Dreamchild (1985)

Article 4509 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 4-19-2014
Directed by Gavin Millar
Featuring Coral Browne, Ian Holm, Peter Gallagher
Country: UK
What it is: Speculative biography

In 1932, Mrs. Alice Hargreaves (who, as a child, was the real-life inspiration for the Alice books) is invited to Columbia University in America for a centenary celebration of Lewis Carroll’s birth. While there, she comes to terms with her memories and association with the famous author.

For those who know a little bit more about Rev. Charles Dodgson’s life than the fact that, as Lewis Carroll, he wrote some of the most beloved children’s books of all time, there are some very unsettling facts to reckon with, and there is the possibility that he may have been a repressed pedophile. The uneasiness of this fact pervades this movie, and in many ways, it gives the movie a complexity and a poignancy that it might not otherwise have. The movie moves back and forth through three modes. The first tells the story of Mrs. Hargreave’s trip to the United States in 1932. The second involves flashbacks to her encounters and relationship with Charles Dodgson. The third involves fantasy encounters with various characters from “Alice in Wonderland”; these sequences involve creations by Jim Henson, and I suspect the fact that these creations look somewhat twisted and disturbing is intentional. The movie is anchored by stunning performances from Carol Browne (as the 80-year old Mrs. Hargreaves) and Ian Holm (as the very repressed Charles Dodgson), and one can feel the intensity of their emotions which they can never explicitly express. The movie is definitely not for everyone, but for those willing to give it a chance, it is complex, multi-layered, powerful and poignantly moving.

The Devil’s Daughter (1973)

Article 4498 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 4-8-2014
Directed by Jeannot Szwarc
Featuring Shelley Winters, Belinda Montgomery, Robert Foxworth
Country: USA
What it is: What happens when you can’t choose your relatives

Upon the death of her mother, a young woman returns home and ends up moving in with a friend of her mother’s. She begins to discover some very troubling things about her past… including the identity of her father.

No, this isn’t an imitation of ROSEMARY’S BABY, but it seems quite obvious that this TV-movie was heavily inspired by it. One of the strengths of this movie’s inspiration was that the devil-worshipers in that one seemed so normal at first; here they’re pretty creepy from the get-go. But then, given the title of the movie, it doesn’t seem like it’s building up to a great surprise in its central revelation. In the end, the movie didn’t have much in the way of surprises for me, though I do have to admit to being charmed by at least one twist. There’s some interesting touches to the cast; given that Jonathan Frid was one of TV’s first great vampires, it’s interesting here to see him in a Bela Lugosi-style role – the mute manservant. And Abe Vigoda’s performance gave me the feeling that he was quite capable of channeling the spirit of Boris Karloff if he wanted to. All in all, this was okay.

The Day the Earth Moved (1974)

Article 4494 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 4-4-2014
Directed by Robert Michael Lewis
Featuring Jackie Cooper, Stella Stevens, Cleavon Little
Country: USA
What is it: Natural disaster movie

Aerial photographers discover that a defective batch of film stock is capable of picking up indications that earthquakes are imminent… and that the next place to be stricken by one is a tiny town with a handful of residents.

I don’t seek out movies that are topical on purpose, so it’s really just coincidence that this movie pops up at a time when earthquakes are in the news. I did, however, end up being rather charmed by this disaster-movie-in-miniature. It’s not so much the story, which is pretty standard stuff. It’s not the fantastic content; the existence of defective film stock that just happens to show where earthquakes are going to hit is a pretty far-fetched pill to swallow. No, what charmed me is the milieu of the town of Bates, a formerly thriving small town that has now become only a shadow of its former self with a single-digit population, many of which still hold on to the hope of the town regaining its former glory if they can only manage to clean and fix its tourist attraction, a “Santa’s Summer Village” display. I found the world of this small town so oddly compelling that I think you could have built a whole movie just around it. The print I found of this was on YouTube, and the blurriness of the image makes it a bit hard to say just how good the special effects were, but it seems effective enough. In the end, I liked the movie despite its flaws. But it’s the little village and its residents that I will remember.

Dr. Satan y la magia negra (1968)

aka Dr. Satan and Black Magic
Article 4446 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 2-10-2014
Directed by Rogelio A. Gonzalez
Featuring Joaquin Cordero, Sonia Furio, Noe Murayama
Country: Mexico
What it is: Weird fantasy-horror

The Devil King revives his human acolyte, Dr. Satan, and gives him the mission to defeat a vampiric black magician named Yei Lin, who is trying to usurp his throne by stealing a formula that can convert base metals into gold. Dr. Satan creates mini-skirted female zombie minions to help him out. Who will win the battle of wits, and will Interpol catch the winner?

I have to admit that I have a weakness for movies with truly bizarre plots, and I’ve noticed that Mexico seems to be a good source for them. The main battle in this movie isn’t between good and evil; it’s between two different evil factions, and since the Interpol subplot mostly remains in the background, you really don’t have a good guy to root for. Nonetheless, you may end up rooting for Dr. Satan, if for no other reason that he seems the more vulnerable of the two antagonists, and his own situation is sad enough that he generates a certain amount of sympathy. It also helps that he is very well acted by Joaquin Cordero, who underplays nicely. Still, the whole movie is freaky and bizarre enough that I found it all rather engaging, and it has some great moments; my favorite shows us Yei Lin’s reaction when he tries to but the vampire bite on Dr. Satan’s minions. This is a sequel to DR. SATAN, which I’ve also seen, but fortunately, this one has English subtitles so I could understand it better.

Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1973)

Article 4424 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-17-2014
Directed by David Winters
Featuring Kirk Douglas, Susan George, Stanley Holloway
Country: UK / USA
What it is: Musical version of the Stevenson classic

Dr. Jekyll tests a drug (intended to cure lunatics) on himself, and turns into the depraved Mr. Hyde.

Had someone floated the idea of a musical version of the Jekyll and Hyde story a decade or two later, I probably wouldn’t have blinked; by that time, I was starting to get used to the fact that they’d make a musical out of anything. As it is, I’m surprised that they came up with a musical version of the story this early. I’m also surprised that they opted for an actor in the title roles who is not known for his musical chops (and his attempts at singing here don’t change that evaluation of his ability). However, when the roles rely on Kirk Douglas’s acting abilities, he does a fine job, and I quite like some of the qualities he gives to his Mr. Hyde here. It’s a pity I couldn’t catch him in a straight version of the story; in it’s current form, this version of the story doesn’t ring true, and some of the musical interludes seem rather inappropriate. For me, the biggest surprise musically is discovering that Donald Pleasence does have the musical chops to pull off his role; he has one song, and he does a fine job with it. Nevertheless, I just have to say that I wish this version of the story wasn’t a musical.

The Deadly Spawn (1983)

Article 4421 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-13-2014
Directed by Douglas McKeown
Featuring Charles George Hildebrandt, Tom DeFranco, Richard Lee Porter
Country: USA
What it is: Monster movie

A meteorite brings an alien being to Earth. It promptly begins eating everyone in sight and spawning little aliens who are also hungry.

I went into this one expecting a tiresome and cheap imitation of ALIEN. I’m glad to say that it isn’t quite that. Oh, it’s cheap, all right; just take a look at that cheesy matte painting of the house near the beginning. But I found something rather disarming in the simplicity of the concept; it wasn’t trying to make itself more complicated than it was. I found myself also smiling at the character of the young boy who is the hero of the story; he’s obviously a monster kid of the first order, and the movie is filled with references to a whole slew of classic monster movies. But I think the moment that really won me over was when the kid first encounters the monsters; I was wondering why the monsters weren’t attacking him, and then he snaps his finger, and you know. Sure, it’s heavy on the gore and gross-out, but the movie’s affection for being what it is (which is to say, a plain, old-fashioned, somewhat comic monster movie) saw me through. I also suspect that the scene where the little monsters attack a woman’s luncheon will also stick with me. The final twist even makes me forgive the cheesy matte painting. It’s no classic, but it is entertaining. My only question is – who is Gary, and what is it that he’s not supposed to do?

Death Warmed Up (1984)

Article 4420 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-12-2014
Directed by David Blyth
Featuring Michael Hurst, Margaret Umbers, William Upjohn
Country: Australia / New Zealand
What it is: A bloody mess

A deranged scientist uses a drug to hypnotize the son of a rival, who is then sent to kill his parents. Seven years later, the son, released from a mental institution, seeks out the scientist to take revenge.

There’s a point in this movie where a bunch of ugly homicidal maniacs are released from a hospital to wreak havoc. I suspect their first act was to write the script for this movie. The above plot description seems fairly clear on the surface, but about a quarter of the way into the movie, the revenge-seeking son crosses swords with one of the scientist’s experimental subjects, and the latter swears revenge on the son. This subplot, rather than serving as a counterpoint to the main plot, ends up spiraling out of control, and the movie descends into a bloody, confusing mess. I’m not surprised that the movie ends on a nihilistic note. Now, I’m not a big fan of nihilism, but it can be an effective point of view if you’ve got the script to support it. However, when the script and story is as badly confused as this one is, that point of view comes off as convenience rather than as anything organic. Gorehounds will probably like this one best; for me, once the script went out of control, I got bored with the whole thing.

The Day It Came to Earth (1979)

Article 4414 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-6-2014
Directed by Harry Thomason
Featuring Wink Roberts, Roger Manning, Robert Ginnaven
Country: USA
What it is: Bad movie parody

A meteorite lands in a lake and resurrects the body of a murdered mob informer, which then wreaks havoc in the area.

Given the fact that the only recognizable name in the cast is comedian George Gobel, as well as a few other hints, I’m assuming that the movie is intended as a parody of a really bad fifties monster movie. However, there’s a problem; a parody is supposed to be funny, and not only do large chunks of this movie give no hint that they’re trying for laughs, but when it is noticeably doing so (which isn’t always apparent), it falls flat. Which means that it ends up becoming, in effect, a very bad movie itself. This might be fun if the movie wasn’t as annoying as it was, but between the bottom-of-the-barrel musical score, the tiresome yelling and screaming, and its targeting of some of the most tiresome cliches of all time (the car that won’t start, the drunk who sees the monster), this one really started to grate on me. It does have a cult following, I have no doubt, but when it comes down to it, I’ve seen parodies like this one that are actually funny, as well as movies that are targets of this parody that are more entertaining.

Desperate Moments (1971)

aka Gli occhi freddi della paura, Cold Eyes of Fear
Article 4411 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-3-2014
Directed by Enzo G. Castellari
Featuring Giovanna Rolli, Frank Wolff, Fernando Rey
Country: Italy / Spain
What it is: Thriller

A lawyer picks up a prostitute and brings her to his uncle’s house, only to discover an armed stranger who holds them captive. When the stranger’s boss shows up, it becomes apparent that the motive is revenge…

Is an Italian crime thriller from the seventies necessarily a giallo? I’m not sure what the exact definition of a giallo is, but I’d say this one doesn’t quite fit the mold. The first few minutes make it seem like one, but it’s a fake-out, as you’ll soon discover if you see it. Though there is a bit of mystery, it’s not a mystery in the giallo sense; we’re mostly curious as to the details surrounding the main villain’s desire for revenge. I’d say it’s more of a film noir than a giallo, one that’s attempting to say something about class and corruption in England. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t; the story is a little too vague in some of its details, and it comes across as very silly when it tries to be psychological; the surreal scene where everyone’s pointing at the villain and yelling “Guilty!” is the worst moment. In fact, I find it hard to say this one is fantastically themed at all. I’m afraid this one is a false alarm.

The Devils (1977)

Article 4395 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 12-18-2013
Directed by Ken Russell
Featuring Vanessa Redgrave, Oliver Reed, Dudley Sutton
Country: UK
What it is: Surreal historical drama

When a strong, charismatic priest of the town of Loudun stands in the way of Cardinal Richelieu’s political ambitions, the latter uses his minions to concoct a way to destroy the priest by using the madness of a nun as proof that the priest is engaged in witchcraft.

If there is one thing that director Ken Russell is known for, it’s his penchant for excess, and from the opening scene in which the King performs in a Melies-inspired musical number that celebrates the birth of Venus to the orgiastic antics of the nuns to the grotesque nastiness of the techniques of a pair of torturers, there’s no shortness of excess in this one. However, this is one of those movies where the excess actually works; it underscores the nightmarish nature of the hypocrisies by which political machinations hide behind a religious front, not to mention the stupidity of the common people, who for the sake of of the circus-like spectacle of the witch hunt, end up sacrificing their own safety and playing into the hands of their enemies. I’m not surprised the film is controversial; its religious imagery alone would be very hard for many people to bear. I found it to be a powerful, fascinating and very sad movie, and it’s full of great performances; I often found myself surprised at discovering how certain characters ultimately behave under the circumstances into which they’ve been thrown. I haven’t seen a whole lot of Ken Russell movies up to this point, but this is perhaps the best of those I’ve seen.