The Insects’ Christmas (1913)

aka Rozhdestvo obitateley lesa, Christmas for the Forest Inhabitants
Article 5187 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 6-20-2016
Directed by Wladyslaw Starewicz
No cast
Country: Russia
What it is: Stop-motion holiday whimsy

A tree ornament Santa Claus climbs down, goes outside, and brings Christmas to the insects in the middle of winter.

There’s no real plot to this holiday whimsy; it’s really just a group of setpieces on the theme. That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable; Starewicz’s beautifully realized stop-motion animation (of the tree ornament Santa, a doll, several insects and a frog) plus his attention to fun little details (such as the fact that some of the insects don’t just walk off screen – they join into a wheel and roll off screen) are as enthralling as ever. As great as the animation is, I think it’s really Starewicz’s wonderful imagination that really brings these things to life. I hope someday that this man and his work become as famous as he deserves to be.

Ingmarssonerna (1919)

aka Sons of Ingmar
Article 5176 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 6-5-2016
Directed by Victor Sjostrom
Featuring Victor Sjostrom, Harriett Bosse, Tore Svennberg
Country: Sweden
What it is: Drama

When a farmer sets up an arranged marriage with a woman who detests him, circumstances fall out so that a scandal emerges. In the wake of that, the farmer and the woman both have some hard decisions to make…

The fantastic content isn’t apparent from the above plot description, but the content is there, pops up early in the proceedings, and actually plays an important role in establishing the state of mind of the farmer and focusing one of the main themes of the movie. The content itself involves the farmer either dreaming or imagining that he climbs a ladder to heaven in order to consult with his deceased father about a difficult decision. I know I was a little confused by the title of the movie (which implies that it’s about several sons of Ingmar rather than just the one who centers in the plot), but it’s this sequence in heaven which establishes that the title doesn’t refer to characters, but rather to a whole filial ethical tradition.

The movie falls roughly into two parts. The first (told in flashback in heaven) deals with a series of events that result in the death of an illegitimate baby. The second half deals with the moral and ethical decisions made by both the farmer and the woman in determining what the right thing to do would be in the aftermath of these events. These decisions require wisdom, strength, and (most especially) knowledge; in this case, doing the right thing requires that each character knows how the other character truly feels. If you get caught up in the lives of these characters (and it’s an easy thing to do given the excellent performances by both Sjostrom and Bosse), then the final thirty minutes of the movie is surprisingly gripping, especially as both characters need to gain the necessary knowledge in order to act correctly. I really got into this movie, though with a couple of caveats. One is that the very ending seems a little pat and a bit hard to swallow. The other is that in some ways, I can’t judge the whole movie; it originally ran three and a half hours, and my print is only about two-thirds that length, and though I really enjoyed this version, I think it’s quite possible that another hour and fifteen minutes of it would have dulled my enthusiasm. At any rate, this version was excellent.

L’isola degli uomini pesce (1979)

aka Island of the Fishmen, Screamers
Article 5050 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 1-14-2016
Directed by Sergio Martino
Featuring Barbara Bach, Claudio Cassinelli, Richard Johnson
Country: Italy
What it is: Horror/adventure movie

Survivors of a shipwreck end up on an island run by a mysterious man and plagued by strange fish monsters.

First, a bit of background. When this Italian movie was brought over to the United States, it was decided that it didn’t have enough gore content, so about twelve minutes of gory new footage featuring Cameron Mitchell and Mel Ferrer was edited into the movie, and other elements were shuffled around as well. This version was retitled SCREAMERS. For the record, I seem to have seen the original Italian version, though I was fortunate enough to see one that was dubbed into English.

Probably the main reason this version is pretty light on gore is that it really isn’t a horror movie; the story plays out more like an adventure story. It’s an odd hodgepodge of genres and ideas; it’s partially inspired by THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU and THE MYSTERIOUS ISLAND, and it throws in elements of voodoo as well as the lost continent of Atlantis before it’s all through. It’s not well regarded, but I actually found the hodgepodge rather interesting, and I have to admit that it’s one of the more entertaining of Sergio Martino’s movies to me. It also features Joseph Cotten as a professor involved in some bizarre experiments. It’s a bit of mess, but overall I thought it was pretty decent.

Inferno (1980)

INFERNO (1980)
Article 4999 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 11-26-2015
Directed by Dario Argento
Featuring Leigh McCloskey, Irene Miracle, Eleanora Giorgi
Country: Italy
What it is: Horror, Argento style

When a woman discovers a book made up of the notes of an architect who claims to have built three houses for “The Three Mothers”, it sets off a string of bizarre murders and deaths.

All I can say is that it’s a good thing that Dario Argento is the consummate stylist that he is; if he had to rely on coherent story-telling to make his movies intriguing, movies like this would be exercises in frustration. As it is, his stunning use of color, his use of repeated visual motifs and themes (water, broken figurines, cats, small cuts and gashes), and his ability to instill a sense of dread goes a long ways to compensate for the fact that you’re not really sure what’s going on. This was apparently the second of three movies that make up a trilogy, the first of which was the excellent SUSPIRIA. This one isn’t quite up to that level, but it still made for a great viewing experience. Apparently, Mario Bava did some second unit direction and helped with the visual effects; he died before the movie was released.

The Incredible Hulk (1977)

Article 4998 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 11-24-2015
Directed by Kenneth Johnson
Featuring Bill Bixby, Susan Sullivan, Jack Colvin
Country: USA
What it is: Superhero TV pilot

A scientist discovers the secrets behind what causes otherwise normal people to perform amazing feats of strength in stressful situations. He experiments on himself by dosing himself with gamma rays, but he uses far more than he was aware. His anger then transforms him into an extremely powerful but uncontrollable green giant.

I’ve encountered this TV series adaptation of the Marvel superhero once before when I covered the second pilot for the series, DEATH IN THE FAMILY. That one gave a better idea of what the series would be like as a going affair; this is the one that sets up the details of the premise and provides the “fairy dust” of how David Banner gained the ability to change into the Incredible Hulk. It’s quite well done; it compensates for the fact that it can’t afford to be a real special effects extravaganza by concentrating on the human stories of the characters, and it is well directed and edited. It’s an origin story, of course, and as such, it gets a little dull when it spends too much time on the details of the “fairy dust”, but I like the way it fives Dr. Banner a real motivation for his research by anchoring it in a personal tragedy at the beginning of the movie. It’s a solid intro to the series.

If…. (1968)

IF…. (1968)
Article 4960 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 10-17-2015
Directed by Lindsay Anderson
Featuring Malcolm McDowell, David Wood, Richard Warwick
Country: UK
What it is: Political allegory

Rebellion brews in a dictatorial boys’ school in England.

I’ve encountered Lindsay Anderson’s work before when I saw O LUCKY MAN!, so I was somewhat prepared for what to expect in terms of the cinematic style and the potential fantastic content. That being said, this one is more focused and less sprawling than the other movie, and though it takes a certain amount of time for the shape of the movie to manifest itself, it has quite a lot of power when it does. The cast is broken out into five groups; the rebellious “Crusaders”, the privileged class that serves as disciplinarians and policemen, the “Whips”, the “Staff” of the school, and the “Juniors” and “Seniors”, the younger boys and older boys of the school. As the head of the “Crusaders”, Malcolm McDowell practically steals the movie, but after reading his bio on IMDB, I gather that he had plenty of personal experience to rely on for help in shaping his role. The fantastic content includes the various surreal touches that lend an air of unreality to the film. Still, it remains primarily a drama and is only marginally a fantasy.

Die Insel der Seligen (1913)

aka Island of the Blessed
Article 4890 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 8-4-2015
Directed by Max Reinhardt
Featuring Paul Davidson, Erika De Planque, Wilhelm Diegelmann
Country: Germany
What it is: Odd fantasy

Two young women, two young men, two rotund fathers, and two weird suitors all visit an island inhabited by the Roman gods, who proceed to interfere with their lives.

The intertitles are in German on this silent film, so I couldn’t rely on them to help me with sorting out the plot. The basic premise is fairly clear, though; several mortals find their lives changed due to the interference of a gaggle of gods. It’s basically a variation on “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” with one crucial difference; by the end of the movie, the gods do not undo the damage and mischief they’ve done, and the ending is a bit grotesque. In fact, it’s not just the ending that is grotesque; some of the human characters seem a little bizarre and twisted, and though I suspect these are supposed to be comic touches, it’s rather hard to tell. The end result is a movie that, instead of coming across as comic, comes across as weird and unsettling. Incidentally, Max Reinhardt was a noted theatrical director who is primarily remembered for having helmed the 1935 version of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.

It’s Alive (1974)

IT’S ALIVE (1974)
Article 4876 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 7-19-2015
Directed by Larry Cohen
Featuring John P. Ryan, Sharon Farrell, James Dixon
Country: USA
What it is: Mutant killer baby movie

A mutant killer baby is born and terrorizes a town.

The idea of a mutant killer baby is one of those concepts that seems so outlandish that I’m a little surprised that they didn’t go the obvious route and play it for laughs. But writer/producer/director Larry Cohen goes the difficult route and plays it seriously, and I think for the most part he succeeds. He keeps the baby in the shadows for the most part and mostly plays the attack scenes out of the frame (probably because he knew they wouldn’t be very convincing), and instead concentrates on finding a good emotional thread by which to carry the story, and that emotional thread is that of the baby’s father’s attempt to come to terms with bizarre situation in which he’s thrown, one that ends up having a profound effect on his work, his relationships and his life. The script is even clever enough to see the parallels between his situation and that of Frankenstein’s, and when he speculates on the confusion between the man and the monster, we begin to wonder as to which one he will turn out to be. Still, the movie doesn’t quite transcend its campy reputation, and it you do have to laugh a bit when the baby attacks a milkman. Nevertheless, the script goes a long way towards making this movie more thoughtful than it might have been.

L’inconnu di Shandigor (1967)

aka The Unknown Man of Shandigor
Article 4817 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 5-9-2015
Directed by Jean-Louis Ray
Featuring Marie-France Boyer, Ben Carruthers, Jaques Dufilho
Country: Switzerland
What it is: Eurospy, arty comic style

A scientist creates a method of nullifying nuclear bombs, but goes into isolation with only his daughter and his assistant. He becomes the target of several groups of spies, all of which want the scientist’s secret for their own ends.

I was halfway through watching this movie before I realized that I had English subtitles to help me sort out the French dialogue, so I went back to the beginning and watched it with the subtitles. But I don’t consider my half-viewing the first time around to be wasted; having had a chance to concentrate on the visuals and the acting during that time, it made me realize just how comic the movie is, and that’s something I might have missed if I had been concentrating on the story. It’s a spy story shot like an art film, and feels like a sly parody of both. There’s at least five groups of spies in the movie, and in a sense, there’s no real hero, and one is left wondering which of the groups (if any) will prevail. At times the movie gets truly bizarre; the strangest scenes has one group of spies embalming a deceased member of their team while their leader plays and sings a weird ditty on the organ. There’s torture by psychedelic music, a massacre in a bowling alley, and an unseen aquatic monster kept by the scientist in a swimming pool. Howard Vernon is on hand as the closest the movie comes to a James Bond character, a man named Bobby Gun (who, incidentally, uses a knife). The weird-looking Daniel Emilfork almost steals the movie as the scientist. All in all, I was charmed and delighted by the movie, though it might take a couple more viewings to sort out some of the plot details.

I Yam What I Yam (1933)

Article 4803 by Dave Sindelar
Date: 4-21-2015
Directed by Dave Fleischer and Seymour Kneitel
Featuring the voices of William Costello, Charles Lawrence and William Pennell
Country: USA
What it is: Popeye cartoon

Popeye, Olive Oyl and Bluto are in a lifeboat at sea. They make it to shore and inhabit a log cabin prepared by Popeye, but are then set upon by Indians.

The series hadn’t quite hit its peak yet; Popeye’s hilarious muttering is not yet present, and the short doesn’t use Fleischer’s wonderful three dimensional backgrounds. But then, what do you expect from only the second one in the series? And if you consider that, this one is pretty impressive; there’s a real confidence with the characters on display here, and it’s energetic, full of gags, and fast-moving. In fact, it’s almost a surprise for Popeye to pull out the spinach in this one; he’s always in control of the situation, and both Olive and Wimpy seem to be doing a decent job of defending the cabin without him. The strangest gag involves a caricature of a famous Indian leader, and by Indian, I don’t mean “American Indian”; it’s one of the only times I’ve known a cinematic work to address the fact that the Native Americans were mistakenly titled as residents from an entirely different country. It’s easy to see why the Popeye series would become as popular as it did. Fantastic content includes Popeye’s super powers, and anthropomorphic lightning.