Another feature of...
Plot: A gritty, layered Blaxploitation gangster film.
Larry Cohen is well known among genre movie fans as a prominent B-Movie auteur (and is one of the few such filmmakers worthy of that description). He's earned these accolades, and more besides. Making films generally described as ‘quirky,’ Cohen has worked in a number of genres, most notably in horror and sci-fi. He has written and/or directed such acclaimed cheapo classics as Q, the killer baby It’s Alive series, Maniac Cop and The Stuff. Continuing to work with limited resources for the freedom this affords him, Cohen's pictures consistently and solidly give his audiences what they want while also providing a depth of characterization seldom found in genre fare.
We open in Harlem, 1953. A man, played by character actor and Cohen regular Andrew Duggan – last seen here in Frankenstein Island – is walking down the street. A young black teenager with a shoeshine kit offers his services. As the shine progresses a second white guy exits an alley with a drawn gun. Duggan tries to run off but the black kid grabs hold of his leg until the former is shot down.
The kid is our protagonist, Tommy Gibbs. Acting as a gofer, he later brings payoff money to McKinney, a malevolent racist beat cop. McKinney finds that he’s been shorted -- we never learn if Gibbs stole some of the cash or if his boss was setting him up to be killed -- and subjects Gibbs to a horrific beating, shattering his leg. Gibbs is then sentenced to prison for twelve years for assaulting a police officer (!!). Aside from the leg, though, this all falls into Gibbs’ plans. (He seems to have considered it an inevitability that he’d end up in prison at some point.) He therefore instructs his brainy friend Joe on his plans. He’ll go to prison and learn the ropes of the crime trade. Meanwhile, Joe is to go to college and learn how the system works.
Gibbs emerges from prison a handsome, athletic young man, albeit with a limp courtesy of McKinney’s beating. Here we follow his rather familiar path to power. While freshness is provided in the details, the film remains Cohen’s nod to the classic Warner Brothers gangster films of the ‘30s, most obviously Edgar G. Robinson’s Little Caesar. Gibbs commits a hit, using this as his introduction to the dismissively racist Italian crime boss who runs Harlem. Taken on more as a novelty than anything else – blacks having no place in the Mafia – Gibbs bides his time. Eventually he manages to brutally seize power from the complacent Mafiosi. And despite being as much of a creep as his predecessors, he quickly becomes a bit of a folk hero to the local blacks, who seem to prefer to be exploited by one of their own. (Not much has changed, I guess.)
His plans for vengeance are convincingly well thought out. In one plot thread he hires a white lawyer to act as his legitimate front. Later he seems to humiliate the man without reason. Then we learn the Gibbs’ mother has for years worked for the lawyer as a maid. This again is interesting stuff, although a lot of the pieces have to be put together. This leads me to suspect that some intended exposition didn’t make it into the film. Initially we don’t understand why Gibbs forces the lawyer and his predatory wife to sell him their high-rise apartment. Especially odd is that he also demands that they leave behind all their possessions, right down to their wardrobe. Later a glancing line of dialog reveals that Gibbs as a child had worn hand-me-down clothes that the lawyer gave him mother. This, apparently, was one of a long list of humiliations that Gibbs has planned to revenge himself upon.
Again following a familiar arc, Gibbs finds that the more he gains the less it matters to him. Eventually he's left without any real human connections, and his own despair begins to extinguish the rage that fueled his rise. This leaves himself increasingly vulnerable to a new generation of human wolves barking at his own heels.
As is typical with Cohen, characterization is what raises the film above its fellows. Gibbs in some ways is the archetypical movie gangster. It’s his thoughtfulness more than his extreme brutality that makes him interesting, though. In the beginning he is fueled by raw hatred and rage, yet he never allows these traits to distract him from his carefully laid-out plans. Gibbs, apparently, lives by the tenet that revenge is a dish best served cold. He deals particularly deftly with the reflexive racism he is constantly confronted by. Rather than evincing anger, he instead plays into the characterizations. This accrues to his benefit, since he knows the manner in which opponents underestimate him to be his greatest asset. He doesn’t forget the slights, however, he hoards them. Sucking on them like they were bitter candy, he nurses them until he’s ready to strike.
Gibbs gets everything he always wanted. Yet in the process he alienates anyone who might love him, and ultimately becomes a reflection of the man he hates most in the world. He literally takes a woman to be his wife, keeping her with threats, trying to buy her love with gifts. The scene where he rapes her and doesn’t even get what he’s doing wrong is powerful and brave stuff. His mother, meanwhile, can’t accept the wealth he brandishes at her. Not only is it tainted, but it’s just too alien to everything she’s known all her life. There’s also some interesting stuff with Gibbs’ father, a man Gibbs never knew but who eventually pops up. Typically, what at first seems to be a rather cliché character proves to be a lot deeper than we initially suspected.
Eventually Gibbs’ childhood friends also desert him. Joe never wanted to be a criminal and eventually takes off. Rufus, another boyhood pal, became a fraudulent minister so as help launder Gibbs' money. In the end, though, he begins to fall a little too deeply into character. The scene where Gibbs’ tearful mother comes to him for help, actually believing that he has a calling, is great stuff. She tearfully tells him that he was always the good one in her son’s crowd, and you can see how shaken and honestly confused he is by her genuine belief in him. The really interesting touch is that he doesn’t so much appear to actually find God as to seem like he’s trying to will himself to believe he has.
Then there’s our chief villain. Cohen is savvy enough to make McKinney a purely evil character. Some folks believe that there are, as the phrase goes, no black and white issues in the world. People, too, are never entirely good or entirely evil. Well, guess what, they’re wrong. And Cohen knows it. By shading all the other characters in the film, especially Gibbs, McKinney’s potentially one-note venality is made all the more credible. Credit also definitely goes to veteran character actor Art Lund, who really breathes life into the guy. In a genre with an impressive and quite huge Rogue’s Gallery of evil racists, McKinney stands out.
Nor does Lund give the only good performance here. (This is another trait of Cohen’s films. He has a history of attracting solid actors, such as Michael Moriarty, and continuing to use them again and again.) Especially strong is Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, who supplies one of the best turns in the entire Blaxploitation genre. He truly makes Gibbs a character we believe in. A former football player, like fellow black athletes turned actors Jim Brown and O. J. Simpson, Williamson first appeared as Dr. "Spearchucker" Jones in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H. Soon he would become a Blaxploitation mainstay. Williamson to this day continues to strut his badass stuff, again like Jim Brown (who had a memorable role in Mars Attacks and managed to hold his own in one-on-one scenes opposite Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday.), Recent examples include such films as From Dawn to Dusk and Original Gangstas, the latter a Blaxploitation reunion piece written by…Larry Cohen. (I also have to note that Williamson here, with his large ‘70s sideburns and all, would have been the perfect guy to have played black superhero Luke Cage.)
As usual, Cohen’s script tosses in plenty of small but telling details. As a kid, we see Gibbs admiring the old fashioned pistol his boss carries. As an adult he adopts a similarly antiquated weapon, a WWI-era broom handle Mauser, as his personal weapon of choice. (A bit of a fashion plate, you get the idea that Gibbs picked his sidearm pretty much entirely for its sleek looks.)
Those interested in the film should definitely check out the recent MGM DVD version. Aside from a beautiful letterboxed presentation, Cohen provides an extremely informative and often hilarious commentary track. For a sense of what it’s like to make B-Movies, it's right up there with the Joe Dante/Jon Davison tracks for Piranha and Hollywood Boulevard and the various ones provided by Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell for the Evil Dead discs.
I especially like Cohen's story about sending Williamson out to buy a flashy wardrobe for his role. Williamson returned with a wide variety of clothes, including six suits and some sports jackets, and Cohen asked how much he spent. Upon hearing the figure eight hundred dollars, Cohen assumed that was per suit. Instead, it was for Gibbs’ entire wardrobe! (Excluding, perhaps, Gibb’s stylish gray trademark fedora.) It turned out that Williamson had such a fantastic build and sense of style that a forty dollar off-the-rack suit looked like a million dollars when he was wearing it. And I can testify that this is the case, because I was as surprised as Cohen to hear that Gibbs’ clothes were off the rack.
For what it’s worth, Cohen is another writer/director/producer, like fellow hyphenate Roger Corman, who intentionally infuses his films with often radical left-wing political content. I bring this up because there are those who apparently believe that I foam at the mouth whenever I see a movie whose politics I disagree with. Let me stipulate, though, that this is not the case. As long as such content is dealt with intelligently and without hypocrisy, I don’t have a problem with it. Given the remarkable nuance of Cohen’s films, I can honestly say I’ve never had a problem with any of his politics as presented through his work.
With Gibbs' fate left in doubt at the conclusion of the film, one which proved very successful at the box office, the character was to return in the no-doubt junkier Hell Comes to Harlem. The sequel was a rare example – Son of Kong being another – in which a follow up was whipped out so quickly that it was in theaters the very same year that the first movie was released.
Summation: An authentic Blaxploitation classic.
Plot: Chinese martial arts hokum.
Five Fingers of Death holds a revered place in the Exploitation Movie Hall of Fame. Not because of any special merit; indeed, the film is almost a preternaturally typical Chop Socky flick. Instead, its renown – such as it is – is as the first badly dubbed Chinese martial arts picture to hit it big in the U.S. Its success kicked off a flood of similarly imported fighting films at drive-ins across the country. Such movies, along with the Blaxploitation flick, were to be the ‘70s most notable additions to the Exploitation ranks.
This isn’t a genre I know much about, and it’s quite possible that several people famous to martial arts buffs are on display here. I wouldn't know them, however. Nor am I good with Chinese names, so I’ll assign the characters Anglo ones as they appear. (Just like at Ellis Island!) Even for someone who’s not a particular fan of such fare, however, this film proves an entertaining way to pass an hour and a half. The fighting is pretty good, if nowhere near the kind of stuff Jackie Chan and Jet Li provide. The actors are enjoyably over the top, and there’s always the occasional hilarious piece of badly translated dialog.
I should note that this film takes place in your typical, pre-industrial China. (Admittedly, for much of the country this could mean anywhere up to 1960, but I mean earlier than that.) An elderly rotund man, Mr. Jones, is taking a nighttime stroll when attacked by a pack of brigands led by the sinister bald Telly. They begin to attack the old fellow, who holds his own via his mastery of the ancient art of trampoline-fu. Eventually Mr. Jones’ daughter, Suzy, and his student Roy hear of the fracas and run to his assistance. Telly, seeing their approach, orders his men to flee. Mr. Jones, slightly wounded, returns with Suzy and Roy to his house. Pressed for an explanation, Mr. Jones reports that the cause of the attack was due to "a long forgotten affair." No one bothers to point out that someone apparently remembers it.
Roy and Suzy are excited about a visit from Tony, a former student of Mr. Jones. As the four of them eat dinner, the main topic of conversation is a big martial arts tournament to be held the following year. Mr. Jones exhorts both Roy and Tony to participate. After dinner Roy and Tony head out back for a friendly sparring session. Mr. Jones is surprised to see that Tony, himself now rather handy with the offscreen trampoline, is holding his own with Roy.
Tony is due to return to training with his new teacher, Mr. Smith. That night Mr. Jones tells Roy that he should go with him. When Tony left three years ago, Roy was his kung fu superior. Now they are evenly matched. Mr. Jones explains that he is getting too old for this kind of thing, and that it’s obvious Mr. Smith is now the better teacher. He maintains that Roy would profit greatly from training with Mr. Smith, just as Tony has. Roy however, is love with Suzy and replies that he wishes to remain where he is. Mr. Jones berates Roy for his selfishness. It’s important that Roy do his best to prepare for the big tournament. If any of the local bad element were to win it, they would use the power and prestige they gained for nefarious purposes. Inspired, Roy agrees to seek out Mr. Smith's tutelage.
We cut to the village market. Frankie, a dissolute young man -- we can tell, he’s smoking a cigarette in a holder -- and his gang of louts walk around performing various acts of petty mayhem. Then we cut to a street barker offering a hundred bucks to the one who can beat the bald, muscular Mongolian he manages. One fellow tries and is quickly beaten. Then Worf (he kind of looks like a Klingon) steps from the crowd and accepts the challenge. We instantly know he’s tough because he gets a big musical cue. Worf handily defeats the Mongolian and scoops up his earnings. However, Frankie suddenly appears and demands that he hand over the money.
A fight is averted when local bigwig Mr. Brown, Frankie’s father, intercedes. (Mr. Brown is also *gasp* the owner of a martial arts school that competes with Mr. Smith’s.) He invites Worf over for a drink. Cut to Mr. Brown’s place, where the guys sit at the table with an assortment of floozies. Mr. Brown explains to Worf that he cares only for fighting. "I don’t care about fame, honor or fortune," he expounds. Mr. Brown invites Worf to stay as his guest, and then he and Frankie head off for a little talk. We find out *gasp* that it was Frankie who sent Telly and his crew to take out Mr. Jones.
Speak of the devil, we then cut to Telly and his gang checking out Nancy, an overly high-pitched, Yoko One-esque musical street performer. One of Telly’s men suggests grabbing her and presenting her to Frankie to make up for their lack of success with Mr. Jones. Telly grabs her but she bites him and runs off. She ducks into an inn, where, big shock, Roy just happens to be eating lunch. Telly and his bunch, seeing Roy, surround him. Cue our next fight scene. Within seconds all of Telly’s henchguys have had their asses handed to them. Roy next humiliates Telly by quickly incapacitating him with a large wad of dough. He then leaves with Nancy, and the two travel together to the town where Mr. Smith and Mr. Brown have their academies. (I had a deal of trouble following the geographies of the movie.)
Roy arrives at Mr. Smith’s academy, whereupon he quickly takes his lumps in a demonstration match with Rudy, one of the instructors. Mr. Smith is so unimpressed that he tells Roy he isn’t good enough to train there; instead, he’ll have to work in the kitchen. Then, as Roy performs his menial tasks, Mr. Smith randomly attacks him, seeing if he’s keeping on his toes. Roy stoically endures all of this until Mr. Smith, impressed by his fortitude, accepts him as a student. Roy trains hard but continues to be harassed by Rudy.
Telly learns about all this and is soon conferring in a tavern with Frankie and Worf. Frankie’s concerned that the students from Mr. Smith’s school are training with an eye to entering the tournament. Worf promises to take care of the situation the next day. Just then, coincidentally enough, Roy appears, having been sent by Rudy to procure a jug of wine. Hoping to get something going, they cut loose with a couple of rather lame quips at Roy’s expense. Considering the robust guffaws that issue from their fellow patrons, I can only posit that the tavern serves a very high quality of booze.
Roy tries to leave peacefully, but Worf’s seen Billy Jack and responds by pouring wine all over him. Roy still tries to go, but is tripped by Frankie. (Earlier we saw Roy dodge an ambush of spears Mr. Smith tossed at him; now he can’t avoid an outthrust foot.) Roy responds by going into a roll and leaping up to grab the wine jug before it shatters. Then he finally makes his exit. At this Worf and Frankie mistake his forbearance for cowardice.
Rudy learns of Roy’s behavior and also imputes his actions to cowardice. Before he can confront him, though, Worf appears. He’s grabbed the school’s name board and (in a scene in seemingly every Chinese martial arts movie ever) smashes it as an insult to the academy. He then savagely manhandles a number of the students. Roy tries to step in, but a scornful Rudy pushes him aside and challenges Worf himself. Rudy and another instructor quickly fall, but then Mr. Smith shows up and lays some whupass on Worf. However, a cowardly surprise attack knocks Mr. Smith on the floor. Worf leaves, giving the school three days to get out of Dodge.
Roy's now taken all he can take and heads back to the tavern. Worf, still thinking him a coward, resumes taunting him. This, as you might have expected, proves a mistake in Worf’s part, who proves no match for Our Hero. Learning of Roy’s impressive victory, Mr. Smith gives him the secret manual that teaches the Iron Fist, a super-powerful martial arts technique. Meanwhile, the villainous Mr. Brown has imported three fighting masters from (Boo! Hiss!) Japan…
This takes us about forty minutes into the film, with a bit over an hour still to come. Things move pretty well here, providing a plethora of well done fight sequences. A large cast of characters have been introduced by this point, and needless to say, by the end of the movie most of them will no longer be extant. Roy will triumph in the end (sorry), despite one scene where he’s tied to a tree and has his hands beaten so severely that they should now be flippers. Despite this, a little training and he’s good as new (!!). Too bad I can’t say the same about the fellow who has his eyes plucked from their sockets (!) by another guy utilizing the Moe Howard Finger Jabbing technique. This is probably the only really gruesome bit in the film, though.
Despite the fact that this movie has a reputation of being more-or-less run of the mill, I have to say that I found it to be pretty damn entertaining. I suppose it might be because I haven’t seen enough of these to become jaded with them yet. As well, the film benefits mightily from its widescreen presentation on DVD. The picture is more adequate than great – it appears to have been taken off a video tape – but the letterboxing is essential. I shudder to imagine what the film would look like panned and scanned. The fighting scenes are pretty good, and the actors are prone to less scenery chewing than those in many other similar films.
Some of the scenes are pretty neat. Late in the movie, the blinded character ambushes his tormentors in a darkened room, thus evening the odds. I have to admit that this could have been filmed better (it’s a little murky here, and events can be hard to follow) but it’s still pretty slick. Also, how can you not love a movie where a blinded guy reaps his revenge and then sardonically remarks "Unexpected, eh? You poked my eyes out, and now I’ve given you a taste of your own medicine!" Especially amusing to viewers of a certain age is the blare that’s heard every time Roy activates his dreaded Iron Fist. It’s the same siren sound effect used when Raymond Burr’s Ironside was shot in the opening credits of his show!!
THINGS I LEARNED*:
(*Courtesy of Sgt. Andrew Borntreger, USMC)
Summation: A fun movie with a notable B-Movie pedigree.
Mantis In Lace
One of the genres to most benefit from the DVD ‘revolution’ is, oddly, the pre-hardcore porn flick. This is largely attributable to the Something Weird video company. Even b-movie fans who aren’t particularly partial to such fare, such as myself, are taking a look at their discs because they often represent the cutting edge in the field. Double features, commentary tracks, additional trailers and nudie shorts, few companies are likely to give you as much for your hard-earned DVD dollar. (The downside, as I’m learning, is the question of how many of these things do you really want to watch, fantastic extras aside.) Aficionados of old time sci-fi and horror films can only dream of such movies receiving a similar level of care and attention. Perhaps only the original two slates of Universal’s Classic Monsters discs lived up to this sort of standard.
The films I’m talking about here were produced back in the pre-VCR days. Then most large cities boasted adults-only theatres, which catered to what was known as the raincoat crowd. Such films were surprisingly tame by today’s standards, containing simulated activities that are probably somewhat less explicit than you’d see in a modern made-for-Cinemax softcore flick.
In those days, guys often wore their underpants during ‘sex,’ which typically consisted of two almost nude people sort of fondling each other. The bodies were less surgically enhanced and noticeably from before the health club thing hit big. In other words, both a good thing and a bad thing. Still, the biggest difference was that they tended to be, you know, actual movies. They had real plots and stuff, lame ones to be sure, but generally no worse than what you’d often find in cheap exploitation flicks. Sometimes they’d actually try to make them funny, and so low-grade genre parodies like Space Thing and Trader Hornee were popular. There were softcore detective flicks and Westerns and all sort of things.
On the prurience scale they ranged from the sexless Nudie Cutie (topless women playing a real lot of volleyball; that sort of thing) to the ‘Roughies,’ which were often grotesquely tasteless and would contain scenes of rape and whatnot. Probably the most abhorrent of these were numerous flicks set in Nazi "sex camps," including the infamous Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. Even aside from these, though, Roughies would serve up various levels of violence with the sex, everything from whippings to castrations.
Mantis in Lace, aka Lila, more or less falls into this category. As noted, these films often were straight genre flicks featuring lots of nudity and simulated sex. Here we have an ‘adult’ combination of the drug ‘trip’ flick, police procedural and a psycho-killer movie. The picture has its strengths, but it well wears out its welcome by the time its one and a half hour running time has expired.
The main set is a strip club, for obvious reasons of budget economy. We open with our anti-heroine Lila ‘dancing’ in a red spangled bikini on a rather bare looking stage. This is accompanied by her character's theme song (!), sung in breathy fashion by what is probably the producer’s girlfriend, if you know what I mean. Among other things, we learn that Lila is the "Devil in disguise" and, unsurprisingly, a "mantis in lace." These gyrations continue for some minutes, much to the delight of a small but appreciative crowd. The crowd in the movie, I mean. Those outside of it might be peering at their watches at this point.
Coming off stage, Lila is accosted by a jerk patron. Proving a tough cookie, she blows him off easily. At this we shift our attention (such as it is) to the bikinied woman currently frugging up on stage. This again we follow for some minutes. Eventually she removes her top, our first bit of real skin in the movie. Eventually Lila emerges wearing a negligee over her bikini. She approaches a sort of hipster doofus guy who we can tell will Spell Trouble. They decide play pool. Yep, this thing’s rollicking so far.
As you might have guessed, their match is portrayed at some length. Eventually they make plans to meet after the club closes. Hipster Guy also promises to provide some chemical enhancements. Cut to later. Driving off, they soon arrive at a warehouse. We learn that it belongs to Lila’s father, from whom she’s evidently estranged. Therefore she gets a kick out of bringing her, uh, dates there. Inside is a mattress, some crates and cardboard boxes and not much else.
Not to get bogged down here, Hipster Guy presents Lila with some LSD. She begins to ‘dance’ for him, a fact I only mention because she accompanies her actions with a record album that just happens to play the ‘Lila’ song. (And it’s the long-play version to boot!) Making this the second time we’ve heard this tune in twelve minutes. Then they start to have sex -- eventually, c’mon get on with it! -- she has a fairly hilarious ‘freak out’ sequence. The next thing you know she’s grabbed a convenient screwdriver (!) and offed the guy.
If I’m following this, Lila becomes a murderer because of childhood trauma stemming from her parents making her eat foods she didn’t like. (I’m not kidding. A partial litany includes "cucumbers, watermelon, bananas…") Man, that bar gets lower every day. Anyhow, after she slays her victim, she grabs a handy meat cleaver (??) and, imagining her victim to be a cantaloupe (!!), begins hacking him apart.
Next we meet the two detectives who will be our other protagonists. The smarter one is played Steve Vincent, who I think was the lead actor in Space Thing. What’s odd is that the ongoing investigation is actually pretty believable. They basically just grind away at it, monotonously doing mostly useless legwork until they catch a break and solve the case. For whatever it’s worth, I’ve got to give the film that much.
Lila’s next (eventual) victim is a middle-aged, bald psychiatrist. Before this, though, we are ‘treated’ to about nineteen hours of various girls *cough* dancing. Finally, though, the guy and Lila end up at the warehouse. He’s a surprisingly well-written character for one of these. He seems close to figuring out how screwed up Lila is, but he sadly allows his sex drive to interrupt his chain of thought and ends up biting the dust. (And before he gets his cloths off, I’m happy to say.)
Here we follow the police investigation for a while, and, again, it’s not bad stuff. We then get a totally unrelated sex scene featuring the club manager and a prospective ‘dancer,’ weirdly accompanied by very romantic music (!!). After the main event, the happy couple share some wine. Look under ‘gratuitous’ in the dictionary and you should see a picture from this scene. In fact, I’m assuming it was lifted completely out of another movie, with the twenty-second scene at the club filmed to create a crude segue of sorts.
Back to the cops working their way through the nudie joint circuit, looking for someone who remembers seeing the latest victim. They arrive at Lila’s club (she’s on stage, in fact, and they stop to gawk at her for a bit), but no one recognizes the latest victim from his morgue shot. As soon as they leave, however, she starts experiencing a freak-out on stage, a bit that goes nowhere.
Here we cut backstage to the dancers’ dressing room. One woman asks another to rub some oil on her back, a scene we obviously anticipate will lead into an obligatory lesbian sequence. Strangely, though, things cut short before anything sexual happens, instead showcasing the two just yakking and passing a joint back and forth. Wouldn’t want to wake up the audience, I guess.
Cut to a burly guy and Lila at the warehouse. Less than a gentleman, he doesn’t wish to stick to her timetable, despite her protests. I’d feel more sympathy for her, I suppose, if I didn’t know she was soon going to be taking a hatchet to the guy. Anyhoo, he starts forcing himself on her, with predictable results. She evades him and grabs a handy garden hoe (!), and so things go. The biggest difference is that here she not only hallucinates her victim as being a melon but also as a piñata (!).
Back to our detectives, who are being reamed out by their Captain for their lack of progress. They also discuss how the forensics report indicates that the killings took place in the same place. Then we cut to the club for some more at-length dancing. (Arggh!)
We move on to a real estate agent showing the warehouse to a prospective buyer. (Bum bum bum!) I’m thinking this is someone who provided funding for the film and his wife, because they – he in particular – really can’t act. After finding a puddle of red candle wax, er, dried blood on the floor they call the cops. This is followed by a fairly funny scene where the detectives almost laugh her off, thinking she’s another crank, before hearing the details of her story.
Back to the club for, that’s right, more dancing. ("Ensign! Engage the Fast Forward Button!") Lila, meanwhile, is there sharing a drink with her next potential victim. At this point she’s dropping acid with her beer, and it's one of the film’s nicer touches that we can see her drug habit spiraling out of control.
The detectives check out the warehouse, where they quickly find the bloody cleaver. Oddly, it’s bright daylight out, despite the fact that Lila, who was just working at the club -- presumably at night -- arrives outside with her next target. Hiding, the cops watch as the two enter. In another nice moment, the cops assume that it’s the guy who’s the killer. Meanwhile, the man sensibly is wary of the isolated locale Lila's taken him to. Sensing that someone else is in the warehouse – in this case the detectives – he wonders if Lila is running a badger game on him. Again, this is a nicer little touch than I’d have expected here.
Being a liquor store owner, the guy happens to carry a gun. Meanwhile, Lila's slipping grasp on reality is growing ever more tenuous, and she starts going nuts before they even begin making out. She lunges for the gun and he grabs it first. At this the detectives rush out, still thinking that he’s the killer. (After all, he’s the one pointing the gun at her.)
The guy, still thinking that Lila’s been setting him up to get robbed, fires at the detectives. They shoot back and blow him away. In a rather poor instance of scene blocking, the two stand there in amazement as they watch Lila freak out. Considering the circumstances, though, her reaction seems pretty normal -- for a girl who's just seen her date shot down by two strangers -- and anyway you’d think their first instinct would be to check on the armed guy they were just exchanging shots with.
Lila starts wildly waving the cleaver around. They disarm her, still not getting that she’s the killer. They haul her off in their car and the film ends, which is unfortunate. Considering that the detectives would have to eventually figure out that the guy they killed was innocent and that Lila’s the killer – I mean, c’mon, her father owns the warehouse, her fingerprints would be all over the place and she worked in the strip club where all the victims hung out – well, I’d just have preferred to see that bit.
One thing that’s confusing if that it’s difficult to tell if the LSD is what kicks off the killing spree. The warehouse, the odd array of murderous implements lying around, some of Lila’s comments, vaguely seem to point to earlier killings. Maybe. Or perhaps she was already in the process of going nuts and the acid just sped things up. I don’t know, we’re probably not supposed to be thinking about this so much.
Actually, my biggest problem was with the lack of odors in the warehouse. Let’s say that Lila could somehow manage to clean up all the carnage from the bodies she hacks to pieces. (Although you’d think this would take days.) Even so, wouldn’t a certain slaughterhouse stench remain pretty evident? You’d think so, but none of the numerous characters who enter the warehouse mention anything.
THINGS I LEARNED:
While the disc for this lacks a commentary track, it remains loaded with extras. These include:
After finishing this review, I found some information posted on the Internet Movie Database. This indicates that the alternate footage mentioned above was part of an entirely different cut of the film. Apparently Something Weird put the ‘sex’ version of the film on the disc, while there is also a ‘violence’ cut. Assuming the latter skips some of the stuff that slows down this edit, like the endless dancing and that unconnected sex scene, you’d have to imagine it’s a superior version. In the best of all worlds, Something Weird would have included both cuts on the disc, although that statement serves mostly to show how spoiled we DVD fans have become.
Summation: Too long and lethargically paced by half, yet better than you’d expect in some departments.
Plot: The result of tossing The Day the Earth Stood Still and Devil Girl from Mars into the Brundlefly machine.
I’d said it before and I’ll say it again. It’s a bad sign when you end up starring in cheapo remakes of your own movies. So it is here with Patricia Neal, who played the lead female role in Day the Earth Stood Still. There she played an Earth woman who learns that a handsome space alien, one on a mission of galactic peace, is a better man than her own beau. Same here, more or less.
The influence of Devil Girl From Mars, meanwhile, is felt in the extreme staginess of the affair. Devil Girl was adapted (although not much) from a play, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that this one was as well. Both films deal with a small group of average Brits trapped in a rural inn with an alien. Both are, how shall I say this, very dialog oriented. Aside from the fact that one alien is ‘good’ and the other ‘bad,’ there’s not much difference. Although to be fair, Stranger from Venus does offer some minimal outdoors location shooting. Just not much.
From the perspective of a landing spacecraft we see the Earth drawing nearer. See, that way they don’t have to show the ship. One second a couple is slowly tracking the nearby craft with their eyes, the next we’re told it’s moving at hundreds of miles an hour. Then we cut to Susan North (Patricia Neal) pretending to drive along a rear screen projection, er, country road. She crashes, and the crash is so violent -- if poorly realized -- that her slamming forward results in the back of her blouse getting all torn up. After this a Mysterious Stranger (who I’ll call ‘Stranger’ from now on) appears by her unconscious body. His face isn’t shown.
Cut to the area inn, the lobby of which is also the local pub. This is where the bulk of our, uh, action will be taking place. The pub is owned by Tom, a middle aged widower. As we enter, Tom’s daughter Gretchen is on the phone with Arthur Walker. Walker is Susan’s fiancée, and he’s calling to see if they’ve seen her. The only client currently in the pub is Dr. Meinard. He’s the film’s requisite Wise Country Physician and All Around Cynical Voice of Reason. Suddenly, though, Stranger enters the inn, still shown only from the back. Once seated, he proves to have an oddly mannered fashion of speaking, because he’s a spaceman, don’t you know.
Tom delivers a pint to Stranger’s table and we see that he walks with a limp. (Three guesses where this is going. If you’ve seen the quite similar Cosmic Man, that should serve as a hint.) Stranger asks for a room, but Tom is chagrined to learn that the fellow has no money. After all, he’s an Advanced Alien, and they’re always too socially progressed for the filthy stuff. Stranger offers to do some yard work around the inn though (!) and this proves satisfactory. Meanwhile, Stranger’s odd conversation draws interest from the others. For instance, we learn that he has no name and that *gasp!* he’s never paid taxes. This assertion proves so fantastic that Dr. Meinard comes over to feel his forehead (!) and, upon further examination, is amazed to find that Stranger has no pulse. (And, although it doesn’t come up, he probably likes his beer cold.) And no, they still haven’t shown his face.
Down the road, Walker and a pair of constables find Susan’s smashed up car. Given the severity of the wreck, the head constable cautions, it’s almost certain that Susan died in the crash. Despite this, an examination reveals her to be absent from the scene. Perplexed, they head to the Inn to make some calls. Overhearing them, Stranger – still shot solely from the back – tells them that she is fine. This results in an attempted interrogation. When the constables fail to get answers that please them, they try to arrest him. However, an invisible force field – the greatest friend of the sci-fi filmmaker on a budget -- keeps them from getting hold of him. The first instinct of the head constable is to then go for his truncheon, which I thought was pretty funny.
They are interrupted when a dazed-looking Susan wanders in. Of course, ol’ Doc Meinard calls for that old English fix-me-up, a glass of brandy. Because after a car accident the first thing you should do is to pump liquor into the victim. Meinard is amazed (everyone’s always amazed in this movie) to find minute scars on her, ones that appears to be weeks old. Susan is dazed and doesn’t remember much, until she sees Stranger – still shot from behind – and she recalls seeing him after the crash. He responds by noting that he found her in the wreck and treated her wounds. He then explains that he’s from Venus. At this he finally spins around with a big music cue to reveal that he *gasp* looks perfectly normal. Well, duh. If he didn’t all the other characters would have been treated him differently.
Walker tries to laugh this off, although you’d think that Susan’s condition and the fact that he’s surrounded with a force field would somewhat substantiate his story. Meinard, however, immediately buys into it. After all, he’s the film’s Cynical Voice of Reason.
Soon the film shifts into Day The Earth Stood Still overdrive, as Stranger requests a meeting with representatives from all the world’s nations. It turns out, and I hope you’re sitting because I wouldn’t want you to fall over and bump your head, that Earth’s warlike ways threaten the rest of the galaxy yada yada. This idea isn’t any more convincingly presented here than in any other of these things, which proves a major stumbling block in terms of us maintaining our interest. Apparently the Earth nation most like outer space civilizations is France, what with the aliens’ omnipresent attitude of snotty moral superiority and their constant hectoring.
Anyhoo, numerous small plot details are established, all pointing in obvious directions. First, the government repeatedly proves itself untrustworthy. When Stranger arrives for the conference, only British representatives, including a *gasp* military guy and a gov’ment spOOk, greet him. (Pretty funny is an earlier scene when Walker brings a police inspector to meet Stranger. I don’t know, you’d think a cabinet member would know someone more appropriate to take along.) Stranger also has a communications disc he carries, but which he leaves in his room. Making this more unlikely is that if he isn’t picked up in two days or so he’ll die from Earth’s atmosphere. I mean, he has this force field surrounding him – at least when he wants it to – so why would he leave such a vital device sitting around? (Psst! IITS!!)
More stuff. Inevitably, Stranger and Susan start making with the googy-eyes. He tells her that when his people die, they just disappear, leaving no body behind. The innkeeper gets his limping leg fixed. But the biggest plot device involves a rather difficult to believe choice by The Government to hijack the ship of Stranger’s superiors (!), due to arrive at an appointed time. I know the plots of these things revolve around the idea that humans are warlike idiots. Still, I have my doubts that the first thing a democratic nation would do upon meeting representatives from an advanced, outer space culture would be to steal their ships.
Making this especially contrived is the utterly unbelievable fashion in which the Shadowy Men of Power laugh off Stranger’s warnings. He explains that his people have a mother ship waiting in orbit. If they attempt to tamper with the smaller craft that’s due to land, the mother ship will wreak widespread destruction. Ultimately, Walker proves his worth by stealing back Stranger’s communication disc so that Our Alien Hero can warn off the other ship. (It reverses course a mere second – literally -- before it would have been caught in a magnetic trap, because that’s so, you know, suspenseful.) Stranger does this knowing that he’s dooming himself in the process.
As I’ve noted, this production has the feel of a (slightly) opened-up stage play. This is especially true in the early part of the movie, during the long stretch when Stranger is continuously shot from behind. Here the director displays a bizarre penchant for arranging groups of the supporting actors so that three or more of them are always lined up in the shot and generally facing in the direction of the camera. If there are three guys in the room, they’ll line up shoulder to shoulder in front of Stranger. If there are five or six, they’ll form tiers so that each is visible. The quite evident artificiality of this, unsurprisingly, draws attention to the fact that the actors are being carefully blocked in each shot.
Meanwhile, the film is almost complete bereft of special effects. No big robot or ray gun for Stranger, thank you very much. A couple of hilariously bad model spaceships at the end are the only concession to genre fans.
The political views of these things, by which I’m grouping in particular Day the Earth Stood Still, Cosmic Man and this, are wildly confused. One thing they share is a certain smugness on the part of their respective filmmakers. After all, large percentages of humanity – usually identified with the military and the political classes – are shown to warrant being lectured at by these extraterrestrial busybodies.
For instance, all three alien protagonists are threatened with some level of harm. Klatuu from Day is shot and wounded by a fearful soldier, later he’s hunted down and killed by a military dragnet. Members of the military open fire on Cosmic Man when he merely attempts to leave a room without permission. Here things are somewhat less severe, but consistent with the pattern. Policemen try to manhandle Stranger without much cause, while the government, including prominently the military, plans to steal the spaceship of seemingly peaceful visitors. Ditto this latter bit as well in the other two movies, except that Klatuu’s ship can’t be opened and Cosmic Man’s can’t be moved.
To an extent, this reversal of the normal Aliens: Bad -- Humans: Good trope shows a willingness to think outside the box. That’s good. However, there’s also more than a whiff of self-satisfaction in this. For not all people are bad, just generally military and government types and those defined by their greed for wealth or knowledge or power.
These segments of the population, meanwhile, are counterbalanced by a selection of enlightened individuals. These tend to be scientists, whose only allegiance is to The Truth, and Ordinary Joes, the little people who are vouchsafed from the aggressive desires that characterize the human villains. And since the filmmakers place themselves firmly with the latter group by portraying the Aliens with sympathy and admitting that we as a race deserve to be badgered by our extraterrestrial betters, a distinct air of self-satisfaction arises from these movies.
WARNING: LONG-WINDED POLITICAL ANALYSIS FOLLOWS. FEEL FREE TO JUMP AHEAD:
To this extent the films can be viewed as Leftist, with the aliens functioning as the purest possible example of the Marxist concept of the Intellectual Vanguard. In this it’s noteworthy that the Aliens are always collectivist in their political patterns, and that the human villains always seek ownership or control of something. Earth’s independent status and dangerous ability to act in what it perceives to be its own self-interest threatens other worlds, and they are here to make us toe the line. (Even so, this idea that we literally threaten the existence of other planets or the entire solar system or even galaxy remains the silliest commonality among the films.)
Now, I’m sure some of you are rolling your eyes at this. There goes Ken again, seeing Reds under every bed. But I do have a point here. It’s the elitism of these three films that marks them as Leftist. While totalitarian states of either end of the political spectrum wind up in the same place –building their thrones with the dead bodies of their own citizens – they get there in different ways.
Right-wing governments, like the Nazis, tend to be populist. The average German citizen was relatively exempt from the horrors of the regime, as long as they were ‘Aryan’ and played along. Far from being told to subsume their identities for the state, the Nazi government was there to raise the naturally superior German people to the position of dominance they deserved by right. In return Hitler derived his power from the oft manically intense support of his people.
In left-wing governments, by contrast, power emanates purely from the top. (At least in the first ‘stage,’ which is the one they never get past.) This is the significance of Lenin’s conception of an Intellectual Vanguard. While the goal was to free the proletariat from his chains, the worker himself was found to be too bewitched to act in his own interests. Therefore an educated elite would initially be needed to force the working masses to exert power in their own class interests. If that meant that a few actual people from that class, or a million, or ten million, or, as it turned out in the last century, a hundred million are terminally inconvenienced, well, you can’t make an omelet, etc.
Put another way, right-wingers are more prone to exult the collective wisdom of the masses, left-wingers to consider it faulty. The first is actively suspicious of those who are apart, such as intellectuals, the latter considers them the natural ruling class, at least until everyone else has come around to their way of thinking and humankind achieves perfection.
Let’s put this in the context of the American political system, in which the watered-down right-winger is labeled a ‘conservative’ and the diluted left-winger a ‘liberal.’ To simplify things, although many do so too readily in this regard, we’ll call the Republican Party that of the conservatives, the Democratic Party the faction of liberals.
Even though our version of conservatives and liberals are ultimately fairly middle of the road – neither, for instance, incites violence against their opposites in a bid to seize power -- the vestiges of the above dichotomy remain. It’s notable that the Democrats often run Intellectuals, or at least what Americans would recognize as such, for the office of President. The one quality that has been the defining attribute of most of their recent candidates is their supposed intellectual prowess. This was true of Adlai Stevenson; of Jimmy Carter, whose degree in nuclear engineering was much noted at the time; of Rhodes Scholar Bill Clinton, whose wife was also heralded for her putative brilliance (little of which was ever much on display), and, of course, Al Gore, author of the weighty (if inane) tome Earth in the Balance. Meanwhile, Gore’s chief rival for the Presidential nomination was Bill Bradley, another fellow known for his supposedly profound mental acuity.
Those who cherish the assumed superiority of these mental giants are given to labeling their Republican opponents not just as lesser men, but as actual and literal morons. Those who voted for the Stevenson couldn’t understand how anyone could support a dullard like Dwight Eisenhower. Reagan was an idiot and/or senile, Dan Quayle could barely walk and chew gum at the same time, and the current President Bush is borderline retarded. And that’s if his critics are in a generous mood, which they never are.
Obviously these stereotypes are faulty on the face of them. Eisenhower commanded the Allied force’s European theater in WWII, for Pete’s sake. Reagan, Quayle and to a lesser extent W. Bush all had successful careers in government before assuming Presidential or Vice Presidential office. To literally think of them as barely functional in their intellectual capacities flies in the face of reason.
The difference is ideology. Liberals, in the crudest terms, believe that power should be concentrated at the top. From there the most intelligently gifted, such as themselves, can wield it with the least amount of impediment. After all, much of the citizenry at large is at best unenlightened (against affirmative action, for instance), at worst bigoted (against affirmative action, for instance). If Justice and Fairness and Equality and all that other Capitol Letter good stuff is to prevail, then our wise leaders must be free to impose at will measures like, say, busing on a surly, ignorant and worse populace. This is why the Left relies so heavily on the judicial branches, the most elitist and least democratic of our three branches of government.
Republicans, on the other hand, and in an equally crude defination, believe that wisdom travels up from the people, not down to them. Therefore they tend not to offer Intellectuals for office, but instead either ideologues like Reagan or management types like Nixon and George W. In this perspective the most effective government is a modest one, run largely on the same established principles that promote success in other endeavors. Solving Ultimate Problems would be nice, but achieving a respectable balance between needs, wants and resources remains more important.
American journalists, who tend overwhelmingly to be Democrats -- 89% of them voted for Clinton, 7% for Dole, as opposed to 43% and 41% of the general voters in the 1996 election, respectively -- are often chagrined by this. Being of the same stripe as Gore and Clinton, especially those reporters in the major media centers, they tend to react negatively to candidates and office holders who aren’t particularly inclined to indulge in long-winded bull sessions on The Issues and Ideas in general. This is why Reagan and George W. were and continue to be derided for being regular in their office hours and early to bed each night. In contrast, Clinton was lionized for his frequent all-night, take-out pizza driven emergency staff sessions. Clinton was famously promiscuous -- I mean intellectually, of course -- and derived vast enjoyment from living the Life of the Mind. Which meant chewing at endless length the views of all comers (in his administration anyway) before finally making a decision based on what the polls said.
Now, obviously, I’m more congenial to the conservative take on these matters. The reason being, and this is one of the basic and eternal reasons mankind is as screwed up as it is, that we never learn that being smart, or learned, or whatever, isn’t the same thing as being wise. (Another one is that we can’t pass down wisdom -- each generation has to learn the exact same stupid crap over again.) It’s not the smartest people, for instance, who found companies. It’s those with the most drive, who then hire smart people as they are needed. This is why I’m fairly secure in my beliefs even though people smarter than me disagree with them. Smart, after all, doesn’t equal right. Besides, there are other people, also smarter than me, that believe as I do too.
Liberals continue to buy into this notion, though. After all, it just seems right that really, really smart people, those with complex views of the world, who refuse to see matters in simple black and white, should be the wisest amongst us. Like, oh, Woody Allen. Here was a man who spent decades fervently studying every great work of philosophy ever written by the human race, and who was able to synthesize all that vast learning and debate down to one dictum: "The heart wants what it wants."
Now to finally get back to where I started, these films promote the Aliens as our betters pretty much solely because they’re smarter than us. Klatuu announces himself to a learned, and hence wise, Earth scientist by solving an insolvable mathematical equation. Cosmic Man does the same by rewriting and correcting a flawed schematic for an advanced power generator. Cosmic Man even lectures the dumbest amongst us, i.e., non-scientists, to put our faith in such Truth Seekers. (Again, one imagines that the filmmakers who made these movies counted themselves amongst this noble group, since Artists are also, in their way, Truth Seekers.) In our present subject, Stranger in similar fashion approvingly tells Meinard that "You display your intelligence proudly."
As I’ve noted in the past, these ‘scientists vs. the military’ debates are con games: If you write evil aliens, the scientists look dangerously naïve. If you write saintly aliens, the military looks dangerously paranoid. Whichever camp the film represents, the ideology bald. In some movies scientists endanger the world by insisting that technological superiority must imply moral superiority. In others the military endangers the world by refusing to concede that technological superiority implies moral superiority.
While the people most likely to support listening to these visitors are scientists, i.e., thinkers, their opponents generally are vulgarians. They tend to be members of the military or unenlightened members of the governing class or among the more morally constipated average Joes on the Street.
In all, this sort of thing is pretty amusing, a point I think people of most political stripes can agree with. For instance, Lyz of the And You Call Yourself A Scientist! site and I disagree on many, many issues (although at our core we probably agree on the more basic ones). Still, I think we’d concur that the notion that scientists represent some class of ultra-logical, enlightened magi is ridiculous.
Let’s pretend, purely for the sake of politeness, that my endless ramblings here hold some water. If so, it’s then ironic that Klatuu’s ultimatum, when it’s written about and commented on, is almost inevitably labeled as ‘fascist,’ or by implication right wing. In fact, it’s more basically totalitarian, without inherent right or left wing connotations. Klatuu offers purely the threat of force against those who don’t conform – via the use of robots that will instantly and automatically destroy anyone who acts against their programming – which evokes Stalin and Mao as much as Hitler. Even so, as I’ve argued, Klatuu himself is more a left wing fantasy figure than a right wing one.
It’s odd, or perhaps it isn’t, that Day the Earth Stood Still remains the most effective of the three films at eliciting sympathy for its Superior Alien and his message. This despite the fact that it’s also the picture that spells out to the greatest extent exactly what we Earthlings are being threatened with. Cosmic Man and Stranger From Venus tacitly present but then downplay the idea that force will be used against us if we don’t conform. Klatuu is far blunter. Join up, or have the Earth "reduced to a smoking cinder."
Despite this, Day is well made enough that we come to view Klatuu as the voice of reason even though he offers – nay, demands we accept – the most appalling political system imaginable. Basically, robot overlords with the power of life and death, answerable only to their own programming, dictate the behavior of every individual in the referenced planetary collective. Admittedly, the film was made in a time when much of humanity feared that nuclear weapons might spell the end of our very existence. Such an apprehension might result in a wish for an easy answer. Even so, the alternative presented here is, if anything, even more horrifying than nuclear war. Certainly it’s the antithesis of the next decade’s science fiction conception of morality and social order, as exemplified by Star Trek.
On the other hand, while Klatuu’s ultimatum is morally grotesque in secular terms, I do believe it fits in with the other much-noted ‘subtext’ of the film, which presents Klatuu as a Christ figure. This ground has been much gone over, with writers noting that Klatuu takes on the alias of Mr. ‘Carpenter,’ that he comes down from the heavens to offer Mankind salvation, that he is murdered for his message but rises again, etc.
Now, many people would not find much of what they perceive to sum up Christ in Klatuu’s message. I think, however, that this represents a watered down view of Christianity. Yes, Christ offers salvation to those who follow Him and his Word. Yet let’s not forget that He also, like Klatuu, promises destruction (i.e., damnation) to those who refuse to. God also all but destroyed the world when Mankind affronted him, just as Klatuu’s people threaten to do. I’m pretty sure this isn’t where the filmmakers meant to take things, but it’s still there if you look at it from a certain angle.
Other, more cursory, elements also link the three films, mostly further Christ imagery. Cosmic Man cures a cripple; so does Stranger. All three, like Christ, die bringing Mankind a message. Two of them, Klatuu and Cosmic Man, return from the dead. (Hence the scientist hero of Cosmic Man stating his belief that the seemingly destroyed alien will return to us some day.) Other commonalities include two of the aliens solving complex technical and mathematical enigmas to prove their identities, two of them developing friendships with a young boy, and two of them becoming emotionally entangled with Patricia Neal. Two of the films feature single moms rearing said young boys, all three offer romantic triangles of one sort or another.
(Some will argue that all this borrowing of Biblical themes points to a right wing tilt to the films. I disagree. These elements are not used in a Christian context, but are instead merely co-opted to sell a vision that is, in its essence, the opposite of Christianity: Not spiritual but rather earthly salvation; the promise of a worldly paradise, not a Heavenly one.)
Perhaps the strangest thing is that, to an extent, Plan 9 From Outer Space falls into this same grouping. While that film seems to present the aliens as villains and the humans as heroes in the traditional sense, much of what Eros has to say falls in line with his extraterrestrial fellows. Admittedly, Eros and his people hardly seem our intellectual, much less emotional, superiors, but they certainly argue themselves to be.
Anyway, there’s a lot of meat here that I’m too intellectually clumsy to tease out. Here’s hoping that Lyz will take up the subject someday, although I’d expect from a different slant. (I foresee the menacing, unilaterally acting Earth of these films standing in for America, with the concerned Aliens representing other nations).
Summation: Like Cosmic Man, worth a look for those who like to see humans browbeaten by hectoring aliens, and for genre completists. Those whose tastes aren’t as narrow should probably stick with Day the Earth Stood Still.
-by Ken Begg