Tag Archives: B-Movie

CAPSULE: THE GIANT CLAW (1957)

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DIRECTED BY: Fred F. Sears

FEATURING: Jeff Morrow, Mara Corday, Morris Ankrum, Edgar Barrier

PLOT: When an unidentified flying object terrorizing the globe is discovered to be an enormous, grotesque bird, the planet’s collective scientific brainpower and military might are brought to bear against the winged menace.

Still from The Giant Claw (1957)

COMMENTS: One of the great stories of cinema is the tale surrounding the production of Jaws. It seems the robotic shark that was built to terrorize the citizens of Amity was temperamental at best, unusable at worst. Accordingly, director Steven Spielberg was forced to scrap many of the intended scenes featuring the automated predator, instead resorting to obfuscatory tricks to keep the villain hidden until the last possible moment. This ended up working to the film’s benefit, as the star’s delayed entrance only served to magnify the tension. Spielberg had stumbled backwards into brilliance.

Of course, it’s questionable how much his tactics would have worked had the ultimate reveal of the shark not paid off the suspense. Once the chum-shoveling Roy Scheider comes face-to-face with Bruce the animatronic carcharodon, then we’re off to the races, because the reveal has justified the withholding. You can believe your eyes. It is the black-eyed, remorseless killing machine we were promised.

In some respects, The Giant Claw faces precisely the same dilemma. The filmmakers want to hold back the full and awesome power of their beast for as long as possible. We get hints, of course: blurry visions of an airborne foe, evocative descriptions of a flying creature “the size of a battleship,” an enormous footprint indicating the immensity of the monster, and many Spielbergian stares into the unseen maw of a force to terrible to behold. But at some point, the monster has to be revealed. And when at last it is… my goodness, how can I do this justice? Can it even be conveyed? I mean, here are just a few examples of my peers attempting to reckon with this thing:

All true, and that last one probably comes closest to illustrating just Continue reading CAPSULE: THE GIANT CLAW (1957)

CAPSULE: FREEWAY (1996)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Reese Witherspoon, Kiefer Sutherland, Wolfgang Bodison, Dan Hedaya, Bokeem Woodbine, Amanda Plummer, Brooke Shields,

PLOT: Teenager Vanessa flees foster care to go live with her grandmother and is picked up hitchhiking by Bob Wolverton.

Still from Freeway (1996)

COMMENTS: The tale of “Little Red Riding Hood” is known in the version set down by Charles Perrault, and later as one of the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales, but elements of the story date back to ancient Greece. (On the Aarne-Thompson-Uther index of folktales, it’s type 333.) It’s a sturdy trope, revisited many times over the years; we even found one version Canonically Weird. So to come upon Freeway, a modern-day take incarnation of Red and the Wolf’s perennial conflict, is not too surprising. What is different is the gusto with which the film embraces some of the darkest elements of our modern world.

Writer/director Matthew Bright brings two major twists to his take, both revolving around our perception of the heroine. Witherspoon embodies the guileless innocent of the fairy tale as a magnificent piece of white trash. Foul-mouthed and incapable of shame, Vanessa has stepped straight out of “Jerry Springer” and brought a bouillabaisse of lower-class tropes with her: her mother turns tricks, her stepfather is a layabout drug addict and molester, her boyfriend is a drug dealer, her cellmate is an emotionally immature lesbian, she takes down an aggressive Mexican girl to become the alpha of the detention facility, and she’s so illiterate as to barely be able to read the word “cat.” It is to Witherspoon’s credit that she never softens the rough-edges of her antisocial character, yet still earns our support. Vanessa is plucky, resourceful, and hews to a strict code of honesty and personal morality. Even in the face of danger, she refuses to be anything but herself. You don’t always like her, but you have to admire her perseverance.

This ties into the other twist that Freeway brings to the table: our heroine takes her fate into her own hands. No woodsman comes to her rescue; her boyfriend – named “Chopper,” natch – is unable to help her, and the police are unwilling, taking her at face value as a degenerate miscreant. (In fairness, her use of racial epithets doesn’t exactly endear her to the African American detective.) The only person willing to look out for Vanessa is Vanessa, and she doesn’t hesitate to take charge, escaping her social worker, crippling her attacker, and even staging a prison break. (She’s very funny showing up at a diner covered in blood and daintily asking for the washroom.) She is repeatedly punished for her initiative, because given the choice between a young woman who is hardened by her origins and an outwardly clean-cut school counselor who moonlights as a sexual deviant and serial killer, society is obviously going to side with the man. In this version of the fairy tale, the princess is all on her own.

Witherspoon is matched well with Sutherland, who makes a meal of his role by heightening all the different personas of the Wolf: false ally, malformed victim, gleeful sadist. Even though you’re never going to mistake Kiefer for a bleeding heart, he has a lot of fun playing up Bob’s false purity, so that when he does start to reveal his true colors, the over-the-top villainy makes sense as the other side of the coin. By the time he’s been maimed and emasculated by Vanessa, he’s become pure raging id.

As a character study, Freeway is pretty entertaining. As a story, it’s surprisingly conservative, holding tight to the source material. Some of the references feel fun and cheeky, but others are shockingly literal, from the basket that Vanessa totes on her journey to the disguise Bob dons to trick her in the film’s climax. That puts a lot of pressure on style to justify the film’s very existence. Roger Ebert, in his positive review, asserts his law that a movie is not about what it is about, but how it is about it. Ergo, Freeway is not about a girl who uses her wiles to elude a savvy killer, but rather about our insatiable hunger for lurid stories that confirm our suspicions that the world is a cesspool but there’s nothing wrong with us. For Ebert, that’s why Freeway works. The voice is perfectly attuned to the sensational subject matter.

Ironically, I would argue that all that is a major reason why Freeway is kind of a mess. It’s so focused on the satire, on replicating a child’s fable with a vulgar end-of-the-millennium veneer, that it never actually gets to be its own thing. Witherspoon is a delight to watch, but after a while, she appears to be a list of societal ills, not a character. It’s all about the stunt, and that’s distracting. Freeway’s engagement with the less privileged elements of society seems less about anger with the world’s institutions and more a prurient interest in the crude, the nasty, the tasty, tasty dirt. It’s clever, to be sure, but you end up wishing there was something more to it. All the better to watch, my dear.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a dark comic excursion into deranged pathology… plays like a cross between the deadpan docudrama of ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ and the berserk revenge fantasy of ‘Switchblade Sisters.'”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “CinemaObscura.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)         

CAPSULE: GALAXY OF TERROR (1981)

aka Mindwarp: An Infinity of Terror

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 DIRECTED BY: Bruce D. Clark

FEATURING: Edward Albert, Erin Moran, Ray Walston, Robert Englund, , Taaffe O’Connell, , , Bernard Behrens

PLOT: On a mission to investigate the disappearance of a lost spaceship, the crew of the Quest confronts an alien monster that hunts them by preying upon their worst fears.

Still from Galaxy of Terror (1981)

COMMENTS: No one ever accused Roger Corman of failing to capitalize upon someone else’s success. Having seen Alien reap box office gold, he and his mercenary studio New World Pictures quickly put together a film based upon a simple principle: an alien hunts a space crew one by one. Of course, what Corman and his cohorts never seemed to consider (or, more likely, could not be bothered to care) was that Alien was much more than merely a slasher film transplanted into outer space. The earlier film used foreboding and patience in a way that its imitator couldn’t even contemplate. Where Alien carefully developed the complex interpersonal relationships of the crew of the Nostromo, Galaxy of Terror just spits out one-line motivations and outsized character tics and hopes that will generate some empathy. We’ve got the blueprint here, but the only parts that carried over were the alien and the dead crew.

Galaxy of Terror is cheap. After all, it’s a Roger Corman production. But amazingly, it doesn’t look cheap, and a great deal of credit goes to the production designer, a promising young fellow by the name of James Cameron. (He also served as second-unit director and took on other behind-the-scenes roles.) The spaceship milieu is rich and convincing – the set is allegedly supplemented with spray-painted McDonald’s containers – while a walk through the chambers of an alien pyramid is vividly unfamiliar. The visual style readily evokes Cameron’s future endeavors, such as The Terminator and Aliens, and it’s entertaining to see him deploying his talents early on.

The story is considerably less accomplished. That notion of an enemy that can exploit your worst nightmares is intriguing (and would later be explored extensively by co-star Englund), but is only haphazardly pursued here, usually by a character announcing their worst fear and promptly being confronted with it in the next scene. Moran is claustrophobic, but her particularly grim fate is sealed less by confined spaces than by the vicious tentacles that attack her. Haig’s demise at the hands of his own crystal throwing stars is one of the film’s most effective pieces of visual horror, but makes little sense when you realize his weakness isn’t fear, but faith. In most cases, one has to assume that what the victims fear most is a large-clawed, bloodsucking monster, because that’s what most consistently does them in.

Which leads us to the film’s most notorious sequence, in which Continue reading CAPSULE: GALAXY OF TERROR (1981)

CAPSULE: FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER (1965)

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AKA Mars Invades Puerto Rico, Duel of the Space MonstersFrankenstein Meets the Space Men, Operation San Juan

DIRECTED BY: Robert Gaffney

FEATURING: Marilyn Hanold, James Karen, Lou Cutell, Nancy Marshall, Robert Reilly

PLOT: An invading alien force plans to kidnap Earth’s women to repopulate their species; to preserve the secrecy of their plan, they shoot down a series of American rockets, but the last is crewed by a cyborg who turns into a brainless killing machine upon crash landing in Puerto Rico.

Still from Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster (1965)

COMMENTS: Sometimes a movie is just silly. There’s no other level, no hidden agenda, no subversive reading that allows you to view the movie from a completely different perspective. No, sometimes the movie is just goofy as hell, and everyone knows it, and no one tries to be ironic or campy; they just keep doing what they’re doing, and you get a movie that’s silly.

If the highly misleading title didn’t tip you off, we get a proper taste of the kind of movie Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster is going to be early on. Opening with a car taking a group of military bigwigs to the Kennedy Space Center, the movie launches into an extended montage of the vehicle slowly motoring past every conceivable landmark on the Space Coast to the accompaniment of a hyperactive percussionist. After the car stops and one of the generals asks how far away lies their destination. “Another five minutes, sir,” he is told, and both car and drummer ramp it right back up for another driving sequence. It couldn’t be more obvious if the word “padding” was superimposed on the screen. It’s played as straight as an arrow, it’s undeniably hilarious, and with this moment in the books, the Good Ship Silliness has set sail.

It’s startling how much competence FMTSM has going for it. Director Gaffney was an acclaimed documentarian and friend of . Perennial That-Guy James Karen gets a rare leading role. Lou Cutell will later earn notoriety for playing an appropriately named proctologist on Seinfeld. That’s Bond villain (and Crispin’s dad) Bruce Glover as an uncredited alien lackey. Martian princess Marilyn Hanold brings her experience as a Playboy Playmate to the role of the second-most-clothed woman in the film. And maybe they play those two pop songs produced by Hall of Fame music mastermind Bob Crewe way too many times, but darn it if they’re not catchy tunes.

On the other hand, the most skilled filmmaker would have struggled to assemble something logical our of the pieces here. Aliens with bald caps and hazmat suits. An android whose encounter with an extraterrestrial death ray turns him into killing machine whose face is half-lasagna. A plot to shanghai every bikini-clad (and white) young woman in Puerto Rico into a Martian repopulation program by placing them on a conveyor belt. It seems impossible to think that anybody thought the movie would be anything other than ridiculous, but there they are, sometimes hammy but always committed.

You have to admire the film’s scatterbrained approach to its own ridiculous plot. When our heroes, Adam and Karen, have to pursue the homicidal robot that was once their creation, they spring into action… by hopping on a Vespa and taking a leisurely drive through the streets of San Juan, as if they had just jumped into a Puerto Rican Roman Holiday. You may ask whether the movie is a schlocky exploitation film or a disguised travelogue; why not both?

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster doesn’t have the advantages of sustained oddness that usually catapult the worst movies ever made into the weird pantheon. It lacks the earnestness of a Plan 9 From Outer Space, the flat-out jaw-dropping surprise of a Godmonster of Indian Flats, the sheer ineptitude of Manos: The Hands of Fate. This movie has to vie for the title purely on its own merits. Ultimately, it’s not the most entertaining bad movie out there, but it sure does make a solid go of it.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the movie does have a weird and kitschy charm to it. Any film with a pool party scene that is interrupted by an alien attack is not without its unintentional humor.” – Alec Pridgen, Mondo Bizarro

(This movie was nominated for review by Bob Gorelick. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

 

CAPSULE: SHRUNKEN HEADS (1994)

DIRECTED BY

FEATURING:  Aeryk Egan, Bo Sharon, Darris Love, Meg Foster, Julius Harris, Rebecca Herbst, A.J. Damato

PLOT:  In New York, three boys are murdered by gangsters and then resurrected as shrunken heads by a local Haitian voodoo practitioner.

COMMENTS:  In most suburbs during the 90’s, the video rental store was positioned precisely between a doughnut shop (laden with youths with hair parted down the middle playing “Area 51”) and a pizza place that sold greasy bags of bread sticks for $2.50.  Florescent lit and staffed by geeks who knew more about Windows 95 short cuts than personal hygiene, this type of independent video shop had a chemical smell from the profusion of plastics, but was air-conditioned and filled with R-rated flicks.  Hoping to poach a glimpse of babes in thongs on movie posters or barely-covered breasts on the covers of VHS tapes, the neighborhood boys, sweaty and short on quarters thanks to Tekken 2, stumbled upon tapes like Shrunken Heads.

Appealing to the preteen amygdala, Shrunken Heads initially frisks about like a typical teen drama, with young gents in stripes and khakis battling bullies, but it’s suddenly recast into a skittish horror film with hokey voodoo components. Watching it is like compulsive carbohydrate bingeing; one stops asking questions and simply indulges. It was most likely intended for the 10-12 year olds, Netscape hackers, AOL chatters and comic book store patrons of its time, but in 2021 it holds appeal to VHS collectors and horror enthusiasts alike.

The plot is uninteresting and filled with daffy material.  Meg Foster plays androgynous gangster Big Moe with a cigar, hat and trench coat. Sporting an exaggerated NYC accent, she hangs with crimped groupies and a warehouse full of cigarette smoking goons who play pool, and ends up crossing paths with some humdrum kids. One has asthma, one’s got red hair, and one is soft for neighborhood Sally (Rebecca Herbst, the only girl not in spandex), who looks great and truly holds it down, even though the script gives her no reason to. The boys slip up and get capped by big Moe’s thugs over a petty gripe, but luckily Mr. Sumatra (a Haitian voodoo priest played by Julius Harris) summons them from the dead in the form of shrunken heads so they can exact their revenge.

shrunken heads (1995) rebecca herbst
Pictured: Rebecca Herbst demonstrating proper use of denim over stripes.

The volatile story is made more chaotic by the tacky musical score which sounds more appropriate to 90’s cable television programming or afternoon soaps like “All My Children” than a horror film. The vivacious opening theme by Danny Elfman might be the film’s sensory highlight, but the remedying sounds of Casio tones that follow provide a soundtrack that’s exquisitely outré, a pariah to pair with the outlandish gag culture. These treasures don’t come free; there’s ample boredom to be endured, script-wise.

Even though half-baked bits of dialogue like “Bear witness as my life was so cruelly torn from me in the prime of my youth” remain forgettable, the movie’s cast retains its charm. Harris provides focus to glide through some of the preposterous scenes, such as when he drops a dead cat into a melting pot and the boys’ gasping heads are floating in glop. Beaming with demoniac glee, he looks to be relishing his own performance. Meg Foster is spunky as a lesbian gangster, especially when she pinches the face of a male henchmen or waves a lit cigar around. Rebecca Herbst seems to be the most grounded, hardly freaking out over dead friends coming back to life.

Benefiting from its kooky cast, Shrunken Heads grows even odder with aleatory makeup and dexterous effects. The kinetic scenes where the heads fly around New York City help enrich the boring script, and there’s also some mangy voodoo sets with dead goats and chickens. Further perked by snappy vocal effects from the re-animated heads, everything leads to a suitable climax featuring a punctual highway pursuit and frosty lightning effects. These ingredients make Shrunken Heads a passable success—although the experience can get knotted by juvenile regressions such as flatulent zombies, which makes other Full Moon releases like Arcade and Meridian look earnest in comparison. Heads still holds up, perhaps even coming in low-budget specialist Full Moon’s top ten.

Quality voodoo-themed films are scarce lately (excepting Bertrand Bonello’s outstanding Zombi Child), but in the realm of VHS tapes, every Weekend at Bernie’s 2 begets a charming dud like Shrunken Heads. The voodoo genre is adept at both intriguing viewers and snagging them in its foibles. Shrunken Heads is unique and a somewhat weird experience; there probably won’t be anything like it produced again. With its balmy voodoo plot, it flaunts a rare sense of laxity absent in the present day obsession with algorithmic, safe media. To thoroughly imbibe its fluky complexion, see it on grainy VHS while under the influence of a mild sedative.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a strange god awful movie, but one that affords itself some nostalgic value so while it is a waste of talent and resources, it’s not totally a waste of time.”–Felix J. Vasquez, Cinema Crazed