The Wild Wild West Revisited (1979)

Article 3496 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 2-10-2011
Posting Date: 3-11-2011
Directed by Burt Kennedy
Featuring Robert Conrad, Ross Martin, Paul Williams
Country: USA
What it is: TV show revival

James West and Artemus Gordon are called out of retirement to investigate the substitution of several world leaders by uncanny replicas. They discover it’s part of a plot by the son of their old arch-nemesis Dr. Loveless, who has also created the first atomic bomb.

If there was any TV show from my childhood that I would call “mine” (a personal favorite that I felt and still feel very strongly about), it would be “The Wild Wild West”. The adventures of cool secret service agent James West, the antics of his sidekick Artemus Gordon, and the nefarious schemes of their primary foe Dr. Miguelito Loveless were one of the passions of my childhood. As you might imagine, I’m a bit of a fanatic about the original show, and I hate anyone messing with it; I avoided the movie update featuring Will Smith because I knew it would have little in common with the original series. However, I did catch this late seventies TV-Movie revival of the series, overjoyed to see my old favorites back on the air… and I ended up hating it, finding it a betrayal of all I loved about the series.

I fully expected to vent my spleen about this movie when I watched it for this series, but I found it much more palatable this time. For me, the main concern was whether it would capture the ambiance of that series, and watching it now, I can say that it managed to do it for about half the time. It stars the original leading men, and they still had good chemistry. Paul Williams makes an acceptable son of Dr. Loveless (though I hated him originally for the simple reason that he wasn’t Michael Dunn), and the story more or less is an appropriate one for the series. It does miss a few points; there’s precious little gadgetry on hand (the old James West always had something up his sleeve, in his belt, or in the heels of his boots to help him), and the wild fight scenes where West would take on several assailants at once are missing, except for a disappointing one near the beginning.

Where the movie doesn’t succeed is why I hated so badly when I was younger; though the original series was a satire of sorts, it wasn’t, save for some of Gordon’s comic characters in disguise, played for laughs or camp; the show did it all with a straight face. This one plays for laughs. Sometimes it works, such as during the scene where West encounters a beautiful woman in a saloon only to discover that she’s the daughter of an old lover; in scenes like this, the humor is appropriate and character-driven. For the most part, though, it plays too broadly, especially in the scenes involving Harry Morgan and Jeff MacKay as the head of the secret service and his nephew. Artemus Gordon’s scenes in disguise were always a highlight of the series for me, but here, when he dresses up as a female barroom dancer, it’s done for no discernible reason and played purely for laughs. It was scenes like this which fueled my ire back then. Now I can at least appreciate the ease with which Robert Conrad and Ross Martin handled the comedy, and I can accept the movie for the moments when it works. But it does make me wonder whether any remake or update of a TV series will ever really be able to tap fully into the ambiance of the original. Quite frankly, I have yet to see that happen.


The War in Space (1977)

aka Wakusei daisenso
Article 3488 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 1-27-2011
Posting Date: 3-3-2011
Directed by Jun Fukuda
Featuring Kensaku Morita, Yuko Asano, Ryo Ikebe
Country: Japan
What it is: Japanese space opera

An intrepid team of fighters use their war machine called Gohton to fight off an invasion from Venus.

Any movie with a title like this to come out after the release of STAR WARS tends to trigger a belief in me that it was made to cash in on the popularity of that movie. And there are definite elements of STAR WARS in this movie. However, Japan has a tradition of space opera all its own, and Toho has more than its share under its belt, and though this movie may borrow from STAR WARS, it also is taking inspiration from previous Toho productions like ATRAGON and (especially) BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE; in some ways, this movie is a remake of that second one. This gives the movie a little bit more in the way of novelty value. There are also a few moments I really like; just for example, I’m really taken with the fact that there is no background music when the task force first enters the alien spaceship, as it adds a real tension to the proceedings. I find it more useful to compare it to BATTLE IN OUTER SPACE than STAR WARS, and I can say that in some ways it improves on that movie; there’s a much greater human element to this one, making it less of exercise in mechanical special effects. But, alas, there’s something incredibly threadbare about the whole production; I miss the crowds and milling extras that fill up those earlier movies, as there hardly seems to be anyone around in this one. There’s also quite a bit of silliness, especially in the monster and alien design. The ending owes more than a touch to the original GOJIRA, and it’s one of the better sections of the movie. Still, the movie is more of a curiosity than a success.

The Wizard of Gore (1970)

Article 3461 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-27-2010
Posting Date: 2-4-2011
Directed by Herschell Gordon Lewis
Featuring Roy Sager, Judy Cler, Wayne Ratay
Country: USA
What it is: Gory head games

A magician named Montag the Magnificent performs extremely gory magical tricks on audience members; they leave the stage unharmed but later are found dead with their wounds intact. Could someone be stalking his volunteers and imitating the horrible tricks… or could it be Montag himself who is responsible?

Unless I’ve miscalculated, this should mark the end of my coverage of Herschell Gordon Lewis’s infamous gore movies from the sixties and seventies, though I’m probably not through with him yet; he has a few non-gore movies from the period that qualify, and he has resumed film-making in the last decade. This may be his most interesting movie since 2000 MANIACS, if for no other reason than the plot goes off into bizarre directions having to do with the nature of dreams and reality. Taking this into account, the bizarre jagged editing during the gore sequences actually contributes to a dreamlike atmosphere where you’re not supposed to be sure what the reality is. It’s almost as if he took the tacked-on ending concept for MONSTER A-GO GO and made a whole movie around it, one that would sustain the idea. Granted, the movie is still atrociously made; the acting is mostly abysmal, the pacing is bad, the sound is horrible…it’s the usual flaws you find in his movies. Furthermore, certain plot elements seem to promise revelations that never come; I’d like to know why Montag is stealing the corpses of the volunteers, but we never find out, and the movie even acknowledges that we don’t. Still, the movie does demonstrate that there was more to him than just the gore. Nevertheless, despite his positive qualities, I do find myself realizing that after I’ve seen each one of his gory movies, I really don’t have much motivation to watch any one of them again, which makes me suspect that his appeal will remain largely to gorehounds.

The Whip Hand (1951)

Article 3460 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-26-2010
Posting Date: 2-3-2011
Directed by William Cameron Menzies
Featuring Carla Balenda, Elliott Reid, Edgar Barrier
Country: USA
What it is: Espionage thriller

A reporter on a fishing trip becomes suspicious of a small town and its secrets, and decides to investigate. And the rich eccentric on the outskirts of town has something to hide…

Of the three science fiction films made by William Cameron Menzies during the fifties, this is the least interesting, partially because the plot is pretty weak and partially because the fantastic content (a super-virus) is more of a Gizmo Maguffin than anything else. It does have an interesting history, though; IMDB lists that Bobby Watson (who made something of a career of playing Hitler) originally appeared in the movie, but his scenes were deleted. That’s because producer Howard Hughes decided that the original villains of the movie (Nazis) should be changed to communists to make it more relevant, and the movie was extensively reshot. The movie has an appropriate sense of paranoia, but it overuses it to the point that it gets fairly tiresome and starts to seem far-fetched. It also lacks the visual sense I usually associate with Menzies films. All in all, I found this one a disappointment.

The War of the Gargantuas (1966)

aka Furankenshutain no kaiju: Sanda tai Gaira
Article 3459 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-25-2010
Posting Date: 2-2-2011
Directed by Ishiro Honda
Featuring Russ Tamblyn, Kumi Mizuno, Kenji Sahara
Country: Japan
What it is: Giant monster movie

A human-shaped undersea creature is terrorizing boats on the ocean. Witnesses claim the monster is the one raised by scientists, but the scientists don’t believe it is the same creature. However, it turns out there are two creatures, one an evil clone of the other.

This is a sequel to FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, but the American version of the movie obscures the connection. This was fairly easy to do; it looks as if between the two movies, the visual conception of the monster was radically changed, so the creature Sanda here bears little resemblance to the monster from the original movie. The earlier movie is largely dismissed as one of the weaker kaijus, but this one has a strong cult following and many choose it as their favorite Japanese monster movie. In some ways I can see why; Gailah the sea creature is one of the nastier kaiju monsters, if for no other reason than it explicitly eats people, something that is mostly implied for the other monsters. There’s some memorable scenes here; when Gailah takes a woman out of her apartment, we expect a KING KONG-like moment, but instead the monster eats her and spits out her clothing. Other memorable scenes; a laser attack on the monster destroys hundreds of trees, the good monster discovers the truth about the evil monster, and a lounge singer sings the unfortunate song “The Words get Stuck in my Throat”. In some ways, the fact that the monsters are humanoids helps the movie, as the battles are more lively than in some of the other kaijus. There’s also a bit of emotional resonance when we discover that the military plans to show little attempt to differentiate between the good and evil monsters, and will seek to destroy both. This is one of the more memorable kaijus out there.

What the Swedish Butler Saw (1975)

aka Groove Room, Chapagnegalopp
Article 3450 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 12-16-2010
Posting Date: 1-24-2011
Directed by Vernon P. Becker
Featuring Ole Soltoft, Sue Longhurst, Charlie Elvegard
Country: Sweden / USA
What it is: Sex comedy

In Victorian England, a young man discovers the joys of sex at a brothel, and sets his sights on winning the heart (and body) of a beautiful minister’s daughter.

I have to admit that this is one of the more embarrassing titles I’ve covered for this series, but at least it’s a little better than one of the other alternate titles, TEENAGE TICKLE GIRLS. As a sex comedy, it’s mildly amusing and mildly titillating, and if it stands out in any way, it’s that the Victorian milieu gives it a little bit more flavor than others of its ilk. As for the fantastic content, it mostly consists of two things; the seduction scenes involve a couple of sex machines that move it into the realm of science fiction, and there’s a minor subplot about a house with secret passages that is the hiding place of Jack the Ripper, who makes several abortive attempts to kill the main character. Though it’s one of the better movies of its type, it’s hardly essential viewing.

The Witches (1967)

aka Le streghe
Article 3379 by Dave Sindelar
Viewing Date: 10-1-2010
Posting Date: 11-13-2010
Directed by Mauro Balognini, Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini and Franco Rossi
Featuring Silvano Mangano, Toto, Clint Eastwood
Country: Italy / France
What it is: Anthology of tales about women

Five tales are told. In the first, a beautiful movie star visits the private party of a friend. In the second, a woman volunteers to drive an injured man to the hospital. In the third, a man, upon the death of his wife, makes a deal with his son to remarry, but not until they find a woman they both like. In the fourth, a Sicilian woman reveals to her father the name of her seducer. In the last, a housewife has fantasies to help her cope that her marriage has cooled down.

The title is to be taken metaphorically; there’s no overt witchcraft in any of the five stories here. Nonetheless, there are some fantastic elements here; the third story (whose absurdist comic overtones make it at least marginally a fantasy to begin with) ends with a fantastically-themed twist, and the last story’s fantasy sequences (which include appearances by Diabolik, Mandrake, Flash Gordon and Batman) also add some elements. All five stories feature Silvano Mangano as the star, and she does a fine job throughout. The second and fourth stories are mostly short jokes and are of the least interest here. The first story is directed by Visconti and is the longest of the bunch; it’s an exploration of the love/hate relationship women have with beautiful movie stars that inspire jealousy/emulation as well as a look at the way this beauty is marketed; it has some interesting things to say but gets rather dull. The third story is by Pasolini, here working once again with Toto (in one of his last movies) who is made up to look like an aging Larry Fine. It’s a light-hearted comic fable that is a lot of fun. The last story is directed by De Sica, and is perhaps the best of the lot. It features Clint Eastwood playing against type for the most part, though the fantasy sequences will sometimes feature him in much more expected roles, and he does a great job. The movie is uneven overall (most anthologies of this sort are that way), but it’s satisfying enough. According to IMDB, the German and Spanish versions of this movie run about fifteen minutes longer, which leaves me wondering if there may have been a sixth story, though IMDB does not mention any other one.