The War in Space (1977)

Every once in a while, the stars line up just right. It’s not like I despaired or anything, but I didn’t think that I’d get to feature the remarkably dumb Toho sci-fi borefest The War in Space for our blog. It was out of print when we did our season of Star Wars Cash-Ins almost – gosh – five years ago, but the indispensable DVD Beaver noted that a German outfit called White Pearl actually released it in late 2019. Well, I just couldn’t resist this. I’d be doing you good readers a terrible disservice not telling you about it.

See, among all those cash-ins in the late seventies and early 1980s, The War in Space holds a special distinction. It may not be the worst of them, but it was the very first. All the Starcrashs and Shapes of Things to Come are following in this stinker’s footprints.

The story is a much better one than the movie itself. The special effects technician grapevine had been buzzing all through 1976 that some guy named Lucas and a startup concern that would become Industrial Light and Magic were going to revolutionize the way these space movies were made. So when Star Wars premiered in California the following May, Toho Studios made sure that some of their people were in one of the first audiences. 20th Century Fox hadn’t arranged international distribution yet – they were even hesitant about a coast to coast rollout in those strange days of yesteryear when global blockbusters didn’t exist yet – and so the fellows who flew to America to see it were able to make some suggestions and swipe some ideas for a feature that was in pre-production, and actually beat Star Wars to Japanese movie theaters.

Jun Fukuda had been a go-to director for Toho’s sci-fi movies for a while. He’d been in charge of the Godzilla films for several years, navigating the movies through progressively smaller budgets. So with a story about a flying battleship saving Earth from enemy invasion already in the early stages, they added some things that look like X-Wings and TIEs having dogfights, and a Death Star trench, and light saber knives, and Chewbacca with a big hatchet – yep, it’s Karvanista from “Flux” – and a Vader Villain. Their world is far from here. They can go all over the immensity of the galactic system, but they use Venus as their base of operations and blow up American cities in repurposed footage from Toho’s 1959 movie Battle in Outer Space.

But the big problem with The War in Space is there’s not nearly enough pilfering going on. This is a long, long 88 minutes of nothing happening until miniature spaceships start shooting at each other. We meet some characters on Earth in the far-flung future of 1988, and it’s people in suits and ties having shootouts with imposters wearing rubber masks. Shōji Nakayama, who had played the commander character in Ultraseven, is here, briefly, as the UN debates what to do next, and whether to launch the Gohten. This is sort of the same ship previously featured in 1963’s Atragon, which is a much, much better movie.

What’s weird is that this film is full of characters and they get little hints of backstory here and there, and they get killed off left and right without comment. Even if we were watching this subtitled, it would be impossible to sympathize with the characters because the movie keeps the audience at a huge distance. Sadly, the only English language option is dubbed, and it’s a notoriously hilarious dub, from that school of “say anything – anything at all – as long as the original actor’s mouth is moving” that very low-rent localization companies used to employ. A couple of weeks ago, bizarrely, I was watching a naughty Jess Franco film, naughty even by Franco standards, made the same year as this, with exactly the same style of dubbing. Never wanted words on the bottom of the screen so badly in my life.

The target audience in our home was less than impressed, although he did enjoy the climax, in which Earth’s flying battleship and the enemy’s big “galleon” start blasting each other with increasingly unlikely hidden weapons. But as I say, the problem is that there is far too little of the Star Wars stuff and far too much of men parachuting onto island bases in the Pacific. The movie has a big axe-wielding Chewbacca dog with horns and absolutely no idea what to do with him. Maybe they should’ve stayed in California another week and watched Star Wars six or seven more times before making this dull, silly thing.

Rodan (1956)

For all the amazing movies and TV shows that have been reissued and spruced up, we are unfortunately between editions of Rodan, the first Japanese monster movie to be made in color. The DVD is out of print and going for silly money right now; a new Blu-ray is inevitable, some might say, but none of the usual suspects have announced one. Mothra seems to be getting all the non-Godzilla love right now.

I enjoyed prepping our son a little last night before this morning’s presentation. The big thing to remember when watching this movie is that it was not intended as part of Godzilla’s universe. It’s a stand-alone piece, and you might argue that Rodan’s been diminished as only a sidekick since he resurfaced in Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster eight years later. But the other fun thing about Rodan is that Toho’s giant monster formula was nowhere near set in stone yet. It’s not a unique experience – it owes quite a lot to standard American disaster movies, quite obviously War of the Worlds – but it doesn’t have that “yeah, yeah, get on with it” feel that a mid-period Godzilla has.

What it does have from just about the outset is one of our heroes, Kenji Sahara. He’s in so many of the Toho monster films – I count 19 of them through 1975 – because director Ishiro Honda loved working with him so much. Add in his frequent appearances in the Ultra-series, and is it any wonder that anybody who loves Japanese films from the period thinks the world of the guy? Even if he does look like a baby in 1956.

Anyway, Rodan begins with what turns out to be a delightful, disgusting swerve. The film is set in a village around a big mining operation on Kyushu, and it looks like it’s building up to a reveal that a giant monster is behind a cave-in. We paused early on to point out the very interesting difference between this film and the Ultra-series, which is clearly intended for children. That show may occasionally swerve into more adult territory, which is why I chose to publish a post about it earlier today, but at its core it is a kid show. But Rodan spends some fascinating time with the fallout of the cave-in. Two miners go missing; they’d been brawling earlier before the shift began. The body of one is recovered. He was murdered; the suspect cannot be found. The film lingers on his widow’s grief and fury, and the way the community shuns the sister of the suspected killer, in a way that children’s series just don’t do.

We’re expecting a giant monster to show up and clarify things, but what we get, while huge, is much smaller. The killer is a huge insect about twelve feet long, with ugly pincers and a bulletproof carapace. It’s horrifying in an effective and wild way, because giant monsters are something we can enjoy watching onscreen, but they’re honestly a little hard to conceptualize as a genuine threat. They would come, destroy, and instantly move on like tornadoes. This huge bug feels more solid and repulsive. Okay, so it looks like an Eiji Tsubaraya suit monster, but it’s remarkably easy to believe in if you let it.

Rodan shows up not long after, completely divorced – at first – from the business on Kyushu. We understand later where it’s tied in. Rodan hatched in the same hidden underground chamber where the huge insects had lived. It eats them all and then flies out looking for other food.

Oh, did I say “it”? There’s more than one. The kid popped his lid, I mean just jumped off the sofa. “There are TWO?! Since when are there two?!” There were always two; the Godzilla series retconned it.

What follows is a – mostly – completely splendid mix of great special effects with casts of hundreds of extras. You can see the money that Toho put on screens for this that they most emphatically did not a dozen years later. The miniature work is completely delightful, because they actually replicated the same cities and bridges where the live action crew filmed. It comes to something of an anticlimax, unfortunately, as military vs. monsters stories often do. These Rodans are far less hardy than Godzilla’s sidekick; they are eventually killed by a combination of volcanic gasses and lava. But getting to that point, we have to suffer through about four minutes of the military firing rockets into the ground. The movie’s very short, only about 80 minutes, but it starts feeling incredibly long when we’ve got nothing but grass and rocks exploding.

The kid was absolutely pleased. Sure, he enjoys the mayhem and far larger scale of the later Godzilla epics more, but this is still a rousing crowd-pleaser. I certainly hope we’ll see an upgraded edition very soon. I also want a Criterion Atragon while we’re at it. I don’t care how many amazing movies and TV shows have been reissued and spruced up; I’m still greedy.

Ghostbusters (1984)

It’s almost trendy to write little revisionist think pieces about Ghostbusters, wondering how in the world Sigourney Weaver’s character affords that penthouse, or noting that it’s so sadly wrapped up in the viewpoint of Reagan-era anti-government feeling that the EPA dude is depicted as the villain, when honestly, our private-enterprise heroes really should have been storing their specters with a little regulation. Our heroes are probably correct, however, in noting that this man has no dick.

So let me say this instead: I don’t know that our son has ever enjoyed a film more. He told us that it’s one of his top three movies of all time, although he demurred when pressed what the other two might be. Perhaps sadly, I couldn’t slide the experience in under his pop culture radar before the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man was known to him. Longtime readers know that getting the movie in before he learns all its secrets is one of those silly things I love to do, but Mr. Stay-Puft remains culturally omnipresent almost forty years later. In the scene in Dana’s apartment where the eggs start frying on her counter, our son spotted the bag of marshmallows. “Stay-Puft!” he said with glee. “Chekhov’s Gun,” I replied.

I think this might have been the first time our son’s seen Bill Murray in a film. Definitely Harold Ramis as well, although I’ve seen few of his movies myself. He has seen Dan Aykroyd in It Came From Hollywood. Think I’ll give him a Saturday Night Live primer over lunch.

You often hear people get nostalgic for the eighties. I don’t buy it if you’re talking about music in this country, in part because in any given week in that decade, 39 songs of the American Top 40 should have been buried at sea, and in part because I don’t know where it came from, but freaking “Almost Paradise” from Footloose has been stuck in my head for a week and I’m about to start longing for the sweet embrace of death to dislodge the damn thing.

But quite a few of the popular movies of the eighties have absolutely stood the test of time. There’s an obvious reason why the biggest crowd-pleasers of the day still have such incredibly loyal fandoms: Raiders of the Lost Ark, Back to the Future, The Goonies, even many of the ones that found their afterlife in home video and HBO like Big Trouble in Little China remain just remarkably entertaining. You look at the five stinkfests nominated for Best Picture the year that Ghostbusters was released and it’s like a murderer’s row of the most boring movies ever. Maybe they should wait a couple of decades before deciding what a year’s best picture really was. I just scrolled down Wikipedia’s list of films released in 1984. Full of stinkers and things I don’t remember, but also nine or ten real winners. And none of them were better than Ghostbusters.

Because I’m too lazy to fight with my external drive, the image comes from Geek Soup, whose even lazier article contains at least three errors. James? 1960s? “I need a different kind of drug”? Don’t believe anything you read on the internet, kids!

100 Monsters (1968)

Shortly after Arrow announced their wonderful repackaging of the Daimajin films, they announced what sounded like a neat companion set called Yokai Monsters. I was unfamiliar with them, so I dusted off my copy of Stuart Galbraith IV’s 1994 book Japanese Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror Films and found very little information there. Only the first of the three films made in the sixties has an entry, and the author admitted his unfamiliarity with the movies.

Happily, Galbraith has learned a heck of a lot more about the series since 1994. He has a really good essay detailing their production in Arrow’s set, which also includes a 2005 film by Takashi Miike called The Great Yokai War that revisits these beasts and specters. There’s also an essay about the artist Shigeru Mizuki, whose wildly popular comic GeGeGe no Kitarō, and its long-running television adaptation (547 episodes!!), is credited with kickstarting the 1960s reinterest in the ghosts and goblins of Japanese folklore and keeping it going into the present day. It’s a terrific set, and about the only thing I’m not happy with is that Arrow’s packaging doesn’t precisely match its excellent Daimajin set and is instead a standard hard box for the Blu-ray cases. I’m also a little annoyed that my Leawo player crashes when I try to play the darn thing to get some screencaps. Such is life.

I thought 100 Monsters was completely delightful, but our son was only sporadically interested. It’s a short film at 78 minutes, but it’s also a very down-to-earth story about two scheming rich jerks in Japan’s Edo period (between 1603 and 1867) who plan to tear down a disused shrine to forgotten gods and a low-income apartment house, and the locals who have rallied against them. One of these is a masterless samurai who infiltrates the rich jerks’ celebratory party. There, a storyteller shares a cautionary fable about ignoring curses, but the rich jerks ignore his instructions to observe a specific ritual at the end of the tales, and soon, very strange creatures are making themselves known.

So the yokai are really only passively involved with this story, and it possibly could have played out without them. But it’s still a tremendously fun film, and the last twenty minutes are very entertaining. The jump-scares when things become supernatural are all extremely clever, and most of the simple special effects remain pretty impressive. I really liked the dual ending: understanding that the rich jerks have got what’s coming to them and the small town can put this behind them is one thing, but that ceremony was still never concluded, and the last we see of the yokai, after they opened the village’s gates and paraded out by the dozens, is them fading away in the morning light. They’re out there now, and I suppose later generations will have to get used to them…

Image credit: Forgotten Filmcast.

The Watcher in the Woods (1980)

Earlier today, I wrote about how I’ve been upgrading my DVDs to Blu-rays, where I can, what with studios being pretty selfish in some cases. About a week ago, I learned that several Disney live-action films that I enjoy and own can only be purchased through the Mouse’s old-fashioned subscription service, like the old Columbia House Record Club. Among these treats: The Watcher in the Woods. Well, you can pay through the nose for them one at a time on eBay, or you can count that there’s six you want, and five you’re obliged to buy, and sign up. Unfortunately, Watcher has yet to arrive, and I wasn’t going to delay watching this on Halloween weekend, so the DVD’ll do.

Hmmm. Hope the Blu-ray’s got these two alternate endings on it. Wonder what that’s about? (*reads) Oh! Wow!

Anyway, I remember a little stir when Watcher was released, and the media started asking whether it was too scary for children, and why Disney had suddenly started making horror films. I didn’t remember the fuss about it being yanked from theaters for more than a year, with Vincent McEveety called in to give John Hough’s film a new finale. Maybe that’s why David McCallum unceremoniously vanishes from the movie halfway through.

Anyway, Watcher was based on a novel, and the great Brian Clemens was called in to adapt it. Feels a lot like what he did was basically pen an episode of Thriller, right down to the token American girls in jeopardy. As we frequently saw in that anthology series, a British man is married to an American woman, played here by Carroll Baker, who was actually the American lead in a 1976 Thriller. They have two girls, and they get involved in a freaky series of supernatural events that has something to do with the mysterious disappearance of Bette Davis’s character’s daughter thirty years ago. Clemens’ script was rewritten by three others, including Gerry Day and Rosemary Anne Sisson, and apparently they still cocked up the ending and it had to be reshot months and months later.

Despite the remarkably troubled production, the finished product is still a really solid ghost story for the Goosebumps-age crowd, helped by some fabulous photography and some great camera tricks. We all enjoyed the way that something unseen is constantly following characters from the woods, and how the massive winds that whip up around them feel so much like part of the forest. There are weak links, certainly. The three witnesses to the original incident are incredibly unbelievable when they insist on refusing to talk about it, and Lynn-Holly Johnson, who plays the older daughter, is Michael Caine-in-The Swarm-level intense. But it simply looks so impressive and so real that these are just quibbles. It’s a very nice looking scary movie for younger viewers.

Our son enjoyed it, but it didn’t leave him half as rattled as Sleepy Hollow did last week. Hmmmm. Maybe we should have gone with Watcher a year ago. The media forty years ago was wrong, unsurprisingly. This isn’t too scary for children at all.

Corpse Bride (2005)

About a year ago, when I wrote about Edward Scissorhands, I said that director Tim Burton had made only four films that I enjoy, and that my favorite of them is Ed Wood. However, when I wrote that, I hadn’t seen Corpse Bride in so long that I’d forgotten that it isn’t just an enjoyable film, it’s completely wonderful. I saw it early in 2006, and a recent bad memory was wrapped too tightly around it for me to separate the art from my dumb life decisions. I even bought a doll of the beautiful Emily, but I’ve spent the last fifteen-plus years just remembering the movie from a safe distance. Yes, it’s a good film, but, you know, dumb decisions.

It takes a long time for me to exorcise ghosts, because I allow the damn things to get in everywhere.

So a few months ago, I decided it was time to upgrade as much of my film collection to Blu-ray as the studios will allow me, and purge a lot of movies I bought, watched once, and forgot about. I was happy to upgrade The Nightmare Before Christmas – not, we must remember, actually directed by Burton – and asked myself whether it wasn’t high time I brought Emily and Victor, and Victoria, I suppose, back into my life. And wasn’t it true that Halloween was coming up? And that I have a ten year-old boy who was certain to enjoy the macabre mayhem of this goofy and delightful movie?

Indeed, the ten year-old enjoyed this a hundred times more than he did Sleepy Hollow, with the caveat that he tuned out during the songs, which rank among the best that Danny Elfman has composed. That may be one reason why I’m even more in love with this movie than I originally was: as quick as I am to grumble about him, when Elfman is on fire and letting his freak flag fly, he writes wonders. The kid giggled and chuckled throughout, and occasionally shrieked with laughter. The loudest point might have come when one of Victoria’s distant ancestors shows up in front of his family portrait.

Our son also enjoyed chewing over the visual difference between the “all black and white and grey and pale blue” Land of the Living and the colorful Land of the Dead. There’s so much fun world building here between the two lands, along with the sad realization that Emily only has as much skin as she does because she’s only been in the Land of the Dead for a few short years. However, I have to say, as much as our son impresses us with figuring out where a story’s going to go next, he totally missed that Emily had been murdered by a mysterious figure played by Richard E. Grant, which I thought was about the most obvious possible plot development. But it does mean that Victor gets to duel with Grant’s villain while armed only with a fork, which probably got the second biggest laugh. Corpse Bride is a masterpiece, silly, tight, lovable, romantic and gruesome, and yes, it’s even better than Ed Wood.

One final observation: there’s an incredibly neat, albeit slightly frustrating bonus feature on the Blu-ray I got. It’s called The Voices Behind the Voice, and it features tiny little black-and-white screens – almost like old webcams! – of many of the cast reading their parts in sync with the animation, so we can see Johnny Depp, Emily Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough and more doing their work, and it’s just delightful. As much as I like the visuals, I’d have happily sat down for seventy-seven minutes just watching the actors behind their microphones. There’s far too little of it, and the postage stamp screens aren’t big enough, but the little window is nevertheless completely charming. Pick up a copy and make sure it’s got this feature on it!

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I had decided long ago that the last Halloween before we wrap up here, I was going to introduce the kid to a couple of scary movies. I think Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is easily one of his best films and was glad to revisit it. It was, however, considerably bloodier than I remembered it. It even ends with Christopher Walken getting to do a reverse-Ronald Lacey from Raiders of the Lost Ark and have all the decayed muscle and eyeballs and blood restored to him. I don’t know why I didn’t remember how much blood was in this, but our wide-eyed ten year-old probably isn’t going to forget it any time soon. He’s walking around very slowly this evening, and is in no hurry to try to go to sleep.

This wasn’t our son’s first proper horror movie. That would be The House on Haunted Hill, which unnerved him so much he left the theater. He confessed that he was ready for this nightmare to end after “about an hour.” We asked why he didn’t get up and leave, and he protested “I couldn’t!”

I think Burton really pulled off a terrific and incredibly fun scary adventure movie. It’s got an amazing cast, led by Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci and including such heavyweights as Michael Gambon, Richard E. Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Michael Gough, and, in too small of parts, Christopher Lee and Martin Landau. About the only flaw I have with this movie is that Lee and Jeffrey Jones didn’t switch roles. Well, and the music, about which I have complained enough in previous posts. It might be Depp’s finest performance.

The poor kid’s moving like he has weights on his feet and does not want to go to sleep. He yammered some excuse about poor behavior on Friday means that the fifth grade will suffer silent lunch tomorrow, and that’s why he doesn’t want to go to bed. I told him that next Saturday night’s movie will also be scary, but it won’t have any blood. Seems like cold comfort right now. Pleasant dreams.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935) at the Silver Scream Spook Show

Back in March of last year – remember that far back? – we were all set to go to Atlanta to eat Indonesian food with friends at a no-frills place I know and love, and then go see the classic Bride of Frankenstein at the Plaza Theatre. And the reason I asked whether you remember that far back is that the week was really, really awful and scary and nobody knew how bad COVID-19 was going to be, and most of us – myself included – rolled our eyes, said we wash our hands all the time and keep our distance from people anyway, and wondered what the big deal was, and within about two days all the businesses were closed and everything was cancelled and then things got truly bad and we learned how wrong we were.

I’m saving that Indonesian place for another time, for when those friends feel comfortable eating indoors again, however long that may be. But the Silver Scream Spook Show has finally returned from the grave, a full two years since their last outing. Vaccination cards in hand and masks on, we met up with our good pal Matt, and reentered the Plaza after far too long. Instead of Indonesian food, our Tennessee bellies were full of Rodney Scott’s barbecue, ready for foolishness and shenanigans and a very good movie.

I confess that I was a little leery about showing our son Bride of Frankenstein, because we did watch one other classic Universal effort, Creature From the Black Lagoon, and he wasn’t even remotely impressed by it. Happily, he really enjoyed Bride. It reteamed director James Whale with Boris Karloff and Colin Clive for 90 minutes of violence and sadness and a comedy character who’s so over the top that for a second there, I forgot which movie I was watching and wanted Cloris Leachman to take it down a notch. It’s a very, very fun and intelligent film, and while a part of me kind of wishes that Elsa Lanchester, playing the Bride, had… er, a little more of anything to do, the more sensible part of me agrees that the character’s brief reawakening is just one more layer of tragedy in a film stacked with them.

The best part of the whole thing is that it wasn’t just our son who enjoyed this a lot. The theater had quite a few young kids in the crowd to enjoy this movie, which is amazing because it’s almost ninety years old. They were all incredibly well-behaved, and the noisiest and smallest of them was quickly removed when the movie and the sitting still got too long. I’d love the Spook Show if Professor Morte and his gang were doing it all just for the three of us. To see so many young film fans get to enjoy a really, really old black and white movie on the big screen would make anybody’s heart grow three sizes.

Image credit: Bloody Disgusting

The Fabulous Baron Munchausen (1962)

To cut a long story short, several months ago, something reawakened my long, long-dormant interest in cinema. Among many detours I’ve taken recently into everything from sleaze to horror to softcore to noir to indie to award-winning, I pulled up Wikipedia’s page that lists the Criteron Collection’s releases, started at the top, and read about many movies I’d never noticed before. Spine numbers 1015-1017 caught my eyes, and this morning, spine number 1017 made them pop out of my skull.

Criterion’s set for those numbers is called Three Fantastic Journeys by Karel Zeman and it’s a collection of Journey to the Beginning of Time, Invention of Destruction, and the blissfully weird and wonderful Fabulous Baron Munchausen. I picked this one for no other reason that it’s in color and thought it might be a little safer to avoid very old stop-motion brontosaurs and keep an increasingly skeptical ten year-old kid from scoffing. Now, though, I’m sure any of the three would have been fine. Zeman is quoted in the box art as saying “I have only one wish: to delight the eyes and heart of every child.” The child in our house was completely delighted by this silly old movie. He laughed out loud throughout it and said “That was FUN!” when it finished.

It’s true that the kid was more pleased by the movie than the grownups, but that doesn’t mean we were disappointed. This is a weird, weird movie, and made with a sense of anything-goes whimsy. It’s like watching a dream unfold, with camera tricks and such a curious mix of live action, animation, and miniature work. I’m so glad that we’ve introduced our kid to old movies and old special effect tech before that preteen seriousness and skepticism kicks in, because it’s the sort of mix of playful images that I can easily, easily imagine some too-cool-for-school classmate of his responding with an eyerolled “That’s not REAL!” It’s not, not even remotely, but it’s strange and beautiful and so pleasant to see that even though the story is so slight that the Baron’s tall tales seem perfectly natural within it, it didn’t matter. It’s not about the narrative, it’s about the experience.

I don’t want to oversell this in a world where special effects have made everything possible, but this mix of visuals just kept surprising me at every turn, especially when a shot looks like the actors are in front of an animated background, and then when they move, we see that some of it is actually the foreground. Imagine the Yellow Submarine film, with all of its tricks, only with the actual Beatles in it. That could be a little bit like this.

The plot doesn’t really matter much, but in something that might be the modern day, an astronaut visits the moon and finds Munchausen living there with four famous friends from literature. Munchausen insists that this astronaut must be a moon-man and returns him to Earth on a ship carried by winged horses, only Earth’s not yet in the modern day. It’s the time of gunpowder cannons, Turkish tobacco, ship-eating leviathans, and giant birds. Munchausen and the moon-man both fall for the charms of a captive princess and enjoy a friendly rivalry to win her favor. It’s an unpredictable movie with sight gags and slapstick and harmless villains. Most of it is told visually. There’s not quite as much dialogue as there is narration, but much of it, like a silent film, just unfolds to music.

I’m glad that I chose Criterion’s box, because it comes with two other movies that I’m sure we will enjoy when we get some time next year. However, I have to note that the box is one of Criterion’s sillier presentations. It’s in a thin and probably fragile cardboard contraption that unfolds to reveal pop-up artwork. It really captures the spirit of Karel Zeman’s visuals, but I’d honestly prefer a more minimally-designed plastic clamshell to better protect the three Blu-rays. If you’re interested in just this movie, don’t need quite all of Criterion’s bells and whistles, and would like a simpler and much less expensive package, then Second Run has released Munchausen alone on region-free DVD and Blu-ray, and you can order it from them here. I won’t claim that I loved this film, but I liked it enough to want to give it a big hug when it finished for being so odd, and Second Run’s release would stand up to that kind of treatment.

Master of the World (1961)

A few years ago, I was thinking about what we might watch for the blog and put 1961’s Master of the World on the maybe list. I’d never seen it, but it sounded interesting, and of course we’ve told our son how important Jules Verne was to the development of science fiction. Plus, all boys should watch as many old Vincent Price films as they can find. But lots of movies were on the maybe list. It took a chance visit to a museum to prompt me to buy a copy.

Last month, we drove down to Cartersville GA to visit Tellus Science Museum, where we like to pay our respects to a dimetrodon along with many other beautiful creatures who came a little later on, several rooms full of gems, and a history of transportation that includes a few examples of very early automobiles, like the quadrovelocipede that Nicodemus Legend – I mean Ernest Pratt – used to drive. They only have a small room for temporary exhibits, but currently they have a small collection of film and TV science fiction props and memorabilia. There, our son saw a small model of the Albatross from Master of the World, and said it was the coolest thing he’d ever seen. I’d noticed that Kino Lorber had a new special edition on their coming soon list, and decided that enthusiasm should not go unrewarded.

Kino’s new Blu-ray comes with a very nice restoration, two commentary tracks, a tribute to screenwriter Richard Matheson, and several trailers for Vincent Price movies. We watched a few of those before we got started, and it struck me just how much nicer it would have been to see these trailers projected instead of all the unpromising movies that they were promoting the last time we went to the theater.

Master of the World begins with a short look at some of the failed experiments in flight from the late 19th century, the same sort of goofy crashes of impractical “airplanes” that we saw at the beginning of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. Our son enjoyed the heck out of that. It put him in the right mood, and after a few minutes of well-dressed fops yelling at each other formally with language like “I tell you, sir, that it is balderdash!” things get started with some missiles knocking a hot air balloon out of the sky.

Our son asked “Did they really crash a hot air balloon for this?” I said that no, this was an American International Picture. They couldn’t have afforded any such thing. In point of fact, they couldn’t afford newly-shot footage of the British navy or a big land battle in Egypt either, so the Albatross ends up interacting with material from more expensive movies. Other than Vincent Price and the Albatross, this cost-cutting is the most interesting thing about this movie. Not even the great Vito Scotti, here playing a comedy cook, prompted me to smile, though the kid guffawed over his situation a few times.

The kid was very happy with it, and correctly noted “That reminded me a bit of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” This villain, Robur, is nothing more than a Nemo of the sky, and while Vincent Price is a million times more interesting than most of the actors who played Nemo, Richard Matheson didn’t write the character as any different than the one James Mason had played for Disney seven years previously. The most interesting thing about the experience was that our son had assumed from the model at Tellus that the Albatross was going to be the heroes’ ship, but no, like the Nautilus, it’s commanded by a villain and crewed by loyalists who have turned their backs on the rules of human nationalities.

I’ll be honest: I fell asleep, and must have missed ten minutes. I woke when Robur’s captives were making their escape on a beach, wondered whether it was the same beach used in Planet of the Apes, and waited for the inevitable conclusion. I wasn’t impressed, but the ten year-old was really entertained. Everything from the comedy to the tech to the special effects had him really pleased, and while this purchase will go to his shelf and not mine, I’m very glad I got it for him. This keeps up, he’ll want to see Price teamed with Boris Karloff and Peter Lorre in one of those films we saw in the trailer collection next, and that’d certainly be a good thing.

The War of the Worlds (1953)

Picking movies to watch with our son usually comes down to weighing two big factors: do I want to sit through it again, and will the kid enjoy being introduced to a “classic” – however you want to define that – from long ago. This shouldn’t be homework. To be honest, I wasn’t sure about The War of the Worlds. I hadn’t seen this since I was a kid myself, and I’ve picked up the memory of it being quite dated. But really, that’s a problem with the original story. The 1953 production, directed by Byron Haskin, is mostly a lot better than its source, and some of it is just fascinating to watch. Criterion released a new edition with a brilliant restoration and piles of bonuses last year, so I decided to give it a try. We enjoyed it very much. It was not homework.

I’ve never liked the original novel, and since any adaptation of it is probably going to stick to its – let’s be blunt – utter cop-out of an ending, I’m going to be checking my watch waiting for the Martians to die without any help from the protagonists. That means what an adaptation needs to give us is a story worth watching while all the death rays and war machines do their trick. For a while, it’s the usual disaster movie / monster movie stuff, with Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, and Les Tremayne, plus a small on-camera role for the great Paul Frees, going through the motions against a backdrop of tremendously good special effects. It’s a lean 85 minutes long, and I liked how it doesn’t waste any time getting started. The prologue’s awfully dopey, but once we get to Earth, war machines are landing.

But there were lots of “usual” disaster movies and monster movies in the fifties, some good, and some bad. The War of the Worlds is a standout because after that first big battle against the Martians, this movie kicks it up a notch and goes for real bleakness. It’s a movie that does a whole lot with sound, both in the screaming, shrieking noises of the Martian guns (later pilfered by everybody, including Benita Bizarre’s zapper in The Bugaloos) and in silence so thick it’s uncomfortable.

The scene in the abandoned farmhouse is rightly remembered and praised for being one of the scariest things in any monster movie, but in my book, it’s the evacuation of Los Angeles that really makes this film a genuine classic. I’ve seen a lot of extras running away from giant monsters in my time, and a lot of empty streets, but The War of the Worlds is just eye-poppingly excellent. It shifts from backlots to the real streets of LA effortlessly. Well, that’s probably not the right word, because prepping the streets with all that trash in the dead of night just to get first-light Sunday morning shots like the one above was certainly not effortless. But the conviction in making audiences believe this city has fallen apart except for the looters and the ones too poor or injured to get out, is solid.

And Gene Barry, who spent the next few decades of his long career looking for a role half as memorable as this, is just remarkably good throughout. When night falls and he moves from church to church desperately searching for Ann Robinson, he really looks like a man who just wants to die holding somebody’s hand. And if the film started a little unconvincingly, with a big echoey studio pretending to be a country hillside, it ends looking like a trillion bucks, black, red, and orange, a city on fire with hours to live. It’s a movie which badly deserved a better ending than “Oh, the invaders didn’t wear spacesuits.”

For what it’s worth, our son didn’t roll his eyes at the climax like I did. It’s one that culture spoiled for him quite some time ago, somewhere, so I couldn’t keep this one a secret like some of my other triumphs in the field, and said “I think it’s a good ending. It makes sense that our bacteria would kill them!” He enjoyed all the mayhem and explosions and can’t pick out a favorite moment or scene. He did say that his favorite character was the little orange tabby who briefly surveys the destruction of LA. Film buffs have not positively identified this cat but speculate that it’s probably Orangey, a cat who did a lot of work for Paramount and also appeared in two other well-remembered fifties sci-fi epics: This Island Earth and The Incredible Shrinking Man, which Criterion is releasing in a spiffy new edition next month.