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Category: Original Reviews

Responses to Peary’s “must see” movie reviews, as well as my own “must see” movie reviews up to and after 1986 (when Peary’s book was published).

Big Bird Cage, The (1972)

Big Bird Cage, The (1972)

“What an army we could raise, if we only had a lot of women!”

Synopsis:
A social climber (Anitra Ford) is taken hostage during a siege by revolutionary lovers Blossom (Pam Grier) and Django (Sid Haig), and sent to a women’s prison in the jungle. Will Terry (Ford) and her fellow prisoners be able to escape their brutal fate?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Prisoners
  • Revolutionaries
  • Strong Females

Review:
Director Jack Hill’s follow-up to The Big Doll House (1971) was this similarly themed WIP exploitation flick, once again starring Pam Grier — though this time she’s given the role of an undercover revolutionary:

… romantically paired with Sid Haig, whose “schtick” is to pretend to be gay to distract the male prison guards:

Of primary note in the cast is Anitra Ford — of “The Price is Right” modeling fame — playing a leggy, sultry hostage:

… surrounded by a bevy of “types”, including sex-obsessed Carla:

… jokey “Bull” Jones (Teda Bracci):

… Amazonian Karen:

… and pint-sized Mickie (Carol Speed):

There’s everything here you would expect in such a flick, including an elaborate “torture” machine (actually a sugar mill) the women are forced to work with (the titular “big bird cage”):

… mud wrestling, rape, attempted escapes, and a fiery denouement. Only hardcore fans of the genre need bother to check this one out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Anitra Ford’s bemused performance as Terry

Must See?
No; you can skip this one unless you’re a fan of the genre. Listed as a Camp Classic and a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Women in Cages (1971)

Women in Cages (1971)

“This is going to be just like home — only different!”

Synopsis:
An American (Jennifer Gan) whose boyfriend (Charlie Davao) is involved in criminal drug trafficking is sent to prison on his behalf, where she meets a sadistic warden (Pam Grier) and bunks with other tortured inmates — including Sandy (Judy Brown), heroin-addicted Stoke (Roberta Collins), and Grier’s lover Theresa (Sofia Moran).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Escape
  • Prisoners
  • Strong Females

Review:
Filipino director Gerardo de Leon helmed this WiP (Women in Prison) exploitation flick, released around the same time as Jack Hill’s The Big Doll House (1971) and The Big Bird Cage (1972). As Stuart Galbraith writes in his review for DVD Talk, “The plots for these women-in-prison films” are “pretty interchangeable” — including:

… “the obligatory group shower scene; sadistic and usually lesbian jailers who set their sights on the newest wide-eyed and wrongly-convicted prisoners; lascivious male guards scheming for free sex; outlandish scenes of torture, with contraptions rivaling those of the Marquis de Sade; catfights among the women, often incorporating food fights and/or much writhing in the mud; [and] riots in which the jailers spray the women with a fire hose.”

Grier gets “promoted” in this flick from prisoner to warden, and shows off her ability to be tough and ruthless under any circumstances:

Meanwhile, Collins (rather than Brooke Mills) plays the heroin-addicted inmate this time around, and is ultimately much livelier than primary protagonist Gan (who simply comes across as foolishly naive):

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Roberta Collins as Stoke
  • Some reasonably effective cinematography

Must See?
No; you can skip this one. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Ben-Hur (1925)

Ben-Hur (1925)

“What chance has a Jew against a Roman?”

Synopsis:
When Jewish prince Judah Ben-Hur (Ramon Navarro) meets his former childhood friend Messala (Francis X. Bushman) — now a cruel Roman nobleman — and is sent into slavery, he vows revenge on behalf of himself, his mother (Claire McDowell), and his sister (Kathleen Key).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Ancient Greece and Rome
  • Biblical Stories
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Revenge
  • Silent Films
  • Slavery

Review:
This second cinematic adaptation of Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel was selected in 1997 “for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being ‘culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant'” — in part due to being the most expensive film ever made at the time, but also because of the cinematic genius of the chariot race sequence (shot by no less than 42 cameramen). Equally exciting is the battle-at-sea between Greek pirate ships and the Roman vessel carrying Ben-Hur as a slave. As a narrative, it should satisfy those interested in this Biblical-era tale of a revenge and spiritual awakening — but it’s not must-see for anyone other than silent film enthusiasts.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The ship attack scene
  • The exciting chariot race
  • Impressive sets

  • Fine cinematography and special effects

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for its historical relevance as the most expensive silent movie made at that time (and a box office hit for years), as well as to see the chariot race (but simply look for this sequence on YouTube). Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Belle de Jour (1967)

Belle de Jour (1967)

“You like being humiliated.”

Synopsis:
A frigid housewife (Catherine Deneuve) unable to make love with her caring husband (Jean Sorel) is intrigued to hear from an acquaintance (Michel Piccoli) that houses of prostitution still exist in Paris, and she secretly begins working for a madam (Genevieve Page) in the afternoons, participating in numerous odd fantasies — but when an edgy client (Pierre Clementi) falls for Deneuve and she’s equally attracted to him, she puts her private existence in danger.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Catherine Deneuve Films
  • French Films
  • Housewives
  • Infidelity
  • Luis Bunuel Films
  • Marital Problems
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Newlyweds
  • Prostitutes and Gigolos
  • S&M
  • Sexual Repression
  • Surrealism

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “popular, controversial” film by Luis Bunuel is either — “depending on your viewpoint” — an “erotic or sexually reprehensible film.” He describes Deneuve’s character as feeling “no guilt for participating in sex” when she’s “at the brothel each afternoon”, becoming “part of the male clients’ weird fantasies” — and “it’s interesting that as she becomes more liberated through sex (breaking free of bourgeois shackles), she begins to reject the depraved, masochistic sex that characterized her early desires”, which is “a form of self-hatred” reflecting “her shame at having been molested as a child.” He continues his analysis by noting that “as her fantasies become more normal, at least as far as her role in them is concerned, [Deneuve] becomes ready to enter a normal sexual relationship with her husband” — but “he must be liberated as well, because guilt over his repressed sexual desires toward Deneuve cripple him, figuratively — and literally — speaking.”

Given that “in time we can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality,” Peary notes it’s possible that “the entire film, excluding the opening carriage ride and the final moment, might even be imagined by Deneuve,” which makes sense (though I’m not sure why he would exclude the “opening carriage ride” given its distressingly surreal outcome). Peary’s take on this enigmatic story — based on a 1928 novel by Joseph Kessel — makes just as much as sense as others that have been floated; Bunuel himself stated, “I myself cannot tell you what is real and what’s imaginary in the film. For me they form the same thing.” While it’s not a personal favorite, I admire the narrative risks taken, and believe all film fanatics should view this film at least once.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Catherine Deneuve as Severine
  • Sacha Vierny’s fine cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as an enigmatic classic by a master director.

Categories

  • Genuine Classic
  • Important Director

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Old Ironsides (1926)

Old Ironsides (1926)

“For three hundred years, these pirates have gone unchecked. This is their last day — or ours.”

Synopsis:
While sailing on a merchant ship in the early 19th century, a bos’n (Wallace Beery), gunner (George Bancroft), cook (George Godfrey), and young shipman (Charles Farrell) in love with the captain’s daughter (Esther Ralston) find themselves involved with the USS Constitution in a lethal fight against Mediterranean pirates.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • At Sea
  • George Bancroft Films
  • Historical Drama
  • Pirates
  • Silent Films
  • Wallace Beery Films

Review:
Three years after helming The Covered Wagon (1923), director James Cruze turned to the high seas for this rousing recreation of early American efforts against piracy. The storyline is pure hokum, centering entirely on: 1) jovial rivalry between Beery and Bancroft:

… and 2) the inevitable romance that blossoms between the film’s two gorgeous young leads (including an impossibly impeccable Ralston making moon eyes at Farrell during the most inopportune times).

Naturally, what one watches for are the impressive shots of sailing ships at sea (filmed off of Catalina Island). This film is also notable for use of a process known as Magnascope, in which certain sections of the movie were magnified for dramatic effect. While Old Ironsides isn’t must-see for all film fanatics, it will likely be of interest to silent film aficionados.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The exciting culminating battle

  • Refreshing inclusion of a Black actor (George Godfrey) as part of the primary cast

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look if you’re curious. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Links:

Testament of Dr. Mabuse, The/Crimes of Dr. Mabuse, The/Last Will of Dr. Mabuse, The (1933)

Testament of Dr. Mabuse, The/Crimes of Dr. Mabuse, The/Last Will of Dr. Mabuse, The (1933)

“The ultimate purpose of crime is to establish the endless empire of crime.”

Synopsis:
A disgraced cop (Karl Meixner) is driven insane before he’s able to tell his boss (Otto Wernicke) who the mastermind is behind mysterious plans to establish an “empire of crime”. During his investigation, Wernicke visits an asylum where Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) is housed, not realizing that Mabuse has manipulated the asylum’s director (Oscar Beregi) into doing his will. Meanwhile, when one of Mabuse’s hapless minions (Gustav Diessl) decides to tell his girlfriend (Monique Rolland) about his work as a counterfeiter, she supports him in breaking free from Mabuse’s clutches.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Fritz Lang Films
  • Gangsters
  • German Films
  • Mad Doctors and Scientists
  • Mind Control and Hypnosis

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that “for his second sound film Fritz Lang decided to bring back Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), the heinous genius criminal of his 1922 silent classic Dr. Mabuse the Gambler” — who, despite being unable to speak and living in an insane asylum, “has regained his desire to mastermind great crimes, commit terrorist acts, dominate people’s wills through mind control, [and] rule the world.” The bulk of Peary’s review is taken up with discussion of the film’s logistics — i.e., the fact that it was filmed in both French and German, that Joseph “Goebbels seized the German version because the script (although written by Lang’s Nazi wife, Thea von Harbou) drew parallels between madman Mabuse and Hitler,” and that (at the time GFTFF was published), one was only likely to see poorly dubbed versions in circulation (a situation since rectified). Peary does note that “you’ll still enjoy several sequences that have impressive visual elements,” including “a high speed car chase on a country road at night:

… a murder at a stoplight:

… Baum [Beregi] visualizing ghostly presences:

… and an underwater explosion.”

However, this sequel can’t quite live up to the atmospheric dread generated by its predecessor, and is only must-see for fans of Lang’s evolving oeuvre.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fritz Arno Wagner’s cinematography
  • Fine special effects and sound effects

Must See?
No, unless you’re a Lang fan.

Links:

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler / Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922)

Dr. Mabuse, The Gambler / Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922)

“There’s no love; there’s only desire. There’s no luck — there’s only the will to power!”

Synopsis:
A diabolical hypnotist-criminal named Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) — who relies on assistance from his cocaine-addicted personal servant (Robert Forster-Larrinaga) and various other goons, as well as dance hall girl “Cara Carozza” (Aud Egede-Nissen) to carry out his gambling cons — sets his sights on the son (Paul Richter) of a millionaire industrialist, not realizing Carozza will fall for Richter. Meanwhile state prosecutor Norbert von Wenk (Bernhard Goetzke) goes undercover to try to identify the mysterious criminal wreaking so much havoc, enlisting help from a bored countess (Gertrude Welcker) whose husband (Alfred Abel) is one of Dr. Mabuse’s most recent victims.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Cat-and-Mouse
  • Con-Artists
  • Detectives and Private Eyes
  • Fritz Lang Films
  • German Films
  • Mind Control and Hypnosis
  • Mistaken or Hidden Identities
  • Silent Films

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary opens his review of this two-part epic silent film by Fritz Lang by noting the high variability of its length in various iterations; thankfully, recent technology and restoration efforts allow modern film fanatics to view it in its full length of 229 minutes, with DVD commentary on (if desired) to clarify its historical positioning. Peary writes that the film was “certainly influenced by Caligari, and probably Nosferatu as well,” with “Fritz Lang’s diabolical villain” relying “on mind control to destroy people.” Dr. Mabuse is a true forerunner of the cinematic supervillain — someone who “doesn’t care about making money, although his criminal activities make him and his gang rich, but gets his pleasure from wielding power and, as he says, interfering in people’s lives and determining their fates.” Peary argues that “critics have rightly criticized the decision to have Mabuse fall in love” (with Welcker) “because it diminishes him from being a supervillain to being just a villainous human,” but I disagree; there’s no evidence that Mabuse’s kidnapping of Welcker is anything other than part of his grand scheme for ultimate control.

Peary notes that the “film’s visuals aren’t as impressive as those in other Lang silents, and the melodrama is not as exciting as one would hope — due in part to Goetzke being a dull hero — but Mabuse is a classic character who would become the model for future screen villains: he is proof that there is little distinction between genius and madness, that the criminal mind works in the same way as the minds of the men (like Goetzke) who work to prevent crime (Lang often make the link between the criminal and the policeman).” Other reviewers have similarly supplemented our understanding of Mabuse’s symbolic resonance, with DVD Savant writing that he “felt he’d been hit by one of Colonel Kurtz’ diamond bullets of enlightenment when he saw Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler in 1980,” given that “it seemed like the missing link of pulp fantasy for the twentieth century, the story that connected Batman to James Bond to Cody Jarrott to Judex to Sherlock Holmes to Darth Vader.”

DVD Savant further adds that:

… author Norbert Jacques’ idea of taking all the ills of his dysfunctional society, and representing them with one monstrous villain with supernormal powers, has been an unstoppable formula throughout the last century, so popular and penetrative that most of the world today seems to think that the problems and conflicts of our modern world are ’caused’ by villainous individuals, instead of being the result of conflicting ideologies and power-based inequities.

While it’s overlong, slow, and creaky at times, I believe film fanatics will be curious to check out Dr. Mabuse once — particularly given Klein-Rogge’s surprisingly powerful performance in the title role; the look of pure malice in his eyes is enough to convince you that evil personified does exist in the world.

Favorite throw-away line: “Cocaine or cards?”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Dr. Mabuse
  • Impressive make-up and disguises for Mabuse

  • Memorable supporting characters

  • Fine special effects

  • Atmospheric cinematography and sets

Must See?
Yes, once, for its historical importance and as early evidence of Lang’s brilliance.

Categories

  • Historically Relevant
  • Important Director

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

“What day did God create Spinal Tap — and couldn’t he have rested on that day, too?”

Synopsis:
A documentarian (Rob Reiner) follows the British band Spinal Tap — consisting of childhood friends David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean) and Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer), keyboardist Viv Savage (David Kaff), and drummer Mick Shrimpton (R.J. Parnell) — as they tour America with their manager Ian (Tony Hendra) and eventually with David’s astrology-following girlfriend Jeanine (June Chadwick).

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Has-Beens
  • Mockumentaries
  • Rock ‘n Roll

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “riotous ‘rockumentary’ about a fictional British heavy-metal band” whose “tour becomes a disaster” features Rob Reiner playing filmmaker Marty DiBergi, who accompanies the group into humiliation, and, spoofing Martin Scorsese in The Last Waltz, asks his idols questions and nods throughout their absurd answers (which were brilliantly improvised by the actors).” Peary points out that “Reiner’s parody is not just a question-and-answer session interspersed with performance clips and interviews” but rather “has a story format that allows the actors to develop distinct personalities,” with “the emphasis… placed on the shredding relationship of” McKean and Guest, who, surprisingly, you “really gain affection for.” While “this is a ridiculous film on many levels”, it’s nonetheless “so convincing” that “some not too swift people in preview audiences wondered why Reiner had chosen to make a documentary on such a mediocre, unknown band.”

Humorous scenes abound, ranging from Nigel explaining why his amp goes all the way up to 11:

… to the group performing “Stonehenge” with an 18-inch replica and two dancing dwarfs:

As the first of several hilarious mockumentaries co-written by Guest — including Waiting for Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), and A Mighty Wind (2003) — this original outing remains well worth a look by all film fanatics.

Note: This Is Spinal Tap is notable for the being the only movie rated out of a total of 11 stars on IMDb (rather than 10).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Many inspired moments, songs, and lines of dialogue



Must See?
Yes, as a cult comedy classic.

Categories

  • Cult Movie

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

“Why should I die — oh, why should I die?”

Synopsis:
In the week leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (Ted Neeley), Jesus’s disciple Judas Iscariot (Carl Anderson) — worried that Jesus is becoming too popular and spending too much time with the prostitute Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman) — remains deeply conflicted about betraying his whereabouts to the Romans.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Betrayal
  • Biblical Stories
  • Musicals
  • Norman Jewison Films
  • Play Adaptations

Review:
Norman Jewison directed this adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera, filming on location in the Middle East and opening with a bus full of modern-day actors emerging and preparing to put on the show. Thankfully, this hybrid conceit works remarkably well, showcasing the enduring legacy of Christianity across the millennia while tapping into the then-current cultures of hippies and so-called “Jesus Freaks”. The storyline offers a fascinating psychological glimpse into the tortured decision by Judas (powerfully played by Anderson) to betray Jesus; Jesus’s acceptance of his fate while also railing against God for putting him in such a position; the reluctance of Pontius Pilate (Barry Dennen) to execute a man guilty of no crime; and Mary Magdalene’s abiding love for Jesus. The soundtrack by Webber and Rice is dynamic and catchy, nicely suiting the dramatic tensions inherent in Jesus’s final week of life. While it’s not must-see viewing for all film fanatics, I recommend this flick as an enjoyable, colorfully mounted musical.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the three leads (Ted Neeley as Christ, Carl Anderson as Judas, and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene)

  • Lovely cinematography by Douglas Slocombe

  • Good use of authentic locale shooting
  • A creative reimagining of the final days of Jesus Christ
  • A rousing soundtrack

Must See?
No, but it’s recommended.

Links:

Wizard of Gore, The (1970)

Wizard of Gore, The (1970)

“Have you ever seen the sight of human butchery IN PERSON?!”

Synopsis:
A sadistic magician (Ray Sager) uses mind control to lure women to his stage, where he dismembers them in what appears each time to be a harmless trick but soon thereafter results in their demise. Can a plucky reporter (Sherry Carson) and her boyfriend (Jack Ward) discover what’s going on before yet another gory murder takes place?

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Amateur Sleuths
  • Herschell Gordon Lewis Films
  • Horror Films
  • Journalists
  • Magicians
  • Mind Control and Hypnosis
  • Serial Killers

Review:
While this “existential” splatter flick is considered a favorite among fans of fabled goremeister Herschell Gordon Lewis, there’s nothing whatsoever to recommend about it for anyone who’s not already (inexplicably) enamored with his work. The central premise of a plucky duo trying to determine why all the women who volunteer to be “killed” on stage by Montag the Magnificent (Sager) eventually end up legitimately dead:

… is stupid beyond belief (not to mention never explained in terms of the mysterious gap between the gruesome mutilations we see Montag delighting in, and what the audience actually witnesses). Then again, that’s the “point” of this film: who really knows what’s reality versus our imaginations or an illusion? Profound. It’s too bad the same sentiment written by Peary in his review of Blood Feast (1963), HGL’s debut flick, applies just as well here: “If you detest horror films that show how many shocking ways a creative sadist can do away with young women:”




… “then Lewis is the man you’ll want to blame and this is the film you’ll want to burn.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Not a thing

Must See?
Nope. Listed as Trash and a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book (yes, it does indeed have a cult following, and was even remade).

Links: