Tag Archives: stop-motion

30 Days of Madness, Day 23 — Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)

by Tom Kapr

Wherein I attempt to watch one new-to-me horror film every day of October till Halloween and write a quick review. I will end my review with a letter grade like we do on our podcast (A, B, C, D, or F–pluses and minuses are for the non-committal!) and with the movie’s rank on my Flickchart.

qwingedserpent

Written & directed by Larry Cohen.

This movie should have been called Q: The Whiny Small Time Crook. Michael Moriarty is one of the whiniest, weasliest protagonists ever, and the majority of the film follows him around, so its his unbearable show. Am I supposed to find him funny? Or sympathetic? It really seems like he was intended to be both. He’s terrible. And castmates Candy Clark, David Carradine, and Richard Roundtree aren’t much better.

In fact, there isn’t a single character in this film I did care about. All I could think for an hour and twenty minutes was how much I wanted to see this giant bird dragon appear and destroy everyone. An hour and twenty minutes into a 1 hour 32 minute movie. Fifteen minutes from the end, and I was still waiting for real monster action beyond the quick glimpse here and there. I’m thinking there’s only about a minute and a half of monster in this entire film. And maybe another couple of minutes of gross Aztec ritual killings, because, oh yeah, there’s also a cult that’s barely shown. They worship the ancient god Quetzalcoatl, which I guess is what this monster is supposed to be, even though it ends up being nothing more than a lazily designed lizard with wings. It doesn’t look remotely birdlike, even though they’ve been referring to it as a bird throughout the film. Did they even look a picture of Quetzalcoatl before making this movie?

And then the police force’s response to finally finding this giant flying monster is to shoot automatic weapons wildly from the top of a skyscraper out across lower Manhattan. They probably killed more people than the monster did. It would take a scene by scene breakdown to appropriately explain how bad this movie is.

Bad writing, bad directing, bad acting, bad cinematography, bad music (I kid you not, there were two separate pieces of music playing at the same gorram time in one scene), and, I’m sorry to say since I’m a lover of old-fashioned stop-motion monster movies, bad special effects. I actually can’t find anything worthy of legitimate praise.

Final grade: I’m afraid I have to give this an F. I was looking forward to watching this, too.

My Flickchart ranking: #3193 (out of 3268, a relative 2/100) (Bottom 100!)

30 Days of Madness, Day 26: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) Directed by Eugène Lourié.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, based on the 1951 short story by Ray Bradbury, was the first post-nuclear monster movie and, alongside Them! of 1954, one of the best. A team of nuclear physicists performing a test with the hydrogen bomb in the Arctic unwittingly release a prehistoric beast locked in the ice for 100 million years. It makes its way down the eastern coast of North America ending up–guess where!–in New York City.

"I want to beeee a paaaart of it...!"

One of the things that always bothers me about mid-century movies like this is how maddeningly rational everyone fancies themselves. “You saw a giant beast? Come now, Doctor, next you’ll be telling me you saw flying saucers!” And I do have one major question: Why do giant creatures in these old movies make it their goal in life to automatically destroy every man-made structure they come across?

This was Eugène Lourié’s first time helming a film amidst a career in art direction, and he shows himself capable. There are a bunch of writers credited on this project, making authorship harder than usual to ascertain. Cast-wise, the only thing I want to be sure and mention is to look out for a young Lee Van Cleef (more than a decade before his starring roles in the iconic spaghetti Westerns For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) as the sharp-shooter at the end.

But The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms isn’t about who wrote it or who starred in it or even who directed it. It’s about Ray Harryhausen and his spectacular stop-motion creature effects. From Mighty Joe Young in 1949 to The 7th Voyage of Sinbad to Jason and the Argonauts (one of my all-time favorites) to One Million Years B.C. (where the spectacle of his visual effects had major competition from a bikini-clad Raquel Welch) to the original Clash of the Titans, Harryhausen’s name has become synonymous with jaw-dropping visual effects. He is truly one of the greatest visual effects artists in cinema history.

The final scene in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms may not make a lick of sense, but it is so cool to look at, I didn’t care.

My Netflix rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

–Tom Kapr

James Cameron, Part I: An Overview of the Career of a Visual Effects Auteur

By Nathanael Griffis

With the re-release of Avatar into theaters this past summer, to the simultaneous groans and cheers of fans and critics alike, I found myself thinking about James Cameron. Perhaps he forces me to think about him by loftily describing his personal achievements as world-shaking. The hubris of the artist, though, is not enough to retract my fascination. To some this might feel too late, Avatar was last Christmas, but I believe distance from the film will lend itself to more honest criticism. And so, I want to take a look Cameron’s influence on visual effects throughout his earlier work and implications of such on the resurgence of 3D technology in film.

James Cameron is not exactly a prolific filmmaker–although not as slow as, say, Terrence Malick. Still, Cameron’s films wield such influence that it is worth one’s time to look at each. It all started with The Terminator, about as good a debut as one can have. Utilizing Harryhausen-esque stop-motion, makeup courtesy of Stan Winston, and a perfect combination of models and stuntwork to create the final robot, Cameron delivered chilling action scenes. (Luckily for him, a robot jostling forward in stop-motion looks natural.)

With Aliens, which some content is an improvement over Ridley Scott’s original Alien, Cameron showed a mastery of physical effects. He did simple things, like turning the camera upside-down to make the aliens appear to climb across the ceiling. Actual weather was used on massive, detailed models. Add all that to the magnum opus of expert puppeteer work and foreground miniatures in the final battle with the alien queen. These amazing special effects are perfectly combined with beam- and film-splitting and rear projection.

Cameron’s early work demonstrated a penchant for action choreography that arguably will never be matched, especially in Terminator 2. But before we reach that monumental film, let us not forget The Abyss. Cameron showed us the wonder of the world around us and the mysteries it could hold in this tense underwater thriller. The film developed new facial recognition techniques for the pseudopod sequence that revolutionized CGI (computer graphics imaging) and paved the way for future effects auteurs, especially Peter Jackson and his Gollum. The film also showed that Cameron hadn’t yet abandoned practical effects. He built an entire underwater set in an unused nuclear reactor and accomplished underwater shots that have never been re-attempted in over 20 years.

Terminator 2 was next and and provided a visual feast for the eyes both in terms of physical stuntwork and CGI effects. The film’s numerous chase and fight scenes flawlessly blended Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance with a CGI liquid terminator, countless explosions (actually, you could probably count them), and excellent makeup from Stan Winston. The film still stands as one of the best uses of CGI and doesn’t merely rival modern techniques but in many cases shames them.

Titanic is a similar example of physical and CGI effects perfectly combined. The sinking cruise ship is amazing to watch, as CGI people tumble off and plummet into the sea below. It is equally engaging as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet race through the sinking ship with hundreds of gallons of water bursting through elevators and unsealed shafts.

On the whole, Cameron has most assuredly changed the landscape of film and visual effects. He’s shown a talent for taking action-thrillers and elevating them to a finer level of art through a meticulous concern for the visual. His films have not been overtly resonant thematically, with the exception of Titanic, but they resonate on some other level inside us. It’s good entertainment; it’s intrinsic quality; it’s viewing an exciting, beautiful image; it’s a dedication to accomplishing the impossible. In these, Cameron is a master.

The question remains, though: Does Avatar improve or impair an already amazing filmography?

–Nathanael Griffis

30 Days of Horror, Day 4: Puppet Master

Shakes and Lefty disagree over Puppet Master.

Puppet Master (1989) Written & directed by David Schmoeller. Starring… one of these nights, one of these movies will have a cast worth talking about.

This is one of the most boring horror films I’ve ever seen–so boring, actually, that I opened a separate window and did Flickchart rankings for the last 50 minutes of the running time. Hey, I didn’t cheat, I was watching the movie too. But in lieu of a plot synopsis and critique, I’m just going to list the notes I took during my viewing. (See, I was paying attention.)

My notes on Puppet Master:

–So this is set in a place called the Bodega Bay hotel? Great, now all I can think about is how much I wish I were watching The Birds instead.

–Nobody sees this little POV critter scurrying around in broad daylight? He’s short, not microscopic!

–Stop-motion! Hooray! Two days in a row! [Editor's note: This will be the last celebratory moment for the remainder of the movie.]

–Hey, that dead body blinked!

–How is it this movie can have such good stop-motion and such bad puppetry. It’s a movie about puppets!

–Is EVERYBODY in this movie a psychic?

–Puppets and psychics. That’s it.

–So, it’s EGYPTIAN magic then, is it?

–There is 0 tension in this movie.

–An arm! I saw an arm in that puppet!

–Well, this is one of the more disturbing bedroom scenes I’ve ever watched. I mean, the puppet’s cute and all but… ick.

–And now it’s spitting up leeches. Even more ick.

–Aargh, this is the worst music ever!

–Apparently, all you have to do when being attacked by a puppet is pick it up and throw it across the room.

–And then allow yourself to be overtaken anyway.

–Weirdly bloodless throat slash.

–Wow, the hero actually did something.

This is, by far, the most interesting character in this movie.

–Nope, it was just a passing thing. He’s getting the crap kicked out of him again.

–Finally! Revenge of the puppets! I’ll never look at an elevator the same way again.

And that’s all I wrote. I really did enjoy the stop-motion in this movie, and I liked the design of two of the puppets–the one with the skull-face and the hook and blade on his arms, and the one with the tiny head and the big hands. Though I’m at a loss to figure out why the puppet-maker, who kills himself at the beginning for reasons not fully explained, created these things with such violence-conducive appendages if he didn’t originally intend them to be murderous creatures. They only become violent when taken over by an evil puppet master later on. Whatever, it gives them an excuse to have puppets running around attacking people, I guess. All in all, it wasn’t a terrible movie-watching experience so much as a boring one. This is probably one that would be more fun to watch with friends and riff on.

My Netflix rating: 2 stars (out of 5)

–Tom Kapr (http://www.youtube.com/user/KapriciousT?feature=mhum)

30 Days of Madness: Day 3 — The Call of Cthulhu

By Tom Kapr

 

“That is not dead which can eternal lie, and in strange aeons even death may die.” –H.P. Lovecraft

 

The Call of Cthulhu (2005) Written by Sean Branney. Directed by Andrew Leman.

H.P. Lovecraft is one of the most celebrated writers of horror fiction in the history of the genre, his name unabashedly spoken in the same breath as that of Poe, and his works have inspired the likes of Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and Stephen King. Unfortunately, I have not read but snippets of Lovecraft’s stories, so this film is my introduction to a full-fledged Lovecraft narrative. I trust the faithfulness of the film’s narrative, and with good reason — it was produced by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

Even the beautiful artwork is nostalgic of the silent era.

Aside from its immersion in Lovecraft mythology, The Call of Cthulhu is also immersed in cinematic history. It is a silent film — yes, a silent film released in 2005 — and it displays its makers’ knowledge of the styles and techniques of the silent film era. The makeup and acting imitate the conventions of the era, as do the impressive art direction and the rousing orchestral score. I was pretty excited to see some Harryhausen-esque special effects. As a huge fan of Jason and the Argonauts and an admirer of Ray Harryhausen’s work in other such mythology-based productions, I often long for the days of stop-motion in this CGI-heavy digital era.

The filmmakers even replicate the usual negative scratches and projections of hairs caught in the lenses that viewers will often see in copies of films from the 1920s and earlier. If I have one criticism, it is that the film very much looks like it is trying to imitate these old films, rather than looking like an old film itself. It is obvious that this film was shot on modern technology and then aged in post-production. I wish they had instead used the old technology, or shot on 8mm, to reproduce the look of the silent era, as it would have added a layer of genuineness to the production that I found lacking.

This criticism aside, however, The Call of Cthulhu is a cool little film, coming in at under 47 minutes, and is great fun to watch, especially for students of the history of the medium of film and for admirers of Lovecraft’s work. It is an interesting look at the ability of madness to move from person to person like a virus, as the obsession with the mysteries of the cult of Cthulhu infect each new individual who hears the story from the last person to be driven mad by it.

And thank God for it after the past two nights’ viewings.

My Netflix rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

 

“The most merciful thing in the world… is the inability of the human mind to correlate its contents…. Some day the piecing together of disassociated knowledge will open such terrifying vistas of reality, and our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light to the peace and safety of a new dark age.” –H.P. Lovecraft

 

Go to Day 5 — Puppet Master

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