Devil's Express,
and a few more films

The Dark Glow of the Mountains (1985) 

#232  [archive]
DEC. 8, 2023

Werner Herzog made this short documentary about two daredevil mountain-climbers, Hans Kammerlander and Reinhold Messner, as they embark on climbing two mountains back-to-back, and without oxygen.

During the climb, they'll be out of radio contact with the camp. "[The radio] would be too heavy," one of them explains, "and anyway there's no-one here who could come get us. Besides, it would be unjustifiable for us to do something this crazy and then expect someone to save us. It's our risk, and if we don't make it, then that's the way it is."

Herzog isn't interested in the climb itself, so much as whatever the hell drives the climbers, and he asks them twenty questions — mostly about death.

I never figured out which climber was Hans and which was Reinhold, but one of them says he's lost six of his toes to frostbite. The other brags that he still has all ten of his.

One of the men lost a brother on an earlier climb, and says he imagines that his dead brother is still alive on the mountain where he died. So clearly, these guys are nuts.

Herzog then asks, "How did you break the news [of your brother's death] to your mother?"

"My mother understood it better than anybody," he answers after a long cry, "and yet it was still so hard."

In the English-language version I saw, these German climbers are dubbed by an American voice, which gets the meaning across, and allows your eyes to look at the scenery and study the climbers' faces instead of reading subtitles. 

When the climbers leave on their climb, Herzog and his crew are left behind, because this is a movie about mountain climbers, not mountain-climbing. Hell of a movie, too.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Dawn of an Evil Millennium (1988)

Filled with splatter and stupidity and strangeness, this is an 18-minute trailer for a film that doesn't exist and never will.

There's a monster from another world riding around in an Oldsmobile, or there might be two of him. It's hard to know for sure, and paying close attention would be futile; most of the dialogue only sounds like English, but it's actually mumbled nonsense, not words.

Seems like a truly awful film, right? And it is — but it's from Damon Packard, who knows how to make awful into an awfully good time.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Dead Bang (1989)

Never understood the appeal of Don Johnson, but John Frankenheimer's done me right a few times, so here's Frankenheimer's Dead Bang.

Johnson plays a tough cop who breaks all the rules, and the actor is fine at playing an awful cop, with half a dozen grounds for firing him just in the first fifteen minutes. It's only a movie, though, and the bad guys are Nazis, so by default you gotta root for Don Johnson.

It's predictable, has all the tough guy moments, and ends in a shootout in a visually uninteresting and unconvincing underground bunker. The script is a mess, introducing familiar character actors (Penelope Ann Miller, Bob Balaban) who then vanish, and never plumbing any depths.

It gets points for taking the Nazi threat seriously, at least by movie standards of 'seriously', but despite that this isn't much better than an average action movie.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Dead Calm (1989)

Nicole Kidman is 19, looks it, but she's married to Sam Neill who's twice her age and they somehow have a kid who looks about 10.

The weirdlyweds go a-yachting, and come across a man (Billy Zane) in a rowboat, paddling away from a sinking ship. Turns out he's a psychopath. That's the whole movie.

Kidman gets raped, but never weeps or even says a word about it, which seems unreal. But that's Hollywood, even via Australia.

And still, the flick's a fine slice of nautical damsel in distress, Halloween on the ocean blue. 

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Devil's Express (1975)

You could easily convince me this was made by amateurs over the course of six months of weekends. I have no idea whether that's true, but the movie's a mixed-up mix of blaxploitation, kung fu, horror, and incompetence.

It starts with a bunch of old-time Chinese guys — in the year 200 BC, says an intertitle — as they drop a mysterious chest down a deep shaft. Then one of them cuts off all the other guys' heads. Why? First rule of Devil's Express: Never ask why.

Suddenly we're in New York, present day. Let there be opening credits, and we meet Luke (Warhawk Tanzania), a black martial arts instructor, and Chris (Larry Fleischman), a skinny white cop who's one of his students. Oh, and there's another friend and student, Rodan (Wilfredo Roldan), who's the standard-issue twitchy little white guy, always up to something and you know he's on drugs (but the movie doesn't know it).

Luke flies to Hong Kong for a meeting and competition with chop-socky higher-ups, and while he's there he visits the aforementioned hole-in-the-ground and brings back a strange amulet (almost typed omlet, which might've been a better plot twist). The amulet apparently carries or attracts demons, who rule the subways once we're back in NYC.

All the acting is bad, and I think they knew it, so instead of dialogue we often see actors talking but hear someone singing a song, or vaguely Asian music plays during the poorly-choreographed chop-socky training sequences.

Even the martial artwork is subpar, and looks like it was made by yellow- and orange-belts jazzed up after watching a better chop-socky movie.

The New York street scenes look like they're filmed on Sesame Street sets, but the subway demons are kinda cool.

It's a mess, but inarguably enjoyable. For just plain fun, this is the best movie of the week.

Verdict: YES. 

♦ ♦ ♦ 

Dinner at Eight (1933)

An all-star cast — Marie Dressler, John and Lionel Barrymore, Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy, Billie Burke, and Wallace Beery — in a drama about people with lousy marriages all going to the same dinner party. 

Jean Harlow is an ex-showgirl, and the invitation is a major score for her — can she be accepted by high society? London big-shots Lord and Lady Ferncliffe are coming, and some of the guests aren't in as lofty a financial position as they want you to think they are. 

It's a drama with some witticisms thrown in, Grand Hotel without the hotel, and it's better, I think, than I think it is. It fought me most of the way, since I truly don't give a quarter of a damn about the rich and famous, or those pretending to be rich and famous.

Dinner at Eight eventually broke through my reluctance, though, as it sunk into my fat head that almost everyone except the waitstaff is unhappy, unknowingly destroying themselves and perhaps intentionally trying to destroy everyone around them. 

Directed by George Cukor, from a play by George S Kaufman and Edna Ferber, screenplay by Frances Marion and Herman Mankiewitz.

Verdict: YES.


• • • Coming attractions • • •

Gods of Times Square (1999)
Frankenhooker (1990)
Greystoke (1984)
Hugo (2011)
The Importance of Being Earnest (1952)
The Lawyer (1970)
Not of This Earth (1957)
The Saint in New York (1938)
Same Kind of Different as Me (2017)
The Shooting (1966)
The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)
The Train (1964)
Welcome to New Orleans (2006)
Winter Soldier (1972)

... plus occasional 
schlock and surprises 

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:

AlterCineverseCriterionCultCinema ClassicsDocsVilleDustFandorFilms for ActionHooplaIHaveNoTVIndieFlixInternet ArchiveKanopyKinoCultKino LorberKorean Classic FilmChristopher R MihmMosfilmMubiNational Film Board of CanadaNew Yorker Screening RoomDamon PackardMark PirroPizzaFlixPopcornFlixPublic Domain MoviesRareFilmmScarecrow VideoShudderThoughtMaybeTimeless Classic MoviesVoleFlixWatchDocumentaries • 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. One of many unfinished Orson Welles films was an unfinished version of Dead Calm (called The Deep).

    Have you seen Polanski's Knife in the Water? Great film.

    1. I read about Welles' The Deep in googling Dead Calm, and what a pity so much of Welles never came together. I'll bet his version of the novel would've been spectacular.

      He spent years on it... I wonder if it's nearly completed, or just a mess...

      Haven't seen that Polanski, but you know I will...

    2. Have you seen this (or *these* - there are three cuts of the film, all very different):


      It's one of my favorite Welles. He was such a strange guy...

      You seen F For Fake? Masterpiece!

    3. I've seen Citizen Kane, The Lady from Shanghai, F for Fake, The Trial, It's All True, and the one with Charlton Heston as a Mexican, plus maybe a couple of more I've forgotten. Never seen The Magnificent Ambersons, but it's on the list, and never seen Mr Arkadin, but it's downloading now, thanks.

      Mr Welles is keeping busy, apparently. IMDB says he's directed three feature films in the last ten years, but I've seen none of them.

    4. The Trial I've seen. Chimes at Midnight... the preview looks like fun and it's Welles so it might overcome my Shakespeare resistance, grazi.

    5. He made three Shakespeare flicks, all brilliant, but Chimes is the best.

      Although frankly the best Shakespeare "adaptations" are generally non-literal versions, like Kurosawa's Ran, etc.

    6. That's been my experience as well. The loose adaptations are more fun.

      Checking my download but not yet watching Chimes, Welles is immediately lovable on the screen. Might jump a few slots to put that one higher on my list.


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