La charrette fantome (1939)

LA CHARRETTE FANTOME (1939)
aka The Phantom Wagon, The Phantom Chariot
Article 3115 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-8-2009
Posting Date: 2-24-2010
Directed by Julien Duvivier
Featuring Pierre Fresnay, Marie Bell, Micheline Francey
Country: France
What it is: Drama/Fantasy

An alcoholic tramp has a friend die on the last day of the year who then, according to legend, becomes the driver of the phantom chariot that collects the souls of the dead for the next year. A tubercular woman with the Salvation Army attempts to reform the tramp so that he will return to his wife and kids, but she fears he may become the next chariot driver…

It’s in French without subtitles, and, despite the fact that I’ve seen the earlier silent Sjostrom version, much of the story seems different this time, and, due to the language problem, is hard to follow. However, I was able to pick up at least the major threads of the story, and there’s a nice visual sense permeating the movie. Also, you don’t always need to understand the language to appreciate fine acting, and this movie has great performances from Pierre Fresnay, Micheline Francey and Louis Jouvet. Most of the movie plays like a drama, with the phantom wagon aspect of the plot only coming in near the beginning and then more extensively in the end; the special effects during these sequences are wonderful.

Some people may wonder why I bother trying to watch movies in languages I don’t understand, but I’ve grown to like the challenge, and I have experienced some lovely cinema that I might otherwise have missed. I’m glad I made the effort.

The Antichrist (1974)

THE ANTICHRIST (1974)
aka L’anticristo, The Tempter
Article 3114 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-6-2009
Posting Date: 2-22-2010
Directed by Alberto De Martino
Featuring Carla Gravina, Mel Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy
Country: Italy
What it is: Italian Exorcist rip-off

A woman with paralyzed legs and family issues is treated by a parapsychologist who discovers she was a witch in her previous life. His attempts to cure her result in her possession by the devil.

It takes THE EXORCIST and adds a dose of ROSEMARY’S BABY and a few touches of the Bridey Murphy story, throws in some incest themes, and tries to up the gross-out ante on occasion. Thanks to some sharp editing, some strong production values, wonderful location footage, and the addition of English-speaking actors (Mel Ferrer, Arthur Kennedy and George Coulouris) to minimize dubbing difficulties for American audiences, this ends up being one of the better Italian takes on THE EXORCIST I’ve seen to date. Still, it never really transcends being a rip-off; when all is said and done, it’s the equivalent of eating reheated leftovers. It might have helped if the actress playing the possessee had managed to engender our sympathy, but she’s too self-pitying and grudge-filled, and her primary facial expression is a contemptuous pout; I found it impossible to care for her plight. As a result, the movie, though well-made, left very little impact.

Swords of the Space Ark (1981)

SWORDS OF THE SPACE ARK (1981)
TV-Movie
Article 3113 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-5-2009
Posting Date: 2-21-2010
Directed by Bunker Jenkins and Minoru Yamada
Featuring Hiroyuki Sanada
Country: Japan
What it is: STAR WARS clone via Japanese TV series

Three pilots undertake to destroy the evil Roxia with the help of the hearts of three planets and the woman from the Space Ark, Sophia.

From the moment I saw the title, I suspected a STAR WARS clone. From the minute I heard the rinky-dink theme music, I knew it was going to be a cheesy STAR WARS clone. The minute I saw the way the credits segue into the movie, I knew we were dealing with a movie culled from episodes of a TV series, and I was wondering which TV series it would be. The second I saw the first actual human character, I knew it was from a Japanese TV series. And the minute I heard the Chewbacca-style talking ape mention banana daquiris, I knew we were at the bottom of the barrel.

The series was “Uchu kara no messegi: Ginga taisen”, it ran 27 episodes of 23 minutes each, which puts it at 623 minutes. Since this movie only runs 70 minutes, it’s missing almost 8/9ths of the footage. Fortunately, the movie does remain a little coherent, though it’s obvious that events are rushed at all points. You get space battles, beautiful women disguised as old crones, a mystical spaceship, retractable swords, evil betrayals, good and bad twins, talking apes with unmoving mouths, lots of things blowing up, and badly dubbed actors mouthing idiotic dialogue. This movie is either bad movie paradise or unwatchable dreck, depending on who you are (and you know that better than I).

The Sleep of Death (1981)

THE SLEEP OF DEATH (1981)
Article 3112 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-4-2009
Posting Date: 2-20-2010
Directed by Calvin Floyd
Featuring Per Oscarsson, Patrick Magee, Manilu Tolo
Country: Sweden/Ireland
What it is: Arty vampire story

A young Englishman, heir to a great fortune, visits France and becomes enamored with a countess. What kind of hold does the count have over her? And what about the Colonel he keeps encountering? And of the marquis, his strange new companion? And why do people keep showing up dead…?

I’ve only seen this movie once, and I have to admit I’m not quite sure what’s all happened at the end of the movie; it may be the movie was a little too subtle for me to grasp in one viewing, or it may be the movie is muddled. It is quite slow-moving, and, if anything, it reminds me a bit of VAMPYR. This may not be a coincidence; both movies make unusual use of vampire scenarios, and both are based on works by Sheridan Le Fanu (albeit different works). Director Calvin Floyd has a Fellini-esque eye for interesting faces, and the movie does have a nice period sense. There’s also a bit of science fiction content to the movie, as the plot revolves around a drug that puts people in a deathlike state. All in all, I found the movie interesting and unpredictable, but a little too slow to get moving. And it may take a second viewing to figure out the details of the plot.

Life, Liberty and Pursuit on the Planet of the Apes (1981)

LIFE, LIBERTY AND PURSUIT ON THE PLANET OF THE APES (1981)
TV-Movie
Article 3111 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-3-2009
Posting Date: 2-19-2010
Directed by Arnold Laven and Alf Kjellin
Featuring Roddy McDowall, Ron Harper, James Naughton
Country: USA
What it is: TV episodes edited into feature

In the first half, Virdon is shot and will die unless he is smuggled into a hospital for treatment. In the second, Burke is captured and subjected to brainwashing techniques, so Galen and Virdon must rescue him.

I still think the title in this particular entry of the series of TV-Movies culled from the “Planet of the Apes” TV series is awful, but it appears to be culled from a couple of the better episodes of the series. Now, to be honest, I actually haven’t seen the TV-Movie version, as I’ve not been able to find it, but since I know the two episodes that were used, and I’ve seen some of the other TV-Movies, I’ve been able to recreate the experience, as, other than some changes to the credit sequences, virtually no real editing was done. There is a certain art to picking which episodes to put together, and this one does a decent job of picking two episodes that were different enough from each other to seem distinct, while still having some common touches; in both, one of the humans is out of the action, scientific experiments are undertaken, and both revolve around ancient books (one on human anatomy, the other on brainwashing). Both episodes are pretty good, though the second one, which feature Beverly Garland, gets the edge.

Still, the episodes do display some of the problems that plagued the series; the dialogue is often clunky, the themes a little too obvious, and the two humans were never developed as distinct characters (you could reverse the roles of the characters in any episode without changing anything more than the references to the character names, and I don’t think anyone would notice). The non-development of the human character turns the series by default into the adventures of Galen, who displays oodles of character. I also grew to appreciate the skill of Mark Lenard’s performance as Urko the gorilla; he has great presence and imbues his character with a subtle but distinct sense of humor, and I found myself looking forward to his scenes.

Submersion of Japan (1973)

SUBMERSION OF JAPAN (1973)
aka Nippon chinbotsu, Tidal Wave
Article 3110 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-2-2009
Posting Date: 2-18-2010
Directed by Shiro Moritani
Featuring Keiju Kobayashi, Hiroshi Fujioka, Tetsuro Tanba
Country: Japan
What it is: The ultimate disaster movie

The disappearance of an island in the Pacific and an exploration of the ocean floor leads scientists to the conclusion that a change in the continental drift will result in the sinking of Japan into the ocean. The question is…what to do about the people?

The reportedly awful American reedit of this movie (known as TIDAL WAVE and featuring new footage with Lorne Greene) is 82 minutes long. The full Japanese version is 143 minutes long. My version runs 110 minutes and is sans Lorne Greene, making it longer than the American version but still a full half hour shy of the long version. I do find myself wondering what is missing from my version.

I can understand why the movie was recut and modified for American audiences; I found much of the non-destruction footage in this version to be sincere but rather dry and boring. I also found it sometimes hard to follow in detail, which may have to do with cultural differences. Still, there are moments where this movie goes further into the reality of a disaster of this proportion than any other disaster movie I’ve seen; I get insights into what it might be like for a whole people to be torn apart and to no longer have a home to go to. The scenes of destruction are quite impressive, but other quieter moments are just as chilling; when one character talks about modifying the maps, the mundane nature of the idea causes the immensity of the catastrophe to hit home. Somehow, I suspect the American version cut out much of the heart and soul of this movie as well as the dull parts, and, though IMDB lists both movies as a single entity, I wish they were separate entities; with a rating of 5.0, I find myself wondering how the votes would separate themselves out depending on which version was seen.

Stryker (1983)

STRYKER (1983)
Article 3109 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-1-2009
Posting Date: 1-17-2010
Directed by Cirio H. Santiago
Featuring Steve Sandor, Andrea Savio, Mike Lane
Country: Philippines
What it is: ROAD WARRIOR clone

It’s after the apocalypse. Water is scarce. People fight over it. Carnage ensues.

In this future world, water is scarce. So is meaningful dialogue. However, there are some things that aren’t scarce: guns, bullets, leatherware, short-shorts, motor vehicles of all sizes, gasoline, rocks, short snatches of imperative dialogue (“Let’s Go!”, “Move!”, “Stop Them!”, etc.), hair stylists, makeup, dwarfs (there’s a whole tribe of them), hoary cliches, and, by the end of the movie, dead bodies. I found this movie on a collection called “Grindhouse Experience Volume 2”; that should tell you volumes.

Let’s face it; some movies aren’t meant to be reviewed. They’re meant to either be a) not watched, or b) watched and quickly forgotten. Let the memory clearing begin!

Shinbone Alley (1971)

SHINBONE ALLEY (1971)
Article 3108 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-30-2009
Posting Date: 2-16-2010
Directed by John D. Wilson
Featuring the voices of Carol Channing, Eddie Bracken, Alan Reed
Country: USA
What it is: Offbeat animated musical drama

A poet is turned into a cockroach, so he can compose his poems only by hopping on the keys of a typewriter without the ability to use capital letters or punctuation. He tells of himself and his adventures in Shinbone Alley, and of his relationship to a female alley cat named Mehitabel.

When I was in grade school, I remember one of my teachers exposing me for a short time to the world of archy the poet cockroach, and though the exposure consisted little more than the basic backstory and the reading a few of the poems, for some reason the memory lingered. When I discovered that I was going to watch a movie that dealt with this character, I found myself musing over the concept, and wondering what the movie would be like; the very concept has a quirky charm to it. When I actually got the DVD and saw Carol Channing’s name on it as well as the words “Broadway musical”, I though I saw the quirkiness being shuffled off to the side to make room for a much more conventional style that wasn’t to my liking. I’m glad to say that my fears were unfounded.

Part of my problem initially was that I’d mostly encountered Channing in her bigger-than-life persona, and not as an actress; I am glad to find that in that latter capacity, she is excellent, and she really brings the character of Mehitabel, a fun-loving alley cat of questionable morals, to vivid life. In fact, the whole movie is a bit of a revelation; despite the somewhat bizarre concept, the adventures and emotions in this movie tap into real-life aspirations, tragedies, setbacks, disappointments, angers and dreams. When Archy tells about a moth’s desire to be burned, and then envies its wanting something so badly, it touches a nerve. Archy’s relationship with Mehitabel is definitely of the love/hate variety, and she has a nasty temper. Furthermore, the tomcats she becomes involved with (a no-good bum voiced by Alan Reed, and a scheming Shakespearean actor voiced by John Carradine) also add more depth to the story. Furthermore, the movie plays around with a number of animation styles during the songs, with a sequence that adopts the style of the old Krazy Kat comics (Krazy Kat creator George Herriman did many of the illustrations for the original archy and mehitabel books) in which an embittered Archy toys with organizing an insect revolution against the humans being particularly striking. The ads tried to pass it off as a movie for both kids and adults, but, truth to tell, I think kids will be bored stiff with this one; in fact, I think the lowly rating of 5.5 on this one on IMDB may be due to reactions from those expecting a children’s movie.

By the way, I do have to admire any movie which manages to combine the talents of Carol Channing, John Carradine, Fred Flintstone voice Alan Reed, and Mel Brooks, who co-wrote the original play. And, for the curious, John Carradine does sing, and even takes part in a beat-poetry rendition of the balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet”.

Terminal Island (1973)

TERMINAL ISLAND (1973)
Article 3107 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-25-2009
Posting Date: 2-15-2010
Directed by Stephanie Rothman
Featuring Don Marshall, Phyllis Davis, Ena Hartman
Country: USA
What it is: Exploitation actioner masquerading as social science fiction

In the future, the death penalty has been outlawed. Murderers are sent to an inescapable island to live out the rest of their lives with other murderers. Much carnage ensues.

I may be misremembering, but I think I recall having read an article once that talked about the social and political subtexts of this movie. I’m not surprised; the central concept lends itself strongly to finding just those types of subtexts, and the opening sequence of the movie (which features short man-on-the-street interviews and cynical TV newsmen) certainly taps into them. Once we reach the island, though, the movie heads straight into exploitation-style action flick territory and doesn’t look back. It ends up a bit like a cross between a women’s prison picture (four of the murderers are women, and they get the lion’s share of the screen time) and your basic jungle action flick; I was tempted to compare it to THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, but the plot doesn’t match. It basically turns into a standoff between the good murderers and the bad murderers. Those who find this kind of shtick satisfying will like it most, and “Magnum P.I.” fans may want to catch Tom Selleck and Roger E. Mosley working together before that series. The oddest thing to me about this movie is that it ends on a rather upbeat note, which, given the context, is pretty surprising, because the concept is inherently cynical; in order for it to work, the government will need to only send good (as in non-evil) murderers to the island, and what’s the likelihood of that happening?

The Silent Scream (1980)

THE SILENT SCREAM (1980)
Article 3106 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 11-24-2009
Posting Date: 2-14-2010
Directed by Denny Harris
Featuring Rebecca Balding, Cameron Mitchell, Avery Schreiber
Country: USA
What it is: PSYCHO variant

Four college students take rooms in a mansion on the edge of town, a place inhabited by a reclusive woman and her son. However, there’s a third resident in the mansion, and this one has a homicidal streak…

I have to admit being impressed by the cast, which includes Cameron Mitchell, Yvonne De Carlo, Avery Schreiber and Barbara Steele. If I were to pick acting honors from this group, it would definitely go to Steele, who gives the most mesmerizing performance here, but I would have to point out that none of the other three have really interesting roles. As stated above, it’s more of a PSYCHO variant than a slasher movie. It’s a mixed bag overall; it has some effectively creepy scenes, one memorable jump-out-of-your-seat moment, and, thanks to an interesting story structure, it builds up to a suspenseful conclusion. On the down side, it never really develops the important characters as much as it should, choosing rather to spend much of its running time with the antics of the teens in the movie; this is noticeable towards the end when we encounter twists and backstories that we’ve never been adequately prepared for. Still, it works just enough for it to be worth watching.