Nature of Shame: Unwatched Blu-ray. David McCallum deserves my time.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade – 1990’s
Ode to The Witch
The Advance Word: Picked up The Haunting of Morella on Blu-ray due to David McCallum. Also, the story was based on the Edgar Allan Poe short story “Morella.”
The value of Jim Wynorski’s The Haunting of Morella — outside David McCallum clearly providing the inspiration for Bill Pullman’s character in Zero Effect — lies in the film’s earnest attempt to emulate the gothic vistas and pacing of the Roger Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations. Sub McCallum in for Vincent Price. Bingo bango.
Morella opens with the execution of woman condemned as a witch (Nicole Eggert). Her husband looks on, at peace with the mob’s decision to burn her at the stake. We’re conditioned as seasoned cinematic viewers of movies featuring these “witch roasts” to side with the ill-fated witch. As the executioner reads from her list of misdeeds however, one can’t help but think that this witchy witch is most surely an unholy abomination and probably deserves what’s coming to her.
Before she dies, Morella promises to return. I believed her, personally. It was something about her screechy tone and/or Nicole Eggert’s acting skills (lack thereof). The rest of the villagers seem skeptical, which confuses me. If you’re going as far as burning her alive, surely you believe she’s got powers to do stuff! Plus, if she doesn’t return this is a five-minute movie, you pitchfork wielding, shortsighted simpletons! Fast forward 17 years and Morella attempts to inhabit the body of her teenage daughter Lenora (also Nicole Eggert!). Morella consumes innocent bystanders and servants in order to regain her mojo.
The Poe short story “Morella” concerns a wife dying in childbirth who swaps her soul for that of the child. I’m simplifying, of course. Even as someone who reads the Poe collected works rather frequently, I had to check back in with “Morella” because it’s just not Grade-A Poe material. Corman adapted “Morella” for one segment of his anthology film Tales of Terror, and to be honest, I don’t remember that segment of Corman’s film either. The Haunting of Morella does an admirable job weaving elements of the Poe story into this material.
About two-thirds of the way through this talky melange of boobs, blood and David McCallum in full Bill Pullman/Zero Effect mode, The Haunting of Morella proves itself handi-capable of adapting Poe. Elements of a good B-movie popped up here and there, but it’s nearly impossible to overcome a full cast of stiffs and underachievers. Poor David McCallum must anchor this film alone despite Nicole Eggert’s best efforts to act herself out of a Target-brand paper bag.
Let’s not kid ourselves. This movie arrives on Blu-ray because of the bounty of boobage. Maybe David McCallum encouraged a few others like me to buy this movie, but I don’t know how many David McCallum fans were knocking on Scorpion’s door begging for The Haunting of Morella in 1080p. With that in mind, The Haunting of Morella is an early 1990’s low budget picture. Wynorski used a variety of soft focus and high contrast cinematography. Whites glow with an intentionally eerie haze and backdrops blend into shades of black. Scratches and scuffs from the print remain. The scratches keep it real. Regarding the audio, at a handful of points during the film I noticed the sound cut out prematurely. The soundtrack left no trace memories.
For Edgar Allan Poe and David McCallum completists. I’m not going to address any Nicole Eggert completists who might be reading this. As someone fascinated by the ways that Edgar Allan Poe has been adapted into cinema, I found academic value in the viewing experience.
Blu-ray Verdict: I can’t imagine revisiting this any time soon unless I decide to update that term paper I wrote in college about the impossibility of adapting Edgar Allan Poe for a visual medium. Sell pile. Sorry David ‘Zero Effect’ McCallum.
Nature of Shame: Unwatched Blu-ray. Long overdue rewatch. Shame prep for A Chinese Ghost Story 2.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade – 1980’s Country of Origin – Hong Kong
The Advance Word: I remember being transfixed by Joey Wong and the amazing zombie-skeleton things in the basement of the haunted temple that clearly came from the same brand of undead as the ones from Army of Darkness, but gooier.
A Chinese Ghost Story remains one of those fine examples of Hong Kong cinema that refuses to be defined by any specific genre. Blending elements of horror, romance, slapstick, musical and wuxia, the film probably has more in common with the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera any specific genre. When you think director Ching Siu-Tung (best known perhaps as John Woo’s action choreographer/stunt director) has crammed everything imaginable into this tale of supernatural romance, his demon warrior played by Wa Mu, drops a rhyme while he trains for his final battle against the Tree Devil.
Beneath the pratfalls and hilariously ineffective gooey, undead basement zombies, lies an earnest supernatural romance. Leslie Cheung’s roving collection agent stumbles across a beautiful woman near an abandoned temple. She’s radiant. Flowing black hair. Sexy little anklet. Unfortunately she’s also quite dead… and a kept spirit who lures libidinous men to their demise. It seems the Tree Devil feeds on their souls. Further bad luck, she’s also been given to another malevolent spirit as his future bride. The deck’s stacked against our bumbling, good-intentioned hero.
The chaotic finale finds Leslie Cheung and Wa Mu battling demons and other various undead creatures to rescue the lovely (but still very dead) girl from her captors. More wuxia, magic, swordfighting and breaches of the ethereal plain in order to make her not quite so dead. Critics might fault A Chinese Ghost Story for working on so many different levels but only excelling at one — when it slows down the pace to explore the romance between Cheung and Wong.
I enjoyed rediscovering the absurdities all over again. Having not seen this film since college, the lingering memories were little more than individual images. When Wu Ma begins his rap, you’re either on board with the whole endeavor or checking out for good. The best comparison I can offer for this film is Army of Darkness with a heaping tablespoon of gooey romance.
Hong Kong cinema has never been known for taking especially good care of its film stock, but the Kam & Ronson Blu-ray looks rather sharp. The film always had a soft feel to it so it’ll likely never look better than this. A good amount of grain remains and there’s some nice contrast where the DVD looked uniformly dull. All of this is relative. If you’re familiar with Hong Kong cinema of the 1980’s you should already have reasonable expectations. The English subtitles are generally intelligible — only a few mental leaps of translation required. This is likely the best this film will ever look or sound.
Ever since I first viewed A Chinese Ghost Story as part of my college class in Hong Kong Cinema, I’ve considered a favorite. It even made an appearance in my Top 100 Films Ranking for a short time. At the time A Chinese Ghost Story blew me away due to the film’s total disregard for genre convention. Was it horror? Melodrama? Comedy? Clearly nobody makes movies like this over here. Now that I’ve taken off my Hong Kong cinema training wheels, I realize this method of genre-bending isn’t as unusual as I first thought. I still revere A Chinese Ghost Story for those moments where Ching Siu-Tung spits on narrative convention for the sake of pure entertainment.
30Hz Rating: Bloody Good
Blu-ray Verdict: I was happy to replace that old DVD and long may A Chinese Ghost Story anchor my shelf of Hong Kong cinema.
Nature of Shame: Blind-bought Blu-ray upon release in 2013. It remained unwatched.
Hoop-tober Challenge Checklist: Decade – 1970’s Country of Origin – Germany
The Advance Word: Jess Franco does Euro-Sleaze Bram Stoker’s Dracula with lesbians, eye-popping color and a sunbleached modern estate. The score is legendary, though I’ve never heard it. Soledad Miranda.
A black background. Two women, barely clothed, embrace. Soledad Miranda as Countess Nadine, circles and manipulates the other as a silent crowd watches, enraptured. The nature of the theatrics is unknown. But we, the viewer, are inserted into the same seats as the gathered masses. The women perform for us, embracing each other and our gaze, but they do not return it. Nadine is outside this moment, she is above it. The women have bared their bodies and by doing so are in complete control of us. We like the audience will bend to the Countess’ will.
So begins Jess Franco’s version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Linda, a patron of this performance, becomes enraptured with Nadine, pursues her. Nadine entertains her advances. The Countess in this scenario is, of course, Dracula. Linda, our Jonathan Harker. Linda visits Nadine’s beachfront estate, a home draped in bold colors — yellows, reds. The two sunbathe nude. Franco’s twisted the Dracula myth — not only do his vampires enjoy the sun and the water, they embrace it. Linda is to become the next servant to Nadine’s power.
The gender reversal of Bram Stoker’s tale offers a significant twist on the genre. Honestly that would have been enough to hold my interest. Vampyros Lesbos offers much more than just a revisionist Dracula. Yes, even more than the inherent value of lesbian vampirism.
The much lauded score does not disappoint. It is disarming. Bright jazzy notes and intermittent discord. Funky until it deconstructs in order punctuate or often contrast the action on screen. Jess Franco composed the film with careful attention to color and striking contrast. Red on white. Red on black. It doesn’t hurt that the camera loves Soldedad Miranda. And Franco allows his camera to linger, allowing us uninterrupted voyeurism. Severin Films’ Blu-ray looks great, though it sometimes seems like elements have come from a lesser source. A solid lossless audio track foregrounds the psychedelic score. Some minor hiss remains, but it’s never distracting.
Certain expectations come with a title like Vampyros Lesbos. The name Jess (or Jesús) Franco likewise comes with some baggage. Franco treats sex and lust like another color on a already vibrant canvas. Vampyros Lesbos grows meditative when Linda and Nadine explore their carnal instincts. As the opening theatrical scene repeats later in the film, overlong, still abstract, the movements incite a kind of trance state. We begin to pick out the smaller details about the nature of want and desire. How sex shifts the power structure between couples, and between a vampire and its prey.
On the other hand maybe it is just one big excuse to have naked women bite each other… and what’s so wrong with that?
30Hz Rating: Bloody Good
Blu-ray Verdict: Easy call here. This stylish vampire tale has earned it’s place on the shelf. I still have to watch the “Bootleg” Spanish version, which comes on a 2nd DVD.
For the past few years, I’ve gathered the fearless masses during these pre-Halloween weeks, encouraging them to indulge in a horror movie shame-a-thon, sponsored by Cinema Shame. The notion was simple. List 31 unseen horror movies you feel obligated to watch and tackle as many as you can during the month of October.
It may seem impossible, but October’s creeping up on us all yet again. I know this, you see, because it’s my birthday tomorrow and my birthday is a harsh reminder. The whole end of summer, end of one more year of existence combo-malaise. Pumpkin picking, hay rides, apple cider, arguing about costumes with small people… and then Halloween.
This year, I’m again following my Cinema Shame method, but adding a new twist. Fellow Pittsburgher @ElCinemonster has been organizing his Hoop-Tober Challenge on Letterboxd.com for three years now. Each year he lays down some challenges to help guide the viewing of his monstrous minions. Anyway, that’s been a smashing success, and I’ve enjoyed watching the event from afar. This year I’ve decided to combine my Cinema Shame Horror Shame-a-thon with @ElCinemonster’s Hoop-Tober Challenge to create the most unwieldy title in the history of movie blogging and watching.
Welcome to the 2016 CinemaShame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile 31 Days of Horror Shame-a-thon
So let’s lay down the laws, shall we?
Pick 31 never-before-seen (or forgotten) horror movies — “horror” is broadly defined as anything containing elements of the horror genre. So, for example, I’ve count the Abbott & Costello monster films in the past because of the classic movie monsters. Watch as many as you can stomach during your “month” of October.
I’m air-quoting “month” because I’m borrowing @ElCinemonster’s notion that we’re busy goddamn people and 31 days is just not a reasonable duration for busy goddamn people to watch 31 horror movies. He’s beginning his “month” on September 16th. I plan to do the same. I hit 31 last year, but I added about four days at the end of October to achieve said moral victory. An extra wrinkle this year is that I’m going to pluck as many movies as possible from my Watch Pile (any film I already own that hasn’t been watched). I’ve been making a more concerted effort to watch more movies than I buy. The worthy remain. The ones I don’t see myself watching again hit Half.com or eBay. I’ll note the outcome of each disc in my blurb.
And speaking of blurbs… after each movie, I’ll toss up a mini-review and a 30Hz rating that will correspond to my review on Letterboxd.com. The review may or may not contain any actual insight. Don’t get greedy. And now for the more specific Hoop-Tober demonic hurdles, courtesy of @ElCinemonster. I’ve adjusted a couple to fit my agenda. I plan to watch at least one movie from every decade from the 1920’s – 2010’s.
7 films from franchises (mix-and-match, or the same) 6 different countries 5 different decades 5 films from before 1970 5 films from the following: Bava, Argento, Lenzi, Fulci, Henenlotter, Romero, Stuart Gordon (mix-and-match, or all one) 3 crazy animal movies 1 silent 1 original film and its remake (Evil Dead, Frankenstein, Halloween, etc…) 1 Classic Universal horror 1 Stephen King adaptation (in tribute to Stranger Things) 1 Film with a witch/witchcraft (in tribute to The Witch. Can’t be The Witch) Aaaaaaaaaaand 1 Tobe Hooper Film (There must ALWAYS be a Hooper film)
***FOR THOSE THAT LIKE TO DO EXTRA WORK: WATCH DEAD & BURIED and THE OLD DARK HOUSE. YOU WILL RECEIVE A SHOUT OUT IN NEXT YEARS HOOP-TOBER. JUST LET ME KNOW WHEN YOUVE FINISHED ALL 33***
I plan to call some audibles when spur-of-the-moment cravings strike, but here’s my blueprint for the 2016 31 Days Of Horror CinemaShame/Hoop-Tober Watch Pile Shame-a-Thon.
*Hoop-Tober bonus points
**Rewatch of a forgotten favorite
Bay of Blood (1971)
A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990)
A Nightmare on Elm Street II (1985)
Bride of Re-Animator (1989)
Day of the Animals (1977)
Dead and Buried* (1981)
Deep Red** (1975)
Dracula’s Daughter (1936)
The Editor (2015)
The Fall of the House of Usher (1928)**
The Fly** (1958)
The Fly (1986)
Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man** (1943)
The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963)
The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)
Messiah of Evil (1974)
The Old Dark House* (1932)
Petey Wheatstraw (1977)
The Return of the Living Dead (1985)
Texas Chainsaw Massacre II (1986)
Vampyros Lesbos (1970)
What’s your list? What’s your plan for horror movie watching this year? If you’re keeping a list or participating in the Hoop-Tober challenge, I’ll link you in the header for my posts. Just leave a note with a link in the comments. Together we shall overcome… or we’ll be the loser pumped off in the first act to establish indomitable menace.
Before he was a recognizable face, Roddy McDowall was a familiar voice. At least in my frame of reference. He gave life to V.I.N.CENT. in The Black Hole, Snowball on Pinky and the Brain, the Breadmaster on The Tick, The Mad Hatter on Batman: The Animated Series. It wasn’t until I first watched The Planet of the Apes (probably when I was about 16 or so) that I finally had a name and a face to go along with his stilted British timbre. One caveat. You likely well know, however, that it wasn’t even Roddy’s face. I just knew Roddy McDowall was the name of some guy in a monkey suit and a latex mask.
I pieced McDowell’s image together from cartoon superhero villains, apes and a toadstool like robot. He was more Dalí abstract than human. Sure, I’d seen Roddy McDowall in other movies, usually smaller roles, and one-off TV spots during the 1980’s and 90’s on shows like Matlock and Quantum Leap, but he was nothing more than a kind of omnipresent familiar. I’d watched Bednobs and Broomsticks at least a dozen times as a kid, but never, not once did I match Mr. Jelk with Cornelius (or even Caesar) with all of the voices or the guest spots. It wasn’t until I first saw Fright Night last year for the first time that I finally found myself making offhand filmographic (…and no, that’s not a word, but I like it anyway…) connections.
Shame On Me
What can I say? The pieces had fallen into place at an alarmingly slow rate. No matter how much we watch and absorb, some actors and certain movies just fall through the cracks… which was precisely the impetus for my Cinema Shame endeavor. I’d grown up with Roddy McDowell all around me. I’m embarrassed that it took me this long to put all the pieces together. The child actor in the 1930’s and 40’s. (He was the kid in How Green Was My Valley!? Lassie Come Home!?) A regular B-movie player for Monogram Pictures. The occasional, offbeat leading man in the 1960’s. Accomplished photographer. The regular on Hollywood Squares. The outspoken proponent of film restoration and preservation. Roddy McDowell left us in 1998 at the age of 70 with a filmography six decades long.
Armed with my recent survey of McDowall’s oeuvre in the wake of my Fright Night “discovery,” it was Lord Love a Duck that finally solidified Roddy McDowell as a favorite Hollywood personality. Lord Love a Duck‘s Alan Musgrave (a kind of teen dream Mephistopheles) represents the most distilled version of Roddy McDowall’s most realized on-screen persona. Snarky. Self-aware. Smarter than you. As these characteristics ebbed and flowed, there was always an undercurrent of pathos laced throughout his best performances, perhaps most vividly expressed while shrouded in oppressive ape fur and latex. He played every genre, but I would not suggest McDowall was chameleonic. His persona had limitations — but when wielded properly, McDowall could command an audience.
Like a Feathered Fowl Upside the Head
That Lord Love a Duck left me a little awestruck shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to those that have seen it. It’s a brash and ballsy slapstick criticism of the sex- and commercial-crazed 1960’s. Breaking taboo left and right and in between, Lord Love a Duck could be seen as the dark counterpoint to the Frankie and Annette Beach Party movies (which were, admittedly an easy target, and already parodying themselves by the time Lord Love a Duck was released in 1966). I’m not even sure how anyone approved such a bizarre and baffling movie for release… but I do thank them for it. It’s almost as if the studio heads didn’t understand the duplicity of the script and just gave the film the go ahead based on prolonged scenes of jiggling, bikini-clad bottoms.
Tuesday Weld plays Barbara Ann, a high school girl of limitless ambition. Alan Mollymauk Musgrave (McDowall) aims to make all of it happen. They sign a devil’s pact in wet cement, and Alan facilitates Barbara Ann’s ascent to becoming a bikini-clad cinema idol. Is Alan a deranged, delusional high school student with an unhealthy obsession with Barbara Ann? Or is he something much more subversive… nefarious even? The methods Alan uses to promote Barbara Ann through the ranks include but are not limited to sexual manipulation, premeditated murder, and hypnotism… all set to a bouncy, flouncy pop tune that could have appeared as an interlude in any of the Beach Party films. If it all weren’t so much goddamn fun, you might notice how untoward Lord Love a Duck really is.
Ogling, But With a Purpose
Director George Axelrod was best known for the notches on his screenwriting belt, having provided the blueprints for classic films such as The Manchurian Candidate, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Seven-Year Itch. Lord Love a Duck, his directorial debut, and one of only two films Axelrod would direct, feels like the product of a disillusioned Hollywood insider set to undermine the institution. For much of the film Axelrod deftly straddles the line between obscenity and innocence. Many contemporary critics considered him an old Hollywood creep merely ogling teenage girls. Clearly, they just didn’t get the joke. He runs roughshod over popular culture, his targets plentiful and his attacks often unfocused. As a result, Duck‘s construction begins to feel slapdash (hamfisted?) during the second half of the film, overburdened by the volume of Axelrod’s satirical efforts.
This amateurish construction embellishes the chaos unfolding on screen. It’s clearly the film’s satirical successes and narrative miscues that have endeared it to cult movie fans for decades. Lord Love a Duck becomes far more interesting as a result of its faults. Much of the credit must go to the impressive cast — Tuesday Weld and Roddy McDowall, of course, but also Ruth Gordon, Harvey Korman and the deft Lola Albright who plays Barbara’s mother, a perpetually drunk, cat-tailed cocktail waitress. The actors commit to Axelrod’s script even as it pulls apart at the seams.
Then Lord Love a Duck Breaks You
In many ways, Lord Love a Duck defies description. The phrase is battered about endlessly, but it is truly one of those films that must be seen to be believed. If I were to highlight a specific scene, it would be the “sweater scene,” one of the most disturbing, bizarre, and hypersexualized scenes of the entire 1960’s. And if you’re a fan of 60’s cinema, you recognize the inherent boldness of that statement. One of Barbara Ann’s first realized desires is to join the Cashmere Sweater Club at school. To justify induction, she must first own 12 legitimate cashmere sweaters. She only has one Japanese imitation cashmere sweater. McDowall’s Alan Mollymauk convinces Barbara Ann to lay down some guilt on her largely absentee father (Max Showalter) in order to open his coffers to purchase the requisite number of sweaters.
The scene begins with Barbara and her father gleefully devouring hot dogs in his car. With every bite the pair grows closer to orgasmic ecstasy. Paging Dr. Freud. But wait! There’s more! A quick cut places them in the clothing store where Barbara Ann models a series of form-fitting cashmere sweaters. Weld preens and models like a sex kitten. With each new sweater she calls out the color (“Grape Yum Yum!”) amid orgasmic exclamations of “Yes! Yes! Oh god! Yes!” Her father reacts with wide eyes and turgid anticipation that segues into grunts and moans. The camera cuts quickly between sharp-angle close ups of their facial contortions until both collapse, exhausted, covered by a pile of cashmere. It’s even more uncomfortable than you can imagine.
In case you don’t quite believe me, here’s “The Sweater Scene” in it’s entirety:
About Non-Sequitorial Ducks and Roddy McDowall
Axelrod’s nonsense title of Lord Love a Duck suggests he anticipated a certain brand of audience response. A little bit of research finds that the term is a rather polite 19th-century British exclamation of surprise. Examples of the phrase’s usage appears in James Joyce’s Ulysses and pops up frequently in P.G. Wodehouse.
‘Well, Lord love a duck!’ replied the butler, who in his moments of relaxation was addicted to homely expletives of the lower London type.
-P.G. Wodehouse, The Coming of Bill
The more I thought about how this title reflects audience response to Lord Love a Duck, the more I began to equate the polite, antiquated exclamation with Roddy McDowall himself. In Duck, McDowall is both innocent and devil. He drives a slick T-Bird and derives his name “Mollymauk” from a genus of elegant Albatrosses. He is at once a relic — a 36 year old actor playing a high school teenager — but also representation of hip 1960’s modernity. The child actor who bowed out of the spotlight during his awkward teenage years in order to reinvent himself as a leading man. McDowall’s line delivery in many of his films drips of subtext. His haughty English accent undermined by the understanding that this acting gig is nothing but a frivolous lark anyway. Proper, but always a little bit naughty, a little bit rebellious.
At an early point in the film, McDowall’s character Alan is being given an Rorschach test by a psychologist. He keeps describing the inkblots with the most tedious, placid analogies. The psychologist drops the cards, seething with frustration and says, “Alan, don’t you realize that these things are supposed to be dirty?” Clearly, Alan does recognize the point of the cards and their suggestive nature, but he’s dancing around the obvious to have a bit of fun. That’s how I view much of Roddy McDowall’s acting career, dancing around the expected, the normal, in order to enjoy the moment. It wasn’t what he was saying that was most telling, but rather the deviancy he resisted.
I may have been late to the Roddy McDowall appreciation party, but I’m rapidly atoning for my Cinema Sins and revisiting old favorites to enjoy McDowall all over again for the first time.