Guilty Pleasures: Gamera

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Greetings, readers! All throughout September I’ve been discussing my cinematic guilty pleasures. No list of guilty pleasure films is complete without at least one kaiju film. While my favorite kaiju monster is Godzilla, I must admit I have a soft spot in my hurt for his atomic powered turtle counterpart as well. That’s right, this week’s selection is Gamera from 1965. The Gamera films are legendary to viewers of the TV series Mystery Science Theater 3000. They made for some of the most riff-tastic episodes in the series’ history.

Why do I love Gamera? Let me count the ways. First, the initial concept is pure B-movie magic. A fire-breathing turtle? Who doesn’t want to see that in a movie. And Gamera has an origin story similar to Godzilla. Gamera is resurrected by nuclear technology. The turtle is brought back to life by a nuclear explosion in the far north. He comes out of his icy grave and goes looking for energy. This leads to the next reason I love Gamera.

As Gamera searches for energy, he loves some pretty epic destruction in his path. Of course he eventually ends up rampaging through Tokyo. How Tokyo doesn’t have a giant monster contingency plan after Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan, I’ll never know. As Gamera tears through Tokyo, we get to see some pretty hilarious destruction of buildings that are clearly fake. And then there’s my other favorite thing: the shots of the Japanese army going after the monster. They way it’s shot, it looks like Gamera is being pursued by an army of GI Joe toy tanks and other military equipment. But the fake sets and props are part of its charm.

Oh, did I mention Kenny? At least that’s his name in the version with the English dubbing. Kenny is a little boy who, get this, has a sympathetic link to Gamera. So the atomic flying turtle made a friend. Isn’t that adorable. Kenny is the one person who sees Gamera as more than a monster and wants to save rather than destroy him. You get an awful lot of boy loves dog movies. But when was the last time you saw a boy loves turtle movie? Gamera is that magical movie.

Is the premise of Gamera preposterous? Yes. That’s par for the course in kaiju movies. Does it look cheesy? Yes. That’s another proud part of kaiju film tradition. And yet, the hokiness is exactly why I love Gamera. It’s a fun, light-hearted monster movie. The film is in the great tradition of monster B-movies. Gamera belongs in the kaiju Hall of Fame with Godzilla and Mothra. If it’s Friday night and you need a good monster movie to enjoy over popcorn, Gamera is for you.

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Guilty Pleasures: The Stuff

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It’s once again time for me to confess to my guilty pleasure movies. This week’s offering is one of the most hilarious schlock fests I have ever witnessed. But underneath all the cheese is a sharp satirical take on consumerism. I’m speaking of the 1985 masterpiece The Stuff. Yes. That is actually a movie title. The film was directed by Larry Cohen, known for another cult classic: It’s Alive!, about a mother who gives birth to a killer baby. I also recommend that one.

But back to The Stuff. The plot involves an industrial spy hired by the ice cream companies to discover the secret of a best-selling dessert called The Stuff. It’s flying off the shelves and leaving those who consume it addicted/

Industrial spy and former FBI agent David ‘Mo’ Rutherford (Michael Moriarty) is hired by executives of the ice-cream industry to disclose the recipe of the phenomenally successful marshmallow- and yogurt-like desert called the Stuff. Somehow, its consumers become addicted in the product, and competitors want the formula. With the support of Nicole (Andrea Marcovicci), the designer of the Stuff’s advertising campaign, and a boy named Jason (Scott Bloom), who refused to eat it after his family became consumed, Mo tries to prove that the Stuff is a malevolent and possibly sentient natural substance that is trying to take over the wills of the population of Earth.–IMDB

The Stuff is part consumerist satire, part horror, and part creature feature. And even though the set-up is fairly ridiculous, somehow all the elements come together and work.

Part of what makes this camp fest work is its cast. It’s lead by Michael Moriarty. After watching him on the early seasons of the TV drama Law & Order, I did  not see this performance coming. He proves himself just as adept at doing comedy as courtroom drama. I came away having even more respect for his range as an actor. And speaking of Law & Order, look for fellow alum Paul Sorvino in a great supporting performance.I also have to give a shout out to Garrett Morris. As Chocolate Chip’ Charlie W. Hobbs, he is also out to discover the secret of The Stuff. He has some of the funniest scenes in the movie. And his *spoiler alert!* demise is something both sick and funny. But his comic chops will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen his work on Saturday Night Live.

Another element that solidifies The Stuff as a cult classic is how it portrays the effects of consumerism. People who consume The Stuff turn into zombie-like creatures. What the film seems to be saying is that consumerist mentality brainwashes the public. The message appears a little extreme on the surface. But on some level it works. I have to say that I also love the cheesy 80s commercials for The Stuff. They feel a little like the ads for fake products on Saturday Night Live. They even come complete with 80s effects and hokey music. Trust me. The ads are hilarious.

Finally, I have to mention the delightfully ridiculous effects in this movie. The stuff basically looks like marshmallow fluff come to life like the slime in Ghostbusters II. Seeing it take over those who consume it is a mental image I will never forget. On the believability scale, it’s as credible as the roving gelatinous mass in the cult classic The Blob.

The Stuff isn’t a satirical masterpiece by any means. But you have to admire what it tries to do. Can a product marketed effectively enough turn the pubic in mindless consumer zombies? The Stuff seems to think so. Larry Cohen’s film is very cheesy and 80s. But its charm is its original concept and the entertaining performances by its talented ensemble cast. And if you really want a great triple bill, watch The StuffThey Live, and Dawn of the Dead.

Guilty Pleasures: Plan 9 From Outer Space

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In the history of movies, there have been numerous notoriously bad ones. But some films raise mediocrity to an art form. In that regard, the Sistine Chapel of bad movies is Plan 9 From Outer Space. A critical and commercial bomb, the film is widely regarded as the worst film ever made. Obviously, anyone that makes that claim has never seen Punk Vacation. But I digress. Plan 9 looks cheap, the acting is stiff, the plot is preposterous…and yet it’s one of the most fun times I’ve had watching a turkey of a movie. It is the Casablanca of movies that are so bad they’re good.

Let’s get the “plot” out of the way (and I use that term loosely). It involves a powerful weapon and an alien invasion.

In California, an old man (Bela Lugosi) grieves the loss of his wife (Vampira) and on the next day he also dies. However, the space soldier Eros and her mate Tanna (Joanna Lee) use an electric device to resurrect them both and the strong Inspector Clay (Tor Johnson) that was murdered by the couple. Their intention is not to conquer Earth but to stop mankind from developing the powerful bomb “Solobonite” that would threaten the universe. When the population of Hollywood and Washington DC sees flying saucers on the sky, a colonel, a police lieutenant, a commercial pilot, his wife and a policeman try to stop the aliens.–IMDB

Zombies, UFOs, aliens…this film has everything! Aliens trying to stop us from developing deadly weapons was used as a plot device in the infinitely better classic film The Day the Earth Stood Still. But a Robert Wise-quality project this is not. Nevertheless, let’s talk about why this legendary bomb of a film is one of my guilty pleasures.

One of my favorite things about Plan 9 From Outer Space is how shoddy the sets and props look. When the UFOs fly, you can practically see the strings they’re hanging from. The UFOs look like they were made out of pie plates sandwiched together with duct tape and painted over. And the graveyard…holy smokes! You can tell the tombstones are cardboard. And, on top of all that, this film adds to the the cheese factor with stock footage.

The scene where the military fires at the flying saucers is real military stock footage.–IMDB

Even the one exciting scene wasn’t actually shot for the movie. Nothing screams classic film like some good old stock footage. At least the film is consistently bad.

But the cheese factor doesn’t stop there. Complimenting the wooden sets and cheap props is the equally wooden acting. Tor Johnson is about as convincing as a police inspector in Plan 9 From Outer Space as Denise Richards was as a nuclear physicist in The World Is Not Enough. He lumbers from scene to scene and sounds like he actually believes the ridiculous lines he’s delivering. The lone bright spot in the film is the presence of Vampira. Vampira had her own themed show back in the day where she introduced cheesy movies. Imagine Svengoolie, but more goth. Go find the videos of it on YouTube. You’ll thank me later.

And allow me to share with you some of the award-worthy dialogue.

Colonel Tom Edwards: For a time we tried to contact them by radio but no response. Then they attacked a town, a small town I’ll admit, but never the less a town of people, people who died.–IMDB

Wow. You can feel the drama and compassion. According to this movie, small towns are acceptable collateral damage. And then there’s this gem of a line,

Air Force Captain: Visits? That would indicate visitors.–IMDB

You can’t make this dialogue up. It’s so laughable you shouldn’t drink while watching this film. You might choke to death.

Plan 9 From Outer Space is a film that has to be seen in order to be believed. Aside from Vampira’s presence and the last filmed footage of Bela Lugosi’s career, this is one stink burger of a film.But it’s so bad you can’t stop watching it. The film was directed by Edward D. Wood Jr. Wood specialized in schlock. His credits also include Bride of the MonsterGlen Or Glenda, and Jail Bait. The films were wisely overlooked by the Academy at Oscar time. Kidding aside, Wood loved making movies. And making a movie is no small task, even a bad one. If you’re interesting in learning more about the delightfully eccentric Wood and the troubled production of Plan 9 From Outer Space, go and borrow a copy of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood. It’s arguably Burton’s best film with Johnny Depp giving a brilliant performance as the cult icon. It’s a great love letter to the cult figure.

Plan 9 From Outer Space is a legendary bomb you can’t afford to miss.

Guilty Pleasures: The Angry Red Planet

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Greetings, readers! Most of the time on my blog I write about classic movies that have been critically acclaimed. I talk about immortal titles such as Casablanca, Double Indemnity, Singin’ in the Rain, etc. But every once in a while I like to shake things up. In that spirit, I am devoting the month of September to films that are guilty pleasures of mine. Some are so bad they’re good. Others are just entertainingly terrible. To start things off, I’m going to discuss one of my favorite cheesy science fiction flicks: The Angry Red Planet.

For great B-movie entertainment, the science fiction genre is a gold mine. Some of the best came out in the 1950s. Many centered around our fears of the atomic bomb: Godzilla and Them! are both great examples. But there were also some great campy space exploration films made at the time. The Angry Red Planet was one of them. The effects were goofy, the dialogue and acting were campy…and to this day it’s one of the most entertaining films because of its goofiness.

The plot is pretty straight forward. Two survivors come back from a mission to mars. One survivor is unconscious due to an alien growth attached to his arm and the other is badly traumatized. The survivor with amnesia is interrogated back into remembering in hopes of saving the unconscious man.

At this point the story goes in flashback mode. Before I talk about how hilarious the special effects are, allow me to share some of the cringe-worthy dialogue with you. It really has to be seen to be believed.

CWO Sam Jacobs: [to Irish] You know, I can’t say that I recommend spacesuits for beautiful young dolls. What happened to all your lovely curves?–IMDB

Yeah, that will impress the lone female on the mission to Mars. But wait. There’s more! Consider this line from the same woman who was treated condescendingly for her looks.

Dr. Iris ‘Irish’ Ryan: I know you think I acted like an hysterical female back at the ship, but I can assure you I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.–IMDB

Who doesn’t love a good throwback to the hysterical woman trope? The fact that people were paid to write this boggles my mind. But let me throw in one dialogue exchange to show you how forced the romance is in this story.

Dr. Iris ‘Irish’ Ryan: I never know if you’re calling me by name or nationality.

Col. Thomas O’Bannion: When I call you by your name… you’ll know it.–IMDB

Who talks like that? Oddly enough, the actors all sound like they believe the ridiculous things they’re saying. I will say this. Nora Hayden who play Iris makes the best of the terrible lines she’s given. She gives the best performance in the film. That’s not saying much I realize. But she gives the film one of its few slivers of credibility.

Now, how about those special effects? My favorite is of the creature that looks like I giant bat/spider hybrid. It was actually a 40 ft tall puppet. As IMDB notes,

The 40-foot alien monster was actually a marionette about 15 inches high. It was essentially a combination of a rat, bat, spider, and crab.–IMDB

It’s the martian creature visual I never knew I needed. Why have Marvin the Martian when you can just throw together a kitchen sink full or random creepy critters? I just about died laughing when it showed up. That being said, the designer of the creature did go on to bigger and better things.

Master Marionette artist, Bob Baker, was called in to manipulate the Batratspidercrab creature. Mr. Baker’s talents were also called into play for Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).–IMDB

I also need to touch on the look of this film to get you to fully appreciate its tackiness. The Mars scenes were filmed in a process known as Cinemagic. Here’s some info about it:

The “Cinemagic” process, used for all scenes on the surface of Mars, was the result of an attempt by producer Norman Maurer to turn live-action footage directly into hand-drawn animation – or to simulate that. This would enable hand-drawn backgrounds to look as real (or as unreal) as the live action footage. It didn’t have that effect here, of course. See The Three Stooges in Orbit (1962) for Maurer’s second (and failed) attempt at the same process.–IMDB

So they filmed a science fiction film in a format later used for a Three Stooges movie. Let that just sink in a minute. At least that movie was supposed to be funny.

As I wrap this up, I want to mention that the film’s failings weren’t entirely its own fault. It was a but of a troubled production. As also noted on IMDB:

The much-touted Cinemagic process which was used for the scenes set on Mars was actually the result of a film-developing mistake. The budget was slashed mid-production so the producers considered turning the film into black and white to keep costs down. However, one reel became accidentally double-exposed which produced a shimmering, vaguely psychedelic glare that director Ib Melchior latched onto, thinking it would suit his purposes for the Mars scenes. (It also helped to camouflage the cheap Martian monsters and scenery.)–IMDB

Having your budget slashed while in the process of filming is going to hurt even the best of productions. While I kid this movie, it is in the great tradition of campy science fiction films of the 50s. The dialogue is clunky, the performances mostly laughable, the effects are hilariously dated. And yet, if you’re looking for a fun cheese fest to enjoy, The Angry Red Planet is a good option.