The Giant Gila Monster (1959)

Our Hero. So perfect you want to slaughter him.Like most movies of its era, The Giant Gila Monster begins with a soliloquy from Our Humble Narrator. While the camera lovingly moves over shots of a desolate desert landscape, Our Humble Narrator informs us that:

“How large the dreaded Gila Monster grows, no man can say.”

Looking for an explanation as to why this Gila Monster is so Giant? Well, there it is.

We cut to a couple parked in the middle of the tangled desert wasteland. (Not the most romantic setting in the world but what do I know? Maybe gnarled old trees are like Spanish Fly to some.) Later on, we’ll learn their names: Pat (Grady Vaughn) and Liz (Yolanda Salas). But for right now, don’t get too attached. Just as they get all close and lovey, an unseen force shoves their car over a cliff. Now, if I were one of those people who’s obsessed with finding subtext in even the most bizarre pieces of crap cinema, I’d be amazed. I’d point out that it showcases just how merciless the morality of 1950s horror pictures really was…even make the observation that, unless Liz is giving her man a nice, off-camera handjob, this couple’s only crime is snuggling. I’d then go on to note that at least 80s Slasher flicks let you have sex before you died. Let no man say our culture hasn’t moved forward. {More}

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

Lara keeps a look out for falling plot contrivances.

As Tomb Raider opens, we find Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie, of course) hanging suspended from a rope. Not even her intricately woven braid stirs. Then, in what will quickly become a matter of course for this film, she runs-jumps-flips-climbs her way through an ancient looking cave of faux ruins and blows the holy hell out of the ultra-advanced robot assassin that serves as her “sparing partner.” All in a flash-bang opening action sequence designed to drive home a singular point: that Lara Croft is a Badass. Needless to say, the sequence accomplishes its goal…so, I asked myself, what the hell is the rest of the movie supposed to do?

Spiral ever downward, apparently. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Angelina Jolie is Lara Croft, the Tomb Raider, only child to “legendary” archeologist Lord Croft (Jon—Anaconda—Voight). So when she’s not destroying her own robots or lounging about the eighty-plus rooms of her ancestral home Lara likes to gallivant around the globe and engage in a spot of grave robbing, stealing priceless artifacts and…doing…something…with them. If you don’t live under a rock, you probably already knew this, or could figure it out from the incredibly-obvious title. {More}

The Blob (1988)

When a movie critic takes ill, coughing up and subsequent spitting out of large, globular balls of protoplasm, it’s best to avoid films centered around amorphous masses of protoplasm.

I, being me (i.e., stupid), ignored this credo and rented this: the 1988 remake of The Blob. Nothing like a horror movie to get you over a bout with the flu. Or am I the only kid who’d fake a sore throat so he could stay home to watch the one o’clock creature feature, back before the Sci-fi channel sold the fuck out?

So I rented The Blob and it is anything but appetizing. I managed to keep things under control. When there’s nothing in your stomach, logic suggests that nothing can come out, and logic prevailed. Thanks to a childhood encounter with Cronnenberg’s Fly, it takes a lot to send me to the porcelain bus. I could go into detail and have all of you bask in my gorge-holding prowess, but my mother reads this, too. And she’s already heard it.

Enough about bodily functions. Let’s talk about large, gelatinous, alien monsters. Yeah, baby, yeah!

The basic story hasn’t changed. Giant rock falls from space, deposits carnivorous alien ooze. Rustic old coot pokes ooze with a stick. Hilarity ensues. Alien ooze begins devouring residents of Small Town America and its up to a bunch of “no-good kids” to stop it before it grows too large to handle. As always, the devil’s in the details.

This time, town badboy Randall Brian Flagg (Kevin Dillon) and cheerleader Meg Penny (Shawnee Smith) are charged with stopping the malevolent muck. And while Meg still begins the movie as A Nice Small Town Girl, Brian Flagg is the kind of rebel that would make Steve McQueen mess his pants. He’s a cigarette smokin’, motorcycle riddin’, beer drinkin’, leather jacket wearin’ son of a bitch, and even though I liked Flagg well enough (I always root for the Rebel Without a Clue), I’m smart enough to recognize him for the caricature that he is. Still, he’s a fun caricature. And the script does manage to shoehorn some his softer side into the goo and gore. Occasionally. I counted four such scenes myself. Your actual mileage may vary.

With that kind of stellar characterization, it falls on Kevin Dillon to play a reluctant hero that’s both believable and likeable. He does a decent enough job, but I’ve seen people bungle this character so badly. Dillon plays the roll competently, and if that’s what you like, go ahead. He doesn’t embarrass himself, but he won’t be earning a place in the Rebellious Teenager hall of fame, either.

Shawnee Smith, on the other hand…now there’s an actress I could get into. (Wink, wink, nudge, nudge, knowwhatImean, knowwhatImean?) Here, she’s playing another great caricature of 1980s horror: the Final Girl, escaped from her Slasher origins, the traumatized heroine who  goes from cheerleader to machinegun toting Righteous Babe in under 85 minutes, a transition that would make Heather Langenkamp proud. Now, Smith is no Langenkamp, but like her costar, she’s competent enough in the Final Girl role.

That word, competent, just about describes this entire movie. It provids just enough fun to fill up your life, never rising above the sum of its parts. Co-writers Frank Darabont and Chuck Russell (who also directed things) seemed to know exactly what was needed to turn out an old fashioned B-movie…rather like The Blob. They don’t try to explore any Great Themes of Literature or examine the Heart of the Human Condition. With the exception of the Evil Government Agency sub-plot, it’s all Teenagers vs. Slime.

Evil Government Agency sub-plot, you say? Yes. Here we see the only real contrast between the two Blobs. In the 1950s, a bunch of “no-good kids” spend the entire movie trying to convince skeptical authorities of the Horror mucking around. Once everyone gets a good look at the Blob in action, the residents of Small Town American came together to defeat the alien menace with  American can-do spirit. Because if we don’t, the Commies win!

Not so here. Post-Watergate, an Evil Government Agency, headed by the shifty Dr. Meddows (Joe Seneca), descends from on high, invading Small Town America in level 5 bio-suits. They quarantining the town, touting machine guns, and aren’t the least bit shy about opening fire on United States citizens. I won’t tell you what connection they have to this incarnation of the Blob, but…you’ve probably already guessed.

The two Blobs are obvious children of their timess. In the 50s, cops and “punk kids” worked side by side and the local sheriff could get on the horn to the local military base with no problem. The institutions of authority that we, as Americans, put our faith in triumphed because, by God, they’re American institutions, and these colors don’t run!

Here, the institutions of authority we put faith in are useless in the face of an alien menace. They run around fruitlessly trying to maintain the status quo, shooting everything that looks at them funny. Don’t close those beaches. I am not a crook. We had to destroy that village in order to save it. Not at all a metaphor for current geo-political conditions. Not at all. Blah, blah, blah. In the end, this evil government agency’s efforts come to nothing, society breaks down, anarchy rules, and its up to those “no-good kids” to save the world. I don’t know about you, but that kind of story  just warms the cockles of my heart.

A few more things before I let you go. I’d just like to point out that what I said about Chuck Russell’s writing goes double for his directing. He keeps things simple and direct, with no fancy tricks or directorial eye candy to distract you from what’s on screen. Good job there.

Also, props to Lyle Conway for his excellent creature FX. Let’s face it, the old stop-motion Blob was cutting edge…for 1956. Twelve years old or not, Conway’s Blob is much more kinetic than its cinematic father, proactively chasing its prey rather than just rolling over whatever hapless human it encounters. And you gotta love those tentacles.

You don’t have to love the fistful of side characters that populate this Idyllic Small Town…but I found I couldn’t help myself. Because, while they might not be interesting, they’re at least recognizable. The shrewd dad (Meg’s father, played by (Art LaFleur), Fran (Candy Clark), who owns the local diner; even Moss the mechanic (Beau Billingslea). Like Brian the Rebel, they’re all caricatures. But through decent writing and competent acting, I enjoyed spending some time with them.

All in all, you might enjoy spending time with this movie, too. Instant classic? Hell no. Fun waste of time? Hell yes. If you want more Blob for your buck, then step right up.


The Killer Shrews (1959)

The second part of our Ray Kellogg fort night (thank you once again, Nathan) begins with this statement, which has nothing at all to do with the rest of the movie. But whatever. Bad Movie Law states that Our Humble Narrator must say something before the start credits role, even if it’s an unnecessary non sequitur.

The actual story begins with Thorn Sherman (James “Roscoe P. Coltrane” Best)! Hell of a name, isn’t it? Thorn Sherman! Just disserves to be written with an exclamation point, doesn’t it? Thorn Sherman! One of those strong, manly action names like Buck Rogers! or Dirk Pit! Names of manly men who do manly things without a hint of those ugly feminine traits. You know, like emotions.

So Thorn (!) Sherman and his Token Black Dude, Rook (Judge Dupree), are sailing to this deserted island with a cargo full of supplies. Seems there’s this weird scientist who lives on this island and he’s set himself up a nice little spread, far away from humanity. Out here, all alone, nothing but miles and miles of ocean in every direction. No possible way that someone could just happen by to, oh, I don’t know, save their lives. Oh, and did I mention there’s a hurricane on the way? Yep. Both Rook and Thorn (!) can feel it coming with their Sailor-Sense.

Thorn (!) and Rook anchor their boat and row ashore, seeking shelter from the storm. On the beach, they meet Dr. Craigis (Baruch “One of my sperm will soon become Sidney” Lumet), his Hot Scientist Daughter Anne (Ingrid “Former Miss. Universe” Goude, once again proving movie scientists really are trying to create a master race) and a gun-toting, drunk looking assistant named Jerry (Ken “I produced this piece of crap movie” Curtis). Thorn (!) shares news of the storm with Dr. Craig, and we discover that the One Radio on the whole damn island has been broken for some time. Wow. Now they’re completely cut off. Sure would suck if some form of mutant killer monster were to be roaming the island…

Everyone but Rook treks to Dr. Craig’s little island villa, surrounded by an eight foot high picket fence. Thorn (!) doesn’t ask questions. Sure, everyone’s acting a bit strange and Anne keeps jumping at every song she hears. And these people sure are doing strange things to rodents and really sound like they want to leave the island before dark but, hey, why ask questions? Thorn (!) is like that. If it isn’t his business, he doesn’t poke his head in. He even says so, later on. He’s a 50’s man!

Except that all this is about to become his business very soon. It seems Dr. Craig, Jerry, and fellow scientist Dr. Radford Baines (Gordon MacLendon), have been playing around with shrew genetics, trying to do something about the problem of overpopulation. Or some such. They chose shrews because of their rapid reproduction rate (try saying that three times fast) but their experiments have had a few…unforeseen side effects.

Faster than you can say, “Tampering in God’s Domain” Rook (who stayed behind to secure the boat for the approaching hurricane), is chased up a tree by a pack of dogs with lots of fake fur glued onto their backs, with similarly fake tails sticking out of their asses. However, once director Ray Kellogg gives us a shrew close up, you’ll see the Killer Shrews magically transform from dogs with fur glued to their backs to stiff, doll-eyed, fang toothed puppets. It’s magic, man, I tell you what.

So Rook catches a nasty case of dead from the Killer Shrews. Meanwhile, back at Isolated Local Central, Anne and Dr. Craig spill the beans to Thorn (!). Somehow, this strain of giant shrews escaped the lab and began breeding. Since shrews need to eat about twice their body weight everyday to keep their metabolisms going, the Killer Shrews have pretty much depopulated the island’s native wildlife. So the Shrews are looking to rustle up a nice human on rye with a side of fries and a coke. Now just $4.98, please pull up to the next window.

After all was said and done, I turned to my friend and asked her a riddle. “What do you get when you take Night of the Living Dead, fill it with uninteresting characters and tack on a stupid happy ending?”

Answer: The Killer Shrews.

Except that won’t work, really, because Shrews was made in 1959, it’s just the obvious parallel that every review of The Killer Shrews follows…both of them.

Like The Giant Gila Monster, this movie is (in)famous for its <air quotes> special air quotes effects. In this case, the extra harry dogs and their rat puppet counterparts. How do they look? Like harry dog and puppet heads on sticks. And even though so much of this movie is dark (I’ll be damned if I knew how the shrews get through that kitchen window–I had to wait for a character to explain it to me), the scenes with the Head Puppets are always lovingly well lit. Too bad for them.

Acting wise, everyone in the movie gets stuck in that bog of mediocre acting. After this, the highest anyone in the cast would rise is James Bests role in *snort* The Dukes of Hazard. Hell, he’s the only one really worth talking about. Here, best plays Thorn with an off-Southern accent. That, plus the few crumbs the script drops about his past, made me call him a Good Ole Boy more than once.

Thorn seems quite the redneck, yessir, but (despite my better judgment) I found myself…not liking him, exactly. But he does what I would do in this situation: he grabs a gun and tells everyone to shut the hell up. In my case, I would tell everyone to shut up so I could think. I guess Thorn just tells everyone to shut up so he can throw some more bad pick-up lines at Anne or drink copiously in silence.

The rest of the cast is…wait, I said they weren’t worth talking about, didn’t I? Wow, there goes that paragraph. Coolness.

Seriously, though, I think the acting here is better overall than the acting in our last Ray Kellogg picture. Mostly because the actors here are adults playing adults instead of thirty year-olds playing teenagers. Baruch Lumet doesn’t embarrass himself too badly as Dr. Craig, even though the good Doc gets all the pontificating speeches. Everybody else, though…fuck um. Let the shrews take um.

Then we can move on to talk about what really pissed me off about The Killer Shrews. The movie has no brains and no balls. I hate to do this, but I’m going to sully Night of the Living Dead‘s name some more by bringing it out again. It’ll help me show all of you just why Shrews is such a bad movie. Its not because of the mediocre acting. It’s not because of the thrift-shop special effects. It’s not because Our Hero is a dick. Oh, gosh no.

Want to know why Shrews sucks so much? It’s all because Thorn doesn’t kill Jerry.

Halfway through the movie, Thorn beats Jerry senseless because Jerry is an even bigger dick than he is. Climbing a stack of crates, Thorn gets ready to toss Jerry over the side, down into the shrew horde. But, at the last moment, Thorn catches Anne staring at him and her beauty sooths the savage beast. Somewhat.

Had Thorn done his bit of Jerry-tossing, this movie could’ve touched on some very weight subjects, my fine feathered friend. Instead of a movie about a bunch of people trapped in a little house surrounded by killer shrews, this movie could’ve had a damn sight more brains. It could’ve been a movie about just how far a man can go. It could’ve made the audience sit back and think, Damn, would I be able to hold on to my humanity in a similar situation? It could’ve done what horror fiction is supposed to do: scare you. Unnerve you. At least Night had the balls to kill a nice, juicy blond haired-blue eyed white girl. Here, the only people who die are bad guys and ethnic characters…making me wonder if The Killer Shrews is really thinly valid Nazi propaganda.

Yeah, well, if everyone were after you, you’d be paranoid, too.


Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)

It's the shadow of the Bat.
It's the shadow of the Bat.

This is more than a good movie: it’s the movie I watch at least once a year to remind myself why I watch movies. Produced by the same writers, directors, composers and cast as Batman: The Animated Series, Mask of the Phantasm is not only the best superhero movie of the 1990s, its easily the gold standard by which to judge all subsequent  superhero films.

Shame the thing isn’t better-known outside of the fan community. It’s unique among superhero movies of its age, both for its faithful importation of material already present in Batman comics and for its deft incorporation of new story elements that add depth and meaning to the source, reinforcing key themes without hitting the audience in the face with some overriding Message or a lot of heavy Exposition. Arguably the most mature American cartoon feature to date, it deals with grand questions of fate, free will and the psychological cost of living in the shadow of one’s past. Plus…it’s frickin’ Batman. Honestly, what’s not to love? Continue reading Batman: Mask of the Phantasm (1993)