Saturday, May 31, 2008

We Interrupt Our Programming Schedule

My DVD player seems to be rejecting the abysmal movies from this collection. It's just not playing the discs at all. Plus I'm going out of town for a little bit. So I won't be updating the PD Project for a little bit. I'll be back with the rest of the series on June 11th. Until then, Rubber Ducky.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

PD Project Horror Part 6

Halfway home. Ladies and gentlemen, the comic book film event of the summer: Italian Spiderman

Disc 6

The Brain that Wouldn't Die

A surgeon who's been working on reanimating dead flesh nearly kills his fiancee in a car accident, salvaging only her head. He starts looking for a woman to kill whose body he can give to his fiancee while his finacee's head rests in a pan, begging for death.

There's quite a lot wonderfully wrong with this picture and I can't, in good conscience, recommend watching it without the MST3K commentary. It's the first episode with Mike on the SOL and it's high-quality even if the movie's not.

This was featured as episode 0513 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and can be purchased on its own. Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Brain That Wouldn't Die.

The Killer Shrews

A group of genetically-engineered giant shrews escape their cage and start menacing people stranded on a deserted island.

Here's a drinking game to suggest to people you want to see die of alcohol poisoning--drink whenever someone on screen drinks. You can even have them pick just one character, they'll still drink themselves to death. You'd think I'm unnecessarily focusing on the alcohol consumption in this movie, but there's really nothing else going on. They drink, get "menaced" by the killer shrews (really dogs with shag carpet draped across their back--clearly friendly dogs at that), drink, talk endlessly about the plot, drink, fall into a cliched and half-hearted love triangle and, oh, what else was there? Oh yeah, drink. Hilariously bad.

This was featured as episode 0407 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and can be purchased as part of The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Vol. 7.

King of the Zombies

A plane crashes on an isolated Caribbean island leaving the pilot, an American special agent and his valet at the mercy of a strange German doctor.

If you hop over to the Archive.org page for this movie you'll see a summary of the film in thumbnails and you'll have a pretty good idea of the character of the piece. When I first watched the movie I thought it was the most racist thing I'd ever seen. Then I saw Michael Bay's Transformers. It's not that the film's particularly hateful, it's just the revelatory nature of all these pictures. They all express the latent cultural concepts without thinking about them. What's shocking is the utter disdain that greets Mantan Moreland's character throughout the film.

There are a lot of issues at play. He's playing a stereotypical role, but it's also the role Shaggy and Scooby play in Scooby-Doo. It's the nature of the comic relief in a horor-comedy like this. Things get more complicated in the fact that Moreland's clearly the star. This is an old black and white b-horror and has, of course, a useless white guy as the hero. Moreland has the most compelling scenes. He's funny. I'd go so far as to say it's a good flick--both for his performance and as a window into the culture. Just be ready to shout, "You Nazi bastard!" a lot. It makes things easier.

Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde

The silent picture starring John Barrymore based on the horror classic by Robert Louis Stevenson.

S'alright. It's very good actually. Barrymore's great, the story's great, the production's great, lots of funny moments (many lines unintentionally homoerotic), I just don't really like silent pictures. I'm impressed by them but I also like dialog. On the other hand, I have realized that I can put the DVD player on fast-forward and still get the same movie experience.

Next up, Disc 7 with something! And something else! As well as some third thing! Beware!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

PD Project Horror Part 5

Before we begin, one note of apology. Last week I said this disc had two silent films. I was wrong, there's just one.

Now, awfulness!

Disc 5

Maniac

A failed actor, after killing the mad scientist he works for, decides to take over the scientist's life and continue his work.

An exploitation film that's supposed to portray various mental derangements. Now I'm a fan of mental derangement, indeed, it's the only thing that explains most political decisions. The film's logic takes some odd turns, largely making the turns it does to place women in peril. Silly overall and pretty forgettable. Metropolis

Fritz Lang's classic film about a population reduced to the roles of cogs in a machine that serves the whims of the rich.

You know, I was a film major and I never say this movie. It's a long picture and pretty neat. Nice images. My print had a crappy score that didn't sync with the film at all. Remember how people tried syncing Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz? It was like that except instead of syncing up, it was more like someone left an NPR classical station on in the other room.

This film's apparently still under copyright due to some odd legal wrangling but it's that same wrangling that's created sundry versions. I dug through my video tapes and found a copy of Metropolis with a running time 15 minutes longer than the version on this DVD. Wikipedia says the original version of the film ran 210 minutes. My copy is 119. To call the ending abrupt is to make it seem far more languid and relaxed than it actually is.

The Ape

Boris Karloff plays a mad scientist who uses the spinal fluid from victims of ape attacks to develop a polio cure.

Man in a monkey suit
Rah! Rah! Rah!
Man in a monkey suit
Sis! Boom! Bah!
Man in a monkey suit
Man in a monkey suit
Man in a monkey suit
Yay!

Monster Maker

A mad scientist infects a concert pianist with acromegaly in hopes of convincing the daughter to marry him in exchange for the cure.

The movie's just over an hour and takes thirty minutes to complete the set-up. Two things recommend the film. One is that there are long stretches of silence where you can insert your own jokes. The other is there's a man in a monkey suit--a man in a monkey suit who kills! Almost. Okay, not really. But everything's better with monkeys on it. Except the new Indiana Jones.

One weird twist, it's a woman who proves to be the hero. Not much is said about it though. Where other films would have accolades or congratulations showered upon the hero, nothing of the sort is given the woman here even though she's the one who ultimately saves the day. And for those who are curious, yes, there is a white guy who doesn't do anything. It's a Sam Neufield staple.

The Vampire Bat

A small town is plagued by a series of murders that resemble vampire attacks.

I'm watching this on The It's Alive Show right now which makes me wish I hadn't watched it just a little while ago. Oh man does this movie bite. It features, as its hero, an investigator who initially dismisses claims of vampires only to completely accept the concept for pretty much no reason at all. The only up points are the wha-a-a-acky small-town Germans, the film's goofy logic and the hypochondriac aunt. I think the movie ends with a diarrhea joke, but I can't be sure. Do Epsom salts give you the trots?

Next time, Disc 6 featuring two MSTie classics, one silent classic and a Mantan Moreland flick.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

PD Project Horror Part 4

Before we begin, here's that pizza you ordered:

Disc 4

The Fatal Hour

Boris Karloff plays the Chinese detective Mr. Wong as he tries to solve the murder of an undercover cop who was infiltrating a smuggling ring.

Karloff=horror, even when he doesn't. I'm expecting to see a period piece starring an extra from Creature From the Black Lagoon pop up soon. It's the same logic isn't it? As for the film itself, a slightly-convoluted mystery. There's a series of murders and it's not clear until the end who did it an how. It's not bad. And even though Karloff is playing a "Chinese detective," he doesn't play the role as a cringe-inducing stereotype.

The Giant Gila Monster

A giant gila monster terrorizes a small town.

Giant radioactive monsters and incompetent rear-projection for the win!

This was featured as episode 0402 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and can be purchased as part of The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Vol. 10.

Dead Men Walk

A man returns from the dead to wreak vengeance upon his twin, the man who condemned him.

A short, simple and relatively okay vampire-type picture. George Zucco plays both brothers so there's some fun with split-screen filming that generally works out okay.

The Mad Monster

A scientist, driven mad by his expulsion from the scientific community, develops a serum to turn his assistant into a murderous beast.

This is trying to be a werewolf story, but it can't get past its own incompetence. If you ever need an example of so-bad-it's-good, reach for this film. The mad scientist goes after each of his adversaries who all invite him into their homes and agree to do favors for him even after he berates them and calls them fools. One even comes around to the scientist's side, apologizes and promises to speak on his behalf before their colleagues, and then the scientist kills him anyway. And that doesn't even begin to talk about the brain-dead assistant who keeps getting turned into the monster without his knowledge. It's hilarious.

This was featured as episode 0103 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and can be downloaded via the Digital Archive Project or watched on YouTube (in 9 parts).

Saturday, Disc 5: 5 films, 2 silent, one with the least investigative investigators in film history and a man in a monkey suit! Yes!

Sunday, May 18, 2008

PD Project Horror Part 3

Sorry about the late update. I got distracted by Son of Rambow (which is pretty good) and then the It's Alive Show featuring First Spaceship on Venus (which isn't). First Spaceship on Venus came up before in PD Project Sci-Fi Part 8. It doesn't improve with repeat viewings.

Onward to further misery!

Disc 3

Attack of the Giant Leeches

People start disappearing after a local drunk shoots a monster in a swamp.

There actually isn't a snarky description of this film that can top what it's really about. Drunks, yahoos and losers from a backwoods nowhere that, oddly enough has its own wildlife marshal, get seized and eaten by giant leeches. Yes, the monsters look like Glad bags come to life, yes, there's a dry, charmless white guy who doesn't do anything and yet is still the "hero," and yes, there is a point where the "hero" tells them not to destroy the monsters because it'll damage the local ecosystem. In short, this is a Roger Corman film through and through. Woo-hoo!

This was featured as episode 0406 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and can be purchased as part of The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Vol. 6.

Beast of Yucca Flats

Tor Johnson is a Russian scientist defecting to the United States only to be attacked by KGB agents the moment his plane lands. He escapes them only to wander onto a nuclear test site where the radiation from a bomb turns him into "The Beast," a rampaging monster that kills indiscriminately.

Yikes. It has been years since I've seen this but just a peek at its Wiki page is enough to remind me not to return to it. Tor Johnson, were you ever in anything good?

This was featured as episode 0912 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and can be downloaded via the Digital Archive Project or watched on YouTube (in 10 parts).

This is supposedly PD, but I found records at copyright.gov saying it's still under copyright--Registration Number/Date: PA0000385906 / 1988-10-11

The Screaming Skull

A newlywed couple moves into the husband's home where his new wife starts being haunted by his previous wife.

Another Gaslight-type film done a little better than Nightmare Castle even though it doesn't have Barbara Steele. Ultimately kind of weird and boring, it's most notable for the promise of the trailer: if you die while watching the film, the producers will pay for your funeral. If I get cancer, this film's going on a loop just to spite those bastards!

This was featured as episode 0621 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 and can be downloaded via the Digital Archive Project or watched on YouTube (in 12 parts).

Revolt of the Zombies

An ancient Cambodian method of hypnotism, a man stymied in both love and career, an army of zombies bent to the whim of a mind gone mad with jealousy and betrayal.

The movie is about a man abusing zombie powder for his own ends (as though you'd use it for anything else. "It's a floor wax!" "It's a dessert topping!"), but it takes forever to get there. The first half of the movie is spent establishing the man's devolution from a moral man to a madman intent on power. In other words, filler. The ending is an absolute cop-out, even after being foreshadowed. The movie enters so-bad-its-good territory with the rear-projection journey downriver though. That's worth the price of admission alone.

But I love the unintended messages of these films. Actual quotes: "It may mean the destruction of the white race!" "When dealing with these Orientals, you deal with fatalists. Death to them is a transition to a better life." There's this constant repetition within colonial narratives of "the end of civilization!" "the very survival of our race!" "a threat to our very way of life!" The unimaginable threat of "the other"--always cast as an utterly alien other--such that the use of machines of war and atrocities against them is justified. It must be, because otherwise the invaders, us, are patently bullies, monsters and fiends.

Fun with remixing: the ghostly eyes that appear throughout the film when the zombie power is being utilized are Bela Lugosi's from the film White Zombie, mentioned earlier.

The Terror

An officer from the French Army gets lost and follows a girl to a strange castle where he finds himself in the middle of a revenge plot from beyond the grave.

Boris Karloff and Jack Nicholson in a Roger Corman film with additional direction by Francis Ford Coppola. S'alright I guess. It's a neat enough story with a twist I didn't expect, but man is it plodding.

Next time, Disc 4: 2 more Misties, 2 George Zucco films (one with 2 George Zuccos) and Boris Karloff. It... kills four or so hours.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

PD Project Horror Part 2

Disc 2

Four movies, each one starring Bela Lugosi because Bela Lugosi equals horror, even when it doesn't.

Black Dragons

On the eve of war, major American industrialists are being murdered one by one. What's their connection to this mysterious stranger who's arrived in town and why is a Japanese dagger left with each body?

More of a revenge/mystery story than a horror movie, Bela of course plays the visiting stranger. The film has an odd logic that spills over into the pacing and the logic of the film. The conclusion arrives almost in spite of itself.

The Invisible Ghost

Bela Lugosi plays a man driven mad by the death of his wife, only she's not dead and there are strange murders occurring in his house.

It's clear, early on, that Bela's the killer. What makes the movie interesting is an innocent man gets the blame, and the chair, for it. Kind of a weird piece.

One Body Too Many

An insurance salesman is hired to guard the body of a man so his potential heirs don't try to bury it and invalidate the man's will.

This isn't horror and Bela isn't even the star of this one. He plays the butler (a funny, seemingly murderous butler, but still, just a butler). The star is actually Jack Haley (the Tin Man) who plays a bumbling insurance agent. It's a simple enough murder/comedy without much mystery. The villain just steps out from the shadows at the end and announces their guilt while trying to kill one more person. But Haley, Bela and the rest are entertaining enough. It's a fun little flick, just absurd to include it in a "horror" box set.

White Zombie

Bela Lugosi plays the evil Murder Legendre, a witch doctor who uses zombie slaves to run his sugar plantation. He's asked by a fellow islander to turn a woman into a zombie so she can be stolen away from her fiancé, only the deal has a higher cost than he could have imagined.

The first zombie movie (no kidding) and kind of neat. The film indicates Lugosi commanding the zombies by doing a close-up of just his eyes, a bit of film that was then re-used in another Halperin picture, Revolt of the Zombies (which is featured on the next disc). There's a priest in this movie who sort of appears out of nowhere. It's a little strange. In fact, there's a lot strange to this film. Lugosi took the role after doing Dracula and turning down, I think, Frankenstein. He was hoping Murder would become another staple character so he could play him in sequel after sequel. Things didn't work out that way.

Saturday, Disc 3 featuring Tor Johnson, 3 movies that were on MST3K and Roger Corman directing Jack Nicholson!

Chris Hedges's I Don't Believe In Atheists

In his new book I Don't Believe In Atheists, Chris Hedges attacks the ideology of the so-called “new atheists,” saying of Sam Harris's book The End of Faith that “His facile attack on a form of religious belief we all hate, his childish simplicity and ignorance of world affairs, as well as his demonization of Muslims, made the book tedious, at its best, and often idiotic and racist.” There's a lot of this deconstruction of the, ultimately, imperialistic and fundamentalist undertones to currently ascendant pop atheism throughout the book and it's a welcome analysis.

The problem with the book is that Hedges doesn't stick to just deconstructing the imperialist poses and intolerance of the “new atheists.” He tries to make the case for religion and in that he largely fails. It doesn't help that he makes his own facile arguments—blaming the Enlightenment for slavery and the Holocaust for example. There's also his tendency to go off on, granted, very interesting tangents, but ones that tie neither to condemnation of Utopian ideology nor his defense of a nebulous “religion” that he never really defines. For example:

“Our return to an image-based culture means the destruction of the abstract thought made possible by a literate, print-based society. Image-based societies do not grasp or cope with ambiguity, nuance, doubt and the many layers of irrational motives and urges, some of them frightening, that make human actions complex and finally unfathomable. They eschew self-criticism for amusement. They build fantastic non-reality-based belief systems that cater to human desires and illusions rather than human reality.”

Then the next paragraph:

“Believers in the Bible, as well as the Koran, were asked to embrace a hidden deity.[...] To worship God without physical representations of God made it appear as if believers were worshiping nothing. It was to give up security. It was to believe in a God that could not be seen or controlled. It was to live with paradox, uncertainty and doubt. It was to accept anxiety. To believe in this deity required abstract thinking. It made possible the moral life.”

Those are interesting points—the image-based society and the idea of God initially as an abstract—but how do they actually relate? In fact, how do they not contradict each other? Hedges criticizes “image-based societies” embracing “non-reality-based belief systems” and then, in the next paragraph, praises the Abrahamic faiths for embracing an unknown and unknowable God before they were a print-based society. How is the embracing of a “hidden deity” not exactly what he's criticizing? And while the very brief analysis of how an invisible God depended upon abstract thought, how does that make the moral life possible?

In the preface to the book he defines “spirituality” as the spiritual courage to stand up to adversity and injustice. What he calls “spirituality,” though, I call “morality,” and maybe that's what he means by making the moral life possible. He argues throughout the book in favor of empathy and empathy requires abstract thought. However that doesn't lead back to religion and certainly doesn't lead back to God. In fact the logic runs the other way—abstract thought is a prerequisite for both morality and God, but one does not require the other.

And that's the problem with his arguments for religion and thus his arguments for God in the book, they don't actually work. Hedges says, “Because there is no clear, objective definition of God, the new atheists must choose what God it is they attack. Is it the God of the mystics, the followers of the Social Gospel, the eighteenth-century deists, the Quakers, the liberation theologians, or the stern God of the patriarchs?” A fair question, but I'd say they attack the same God Hedges seems to. He repeats, constantly, that we're in a morally neutral universe, that there is no heaven or hell and we only have other people to look to for help. He denies the God of First Cause, an interventionist God and a supernaturalistic God, and pretty much any definition of God at all. So what religion, and what God, is he defending?

He's trying to defend religion as culture, history and idea. He argues that there's human wisdom in these stories and they help us understand the irrationality of the human animal—an animal capable of reason yet still ruled by instinct and the unconscious. Hedges argues that because of our irrationality, science and reason alone cannot explain or provide meaning to the human condition, but that art can. But art is not religion and he doesn't connect religion with art or explain how religion is necessary if we already have art explaining the human condition. And that's ultimately the problem with the book. It has something to say, something that needs to be said and says it well, but surrounds it with absurdities, logical leaps that don't follow and a half-hearted defense of something he doesn't seem to feel is worth defending, in fact, something he can't denounce because then what side of the debate would he be on?

To his credit, Hedges rejects ideologies that provide simple answers. It's what's allowed him to ask the hard questions of the situations he's been in and to find a deeper explanation for the human condition. But what of the drive towards the simple answers? And not just that. Why are there some people who not only consent to being ruled but want it? There are those who want a king, an emperor, the boot stamping on their face forever. What of this drive? Hedges has an extensive background in philosophies that grew out of human tragedy so it's disappointing that he puts that background to such meager use. He could ask why the “new atheists” who reject the paternalistic, authoritarian idea of God turn to cultural imperialism, a different paternalistic, authoritarian ideal, but he doesn't. He points out their basic fallacies, but not the big one, and it's that big one that's the problem.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

PD Project Horror Part 1

Before we begin, I feel it is my responsibility to inform you that the emergency party button has been activated:

Now with that out of the way, on to the PD Project, Horror 50-Pack.

Disc 1

Atom Age Vampire

A scientist trying to perfect his healing serum becomes obsessed with one of his patients--a dancing girl who's been disfigured in a car accident. As the treatment starts proving less effective, the scientist must resort to increasingly monstrous means to keep the object of his obsession beautiful.

A truly atrocious movie. Scott Bateman has been replacing the visuals with his own animation and commentary and has vastly improved the viewing experience. Here's hoping he completes the project even though he went on hiatus more than a year-and-a-half ago. Check it out at Atom Age Vampire.

Carnival of Souls

An authentic independent classic. A young woman moves to a new town after a car accident claims the lives of her friends. Only her new life starts to be affected by strange obsessions and a world that proves increasingly askew.

Compelling for the still discomfiting sequences and the plain accomplishment of the film--clearly a low-budget affair, it is never hampered by its limitations. Indeed, it exults in them milking every element in the film for maximum effect. Proof that it's good to keep things simple.

There's also the deeper elements of the story--this woman alone in the world and the world largely turning against her. The increasing unheimlich nature of her experience as the supernatural presences grow more aggressive is echoed in the life around her. She's being hemmed in by monsters both real and metaphorical.

Creature From the Haunted Sea

A smuggler transporting a despot and his guards decides to double-cross the villain by inventing a story of a sea monster. Only the monster proves less imaginary than initially believed.

Roger Corman! Roger Corman! Roger Corman! That is all.

Nightmare Castle

A jealous husband tortures his wife and her lover to death after catching them having an affair only to learn that his wife's inheritance won't go to him but to her sister. So he marries the sister and attempts to drive her mad to get the family fortune. Only how much of what the sister sees is a hallucination and how much is actually the first wife's ghost seeking revenge?

Barbara Steele makes almost anything better and thank god because there's nothing else going on here. A plodding version of the Gaslight plot with supernatural and S&M twists, but not so much so that it's compelling.

On Wednesday, Disc 2: All Bela, all the time!

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

PD Project Horror 50 Pack

Here is a list of all the films in the Horror 50 Movie Mega Pack. Links go to Internet Archive pages for the DVD-quality MPEG2 versions of the films. I'll upload copies of those films that are PD and are not currently available on the Internet Archive in DVD format. There will be more specific details about each film as they come up for review.

Atom Age Vampire Carnival of Souls
Creature From the Haunted Sea Nightmare Castle
Black Dragons The Invisible Ghost
One Body Too Many White Zombie
Attack of the Giant Leeches Beast of Yucca Flats
The Screaming Skull Revolt of the Zombies
The Terror The Fatal Hour
The Giant Gila Monster Dead Men Walk
The Mad Monster Maniac
Metropolis The Ape
The Monster Maker The Vampire Bat
The Brain that Wouldn't Die The Killer Shrews
Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde King of the Zombies
Bluebeard The Corpse Vanishes
Doomed to Die Night of the Living Dead
The Indestructible Man The Phantom of the Opera
The Hunchback of Notre Dame Nosferatu
Swamp Women The World Gone Mad
The Little Shop of Horrors Tormented
Monster From a Prehistoric Planet The Monster Walks
The Gorilla A Shriek in the Night
The Amazing Mr. X Bloodlust
The Bat Last Woman on Earth
The House on Haunted Hill The Last Man on Earth
Dementia 13 Phantom From 10,000 Leagues

Monday, May 05, 2008

Tom Waits on Tour

I think this is the best tour announcement I've ever seen:

Tom Waits is coming to my town, is he coming to yours?
You better believe I'm planning my summer around this event.

Posts Pending

I'm all caught up on Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and Torchwood so the PD Project will return Wednesday as promised.

Hopefully I'll also have some longer reviews of various books, movies and bands here in the coming weeks in addition to essays on various topics. Yes, I'm actually going to start doing this "blogging" thing I've heard so much about. Be afraid.

Finally, as promised in the earlier post, here are the mixes posted to the Internet Archive:
A Warm Place: Live
A Warm Place: Free

Enjoy.