Sunday, November 27, 2011

Night of the Demon

What makes a film good? Is it a unique plot? Brilliant direction? Snappy editing? Oscar-worthy performances? Could it be a combination of perfect costuming, breathtaking locations, and a bombastic, sweeping score that tugs on your heartstrings like a hunchback on a bellrope? Does it make you cry or laugh or feel inspired? At the very least, did it make a lot of money?
Well, these are the things that make a movie conventionally good. And lucky for us, that means they’re all totally irrelevant. Because Night of the Demon (1980), our flick du jour, is anything but conventionally good. Of course, this doesn’t stop it from being amazing in every other way.
Night of the Demon begins with the impressively mustachioed Professor Nugent proposing an optional extra credit trip to his mostly bored students. Seems like a decent enough idea...except for the fact that the purpose of this little expedition is to go in search of a particularly violent Bigfoot which is supposed to be responsible for a number of grisly murders. The few students stupid, er, intrepid enough sign up, and they head off into the mountains.

and oh, what marvels await them. In these tall forests of ancient pines lurks a hairy horror with a chip on its shoulder the size of Iowa. Now, you would probably predict the plot to go as follows: group gets lost in the woods, and everyone ends up picked off one by one under circumstances of extreme stupidity. However, that’s where you’re in for a surprise. Instead, the prof and his followers discover a cult of mountain people with questionable breeding. These wacky rednecks worship the Bigfoot as a god, and perform strange rituals deep in the mountains. After a bit of detective work, it becomes apparent to our heroes that the only person who really knows what’s up with this sassy Sasquatch is an insane, mute hermit aptly named “Crazy Wanda.” So, the game is a-bigfoot, and the search is on to find Wanda and the yeti that’s been mutilating the local yokels. 

Really, I can’t bear to reveal much more than that. Plot is truly one of the strengths of Night of the Demon. There are plenty of delightful little moments you simply won’t see coming. Watching it for the first time is like unwrapping a series of decidedly unusual Christmas presents. A hypnosis inspired flashback to an abusive childhood? Why, you shouldn’t have! Let’s face it, the script is just plain better than average. the structure is interesting. Aside from the truly breathtaking finale, almost all the gore scenes take place in a flashback. The usual format is, someone will begin telling the sordid tale of yet another hapless Bigfoot victim, and we’ll fade to the actual killing. It’s brilliant! The best stories are always told by Professor Nugent, because afterwards he gets lines  like “By the time they found him, he’d bled to death. Well, we’d better get to bed!” He’s such a charmer. 
But naturally, the real star of the show is the sinister Sasquatch. He’s not just psychotic, he’s emotionally complex. In the course of the film we see him go through a vast range of emotions, from the aforementioned furious killing rage, to disturbingly amorous, and even filled with a wistful melcholy as he contemplates the extinction of his species. It’s apparent that he possesses some level of intelligence; this bigfoot is a tool-using animal.

And the killings, oh the killings. No one ever dies the same way twice. If you meet this beast, hey, at least you’ve got options! You could be torn limb from limb, violently divorced from your genitals, hacked up with an axe, impaled on a tree branch, stabbed with your best friend’s knife, get your face burned off on a hot stove...oh, the ways you can go! So, let’s recap, shall we? A sinister cult of rednecks performing weird rituals. Protagonists who are certainly hapless, yet manage not to be too offensively stupid. And an endless series of creative violence. Honestly, what else do you need? In short, if you only see one film starring a dick-rippin’, gut-slingin’ yeti this holiday season, make sure it’s Night of the Demon. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bride of the Gorilla

A sweltering South American jungle is the setting of a torrid love affair tainted by a heinous crime of passion, and a pitiless voodoo curse. Man, that sounds promising, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, in Bride of the Gorilla (1951), the action is more tepid than steamy. 
Our story begins with a narration by Lon Chaney Jr., who plays the role of a superstitious yet canny police commissioner. As a general meditation on the folly of man, his opening speech is decent enough, but it’s kind of a weird way to start a film. Anyway, nearly all the action of the movie takes place on a rubber plantation owned by a fairly dapper old gent called Van Gelder. He just happens to have beautiful young wife (played by the truly appealing Barbara Payton). And it just so happens that Barney Chavez, a young, virile worker on the plantation, is coveting the hell out of her.

As you may well have predicted, Barney decides that the best way to make a play for the fetching Dina Van to bump off her husband. He does this with the assistance of a particularly cute and harmless looking baby python...standing in for some dangerous poisonous snake, of course. (why do films always cast constrictors as vipers or something? Do they really think no one will know the difference?) The murder is ruled as an accidental death, but both Dr. Viet, an old friend of Van Gelder’s, and the aforementioned Commissioner Taro, are suspicious.

Unfortunately for Barney, his killing was observed by an old native woman, Al-Long, and she places a hideous curse on him with the help of some leaves from a mysterious voodoo vine. Despite her husband being laid low by a serpent mere moments before, Dina Van Gelder is pretty quick to shack up with Barney, and they drum up an immediate wedding ceremony. But all is not well as the nature of Al-Long’s curse becomes clear. Let’s just say the film is not inaccurately titled...

So, what’s good here? Barbara Payton, for certain. I’m not saying she’s the best actress, but she holds her own in strictly B-movie fashion. Mainly, she’s just a joy to look at. The tiny waist, the modestly sized yet delightfully pointy boobs...and those eyebrows. It’s official, I’m in love with her eyebrows. Two dark, perfectly sweeping little curves, arched just so as to make her seem perpetually shocked and a little bit quizzical. Must be fun talking to her; she can’t help but look interested. But enough with my objectification of women...though I’m not kidding when I say she’s really the films only highlight.

“But, But...Lon Chaney Jr.! A Vindictive voodoo curse! The classic theme of man’s struggle against his primitive nature, illustrated in the most literal sense! Um, a really goofy gorilla suit!”
Yes, I’d be lying if I said Bride of the Gorilla did not contain these things. Unfortunately, they don’t make the movie any good. Chaney seems more embarrassed to be there than anything, and delivers his lines in a awkward, stilted mumble. I’ll grant you that the scenes taking place in the (impenetrably) dark jungle, and Barney’s maddened ranting on the freedom being a gorilla allows him verge on effective. However, they never quite make it to good. As much I I deeply love voodoo curses, this is one plodding, poorly paced, drawn out voodoo curse. Really, that’s the main problem I have with Bride of the Gorilla; it’s a very short film, but feels like a two and a half hour mess. 

Ultimately, Bride of the Gorilla is an hour of your life you’ll never get back, but all things considered, you might as well. Be honest with yourself, you would’ve spent the time on facebook, anyway.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Terror of Tiny Town

First of all, a friendly warning. there is no polite, politically correct way to review this movie. To be fair, the words I use or don’t use really do not matter, because this flick is The Terror of Tiny Town (1938). Which, if you’re not already aware, is a western with an all midget cast. Oh, and it’s also a musical. And if that weren’t enough, you may remember most of the actors from The Wizard of Oz! Ding dong, the witch is certainly dead.

The plot is really your average 30s western. Nefarious rustler and all-around bad guy Bat Haines has managed to turn Pop Lawson and Tex Preston, two honest ranchers, against one another...while secretly stealing cattle from the both of them. This feud threatens to become a full-on range war, and is only intensified by the arrival of Preston’s niece Nancy. After a few scenes straight out of Romeo and Juliet, Nancy falls madly in love with young cowboy Buck, Pop Lawson’s son and the good guy of the picture.

What follows is a vaguely rollicking cavalcade of warring families, thievery, shoot ‘em ups, cold-blooded murder, saloon girls who really can’t sing, poorly choreographed fight scenes...and a single, unexplained shot of a penguin. I won’t be spoiling much to tell you that all turns out as expected. Bat’s dastardly schemes have a good run, and he gets Buck into a tight spot or two, but nothing can change the fact that he’s wearing the black hat in this flick. And that means no matter how cunning you are, you’re gonna get it somewhere in the last ten minutes. 

Now, I have yet to really address the reason any of you would ever even consider watching this film: the midget factor. Yes, the cast is entirely made up of them. And there’s no polite way to say it, but that turns Tiny Town from a dull western sporadically speckled with songs into a surreal nightmare. It’s the whole problem of scale. It changes wildly, from scene to scene. And frankly, it doesn’t make very much sense. The citizens of Tiny Town, have managed to set themselves up with a midget sized stagecoach, which can’t have been easy. And yet, they persist in using axes and rolling pins as long as their entire bodies. Wouldn’t it be easier to make small tools than an entire coach?

The houses are boggling as well. Huge on the outside, sporadically midget scaled on the inside. There’s always the occasional unreachable cabinet or two. Why do the people of Tiny Town uniformly live in houses that are too big for them, when they seem to have the capacity to construct smaller buildings? Perhaps this was originally a ghost town, and the midgets a horde of eager emigrants, fleeing the uncaring sideshows of the East to arrive in this new land full of hope and the desire to carve out a tiny corner of the West where they could finally be free.

Either way, they must have some contact with the outside world. In the opening (and supremely annoying) song of the film, a burly blacksmith is shown shoeing a horse; all the townspeople ride Shetland ponies. And none too well, I might add. Bat Haines in particular always looks about an inch away from eating dust. So, why these puzzling proportions? Why? Ok, ok, of course I know the answer. It’s a string of lousy sight gags cynically exploiting the unfortunate size of the actors. We’re supposed to get big laughs out of seeing a miniature gunslinger march underneath the swinging doors of a saloon. But I’m not laughing. I’m profoundly unnerved. What can I say, this one got to me.
I can’t help but ask myself, who was the intended audience for this movie? Children? Very simple adults? Is it some secret dadaist art project intended to cause waves of nausea and babbling in the streets? I don’t know. I can’t really recommend it to anyone except stoned people, to be honest. But don’t watch it lightly; 5 minutes in, and I could feel the drugs I hadn't even taken beginning to turn on me. The shrill voices raised in song, the childlike faces with ancient eyes peering out from under cowboy hats, all that walking right under fences and hitching posts...damn, I’m feeling those bad vibes all over again. Perhaps the film itself is a powerful narcotic. Midgets: the opiate of the masses. And now if you’ll excuse me, I think I require a drink...or twelve.