All posts by Alfred Eaker

Alfred Eaker is the director of Jesus and Her Gospel of Yes!, voted Best Experimental Film in the 2004 New York International Film and Video Festival (which can be downloaded from DownloadHorror.com here), and the feature W the Movie. He writes the column "Alfred Eaker's Fringe Cinema" for this site, covering the world of underground film, as well as regularly contributing essays on other subjects.

ALFRED EAKER VS. SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS OF THE PAST: THE OMEN (1976)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

So, the winners of the 2021 poll of Summer Blockbusters of the Past were Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), and The Omen (1976). These were originally supposed to be reviewed while theaters were shuttered for Covid, but… life happens.

I’ll start with The Omen (1976), a movie I had already addressed here. This is a slick, predominantly good film that has still always frustrated me to a degree (we will not discuss the execrable shot-for-shot utterly pointless remake). It came on the heels of a series of films in which the Devil was making a comeback. In 1968, Old Scratch asked for a bit of sympathy (via the Rolling Stones) and so that year he got his big screen opus, Rosemary’s Baby (the first and best of the lot). This was followed by The Exorcist (1973) and The Omen. The Omen is, overall, a better film than The Exorcist (yes, I said that), with directing at quicksilver speed.

Still from The Omen (1976)It innovatively plays with all that 70s apocalyptic fear like putty: and who would have thought of portraying the Antichrist as a tyke? Of course, it’s preposterous, and revels in that narrative.

The Omen features excellent character performances, but a dreadful lead in . The producers originally wanted Charlton Heston for the role of Robert Thorn, but he had just signed up for the godawful all-star Midway (1976). That’s a loss, because his over-the-top acting would have suited The Omen far better than Peck’s wooden snooze-fest work. When Peck learns of the death of his wife (Lee Remick, who is almost as miscast) he exclaims that he wants Damien to die too, but says it so devoid of emotion that it barely registers and is not at all convincing.

With the male lead on life support, that leaves it to the rest of the cast, who fortunately deliver in spades. First up is the inimitable  scene-stealing Patrick Troughton as Father Brennan. Troughton, still the best Dr. Who to date (yes, I said that, too), so effortlessly registers wild-eyed crazed desperation that even though we know from the outset he is telling the truth, we don’t blame Ambassador Thorn for his skepticism.

Next up is the recently deceased as the photographer Jennings, in desperation mode, and he equally excels. He just wants to live. Father Brennan wants to escape damnation. Good luck with that, gentlemen.

Harvey Stevens as Damien doesn’t have to do a damn thing to send chills down the spine. He burns a hole just looking at you from the screen, so that when mommy and daddy are trying to get to the church on time, you know that Hell will hath no fury like Harvey unleashed. Chucky has nothing on Damien.

Leo McKern (amazingly uncredited) as Antichrist expert Bugenhagen is perhaps best known for “Rumpole of the Bailey” and #2 in “The Prisoner” (he was so good in it that he played the part in three episodes). He’s no less authoritative here. Unfortunately, when he tells the ambassador to “have no pity,” we know it will fall on deaf ears (because then we wouldn’t get the awful sequel).

Lastly, there’s Billie Whitelaw as Mrs. Baylock, who convinces us of that old adage, “the Devil is a woman.” She is slimy filth incarnate, and leaves an unnerving aftertaste long after the credits. She’s so damned animated, I really was hoping she was going to put Peck out of our misery. Her death leaves a lump in the throat. You almost feel as much heartbreak for her as you did Margaret Hamilton getting melted in Oz. Mia Farrow, wisely, made it a point not to imitate Whitelaw in the remake and delivered a very different, albeit good performance (the only good thing about the remake).

The diverse locations help the film considerably. There are so many, it sometimes feels like it’s going to segue into a James-Bond-goes-to-hell story.

Naturally, The Omen made a gazillion bucks at the box office, which lends credence to the adage that the Devil is indeed the owner of the almighty buck.

Jerry Goldsmith wrote the classic Academy Award winning score, which has ferocious echoes of Bartok and Herrmann, with Gregorian chants thrown in for good measure . He had previously composed the music for Planet Of The Apes (1968) and Patton (1969) and would go on to score Chinatown (1974), Star Trek (1978), Poltergeist (1982), Gremlins (1984), and Total Recall (1990), among many others.

The film is also expertly edited by the still active Stuart Baird, who had previously cut for ‘s The Devils (1971), Tommy (1975), and Lisztomania (1975) and would later edit Valentino (1977),  Superman (1978), Outland (1981), Lethal Weapon (1987), Gorillas In the Mist (1988),Casino Royale (2006), and Skyfall (2012).

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: BAZ LURHMANN’S ELVIS (2022)

Baz Lurhmann’s first film in 9 years is none other than Elvis (2022), as the entire globe seems to know by now. A summer blockbuster with no superheroes? So it would seem. As soon as the film was announced, a good number of American-variety Elvis fans took to the Internet, alternately expressing outrage and excitement, which validated that we have summer blockbuster material here. Most of the outrage focused on star Austin Butler, whom many compared unfavorably to Elvis (without seeing the film) or even hostility, accusing Butler of trying to replace Elvis. A disconcertingly large percentage of Elvis fans scrape the barrel bottom of all fandoms (and, given the competition from Marvel boys, that’s saying a lot).

Still from Elvis (2022)Since Elvis’ death in 1977, he has become a patron saint for rednecks in double wides, so it’s no surprise that a lot of Elvis fans are dyed-in-the-wool Trumpers. Given that, it’s equally no surprise that his posthumous association with a faction of the zealous WASP demographic has done him considerable harm. Over the last several years, Elvis’ sales have dwindled. Many minority groups see Elvis in a disparaging light, accusing him of cultural appropriation and lumping him together with the most deranged of his fan base. When Lurhmann’s film was announced, Butler wasn’t the only one Elvis fans pounced on. Luhrmann was targeted because of his assumed sexual orientation (“How dare one of ‘them’ make a film about our King?”), as well as Hanks, because he supported Hillary Clinton (cue Qcumbers-styled blood libel).

Of course, Elvis’ late in life supposed conservatism has fueled right-wing fantasies about him. Never mind that he once supported Adlai Stevenson, RFK, and MLK (although, reportedly Elvis never voted, and his 1970 rendezvous with Nixon seems to have been mostly born of a bored little boy fantasy about being a federal drug agent). Opinions are divided on whether 1970s Elvis was really the conservative he is sometimes painted to be. Still, one might argue that the 1950s progressive Elvis was far more innovative than the institutionalized Elvis of his last decade. Regardless, Elvis’ reputation has practically been flushed by Grand Old Party fans.

Mighty Mouse cape intact, here comes that madman Baz Lurhmann to save the day (and he has, with the box office approaching 200 million and Elvis product selling at its best levels since 1977). Still, Luhrmann did not set out to make a typical biopic, and has said that all along. He has a focused, if lean, narrative: the relationship between Col. Tom Parker (Hanks) and Elvis (Butler). Of course, not all films make an altar out of narrative, and Lurhmann has always been a maximalist aesthete. That idea that Elvis is not a biopic has been a source of contention for some of star’s ex-girlfriends (who were not Continue reading ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: BAZ LURHMANN’S ELVIS (2022)

ZACK SNYDER’S JUSTICE LEAGUE: JUSTICE IS GRAY (2021)

‘s Justice League: Justice Is Gray (2021) is four-hours (!) of sullen macho masturbation that drains away whaever minuscule color and joy were left in the DC deities. The title is half-apt; look elsewhere for justice, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more epically gray landscape of Fascistic mediocrity.  While the Snyder/Whedon Justice League (2017) was an understandably lopsided affair, it at least had a few affecting moments.

Zack Snyders Justice League: Justice is Gray (2021)Like the Mango Mussolini cult, Snyder’s fan base heaps their rabid obsessions on the least deserving object of adulation. While HBO Max’s Justice League had strong viewership on its premiere, it eventually got knocked out of the public consciousness when the ape and lizard started strutting their stuff. In a 2 plus 2 equals eight moment, a faction of Snyder disciples made like QAnon (or like Snyder’s Taliban, or Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door—take your pick) to review bomb Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) on IMDB, revealing their barrel-dwelling lunacy. Snyder himself came out of his narcissistic closet, mantling his best Dotard impersonation, thanking his believers for sharing the dream.

Snyder epitomizes macho movie-making for low-demanding pubescents. There’s nothing authentically masculine or aesthetically competent in his Triumph of the Will for the funny papers. Some critics have heaped praise on it, pontificating about its better sense of depth. No, that’s merely excessive exposition from characters that have gone from symbolic (and vulnerable) heroes of justice to two-dimensional combatants, straight out of a soulless Transformer movie, who will eventually team up against a big black shiny villain named Darkseid (Ray Porter) who makes for one of the most personality-bankrupted antagonists in all of cinema.

Wonder Woman () is portrayed in sharp contrast to her character in ‘ films (and although WW 84 is flawed, it’s considerably better than this excrement). She’s merely a video byte here and the only time she manages to emit any light is when she kills (yup, she kills).

The Flash (Ezra Miller, who pales next to Grant Guston) provides the 7th grade humor. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) provides the yawn-inducing macho one-liners, variations of quips we’ve heard in hundreds of action pics. Batman (Ben Affleck, delivering a white trash portrayal of the Dark Knight, repeatedly seen riding a horse) channels Terminator‘s talk of “the looming war” in a banal landscape that literally zaps out all the color that Whedon infused into it. Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds, as a digital blob) compete with Darkseid for dullest characterizations. Lois Lane (Amy Adams) waxes wide-eyed, hand-wringing desperation awaiting the resurrection of Superman (Henry Cavill). One would think a literal resurrection would be accompanied by bells, whistles, and a jubilee. Nope. You see, these mother boxes… just don’t ask.

Our “heroes” (i.e., nationalist deities), step down from a Nintendo Mount Rushmore and stand in the drab, ashen horizon. Checking the watch here, one might be thankful for the finale. Nope. That was just a teaser, because there’s epilogues galore to come, all of which practically announce the sequels (which apparently are not not going to happen and/or will be Hack Snyderless).

This four-hour masturbation orgy doesn’t offer anything vital that we didn’t receive in its 2017 forerunner. That one was no great shakes, but it’s tolerable compared to this sadomasochism dictated by mob rule. While the Snyder cultists didn’t physically storm the Capitol, they did storm the studio demanding their prophet the chance to spew his unabridged sermon. Now, they’re toxically flooding social media demanding a “restoration of the Snyderverse.” You can’t make this shit up.

READER POLL FOR ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS OF THE PAST: THE CANDIDATES

Blockbuster movies have been around since the late 1930s (e.g., The Wizard of OzGone with the Wind, The Adventures of Robin Hood), but they weren’t called that. Hits were released at different times of year, but rarely during the summer. Indeed, summer was generally regarded as a poor time for movie releases: the general belief was that people would be going to be the beaches and traveling, having no time for movies.

The drive-in circuit knew better, and was inching toward movie watching as a summer event for over a decade. The Ten Commandments (1956) was still occasionally showing on drive-in screens well into the 70s. The Planet of the Apes film series, in its entirety, made for a well-attended all-nighter; and, of course, one could always count on the Harryhausen “Sinbad” movies for a night of monsters and cleavage on the high seas. Despite the success of these warm-weather alfresco films, the idea didn’t catch on with Hollywood (the popularity of the provincial drive-ins was probably too little publicized).

Poster for Jaws (1975)It wasn’t until 1975 that Steven Spielberg gave birth to the concept of the summer blockbuster with the release of Jaws on June 25. The date was no accident, but deliberately planned. Spielberg and Universal did something previously unheard of; investing a then-unheard-of two million dollars into a publicity campaign that pulled the masses off the beaches by making them fear the beaches. The result was epic box office (and a mass hysteria that resulted in people slaughtering dolphins, etc.) My father took us to see Jaws on the day it was released, and we were admitted late as theater employees were still furiously cleaning up from where traumatized patrons had literally vomited during the previous showing.

Of course, there was no turning back after the summer of 1975 box office recipts, but how the hell do you top a great white shark? 1976’s The Omen thought it had the answer in the Antichrist, who was not some fearsome, screaming red-faced demagogue, but a child. In 1977, George Lucas then topped his peer Spielberg with Star Wars, of course; naturally Spielberg would respond with Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Jurassic Park, and Saving Private Ryan. The annual summer blockbuster has continued to this day with others, notably through Marvel Comics getting in on the act.

The concept now seems so simple, so winning a financial formula that one wonders why it took until 1975 to figure it out. The pandemic has temporarily changed the playing field, so we are going to give 366 readers a chance to vote on four summer blockbusters of the past, which I will then review through the summer. The criteria chosen was the biggest blockbuster of each year, up to 1999. 1989’s Batman and 1992’s Batman Returns were skipped, as they have been covered here.  You may choose up to four from the list below. Poll closes at midnight eastern time on Sunday, May 2.


PROGRESSIVE WESTERNS: JOHN FORD’S THE SEARCHERS (1956)

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

has been dead for over forty years, but still managed to create a storm of Twitter controversy recently when an old “Playboy” interview resurfaced—one in which he acknowledged belief in white supremacy, knocked Native Americans as “selfishly wanting to keep all the land to themselves,” and stated that “we can’t all of a sudden get down on our knees and turn everything over to the leadership of the blacks.”

For anyone who remembers Wayne as a living actor, or has read even a brief bio, the only surprise here was social media suddenly discovering Wayne’s bigorty after it has been well-known for fifty years.  As a political spokesperson, Wayne has long fell out of favor… until fellow draft-dodger Mango Mussolini made vilifying Native Americans fashionable again, along with broad bigotry against non-WASP males. January 6, 2021, Mussolini unlocked the trailer park gates and let loose his band of Jerry Springer-styled terrorist thugs who fancied themselves patriotic cowboys, chanting “1776!”  As we all know—and some are hoping that we will soon forget—the result was five cold-blooded murders, including one law enforcement officer, with Mussolini’s Senate accomplices letting the inciter-in-chief off the hook. These parodies envision themselves as Duke wannabes, wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross. That cartoon redneck parody is an image that is all too often broadly assigned to the mythos of the American West.

I recall film and art students saying they were open to any genre,  as long as it wasn’t a Western. That perception is easy to understand, but it is as erroneously stereotyped as anything the self-styled “Nationalists” drum up. The genre is much more complex and egalitarian. Even Wayne himself, as ignorant and mean-spirited as he could be, wasn’t so black and white. That complexity can be found even more in John Ford, who, with all of his artistic and personal flaws, was and remains in the top tier of American filmmakers. Ford was a card-carrying Democrat, which reportedly lead to countless arguments with his favorite leading man, Wayne (although both were bona fide supporters of the Vietnam War).

Still from The Searchers (1956)With The Searchers (1956) we see Ford’s evolving perspective taking shape and influencing his art. The result is what a lot of cineastes believe to be the quintessential Western, if not the greatest of all American films (the BFI currently lists it as the seventh best film of all time). Film critics are more divided, with Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael well-known (partial) dissenters.  Occasional lapses into sentimentality, groan-inducing macho humor, racism and misogyny, a lumbering plot, overt characterizations (especially Hank Worden as Mose, the Shakespearean jester) Continue reading PROGRESSIVE WESTERNS: JOHN FORD’S THE SEARCHERS (1956)

A GIALLO HALLOWEEN DOUBLE FEATURE

366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.

Here in the States, we associate Halloween with the colors orange and black. Naturally, in the haunted house biz, we tend to ramp up the horror quota by adding  several gallons of splattered red. But since many of the holiday’s customs spring from Italy, let’s head there and focus on the color yellow—“giallo,” in the native tongue—for this 366 Halloween. It’s more apt than one might suspect. While both van Gogh and Gauguin utilized yellow to convey a pacifistic warmth, they also used it to convey sheer horror. Leave it to the Romans to stylishly hone in on the visceral symbology of the pigment and craft an entire genre around it.

I’ll start our giallo Halloween with Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971, directed by Paolo Cavara), which features three Bond girls:  Claudine Auger (Thunderball), (Casino Royale), and Barbara Bach (The Spy Who Loved Me). The plot is about a serial killer who dips his weapon of choice in tarantula venom and pursues the ladies, all of whom can be seen in various stages of undress. Despite it’s paper-thin misogyny, Cavara composes with stylish precision. It is paced well and a grisly enough affair to satisfy genre geeks (let’s just say that the antagonist mimics the black wasp). Composer Ennio Morricone lends a helping hand, as he always does. It’s one his wackiest scores, which is saying a lot.

Still from Black Belly of the Tarantula (1971)Tarantula is a virtual smorgasbord of giallo clichés: primary colors, rubber gloved killers, knife-wielding POV, subtle-as-a-pair-of-brass-knuckles eroticism, animal motifs a la Bird with the Crystal Plumage, intense chase scenes, razor sharp cinematography, big windows, modish apartments and spas. This makes it something of a starter kit for newcomers, although it is hardly the best giallo. In fact, it’s kind of like the Airport or Towering Inferno of giallo (we’re in for the treat of seeing celebs get whacked… in this case, the celebs being Bond girls).

I have never subscribed to the cult of . He is grossly overrated by his fanatical following, but still he has a few bright spots in his oeuvre. We have already covered A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin, so let’s go with Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972) instead. Together, they are probably his two strongest early films. 

Duckling is only marginally giallo, although Fulci’s worshipers swear it is one, so we’ll go with that. Fulci’s trademark misogyny is on hand here, and while there’s no denying its repugnance, there’s also no denying he was aesthetically skilled in displaying it—as he was in mocking the pedestaled traditions within Catholicism and expressing his loathing for its perversions and hypocrisies. These themes are full-blown in this murder mystery that begins with a series of brutal child murders. The bourgeoisie Catholic locals blame the societal misfits, including town whore Barbara Bouchet and voodoo priestess Florinda Bolkan—who is erroneously blamed, tortured, and savagely butchered by the ignorant male vigilante swine. But lo and behold, when there’s pedophilia and murder involved, it leads right back to the patriarchy. 

Still from Don't Torture a Duckling (1972)Don’t Torture a Duckling was a box office and critical success, but it cost Fulci much, and he was more or less blacklisted for years for criticizing the Church. This is a film that could not be made today, and although it is not as well-known as the director’s later, more surreal efforts, it’s beautifully horrific and has something to say.  Fulci says his piece with a level of subtlety that would be appropriate for .

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: JOKER (2019)

Todd Phillips’ The Joker (2019) is a tedious, derivative manifesto for the “woe is me” white American male.  “I haven’t been happy one minute of my entire f—ing life,” says Arthur Fleck () and that sentiment is all too contagious while sitting through this self-pitying exercise of hackneyed seventh grade psychology. There’s more fun to be had here twirling one’s straw while waiting for the paint-by-number soundtrack accompaniment. Do a countdown while checking off “Send in the Clowns,”  “If You’re Happy and You Know It,” “That’s Life,” and Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll, Part 2” (its inclusion is a blatant, adolescent attempt to be provocative, given Giltter’s history). At least you’ll stay awake, if your straw is strong enough to endure all that twirling.

Still from Joker (2019)Another way to enhance what little entertainment that can be squeezed out of this lesson in masochism is to locate the the slivers of other films embedded in it: King of Comedy, Taxi Driver (cue the Robert De Niro cameo) ‘s Modern Times, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, The French Connection, and ‘s Batman, to name a random few (throw in at least one reference to ‘s “Dark Knight” comics as well).

For all its derivativeness, The Joker is yet another comic book based movie that’s embarrassed of its comic book origins. Angst-ridden fanboys, who haven’t seen a movie that’s not comic book-based in a decade or more, will hardly care. They’ll heap a ton of praise (and money) on it, proclaiming it profound, with an Oscar worthy performance from Phoenix, which will validate their own basement profundity.

It seems to be set in the 1980s (i.e. the Mark of Zorro marquee has been changed to Zorro, the Gay Blade) and it is essentially plotless. Fleck works for a clown agency, understandably gets fired for not being funny, rages against swamp-entitled self-righteous public figure Thomas Wayne (hint, hint), has mommy issues, sees conspiracies afoot (mostly involving Wayne) and descends into … whatever. End of story. It takes 90 muddled minutes (!) for Fleck to get into the makeup—but the makeup is rather a pronounced point of the Joker, a bit like the suit is a pronounced point of the superhero.

Phoenix’s may be the worst  portrayal of the character to date. Cesar Romero, (who’s looking better with each new portrayal), and each brought a sense of glee to the role, albeit a  maniacal one. Not so with Phoenix. He’s a tiresome gray, and when he does finally go black, he does not enjoy a moment of it.

The Joker is certainly bound to have a huge opening, but is it worthy of the controversy its generating? It deserves neither. Nor does it deserve to be remembered, celebrated, or mistaken for art, or cinema, for that matter. The Joker is merely a tasteless nothingburger.