Category Archives: movies

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

I had planned for us to watch The Wizard of Oz sometime next month, but I got a craving to see it again so we moved it forward. I’ll have less to say here than in other chapters about movies; you know this story already and it’s one of the most written-about films in Hollywood’s history. I have nothing to add beyond our own experience.

We stopped it and restarted it after about five minutes. Our son wasn’t paying a lick of attention. But we forced the issue and he loved it. Our son was happy and laughing aloud through much of the movie, making occasional exclamations of delight over the proceedings. “Those munchkins hatch from an egg?!” “A lion afraid of imaginary sheep!” he called out with glee. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. The Wizard of Oz is flawless.

My only quibble is that I can’t stand the high-pitched voices of the Munchkins, but whoever designed their costumes deserved all the awards in the industry. Ray Bolger and Bert Lahr are hilarious and perfect in their roles, and I always spare a thought for poor Jack Haley, lumbered in one of the the era’s most uncomfortable costumes and makeup jobs. The Tin Man was our son’s favorite character, so we appreciate Mr. Haley suffering for his art.

At any rate, glee turned to anxiety when our heroes went off to obtain the witch’s broomstick. That amazing scene between Judy Garland and Margaret Hamilton had him wide-eyed and desperately hugging Mom, and the whole rescue sequence had him kicking and jumping and dashing to the staircase behind our sofa in anxiety and excitement.

I was concerned, of course, about whether the Wicked Witch would terrify our son. As somebody who wishes to be a better wordsmith than I am, I have always been pleased by Joseph Berger’s 1985 obituary of Hamilton in The New York Times, which describes her as “the actress whose role as the cackling Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz unnerved generations of children.” That’s so perfect.

This blog is nearly two years old. We began it with H.R. Pufnstuf, creating a worry of witches that has lasted to this day. Margaret Hamilton’s performance, I am pleased to say, retains its power to unnerve after nearly eight decades.

I have not watched The Wizard of Oz in quite a long time. See, about eleven years ago, I was dating this beautiful Little Green Girl, as she liked to be known, who absolutely loved Gregory Maguire’s novel Wicked – the musical less so – and who insisted that I read the book, over my objections and suspicions. She didn’t even allow me to buy the edition with the cover that tied in with beautifully-designed artwork of the musical, forcing a book with a far less interesting cover on me.

So I read the novel over the course of a week, and finished up with a public display of whimpering, crying and downright bawling when the Wicked Witch meets her unfortunate end. I was on my lunch break in a Jason’s Deli in Alpharetta and made such a Mary-at-Chuckles’-funeral spectacle of myself I never darkened that restaurant’s door ever again. The relationship didn’t last, but it cemented my love for the witch to the point that I just haven’t wanted to see that awful child from Kansas kill her again.

Naturally, of course, that was our son’s favorite scene. Kids!

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Captain Nemo and the Underwater City (1969)

Here’s a movie that I might have read about somewhere or other, but it never really sank in until we started this blog and I did a little reading about the film of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Then I realized there were more screen versions of Captain Nemo than I was aware. This one, however, could have remained adrift. It is a boring, boring movie.

Captain Nemo and the Underwater City has an interesting international cast, bringing Americans Robert Ryan, as Nemo, and Chuck Connors to the UK for a production at MGM’s Borehamwood Studios. Luciana Paluzzi, best known at the time for her role in Thunderball, is also here. Thunderball is my least favorite Bond film, in part because of all the endless underwater scenes. This film has a similar problem.

The movie opens in the mid-1860s with a liner bound for Bristol sinking in a storm. Connors is playing a US senator, and he goes overboard, along with characters played by Nanette Newman, Allan Cuthberson (a claustrophobic engineer), Bill Fraser and Kenneth Connor (criminal brothers), and Christopher Hartstone (the token kid). They get rescued by divers from the Nautilus and brought along to Templemer, an underwater utopia that Nemo and his followers have constructed.

Then he refuses to let them leave. Complications, and boredom, ensue.

The problem is that this movie will end as soon as somebody gets out of there, and there is no reason to hold them, or even bring them below in the first place. The film is set during the American Civil War, when nobody on the surface had access to Nemo’s technology. As with the previous two films about Captain Nemo that we’ve watched, people are amazed by it. Nemo’s concern is that people from the warring world above will interfere with his utopia, but that’s not possible. Nobody can reach him.

A secondary problem is that we don’t even reach the character conflict of the film – the “why” nobody can leave – until its halfway point. Nemo tells them that they will remain in Templemer for the rest of their natural lives, but before there are any protests, debate, or character drama, he shows them his underwater farm for an eyeball-bruising ten minutes of scuba footage. Reefs, schools of fish, bubbles. There’s a reason why we’re never going to watch Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea for this blog, and why Thunderball puts me to sleep. Heck, I don’t even like Stingray very much.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, because the film was written by Pip and Jane Baker, who are notorious for some legendarily awful Doctor Who episodes, but directed by the reliable James Hill, who directed some very good episodes of The Avengers, The Saint, and most of Worzel Gummidge. So the movie settles into a mediocre gray area, with nothing of interest beyond some interesting sets and the acting of Bill Fraser, who was then best known as Sgt. Claude Snudge in three related BBC comedies and is very amusing here. Well, there is a neat scene where Allan Cuthberson’s bid for freedom goes terribly wrong, but not even a hundred foot mutant manta ray monster could keep my interest. Chuck Connors is lantern-jawed, gravel-voiced, and soporific in a part which, four or five years later, Doug McClure would play about once every summer.

Our son was actually more patient with this movie than I was – he got a little restless, but never seemed about to fall asleep like me – and he pronounced it “pretty cool.” The scene where Cuthberson’s escape plan goes wrong did frighten him into going behind the sofa, but he applauded early on and enjoyed the animals in the city, which include a pelican, a seal, and some penguins. The submarine chases and fights with sharks and monsters are pitched just right for kids, and perhaps if you can watch this movie in the company of one, then at least one of you will enjoy it.

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Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)

I might have dropped a hint or two in these pages about movies we plan to watch a little down the line. One of these, a little later this year, is At the Earth’s Core. But I felt I’d be doing our son a disservice by not introducing him to the concept by way of the fellow who popularized traveling down below into worlds of crystal caverns, luminescent algae or rock formations, and big monsters.

We had a quick recap about the author Jules Verne before beginning the lengthy 1959 20th Century Fox adaptation of Journey to the Center of the Earth. It’s 130 long minutes, and the first three-quarters of an hour move at the speed of a glacier. Five is too young to absorb this material without a grownup; ten would still be pushing it. Much of the material happens far offscreen and is only deduced by the bold Sir Oliver Lindenbrook, played by James Mason. He and his young associate Alec McEwan head from Edinburgh in 1860 to an Icelandic volcano, following a clue and trying to get ahead of two competing parties.

Ewan is played by Pat Boone, of all people. Boone was, then, at the height of his pop stardom, sings one song, and seems to be here mainly because he looks good with his shirt off. The movie also features Arlene Dahl, who starred in several movies in the 1950s, the best of which was possibly the film noir No Questions Asked in 1951. To be fair, though, I really don’t know that much about her. One of the rivals in this scientific expedition is the sinister Count Saknussemm, whose ancestor vanished three hundred years earlier trying to prove there’s a lot to discover underground. He’s played by Thayer David, and twenty years later, he got to play Nero Wolfe in an unsold pilot for ABC in the seventies.

For audiences waiting for the trope of the underground civilization of primitive savages, this movie offers a big surprise: there isn’t one. There’s really not a lot that goes on in this movie at all. It’s imaginative and very nicely designed, but there’s not a great deal of conflict. What we do see is resolved really quickly. There’s a little promise during the very long opening sequence that Mason and Dahl will be at loggerheads, but it proves to be about a sixty second delay before the inevitable “you can’t come with us! you’re a woman!” scene.

There’s a brief moment during the expedition where Boone and Dahl make goo-goo eyes at each other before she reminds him that he has a young lady waiting back in Scotland. She’s played by Diane Baker, who went on to have a massively successful career but is totally wasted here. It’s interesting, though, that the script explains that this expedition goes on for many months, at least ten. One of the movie’s many flaws is that the production doesn’t really show this by showing the actors’ hair growing from scene to scene. Ten months and they’re a bit bedraggled, and Boone and the other young fellow lose their shirts, but I don’t buy that they even packed enough provisions for that long, much less felt it.

To be honest, the movie really does mark time waiting for the monsters. Here’s the most likely reason that Land of the Lost‘s third season producer decided that Torchy, their fire-breathing dimetrodon, would be the size of a bus: because there are a half-dozen gigantic dimetrodons hanging out on the beach of an underground ocean.

You’ll forgive the lack of a photo. The dinosaurs are iguanas with sails glued to their backs and they’re either shot without any point of reference to make them appear gigantic, or in a matte shot so distant that they don’t have any detail, so the screencaps all look lousy. Later on in the film, there’s a salamander or something given the same treatment. They don’t do special effects like that anymore, do they? Frankly, I’d have preferred somebody have phoned Ray Harryhausen and commissioned him to do these in stop-motion.

As I implied earlier, this was far from our son’s favorite film. He struggled gamely through the long, long setup, and lost interest for the most part. He played with a favorite Lego “Mixel” while the heroes get separated, and finally started paying attention when a dinosaur spots them in the cave full of giant mushrooms. The monsters were very successful, but they were the only things here that were. Well, we’ve one or two more trips into the center of the Earth to come. Maybe they’ll go over better.

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The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

Fifteen years after making the first, and, to most people, the definitive Sinbad movie, Ray Harryhausen was back with a movie that many seem to suggest is one of the lesser films in his career. But man alive, I think it’s terrific. It may not be as great as Jason and the Argonauts – what is? – but I enjoyed this even more than the original Sinbad movie, and John Phillip Law, who plays Sinbad in this one, is really fun.

I casually mentioned to our son before we sat down this morning that he should pay attention to two of the actors in particular. Tom Baker, of course, we’ll be seeing much more of in the future. Here, he plays the villainous Prince Koura, an evil magician with designs on the throne of Marabia and far more, and he’s really fun. At no point does Koura do anything heroic or appear as anything other than a black-hearted sorcerer. He’s completely hypnotic, and it beggars belief that he was so short of work in 1973 that he was thinking about calling it quits. Eight years later, work would be a little scarce because of typecasting and something of an industry reputation for being, shall we say, mercurial and temperamental, but every casting director in London should have been phoning him in ’73.

And then there’s Caroline Munro, and I’m planning to see her at least twice more for this blog this year, and possibly a couple more times if I decide to write about James Bond and Hammer movies down the line, when our son’s a little older. I think she was one of the most gorgeous actresses around in the seventies, and I’d watch her in anything, so it’s kind of helpful that she kept making such fun movies that decade.

One of those Hammer films was Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, which was among those films that Brian Clemens made during his brief period working in features between his TV series The Avengers and Thriller. Since Munro was under contract with Hammer at the time, Clemens was encouraged to cast her in Kronos, and was so impressed with her that while he was working on the story for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad with Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles Scheer, he lobbied for her to take the lead female role. Honestly, there’s not a great deal to her part here, but she looks terrific.

The most curious casting, though, is Sinbad himself. John Phillip Law had been earmarked for greatness just a few years before this, and in 1968 alone had starred in three different cult films: Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik, and Skidoo. But while these odd films have fans today, at the time, they were all box office bombs. He was a sex symbol, but his career had stalled. This film was a hit, but it didn’t get him any meaty roles. He worked through the seventies, but mainly in cheap Italian action movies. I think it’s a shame that he didn’t come back for the next Sinbad movie four years later.

But you want to know about the special effects and what our son thought. As befits a Harryhausen movie, anything can happen here, and some of it is completely unpredictable. Other things are ever-so-gently telegraphed by what we know from previous Harryhausen films and what we’ve seen Koura do. I was unfamiliar with this movie and didn’t even look at the package art with more than a glance because I dislike spoilers so much. This wasn’t a case like Jason and the Argonauts where I spent the entire film waiting for that mob of skeletons to get reanimated. When Koura and his henchman get kidnapped by a green-painted tribe of cultists who worship Kali, they make the horrible mistake of bringing him into a cave with a ten-foot tall statue of their goddess, made of stone and with six arms. She’s there on the cover of the DVD, but that’s not why I knew she’d come to life. It’s the way the camera let me know it was coming.

Our son’s favorite monsters, meanwhile, were a pair of hideous, winged “spies,” brought to life from paper and Koura’s blood. His favorite scenes were the two bits where these creatures were killed. He especially loved seeing the second one brought down.

Overall, this whole film was one of the best and most entertaining scary experiences that he’s ever had. He says that he really liked this movie, but insists that it was not exciting. It was just plain scary, full stop. Between all of the monsters and the last-second escapes, he was in heaven, but he was also under his blanket. One thing’s for sure: he was never bored, not at all. There’s just enough humor for an occasional gag, but the stakes are pitched just perfectly for kids: abstract “good” versus “evil,” with no ramifications or subtlety. When a new pair of monsters shows up for one of the last battles, and Koura intervenes on behalf of the evil one, it’s the closest thing to a complicated allegory in the film. Otherwise it’s just wild, delicious popcorn made by a very talented team and we enjoyed it a lot.

Incidentally, there’s a very odd little bit of foreshadowing for a movie that hadn’t been made yet. Douglas Wilmer co-stars here as the magical Grand Vizier of Marabia, and wears a golden mask that completely hides his identity throughout the film. I briefly wondered why in the world you’d cast such a familiar name and face as Douglas Wilmer and then hide him under gold for a whole picture, and then I remembered that’s precisely what happened in 1980, when the makers of that Flash Gordon movie cast Peter Wyngarde as Max von Sydow’s right-hand man and hid him under gold as well! If you ever wonder why, I think they got the idea from here.

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Treasure of Matecumbe (1976)

Over the last several months of writing this blog, I’ve been cross-checking actor and director credits in IMDB while also searching around for new ideas for films to watch together. If I’d ever heard of Disney’s Treasure of Matecumbe before last year, it’s news to me. Definitely one of the company’s lesser-known features, it’s a quite good family adventure film, a search for gold in 1870s America.

As befits a movie that’s flown under the radar, it’s also the victim of some considerable misinformation. It was released on DVD in 2008 under the Wonderful World of Disney label, and a few sites have stated that this was made for that long-running TV anthology. It turns out that it was not. I did one last little double-check and bit of research before writing this, thank heaven, and ran into this article at TCM, written by a friend-of-a-friend, Nathaniel Thompson, which explains that it did get a theatrical release in the US. A little more checking and it seems it debuted on July 9th of 1976, and showed up on the TV series a good eighteen months later, where it must have been edited by about fifteen minutes, because this is a packed movie, very nearly two full hours.

The young stars of the film are Johnny Doran, who had impressed me very much in that “explaining death to kids” episode of Isis, and Billy “Pop” Atmore, who was a regular on The Mickey Mouse Club. Among the grown-ups, a really impressive cast including Robert Foxworth, Joan Hackett, Peter Ustinov, and Vic Morrow. I was very amused by one little cameo. I’ve been noting how certain directors keep coming back to use actors again, and Rex Holman shows up for thirty seconds as an informer in New Orleans. Eight years before, this film’s director, Vincent McEveety, had used him as Morgan Earp in the one Star Trek episode I actually enjoy, “Spectre of the Gun.”

Like many of Disney’s travel movies, this one has an episodic feel to it, and about halfway through, there’s a musical interlude when the party docks at a river landing where the menfolk haven’t seen any women in heaven knows how long. I love watching movies with my son for many reasons, but a big one is that he will often appreciate something that I never could without him. If I were reviewing movies that I watch on my own, I’d grumble that this bluegrass hoedown is completely superfluous to the story and unnecessary. But it turns out that it’s perfectly timed and very welcome. He was up on his feet and dancing along and when, inevitably, people get dunked in the river, he was roaring with laughter.

This isn’t a movie with very much levity and precious little of Disney’s seventies slapstick. In fact, Morrow’s character is far more realistically evil and cruel than your typical Disney antagonist, and guns down a man early in the story. There’s even a quite surprising scene where a character is rescued from being lynched by the Klan, which I certainly didn’t expect to see in a Disney movie. And the ending has a very surprising undercurrent. I don’t think children will really understand just how grim it actually is, but this certainly isn’t Keenan Wynn getting hoist on his own petard by a Volkswagen. So when the opportunities for laughs did come, we appreciated them.

I was really impressed by the production, which took the actors on location in Kentucky, Florida, and California, and subjected them to swamps and lashing rain. There are some obvious stunt doubles and stock footage and animated swarms of insects and painfully poor rear-screen projection, but they really did throw millions of gallons of water on big name actors and stick them on boats in the Everglades. You’ll watch this and think it’s a huge shame that they only captured half the dialogue shots on location and filled in the rest in the studio.

Anyway, Ustinov plays a traveling medicine show “doctor,” and his small river boat gets blown up, which our son strangely insists was the scariest part of the movie despite looking to the grown-ups like nothing at all consequential. Then the climax, in which Morrow and his henchmen square off against an angry Everglades tribe, had him cheering and loving it, while I gulped, knowing the grisly fate that awaited the villains. You can never tell with kids, which is part of what makes this so fun. Five-nearly-six might have been a little young for this movie, but he has seen a lot of films and action-adventure TV and might be a little more mature than many viewers his age, so if you’re thinking about showing it to your own kids, bear that in mind. I’m glad that we watched it and he certainly enjoyed it.

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Escape to Witch Mountain (1975)

You know who has the best rogues’ gallery in all of TV and films? I’m not talking about the fictional villains, but the actors who played them. The answer is indisputably Tony and Tia from the two Witch Mountain movies. Their opponents were played by Donald Pleasance, Bette Davis, Christopher Lee, and Ray Milland. That’s Blofeld, Baby Jane Hudson, Count Dracula, and that mean guy from Love Story. Pure 100% evil.

And on top of that, the three main adult parts in the first of the two films, Escape to Witch Mountain, are played by Pleasance, Milland, and Eddie Albert as Jason O’Day, the gruff-but-kind old traveler who helps the young castaways. All three men played villains in Columbo in the seventies. If you’re like me and enjoy just sitting back and watching great actors at work, even when the material isn’t exactly challenging, this movie is a complete pleasure.

We were having a long and very lazy Saturday afternoon, so we went ahead and watched this classic today instead of tomorrow morning, and our son just adored it. Escape to Witch Mountain is based on a 1968 novel by Alexander Key, who wrote more than a dozen of these sort of light science fiction adventures for young readers and which we used to devour as kids in the seventies. Him, John Christopher, Madeline L’Engle, and C.S. Lewis were my poison in the tail end of that decade. Yours as well, I bet.

As a screenplay, it’s note-perfect, a flawless 97 minutes without a drop of fat or padding. The director, John Hough, was new to Disney but he already had a pretty fun career, working on favorite TV shows like The Avengers, The Champions, and The Zoo Gang, and directed Hammer’s glorious guilty pleasure, Twins of Evil. Teamed with Disney’s first-rate special effects team – who let the side down a little this time – three veteran actors and two extremely good young kids, he put together a terrific movie.

Sadly, the effects are just not up to Disney’s standard this time. Most of the work before the climax is practical effects done with wires, but sadly I swear I see a new wire visible every time I have watched this movie. I’ve noted with some sadness the way that the print quality of Ray Harryhausen’s films always gives away the “surprise” of something magical about to happen, but that’s nothing compared to the composite shots of the flying Winnebago and upside down helicopter in this movies’s climax. It’s a shame for adult viewers, but kids probably won’t notice. Ours didn’t.

One reason I enjoy this film so much is that it gives kids some believable young heroes with whom they can relate. Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann are extremely good in this movie, even managing to convincingly convey their returning memories as actual memories and not “brand new information” that it’s time for the script to provide. Eisenmann was still a novice at this time; Richards was an industry vet by the time she made this at age ten.

The memories slowly returning, done so well by a cute effect that sees the flashbacks becoming increasingly clearer as the film progresses, really helped keep our son’s attention. He was fascinated by the story and curious where it was going. There’s some typical Disney slapstick along the way – there’s a bear, and a truck that crashes into a lake – and it’s used as perfect punctuation at moments where the explanations are a little talky or the excitement gets a little much. It’s a really great film, and I believe it’s much better than its sequel, but we’ll watch that in a couple of months and see what he thinks.

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The Rescuers (1977)

Did my son wake you this morning? Today, we watched what he pronounced as his all-time favorite movie. He went all Spinal Tap on it. I asked him how much he enjoyed Disney’s The Rescuers on a scale of one to ten, and he replied, “If ten is my absolute favorite movie ever, then this is a ten! No! It’s an ELEVEN!” This was after the longest, loudest fit of laughter I can remember. From the bit where the albatross, Orville, gets his tailfeathers singed by a firework to the destruction of the old organ on the rotting riverboat a quarter of an hour later, he was in stitches.

He’s seen a few Disney cartoon films before, most recently Robin Hood, but he’s never loved one quite as much as this. I agree completely. You, dear reader, almost certainly enjoy Disney cartoons more than I do – I just scrolled down the list and maybe find about five tolerable – but there are two that I adore: this and 1970’s The Aristocats.

But actually, looking over Disney’s animation work, I see that The Rescuers was made at a really curious time for the company. For some weird reason, they were only releasing a new cartoon feature about once every four years. I think that they all at least looked splendid – The Rescuers in particular is blessed with some amazing painted backgrounds – but, in the sixties and seventies, these were all taking a back seat to their far superior live-action films.

And I think that this corporate malaise and disinterest in cartoons is what cost Disney their best asset at the time: Don Bluth. He was apparently the lead of four credited “animating directors,” working under three other credited as “directed by,” and, sick of the bureaucracy and wasted time, set up a rival studio with about 20% of Disney’s staff, and then spent a decade kicking the mouse’s rear at the box office. I’m also deeply disinterested in almost all of Bluth’s output, with only Secret of NIMH and Anastasia of any note, but I find the history fascinating. And I think it’s really neat that The Rescuers and Pete’s Dragon, on which Bluth also worked, both came out in 1977. Good year for for a talent like Bluth to flex his muscles. I can believe that had Disney not turned things around in ’89 with the successful Little Mermaid, they probably would have retired their feature animation unit entirely, and our popular culture would be radically different today.

The Rescuers features Eva Gabor and Bob Newhart as two employees of the International Rescue Aid Society, whose office is in a mousehole in the UN building. Gabor plays Miss Bianca, an agent from Hungary, and Newhart is Bernard, a brave-but-shy janitor who is assigned as her co-agent. Other voice work is provided by people who had some more history with Disney, like Bernard Fox and John Fiedler. Jeanette Nolan and John McIntire would come back to do voice work for Disney’s next cartoon, The Fox and the Hound.

The movie is paced brilliantly. It’s a lean 77 minutes, with songs at the appropriate moments, and the action is really funny. Madame Medusa admittedly may not be in the upper tier of Disney villains, but she’s amusingly vulgar and violent. I love the scene where she’s threatening Penny while removing her false eyelashes before bed. She’s so garish and hideous.

Sure, there’s a lot about The Rescuers that falls into standard tropes, like all the heroic animals being capable of speech and the big mean henchbeasts (here a pair of alligators called Nero and Brutus) mute and stupid, but it’s a movie which is funny when it needs to be and nail-bitingly dramatic when it’s called for. The scene where Penny and the mice find the missing diamond and only have moments to extract it before the tide comes in is just remarkably tense, a downright perfect little scene.

I think that The Rescuers came at an interesting time in animation. I don’t believe this film was shown on HBO, but I still group it, emotionally, with some other favorites that were shown on that channel in 1979-81 or so, movies like The Mouse and His Child (which I’d love to see again), The Water Babies, Dot and the Kangaroo, that Raggedy Ann movie with the blue camel, and, of course, Watership Down. I wasn’t aware of them at the time, but Galaxy Express 999 and the Lupin III film everybody knows, Castle of Cagliostro, which are both excellent, also came out during that period. It was a good time for good cartoons, I think. Maybe we’ll watch some for the blog down the line, and see whether any of them get rated as high as eleven.

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Latitude Zero (1969)

I figured that I’d subjected my wife to quite enough of Eiji Tsubaraya’s low-budget television special effects on Ultraman and should show off what the genius would do given more money for the big screen, and the collaboration of a brilliantly talented director like Ishiro Honda. One of the best options to accomplish this, and thrill our favorite five year-old critic, is 1969’s Latitude Zero. It is a weird and strange movie.

Toho had been finding it easier in the 1960s to find good distribution deals in the United States by hiring American actors like Nick Adams and Russ Tamblyn, but this is a rare sixties example of the studio creating a film with a cast who spoke entirely in English. The acting, overall, isn’t too much better than what you’d get from one of their dubbed offerings, as several of the Japanese actors are speaking English phonetically and one of the American actors, Linda Haynes, was new to the business and was clearly hired because she’s cute in go-go boots. But it’s also got Joseph Cotten in the unlikely role of a 204 year-old action hero, Richard Jaeckel as a fists-first photojournalist, and Cesar Romero as the villain.

Latitude Zero is based on an obscure radio serial that had been popular in 1941. It seems like it must have been pretty close to second-hand Jules Verne at the time – a scientist “drops out” of warlike society in a submarine and starts an underwater utopia based on scientific discovery – but it was updated by Toho to give it a Cold War edge and a platform for Tsubaraya’s special effects. Honda and Tsubaraya had actually made an unrelated “flying submarine” movie called Atragon six years previously, and I recall that it’s a better movie than this and one that I should buy again, but Atragon didn’t have hordes of bat-men, giant rats, and a gigantic winged lion.

The movie is certainly flawed, but it’s a triumph of design and it never stops getting weirder and weirder, with one strange surprise after another. I don’t think that it was a good idea to introduce us to the conflict between the scientists by means of a lengthy cat-and-mouse submarine chase before telling us who these people are. This did keep our son excited, but the comedown is too lengthy. Explanations at the undersea utopia of Latitude Zero go on forever, and a romance between Linda Haynes’ character and a scientist played by Masumi Okada (the dad from The Space Giants) comes from nowhere.

There’s a much more interesting romance between Cesar Romero’s villainous Malic and his femme fatale, played by Patricia Medina, but it all goes south because the black-clad woman who captains Malic’s submarine also has a thing for him. The femme fatale wants her out of the way, so Malic uses her as the subject of his latest grisly experiment.

I hadn’t actually watched this film in about twenty years. I forgot that the operating room sequence, apart from Tsubaraya making a liar out of my claims to his greatness with an absolutely pathetic pantomime lion costume (Monty Python fought a more realistic one in the “Scott of the Antarctic” sketch), might just be too scary for our son. The camera never actually shows the brain transplants, but we certainly hear the sound of the saw. Can’t blame the kid for hiding during that bit.

Aside from that deeply awful costume, this is a film that just looks great, with miniature work far better than what the team had done on a TV budget for Ultraman, and some terrific explosions. It honestly never quite rises above the silliness of its concept and execution, and seeing the 64 year-old Cotten charging into battle in a gold fetish suit is a special kind of ridiculous. But it’s fun and unpredictable and the silliness is rarely stupid. Our son loved the fight scenes and the winged lion – it’s markedly more successful when the camera pretends that it’s a giant monster than a real lion – though I’m pretty sure he docked it a few points for being talky and scary. But he also says that he’s glad that he watched it.

I’m not immediately planning to watch any other Toho movies for the blog, but you never know. My interest in Godzilla is as low as it can possibly be these days, although I do fondly remember Atragon and The Mysterians, and I think that The War in Space might be fun to find as we look at Star Wars cash-ins later this year. Honestly, it may be that any film with a musical score by Akira Ifukube is worth watching at least once, but Toho’s not a priority this year.

(Extra special thanks to Dave from Let’s Anime for sharing his copy of this for us to watch. Okay, technically I did break the rule about using a legitimately-purchased DVD for this blog, but I did buy a copy about a decade ago. It went walkabout along with my Terror of Mechagodzilla [another Ishiro Honda film] in 2011, but I did spend money on it!)

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