As enjoyable as it is to verbally flay the filmic road apples I stumble upon in my journeys, it is the occasional gems that sustain me. All the more enlivening, though even more rare, are those occasions on which I discover an entire, previously unexplored film industry, one whose prolific output of quality entertainments I can gorge upon like a cinephilic Augustus Gloop. As has been well documented, Bollywood was one of these for me–but the rabbit holes I’ve plunged down over seven-plus years of writing about world cult cinema have led to a couple of other very strong contenders for my affections. One of these is the Egyptian popular cinema of the 40s, 50s, and 60s, which offers a glamorous world of artfully wrought escapism comparable to—and yet quite different from–classic Hollywood.
Allegory, symbolism, fantasy, and surrealism are often the refuge of artists working under the oppressive thumb of authoritarian regimes. Usually, it works, thanks in large part to the average censor being unable to process art on any but the most literal of levels. To them, a cigar is always just a cigar. This short-coming of the censorial mind is a blessing, allowing artists to slip all sorts of subversive work under the nose of watchdogs. Sometimes, however, an artist has the bad luck of running afoul of a censor who is a little more savvy to the trick, either being more creative of mind than fellow censors or having perhaps been burned enough times after a work was heralded for its subversive nature by critics in other countries. That sort of thing eventually gets back to the native censors. And that can breed over-sensitivity. In the case of Polish director Wojciech Has’ confounding, bewildering, and wonderful 1973 film Sanatorium pod klepsydrą — The Hourglass Sanatorium, everything was reversed. Censors perceived a political film in what was meant to be a personal film. Censors saw concrete criticisms of life under Soviet rule and were upset by it, decided it should not be seen. Has had intended to screen the film at Cannes but was forbidden from doing so. He did it anyway.
When it comes time to make a fairytale movie in the United States, we tend to either take a macabre old story and scrubbing it relatively clean of shocking aspects and trolls yanking the thumbs off a child and forcing the poor tyke to eat them (pretty sure that’s a real story), which are replaced with singing home appliances and household pests; or we go the “21 century gritty and edgy” route, where the picture itself is digitally filtered and color tinted, the costumes showcase a lot more cinched-waist leather and absurd weaponry (almost always a rapid fire “machine gun” crossbow), there is more gore and computer generated blood, and the dialogue is made more modern and peppered with a greater amount of foul or modern language. This is not to say that entertainment cannot be wrung from these sorts of films. Wearisome devotion to the same color alteration, leather outfits, and general tone aside, the modern “dark and grim” fantasy genre has produced some winners, or at least some films that were perfectly acceptable entertainment. But it’s much more impressive to unnerve, chill, enchant, and disturb the audience in the bright, cheery light of a sunny meadow full of flowers. And that’s exactly what is accomplished by Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (Valerie a týden divu), an allegorical Czech fantasy film which on the surface is about a teenage girl just trying to get a decent night’s sleep.
Over on the Cultural Gutter, I’m celebrating the 40th anniversary of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The world doesn’t need another review of the movie, so Whatever Happened to Saturday Night? is instead a mini-memoir about my first time seeing the movie, at Louisville’s Vogue Theater in 1987, what it meant to me, and how radically the movie — and that old theater — changed my outlook on life for the better .
Despite passes at the superhero genre by film industries as far flung as India, Italy, and Indonesia, the perception of the superhero as a quintessentially American creation remains undimmed. This, of course, makes him an ideal target for satire. Probably the most well remembered example of this is the 1966 Batman TV series, which buttered its bread on both sides by aligning itself with the counterculture while, at the same time, selling millions of dollars’ worth of toys to kids who were too young to see its irreverence. Less well remembered, and certainly less well regarded, is Australian director Philippe Mora’s The Return of Captain Invincible, which is widely seen, even by its director, as being something of a mess. This may be due in part to the fact that, at the time, Mora’s sense of structure, pacing, continuity, and normal human behavior were still recovering after coming off his debut feature, Madman Morgan, a production that was largely at the mercy of a coke-addled Dennis Hopper.
Teleport City’s relationship with Sir Christopher Lee, about which he never knew a thing, goes back almost to the very founding of this site. Where would have been in those early days without Dracula or Howling II: Your Sister is a Werewolf, which though they have since been rewritten and re-dated, represent some of the earliest reviews posted to this site. We have, on occasion, made light of the career and attitude (particularly toward Hammer and Dracula) of venerated horror film icon Sir Christopher Lee, but never with malice. I hope, at least, that came across. Lee was and forever will remain one of the giants of cinema, a man whose dedication to his chosen profession I much admire and whose life is one the likes of which I could only imagine in my wildest dreams. A commando; a key field agent in the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare; a man who stood atop a high tower in The Vatican as the Nazis and Fascists were chased from Rome; a man of great culture and passion and, despite the way he might have at times across, humor.
007 is no stranger to New York City. He was here for Live and Let Die, both the film and the novel, and returned for the (really) short story “007 in New York,” which Ian Fleming was compelled to write by way of a “make peace” after his travel book, Thrilling Cities, peppered readers with an unending barrage of insults directed toward the city. In fact, he visits several more times, in Diamonds Are Forever and Goldfinger, both by Fleming, in For Special Services and Brokenclaw by John Gardner, and in the short story “Blast From the Past” by Raymond Benson. But it is Live and Let Die that gives us the most involved look at James Bond’s New York. He arrives in New York via John F. Kennedy International Airport. Only in 007’s case, he gets to emerge from a terminal we denizens of the 21st century cannot: the Pan-Am Worldport.
One of my early film memories, and still one of my favorite films, is The African Queen starring Bogart and Kate Hepburn. It was an early model for what I assumed my life would be, fueled as I was at the time by golden age adventure films and Illustrated Classics versions of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island. Naturally, I would become a grizzled adventurer and lead the kind of life where I spent a lot of time drinking whiskey at the end of a jungle bar in a joint of French Colonial design and where I was known simply as “The American.” While my life hasn’t been without its adventures, both grizzled and clean-shaven, they’ve rarely attained quite the rarefied airs of dragging a boat through a leech-infested swamp, though I did once find myself caught in the middle of a massive frog migration in Paynes Prairie, Florida. In the summer of 2015, however, I came a little bit closer to my childhood (and later) dreams of living an African Queen adventure, thanks to the fact that the actual African Queen ended up, through a circuitous series of events, docked in Key Largo (a fittingly Bogart location) where it is available for tours of the canals and coastline.
I hate the Spanish horror movie The Blood-Spattered Bride, but I still managed to involve myself in nearly two hours of talking about it on an episode of The Trashy Trio Podcast. OK, maybe 40 minutes was about The Blood-Spattered Bride. The rest is about Jack Parsons and Disney’s Haunted Mansion and Sasha Mitchell and my inability to run a mile. And then eventually we get around to this sordid, grubby little adaptation of Le Fanu’s “Carmilla,” only featuring a misogynistic rapist wife abuser as the hero. Be prepared — it’s a rare occasion on which I’m working blue. Like Redd Foxx blue. Trigger warning for me not being very good as a podcaster.
Over on The Cultural Gutter, I’m celebrating Eiji Tsuburaya, Ishiro Honda, and aliens who want to steal our women! Beneath the Mysterian Dome is a look at The Mysterians and Battle in Outer Space, two of the biggest special effects blow-outs the the Honda-Tsuburaya team created. Prepare yourself for tiny space battle son an epic scale an the wholesale decimation of Earth’s most famous landmarks.