Labyrinth – This is a movie I’ve been watching fondly since childhood, an early Jennifer Connelly vehicle which finds her navigating the titular trap-filled maze to rescue her brother from the goblin king (played by a magnetic glam-era David Bowie). The extensive use of sophisticated puppetry was provided by director Jim Henson’s workshop. Despite lousy reviews and ticket sales, the film quietly tightened its grip on my generation, emerging today as a recognized modern-day fairytale. The acting is a bit shaky, the plot is disjointedly episodic and one of the musical numbers is so bad I have to fast-forward through it, but my love for this movie is not mere nostalgia; there’s plenty of creativity, vision and heart here. Along with Phenomena, also on this list, this was one of Connelly's first starring roles and she's continued to be a favorite actresses over the years despite some odious missteps.
Lady Terminator – An Indonesian knock-off of Terminator, but with the buff cyborg from the future replaced by a busty witch from the past. She’s the Queen of the South Seas and, oh yeah, she’s got a deadly eel in her vagina. Lots of nudity and shooting. Laser eyes. Etc. Terrible film. Great fun.
The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra – Parody films are usually good at skewering their targets, but too often fail to stand on their own two feet. Lost Skeleton, however, is a refreshing exception, perhaps because of its genuine affection for the cheesy sci-fi B-movies of the 1950’s. It manages to get me to care about the characters and, rarer still, care about the low-rent minimally-talented actors who thanklessly portrayed them. Dr. Armstrong, a scientist, and his wife Betty are looking for an asteroid made of atmosphereum, a grail sought by two crashlanded aliens, who need it as fuel, and the evil Dr. Fleming, who plans to reanimate a telekinetic skeleton. The alien’s rampaging pet mutant and Animala, a sexy composite of forest animals controlled by Fleming, round out the mix. The intentionally execrable script and acting are note-perfect, reminding one that it takes great skill to find the humor and humanity in mediocrity.
Master of the Flying Guillotine – After they finish reading the title most people will have already decided whether they want to see this film or not. Those who do will not be disappointed. It’s basically a series of tournament style showdowns between a one-armed boxer and the imperial assassins sent to kill him, featuring plenty of creative weapons, destructible sets and fight scenes that fill the time often squandered by other films on plot, character development and themes.
Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People – Japanese director Ishiro Honda has a reputation as the king of giant monster movies, a reliable source of men in rubber suits ravaging Tokyo with gusto. Best known for his Godzilla series, I find myself gravitating towards Honda’s odder anomalies (Frankenstein Conquers the World, Mothra), especially this eldritch adaptation of William Hope Hodgson (one of the forgotten giants and early founders of cosmic horror), modernized into a metaphor for atomic-era fear and despair. My childhood fears of fungi and skin disease (which linger to this day) probably influence how effective I find this movie despite its obvious cheesiness.
Mr. Freedom – A wild, scattershot 1969 satire of American ideological imperialism, Mr. Freedom is now more relevant than ever in our era of expanded cultural hegemony literally symbolized by America's endless superficial superhero movies. The title character wears an American flag themed football uniform and, on a mission to protect France from communism, must battle with threats that include Muzhik Man (notable for his outrageous Russian accent) and Red China Man (a giant inflatable dragon that fills an entire subway). It may be hyperbolic, loud and one-sided, but it’s also audacious, funny and smarter than it lets on. I'm a big fan of Delphine Seyrig and Donald Pleasence, who make good use of second-rate parts.
Mr. Vampire – Probably the best of the ‘hopping vampire’ subgenre, a popular Hong Kong convention in which the undead, cramped by rigor mortis, must hop stiffly towards their intended victims. A group of bumbling Taoist monks attempt to seal off an evil vampire and deal with a seductive ghost in this martial arts horror comedy that was a big hit in Asia, but left Western audiences befuddled. The bad special effects should clash with the quality choreography, but it all fits together seamlessly thanks in part to the whiplash pacing that doesn’t give you time to think, which you probably shouldn't be doing anyway in a movie like this. A close runner up, perhaps a little too successful to meet my criteria, is A Chinese Ghost Story and its several sequels.
Myra Breckinridge – “Myra Breckinridge is about as funny as a child molester. It is an insult to intelligence, an affront to sensibility and an abomination to the eye.” So ran Time magazine’s review of this notorious Gore Vidal adaptation, who, like everyone else, disowned the film. Rex Reed plays Myron, a man who gets a sex change and heads to Hollywood under the name Myra (and now played by Raquel Welch) where she teaches aspiring actors about classic films and female dominance. The self-consciously outrageous bluster is punctuated by inserts from old movies, often for humorous effect. It’s all so random and faux-subversive, but it’s unbridled, unhinged and unprofitable; everything Hollywood tries scrupulously to avoid. Right up my alley, though.
On the Comet – This is one of Czech stop-motion animator Karel Zeman’s least focused works, adapting from one of Jules Verne’s most minor novels. It functions primarily as a collage of Zeman’s boyish fascinations: interplanetary travel, dinosaurs, dirigibles, war, castles, cavalry, idealized love, etc. I think there were even pirates. Story and character development are almost non-existent, but if you can tolerate (or in my case enjoy) 75 minutes spent inside the head of a daydreaming 8-year-old, you’ll be fine. Just don’t try to make sense of it. Zeman’s Baron Prasil is his masterpiece, but within the animation community that’s already well-established so I disqualified it from the list.
Paranoiac – Paranoiac is one of those gothic horror films where a twisted family and their associates vie for the upperhand in a decaying mansion and generally resort to all sorts of dishonesty and crime. Oliver Reed steals the show as Simon, a drunken, scheming lout whose main rival is Tony, his brother, long thought dead and suddenly back. Eleanor, the innocent and naïve sister, is caught in the middle of their inheritance struggle. Of course a serial killer is also at large and 90% of the characters, including the likable ones, may be insane. Underground director Freddie Francis does a great job amping up the tension and twists, gleefully ignoring realism. His day job was serving as cinematographer on A-list pictures (he even won a couple Oscars) and his trademark pristine deep-focus black-and-white work is on display here.
There are some good ones here! I loved Baron Prasil; are his other films in a similar style?
Most of them are. The Fabulous World of Jules Verne and The Stolen Airship are his best films in the Baron Prasil style, meaning the mix of stop-motion, live action and stylized forced-perspective sets. On the Comet is the same style, but is definitely a notch below the others. Journey to the Beginning of Time is almost all live-action using outdoor sets with a bit of stop-motion for dinosaurs. It's probably his weakest film. Krabat: The Sorcerer's Apprentice is cutout animation with no live-action and is one of his best works. The Tale of John and Marie is also solely cutout animation, but I only recently put together a subtitled copy so I haven't watched it yet.
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