Mini-Review: Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
by Steve Habrat
In the radioactive fallout from Toho Co.’s 1954 smash Godzilla, the famed Kaiju production company slowly began adding several other massive monstrosities to their popular creature feature line. Starting with 1955’s Godzilla Raids Again, Toho added the spiked Anguirus, a giant Pterandon called Rodan, the colorful insect called Mothra, legendary Skull Island ape King Kong, and the three-headed space dragon referred to as King Ghidorah aka Monster Zero. After botching their first two face-off flicks—55’s Godzilla Raids Again and 1962’s King Kong vs. Godzilla—Toho returned to form with 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, a smart and satisfying smack down that more than made up for the cheap slugfests that came before it. Later that same year, Toho topped themselves with Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, a whacked-out B-movie that is probably Toho’s strangest Kaiju film since 1961’s Mothra. Directed by Kaiju kingpin Ishiro Honda, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster features extraterrestrials, handfuls of eccentric assassins, shoot-outs, and FOUR monster engaging in an epic brawl that is sure to tickle diehard fans of Toho’s monster movies. It also introduces us to the rampaging Ghidorah, a dragon from the stars that gives Godzilla a run for his money.
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster begins with an aerial assassination attempt made on Princess Selina Salno of Selgina (played by Akiko Wakabayashi) by her uncle (played by Shin Otomo). Seconds before her private jet is blown to bits, the princess sees strange lights in the sky that coax her to jump out of the plane. Meanwhile, a group of scientists led by Professor Murai (played by Hiroshi Koizumi) witness a meteor crash land at the base of a nearby mountain. The group sets out to begin studying the glowing meteor, which also appears to be highly magnetized. Several days after the assassination attempt on the princess, local authorities are stunned to see the princess on television claiming to be a martian from Mars. The princess begins claiming that Rodan and Godzilla will both awaken and launch devastating attacks on nearby cities. The general public scoffs at the predictions, but they are horrified when Rodan and Godzilla both reappear and begin wrecking havoc. Fearing that another assassination attempt may be made on the princess, police detective Naoko Shino (played by Yosuke Natsuki) sets out to find the princess and get her to safety. Things go from bad to worse when Professor Murai witnesses the glowing meteor sudden split open and unleash Ghidorah, a three-headed beast that begins terrorizing nearby cities. Left with no other way to combat the seemingly unstoppable Ghidorah, government officials are forced to turn to the Shobijin (played by The Peanuts), tiny fairies that are capable of summoning Mothra from Infant Island. With Mothra on their side, the government encourages the Shobijin to convince Mothra to enlist the help of Godzilla and Rodan to stop the three-headed dragon.
Judging from the lengthy plot overview, it isn’t difficult to realize that there is quite a bit going on within Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. There are an abundance of characters, sub-plots, and epic set pieces that suggest Toho spared no expense with this project. Yet Honda and screenwriter Shinichi Sekizawa manage to keep a firm grip on the story, and more importantly, unite these four warring beasts in a surprisingly satisfying manner. With four towering monsters stomping their way through an measly hour and thirty minute B-movie, it’s natural to worry that there may be one too many beasts lumbering their way through the stunning miniature cities. However, after watching the four iconic monsters converge for their epic confrontation, you couldn’t imagine this fight playing out any other way. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is the sequence in which Mothra attempts to convince Rodan and Godzilla to join forces with her to banish the space dragon. It’s a humorous little stretch that finds the monsters calling one another names and lecturing each other on their duties to defend earth from this cosmic invader.
Ducking, dodging, and prophesizing their way through the debris are a number of characters that stand out in the flurry of destruction. Wakabayashi’s possessed princess gives dazed warnings about the threats from underneath our feet and high above our heads. Natsuki’s Shino is our valiant hero who protects the princess from Malness, a pulpy assassin who is always sporting a pair of menacing sunglasses. And then we have The Peanuts, who charm their way through their pint-sized roles as the Shobijin. While the acting, writing, and directing are all top notch, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster’s downfall ends up being its lack of anything substantial to say. Where Toho’s previous Kaiju films reflected deeply upon a world gripped in atomic paranoia, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster shamelessly turns its attention towards light-hearted comic book spectacle. Overall, while it really should have been an overstuffed catastrophe, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster turns out to be a monster movie just crazy enough to work. It may not have much to say, but this all-star monster mash makes it essential viewing for anyone who loves drive-in B-movies or the Godzilla series.
Hammer Horror Series: The Evil of Frankenstein (1964)
by Steve Habrat
In 1957, Hammer Films first made contact with American audiences with The Curse of Frankenstein, an autumn-fused retelling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Starring Peter Cushing as Frankenstein and Christopher Lee as the monster, The Curse of Frankenstein was a leaner and meaner film when compared to James Whale’s 1931 classic. It also contained a bleak psychological edge that appeared to be inspired by J. Searle Dawley’s 1910 short film Frankenstein. In 1958, Hammer followed up The Curse of Frankenstein with The Revenge of Frankenstein, which directly addressed events from the first film. After striking a distribution deal with Universal Studios, Hammer was allowed to directly copy from Universal’s Boris Karloff classic. Hammer quickly got to work on The Evil of Frankenstein, which found the studio modeling their monster after the iconic Karloff version. Directed by Freddie Francis, The Evil of Frankenstein breaks from the first two films in the series and attempts to almost restart itself, disregarding any continuity simply to capitalize on the look of the monster. The result is a sporadically entertaining but surprisingly sluggish horror film that is glaringly devoid of serious creativity.
Ten years after being banished from his hometown of Karlstaad due to his unorthodox experiments, Baron Victor Frankenstein (played by Peter Cushing) returns to his hometown with his assistant, Hans (played by Sandor Eles), to restart his experiments. Under the cover of a town festival, Frankenstein and Hans slip through the village unnoticed and return to Frankenstein’s ransacked mansion. After spotting the town Burgomeister (played by David Hutcheson) wearing one of his rings, Frankenstein causes a scene that draws the attention of the authorities. Forced into hiding, Frankenstein and Hans take shelter in a cave with a local deaf-mute beggar girl (played by Katy Wild), but while exploring, Frankenstein makes a shocking discovery—his creature (played by Kiwi Kingston) that wandered off ten years ago frozen in a chunk of ice. Frankenstein, Hans, and the beggar girl remove the creature from the ice and take it back to Frankenstein’s castle where he restores the creature’s life. Despite being reanimated, the creature refuses to respond to commands, so Frankenstein hires the help of Zoltan (played by Peter Woodthorpe), a disgraced sideshow hypnotist that is also being forced out of town. Zoltan agrees to try to hypnotize the creature and his attempt is an excess, but Zoltan begins using the creature behind Frankenstein’s back to carry out his own revenge on those who disgraced him.
Under the talents of Freddie Francis, The Evil of Frankenstein manages to hold on to Hammer’s level of quality. Despite the fact that most of their films were made on small budgets, they consistently produced A-level work as far as the set design and art direction was concerned. Francis makes sure that the sets looks great even if a few of them have been lifted from Whale’s film, the costume design is detailed, and that familiar gothic atmosphere is still allowed to poke its head in every now and again. As far as visual fumbles go, The Evil of Frankenstein drops the ball on the overall look of the dreaded creature. Modeled after the famous make-up work by Jack Pierce, the creature here has the same flattened forehead, sagging eyes, and frowning mouth that Karloff’s creature did, but it looks slapped together in a rush. Putty lines are clearly visible and the prosthetics appear as thought they were just stuck on in globs. As a B-movie monster goes, this creature is a winner, but when compared to the effects on Christopher Lee’s monster in The Curse of Frankenstein, he doesn’t even belong in the same series. To further keep him in the vein of the Karloff monster, they slap a gray suit on him that is reminiscent of what the creature wore in Universal’s Son of Frankenstein and they complete the look with platform boots that boost his size and slow to a shaky stomp. The only thing Hammer chose to omit from their creature were the famous bolts that jutted out from Karloff’s neck.
As if reworking the story wasn’t doing enough damage, Peter Cushing was also forced to rework the character of Victor Frankenstein. Gone is the putrid little man who had affairs with his maid and seethed at his mentors from trying to put a stop to his gruesome experiments. In that man’s place is a kinder soul, one who only shows his sinister side when he rips a heart from a dead man’s chest and deadpans, “he won’t be needing it!” It’s a bit of black humor that shows his disregard for the dead. Besides the one scene, Frankenstein is a sympathetic character, constantly tormented by those who just simply don’t understand. Cushing plays him as a misfit cast out of normal God-fearing society and forced to suffer for fascination with scientific progression. “Why can’t they ever just leave me alone!,” he sighs melodramatically as he takes a dejected look around his trashed manor. In a way it works and there isn’t anything particularly faulty with Cushing’s portrayal, but you will certainly be left longing for that weasel we were forced to follow around in the first two films. Pitted against Cushing’s misunderstood protagonist is Woodthorpe’s Zoltan, a smirking baddie who likes to pick on the deaf-mute beggar girl and manipulate the creature into carrying out his sadistic orders. Woodthorpe is up to the task of playing a villain and he certainly turns his Zoltan into a slimy one, but his storyline seems out of place, making you wish that Francis would have omitted him from the action entirely.
Considering that this film is trying to replicate some of the finer aspects of Whale’s Frankenstein, you would think that Francis and screenwriter John Elder would have attempted to make us sympathize with Kingston’s creature. While Kingston largely lets the make-up do most of the work, there isn’t any of creature’s child-like wonder that we saw in Whale’s film. There is no “flower picking” scene or torment from a hunchback. No, The Evil of Frankenstein becomes more about playing the tiny violin for Frankenstein and lingering on Zoltan’s scumbag behavior. In a sunny flashback, we get a brief little glimpse of society rejecting the creature, running him down and putting a bullet on him. It’s basically the only time we ever are invited to really feel anything for the creature. Overall, for those who were wondering what it would be like if Hammer replicated what Universal had already done to popular effect, then The Evil of Frankenstein is the film for you. It never musters any memorable scares and the viewer will have a hard time empathizing with the creature. You also can’t help but wonder what the creature would have been like had Lee possibly taken the role (they probably could have made him unrecognizable in that make-up). Still, the film holds up to Hammer’s level of quality and Cushing does his best with what he has to work with. If there is a lesson to be found here, it’s that Hammer shouldn’t have tampered in the realm of cinematic gods like Universal Studios, James Whale, Boris Karloff, and Jack Pierce.
The Evil of Frankenstein is available on DVD.
Hammer Horror Series: Nightmare (1964)
by Steve Habrat
Despite what you may believe, Hammer Films didn’t only fiddle with gothic horror films about vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein monsters, and mummys. In the wake of Alfred Hitchcock’s psychological horror film Psycho, studios began rushing to capitalize on the formula Hitchcock used to such shocking effect in 1960. Hammer was certainly no different, and among the Psycho-inspired films that they sent down the assembly line was the claustrophobic Nightmare, a spine-tingling psychological horror movie presented in noir-like black and white. Without an undead fiend to terrorize Peter Cushing or a busty woman in a low cut dress, many might be quick to dismiss Nightmare as a bit of a disappointment, especially since some of Hammer’s finest moments have been with Frankenstein or Dracula, but under the direction of studio regular Freddie Francis, Nightmare is an arresting exercise in spectral spooks and slasher brutality. It also happens to be an extremely gorgeous looking horror movie, one that features undeniably pristine cinematography and expert lighting effects to give the film quite a bit more bite than it already has.
Nightmare introduces us to Janet (played by Jennie Linden), a young woman who suffers from terrible nightmares that send her from her bed screaming bloody murder every single night. As a young girl, Janet accidentally witnessed her deranged mother stabbing her father to death, laughing all the while she plunged the knife into his chest. Now all grown up, Janet is enrolled in a boarding school, but her nightmares have grown so severe that one of her teachers, Mrs. Lewis (played by Brenda Bruce), convinces the school to send her home to her guardian, attorney Henry Baxter (played by David Knight). Upon arriving home, Janet meets her new nurse, Grace Maddox (played by Moira Redmond), chauffeur John (played by George A. Cooper), and housekeeper Mrs. Gibbs (played by Irene Richmond), but shortly after settling in, her nightmares begin and it also appears that she is suffering from disturbing hallucinations. She constantly sees a corpse with a bloody knife protruding from its chest and she catches glimpses of a ghostly woman wandering the halls in a trance. Day after day, Janet is convinced that she has inherited her mother’s insanity, but after a brutal attack, she is shipped off to a hospital for serious treatment. Shortly after Janet is gone, certain members of the house begin to suspect that Janet may not have been suffering from terrible hallucinations after all.
In true Hammer fashion, Francis puts plenty of emphasis on the film’s setting and atmosphere. The film opens in a darkened sanitarium as a woman’s voice calls out to a terrified Janet, who is wandering these threatening halls unaccompanied. This journey culminates with Janet stepping into a padded cell and staring her unhinged mother right in the face. Francis quickly steps in and reminds us that it’s just a nightmare, but judging from the screams of the poor Janet, these dreams are pushing her fragile state to the breaking point. It should be noted that anytime anyone screams in Nightmare, the sound work on the shrieks will have you frozen in horror. The screams that the characters emit could shatter concrete. After we emerge from the sanitarium of terror, Francis gives us a small break before he drops us into another house of horror. Cramped with lavish furniture and engulfed by heavy shadows cast down hallways and in bedrooms just down the hall, there seems to be no escape for poor Janet. Every night before she settles in for bed, she hears a faint noise that lures her away from her bed. She bumps into a woman wearing a white gown and sporting a nasty scar on her cheek and she discovers a corpse that has been hacked and slashed to death. Each scare is executed with precision and the claustrophobic goth that wraps around us makes Nightmare unshakeable.
While Nightmare doesn’t enjoy the presence of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, or even Oliver Reed, Francis still manages to capture some rock-solid performances that are sure to keep you entertained. Linden is perfect as the young, sympathetic Janet who just wants her night terrors to cease. Her final push into violence is made all the more disturbing through the fact that she had so much innocence in her heart. Redmond puts on a kindly face as Janet’s new nurse, Grace, but as the horror progresses, we realize that there is a dark side lurking deep down within her just waiting to emerge. Knight is charismatic as Janet’s guardian, Henry Baxter, who perks the young girl up just by walking into her bedroom. Irene Richmond and George A. Cooper is in supporting roles as John and Mrs. Gibbs, but in the end, Francis and screenwriter Jimmy Sangster give them the opportunity to play hero to the violence and madness overtaking the mansion. Brenda Bruce is another warm and caring force as Mary Lewis, Janet’s concerned teacher who thinks it’s best if she spends some time at home. Probably the strongest performance in Nightmare Isla Cameron as Mother (that sounds very Psycho to me…), who smiles as she waves a knife around and seems to find enjoyment in her daughters horrified screams for help.
Considering that Nightmare was riding the wave of Psycho’s popularity, there are a few little similarities that the viewer just can’t turn a blind eye to. First is the twist that is pulled at the end, something that won’t be revealed here, but that is indeed strikingly similar to some parts of Hitchcock’s slasher. There is also the fact that our main character, Janet, disappears halfway through the movie, something that is glaringly similar to Janet Leigh’s Marion Crane (luckily, Hammer didn’t decide to stab her to death in a shower). This lift could have been disastrous, but luckily, Sangster writes up supporting characters that can carry the film when Janet steps out. Overall, if you have had your fill of watching Van Helsing drive stakes through the heart of Dracula, or you need to break from watching Victor Frankenstein reanimating lifeless flesh, Nightmare offers a nice change of pace for Hammer fans. It doesn’t push the limits of the horror of personality subgenre (Hitchcock still remains the master) and it has been unfairly overshadowed by the studio’s color monster movies, but it does give the psychological horror film a heavy gothic makeover, throws in some “ghosts,” and petrifies anyone who hates creepy old dolls. Bonus points for the rich use of black and white film.
Nightmare is available on DVD.
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
by Steve Habrat
Two years after the abysmal King Kong vs. Godzilla, director Ishiro Honda returned to the giant monster genre with yet another installment in Toho’s Godzilla franchise. Enter 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, a massively entertaining and thoroughly satisfying monster fight that more than makes up for what Honda delivered in King Kong vs. Godzilla. Once again, the emphasis in Mothra vs. Godzilla is on the earth shaking action and the epic showdown, but Honda dares to let his this film be a bit more thoughtful than the last two Godzilla efforts. With this offering, Honda is attacking big business greed, but he does it in the most colorful and exciting way possible. Thankfully, Honda never forgets why we are watching Mothra vs. Godzilla and this time around, he really makes sparks fly. Unlike the odd-couple pairing of King Kong and Godzilla, this effort actually seems a bit more plausible, mostly because these two hideous titans are coming from the same monster family rather than two separate cinematic universes. No, these are abominations of the bomb, two radioactive gods who mean to dish out some serious hurt and not simply toss boulders at each other while doing the twist.
After a typhoon washes a giant egg onto a Japanese beach, the local citizens descend upon the beach to marvel at its exotic beauty. Among the admirers is news reporter Ichiro Sakai (played by Akira Takarada) and photographer Junko Nakanishi (played by Yuriko Hoshi), who are both determined to get some answers about the big blue wonder from Professor Miura (played by Hiroshi Koizumi), who has arrived to study the egg. It doesn’t take long for local businessman Kumayama (played by Yoshifumi Tajima), a bigwig at Happy Enterprises, to show up and declare that he has purchased the egg. Pretty soon, Kumayama meets with Happy Enterprises CEO Jiro Torahata (played by Kenji Sahara) to draw up plans to turn the egg into a tourist attraction. During the meeting, the two businessmen are visited by the Shobijin (played by The Peanuts), two pint sized twin girls who claim to be from Infant Island. The Shobijin explain that the egg belongs to their god, Mothra, and that they wish to take the egg back to their island. Kumayama and Torahata ignore the Shobijin’s pleas and try to capture them in an attempt to exploit the tiny girls. The Shobijin narrowly escape the attack and they soon bump into Sakai, Nakanishi, and Professor Miura, who agree to help the girls get their egg back. Meanwhile, it appears that the egg wasn’t the only thing washed to shore. To the horror of the locals, Godzilla has re-emerged and is on the rampage. As Godzilla nears the egg and threatens to destroy it, the aging Mothra arrives to protect her what belongs to her.
While it might have seemed like a good idea at the time to bring RKO’s King Kong and Toho’s Godzilla together, the film had a hard time making this viewer buy into the fact that those two giant beasts were mortal enemies. It’s easy to see why Honda and Toho thought it might be a good idea to have these legends meet up (Kong battled dinosaurs in his first solo outing), but the two behemoths were from drastically different cinematic universes that didn’t compliment each other in the slightest. Thankfully, Mothra vs. Godzilla more than makes up for that slapdash effort with solid special effects and a completely plausible union, even for a genre film such as this. The appeal of the Toho monster movies is their tacky special effects, but King Kong vs. Godzilla really pushed it to the limit. Anyone who calls themselves a fan of “kaiju” movies knows to expect some cheese but that effort delivered moldy cheese that had been left out in the hot sun for weeks. With Mothra vs. Godzilla, Honda smartly pulls his monsters out of Japanese cities and has their battle take place largely in the scenic countryside. Godzilla still attacks a military base and he can’t resist crushing a few small villages, but widespread destruction remains on the sidelines. It’s a nice change of pace for the series that has relied on the gimmick of the radioactive dinosaur trudging his way into a crowded metropolis and smashing everything to pebbles.
Another major slip-up in King Kong vs. Godzilla were the monsters themselves, which look like they were done up by a distracted ten year old boy. Kong’s face looked like a swirl of brown and red and the rest of costume looked like it was a crewmember’s old Halloween costume complete with cardboard claws. Here, we have nothing that comes remotely close to that eyesore. Mothra looks spectacular as she soars around Godzilla’s head and grabs at his tail, a ferocious lioness protecting her young cubs. Even the first glimpse we get of her here is pretty chilling, which is surprising because she had a hard time making an impression in her first solo outing. When Mothra’s slimy young come slithering out of their big blue egg, the clash really gets good as they splash their way towards Godzilla, who has stomped off to feast on a handful of terrified school children stuck on an island. They nip on his tail and strategically spit their silk spray on the roaring giant to freeze him in place. As far as Godzilla himself goes, the big guy hasn’t looked this menacing and nasty since we first saw him in his shadowy black and white debut. When he descends upon the scattering villagers, he is welcomed by menacing horns that could easily have influenced the legendary score of Jaws. He is a force to be reckoned with, one that is out to cause serious pain, which allows us to really root for Mothra to put this radioactive abomination in his place.
Just when you think that Mothra vs. Godzilla can’t get any better, Honda decides to neatly tuck a very human story inside all that gloves-off fury. The characters here are very similar to those found in Mothra, but there doesn’t seem to be a bumbling one is sight. Takarada and Hoshi have plenty of chemistry as our two warm and surprisingly heroic leads. They team up with Koizumi’s wise Professor Miura on an exotic detour to Infant Island, which allows Honda to reflect a bit more on the atomic testing. Tajima and Sahara are perfect as the cartoonish money-hungry businessmen, who see a disaster as a quick way to make a buck. Watching them mistreat the pitiful Shobijin really pierces your heart, especially when they try to capture the girls and put them on display. It appears that sometimes, greedy humans can be even more monstrous than any radioactive giant with fire breath. Overall, while it wouldn’t have taken much to really make up for King Kong vs. Godzilla, Mothra vs. Godzilla goes above and beyond to erase all the bad memories of that film from the viewer’s mind. It is well-paced, intelligent, action packed, vibrant, moody, ornate, and carefully crafted for maximum entertainment. This is perhaps the most satisfying Godzilla sequel.
Mothra vs. Godzilla is available on DVD.
Two Thousand Maniacs! (1964)
After seeing many of the negative reviews of Herschell Gordon Lewis’ 1964 gore flick Two Thousand Maniacs!, I was pleasantly surprised to find a film that was much better and much smarter than it should have been. For those who are unfamiliar with Lewis, he is the man that created the splatter film subgenre of horror, cranking out ultra-violent films starting in 1963 with Blood Feast, which is considered to be the first gore film by many critics and film historians. Two Thousand Maniacs! is the film that followed Blood Feast and there is plenty of hacked off limbs to go around in this southern fried nightmare. On the surface, Two Thousand Maniacs! has a fairly easy set up and basically just moves around from one elaborate torture device to the next, but just when you have waved the film off as simply a gratuitous exploitation film, the film pulls an intriguing and thought provoking last act twist that I have to admit I never saw coming and I absolutely loved. Two Thousand Maniacs! is the first of the southern horror films, ones that played upon the idea of a bunch of northern strangers getting lost in the south and then finding themselves preyed upon by savage backwoods dwellers, a subgenre that would become increasingly popular as years passed. Surprisingly, Two Thousand Maniacs! has a handful of tense sequences, a shocker because I figured the film would be a cheaply made torture film that only existed to show us lots of the red stuff.
Two Thousand Maniacs! follows three Yankee couples who are lured into the small southern town of Pleasant Valley, where they are told that they are the guests of honor for an unspecified centennial celebration. Soon, the couples find themselves trapped in ghastly carnival-esque devices that brutally maim and kill them, all as the two thousand deranged citizens of Pleasant Valley happily cheer along. One couple, Terry (Played by Connie Mason) and Tom (Played by William Kerwin), discover the disturbing secret that the town is concealing and they decide they are going to attempt flee and get help. Mayor Buckman (Played by Jeffrey Allen) becomes aware that Tom and Terry are missing and he ends up rallying the citizens to launch a manhunt to bring the couple back before their secret is revealed to the local authorities.
Lewis certainly does not portray the south in the most flattering light, portraying the Pleasant Valley residents as sweet-as-sugar on the outside but hellish on the inside, every man, woman, and child howling along as the Yankee tourists meet horrific ends. The vilest is Mayor Bruckman and his henchmen, who in one scene gleefully hack off a woman’s arm for their upcoming barbecue, making vague hints at cannibalism. In another scene, a man is pulled apart by horses. Lewis allows his camera to creep in for a close-up of the man’s entrails and mutilated body, making sure we get a good look at the carnage before he cuts away. These sequences boast masterful make-up and visual effects photographed in color, hauntingly real especially for the time in which it was made. I’d heard that the gore effects had become dated but from what I saw, I can confidently say that I believe that they have held up just fine. For as impressive as this all looks, the repetitive flit from gruesome event to gruesome event became a bit wearisome. It is all broken by the gripping extended chase sequence, a scene in which Lewis establishes himself as someone who could make something far more riveting if he desired.
Much of the acting throughout Two Thousand Maniacs! is adequate, especially for this sort of B-movie drive-in entertainment. At times, I found the sound work to be abhorrent, the dialogue running together and indecipherable. I’m sure the neighbors were thrilled with me while I watched this. Jeffrey Allen has a hearty ball hamming it up as the boisterous Mayor Bruckman. He howls with delight as he hacks off the young woman’s arm, his glee all the more disturbing as his bulging eyes that light up at the sight of the butchery compliment his delight. Allen ends up being the standout in Two Thousand Maniacs! Slightly behind Allen are Mason as Terry and Kerwin as Tom. Kerwin embraces the typical macho role as the guy who has to protect the pretty damsel in distress, which is played by Mason. Everyone else ends up being largely forgettable, either becoming elaborate cartoons of southern stereotypes or in front of the camera because they look pretty.
In addition to the impressive gore that Two Thousand Maniacs! boasts, I was also intrigued by the exploration of the southern animosity for the north. Released in 1964, right smack dab in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, the film doesn’t overtly tackle the racial tensions at the time, but the film suspiciously bases its twist around the Civil War and the bitterness in its wake. The soundtrack declares that, “the south will rise again!” sounding more and more like a threat every time it is belted out. Lewis also has his camera focus in on the frantically waving Confederate flags in the hands of the wild eyed southern tormentors and a lynching rope that is carried around by a young boy that he uses to hang a cat, images that are evocative of horrifying images that surfaced from the south during this time. A hazy snapshot of the violent political climate at the time, Two Thousand Maniacs! isn’t as empty headed as many would be quick to deem it. In the end, the film is worth your time for its attempt at an intellectual statement, as I’m sure that many casual viewers would assume that sleaze cinema of this kind would never even make the attempt. Lewis certainly does and it actually pays off.
Two Thousand Maniacs! is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
by Steve Habrat
With the western genre beginning to loose steam in America during the 1960s, new interest in the genre was sparked with the emergence of Sergio Leone’s dusty A Fistful of Dollars, a rock-n-roll reinvention of the fatigued western genre. A Fistful of Dollars was the first spaghetti western to land in America and introduce audiences to the rising star Clint Eastwood and his iconic Man with No Name, arguably the best western character ever created. The spaghetti westerns that were coming from Italy were rougher and tougher than the ones America was churning out, westerns where the line between right and wrong were blurred and the violence was cranked up to the max. A Fistful of Dollars is one of my favorite westerns and perhaps one of the most influential, boldly breaking new ground and embracing a dark edge inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. This is the first film that introduced many to the genius of Ennio Morricone and his whistling scores.
A Fistful of Dollars follows the Man with No Name (Played by Eastwood) as he arrives in a small town on the Mexican border. Once he arrives, the local innkeeper Silvanito (Played by José Calvo) informs him that the small town is caught in a deadly feud between two families—the Rojo brothers and the Baxters. The Man with No Name sees this feud as an opportunity to begin playing the two families against each other and make some large sums of cash in the process. The Man with No Name uses a group of Mexican soldiers mosey into town with a large shipment of gold as a chance to spark up a conflict. As the feud grows deadlier and deadlier, The Man with No Name pushes the malicious and clever Ramón (Played by Gian Maria Volonté), one of the leaders of the Rojo gang, a bit too far and puts his life in danger.
What is instantaneously atypical about A Fistful of Dollars is the fact that the film refuses to allow us to root for the sheriff of the small town, the ones who stand for law and order. It breaks the mold laid by the American westerns where you root for the honest, ethical, and steadfast. Here we root for a man who operates in a gray zone, someone only looking to benefit himself and no one else. He is better than the Rojo gang but the Man with No Name still operates outside the law. He is interested in personal gain and wealth, seeing the dispute as a game of chess, his squinty eyes carefully plotting his next move. He is shrouded in mystery, hidden in a poncho and always chewing on a cigar. What is his story? We find ourselves drawn to those we do not know and we actually like someone we know nothing about more than when we learn about their past, present, and future. This is precisely why the Man with No Name possesses a magnetism that in my eyes can’t be matched.
Leone’s portrayal of the west is another standout of A Fistful of Dollars, giving us a vision that is the furthest thing from romanticized. Much like the morals at their heart, the American western was concerned with presenting a glossed over version of the Wild West, a place where love stories flourished along with the good old boy heroes. Leone’s west wasn’t a place where the good guys wore white and flashed a badge and the mean old outlaw was dressed in rebellious black. Just like the fine line our hero walks, this west is shifty, deadly, and often repulsive. Here cowboys and outlaws chug whiskey, womanize, kill for entertainment, and pick gunfights out of boredom. For such a depraved place, Leone mirrors it in the run down builds that dot the town. Everything just seems like it is rotting away into the blowing sand right down to the sweaty close-ups that Leone loves to shove our faces in. Faces are weather worn, wrinkled, crack, toothless, and broken. It is a place where even the viewer keeps an eye on the gunslinger at the bar in the background, a place where apprehension rules every move we make. Leone, it appears, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Leone also finds beauty in silence and glances, a touch that would become increasingly popular in his work. In A Fistful of Dollars, the Man with No Name talks more than he does in For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Yet when dialogue is spoken, it is cynical and pessimistic, no one ever truly offering a word of hope that things will get better. Leone ties silence with tension, allowing faces and eyes to do all the talking and squinting to signal it was time to draw your pistol. These silences usually build up to explosive gun fights that last five seconds at their longest. This approach would go on to inspire Quentin Tarantino, who is very vocal about his love of Leone’s work. It is this approach that separates the loyal fans of Leone from the one’s who prefer films that are talkative. And yet the anti-social personality of his work mirrors the anti-social behavior of the characters he photographs.
In film school, one of my professors praised Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 epic The Wild Bunch as the film that captured the dramatic shifts in American society in the 1960s. He claimed that the film acknowledged the death of the conservative values and the beginning of a new era. I’ve always wondered where that left Sergio Leone’s work, especially his Dollars trilogy. Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was one of the first to truly acknowledge the violent shift in American during the 1960s. Leone presented a west that would run John Wayne out of the town the film took place in and gave us a hero with distorted morals. The film was made in 1964 but was released in America in 1967, right smack dab in the middle of an angry America that was facing an unpopular war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, riots, protests, assassinations, the rising counterculture, and more. While I agree that Peckinpah’s film has a lot on its mind, I don’t believe that he was the first one to use the western to mirror the times and make a statement about the evolution of America. For a film genre that was American made, one where the good guys always prevail and the bad guys always loose, Leone was among the first to rip those black and white ethics to shreds, magnify our underlying violence, and in the process, created a classic film that is just as nasty today as it was back then.
A Fistful of Dollars is now available on Blu-ray.
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
by Corinne Rizzo
As the holiday grows nearer, so does the madness. People tearing retailers apart to get the perfect gift for their loved ones, bumper to bumper traffic anywhere near a shopping center, and lost baggage. The madness can lead to a lack luster attitude and sometimes even depression if you’re caught off your mental guard too quickly. Unfortunately for kids of Mars, depression and motivational issues are rampant even without the impending holiday season. They won’t eat their meal pills and the young Martians are glued to their television sets watching Earth channels that show them nothing but the cheer and excitement of Christmas and the arrival of Santa Clause.
Well, Kimar, the Martian king, or some sort of master authority figure on the red planet, is tired of the lackadaisical behaviors and consults his cohorts as well as an acient oracle on the planet, deciding that Santa Clause will save the children of Mars.
So, Kimar and his troop of poorly outfitted Martians head to hearth to kidnap Santa.
When Santa is captured, he is quickly turned into a slave for the planet, mass producing toys and working late hours, while sleeping on a compound where he is monitored.
When watching Santa Clause Conquers the Martians, especially after seeing Christmas on Mars, you cannot help but draw similarities. While Santa Clause Conquers is directed toward kids, who might be more forgiving of the terrible costumes and green face paint, Christmas on Mars is directed toward an older audience, where the green paint and kitschy outfits are appreciated for their effort.
Santa Clause Conquers the Martians is a film that was produced solely for entertainment purposes and geared toward kids, though as adult watching it, it offered nothing except a temporary cure for insomnia. Finally finishing the film after three attempts, the best thing that comes out of the film is that it might have just inspired the fantastical freak out film that is Christmas on Mars.
The viewer, watching these films in comparison will see the where Coyne could have watched the film and stripped down the ideas he liked and disregarded the ones he didn’t. Both films share the idea that Santa Clause is a symbol of generosity and joy, though in Santa Clause Conquers the Martians, Santa is used purely to produce material items as gifts to promote happiness on the planet where as Christmas on Mars’ Santa brings hope and understanding to the crew through other ways.
Other similarities exist between the two films, though through some research there is no true and previously existing connection to be made between Wayne Coyne and Nicholas Webster (the director of Santa Conquers the Martians).
If nothing else, the film is important because it shows that hope and generosity are ideas that originate within the human condition, regardless of whether the humans have been relocated or kidnapped. Santa Clause doesn’t necessarily conquer the Martians in this film, though he does find a replacement and through that, shows that the hope and pure intentions innate within the human condition are contagious, if we choose for them to be.
Check out both movies and compare them. The viewer will feel as though they are getting into the head of Wayne Coyne, regardless of whether the film was an inspiration to him.
Santa Clause Conquers The Martians is available on Instant Watch, but can also be downloaded for free on IMDb. Christmas on Mars can be downloaded via The Flaming Lips’ website or it can be ordered for a small fee and delivered to your home.
For anyone who doesn’t celebrate Christmas in traditional ways, these two films are a great way to start a new tradition.
Top Five Reasons To Watch Santa Clause Conquers The Martians
1) It cures sleeplessness.
2) It is unintentionally hilarious.
3) They never asked any of the actors to shave…they just put green paint in their beards too.
4) Because you’ve probably never seen anything as hokey.
5) Santa Clause laughs a lot for no good reason, which to the kids in the movie is good, but for the viewer might insight some sort of “What the hell?” response.