Monday, October 20, 2014
Halloween 2014: October 18
Space Amoeba (1970)
Gezora, Ganime, Kameba: Kessen! Nankai no daikaijû / Yog, Monster from Space
“Space Amoeba” is the end of an era. The public’s enthusiasm for giant monster movies, experienced just a few years earlier, had started to wane. By the end of the sixties and the start of a new decade, kaiju movies were widely considered kid’s stuff. “Space Amoeba” would be the last film produced under the studio’s old star system. It would be the last giant monster movie the studio made with an A-budget. It was the first of the studio’s creature features made after the death of effects master Eiji Tsuburaya. It was even meant to be Ishiro Honda’s final science fiction film, though the studio would lure him back in 1975 to direct “Terror of MechaGodzilla.” Aside from the remaining Godzilla sequels, the film was the last monster movie Toho would produce in the Showa period. The movie seems especially old fashion now and; with its plot of adventurous journalists, superstitious islanders, alien invaders, and super-sized sea creatures; was likely considered a throw-back even in 1970.
The movie begins when an unmanned space probe is sent to study Jupiter. Along the way, the ship is possessed by an amorphous alien consciousness. Under the space amoeba’s control, the probe returns to Earth, crashing in the south sea. Meanwhile, a photojournalist is talked into photographing Seigai Island for a tourist company. Along with his girlfriend, a scientist, and a businessman of questionable scruples, he is challenged by the local tribe. They are fearful the old gods might be angered by modern man’s invasion. Their prophecy seemingly comes true when giant monsters, normal sea life grown to huge size, attack the island. The creatures have been possessed by the same space amoeba that came to Earth on the probe, the first step in its planned conquest of the planet.
Akira Ifukube’s score recycles musical cues heard in the latter most films. The islander’s song will definitely sound familiar to kaiju faithfuls. The subplot, of greedy businessmen looking to capitalize on some unspoiled land, recalls the earliest Godzilla flicks of the sixties. The cast is full of familiar faces. Akira Kubo, Atsuko Takahashi, Yukiko Kobayashi, Kenji Sahara, and Yoshio Tsuchiya all had major roles in past Godzilla movies. Looked at from this perspective, “Space Amoeba” makes it seem like the studio was starting to run out of ideas.
Yet “Space Amoeba” does offer some humble joys of it own. It’s a most unconventional of alien invasion flick. There are no flying saucers or alien leaders in funny outfits making villainous proclamation. Instead, Yog, as it was named in the American dub, is a far more insidious threat. It has no true form, only appearing as a glowing, blue mist. It slithers into organic beings, taking control of their bodies. In the shape of cuttlefish, crabs, or turtles, they grow into giants. For humans, they are controlled by ominous voices, telling humanity of its impending enslavement. The film reminds me a little bit of “The Thing.” The alien’s powers are potentially disastrous but, lucky for the human race, it fell in an isolated area. Granted, the freezing Arctic is more frightening then a tropical island…
Gezora. A giant kisslip cuttlefish, the kaiju doesn’t act much like an invertebrate. Instead, Gezora crudely crawls around on his tentacles, walking across the island like a normal person would. The animal’s eyes were located where the suit actor’s – stalwart Toho monster man Hauro Nakajima – kneecaps would be. So Gezora’s eyes are constantly bulging out at odd angles. Despite his appearance being borderline comical, the movie still makes Gezora work. His appearance is preceded by a glowing light through the water. His tentacles reach out and grab victims, tossing them through the air. A sequence where he wrecks the native village, smashing grass huts and attacking spear-throwing natives, is one of the best in the movie. Disappointingly, the movie kills off its best monster half-way through. Gezora is burned to death by the heroes, retreating to the ocean and expiring.
The other monsters are less visually compelling and entertaining but aren’t without their charms. Ganime, a giant rubble crab, is probably the least impressive of the film. He shows up, cracks a few buildings, tumbles off a hill, and gets blown up. Without explanation, the giant crab appears again at the need. Kameba, meanwhile, is a huge mata mata turtle. Like the real animal, he can extend his neck out very far. Though the motion is somewhat mechanical, it is fun to see the turtle’s head shoot out at super-speed. After Yog is defeated by his weakness – supersonic sound, for those keeping track – the two kaiju go at each other, giving the movie it’s required giant monster fight. There’s some fun stuff here, the crab flipping the turtle over its back. The two monsters plummet into a volcano together, along with the Yog-controlled human, which makes for a fitting ending. It feels very classical.
“Phantasm” is the ultimate cult horror series. That’s a loaded statement. “Evil Dead” has had a wider reach. “Re-Animator” is more critically praised. Only “Phantasm,” however, has the winning combination of being most beloved by its fans, maintaining one man’s vision, and never loosing its low-budget, home-made weirdness. The sinister Tall Man, persistent silver orbs, and ice cream man action hero have never crossed-over much with the mainstream either, keeping “Phantasm” well within the realm of cultishly adored horror fandom.
“Phantasm” focuses on two brothers, twenty-something Jody and his little brother Mike, and their best friend Reggie, the local ice cream man. After the sudden death of a mutual friend, curious Mike begins to notice some strange things going on at the local mortuary. The graveyard is watched over by a tall, gray-haired man, silent and scowling. Bizarre hood figures creep around the bushes at night. A floating silver orb, armed with a blood-sucking drill and stabbing prongs, flies through the funeral home’s hallways. The boy has stumbled upon a terrifying secret from beyond, dragging his brother into it. Now, all three must face the wrath of the Tall Man.
Cuda. In one especially poignant scene, Mike runs behind his older brother, always trailing behind. Everyone Mike cares about has left him. And, soon enough, Jody will leave him too. There’s the issue of sex too. “Phantasm” begins with a young couple fucking in a cemetery, an ironic juxtaposition of eros and thanatos. After the sex is done, the man is stabbed to death by the woman. Later, Mike spies on Jody as he goes down on the same woman in the same graveyard, interrupting the two before they can finish. As befitting a boy in that age-group, sex is still a mysterious thing to Mike. He’s both intrigued and terrified. Sex represents maturity. And maturity, inevitably, leads to death.
Which raises the second, most pressing issue on “Phantasm’s” mind. Most every horror movie ever is secretly about a fear of death. “Phantasm” tackles that shit head-on. Don Coscarelli has been open about the movie being inspired by Western countries’ odd burial rituals. We give the bodies of our loved ones to strangers who take them into obscured rooms, doing who-knows-what to them. “Phantasm” plays on these anxieties directly. The Tall Man just doesn’t embalm dead bodies, he shrinks them down into hooded dwarves, slave-labor for his alien dimension. This is only the starting point for the film’s deeper discussion about death. The Tall Man is inescapable. Like Michael Myers in “Halloween,” he usually walks at a calm pace. He has no need to run. Death is going to catch up with all of us eventually. The final scene reveals that Jody has died. In the final seconds, the Tall Man appears again, dragging Mike to his death from behind a mirror. Death is unavoidable and unstoppable. And has there ever been a better symbol of the inevitably of our mortality then Angus Scrimm’s Tall Man? An imposing, towering old man, with a wisp of white hair on his head, a scowling, perpetually angry face and a booming voice. He’d rightfully become a horror icon.
Yet when it’s scary, it’s frequently terrifying. Mike being pursued by the hooded dwarves is effectively creepy, playing on common fears of unseen things lurking outside. The first appearance of the sentinel orb has gone down in horror history as a classic moment. Because, of course, it’s awesome. The orb is such a novel creation that I’m surprised Coscarelli thought of it first. When the sphere slams into the random caretaker’s head, drilling his face, blood pouring out the opposite end, no one saw that coming in 1979. Two of the few female characters being abducted out of their cars on a foggy night are quite spooky. The final minutes of the film really pump up the suspense. Mike runs from the Tall Man, being doggedly pursued by the implacable man, the ominous theme music playing throughout. Images appear out of the night, attempting to frighten Mike into submission. The Lavender Lady stands behind some branches, wielding her knife. Tomb stones rise from the ground, foreshadowing everyone’s fate. And the Tall Man is never far behind. The loose plot runs on dream logic, creating the tone of a nightmare. This is most clear during two nightmare sequences. Mike awakes in his bed, in a graveyard, the Tall Man looming over him. Jody wakes up in the mortuary, the Tall Man slowly approaching down the hallway, his footsteps echoing. Eerie stuff.
There are flaws but I’ve always been annoyed when people say “Phantasm” is campy or funny. Maybe it is at times but the film is so effective as a horror film and is such a pure blast of creativity. The film was destined to become a cult classic and lead a number of sequels. [9/10]
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)
For a while there, I was making a yearly habit of seeing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” at our local Apollo Theater around Halloween time. However, I found my interest in the show waning a bit in 2012 and began to wonder if this was a trip worth taking every October. JD and I skipped “Rocky” last year but this year, I decided to give it another shot. It helped that a whole crowd of friends was coming along with us, many of them doing this for their first time. As someone who has seen the movie many times, newcomers being humiliated on-screen and reacting to the stage show is more entertaining then the film.
The shadow cast provides a level of unpredictability that makes the midnight screenings worth attending. This year’s was a mixed bag. The Janet this year was fantastic, tossing her blonde wig off during the floor show. I think the Rocky was the same performer we saw back in 2012 and just as enthusiastic. The Frank, meanwhile, was overly hammy, doing a lot of distracting dance moves. JD said he was trying to “out-Curry Tim Curry” which is, of course, impossible. Many of the other shadow cast members clearly did not know their lines, glancing back at the screen repeatedly. Yet, overall, they did a decent job. The crowd was into it, with far more people dressing up then in previous years. A chorus of die-hard fans sat at the front of the theater, having clearly memorized all the call-back lines, including many I had never heard before. At one point, my row was covered with toilet paper, rice, and toast crumbs. My energy didn’t flag like in year’s past, my spirits staying high with lots of singing and dancing. It helped that my companions were clearly having a good time. I had a good contact high going by the time the movie let out.
And then there’s the issue of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, the film’s villain/primary protagonist. The crowd loves Frank and that devotion immediately made Tim Curry a cult superstar. Yet Frank is not a good person. He casually murders Eddie. He manipulates everyone around him, forcing others to his whim without considering them at all. He clearly doesn’t care about other people. After a whole movie of abusing, killing, and screwing with everyone around him, he sings a song about how misunderstood he is. He’s such a textbook narcissistic sociopath that the only person who can clearly please him is an artificial man made just to do that. Maybe this is something that bothers “Rocky Horror” detractors yet it’s not really too different from the way slasher fans idolize Freddy or Jason. Frank is charismatic and gets some of the movie’s best song. The image of an omni-sexual Tim Curry strutting in lingerie has become the film’s iconic image for a reason. Despite this, the movie comes down pretty hard on Frank. He’s misunderstood, maybe, but he’s a misunderstood asshole and gets the death scene he deserves. The film can’t quite nail the tragic story arc it’s aiming for, even with Curry giving it all.
I came away from 2014’s “Rocky Horror Picture Show” experience with a renewed appreciation for the film. I know it’s not for everybody and I know a lot of people hate it. That’s fine. The movie can be off-putting to those not on its wavelength. A pop culture phenomenon like this doesn’t last for forty years without having some value. It’s the prime cult classic of the modern age and, when experienced while in the proper mood, can be a pretty good time. [8/10]