Tag Archives: fantastic cinema

The House That Dripped Blood (1971)

I read about this film and decided that I’d give it a spin by myself before showing the last segment to our son. I understood that the movie, written by Robert Bloch, was comprised of four segments: three traditional horror episodes before ending with one a little more lighthearted. This is true, and I enjoyed the heck out of it, but those first three are way too frightening for our gentle son. The last one, though, was just right.

The sadly defunct Amicus studio was Hammer’s biggest rival in making horror films between 1965 and 1974. Amicus’s big specialty was the “portmanteau,” an anthology film with four segments and a framing story. In The House That Dripped Blood, a police inspector from Scotland Yard comes to investigate the disappearance of a movie star. A local sergeant and the home’s estate agent tell him three terrifying tales that took place in the same house, setting up stories that star Denholm Elliot and Joanna Dunham, Peter Cushing and Joss Ackland, and Christopher Lee and Nyree Dawn Porter. Amicus could get these big name actors in because each segment took maybe a week or ten days to film. And they’re hugely entertaining, although far too frightening for our kid at this age!

The fourth story is just right, and it has a completely terrific cast full of faces he’s seen recently. The movie star is Jon Pertwee and he buys his cursed cloak from Geoffrey Bayldon! Plus, there’s Ingrid Pitt, who he’s seen in “The Time Monster,” and Roy Evans, from “The Green Death” and “The Monster of Peladon.” The police inspector is John Bennett, from “Invasion of the Dinosaurs.” This segment was made in between Pertwee and Bayldon’s first seasons of Doctor Who and Catweazle, and of course the actors would be reunited about eight years later in Worzel Gummidge, playing the scarecrow and his creator.

…not, of course, that our kid actually recognized anybody other than Pertwee, even with a heads-up at dinner about who to look out for!

The whole movie is really entertaining, and it builds really well, with each episode more fun than the previous one. Pertwee is having a hoot as a temperamental, egotistical movie star who has nothing kind to say about the low-budget movie that’s hired him, with a former – gasp – television director in charge. The sets are too flimsy, the costumes are too new, and horror films are no good anymore anyway. This “new fellow” they’ve got playing Dracula these days isn’t a patch on Bela Lugosi.

The movie star buys his own cloak for thirteen shillings from a strange costumier to bring a little authenticity to this silly movie – it’s called Curse of the Bloodsuckers – and then things start getting a little weird. The story builds to an amusing twist, and the police inspector goes to this blasted cottage to see what he can find there.

That’s where I left it. I did want our son to get a good night’s sleep! But should you, dear reader, investigate this house for yourself, do continue on and see what comes next. Pleasant dreams!

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Pippi on the Run (1970 / 1977)

One day when I was in the fifth or sixth grade, I was at the Lewis A. Ray Public Library using their incredibly neat microfiche machine to see all the books in the Cobb system. Well, all the books that I knew to look for, anyway. I seem to remember that this largely consisted of me verifying that every book I’d already read or owned was in the system for other people to read. So I put the “authors” page where Astrid Lindgren could be found under the glass, and confirmed that they had all three of the Pippi Longstocking books.

They had four. There was a fourth book called Pippi on the Run which not only I’d never heard of, the other three books didn’t list in their “read the other books in this series” page. One of the other branches had it, and they could transfer it to ours. I’m not going to claim this was like Calvin waiting impatiently for six to eight weeks for his propeller beanie, but I was probably very cranky for the four or five days it took for this book to get from Acworth or Marietta or Antarctica or wherever it was to us in Smyrna.

When the book arrived, I’m not sure whether I was disappointed or amazed, but I was certainly surprised. After the success of the 13 episode Pippi Longstocking TV series, the producers went to work on two feature films. The first was an adaptation of Lindgren’s novel Pippi in the South Seas and the second was based on an original story that Lindgren provided them to make fairly inexpensively. The book was a hardcover photo album that told the movie’s story, with dozens of color pictures from the movie. The blog Silver Shoes & Rabbit Holes has a delightful post about the very book I mean, although my memory swears that the cover of the edition I read was a little bit different. You should check that out!

I’m also not sure whether I ever saw this movie before. I know the library showed South Seas and one and maybe both of the compilation films during their summer kiddie festivals, but maybe I saw this one before and maybe I didn’t. Who knows?

Anyway, the plot this time is that Annika and Tommy decide to run away, and their mother, because she isn’t actually a very good parent, asks Pippi to go with them and make sure they don’t get hurt on their escapades. This is Pippi Longstocking we’re talking about. Of course the kids aren’t going to get hurt, but Pippi’s also going to lose track of them while she’s going over waterfalls in a barrel, and they’re going to get their clothes eaten by cows, and Pippi’s going to build a flying car powered by rainwater and super glue that falls apart in the sky.

Pippi on the Run wasn’t released in America until 1977, in another dub job by Fred Ladd’s outfit. Bizarrely, he gets credited as the movie’s director over Olle Hellbom. The movie is certainly pretty, but it’s about as exciting as a trip to a petting zoo. I’m not kidding. This is a film that lingers over lots of footage of woodland creatures and goats, pigs, and chickens on a farm. It’s a movie for kids who are still at the age where the sight of baby horses is a fun little thrill. There’s a great bit where Ladd’s translation misidentifies badgers as ground hogs, and the fact that I’m calling that a “great bit” lets you know how dull this movie is.

Our son wasn’t as taken with this as he might have been a year earlier. Granted, this is a far weaker and simpler movie than South Seas, but outside of a few sight gags built around Pippi doing impossible things, there’s just not a lot of meat to this story, and no real sense of importance to anything that happens. There isn’t a plot; they just wander around having mild adventures until Annika and Tommy give in and want to go home. Our son did have a great laugh when the cows eat their clothes, leaving them stuck in grain sacks until Pippi can raise some money to buy them new things, but overall this is a pretty weak movie on which the franchise would end. I wish they’d have gone out on a higher note than a trip to the petting zoo!

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Return of the Jedi (1983)

There used to be a magazine that I enjoyed called Sci-Fi Universe. In 1997, they published a story called “Fifty Reasons Why We Hate Return of the Jedi.” Most of it was the sort of nitpicking that gives Star Wars such a splendid reputation, but it was all really funny, especially one key problem that I had with it when I was twelve: “It’s just a bunch of Muppets.”

And so, when I was twelve, I didn’t watch this movie. I’ve mentioned how insufferable I was as a twelve year-old before; basically, take my present levels of obnoxiousness and ramp them up to eleven. And twelve year-old me saw publicity photos of Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks and the green pig guards and that piano-playing elephant and said “Nope, not for me.” I didn’t see this film until the early nineties. I didn’t buy a single trading card, and not one action figure. And it wasn’t like I had suddenly turned against kid-friendly sci-fi. I was addicted to DC Comics’ Legion of Superheroes in 1983, and was about eight months from discovering Doctor Who. I just had absolutely zero interest in Star Wars.

Not one frame of this boring movie has shown that I was wrong.

Regurgitating at length what I think is wrong with this movie would just be counter-productive. Overall, it just feels like a contractually-obligated hangover. I enjoy the scene where they go out to the Sarlacc, and nothing else. But this is supposed to be about evaluating or reevaluating movies with a six year-old and seeing what he sees, and he really enjoyed everything he saw.

All that physical comedy that seems like it was made for kids? It was, and it worked for him. He thought Jabba’s posse was full of frightening and menacing aliens, and the Rancor was scariness incarnate. The speeder bike chase amazed him, the space battle had him on the edge of his seat and furiously kicking his legs. I asked him to tell me more about what he thought.

“I really liked the Death Star exploding and the big fight, yeah, I loved those. And I loved that blue elephant thing, because it’s blue, and I like blue, and I like elephants, he was funny. The scariest part was when the Emperor was shooting out like, electric out of his hands. I did not like that at all, it was too creepy. The old characters were my favorites, but I also liked those furry things that were in the big fight, those little ones? I really liked those because I like furry things! The furry things caught everybody in a net, and R2-D2 cut the net and they went falling out of it!”

I would absolutely rather watch Message From Space or Starcrash than this movie. I’d rather watch any of the other Star Wars installments, even the prequels, which also suffer from Ian McDiarmid stinking up the place with his awful line delivery. But that’s great that the kid loved it. I’m glad he got to see it before he got jaded.

Actually, I will tell you what might annoy me most of all. The end of this film was likely to be the last time that the major characters ever appeared. For six years, they were just about as popular and identifiable as any characters in the popular culture of the time, parodied and imitated in equal measure. Star Wars wasn’t just some thing for children or nerds, it was mass culture and deserved its success. You might could argue that the toxic elements of fandom, along with Jar Jar Binks, eventually turned that around. Most people don’t care who or what General Grievous is, but every adult in the western world could identify Darth Vader in 1983.

The characters deserved a sendoff. We should have been able to say goodbye to them and share their final conversation together, their last words.

But we can’t hear a thing they’re saying because George Lucas figured we needed to hear the Ewoks singing their jub-jub song instead. Damn, I hate this movie.

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City Under the Sea (1965)

During his amazing career, Vincent Price probably made nine or ten pictures where he was by some measure the best thing about the whole production. One example: 1965’s City Under the Sea, which was released in America with the confusing title War-Gods of the Deep. This led to a silly moment early on, when a bargain basement Gill Man is chased away from a remote house on a cliffside and our son said “I think that must be a War-God!”

Like nine or ten other pictures in Price’s catalog, this one takes a little inspiration from a poem by Edgar Allen Poe. Our heroes, played by Tab Hunter and the redoubtable David Tomlinson, who is accompanied by a chicken in a picnic basket for comic relief, stumble across a first edition collection of Poe in the strange underwater city, so that Price can recite a passage from the poem over footage of the miniature of the city, next to a volcano as the pressure inevitably builds.

The movie has small parts for familiar faces like Derek Newark, John Le Mesurier, and Tony Selby, who isn’t credited, and the only female character is played by Susan Hart. It has some impressive sets, an underwater chase/fight that goes on forever and features old-fashioned diving suits so angular and clunky that they reminded our son of Minecraft, and, of course, a great big volcanic eruption. I thought the movie was the most boring thing we’ve watched in ages, and the villain’s henchmen were just about the most pathetic and sorry bunch of dopey bad guys in any universe, but it’s worth watching if you’re six, or if you want to marvel at Price’s ability to rise over everything, or if the movie comes on a double-feature DVD with something else and so you have a copy anyway.

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The Last Dinosaur (1977)

“That was partly scary, partly cool, and partly I didn’t know what was going on,” announced our son after we watched the full theatrical version of The Last Dinosaur. Good thing that the Warner Archive people released that edition and not the US TV one, which has fifteen minutes cut out; he’d probably be even more confused by that.

Rankin/Bass had been working with Japanese production companies since the 1960s. While the company will always be best known for its stop-motion holiday specials that were part of every American seventies kid’s childhood, many of these featured animation done by Japanese studios. Rankin/Bass also had worked with Toei on the sixties cartoon The King Kong Show, and with Toho on an incredibly fun movie adaptation of that program, called King Kong Escapes. They also contracted with Mushi for animation for some of their TV specials, so their people knew some people when it was time for some international co-productions.

By 1975, Tsubaraya Productions was looking for new projects to diversify and become more than just the Ultraman studio. With Rankin/Bass, they found B-movie heaven. Thanks in no small part to the incompetent dub jobs by Sandy Frank’s crew, much of Tsubaraya’s seventies sci-fi output is rich in unintentional comedy, but The Last Dinosaur, along with two subsequent fantasy movies, The Bermuda Depths and The Ivory Ape, are a lot more obscure and have a little better reputation. I can’t speak for the other two, but while The Last Dinosaur may not be art, it’s certainly entertaining.

It stars Richard Boone as the world’s richest man, an industrialist and big game hunter, along with Joan Van Ark as a photojournalist, Steven Keats as a handsome scientist, and former Cavaliers backup center Luther Rackley as a Masai tracker who doesn’t have any dialogue. In a premise shamelessly pilfered from Burroughs with a hint of Verne, oil exploration has found a hidden prehistoric valley in the Arctic circle. It’s a much smaller Land That Time Forgot on the other side of the planet, with far fewer monsters.

Naturally, there’s only one tyrannosaur left, meaning they timed this exploration just right, because these things can’t have that long a lifespan. This thing is incredibly violent and lethal. After killing four of the five members of the previous expedition, the dinosaur has one from this party for lunch before taking on a triceratops in a remarkably bloody fight. By the end, the beast has my respect as well as the big game hunter’s. He’s an incredibly ruthless opponent.

Wikipedia claims that the tyrannosaur suit was reused for Tsubaraya’s idiotic cartoon/live-action hybrid TV show Dinosaur War Aizenbourg, but I’m not sure about that. Maybe the body, but they took away the great-looking head from this movie and gave the TV beast a different one. On the other hand, The Last Dinosaur‘s head is shown to be a bit more hollow than something which should have a skull in it when a catapulted boulder betrays its rubber reality.

I’ve never been a fan of Richard Boone – not even in Have Gun, Will Travel, which everybody likes more than I do – but Joan Van Ark is great in this, and I do appreciate the way the actors get incredibly muddy and disheveled in this film. The script has a couple of surprises – it’s not an overnight jaunt, like some in this genre – and an interesting ending. It does go on a bit in between dinosaur attacks, as these sort of films from the era often did, leading to a fake yawn from our favorite six year-old critic, but he came around in the end. I asked him whether he enjoys monster movies because they’re partly scary. “Yeah, and because they have monsters in them.”

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My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

News traveled very, very slowly in the late 1980s. I was talking in a recent post about how I’ve got no time for all that “good old days” nostalgia, but I confess that, of course, I’m fond of thinking about all the hoops we had to jump through to watch television and movies from other countries when I was a teenager. These days, I understand you can subscribe to a streaming service – a legitimate one! – and watch Japanese cartoons, subtitled, the same week everybody else gets to see them. There’s even a company called Discotek that specializes in licensing the most obscure titles imaginable, from stone-cold classics like Endless Orbit SSX to garbage like Chargeman Ken, with English translations by people who actually care about doing them accurately.

But back then, months and months would go by before VHS tapes would start to circulate. People would hear about new films and TV shows, but heaven only knows when anybody would see subtitled copies of them. If I remember correctly, I didn’t see a subtitled edition of this movie, then called Totoro of the Neighborhood, until either the 1989 or 1990 Atlanta Fantasy Fair. (And what I remember is dubbing my own copy of the movie while minding the anime video room, because that’s what we did in those wild west days.) A dubbed edition, made by a company run by the late Carl Macek, didn’t appear until 1993. I have a pan-and-scan DVD of this release which I bought to replace the VHS tape that my older children watched to death. It was redubbed under the Disney umbrella in 2005; I should probably have purchased a proper widescreen version of this dub before now.

(Madly, the release history of Hayao Miyazaki’s first feature film, The Castle of Cagliostro, is more convoluted than that; I have the Manga Video/Anchor Bay DVD and that’s good enough for me.)

So anyway, My Neighbor Totoro is flatly one of my favorite animated movies, despite lacking the sort of plot-driven dynamic that I usually enjoy most. This isn’t an adventure movie; it’s a little character study about two little girls who meet some woodland spirits. The most that happens is that the younger girl gets lost. But it’s just so good. If you enjoy cartoons for perfect comic timing, then this thing is a masterpiece. There’s not a frame introduced too early or held too long in the legendary bus stop sequence. The scene is one perfect shot after another, and I have never watched it without laughing so hard that I cry.

And Mei, the younger girl, is an absolutely perfect creation. Every single thing that Mei does, from opening the same doors that her big sister opens to exploding with tears and stomping away with snot all over her face, just has me in stitches. So when she does get lost, it’s scary. Even having watched this movie two dozen times and knowing perfectly well that she’ll be fine, it’s still scary.

We gave our six year-old son a heads-up that the girls in this movie get scared, but that there is nothing to worry about and everybody in this film will be fine. Either it didn’t sink in or Mei getting lost really is that troubling, because our son was really, really worried for her. But overall he loved the movie, as all children do, and told us that the Catbus was – of course – his favorite character. Everybody loves the Catbus.

Totoro is a magical movie. From the color choices to the music to the nervous body language of the boy next door, it’s a movie with so much more attention to detail than I was expecting in the late 1980s. The 87 minutes you spend in this little rural community feel like weeks, and you won’t mind the time investment even slightly. Whether you’ve got kids or not, this movie is a must.

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Ponyo (2008)

Marie asked whether we were going to show our son Ponyo. I said nah, let’s throw him in the Miyazaki deep end with Princess Mononoke.

I’m kidding, of course. If you want to start listing reasons why Hayao Miyazaki’s films are so beloved in the United States, then you could get a little cynical and grouchy, or you could note that there are Miyazaki movies for every age. He’s directed films for eleven-at-hearts and for older audiences, but he’s also made a few that are absolutely perfect for six year-olds. So here’s the first of a couple that we’re watching this fall. Ponyo was released in Japan in 2008 and came out in the US with a very wide release in multiplexes all across the country the following year. It did pretty respectable business for a cartoon without any merchandising, and while it wasn’t a blockbuster, it attracted crowds beyond anime fans, and I just can’t believe anybody left without a smile of curiosity and amusement. It’s just so darn cute.

Our kid was absolutely hypnotized by it. The movie hits on similar themes of life out of balance that Miyazaki has explored in other films, but the core for children is a simple adventure film centered on a five year-old boy named Sosuke and his very odd new companion, a little girl who was a small fish when he first met her. They have a safe, not-frightening, but visually dazzling experience of looking for his mother after the little girl, given the name Ponyo, throws the world off-kilter by abandoning an underwater life of magic in favor of humanity.

I won’t say there’s a ton here for adults to really embrace beyond the beautiful animation. While the movie never drags and never annoys – given the unspeakable awfulness of modern American cartoons, that alone is a massive recommendation – the lack of any real struggle or danger keeps me from embracing the characters or situation. This is a movie to be shared with children, who will almost certainly be as charmed and captivated as ours was. Put another way, watched without a kid, then Ponyo is a treat for the eyes from a visionary director, but so lacking in meat and fire that it’s mostly forgettable. With a kid, this is exploring a vibrant and exciting little world. If you don’t have children of your own, sit down with somebody else’s and prepare for two incredibly satisfying hours.

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Pippi in the South Seas (1970)

You know how every once in a while, there will be an episode of Spongebob Squarepants that’s part live-action and there’s a comedy pirate called Patchy? If your child thinks that guy is hilarious, then your child is just the right age for Pippi in the South Seas, which is overflowing with pirates in day-glo colors, wearing eyepatches and striped shirts, and who have the swordfighting acumen of children.

Since the Pippi TV series had been a huge success in Sweden, the production team went straight to work on a pair of feature films co-produced with a German movie company. Pippi in the South Seas came first, and it was shot in the Mediterranean, it would appear, with not too many speaking parts, but an army of pirate extras. The plot, such as it is, concerns Pippi, Tommy, and Annika coming to Pippi’s papa’s rescue. He’s been captured by some other pirates and is held in a big sea fort, but thanks to the magic of messages in bottles, he’s able to get word of his plight to Pippi. Can the kids save the day before Papa is forced to reveal the location of his treasure?

For the under-nines in the audience, this is a fun little romp, with some very safe escapades and no genuine sense of danger. There’s some awful music, and pirates getting dumped in the water. The kids run rings around the adults, of course, and it’s a pleasant enough distraction, but it felt pretty long to me. Our kid was very pleased with the nonsense. He never had to hide, but neither did he jump up with excitement and thrills, either. Kind of a middle of the road production, I guess you’d say. Good, but not particularly inspiring. We’ll probably watch the second movie early next year, and I hope it’s not quite as burdened by the second bananas in the cast trying to be funny.

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