-faced, but its dark nature is justified by its complex characters and the ambitious direction by Michael Reeves, who died of a drug overdose soon after this film was completed (morbid coincidence: the late director was originally slated to helm The Oblong Box). Although Reeves' prior films aren't as well-regarded as this gem, it seems likely that he would've made many more harrowing, audacious cult classics.
JD: In a lengthy featurette on this disc, we learn that Reeves was strongly opposed to casting Vincent Price in Witchfinder General and treated him very poorly on set, constantly demanding that he abandon his lazy old habits. As the actor eventually realized, the self doubt this planted was a great thing, helping Price give one of his most restrained and convincing performances. And this isn't the only place where Reeves demonstrated his preternatural confidence and knowhow. At only 24, Reeves showed a knack for expressive, dramatic visuals, easily surpassing the efforts of just about every other AIP horror director. Don't be dissuaded by the generic-looking DVD cover, this is a genuinely terrific film and easily the best of the three Vincent Price films we watched during this marathon. Here's hoping there are more films of this quality awaiting discovery in Midnite Movies Marathon, Vol. 2.