After next week’s post up at Fantasy, “Films of High Adventure” is going on hiatus for a while due to Jesse and myself needing to devote more time to other projects. But! This week we celebrate my dad’s birthday by watching one of the movies he showed me as a wee Tanz: it involves Mars, red money (Mars is red!), red dust, red blood spurting out of people, and a red-faced Austrian body builder as a secret agent who thinks he’s a construction worker who thinks he’s a secret agent. Maybe. What could it be?
Film: Total Recall (1990)
WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Direction again by dirt-dog par excellence Paul Verhoeven (Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct), his follow-up to last week’s RoboCop. Final screenplay by half a dozen people after dozens of attempts (including one by Pier Anthony) to adapt a Philip K. Dick short story that featured very few gunfights and mutants—of those who penned the final version, most notable is Dan O’Bannon (Alien, Return of the Living Dead). Soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith (Pretty Much Every Cheesy Action Film From the Last Three Decades) and some decent special effects by frequent Verhoeven collaborator Rob Bottin (RoboCop, The Thing). “Acting” by Films of High Adventure All-Star Arnie Schwarz, Sharon Stone (so, so many turkeys), Rachel Ticotin (uh, Con Air), Ronny Cox (the main OCP baddie in RoboCop), Marshall Bell (the coach in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2, Magistrate Claggett in Deadwood), and the dependably angry Michael Ironside (Scanners, Starship Troopers)
Quote: “You blabbed, Quaid! You blabbed about Mars!”
First viewing by Molly: I have no idea. Young, young, young. My dad got really excited when it came out, and so it was one of the rare grown-up sci-fi action movies I saw as a kid.
First viewing by Jesse: Elementary school—another one my dear, departed grandmother showed me.
Most recent viewing by both: A couple of weeks ago.
Impact on Molly’s childhood development: I thought it was pretty fucking cool, that’s for sure. I was never a huge Arnold fan—I found him alarming as a child, and still do, honestly—but I remember being impressed by the things that impress children inclined towards mutants, three-tittied hookers, psychically-implanted memories, and x-rays that show guns, too.
Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Decent. I generally preferred fantasy to sci-fi but this one had mutants and ultra-violence, so it was alright by me. I remember not understanding that atmospheric pressure affected the human body and thought the reason Arnie et al inflated on the surface of Mars was that the red sand was poisonous or something. That shit freaked me right the hell out:
Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:
Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Pretty excited. My dad’s birthday was the 16th of November, and I wanted to do this review this week in celebration of his enthusiasm for science fiction and fantasy that was so formative for me. I didn’t recall (oh ho!) much of the film other than the asphyxiation sequence at the end and the three-tittied whore, quite frankly [Jesse says: also, dude, three-tittied whore is not the preferred nomenclature. Tri-breasted sex worker, please].
Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Cautiously intrigued, as I am with most Verhoeven screenings these days. That he has talent is undeniable; that he uses said talent in the service of vicious, intentionally trashy indulgences of his nihilism is equally undeniable. Yet I seem to remember this one having an honest-to-goodness, no-strings attached happy ending. . . which of course made me think I must have missed something the first time around.
Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: I feel like there’s a whip-smart sci-fi action movie lurking behind the façade of Total Recall. By this I mean that the film could have spent a lot more time exploring the nature of memory and subjective reality, but chose instead to over-rely on chest-thumping and man-worship. That said, it’s still fucking awesome in the way only big-budget sci-fi action movies can be: loud and bullet-riddled, and filled with questionably-futuristic technology, hot babes, awesome dudes, evil corporations, and cool stuff.
I think I prefer RoboCop of these two films simply because it manages to be (1) gorier, (2) smarter, (3) populated with more interesting characters, (4) more violent, and (5) less misogynistic all at the same time. That’s no small feat, but it’s true. That said. . . Total Recall will always have a place in my heart, like Legend, in that even though they’re both questionably good, I saw them at a young enough age that they were utterly mesmerizing and highly educational. Also, Total Recall is obviously the forerunner of Tank Girl, which I didn’t realize until this re-watch. Really! Tank Girl substitutes post-apocalyptic earth for Mars and a suit-wearing corporate grey-haired water lord for a suit-wearing corporate grey-haired air lord. Psychic mutants become warrior-kangaroo-men, and hey! Presto! A script! Sort of [Jesse says: think I still prefer Tank Girl, though—Ronny Cox is good, but he is no Malcolm McDowell, and Arnie sure as shootin’ ain’t half the thespian Lori Petty is].
Anyways, there’s apparently a remake in the works, and it’ll be interesting to see what a 21st century overhaul of this film might look like [Jesse says: maybe with Colin Farrell! I have no idea what his career did to make him hate it so. . .]. I really like Verhoeven’s grimy futures as seen in Total Recall and RoboCop, and if the new film is all shiny and Mac store-looking, I can’t imagine it will be as good. I like that these two films look like they could be our real future; that they could be the near-future that will one day be the far-future of Wall-E. Verhoeven is far too cynical to make near-future films where somehow the world has, I dunno, decided all of a sudden that polluting rivers, littering, strip mining, and overproducing unnecessary commodities so we can all enjoy the planet’s resources is Not Cool Anymore, since. . . well. Yeah. The evidence for that happening anytime soon is not particularly compelling. But in the true Verhoeven style, what we get is all that in the background, for the nerds to ponder. For everyone else, there’s explosions and boobies and one-liners! Thanks, Mr. Verhoeven, for giving us what we want and then sneering at us for wanting it, as you laugh all the way to the fucking bank. It’s what you do best.
Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Molly’s summation directly above is pretty much the most accurate description of his Hollywood output that I’ve ever read, and she also managed to connect Mr. Showgirls himself to Wall-E, no mean feat. For my money, Total Recall is decent viewing both by Schwarzie and Verhoeven movie standards, with many a well-executed effect, action scene, and bit of tawdry silliness to help grease the rails. The movie, as Molly pointed out, isn’t nearly as clever as it should have been, and compared to the superficially simpler but surprisingly nuanced RoboCop it’s fairly one-dimensional. Of course, that one dimension has mutants and nudity and mutant nudity and guns guns guns and fights fights fights, so it’s not as bad as it sounds.
The scenes where the film strains to be more than a simple action movie and almost succeeds are easily the most interesting, such as when Sharon Stone and the doctor from Rekall try to persuade Arnie to take the red pill to wake up from his artificial reality (and no, I don’t know why we didn’t cover The Matrix for this month, either, other than neither of us could bear re-watching it anytime soon). Although the scene in question quickly devolves into grunting and punching and shooting, it’s interesting to note that everything the doctor predicts comes to pass in the course of the film, which leads to the possible interpretation that Total Recall really is about a construction worker going crazy from a virtual vacation and not, as is usually thought, about a secret agent rediscovering his identity only to reject it for a nobler one.
The concept is never again overtly referenced in the film, but in the commentary Verhoeven somewhat gleefully offers that the fade to white that concludes the happy ending could be Arnie’s character finally being lobotomized following the hallucinations that have made up the bulk of the film. Given the director’s bleak track record, it’s easy to hypothesize which version of events he favors. So much for that happy ending—thanks for another bedtime story about the human race, Uncle Paul.
High Points: All the classy moments, from Arnie using an innocent bystander as a human shield to just about any scene with Sharon Stone—such as when Arnie greases her and says “considah that a divorce.” The part where Arnie takes the bug out of his nose. Definitely not Arnie’s acting. Johnny cabs, which are an infinitely cooler method of knowing where you are than Garmin or Magellan:
Final Verdict: ARGHHHHHH!!!!!!! But, you know, in a good way.
Next Time: We conclude Memory, Humanity, and Dystopia Month with Blade Runner over at Fantasy Magazine.
Memory, Humanity, and Dystopia Month continues today with a film about a robotic police officer. I wonder what it could be?
Film: RoboCop (1987)
WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Basic Instinct), perhaps the nastiest, most cynical director of the modern age. Screenplay by Edward Neumeir (who later “adapted” Heinlein’s Starship Troopers for Verhoeven) and Michael Miner, both of whom would probably rather be remembered for this collaboration than their sophomore pairing, Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid. Suitably epic soundtrack by Basil Poledouris (Conan the Barbarian) and impressive special effects by Rob Bottin (The Thing). Acting by Peter Weller (Naked Lunch, Buckaroo Bonzai) Nancy Allen (Carrie, Dressed to Kill), Kurtwood Smith (the dad from That 70s Show causing the same sort of alarming OMG-it’s-that-guy reaction that Paul Riser evokes in Aliens), Ronny Cox (Total Recall), Robert DoQui (Coffy, Nashville), and Twin Peaks alum Ray Wise (Leland Palmer), Miguel Ferrer (Special Agent Albert Rosenfeld), and Dan O’Herlihy (Andrew Packard) as scumbags of various stripes.
Quote: “Excuse me, I have to go. Somewhere there is a crime happening.”
Alternate quote: “I’d buy that for a dollar!”
First viewing by Molly: Last week.
First viewing by Jesse: In the fourth grade, at this kid Nathan Fisher’s house.
Most recent viewing by both: Last week.
Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Very little. I remember it being on the TV at my friend Amanda’s house (Amanda had not one but two older brothers and parents who didn’t give a crap if their kids watched R- or X-rated movies) and being vaguely intrigued. I remember inquiring of one of these aforementioned older brothers, “is RoboCop human inside the suit?” and the answer being “No, he is a robot.” Being a mere child, I did not realize that robots, too, could have feelings and experience angst (thank god the internet was created to teach us such lessons—link NSFW, but worth your time if you like robots and ruffly underpants), and thus figured I would not care about RoboCop’s fate. How wrong I was.
Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: High. I remember being totally unprepared for the wanton violence, and, of course, totally impressed by it. The toxic waste scene freaked me out more than just about anything else from my childhood—I’d seen The Toxic Avenger, so I knew these things were plausible.
Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:
Molly’s thoughts prior to watching: Uneasy. I don’t really like Paul Verhoeven’s movies in general. I mean—the ending of Starship Troopers, where a haz-mat besuitted scientist gives an unsolicited gynecological exam to an alien still troubles me (around the 3:30 mark), and Verhoeven also directed the only movie I genuinely wish I could un-see: Flesh and Blood. Even Ladyhawke had some moments I didn’t loathe—not so with Flesh and Blood, which made me actively wish I had never been born so I would not have then grown up into a person who was watching Flesh and Blood. Christ. BUT N-E-WAYZ Paul Verhoeven also directed Total Recall, which is pretty awesome, and Jesse assured me that RoboCop was more in the TR mold than F&B. . . even though he also mentioned that it was “a movie that would probably make me hate everything.” With that sort of endorsement, what could go wrong?
Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Wary. Verhoeven’s mean-spirited, bleak view of humanity has depressed Molly before, and though the pleasure I take in Molly’s reactions to some of these turkeys may appear to be sadistic, I don’t actually like making her unhappy—at least not in the way that Paul Verhoeven makes her unhappy. For one thing, it’s hard to tell if he’s misogynistic or simply nihilistic to the point of hating everyone regardless of their gender. His tendency to cater to the lowest common denominator while simultaneously mocking said denominator for being so low and common is something that puts as many people off as it wins over, and though I enjoy a good-natured torture session along the lines of a Yor: The Hunter from the Future or a Beastmaster I’m not so keen on making her genuinely miserable with the screenings I select.
Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Man, was I ever surprised by RoboCop! It’s really good! Who knew, besides everybody but me?
Jesse’s review pretty much encapsulates my feelings on the film, but I have to say, I was impressed for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I was amazed by the ridiculous amount of violence of the film—wowza. I mean, I’ve seen enough movies to know something bad was going to happen to the dude who trained the gun on the ED-209, but I was surprised by the sheer number of bullets pumped into that poor bastard. Same goes for the scene where the dad from That 70s Show and his assorted thugs kill Murphy—that shotgun blast to the hand was pretty agonizing to watch, as was the rest of that scene. And oh god oh god where the ginger-bearded bad guy drives a truck into a silo of toxic waste and survives long enough to melt and wheeze in a completely nauseating manner. . . I am going to stop thinking about that right now.
I was also impressed by how merciless and accurate the depiction of a privatized future America was, too. Interestingly enough, Jesse and I watched this the night of the overwhelmingly depressing mid-term elections, as America was voting tea baggers and other sundry assholes into office. Though it feels ridiculous to even type the words, I’mma say it: RoboCop hit a little too close to home for me that night. The fact that an overwrought parable like RoboCop (fucking RoboCop, man) made me so uneasy is both a testament to the state of America in 2010 as well as the overall quality screenwriting and directing of the film.
It’s obvious that the team that brought RoboCop to fruition love their dystopian novels about the dangers of capitalism and what treating people as commodities does to the world, and were intelligent enough to update the old warhorse of Brave New World into relevance. The early shout-out to Henry Ford Hospital pleased me immensely, but then later when a Lee Iacocca Elementary School is referenced. . . that’s brilliant. It’s those little flourishes—as well as updating the shiny bright nobody-has-feelings-but-at-least-they-have-bread-and-circuses of BNW into the more reasonable if ickier future of environmental pollution, lowered standards of living for disposable segments of the population, and general public despair and dilapidation as the rich get richer—that make RoboCop a much better film than Verhoeven’s Total Recall, which I felt had a smart movie lurking somewhere inside of it. Alas, with Arnold in the lead, couldn’t really rise above anything more than him shooting Sharon Stone and saying “considaaah this a divorce” or whatever the fuck happens in that moment. RoboCop, by contrast, is much smarter, much more pointed in its critiques, much better.
In the end, RoboCop is a really weird movie, and watching it for the first time at age 29 is a pretty weird experience, too. I do wonder what I would have thought of it had I seen it at a significantly younger age. I don’t think I would have been able to handle it as a child at all. . . I mean, I had nightmares for quite literally weeks after watching the tequila- and monster-fueled rape scene in Poltergeist II. In high school I probably would’ve resisted the core message of the film due to my objectivist leanings at the time (or re-framed it into a parable about how Man’s Greatness Shines Through and blamed the corruptness of the individual corporate bad guys instead of capitalism as a system). In college I. . . I dunno. Might have become enraged, as that was my default mode? Probably. But as a seasoned adult (or something) I must say: RoboCop is a damn fine movie.
Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Hey, very nice! And by very nice I mean incredibly dark and nihilistic and devoid of any sort of catharsis, but by Verhoeven standards this is positively charming. I pretty much agree with Molly’s take on his work in general and this film in particular, although I’m perhaps less turned off by the filmmaker’s unrelenting pessimism.
Verhoeven may be subtle as sledgehammer, but he’s also archly subversive, and certain scenes carry far more weight and gravitas than one would expect from an action movie about a robotic police officer. When RoboCop/Murphy and his partner Lewis are all kinds of fucked up following the penultimate shoot-out and lie bleeding to death in a lake of polluted sludge, Robo reassures Lewis that OCP, the corrupt corporation responsible for the events of the film, “will fix everything. They fix everything.” Murphy may have rediscovered his humanity but he’s still a literal tool of OCP, and though all the Hollywood villains are dispatched by the time the credits roll nothing has really changed—the status quo has been protected, and OCP can continue with business as usual.
For being a movie about a moralistic cyborg cop cleaning up corruption, RoboCop studiously avoids buying into the chest-thumping and flag-waving of most 80s action movies. On the contrary, part of what makes it such a fascinating film is how Verhoeven rejects these conventions of the genre and instead fashions a cautionary tale of the dangers of unfettered capitalism—the privatization of the public sector is nothing short of catastrophic in Verhoeven’s universe, and has led to tv addiction, public apathy, desensitization to violence, environmental collapse, and general misery for the majority of the population. That Verhoeven’s film satirizing America’s desensitization to violence was so bloody its initial cut was rated X plays into what we were talking about earlier regarding the director’s tendency to simultaneously give the audience what they want even as he mocks them for enjoying it. He may be a nasty man with a mean sense of humor and utter contempt for humanity, but at least he’s interesting.
High Points: All the weird Korean commercials it spawned. The effects, which hold up incredibly well and kick the shit out of most CGI nonsense. That such a nihilistic “hey, fuck you dumb Americans” movie spawned a stereotypically American kid-friendly franchise complete with toned-down sequels, action figures, video games, comic books, and cartoons. The mingling of ultra-violence with blacker-than-the-chambers-of-a-dead-nun’s-heart humor, such as this early scene:
Final Verdict: Pretty awesome.
Next Time: We continue Memory, Humanity, and Dystopia Month with Total Recall.
When Jesse and I realized we’d watched Total Recall and Dark City in quick succession, we decided to appoint November as Memory, Humanity, and Dystopia Month. So, cool! Theme months. Be warned, though–I was cranky and tired when I wrote this week’s review, so it’s probably more unfair than usual. . . but I also tend to get more riled by near misses than epic failures, just because I hate to see a good thing ruined. And after a very strong, compelling start, Dark City was ruined for me by a third act fumble of epic proportions, in that involved Heavy Exposition, The World’s Crappiest CGI Battle, Space Aliens, and a Conclusion that is Morally Questionable But Goes Internally Unquestioned. Woo! Onward:
The Film: Dark City (1998)
WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Mostly Alex Proyas (The Crow, Knowing), who directed and co-wrote with screenwriters David S. Goyer (the Blade series) and Lem Dobbs (the Gary Busey classic Hider in the House). Soundtrack by Trevor Jones (From Hell), with some help from Anita Kelsey and Echo and the Bunnymen. Starring Rufus Sewell (A Knight’s Tale, The Illusionist), Jennifer Connolly (Labyrinth, Requiem for a Dream), William Hurt (A History of Violence, the Dune miniseries), Ian Richardson (Brazil), Richard O’Brien (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and a bizzaro version of Kiefer Sutherland (Jason Patric and the Coreys versus the Dreamy Living Dead).
Quote: “Remember, John, never talk to strangers!”
Alternate quote: “No more Mr. Quick. Mr. Quick, dead, yes.”
First viewing by Molly: A couple of weeks ago.
First viewing by Jesse: In the theatre, so mid-high school.
Most recent viewing by both: A couple of weeks ago.
Impact on Molly’s childhood development:None. Never heard of it.
Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Slight. I recall appreciating the aesthetic but thinking it aped a bit from City of Lost Children, stylistically. Like any teenager worth their weight in angst and mix-tapes, I was fiercely defensive of things I enjoyed and convinced everyone was out to take cools things and make them not cool via the dread mainstream.
Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:
Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Our local video store is currently selling off stock, and when Jesse saw it on the rack he said something like “LOL DARK CITY” but in real-life speech. I was like “What the heck is Dark City?” and he replied “Oh, man. We should do that for Films of High Adventure,” but due to his refusal to tell anyone anything about a movie before watching it, wouldn’t say more.
Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Intrigued. I had only seen it the once, when it came out, and remembered thinking it was good if not great. I really couldn’t remember much about the movie, other than being dissatisfied with the finale and thinking wonky-ass Kiefer Sutherland was about the coolest thing ever.
Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: I’m still recovering from WFC so I’m just warning you—this is going to be disjointed and ranty.
Dark City is a case of squandered potential. I mean, it’s a movie that would be infinitely better without the lead actors’ characters being part of the plot. Yeah, I know, “what?” But it’s true. And just think about that for a second. I’m trying to think of another movie where I wished so continuously that the male and female leads would just go away so I could hang out with the supporting cast, but I’m coming up empty, because most movies where I despise the leads, I also am pretty eh about the supporting actors as well [Jesse says: uh, didn’t we just try to watch The Frighteners? I would watch maybe a thousand movies about Jeffrey Combs’ FBI agent character]. Not so here, where had Rufus Sewell and Jennifer Connolly been totally absent, it would’ve been a much, much better film, even with the goddamn space aliens in the third act.
I simply cannot wrap my head around why on earth the scriptwriters thought milquetoast monomyth nothing-master Sewell and Bland Love Interest Connolly were even remotely as engaging as twitchy mad scientist Kiefer Sutherland and angsty detective William Hurt. Then again, the scriptwriters thought that “space aliens create a large film noir-styled spaceship, populate it with human subjects, and use a scary syringe to switch up memories in people in order to search for what makes the human soul oh-so-precious and unique (?)” was an okay plot, so perhaps I’m just caring about this a bit too much [Jesse says: you’re right, it’s not an okay plot—it’s a great plot!]. After all, the space aliens hire Kiefer Sutherland’s “psychologist” character to go around switching up people’s memories because he. . . is an artist of the mind? Or something? ORLY? Is that what psychologists are? What? Jesus fucking Christ.
It’s just—argh. I just think Dark City had so much to offer, so much interesting stuff that (omg a sports metaphor?) is just sitting on the sidelines. Nay, languishing. Every good character, every engaging concept is benched (woo) in the name of that style of plot wherein a generic white male (with telekinesis!) will save the human race because he is a generic white male (with telekinesis!) and thus must overcome adversity for all our sakes in the form (this time) of the world’s lamest CGI battle.
In the end, Dark City begs no deeper question of its audience than “why should we care?” Sewell brings no depth to his role, but he’s not given much to work with other than a character description that was probably written down somewhere as ‘He is a generic white man who evolves telekinesis and shall save the world,” and indeed, is scripted in such a way that he comes off as kind of a d-bag at the end (more on that later). Jennifer Connolly is only worthy of our interest because she is pretty [Jesse says: and dresses nice and has a lovely singing voice (dubbed over her own)—what on earth more do you want from a female lead?!]. Of the only two interesting characters, one disappears into the shadows by way of resolving his plotline, the other is. . . sucked. . . out. . . into. . . space. Nice tidy ending there, especially because that character had more chemistry with Connolly than Sewell, so out he goes! Yeesh.
For a film that tries to be all moody and dark and emotional, it evokes zero pathos because there is no real substance, and like I said, anything interesting is just ignored. To wit: why did Sewell in particular evolve telekinesis? Why, if the detective had his memories of being a detective implanted, is he so good at noticing stuff? Why is Sewell convinced Connolly actually likes him, when he knows perfectly well that she had her love for him implanted in her skull, just like her memory of cheating on him [Jesse says: because you can’t fake love, Molly, the movie told us that multiple times, REMEMBER?!]? Why does he choose to believe one lie and not the other? (Because she’s pretty.) Why are there spirals everywhere? Does Kiefer Sutherland regret his decision to work for the space aliens? Did he retain any of his own memories? Does RiffRaff’s character yearn to be human and that’s why he chooses to have human memories implanted, or did he have a different reason to volunteer? WHO CARES! CGI BATTLE! IT’S-ALL-OK ENDING! CREDITS!
I dunno. I could go on, but it’s just one of those things where I can’t care any more, so I’ll just put the cap on this bottle of haterade by saying that Dark City’s ending is a perfect synecdoche for the entire film. Basically, at some point, the space aliens re-implant Connolly’s memories, giving her amnesia; Sewell retains his memories. After saving the world and then being given the power to re-shape it however he wants—and he just, like, does it because he’s apparently fully confident that he should be Lord of All and A God Amongst Men—he meets her on a weird little pier and pretends he’s seeing her for the first time, and they go off to presumably have a relationship. THIS IS PROBLEMATIC. Right? Who cares—he gets the girl! That’s it. I’m done.
Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: I actually thought it was better than I remembered. Although I’ll agree with Molly’s assessment of a third act fumble, plot-wise, it bothered me way less the second time around, probably because I was vaguely expecting it and was thus prepared for it. I also appreciate now that it’s much more of its own thing than I’d previously given it credit—although the City of Lost Children touches are obvious, they’re not nearly as prevalent as I had remembered. The Jeunet and Caro film is one of my all time favorites, hence my protectiveness of it, but coming at it from a more experienced position, cinematically speaking, I see now that it’s just one of many sources of inspiration, and I would never begrudge anyone for loving the same works as myself.
So it’s a bit of a mess, and I agree that Hurt and Sutherland’s characters are more interesting than our actual focal points, but it’s so damn pretty I’m willing to forgive a lot. And I don’t have quite the aversion to aliens of the space variety that Molly does, though I’ll allow that I too was disappointed with the revelation the first time around. This is an unusual case of actually liking a film a bit more the second time around—being forewarned of its failings, I was better equipped to appreciate its successes. Other than that, I think Molly really covered all the bases (sports reference!) so I’ll leave off by saying that while she is technically correct about everything, it doesn’t make this movie any less cool looking, nor does it make Mr. Young Guns any less twitchy.
High Points: Kiefer Sutherland tweaking out. RiffRaff rocking the bald look. The hand-wringing of the creepy-ass strangers:
Low Points: When one gets to the point in the movie that should be titled Kiefer Sutherland Explains the Movie.
Final Verdict: A gorgeous, stylish thriller that trips over its CGI-enhanced feet in the third act.
Next Time: We continue Memory, Humanity, and Dystopia Month with either Robocop or Total Recall.
After a hiatus of some amount of time, Jesse Bullington are once again doing Films of High Adventure, you know, where we watch “classic” adventure movies that informed one or both of our childhoods. This week we recap something we viewed a while ago, which was definitely a film, but the adventure in it was more bizarre than high, at least in the sense of the word “high” that we usually intend to evoke. . .
Film: The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)
Also Known As: No joke, the first two times I started writing the title I wrote The Awesome Dr. Phibes, and then, catching myself, started typing The Amazing Dr. Phibes instead. Ok, so not technically alternate titles, but a telling sign nonetheless. . .
WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Direction by Robert Fuest, who also helmed The Last Man on Earth (I Am Legend with Vincent Price in the lead!), The Devil’s Rain (The Milk and Cheese favorite starring Ernest Borgnine!), and a bunch of episodes of The Avengers (if you’re not familiar with John Steed and Mrs. Emma Peel it’s high time you made their acquaintance). Script by James Whiton (uh, an episode of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and William Goldstein (screen story credit for The Amazing Dobermans, a movie featuring Fred Astaire fighting crime with a pack of pinschers), although Fuest apparently rewrote most of it. On one side of the ring of absurdity we have Vincent Price (everything that is good in this world) as Dr. Phibes and Bond-girl (On her Majesty’s Secret Service) Virginia North as his assistant Vulnavia (!), and on the other we have Joseph Cotton (The Third Man), Hugh Griffith (Tom Jones, the whacked out Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad), Peter Jeffrey (Count Grendel in some old Dr. Who episodes), and a host of other actors looking to chew some scenery and get done in by the good Dr. Phibes. Bizzaro soundtrack by various artists, including lots of organ music and Vincent singing “Over the Rainbow.”
Quote: “Nine killed you! Nine shall die! Nine eternities in DOOM!”
Alternate quote: “A brass unicorn has been catapulted across a London street and impaled an eminent surgeon. Words fail me, gentlemen.”
First viewing by Molly: Pretty recently
First viewing by Jesse: Really young
Most recent viewing by both: The aforementioned “pretty recently”
Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Well, none, given that I’d never even heard of this weird little movie, but given that my early adolescence was largely me thinking The Phantom of the Opera was like, the single most amazingly romantic book evarrrrrrrr and why didn’t Christine go for the Phantom when he was clearly so much more interesting than that milquetoast nothing-master Raoul, I feel like I was a pump well-primed for this omgwtfbbq-fest, especially the bizarre Phibes/Vulnavia relationship.
Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: High. Of all the old horror movie icons, Price was my favorite, and of all his roles, this was perhaps the most important to Young Me.
Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:
Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: “WTF is this?”
Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Excited. Price undeniably made some stinkers in his time, but I was confident that this film had aged like a fine Roquefort. I had no idea if Molly would love it or hate it, and, frankly, didn’t give a damn—nothing could possibly diminish the experience, though I of course hoped she would dig it. . . contrary to what this column might occasionally imply, I don’t actually enjoy punishing Molly with cinema.
Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Awesome. I really, really liked it, even though now, as an adult, I often find things that have a sort of Phantom of the Opera-ish sensibility about them to be pretty tiresome—obsession is really only sexy on the page or on the screen, a lesson I hope the legions of Twilight fans realize before they end up in problematic relationships with dudes who like to creep into the bedrooms of girls that smell real good and only have two emotional modes—constipated disapproval or condescending amusement.
N-E-WAYZ, I had my doubts during the opening sequence that has Dr. Phibes in a hooded robe playing an organ, but as the movie progressed into unapologetic insanity, I warmed to it, and then thoroughly enjoyed it. At the center of my affection was the Phibes-Vulnavia relationship, which is just so outright bizarre that it works perfectly without explanation. Wikipedia says that originally it was to be revealed that Vulnavia was one of Dr. Phibes’ clockwork creations, but I call bullshit on that, and I’m glad they left it undefined. For me, it’s a much more amazing scenario if Vulnavia is. . . just. . . some girl he met somehow? Who was totally OK hunting down and murdering doctors and nurses as long as Dr. Phibes kept her in furry hats and let her pose like a Mucha girl while he put on his gold lame cape and played music. Sure! Why not?
Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Such exquisite film-making! Fitting tidily into the “Vincent Price whacks a bunch of people according to a theme” sub-genre of the great man’s career, I say, with only slight reservation, that this is the best of the bunch. Theatre of Blood makes it a tough call, as the murders in that film are all based on scenes from Shakespeare instead of biblical plagues, and it features a fencing match on trampolines, but Phibes still comes out ahead if no other reason than I saw it first and that has to count for something.
I suppose the main thing I had forgotten over the years was how bugfuck the movie really is—virtually no effort is put into explaining how Phibes manages to pull off his outlandish murders, let alone build a clockwork band and, maybe, girlfriend. . . he’s a doctor, sure, but a doctor of divinity and musicology (for serious). I suppose if they had started worrying about logic and realism they would have had to scrap the scene where fruitbats suck a guy’s blood, or the part with the locusts that. . . well, it really has to be seen to be believed, but the point is if reality intruded then all the fun would be gone and you’d be left with, I dunno, Se7en.*
The thing is, other than the poster and spoiler-heavy trailer, the movie seems to play it fairly straight-faced. Maybe? As a kid I certainly took it very seriously, yet rooted unreservedly for Phibes—he did what he did for love, after all, and is that so wrong? As an eight year old I had a hard time holding him accountable for his nefarious deeds, and as a twenty-eight year old I still refuse to pass judgment on the doctor.
It’s a bizarre, campy picture even by Price standards, and the script gives him ample room to do what he does best, even if he is talking out of his neck. It’s impossible not to root for Phibes, if only to see what insanely complicated murder he will pull off next, and I still get choked up thinking about what happens to poor Vulnavia. To say they don’t make them like this anymore is a bit of an understatement—gone are the days when studios would be like “this makes absolutely no sense, and doesn’t seem to be a comedy but definitely isn’t a horror film, either, and will use up a decent sized budget. . . but what the hell, go nuts—have your proto-slasher lead cover Judy Garland while you’re at it.” Alas.
High Points: Vincent Price doing what he does best. How straight everyone is playing it. The unsettling—and unaddressed—relationship between Phibes and Vulnavia. Vulnavia herself, and apparently we’re not the only ones to realize this—somebody out there on the internet not only recognized her importance, but also the importance of mistakenly attributing the Flashdance theme to Hall and Oates:
Final Verdict: Excellent.
Next week:Batman? This column needs an enema, so. . .
*Uninteresting Facts about Molly’s Youth: I’ve never seen Se7en all the way through because when I was in 8th grade or thereabouts, I had a friend who wanted me to see it, but she claimed most of the movie was “boring” and thus fast-forwarded her VHS copy to all the murders. So to this day, my only notion of that film is something along the lines of Brad Pitt being Angry (or something) at Keven Spacey for asploding a fat man and raping someone with a bizarre BDSM-inspired knife harness? Yeah.
Jesse Bullington and I have (perhaps foolishly) decided to embark upon a quest: watching “classic” adventure movies that informed one or both of our childhoods. These columns will run every Wednesday on our blogs, excluding the last post of each month, which will appear over at Fantasy Magazine. This week we take on what must be the most rented-and-then-returned-unfinished kids’ movies of all time. . .
The Film: Watership Down (1978)
WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Richard Adams first and foremost, that funny-loving scribe who also penned Plague Dogs, a novel about a pair of dogs who escape from an animal testing lab and are subsequently hunted by scientists. Script and direction by Martin Rosen based on Adams’ novel—Rosen went on to adapt Plague Dogs into a cartoon as well. Rather baffling soundtrack by Angela Morton, with an especially odious Art Garfunkel song inserted into the latter half that not only slows the film down but also led to Conor Oberst finding the perfect name for his band, though he’ll deny it and claim it’s a reference to the Shirely Temple film of the same name. We know the truth, Conor. Excellent voice acting by John Hurt (pretty much everything that’s awesome), Richard Briers (a lot of Kenneth Branaugh’s Shakespeare adaptations, including Hamlet and Henry V), Michael Graham Cox (a huge amount of British television I’ve never watched), Ralph Richardson (Time Bandits, Dragonslayer—we’ll be seeing more of old Ralphie around here), Denholm Elliot (Noises Off, the Indiana Jones movies), Zero Mostel (A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum—Duh), and a load of other equally competent Britons. Finally, a stirring huzzah for the animation department—far too many individuals to name here, but props to the prop-worthy.
First viewing by Jesse: Before age had any meaning—maybe six?
First viewing by Molly: Young. Young young young.
Most recent viewing by both: Last night.
Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: High. This was part of my parents’ betamax collection, and one I came back to again and again—yet for some reason I never took the time to read the novel, despite requesting and receiving a copy one early birthday. I was pretty young when I went through my bloody-mawed rabbits phase, so perhaps the book was over my head and by the time I was old enough to appreciate it the paperback had disappeared and I’d moved on to other bloody-mawed things.
Impact on Molly’s childhood development: High, for book and film. Let’s put it this way—my well-worn paperback copy of Watership Down has a quote on the front that’s something along the lines of “everyone who can read English should read this book” and I have a hard time disagreeing. So yeah, I like it.
I do recall that my first viewing was incomplete–I was forced to turn it off because it was traumatizing whichever friend I was watching it with. I believe it was during the horrifying scene where Captain Holly recounts the gassing of the Sandleford Warren. A charming film! If memory serves, the whimpers from my co-viewer began with the weeeeeeird, vaguely perhaps Aboriginal art-inspired opening where Frith punishes El-ahrairah—you know, the Prince with a Thousand Enemies, the John Henry/Robin Hood/King Arthur of the rabbits—for his cheek. I also recall pitching a fit when I was forced to turn it off—I wanted to know what happened to those goddamn rabbits.
Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:
Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I remember an incident, maybe six years ago, where I considered re-watching it but balked. I was still managing Video 21, this rad little independent video store in Tallahassee, and a guy came up the counter holding our battered vhs of Watership Down in one hand and his four year old daughter’s hand in the other. I asked if the movie was for her, and when he looked at me as if I was taking the piss I quickly asked if he had seen it. He had not. I explained that maybe it would be better if he screened it first considering some of the content, which led to him simply putting the movie back and getting a Beatrix Potter tape instead—his daughter’s go-to favorite, apparently. After they left I flirted with renting it myself, then re-shelved it in the Cult Classics instead of the Children’s films and called it a day—I do hope he went back and rented it for her when she was a little older.
Fast forward to the present and I was a little nervous—as much as I loved it as a kid, I hadn’t re-watched it for the better part of twenty years and while sometimes that distance makes a movie even better, other times revisiting a cherish film obviously sours the memory. Granted, from what I remembered I knew I wasn’t descending into another Conan the Destroyer, but the fear is ever present. Would there be more comic relief than I remembered? Would I start blubbering at the sad parts, whereupon Molly would out me in this column as a great big crybaby? (Molly says: Look, I weep at the end of the book every time I read it, and would never call someone out for being moved when Hazel is called to join the Owsla of the Black Rabbit of Inle. Also—he totally did cry at the end, but tried to front like I hadn’t seen that tear run down his cheek! [Jesse says: point of order—this really should be addressed in the post-viewing thoughts section or, better yet, not at all] But in the interest of full disclosure. . . I cried too.) Was it as brutal as my memories? I loved it as a child, yes, but it also savaged my young mind something fierce.
Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I was more confident in the film holding up because I’d rented it maybe eight or ten years ago, in a sort of precursor to this exercise. I also was in the mood because I’d picked it back up as some literary comfort food a few nights ago and ended up re-reading the whole thing.
The best thing was, however, the reaction our respective spouses had when we mentioned it was time to do Watership Down for Films of High Adventure. Normally, John and Raech are merely baffled by our odd need to punish our eyes, ears, and minds with films from our past—this time, they both looked downright apprehensive. Raech, I believe, asked some version of the very good question “why would you do that to yourselves?” John just shuddered.
Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Whoa. It’s crazy how much of this movie came back to me as I was watching it—I remembered just about every other scene as it was happening, right down to snatches of dialogue that have lay dormant in the old grey stuff for two decades; sleeper memories. I was genuinely impressed with how well everything held up, which is not often the case here around Films of High Adventure. Sure, we enjoy re-watching the movies, but that doesn’t mean they’re actually good, whereas with the exception of the occasionally fragmented storyline, and a certain wart named Art Garfunkel, this holds up crazy good.
It also wasn’t as grim as I remembered, or rather, I didn’t find it as sad/intense/scary, but then again I’m almost thirty so that probably impacts things a little. More than anything it really makes me want to read the novel one of these days, though I’ll probably give it some time—only so much bunny-on-bunny violence I can take in short span of time. Further differentiating itself from a lot of the movies we revisit here, I’d go so far as to say Watership Down is important, especially as a children’s film. Re-watching it made me regret moving Video 21’s copy to the Cult section instead of finding some other solution, because I can’t think of another movie that mixes a quest narrative with serious, realistic problems to better effect while still being highly accessible to kids. Plus, it has a silly bird, and kids love silly birds in cartoons:
Of course, the downside of this being a quality film about talking animals is that it was nigh impossible to find clips of it on youtube that weren’t overdubbed with the Lion King theme or some terrible pop song that bunbunfan69 really thinks captures the unspoken sexual tension simmering between Bigwig and General Woundwort in their final battle. At least I know if Molly ever really pisses me off and I need something truly evil to slip into an innocuous email I can find some Watership Down fanfic with the quickness.
Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Ahahah. I knew this was going to be awesome even from the first moment, as the DVD menu is the same as the poster:
WTF? Really? I love that the brutality of this film comes out in even the DVD menu. . . but what was the thought process here? Hey guys, you know that poster we made of Bigwig getting caught in a snare, you know, where he almost dies? Yeah, let’s use that as the first thing viewers see on the DVD.That’ll teach ‘em to rent Watership Fucking Down.
Anywho, God, but this is a movie made to encourage children to be Anglophiles, or nurture the Anglophile in the initiated grownup. The landscapes are all like, hey, do you know what was awesome? The Hay Wain. Let’s make the whole movie look like that! There’s even a scene where Hazel and a friend raid a farm and they hear BBC coming in through the open window. So good!
It’s weird. In some ways, the movie tries to soften the book. . . for instance, doe rabbits play a more prominent role than in Adams’ original text, which makes sense cuz WD is a kids’ movie, and in the book, does are really looked at as breeding stock but not much more by the bucks. Also, just by virtue of it being a faster text, the movie removes some of the weirdness of the Warren of the Snares, and some of the ickyness surrounding General Woundwort and his horrible warren, Efrafa. I mean—here. Let’s just take a look at one of the poems in the book, shall we? This one is sung by one of the does of Efrafa to her friends who tried to leave the oppression and the insanity of General Woundwort’s rule, only to be rebuked and punished:
The yellowhammer sang, high on the thorn,
He sang near the litter that the doe brought out to play
He sang in the wind, and the kittens played below.
Their time slipped by, all under the elder bloom.
But the bird flew away, and now my heart is dark
And time will never play in the fields again.
The orange beetles clung to the rye-grass stems.
The windy grass was waving. A buck and a doe
Ran through the meadow. They scratched a hole in the bank,
They did what they pleased all under the hazel leaves.
But the beetles died in the frost and my heart is dark;
And I shall never choose a mate again.
The frost is falling, the frost falls into my body,
My nostrils, my ears are torpid under the frost.
The swift will come in the spring, crying “News! News!
Does, flow with milk and dig holes for your litters!”
I shall not hear. The embryos return
Into my dulled body. Across my sleep
There runs a wire fence to imprison the wind.
I shall never feel the wind blowing again.
At the same time (Jesse says: Jesus! We’re just moving on after that?! Not, like, a moment of silence or something? Jesu—I mean, Frith!), the movie ups the terror in weird ways. Unlike in the book, Hazel and his group of rabbits leave the Sandelford Warren with a doe—Violet—who gets snatched up by a hawk early on, and it’s like. . . OK! Awesome! Also, for no reason, the rabbits take shelter in a mausoleum rather than a barn, necessitating they lope through the World’s Spookiest Graveyard.
I think, though, what I love most about Watership Down is its expectation of the audience having some familiarity with the text. Richard Adams, in the book, gives the rabbits their own language—“lapine,” natch—and thus terms like “Owsla” (a chief rabbit’s go-to crew), “hrair” (many), “elil” (blanket term for enemies), and “hraka” (poop) are revealed through explanatory notes and even a dictionary for reference. In the movie, of course, the viewer has no dictionary, and so the uninitiated are left to boggle at, say, one of the first scenes where Hazel and Fiver are chased off a coltsfoot by two big fuckin rabbits after one snaps “coltsfoots are for Owsla, you know that.” OK! Sure! Then later on Bigwig cries “hraka!” while frustrated, and so on. It’s really awesome.
High Points: That it was made, and in such an uncompromising fashion. The beautiful watercolor backgrounds where, if you look closely enough, you can even see the texture of the Bristol board coming through. The decision to make certain parts darker than the book. The disturbing bits, such as Cowslip’s crazy ass. John Hurt. The emotion one comes to feel for cartoon rabbits. That it allegedly spawned the first roleplaying game where you could play a non-human character—Bunnies and Burrows. The fact that they didn’t end the movie before the final, tear-jerking moment. The opening animation sequence:
Final Verdict: When the Black Rabbit of Inle calls, you must answer.
A few films I’ve watched over the past few weeks have inspired me to break the radio silence on the blog. That, and the fact that apparently my awesome uncle Glenn got his copy of Running with the Pack that he had pre-ordered, so yay! I’m going to talk about the book more extensively after I’ve read a few more of the stories so for now: it is beautiful (I got my contributor copy), it is filled with awesome stories. Woo!
Sherlock Holmes: I went down to visit my parents recently and had a really good time doing all sorts of things, including watching a few movies. Of the three we watched, Sherlock Holmes was the only I hadn’t seen previously, and I have something to say about this film: it is fucking awesome. I say this having read every story/novel Doyle wrote about Sherlock Holmes, as well as a few spinoffs. Honesty compels me to note, specifically, that whilst in the throes of an early teen obsession with The Phantom of the Opera I read a mashup involving Holmes and the Phantom solving crimes? Or something? Anyways, that book wasn’t so great, but this movie is amazing. John was ambivalent about it; my parents were baffled but amused (I think). I loved it. It had just about everything I want in a movie: explosions, vaguely steampunk sets, occult weirdness, homoerotic tension, Robert Downey Jr. with his shirt off punching people sweatily. YES! It certainly took its liberties with the Doyle character, but I’m OK with that. I love Basil Rathbone and Brent Spiner aping Basil Rathbone as much as the next nerd, but it was really nice to see something different. Downey Jr.’s Holmes is just as insightful and brilliant as more canonical representations of Holmes, but I really liked the decision to play up the fact that Mr. “The Game Is Afoot” is kind of a fucking mess: drug-addled, reclusive, emotionally stunted, immature, messy, mixed up over Irene Adler and Watson, and willing to use both his tremendous intellect and tremendous strength to, say, beat people up viciously. Sure, it’s a big dumb blockbuster, but it kept me engaged visually and mentally: like the Star Trek reboot, there is plenty to make fans cheer without delivering the same old same old. The dynamic between Holmes and Watson is excellent, the decision to turn Irene Adler into a steampunk Fujiko amused me, the action sequences and patented Guy Ritchie “let’s speed things up and slow them down to make them look more awesome” was frankly dazzling. So, so good.
Gentlemen Broncos: Jesse convinced me to watch the latest from the Napoleon Dynamite team. While I thought Napoleon Dynamite was brilliant I disliked Nacho Libre intensely, so I was a little suspicious. No need: it was pretty fucking rad. The A.V. Club panned it for reasons passing understanding. . . well, I suppose they are right about the lack of plot, but I don’t really care if aesthetics trump action (I just re-watched 300 on blu-ray, after all). It’s especially good if you love pulp sci-fi and/or visit the Good Show, Sir! site once in a while (or more often). Gentlemen Broncos is worth watching for a number of reasons: the dude from Flight of the Concords does this spot-on Tim Curry impression, as well as doing an amazing job holding court at a broke-down writers’ workshop; Sam Rockwell plays Bronco/Brutus, a sci-fi hero in a series of cutaway scenes with simply amazing visuals.
A Nightmare on Elm Street (Orig. and Remake): I had, seriously, made it to 28 without seeing A Nightmare on Elm Street. I’d seen parts and been alarmed by a too-young Johnny Depp, but that was it. Raechel has an obsession bordering on the unwholesome with the series (“I’ve seen the original probably over 100 times,” she said, and then added “and the rest of the films probably 8 or 9 times apiece.”), so she was super-stoked to see the remake. After copping to my ignorance, we watched the original last Thursday, which I found genuinely enjoyable, and then the remake on Friday, which I was somewhat less enthusiastic about. I thought some things about the remake were OK. . . but the decision to cast Rorschach as Freddy made the experience kinda surreal. Jesse and John spent probably 15 minutes after the film trading lines pretending to be a mashup of the two characters to my delight (“Saw a dead teenager today. This city’s going to hell.” That kind of thing). I guess what impressed me most about the original was how groundbreaking the special effects were and how good they still looked (but I will forever curse overuse of CGI in films); the new one, by contrast, pushed no envelopes. . . that said, there are some really nice visuals. I dunno. It’s just that thing with horror where my mind rebells at utter nonsense. Not perhaps so much things like “he was burned to death and so comes back to kill them in their dreams” which, admittedly, makes no fucking sense whatsoever, but I’m willing to suspend disbelief for occult weirdness (or gorgeous aesthetics, like in the aforementioned 300). I mean more how they decided in this remake (spoilers, I suppose) to have Freddy be. . . the gardener at a preschool? OK, sure, he looks like a creep but whatevs. . . then we get to the fact that he lives? Under? The preschool? In a dungeon with a dirty mattress and drawings done by the kids? Sure! Whatever! And a parent who participated in the mob justice administered on Freddy (where? This. . . uh. . . warehouse! Sure!) admits to never finding the kiddie porn cave or whatever, but two sleep-deprived teens find it with a flashlight in like. . . three seconds? Because they moved a corkboard? OK! Sure! Meh. That kind of thing just makes my brain move too much on its own to be really scared by any of the content of the film. I mean, it’s easy to make me jump–I’m the twitchiest motherfucker imaginable–but I need more convincing acting, dialogue, and plotting to really scare me. Or maybe not, as the Tom Cruise War of the Worlds gave me nightmares for months, but whatevs. I am irrationally frightened of alien invasion. SHUT UP!
That’s all, folks! Except for the tremendously wonderful news that my dad’s been feeling pretty OK during his chemo (he emailed me to say he’d eaten pizza and salad for dinner one night! GO DAD!) and the fact that I’ve written damn near close to half a novel in three weeks, things have been quiet. Probably going to see Kick Ass and the new Iron Man soon. I’ll review when/if that happens. Much love everyone!
Jesse Bullington and I have (perhaps foolishly) decided to embark upon a quest: watching “classic” adventure movies that informed one or both of our childhoods. This week we honor a birthday girl (Jesse’s wife Raechel, who I would like to say here, on the internet, IS NOT MY SISTER SO EVERYONE STOP ASKING*) by watching a favorite film from her childhood. And, as usual, I am too much of a curmudgeon to be nice to stuff made for kids.
The Film: The Witches (1990)
WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Good screenplay—until the end, at least—by Allan Scott (D.A.R.Y.L.) from the brilliant children’s book by Roald Dahl. Perfectly adequate—if surprisingly flat—direction by acclaimed director and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now, Walkabout, The Man Who Fell to Earth). Jim Henson executively produced—is that even right? Acting by Mai Zetterling (nothing we’re familiar with) as the grandmother and Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean) as a hotel manager, hackting by child actors Jasen Fisher and Charlie Potter, juicy bit parts for Jane Horrocks (Bubble on Absolutely Fabulous) and Brenda Blethyn (Saving Grace, Mrs. Bennett in the ‘05 Pride and Prejudice film), and scenery-chewing awesomeness by Anjelica Huston (The Grifters, The Addams Family).
Quote: “I smell… dogs’ droppings?!”
Alternate quote: “Witches spend their time plotting to kill children, stalking the wretched child like a hunter stalks a bird in the forest.”
Quote that Molly’s husband John imitates to terrify/infuriate Molly: “Vitches verk only vith magic!”
First viewing by Raechel: As a young child at my grandmother’s house.
First viewing by Jesse: In the theatre, which would put me at 8 years old.
First viewing by Molly: Days of goddamned yore, I tell you. On VHS/Cable. Not sure if I saw the whole thing, but I’m sure I saw the ending scene where they destroy the dining room of the hotel, and the terrifying rat thing the Grand High Witch becomes.
Most recent viewing by all concerned: Last week.
Impact on Raechel’s childhood development: Crucial. Before I was old enough to stay home by myself, my dad would drop me off at my grandmother’s house every Saturday on his way to work. And every Saturday, we would rent a movie to watch together. I chose this one pretty much every time it was my turn to pick. Oddly enough, I was never really into witches. They never struck me as particularly threatening. Likewise, I’ve never been into films that feature talking animals. But god, did I love this movie, and to this day I have no idea why.
Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Moderate. Like all of Dahl’s children’s stories, The Witches informed my worldview pretty heavily, and the film was a good adaptation in my book. It wasn’t my favorite story of his, however, and in the result I somehow never re-watched the movie over the years even though I did keep my eyes out for square-shoed women.
Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Moderate. The book was incredibly influential, but the movie I found entrancing yet pandering by virtue of the ending (yes, even as a kid). I never re-watched it.
Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:
Raechel’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I was a little worried about this one, as I usually am when gearing up to re-watch something that I haven’t seen since the 90’s. The last time I did this the film in question was Con Air, and I have yet to live that one down. I’m also typically not into children’s movies, probably because I’m the least imaginative person ever, so I was concerned I might be bored.
Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to expect, it being so long since I had seen it that all I could recall was the basic story and my childhood fondness for it. As this project is fast confirming, that is quite often a recipe for pain. I knew Huston would be game for some camp, at least, and as it was expressly a children’s film I was willing to cut it a little more slack than some of the other films.
Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I wasn’t sure what to expect, either. My memories of watching it are so limited. . . I remember asking my mom if the mice puppets were real mice, and if so, why they were cuter than regular mice. I also remember being alarmed by the nudity of the boy-child at the end. I was worried that, as with, say, The Dark Crystal, or, better (in that we’ll actually be doing it for Films of High Adventure) The Last Unicorn film, what was engaging enough for me as a kid would seem not as grand as a grown-up-ish person.
Raechel’s thoughts post-viewing: Holy Shit. Talking animals notwithstanding, The Witches is still pretty friggin’ rad. I had forgotten a few of the highlights of this film, most of which revolve around Anjelica Huston being batshit insane. I think my new favorite thing in the world is the scene wherein, after feeding a horrible, gluttonous child some candy infused with her transform-you-into-a-mouse potion, she gyrates sexily for far longer than anyone could ever be comfortable with. I’m also not sure what’s more disgusting: the scene wherein all of the witches eat the poisoned soup and turn into mice themselves, or the previous scene, wherein the child-turned-mouse hero runs around the hotel kitchen getting his ratty germs all over the food. Both are Grossout City as far as I’m concerned, and I am concerned, because The Witches is pretty much awesome.
Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: A solid children’s movie, with enough weird shit and adventure to satisfy even the most discerning ten year old. Aside from the weak-out ending, I was impressed by the faithfulness to Dahl’s dark tone and humor—qualities that will endear it to actual children instead of frightening them away. Dahl understood that kids can handle, and indeed, often desire, a stronger brew than is usually offered their way when it comes to entertainment, and it seems the filmmakers were on Dahl’s page for much of the film.
For non-kiddie viewers who won’t be as enthralled by the endless fat jokes directed at old Bruno Jenkins there’s still Anjelica Huston, who is having the time of her life. Like a lot of actors who earned their chops in serious roles, Huston seems to really relish the opportunity to go over the top in front of the camera for a children’s film—even the Addams Family movies featured her in a restrained role, whereas here she’s able to camp out like Tim Curry crossed with Cabaret.
In the reading-too-much-into-things department, I got a kick out of the fact that Dahl named one of the kids who is turned into a mouse Bruno Jenkins—Bruno being “Brown,” and “Brown Jenkin” being the terrible human-faced rat-thing that serves as a familiar in Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House.” Synchronicity or was Dahl a fan? We’ll never know, just as most will never care.
Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Well, I dunno. Part of me says back off, this is a kids’ movie. The rest of me says, what the fuck, I always poop on people’s childhoods in these, so who cares?
I think it’s fair to say I’m more acquainted with the book than either Jesse or Raech. It was second only to Matilda during my childhood Dahl obsession and I read it a million times; I think that sort of crippled my enjoyment at times. Where the film stayed faithful I thought it did a good-to-serviceable job; where it deviated, it kinda annoyed me. For example, the beginning, where they’re in Norway and the grandma tells the story of the girl who was put into a painting by a witch, yes yes yes. Good stuff, that. Completely spooky and taken directly from Dahl’s text.
Later on, though, I got all nerd-nettled when whoever wrote the script clearly wasn’t paying attention to the beginning part of the film. To wit: we learn that witches are quite stealthy and never get caught because they are subtle and demonic creatures. Cool, makes sense, right? But then, when all the witches get together and have their annual meeting, instead of having an orderly and quietly sinister meeting where they decide to dispatch all the children in England with sweets that turn kids into mice, we go irrevocably into Kids’ Movie Territory. And, fine, I KNOW THIS IS A KIDS’ MOVIE, but still! A chase sequence involving the Grand High Witch pushing a baby in a pram down a hillside? It makes no sense within the world of the film! Subtle and stealthy? No one will notice pram-pushing, for sure! Then there’s the completely destroyed conference room left by the witches in the wake of their meeting in a big, famous seaside hotel. Well! I suppose most of the meetings of organizations with names like The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children usually leave their meeting halls looking like it’s been hard day at WWE’s Chair-Testing Laboratory. Sure! No further investigation needed.
My quibbles with The Witches are essentially my quibbles with all books-turned-film. I am fine with deviations from source texts as long as they are sensible and apropos. Also, if you’re going to make characters different, make them more awesome, not less. In the book, the Grandma character is an ex-witch hunter and fucking rad: she smokes cigars, tells kids terrifying stories, and in her youth apparently went around the world murdering demons. Why why why was the decision made to make her, instead, “somebody’s grandma?” Why not exploit her witch-hunter past? I loved the horrifying sub-plot where Mr. Bean the hotel manager is having an affair with a maid (only to dump her when he discovers patches of mouse fur growing on her body—awesome). That’s the sort of inappropriately risqué humor Dahl would’ve appreciated. All the other stuff mentioned above comes across to me as curiously lifeless “hilarity.” Like, you know, the difference between all the scenes in LOTR where the hobbits are hobbiting out—knocking down Boromir while he teaches them to fight, cool. Cooking bacon on Weathertop and thus attracting the ring wraiths? Awesome. Having Aragorn knocked off a hilltop by a raging hyena so that his horse can make out with him and Liv Tyler can breathe heavy and look weepy some more? NOT AWESOME.
So yeah, I just took a kids’ movie to task. I just. . . like I said, all I remembered was the ending with all the gross witches turning into gross mice, and that was awesome. We started out in Norway, and it was awesome. But the middle of the film just killed it for me. I think it’s because Dahl did not write idiot-plot books, and the scriptwriter kinda turned this into an idiot-plot movie.
High Points: The parts that are faithful to the book, such the witchy backstory at the beginning. The Grand High Witch’s makeup. Anjelica Huston having the time of her life. Check her out in this clip, where she manages to be even more over the top when she drops the witch make-up and vamps out on old Bruno Jenkins:
Final Verdict: A mixed bag for Molly, who is maybe grumpier about this than it really warrants, and a fun time out for Jesse and Raechel.
Next Week: After hating on everyone else’s childhood Molly gets to hate on her own with Tank Girl.
*I’m sure Raechel would be a pretty awesome sister to have; she’s simply not mine. But we literally cannot leave the house together without being asked by at least one person if we’re related.
Jesse Bullington and I have (perhaps foolishly) decided to embark upon a quest: watching “classic” adventure movies that informed one or both of our childhoods. This week I know I talked up the film and that’s always a recipe for everyone on the internet being like “it’s not so bad! wtf?” but I don’t care. I hated this movie.
The Film: Ladyhawke (1985)
Also known as: The Movie That Broke Molly (2010)
WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Story by Edward Kharma (The Quaid epic Enemy Mine), screenplay by Kharma and three co-writers who boast such credits Blade Runner (David Peoples), The Hunger (Michael Thomas), and the Dragnet movie (Tom Mankiewicz). Oh, and Michael Thomas also co-wrote Molly’s favorite movie ever, Countryman, so check that out if you get the chance and remember to pass it on. Direction by Richard Donner of The Goonies fame, which could explain Molly’s allergic reaction to Ladyhawke. Painfully dated soundtrack by Alan Parsons Project alum Andrew Powell and, well, Alan Parsons, of all people. We were specifically warned about this element by Clint Harris and it still kicked our brains in the genitals, if you can imagine such a thing. Just awful. Oh, and acting by Catwoman (Michelle Pfeiffer), Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick), Lothos from the Buffy movie (Rutger Hauer), the super-genius-turned-hermit from WarGames (John Wood), Number Two from the old Prisoner show (Leo McKern), and a rather grungy looking Doc Ock (Alfred Molina).
Quote: “This is not unlike escaping mother’s womb. God, what a memory.”
Alternate quote: “Do you know that hawks and wolves mate for life? The Bishop didn’t even leave us that. . . not even that.”
Molly’s reaction to hearing both of those lines, and most others: “What? What?! FUCK!”
First viewing by Molly: Last week.
First viewing by Jesse: Probably around seven years old.
Most recent viewing by both: Last week.
Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Blissfully unaware of its very existence.
Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Moderate. Even as a kid I think I subconsciously recognized that the concept was much cooler than the execution and so my Ladyhawke make-believe was far superior to the actual thing. I mean, when you’re seven year old Jesse I don’t know if it’s possible to get a cooler scenario than knight-in-black-armor-with-rad-sword-who-is-also-a-werewolf-and-also-is-Michelle-Pfeiffer’s-boyfriend when it comes to running around the woods stabbing trees with a stick.
(Molly Aside: I keep saying this to Jesse but he won’t fucking listen: RUTGER HAUER IS NOT A WEREWOLF. He might be a gentlemanwolf or maybe a knightwolf but he is sure as fuck not cool enough to be a werewolf.)
Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:
Molly’s thoughts prior to watching: I admit I was intrigued. Several years ago a friend alleged this movie was pretty cool. I like falconry. Whatever could go wrong? OH, WAIT. EVERYTHING.
Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: There’s a reason I hadn’t gone back and re-watched Ladyhawke since I was a kid, and that reason is that I suspected it would not withstand the test of time. I couple of times I’d come across Ladyhawke DVDs in the bargain bin at stores retailing for $1.99 and always put it back down, thinking it best to leave this particular film as a fond memory instead of a painful contemporary viewing experience. But Molly had never seen it, and when she heard the premise there was no going back—I suspected she would hate it, but hoped the nostalgia factor would be high enough to keep me from gouging my eyes out.
Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Fuck. Fuck and shit. Fuck and shit and I hope everyone involved with this movie got bunions. I loathed this movie. I loathed it from the moment I heard the inexplicable and troubling musical score during the opening scene. My loathing grew when Ye Olde Matthewe Brodericke showed up onscreen. I still loathe it, a week after watching it. Jesse was not exaggerating: this movie broke me. It hurt something precious inside my heart and soul that I don’t think I’ll ever get back.
For starters, it is criminally miscast. Matthew Broderick is goddamn wretched in it—he is exactly everything I despise in a movie character (twee-ly annoying, wisecracking, cowardly, comic-relief-that-isn’t, ugh). His phony stupid accent made me want to die. His haircut made me want to break things. Michelle Pfeiffer is terrible, as well, starring as a classic MPDG, and, as I have now learned, this trope is even more repugnant when placed in a fantasy setting. And then we come to Rutger Hauer, an actor I have a distinctly love/hate relationship with: I love him as the creepy vampire Lothos in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, and I fucking hate him as I do everyone/everything that was involved with Flesh and Blood, a movie that is definitely another candidate for Most Hated Film in The Book of Tanzer. Let me just say this: I don’t mind adventure-movie dudes who are, you know, slightly less ‘roid-raged out than Conan. I mean, honestly, the standard of all adventure-movie dreamboats for me is Cary Elwes in The Princess Bride, dirtstache and being unable to actually fight the badguy at the end and all. I only mention this because I don’t want to be taken amiss if I say that Rutger Hauer’s character Etienne Navarre in Ladyhawke is such a god damn do-nothing wusspot boring piece of garbage that he makes Bow from She-Ra look hard. Jesus. What the fuck is he even doing in this movie?! Fuck, fuck, FUCK! I mean, OK seriously, seriously, when his fucking trueloveomgforeverz girlfriend—the titular and inexplicably old-timey extra e-ed Ladyhawke—is wounded by an arrow and needs medical attention, what does our brave knight errant Navarre do? OH SHIT. Well, fuck, instead of taking her for some first aid himself, he decides, for no reason whatsoever, to send her away with his coward dipshit sorta-squire Matthew Fucking Broderick. Really? How fucking noble! I’m sure she appreciated it! I’m sure she understood that he was just too goddamn busy hanging out in a field or something! And also! His character can’t fight good unless he has his dad’s sword! Call me crazy, but I’m really more awed by heroes who can pick up just about anything and kick ass—I’m not sure who Navarre’s swordmaster was, but he seriously dropped the ball.
And that’s just the casting—the plot sucks so hard I think all the trees around Jesse’s apartment are now permanently angled toward his windows. Fuck. NOTHING HAPPENS. I was so disengaged while watching this movie that it never even occurred to me that Navarre was disappearing at night and turning into a wolf (wolfe?)—when we see Ladyhawke (who has a name but I’m not going to look it up because I don’t care and I remember it sounding stupid) kinda petting the black German Shepard they cast as a wolf I just thought she had a way with animals cuz she’s the ladyhawke, after all. Nope, it turns out he’s cursed, too. So, OK. Whatevs? Gawd.
So here is the plot, for the record: Matthew Broderick (AKA “the mouse”) is a crappy thief who escapes from Azkaban, but he’s being pursued by an Evil Abbot (what other kind of religious figure is there in a fantasy movie, other than an affable drunken priest? Don’t worry, he shows up laterz). The Evil Abbot is sorta-kinda in charge of Azkaban and wants Broderick back because otherwise. . . uh. . . other people? Will try to escape? Or something? But things become even more “complicated” when Broderick falls in with Hauer/Ladyhawke because it turns out that Hauer/Ladyhawke are. . . both, uh, under a spell. . . that the Evil Abbot put on them? With the help of (really!) the devil. The spell is that she is a hawke in the day and he is a wolfe at night. For the middle part of the movie Broderick/Hauer/Ladyhawke run around for a while doing absolutely nothing, and then Ladyhawke is injured and they take her to the Drunken Affable Priest who has decided that there’s a way to break the curse when. . . an eclipse happens? Because it’s a day without a night and a night without a day? FUCK AND SHIT. So they go to confront the Evil Abbot, and fucking Hauer tells fucking Drunken Affable Priest to straight-up murder Ladyhawke if he fails to slay the Evil Abbot. This is, of course, the best part of the film, because ol’ Ladyhawke definitely never really mentions she’d rather die than live without Hauer’s milquetoast bargain-basement wannabe-Lancelot angst-filled bullshit; in fact, she seems to think that Broderick’s character is pretty OK and I’m guessing she would prefer to live a long and happy—if nocturnal—life together if Hauer got iced, instead of, you know, being murdered and stuff. But oh fucking noes Hauer can’t fight anyone adequately because Broderick lost his special sword in a ridiculous icy-lake scene I’ve forgotten, but it turns out that OH SHIT the sword is actually still around because Broderick just. . . hid it? Instead of giving it back? For no reason? So, using the ol’ fantasy-movie “I’m wearing a robe and thus no one notices I’m not really a priest” trick he retrieves the sword. . . from under their cart. . . and throws it to Hauer, who then throws it through the abbot’s chest because that’s all he can do as a hero and everything is OK because Ladyhawke turned back into a Lady instead of a Ladyhawke during the eclipse and she and Hauer kinda spin each other around and it’s OK! THE END! EVEN THOUGH ALL THE OTHER PRIESTS ARE HANGING AROUND JUST SORTA STARING AT THE PEOPLE WHO MURDERED THEIR ABBOT AND YOU THINK THEY’D BE PISSED! But they’re not! And also everyone kisses and touches Matthew Broderick on the face and it’s weird and uncomfortable to see Broderick and Hauer having A Moment Between Men while Ladyhawke looks on all like wheeeeeee my boyfriend told a priest to murder me but it’s OK because he’s handsome (?) and I’m not a bird!
I hated this movie.
Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: As it turns out the nostalgia factor was high enough to keep me from gouging my eyes out. My ears, however, were not so lucky—whoever thought fusing Gregorian chants with an Alan Parsons jam session should be publically flogged. That said, the movie itself was, while decidedly not good, really not so bad. In all fairness, I was paying more attention to Molly’s reactions than to the movie itself because it was far more interesting but the snatches I caught of the film between Molly’s outbursts looked like they were shot on location, which is cool, and Alfred Molina was looking all kinds of skeezy, which is also cool. Plus I think Kintaro Miura modeled young Gatsu’s armor on Rutger Hauer’s, which is maybe a point in its favor. Maybe?
Ladyhawke apparently has a large cult following, which makes less sense than the actual movie itself. It’s way too tame to appeal to the flesh and blood/Flesh and Blood audience, and seemingly way too fucked to appeal to a more romantic crowd—as Molly pointed out, the scene where Hauer orders Number Two to murder Ladyhawke if Hauer’s quest fails is downright creepy. Nice romantic lead you got there.
So the dialogue was spotty, the plot nonsensical, the motivations baffling/nonexistent, the soundtrack dreadful, the pacing slow, the action boring, and the overall tone dull. . . big deal. I’ve seen worse; I’ve seen a lot worse. And really, witnessing Molly’s suffering was both a hoot and a holler, as they used to say back in Pennsyltucky—though it did stretch a two hour movie into a four hour one as Molly kept pausing the film to scream at the television. Trust me, the diatribe above is positively restrained compared to the IRL meltdown this movie brought on. So while I agree with all of her points, I must say that re-watching it was a helluva lot of fun. Now, if I’d watched it by myself I might have a different opinion but this project is all about the experience of viewing it together.
High Points: None at all, according to Molly. Jesse liked the sets and filming locations, and Hauer’s sweet double-action crossbow.
Low Points: Every element of the film, according to Molly. Jesse would like to single out the music. The music, oh the music. For example, check out the opening credits, where the first minute or so is strictly whatevs but by minute two yours ears will be rupturing:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=70_3pFmlpKE
Would you send a thief to guard your treasure?
Final Verdict: A split! Jesse says he’s seen far worse and the movie is made of flesh and spirit, whereas Molly says it is made of pure sorrow (actually, I said “pure shit” but apparently Jesse’s on a cussing diet).
OK, yeah. My husband is awesome. He just read a book and posted a reveiw of it on GoodReads, and I laughed and wanted to re-post it. Full disclosure: I have not read this book. Further disclosure: had I read it, I have no idea if I would agree with these sentiments. I just liked it, and wanted to share. So there.
Excession, by Iain M. Banks: A review by John
God damn do I love a good space opera! My hat is off to Iain M. Banks for the Culture series. I read my first Culture novel a while back when my good buddy Jesse gave me Consider Phlebas (the first novel in the Culture series) and I read it and it was good. But this book, the fourth in the series (I think), is just incredible. It’s one of those books with a million characters that you can’t keep track of doing a hundred things that don’t have any real impact on the actual plot but is just awesome because it is in outer space and involves sentient fucking spaceships battling tentacled monsters in hyperspace. Or something like that. I honestly couldn’t keep track of it all but loved it anyway because Banks writes the kind of sci-fi in which everything is possible. Everything. Sentient spaceships with cool names like “The Steely Glint”? Check. Being able to change your biological sex, grow wings, live forever? Check. A talking bird? Check. Growing a sample of your own skin in a vat and then sending that skin to a tailor so that tailor can make a stylish suit for you to wear? Check.
Actual plot? I’m not really sure. There were the tentacled things, called– seriously– the Affront, and there were the sentient spaceships, and there were some normal people for some reason that I think involved a baby. And there was the Excession, of course. What is an Excession, you ask? It’s something that’s excessive. In what way? I have no idea. It pretty much just sits around in space for the whole novel.
Do you love space opera? Do you think the only thing missing from Dune was more weird shit that didn’t make any sense? Then you should read this book, and the Culture series in general. Just look at the god-damned cover: a space ship that looks like a big gun floating around a dark sphere with binary code faintly playing across the background. I can hear the space Valkyries singing.
Also known as: King of Destroyer: Conan Part 2 (Japan)
WHOSE RESPONSIBLE THIS??? Conan created by Robert E. Howard, who deserves better. Story by Roy Thomas (Some episodes of the cartoon Thundarr the Barbarian) and Gerry Conway (some episodes of Law and Order, G.I. Joe, and My Little Pony N’ Friends. Huh.), and execrable screenplay by Stanley Mann (Damien: Omen II). Direction by Richard Fleischer (Red Sonja. Enough said.) and soundtrack supposedly by Basil Poledouris, though it sounds more like producer Dino De Laurentiis let a stoned nephew go crazy remixing the excellent score from Conan the Barbarian into a warmed over symphony of half-hearted crap. Acting by Grace Jones, hackting by Arnie and Sarah Douglas, mugging by Tracy Walter and Mako, passable wooden golem impressions by Olivia d’Abo and Wilt (sigh) “the Stilt” Chamberlin, and André the Giant as the grumpy awakened Dreaming God who, alone of all the cast, was uncredited and thus allowed some shred of dignity.
Quote: “The horn is his life! Tear out the horn!”
Alternate quote: (If one desires the companionship of a gentleman) “Grab him! And take him!”
First viewing by Jesse: Not sure, but I was young enough to think it was watchable.
First viewing by Molly: Maybe a month ago?
Most recent viewing by both: Maybe a month ago? Frankly, we’ve been putting off reviewing it.
Impact on Jesse’s childhood development: Low. I was more familiar with the first Conan movie and Red Sonja as a young’un, but I do have vague memories of the Dreaming God Dagoth and the Evil Queen (Sarah Douglas) being awesome in the way that rubbersuit monsters and vamped-out villainesses are intrinsically awesome to kids of a certain genetic code.
Impact on Molly’s childhood development: Nil. Thank goodness.
Random youtube clip that hasn’t been taken down for copyright infringement:
Jesse’s thoughts prior to re-watching: Goddamn it sums it up pretty well. I knew as soon as Molly got the big-eyed “oh hells yes” look on her face during Conan the Barbarian that we would end up watching Destroyer, and that Destroyer would be a piece of shit. It’s kind of like being a kid and being so excited when you’re parents take you to the mall to meet Santa Claus and it’s so frickin cool that you have to go again next year, but when December rolls around again this year’s Santa has a drinking problem and a thin beard and grease stains on his sleeve and as soon as you get off his lap the rent-a-cops handcuff him to await the real police because to finance his gambling debts to a local mob boss he’s been illegally dumping toxic waste in your favorite public park. And kicking puppies. That’s what going from Barbarian to Destroyer is like, and I knew it, and I agreed to re-watch is anyway, Crom forgive me.
Molly’s thoughts prior to re-watching: I was excited, because I really, really enjoyed Conan the Barbarian, and I knew Arnold and Mako would be returning, and Mr. Poledouris did the score. My exact thought was how bad could it be? I was warned by Jesse, warned by my uncle Glenn, warned by the friggin’ video store dude, but I remained optimistic. I called bullshit on Jesse’s theory that the fact that it was PG made all the difference, since it was made the year the PG-13 rating was just being adopted and, and, and. . . I was wrong.
Jesse’s thoughts post-viewing: Total bullshit. We actually got a formal protest not to review this movie given just how wretched it is but intentionally hurting ourselves comes with the territory. Conan the Destroyer is so stupid it makes TheBeastmaster look like a nuanced and clever film (Molly Aside: I’m not so sure about that sentiment; they are awful in different ways. At least the protagonist of Destroyer looks like a goddamn barbarian instead of some surfer-dude in a leather skirt with some weasels. OK, back to Jesse.). I’m going to try to tone down my hating on director Fleischer this time around since Molly pointed out that he’s dead and I can’t think of a single ghost I’d like to be haunted by less, but for the love of all that is holy he made one stinky, stinky fucking movie. Well, two, counting Red Sonja, and three counting Amittyville 3-D, and—you know what? Never mind. This movie sucks for a host of reasons, only some of them we’ll have time to explore, and lest repeating Fleischer’s name affects some sort of Candyman resurrection the less we say about him the better. Maybe that last bit was a little harsh. . . but he made Conan the DestroyerandRed Sonja, so the Candyman warning stands.
While the first film certainly deviated from Howard’s source material all over the place it at least captured certain elements of the original stories and had a lot to love in of itself. Destroyer, by contrast, feels like a monotonous journey on Dungeons and Dragons Railways, with only the occasional stop to let off painful jokes and pick up plot contrivances, plodding ever closer toward the forgone conclusion we all predicted the moment dungeon master Fleischer let out a Mountain Dew belch and informed us we would be escorting the princess on a perilous journey. Worse still, instead of simply having an obvious plot we also have a chronically stupid plot, with such idiotic sequences as the adventuring party of Conan N’ Friends spending the night camping just outside the island-bound ice palace of the evil wizard they’re intending to jack in the morning without keeping watch, whereupon the evil wizard, not being completely fucking worthless, sees them and kidnaps the princess. When Conan and company find the princess missing they promptly board the boat that is inexplicably waiting for them and row across to—forget it, forget it, just repeating the stupidity that is this movie’s plot is making me want to break priceless vases with my face.
One of the most painful elements of Destroyer is the forced humor, courtesy mostly of Tracy Walter who I liked quite a bit in Repoman but is just awful in this—he basically does here what the annoying kid does in Red Sonja, which is make a bad thing worse through inane one liners. Hell, most of Conan’s new sidekicks are painful to watch—Wilt and the princess just can’t act to save their lives, but Mako, as with Arnie, is obviously trying to act, and in both cases the result is a decrease in quality from their performances in the first movie. Oh, and as for added skin-crawling horror on a Friday afternoon the Wikipedia page for the movies describe then-15-year-old Olivia d’Abo as “playing the petulant teenage princess with sexy innocence” when she is, in fact, a perfectly terrible actress and, as the same person noted a few words earlier in the sentence, a fifteen year old one. The only thing this has going for it that Barbarian doesn’t is Grace Jones, and the absence of Subotai (Gerry Lopez) is sorely felt every time one of Destoryer’s side characters fails at life—Subotai knew how to sidekick, for reals.
Molly’s thoughts post-viewing: Fuck this movie. It sucks. It sucks in the same way Red Sonja sucks, which is to say, relentlessly. Literally the only thing I enjoyed about it was watching Grace Jones. She was having such a good time I couldn’t hate her—the way she mugs for the camera, the way she is totally OK with wearing a barbarian outfit with a tail on it, the way she’s just happy to be there and in a movie and holding a spear and being all fierce and stuff. Everything else is completely worthless. I mean—fuck. Poledouris didn’t even write a new score for this pile of turds. Why bother? He just sped up the tempo of the Conan the Barbarian movie soundtrack and cashed his fucking paycheck, which I hope was padded by royalties from the original Conan movie. Jesus. Jesse was all like “you will hate his sidekick so much” and I was like, really? But I knew the minute Tracey Walter (AKA Truly the Worst Sidekick of All time in Conan the Destroyer, AKA one of the hideously annoying Ferengi in the season oneST:TNG episode where that race first appear, AKA the dude who has appeared in some of the worst entertainment war crimes of the 20th and 21st centuries including, no joke, ALF, City Slickers, Melrose Place, the Beloved movie,Mighty Joe Young, and Masked and Anonymous,) spoke his first line I was in for deep hurting.
Here’s the thing: a while ago Jesse and I were working on a project together and I called him out on something that made no sense. Jesse responded, “it makes fantasy sense.” He was right, and I have a hearty respect for “fantasy sense” (you know, like how in Conan the Barbarian, when Conan is a pit fighter? And making his owner a ton of money? And then his owner lets him go—without a sword—because “he was like an animal that had been caged too long” or whatever. . . that makes fantasy sense). But nothing in Conan the Destroyer makes any sort of sense at all, not even fantasy sense. To wit: why do Conan’s pants keep disappearing and then reappearing at random? Why do they make camp outside the evil wizard’s palace in plain sight, unprotected, for an entire night? Why does the wizard touch a gem only the princess can touch that he’s had foreverz and clearly knows how to use? You get my point. This movie is a quintessential Idiot Plot film and I hate it.
I’d also like to say this about swords in movies: if you’re going to use big fucking broadswords, please have people use them properly. No one in his or her right mind will swing a broadsword around so it makes those oh-so-nifty “shwoop shwoop” sounds (a la any comedy movie featuring a scene wherein a Western Dude defeats an Asian Dude by shooting him in the face after the Asian Dude swings his swords around in a vaguely martial-artsy manner while saying “ahhhhhhhhhh so!” or whatever). It would probably sprain your wrist. Also it is stupid. It is far more effective to hack at a person with a big fucking sword if you are trying to hurt them. But you know, if you’re making a kid-friendly fantasy movie, I guess it’s a decent stand-in for actually hurting someone? Ugh.
I really, really wanted to like this movie. But I didn’t. I hated it. I didn’t hate it nearly as much as next week’s movie—I’m deliberately holding back the title for the Ultimate Reveal—but I hated it quite a bit. I think I hated it mostly for its utter blandness. They excised pretty much everything that made the first Conan movie awesome: big fucking swords used brutally by big fucking dudes, a sense of epic gravity to the proceedings, an interesting female character, a sidekick who is awesome and cries for Conan because Conan will not cry, battles that are actually cool, a plot that makes some sort of sense, a good soundtrack, a hero who’s man enough to wax philosophical about picking berries with his dad, a dead girlfriend coming back valkyrie instead of a weird blue ghost or something, and of course, a wizard who actually has chops (I’d like to see the wizard in Destroyer turn a snake into a goddamn arrow. . . the worst evil wrought by that doofus was, what? Turning into a cartoon bird and stealing a girl in plain sight? Having an ape-monster who can be killed by shattering a mirror? Come the fuck on). Instead we get. . . a stupid movie with nothing interesting and a final scene that is just a bargain-basement redux of the sort-of crappy ending of A New Hope, but instead of Chewie making everyone force a chuckle with a final “NNNNGGGGAAHHHHHHH” we just have Conan just walking away from some babe, without, I think, even bagging her doughnuts. . . wtf.
High Points: Grace Jones. The credits.
Low Points: That embedding was disabled for this stellar clip of Conan and the caped Goliath. That the rambling but still-engaging narrative of the first movie was traded for the most bone-headed “you all meet in a tavern, where a local king hires you to retrieve the three crimson orbs of the rumpshakers” style of plot imaginable. The attempts at humor, which are as frequent and forced as they are idiotic and often out of character. The myriad attempts to borrow elements from the first film in hopes of bettering this one, such as the camel punch, almost as if the filmmakers knew they were crafting an inferior picture and naïvely hoped that by lifting from Barbarian they could recapture the charm that is utterly absent from this goddamn pile of human waste. The tail they put on Grace Jones’s costume—the definition of an ORLY? decision on the designers’ part. The jingle bell sound effect they added to Grace Jones shaking said tail—Jesus fucking Christ. The fact that they somehow found a way to make Conan of Cimmeria swinging a sword, getting his mack on, butchering redshirts and monsters—doing his thing, basically—so utterly, irredeemably boring.
Final Verdict: A big ol’ fuck you, Conan the Destroyer.
Bonus: I found this image while searching for Conan the Destroyer images: