Sandra Dee and the Son of Cthulhu

For folks that are around my age, the most influential person in our upbringing and general outlook on this best of all possible worlds may be Samuel Z. Arkoff. Just looking at that name brings a flood of almost subliminal memories from my childhood. Arkoff was one of the founders of American International Pictures – the source of the flood of B-movie oddness that was the main warped window we had into the world at large.

American International Pictures made films for years based on the ARKOFF formula –

  • Action (exciting, entertaining drama)
  • Revolution (novel or controversial themes and ideas)
  • Killing (a modicum of violence)
  • Oratory (notable dialogue and speeches)
  • Fantasy (acted-out fantasies common to the audience)
  • Fornication (sex appeal, for young adults)

Which pretty much says it all.

When I look at a list of American International Releases from say, 1956 up to 1981… It looks like about 232 films – I am horrified by how many, well more than half, of them I have seen – and remember seeing. There were the horror films that I saw late at night on a tiny 12-inch b&w television after discovering the amazing new world of UHF television (more than three channels – wow!…Do you remember the little loop antennas?). There were the beach films. There were the Poe films (capped by The Conqueror Worm). Blacksploitation. Bad Science Fiction.

I lived on a lot of military bases growing up and they would show at least three different movies every week; I think it cost a quarter. One of the oddest experiences I had as an adult is when I realized they don’t play the Star Spangled Banner before every movie (Army brats will know what I’m talking about). American International Pictures schlock…. Most of those would wind their way around the bases sometime.

Now they are on Netflix Streaming… though I wouldn’t advise wasting too much of your time.

But I noticed one film that had really left its mark and I wanted to re-watch it (although I knew it wasn’t a very good film) to see if my memory served me well. This was The Dunwich Horror.

It came out in 1970, so I may have seen it at a theater in Panama, but probably saw it in Managua. We would get three films a week on 16mm there and would show them at the Embassy, the Marine Compound, or our house.

It’s pretty standard Arkoff horror fare – let’s see how it stands up to the ARKOFF formula:

Action them til they’re dizzy. Don’t stop. It must be in your screenplay and in your director’s head. Employ only film editors who are as movement-crazy as you are. Kid’s love action…and they”ll go back…and will tell their peers, inferiors, and superiors what’s good.

-The Dunwich Horror definitely has action – though it doesn’t always make sense. Well, actually, it starts a little slow, but does build to a frenzy of monstrous murders with the traditional villagers pursuing and being pursued by an unseen fiend.

Revolutionary scenes get talked of. Use some new photographic devices…editing techniques…locales…smells…stunts or something. Make ’em so the sheer experience of seeing them is unique. New language, new juxtapositions, new shocks, new relationships, new attire, new oncepts…new, new, new. Revolve situations, relationships, hell, even the camera if it will get your movie talked about.

-Although it came out in 1970 – it is full of (now dated) 60’s psychedelic effects – grating electronic music/noise and solarized stylized colorized fisheye scenes of naked actors in bodypaint making grotesque faces at the camera… the usual stuff. Now it’s silly… it was sort of silly back then… but it was unique enough to leave an unpleasant memory then on a kid watching it – enough for me to remember it to this day.

The attack of the garish, gaudy Evil Dream Hippies

Kill colorfully and often. Young audiences… like to experience death. Vicariously, of course. But then all storytelling is experiencing something that happens to someone else and you come out alive.

You should be sure to kill and do so in bizarre ways so your audience will get their money’s worth, and so they will tell others…Without death or the glamourous threats of it, I would never have been able to make the highest grossing independently-produced, independently-released film of all time, The Amityville Horror.

-Plenty of death. Again, some of it is diluted by the cheap and garish sixties effects – but still there.

Orate! Tell the world about your picture! Talk about it but more important…get people talking about it. Best way is through publicity. As my old buddy Jack Warner used to say, “The movie good enough to sell itself has not yet been produced!”

-I guess this is more concerned with publicity, which I can’t speak for. The characters do like to orate within the film, of course…

Fantasy is what audiences spend money for. Give them fantastic adventures. Entertain them by rushing them into worlds you dreamed up for them. Avoid the prosaic and commonplace. When they’re in those fantastic environments, keep everything moving ultra-fast. Action will help suspend disbelief.

-There was the fantastic element that I didn’t know anything about when I first saw the film – Lovecraft. The movie is adapted from one of his short stories. I didn’t read any H.P. Lovecraft until I was in college – they had these cheap paperbacks at the bookstore with lurid covers.

There were a whole series of these collections – I read them all.

I would read a story from one of the collections and think, “no big deal,” and then try to go to sleep. It is only in the half-world between waking and somnolence that the true horror of the tales would emerge. I was hooked and am still a fan.

The Dunwich Horror of the film only bears a passing resemblance to Lovecraft’s tale, but it features more than a few touchstones of his fiction: Arkham, Miskatonic University, Yog-Sothoth, The Necrominicon, and the strong hint that the protagonist and his twin brother are actually children of Cthulhu.

Fornicating is the answer to an exhibitor’s dreams. You can’t get an ingredient in most movies that draws better than sex. Of course, you have to use it wisely…You gotta have taste. Foreplay is as important in dramaturgy as in bed. But avoid too much visual sex. It is embarassing and if it goes on too long it puts audiences to sleep. Arouse but don’t offend!

Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee!

-Ah… here it is. This is what etched The Dunwich Horror into young minds. It stars Sandra Dee, for God’s sake… Gidget. She was the symbol of the innocent, wholesome teenager – so much so that she is now known mostly as the subject of ridicule in a song from “Grease.”

The Dunwich Horror, for all its Lovecraftian touchstones, is really the story of the sexual corruption of Sandra Dee. She starts out as a prim and proper university librarian that trusts an odd but handsome stranger too much, offers him a ride home, and falls under his evil spell. Before she knows what’s going on she’s up on writhing around on an altar in an unforgettable skimpy costume as the centerpiece of a ritual to bring a monstrous race of ancient horrors back to life.

This is not how she imagined this day would go.

At the very end, even after the sudden, inexplicable, defeat of the evil brothers, it is shown that now she is pregnant with Cthulhu’s grandson… the horror continues.

There is nothing explicit here – a modern film would not even bother with this sort of silliness. That’s sort of a shame – the schlock masters knew what they were doing, how powerful on a subliminal level the image of once innocent Sandra Dee writhing on that altar would be. Nothing much is shown, everything is implied, the imagination fills in the blanks so powerfully.

In lieu of expensive special effects, we have skimpy outfits, strange facial expressions, and odd awkward hand gestures.

I’ve rambled on too long about a second-rate B movie that’s almost a half-century old and deservedly mostly forgotten. But these are the memories that we live with every day – some are so deep we don’t even know they are there.

PS – a fellow blogger wrote a post on this subject:
The ARKOFF Formula and the Peter Pan Syndrome

Melancholia

I usually struggle when writing about film to find something useful to write about without giving too much of the movie away. I have stopped watching or reading film reviews (before I see a film) at all – they all take the surprise away. I want to be stunned, if possible.

No such problem with Melancholia – the movie itself tells you the ending in the first few minutes. The director has said he doesn’t want there to be any suspense. He wants everyone to know how the movie ends. It ends with the destruction of the earth.

Since I don’t read film reviews any more I had never heard of Melancholia, even though I have been a semi-fan of the controversial and provocative director Lars von Trier for many years. It came on cable with an irresistible summary – “A woman’s troubled relationship with her sister is complicated by the appearance of a mysterious planet on a collision course with earth.” How could anyone resist a film like that?

The movie is divided into two chapters – each one named after one of the sisters. The first is “Justine” – and it concerns the events surrounding Justine’s (played by Kirsten Dunst) wedding reception. It’s a fancy, expensive affair, paid for by her sister’s fabulously wealthy brother-in-law John (Keifer Sutherland), and put together by a strange wedding planner (Udo Keir – he keeps walking by with his hand in front of his face to keep from looking at the bride – she has ruined “his wedding”). There’s the incredibly bitter mother (Charlotte Rampling), the asshole boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and plenty of other colorful characters.

The driving force, however, is Justine’s depression. She is crippled by melancholia to the extent that she often can’t even move. Lars von Trier has said that the movie was inspired by his own bouts with depression which make it impossible for him to work. Justine tries to put on a happy face at her own wedding celebration and to appreciate her husband, but it’s all hopeless. She is doomed.

Kirsten Dunst gives an amazing performance of a woman destroyed by depression, drowning in sadness so deep it can’t be swept away. It is painful to watch, but feels true to life – she helps us understand how she feels and how hopeless it all is.

The second chapter is titled “Claire” and the focus shifts to Justine’s sister as the mysterious planet, ironically named Melancholia appears and skims by the earth. Claire is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, the daughter of Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg – and has already had a long influential career in film, music, and fashion. As the doom earth is about to suffer become more and more obvious the roles of Claire and Justine become reversed.

The ultimate irony of Melancholia is that suffering from crippling depression makes you surprisingly equipped to deal with the end of the world.

So that’s the story of the film. Depressed woman finds out that reality is even worse than what she feared and then everybody dies.

Obviously, this isn’t a tale for everybody. At times it is maddeningly slow, and the lack of hope takes away the suspense that usually feeds a moviegoer’s hunger for entertainment. However, there is a strange beauty in doom, especially cinematic doom, and once the curtain comes down our little blue planet is still spinning out there. There really isn’t a giant killer planet lurking on the other side of the sun and we can take a little joy out of that.

I was surprisingly buoyed by Justine’s struggle (and Dunst’s performance) and her doom will, ultimately, be shared by us all – it’s only a matter of timing. She was able to muster up a little dignity at the end, and that might be enough.

 

Big Man Japan

Another review of a movie you (probably) will never see.

Why do I do this? Everyone in the world is out waiting in line to see the last Harry Potter film (I’ve only read one of the books and seen two and a half of the films) while I’m holed up with my laptop when I should be asleep and here I am watching another WTF stranger than strange bit of Netflix Streaming. The last two movies I’ve seen (and, more important, written about) have been Quintet (a candidate for worst movie ever) and now, Big Man Japan.

I know its a cult hit – but I’ve never met anyone that admitted to actually seeing Big Man Japan. I don’t even know how I came across it – probably fell into some webpage that mentioned that it was on Netflix and I couldn’t resist.

Now, I used to see a lot of film and read a lot of movie reviews. The problem is that too many reviews, especially written ones, simply outline the plot of the film in detail and that ruins the whole thing, doesn’t it? So I quit reading reviews until after I had seen a film. My idea is to go in blind, sit there knowing nothing, my brain an empty vessel to receive the cinematic genius unfettered by previous knowledge or expectation. The only problem is that about the time I decided on this course of action I ran out of money and time and hardly ever get to see anything anymore. Anything except when I lose my mind and stay up all night to watch weird stuff like “Big Man Japan.”

Therefore, I don’t want to talk too much about plot details. It would be interesting to see this film without knowing anything at all. It would be interesting, but you’d be pissed at me because I made you waste almost two hours of you precious life on this weird shit. So I guess, as a public duty, I should provide fair warning.

You see, the first third of the movie is a documentary-type exploration of Masaru Daisato, a middle-aged long-haired Japanese loser. His wife has left him and he scrapes by in a cluttered place eating rice and dehydrated seaweed. He carries one of those little folding umbrellas everywhere. Cryptically, he says he likes the umbrella and the seaweed because, “It only gets big when you want it to.”

Everybody hates this guy, they stare, they throw garbage into his yard, and spraypaint insulting graffiti wherever he goes. His wife has left with his daughter, there is a rusting swing set peeking out from the bags of trash outside his house.

He talks about his job. He makes about 5,000 a month (five thousand what… I don’t know) and wishes he made 8,000. He says that there isn’t as much business as there used to be. Though he doesn’t work much, he can’t travel. He has to be on call all the time. He seems to have a problem with the United States for some reason.

About a half-hour in we find out what his job is. He is a hero. They clamp electrodes to his nipples and shoot thousands of volts into his body and he grows into a huge, hairy, chubby guy with a bad haircut and a piece of pipe for a club. Then he goes out and fights giant monsters.

These monsters are tearing up Japan like Godzilla, except that nobody seems to care much about it and nobody seems to get hurt. The monsters are strange, disgusting, bizzaroids with strangely human faces (one has to keep flipping his combover as he tears buildings up by their foundation). The fights are filmed, but they air on television at two in the morning and the ratings are terrible. His agent tries to find sponsors to plaster advertisements on his chest and back to bring in an extra income – but he is so incompetent, cowardly, and unattractive the sponsors are hard to find and harder to keep.

The Strangling Monster

The Strangling Monster

Okay, this sort of thing goes forward, getting odder and odder (I’m leaving a lot out, trust me), until the final climax occurs and then, I’m warning you about this, the whole thing really veers off into truly WTF (and I don’t mean Win The Future) land. It’s pretty stunning, really. I’ve never seen anything even remotely like this. All through the movie you can’t help but wonder how serious the movie maker is. Is this a somewhat serious exploration of Japanese Culture, Capitalism, Monster Movies, Religious Ceremony, Ramen Noodles, Asian Pop Culture, Ozu, our treatment of the Aged, Reality Television, Fame, Heroism, and many other issues… or is this simply a big joke thrown in our face.

The last part of the film leaves no doubt.

It’s sort of genius, really, in a sort of sick, ridiculous, and annoying way. The only problem is that by that point I had actually come to care about Masaru Daisato. The scene where he takes his pixelated daughter to the zoo is heartbreaking. I wanted him to find redemption. I wanted him to defeat his enemies and win the girl.

And that is what the film ultimately skewers – the viewer’s expectations.

Does watching strange stuff like this stretch the mind, or is it only a lonely excuse for killing some time when I should be sleeping, waiting in line at Harry Potter, or out drinking?

Oh, one last thing. Peggy wrote the other day about remakes. It appears that a Hollywood studio has bought the rights to remake Big Man Japan. Or will it be a reboot?

Big Man Japan

Big Man Japan, ready to transform.

The movie answers one long-nagging question. When the hero grows to monster size, where does his clothes come from? In Big Man Japan it is answered. A trunk with a pair of giant purple nylon underwear inside follows the hero around. Before he is juiced up to giant size, the shorts are raised up by a winch onto two poles and the hero stands inside these, so when he grows, he he attired.