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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

HOW I GOT RUINED: THE FIRST FILMS I REMEMBER SEEING

When I look back over my four-plus decades on this planet I often ruminate on exactly what diverse and twisted influences served to create the Bunche that you know and love (?), and I can honestly state that a major portion of my world-view was determined by the movies my parents took me to or let me watch on the television before my seventh birthday.

My earliest memory of seeing a movie in a theater is of GULLIVER'S TRAVELS BEYOND THE MOON (1965) during what was surely a re-release because I was about a year old when it was came out in the US.

I believe I was either three or four when my dad took me too see it and I will never forget how ominous the dark, empty theater seemed, a vast, foreboding space pregnant with possibility that my own experiences had not yet prepared me for. In later years I would accept that uncertainty as par for the course when going to the movies, the tension heralding either a glorious flight of escapist fare (like THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK) or a total fucking dud, compared to which getting punished would have been preferable (FLESHBURN being a perfect example).

As the film exploded across the screen, I had no idea that I was receiving my first exposure to the wild & woolly world of Japanese animation, but I did know that I loved the colorful images, solid story, and the genuinely dark undertone that simmered during the second half. GULLIVER'S TRAVELS BEYOND THE MOON is the story of Ricky, a homeless street urchin in an unspecified European (?) city who sneaks into a theater showing a film adaptation of GULLIVER'S TRAVELS, and after hearing the hero's inspirational words about sustaining himself through impossible odds with hope gets promptly thrown out on his ass by a surly usher. In short order Ricky is joined in his aimless wanderings by a talking dog and a living toy soldier, and this bizarre trio then falls in with Gulliver himself, now a misanthropic recluse who seeks to explore outer space in a homemade rocket ship. The heroes blast off into the void, running into Cupid — who grants them each one wish and is voiced by a grown-up Darla Hood of LITTLE RASCALS fame — and finding themselves embroiled in a conflict between two factions of sentient machines, one kindly and inquisitive, the other a warlike force of conquest-minded juggernauts who state their intentions in the song "Rise, Robots, Rise," a number so grim for a kiddie movie that I remembered certain images from it decades later like I'd just seen them yesterday. This truly dreamlike film ends with one of those "it was all a dream" scenarios, but it doesn't disappoint because Ricky's adventures were simply too fantastic to have been anything else, especially considering that the whole adventure may have been induced by a concussion suffered during a hit-and-run car accident.

Even I felt like the memory of the movie may have been caused by me getting hit by a car and knocked for a loop when I was little — no bullshit — but I was relieved to find that I had not hallucinated its existence when I came across a copy of the soundtrack LP during my college years. And it wasn't until just last year that I was able to obtain a copy of the film on DVD and watch it again, and I was not in the least bit disappointed; if you can stomach the mostly-saccharine songs by Milton DeLugg (he of SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS infamy) this film is a unique fairy tale with a tone that feels like you're experiencing a waking dream. The only drawback is that thanks to the rarity of the flick it's a bitch to find a decent print that hasn't been kicked around and dragged through a litterbox while the making the rounds on the kiddie matinee circuit, so the print available on DVD is washed out and looks like ass. Hopefully some company will tap into the current anime craze and unearth a crisp Japanese language print and release that, but I'm not holding my breath.

The next film to majorly impact my formative years was a steaming turdstorm called THE NAVY VS. THE NIGHT MONSTERS (1966), a zero-budget effort implausibly based on a novel by sci-fi legend Murray Leinster.

Bad on so many levels, the movie is a crap-film-lover's smorgasbord of heinous acting, obviously in-studio sets trying to pass for the outdoors, man-eating, acid-secreting plants that look like they were crafted by a bunch of third graders with some papier-mache and a couple of garden hoses (see below)

and the always welcome sight of Mamie Van Doren in a nurse's uniform that's about six sizes to small for her ample lungwarts.

Mamie Van Doren, second only to Jayne Mansfield as the greatest of the Marilyn Monroe clones.

The thing that stuck with me about this one is that it exposed my four-year-old eyes to their very first taste of cinematic gore in the form of a soldier getting his arm ripped off at the shoulder by a carnivorous squash; seen now the sequence is pretty tame, but it shocked the piss out me when I was little. Plus there are scenes of people getting splattered with acid, and we all know that's always good for vaporous histrionics and dripping, disfigured flesh.

The horrid results of "self-abuse."

Much more familiar to the rabid film fan is RODAN (1956), the first of Toho Studios' famed daikaiju ("giant monster") cycle to be filmed in color and one of the most balls-out fun.

Basically a sort-of love story between two rampaging, man-eating prehistoric birds, the segments within the mines where hero Shigeru works are still terrifying, especially the hideous tableau of hatching monsters and giant insects with deadly pincers that, once witnessed, drives him mad. Totally Lovecraftian in scope and horror, that scene spoke strongly to a small child of the utter helplessness that you realise when you grasp the concept of relative scale in the presence of hungry, malevolent beasts.

Hammer Films produced a shitload of colorful and luridly blood-drenched horror epics from the 1950's through the early 1970's, many of which also gave the viewer a plethora of lovely, buxom British actresses in increasingly scandalous states of undress. And while the cinematic correlation of sex and violence and the box office potential of the two may not have escaped Hammer, I was too little to truly understand what any of it meant when I saw THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE (1963) on CREATURE FEATURES under its American television title, KISS OF EVIL.

Much like Toho's films, the Hammer output created a world that the viewer could totally buy into, fantastic elements and all, and the frilly Gothic settings lent a distinctly European flavor to the flicks. This was territory familiar to kids raised on the seamier versions of the Grimm fairy tales, and the straightforward manner with which the stories were handled was a refreshing change of pace from American horror's frequent ham-handedness. But the element of THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE that set the mental gears turning within me was how the head vampire seemed a lot more interested in the virginal newlywed he'd lured into his cabal for nebulous activities that had little to do with feasting from her jugular... Quaint in depiction by today's standards, I would later see that scenario played out dozens of times, with varying degrees of prurience, in other films, but none of them had the same nightmarish-yet-alluring appeal as it did for me here. Oh, and the bit at the very beginning, where a grief-stricken and drunk father plunges a shovel through the coffin of his vampire-victim daughter, only to have the soon-to-be-interred let out a hellacious scream and bright red blood flow gorily out of the wood is still a killer.

And speaking of killer, how could I not mention THE KILLER SHREWS (1959)?

A notorious piece of sci-fi shit, this film introduced me to the concept of a film with a budget so low that they couldn't afford to create a decent fake monster, so the filmmakers simply threw cheesy costumes onto some dogs and let them run around the set.

Lassie had seen better days.

I've since seen that move pulled in countless flicks where dinosaurs are merely iguanas with big, fake fins glued to their spines, but the impact of THE KILLER SHREWS will never fade from my memories of childhood because it convinced me that at any minute my goofy, hyperactive Collie, Corky, could turn into a flesh-eating scientific abomination.

THE GIANT GILA MONSTER (1959) is an abomination of a whole different sort, namely the abomination that is boredom. Coming late in the 1950's cycle of atomic mutation/nature run amok pictures — so memorably kicked off by THEM! (1954) and subsequently run into the ground by legions of vastly inferior knockoffs — THE GIANT GILA MONSTER doesn't even have the common decency of having a cool title, such as GI-LA THE FUCKING AMAZING or HOLY SHIT, THAT'S A BIG-ASS LIZARD!, and the title creature is just a plain old Gila Monster on oversized sets, and effect similar to putting your pet lizard into the middle of a town you just constructed out of Lincoln Logs (see below).

Sucking out loud in just about every way imaginable, THE GIANT GILA MONSTER is the first film where I realized I was willing to sit through anything once just as long as it may have even the slightest grain of entertainment. In this case there was no grain present, even for a rabid giant monster addict.

Then came SON OF GODZILLA (1967), a film my mom sat me down in front of because she figured I'd dig the cute little monster. Well, as any Godzilla movie fan worth his salt will tell you, that plan backfired; Minya, the title character, is a nauseatingly cutesy creation who looks half-formed and fails utterly at enthralling children. I think I speak for all other Godzilla junkies when I say that we watch these films for Big G and whatever other monster/monsters/army of humans in toy tanks and airplanes he's gonna kick the living shit out of, and whenever Minya appeared the action ground to a complete halt. Fortunately, SON OF GODZILLA does have plenty of big critter mayhem going on in between "heartwarming" scenes of Big G nurturing his (her?) offspring. The tropical island setting may have eliminated costly miniatures getting destroyed, but the battles with giant mantises and the horrifying (to little ones, anyway) Spiga — the biggest, meanest motherfucker of a tarantula I've ever seen — are kaiju eiga ("monster movie") gold. After this, I was a slave to Godzilla for life, even willingly enduring GODZILLA ON MONSTER ISLAND (1972), in which Godzilla and giant hedgehog Anguirus actually talk. No, seriously.

One of the things my dad instilled in me was a fervent love of "space opera" and all its corny trappings, and I still hold the original FLASH GORDON serial (1936) in high esteem. The plot could have been written by a six-year-old: Flash Gordon (studly, Aryan adventurer and Yale graduate; not a poof, despite flamboyant appearance)

Dr. Zarkov (egghead scientist/inventor, possibly Jewish)

and Dale Arden (eye candy)

fly to the planet Mongo to prevent it from crashing into the Earth. Once there they must contend with the evil emperor Ming the Merciless (a space-Chink, played by a white guy, who wants to defile Dale's sacred whiteness)

and his daughter, Princess Aura (the Asian nymphomaniac stereotype transplanted to deep space)

along with an endless supply of monsters, hostile aliens, beast-men, and noisy aerial battles in the loudest spaceships on record, dime store vehicles that shower the sky with sparks and smoke.

When spaceships sound like Taco Bell flatulence, it makes me smile.

Sheer fun and possessing not a single brain cell in its head, this set the template for all space adventure flicks to come; watch a few chapters of this followed by the original STAR WARS and tell me I'm not right. This one instilled the take-no-shit-from-anybody attitude in me, inspired by Flash taking it to whoever earned his wrath. My battles have mostly been in the verbal arena, but you get my point. Oh, and I also learned that it's okay for grown men to run around in flamboyant capes and questionable shorts that show off their scrawny legs.

THE MONSTER THAT CHALLENGED THE WORLD (1957) featured giant gastropods kicking mankind's ass, and sent me under the living room coffee table in abject terror. The life-size monster props were first rate and the scene where one of them gets a gaffing hook through the eye still knocks me out.

The lesson learned in this film is that anything, and I do mean ANYTHING, can mutate and seek to eat the nearest tasty thing around, namely you.

Admittedly, several of these films may be a bit obscure to the layman, but how many of you out there haven't seen the 1958 version of THE FLY?

This tale of what can go seriously wrong with a matter-transporter experiment still resonates, thanks to a compelling story and decent acting, but what every person who's ever seen it will never forget is the famous ending... But first, the story: after the guy experimenting with the transporter tries the device out on himself and ends up getting his molecules blended with those of a common housefly, the poor bastard finds that his human head and left arm have been traded to said fly for a gigantic fly head and claw. Figuring he might be able to fix things if he found the tiny fly and went through the transporter again, this time sorting out the spliced genes, the now grotesque scientist enlists his wife's aid in tracking down the insect, but the tiny fly escapes from the house through a hole in a window screen. As the insect side begins to take over, the scientist convinces his wife to help him commit suicide by placing his head and arm into a multi-ton vertical press. When the wife confesses to the murder to the local police inspector and the scientist's brother, everyone thinks she's crazy, but as she's about to be carted off to the rubber room her young son — who has no idea of the sci-fi tragedy that has occurred — casually mentions that he's seen that odd fly with the white head in the garden, trapped in a spider's web. The kid shows the web to his uncle, and when the uncle takes a close look at the fly he sends the boy away and calls for the inspector.

The two adults peer closely at the fly struggling in the web as a hungry spider looms, and what they see is an unthinkable horror:

There, before their very eyes, is a miniscule part-man, part-fly, firmly ensnared in the web's strands, cowering and pitifully shrieking, "HELP ME! HELP ME!" in a high-pitched whine. Too stunned for words, the inspector picks up a rock and crushes the spider and fly, thereby rendering himself just as guilty of murder as the allegedly-mad wife, so there's no choice but to let her walk.

I've seen this film many times over the years, and even though I know it's coming that ending still sends me into a very dark corner of the mind, one that hovers dangerously close to madness. No joke, that scene is strong — if ludicrous — stuff, and the image of that tiny head raises the question of exactly why the human head is now bald and apparently toothless. A fly's life must be pretty fucking bad if it causes you to lose your teeth and hair in no time flat...

So what films ruined you for life, dear reader? Write in and tell me all about it!

6 comments:

jordansmom said...

Mommy didn't take me to many kid's films, so we saw (and read) lots of horror (and some raucous comedy).

Films that warped my mind, freaked me out, and permanently changed my outlook on cinema and storytelling (before I hit my 20s):

The Legend of Boggy Creek (Sort of a backwoods Bigfoot mockumentary. When I got home after seeing it, I locked all the windows and closed all the shades.)

Let's Kill Uncle Before Uncle Kills Us (Kid power!)

The Birds (Pet attacks!)

Day of the Triffids (Plant attacks!)

Mad Monster Party (Monsters are very chill when not being threatened.)

Fantastic Planet (Part of a double-feature that confounded and intrigued my innocent brain.)

Mothra (I wanted my very own pocket-sized Japanese twins to dress in Barbie clothes (Minds out of the gutter, boys).)

Son of Godzilla (I LIKED the baby and Godzilla's paternal instincts.)

Star Wars (I saw it at Loews Astor Plaza with a bunch of girls from my summer camp as part of a field trip and thought it would be a boring "Boy's" movie. HA!)

The Thing (The effects blew me away.)

Crowhaven Farm (A TV movie starring Dick Van Dyke's ex-wife who dies a horrible TV death. It was pretty intense for the "4:30 Movie" and made me scared of Amish people until I tried Shoo-Fly Pie.)

The Other (I read the book before I saw it and still didn't quite get it, but I was only 7 or 8 and it was still pretty creepy.)

Alien and Aliens (Ahh, "Aliens," the movie that taught me what being a good mom is all about.)

Poseidon Adventure (original)(They killed the hero, the bimbo, AND the Jewish grandma? WTF?!!)

Planet of the Apes (original) (Watch the excavation scene again and see just how much expression Maurice Evans puts into that honkin' hunk of Latex.)

A couple of scenes are burned into my memory (Bunche, help me with the film names, wouldja?):

Someone walks into a dark, B&W basement laboratory. A refrigerator is opened and an apothecary jar filled with eyes falls out and crashes on the floor.

A decapitated vampire/warlock walks around taking orders from the disembodied head he carries around.

A woman is hypnotized and is taken back to her past life as a witch. The shrink hypnotizing her somehow switches places with her and is decapitated both in the flashback and in reality. (This movie was on a couple of years ago and I watched it again, but shame on me for not remembering the name.)

Greatest Spooky Intro for Horror Movies from Local TV Station: "Chiller Theater" on NY's WPIX (Saturday night, 8 p.m.). I'd watch whatever movie they had on just to see that.

If I think of more, can I add without being obnoxious?

Jared said...

I was always out playing. Maybe that's why I lack any great love for the movies. I always liked indulging in athletics a lot better.

Dana said...

Saturday mornings, when the weather was foul or mom would run out of energy asking us to go play outside, were punctuated with a block of monster/horror films. On Boston's WLVI, TV 56 (a UHF channel for those who remember life before digital and the remote) was 'Creature Feature' which soon, blissfully, became 'Creature Double Feature.'

From that, Reptilicus.

there was no Saturday more anticipated than a 2x bock of rubber suited mayhem. Yes, ANY Godzilla / Gamera / Rodan film was a welcome treat (as well as seeing the dad from 'Little House' transform into a scraggly-toothed werewolf), but Reptilicus -- there was bliss.

(My suggestion: Let the memories of these great features live in your mind's eye. Viewed later in life, there is only shallow disappointment and an urge to shepherd a remake, that would, inevitably, disintegrate into a SFX poo-fest starring Pullman, Paxton, or Broderick.)

Directed by (I kid you not) Bang & Pink.
Invincible...Indestructible!
What was this awesome BEAST born 50 million years out of time?
Reptilicus.

Bunche said...

To Dana-

yeah, I remember REPTILICUS. It looked like an even phonier variant of its japanese cousin, Manda, from ATRAGON, and had the cool ability to hack up animated acid-phlegm. And while that was all well and good, the film itslef was boring to the point of being painful.

Dana said...

Agreed.

But the eyes of an 8-year-old saw stuff that would ruin me for life.

(Yes, that Former-Marvel Dana, BTW.)

Samara said...

I went to see the Star Wars movie with my husband and son. After seeing the movie my son had become a great fan of Darth Vader and he is pestering me to get the same costume fore him.