Thanks to “The Gates” and “The Jobs,” we have a little A.I. in our life.
But before Tim Berners-Lee invented HTML and fired up the first Web server and browser at CERN in 1991. Before Benoit Mandelbrot discovered fractal geometry and unleashed the M-Set on the world and made your selfie-self a reality. Before Robert Cailliau. Before Larry Page. Before Vint Cerf. Before then Senator Al Gore first proposed the High Performance Computing Act of 1991. Before there was HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey . . . there was The Interocitor in This Island Earth (1955), the built-inside-the-planet-thought-manifesting The Great Machine in Forbidden Planet (1956), the computer-with-its-human-private-army The Brain in Billion Dollar Brain (1967), the subterranean OMM 0910 from THX 1138 (1971), the The Tabernacle from Zardoz (1974), Zero from Rollerball (1975), The MCP from Tron (1982), SkyNet from The Terminator, and WOPR (aka Joshua) in WarGames (1983).
Those are the A.I.’s most sci-fi cinephiles know.
For this latest installment of our “Exploring” featurettes at B&S About Movies, as we discuss the “Ancient Future” of computers and information technology on film, we’ll discuss the lesser known “brains” that are NOVAC, Alpha 60, Proteus IV, and Colossus, as well as the early humanoid A.I.s the Clickers and the Roboti.
Gog is the third and final feature in a loose film trilogy chronicling the exploits of the OSI, the “Office of Scientific Investigation.” While The Magnetic Monster (1953) dealt with a radioactive-magnetism experiment gone wrong and Riders to the Stars (1954) dealt with a meteor-retrieval gone wrong, Gog dealt with a rogue A.I. gone bad in an underground military bunker.
The A.I. in this case is NOVAC (Nuclear Operative Variable Automatic Computer) with a “physical extension” of its self: two multi-armed half-tracked, biblical-dubbed robots Gog and Magog. And when a series of unaccountable malfunctions begin to plague the facility, the OSI dispatches Dr. David Sheppard and Joanna Merritt to get to the bottom of the A.I. tomfoolery.
Shot in 15 days at the cost of $250,000 ($2.4 million in today’s money) and released in 3D color, Gog is the best of the three “OSI” films produced by United Artists. Sadly Ivan Tovar’s scientifically accurate screenplay and decent direction by Herbert L. Strock (1957’s Blood of Dracula and 1963’s The Crawling Hand) is undermined by its utter failure of the Bechdel Test.
As with Ib Melchoir’s later and better known Angry Red Planet (1960), we have one red-rinsed female among all the men (Ivan Tovar’s soon-to-be-wife Constance Dowling) who must faint and be fireman-carried through the complex to safety. Of course, while all the men wear standard military issue, baggy flight suits and clunky G.I boots, the women’s flight suits are tailor cut to accentuate their breast lines and pegged to show off some ankle. And, instead of Naura Hayden’s smart n’ sassy ballet flats in Angry Red Planet, Dowling runs around the complex in a sensible pair of open-toe wedge mules. And you thought the women in Project Moonbase has it rough.
Jean-Luc Godard’s neo-noir Alphaville, like Elio Petri’s pop-art romp The 10th Victim (1965), and Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 (1967), are each the prefect combinations of film noir and dystopian fiction. (Toss the later made Docteur M and Kamikaze ’89 on that list.)
The lead character in the film, Lemmy Caution (American actor Eddie Constantine), is a private detective-government operative that came from the mind of British writer Peter Cheney and served as the source of 15 Euro films released between 1952 to 1991. While all of those films were straight noir-detective films, Godard penned his own Cheney-script that placed the Caution character in a dystopian set, technocratic dictatorship.
Caution, aka Agent 003, is dispatched from “the Outlands” to the futuristic city of Alphaville overlorded by a sentient computer, Alpha 60 — which has outlawed the human concepts of emotion, free thought, and individuality. Caution’s mission: find a missing agent, kill Professor von Braun, and free the citizens of Alphaville by destroying Alpha 60.
As with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie and Alex Cox’s Walker, Godard’s world is rife with anachronisms: for example, Caution arrives in town driving a then “futuristic” ’65 Ford Galaxie. As a result of budgetary limits, Godard uses no special props or any “futuristic” builds; everything is shot in real locations — with the newly built and elegant, Frank Lloyd Wright-modernist glass and concrete structures popping up around ’60s Paris doubling for the city of “Alphaville.”
Then there’s Godard creation of Alpha 60: Just one watch of the clip below (in lieu of a trailer) and you can see the brilliance of Godard. With a simple use of an electrolarynx (on his own voice) and the finger-like movement of overhead recording studio microphones and a spinning cooling fan as the “physical extention” of Alpha 60 . . . just wow. Low budget filmmaking at its finest that’s effectively chilling and creepy.
There’s no online freebies for Alphaville, but you can easily stream it on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and You Tube Movies. As of September 2020, the fine folks at Kino Lorber now offer Alphaville on Blu-ray and DVD, the new 4K restoration features both the Original French (with optional subtitles) and English Versions of the Film.
Take a soupçon of the multi-armed robots from Gog and a dash of the narcissistic A.I. from Alphaville and you get a horny supercomputer (voiced to creepy perfection by Robert Vaughn) that kidnap and rapes, oh, excuse me, “imprisons and forcibly impregnants” a woman (movie semantics) with the help of its “physical extension” known as Joshua — a robot consisting of a mechanical arm attached to a motorized wheelchair (an admittedly lame effect; where’s Gog when you need ’em?).
When Dr. Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver of Jaws of Satan, Creepshow), the computer-obsessed developer of Proteus IV, the world’s most advanced form of organic-artificial intelligence, demands “new terminals” and to be “let out of this box,” he realizes Proteus is more powerful than he imagined — too late.
Of course, any computer-obsessed scientist, complete with a fully equipped “mad scientist” basement laboratory, would have his home conveniently wired — via his home security system ALFRED — into his “Frankenstein,” making it easy to kidnap his wife (Julie Christie), construct itself a new modular polyedron body (an awesome, in-camera special effect; listen for the repurposed Star Trek “door swoosh” sfx), and an incubator to create a clone of the Harris’s late daughter — with the “mind” of Proteus itself.
Critics across the board hated this debut book-to-screen adaptation of Dean Koontz’s 1973 novel (Watchers, Servants of the Twilight) of the same name, which was written off as a sci-fi version of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby — only with a “satanic” computer (the book was a best seller; when the movie came out in ’77, the book was reissued; Waldenbooks promoted the book/film via an advertisement on its carryout paper bags). Released during the same year as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Demon Seed, sadly, wilted at the box office. The director, Donald Cammell, was a protégé of Nicolas Roeg (the big budget American Giallo Don’t Look Now, also starring Julie Christie); the duo worked together on the Mick Jagger-starring Performance (completed in 1968, released in 1970). Cammell faired better with the pre-Basic Instinct psycho-thriller White of the Eye (1987) starring David Keith.
A film “classic” is always in the eye of the beholder: so you may think I’m a bit celluloid blind on this one. But there’s worst things to blow an hour and a half on, which you can do for free over on TubiTV. But if you prefer an ad-free experience, you can stream it on Amazon Prime and iTunes. I rank Demon Seed as essential sci-fi viewing alongside 2001: A Space Odyssey, Soylent Green, Silent Running, and the next film on this evening’s program.
Opinions are mixed on this granddaddy of sentient computer thrillers, which served as the second writing project by James Bridges (wrote and directed the back-to-back hits The China Syndrome and Urban Cowboy) after 1966’s The Appaloosa. And as with that Marlon Brando-starring film, this tale about a 1990s-era American Defense System computer becoming aware was also adapted from a novel, in this case, the 1966 science fiction novel Colossus by Dennis Feltham Jones — which was followed with two novel sequels: The Fall of Colossus (1974) and Colossus and the Crab (1977). And would you believe this was helmed by the director from the 1955 Frank Sinatra-starring wartime romance flick From Here to Eternity? True story. And while James Sargent also directed Burt Reynolds in the influential hicksploitation classic White Lightning, he also racked up a Razzie nod for Jaws: The Revenge.
As with Dr. Alex Harris and Proteus IV in our previous entry, Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden, aka Dr. Otto Hasslein in 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes), underestimates the intelligence of his own “Frankenstein” and Colossus starts to refuse orders and making its own demands. Of course, double agents leaked “The Forbin Project” and Colossus discovers the Russians have constructed their own sentient defense system, known as Guardian. The now two merged supercomputers, which now identify as Colossus, come to realize that man is a wasteful, warring creature and subjugate the world to do their bidding.
A remake has been in development hell since 2007 at Universal Studios (who released the original) through Imagine Entertainment to be directed by Ron Howard — and Will Smith attached to star as Dr. Charles Forbin. The last word on the remake dates back to 2013, with Will Smith bringing on Ed Solomon, who wrote Smith’s Men in Black, to do rewrites. The poor critical and box office showings of Smith’s sci-fi forays I Am Legend (2007) and After Earth (2013) once again stalled the production. And the since poor showings of Smith’s Bright (2017) and Gemini Man (2019) only piled more dirt on the development grave. (You can read up on the last word of the remake in detail with this 2013 Screen Rant article.)
Courtesy of the fine folks at Shout Factory, a remastered high-definition widescreen Blu-ray was released in 2018 — and that remaster is not currently offered as an online stream? Anywhere? How is that possible? Ah, we found a freebee over on Vimeo.
Prior to Phillip K. Dick’s dreams of androids dreaming of electric sheep, dreams that later birthed Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Roger Corman associate Wesley Barry and his Genie Studios gave U.S. audiences their first vision of “fleshed-out” humanoid androids not aware that they’re androids. In addition: Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was published six years afterCreation hit drive-in screens. And Barry’s vision, while not an adaptation of, brazenly pinches elements from Jack Williamson’s 1948 novel, The Humanoids.
Barry’s post-apocalypse tale concerns itself with the themes of racism and man’s loss of humanity against the scornfully-referred “Clickers,” a man-made race of bald, blue-gray, synthetic-skinned, silver-eyed humans (read: blacks) whose population is increasing, while humanity—who’ve developed a technological codependency on their robot slaves—sees their own birth rate decreasing. This triggers the creation of the human-terrorist paranoia-organization (read: the ‘50s “Red Scare”) “The Order of Flesh and Blood” (read: the Klu Klux Klan).
Amid the sociopolitical upheaval, a scientist faces resistance in expanding the “labor force” Clickers’ programming for emotions—going as far as to transform them into human replicas (read: Ash from Alien). Dr. Raven, with mad-scientist tenacity, intends to “thalamic transplant” the personality and memories of recently deceased humans into a robot-replica of that person. However, the human-humanoids have one flaw: like their “Clicker” brethren, they must go to “temple” (recharging stations), which also serves as information exchange terminals with the “father-mother” central computer (read: cyber-theology/church).
Courtesy of its financial shortcomings, instead of a sci-fi classic in the vein of the groundbreaking black-and-white post-apocs Metropolis (1927) and Things to Come (1936), which it seems Wesley was attempting to achieve, we’re instead left with the ambitious, cardboard incompetence of a stale, Aldous Huxley-vision of a not-so-Brave New World of humanoids wearing latex bald-wigs and matching-color rubber gloves, along with a military topped-off with Confederate Army caps left over from Gone with the Wind.
You can watch Creation of the Humanoids for free on You Tube.
All of this robot, genetic-biological engineering exposition of the “Ancient Future” films we’ve enjoyed this week can be credited to one man—who really did “create” the humanoids: Nobel Prize-nominated and award-winning Czech writer Karel Čapek. His 1920 stage play/book R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) introduced the word “robot” and many of the concepts used in today’s science fiction. You can read the free eBook online at Gutenberg.org or buy a copy at Amazon. A new version of the film—in the wake of two English-language television versions (1938/30 minutes; 1948/60 minutes) and a feature-length Hungarian telefilm (1976)—a new English-language version is currently languishing in development hell.
. . . And we wait with binary-coded breath for that remake.
Update: June 20, 2021: Courtesy of one of our readers, Tereza Sklenářová, we’ve come to know that Karel Čapek was born in 1890, when the Czech Republic was not independent, yet (in 1918), and was a part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire; Čapek was born to Czech parents, and spent his entire life working in the Czech Republic (called Czechoslovakia then) and writing in the Czech language. Čapek was Nobel Prize-nominated seven (!) times. When he was to finally receive the prize (nominated in the autumn of 1938), it came too late: Čapek died in the winter of 1938 caused by complicated pneumonia. On the other hand, it was his luck: the Nazis wanted to send Čapek to a concentration camp, but the order came soon after his death. Who died, then, in the camp, was his brother: painter and poet-writer Josef Čapek.
Our many thanks to Tereza for her continued readership and her positive contribution to make B&S About Movies even better, with her assistance in helping the B&S staff honor the writers and filmmakers behind our favorite books and films.
As you can see, Karel Čapek is a (well-deserved) national treasure in his homeland. Let’s hope the newest film planned on R.U.R. serves in his honor.
Here’s the complete list of our reviews for our “Ancient Future Week.” Enjoy!
Most horror film aficionados believe the American slasher film cycle of the early eighties birthed with John Carpenter’s 1978 horror classic Halloween*. In reality: slasher films got their start in Italy with a literary format known as Giallo or “Yellow” in the Italian vernacular.
Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s 126-paged novella horror classic (The Strange Case of) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, small literary houses in Italy churned out their Giallo variant: a cost-effective format of reading entertainment intended for male readers—considering most of the psychologically damaged antagonist’s victims were female—who eschewed cheaply-produced romance novels with splashy, sexy-gaudy covers enamored by the women in their lives. These Italian paperbacks were produced by small literary houses that kept their printing costs down by binding the books in universal, unadorned yellow covers with simple, black-lettered titles that readers could easily stuff the ironically blood red-soaked tales in their jeans’ back pocket for easy, portable reading.
While the names of Dario Argento and Mario Bava are bantered about as the fathers of Giallo, the true father—well, grandfather—is Edgar Wallace. Huh? The British-born writer who wrote the screenplay for 1933’s King Kong?
It’s true. The ex-army press corps and London’s Daily Mail scribe moved into novels and became the “King of the Thrillers” by grinding out 957 short stories, 170 novels, and 18 stage plays—many of which he riffed as a secretary dictated them. Many times, he worked on as many as three books at once.
Sadly, as with the prolific Phillip K. Dick, Wallace’s greatest fame was posthumous (he died in 1932). While alive, his first film adaptation was The Man Who Bought London (1916), and those adaptations hit fever pitch in the ‘60s with the forty-seven films of the Edgar Wallace Mysteries series.
Wallace’s new found fame—and on his way to becoming a Giallo inspiration—began when the Danish production company Rialto Film co-produced with the German film market, 1959’s Der Frosch mit der Maske (aka The Face of the Frog) which started the krimi genre (abbreviation for the German term “Kriminalfilm”). Krimis—like the later Giallo films they inspired, were hyper-noir films, replete with zooming cameras and lurid, masked supervillains. And many of Wallace’s novels sported those cheap yellow covers that gave our beloved, pre-slasher ‘80s films their name—Giallo.
Giallos offered European readers sexually-inspired gore stories that caused the fans of the suggestive, atmospheric horror films produced by Britain’s Amicus and Hammer Studios to flinch—and Stevenson, along with noted Gothic horror authors Sheridan Le Fanu, Gaston LeRoux, and Guy de Mausspaunt to roll over in their graves. (And don’t forget the inspirations of Thomas De Quincey to Italian filmmaker Dario Argento.) Giallos—filled with quaint, occasional reader-acceptable typos by way of underpaid and overworked editors and proof readers—were well-written, suspenseful and engaging tales (the “content” is the key) that Sheridan Le Fanu probably wanted to include in his influential, short-story collection In a Glass, Darkly (featuring the vampire classic “Carmella”) and realized he had to rein his imagination or be judged by a puritanical, elitist lynch mob for writing “filth.”
It was those yellow-bound books that inspired the spaghetti-horror (pasta-horror) cycle spearheaded by Mario Bava** with 1971’s Twitch of the Death Nerve (aka Bay of Blood) and Dario Argento+, who became the maestro of Italian Giallo films with 1970’s TheBird with the Crystal Plumage. (Watch Carpenter’s Halloween, Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th, and Brian DePalma’sDressed to Kill—and compare to Bava’s and Argento’s work: especially look for the similarities of Bava’s Twitch of the Death Nerve vs. Friday the 13th.)
Produced for a reported $350,000 John Carpenter’s classic grossed an estimated $80 million dollars in worldwide box office during its initial release. Initially dumped into the U.S drive-in market to make a quick buck, the fluke blockbuster status of the film inspired mainstream Hollywood to jump on the yellow-painted bandwagon with 1980’s Friday the 13th and 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street++.
As fate would have it, the John Carpenter-inspired slasher film cycle coincided with the introduction of a contraption known as a VCR that played something called a VHS tape—and that hunk of analog electronics transitioned the slasher film genre from America’s outdoor drive-ins and onto the shelves of the burgeoning U.S home video market. (Don’t forget: Christopher Lewis’s groundbreak Blood Cult was the first “Big Box” SOV produced exclusively for the home video market.) Slasher films—affectionately referred to as “boobs and blades” for their concentrations on well-endowed, giggly women and the shiny, sharp objects that stabbed them—were cheap and easy to produce and the worldwide film markets were hot for product. Returns on a film’s investment produced under the “boobs and blades” banner were guaranteed. The films became the number one way for a newbie actor or writer, budding director or producer to get into the film business.
At the same time those direct-to-video “boobs and blades” knock offs started flying off the video store shelves, a new form of heavy metal birthed in Britain in the late seventies—dubbed by Sounds magazine as “The New Wave of British Heavy Metal” (NWOBHM). Featuring the violent, religious mania and bloody lyrics composed by the likes of Venom and Iron Maiden, complete with the requisite Satanic imagery on the album covers, slasher films and heavy metal music were a match made in hell: the music coming out of England was, in fact, Giallo musicals. This music-inspired slasher sub-genre even got its own name: metalsploitation*+, which featured other beloved so-bad-they’re-good bloody analog tales showcasing the exploitive titles of Black Roses, Shock ’em Dead, Terror on Tour, Rock ’n’ Roll Nightmare, Hard Rock Zombies, and Rocktober Blood. The genre peaked—and quickly burnt out—when the major studios took a slice of the metalsploitation pie with 1986’s big-budgeted Trick or Treat.
However, before the glut of heavy-metal horror films hit the video store shelves, Paul Williams and Brian DePalma composed a campy, 1974 rock ’n’ roll Giallo-inspired reboot of Hammer Studios’ 1962 film version of The Phantom of the Opera (based on Gaston LeRoux’s novel). Somewhat similar to 1975’s The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the camp ’n’ rock department, Phantom of the Paradise featured an emotionally damaged musician, Winslow Leech, who rains vengeance on the narrow-minded fools who stole his music and ruined his career. An emotionally damaged antagonist out for revenge who wears a mask? It’s pure Giallo. The only difference is that poor Winslow isn’t concealed behind POV black gloves.
Needless to say, the Giallo cycle was misunderstood by mainstream America, with the genre’s mixtures of murder and the supernatural rated as “style over substance” and “lacking in narrative logic.”
Well, that’s was always the point, Mr. Mainstream critic. (That and if the friggin’ puritanical U.S. distributors didn’t chop and slice the Italian and Spanish imports into incomprehensible messes.)
Italian Giallos—or any of the Spanish variants—of the ‘70s always eschewed “realism” and “substance” over what were always the main priorities of the Giallo genre: art and surrealism rooted in Impressionism and Renaissance art.
The Giallo resume of Dario Argento, the leader of the genre, is the cinematic equivalent of Salvador Dali’s melting clocks and M.C Esher’s impossible objects and staircases to nowhere. Giallo is all about the utilization of oozing color palates and oddball light sources, nonsensical supernatural red-herrings to nowhere, psychic links to killers hidden in POV, whispered poetic passages, hypersexual oddball red-herring characters, rape and murdered moms, junk science (about sunspots, Y chromosomes, eye-memories, love-chemicals), pedophile fathers, doctors and detectives riddled with kinks and ulterior motives, and a general, overall incoherency (even before U.S. distributors got their hands on ’em) set to a soundtrack of jazz-rock noodling and chanting choirs.
In Double Indemnity, when Fred MacMurray pops up from behind the car’s backseat and strangles the husband of Phyliss Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck), the camera pulls back and frames on her satisfied face as her husband gags to death off frame (and we can imagine what expression is across MacMurray’s face). That’s film noir. In a Giallo, the eye-buldging strangulation is in full frame. In film noir, the sex—via editing and cinematography—is implied. In a Giallo, it’s on camera—and, in most cases, only one person walks away unslashed from the encounter.
Actor Tony Musante’s vacationing American writer Sam Dalmas and Michael Brandon’s rock drummer Roberto Tobias, in the respective films The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Four Files on Grey Velvet, have everything in common with William Holden’s Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd., Fred MacMurray’s pasty of Walter Neff in Double Indemnity, and John Garfield’s Frank Chambers in The Postman Always Rings Twice. Each are somewhat well-intentioned, yet flawed individuals. The only difference is the film noir schlubs of the latter films don’t end up in a Dario Argento what-the-fuck Giallo plot twist of an intelligent chimp wielding a straight razor and having to rescue a cute girl with psychic links to insects (Phenomena, for those of you wondering what in-the-hell am I talking about).
Of course, as Sam, the bossman at B&S About Movies pointed out, we have Mario Bava to thank with his black-and-white, 1963 neo-noir The Girl Who Knew Too Much and its introductions of Giallo conventions serving as the progenitor for the genre. Then Bava sealed the deal with his next film, the 1964 color-shot Blood and Black Lace, which introduced all the high fashion, shocking color-palate gore, and psychosexual encounters missing from the likes of the black and white film noir classics, such as Double Indemnity and Sorry, Wrong Number, which inspired Bava’s The Girl Who Knew Too Much.
But even I have to admit that no matter how much I enjoy the films of those Italian filmmakers, I am burnt out on them. But I love the era and adore the genre and I want more . . . but my yellow has turned to brown.
Thankfully, there’s a new crop of young turks keeping the genre alive, birthing a new genre: neo-Giallo—or what I like to call “Giallo impressionism.”
So, embrace the yellow leaking out of Kevin V. Jones across the marbled floors of Morningside, ye children of the night! Fill your goblets, for tonight; we dine by the plasma’s streaming glow. And it forever glows yellow and in all the primary colors of the dark.
About the Author: You can learn more about the writings of R.D Francis on Facebook. He also writes for B&S About Movies.
Here’s the complete list of all the film’s we reviewed for our week of Giallo films from June 14 to June 20:
“You know, the Templars’ burnt, eyeless and noseless, sunken-skulled faces sure do look like monkeys,” cigar chomps the cheesy American film distributor. “That gives me an idea. . . .”
“Legend has it, almost 3,000 years ago, a simian civilization of super-intelligent apes struggled with man to gain control of this planet. In the end, man conquered ape after a brutal battle, which saw him destroy the ape, his culture and society. After this battle, man tortured and killed all the ape prisoners by piercing their eyes with a red-hot poker. One of the prisoners, who was also the leader of the apes, vowed they would return from the dead to avenge man’s brutality—at a point in time before man destroyed Earth himself. That time is now.”
Upon the success of Amando de Ossorio’s first horror film, 1969’s Malenka, The Vampire’s Niece(aka, Fangs of the Dead; a success in spite of its intended psychological horror plot recut into a vampire flick against his wishes), de Ossorio decided to continue with the horror genre and eschew his previous, less successful attempts at spaghetti westerns (1964’s Grave of the Gunfighter and 1966’s Three from Colorado) and comedy (1967’s A Girl in the Yard).
Inspired, in part, by the writings of Spain’s Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer’s Gothic horror short story “El monte de las animas” (part of his 1862 short-story collection, Soria) and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), in 1971 de Ossorio concocted a tale about a legion of 13th Century knights, known as the Templars who, in their quest of eternal life, began committing human sacrifices and drinking human blood. In modern day Portugal, a group of tourists poking around the ruins of the Templars’ abandoned monastery revive the rotted, eyeless corpses of the Templars to reign once again.
Blue Underground’s trailer for the DVD reissue of Tombs of the Blind Dead.
Known as 1972’s La noche del terror ciego, Anglicized as Tombs of the Blind Dead, the film’s success spawned the “Blind Dead” series, with three official sequels: Return of the Blind Dead (1973), The Ghost Galleon (1974) and Night of the Seagulls (1975). The success of the series spearheaded the Spanish horror boom of the early ‘70s and paved the wave for the works of Paul Naschy (Horror Rises from the Tomb) and Leon Klimovsky (The Vampires Night Orgy).
As with the Gothic, psychological horror of Malenka hacked into a vampire feature to appeal to the American marketplace, American distributors decided to re-edit Tombs of the Blind Dead as a Planet of the Apes rip-off sequel. The opening credit sequence to their edit—shown below—replaced the film’s original setting with a post-apocalyptic future in which the undead were deceased intelligent apes from the Planet of the Apes story-arc, picking up where the fifth and final apes movie, Battle of the Planet of the Apes, left off. It was all just a matter of excising Tombs’ Templars sacrifice sequence, where they tortured and drank the blood of a female victim, and expunging its sex and gore accoutrements, particularly de Ossorio’s lesbian relationship subplot and the rape-on-a-train sequence.
Poof! And we have another ape “sequel”: Revenge from Planet Ape, which played in U.S East Coast Drive-Ins in 1978.
And that, boys and girls, is the Tales from the Spanish Planet of the Apes.
About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.
While Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey used Arthur C. Clark’s 1951 short story The Sentinel as its launch point, Kubrick’s true inspirations for his game changing science fiction classic were the pioneering Russian/Eastern Bloc science fiction films released during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Most of these films were adapted directly or inspired indirectly by the acclaimed works of Polish author Stanislaw Lem, the definitive forefather of introspective, psychological and philosophical science fiction films. The great production values and story quality of Russian science fiction films continues today, with 2017’s Salyut-7 and Spacewalk, along with Forsaken (2018), Glavnyj (2015), and Gagarin: First In Space (2013).
All of these films—and their corresponding literary source materials—come highly recommended; they’re listed in chronological, then alphabetical, order by year of release. Among this listing of influential Russian/Eastern Bloc films, you’ll learn about a few influential—well, fan favorites, regardless of their overall quality—American science fiction films that strove for originality and didn’t pilfer their superior Russian/Eastern Bloc counterparts.
Keep looking up to the stars.
1924—Aelita by Yakov Protazanov
Also known as Aelita, Queen of Mars, this black-and-white Russian silent film based on Alexei Tolystoy’s novel of the same name—forgotten as one of the earliest, full-length science fiction films regarding space travel—concerns a totalitarian Mars overthrown by Queen Aelita and her Earth-man lover. This film’s influence over Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927)—as well as the set and costume designs of the later American serials Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon—can’t be denied. First released in English-speaking markets in an edited form as Aelita: Revolt of the Robots in 1929, it was Americanized and remade as the ill-remembered Flight to Mars (1951).
1935—Gibel sensatsii (Loss of Feeling) by Aleksandr Andriyevsky
All of the robot, genetic-biological engineering exposition we’ve enjoyed in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, Gene Roddenberry’s The Questor Tapes, and other sci-fi films begins with one man—who really did “create” the humanoids: Nobel Prize-nominated and award-winning Austrian-Hungarian writer, Karel Čapek. His 1919 play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), first produced for the stage in 1920 and set fifty years in the future of 1969, introduced the word “robot” and many of the concepts used in today’s science fiction, especially the plotlines of robots (and human clones; as in Per Aspera Ad Astra) revolting against their human creators, dehumanization through technology, and the failures of a utopia driven by technology into class warfare. While Andriyevsky’s vision is a stunning achievement and shares striking similarities, it is, none the less, incorrectly credited as an adaptation of R.U.R. and Čapek’s work receives no on-screen credit. Both works are somewhat similar to Wesley Barry’s less-effective, low-rent sci-fi variant on the material, Creation of the Humanoids (1962).
1936—Kosmicheskiy Reys (Cosmic Journey) by Vasily Zhuravlyov
Zhuravlyov raised the bar set by Aelita and set the quality standard for all of the groundbreaking Russian films in this appendix with this futuristic tale of Russia’s first moon shot in 1946 that substitutes the comic book buffoonery of its American counterparts with scientifically accurate depictions of spaceships, spacesuits, and weightlessness in space. While early American film goers were entertained by the toy ray gun mentality of the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, Aleksandr Filimonov penned this black-and-white silent film based on the novel by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky that stands alongside Metropolis as one of the crowning achievements of pre-Kubrickian science fiction films. It should be as revered as H.G Wells Things to Come released in the same year, but alas, it’s not; outside of its homeland, it’s forgotten.
1952—Sadko by Aleksandr Ptushko
This earthbound Russian tale, adapted from an 1896 opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, tells the story of a traveling minstrel who embarks on a quest to bring home a mythical phoenix-bird of happiness to restore order to his corrupt homeland; he comes to discover that happiness is closer to home than one thinks. The fact that Ptushko’s lavish tale impressed at the Venice Film Awards and earned a coveted Silver Lion didn’t stop Roger Corman from reimaging it as a Ray Harryhausen ripoff, The Magic Voyage of Sinbad (1962). The travesties to Ptushko’s visionary works based on Russian folklore continued with Ilya Muromets (1956; Americanized as The Sword and the Dragon in 1963) and Sampo (1959; Americanized as The Day the Earth Froze). If there was ever a need for a box set restoration proper of three films, Ptushko’s films are it.
1957—Doroga k Zvezdam (Road to the Stars) by Pavel Klushantsev
While staid in its educational, documentary-styled first half—which deals in the science “fact” of space travel—the second half becomes a fascinating prediction (with a rotating, wheeled-shaped space station eleven years before Kubrick’s vision appeared on theatre screens) as the film explores the speculative “fiction” of space travel and marks Klushantsev as the grandfather of Russian and Eastern Bloc science fiction films; for without him, there would have been no 2001: A Space Odyssey or Silent Running. Klushantsev’s dreams of the stars began in 1946, with his groundbreaking, 10-minute short, Meteoroid (Meteors), followed by 1951’s Kosmos (Universe). He then broke away from the short-film format with the highly influential, 58-minute long Doroga k Zvezdam; keen eyes will see where Stanley Kubrick found his costume and set design inspirations for his own homage to the Russian space epics of the 1960s—pictures themselves Americanized by Roger Corman and American International Pictures. Doroga k Zvezdam proved to be successful enough that Klushantsev expanded his outer space fantasies into his only feature-length film, Planeta Bur (1962). Sadly, he went back to the short-film format, with the equally majestic Stantsiia Luna (Station Moon; 1965; 50 minutes), Mapc (Mars; 1968; 50 minutes), and I See Earth (1970; 16 minutes). The majestic sights of Kosmos, Stantsiia Luna, and Mapc come courtesy of acclaimed Russian art director Yuri Shvets, which prepared him for his feature-film masterpiece under the eye of Mikhail Karzhukov: Nebo Zovyot.
1959—The Angry Red Planet by Ib Melchoir
Released the same year as the far superior Nebo Zovyot, acclaimed writer Ib Melchoir (noted for the short story Death Race 2000) and producer Sidney Pink (who came up with the story) got the jump on the Russian sci-fi epics produced in the wake of Nebo Zovyot. Dispensing with those pesky psychological and philosophical ramifications of space travel that made the Russian films superior, this journey to Mars goes straight for the (low budget) action with a lone female survivor of the mission (in a curve-fitting jumpsuit and ballet flats; perfect for space travel) who relates in flashback the crew’s terrors in dealing with man-eating plants, towering rat-spiders, and metal-eating sea amoebas—all shot through red filters to make the cardboard-and-rubbery sets “look” like Mars. In the end, Pink’s story is not an antecedent to 2001: A Space Odyssey but to 1979’s Alien—itself a homage/remake to 1958’s It! The Terror from Beyond Space. Melchoir also penned the Alien inspirational-precursors Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962) and Planet of the Vampires (1965).
1959—Nebo Zovyot (The Sky Calls) by Valery Fokin/Mikhail Karzhukov
Also translated as The Heavens Beacon, the story concerns the galactic competition between the United States and Russia to execute the first mission to Mars. When an American spaceship requests repairs from a Russian crew, they come to discover their Russian saviors are on their way to Mars; the Americans set sail to beat the Russians, veer off-course, become lost in space, and the Russians scrub their mission to save the American crew. So great are the Yuri Shvets production designs on Nebo Zovyot, Stanley Kubrick hired Shvets to work on 2001: A Space Odyssey during its pre-production stages. Sadly, that greatness is lost, courtesy of the film’s Roger Corman Americanization as Battle Beyond the Sun (1962), which also features special effects inserts from Karzhukov’s next film, Mechte Navstrechu (1963). You’ve also seen Nebo Zovyot’s special effects shots repurposed in Queen of Blood (1966).
The plot concerns the discovery of an alien artifact: a data-spool thought to be a flight recorder from a crashed ship; an international team of astronauts travels to Venus to discover the spool’s origins. This influential antecedent to Kubrick’s masterpiece, mistakenly coined as a Russian space epic, is actually an East German and Poland co-production based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1951 novel, The Astronaut. (Lem’s novels broke to mainstream American audiences courtesy of the success of the film adaptation of his best know work, Solaris.) While released in Poland as Milczaca Gwiadza, it was released in the United States—relatively intact in 1962—as First Spaceship on Venus. It also received additional viewings through American UHF television syndication as Planet of the Dead, airing back-to-back alongside The Demon Planet (Planet of the Vampires).
1962—Journey to the Seventh Planet by Sidney Pink
A crew investigating Uranus, which turns out to be a world rife in Earth-like vegetation, runs afoul of an alien intelligence capable of manifesting their deepest fantasies (sort of like 1956’s Forbidden Planet); an “intelligence” that seems to be only concerned with the hot Danish pin-up beauties dancing in the chauvinistic Earthmen’s heads. This, Sidney Pink and Ib Melchoir’s collaborative second effort, after The Angry Red Planet, wants to be a psychological Russian science-fiction epic, but is too cheaply made to achieve its potential. However, once you forgive the science gaffes of the day—that failed to realize the planets beyond Mars (expect for Pluto) are gas giants and impossible to land on their “surfaces”—this shot-in-Denmark treat is executed better than most sci-fi films of the day. While this film was released prior to the 1972 film version of Solyaris, which followed a similar theme regarding mind-influencing aliens, Lem’s book was issued in 1961—a year prior to Pink’s film. And if it all feels a bit like Ray Bradbury’s iconic 1948 short story, “Mars Is Heaven”—then it probably is. The Wizard of Mars (1965), based on L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz—complete with an astronaut in silver go-go boots named “Dorothy”—also dabbled in an even lower-budgeted alien mind control plot. Inspired by the success of Alien, J7P served as the inspiration for the Alien cash-in “remake” Galaxy of Terror (1981). Melchoir also lent his pen to 1964’s Robinson Crusoe on Mars.
1962—Planeta Bur (Planet of Storms) by Pavel Klushantsev
The coordinated effort of three Russian spaceships making the first manned trip to Venus is assisted by “John,” a lumbering robot-computer. John served as Kubrick’s original idea for “Hal,” that is until production problems resulted in the sentient being’s redesign to a single, red-eyed monitor. This came to be Klushantsev’s only feature film; after being purchased by Roger Corman and criminally reedited into 1965’s Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet, who can blame him? To add insult to cinematic injury: Planeta Bur was revamped a second time with inserts from Mikhail Karzhukov’s Nebo Zovyot—and added a few bear skinned-clad bikini cavewomen—as Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women (also known on American UHF television as Gill Women of Venus).
1963—Mechte Navstrechu (A Dream Come True) by Mikhail Karzhukov
While Roger Corman repurposed Karzkukov’s Nebo Zovyot as Battle Beyond the Sun (1962), Mechte Navstrechu became the space vampire romp, Queen of Blood (1966). In the plot of the superior Russian original, the inhabitants of a distant planet receive a radio transmission of an Earth-based love song; they send a ship to investigate. When the alien mission crash lands on Phobos, a Mars moon, the Earth receives a distress call to rescue the survivors; technical problems and the harsh landscape threaten the mission.
1963—Oblok Magellana (Magellanic Cloud) by Jindrich Polak
During the exploration of the Alpha Centauri system in the year 2163, a star weary crew encounters a derelict alien craft (read: Alien) and a malfunctioning computer (read: HAL 2000), along with personal and professional tensions among the crew and passengers as the psychological breakdown of one of the crew threatens to destroy the ship (as in Solaris). Another mistaken Russian space epic; this one actually hails from Czechoslovakia (as Ikarie XB 1) and was also issued under the above Polish-language title. As with Der Schweignde Stern, this was also based on the work of Stanislaw Lem: 1951’s Magellanic Cloud. This was also Americanized, somewhat unscathed, as Voyage to the End of the Universe (1964).
Director Bryon Haskins, who directed several of the higher-quality The Outer Limits episodes for American television, scared kids for decades with his version of H.G Wells War of the Worlds (1953). Haskins then dispensed with the Martian-invasion tomfoolery for the first American space movie to delve—abet dryly—in “science fact” with Paramount Pictures’ science fiction entry about a journey to Mars originating from an Earth-based, rotating-wheeled space station in Conquest of Space (1955). Haskins applied that same care for scientific accuracy with Ib Melchoir’s science fiction retelling of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 classic literary tale; he nixed Melchoir’s Angry Red Planet-inspired killer alien monster foolishness to embrace scientific plausibility in the script’s subsequent rewrites. Sadly, more people remember the casting of Batman’s Adam West—as a way-too-soon, quickly-killed off astronaut—than for the film’s superb storytelling or mesmerizing special effects work.
The story and set design influences of this low-budget Italian precursor to Alien (1979), adapted by horror-maestro Mario Bava from Renato Pestriniero’s Italian-language short-story, “One Night in 21 Hours,” which concerns astronauts possessed by the spirits of a dead alien crew while on a rescue mission, can’t be denied. The film remained intact on its Americanized theatrical rounds—with the English-language dialog penned by Ib Melchoir—under the title Planet of the Vampires (and syndicated on American UHF television as The Demon Planet). No actual fangs come out; however, those funky, yellow-piped bondage-leather space suits with the flipped-up collars look vampirific enough to justify the title change.
1967—Tumannost Andromedy (The Andromeda Nebula) by Evgeniy Sherstobitov
Based on the 1957 novel by Ivan Yefremov of the same name, this tale dispenses with the psychological effects of space travel and concentrates on the sociological—within the context of a Marxist society that has united several planetary civilizations. The mission of the starship Tantra to introduce a new alien planet to the union falters when the crew encounters the gravitational forces of an “iron star” that killed off the planet’s inhabitants and threatens to destroy their ship.
1970—Signale: Ein Weltraumabenteuer (Signal: An Outer Space Adventure) by Gottfried Kolditz
When a research ship on an exploration for life in Earth’s solar system disappears in a meteor storm near Jupiter, an astronaut refuses to accept the mission is lost; he sets out on a “metaphysical mission” to find the crew—which includes his wife. This German and Polish co-production, based on an East German novel Asteroidenjager (Asteroid Hunters) by Carlos Rasch, bears some thematic similarities to Solyaris; however, unlike the similarly-minded 2001, Signale offers back stories for its characters. The film is also notable as the first to feature a space ship with a visible, exterior rotating centrifuge (of spokes) to sustain gravity. Gottfried Kolditz returned to the fold with Im Staub der Sterne.
1972— Eolomea by Hermann Zschoche
Based on the book of the same name by acclaimed Bulgarian writer Angel Wagenstein, this East German-Russian-Bulgarian co-production concerns the disappearance of eight cargo ships coinciding with the loss of contact with a distant space station. Earth scientists determine the incidents are the result of a mysterious Cygnus-born transmission, deciphered as “Eolomea,” which is believed to be a planet; it’s soon discovered the planet’s inhabitants stole the Earth-armada to escape an oppressive regime. The film bares similarities to both Signale and Solyaris, as the film explores the psychological and philosophical implications of space travel.
The award-winning Special Effects Supervisor from 2001: A Space Odyssey earned his director’s stripes with this sister film that dispenses with the psychological and spiritual plotting of its Russian antecedents and substitutes an environmental message regarding a fleet of space freighters transporting clusters of geodesic domes containing the last remnants of Earth ecology. When the mission’s resident botanist sees his dreams of Earth’s reforesting scrubbed, he suffers a mental breakdown and steals the last remaining dome. The film is noted for creating a “Saturn sequence” that Kubrick wanted for 2001, but was unable to accomplish as result of time and technical constraints. The screenplay, penned by acclaimed American writer/director Michael Cimino and television producer Steven Bocho, was post-adapted into a rare, highly-coveted 1972 novel by Harlan Thompson. Since this was produced and released by the same studio responsible for 1978’s Battlestar Galactica, Universal repurposed stock footage of the cargo ships and the dome sets for a few episodes of the Star Wars TV hopeful.
1972—Solyaris (Solaris) by Andrei Tarkovsky
Unfairly and incorrectly classified as a 2001: A Space Odyssey rip-off, Solyaris is based on Stanislaw Lem’s highly-acclaimed, 1961 breakthrough novel of the same name. In this epic, metaphysical journey that explores the influence “outer space” has on a man’s “inner space,” a psychologist travels to a space station orbiting a distant, liquid planet to discover what caused the crew—actually an alien force on the planet can that can recreate physical realities from one’s thoughts (like 1962’s Journey to the Seventh Planet)—to suffer hallucinations resulting in several deaths. Tarkovsky continued with these philosophical and psychological themes in 1979’s Stalker, which concerns a ranger guide’s journey into the mysterious Zone, where a sentient being can fulfill one’s inner most desires.
1974—Moskva-Kassiopeya (Moscow: Cassiopeia) by Richard Viktorov
This early directing effort by Viktorov (Per Aspera Ad Astra), also known by the English-language title Children of the Universe, pre-dates Star Wars with a production design that resembles an old TV episode of Star Trek. When Earth receives radio contact from the Cassiopeia constellation, a crew comprised of teenagers is sent on a three decades-long journey to investigate, by which time they’ll reach the age of 40. Upon arrival, they learn their mission is to liberate a planet’s inhabitants from an artificial intelligence and its robot armies. The film was successful enough to warrant a 1975 sequel, Otroki vo vselennoy (Teens in the Universe).
1976—Im Staub der Sterne (In the Dust of Stars) by Gottfried Kolditz
The fourth and final film by the DEFA (Der Schweignde Stern, Signale, Eolomea) this is the only original-scripted film the studio produced that is not an adaptation of a novel. Dispensing with the psychological and philosophical plotting of its Russian counterparts, Euro-science fiction connoisseurs refer to this East German and Romanian co-production as the “German Barbarella”—referring to the production design of Roger Vadim’s 1968 film adaptation of a popular French comic strip; others will see production elements of Space: 1999 and the later ‘80s American television series Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers. The plot concerns a team of astronauts dispatched on a six-year journey to respond to a distress call from a distant, desolate planet in the regions of unexplored space. The crew comes to discover their hosts are actually invaders enslaving the indigenous population to mine the planet for corporate profit.
A dystopian-inspired version of an introspective Russian space epic produced for German theatres, this also appeared on German and European television as Heroes: Lost in the Dust of the Stars. The plot concerns a United Nations-sponsored space mission as three Americans, two Europeans, and one Russian deal with the psychological effects of returning to an Earth decimated by a cataclysmic event. The questions are bountiful: Are they back on Earth. Did they die on Ganymede and is this a hellish penance. Is the agency that sent them into space conducting an experiment?
1978—Doznanie pilota Pirksa by Marek Piestrak
The influential writings of Stanislaw Lem returned with this tale based on “The Inquest” from his short-story collection, More Tales of Pirx the Pilot. Also known in Poland as Test pilota Pirxa, the film was also promoted in the Euro-home video market as The Inquest of Pilot Pirx. The plot concerns a mission to evaluate the use of non-linears (robots) as crews on future space flights. In command of a mixed human and non-linear crew that failed in its mission to launch satellites into Saturn’s rings, which resulted in death, Pirx’s career falls into question. An inquest comes to discover it was not human, but non-linear error that caused the mission failure.
1980—Petlya Oriona (Orion Loop) by Vasily Levin
Russian science fiction joyously traveled back to man’s “inner space” as a mixed crew comprised of humans and their androids twins travel to a phenomenon on the solar system’s outskirts approaching Earth—The Orion Loop. The closer the crew comes into contact, the stranger their psychological issues manifest. The script was co-written by Russian cosmonaut Alexey Leonov—the first man to complete an EVA (extravehicular activity) during the Voskhod 2 mission; the mission is the subject of a stellar Russian film, 2017’s Spacewalk.
1980— Zvyozdny inspektor (The Star Inspector) by Vladimir Polin and Mark Kovalyov
Produced in the wake of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, but with the awareness of a somewhat older episode of the pre-Star Wars TV series Space: 1999, the commander of a Russian space police unit investigates the criminal dealings of corporate-capitalist space pirates who commit an unmotivated attack on an International Space Base. He comes to discover the attack was committed by a lost group of scientists led by a famed biologist who created an artificial intelligence that, with a robot army, plans to enslave humanity.
1981—Per Aspera Ad Astra (Through Hardship to the Stars) by Richard Viktorov
Carrying a philosophical message regarding the err of corporate greed and war profiteering, the film’s title is from a familiar Latin phrase utilized in the writings of James Joyce, Hermann Hesse, and Kurt Vonnegut. Scripted by Viktorov (1974’s Moskva-Kassiopeya) from the novel of the same name by Kir Bulychov, this Russian film appeared in English-speaking markets as Through the Thorns to the Stars and on American television as Humanoid Woman, itself a disgracefully edited, exploitative title that diminishes the film’s deeper meanings. The story concerns the 23rd century discovery of a lone, female humanoid-clone survivor of a derelict alien vessel. As the clone adapts to life on Earth, it discovers it has a variety of psychic and physical powers—and learns she was part of an advance-army created by government subversives to overthrown her creator’s home planet.
1983—Lunnaya raduga (Moon Rainbow) by Vladmir Karpichev
After encountering a space phenomenon, a squad of Russian space commandos (think Aliens) develops supernatural powers and the philosophical questions arise: what to do with such powers and how will they affect life on Earth. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Sergei Pavlov and presents itself as an insightful version of Marvel Comics’ The Fantastic Four series—minus the unscientific, childish comic book pretensions.
1984—Vozrashchenie s orbity (Return from Orbit) by Aleksandr Surin
Featuring a production design that reminds of 1978’s Doznanie pilota Pirksa, this dispenses with the Star Wars: Return of the Jedi-inspired sci-fi fantasy of the times for a serious, dramatic approach regarding the daily trials of two cosmonauts adjusting to their new life on Earth after a lengthy mission. When a meteor storm accident occurs on an orbital station, the cosmo-duo must return to space to save their comrades. Unlike most sci-fi films shot on sets, scenes were shot on the Soviet Space Station Salyut 7 and the spacecraft Soyuz T-9 by cosmonauts Vladimir Lyakhov and Aleksandr Aleksandrov. Additional scenes were shot at the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center and inside the RKA Mission Control Center. The film’s stellar, ambient soundtrack is conducted by famed Russian electronic conductor, Edward Artemeyev. Gargin’s life was later chronicled in Gagarin: First In Space (2013).
About the Author: You can read the music and film criticisms of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.
Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker is scheduled to have its world premiere in Los Angeles on December 16, 2019, and will be released theatrically on December 20 in the United States. Thanks for joining us for our “Star Wars Week” tribute, which we wrapped up with our “Exploring: After Star Wars” featurette—complete with links to all of our reviews.
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You need more science fiction? Be sure to visit with R.D Francis on his retrospective of Italy’s Star Wars-inspired film industry and the inspirations of George Lucas with the article “In Space No One Can Hear the Pasta Over-Boiling: Alfonso Brescia and the ’80s Italian Spacesploitation Invasion,” on Medium.
Luminosity by R.D Francis—a sci-fi novella homage to the influential and groundbreaking Russian science fiction films of the ‘60s and ’70—is now available as a free eBook exclusively through Smashwords and your favorite eRetailers for all eReader platforms.
Banner Image by R.D Francis: “Planet Moon Orbit Solar System” no attribution required image courtesy of LoganArt via Pixabay.com and “Neon One” Text courtesy of PicFont.com.
Before Nirvana, the Spin Doctors, the Red Hot Chilli Peppers and Pearl Jam, no one knew the meaning of grunge, or even cared where Seattle was: flannel was a fashion no-no. Do you remember the days of post-modern and cutting-edge rock, when everyone wore black and they were always depressed? Remember the days when Gen-X’ers were confused, unable to decide if they were “alternative” or “progressive,” so they stumbled through the X-decade, trying to be both? Well those days may be gone but they live on in spirit with these films encompassing documentaries, comedies, and dramas about the ‘90s alt-rock scene—and mostly issued during the ‘90s decade.
1. 1991: The Year Punk Broke (1991 documentary)
Director David Markey (Desperate Teenage Lovedolls starring Redd Kross of Sprit of ‘76) chronicles the 1991 European festival tour of several U.S alternative rock and punk bands, just prior to the Seattle grunge rock explosion of the early ‘90s. Features music and behind the scenes footage of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, Kurt Cobain with Nirvana, along with Dinosaur Jr., Babes In Toyland, Gumball, and the Ramones. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Nirvana’s Dave Grohl musically masqueraded as the Beatles in Backbeat, while J.Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. appears in Allison Anders’s (Border Radio starring John Doe of X and Chris D. of the Divine Horsemen) Gas Food, Lodging. Moore and Gordon first worked on camera in ‘89s Weatherman and there’s more Kurt Cobain and Nirvana to be had in Hype!.
Dog Day Afternoon goes (well, it’s not totally grunge: the sounds of alt-rockers D-Generation double for the faux-rock of the Lone Rangers) rock: only this time, instead of a bank, it’s a radio station as three aspiring alt-metal heads (Brandon Fraser, Steve Buscemi and Adam Sandler) launch a desperate attempt to have their music aired on Los Angeles’ KPPX “Rebel Radio.” Michael McKean of This is Spinal Tap and Light Of Day is the station program director, Joe Mantegna (U.S TV’s Criminal Minds) is (excellent as) radio personality “Ian the Shark,” and Judd Nelson is the record executive. MTV’s Kurt Loder, Motorhead’s Lemmy (Down and Out with the Dolls), and Howard Stern’s Stuttering John Melendez (Stuttering John, the band, placed a song in the film) appear in cameos. White Zombie performs while Anthrax and Primus appear on the soundtrack. Director Michael Lehmann returns with the radio station rom-com, The Truth About Cats and Dogs.
3. All Over Me (1997 drama)
Claude and Ellen are best friends making their way through the ‘90s subculture with replete with drug problems, homophobia, and clubbing. That all changes when one of their friends dies a violent and meaningless death (read: The Gits’ Mia Zapata). Claude has a poster of alt-rockers Helium in her room; the band’s Mary Timony appears as the singer of the fictional band Coochie Pop and performs Helium’s “Hole in the Ground.”
This Sundance Festival favorite examines the life of an introverted North Carolina (see Immortal) songwriter who, upon losing his day job, is pressed into service by his best friend to get his music out of the bedroom and into the clubs. After a series of adventures stealing equipment from a loan shark and bombing at frat parties, the band Circus Monkey convinces a legendary band manager to back a cross-country tour.
5. Clerks (1994 comedy)
It’s a day in the life of directionless Generation X’ers Dante Hicks, a New Jersey convenience store clerk, and his best friend, Randal, a clerk in the video store next door. The main goal of the duo: they want to play street hockey, and they do—on the roof of the strip mall itself. Getting in the way is a dead customer in the bathroom, funerals, ex-girlfriends, and the irrepressible Jay and Silent Bob. Jay and Bob turn up in the loose “New Jersey” sequels: Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. The soundtrack is an alt-rock wet dream spewing the Jesus Lizard, Seaweed, Girls Vs. Boys, and Soul Asylum.
6. Clubland (1999 drama)
Mary Lambert (American Psycho) directs this drama written by record producer Glen Ballard of Aerosmith, No Dobut, and Alanis Morissette (Jagged Little Pill) fame. This gritty account concerns an aspiring singer/songwriter who leaves his small town for a troubled rise in the music business (Kurt Cobain, natch). His success is impeded by his misguided, music-executive alienating manager/brother, a drummer who involves the band with drug dealers, and clubs who book by the rules of pay to play. When a record deal comes down, he must decide to remain loyal to those who got him there, or take the solo deal.
7. Colin Fitz (1997 comedy)
The tragedy of Kurt Cobain’s life and the ongoing vandalism at Jim Morrison’s Paris gravesite inspired this indie flick that questions the effect rock stars have on modern society. The philosophizing is courtesy of two security guards pulling duty to watch over the grave of newly buried rock star Colin Fitz.
8. Dig (2004 documentary)
First, it was the trials, tribulations and personality conflicts of Wilco in I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. Dig takes viewers on another “group therapy session” in this seven-year study on the friendship and eventual meltdown between musicians Courtney Taylor of the Dandy Warhols and Anton Newcombe of the Brain Jonestown Massacre. Dig pays little attention to the music, instead concentrating on the interpersonal relationships between the band members and the resentments created when the Dandy Warhols scored a deal with Capital Records in the grungy ‘90s while BJM imploded at an industry showcase.
9. The Doom Generation (1995 drama)
It’s a “bit of the ultraviolence” with an alternative-era appropriate soundtrack as a gothic club girl Amy (Rose McGowan, Marilyn Manson’s ex) and her boyfriend (James Duval of U.S TV’s Twin Peaks) meet a psychotic bisexual (Jonathon Schaech, That Thing You Do!) who leads them into a murderous crime spree of convenience stores, burger joints and shopping malls. Along the way a gang of punks (alternative-industrial rousers Skinny Puppy) rape Amy—with a religious trinket, no less. The Doom Generation is the second film in Greg Akaki’s “Gen-X trilogy”: the first being 1994’s Totally F***ed Up and 1996’s Nowhere.
10. Down and Out with the Dolls (2001 drama)
If it sounds like writer/director Kurt Voss (Sugar Town with John Doe; Strutter with J. Mascis of Dinosaur, Jr.) is using the life of Kurt and Courtney as plot fodder, he probably is. The grunge scene of the Pacific Northwest serves as a backdrop in the tales of Fauna (Zoe Poledouris), a longtime, infamous fixture on the ‘90s Portland, Oregon, rock scene with her Goth rock outfit, the Snogs. Before her rock ‘n’ roll dreams are realized, she’s kicked out of the band, but rebounds with an all-female band, the Paper Dolls: guitarist Kali, bassist Lavender, and drummer Reggie. Meanwhile, Kali’s boyfriend, Levi (Coyote Shivers of Empire Records), fronts the Suicide Bombers, a band signed to a local indie label that’s ready to go national, courtesy of a major label distribution deal (read: Sub Pop via DGC). Ever the opportunist, Fauna exploits all the angles for that coveted deal. Zoe Poledouris composed the music and contributed to the soundtracks for Bully, Cecil B. Demented, Shadow of a Doubt, and Starship Troopers. Lemmy of Motorhead (as “Joe”) and the Nymphs’ Inger Lorre appear.
11. Eldorado (1995 drama/radio)
This Canadian grunge romp follows a disc jockey who serves as the background for multiple storylines. Lloyd is a disc jockey for an alternative station who’s in love with a bartender at a local punk club, who’s involved with a liquor store clerk. The rest of the Gen X slackers: a rollerblading criminal with a wealthy friend who cares for the homeless, and a shrink with an uncooperative patient.
Allan Moyle (Times Square; featuring Tim Curry as a DJ) moves from the pirate radio station in Pump Up the Volume and into the indie record store as the staff of twenty-somethings thwart their takeover by a nationwide chain (read: Blockbuster Music). Stars Liv Tyler, Rory Cochran (Dazed and Confused, Love and a 45), Renee Zellweger (Love and a 45), Ethan Randall (That Thing You Do!), Maxwell Caulfield (The Boys Next Door) as a washed-up, ‘80s new wave singer, and Sugarhigh’s Coyote Shivers (Down and Out with the Dolls).
13. Encino Man (1992 comedy)
Pauly Shore was an MTV VJ during the rise of the alt-rock nation, so why not? Timothy Hutton’s sci-fi flick The Iceman receives an MTV makeover with Shore and Sean Astin (Lord of the Rings) as a pair of high school geeks unearthing a caveman in a back yard pool. The Suicidal Tendencies’ alt-funk spin-off, Infectious Grooves, featuring Mike Muir (TV’s Miami Vice), perform at the prom climax.
14. Fall and Spring (1996 drama)
Cameron Crowe’s superior Singles inspired this low-budgeted Gen-X flick that’s just down the street from Eldoradoand Flounderingwith its concerns about a destructive but talented rock musician who is at odds with his bandmates (read: Kurt Cobain).
15. Floundering (1994 comedy)
John Boyz (James LeGros, Phantasm II), a Gen-X slacker, is floundering amid the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots: he can’t find a job, his unemployment ran out, the IRS is harassing him, his brother (Ethan Hawke, Reality Bites) skipped out on a drug rehab, and his girlfriend is sleeping around. Features musician cameos from Dave Alvin (Border Radio), Exene Cervenka (Salvation), Jane’s Addiction’s Dave Navarro, Zander Schloss of the Circle Jerks (Tapeheads), and director Alex Cox (Sid and Nancy). The “actors” of the cast include John Cusack (High Fidelity), Steve Buscemi (Airheads), and Olivia Barash (Repo Man).
16. The Four Corners of Nowhere (1995 comedy/radio)
In A Matter of Degrees, shenanigans at the campus radio station served as the backdrop for a group of misguided college students in Providence, Rhode Island. In Singles, the grunge rock scene of Seattle served as the backdrop. In The Four Corners of Nowhere the romantic comedy takes place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as a college radio disc jockey uses the lives and relationships of his local coffee shop friends as fodder for his radio program. It’s the usual collection of aspiring musicians, law students and artists searching for the meaning of live.
Jennifer Jason Leigh (Fast Times at Ridgemont High) teams with her screenwriter-mother, Barbara Turner, to star as Sadie, a struggling substance-addicted grunge rocker (read: Hole) living in the shadow of her popular folk-singing sister, Georgia (read: Cowboy Junkies), played by Mare Winningham. John Doe (Sugar Town) and Ted Levine (Silence of the Lambs) appear alongside the cameos of Seattle musicians Marc Olsen and Kevin Stringfellow of the Posies. The soundtrack features tunes sung by Leigh, Winningham and Doe: Doe and Leigh duet on Lou Reed’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and “Sally Can’t Dance,” while Jen solos with some Van Morrison and Elvis Costello’s “Almost Blue.”
18. Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns (2003 documentary)
The 20-year career of the John Flansburgh and John Linnell-fronted, nerd-college rock outfit They Might Be Giants is traced from its beginnings in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and up through their appearance on NBC’s Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
19. Girl (2000 drama)
The lives of the students of Porter High School are seen through the eyes of an upper class high school girl. Desperate to escape the boring world of jocks, keg parties, and the pressures of impending college, Andrea decides to take advantage of being irresponsible for one last time and discovers her womanhood for the first time. Immersing herself in the loud and dingy-grungy local club scene frequented by her hip pal Sybil, Andrea falls for the handsome, resident Cobain in Todd Sparrow, (Sean Patrick Flanery; The Boondock Saints and the Christian-rock flick Raging Angels).
20. The Gits (2005 documentary)
The Seattle-Portland scene suffered the devastating, too soon deaths of its stars: Mother Love Bone’s Andy Wood, Layne Stanley of Alice in Chains, Elliot Smith of Heatmeiser, and, of course, Kurt Cobain. But it was the senseless murder of the Gits’ Mia Zapata that brought Seattle’s music community together: in a common goal to find her killer. While the shocking, then unsolved murder of the charismatic Zapata was chronicled on several true crime/reenactment TV programs, this document offers a deeper examination into her career that was ready to break onto the national scene: just as major labels expressed interest, Mia was raped and murdered on July 7, 1993. The story follows Matt Dresdner and Zapata forming the band in the fall of 1986 at Ohio’s Antioch College and their relocation to Seattle in 1989—just before the scene exploded across mainstream America. Epic record issued the various artist compilation Home Alive: The Art of Self Defense (1996), a forty artist, two-disc CD featuring unreleased tracks by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden (Singles), 7 Year Bitch (Mad Love), and Evil Stig (“Gits Live”), an impromptu regrouping of the Gits with Joan Jett.
21. Half Japanese: The Band That Would Be King (1993 documentary)
It’s the rise of underground college radio favorites Half Japanese: We travel with Fair brothers, Jad and David, who began their careers with bedroom-recorded and distributed, low-fi songs via mail order cassette tapes. They eventual split: David marries and pursues a mainstream life as Jad’s stature grows in alt-rock circles—without the mainstream success experienced by his contemporaries. The Velvet Underground’s Mo Tucker and Penn Jillette, who produced Hap Jap albums, appear. A companion watch: The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005), which chronicles their fellow, low-fi cassette colleague, Daniel Johnson.
22. Hype! (1995 documentary)
Beginning in 1992 A.N (After Nirvana) and filmed during a three-year period, this film chronicles the rise of the Seattle scene from its local beginnings in the warehouses and basements of the Pacific Northwest, to its eventual mainstream acceptance. (The scene in which a music fan constructs a web site charting the history of Seattle bands should not be missed.) Interviews and concert clips abound with scene trailblazers: Mudhoney and the Melvins, along with the Fastbacks, the Gits, Hammerbox, Love Battery, the Posies, and Young Fresh Fellows. Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder, exclusive Soundgarden footage, and Nirvana appear in their first ever live performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Soundgarden and Pearl Jam appear in Singles and the Young Fresh Fellows show up in Rock n’ Roll Mobster Girls. Cobain serves as the inspiration in Last Days. Director Doug Pray, explores ‘90s hip hop DJs in Scratch.
23. I Am Trying To Break Your Heart (2002 documentary)
Wilco, the (well-deserved) pride of the college rock era, star in this ‘90s inversion of the Beatles’ Let It Be: Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett of the acclaimed country-alt-rockers struggle with the artistic frustrations of recording their fourth album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
24. I Crave Rock n’ Roll (1996 comedy)
Carmen Santa Maria of the band Blue Renegade produced, wrote and directed this rock inversion of The Parent Trap about a burnt-out grunge star that wants to get away for a while: the chance comes in the form of a look-alike slacker with rock ‘n’ roll aspirations. MTV VJ Nina Blackwood and Prescott Niles of the Knack appear.
In this grungy vampire flick, Dex Drags is an aspiring musician on the North Carolina (see Bandwagon) college music scene struggling with an obsessive addiction to blood. To quench his thirst between gigs: Dex munches on groupies, guitar students, and A&R executives (Greg Humphreys of N.C’s Dillon Fence), and his club-managing girlfriend. North Carolina college rockers Archers of Loaf, Reverb-a-Ray, Vertigo Joyride, June, and Squirrel Nut Zippers appear.
26. Instrument (1999 documentary)
Courtesy of music video and filmmaker Jem Cohen (R.E.MW.T Morgan, who directed the alt-essential concert doc, X—The Unheard Musicand shooting in “grungy” 16mm—we revisit the heights of the influential Washington D.C. band Fugazi’s popularity during a 10 year period from 1987 until 1996—the year the “punk broke” bubble, burst. Ian MacKaye was also the respected leader of Minor Threat and the founder of Discord records; he continually rejected overtures from major labels for signings and distribution deals for both his band and label.
27. Kurt Cobain: About a Son (2006 documentary)
As with the 2006 American-punk document American Hardcore being inspired by a book, this documentary about the grunge god was inspired by the book Kurt Cobain: About a Son. The book was drawn from twenty-five hours of audio tape interviews gathered for Micheal Azzerrad’s Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana. This isn’t the first attempt at a Nirvana document: Controversial British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield found his “tribute” Kurt & Courtney sabotaged by Ms. Love, thus it became, not a document about “Kurt,” but a chronicle of the sad hangers providing no true insight to the band. About a Son gives Kurt an opportunity to recount his life in his own words, combined with footage of his home: the Washington State cities of Aberdeen, Olympia, and Seattle that provide a new understanding into his life. The film features a score by Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, and tunes by some of Cobain’s influences: the Melvins and David Bowie.
28. Kurt & Courtney (1998 documentary)
Controversial British documentary filmmaker Nick Broomfield (Heidi Fleiss: Hollywood Madam and Fetishes) peeks into the dark corners of Kurt’s life: from his Aberdeen childhood and up through his 1992 marriage and 1994 suicide. What starts out as a conventional portrait turns into a document about Broomfield’s efforts to get the film made in spite of Love’s sabotage efforts. The film features no Nirvana tunes or interviews and MTV refused to provide footage or insight, so Bloomfield takes an unapologetic look at the grunge duo’s drug addiction and the various conspiracy theories regarding Cobain’s death: The Mentors’ El Duce claims Love tried to hire him to kill Cobain. As the wrath of Courtney continued with no definitive biographical drama in sight, Gus Van Sant formulated a loose account on Kurt’s final days in Last Days. The controversy and speculations regarding Kurt’s death continue in Soaked in Bleach (2015), while his daughter crafted Montage of Heck (2015). The Mentors: Kings of Sleaze and The El Duce Tapes (2019) chronicle El Duce’s career.
Until Gus Van Sant’s (Good Will Hunting) take on Kurt Cobain’s final days, the only cinematic document on the troubled Nirvana leader was Kurt & Courtney. As with his previous effort, Elephant, which was a thinly-veiled account of the Columbine tragedy, Van Sant crafted this faux-bioflick of Cobain’s “last days.” The narrative dispenses with the usual rise-and-fall tales of the major-studio bios Ray or Walk the Line—with Michael Pitt (Hedwig and the Angry Itch) as the mythical-rocker, Blake, of grunge superstars Pagoda, living his last days in his Pacific Northwest home. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon (1991: The Year Punk Broke) makes her dramatic acting debut, while her band mate-husband, Thurston Moore (We Jam Econo), supervised the soundtrack (they also scored France’s Demon Lover, along with Backbeat, Heavy, Made in the USA). Moore’s supervision assisted in the Cobainesque songs “That Day” and “Death to Birth” written and performed by Michael Pitt. The DVD release features an additional song, “Happy Song,” along with a mock video for Blake’s Pagoda, which recreates the Seattle-styled videos that permeated MTV’s airwaves in the 120 Minutes crazed 90’s.
30. Love and a 45 (1994 drama)
The grungy, Tarantinoesque “ultraviolence” of The Doom Generation returns—backed by an expansive alt-rock soundtrack—as Watty, a crook that makes his living robbing convenience stores, makes a run for Mexico with Starlene (Rene Zellweger) after his psycho-partner, Billy Mack (the Indian-Eagle head-tattooed Rory Cochran, Empire Records), murders a clerk. Now they’re on the run from the cops, Mack, and loan sharks to the sounds of the Butthole Surfers, a solo-bound Kim Deal of the Pixies and the Breeders, Mazzy Star, the Flaming Lips, Jesus & Mary Chain, the Meat Puppets, Reverend Horton Heat, and Television’s Tom Verlaine.
31. Mad Love (1995 drama)
Washing up on Seattle’s shores in the backwash of Singles, this grungy take on Romeo and Juliet concerns Matt and Casey (Chris O’Donnell, Drew Barrymore) as they find love, only to have it destroyed by Casey’s clinical depression. Obviously, this script met with the approval of Courtney Love: Nirvana’s “Love Buzz” appears during the opening title cards as Drew (The Wedding Singer) . . . jet skis across a lake? The grunge connection continues with Seattle rockers 7-Year Bitch (The Gits) appearing in a club scene. Selene Vigil of 7YB also thesps-dramatic in The Year of My Japanese Cousin and appears in Hype!. Her spouse, Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, contributed to the score/soundtracks of Collateral, ’98 Godzilla, and The Matrix: Reloaded.
32. Mary Jane’s Not a Virgin Anymore (1997 comedy)
Written, directed, and produced by Sarah Jacobson, we meet a Twin Cities teen, Mary Jane, who’s experiencing a sexual awakening and is on a mission to become one of the cool kids by having sex. The Dead Kennedy’s Jello Biafra (We Jam Econo) appears in this well-received Sundance Film Festival hit that was financed, in part, by Tamra Davis (CB 4, The Punk Singer), the then wife of Mike D. of the Beatsie Boys.
The first flick of the grunge generation that started it all plays as a ’90s update of The Graduate (1967), as directed by W.T Morgan, who directed the alt-essential concert doc, X—The Unheard Music. Ayre Gross stars as the lost, about-to-graduate Max who begins to question his future—and finds solace in WXOX 90.6 FM, his university’s about-to-be-torn down campus station run by Peter Downs (John Doe of X). (Be sure to check out our “John Doe Week” of film reviews.)
34. Pump Up the Volume (1990 drama/radio)
A high school loaner, nicely played by Christian Slater, leads a double life as “Hard Harry,” a sarcastic pirate disc jockey bunkered in his parent’s basement. He soon invites the wrath of the school’s administration as he begins to question the school’s operating methods. Those parents: they just don’t understand. He spins “Titanium Expose” by Sonic Youth and the Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation,” along with Soundgarden, Peter Murphy, and Henry Rollins fronting the Bad Brains on “Kick out the Jams.” It’s all from the pen of Allan Moyle, who brought you Times Square and Empire Records. Less effective ‘70s radio piracy-by-van is to be had in the USA Network/Night Flight favorite, On the Air Live with Captain Midnight.
35. The Punk Singer (2013 documentary)
An exploration on the life of one of the Pacific Northwest’s take-no-prisoners, take-no-mainstream B.S stars: musician and social activist Kathleen Hanna, the leader of the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and the founder of the ‘90s “riot grrl” movement. Kim Gordon and Joan Jett appear, along with music from the Beastie Boys and Sonic Youth. A companion watch: 2012’s Hit So Hard: The Life and Near Death of Patty Schemel—the equally don’t-give-a-fuck drummer of Hole.
36. Reality Bites (1994 comedy)
Ben Stiller’s directing debut is this Singles without-the-grunge knockoff that stars Winona Ryder as Lelaina, fresh out of college and learning about romance and careers. After she’s fired by an egomaniacal TV host, she’s romanced by Stiller’s pseudo-MTV executive, much to the disgust of Troy (Ethan Hawke), her slacker-musician roommate. Yes, this is the movie that rebooted the Knack’s career via a gas station quickie mart dance. Hawke impresses with a rendition of the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up” during a coffee house gig. MTV VJ Karen “Duff” Duffy appears as Elaina, the Lemonheads’ Evan Dando (Heavy) as Roy, and Dave Piener of Soul Asylum shows up on a couch. Steve Zahn stars in That Thing You Do! and Jeannie Garofalo stars in The Truth About Cats and Dogs.
Abbe Wool (Sid and Nancy) scripts-directs this ‘90s version of a ‘60s counterculture buddy flick that borrows from Easy Rider to chronicle the motorcycle road trip of Joe (X’s John Doe) transporting the ashes of his fellow biker pal for a Nevada burial. Along the way: Joe meets Sam (The Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz of Lost Angels) and the duo, in a similar fashion to Fonda and Hopper, meet eclectic characters.
38. Rock and Roll Mobster Girls (1988 comedy)
While Singlesis the obligatory grunge flick, this film was the original, first grunge flick before “grunge” lexicon-mainstreamed. (Those were the days no knew the meaning of grunge . . . or even cared where Seattle was.) This pseudo-This is Spinal Tap concerns the all-girl Seattle band, Doll Squad, and their brief moment of fame with the song “Psycho Girls.” The film looks back to the early 80’s, as the quintet, lead by Linx Lapaz, can’t find work and are reduced to eating out of garbage dumpsters. Their fortunes changed for the better (and even worse) when they signed with local promoter Bruno Multrock—who just so happens to be the feared psycho killer stalking Seattle. Reminiscent of numerous ‘50s rock films, it haphazardly edits stock footage, band interviews, and performances between segments to pad its non-script and short running time. It’s nice to see Scott McCaughey of Seattle’s college radio/indie-rock darlings, the Young Fresh Fellows, thespin’ on screen. Then, three years later: Seattle’s music scene exploded—punk broke!—and Singles was born.
39. Rude (1995 drama/radio)
A Canadian radio romp similar to Eldorado, only with the on air banter of a pirate radio disc jockey, Rude. He’s the plot-connective between the lives of several people living in Toronto’s tough inner city: an ex-drug dealing mural artist tries to reconnect with his family after being released from prison, an aspiring boxer destroys his career by participating in the assault of a gay man, and a woman faces the outcome of an abortion.
R.E.M’s Michael Stipe produced (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Velvet Goldmine) this loose adaptation of Andrew Wellman’s satiric Generation X novel on the price of fame and reckless tabloid journalism. Stephen Dorff (Blade) is the apathetic-reluctant hero, Cliff Spab, whose catch phases—his stock answer to everything is “So Fucking What”—during his captivity of a televised hostage crisis, transforms him into a media sensation. Australian rockers Mantissa (‘90s hit “Mary, Mary”) appear through a quick video clip, but fail to appear on the soundtrack, which features Soundgarden with “Jesus Christ Pose” and Radiohead with “Creep,” along with Babes in Toyland, GWAR, Hole, and Marilyn Manson.
41. Singles (1992 comedy)
Cameron Crowe’s pen captured the ‘70s with Almost Famous and the ‘80s with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, so it follows he’d chronicle the ‘90s in this grungy-hybrid of the U.S TV series Friends and Beverly Hills 91210—about a group of friends in a Seattle apartment complex. Resident Matt Dillon (Over the Edge) stars as a grunge hopeful with his band, Citizen Dick. The grunge comes by way of Alice in Chains (“It Ain’t Like That,” “Would”) and Soundgarden (“Birth Ritual”) on film, while Mudhoney, Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, and Screaming Trees are on the soundtrack.
42. Slaves to the Underground (1997 drama)
The fourth and final northwestern film in the unofficial “grunge flick” cycle, proceeded by Rock N’ Roll Mobster Girls, Singlesand Georgia(and not counting the documentaries Hype! and Kurt & Courtney). Shelly and Suzy are two musicians in the Seattle music scene, in love and leading the band, No Exits. When Shelly decides to get back with her slacker ex-boyfriend/fanzine publisher, the band begins to fall apart under Suzy’s jealousy. If you want more troubled female rock groups, check out Scenes from the Goldmine (1987) and Ladies and Gentlemen: The Fabulous Stains (1982).
43. Suburbia (1997 drama)
Actor/writer Eric Bogosian adapted his stage play Talk Radio for the big screen and repeats the process with this grungy tale of ‘90s angst-ridden teens facing an uncertain future—directed by Richard Linklater of the ‘70s coming-of-age flick, Dazed and Confused. A group of Gen-X’ers deal with life after high school the only way they know how: hanging out in the parking lot of local quickie mart. When their grungy-folk singer buddy returns home as a successful rock star, they realize their aimless lives. The soundtrack: Sonic Youth, Beck, Skinny Puppy (The Doom Generation), Superchunk, Butthole Surfers and Flaming Lips.
44. Velvet Goldmine (1998 drama)
R.E.M’s Michael Stipe producerd (Happiness and Saved) this fictitious tome based on ‘70s rock idols David Bowie and Iggy Pop, as personified by glam rocker Brian Slade and his band Venus in Furs and U.S garage-punk, Kurt Wylde. The New York Doll’s “Personality Crisis” and “20th Century Boy” by T.Rex are reinterpreted by ‘90s alt-rockers Teenage Fanclub and Placebo. Placebo appears as “T.Rex” to perform their soundtrack entry. Grant Lee Buffalo’s “The Whole She-Bang,” Radiohead’s Tom Yorke’s “Sebastian,” and Shutter to Think’s “The Ballad of Maxwell Demon” double for Slade’s “Bowie.” Writing and performing the music for the Kurt Wylde and the Wylde Rats is an alternative supergroup featuring Mudhoney’s Mark Arm, Ron Asherton of the Stooges, Mike Watt of Firehose, Don Fleming of Gumball, along with Thurston Moore and Steve Shelly of Sonic Youth; most of which did the same for the Beatles’ “what if” flick, Backbeat.
45. The Vigil (for Kurt Cobain) (1994 drama)
The fact that the company incorporated to produce this film is called “Come As You Are, Ltd.” should clue you in that this low-budget Canadian film is concerned with a group of Nirvana fans that travel from Lethbridge, Alberta to Seattle for Cobain’s vigil. Caveat emptor: Courtney Love wasn’t on board, so no Nirvana songs appear in the film; however that doesn’t stop the film’s message about the love of music. Caveat #2: The trip to Seattle is merely a backdrop for the emotional decay between two brothers, so if you’re expecting a full-on man-love tribute to Cobain, keep on driving south to Portland. The Canadian alt-rock one-hit wonder by the Pursuit of Happiness (“I’m an Adult Now”) and Bughouse 5 spins.
46. We Jam Econo (2005 documentary)
While major label acts like Guns N’ Roses take 11 years to release an album, the Minutemen—a little rock trio from San Pedro, California—issued an amazing 11 albums during their 5 year existence. Eighteen years after the tragic death of leader D. Boon in a December 1985 van accident, the band receives a justified document of their accomplishments that revisits from its 1979 inception, to its opening tour slot for then hot college radio-to-mainstream darlings, R.E.M. Features appearances from Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat/Fugazi (Another State of Mind, Instrument), Henry Rollins, Thurston Moore (1991: The Year Punk Broke), Jello Biafra (Terminal City Ricochet) of the Dead Kennedys, Mascis of Dinosaur, Jr., Richard Hell of the Voidoids, and John Doe of X.
47. Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995 comedy)
Dawn Wiener is the picked-upon ugly duckling middle child who falls in love with high school hunk, Steve Rogers, the front man of her brother’s garage band, the Quadratics. The ‘60s garage rock-cum-grunge-inspired soundtrack is courtesy of Daniel Ray (producer of Ramones) who wrote the original tunes “Sweet Candy” and “Welcome to the Dollhouse.”
48. Won’t Anybody Listen (2001 documentary)
This feature-length chronicle stared out as a video project for a California rock band to be sold at concerts, but evolved into an in-depth study on the hard truths about the music industry. The film follows the dreams of the Rogala brothers, Frank and Vince, who left Michigan for California, in the hopes they would secure a contract for their band NC-17. What follows is a sad portrait of the fate that befalls musicians: dead-end part time jobs, slick managers, and nothing to show for the hard work.
49. X-Gen (2006 comedy)
And the tales of the Grunge-filled Generation X years continue—a decade after its demise. This time it’s the trials and tribulations of Kirk (read: Kurt, as in Cobain) as he loses his friend to a new suburban, sell-out lifestyle of mini-vans and khakis. All Kirk wants is to sit back with his bud and have a bottle of his favorite beer, “Eddie’s Black Circle” (read: title derived from the singer of Pearl Jam and its hit, “Spin the Black Circle”), and listen to grunge music—but everyone is obsessed with the immensely popular boy band, “Teen Spirit.” As for Kirk’s sell-out friends: they think all Kirk needs is a hit of X-Gen, a new designer drug that helps everyone “deal.”
50. The Year of My Japanese Cousin (1995 comedy)
Stevie is a singer with little talent and lots of attitude as she fronts a Seattle grunge band, Scuba Boy. Her leadership of the band is threatened when Yukari, her musically gifted cousin from Japan, visits and joins as guitarist. The band’s fortunes change when they get a video deal, but at the expense of Stevie possibly losing her boyfriend and guitarist to Yukari. Selene Vigil of 7 Year Bitch (Mad Love) and Kurt Bloch of Seattle’s Fastbacks appear.
Even though they were released—and loved—during the grungy ’90s, and/or had soundtracks that appealed to Gen-X’ers, these films took place outside of the “‘90s,” in most cases, and were not concerned with the “grunge” era: Another State of Mind, The Basketball Diaries, Dazed and Confused, The Decline of Western Civilization, duBeat-e-o, Dudes, High Fidelity, Kids, Mallrats, Scenes from the Goldmine, SLC Punk!, The Stoned Age, Suburbia (‘83), Ten Things I Hate About You, Terminal City Ricochet, and Trainspotting.
You need more rock ‘n’ roll on film? Then check out our musical tributes:
About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.
Banner by R.D Francis. Overlay courtesy of PineTools.com and text courtesy of PicFont.com. Cobain image available on multiple websites. All “Rock ‘n’ Roll Week” banners credited on those individual pieces.
Editor’s Update: April 2022: Now it makes sense! The reason for the recent flurry of hits on this review is the official streaming release of Rocktober Blood on Shudder and its simultaneous, limited-edition VHS reissue by Culture Shock Releasing. Grazie, to the fine folks at Lo-Fi Video for the heads up. There’s also an online event screening — courtesy of Nightmare Junkhead — of Rocktober Blood and Black Roses as a “double featrue” via Shudder on April 30th to enjoy with your fellow “No False Metal” fans.
Every Halloween, without fail, I pop in the (VHS, natch) copies of two of my favorite movies from my youth: Phantasm and Rocktober Blood. Then, this past Halloween evening, as I pecked online at information about both films, I was shocked to learn that the voice behind Billy Eye Harper, British-to-L.A. glam vocalist Nigel Benjamin, passed away at the age of 64. (Double shock: Five days later, Nigel’s ex-London bandmate, Lizzie Grey, died on August 5th; you can read up on Lizzie on Wikipedia.)
Back in July 2017, as part of B&S Movies’ “No False Metal Movies Week,” Sam took a look at Rocktober Blood. There’s nothing more that can be said about the plot and acting of the film, so for this remembrance of Nigel, we’ll dig a little bit deeper into where Nigel came from and how he came to be the voice of Billy Eye Harper.
While the glut of video-direct heavy-metal horror films varied in script, acting, and production-value quality, some with greater financial resources than the Sebastians, there is a unique quality to the Sebastians’ vision of Rocktober Blood that the others don’t possess: unlike their celluloid brethren, which grafted the preexisting song catalogs of Michael Angelo Batio (Shock ‘Em Dead), Fastway (Trick or Treat), King Kobra and Lizzy Borden (Black Roses), the Names (Terror on Tour), Thor (Rock ‘n’ Roll Nightmare), and Paul Sabu (Hard Rock Zombies) to double for their film’s faux-rock stars, the soundtrack for Rocktober Blood featured all-original tunes that reflected and drove the film’s plot.
Those fan-worshiped original tunes of “Killer on the Loose,” “Rainbow Eyes,” and “I’m Back” were penned by Sorcery (who also starred in the film as Billy’s band Headmistress), a metal band that cut their teeth on L.A.’s Sunset Strip alongside Mammoth/Wolfgang—the nascent version of Van Halen that opened Sorcery’s earliest shows. Sorcery, with then frontman David Glen Eisley, received their first taste of national recognition with their appearance on an early-‘80s Dick Clark-produced Halloween television special and honed their acting and soundtrack chops in 1978’s Stunt Rock (be sure to check out Sam’s 2019 “Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge: Day 16: Rock ‘n’ Roll Miscreants” review; Yeah, it’s true: we friggin’ love Sorcery over here at B&S Movies).
However, prior to filming and recording the music for Rocktober Blood, in which Eisley would have appeared as the “vocals” of Billy Eye Harper, Eisley joined ex-Angel keyboardist-founder Greg Guiffria’s eponymous band that scored a 1984 MTV video and U.S Top 40 radio hit with “A Call to Your Heart.”
Stepping in for Eisley was a singer who, to make ends meet as he scratched by with his rock ’n’ roll dreams, took up acting as his “day job.” Like Rick Springfield (for U.S television series), Kim Milford (Song of the Succubus), and Lane Caudell (Hanging on a Star) before him, Nigel Benjamin, while waiting for that big hit record, got his first acting job as Chris, the manager and producer of Billy Eye Harper.
As with Springfield (who recorded and toured with Australia’s Zoot), Kim Milford (who replaced Rod Stewart in the Jeff Beck Group), and Lane Caudell (several singles-only deals as a solo artist; fronted Player precursors Skyband), Nigel Benjamin’s rock ’n’ roll pedigree was his replacing Ian Hunter in Mott the Hoople from 1975 to 1976 for two albums as the truncated Mott and touring the world with Humble Pie, Judas Priest, Kiss, REO Speedwagon, and Thin Lizzy.
Benjamin’s first bands in the early seventies were the London Southend-based glam-groups Grot and Fancy; after issuing their 1973 single “Starlord,” Fancy transformed into the Billion Dollar Band, and then Royce. After Mott’s demise (to become British Lions with Ray Major on lead vocals) Benjamin formed English Assassin; signed to Arista Records, they recorded a still unreleased album. The one English Assassin “album” that did see a release was Just for the Record, a 1978 solo album by famed British motorcycle and film stuntman Eddie Kidd—an album that English Assassin backed and Benjamin produced. (Kidd did his own “Stunt Rock” music n’ stunts movie, 1981’s Riding High (full film/You Tube).
After relocating from England to Los Angeles, the city’s nascent hair-metal scene adopted Benjamin and he fronted the infamous London—a band with an ever-evolving roster that, while never scoring a deal of their own, served as a rock ’n’ roll boot camp for musicians who joined the more commercially successful bands of Cinderella, Guns N’ Roses, and W.A.S.P.
Then, one day, Nigel Benjamin’s ex-London bandmate, bassist Nikki Sixx (who also went through the ranks of Circus Circus and Sister alongside Blackie Lawless, later of W.A.S.P, and Lizzie Grey), was forming his next band: Mötley Crüe. Benjamin, in interviews over the years, expressed there was no love lost between him and Sixx. So when Sixx asked Nigel to join the “new band” as lead vocalist, Nigel turned him down. Despondent, Sixx and his drummer, Tommy Lee, went to a rock club and saw a cover band, Rock Candy, with a tall lean, blonde-belter named Vince Neil: Mötley Crüe was born.
Nigel Benjamin was then hired for his first acting job as “Chris” in Rocktober Blood for a non-singing role. While some web-Intel indicated Benjamin was reluctantly drafted—after being hired as an actor—to become the “vocals” of Billy Eye Harper, what really happened: Benjamin came onto the film as a production assistant, then stepped in to handle the vocals for Billy Eye, and then was given a part in the film. According to Benjamin, regardless of the band’s onset bragging about their “career,” Benjamin claims he never heard of Sorcery until meeting them on the film set. And while Sorcery believed Benjamin “joined” the band, Benjamin insists he never joined and wanted no part of the band. (Another person Benjamin met for the first time on the Rocktober Blood set was Mötley Crüe’s future drummer, Tommy Lee, brought to the set by a visiting Nikki Sixx. Nigel came to date the sister of Tommy Lee’s future wife, actress Heather Locklear; the Locklear sisters and Benjamin eventually shared a home.)
So, why didn’t Nigel Benjamin change acting roles and portray Billy Eye Harper in the film instead of having another actor lip-sync his vocals?
Well, Sebastian International Pictures was a family affair. While their son, Benjamin, worked behind the scenes on their film’s business and technical aspects and took on occasional, small support roles, their younger son, Tracy, always appeared in the family’s films as a co-star or lead actor. Making his early-teens debut in Flash and the Firecat, Tracy had his first leading man role in the Sebastians’ other rock ’n’ roll flick: On the Air Live with Captain Midnight, a film best known to the over-50 crowd from its incessant early-Eighties airings on the USA Cable Network’s weekend-night rock video programming block, Night Flight. (Other oft repeated rock movies on the program were Rocktober Blood, the Ramones’ Rock ’n’ Roll High School, and Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains; meanwhile, the Sebastians also made the redneck romp, ‘Gator Bait.)
For many years the fans of Rocktober Blood—those unaware of Nigel Benjamin’s musical past—believed Tracy Sebastian, who starred in the film under his stage name of Trey Loren, sang the vocals and the ersatz-Headmistress was a real band. Exasperating the confusion as to who composed and performed the film’s songs: the film’s scant opening titles sequence and end credits failed to properly credit the musicians. The names of Sorcery’s guitarists Richard Taylor and Lou Cohen, bassist Richie King and drummer Perry Morris appear—without a reference to their band; the same holds true for the uncredited vocals for Donna Scoggins’s Lynn Starling character by Susie Rose Major—which fans believe were done by Scoggins. In addition: some minor, incidental tunes heard throughout the film in the background of various scenes (appearing in-full on the subsequent vinyl-only soundtrack) were recorded by Susie’s band Facedown—with Susie and her fellow band members of Paul Bennett, Michael Zionch, and Barry Brandt (ex-Angel drummer) receiving no credits and, as result of the way the credits read in the film, for many years fans were lead to believe the members of Sorcery wrote and performed the tunes that Facedown contributed to the soundtrack.
During an interview with the online publication Full In Bloom, Nigel Benjamin had this to say about his Rocktober Blood experience:
“[There’s] nothing to tell. They [Sorcery] asked me to sing the songs for Tracy Sebastian to lip-sync to, [and] then somehow thought that I had joined them! [Then,] when I got asked to star in the movie, they [Sorcery] wouldn’t pay me to finish singing because I was being paid to act! I stopped singing, [and] they [Sorcery] lost the gig. I finished the soundtrack with Pat Regan, my then keyboard player [which was the band Eyes]. I didn’t know who Sorcery was. Nobody I knew did either. According to [the guys in Sorcery] they were huge . . . go figure. Some of the guys were cool, though.”
And from Just a Buzz, a Mott the Hoople fansite, Benjamin had this to say about the film:
“If it had been a little bit worse, it would have been a cult classic. It was just not quite bad enough to be bad. I’ll tell you something very strange about it, though. I acted in it, I was a production assistant in it, I sang some of the soundtrack, and I wrote some of the music — but I still did not know the story until I went to the screening. I never saw a script for more than twenty minutes before I was supposed to do it, and any script they gave me the night before changed to a completely different scene the next morning. I went to the movie screening and I had no idea what the movie was about until it was all finished!”
(Benjamin’s insights seem to explain how Susie Rose Major’s Las Vegas-based Facedown came to contribute “Watch Me Rock,” “Would You Let Me Touch You,” “You Can’t Kill Rock ’n’ Roll,” and “High School Boys”: Sorcery was fired from the film and the Sebastians needed songs to fill out their proposed—and poorly distributed—film soundtrack.)
So where are the members of Headmistress, now?
Riba Meryl, who co-wrote the faux-rock epic “Rainbow Eyes” with Sorcery’s Richard Taylor, became an actress and portrayed “Janis Joplin” in the speculative 1984 rock ’n’ roll conspiracy flick Down on Us (released to video in 1989 as Beyond the Doors to cash-in on the film’s Jim Morrison connection (full movie/You Tube) and on a 1987 episode of the rock ’n’ roll U.S television series Throb (trailer/You Tube and “Death Be Not Weird” episode/You Tube). After her lone, non-Janis character acting role in 1987’s Banzai Runner (full movie/You Tube), Meryl concentrated on television and film session work and contributed the song “Brand New Start” to a 1989 cop-murder drama, The Jigsaw Murders (full movie/You Tube). Sadly, Riba passed away in 2007 at the age of 52 from breast cancer. (Why didn’t Riba Meryl provide the vocals for the song she wrote? We may never know.)
Donna Scoggins, who made her only acting appearance as Lynn Starling, went onto a highly successful international modeling career, and then became an equally successful copywriter in corporate advertising.
As for the voice behind Lynn Starling: Susie Rose Major is still rocking in 2019. Most recently, Susie provided guest-lead vocals for the cleverly-named Quint (remember 1975’s Jaws?) that recorded the original tunes “Bad Asser,” “Brand New You,” “Great White Skies,” and “Hell on Wheels” for the SyFy Channel’s Sharknado film series. Quint, by the way, is led by Robbie Rist, best known to the over-50 crowd as “Cousin Oliver” from the early-Seventies American TV-comedy series The Brady Bunch. (Suzi’s tunes are on Soundcloud.)
Uh-oh. Shameless Plug Alert: Watch out for B&S Movies’ “Shark Week” coming January 5 – 11, 2020.
After his stint with Mott, Nigel Benjamin formed the band Satyr with bassist Chuck Wright (ex-Rough Cutt, Quiet Riot, Greg Guiffria’s House of Lords), then Eyes (Satyr without Wright; along with Bob Steffan, guitars; John Telsco, bass; Pat Reagan, keyboards; Richard Onri, drums—they appear on the Rocktober Blood soundtrack), and then gave up the rock ’n’ roll dream and retired from the music business. Working behind the scenes as a session musician, Benjamin found success in designing and building recording studios; he came out of hiding in 2003 to appear as an expert car builder and TV personality alongside Jesse James (Sandra Bullock’s ex) on Monster Garage, one of U.S television’s earliest reality series. Benjamin then returned to making music with the digital-only albums (on Soundcloud): Buffalo, In the Absence of God, and Relentless Hammer of Dreams.
As for the members of Sorcery (Facebook): They went onto successful careers as session musicians in the television and film industry; inspired by his band’s newly acquired Internet fan base, drummer Perry King continues to market Sorcery’s music and movie catalog in the digital realm. And while Nigel Benjamin claimed to never hearing of Sorcery before their meeting via Rocktober Blood, it turned out that horror film director Eli Roth did—and was a fan: he used two of Sorcery’s Stunt Rock-era tunes, “Talking to the Devil” and “Sacrifice,” in 2015’s Knock Knock (part of B&S Movies “Exploring: Slasher Remakes” roundup) and 2018’s Death Wish.
Yeah, heaven’s rockin’ just a little bit harder. We’ll miss you, Nigel. You are the king of the faux rock stars we love at B&S Movies.
Nigel Benjamin Sept 12, 1954 ~ July 31, 2019
Yeah. We love this movie! So much so we investigated — as part of our “Box Office Failures Week” of reviews — the production beleaguered proposed sequel, Rocktober Blood 2: Billy’s Revenge, as well as its Italian Giallo re-imaging for the Euro-marketplace as Seven Notes of Terror.
And don’t forget to check out Sam’s reviews for these great “No False Metal” movies that we love:
Day 24 Short Attention Span Theatre: Watch some shorts or anthology things
My Dr. Jekyll promised that my celluloid Mr. Hyde would not spree a master thesis portmanteau for this Scarecrow Challenge with an embarrassing display of my obsessions for the British anthology oeuvre of Milton Subtosky and Freddie Francis. And my nostalgia for celluloid with Amicus and Hammer title cards. And of my indifference to most any modern horror omnibus patch-hack jobs lost in the shadows cast by Dead of Night (1945). And that I would not lecture you on the literary-influence minutiae of the Gothic short-fiction and anthologies of Ambrose Bierce, Sherdian Le Fanu, Nikolai Gogol, Gaston LeRoux and Guy de Mausspaunt, along with the psychological-fictions of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Yes, Goethe and Gogol were right: I’ll never be satisfied. I’ll never be satiated by any modern anthology of psychological, slasher, or British horror-cloned short stories patched together with an asthmatic-weak—or eschewing all together, a strong and crucial—linking device to hypnotically float the viewer through five chilling stories. Or short-sell me with three stories. Or arduously torture me with seven stories. We know that it’s cheaper to film three stories instead of five and it’s special effects-economical to shorten your tales and create seven stories. You can’t fool us.
An jidaigeki or “period drama,” this Japanese ghost tale is based Ugetsu Monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain), an Edo-period 1776 collection of nine supernatural tales by the Japanese author Udea Akinari, itself based on supernatural tales from the Ming Dynasty (1300 to 1600s).
Unlike most anthologies working with a patchwork of three to five tales with no colligative narrative outside of a loose wrapping device, director Kenji Mizoguchi (you know his 1941 film The 47 Ronin via the 1994 Japanese and 2013 American remakes) chose to work with two segments from his literary inspiration: “House Amid the Thicket” and “Lust of the White Serpent.” He binds them as one fluid story—not two separate tales lacking a narrative-relationship beyond an antagonistic storyteller serving a comeuppance to the morally defective.
“Lust of the White Serpent,” with its tale about a succubus as an incognito princess who takes advantage of a man’s lustful desires and disloyalty, serves as the tale’s prologue, while “The House Amid the Thicket,” deals with a man who returns after a long absence on his greedy quest, only to meet the ghost of his dead wife. In addition to Udea’s book, Kenji wove Guy de Maupassant’s 1883 short-narrative Décoré!, a tale about a man who greedily sacrifices his family with his obsession to become a great, honored warrior: he does; and in “payment” his neglected wife becomes a prostitute.
Set in the 16th century, Genjūrō, a poor potter with greedy dreams, takes his wares into the city with his friend, Tōbei, who dreams of leaving his humble farming community to become a samurai. A sage warns Miyagi, Genjūrō’s wife, on the dangers of her husband’s greed and that he must work with the village to prepare for an attack. Genjūrō and dismisses the warning and instead works long hours to finish a pottery lot.
As predicted: the army destroys the village. Not even the aftermath of the attack that uprooted Genjūrō and Tōbei’s families squelches Genjūrō’s greed; he continues obsessing over achieving wealth through his wares. This takes the two families on a supernatural journey, as they first encounter a boat-stranded ghost across a fog-shrouded lake that warned them to go back to their homes; instead Genjūrō and Tōbei return their wives to shore and abandon them as they continue onward to sell the pottery. After taking his share of the profits, Tōbei buys samurai wares and becomes part of a clan. Meanwhile, his wife, Ohama, is raped by soldiers.
Not only greed envelops Genjūrō, but lust appears in the personification of a noblewoman and her female servant. They order several pieces of pottery on behalf of Lady Wakasa, as the cursed Kutsuki mansion that was attacked by soldiers that murdered all who live there, is being rebuilt. Lady Wakasa seduces Genjūrō; assuming his wife and child, in the midst of the upheaval in his land, are dead: he marries her. However, Miyagi and her son are, in fact, alive: she too is attacked by starving soldiers on the quest for food and she’s murdered with her son abandoned (and adopted by others).
The cowardly Tōbei, so desperate for fame, steals the severed head of a general to present to his commander. When he returns home to show his wife he achieved his goals, he discovers that, in order to survive in his absence, she became a prostitute.
Genjūrō meets his comeuppance as well. A priest tells him that the noblewoman is a ghost and Genjūrō discovers that his new wife, Lady Wakasa, and her servant are ghosts—and the Kutsuki mansion burned to the ground months prior. A broken man, he returns home to search for his wife, and he finds her, but comes to discover that, she too, is a ghost. She whispers to him, “I am always with you,” and he continues to make his wares, trapped by the outcome of his greed.
Ugetsu became available for the first time as Region 1 DVD in a two-disc DVD through The Criterion Collection (2005). For the horror fans across the pond: Eureka Entertainment issued a Region 2 DVD as part of their Masters of Cinema series (2008; 2012 Blu-ray). There’s a rip of the Criterion version on Daily Motion. VHS purists can search the aftermarket for the subtitled tape issued by Home Vision Entertainment.
You usually do not hear critics drop the words “beautiful” and “stunning” in the dark realms of horror anthologies (not even for the ’70 Amicus ones), but those other films aren’t Masaki Kobayashi’s hauntingly lush, 160-minute supernatural tale. He breaks away from the omnipresent five-story tales (and the cheap jack three-story tales) with an ingenious “nature” metaphor: he tells four stories set during a different season of the year. This celluloid feast for the senses of Japanese Edo-period horror tales (“Kwaidan” translates as Ghost Tales or Ghost Stories) are adapted from Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1903) by Greek short-story purveyor Lafacadio Hearn, who has a propensity for writing stories based on his love of the orient and his adopted home of New Orleans, Louisiana.
While many U.S horror fans, as with Ugetsu, have not heard of Kwaidan, Hollywood’s directors sure have: déjà vu is in full effect with these tales of Kobayashi’s masterpiece, which inspired many post-witch and vampire tales in its mists. In particular: Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990; the production team is also responsible for the EC Comics omnibus Creepshow 2) lifts Kwaidan’s second story (that’s missing from the 125 minute-chopped DVD reissue) for its own third story, which gooey-trashes Kobayashi’s ethereal vampire tale with a head-tearing incubus-gargoyle.
So caveat emptor ye consumer-shelf stuffers of physical media: While Kwaidan’s two hour forty minute run time grossly violates the Scarecrow Video “short attention span” edict for this 24th day of this Psychotronic Halloween celebration, avoid the 125-minute prints at all costs and stick with the original 160-minute version. Ah, but double caveat: the 1964 original, 183-minute edit is now commercially available.
The seasonal-supernatural linked tales begin—and harkens the earlier fate of Genjūrō and Miyagi in Ugetsu: In “The Black Hair”: A man leaves his faithful wife for his own adulterous pursuits, when he returns to her years later; he discovers she is a ghost.
In the next season, it’s the tale of “The Woman of the Snow” (the story that’s missing from the 125-minute print): A weary traveler who, as did Genjūrō, encounters his own “Lady Wakasa”; he’ll survive his encounter with the alluring vampire if he promises to never speak of her existence.
As the seasons change, we learn of the fate of “Hoichi the Earless”: A traveling madrigal doesn’t get what he expects when he covers his body in magical symbols to protect himself from evil spirits.
Finally, the seasons comes full circle “In a Cup of Tea”: A samurai quenches his thirst, only to discover he’s now possessed by a warrior’s ghost cast inside the teacup.
Janus Film’s The Criterion Collection completed a 2K restoration of Kwaidan (DVD and Blu-ray) of the original, three-hour Japanese version that was initially cut to 160 minutes for its 1965 U.S premiere. It’s the first time the 183-minute version has been commercially available. You can watch this restored version via the official You Tube page of Janus Films VOD and purchase direct from The Criterion Collection.
And while we’re talking Edo-period Japanese ghost-horror stories (but it’s not an anthology): I’d like to suggest Onibaba (1964; Demon Hag) as a companion watch to Ugetsu and Kwaidan. I will give you no plot spoilers on this masterpiece of horror. You can watch the trailer and the subtitled DVD rip on You Tube. Another masterpiece written and directed by Kaneto Shindo is the equally creepy Kuroneko (1968; The Black Cat). There’s no online rip, but you can watch the trailer on You Tube. You can learn more about Shindo and his two films with this 15 minute documentary on You Tube.
About the Author:You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook.
I normally write for blog called Grindhouse theology, which deals almost exclusively with ‘the intersection of Christian faith and horror Cinema’. On paper, Revenge of the Nerds is a comedy, which means I’m outside my comfort zone. It is a comedy, I guess, maybe in the Twilight Zone, or some other dystopian nightmare world where affluent young men run amok in the streets, hunting for food and flesh – any flesh – to douse the fire that travels their veins.
It’s a comedy for old Rome, perhaps. Juvenal would have eaten it up. The sordid tale of a motley crew of randy young misfits who get even at the frat boy troglodytes who slighted them – and their sorority girlfriends. There’s potential in a setup like that. And it hearkens back to the classic works of Petronius, or the Priapus poems, one of which goes like this:
Hey you, who can’t keep your looting hands off the garden that’s been entrusted to me:
The magistrate’s randy sidekick will go in and out of you until your gate’s permanently wider.
Two more will be waiting at your side, who’ve enriched themselves with a pretty pair of pricks from the public purse.
They’ll delve in you painfully as you lie there.
Then a bawdy donkey no less well-supplied with a dong will take his turn.
So if a criminal has any sense, he’ll watch out, since he knows how many dicks are waiting for him.
Those were difficult times, at least for anyone who wasn’t male, virile, and noble-born. Actually, they were difficult for everyone. The male, virile, and noble-born were under extraordinary pressure to remain virile and remarkably ignoble, lest they be unmasked -by their peers as ‘weak-willed’ or ‘womanly’. Such indiscretions were punished harshly in the court of public opinion, usually by rape, since the only thing an ‘effeminate’ man was good for in the old Roman imagination was to function as a fetish-toy for a brawnier chap, whose appetites could never be satiated by his wife alone, or the household slaves, or the neighbor boy. There was a finely-tuned ecosystem whereby the bullied stayed bullied and the bullies stayed bullies, lest their distaste from bullying land them under the thumb somebody stronger and crueler.
In that universe, perhaps Revenge of the Nerds would be a light comedy, perfect for a rainy Sunday afternoon. In the one we inhabit, however, it’s about as terrifying as the newest Stephen King adaptation. Not least because the final act features a rather grim sexual assault played for laughs.
One of the nerds, Lewis, disguises himself as Stan, a frat-boy bully, and sleeps with Betty, Stan’s girlfriend. I remember being thirteen and laughing uproariously with my pals as Lewis dons the costume Stan had worn and Betty invites him to bed. It was funny, you see, because he was a guy, and we identified with him, because we were misfits too, and we were guys, so we identified with him, but she was a girl, you see, and and she was ‘stuck up’, you see, and we didn’t identify with her, we identified with him. So it was funny, you see, because he got her in the end, because he got the sex out of her even though she didn’t give it to him. It’s funny, get it? It’s funny because he didn’t have to ask for sex to get it.
I’m not sure in what universe that’s funny, but it was whichever universe my friends and I lived in when we were thirteen and terrible. And we didn’t live in old Rome.
We lived in approximately the same universe we live in now. The universe in which Revenge of the Nerds was a smash hit, taking in $60 million on a $6 million budget. In which men and women flocked to the theaters to see a movie where some misfits get revenge on some ‘stuck-up’ college girls by having sex with them against their will. We live in the universe where people laughed, in the theater, and in the upstairs room of my childhood home. And people still laugh, because it’s funny, apparently.
Which is to say, we live in the Twilight Zone, or something worse than the Twilight Zone. We’re inhabitants of a nightmare world, but not the one we read about EC Comics and penny dreadfuls. It isn’t yesterday’s nightmare world, like old Rome was. We live in today’s nightmare world. And we must, because we live in whatever world it is in which Revenge of the Nerds is a comedy.
I’m tempted to say that it hearkens back to a time in which women were simply collateral amidst the push-and-shove of a male-dominated culture. And that’s half-right. My degree is in religion, and the religious texts produced in antiquity are almost ubiquitously haunted by collateral rape, wartime rape, rape as a tactic employed in ‘total war’ against an enemy tribe or nation. There is no excusing this, no letting the Ancient Near East off the hook for their monstrosities. But it’s common practice, when reading such texts, to make note of these horrific features, remind oneself of its ubiquity in ancient literature, and then seek to contextualize them within the narratives that we find them in order to understand the authorial intent, the ‘message of the texts’. But while it may be appropriate to do so for ancient texts, the same privileges probably shouldn’t be afforded to screwball comedies released in 1984 as are afforded to the Epic of Gilgamesh.
Not because the principal doesn’t carry over, but because it does. Revenge of the Nerds does hearken back to a male-dominated culture in which women were collateral damage amassed in male-oriented affairs. That’s an important piece of context. The makers of Revenge of the Nerds were not uniquely rapey. They were approximately as rapey as the culture from which they emerged.
And it wasn’t just yesterday, either. Another, funnier film, Pirate Radio, which was released in 2009, features a subplot in which a teenager named Carl admits to his friends that he’s a virgin. Naturally, a virgin is the worst thing that a young man can be, so his friends vow to use all of the resources at their disposal to see to it that he becomes unvirgin before their time together comes to an end.
The most valiant of them all, Dave, concocts a foolproof plan: one night, when he has a woman over, they begin to have sex, before he declares that he has to step out for a moment. While he is out, they send in young Carl to finish the job while the lights are off. “She’ll never know the difference,” Dave says, and pats him on the back, and the theater in which I saw the movie laughed riotously, and I laughed riotously, as recently as 2009. It’s easy to forget how recently we were all basically cool with things like ‘groping’ and, apparently, even ‘rape-by-deception’.
I say that we were all basically cool with it, but we weren’t. Or some of us weren’t. But I wasn’t one of them, and you probably weren’t either. In 2009, I wasn’t a Women’s Studies professor, or a feminist theologian, and I wasn’t one of the people who valued their input. You probably weren’t either. It’s easy, now, to hammer out snarky tweets about ‘rape culture’, forgetting that we were part of the problem, like, 10 minutes ago, and blind to the fact that we’re probably part of the problem now.
We’re in the midst of Hollywood shakedown that should have come ages sooner, but didn’t, because most folks are like you and me, and didn’t know, or didn’t care what was going on, and wouldn’t have said or done anything if we did know. We watched Revenge of the Nerds and Pirate Radio and other classic comedies that would be ghastly horror pictures in a universe with a conscience. And we laughed, because we lived in a nightmare world and we were used to it. Because we built it, because worlds are built out of the people that inhabit them. Even nightmare worlds, and we were the nightmare.
In 1987, Kim Basinger appeared in Blake Edwards’ Blind Date with Bruce Willis.
In 1988, she appeared in Richard Benjamin’s My Stepmother is an Alien with Dan Aykroyd.
In both films, she plays nearly the same role: a woman so devastatingly gorgeous, she decimates the brains of weak-willed men everywhere before settling for a man who obviously the worst possible mate for her — falling in the kind of love that transforms your life in under 24 hours.
But she has one downside: she is an utter moron, almost unable to comprehend how the most basic of societal behavior should be observed. In Blind Date, it’s alcohol that’s to blame. One drink and her character, Nadia, loses control. In My Stepmother…, her character Celeste is an alien. That’s not a spoiler if it’s in the title of the movie. And while she’s been placed on Earth to either capture a signal that will fix the gravity on her world or destroy the planet, she seems developmentally challenged throughout the entire film.
It’s as if no woman could be both gorgeous and competent, even if she was able to pilot a starship the whole way here.
The similarities in films even extends to the hero’s brother and best pal. Blind Date features SNL star Phil Hartman as Willis’ sibling, where Stepmother has SNL star Jon Lovitz as Aykroyd’s brother.
Despite her foibles, she’s presented as an inherently good person in both films. But in now way do you watch and see her as a real person, someone who can be more than a sexual object, which is probably the whole point of 1980s comedy, one supposes.
PS – The real story behind My Stepmother is an Alien is even more insane than you could ever dream. It involves a screenwriter named only Jerico, alien stepfathers, trying to become a superhero and what one can only imagine are massive amounts of drugs. I can’t do it justice — read for yourself!