Friday, October 24, 2014

Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)

Exactly 40 minutes into Godzilla vs. Megalon, I stopped screaming about how bad it was, acknowledged that I was watching a Showa-era Godzilla movie, and sat back to relax. Guess what? I truly enjoyed it! That isn't how I felt when I first saw it at the Trail Drive-In sometime after its initial United States release. For years, I have despised the movie without ever giving it a second chance. Surprisingly, it appeals to the child in me now, perhaps the child that never really existed when I was growing up.

Yeah, this never happens.  The movie takes place in Japan.  But wouldn't it be awesome?

What happens at 40 minutes into Godzilla vs. Megalon is that the father and son heroes of the movie are held captive in a metal storage box on the back of a truck. Driven by one of the villains and backed up to a dam, the truck bed is tilted up to dump the box into the water below. But then Megalon rises over a hill, approaches the truck and bats the box into the air. The box crashes over another hill, the doors pop open and out roll the heroes with barely a scratch. Ridiculous, yes; but how much fun would that be? The scene melted my cold, critical heart.

It's a tough sell up until then, though. The father has invented a robot named Jet Jaguar that is the object of desire for the leaders of Seatopia (you can't make up this shit), an underground city partially (1/3) destroyed by nuclear testing. The Emperor of Seatopia (Robert Dunham), a hairy-backed American wearing a toga, instructs his lackeys up top to steal Jet Jaguar and reprogram him so he can lead their monster, Megalon, to Tokyo to wage a war they have no choice to start. The Emperor also contacts his friends out in "the universe" to send monster Gigan to assist.

Roll call:  Jet Jaguar, Godzilla, Gigan, Megalon

I'd love to see Godzilla vs. Megalon subtitled rather than dubbed. I don't know that it's fair to critique it based on voices that have been added after the fact. But they're really bad and it's difficult for them to not distract from the highly scientific and important story the movie is trying to tell. Add to that scenes that are a mix of live action, miniatures and stock footage, as well as monster costumes and effects that are primitive, even for the 70s, and it's not real easy to enjoy what you're watching.

But when I cut it some slack, I remembered something I tell people who complain about CGI. As you know, I read comic books. Sometimes the art is good. Sometimes the art is bad. But it's the stories I appreciate and I try to accept an artist's style, even though I may not particularly enjoy it. It's the same thing with a movie like Godzilla vs. Megalon that looks so cheesy. If I don't resist and simply accept its style, I can usually appreciate the story. (Here, the story isn't really anything to appreciate, either, but it is creative and fun.)

After Jet Jaguar breaks the villains' hold on him and becomes autonomous ("he'll operate as himself now with no orders"), he goes to Monster Island to summon Godzilla, who at this point in the franchise is now mankind's savior. When he finally arrives late in the movie, bopping into the arena like a prize fighter, it's nothing but orchestrated chaos between Megalon, Gigan, Godzilla and Jet Jaguar, who has now grown in size to equal the giant monsters. Is there correlation between fans of Godzilla and professional wrestling? The two types of entertainment seem very similar.

Here are some interesting things that happen during the battle:
  • ·      Megalon and Gigan play catch with Jet Jaguar
  • ·      Megalon shoots bombs out of his "mouth"
  • ·      Gigan cuts Godzilla's shoulder, sending a surprising amount of blood spurting from the wound
  • ·      Godzilla temporarily stops fighting to help Jet Jaguar, who later flies Godzilla to safety from a circle of fire
  • ·      Jet Jaguar breaks one of Gigan's "arms", then tosses him in the air so Godzilla can spray him with his radioactive breath
  • ·      Jet Jaguar holds Megalon while Godzilla slides toward him on his tail and kicks him into the air... twice
  • ·      When the battle ends, Jet Jaguar (before returning to normal size) and Godzilla actually shake "hands"

The best movies end when the main character learns a lesson. After witnessing the mayhem, Inventor Goro Ibuki (Katsuhiko Sasaki) concludes, "We'll warn the scientists to be more careful in the future and leave Seatopia in peace." Wow, that's provocative. At what point did he come to that brilliant conclusion? After watching Godzilla vs. Megalon, I think I'd conclude, 'Bomb the hell out of Seatopia! And fire a nuclear missile into space while you're at it! How else are we going to get a rematch among these great monsters?"

Tomorrow: The Omen!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Devil's Rain (1975)

At some point in the mid-1970s, my memories of seeing movies at the drive-in shift from the Enid Drive-In out by the fairgrounds, to the Trail Drive-In on the south side of town.  I don’t know if it was a new facility or if both remained in operation at the same time, but I definitely remember the Trail being the “nicer” of the two.  One of the first movies I saw there was The Devil’s Rain.  I didn’t like it in the summer of 1975 and I don’t like it much now.

The Trail Drive-In circa 2007, long after closing.
The Devil’s Rain is one of the slowest, most boring horror movies I’ve ever seen.  It’s not trashy, though, like Dracula vs. Frankenstein.  Somehow, I think its intentions are better.  And it does have some excellent makeup and special effects.  For some reason, I watch it every few years, either forgetting that it’s not that great a movie or just wanting to have something on in the background while I’m doing other things.

The movie opens by throwing us right into the middle of what little plot there is.  There’s no explanation; it’s like we walked into the room in the middle of a conversation and have to figure out what’s happening.  During the first 30 minutes of The Devil’s Rain, the primary focus is a long discussion about some book, who has it, and who wants it.  Then, Mark Preston (William Shatner) confronts Jonathan Corbis (Ernest Borgnine) about it.

I guess it’s common knowledge that Corbis leads a Satanist congregation, representing evil, and Preston is a solid family man, representing good.  They agree to a “challenge of faith.”  If Preston wins, he gets to leave with his parents, who are being held captive.  If he loses, he must surrender the book to Corbis.  I guess that sounds like quite a bit of exposition, but it drags.  It’s all talk and no action.

The movie then shifts to Dr. Sam Richards (Eddie Albert), who is performing experiments to “identify ESP activity.”  His subject is Mark’s sister-in-law, Julie (Joan Prather), who is experiencing visions related to the history of Corbis and his church.  Her husband, Tom (Tom Skerritt) enters the picture from nowhere and becomes the new hero of the story because Mark has become one of Corbis’s victims.

Julie has a lengthy flashback that reveals a centuries long “feud” between Corbis and the Prestons.  In 1680, Corbis was identified as a witch and burned at the stake, swearing vengeance upon the Prestons and their ancestors.  Flash forward to the present where Corbis performs a ceremony.  He gets so into it that he transforms into a goat-like demon.  Tom, bowl haircut and all, infiltrates the ceremony, but is able to escape.  And so on, and so on…

The movie doesn’t dig any deeper for explanations of any of its nonsense.  In fact, when someone asks Dr. Richards why Corbis waited 300 years to come back, he ignores the issue by replying, “You’ll never know.”  Let’s move on.  He’s the one who has the final confrontation with Corbis, telling him he wants Tom and Judy Preston or he will destroy “the devil’s rain,” the vessel of souls that Corbis has stolen.  Richards shouts to the minions, “Without the devil’s rain, he has no hold over you.  Break the bottle!”

It may seem like I’ve told you the entire story.  I’m sorry, but I believe I have.  That’s about all that happens.  However, as I review Wikipedia for plot points, it’s as if whoever wrote their article saw a different movie than I did.  There are details in that summary that I just didn’t get by watching the movie and making my own notes.  I’d say they’re subtle points, but nothing about The Devil’s Rain seems subtle to me.

Especially the ending…  The effect of Corbis’s acolytes melting in the rain is quite spectacular.  However, there are 10 full minutes of it and that is just too much.  How many different ways can we look at people’s faces dripping off their bodies, as if a hose is washing away clay?  It’s indicative of the entire movie: what could have been done briefly is stretched out three times longer than necessary.

This is a real disappointment considering that The Devil’s Rain was directed by Robert Fuest, who also directed one of the best movies I’ve discussed this month, The Abominable Dr. Phibes.  It took three writers to come up with this mess, so let’s blame Gabe Essoe, James Ashton and Gerald Hopman.  There aren’t many credits to their names and I bet there’s a reason for that.

Tomorrow:  Godzilla vs. Megalon!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Race with the Devil (1975)

If you mixed two parts Smokey & the Bandit with one part Rosemary's Baby, and added just a pinch of Duel, you'd concoct a movie like Race with the Devil.  It's not exactly a horror movie, but has at its core a violent satanic ritual.  When two vacationing couples witness this ritual, they are subsequently terrorized on what becomes a road trip from hell.  It's not scary, per se, but is nevertheless an edge of your seat action thriller.

If there characters were written in 2014, Frank and Alice (Warren Oates, Loretta Swit) and Roger and Kelly (Peter Fonda, Lara Parker) would be stereotypical NASCAR fans.  They're good American people who enjoy their liquor and the great outdoors.  They're the kind of folks I imagine sitting under the stars with their friends, feeling more than a slight buzz and posting on Facebook, "Life is good."  They're also the kind of folks who would be more likely to believe they're watching an orgy than a human sacrifice.

In a state of the art RV (by mid-70s standards), the four travelers have everything they need.  As Frank states, "We don’t need anything from anybody.  We are self-contained."  They drive down their "own private road to seclusion", oblivious about what's at the end of it.  But they're soon speeding back up the road, with cult members in hot pursuit.  Explaining to the wives what they saw, Frank says, "Murder.  No joke, no kidding, no bullshit.  Murder."

From here through the end of the movie, everyone they encounter is a potential cult member, from the sheriff who wants to write off the incident as a result of the men's irresponsibility to the elderly patrons at the swimming pool of an RV park.  No gas station attendant or mechanic is above suspicion (and no telephone works.)  The cult is relentless, climbing all over the moving RV, planting rattlesnakes inside it and (spoiler alert) killing poor Ginger, Kelly's cute little dog.

I find great pleasure in Race with the Devil every time I watch it.  Recently, I got a smile from a particular scene between the two women.  Lara Parker played the witch Angelique in Dark Shadows.  So, when Loretta Swit asks her what a "rune" is and she is able to instantly explain, I think it's funny.  Of course, she of all people would know all about witchcraft!  (That's not part of the movie, though.  Parker's Kelly is the one most traumatized by the experience.)

The stuntmen in Race with the Devil must have had a huge payday after filming the last part of the movie.  As the RV gets pinned between a box van and a tow truck on the highway ands a detour takes our heroes to meet their fate, vehicles crash, burn and fly over bridges.  While catching their breath at the end a desolate road, Frank says, "Lighten up.  It's all over."  Famous last words, I guess.  There are two minutes left in the movie, plenty of time for a twist.

Not a great movie by any means, Race with the Devil is inexplicably entertaining for me.  There are bar fights, explosions and car chases.  Absolutely no thought is required.  Watching it makes me want to sit back, relax and crack open a Busch Lite.  Boy howdy, I mean to tell you, there ain't nothin' wrong with that.  Life is good… 

Tomorrow:  The Devil's Rain!

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975)

Here’s one of the things wrong with the United States.  Except for Sisters and The Exorcist, every movie I’ve discussed this month was rated PG (or GP, the equivalent at the time) when it was first released in theaters.  These movies contained brutal deaths by hacksaws, hatchets and knives, vicious attacks by rats, snakes and spiders, and gruesome depictions of brain surgery, vampire bites and premeditated murder.  One of them even foretold the destruction of Earth by nuclear bomb, and it was rated G!  We didn’t mind that “general audiences” watched these movies; or, at the strictest, watched them under “parental guidance.”

Throw sex into the mix, though, and the movie was automatically rated R.  Do you realize what that suggests?  It’s perfectly fine for our children to witness violence, but heaven forbid they witness the most natural act of nature.  It’s no wonder that we live in such a violent society and so many people have hang-ups about sex.  Take, for example, the 1975 movie, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud.  There’s nothing scary about it.  Oh, it’s a decent thriller, but (heaven forbid!) there’s frequent nudity, tastefully filmed scenes of mutually consensual intercourse, and a scene where Margot Kidder plays with herself in the bathtub.

This movie caused some controversy in the Owens household that lingers to this day.  I remember it being another one of those movies that, based on the TV commercials, I really wanted to see.  It was a fairly big thing for a parent to take his or her child to an R-rated movie, I guess.  My mother addressed her specific concerns with me.  They came primarily from the fact that Jennifer O’Neill, one of the stars of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud, had previously starred in Summer of ’42, in a very adult, sexual role.  She eventually relented and I distinctly recall sitting with her at a weekday matinee in Oklahoma City.

My mother doesn’t remember any of the stories I’ve been telling this month; however, she remembers taking me to see The Reincarnation of Peter Proud.  She recently told me how uncomfortable she felt, especially when we left the theater and she got the evil eye from several older women in the lobby.  My brother, who would have been five years old at the time remembers the controversy over the movie and being told there was “no way” he was going to be able to see it.  All this over a little sex.  How is that so harmful?  I wonder if it’s because, in general, "we" are uncomfortable talking about sex.

So, was all the controversy worth it?  What kind of movie is The Reincarnation of Peter Proud today?  I quite like it.  I think my only issue with a child seeing it is that he or she would probably find it boring.  It’s fairly talky, there’s not a lot of action and the subject matter is a little (dare I say) intellectual.

The movie opens with a vivid dream of a man’s murder in a lake.  College professor Peter Proud (Michael Sarrazin) wakes up in a cold sweat and his girlfriend, Nora (Cornelia Sharpe) says, “Jesus, I thought I was sleeping with another man.”  Little does she know how right she is.  Peter comes to believe that he is the reincarnation of the murdered man.  Investigating the phenomenon at an occult bookstore, he asks for books on reincarnation.  The clerk points him towards Edgar Cayce and says, “Everyone’s into it these days.”

I can vouch for that.  In the mid-70s, reincarnation was a popular subject.  It wasn’t only horror movies (Audrey Rose, The Manitou, Night of Dark Shadows) that dealt with reincarnation, but also two of the decade’s most popular comedies (All of Me and Heaven Can Wait).  As a teenager, I read Cayce and became quite interested in the idea of reincarnation.  (It doesn’t seem that I hear much about it these days; I think time travel has replaced it as the fantastical pop culture “concept du jour.”)

The entire movie is about Peter discovering "who he is."  Spotting a familiar town on the local news, he travels to Massachusetts to find it.  Once there, as more memories return, the dreams go away (except for the one pestering murder in the lake dream).  He ultimately learns he is the reincarnation of Jeffrey Curtis, a philandering husband to the daughter of a rich banker.  It was his wife, Marcia (Margot Kidder) who beaned him on the head with an oar in the lake nearly 30 years ago.

Curtis apparently had a three-month old daughter at the time.  When he meets the grown woman, Ann (Jennifer O’Neill), he falls in love with her.  Here is where the primary conflict of the movie arises.  If yo think about it, as Peter becomes more in touch with his previous self, he'd actually be sleeping with his own daughter.  The movie doesn’t shy away from that awkwardness.  He acknowledges it.  Sam (Paul Hecht), the parapsychologist who’s been helping him acknowledges it.

I like the way The Reincarnation of Peter Proud handles this.  First, Peter is repulsed by kissing her; he knows it could be considered incestuous.  Then, Sam reminds him how inappropriate it is.  But the relationship is really just part of the process of Peter discovering himself.  Although he is the reincarnation of Jeffrey Curtis, that isn’t who he is now.  I think falling in love with Ann is what helps him eventually accept what is happening to him and reconcile the inner turmoil.

(Spoiler alert.)  Not that Peter is going to be around very much longer to have to reconcile anything.  Marica is alive and well, albeit an alcoholic.  Peter’s mannerisms and outbursts convince her that Jeffrey has come back to torment her.  Remember, she did kill him once.  I wonder if the ending of the movie, besides being a real downer, is making a statement that Peter’s relationship with Ann was wrong after all.  I’m certain the filmmakers wanted to take that stance, lest they be accused of saying incest is OK.

There’s one aspect I think could have elevated The Reincarnation of Peter Proud from a good movie to a great one.  It’s the dreams themselves.  Early in the movie, it’s discovered through a sleep study that Peter isn’t dreaming at all.  In fact, without the release that dreaming provides on a regular basis, he could begin to have serious psychological issues.  But this concept is not fully explored.  I think it could have been more of a reason to motivate Peter.  Instead, it’s just kind of a throwaway idea.

What about the sex?  As you can imagine, it’s very tame by today’s standards.  It is, however, very matter of fact.  Peter and Nora talk about it openly; apparently he’s a tiger in the sack.  The repeated scenes of the build-up to Jeffrey Curtis’s murder include nudity, both male and female.  When it finally happens between Peter and Ann, it’s actually the most tasteful scene in the movie.  What about Margot masturbating in the bathtub?  The scene actually goes a long way toward explaining her motivations and is not salacious or titillating in any way.

In 2014, I still think reincarnation is a fascinating subject.  Have we lived other lives?  Is our purpose on Earth to finally achieve some type of enlightenment so that we may ultimately pass to another consciousness?  Whether or not you believe in an afterlife, it’s a more comforting thought than believing we simply cease to exist.  I’m not the only one who thinks about it, it seems.  A remake of The Reincarnation of Peter Proud is in development.  I don’t see how it could be as controversial as this one was forty years ago.  But I sure hope it will be as entertaining.

Tomorrow:  Race with the Devil!