Category: Review

Teenage Monster (1958)

Teenage Monster

AKA Meteor Monster/Meteor Man

So you’ve got a very limited budget and little time to produce a movie to compliment another you’ve already made in a double feature. You need the double feature or you’re not going to be able sell the other movie to cinemas and audiences that crave the perceived value of two movies for the price of one. You’ve got a problem though, your director has just got a better offer the day before principle photography was supposed to start, what’s a producer/cinematographer to do?

Well Jacques R. Marquette decided the only course of action was to become a producer/cinematographer/director and make the best of a bad situation. I mean how hard can it be, you take a sci-fi monster set it in the 1880s to pull in the Western crowd and put Teenage in the title so the kids’ll relate. Well A+ for effort Jacques.

The LOVEFiLM synopsis, continuing a trend of apathy towards the bulk of their catalogue, is misleadingly inaccurate.

After seeing a meteor crash in the desert young Charles Cannon heads out to investigate it. But he becomes exposed to the meteor’s rays and starts to age rapidly. He becomes 10 years older, becomes hairy, aggressive and psychopathic. So his mother hides him in the basement to protect him.

If Teenage Monster at all resembled the synopsis it would just be another sorry B-movie from a decade full of them, that it plays out as a Western Frankenstein with a little boy with questionable mental health in the title role makes it a more troublesome entity.

Of that description only three words are accurate he does indeed become hairy and aggressive, the rest ranges from inaccurate all the way to fictitious. What we really have is…

The little fella watches his Father die as a result the meteor strike after which his grieving Mother becomes obsessed with finding gold in her late husband’s mine. So obsessed she moves the boy into the mine stunting his intellectual growth and his developing social skills. As the years go by she even gives up cutting his hair and no one shows him how to shave so both grow out of control, combine this with a few serious growth spurts and you’ve got yourself a monster. Scenes of his Mother berating him in his bedroom for accidently killing some cows he wants to pet make uncomfortable viewing made worse when you realise he lives in a dark, cold mine. That he is so easily manipulated into killing by a pretty young lady later in the film highlights that far from being a monster he’s just a child trapped in a man’s body that he doesn’t understand. His inability to speak in coherent sentences seems more logically a result of living in a cave for seven years and never properly processing the death of his father rather than any ill effect of a meteor strike.

The film builds to a King Kong/Frankenstein style ending at the top of a large cliff where after taking his revenge on the girl who manipulated him he is shot by the local law enforcers. This ending adds to the sour taste the rest of the movie has left behind. Whether it’s a case of poor execution of a more harmless screenplay or grossly misguided poor taste is redundant. Teenage Monster feels exploitative which is a shame because if it hadn’t become bogged down in an area a b-movie has no business in it might have at least been an enjoyable 65 minutes of throwaway sci-fi fun. As it is Teenage Monster fully deserves its place as the fourth least watched 1950s film on LOVEFiLM instant.

Black Ninja (2003)

Black Ninja

Yet again I’ve been seduced by a title, I’m my own worst enemy.

This is all Quentin Tarantinos fault really. You can argue that the turn of the millennium resurgence of 70s style Blaxploitation cinema is all down to Quentin, his love of the genre oozes through his screenplays for Reservoir Dogs, True Romance and Jackie Brown. So while we can applaud him for bringing Pam Grier back to our screens it is tempered somewhat by Undercover Brother (2002), Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002) and the truly awful remake of Shaft (2000).

For all the millions pumped into these Hollywood Blaxploitation reboots/spoofs they struggle to please for exactly the same reason as Black Ninja, after the first five minutes the novelty has worn thin and none have come with a plan b. Black Ninja has a single achievement, a theme song that revives the funk and soul soundtracks of the era it is emulating perfectly while highlighting the absurdity of the on screen action, but this is used periodically through the film for ever decreasing returns.

So after the opening fight scene where we are introduced to The Black Ninja, his theme song and a few members of the criminal underworld (who seemingly have the ability to scream with their mouths closed) what comes next?

Well

Infamous defence lawyer Malik Ali’s haunted past causes him to double as a vigilante ninja. He defends the city’s worst thugs by day and battles them by night. While protecting a beautiful witness in a case against a ruthless mobster, Malik is led closer to the evil ninja who killed his wife and kids.

That just about covers it, you get a simple martial arts movie made very cheaply by people who at least had good intentions but little competence. It must have sounded so good on paper but martial arts films need experts not amateurs, while most of the actors have limited martial arts skill the fight choreographer (if there was one, one does not appear on the credits) has little to none. The difference between professionals and guys who can throw a half decent roundhouse looks absolutely massive on screen and while you could argue that it’s all part of the desired aesthetic it doesn’t make it any easier to watch.

So despite its awful fight scenes, wooden acting and sub amateur YouTube music video visuals why did I find myself having a fun with Black Ninja? Maybe I’m just a sucker for a theme song and a ninja that dresses like Zorro.

If you want to watch a properly good Blaxploitation spoof then try Black Dynamite, it has more than one joke and a magnificent SOUNDTRACK by recent Ghostface Killah collaborator Adrian Younge. As for Black Ninja this TRAILER has everything you need to see and hear condensed into 90 seconds.

Hell’s Threshold (2006)

Hell's Threshold

Sam, a journalist, tirelessly guards the unsuspecting world from the centuries old demon, Apostolos. When the planets align, an opening to another dimension is created and the monster emerges to kill. Tonight the planets have aligned and Sam is in a race against time to protect mankind.

That film sounds pretty good doesn’t it, unfortunately for me what I actually spent 72 minutes of my life watching bore very little resemblance to the synopsis above. After a little research I discovered that this film was some kind of misguided attempt at making a film in only 24 hours. Clearly the question ‘can I do it?’ was favoured over the much more important question ‘should I do it?’

There are reasons why making a film is a time consuming process, most of these become very clear during the inexplicably filler packed 72 minute runtime. That two people are credited with the films screenplay is shocking because I’d be surprised if filming began with anything more than a brief story outline. Lines of dialogue are clearly improvised because no one could write anything quite so unsuitable. While most is simply lazy, the actress playing the estate agent struggles to improvise a profession she clearly has little understanding of (unless ‘fireplace room’ is another name for dining room that I’m not aware of).

Criticising the acting on display is harsh as without competent direction and proper preparation even the best would struggle. Criticising the director though is fair game. What we have here is an ugly film on every level. Establishing shots filmed with no tripod, digital filters added in post production for no clear reason, Foley sounds that bear no resemblance to the action they represent and an extended scene of a woman urinating are just some of the horrors on display.

The confusing mess of a storyline that tries to string together this horror show has some potential but like most good ideas it needs care and attention, neither of which it was given. Told entirely in flashback, by a man who could have had no knowledge of the events by virtue of being completely absent from proceedings. The story seems to revolve around a demon that lives in a fireplace and wears leather pants that hates the models viewing the apartment he resides in (can’t blame him really). That it takes 60 minutes (12 minutes of the runtime are the credits shown in full and the start and repeated at the end) for the demon to knock the lot of them off borders on torture.

Anyone screening this during wartime might want to give the Geneva Convention a once over just to be on the safe side, truly criminal.

Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965)

Sins of the Fleshapoids

The movies on display in the bowels of Lovefilms comedy section hardly raise a smile but at only 40 minutes long the title here was enough for me to give it a shot.

Sins of the Fleshapoids is a camp sci-fi comedy(ish) straight from the 1960s New York underground movement courtesy of Mike Kuchar. The synopsis on Lovefilm is slightly inaccurate, missing out on a key theme of the movie.

The survivors of a nuclear war are taken care of by robots called fleshapoids. One day one of them runs wild, kills its ‘mistress’ and hides in the home of a human female for whom it develops feelings.

The film deals with the romantic relationship not between human and machine but machine and machine. The evolution of the two separate species after the near extinction of the human race is the key driving force of the film. Where humanity has embraced Roman style hedonism, using their android servants to fulfil their every desire, the servants themselves are evolving beyond their initial purpose, becoming more human in the process. While there are no explicit robot/human relationships in the film the machines are sexualised in particular in a scene where they help to bathe their master. The awkward questions raised by the mixing of technology and sex is well trodden in science fiction, 8 years later Michael Crichton will treat it as a throwaway inevitability of advancing technology in his script for Westworld. The synthetic evolution here has more in common with Blade Runner, machines evolving beyond their programming to become more like their creators.

This march towards the technological singularity that will be the end of mankind (LINK) is as low budget as can be but is far from ugly. A mash of colours and styles hit the screen from all angles creating a striking visual style that softens some of the rougher edges. Shot on 16mm film with no dialogue the story is told in the manner of a silent film with a voiceover and the occasional on screen speech bubble in the place of intertitles. The film is a clear influence on the early films of John Waters, both directors sharing a skill for working on micro budgets without sacrificing style.

A camp curiosity that is certainly not for everyone but the final scene/visual gag was enough to convince me.

The Emperor Jones (1933)

emperor jones

What better way to kick things off than with the least popular film from the best represented genre on LOVEFiLM, Drama. Of over 1000 films in this category this is the one at the very end when they are sorted by Most Popular. Is its place well deserved? Well the synopsis hardly instils confidence in any potential viewer.

Jones becomes a railway porter and proves to be a cunning manipulator and liar on board train. But he stabs another porter and does hard labour. Then he kills a prison guard and escapes reaching a Caribbean island. He schemes his way to control the island and declares himself Emperor!

Anyone who looks past that short, laboured description and actually presses play is initially greeted with the kind of sound and picture quality you’d expect from an 80 year old movie in the public domain that has been shown such little care and attention (though there is a Criterion DVD that one would assume is at least a little bit sharper and clearer). Persevere through the action you can’t quite see and the dialogue you can’t quite make out and you’ll soon adjust just in time to start feeling very, very uncomfortable.

Now even after giving it a bit of leeway for different times/attitudes this film feels racist, very racist. Jones possesses almost every unpleasant trait you can bestow on a fictional character. It’s not just that he’s a liar, cheater, gambler, manipulator and murderer but he does it all in such a cold manner that it’s hard not see it as the defamation of a race. A clear statement that Brutus (for that is his first name) and by extension black people as a whole are to be feared and certainly not to be trusted, the dice playing and knife fighting only serving to emphasise the divide between the uncivilised black characters and the generally more sympathetic (if quickly sketched) portrayals of white characters.

That the film can overcome this and still be more than simply a racist relic is in no small part down to its star, Paul Robeson. One of the first (if not the first) black actors to take on lead roles on the big screen, a place where his 6”3 frame dominates even before he opens his mouth. His deep singing voice gets to stand centre stage on numerous occasions but it is the final monologue that really shines. Lifted straight from the play the film is based on the monologue charts the final breakdown of a man who has pushed his luck just that little bit too far.

While no doubt more important for its academic relevance and historic importance (it has been preserved in the US National Film Register) it is also an interesting and entertaining display of the talents of an exceptional actor. A film unfairly stuck at the bottom of the pile, a rough diamond amongst the garbage.