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Month: October 2016

Easy Living (1937)

Easy Living (1937)

“You’re a sight for an eyesore!”

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Synopsis:
A millionaire (Edward Arnold) upset that his wife (Mary Nash) has purchased yet another expensive fur coat drops it from his building, where it lands on the head of a woman (Jean Arthur) riding to work on a double-decker bus. Arthur quickly finds herself the center of attention by a clothes designer (Franklin Pangborn) and hotelier (Luis Alberni) who assume she is Arnold’s mistress, and are eager to use her as a marketing pawn. Meanwhile, Arnold’s son (Ray Milland) — attempting to earn his own money by working at an automat — meets Arthur and the two fall in love, not realizing each other’s true social status.

Genres:

Review:
Preston Sturges scripted this madcap screwball comedy predicated entirely on mistaken identities, with characters making countless assumptions while literally shoving a penniless young woman into wealth and comfort she never asked for (what a dream for Depression-era audiences!). Arthur is as appealing as always (I especially enjoy the scene where she carefully covers her ceramic piggy bank’s eyes with a tissue before smashing it), and she’s surrounded by a game cast who take full advantage of the absurd comedic potential — most notably Pangborn and Alberni as men whose livelihood revolves around catering to the uber-wealthy. Unfortunately, director Mitchell Leisen keeps the pace a little too frenetic, mostly showing non-stop chaos — including plenty of (too much?) physical comedy (characters trip and fall constantly), repeated malapropisms by Alberni (see quote above) and a lot of shouting, especially in the final third.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jean Arthur as Mary Smith
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  • Franklin Pangborn as Van Buren
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    easy-living-pangborn2
  • Memorable sets
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  • Sturges’ witty, madcap script

Must See?
No, though it’s recommended for fans of Sturges and/or Arthur.

Links:

Yearling, The (1946)

Yearling, The (1946)

“That’s life, Jody: gettin’ and losin’, losin’ and gettin’.”

Synopsis:
A young boy (Claude Jarman, Jr.) living with his grieving mother (Jane Wyman) and overworked father (Gregory Peck) in backwoods Florida longs for a wild pet, and is finally allowed to adopt a fawn he names Flag — but when Flag gets older, his natural tendency to graze on crops puts the family’s livelihood at stake.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Clarence Brown Films
  • Coming of Age
  • Father and Child
  • Gregory Peck Films
  • Jane Wyman Films
  • Pets
  • Survival

Review:
MGM’s Technicolor adaptation of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ best-selling, Pulitzer-Prize winning 1938 novel could have looked much different: back in 1940, it was being helmed by Victor Fleming and starred Spencer Tracy, but “after only three weeks, the cast and crew returned to Hollywood” and the project was shelved until after WWII, when director Clarence Brown took over and a new cast of humans and animals was slated. The result is a surprisingly non-cloying studio picture featuring excellent use of on-location shooting in Florida’s Ocala National Forest and a stand-out performance by unknown Claude Jarman, Jr. — found “in his Nashville, Tennessee elementary school” — as young Jody. Equally noteworthy is Oscar-nominated Wyman, playing a woman whose previous children (six in the original novel) all died, and who epitomizes the harsh reality of survival in 1870s backwoods Florida. She struggles to find much to celebrate in her challenging existence, and her rare smiles are notable — yet she achieves the near-impossible in making viewers sympathize with her stance even as we (naturally) feel most invested in Jody’s coming-of-age dilemma.

Note: This interesting bit of trivia from IMDb is worth sharing:

During the ten months of filming, 32 trained animals were used, including five fawns. The fawns needed to be replaced as they aged in order to conform to the description of the title animal. The fawn found by Jody, as he pulls back the foliage, was three days old and had been rescued from a forest fire. Other animals used in filming included 126 deer, 9 black bears, 37 dogs, 53 wild birds, 17 buzzards, 1 owl, 83 chickens, 36 pigs, 8 rattlesnakes, 18 squirrels, 4 horses & 17 raccoons. The quantity of “critters” total is 441.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Claude Jarman, Jr. as Jody
  • Jane Wyman as Ma
  • A lovely depiction of a close father-and-son relationship
  • Fine Technicolor cinematography


  • Excellent use of location shooting in Florida

Must See?
Yes, once, as a fine children’s classic.

Categories

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Halloween (1978)

Halloween (1978)

“Death has come to your little town, sheriff.”

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Synopsis:
A psychiatrist (Donald Pleasence) is deeply disturbed to learn that his “evil” patient (Tony Moran) has escaped from an asylum and returned to his home town, where he killed his sister (Sandy Johnson) 15 years earlier as a six-year-old (Will Sandin). On Halloween, masked Moran quickly sets his murderous sights on a trio of friends: bubbly Lynda (P.J. Soles), wise-cracking Annie (Nancy Loomis), and straight-laced Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
While he’s “not as sold” on John Carpenter’s cult “horror thriller” as are “many of its cultists,” Peary nonetheless asserts that Halloween is the “scariest horror film since Psycho and the most imaginatively directed”. He describes how Carpenter “builds tension by repeatedly using a subjective camera; quick editing; driving, piercing music (which he composed); and the creative use of light and shadow and color (particularly black and white).” He adds that Carpenter “blends the dark, spooky atmosphere essential to Val Lewton; the humor and suspense that go hand in hand in Hitchcock; the cheap — but fun — tricks and shocks found in William Castle films; and the graphic violence that is the staple of the post-Night of the Living Dead American horror film.” He writes that while he finds it a treat “watching the three Middle American teenagers” — who are “smart… witty, and appealingly unconventional” — “jabber away about boys, school, dates, sex, etc.”, he finds it “regrettable that even this film — like its many inferior imitators — thrives upon the deaths of sexually promiscuous, half-dressed young women”.

I’m in agreement with Peary’s review — and I appreciate his intriguing analysis of serial killer “Michael Meyers” (who would return again and again — and again — in most sequels and remakes to come). Peary writes that he doesn’t “think the intriguing Michael is evil, just insane. There’s that six-year-old inside a man’s body, and everything he does — including his murders — is part of a mischievous game.” He points out that while Michael “could kill his victims quickly… he prefers to hide behind bushes and in closets, peer into windows, scare them, tease them with loud noises” — and, in a notable scene, “before he attacks Soles, he stands in the bedroom doorway with a sheet over his body and glasses on his covered face” (see still below). Meanwhile, “in his never ending struggle with Curtis… he pretends to be dead several times, only to rise and resume his attack” — a decidedly unique take on the “never assume he’s dead” trope of horror movie victims.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie
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  • Highly atmospheric direction and cinematography
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    halloween-scary2
  • Many effectively scary moments
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Must See?
Yes, of course, as a classic of the genre.

Categories

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

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Suspiria (1977)

Suspiria (1977)

“It all seems so absurd… So fantastic!”

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Synopsis:
An American ballerina (Jessica Harper) arrives at an elite European boarding school and is unnerved to learn that one of her classmates (Eva Axen) has just been killed. Harper’s roommate (Stefania Casini) suspects that the headmistress (Joan Bennett) and her lead instructor (Alida Valli) are involved in witchcraft, but their investigation puts their lives in danger.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is rather humorously dismissive of this cult gothic-horror flick by Italian director Dario Argento, noting that while it “has a promising beginning”, “it’s done in by too much visual flair (at the expense of content); a trite plotline and unsatisfying conclusion; poor dubbing; and deafening music supplied by [Goblin] and Argento”; he adds that “one begins to suspect that the unseen murderer walking about is an avant-garde rock musician” (!!). Peary’s review is spot-on: Suspiria is a “love it or leave it” type of film, with diehard fans and bored haters at either extreme. Argento purportedly stated he “would rather see a beautiful girl killed than an ugly girl or a man”, which sums up what you get here — though there is also an elaborately staged killing of a blind man by his guide dog in an empty plaza, so he’s not entirely one-sided about the matter. Harper is an effectively plucky heroine, but given far too little to do (and never gets to dance; ballet is noticeably missing from this flick). One mostly pays attention to the inspired sets and production design, as well as how frequently (and randomly — as in a dream) the color scheme shifts. Be forewarned that you will NEVER get the repetitive theme song of this movie out of your head once you’ve heard it — ever.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • DP Luciano Tovoli’s rich cinematography
    suspiria-cinematography
    suspiria-peacock
  • Effectively stylized sets and production design
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    suspiria-sets2
  • Goblin’s (in)famous score

Must See?
Yes, once, simply for its cult status.

Categories

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

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Baron of Arizona, The (1950)

Baron of Arizona, The (1950)

“Gentlemen, it has the stench of swindle.”

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Synopsis:
In late-1800s America, a talented con-artist named James Reavis (Vincent Price) plots an elaborate scheme to establish young Sofia (Karen Kester) — a peasant girl cared for by her adopted father (Vladimir Sokoloff) — as a Spanish baroness whose ancestors held a claim on Arizona territory. Reavis becomes a monk and then a gypsy in Spain in order to forge original land-grant documents, then returns and marries Sofia (now Ellen Drew) — but his claim to be Baron of Arizona infuriates all citizens, and sparks an investigation by a known forging expert (Reed Hadley).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, Sam Fuller’s second directorial feature — made after I Shot Jesse James (1949) and just before The Steel Helmet (1951) — is a “weird film even for [Fuller].” Peary argues that the “film is too claustrophobic and slow-moving, but keeps attention because [its] premise is so unusual”, and points out that “despite being set in gorgeous Arizona, [the] low budget of the film required that scenes take place indoors or at night” (a backdrop of an enormous map of the Arizona Territory serves as a pivotal visual in many scenes). I’m essentially in agreement with Peary’s assessment: despite its limitations, it’s impossible not to be fascinated by this fantastic tale given its historical basis and the inspired casting of Vincent Price in the lead, who inevitably heightens the surreality and melodrama of the proceedings. There’s some truly ripe dialogue:

“I’ll want you until the day I die. It is not death, it is dying that alarms me. It is not your crime, it is your weakness that alarms me.”

which somehow doesn’t feel entirely out of place. James Wong Howe’s cinematography adds to the atmosphere of this hard-to-classify low-budget western crime-caper love-story.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A compelling and unusual storyline
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  • James Wong Howe’s cinematography
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    boa-howe3

Must See?
Yes, once, as a novel story by a unique director.

Categories

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Rocky Horror Picture Show, The (1976)

Rocky Horror Picture Show, The (1976)

“I would like — if I may — to take you on a strange journey…”

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Synopsis:
A young woman (Susan Sarandon) and her fiance (Barry Bostwick) arrive at a castle during an annual convention of visitors from the planet Transsexual, and watch as Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Tim Curry) — with the help of his butler (Richard O’Brien) and maid (Patricia Quinn) — brings a hunky blonde (Peter Hinwood) to life.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “undisputed queen of the midnight movies” is “the definitive cult movie”, the “greatest phenomenon” of cinema, and “the one movie that can’t even be discussed without mentioning its fans”, who have “changed it from being an undistinguished, campy horror-SF send-up to a fabulously entertaining multi-media midnight show.” It remains the “ultimate audience-participation film”: cult-viewers who’ve seen the movie hundreds of times “may be dressed like their favorite characters”, “recite the dialogue en masse, shout out their own additions to the script, and, under a spotlight, put on a singing-dancing-mime performance that half-duplicates, half-parodies the action taking place on the screen above them”. In his essay on TRHPS for his Cult Movies book, Peary admits to only sitting through this flick once himself (he writes “I was wary of attending… because of all the bad press about theater violence, but I found the reports exaggerated”), so clearly he’s not a personal fan — but he notes that the “beauty” of live screenings is “that in one row you’ll find gays, transvestites, psychology students, stoned-out viewers from the film that ended at midnight, high-school students out on dates, and people who wonder what they’re doing there”.

By watching the movie on DVD (Blu-Ray is recommended), it’s much easier to get a sense of the film itself and what is has to offer — or not. Peary writes that, in his opinion, “the picture — minus the sing-along — isn’t particularly well made or amusing”, but he likes it “when the stodgy criminologist (Charles Grey)… demonstrates dance steps”, and finds “the big production of ‘The Time Warp'” and “Meatloaf’s wild rock number, ‘Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?'” “a lot of fun”. He also points out that “Curry is dynamic as the cinema’s one” (?) “masculine-acting (sweet) transvestite”. Indeed, Curry’s performance is both iconic and mesmerizing; it’s difficult to keep your eyes off of him whenever he’s on-screen. When he’s not, it’s hit or miss. There is, of course, much, much more to read and learn about this cult classic (see Peary’s Cult Movies essay or the fan website) — and there’s nothing quite like finding a “live” screening near you.

Note: The film’s sequel — Shock Treatment (1981) — is included in the back of GFTFF but dismissed by Peary as “disastrous”.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter (nominated as one of the Best Actors of the Year in Peary’s Alternate Oscars)
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  • Truly wild sets and costumes
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  • Multiple fun homages to classic Hollywood
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    trhps-bride

Must See?
Yes, dammit!

Categories

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

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Panic in the Streets (1950)

Panic in the Streets (1950)

“If the killer is incubating pneumonic plague, he can start spreading it within 48 hours!”

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Synopsis:
A public health doctor (Richard Widmark) tries to convince a police captain (Paul Douglas) that a dead man (Lewis Charles) riddled with pneumonic plague represents a dire threat to society — at least until his unknown killers (Jack Palance, Zero Mostel, and Guy Thomajan) are caught.

Genres:

  • Elia Kazan Films
  • Jack Palance Films
  • Murder Mystery
  • Paul Douglas Films
  • Race-Against-Time
  • Richard Widmark Films
  • Search

Review:
Jack Palance burst menacingly onto the big-screen in this gritty precursor to Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion (2011), directed by Elia Kazan with assistance from DP Joseph MacDonald. Richard Widmark counteracts his iconic performance as a vile racist in the same year’s No Way Out (1950) by serving here as the man literally responsible for saving humanity — if only he can get law enforcement to believe the gravity of the situation. (Shades of the recent Ebola crisis definitely emerge.) The storyline is tense from the get-go, as we see Palance’s cold-blooded determination to kill for money, and understand how seemingly impossible Widmark’s request to locate the unknown victim’s killer(s) really is. As the clock ticks, Widmark forgoes both sleep and time with his understanding wife (Barbara Bel Geddes) and son (Tommy Rettig) to follow through on any lead at all, even as his life is repeatedly put at risk. Richard Murphy and Daniel Fuchs’ adaptation of Edna and Edward Anhalt’s story takes us through a variety of settings in New Orleans, with authentic-looking extras peppering the screen. The performances are all excellent, and even minor roles are carefully directed by Kazan — as in a critical early scene when a medical examiner (George Ehmig) recognizes the danger he’s seeing in Charles’ corpse and coolly but firmly takes action. This one is well worth seeking out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine performances by the entire cast
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    pits-douglas
    pits-palance-mostel
    pits-bel-geddes
  • Excellent noir cinematography by DP Joseph MacDonald
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  • Good use of authentic locales and extras
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    pits-locale

Must See?
Yes. Listed as a film with Historical Importance and a Personal Recommendation in the back of Peary’s book.

Categories

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Day of the Locust, The (1975)

Day of the Locust, The (1975)

cmba-blogathon

Hello, CMBA members! I’m happy to be participating in the Classic Movie Blog Association’s Hollywood on Hollywood blogathon. If you’re new to my site, please click here to read more. Welcome!

“Luck’s just hard work, they say — and I’m willing to work as hard as anyone!”

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Synopsis:
An aspiring production designer (William Atherton) moves to Hollywood and falls in love with a would-be starlet (Karen Black) caring for her ex-vaudevillian father (Burgess Meredith) — but Black is more interested in cultivating a “business partnership” with a kind, adoring accountant (Donald Sutherland), and having fun with a cowpoke extra (Richard Dysart) and his Mexican buddy (Pepe Serna).

Genres:

Review:
John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Nathaniel West’s 1939 novel — based on a screenplay by formerly-blacklisted Waldo Salt — remains a satirically surreal, visually heady glimpse into late-1930s Hollywood, when production lots hosted hordes of costumed extras, starlets and ex-vaudevillians scrambled for their big break on-screen, and curly-headed dancing moppets had a one-in-a-million chance of becoming a star. The ostensible protagonist of West’s novel is Tod Hackett (Atherton),

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a Yale art school graduate whose entrance into Hollywood is considerably greased by his Ivy League connections — but the character we follow most closely is Black’s Faye Greener,

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an oddly sympathetic peroxide-blonde who strings numerous men along, but with full transparency about her priorities. Her concern for — and exasperation with — her ailing father (Meredith is perfectly cast as a former-clown-turned-salesman)

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help to balance her childish affect and single-minded determination to shift her status from “extra” to “star”. (In the still below, she’s reaching out to herself on-screen during her overly brief appearance in a costume drama.)

DOTL Black Extra Screening

Inevitably, as with any cinematic adaptation of literary work, nuance is lost in translation — but Schlesinger’s vision (assisted by DP Conrad Hall) shines forth, offering a vividly recreated landscape of Hollywood as seen from numerous vantages: on bustling sets,

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in studio offices,

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in courtyard apartments,

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along the dusty hills of Southern California,

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up by the “Hollywoodland” sign,

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at exclusive stag-film screenings,

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and at Graumann’s Chinese Theater on an even-more-chaotic-than-usual opening night.

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Day of the Locust cares less about telling the arc of Etherton’s new career than showing us how all-consuming this universe was (and still is) for those who covet — or are even curious about — its offerings. Meanwhile, Sutherland’s hulking giant offers a deliberate counterpart to Hollywood’s headiness: his deeply neurotic, socially awkward accountant lives in Southern California for his health, and simply wants to help those-in-need; his character’s decline — intentionally evocative of Frankenstein‘s monster — is especially tragic given his status as a sacrificial innocent.

Watch for many memorable supporting characters, including androgynous Jackie Haley as the fatally obnoxious “Adore”,
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Billy Barty as Abe Kusich,
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Geraldine Page as “Big Sister” (featured in an effective revival scene),
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Natalie Schafer (of “Gilligan’s Island” fame) as a cultured madam,
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and William Castle in cameo as a director.
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Note: Click here for a Project Gutenberg copy of West’s book, which is well worth a read.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments (click on thumbnails for larger images):

  • Karen Black as Faye Greener
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  • Donald Sutherland as Homer Simpson
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  • Conrad Hall’s cinematography
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  • A vivid recreation of 1930s Hollywood
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    dotl-sets2
  • Authentic sets and costumes
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  • The surreal finale
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Must See?
Yes, once, for its surreal insider’s look at the bowels of Hollywood. It would make a good double-bill with Robert Altman’s The Player (1991).

Categories

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Village of the Giants (1965)

Village of the Giants (1965)

“I wonder if it makes… everything grow?”

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Synopsis:
When a teenager (Tommy Kirk) and his girlfriend (Charla Doherty) learn that Kirk’s genius brother (Ron Howard) has accidentally invented a “goo” that makes creatures grow super-sized, they and their friends plan to become rich by using it on cattle — but a group of local bullies (Beau Bridges, Joy Harmon, Tim Rooney, Robert Random, Gail Gilmore, Tisha Sterling, and Vicki London) steal and eat the goo, and decide to take over their town when they become giants.

Genres:

  • Beau Bridges Films
  • Bullies
  • Giants
  • H.G. Wells Films
  • Juvenile Delinquents
  • Science Fiction

Review:
VERY loosely based on a novel by H.G. Wells (!), this cult teenage-delinquent flick is an enjoyably bad hoot from the opening credits — featuring close-ups of over-sized teens dancing in slow-motion with bare midriffs — to the semi-comic end, when a group of “little people” march onto the scene; as noted at one point by the MST3K crew in their commentary, “This is like the Swiftian part of a Fellini film — and it’s Kafka-esque!” Indeed, everything about Village of the Giants is surreal but surprisingly engaging: it’s not a huge stretch to imagine bullying teens literally taking over a town when given the opportunity. Bridges is appropriately sincere and menacing as the “lead bully”, while blonde, over-tanned Harmon expresses unmitigated delight at her new powers (much fun and innocent titillation is had with the female giants’ over-sized busts). Bespectacled Ronnie Howard plays a pivotal role throughout, and saves the day in the Wizard of Oz-like denouement. Favorite scene: over-sized ducks blithely start dancing in a club, then are roasted in a barbecue.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A creative parable about the larger-than-life impact of bullying teens
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  • Reasonably effective (and/or humorous) special effects — click here to read/see more
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    votg-still3

Must See?
Yes, as a silly cult favorite — but definitely watch it with the MST3K gang.

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Eegah! (1962)

Eegah! (1962)

“Dad, I didn’t say he was a monster — he was a giant! You know, a caveman!”

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Synopsis:
When a teenager (Marilyn Manning) and her father (Arch Hall, Sr.) are kidnapped by a hulking prehistoric caveman (Richard Kiel), Manning’s intrepid singing boyfriend (Arch Hall, Jr.) goes searching for them in his dune buggy.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
In his typically non-PC fashion (at least when it comes to discussing female sexuality on film), Peary writes that “in the most lurid scenes” of this “low-budget horror film” about “a giant prehistoric caveman (a pre-‘Jaws’ Richard Kiel) who abducts a pretty young girl”, this “horny man rubs his big hands all over [Manning’s] tiny, trembling body and we hope he’ll try something unforgivable”. !!!! Okay, I don’t know where to go with that — especially when Peary follows up by stating, “But, dammit, she’s rescued by her boyfriend”. He argues that the “picture is a lot of fun”, and “probably would have run into censorship problems if anybody’d paid more attention to where Kiel was placing his hands”, and he asserts that he thinks “everyone was too scared of Kiel to ask him to cool it”. With all that said (and ignored), is the film worth watching? Sure, but not for the reasons Peary outlines. Manning is actually an appropriately feisty heroine rather than simply an objectified pawn, but the main “fun” to be had here is in mocking the truly terrible production values, script, and acting. Discussed as one of the Fifty Worst Films of All Time by Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss in their 1978 book.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Plenty of terrible dialogue, acting, and sets
    eegah-kiel

Must See?
Yes, once, as a cult favorite — but be sure to watch it with the MST3K crew or other bad-movie-loving friends.

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