Tag Archives: Doctor K’s Cult Classics

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Zardoz

Zardoz Poster

The main thing you need to know about John Boorman’s 1974 sci-fi classic, Zardoz, is that, for most of the movie, Sean Connery wears this costume:

Fetching!

I’m glad not only that I live in a world in which Zardoz exists, but also that I live in the world in which the circumstances that allow Zardoz’s existence could happen. That is, the window for Zardoz’s possible existence is only that period in 1974 when it was released: two years after director John Boorman made Deliverance and three years before Star Wars changed science fiction, as well as the entire filmmaking landscape, to this day. Add to this also three years after Sean Connery had left the James Bond franchise for a second time, and he was hungry enough to take on this film (though Boorman’s original choice, Burt Reynolds, had to bow out of the film due to illness, and I wouldn’t mind living in the parallel universe that got to have Zardoz starring Burt Reynolds).

The very existence of Zardoz stems largely from the success of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972). As often happens with such success, Hollywood studios give the directors of such successful films carte blanche to make their next film, which often means the director tries to make a dream project. This can sometimes result in a creative and commercial success (Inception), a creative success but commercial failure (William Friedkin’s Sorcerer, an incredible, intense remake of The Wages of Fear that Friedkin got to make after The Exorcist, but which failed for a wide variety of reasons and damaged the director’s career), or both a creative and commercial failure (Martin Scorcese’s New York, New York). It can also result in incredibly personal projects that have no real reason for existing otherwise, have almost no commercial appeal, and defy evaluation. This is where Zardoz comes in.

Like our best dreams, Zardoz also defies summarization, as any attempt to impose narrative order on the film ultimately results in leaving out something crucial. At its most basic, Zardoz is about the conflict between two classes in the postapocalyptic world of 2293: the Brutals and the Eternals. Among the Brutals are the Exterminators, a group of men who worship a giant floating head named Zardoz who vomits up weapons, tells them how bad penises are, and commands them to kill the other Brutals:

“The gun is good. The penis is evil. The penis shoots seeds and makes new life to poison the earth with a plague of men, as once it was. But the gun shoots death and purifies the earth of the filth of Brutals. Go forth and kill!”

Interestingly, Zardoz sounds a lot like my mom.

One of the Exterminators, Zed (Sean Connery), stows away aboard the giant floating head and shoots the man who controls it: Arthur Frayn.

The giant floating head makes its way back to the Vortex, home of the Eternals. This is a scientifically advanced collective that had conquered death and developed special mental powers. Because they cannot die, they’ve also done away with reproduction and sexual desire as well. Peace is maintained among the Eternals by controlling negative thoughts: such thoughts are punished by aging the Eternal a certain number of years. If one is aged too much, then he or she becomes a permanently senile member of the Renegades. The Apathetics make up another group of Eternals; they have some mental disorder that causes them to stand around with glazed looks and occasionally bump into each other.

The movie takes a while to set up the rules of this future society, and much of it doesn’t make sense, which is just fine in the context of this film. At some point, one just has to go with it and accept what happens without question. The Eternals have lived for hundreds of years in their idyllic communities, with no contact with the Brutals other than the excursions for resources that Arthur Frayn made with the giant floating head. Zed’s presence among the Eternals throws their ordered existence into chaos, with some wanting to kill him outright, while others want to examine him. After a vote, which involves some random hand-gestures that make no sense, these logic-dominated humans decide that he requires further study, especially since he is so physically and mentally different from them. For one, he still needs sleep, while they do not. Two, he can get an erection. In one of the movie’s great scenes, the Eternals, led by Consuella (Charlotte Rampling), try to study Zed’s erection. They show him various pornographic films–one of a woman bathing, the other of naked mud wrestling–but they have no effect. However, looking at Consuella gets him to pitch a tent, and everyone is impressed.

Zed’s sexual power becomes a big issue for the Eternals. At one point, a group of female Eternals offer a trade: “We will touch-teach you, and you will give us your seed.” In other words, they will give him the sum total of all human knowledge, and in exchange, he gets to screw them. That may be the definition of “win-win.” Later, an Apathetic licks Zed, which leads them to snap out of their catatonic states and have an orgy. This is exactly what I imagine happens whenever anyone licks Sean Connery.

Zed also manages to seduce Consuella, who leads the faction that wants to kill the outsider. His presence among the Eternals turns out to be no accident: back in the Outlands, Zed found a library, learned to read, and discovered by reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that his god is a sham. So, he seeks revenge on Zardoz for the manipulation of his people.

As the movie moves toward its conclusion, a lot of random shit happens. The film features a pretty basic dichotomy of logic vs. emotion, or reason vs. instinct, with a cautionary tale about a society that leaves emotion behind in favor of scientific achievement and longevity which I guess is a warning we need. It may also be saying something about the fictionality of religion. However, there is also another metafictional level functioning in this movie. The film opens with the floating head of Arthur Frayn explaining that he is the creator of the story we are about to see (this scene must have been even crazier on the big screen). Later, when Frayn is resurrected, he explains to Zed that he has manipulated events to put Zed in this position to destroy the Eternals: he selected Zed’s parents for optimum genetic characteristics, and later led him to the library and encouraged him to read. But Zed never really confronts the fated nature of his position–it just becomes another thing that this movie throws at us.

Zardoz is the apotheosis of a period when sci-fi movies like this, Silent Running, Soylent Green, The Planet of the Apes movie, Logan’s Run, A Clockwork Orange and others tried to be about something important. Zardoz tries a little too hard at that, but that’s part of its charm. It’s a crazy ride that has no reason for existing, but I’m glad it does.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: House of Bamboo

House of Bamboo

In Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report, Tom Cruise’s character goes to a shady, back alley doctor (Peter Stormare) to get his eyeballs replaced. While Cruise recovers, a wall-sized television projects an image or Robert Ryan shooting a man in a Japanese-style hot tub.

That short, violent, beautifully shot scene comes from Samuel Fuller’s brutal 1955 noir classic House of Bamboo, and it seems an odd reference for Spielberg to make. While Spielberg is a technically brilliant director on many levels, he lacks the sensibility to make a movie that is as bleak and morally challenging as Fuller’s. In fact, Minority Report is a good case in point: for most of its running time, the film presents a world that is completely dominated and controlled by an elaborate surveillance system that the hero cannot escape, until the very end, when we find out that there is a space free of surveillance where humans can live, happily ever after. It’s as if Spielberg got within inches of making a profound statement about surveillance and control but blinked at the last minute and went for the safe ending.

House of Bamboo has little to do with surveillance, though an underground network of criminal informants does factor in to the film. Instead, where it–and most other Fuller movies, for that matter–contrasts with Spielberg films is that Fuller doesn’t give his characters an easy out from the cruel and violent world in which they are immersed.

Fuller’s film takes place in post-war Japan, and it’s filmed in color and Cinemascope, making it a bit of an oddity for the classic film noir cycle of the ’40s and ’50s. An American hood named Eddie Spanier (Robert Stack) comes to Japan at the invitation of an old Army buddy, who has promised Spanier a gig with the local mob. Spanier’s buddy, however, is killed, gunned down by his own men during a botched robbery. Eddie then decides to get revenge with the help of his buddy’s secret Japanese bride, Mariko (Shirley Yamaguchi).

Eddie’s method for gathering information is brilliant: he goes to various Tokyo pachinko parlors and shakes down the managers for protection money. He first enters the parlor and asks an employee for the manager. When the employee doesn’t understand English, Eddie continues, “You know, the boss!” That gets him nowhere, so he then tries “Number One Boy.” “Ah, ichiban!” the employee responds and directs him to the back of the parlor. Then, he shakes down the ichiban for $25, with a promise to return every week.

After two tries, this gets the attention of the local mob, run by Sandy Dawson (Robert Ryan). Dawson’s mob consists of former U.S. soldiers expatriated to Japan, and they seem to run all the illegal rackets in Tokyo, with the pachinko parlors as a legit front. Though Dawson at first punishes Spanier for muscling in on his racket, the boss quickly sees that the thug could be of use, especially since the gang is one guy short.

Dawson runs a tight operation. In addition to the regular illegal businesses, he also plans regular heists. With each heist, the gang operates on one simple rule: if any man gets injured, he should be shot dead so that he can’t turn informant to the authorities. This had been the plan with Eddie’s buddy, but he didn’t quite die right away, and the police got some important information about Dawson’s operation out of him.

Spanier works his way up in the gang, eventually becoming second man, much to the chagrin of the previous second man, Griff (Cameron Mitchell). Eddie also works his way in with Mariko, who is willing to sacrifice her reputation in order to find her husband’s killer.

When the cops get tipped to the next heist, Dawson gets suspicious that he has a mole in the group, and he mistakenly targets Griff, who has been acting hinky since Eddie got his promotion. Dawson doesn’t mess around, and he plugs Griff in the famous hot tub scene. Turns out, though, that Dawson was wrong about the snitch: it’s Eddie, who is really a U.S. military investigator sent to infiltrate the gang.

Though Eddie turns out to be an ostensible good guy in the end, he’s still a rough and violent man. It’s fun to see Robert Stack play such a complex role–he’s a far cry from Eliot Ness here. Like Ness, he doesn’t mess around, but he’s also willing to go to extreme lengths to keep his cover. And Robert Ryan plays Dawson with a sense of stoic calm that makes him a formidable and intimidating villain. Eddie and Sandy are not that far apart in the way that they approach their jobs, and it’s easy to see how they connect so quickly when Eddie enters the organization. Both have also sacrificed their personal lives–and, in Dawson’s case, connection to his home country–for the jobs they do, and those jobs happen to be pretty brutal.

The film is also beautifully shot. Fuller uses the entirety of the wide-screen Cinemascope frame while also keeping the film’s noir sensibilities–which normally lend themselves to tighter, more intimate shots–intact. The final shootout serves as an excellent example. Fuller shoots this from far away, giving the scene an impersonal feel as two violent men do their violent jobs.

The movie often gets a bad rap for the cold and impersonal way it depicts violence, yet that seems to be the entire point that the movie is making. The men in this film are almost all U.S. soldiers who stayed behind in Japan after World War II because they simply couldn’t leave that world behind, and they found a new way to keep fighting under the same leader. Like many of the best violent movies–and many of Fuller’s best movies–it serves as a commentary on and indictment of violence, which makes its cold, distant conclusion all the more unsettling.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Riders to the Stars

Riders to the Stars

“Riders to the stars, that is what we are, every time we kiss in the night”: so begins the theme song to the 1954 sci-fi film, Riders to the Stars. I get the distinct feeling that the writers of this song weren’t given a lot of direction regarding the movie’s plot.

After the opening titles and theme song, a voice-over narrator explains that humans have conquered every challenge except one: space. Yeah, it sure was nice to have every conceivable human problem licked by 1954…

Riders to the Stars tries to imagine what the near-future of space travel will be like, as the USA rushes to get a manned rocket into space before the Soviets. After a test rocket drops some kind of box out of the sky that causes scientists to go apeshit, the United States government initiates a program to recruit astronauts for the space program. Computers the size of my house are used to pick 12 men out of all Americans based on specific qualifications: past accomplishments, intelligence, and an unencumbered personal life. These men would then go through some rigorous training and testing to determine which of them would finally qualify as astronauts.

In this sense, Riders to the Stars is a sort of precursor to The Right Stuff, the movie that makes me proud to be a white man. However, the qualifications and training for astronauts as imagined in 1954 are a bit different than those that would be used in the Mercury program. For one, as far as I can tell, no one has to give a sperm sample in Riders to the Stars. Also, the recruits in the earlier film tend to be scientists with a military background instead of pilots.

Much of the movie’s running time is taken up with the testing and training, and all but four wash out by the end of the centrifuge test. Meanwhile, we’ve also gotten a peek into the private lives of two candidates. Jerry Lockwood (Richard Carlson, who is also credited as director) is a pipe-smoking mathematician who looks a lot like Phil Hartman and dates a model. His desire to marry his model-girlfriend provides the movie with some dramatic tension. Dr. Richard Stanton (William Lundigan) gets a slightly more interesting story. His father directs the space program, which makes me think the computer selection process was kind of bullshit, and he starts a budding romance with the lone female scientist in the program: Dr. Jane Flynn (Martha Hyer).

Once the four finalists are selected, they are apprised of their mission: they must go into space and retrieve some meteors that can be used to create rockets that will survive the rigors of space. As the elder Dr. Stanton explains, any metal that they’ve tried shooting into space has been molecularly altered by cosmic radiation to become extremely brittle. Since meteors survive the bombardment of cosmic rays, it stands to reason that they are made out of some kind of metal that could make spaceships survive. Curiously, none of the astronauts ask about what their ships might be made of, though one of them does wisely chicken out when he hears of the mission. Also, no one points out that this science is bullshit.

The mission, along with the real action of the film, only takes place in the final 20 minutes or so. Each of the three astronauts gets his own rocket and heads out to intercept the meteor shower. One tries to take in a meteor that’s too big, causing his ship to explode and his spacesuit, containing only his skeleton for some reason, floats off into space. Seeing the skeleton, another astronaut freaks the hell out, screws the pooch, and heads for the stars. But, luckily for the USA and the space program, the third makes it back with a meteor, and the scientists go off to spin how a 67% mortality rate constitutes a successful program.

Riders to the Stars is more interesting as a historical artifact of retrofuturism than it is as an entertaining sci-fi film, much like the kind of comics stories pal Dave Lartigue writes about in his regular “This Used to be the Future” feature at his Dave Ex Machina blog. This is particularly disappointing considering the fact that the movie’s poster advertises “space vikings of the future,” which should be the greatest movie ever made. However, the movie suggests the entertaining possibility of a Mad Men-style series featuring a bunch of chain-smoking, hard-liquor-drinking, fedora-wearing, sexual-harrassing scientists trying to start the space program in the 1950s. I’d watch the hell out of that.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Nightmare Alley

Movies in the film noir genre are known for having a bleak view of human nature, but few are as overwhelmingly bleak as Edmund Goulding’s 1947 adaptation of William Lindsay Gresham’s classic noir novel Nightmare Alley. The movie traces the rise and fall of con man Stanton Carlisle (Tyrone Power) as he goes from side show barker to nightclub mentalist to spiritual advisor for Chicago’s wealthiest citizens, all the while using and leaving behind the people that aid his success. Instead of a conventional morality that divides humans into good and evil, the film’s morality divides the world into grifters and marks (though neither group is mutually exclusive), and success only comes to those with the best cons.

Gresham’s novel opens with a fascinating explanation of how a traveling carnival manages to hire a geek, a performer who bites the heads off of live chickens. The explanation involves finding a man at his lowest point–alcoholic and broke–and exploiting him to the point where he will do anything for his bottle a day. The movie has a similar scene at the beginning without explaining most of the grisly details of the geek’s job. Though we only see the geek at a distance in the movie, screaming as the d.t.’s take over, he remains an important figure throughout, and this question about the nadir of human existence hangs over the rest of the movie, even as Stan makes his meteoric rise as a mentalist and spiritual leader.

Late in the movie, Stan’s wife and partner in his mentalist act, Molly (Coleen Gray), warns Stan that he’s gone too far by promising to resurrect the dead love of a wealthy older man. She warns specifically against the blasphemy that such a con entails: God will punish him for this sin. This is the one sign of conservative, conventional morality sneaking into the movie, and while it does seem to determine Stan’s fate as his life starts to fall apart, it’s not unproblematic. God, in Molly’s estimation, is not the ultimate force for good in the universe, but is, instead, the ultimate grifter who has a lock on the life and death game that Stan is trying to play. Stan would have been fine scamming rich people at the night club with his mentalist schtick. In fact, he would have also been fine with his next con, using a corrupt psychologist (Helen Walker) to gain access to the secrets of Chicago’s wealthy. These crimes would have gone unpunished, as we see from Walker’s ultimate success. It is only by stepping into God’s game that Stan reaches too far.

This is a level of nihilism reminiscent of Sartre or Camus. In that, the movie is surprisingly faithful to the mood of the novel, even if it doesn’t get into all the gruesome details of life in a carnival side show. In fact, one has to wonder how this movie got made at all in the Hollywood system. Sure, 1947 is the height of the postwar film noir cycle, but I can think of few movies that are this nihilistic. Detour comes to mind, but that was made outside of the system on a shoestring budget. Sweet Smell of Success is the movie that I thought of most often, though Burt Lancaster independently financed that film through his own production company. Both movies create a world that has little space for goodness, and where the quest for power and success leads characters to give up their humanity easily. (I could throw Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole in here, as well.)

With Sweet Smell of Success, there is also a relevant comparison between the performances of Tony Curtis and Tyrone Power. Both give performances that were the high points of their respective careers, and both roles capitalize on the dark side of their matinee-idol good looks. Power often regretted the light adventure roles that required little of him other than looking good on screen, and he was ready to hang up his screen acting career when Billy Wilder offered him the lead in Witness for the Prosecution. Tragically, Power died of a heart attack on the set of his next film, and he never got the chance to have a shot at another role that would allow him to show the depth he could achieve. But he’s perfect in Nightmare Alley, and he uses his charm and good looks to keep the audience engaged with a character who is completely unredemptive. It’s a delicate balancing act that few actors could pull off.

Nightmare Alley ends with a somewhat upbeat note, but, like the film’s nod to conventional morality, it falls apart once one considers what it means in the context of the movie. The film cycles back to the beginning in a sense, and we know Stan’s ultimate fate because we saw how that particular story worked out earlier. I love that this movie stays so uncompromising in its bleakness, and that it takes a Hollywood star and challenges everything that gave him that status.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg

The Umbrellas

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) is on my short list of all-time favorite movies, where it stands out as odd against Planet of the Apes, Fargo, Blade Runner, Sunset Boulevard, Apocalypse Now, Taxi Driver, The Bridge on the River Kwai, A Fistful of Dollars, Patton, Lawrence of Arabia, and the other denizens of the always-changing list. And while I have been known to squirt a few when Peter O’Toole emerges from the desert, or when Alec Guinness destroys the bridge, or when General Patton acknowledges the magnificent bastardry of Rommel, or when Taylor realizes he’s on Earth, but none of that turns me into Sylvia Plath on pepper spray (to borrow Dennis Miller’s best line from his short tenure on Monday Night Football) like Jacques Demy’s 1964 musical does.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg may also stand out as odd for this column, as it doesn’t fit with other movies I’ve covered, and some may even debate its status as a cult movie. However, I would argue that one definition of a cult movie is any film that inspires a passionate following among its viewers. For example, Danny Peary included The Wizard of Oz and Casablanca in his cult movie books, and neither of these would seem to fit the conventional mold. And since I will fucking shank anyone who criticizes The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, I think that qualifies as a passionate following.

Okay, “fucking shank” may be a little strong. “Be sadly, sadly disappointed” is more accurate. After all–and I apologize for getting a little personal here–my wife hates this movie.

If you’ve never seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, it’s important to note that the film was, in 1964, a unique experiment in film history: all the dialogue is sung to Michel Legrand’s score. Whenever I hear the tune of “I Will Wait for You,” tears start to flow in a kind of Pavlovian response to the music; when my wife hears it, she sarcastically begins to sing, “When will this crap be over?”

But the film is a risky experiment on the part of Demy and Legrand, and its extraordinarily sentimental plot pushes that risk even further. In late 1957, Genevieve (the stunningly beautiful Catherine Deneuve in her debut role) is a sixteen-year-old girl who works in her mother’s umbrella shop and loves Guy (Nino Castelnuovo), a twenty-year-old mechanic. The young couple shares their modest dreams: Genevieve wants a daughter named Francoise, and Guy hopes to own his own gas station. These plans are interrupted when the real world interferes: Genevieve’s mother has received an 80,000 franc tax bill and may lose the shop, while Guy receives his draft notice to fight in the Algerian war. On the eve of Guy’s deployment, the couple spend one last night together in the flat that Guy shares with his sickly aunt.

As Guy prepares to go, Genevieve vows to wait for him, as the song goes, but this promise proves difficult to keep. Two months later, she discovers that she is pregnant, and meanwhile she is also being courted by a kind jewel dealer, Roland Cassard (Marc Michel, reprising a role he played in Demy’s first film, Lola), who buys some jewelry from Genevieve’s mother to help with her financial difficulties. Genevieve has to make a tough choice, as Guy begins to fade from her memory and her circumstances become more pressing.

The wall-to-wall singing combine with a brightly colored set design to create an extraordinary sense of artifice that cannot exist outside of film. Demy also calls attention to this artifice early in the film: when Guy tells his fellow mechanics that he’s taking his girlfriend on a date to see the opera Carmen, the others make meta-commentary on their preferences for movies over opera. However, this positon is also challenged later when Genevieve’s depression spurs her mother to say that “People only die of love in movies.” That rejection of sentiment threatens to undermine a film that at the same time seems to be embracing sentiment at every other turn.

With the singing, the colors, and the meta-commentary, it’s as if Demy wants us to be aware that this film is both artificial and highly fragile. Some critics argue that the film’s off-screen treatment of the Algerian war is dismissive of the reality of that war, but I would argue that it only highlights the fragility of the film’s artifice. The real world is always threatening to break through the film, and much of its power comes from its ability to maintain itself in the face of that pressure. Guy returns home after two years in the war both physically and emotionally damaged, and that damage is only intensified when he finds out about the choice Genevieve had to make while he was gone. However much he longs for the fulfillment of the promise made years earlier, the war has made that fulfillment both impossible and ultimately undesirable.

In the end, Genevieve marries Roland, and Guy ends up with Madeleine, his aunt’s caretaker who has long but silently pined for Guy. Despite the movie’s extensive artifice, it takes an honest approach to love: Genevieve must realize that her promise to Guy was untenable, and Roland offers a mature, happy, but less passionate alternative. For Guy, Madeleine is loyal and devoted, and together they are able to achieve his dream of owning a gas station. Though each settles for their second choices, these are actually better choices, and both manage to fulfill the dreams they had at the beginning of the film.

The film concludes with a scene that is about as perfect an ending as any movie ever had. I don’t want to say much more about it than that. It proves that “sentimentality” is only a perjorative if the work doesn’t earn its emotional responses honestly, as this movie does. Though other filmmakers have tried similar experiments with music (Demy even tried it again, a few years later, with The Young Girls of Rochefort), The Umbrellas of Cherbourg remains a unique, deeply moving experience.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: They Came From Beyond Space

Right off the bat, I want to point out that They Came from Beyond Space has a misleading title. The film’s alien race (the “They” of the title) actually come from the moon, which is definitely not “Beyond Space.” And if you want to get technical about it, before they arrived on the moon, they were on their home planet, which is also actually within space. I say this not to be pedantic, but as a warning in case the title got you all excited because it might explain what lies beyond space. It doesn’t.

Also, the movie is not nearly as sexy as the poster.

But that doesn’t otherwise detract from this fun but light, 1967 sci-fi flick, directed by Freddie Francis and released by Amicus Productions. They Came from Beyond Space fits a type of British sci-fi movie that I love, where science–and scientists–are made to look cool, as seen especially in the Quatermass films. In fact, this could have easily been Amicus’s answer to Quatermass, as rival studio Hammer had put out the best film of that series–Five Million Years to Earth–in the same year.

In these films, the scientists are the heroes, but they’re not the Denise Richards or Tara Reid type of scientist, or even the Peter Graves type, but frumpy, middle-aged, pipe-smoking scientists with suede patches on their sportcoats. And in They Came from Beyond Space, the main scientist, Dr. Temple (Robert Hutton), even scores with all the hot chicks. Go Science!

The movie opens in rural Cornwall, where some farmers notice some strange objects falling from the sky in a V-pattern. Quickly, the government calls in all of its scientific experts on the subject of astronomy and extra-terrestrial life to investigate. One specialist, Dr. Temple, is prevented from going by his doctor, who won’t permit the scientist to travel because of a recent car accident that resulted in Temple getting a silver plate implanted in his skull. This will be important later.

Though Temple feels left out, he turns out to be lucky, as the strange meteors emit light and sound that take over the other scientists’ bodies, including Lee Mason (Jennifer Jayne), Temple’s research partner and lover. Soon, the possessed scientists spread their influence to take over the nearby town, and they begin to fence off the farm for some mysterious project. Temple decides to investigate, and his alien-possessed colleagues become confused when they can’t take him over (hint: it’s because of the silver plate in his skull). Temple soon discovers that the aliens are spreading a mysterious disease through the local human population, one which causes victims to develop red spots and die instantly. The press labels the disease “The Crimson Plague,” which is not to be confused with the terrible but thankfully unfinished George Perez comic series of the same name.

AWESOME GOGGLESThe action scientist manages to infiltrate the alien farm, where he finds a rocket ship that makes quick trips to and from the moon, as well as an awesome underground lair. Temple is captured but quickly escapes, but before he goes, he smacks Miss Mason around and kidnaps her. He then takes the possessed Miss Mason to his science buddy and Jimmy Fallon lookalike, Farge. The two scientists work on developing some awesome silver helmets that look a lot like colandars, along with some sci-fi goggles for detecting the alien-possessed humans. The helmet/goggles ensemble is particularly sweet.

With their new equipment, they first free Miss Mason from alien control, and then the science trio return to the farm to defeat the alien menace. This doesn’t quite work out as they planned, and they end up on a rocket to the moon. Once on the lunar surface, they get to meet with the alien leader, known as The Master of the Moon (Batman‘s Michael Gough), who is kicking it in a bright, technicolor robe. As the Master explains, the aliens do not actually have physical bodies: they are bodiless intelligences at the highest state of evolution. However, as balls of pure mental energy, they can’t fuck, so the race is soon going to die out. But they need Dr. Temple’s smarts in order to return to their home planet, so they are going to have to operate on him to remove the silver plate in his head.

After a successful rescue effort from Farge, Dr. Temple explains to the Master that he didn’t need to go to all this trouble to conquer Earth in order to return home. If he just asked nicely, Earth would help him out. Temple agrees to let bygones be bygones, and the film ends with a handshake agreement between him and the Master.

Director Freddie Francis had one of the more interesting careers in film. He won Oscars as a cinematographer for Sons and Lovers and Glory, but he also directed some great genre films for both Hammer and Amicus. His style isn’t quite as refined here as it is on later films, like Dracula Has Risen from the Grave and Tales from the Crypt, but the film still has a nice look, especially in the trippy montage sequence where Temple and Farge test out their new equipment.

The set designs for the underground lair and the moon base are also pretty cool, with a ’60s Dr. Who feel about them. But the best part of this movie is action scientist Dr. Curtis Temple. He frequently kicks ass, and has some mad sharpshooting skills, but he also knows how the break out the science when he needs to, outsmarting aliens who are made out of PURE INTELLIGENCE. And in the end, he totally works shit out with the aliens so that they get to return home, and the humans get a superfast rocket and a moon base. This is a pretty good deal.

By the way, They Came from Beyond Space is available to watch for free from Hulu.com.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Twister’s Revenge

One can learn several important things from crap-auteur Bill “Monster-a-Go-Go” Rebane’s 1987 film Twister’s Revenge! First, no matter how awesome one might think it is, taking the concept of Knight Rider and applying it to a monster truck is absolutely not awesome. Second, there is a good reason why some of the world’s greatest detectives–Jim Rockford, Starsky and Hutch, Hardcastle and McCormick, Tenspeed and Brownshoe, the Scooby Doo Gang–were not known for conducting their investigations with a monster truck. And third, monster truck action does not translate well to film.

Twister’s Revenge! also has a misleading title. It is not, as one might imagine, a SyFy Channel original sequel to 1996′s disaster classic, Twister. It is, in fact, not a sequel at all. Instead, it is the story of a young man named Dave (Dean West) teaming up with his artificially intelligent enhanced monster truck, “Mister Twister,” to rescue Dave’s wife and Twister’s creator, Sherry (Meredith Orr), from the clutches of some incredibly inept kidnappers.

To Rebane and his screenwriters’ credit, this movie jumps right into the plot: on the way to the local rural Wisconsin fair, Dave stops by a junkyard and explains to the owner that he has several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of equipment invested in his monster truck, and three locals overhear. The three–Kelly, Dutch, and Bear–then hatch a plot to steal this valuable equipment and somehow make money off of it.

However, they didn’t count on the fact that the truck in question has been enhanced by Dave’s fiance, Sherry, so that it is independently intelligent, with its own personality. Sherry is a wealthy computer genius, and it makes total sense that the cutting edge of artificial intelligence technology would be integrated with a monster truck. Dave shows off Mr. Twister’s special skills by driving over cars at the local fair–something that all the other, apparently non-intelligent, monster trucks do on their own. Dave even brags about the great stunt that Twister just did, but unless we’re missing a scene, nothing that we see makes Twister appear to be any more special than any other monster truck.

Following the local fair, Dave and Sherry get married, and they drive off from the church in their awesome honeymoon van. Little do they know that the three idiots are on their trail (sort of). The honeymoon actually consists of parking the van in the beautiful Wisconsin countryside, followed by some sex in the back (was the Dells completely booked up?). Before the marriage can be consumated, however, the bad guys manage somehow to kidnap Sherry and hold her for ransom.

Dave decides to take revenge, and as he prepares to find his new bride, he also discovers that Twister has developed his own personality. Twister would like to participate in the investigation as well, using his combination of heightened computer intelligence and monster truck skills to rescue his creator.

Twister’s contributions to the investigation consist almost entirely of driving over cars or through buildings. This movie presents, through Twister, an interesting existential conundrum: can a monster truck, no matter how intelligent, ever transcend its monster-truckness? The answer, according to this film, is “no,” and therein lies the tragedy. This remains the case even when some dramatic tension arises later in the film, as Twister professes his love for Sherry and creates a bizarre love triangle between man, woman, and monster truck. Twister is always destined to be alone.

The genius (if such a word can be used here) of Rebane’s film is that the plot is merely an apparatus upon which the director can hang various scenes of the monster truck in action. However, aside from wrecking cars and buildings, a monster truck just isn’t all that useful in an investigation of this sort. Dave can’t really use it to tail his suspects, nor is it an effective method of intimidation. The bad guys pretty easily run away from it, or just duck under its giant chassis.

Even the climactic battle, in which the bad guys suddenly have their own tank equipped with artillery shells, should be awesome, but it isn’t. The sort-of chase that happens between the two vehicles wrecks a lot of Gleason, Wisconsin–the town in which the movie was made–yet the police never get involved. Perhaps the town just needed to get rid of a bunch of old buildings and cars. In the end, that may be the entire purpose of the movie: a kind of radical effort at civic improvement, with the movie itself only being a secondary benefit.

I can imagine few things that would look more awesome on paper than a movie about a super-intelligent monster truck. In fact, if you told me that the movie ended with a face-off between said monster truck and a tank, I would be completely ready to lay down my hard-earned cash to see such an extravaganza. However, not only does Twister’s Revenge! fail to live up to that potential, it also proves that such potential is illusory. One really can’t blame director Rebane for allowing his reach to exceed his grasp here.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: The Professionals

Richard Brooks’s 1966 Western The Professionals does not have the same level of notoriety as a revisionist Western that the works of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah have, but it deserves an important place in the history of the genre nonetheless.

In particular, it sets the stage for the two great revisionist westerns that were to come a few years later: Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. For the former, The Professionals introduced Claudia Cardinale to American audiences and gave Woody Strode his first great role, post-John Ford. With the latter movie, the relationship is much more complex. Both take place around the same time and place: revolution-era Mexico in the early part of the 20th century when new technology was quickly bringing an end to the era romanticized in traditional Westerns. Both follow a group of aging, amoral mercenaries. And both movies show what an awesome weapon of destruction the machine gun was. Like both movies, it’s a violent, often cynical film that challenges the conventional morality of the genre. However, it gets overshadowed by the later films because it lacks their unique style and extreme violence, but it still shows that the leap from, say, the John Ford Westerns of the late ’50s/early ’60s to the revisionist Westerns of the late 60s is not as great as one might imagine.

While Leone’s and Peckinpah’s films are undeniable classics, The Professionals has the advantage of being a much tighter and leaner film. Within just the opening credit sequence, we get pretty much everything we need to know about the four main characters: Rico Fardan (Lee Marvin) makes his living demoing machine guns for the U.S. Military, Jake (Woody Strode) is a badass bounty hunter, Ehrengard (Robert Ryan) is a cattle hand who punches out a dude for punching a horse, and Dolworth (Burt Lancaster) has to hustle out of a lady’s bedroom window in his union suit when her husband comes home early.

The four characters are brought together by Joe Grant (Ralph Bellamy), a rich cattle baron who wants the men to rescue his wife, Maria (Cardinale) from the clutches of her ruthless Mexican kidnapper Jesus Raza (Jack Palance). It turns out Rico and Dolworth both have a history with Raza: the two Americans served as mercenaries in Raza’s gang, serving on the side of Pancho Villa. Grant claims that Raza is demanding $100,000 ransom for the bride, and the cattle baron offers the four men $10,000 each for her save retrieval.

Marvin and Lancaster make for an interesting combination of leads. Rico is an honorable soldier and leader of the group who follows a strict moral code; Dolworth is a corruptible, selfish rogue in it for the money. Both actors were on distinctly different career trajectories when they made this movie. Marvin was approaching his career apex, just coming off of his Oscar-winning role in Cat Ballou and coming up on The Dirty Dozen and Point Blank. Lancaster was just past his peak as a leading man but still exhibiting the charm and physical presence that he was known for. But there is a big difference between this Burt Lancaster and the one that worked with director Brooks just five years earlier in Elmer Gantry. He’s restrained, almost as if he’s letting Lee Marvin’s more subdued acting style run the show. I like to think that Lee Marvin exerted some kind of gravitational force that pulled other actors toward his style.

Rico and his men pursue Raza into Mexico, and on the way, they have some violent run-ins with Raza’s men. They also decide to booby trap a narrow mountain pass with dynamite in order to assist later in their escape. They eventually catch up to Raza as the banditos raid a Mexican Army train. Raza personally executes all of the soldiers. Rico and Dolworth, who have experience with both the revolutionaries and the Mexican Army, don’t condemn these actions. We see here, then, how this film undermines the conventional morality of the genre: we have been considering Raza’s gang “the bad guys,” but we find out that there are degrees of evil, and the Army is guilty of atrocities much greater than anything Raza has conceived.

Once they find Raza’s hacienda, Rico formulates a plan to rescue Maria: Rico and Dolworth will infiltrate the building, and Jake will fire dynamite-laden arrows to create the illusion of a military attack. However, when they sneak into Maria’s room, Rico and Dolworth discover that the situation is more complex than they originally thought: Maria is Raza’s willing companion and lover. But, since they were hired to do a job, Rico coldcocks Raza and Dolworth flings Maria over his shoulder as mass chaos erupts outside the hacienda.

At this point, the film takes yet another morally complicated turn. Rico and his men realize that they are not the rescuers–they are the kidnappers, and Maria wants nothing to do with Grant. Still, Rico decides to continue with the job because his strict moral code dictates that he cannot go back on his word to Grant that he would complete the job.

Raza persistently follows Rico’s men, even when he’s slowed down by the booby-trapped pass. As a last resort, and a shot at redemption, Dolworth agrees to stay behind and ambush Raza while the other three make their way to the rendezvous with Grant. The climactic shootout between Raza’s gang and Dolworth is amazing, though it lacks the spectacle of the hacienda raid. Dolworth chips away at Raza’s men, and at Raza himself, but the two former allies also express a mutual respect and even liking for each other. Both injured, the two chat back and forth about the good old days in La Revoluciòn. Yet another revisionary theme emerges here: revolutions are fought by adventurous men for the love of adventure, which is completely separate from any political component the revolution might have. Therefore, men like Raza can continue the fight long after its loss is inevitable, and men like Dolworth can switch allegiances at their convenience.

Though the movie contains a lot of revisionist elements that would later be exploited during the height of the New Hollywood era in the late ’60s and early ’70s, it’s still in many ways a Hollywood production. For example, Lancaster’s shot at redemption at the end is fairly predictable for his type of rogue. Also, the film has a beautiful, sharp visual style, which is the work of the great cinematographer Conrad Hall. But in every other way, this is a film that should be talked about in the same breath as the works of Leone and Peckinpah. Perhaps it’s because director Richard Brooks did not specialize in this genre the way that Leone and Peckinpah did that this movie doesn’t get the props it deserves. Also, Brooks would go on to make his masterpiece–In Cold Blood–the following year, which would immediately become a landmark of the New Hollywood. That, too, may have overshadowed this great film.

On a side note, there’s a story about the making of this movie that I just love. Much of the film was shot in the desert outside Las Vegas, so the cast and crew stayed in Vegas hotels during shooting. One night, Lee Marvin and Woody Strode wrecked the famous smiling cowboy lighted sign by firing arrows into it from their hotel window. Now, there are several historical events I wish I was present for. This one ranks somewhere below Bob Dylan’s electric debut at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival but a few notches above the Nativity.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Hercules, Samson, & Ulysses

When I first heard of the 1963 film Hercules, Samson, & Ulysses, I had hoped it would be about the classical Greek hero teaming up with the Old Testament strongman to tackle James Joyce’s dense modernist novel, but that turns out not to be the case. Instead, it’s one of the last films in the Italian sword-and-sandal epic cycle, which began with Pietro Francisci’s 1958 Hercules film starring Steve Reeves.

If this story had existed in the classical world, it would have been the equivalent of the Superman and Spider-Man team-ups that DC and Marvel did back in the ’70s, but instead of major comics publishers, you have major religions. And like those comics stories, this film takes pains to make such a team-up plausible in the established continuities of each of the three heroes. Hercules is hanging out in Ithaca with King Laertes some time after the Argonauts adventure, and young Ulysses is looking for some heroic training from the big man. Later, the two heroes, along with some Greek sailors, get stranded in Judea, where they ultimately team up with Samson to fight the Philistines. Now, I’m no expert on Greek or Judeo-Christian mythology, but that seems to be some airtight continuity right there.

The movie opens with Laertes holding court over a goat dispute when the king is distracted by some strange noises outside. He looks out the window to see Hercules (Kirk Morris) tossing a discus, while Ulysses (Enzo Cerusico) tries to shoot it with an arrow. All of this is being done to impress the young Penelope, who, as we all know, will later become a fan of Ulysses’s archery skills.

To the audience’s disappointment, we never get a resolution to the goat issue, as a group of Greek fishermen enter Laertes’ hall with a desperate plea: a sea monster is killing local fishermen, and they need Hercules to help defeat it. Hercules is, of course, up for the task, though his family isn’t really happy with the decision, as they know the adventure will take longer than the one day he promises.  Ulysses decides to go along as well, and he promises to wed Penelope upon his return.

Out at sea, Hercules and his men soon confront the sea monster, which looks like a giant seal. Actually, it just looks like a regular seal, as we don’t get any shots with either Hercules or the ship in the same shot as the seal to get a sense of proportion. This could just be a really mean but normally-sized seal that likes killing fishermen.

While Hercules tries to harpoon the seal, a storm breaks out, and the combination of wind, rain, and angry seal causes the ship to wreck. Hercules, Ulysses, and a few surviving men are left floating on a piece of wreckage until they finally come across land. The men are soon attacked by some kind of bull or water buffalo or something, and Hercules beats the shit out of it and prepares a meal. Much of this movie, in fact, involves Hercules beating the shit out of various animals.

After the meal, Hercules and his men set off to figure out where they are, and they come across a village. Hercules deduces that they are in Judea, with their strange religion and customs. The village leaders explain that they are the Danites, and that if Hercules wants to return to Greece, he must travel to Gaza and catch a ship back home.

Of course, the fact that, you know, the SON OF ZEUS shows up in a Jewish village and does not totally throw the culture’s belief system out of wack creates a verisimilitude problem from which this movie never really recovers.

Coincidentally, Samson (Richard Lloyd, whose real name is Ilooshe Khoshabe) is hiding out in the Danite village, on the run from the Philistines. He suspects that Hercules and his men are not Greeks as they claim, but really Philistine spies sent to draw Samson out. This suspicion leads to lots of mistaken identities, from which hilarity, and some murder, ensues.

Because, as Samson thinks Hercules is a Philistine, everyone else thinks Hercules is Samson, especially after the Greek hero kills a lion with his bare hands. The strangled lion leads the Philistine army to raid the Danite village looking for the Jewish strongman. When the Danites clam up, the Philistines go to town, spearing, stabbing, burning, and crucifying the villagers they don’t otherwise enslave. The costume designers for this movie used repurposed Nazi helmets for the Philistine headgear, which has to qualify as some unintentional irony here. Although Samson does not arrive in time to save the villagers, he does manage to free the slaves by throwing a shit-ton of spears at the Philistine soldiers.

Meanwhile, in Gaza, the Philistine king is enjoying a sexy dance performance from Delilah (Liana Orfei), who is accompanied by a dude with a whip who whips off her clothes. We quickly discover, however, that it is the Philistine king who is whipped, as Delilah challenges him to capture Samson.  The king accidentally captures Hercules and his men, who are still just looking for a way home. Herc keeps denying that he’s Samson, so the king offers him a chance to prove himself: if he isn’t Samson, he can go get the real Samson in order to prove his identity and free his captured men.

Delilah decides to go with Herc on this journey because she has heard about his reputation from some gossipy Greek ladies who have made their way to Gaza. While she is totally hot for him, he is just not that into her, but he does use her as bait to draw out Samson. Samson takes the bait, and a shirtless wrestling match ensues between the two heroes that is not at all homoerotic.

While fighting, Hercules explains is situation, and the two decide to join forces before they do too much damage. After a series of double-crosses from Delilah and the Philistine king, Herc and Samson are surrounded by the king’s soldiers. In a move that can only be described as awesome, the two heroes lift an entire temple and drop it on the soldiers. Then, Laertes shows up in the Argos, Herc throws a spear through the Philistine king, and everything seems to work out just fine. Samson returns to help his people, and Herc offers a warning about Delilah, but, obviously, Samson doesn’t bother to heed it.

Ulysses gets the short end of the stick in this film–as a titular character, he doesn’t get much to do, and he spends most of the action scenes as a prisoner along with the other Greek sailors. Kirk Morris, who played the Greek hero and his son in a bunch of movies at the time, makes for a charismatic Hercules, especially when he’s rebuffing Delilah’s advances. Though this movie has all the problems of other sword and sandal epics from this period–terrible special effects, obvious dubbing, etc.–it’s still a blast, with a fairly clever plot and a scene where a couple of heroes drop an entire temple on some bad guys.

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Five Graves to Cairo

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: Five Graves to Cairo

The word “atrocity” often gets bandied about fairly liberally to describe crimes that don’t quite rise to that level of seriousness. However, it is perfectly apt to use the term in relation to the fact that the 1943 film Five Graves to Cairo, Billy Wilder’s second film as a director, is not available on DVD. Ever since its release, Five Graves to Cairo has lived in the shadow of another, similar film from the previous year–Casablanca. That film, however, does not feature the great Erich von Stroheim as Field Marshall Erwin Rommel. Taking that fact into consideration, Casablanca looks like a piece of shit.

Five Graves to Cairo
opens with an amazing shot: a tank rolls through the desert with a dead British soldier hanging off the turret. Inside the tank, we see more dead soldiers. Shell casings litter the floor, and smoke fills the cabin.

One man, however, is alive: Cpl. John Bramble (Franchot Tone), who, in a weakened state, falls out of the tank, which continues on without him. Bramble crawls through the desert and makes his way to a small oasis town. He walks up to an inn–The Empress of Britain–but hallucinates that it is divisional headquarters and gives his report to thin air.

The innkeeper, Farid (Akim Tamiroff), tries to get the addled and exhausted soldier to come to his senses, but Bramble passes out, and Farid, along with the French maid, Mouche (Anne Baxter), get him out of the way just in time as the Nazi infantry arrives.

The Nazis prepare the inn for the arrival of Rommel and his men. They also steal all the soap from the inn, but Nazis can be assholes in that way, so what are you going to do?

Bramble manages to evade discovery and decides to disguise himself as Paul Davos, a Morrocan waiter who was killed in a recent air raid. As Davos, Bramble can spy on the Nazis and learn something about Rommel’s plan, as the German tank commander is handily defeating the German infantry in northern Africa. However, in an interesting twist, Bramble soon finds out that Davos was already working for the Nazis, spying on British officers who came to the inn. This puts him in an invaluable position with direct access to Rommel and the other Axis officers at the inn.

Von Stroheim shows up twenty-five minutes into the movie, and we first see him delivering a message to Berlin in German. Then, he gives the message in English so that the Allies don’t have to waste time translating the intercepted message. The great director’s performance as Rommel is amazing, as one would expect from his more well-known collaboration with Wilder, Sunset Boulevard. Von Stroheim designed his own costume and make-up for the role–Rommel has a a kind of sunburn ring around his forehead because Von Stroheim imagined that Rommel was never out in the sun without his cap. During an odd meeting with British officers, Rommel is such a cocky, magnificent bastard that he gives his enemies twenty questions to guess his strategy in North Africa. He reveals that he plans to defeat the Allies by spreading them out too far away from their supply lines. When asked why he doesn’t have the same supply problems, Rommel reveals that he has been preparing for this battle since 1937, carefully and secretly planting fuel, water, and other supplies in hidden locations: the “five graves to Cairo” of the movie’s title.

Later in the movie, Wilder uses real combat footage from the British victory at El Alamein, which occurred toward the end of 1942, around the time that the film was made.

Despite the film’s limited sets (almost the entire film takes place in the inn) and occasional staginess, Five Graves to Cairo is a highly effective spy thriller, and one can see the seeds of other adventure thrillers in this film. Franchot Tone (whose name I can never pronounce) does an admirable job in a role that is a bit out of his depth–Wilder had originally wanted Cary Grant for the part, in which case we would probably be talking about this movie in the same breath as Casablanca. Anne Baxter, as the French maid who appeals to Rommel for the release of her captured brother, doesn’t quite have the accent down in a role intended for Ingrid Bergman (again with the Casablanca).

But early in his directorial career (Wilder was already well-established as a writer before he directed his first film, The Major and the Minor), Wilder shows considerable visual skill. In addition to the bravura opening scene, Wilder also shoots an effective nighttime fight scene using only source lighting as Bramble tries to protect his identity from Lt. Schwegler (Peter van Eyck). And, like most of Wilder’s movies, there is considerable humor despite the serious subject matter. Much of the humor comes through von Stroheim’s amazing performance as Rommel, which by itself is reason enough for this movie to be on DVD. It also occasionally shows up on Turner Classic Movies–as it did a couple of weeks ago–and it’s a great, early masterpiece by a director who would go on to have quite a few masterpieces under his belt by the end of his career.