Queen of Snakes, and six more movies



Feb. 5, 2023

Queen of Snakes (2019)

Christopher Mihm loves old-style horror and science fiction moves, and most years he gets together with friends and neighbors and films one in his back yard.

It's always very do-it-yourself, and his style is camp. This one's less campy that his usual, and the story works well enough you might be tempted to take it seriously. And taken seriously, it's pretty good.

A grumpy old woman in a wheelchair bosses her daughter around and has nothing but bitterness for the world. The daughter has a boyfriend, but he's cheating on her, and anyway, Mom doesn't approve so it would never work out.

Then a mysterious package is misdelivered to their house, and grumpy mom wants to open it. When she does, it unleashes the ancient Norwegian power of the… Queen of Snakes.

The leads, playing grumpy mom and harried daughter, are very good. The supporting players, not so much. The look and feel are absolutely from the mid-1960s, the script and direction are AOK, and overall, it's an enjoyable no-budget horror movie.

Making movies must be an expensive hobby, but the world should have more people like Christopher Mihm in it. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003)

Thom Andersen is a Los Angeles-based documentary moviemaker and film buff, and a professor at the California Institute of the Arts. Annoyed by the way his home town is shown in the movies, he wrote a very long essay on the topic, illustrated it with hundreds of movie clips to make his points, and this movie is that essay.

If it was in Film Commentary magazine, I might've read about half of it, but with the visuals — nothing but film clips, and we never even see Andersen — I watched all of it. It's always interesting, at least if you care about old movies.

The narration, written by Andersen but read by someone who presumably has a better voice, is cranky all the way through. Even when Andersen admits that he likes a movie he's on about, it still sounds like he hates it. I envy that talent.

He complains that the city's most beautiful residential architecture has, in movies, served exclusively as mansions where megapimps, corporate criminals, and the Mafia's most cold-blooded killers live.

He complains about the whiteness of Steve Martin's L.A. Story, and sees the racism implicit in Grand Canyon. Anderson's own film is mighty white too, until its last ten minutes, when the lecture and clips get angriest over how the city's poorest and blackest have been forgotten unless they make their own movies, and we get some clips from those. 

Andersen blames the movie business for shortening the city's name from the majestic Los Angeles to the pipsqueakier L A. "The slightly derisive diminutive," he says, "still makes me cringe. Only a city with an inferiority complex would allow it."

Ah, bite me, Professor. Cities with longish names always get affectionate nicknames — San Francisco is S F or Frisco, Philadelphia is Philly, Washington is DC, and Honolulu is 'the town." Hollywood isn't to blame for L A.

He complains that Los Angeles frequently plays other cities, and when it's playing itself it's a Los Angeles so stylized, so limited in its breadth, that it's still not really playing Los Angeles.

To that I would say, Hollywood makes fiction; none of it's really real, and the locations usually aren't, whether it's L A or Casablanca.

That said, I've never seen a film like this before, and I agree with most of Andersen's observations on what the movies have done to L A. As a bonus, just from the clips, I wrote down about a dozen titles for L A movies I want to see.

I enjoyed every minute of this, but you should perhaps be forewarned, there are 169 of those minutes — almost three hours. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

The Maury Island Incident (2014)

This is a mini-movie, a half-hour retelling of what's alleged to have happened at Maury Island, off Seattle, in late June of 1947. It's minor folklore around here, but chances are, you've never heard of any of it.

For a few days back then, there were numerous UFO sightings around the area, and in one of them, the crew of a local patrol boat off Maury Island said they saw a flock of spinning saucers in the sky. This was a month before the more famous incidents at Roswell, New Mexico, and the Maury Island events were soon dismissed as a hoax. 

Some of the locals still believe, though, and this was made by a couple of locals who seem to, including Scott Schaefer. Long ago, Schaefer worked on the local comedy show Almost Live, and he also worked on its more famous spin-off Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Based on contemporaneous documents, Schaefer has re-staged what's known to have happened, and what's said to have happened, and what happened after, to make this compact thriller.  

What happened after is that the FBI was all over it, telling the witnesses to keep quiet, threatening them if they didn't, and sending what may have been the first "man in black" to a witness's door. This agent's first words are, "I'm sorry about your dog," which is chilling, because debris falling from the UFO had landed on the boat and killed the man's dog.

Usually in a labor-of-love like this, the acting is amateur and sucks, but all the performances are solid, especially John Patrick Lowrie as J Edgar Hoover. He doesn't look much like Hoover, but simply oozes Hoover's creepiness and wanna-be omnipotence.

The movie seems aimed at people already familiar with the events and claims, but that's nearly nobody. To understand what I'd seen, after watching it I read the Wikipedia page about the event/hoax, which made my second viewing of the movie better informed than my first.

I recommend visiting Wikipedia before watching this flick, but also and absolutely, I recommend watching this flick. It's excellent.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror (1922)

"Blood! Your precious blood!"

Based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker, and directed by F W Murnau, this is the first vampire movie.

Drac goes by the name Orlock, and instead of the suave and sexy Count we're accustomed to he's monstrous to behold — kinda rat-faced with a swollen skull, talons and fangs, and Spock ears. He also wears a tightly-cinched waistcoat that gives his body the shape of an insect. 

It's very atmospheric, with sharp cinematography, and terrific music — the "symphony" promised in the title. I loved the music, actually, and played the movie a second time without watching, just listening, as a bedtime lullaby. 

Great subtitles, with large, clear text, translating even signs and the entire credits, so I knew immediately that Criterion Collection had nothing to do with this restoration. 

Is Nosferatu scary? Definitely, but Murnau invented a lot of what goes into horror movies to this day, so having seen hundreds of horror flicks, some of the original thrill is gone. Plenty remains, and it's a film worth watching, but my attention drifted in spots.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Raiders: The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made (2015)

This is an Alamo Drafthouse documentary on the making of that kid-powered remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark that I watched and wrote about a few weeks ago.

Brief recap: Bunch of kids loved Raiders of the Lost Ark, so they filmed a remake over several years.

There was one scene they couldn't figure out how to duplicate — the fist fight under a grounded airplane, props spinning, ending with the destruction of the plane. Much of this documentary is about the kids, now in their 30s, coming together to film that last, very tricky scene.

I'm disappointed that they turned to Kickstarter and spent $40,000 hiring a metalworker to build an airplane and blow it up. It would've been more in the spirit of the rest of their homemade movie to borrow or rent a plane for a few hours of shooting, and fake its destruction.

The documentary answers some of the "How'd they do it?" questions about the kids' movie, and it's amazing to see the outtake of a kid on fire from filming a scene, and another kid having trouble putting out the flames.

Surprising no-one, it's revealed that the children had a certain advantage — the father of one of them owned a TV station, meaning they had easy access to cameras, film, and editing.

Plenty of time is also spent with the now-adult kids who made the movie, and like most adults, their lives are complicated and their dreams didn't all come true.

The documentary is OK and worth seeing, but first see the spectacular movie the kids made. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Space Mutiny (1988)

Everyone's running around a space station, shooting lasers and blowing stuff up and shouting. It's a little unclear why, though. B-movie mainstays Reb Brown and John Phillip Law are here, with forever character actor Cameron Mitchell. 

"I am Jennera, the 14th high priestess of the Trypton lineage. The people of the Southern Sun are no longer able to distinguish light and dark. Your people are falling prey to the powers of darkness. Listen, I speak the truth."

There are dancing space mystics, lingering butt shots, and if some of the cheap sets can be believed the spaceship is made of bricks.

There's good-looking footage of spaceships in space, which must've been recycled from some better movie.

Three people are credited with editing this mess, where a character is killed in one scene but working the control console a few minutes later.

The makeup and costumes are blech, and the story cannot be made sense of. It was written and directed by David Winters, whose other works include Thrashin' (1986), Dancin': It's on! (2015), and two episodes of The Monkees.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Ted and Venus (1991)

Ted Whitley (Bud Cort) is a mentally unstable poet, who wins $100 at a slam and recites a ridiculous but really not bad poem.

"No matter what I do, women dump on me," says Cort a minute after groping a woman's butt. He lives on the beach, and builds a sand-woman so he can squeeze its breasts.

He meets a very pretty woman, fixates on her immediately, and says far too soon, "I fell in love with your pussy," which, by the way, he hasn't seen. He knows nothing about this woman — her name's Linda, but he calls her Venus — and he's obsessed, obnoxious. When she tells him to go away, he starts making obscene phone calls to her.

The film was written and directed by Cort, who's been one of my favorite actors ever since Harold and Maude. It's set in 1974, with James Brolin (going by 'Jim') as Cort's sidekick, a hippie who can't stop smoking pot and laughing about everything.

When Whitley's buddy tries to explain why and how the harassment is wrong and has to stop, the scene is staged behind a couple clumsily boinking under a blanket on the beach. In several scenes like that, I wondered if this was intended as a dark comedy, but if so it's even worse — there's nothing remotely funny here. It's more a horror movie, difficult to watch.

I'll give Cort credit for making a film about mental illness without trying to make his character sympathetic, and without shying away from the trauma Whitley is putting an innocent woman through. Cort was trying, I hope, to make a statement about mental illness and/or sexual harassment, but all that comes through is that mental illness and sexual harassment are bad. If that's the statement — got it, thanks.

There's an all-star cast inexplicably pitching in: Woody Harrelson, Carol Kane, Timothy Leary, Andrea Martin, Pat McCormick, Martin Mull, Rhea Perlman, Casandra Peterson, Gena Rowlands, and Vincent Schiavelli. All to no avail, really, and only Mull comes off well.

And I gotta complain about the horrid song that's performed over the opening credits, where the unexplained lyric "Remember that I said tomorrow" is repeated ad nauseam.

This is one of the worst films I've ever sat through to the end.

Verdict: BIG NO.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Coming soon:

• The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1969)
• Hanna (2011)
• Princess Mononoke (1997)
• Seven Days in May (1964)
• Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1948)
• Voyage of the Rock Aliens (1984)
• What's Up, Doc? (1972)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

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Illustration by Jeff Meyer. No talking once the lights dim. Real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff. Reviews are spoiler-free. Piracy is not a victimless crime. Click any image to enlarge. Comments & conversations invited.   

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