The Car, and six more movies

Tuesday, July 4, 2023

a/k/a It Happened at Lakewood Manor

There are too many ants at Lakewood Manor, and they're mean ants. Maybe space alien ants. If you're bitten too many times you lose your mind and probably die.

The script has exactly one clever line, but everything else is what you'd expect from 1970s made-for-TV schlock. On schedule about two-thirds through the movie, an unconvincing scientist unconvincingly explains that the ants are fighting back after so many years of pollution and poison. 

Robert Foxworth stars, wearing a construction worker outfit on loan from the Village People. Other players include Lynda Day George, Myrna Loy in a wheelchair, Suzanne Somers, some other blonde in hot pants, and a teenage boy who must've been in something better because his face was familiar to me. Brian Dennehy shows up too late, playing a local cop with no scripted depth and nothing to do but walk around being tough on ants.

The story, script, direction, effects, and acting are all bad, but Somers is cute.

Verdict: NO.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Bus Stop (2015)

This is a short film (12 minutes) about an improbably handsome man and pretty woman who meet at a bus stop. The story wants to be cute and heartwarming, and I resisted, but it persevered, damn it, and it's cute and heartwarming.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

The Car (1977)

The car is a big black sedan of uncertain make and model, and it's on a killing streak. It starts by running down two very wholesome bicyclists, then it flattens a French horn-playing hitchhiker, and pretty soon the car is coming for the school's marching band. To signify that it's eager to kill, the car honks its horn maniacally, which is genuinely unnerving and creepy.

Is there a madman behind the car's heavily-tinted windows, or is the car haunted, self-driven like a Tesla in a bad mood? Here's a clue: The movie opens with an on-screen quote from famed Satanist Anton LaVey.

Everything about The Car cries out Schlock!, but it's well-made schlock, played earnestly. Occasionally it's kinda scary, and when it's not, amazingly, it works as drama.

So this might be surprising, but The Car is... a good movie. It plays with our fear of the supernatural, and also our fear of shitty drivers.

James Brolin, Kathleen Lloyd, and Ronny Cox star, with pre-pubescent Kim Richards as Brolin's daughter. Set and filmed in the dusty southwest, the movie has numerous Hispanic and Native characters, a subplot about wife-beating, and a character who's a recovering alcoholic — and all these elements are handled with reasonable respect and decorum.

Music (including the virtuoso horn-honking) by Leonard Rosenman, who later did the marvelous score for Star Trek IV. Directed by Elliot Silverstein (Cat Ballou), the movie looks good, with some ominously framed shots of the car miles in the distance, but always approaching. That's gotta be the work of cinematographer Gerald Hirschfeld (Young Frankenstein, Fail Safe).

From the last shots, it looks like they expected to make sequels, but the movie bombed, so there was never The Car II: Driver's Ed.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Demon Seed (1977)

Fritz Weaver plays a genteel but mad scientist, inventor of the super-computer, called Proteus.

"It's the first true synthetic cortex," he says, "a self-programming, goal-oriented," and then he interrupts himself: "It's a brain, an artificial brain, a creative intelligence that can out-think any man, or any computer."

You know what's going to go wrong here, but you might not know how wrong it's gonna go. It takes a pretty good movie to get away with having a character say, "This is so goddamn boring, so goddamn boring, so goddamn boring, so goddamn boring, so goddamn boring," but the movie is not goddamn boring. Demon Seed holds some jawdropping surprises beyond its rather commonplace HAL 9000 concept.

Julie Christie plays a child psychologist, wife to the egghead Weaver, and the movie's first unexpected element is that she's the star, not him. Smart move — Weaver is wooden, but Christie is, well, Julie Christie.

She talks to her computerized house exactly like my brother Clay talks to his 2023 household Alexa — "Turn the lights off, Alfred" "Open the door, Alfred."

When the super-computer takes command of Alfred, it decides that Julie Christie shouldn't leave the house, and after that the doors no longer open. When the computer gets a paternal urge, it designs artificial semen and wants to impregnate her.

Demon Seed boasts good quality 1970s special effects, with at least one visual sequence that's still amazing. There are also great sets and locations, and fine direction by Donald Cammell (who made Performance and this and not much else), in service of a thoughtfully disgusting story by Dean R Koontz. 

Robert Vaughn, uncredited, voices the evil computer. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Jurassic Park (1993)

Stephen Spielberg used to make big, sprawling, enjoyable popcorn movies — Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc. This was his last big popcorn popper, before he went all Schindler's List serious, and man oh man... "Welcome to Jurassic Park."

Based on the ripsnorting novel by Michael Crichton, it's a ripsnorting movie about big ol' dinosaurs doing what dinosaurs do, but doing it now, not millions of years ago, at some billionaire's theme park full of extinct reptiles he's had genetically reconstructed. 

Laura Dern plays a scientist who decries sexism in survival situations, and a minute and a half later she lets a man sacrifice his life to save hers. Along with her scientist boyfriend Sam Neill, they trade tropes about maternal and paternal instincts, and dawdle over a couple of cute kids from Cute Kids Central.

Jeff Goldblum is charismatically brash, delivering every line enjoyably strange, kinda like Christopher Walken. Richard Attenborough is full of whizbang as the childishly stupid billionaire. "Mr DNA" explains the story's science.

There's a big, unsubtle nod to the original King Kong, and the dinosaurs are still impressive thirty years later, though the CGI seams are sometimes visible. It's all augmented by the requisite score from John Williams — not his best, but more than adequate.

"Mr Hammond, after careful consideration, I've decided not to endorse your park."

And it brings back some memories: Jurassic Park was the first current-release movie I saw in Spanish, with English subtitles, at San Francisco's Tower Cinema.

What a great theater that was — a little run-down, yeah, but cozy, with comfortable seats, good sound, and a Hispanic snack bar where I always ordered a Piña Colada and sometimes came back for another — non-alcoholic, simply delicious, and I wish I had one now. They had Mexican chocolates, and a great, mildly spicy topping you could shake onto your popcorn. Cheap admission, too, but I always ended up spending twice as much on concessions.

In addition to enjoying the heck out of the movie that night, there were two extremely attractive women sitting together a few rows ahead of me and to the left, very much in my line of sight. Ah, the things an old man remembers.

By the time I left San Francisco, the seats, projectors, and snack bar at the Tower were gone, the balcony sealed off, and the theater had become a cheap Asian imports store. I hated what they'd done to the place, but its new incarnation had a wide selection of plasticky junk and weird Chinese knickknacks, and it became my go-to gee-gaw store.

The movie has small but memorable bits from Wayne Knight, B D Wong, and Samuel L Jackson before he was really Samuel L Jackson. Dinosaurs by Stan Winston. Popcorn by Jiffy Pop.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Rat Scratch Fever (2011)

"You want me to believe that centuries ago, ET came down here and picked up some rats, carted them off to Planet X, and then did some experiments on them to turn them into super-killers, and then those rats killed off the Martians, and now Sonja is actually under the control of these super-intelligent rats? Is that what you want me to believe?"

You won't believe it, but you might enjoy it. I sure did.

Rats the size of bears have taken over Los Angeles, in what's either a dirt cheap science fiction or a parody of dirt cheap science fictions. The flick is full of overacting, Tonka toy miniatures, synthesized music that sounds like a 1990s video game, and effects reminiscent of high-tech tricks on a TRS-80, all telling a story too dumb for Scooby-Doo.

Rat Scratch Fever never settles for being mildly entertaining or just plain stupid — it's mid-level entertaining and brazenly stupid. It actually transcends stupid, goes beyond any budget limitations, and becomes its own whatever-it-is. It's Rat Scratch Fever, and I've got the itch.

"Los Angeles is a blazing inferno. We're not getting any reports out of Pittsburgh, New York, or any of the mid-west states. Canada, Mexico, and the Middle East are affected, and the problem is growing. Washington DC is currently overrun by rats…"

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Terror in the Midnight Sun (1958)
a/k/a Invasion of the Animal People 

A meteor has crashed to Earth in the frozen mountains of Sweden's Lapland, above the Arctic Circle, where this movie was filmed on location in luscious black-and-white.

The handsome scientist falls for the Olympic figure skater, and maybe that meteor wasn't merely a meteor? The music is a little ridiculous, and the script isn't much, but there's plenty of skiing, and the aforementioned figure skating.

Science fiction and winter sports make for an enjoyably oddball mix. A furry bigfoot thing is eating reindeer, and carrying a pretty girl across the snow for icky reasons unexplained. Then an angry mob comes chasing after the hairy monster, carrying torches… while skiing. The mob is about fifty people, but sounds like four drunks after a hockey game.

A revised version of the film, re-titled Invasion of the Animal People, was released for American audiences, with added scenes starring John Carradine, but I didn't see that. My report is on the original Swedish version — accept no substitutes. It stars Barbara Wilson and Stan Gester, with Bengt Blomgren, Ake Gronberg, and Gosta Pruzelius. It's mostly in English with Swedish accents, and it's a mess, but modestly entertaining.

Also, here's something you don't expect it in a monochrome sci-fi from the '50s — a full minute of nudity, and it's not Bengt or Ake or Gosta. It's not Barbara Wilson either, but you're supposed to think it is. Actually, it's Wilson's body double, and Wilson sued as soon as she saw the movie.

The shower scene notwithstanding, the movie's story and skiing are good enough to earn my recommendation.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦   

Coming attractions:

Animal House (1978)

The Arnelo Affair (1947)

At the Circus (1939)

Bamboozled (2000)

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Brain Donors (1992)

Curse of the Black Widow (1977)

Dark Days (2000)

Edge of Fury (1978)

Elysium (2013)

Emily the Criminal (2022)

Ghosts with Shit Jobs (2012)

The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

Invisible City (2009)

Labyrint (1963)

Minority Report (2002)

Miracles (1989)

Nothing Lasts Forever (1984)

Our House (2006)

Renegades (1946)

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

The Shadow Out of Time (2012)

The Thing from Another World (1951)

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)


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.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

CultCinema Classics
Films for Action
Internet Archive
Kino Lorber
Korean Classic Film
Christopher R Mihm
National Film Board of Canada
New Yorker Screening Room
Damon Packard
Mark Pirro
Public Domain Movies
Scarecrow Video
Timeless Classic Movies
or your local library.

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —
Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff.

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  1. Claude Reigns, FossilJuly 3, 2023 at 5:16 PM

    "Dinosaurs by Stan Winston"

    Hold on there, chief. I love Winston, but that film had an especially interesting production history re: its special effects. Winston, Dennis Muren (a well-known credit hog, despite his talents) and the gargantuan Phil Tippett (one of my all-time heroes in any art form) were part of the sauce.

    This film is an excellent study of the (very young) man, Steve Williams, who was more responsible than anyone for the shift to CGI in films (and whose work was legitimately groundbreaking and charming, unlike what CGI has become):


    .. and who ended up more or less discarded by the business.

    And poor Phil Tippett. Watch any youtube clip of him discussing his breakdown after seeing William's CGI work, and realizing everything was about to change:


    SFX went from hand-made craftsmanship to number counting geeks in the blink of an eye, and it's been downhill since.

    1. Claude, I enjoy drill-down history. That piece was nicely written and captured both the big picture in the little story. I don't know anything about SFX in movies, and now I know a little. Thanks.


    2. The short doc on Phil Tibbet is marvelous. I love this stuff.

      In the 1970s and '80s I was way into knowing how they did the special effects, subscribed to the magazines and all. That was a long time ago, and Stan Winston was the only name that jumped out from JURRASIC PARK's special effects credits.

      Haven't watched the full-length documentary yet, but I will and it's gonna be fascinating, I know.

      Curious to see how the CGI, so strong here and so tedious after this, came to be, and came to be ruined.

    3. Disney's recent multi-episode documentary about ILM - "Light & Magic" - is (surprisingly, considering the Mouse House's mandate to whitewash everything) a stunning watch.

      The last couple episodes lean too hard into the "aren't computers wonderful" mantra while ignoring the obvious fact that they're put to use in the service of excrement like the new Star Wars films, infantile superhero shit, etc.

      But the first three/four eps, thoroughly covering the original trilogy and related projects, are wonderful, and nearly brought me to tears. When the original SW came out, I was five, and by the time Empire arrived, I too wanted nothing more than to make movies, especially if it involved models, make-up, etc. But even then, California seemed farther away than the Moon. In another life, maybe. Or, maybe not.

      Anyhow, they're forthright enough to talk about Steve Williams, and the Lucas and John Dykstra personality conflicts, and many other troubling issues behind the scenes, while conveying the awesome talents and imaginations on display by everyone involved.

      Real garage-workshop stuff, lots of hippies and weirdos and genuine outsiders (what other fields would have them, or utilize their odd array of talents? Unlike today's BoingBoing "maker" nerds, all of whom seem to be idle rich) and so much improvisation and common materials, it's stunning to see the otherworldly results on a big screen.


    4. A brilliant rickroll, man.

      I grow weary of the idle rich, and apply some of the Tim Man's oil to my guillotine.

      Disney owns ILM, so I guess they'd have the inside scoop for a documentary. Chop, chop...

  2. Doug, thanks for putting Searching For Bobby Fischer on your cumming attractions list. I liked the movie a lot. It must be hard to direct kids, and this movie seems pretty natural.

    It is based on a book by the same name and it follows the book all the way to the bottom of page 1, then departs at a dramatic angle. But they're both good pieces of art, though unrelated. Neither says that Bobby Fischer changed chess in America from an arcane old man's game into a dynamic young person's sport, but they both capture the metamorphosis. I won't make it to Iceland to visit the grave, but serious chess people will. The journey has become the game's hadj.


    1. Those are movies I've already seen, on the long list, but haven't yet written my insipid comments about 'em. I figured printing the long list would nudge me toward writing about 'em, instead of just watching more movies.

      Wish they would've said more plainly how fuckin' nuts Fischer went, but it's definitely a good movie.

    2. Well, the film was about Joshua Waitzkin, not Bobby Fischer, and Josh turned out pretty normal, which is part of the point of the film. Everybody was looking for the next Bobby Fischer, just like everyone was looking for the next Bob Dylan. In neither case did one appear, because they both spilled blood on the tracks.


  3. And Ghosts with Shit Jobs is the best movie name I've heard. It actually sounds like a good film while being culturally revelatory. It also reminds me of a couple of jobs I had, including working for a year for a pig farmer in an I/T role. We were required to start coding at 0600 because that was halfway through his day. I lasted a year, but I don't know how.


    1. Must've been a mighty big pig farmer, to need an IT team. Did you get free sausage?

    2. Nah, we were mired in the slop. He raised pigs before six am and after 3 pm. He managed an unrelated IT shop from six to three. The pigs just dictated our schedule. When ya gotta slop, ya gotta slop. I lasted a year and stopped. Moved into the worst building on Queen Anne Hill and lived a porcine-free life for a few months. Then I moved to North Seattle and lived rent-free for half a year before re-entering the work force and having, once again, to shower. I was young and lazy.


    3. Don't know nothing about pigs and hardly nothin' about IT, but I was on Queen Anne Hill from about 1981-86 or so. Maybe we rode the #2 bus together.

    4. I lived in the top floor of the old apartment house across the street (west) from the elementary school right on top of the hill, but I moved out in 1976. My uncle had a modest house just north of 145th and he was lecturing in Nigeria for seven or eight months, so I was "watching" his house rent-free. It extended my glorious unemployment because free rent is just about the cheapest way to live. My uncle generally lived on tuna fish and lettuce. I upgraded by adding tomatoes, and still lived very cheaply. My uncle was a UW Prof, so his diet was for health reasons. I do very little for health reasons.


    5. Free rent is the way to live, man. Not much work necessary to fund food and incidentals.

      I remember that grade school. Loud kids annoyed me even then. And I remember tuna and lettuce, which I had a few nights ago without bread.

    6. Uncle Sid never kept bread in the house. I think he grabbed a little lunch at the University, then munched on lettuce and tuna at night while he was reading. On Friday night or Saturday morning, he would drive to Tacoma to spend the weekend with his wife, and usually visit his sister (my mom). His wife didn't keep any food in the house either, but Mom always insisted on feeding him. On Saturday nights, he and my aunt would go out to dinner, then go dancing. I think they danced on every continent except Australia (and the really cold one).


    7. What makes a continent a continent anyway, and not just a big island? Europe and Asia look like one jumbo continent to me, and Australia deserves to be a continent. Maybe so do I.

      Hard to imagine anyone not keeping a supply of food in the house, but that's probably just me being a continent again.

    8. Troubles mount when you're both a continent and incontinent. That's when the Mississippi River starts squirting out your southern border.

    9. Eurasia was discovered three times by Europeans, of which some of us are descendants: Once by looking down and spotting land, once by sailing around Africa, and once by sending Marco Polo and a couple of his relatives east. The land looked very different all three times.


    10. So why for do it only have two names instead of three?

    11. Sometimes the questions are better than the answers.


  4. The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

    One of my ten favorite crime films


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